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"Middlemarch" at the End of March
Recently, I finished reading George Eliot's "Middlemarch" for the first time. And I must say, it was a delightful experience. The elegance of the Victorian prose matched only by the deft manner by which it opens the inner sanctum of an Age's psychological life. Her age and ours.
I could not help but compare Eliot to Austen and Dickens (the best of habits, the worst of habits) and came away thinking that what Dickens does with social situations, what Austen does with relationships, Eliot does with mental analysis.
Middlemarch is medicine for the cynic and triumphalist alike. Beginning with recollections of St. Teresa of Avila who sought an "epic life" of reforming and refashioning her world, who "soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self," we expect Eliot to either assail or affirm such hopes. Instead, she satisfies them, quietly.
Medicine, I say, for the triumphalist because Eliot reminds us that the adversary is the Age itself. These "later-born Teresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.”
The desire to live a "life beyond self" may be a noble inclination, but just where such a life is located and to what it should be directed is the fundamental problem. There is no "coherent social faith and order" which informs Modernity.
"A new Teresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone."
Note that last line: "the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone." The medieval world which birthed Teresa's Christian zeal and the Greek world which fired Antigone's pagan martyrdom, those mediums are gone.
In our world, neither Teresa nor Antigone would know how to act significantly, because there is no consensus on what constitutes significant action. Our medium shapes no ardent deeds, only the banality of sand castle causes and the ephemera of politics.
So the triumphalist must realize that the Old World is forever gone. The cynic, however, has to understand that new Worlds can be made. And they are made out of small things: crying infants and boring dinners at home, Church picnics, quiet prayers and bread and wine.
Those who want to change the world seldom do, they never seem to find a project big enough to get them started. This is what the book's heroine, Dorothea, comes to learn. Summed up in the last line, “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”