My guest in the upcoming episode of the Three Books series will be Andrew Taggart. We have already had one conversation, which I immensely enjoyed. I am very much looking forward to talking with him again. Given my decision to read at least one of the three selected books of each guest, I have started reading Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The book is divided into 61 chapters. I am currently on Chapter 30. Before I read further, I’d like to write a short (pre)review (or mid-reading review) in the spirit of someone who cannot wait until the end of a delicious meal to praise the chef or (in this case) praise the person who selected the chef. I am going to focus on fairly abstract descriptions of the novel, without going into detail. These are themes that I’d like to delve into before my impressions change with further reading.
No Love in the Elevator
one I read the book? My own prior prejudice against the book was grounded in the assumption that it is basically a simple love story about a young man and a young woman, who are initially hindered by… well, … some pride and some prejudice…, and who, nevertheless, manage to overcome the obstacles and be together happily. I would think to myself, “Sure, that sounds like a plausible story. I can imagine that. Well…”. It is in the nature of a prejudice that it closes us off to how things actually are. Being a relatively slow reader, it seemed like too much work to read something that I could summarize (before/without reading!) in two or three sentences. But I couldn’t have summarized it. I cannot. And I will not.
A sign of loving is the refusal to “summarize” the beloved.
You would not translate a beloved work of art into a so-called elevator pitch. Summarizing activities address the desire for efficiency. True appreciation requires slowing down and dwelling. There is no patience and no love in the elevator pitch. That is, by the way, why “speed dating” is a contradiction in terms. I cannot appreciate another person—someone who has been until this moment a stranger to me—and be speedy at the same time. With speed, I can only do what I have done before, see what I have seen before, and judge the way I have judged before. The speedy elevator doesn’t have room for what is strange, for what is new. Appreciation of what is new requires slowing down. It requires inefficiency. To know what happens in Pride & Prejudice requires reading Pride & Prejudice.
A Symphony of Perspectives
A simple event, like Elizabeth’s walk in the wet weather that morning, turns quickly into a basis for philosophical reflection. What is the meaning of her walk? Why is it a philosophically rich topic? The richness has to do with the multiplicity of interpretations that can be imposed on the walk. One person points out Elizabeth’s love for her sister, whom she is walking toward. But her dress is ruined in the mud! Another voice points out her disregard for good manners. Another voice insists that she is an odd character in general. Combined, the voices bring into our view the ambiguities that permeate the simplest events in human affairs.
Every event can be interpreted again, and every re-interpretation can push the course of actions into new directions, resulting in further events. By constructing a symphony of voices, Austen highlights the distance between the events themselves–which can be quite open-ended and ambiguous–and the processes–dialogue, negotiation, etc.–by which we settle on the meaning of events. She shows us, among other things, that an optimistic or a charitable interpretation is something we can enact when faced with ambiguity. Pessimism and despair are, similarly, performed and enacted by us–positions we actively construct in the face of difficult ambiguity.
The book is a symphony of perspectives. It goes well beyond telling the story of a family. It shows how perspectives interact, inform each other, shape each other, respond (or fail to respond) to each other. In one scene, Jane and Elizabeth are sitting together, discussing a letter. What does the letter mean? What can it mean? It can mean a lot of different things. What should we decide for it to mean, for the time being, until more is revealed to us? Some interpretations seem easier than others, some seem to require patience and good character. Some interpretations are difficult to maintain, in which case we would benefit from another voice who affirms for us the validity of that interpretation. Sometimes, to arrive at one interpretation, we have to slow down and dissect a bundle of entangled voices. The good sisters interpret the letter together, dissect the voices contained in it. They separate the voice that speaks from the voice that is silent. And they help each other hold on to the best possible meaning of the letter.
The symphony goes through periods of dissonance, too. One perspective can be oblivious to the voice of others, failing to find its way toward harmony. We hear a frustrating (and funny) dissonance when Mr. Collins fails to get out of his own interpretation of what Elizabeth is saying. This reminded me of a funny-frustrating passage I recently read in The Brothers Karamazov, where Dimitri Karamazov is asking to borrow money from Mrs. Khokhlakov. It is difficult to get on the same page with someone, if you are reading two different books.
We hear resolutions, and perhaps more importantly, how a voice manages to survive and persist despite obstacles. The quiet Mr. Bennet is foundational in the story. He provides, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, a background for the story. Without him, the story could not take its form. Mr. Bennet is the slow line played by the double bass, though inaudible to the inattentive ears, providing a foundational tone of the symphony—preventing some of the wrong turns and enabling some of the right turns.
Pride & Prejudice is a story about our inter-connectedness. It is a story about how we depend on each other, how we create and resolve ambiguity together. It is a story about culture, norms, expectations (the forces against our individuation), and our striving to see things anew with our own eyes, and to arrive at our own decisions against the background of a force-ful culture. The book is, of course, also a story about love. But the love that is exposed in the book includes gentle, quiet, and barely visible dimensions, which most likely escape our grasp if we attempt to summarize the story for the benefit of our companions in a speedy elevator. It is a love we can appreciate with time, with slowing down, and with paying attention.
Now, 31 more chapters to go.