Jane Austen and Our Culture of Feeeeelings
As I noted in my brief review of Pride and Prejudice below, Jane Austen is amazing. A truly wise woman, she wrote a novel of two kinds of people — people who change and grow, and people who do not. This is simply another way of marking those who are capable of repentance and those who are beyond repentance, those who come to see themselves accurately and those who are utterly incapable of doing so.
The latter group is represented well by Lydia — “Lydia was Lydia still.” And of course, the same thing can be said about Mr. Collins, who doesn’t budge, and Lady Catherine, who continues to condescend from the mount, and Mrs. Bennett, who carefully cultivates her nursery of nerves, and Mary, who perseveres in delivering sententious bromides, and so on. Folly is a constant in this book. Aping the immutability of God, the folly here seeks to be without any variation or shadow due to change.Eliza Bennett
But Eliza Bennett comes to repent of her prejudice, and the folly of having been misled by appearances. Mr. Darcy repents of his pride, having been properly humbled by Eliza. They change. They repent. They come to terms with the world as it actually is, instead of the world as they thought it was.
But there is another layer to Austen’s wisdom.
Nothing is more manifestly plain than the vast chasm that separates the wise and foolish characters. The same judgments of Lydia’s behavior, say, come from Mr. Collins, Mary, Eliza, Aunt Gardiner, and Lady Catherine. They all think the same thing. They all say very similar things. Lady Catherine despises the “infamous elopement.” Mr. Collins says that Mr. Bennett ought not allow their names to be mentioned in his presence. Mary draws many moral extractions from the evil before them, to the utter amazement of Eliza, but Eliza abominates the folly as thoroughly as anyone. And Aunt Gardiner represented to Lydia “all the wickedness of what she had done,” which Lydia received like some preacher was “reading a sermon.” But Aunt Gardiner was wise for doing what a number of others were fools for doing.
If the soul of a fool were to animate a body, the results will be foolish. Were the soul of the wise to do so, the results are completely different. When Mr. Collins says that his marriage will make him “the happiest of men,” he is a cliche-ridden fool, and when Jane says that she is the “happiest of creatures” we are meant to understand that it is true.
Now let us apply these truths to the world around us. If you have any trouble finding or identifying it, it is the world that has gone mad. In Austen’s moral universe, the wise occupy themselves in finding out what reality is like, in order to conform themselves to it. The foolish expend all their energies to make the world conform to their own wishes and desires (as they seek to obtain what they want), and in the final analysis, when the world refuses to alter itself upon demand, to interpret the world as though it had been successfully bent to their desires. They did not obtain the particular thing that they wanted, but they do receive the consolation prize for such egocentricity, which is their right to their grievance.
C.S. Lewis wrote prophetically of the poison of subjectivism, and it is a poison that has now rotted our culture clean through.
I still remember one of my first pastoral encounters with this evil. Many years ago, I was meeting with some members of a family trying to effect a reconciliation between siblings. A grown daughter had alleged abuse on the part of the parents, and the other siblings were saying that her allegations were out to lunch. That was not the family they had grown up in. The counselor of the daughter making the allegations was present at the meeting. When her siblings registered their view that these allegations were, to use an old-fashioned word, false, her counselor astonished me. In effect, he granted that they were false, but said that it didn’t matter because what mattered is how the one making the allegations felt.
In short, we were not talking about a question of fact, but rather we were dealing with an unfalsifiable self-report. And because we have given this nonsense the time of day, we have gotten to the point where the right to pee biblically in North Carolina is under a culture-wide assault. And I do have to confess that I never thought that I would ever live to see the day when I would be caught up into the battle over peeing biblically. Perhaps we need a theological treatise on it (1 Sam. 25:22); 1 Kings 14:10).
We live in a time when we must constantly reckon with the appalling phrase “self-identify.” Nobody wants to contradict the absolute authority of self-identification.
Yeah, well, Mr. Collins self-identifies as a principled Christian clergyman, Lady Catherine self-identifies as a font of practical wisdom, Mary Bennett self-identifies as a font of theoretical wisdom, Lydia self-identifies as the belle of the ball, and Mr. Wickham self-identifies as someone chiseled out of an inheritance. But how are they reader-identified? They are identified by the readers as incorrigible fools, from front to back.
Now put the book down, and try to read the world around you. The moral vision of Austen is a true moral vision, steeped in the Christian tradition. The real world is fixed. But all around us we see what happens when the moral authority of that vision is wrested away from the author and is granted to the likes of Mr. Collins.
We see this everywhere. We see it in the narcissism of Donald Trump, a candidate with the confidence of Lady Catherine, the insight of Mr. Collins, the moral probity of Lydia, and the financial integrity of Mr. Wickham.
We see it in the supreme confidence of the Internet trolls, many of whom delight in being, to use Aaron Wolf’s great phrase, “maximum whiteys.” If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can check under my bridge. I have people down there trying to make me look like a moderate, and I think it is working.
We see it in the grievance mongers who say that getting good grades and showing up on time is a pernicious form of “white supremacy.”
We see it ambulance chasers hunting for sexual abuse grievances to trumpet and promote, muckrakers who were so home-schooled they got to the point of an utter inability to read social signals at all.
Now it would be possible to read over the four paragraphs above beginning with “we see” and twist them so that they are understood as revealing my belief that uncontrolled immigration is no problem, that Western culture is not objectively superior, that cultures of color are innately inferior, and that no such thing as true sexual abuse exists. Oh, and that I took a shot at home-schooling. No, I didn’t say that, I don’t believe that, and wouldn’t think of arguing anything like that.
But that is how my words made them feel.
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