Saturday, May 02, 2015

I finished Middlemarch!

Reading George Eliot's Middlemarch was like being trapped in a well-appointed but claustrophobic room with an intimidatingly capacious mind for a looooooong time - in my case, many, many months. I had an easier time getting through Ulysses. The person who suggested it to me "compared it to a diamond: a pure, beautiful, brilliant thing that compels attention and admiration, but that is also somehow hard and icily cerebral. I[t] certainly never struck [him] as a warm novel." Attention and admiration it got. But I received not much pleasure in return, especially in the first half.

No doubt some of my agitation stemmed from Eliot's tough-mindedness, her disinclination to suffer fools lightly. She even says as much at the book's snootiest, if not deadliest, point: "I am less uneasy in calling attention to the existence of low people by whose interference, however little we may like it, the course of the world is very much determined. It would be well, certainly, if we could help to reduce their number, and something might perhaps be done by not lightly giving occasion to their existence." And how, pray tell, should we reduce their number? Is she getting all Raskolnikov on the minor but narratively crucial character Raffles here?

But maybe Middlemarch is supposed to remain pleasureless, like heavy metal. And like metal, maybe we're to use it to reveal the fool within, the fuckup in us all ('cept for Eliot) that we are loathe to confront but that the power of the riffs (literary and otherwise) are meant to whip into shape. The Middlemarch/metal connection reminds me of a recent exchange on ILM. Someone was whining about not wanting to start a zine to which Scott Seward (crucially, a metal expert) replied in a manner most Middlemarch-like: "duh, i'm not talking about you slackers. people with energy. and pep." Certainly, there have been times in my life when I could feel myself in Fred Vincy's "dead men's shoes" (where Idleness resides) with Mary Garth admonishing him/me for reneging on a loan guaranteed by her father Caleb. "What does it matter whether I forgive you?" says Mary, passionately, Eliot tells us. But also icily - her family will be now be in ruins. The utility of "I'm sorry" or "you're forgiven" evaporates in the need for action to make things right. I read much of Middlemarch at the gym, a locale that was holding me back, or so I was informed, from loving the novel. But in retrospect, it seemed entirely appropriate. Steel never forgives. But work hard and you'll get a six pack. And pay back that loan. And get through a 900-page behemoth.

And then you'll get rewarded in those moments where you feel as haughty and worthy as Eliot herself as when she drops a line that you muttered just yesterday about cell phones: "The bias of human nature to be slow in correspondence triumphs even over the present quickening in the general pace of things." Or when she quotes one Sir Thomas Browne to support your thesis that "back in the good ole days" dorks are forever with us: "It is the humor of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickedness of times present. Which notwithstanding they cannot handsomely do, without the borrowed help and satire of times past; condemning the vices of their own times, by the expressions of vices in times which they commend, which cannot but argue the community of vice in both." Or when Dorothea Brooke gives up her fortune for love, i.e., the hunky-you-just-know-it Will Ladislaw (I'd never been so elated at the formation of a heterosexual couple). Or when Eliot revels in the connectedness of the universe: "For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determine by what lies outside it." Or in the very last line when Eliot finally comes down to our level and gives it up to all the fools, fuckups, and slackers: "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."

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