Guilt-Tripped by Jane Austen’s World

[I for some reason that can’t fathom (age!–its happening) wrote AustenBlog when I meant Jane Austen’s World in an earlier version of this article. Corrected. Sorry for the confusion.]

Over at Jane Austen’s World Ms Place very kindly point out the Mansfield Park commentary blog that I am wait for readers to notice before I progress beyond the initial articles. And in response to Ms Places post I have seen the up-tick in interest I have been waiting for so I will shortly resume with the commentary on the Mansfield Park blog.

I must confess to feeling a little guilty at combining contemporary political issues, including some issues that are raw and surrounded with controversy in high contrast with the elegant and soothing Jane Austen’s World, echoing well the sense of A. C. Bradeley’s assessment that “her novels make exceptionally peaceful reading”. And Ms Place gently scolds me in saying I write ‘about Jane’s novels, politics, and Buddhism. Recently his thoughts have turned mostly to Jane.’

Of course Ms Place does nothing of the kind (scolding me I mean)–it is just my tortured conscience imagining such a scolding for my tasteless mixing up of Austen’s perfect novels and our messy contemporary world.

In some ways I am of course not being entirely serious but in other ways I am deadly serious. I really did feel uncomfortable raising the profile of the profane having diverted the blog into a very Austen track (long before the kind notice from Ms Place). To spend time with a writer’s work is to take up residence in their mind, and to some of us Austen’s mental universe is an extremely pleasant and stimulating place to reside–shouldn’t it be the same for all great writers?

Each of us will have our own reasons for reading and for reading any given writer, my personal interest being in Austen’s ability to transform the mind, to yield insight, to make the profane less confusing and more intelligible.

In Buddhism they talk about two basic stages of meditation–shamatha (or calm abiding) and vipashyana (or insight–and a brief discussion of them may help me explain myself. In shamatha the objective is to focus the mind (usually on a single object) and establish a basic stability, which can be very peaceful. Having established the peace one could believe that there is nothing more to do, but once the meditation is ended, there is the potential for all kinds of problems to arise, and quite likely the peace will soon get disturbed. Lacking insight, as soon as we come into contact with the messy world (e.g., others getting angry with us), we get confused, the chaos spreads inside and the peace is lost. Don’t get me wrong: shamatha is highly useful and a good shamatha practice will deal with a whole host of problems arise from unstable minds. It is just that it will not address another important class of problems that arise from our misunderstanding of the world. Vipashyana (or insight meditation) transforms our distorted perception of reality and is needed to tackle these deeper-rooted problems, but not that we need to stabilise the mind with shamatha meditation first.

With this blog (like everyone else) I am trying to tease out the insight that Jane Austen captured so well in her novels, a philosophy and a way of life that she learned from her family, society, literature and religion. To my mind her philosophy was continuous with the pre-modern, classical Christian order while engaging with and innovating the modern and the new, especially the sentimental novel.

In addition to coming to grips with Austen’s philosophy I am trying to apply these philosophical insights to contemporary issues. (By the way all these insights are entirely compatible with my understanding of what have been taught by Buddhist masters.) This is why you see the odd mix that you do. Don’t get me wrong–I have no desire at all to see others doing any differently from what they are, especially when they are doing it so well. I am just making my own apology.


2 responses to “Guilt-Tripped by Jane Austen’s World

  1. Catherine Levi

    Thanks to Austenblog, I have just found yours. You write very well. I love your expression “taking up residence in a writer’s mind”. I believe we are all trying to figure out what it is that is so compelling about Jane Austen’s mind. I’ve been reading and loving her for forty years, and only lately become aware of what an army I am among. I will bookmark your blog, and study it further. thanks for writing it.

  2. Chris,

    “In some ways I am of course not being entirely serious but in other ways I am deadly serious.”

    Then you are precisely emulating Jane Austen, who did that countless times in her novels and letters! Which is perhaps the thing about her writing that I most admire.

    “To spend time with a writer’s work is to take up residence in their mind, and to some of us Austen’s mental universe is an extremely pleasant and stimulating place to reside–shouldn’t it be the same for all great writers?”

    All I have learned from my intensive research tells me that Jane Austen’s mental universe was…universal, meaning that it encompassed the peaceful, but also some very dirty and bad things as well. And why not? Her world was not all sweetness and light, and that is as clear from her novels as it is from her letters. She wrote what she saw, with a Hobbesian cold precision, but, at the same time, with a Mr. Bennet-like smirk, and at the same time, with Jane Bennet’s compassion.

    She was a pretty darned complicated person, and I think that pointing to all sides of her achievements, and not just the safe and fuzzy ones, is a tribute to her.

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