In this series of articles I link the Jane Austen and political threads on the blog, discussing the similarities between our modern response to Jane Bennett and Barack Obama’s New Politics.
- Jane Bennet and Barack Obama
- The Candour of Jane Bennet
- Jane Bennet and Barack Obama
- Original Sin (postscript)
He’s never come up with an explanation about how he would actually transform politics, and his conventional substance is beginning to overshadow his unconventional style.
— David Brooks, Combat and Composure, New York Times, 6th May
I’m on record as saying that Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a gas-tax holiday, while it wasn’t good policy, didn’t rise to the level of a crime.
Judging from last night’s results, however, it was worse than a crime: it was a mistake.
— Paul Krugman, Talleyrand and the gas tax holiday, New York Times, 7th May
I could have picked dozens of quotes insisting that Obama hasn’t explained how his New Politics works, yet from nowhere he has turned the political scene upside down, eschewed PAC funding, signed up 1.5 million donors, crushed one the most formidable (if incompetent) political machines of recent times and quite conceivably will thrash the Republicans in a landslide in the autumn (it is of course impossible to predict, but as far as any of these things are predictable, this looks on the cards). The junior senator from Illinois, not even on the national political scene when the Iraq war was launched, has got himself into a position where Washington could soon be his feet. Could some people be failing to see the wood for the trees? I think it is interesting that the old media, with some honourable exceptions, is having such difficulty understanding Obama’s core message.
A recent posting to the Austen-L mailing list, titled the ‘desperation of candour’, illustrates the thoroughly bad press that old-style candour generally receives. In it we were told that Austen began as a satirist, and retained her critical stance throughout (I couldn’t agree more—it is difficult to disagree with this), that while endeavouring to read and understand the novel with the candour of Jane Bennet would do justice to one’s heart, Jane Bennet sees the world the way she does because it would be too painful to see it as Elizabeth sees it, and Jane finally agrees to Elizabeth’s observations of the hypocrisy and duplicity of the Bingley sisters. Jane’s candour comes out of desperation, desiring peace, not through any conviction about the truth but driven by a psychological vulnerability. Austen was too much of a realist we are told: Jane Bennet was only one voice, and certainly not the definitive perspective from which to make sense of Pride and Prejudice.
(or The New Politics)
After apologising for combining Jane Austen with more contemporary, worldly topics in the blog, it would be as well to make an explicit connection. This I will try to do with Barack Obama and his New Politics.
As with practically every philosophical article on this blog it is about how we are losing our minds because we are losing sight of our minds—the modern tendency to fixate on and overemphasise the external play of phenomenon, to the extent that we lose sight of inner, psychological factors, in this case, losing site of the distinction between cynicism and candour.
A recent discussion on the Austen-L mailing list is considering the extent to which Austen’s philosophy is compatible with Hobbes’s ‘moral pesimism’ with Brad Walton suggesting a strong compatibility between the two:
Hobbes’s moral pessimism seems to bear some similarities to Austen’s somewhat dim view of humans as moral agents (for instance, I strongly suspect that Elizabeth Bennet’s remarks to Jane in _PP_, Chapter 24, regarding her evaluation of human beings in general, reflects Austen’s own views). However, I do think that Austen’s take on human nature is somewhat more complex than Hobbes’s.
I would say that not only is her understanding of psychology more acute but so is her ethics. For sure she adhered to the view that we must take a skeptical view of motives, certainly not to take professed motivations at face value, but that doesn’t mean that she was a cynic, and we should be careful about assuming that Elizabeth Bennet’s (and her father’s) cynical wit represent the view of the author with Mrs Gardiner’s warning in Chapter 27, “Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment” (27.20) is surely aimed at the reader too. I would argue that Austen is drawing us into Elizabeth’s accretion of the worst aspects of her mother and father that we easily condemn confronted with in the early chapters, viz. her mother’s tendency to hasty judgement and her father’s cynical detachment. While it is easy to condemn it in others it is not so easy to spot in ourselves but by getting us to condemn it elsewhere before joining Elizabeth in indulging these tendencies we too can partake in the eclaircissement in Chapter 36.
In Jane Austen’s World Ms Place gives an excellent commentary on Elizabeth Bennet’s march to Netherfield to look after her sister, reminding us just how unorthodox the heroinne of Pride and Prejudice was, liable to attract the ridicule of much more than the Bingley sisters.
Reading the post it reminded me of the consistency of the necessity of leisured women to conform to some norm or other–be it a white complexion or a thin figure–sometimes to the point of self destruction.
The strange history of the word candour
[This is a lightly edited extract (missing some of the footnotes) of the section Candour of the chapter Austen Criticism (II).]
It has become the received wisdom of our contemporary culture that a discerning mind will endeavour to eliminate distorting, sentimental, generous, optimism from its outlook, and adopt more realistic attitudes that properly discern the selfishness that motivates actions (psychological egoism) and some have seen Austen’s programme as one of casting aside such sentimental blinkers. So it is worth considering whether Austen stands charged, as Elinor was in Mrs Dashwood’s eyes in Sense and Sensibility, of preferring to ‘take evil upon credit than good’ (Vol. 1, Ch. XV [15.28]).
Part of the Studies in Peace and Wisdom seminar series.
Chris Dornan, Tuesday 11th March, 7-9pm, Bodhi Garden
This talk will look at 18th century Enlightenment philosophy and Jane Austen’s alternative.