British Literature and Links

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006

We’ve headed into the Victorian Period in BL. We’ll be dealing with Mill and E.Browning. Links are key here. One of the fun things about teaching this side of literature study is identifying and talking about linked notions, things that appear to be constant among a set of writings and watching how ideas develop in other voices, in other times, and belong to neither. The cognitive elements have to do with identification, drawing relationships, differentiating voices, and evaluating styles.

We know that, simply speaking, certain writers (and cultures) display a bias in their conception of non-trivial direction: up is good, for example. Where is heaven? And where does Contemplation travel? The treatment of the concept of well-being, this platonic reconcepting of movement toward the good, of experience, being, and person hood–Mill’s idea of finding the “whole person” through a certain kind of action, freedom of thought, variety, and originality–has a lot to do with Blake’s devil speak in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Wollstonecraft’s arguments for progressive education and against nurtured restrictions. How much does this have to do with “literature” versus “thinking” about cool ideas versus literature as cool in and of itself? What do we do with Mill’s arguments against Calvinism? What does it matter that certain ideas form threads through the years to be embodied in the literary voice and in the objects we experience, such as toasters, Global Positioning Systems, squirrel traps, and book shelves?

As W.H. Auden wrote:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

This “stupor” is a special thing. So is the “affirming flame.” Mill writes:

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm’s way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery — by automatons in human form — it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilized parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

This series of Mill elements–the perfectability of people, the implications of a “good path” and human “tendency” for action which can be traced back to Barbauld’s “Contemplation,” who finds her way to Saturn and wonders at the unknown beyond it, the scorn for imitation and custom (later to be seen in Ms. Warren), the trouble with the figure of man as machine–is also “our” series, isn’t it? Filaments that form a pattern. Red pill or blue pill?


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