Thursday, June 08, 2006

Abstaining from life

Now that Zadie has lapped the Orange, it's the perfect time to pull out one of her solid essays on EM Forster, the man she pays a tribute to in her prize-winning On Beauty. She applauds Forster for retaining that quality that Austen's characters lacked: empathy, a sort of love.

Forster, like Austen, abhors the vain, the self-important, the mannered, the blind and the foolish. But there are some fascinating differences. What one might call conscientious abstainers appear frequently in both authors: Cecil Vyse, Mr Beebe, Philip Herriton find their matches in many of the paternal figures in Austen, most noticeably Mr Bennet. By conscientious abstainer, a specific philosophic type is meant here: this is the man whose life-reading skills are as good as we might hope them to be, but who chooses only to read, to observe, but not to be involved. They are the novel's flaneurs. They invariably think of themselves as "students of human nature", and they are condemned by both authors as Aristotle properly condemns them, as people inured to the responsibilities of proper human involvement. But the nature of the condemnation is different for each author, and employs two different styles. Austen shows her laissez-faire fathers as irresponsible to their families, playing pointless intellectual games that neglect a practical, social necessity - in most cases, the inheritance or future marriages of their daughters. No attempt is made at their interior life; the pre-Freudian Austen does not care why they are so, only that they are so.

This can be said for Henry James's protagonists as well, why, for Henry himself. This is better explained by reading my Henry posts here.

1 comment:

DAVID THAYER said...

I'm delighted that Zadie Smith won the Orange. She's getting a bum rap in some quarters for On Beauty.