Terry Eagleton

  • George Eliot: A Biography by Frederick Karl
    HarperCollins, 708 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 00 255574 3

Writers are broadly classified as intellectuals, though many poets and novelists feel uncomfortable enough with the title. The split between analysis and imagination, the critical and the creative, is one of the deadliest of Romantic legacies, born of an antagonism to particular forms of bloodless cerebration (Enlightenment rationalism, Utilitarianism) and then recklessly generalised to abstract thought as such. By the mid-19th century in England, poetry had come to figure as the opposite of rational discourse, a move which would have come as a mighty surprise to Samuel Johnson, while the boldest scientific ventures were being jealously denied the epithet ‘creative’. Post-Modernism has begun to undo this dichotomy, aware that critical language is itself a form of rhetoric and that the Modernist or Post-Modernist artwork secretes a tacit theoretical critique of itself; but it is still an imprudent theorist who would venture into a coven of poets without leaving a contact number. Literary theory seems something of an oxymoron; how can you theorise a discourse whose whole raison d’être is to defeat the concept? A science of the concrete, as Schopenhauer remarked, is a contradiction in terms; the sensuous particularities of the aesthetic, like the structure of the world for the early Wittgenstein, can be shown but not spoken of.

Most English novelists fit neatly enough with this Romantic prejudice. When Marilyn Butler published a book some years ago called Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, the very title was fighting talk: ideas, in the mannerly Austen? Charles Dickens is nowhere more unregenerately English than in his genial philistinism, allergic to anything that smacks of the doctrinal rather than the affective, while Thackeray was unerringly picked off by Leavis for his ‘clubman’s wisdom’. If Conrad’s Nietzschean scepticism of the intellect helped to secure his place in the Great Tradition’, Hardy’s quaint metaphysics and homespun philosophising guaranteed his implacable exclusion from it. T.S. Eliot’s celebrated comment on Henry James – ‘a mind so fine that no idea can violate it’ – sounds like a crafty backhanded compliment but in fact represents, from the virulently anti-intellectualist Eliot, the sincerest praise. The un-Christian Lawrence believed devoutly in the Fall: it was just that for him it was a fall into consciousness, not into bestiality. From Sterne to Woolf, English fiction struggles painfully or hilariously in the gap between sensation and idea, discourse and intuition, and is thus a true sibling of English empiricist philosophy. Its implicit trope is that of irony: art must have structure to communicate, yet its texture gives the lie to all such conceptual abstractions.

It is therefore quite remarkable, at least at first glance, that one of the greatest of all English novelists should also have been among the most distinguished intellectuals of her day. Translator of Strauss and Feuerbach, dedicated scientific rationalist, ephemeral enthusiast of Comtean Positivism, assistant editor of the Westminster Review, George Eliot had, from a typically English standpoint, exactly the wrong credentials for launching herself, fairly late in the day, as a writer of imaginative fiction. One might add that she had the wrong sort of body, too; but to recall her sex is to resolve the enigma rather than compound it. If women figure so centrally in the writing of 19th-century fiction, it is partly because, as supposed specialists in the affections or technicians of the heart, they are called on to counterpoint the arid speculations of their menfolk with an anatomy of human feeling. The role of the female novelist is thus in a sense supplementary: Elizabeth Gaskell admits that she knows little of economics, but one function of the Victorian novel is to nurture the lived experience, interpersonal values and affective pieties which those economics are in danger of brusquely dispelling. The Dickens of Hard Times is by no means averse to industrial capitalism: it is just that fancy must be added to fact, sensibility cultivated alongside sweated labour, if the workers are to be content with their lot. That this brand of Romanticism is merely the flipside of the Utilitarianism it abhors, holding as both creeds do that culture is just a sort of surplus, is not a truth the novel can allow itself to contemplate. Women, like the Derridean supplement, are both necessary and redundant, just as human feelings are in the free market. In one sense they are optional extras or dangerous diversions; in another sense they are the very subjective medium through which that social order must be ratified. The novel form is superfluous too, in so far as nobody is likely to perish without it; but in another sense, as the Victorian epoch progresses, it becomes a vital ideological necessity, a kind of affective anthropology which restores to social enquiry that delicate dimension of subjectivity so damagingly expelled by Jeremy Bentham and Herbert Spencer.

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