Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wikipedia: Barrel. Fish. Shoot.

A truly gruesome find from classfellow M.I.:

While I am certainly quick to acknowledge the poor quality of the article about The Mill on the Floss (prior to our alterations of course), at least it was apparent that the individual who wrote it took the time to actually read the novel before spilling his "insight" into the all-consuming void that is Wikipedia. Check out what is written about Rob Roy.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Group Project: Class Time

We'll have time in class this week to make sure you're underway with your Group Project. I imagine that this will be a welcome opportunity to get fired up about a point of view. Remember the four available possibilities:
  1. God is dead, and (Western) society is progressing.
  2. God is dead, and (Western) society is degenerating.
  3. God is alive, and (Western) society is progressing.
  4. God is alive, and (Western) society is degenerating.
I am not closed minded: if you have an idea of your own for the project -- writing a dramatic completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for instance -- by all means run it by me Friday.

Mid-Term Draught: returned

Several of you picked up your draughts today, with my corrections on the first page and analysis on the last. I am here after three o'clock Tuesday and Thursday and my regular Office Hours on Wednesday for the rest of you. Naturally, it is expected that you will discuss any questions that you may have with the draught with me in person over the next two weeks until the due date for the revision, on July 9th.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Allegorisations of "Princess & Curdie"

I have received most (but not all) of your group allegorisations of Macdonald's The Princess & Curdie, and I liked each very well and liked two for just that slightly finer of particularity. In the final analysis, the group who took the technically-correct approach to the allegorisation deserves the textually-appropriate usquebaugh....

On "The Mill on the Floss"

Please bring your copy of The Mill on the Floss to class this coming Friday, as we will spend twenty minutes wrapping up our understanduing of the achivement of George Eliot, undeniably one of the most influential literary figures -- and arguably one of the most important people -- of the long ninteenth century.

I do want to emphasise the value of dialectic in university studies, and especially in fourth-year courses. My two weeks of lecture have presented The Mill on the Floss in a particular way and with a definitite judgement of its merit. You individually, of course, do not have to share either my configuration of the text as an advancement of a specific intellectual position (represented in J.S. Mill's essay 'On Nature') or my high esteem of its supreme literary quality.

This coming Friday, then, you will be asked to succinctly formulate your comprehensive understanding of the novel in terms of the following components:
  1. J.S Mill's third sense of 'nature.'
  2. Charles Darwin's doctrine of natural selection.
  3. Herbert Spencer's doctrine of the survival of the fittest.
  4. Auguste Comte's three stages of history
  5. natura non facit saltum.
  6. progressivism.
  7. degeneracy.
  8. morality and commercialism.
  9. Romanticism and Post-Romanticism
  10. family (generation and characteristics) and local place (environment.)

The challenge will be making certain that there is a clear understanding of how these componets are simply abstactions from one unmistakale and unified artistic whole in imagination of George Eliot.

Mid-Term Deadlines Ajusted for Extension

Just to confirm that the deadlines for the Mid-Term assignment have been adjusted, and posted, according to the extension that the class requested & which I granted.

Monday, June 18, 2007

John Stuart Mill "On Nature"

I thought I would blog a salient precis of Mill's argument in "On Nature" in relation to our course. As mentioned in lecture, "On Nature' was written between the publication of "In Memoriam" and Origin of Species and is notable for the succinct clarity of its articulation of a configuration of 'first things.' Due to the print culture of the nineteenth century -- prose essays from 'eminent Victorians' were read all but universally by the middle- and upper-classes -- and to the status of the subject, Nature, as the de facto 'summum bonum', Mill's essay becomes in effect the invisible but efficacious background ultimate belief through the Edwardians; even, I believe, to us, the Second Elizabethans.

  1. Nature is "the entire system of things; the aggregate of all the power and properties of all things." Mill's Nature, then, replaces God.

  2. 'Nature' is also a word used, in a secondary, a looser, a less accurate, sense, to denote "....things as they would be, apart from human intervention.' This is the sense in which people use the phrase "Nature as opposed to Art' or distinguish the natural from the artificial.

  3. This secondary sense is an inferior -- a misleading, in fact, in Mill's term, an "unmeaning" -- one for Mill, by primum principium. (MajorP.) Nature is 'all things.' (MinorP1.) Human actions are included in 'all things'. (C.) Human actions are part of Nature. Thus, 'human intervention' or 'Art' is not 'apart' from Nature, and thus the secondary sense is meaningless.

  4. The (reductionist, monist) summary of this is that "....man has no power to do anything else than follow nature; all his actions are done through, and in obedience to, some one or many of nature's physical or mental laws."

  5. There is also a third sense in which people use the word 'Nature': a moral standard against which human actions are to be compared. "[A] third meaning in which Nature does not stand for what is, but for what ought to be; or for the rule or standard of what ought to be." This is expressed in terms such as "Natural Law," Natural Justice," "human nature," "unnatural acts," "inhuman behavior," etc.

  6. Mill wrote 'On Nature' to debunk this third sense. In his words, "The examination of this notion, is the object of the present essay."

  7. Mill has three points against this.

  8. First, because man is part of nature, all of his actions conform to nature by, once again, primum principium.

  9. Second, the third sense is irrational, "....because all human action whatever, consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature." Instead of copying nature, sane human actions oppose nature: building houses for shelter & warmth, farming, curing diseases, etc.

  10. Third, the sense is immoral, "....because the course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worth of abhorrence [i.e. nature murders everyone, nature tortures many (and every one of us is born of torture & often death), and nature destroys property and land without mercy or discrimination], anyone who endeavoured in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men."

  11. In his debunking of this third sense of Nature, Mill shows himself to share -- even, I believe, to advance -- the Victorian obsession with and anxiety over, progress and degeneracy.

  12. This opposition to the state of nature which Mill presents as being the mark of rational man produces progress.

  13. Nature is instinct: and 'society' is the name given to the state of human control over instinct. "[N]early every respectable attribute of humanity is the result not of instinct, but of a victory over instinct." An example of progress is the increased cleanliness of (some few) societies.

  14. The natural state is filth. Cleanliness is the most artificial state imaginable. "Children, and the lower classes of most countries, seem to be actually fond of dirt. The vast majority of the human race are indifferent to it: whole nations of otherwise civilised and cultivated human beings tolerate it in some of its worst forms, and only a very small minority are consistently offended by it. Indeed, the universal law of the subject appears to be that uncleanliness offends only those to whom it is unfamiliar, so that those who have lived in so artificial a state as to be unused to it in any form are the sole persons whom it disgusts in all forms. Of all virtues this is the most evidently not instinctive, but a triumph over instinct. Assuredly neither cleanliness nor the love of cleanliness is natural to man...."

  15. Evident in the emboldened passages is the attitude of caution, suggesting a fear of, degeneracy: in fact, a class anxiety: middle against lower.

  16. This is most expicitly stated. "But even if it were true that every one of the elementary impulses of human nature has its good side, and may by a sufficient amount of artificial training be made more useful than hurtful; how little would this amount to, when it must in any case be admitted that without such training all of them, even those which are necessary to our preservation, would fill the world with misery, making human life an exaggerated likeness of the odious scene of violence and tyranny which is exhibited by the rest of the animal kingdom."

  17. This characteristic and deep-seated unease about social degeneracy can be detected in a passage on "social virtues."So completely is it the verdict of all experience that selfishness is natural. By this I do not in any wise mean to deny that sympathy is natural also; I believe, on the contrary that on that important fact rests the possibility of any cultivation of goodness and nobleness, and the hope of the ultimate entire ascendancy [i.e. the hope of progress.] But sympathetic characters, left uncultivated and given up to their sympathetic instinct are as selfish as others.... But (to speak no further of self-control for the benefit of others) the commonest self-control for one's own benefit - that power of sacrificing a present desire to a distant object or a general purpose which is indispensable for making the actions of the individual accord with his own notions of his individual good; even this is most unnatural to the undisciplined human being: as may be seen by....the marked absence of the quality in savages, in soldiers and sailors, and in a somewhat less degree in nearly the whole of the poorer classes in this and many other countries....Veracity might seem, of all virtues, to have the most plausible claim to being natural, since in the absence of motives to the contrary, speech usually conforms to, or at least does not intentionally deviate from, fact....Unfortunately this is a mere fancy picture, contradicted by all the realities of savage life. Savages are always liars. They have not the faintest notion of not betraying to their hurt, as of not hurting in any other way, persons to whom they are bound by some special tie of obligation; their chief, their guest, perhaps, or their friend: these feelings of obligation being the taught morality of the savage state, growing out of its characteristic circumstances. But of any point of honour respecting truth for truth's sake they have not the remotest idea; no more than the whole East and the greater part of Europe...."

  18. Mill also addresses moral degeneracy -- in the sense of vice and depravity -- directly, and posits the need for penal or capital punishment of degenerates. "Again, there are persons who are cruel by character, or, as the phrase is, naturally cruel; who have a real pleasure in inflicting, or seeing the infliction of pain. This kind of cruelty is not mere hard-heartedness, absence of pity or remorse; it is a positive thing; a particular kind of voluptuous excitement. The East and Southern Europe have afforded, and probably still afford, abundant examples of this hateful propensity. I suppose it will be granted that this is not one of the natural inclinations which it would be wrong to suppress. The only question would be whether it is not a duty to suppress the man himself along with it."

  19. Finally, the following passage lays out a general vision of Progressivism, which, although pre-Darwin, is very evidently evolutionary in form, entirely gradualist, and rooted in an ordered society. It is, if fact, the type of understanding which is the essence of the Idea which George Eliot transmutes into literary art in The Mill on the Floss, her pastoral masterpiece.

  20. In the section from which the following passage is taken, Mill is continuing his debunking of the conception of nature as a guide for human conduct, and is saying that, since evil exists, God (assuming He existed) would either have to be willing the evil to exist or be powerless to stop it, unless, He is under some necessary limitation whereby a Perfectly Good world is an imposibility, and His only way of bringing about goodness for humanity is through accumulated progress. [In a footnote, Mill makes clear that this he has taken from Leibnitz, and is the real meaning of that philosopher's famous dictum that God has created here 'the best of all possible worlds' -- with significant emphasis on the word possible.

  21. "....[God] could do any one thing, but not any combination of things; that his government, like human government, was a system of adjustments and compromises; that the world is inevitably imperfect, contrary to his intention....[T]he best he could do for his human creatures was to make an immense majority of all who have yet existed be born (without any fault of their own) Patagonians, or Esquimaux, or something nearly as brutal and degraded, but to give them capacities which, by being cultivated for very many centuries in toil and suffering, and after many of the best specimens of the race have sacrificed their lives for the purpose, have at last enabled some chosen portions of the species to grow into something better, capable of being improved in centuries more into something really good, of which hitherto there are only to be found individual instances....[I]f Nature and man are both the works of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by man."

"Mill on the Floss": Death by Lecture

This majestic poem sums up my attitude to teaching The Mill on the Floss.

-- The Tables Turned --

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

-- William Wordsworth --

I love the beauty and the gentleness and the balance and the flow and the ease and the cool flow of narrative confidence that Eliot has created in what is simply a work of highest art, tout court. I want to enjoy and participate in the artistic masterpience, not pull it apart and look at the guts.

That is why I wanted to put the intellectual analysis part all in a bundle last class, so we can the better delight in the novel this coming class, and not, hopefully, do 'murder to dissect.'

I hope that you too are enjoying the book, and that we can reach & appreciative understanding in lecture with the body still leaping and growing and flowing alive.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reading Victorian Prose

Among the pragmatic educational advantages of reading essential prose passages from the great Victorian writers of literæ humaniores is the experiential benefit: the opportunity to use your response to the experience as a means whereby the mind and character of the Victorians is revealed in its contadistinction to your own. For Mill, and Carlyle, and Newman were how the literate -- in effect, the entire bourgeoisie -- in the ninteenth century took their entertainment. If you did not find John Stuart Mill 'On Nature' and entertaining experience, well, then you now have an experiential window into the sensibility of your counterparts in that period.

Of course these sections also give an indispensible store of knowledge of what is perhaps just as elusive as the temper of a past Age: its background ideas, assumptions, and default principles. It is my belief that just to read the fiction solely, or to just read the fiction with the summaries of ideas that lecture provides, is a simulacrum: an incomplete and ultimately bloodless experience. The æsthetic experience is, of course, of very high value -- in George Eliot, indeed, it is in effect Final Cause -- but it is not the sole high value. The intimate, organic, and for them unexamined, unity of idea and æsthetic, of intellect and feeling, is just that characteristic note which veritably defines what it is to be a Victorian novelist.

This is so well encapsulated by the passage I read in lecture today from Mill's Autobiography: indeed the emboldened phrase is what I consider the very motto of the Victorian literary sensibility.
What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.
If you should be having any challenges with the experiential pedagogy we are using this term, by all means stop by an office hour or make a special appointment to develop the understanding even further.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Idiocracy & devo

Classfellow JP sends along Idiocracy, which delightfully illustrates the (elitist) Darwinian anxiety about the progression & regression of humanity.

"WARNING: The following program deals with mature (Darwinian) subject matter and contains scenes of violence and coarse language. Viewer discretion
is advised."
The idea traces back to the short story that I have alluded to by Cyril Kornbluth, "The Marching Morons."