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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Life is a mystery….in Emma, Jane Austen’s mysterious, spectacular tromp l’oeil

In Janeites & Austen-L, Diane Reynolds quoted from a recent online article:
“I know we will never agree on this, but I found this definition of mystery interesting in light of our ongoing debates about Emma:  
"I once heard someone say that at the heart of every good story is a mystery, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what that statement means. At face value, it’s ridiculous. There are romances, horror stories, westerns, fantasies, crime dramas, and a dozen other genres in addition to mysteries, but for the moment, let’s put those definitions aside and think about the problem a bit more abstractly. What’s a mystery? It’s a puzzle. And what’s a story? It’s a series of events that unravel in an interesting way. So, where do they intersect? Well, you need a puzzle to keep a story unraveling in an interesting way. If you know what’s going to happen, when, and why, then it’s probably not being told well, which is to say it lacks that puzzle—that mystery—that forms the heart of every good story."


Diane then commented:
“Of course, we do, on one level we do what is going to happen in Emma, almost from the first pages: she and Mr. Knightley are going to get married, but it's all the other things that Emma--and we as readers-- miss, the mystery of Frank and Jane that's not revealed to the end of the book, that keeps us coming back for more. And as I write Frank and Jane, I can't help but think this story might point to the deep hidden friendship (and I mean nothing more than that) between the real Jane and the real Frank.

First, bravo, Diane, on your brilliant catch about the parallel between the fictional and the real Frank and Jane – I do believe that is significant on more than one level, particularly because it really fits with my notion that Frank C. and Jane F. really are biologically related, as half-siblings, with different mothers but sharing the prolific Mr. Woodhouse as amnesiac papa!

Second, of course you know I have for a decade and a half been firmly in the camp of those who see Emma as sitting at the apex of literary mystery, holding a perch right alongside Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 25 years ago, PD James famously identified Emma as a detective story without a murder – and, as I’ve noted, it’s not clear whether she added that parenthetical because she had recently read Leland Monk’s 1990 scholarly article “Murder She Wrote”, in which Monk suggested that Frank Churchill had indeed murdered his imperious aunt (an insight which, when I first heard that in early 2005, catalyzed my understanding of the entire shadow story of Emma!)

But you get to the heart of the deeper meaning of the mysteries of Emma,when you rightly take a conceptual leap out of the straitjacket of thinking literary mystery must be confined to detective fiction. I’ve been saying for a very long time that Jane Austen’s deepest, most passionate agenda as a fiction writer, was epistemological, not literary. I.e., I believe she saw herself as a practitioner of a kind of literary Zen, seeking in a myriad of subtle ways to surprise and jolt readers into recognizing their (our) inherent human proclivity to treat our own subjective perceptions and assumptions as if they were objective facts. She understood, as have great thinkers from the Buddha to modern constructivist philosophers and psychologists, that we do not merely registering “reality”, like an inanimate camera lens. Isherwood’s famous title notwithstanding, we humans are not cameras, our eyes do not register the world, they are subjugated to the subjective constructions of the world that our minds create. Knightley’s recall of Cowper’s poetic line in that regard is not a one-off reference to his attempt to pierce the mystery of Frank and Jane playing cryptic word games at Donwell Abbey – it goes to the very heart and essence of the entire novel – as Adena Rosmarin so aptly put it in 1986, Jane Austen turns us all into Emmas, daring us to find a way to escape from Emma’s field of vision, and see what lies just outside it.

Because, in the end, Jane Austen the social psychologist knew that social life is a mystery – people mostly assume that our snap judgments about others are accurate, only altering our judgments when they smack us in the face, like Emma’s shocked epiphany in the Christmas Eve carriage ride with Mr. Elton. But it’s not just snobbish young Emma who falls victim to mistakes of this kind, it’s all of us, all of the time, whenever we let down our vigilant self-monitoring. It’s just that we mostly never find out about most of them, because the world does not bother to correct them, so we never know all the times we are wrong. It’s human nature at its most elemental, and Aunt Jane Austen, like Aunt Jane Marple, knew human nature so well.

And as in Shakespeare’s most enigmatic masterwork, the mystery is spread around liberally, including in the eponymous protagonist of each. Not only is Emma a mystery, but Emma (Woodhouse) is herself a multilayered mystery, above all a mystery to herself: both in the conventional reading (she doesn’t realize that she loves Knightley for 47 chapters), but also in my shadow story interpretation (she doesn’t realize that she has been systematically manipulated by Knightley from the very beginning of the novel, into eventually believing that she always loved Knightley, when it was never the case until that moment).

And finally, not only is Emma a mystery, what I find most mysterious, and most miraculous about it, is that its mysteriousness is simultaneously so readily dissectable in so many interesting ways, and yet that scrutability never seems to exhaust all the mysteries. All that is required is to flip on the different lenses on Miss Bates’s magic spectacles, take a fresh look at one of the characters, and a whole different view presents itself to our mind’s eye. Because, as I and Diane have long maintained, Miss Bates is also a deeply mysterious character, who is, most significantly, Jane Austen speaking directly to the reader, like a kind of constant chorus, whispering in the reader’s ear, if we will only listen to her “yada yada yada” that is anything but that.

My wife and I have just ended a lovely vacation in the Northeast U.S., our first trip back there together since we moved out west to Portland nearly 3 years ago. Our trip included seeing two dance recitals at Jacob’s Pillow, a visit back to my alma mater, Williams College, during which we saw a new play at the famous summer theater there; and also, at the suggestion of a couple of our great new Portland friends, a trip to Mass MOCA in North Adams, just a short country road ride from Williamstown: http://massmoca.org/event/james-turrell/

As you can read in MOCA’s blurbs, it is a wonderful example of a community turning abandoned industrial buildings into exciting new centers of art and culture—but the most striking exhibit, for me, was the installation by James Turrell, a true visionary, in which he somehow taps into the mechanisms of the audience’s brains, in order to change our visual perceptions, particularly of light and color. It reminded me immediately of what Austen has managed to do with words on a page, most of all in Emma – with Turrell, looking back out of the carefully constructed room at the anteroom where we had been sitting just before, we watched the color of that anteroom seem to change a half dozen times in less than 10 minutes, from orange to green to yellow, etc – and yet, factually, we knew that the color of that room did not change at all, as was reconfirmed to us within seconds of our going back into the anteroom, as the rug changed colors as we looked. What actually changed, inside our brains, were the patterns in which impulses traveled through synapses governing the perception of color. And yet, the changes seemed so real. For 10 minutes, Turrell turned us into Emmas.

Emma is exactly that sort of magic “room”, in which, by acts of imagination, we, Austen’s readers, can alter our point of view, and read the same words on the page differently, changing the “colours” of the characters –e.g., one minute seeing Harriet as a naïve simpleton, the next as a calculating manipulator.

In short, the mystery of Jane Austen’s genius can never be fully plumbed, because the mystery of the human mind can never be fully plumbed – so, like Jeffrey Rush’s Henslow, let’s just celebrate the mystery and thank our lucky stars that Jane left these six priceless “installations” for us to inhabit, whenever we wish, for the rest of our lives!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter  


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