14 March 2016

Maintaining Ignorance

In George Eliot’s Felix Holt Mrs. Transome is described as having been in her youth thought “wonderfully clever and accomplished, and had been rather ambitious of intellectual superiority . . .” She had then enjoyed engaging in “sinful things,’ but maintained her balance and her social position by engaging in what she considered dull and meaningless, holding those dull and meaningless activities to be the good and true. The rest—those sinful things—were not good and true but were merely fun! They fulfilled her desire and interest but these things though exciting were not ‘good and true. Her sense of herself seemed based, then on compliance, a false self, a concept Winnicott explored extensively. Within the bounds of her social class she engaged in some rebellious, even scandalous activities, but she would maintain her anchor in tradition: in attendance at church and prayer despite her public ridicule of Biblical characters and her avowed interest in stories of illicit passion. Mrs. Transome would safely rebel, but she would never endanger her position in her social world.
     But Mrs. Transome had aged unhappily, and she has expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the course of her life. Her ironic youthful intellectual achievements now appeared as meaningless to her as did the idea of the good and true. Indeed, the ideal aspect of these intellectual matters seemed as nothing when they seemed absent of personal meaning; rather, they became matters for intellectual masturbation, I suppose—and, says the narrator, her ironic stance toward the good and and true seems not to have been of much value “in circumstances of temptation and difficulty.” Mrs, Transome had no moral sense of her own, and so as her life proceeded in ways she did not anticipate or even desire, she had no personal value system to help guide her way. That is, her belief that “. . . the notion that what is true and, in general, good for mankind, is stupid and drug-like” left her without a standard from which to act when her own personal life demanded moral action. Mrs. Transome’s early ironic stance proved inauthentic and of no use: it had all been mere show.
     Because all of Mrs. Transome’s hopes and dreams for herself and her life had evaporated, and she had become a bitter woman. The narrator writes of her: “She said to herself, in a bitter way, ‘It is a lucky eel that escapes skinning. The best happiness I shall ever know, will be to escape the worst misery.” Her irony truly held might have saved her from such depression. Her youthful abandonment of moral standards while yet maintaining strict cultural habits left her afloat when personal issues arose. Though she appeared to admit of contradiction, in fact she held to firmly to cultural expectations and behaviors: absolute obedience to them prevented her from pursuing any interest. Thus, her desires are all unfulfilled because she had admitted of no contingency. She has wished, but “wishing,” as Adam Phillips says, “is the sign of loss: wanting things to be otherwise because they are not as they are supposed to be.” Mrs. Transome remained lost, wishing for a different life and could not ever be content with the one she had lived. She could live in the present because she was stuck in the past expecting an impossible future.
     The question remains how to maintain our sense of ignorance so that we can continue to engage in our daily lives.


Post a Comment

<< Home