09 May 2016

Illusions, a beginning

I want to again return to Middlemarch. In the end Dorothea marries Will Ladislaw, her former husband’s cousin, whom everyone in Middlemarch finds an inappropriate match for her—even, I suppose, as they once found Casaubon, a pedant more than twice her age, an unacceptable husband. Of her life with Ladislaw, “Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother” (836). Of course, the qualities that Middlemarch thought now ‘so rare’ were those same qualities that they called absurd when they led her to marry Casaubon. Dorothea Brooke, idealist, seems in her second marriage to be reduced to the traditional and commonplace role assumed by women.  The narrator’s tone seems resigned.
     But I think what appears to be resignation—that Dorothea’s idealism has been defeated by the world—becomes hope in the very next sentences. Admitting that her marriages were not ‘ideally beautiful”—the narrator calls these events--the determining acts of her life—the “mixed result of a young and noble impulse struggling amidst the condition of an imperfect state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.” There is no private life outside of a public existence. In Middlemarch our narrator says “there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” This is a sentiment stated earlier in Felix Holt: The Radical, considered often to be Eliot’s “political” novel. There she states that “there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life . . .” Marxist perhaps in tone, Eliot here seems clear that her base and superstructure are not determinative but interactive, and in Middlemarch she acknowledges that in these times “a new Theresa will not have have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone.” The time, as Hamlet might say, is out of joint.
     I feel that sentiment these days more and more as I read the pages of any newspaper. I am both embarrassed and frightened at the candidacy of Donald Trump and (I hope) the outside chance that he might be elected President. I have recently reread The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth and am appalled at how prescient that book now seems: the story of the election of a man—in that case Charles Lindbergh—who ran on a platform of America First—a sentiment echoed in the words of the presumptive candidate for the Presidency of the Republican Party. Charles Lindbergh was awarded a medal by the Nazis and was vocally anti-Semitic. What Lindbergh said about the Jews is now in tone the language by which Hispanics and Muslims are described by the Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States. In 1936 Lindbergh said of Hitler: “He is undoubtedly a great man, and I believe has done much for the German people.” Donald Trump refuses to distance himself from an avowed racist and Klu Klux Klan leader, David Duke. He has advocated the deportation of millions of immigrants and the exclusion of Muslims from entry into the country.
     I wonder if perhaps Bernie Sanders, who like Dorothea Brooke had clearly ‘great feelings’ seems in error and filled with impossible illusions. But these are not times to produce a new Theresa or Antigone, and perhaps whatever visionaries exist are judged in error. I am resigned.


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