Friday, November 14, 2014

Voids of visdom

Photograph of 1865, Bibliothèque National de France, via The Guardian (where it accompanied an essay by Zadie Smith that has disappeared for copyright reasons).
I imagine David Brooks originally got the idea for today's column from leafing through the George Eliot chapter of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose (Vintage, 2010), but his actual source for the story of Eliot's love letter to the utilitarian philosopher Herbert Spencer (half—seven paragraphs—of the piece) is almost certainly the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, to which Wikipedia's Eliot article links. It tells the story very compactly, and it's got all the quotations he uses, and much of the same vocabulary (it's the only online version that uses the words "tears" and "editor", or says that the letter "asserts her sense of self-worth" as Brooks calls it an "assertion of her own dignity" ).

Nevertheless—it's almost a nervous tic—he tries to give the impression he's made a careful study of Eliot's life, in this case by not citing any sources at all (another violation of Yale ethics standards, though not I suppose of the Times guidelines) beyond an airy reference to the entire field:
Some biographers have said that letter represented a pivotal moment in Eliot’s life, with its mixture of vulnerability and strong assertion. 
Really? How many biographers, Brooksy, and which ones? ("Um, all of them.")

It might have been suggested to him by Phyllis Rose, who describes the rhetorical pivoting of the letter itself, without using the word:

But Brooksy would have been better off if he'd gone back to that source instead of working with the encyclopedia like a harried eighth-grader.

I have no interest in arguing with his thesis, which seems to be merely that he has a crush on the buzzword "agency", a quality that some people don't have and would benefit from. For example
Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.
On the other hand are the young poor people, who demonstrate their lack of agency by refusing to let other people's expectations direct their lives:
You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.
There's some hilarious bad writing: that picture of the privileged young "acting sleepless" and the disturbingly surreal image of George Eliot being "blown about by her voids and weaknesses" ("voids"?) prior to her own "agency moment":
You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.
Then there are three paragraphs about his imaginary friends, with a bizarre kind of syntactic alliteration:
I know an army officer who had a terrible commanding officer who only offered him negative feedback....
I once knew a guy who was batted about by people who should have supported him....
I once read about a guy whose childhood was a steady calamity. He was afraid, unable to control his mind and self. But he became a writer and discovered he was magnificent at it. Through the act of writing, he could investigate his fears and demystify them....
Ah yes, I'm sure you did. I bet you wrote about that guy, too, quite a lot. Every time you come out with one of those "self-help" columns, that's the self you're trying to help. The one who, when he's not getting batted about by people, is being blown about by voids, the one who only gets negative feedback, the one who works so hard to control his incurably idle mind, the magnificent writer—well, old Mr. Buckley said he was, though nobody else seems to think so.

Including even an awful lot of the commenters, such as Kurt from New York:
I am somewhat mystified how a woman writing a man begging him not to forsake her, and that if he stayed with he she would never bother him is somehow a declaration of self worth and affirmation. Seems to me if she really was taking control of her life she would have demanded a commitment to her or sayonara. Why would anyone wish to seek to attach themselves to someone who does not feel similarly about them?
As usual, Brooks has entirely misunderstood his own primary point, and it's no wonder Kurt is mystified. What's important, as Rose says, is the letter's radicalism: the spectacle of a well-bred and extremely well-educated Englishwoman of 1852 proposing to cohabit with an equally well-educated Englishman, and insisting on the correctness of her independent moral judgment (and she did demand a commitment—part of the not totally realistic plan was that even though he didn't love her he wouldn't form an attachment to anybody else).

And it's odd, for that reason, for Brooks to wind up the anecdote in the waffly way he does:
The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.
The letter did sort of solve her social-sexual problem, which wasn't so much that she was in love with Spencer as that (like one of the protagonists of the novels she was soon to begin writing) she didn't yet know whom she was in love with. This dramatic burning of the bridge with Spencer (apparently he did keep taking her to the opera) made room for another member of their circle, the (married!) philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes, who both found her sexually attractive and recognized her great literary gift, which he unstintingly encouraged for the rest of their (legally adulterous) lives together.

Oh, and "insecure, especially about her writing" is something Brooks made up. She didn't even try writing fiction until 1856, when she and Lewes had been lovers for three years (it was his idea), so it's unlikely she suffered any notable agonies of literary self-doubt until then.

That's part of the projection which is Brooks's only subject here (he found he was "magnificent" but "remained insecure"). But if he really hopes to "investigate his fears and demystify them" he's going to have to cut a lot closer to the bone than this cheap and slapdash psychohackery ostensibly about everybody except for him.

Illustration by William Small, ca. 1885, for an edition of Adam Bede. Via PhotoLibra.
Driftglass is usually especially good at spotting Brooksy's veiled autobiography, but today's piece is possibly too trivial for him to bother with and he's on a really splendid Andrew Sullivan jag. In the end, neither he nor Mr. Pierce was strong-stomached enough to make it to the end of the column, which makes me feel intrepid indeed. Take by Hamilton Nolan at Gawker has an enviably fine punchline.

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