Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I just finished Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, as I may be writing the book for a musical adaptation of the piece fairly soon. Ten years ago I read Austen's Emma, and found it such rough and rewardless going that I refused to touch Austen's work again, in spite of the praises several friends heaped upon her, until this opportunity arose.

Sense and Sensibility, while perhaps not superseding any of my established favorite books, was definitely a pleasant surprise. I always expect nineteenth-century novels to have ridiculously dense and inaccessible prose; I certainly didn't find that here. Everything moved along economically, every paragraph and description seemed relevant to the story and characters at hand. The Dashwood family was vivid and comprehensible to me, each character distinctly drawn and somebody I wanted to hear a story about. I wanted to sit down to the book, wanted to spend time in this story, and was surprised to see the measure of independence women were granted in the world Austen portrayed, even as I saw the obvious restrictions.

Most interesting to me, though, was Austen's treatment of compassion, and looking at it in comparison with contemporary, and even modern, novels. In Sense and Sensibility, it's an accepted reality that your feelings about or for others can effect genuine change in you. Contemporary novels, in my experience, assume a level of selfish motivation—assuming that when a character cares about another, it's always driven by a concrete, explicable self-interest. Elinor's feelings for Marianne, Marianne's for Elinor, Elinor's for Colonel Brandon or even for Willoughby, change those characters' behavior and as such the course of the story. It's accepted that Elinor's concern for Marianne can change her not because Elinor thinks it will alter her own self-interested objectives but because Elinor and Marianne have that significance to one another. This is a simple tenet of Austen's world, and I mourn that loss in contemporary arts and their influence on contemporary society. We think we act only out of self-concern, and that our self is contained to survivalist mode. I'm going to attribute that to Freud's influence, to a certain degree—in part I'm doing that out of my ignorance, but if he did not invent the concept of egocentricity he certainly propagated it and had a—perhaps disproportionate, though I'm not sure—influence on the arts. And as I see it, it's just this side of unnatural to ignore that influence.

I know that I myself have argued against the existence of altruism, and I believe I still mean it and that those two positions are not contradictory. So let's look at that.

In college I was for a period fixated on the phrase "she means a lot to me," dissecting what its literal significance, and signifier, was. That question hinged on what "a lot" was, and the conclusion I eventually reached was that the answer was "myself," as in "she means a lot of myself to me." Which is to say that in loving someone we to a certain degree take them into ourselves. Under that assumption, acting out of love for another, being effected by certain events because of your love for another, would be self-interest as well. That sounds both reductive and sophistric (is that actually a word?), but I also think it's true. Our investment in other people changes us, and those changes, those people, become part of us. Love becomes something shared in this manner. It doesn't lessen love to think that, or I don't believe so. In that sense perhaps I am influenced by the Freudian, in terms of believing in the existence and importance of self-interest, but that's pre-Freudian as well; that plays a role in Austen's work. Elinor fights to suppress her self-interest in loving Edward when she learns of his engagement to Lucy, but she can't help but allow it some control. Marianne, of course, indulges her needs too much, but nevertheless is able, when finally learning of Edward's engagement to Lucy, to feel for Elinor, perhaps to feel with Elinor, as Elinor felt with/for her upon Willoughby's betrayal. We mourn when a friendship ends or when someone we love dies, because we have lost our self-knowledge through that person, and our knowledge of that person's self, and the love that comes with knowing someone. Love is, in businessy terms, mutual investment.

Altruism as it's conventionally defined doesn't spring from love; it's impossible for it to do so, because it's too (ostensibly) far-reaching and not specific. It's ostentatious (shared root of "ostensible" and "ostentatious"? Little help?); it's a demonstration of emotions that haven't been fully felt. As in, I don't think something becomes altruistic unless you say it is, which is what makes altruism contradictory. Something is altruistic because you need to feel altruistic, which is a paradox—hence, alfalsism. (You knew I was going to bring that back someday.) The word "compassion" comes from com-, with, and pati, to suffer. If I suffer with you, I'm suffering too. It, whatever is making us suffer, has an effect on both of us. Altruism, doing something solely for somebody else, implies that that thing does not have an effect on you.

Austen writes about compassion, and writes about it as a natural consequence and part of love, any form of love, from the friendship Elinor feels for Colonel Brandon to Willoughby and Marianne's shared preferences in the arts to Elinor and Marianne's sororal intimacy. Compassion has gotten somewhat lost in the contemporary roar of individualism, and reading Austen made me realize how much I missed it.


At 1:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ostentatious and ostensible both derive from the Latin verb ostendo. Ostendo is itself the verb tendo (to stretch) with the prefix obs- (an older version of ob-), and so means "to stretch in front of", "to display", etc.


At 3:55 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Huh, that's interesting as the root for both.

Hi, Cate! You do exist! How are you? I miss you.


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