George Eliot, George Eliot – On Moral Writing

Spend enough time in a creative writing program and you’ll pick up the idea that Middlemarch is consistently chosen (by those who choose) as the greatest novel ever written. It’s not true. My favorite thing that Jane Smiley wrote in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is that Middlemarch is merely the “most novelish of novels.”

Merely is a poor choice of adverb there, in that being the most novelish of novels is no mere feat. What it means, what everyone points to when they talk about Middlemarch‘s greatness, is the way its plot’s engine is driven by the ever-developing interrelationships among a set of people in a specific place. I have only a vague recollection of the workings of this. Though my records show I wrote a brief but thoughtful paper on the novel almost six years ago to the day, too little of it’s stuck with me after finishing.

All the same, I’ve been thinking a lot about Eliot lately. First was ’cause of Zadie Smith’s occasional essays, which I’ve been reading. She’s got one on Middlemarch and Eliot, whom Smith argues “thought with her heart and felt with her head.” What’s more, it’s this quality that seems to make Eliot’s book so eminently novelish; the “relation between what one felt one knew of human behavior and what one knew one felt” is, according to Smith, the basis for every 19th-century English novel.

What I like about this essay in particular is how, in looking closely at the intersections of thinking and feeling, Smith’s able to show that there’s nothing old-fashioned or conservative about loving Middlemarch, itself a novel so progressive (for its time) in form and approach. “[W]e continue to need novelists who seem to know and feel,” she says, but while this need is universal, form, she argues, is not. Thus, loving Eliot and her work is not to champion the 19th-century English realist novel over all other forms, it’s to champion what Eliot herself championed—namely human feeling, and our dependence on each other. This content can take any form you want. That is, whatever forms of novels our time seems to call for, yours if so knowingly felt could be the next Middlemarch.

In my creative-writing pedagogy class today we talked about stages of writerly development, after Orwell (another pseudonymous George):

  1. Sheer egoism.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
  3. Historical/mimetic impulse.
  4. Political purpose.

It’s an unfashionable (because, I posited, old-fashioned) idea to think that writers progress through these stages in turn—or don’t, if that progress gets stunted by some external force. But Carol Bly’s point in her presentation of stage-development theory in her very great book, Beyond the Writers’ Workshop, is that regardless of whether these are progressive stages, too often does creative-writing instruction begin at stage two and (maybe) end at stage three. We teach and encourage students to write beautifully but not morally.

Spend enough time in a creative writing program talking about moral fiction and people will plum stop listening to you. It’s maybe that no one wants to agree (or believes we can agree) on what morals to teach. Or maybe that nobody wants to set the burden of progressing ethical/moral behavior on the shoulders of artists. And yet is it from anywhere but books that I’ve learned how to treat other people?

This all warrants a longer post, one concerning Bly’s links between empathy, neural pathways, and imagination, but how do we writers do what the books I loved have done re moral behavior without being stuffy, preachy, orthodox, and just wrong? And how do we get our students to do it?

Two things I learned this evening that shouldn’t’ve surprised me but did:

  1. Americans are less accepting of atheists than they are of any other ethnic, religious, or minority group.
  2. George Eliot was an atheist.

I’m an atheist. Call me a naive one for thinking this made me more trustworthy. This article in the great-enough-to-donate-money LA Review of Books looks at how Eliot exercised her atheism in her novels, specifically Silas Marner.

After she left her faith behind, young Marian Evans refused to go to church. Then, after talking it through with her dad:

[s]he eventually came to see her initially inflexible stance as a sign of immaturity, of an egoism that too readily sacrificed fellow feeling to rigorous principle: “The first impulse of a young and ingenuous mind is to withhold the slightest sanction from all that contains even a mixture of supposed error.”

Two things here. First, Eliot saw that even as an atheist it was wrong to stand up one’s principles at the expense of building “fellow feeling” with others. In other words, she was a moral novelist before she wrote her novels. Second, that quote of hers shows a maturity regarding cognitive dissonance which sets Eliot right at the top of any stage-development-theory rubric. To receive a datum that runs counter to what one knows and believes, to hold this alongside other data in one’s head, and to work soundly toward resolving that dissonance (and changing as a result), these days it seems to be the only thing worth teaching.

I also liked this part:

On this view, religious belief is not so much a “delusion,” as Dawkins would have it, as a confusion, a mistaken attribution; it’s not, as Hitchens wrote, that “god is not great” but that what we call “God” is only as great, or as terrible, as we are. Ultimately all of Eliot’s fiction shows that the real object of our moral hopes and fears should be ourselves.

Without question, reading novels made me the atheist I am today. How to rely on an absent Creator, an all-knowing and -seeing God—how to even believe in one—when stories have shown and continue to show me the good that comes from believing in other people?

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