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Middlemarch

George Eliot • 1872

For a while, I thought my take on Middlemarch was going to be a simple one: “this is a very nice piece of literature that clearly paved the way for a certain genre of authorial postmodernism: Eliot was the first to do this flitting around between consciousnesses, the authorial voice here and there, the establishment of gestalt over individual”. And all of that was — is — true; I can clearly trace the lineage of many of my favorite authors (Vonnegut, Wallace, Woolf) back to this book and this writer.

And then the totality of what Eliot has done bore down on me a little further. I am sure smarter people than me have written about the genius of the book; what impressed me was that you just end up caring so much about each and every person, and you care about the little world that you’re spending all the time in. I can’t think of a single person you meet in this book that you don’t end up empathizing for at least a little — in this respect, Eliot was superior to many of her successors who can’t resist the urge to find someone to be a bit of a punching bag on behalf of everyone else. And her ability to dance between stream-of-consciousness and authorial wit feels so much less forced or arbitrary than so many other books!

(All of this is to say nothing about her flat aptitude with prose, as the many highlights I made should make evident.)

When searching around for contemporary retrospectives, I was surprised to hear some complaints about where we spent our time as readers. Some folks didn’t like all the drama around Bulstrode’s disgrace, but that felt vital both as an inciting action for the central characters and as what I thought was Eliot’s most trenchant social criticism. Some folks didn’t like all the time spent hearing random townspeople gossip; I thought that was the whole point of the endeavor, to understand these silly little characters’ interactions not as line segments in of themselves but as a constellation of movements and changes.

So, if you’re like me, and you get thirty pages in and think “this feels like a very nice version of a Jane Austen but that’s not what I’m in the mood for” — stick with it.

(Lastly, as mentioned on Twitter — this is, bar none, the greatest ending paragraph in any book I have ever read.)

6/22/2022
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Victorian

Highlights

Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous.
He had catched a great cold, had he had no other clothes to wear than the skin of a bear not yet killed.
"Follows here the strict receipt For that sauce to dainty meat, Named Idleness, which many eat By preference, and call it sweet: First watch for morsels, like a hound Mix well with buffets, stir them round With good thick oil of flatteries, And froth with mean self-lauding lies. Serve warm: the vessels you must choose To keep it in are dead men's shoes."
I think any hardship is better than pretending to do what one is paid for, and never really doing it.
The best piety is to enjoy--when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth's character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight--in art or in anything else.
It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self-- never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
When I married Humphrey I made up my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn't have the end without them.
Caleb was in a difficulty known to any person attempting in dark times and unassisted by miracle to reason with rustics who are in possession of an undeniable truth which they know through a hard process of feeling, and can let it fall like a giant's club on your neatly carved argument for a social benefit which they do not feel.
I should like to feel, if I lived to be old, that I had improved a great piece of land and built a great many good cottages, because the work is of a healthy kind while it is being done, and after it is done, men are the better for it.
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs
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© 2022 Justin Duke • I hope you're wearing your favorite sweater.