Jane Austen Predicts Virtue Signalling

 

In The Opposing Self (1955) Lionel Trilling has the following to say about Jane Austen in his essay on Mansfield Park. Once again, one must marvel at the prescience of a great artist-observer:

It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being. Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and diffcult and exhausting. Hegel speaks of the “secularization of spirituality” as a prime characteristic of the modern epoch and Jane Austen is the first to tell what this involves. She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of “sincerity” and “vulgarity” which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, an so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty. She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spiritualiy, to put our lives our lives and styles to the question making sure that not only in deeds but in décor they exhibit the signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect.

Only with social media and doxxing, the Terror is not so anonymous. Some so-called feminists have done their best to tear down Jane Austen’s reputation, but her popularity remains, I think, and will.  Culture does change, but human nature endures. A great novel is always relevant.

Published in General
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 4 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    I miss Lionel Trilling.  And Northrop Frye. And F.R. Leavis. And all those who treated the subject of their criticism as more important than their own ideological prejudices, and who rarely made the mistake of de-coupling the work from its era in order to find it wanting because it didn’t live up to the “enlightened” standards of our own.

    Trilling is exactly right.  We can learn from Jane Austen.  Over the past thirty years, I’ve pretty much given up on any sort of literary criticism, because so much of it is just pompous drivel and pretentious bilge, and I no longer know if there’s anyone out there with enough humility to admit to having learned something from the western canon. 

    • #1
  2. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    She (View Comment):

    I miss Lionel Trilling. And Northrop Frye. And F.R. Leavis. And all those who treated the subject of their criticism as more important than their own ideological prejudices, and who rarely made the mistake of de-coupling the work from its era in order to find it wanting because it didn’t live up to the “enlightened” standards of our own.

    Trilling is exactly right. We can learn from Jane Austen. Over the past thirty years, I’ve pretty much given up on any sort of literary criticism, because so much of it is just pompous drivel and pretentious bilge, and I no longer know if there’s anyone out there with enough humility to admit to having learned something from the western canon.

    Amen. Just go to JSTOR and search on Jane Eyre or Jane Austen and see the titles and opening paragraphs. Plenty of male gazes and colonialisms and other cant phrases. Makes doing criticism easy. Grab a package from the shelf, shove a work up to it, half bake for twenty seconds and, voila, tenure for you.

    • #2
  3. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    I just watched Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan last weekend. The Jane Austen dialogue is classic.

    • #3
  4. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    I just watched Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan last weekend. The Jane Austen dialogue is classic.

    Fantastic. Thanks. I guess Trilling was right when he made the remark a friend recently shared with me:

    That reminds me of a fellow grad student who ran into me as she came fuming from Trilling’s office. She had gone to see him to ask what she should read to prepare for her own essay on Austen.

    “What did he say?” I asked.

    “He asked me if I’d read his essay on Austen. I said I hadn’t, and he told me that if I read his essay, I wouldn’t have to read anything else.”

    I laughed, and she didn’t like that. It hadn’t occurred to her that Lionel Trilling had a sense of humor.

    And just for fun, here is another.

    Another friend went to see him when he was about to teach his first course.

    “Professor Trilling, you’ve been teaching for a long time, and I’m just about to start. Do you have any advice for me?”

    “Yes,” Trilling said, “When I was about to teach my first class at [I think] the University of Michigan, I went to [some famous old professor] and asked him that same question, so I’ll tell you just what he told me. He said, ‘Son, when you’re in front of a class, keep your fly zipped up and don’t break wind.'”

    • #4