In fact, her ability to animate ideas is so acute she is able to fool the great Henry James into believing Fred Vincy a commonplace young man who has wandered into Middlemarch with no purpose, when really nothing could be further from the truth...Fred is in love with a bright, plain girl called Mary Garth who is not convinced Fred is worthy of her love. On reflection, Fred agrees. Of the Three Love Problems that dominate Middlemarch...Fred would seem the least edifying. Yet to Eliot all were equal, and of equal interest, and worthy of an equal number of pages. All her people are striving towards the fullest truth, the least partial good. Except when Eliot thought of striving, she had more in mind than Austen's hope of happy marriages, or Dickens's dream of dream of resolved mysteries. She was thinking of Spinoza's kind of striving, conatus...Instead, wise men pursue what is best in and best for their own natures. They think of the good as dynamic, unpredictable combination of forces, different in practice, for each of us, It's that principle that illuminates Middlemarch. Like Spinoza's wise men, Eliot's people are always seeking to match what is good in themselves in joyful combination other good things in the world...
It's worth looking again at the facts, which means, in the world of Middlemarch, the emotional facts. Fred is in love with a good girl, a girl who does not love him because he is not worthy; Fred agrees with her. Maybe the point is this: of all the people striving in Middlemarch, only Fred is striving for a thing worth striving for...He is not as dim as he seems...What Fred surmises of the good he stumbles upon almost by accident, and only as a consequence of being fully in life and around life, by being open to its vagaries simply because he is possession of no theory to impose upon it. In many ways bumbling Fred is Eliot's ideal Spinozian subject. Here is Gilles Deleuze on Spinoza's wise man; he could just as well be speaking of Fred:
That is why Spinoza calls out to us in the way he does: you do not know beforehand what good or bad you are capable of; you do not know beforehand what a body or mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination--
Today is Arnon Grunberg's birthday, so I decided to write a Digression about essay-writing philosophical novelists.+
The mark of a great essay is that it both invites us to read (or see/visit) the book (site, etc.) discussed and illuminates us on its own terms. Smith teaches us to read and re-read "Middlemarch...a book about the effects of experience that changes with experiences. It gets better as you age, being, as Woolf, knew, 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.'" (3o) I have long liked Woolf's quip, but it is nice to see it illuminated by Smith by way of correction of the youthful Henry James's inability to understand Eliot's novel.
This is not to deny that Smith does not also give James "his due" (38) -- in 1873 he had claimed that "it is an indifferent whole" [she does not quote this, but hints there is truth in it] --, but she is gentle toward James. Smith does not mock the romantic providentialism he exhibits when he writes about Dorothea, "She exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness, and we believe in her as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day when we should find ourselves doubting of the immortality of the soul." After reading Smith it is obvious that James, who could sense the "philosophic" and guessed, in part, the mixture of "Darwin and Huxley" -- missed the important bits, that is, not the metaphysics, but the art of living, in Eliot's Spinozism.
There are, really, two distinct claims in Smith's quoted treatment of Middlemarch. (There is a larger issue in her essay that I ignore here: the fate of being on "the border of the new" (40) qua novelist.) First, the embrace of radical epistemic uncertainty -- Vincy's bumbling "accident"; Deleuze's lack of foresight -- that must be combined with a kind of practical decision-ism when opportunity presents itself to attain the good for one's nature. Moral luck, and bad luck, is ineliminable, but it takes considerable wisdom and self-knowledge to recognize and grasp the good in one's fortune. In his review of Middlemarch, James is so preoccupied with the fate of the intellectual and noble Lydgate (and, amazingly, James faults Eliot for seeming to prefer Ladislaw over Lydgate, who he takes to be "the real hero of the story" [again Smith is too generous to point this out]),* that he completely misses this theme.
So far so good.
But, second, Smith also implies that Fred Vincy's wisdom is a product not just of an immersion in life, but also, -- and this is troubling--, a lack of theoretical knowledge: "only as a consequence of being fully in life and around life, by being open to its vagaries simply because he is possession of no theory to impose upon it." This could easily be read as suggesting that the theoretical life is itself a source of foolishness. To be sure, I agree with Smith's Eliot that (a) we should in our theorizing and writing not bias toward those alike to us, and that (b) imposing a theory on life is a source of great foolishness [recall Hume on De Witt]--one all too common to intellectual and educated people, our people, really. But here she comes close to suggesting, also, that taking theory and theorizing seriously prevents one from the proper form of receptivity toward grasping opportunity in life: theory makes one unwise in action. How to understand then the wisdom of Eliot, who took Spinoza's Ethics so seriously. Are we being told that she could write persuasively about wisdom without being wise? Is she really, at bottom, on the side of the poets against the philosophers?
It is only a partial consolation that Smith allows Eliot a species of practical knowledge conducive to the good life: "In Middlemarch loves enables knowledge. Love is a kind of knowledge..." (37) In fact, the knowledge we gain is the skill at sympathizing with other (Eliot was also quite clearly a careful reader of Adam Smith). The skills that go into such sympathetic ability (e.g. "to feel another's pain as if it were his own" (37)) are, indeed, practical and theoretical; some other time I'll explore if these sympathetic skills can partially vindicate a theoretical life.