This is genius.Â It’s a passage from Middlemarch, describing Mr. Casaubon, a middle-aged cleric whose life-work has been writing a Key to All Mythologies, apparently a syncretic work which will Explain It All once and for all.Â He has yet to publish the work or even come close to tying it all up in any kind of coherent package.Â He has recently married Dorothea Brooke, a young, pretty, pious, and educated young woman who thinks she will find happiness assisting him in his labors.
Read it, and read it carefully.Â Respond in comments.
He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity. And Mr. Casaubon had many scruples: he was capable of a severe self-restraint; he was resolute in being a man of honor according to the code; he would be unimpeachable by any recognized opinion.
In conduct these ends had been attained; but the difficulty of making his Key to all Mythologies unimpeachable weighed like lead upon his mind; and the pamphlets–or “Parerga” as he called them–by which he tested his public and deposited small monumental records of his march, were far from having been seen in all their significance. He suspected the Archdeacon of not having read them; he was in painful doubt as to what was really thought of them by the leading minds of Brasenose, and bitterly convinced that his old acquaintance Carp had been the writer of that depreciatory recension which was kept locked in a small drawer of Mr. Casaubon’s desk, and also in a dark closet of his verbal memory.
These were heavy impressions to struggle against, and brought that melancholy embitterment which is the consequence of all excessive claim: even his religious faith wavered with his wavering trust in his own authorship, and the consolations of the Christian hope in immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten Key to all Mythologies. For my part I am very sorry for him. 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. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon’s uneasiness.
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.
Tut-tut, those sad provincials. So neurotic, so unpublished. They do not possess the secret to Joy!!!
I don’t think Eliot is trying to portray provincialism — Casaubon’s issues are his own and quite at odds with his surroundings, in fact. What I marveled at is her ability to anatomize his miserableness so precisely. Fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. Heavens, what an indictment!
In other news, the word Parerga interested me. It means, variously, work that is not one’s main employment, or a shorter or less detailed musical or literary composition that is produced at the same time as, derived from, or complementary to a larger work, or, most germanely to Casaubon’s plight, A term meaning Incidentals and generally used to describe events which took place during the completion of the Labors of Herakles (Heracles) and incidental to the actual Labor. It’s plural. Singular is parergon.
Now that I think about it, Marc, I’m not sure what you’re being supercilious about. Or were you?
“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 selfâ€“ 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.’
Wow! How many people have we met like that, or are even like that in some ways ourselves? I find walk through the Labyrinth more inspiring and invigorating than anything I learned in school.