Friday, January 16, 2009

More Elective Affinities

The painting of a girl reading, by Joseph Wright of Derby, is reproduced on the cover of Lee Morrissey's recent book The Constitution of Literature: Literacy, Democracy, and Early English Literary Criticism. Lee spoke last evening at the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture (of which I am chair) on various topics, including the adequacy of Jürgen Habermas' concept of "public sphere" to describe the emancipatory potential of literacy during the Enlightenment. An alternative model for talking about the Enlightenment and democracy, according to Lee, was that of Slavoj Žižek, a "post-Marxist" sociologist, philosopher, and cultural critic. (The last is tautological: everyone in academia is a cultural critic.) Žižek represents a clever (one might say "disingenuous") move on the part of the Left to counter conservatives on the hot political and cultural issues of the day. Though living in Slovenia, he has managed to make a fine career for himself  as a visiting professor at major U.S. universities. The more obscure a European intellectual, the more Americans go for it. Still, one should attempt to get through his prose -- and Lee is to be commended for doing so -- if only in order to understand his hatred for the liberal-democratic order. As Žižek writes in a recent work, Violence, "Everything [in resistance to this order] is to be endorsed here, up to an including 'religious fanaticism.'" Got that, Al Qaeda?

But let me get back to the cover of Lee's book (which has to do with reading and literacy and their relationship to the "constitution" of democracy in the West). I was reminded of a scene in Goethe's Elective Affinities, right before Charlotte, Eduard, and the Captain begin to discuss the mysterious subject of "affinities." It is an 18th-century evening, and one of the things people did back then was read aloud. Eduard, indeed, liked to do so, for, as Goethe wrote, he had an agreeable deep voice and had once been very much in demand for such readings, especially of poetry. Of late, however, he had preferred to read from works on physics, chemistry, and technology.

Joseph Wright Derby (1734-1797) is the painter par excellence of this interest in the natural sciences during the Enlightenment. In his scenes of scientific experiment, Wright combines experimenter with the ordinary people whose world would be transformed by science and technology. The candlelit scene of An Experiment on a Bird with an Air Pump is one of his most famous. Through the spread of literacy (the subject of Lee's book) and knowledge of science the world was being led from darkness. (I'm being slightly ironic.)

So, imagine the candlelit scene in Charlotte and Eduard's drawing room. One of Eduard's idiosyncrasies, however, was a dislike of people reading over his shoulder, which ruins the dramatic effect of reading aloud. Thus, he usually made it a point to sit where no one could peer over his shoulder. On this occasion he noticed that Charlotte was staring at the pages of the book. He expressed his irritation in a "rather unfriendly tone" (in the translation by Judith Ryan):

If I read to someone, isn't it just the same as if I were explaining something orally? The written or printed words take the place of my own feelings and intentions, and do you think I would take the trouble to talk intelligibly if there were a window in my forehead or my breast so that the person to whom I wish to relate my thoughts and feelings one by one would know in advance what I'm aiming at? When someone reads over my shoulder I always feel as if I were split in two.

In the picture on Lee's book, the young reader is so absorbed in what is probably a letter that she doesn't notice the old gent peering over her shoulder. (One of Goethe's idiosyncrasies was his dislike for spectacles, such as the man is wearing.) She seems utterly absorbed in her reading, and she might indeed be engaged in private study. In contrast is another painting by Wright; in this case it is the young man peering over the girl's shoulder who is irritated. From the dreamy smile on her face, we can assume she is beyond irritation.

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