Middlemarch and Aphorism

This week I’ve been teaching George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) to my lovely group of first-years. One question that kept coming up centred on the narrator’s voice.

Middlemarch by George Eliot on a bookshelf
Middlemarch, keeping company (appropriately) with our china phrenology head, and (less appropriately) with a waving gold cat.

We talked about whether we could read the narrator as identical with George Eliot, and about the different modes of knowledge which the narrator lays claim to: scientific, religious, aphoristic/sage.

The narrator’s voice in Middlemarch is famously aphoristic.

…of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

I don’t mean to oppose this aphoristic mode, by the way, to the scientific. Aphorisms have been used to convey scientific knowledge since Hippocrates. But in this blog post I’m not talking about the sort of aphorisms in Bacon’s Novum Organum: pithy conclusions which are drawn from observing the physical world. I’m interested in how Eliot’s narrator more often uses the aphorism (I think) as a broader generalisation about life. They appear after an interaction has been detailed, as if to rebut any counter-arguments we might raise about the way the characters behave. In other words, Bacon’s aphorisms are justified by observation – Eliot’s aphorisms justify observation.

Though her aphorisms seem to sum up a general truth, Eliot resisted – to an extent – their application to other situations. Leah Price has written brilliantly  about how Middlemarch’s aphorisms were reprinted in schoolbooks, calendars and sermons, as well as in an anthology of Eliot’s ‘Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings’ printed by her own publisher. Eliot was ambivalent about these acts of quotation, Price suggests. She didn’t like her lines being taken out of context- but she also wrote aphoristically in the full knowledge that she would be quoted, even in reviews.

So even as the narrative voice presents aphorisms, an implicit limit is placed on the extent to which we are to treat them as aphorisms: as portable, generalisable and recyclable. We cannot accept them uncritically or in isolation. Gary Saul Morson suggests that when aphorisms pile up in a realist novel, they enable an ‘open-ended competition of worldviews’. Instead of announcing absolute truths, each aphorism – like each character in Eliot’s lavishly-populated novel – provides a new point of view, a new insight into experience.

Waving gold cat

Aphorism, then, is just one of the modes of knowledge on offer. While Lydgate exemplifies an empirical approach to learning, based on observing his patients and drawing conclusions, Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon represent a fascination with aphoristic knowledge.

With Casaubon, this is clear. The things he says seem like ‘a specimen from a mine, or the inscription on the door of a museum which might open on the treasures of past ages…’ (Chapter 3): we think, then, of the nuggety solidity of an aphorism, specimen-like, or its relationship to inscriptions and captions. When he is described as ‘a man whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed’ (Chapter 2), I think of the way that aphoristic form justifies itself, without further explanation having to be offered. And his speech is overtly aphoristic: he responds to Dorothea’s overtures ‘usually with an appropriate quotation’ (Chapter 3).

But Dorothea is also associated with the aphoristic mode. Not only did she ‘[know] many passages of Pascal’s Pensées’ – that famous writer of maxims – but we learn that ‘[h]er mind was theoretic’ rather than basing itself in direct observation, or the evidence of the here and now. My favourite clue to her mode of knowledge comes almost immediately, in chapter 1:

her plain garments…gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible, – or from one of our elder poets, – in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.

This is aphoristic knowledge carried with inappropriate or unfitting grandeur. It is found in ‘a paragraph of today’s newspaper’, destined to be passed over and then thrown away. Despite the eternal quality of the line, its setting means it lacks longevity. It is destined, like Dorothea, for ‘unvisited tombs’, over as soon as it has blossomed.

It’s often been remarked that Middlemarch does not end with a marriage, but begins with one. Dorothea makes up her mind almost immediately, and at the very start of the novel she enforces the event which traditionally ends narrative. She speaks with ‘the full voice of decision’ and ‘brusque resolution’. Like the aphorism, her tone is of finality; it brooks (Brookes?) no further questions.





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