Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Proud and Prejudiced

I finished Pride and Prejudice today, and not a moment too soon. I tried to keep an open mind about it all, and I suppose I can see why other people would like this book. But for me, well, I think I will leave it to them.

I think the main problem I had in reading it was that it was so artificial, in both the modern and 19th-century senses of that term.

Today when people use the word "artificial" they usually mean "fake," often with connotations of being inferior to the real thing, whatever that might be, though I'm not sure why this needs to be so. There is artificial flavoring, which is theoretically not as good as natural flavor, though I have always felt that if you just took it on its own merits instead of comparing the artificial to the natural you'd enjoy both. I like powdered iced tea, for example, even though its resemblance to actual iced tea is purely notional. There is also artificial outrage, which we see a lot these days on Fox News. I'm not sure why this is inferior to real outrage, other than the sheer fact of its being cynically manufactured and produced by people who are just seeking a political edge and don't really care about the specifics at hand. A little cynicism beats genuine revolution in the streets most days. It's amusing in an odd sort of way, especially if you know where to watch the strings being pulled. And on and on.

There is a lot of fakery in Pride and Prejudice.

It is fakery drawn to an art form, a phoniness that speaks volumes about what is not being said or thought or done. Nobody in this book really ever comes out and is who they are in any meaningful way, which is probably one of the main points of the book - that this is what such people are reduced to being, and that under such constraints do these people operate. I understand that and I can respect it - and as a historian I can put it into its larger context - but slogging through 367 pages of it is like chewing on plywood. Great fiber. Not so much taste.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with keeping to conventions or moving along with society. Certainly there are few things so tiresome as someone who insists on being "frank" with you all the time. Truth and honesty are often overrated that way, and there are just some things I really don't need to know about people.

But one of the things I most respect and admire in others is the ability to be who they are. I like people who accept their nature and work with it and expect you to do so as well, people who are not constantly trying to be something they are not. It was one of the qualities that most attracted me to Kim when we first started dating, and it is something I look for in friends.  

I can even respect this quality in people who, objectively, really ought to be doing something to change. Call it a personal quirk, I guess.  One of my favorite characters in literature is the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, who is a Machiavellian tyrant and is perfectly comfortable with that description.  He is who he is.

Like everything else, it can be taken too far - the Romantic notion of being true to oneself and damn the consequences being one of the more ridiculous notions foisted off on the general psyche in the last few centuries.  Other people have the right to be who they are as well, for one thing, and the general angst and whining about oppressive society that comes out of this starting position gets old fast.  But I do like people who recognize who they are and go about their lives that way.

I think that is why I liked Mr. Bennett, of all the characters. He seems to grasp who he is better than the other characters do, and he is not inclined to allow the world to take that away from him. Plus, as the only male in a house full of women, I did have a certain sympathy for his position.

More importantly, though, the book is artificial in the old-fashioned, more literal sense of being "full of artifice." It's clever - achingly so. On every page and with every paragraph, you can hear the author's voice working through dizzying feats of language, gently turning words and phrases into a coherent world. This is a skill, particularly in a novel where nothing much happens. People are introduced. Misunderstandings occur. Couples fall in love, break up and get back together without really moving in any physical way other than to change drawing rooms. It's all dialogue, most of it telling rather than showing. And all the pieces fall into place by the last page, though whether this is a happy ending I am still not sure.

I can respect this book. But I can't really say I liked it. Oh well. I tried, I really did.

Bring on the zombies.

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