A Summer with Eliot

One of the highlights of my summer was reading (finally) Middlemarch, which—as many would agree—was a thoroughly rewarding experience. The book is universally relatable and inspirational, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already read it.

For my first blog post I originally planned to compile a list of favorite quotes from all my summer readings. However, after finding myself incapable of narrowing down my Middlemarch picks to only one or two, I decided I had no choice but to dedicate a full post to the wise words of Eliot.

First, here’s a beautiful passage relating to a theme I thought pertinent to this community of readers: the character and power of writing:

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? If it happens to have been cut in stone, though it lie face down-most for ages on a forsaken beach, or “rest quietly under the drums and tramplings of many conquests,” it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long empires ago:–this world being apparently a huge whispering-gallery. Such conditions are often minutely represented in our petty lifetimes. As the stone which has been kicked by generations of clowns may come by curious little links of effect under the eyes of a scholar, through whose labors it may at last fix the date of invasions and unlock religions, so a bit of ink and paper which has long been an innocent wrapping or stop-gap may at last be laid open under the one pair of eyes which have knowledge enough to turn it into the opening of a catastrophe. (XLI)

Much more than a means of communication among the living, writing connects the world to the breadth of human history. It provides, to those curious enough to look, a window into the world’s collective wealth of experience and knowledge.

These next few quotes are about the nature of learning, and its hindrances. For the heroin Dorothea, the pursuit of knowledge is inextricably tied to sentiment:

All her eagerness for acquirement lay within that full current of sympathetic motive in which her ideas and impulses were habitually swept along. She did not want to deck herself with knowledge–to wear it loose from the nerves and blood that fed her action . . . But something she yearned for by which her life might be filled with action at once rational and ardent; and since the time was gone by for guiding visions and spiritual directors, since prayer heightened yearning but not instruction, what lamp was there but knowledge? (X)

Thirsting for a life of purpose, Dorothea follows intellectual guidance with religious fervor. Here, and throughout the book, Eliot brilliantly captures the tensions of an age in which a growing emphasis on empirical knowledge challenges previously held faiths and traditions. Amidst weakening and conflicting religious beliefs, scientific reason comes to the forefront of worship. While Eliot’s observations center on the Victorian Era, her insights have become no less relevant today, in a world dominated by science and technology.

Through her characters, Eliot demonstrates the human desire to reconcile passion with reason. As Dorothea strives to direct her passion with reason, Mr. Casaubon aims to drive his reason with passion. Tragically, he struggles in vain to fill his intellectual pursuits with emotion, and his lifelong studies are continuously strained and obstructed by his chronic depression, pride, and self-doubt:

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. (XXIX)

Apart from demonstrating Eliot’s mastery of character, this passage illustrates how self-consciousness obstructs the path of intellectual growth. This concept I find particularly interesting, as it brings to mind memories of my own experience in school, when I too-often observed—in both my classmates and myself—the detrimental effects of self-absorption. From college I learned, if nothing else, how little one learns when preoccupied with one’s own performance. In Eliot’s words, “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self” (XLII).

As a recent college graduate, I was naturally drawn to Elliot’s wisdom—and pessimism—about the world’s youth and the meaning of maturity. Here are a few quotes on the subject:

Many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to “find their feet” among them, while their elders go about their business . . . Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual. (XIX)

If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. (LV)

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves. (XXI)

Despite the dawning hopelessness that may befall the young when first glimpsing their futures in the world at large, Eliot again warns against the danger of cowering behind the blot of self. Without curiosity in the world around us, we risk wasting away our lives and happiness in selfish circles of pettiness. As a final reminder not to squander our futures, I will close on this note:

It is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness–calling their denial knowledge. (XLII)


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