notes & questions for Oct. 4


Does Hardy’s poem affirm or contest the truth of this claim of Zizek’s?  “all the effort to articulate the metaphorical meaning of the Titanic is nothing but an attempt to escape this terrifying impact of the Thing, an attempt to domesticate the Thing by reducing it to its symbolic status, by providing it with a meaning.  We usually say that the fascinating presence of a Thing obscures its meaning; here, the opposite is true:  the meaning obscures the terrifying impact of its presence.”  Also consider Burke’s account of obscurity in relation to both this passage and the poem.

Would Burke agree with Zizek’s use of the word “tradition” in the following statement?  “descriptivists emphasize the immanent, internal ‘intentional contents’ of a word, while antidescriptivists regard as decisive the external causal link, the way a word has been transmitted from subject to subject in a chain of tradition?”  Zizek remarks that, as such, this tradition must be thought of as engendered by a (implicitly obscure, even magical) “primal baptism” (98-99).  How does Zizek’s contrast of discriptivism and antidescriptivism relation to our discussion last week of the distinction between discursive and non-discursive persuasion in Austen and Burke?  In other words is what Zizek calls the “dogmatic stupidity proper to the signifier as such” (103) akin to Austenian/Burkean inertia?


1. what does Thel’s motto mean?

One reading would be that it asserts a kind of environmentalism, that the mole knows about the pit better than the eagle because it’s the mole’s habitat. Another reading would be that the motto emphasizes diversity and relativism: that the pit also belongs to the eagle’s habitat (if only remotely) since the eagle hunts moles; thus the eagle and mole each have their own perspective and it’s impossible to say one is more correct, or that any single perspective can capture the whole truth.
Blake would certainly endorse (to a point) both of these readings, since as i emphasized last time his “Songs…” should be read as a collection of perspectives: the poems should be read with an eye not just to what they say but also to what they reveal about the perspective from which they’re written. Blake’s project as a whole can be seen as trying to awaken us to the “infinity in a grain of sand” NOT as the expression of an otherworldly god but as an aggregation of all the particular, worldly perspectives. (This would be Blake’s way out of the beautiful soul: recognizing god not in contrast to worldly existence but as the sum total of worldly existence).
According to Blake a key obstacle to such recognition is the division of body and soul, or material and mind, sensuality and spirit. The themes of hunting, sexuality and knowledge play crucial roles in the motto: as mentioned, eagle and mole aren’t just any two different perspectives; they also fall into the roles of hunter and hunted, and parallels are suggested with the way in which knowledge hunts objects to know, and male hunts female. But even the very binary of male and female, dividing sexuality between “rod” and “bowl,” arguably expresses a kind of domineering need to know, to capture things in binary categories. So while the poem proper of Thel seems to be about exploring the diversity of nature, do you notice themes of domination and predation (through knowledge and/or sexuality)?

2. Thel is like a despondent teenager; she’s the youngest of the “sunny flocks,” but separates from the happy group in order to seek “the secret air” and to “lament” “mortality” and “fading beauty.”   Then Thel addresses “the life of this our spring,” and asks why we are “born but to smile and fall?”  What can we gather about Thel from all the things she compares herself to in lines 8-11? why should being like these things make her want to die?

3. so why are the Lily/Cloud/Worm/Clod happy? according to each why should Thel be happy? what are Thel’s respective responses?

4.  this poem seems conflicted:  on the one hand it’s the most hippy-dippy, commune with nature, acid trip fantasy you could want; on the other hand though it’s also the opposite of this, since Thel cannot or will not commune.  Is Thel an anti-hero for refusing (out of self-absorption, or excessive doubt, or fear, or…?) to embrace or surrender to the cycle of nature like the beings she encounters?  or is she a hero for acknowledging rather than suppressing her questions and fear and feeling of alienation from nature?

5.  what about you?  would you see yourself more likely following the little nature beings or resisting like Thel?

6.  Look at the illuminations; especially the title plate.  If this is a poem about nature it’s also a poem about the personification of nature; is there something about confronting nature in personified form that prevents Thel from communing with/surrendering to it?  is there a sense in which we need to personify nature in order to see it at all?

7.  this relates to the sexual subtext of the poem. there’s obvious sexual imagery in the motto, and some people interpret Thel’s virginal fear of nature as a fear of sex; does that seem plausible to you?

8. how are the issues above reflected in the questions posed to Thel from her own grave (114-123)? Do these questions shed new light on the notion of the “pit” in the motto? on Thel’s anxieties about sex and death?


1.  If as we saw in Chap. 10 the sheer physical presence of Darcy’s body was supposed to speak for itself in a special way, should we then read something special in the conspicuous absence of Wickham’s physical self from the Netherfield ball?  Does Austen make his failure physically to show himself an index of something morally crucial?

2.  Also in Chapter 18 Elizabeth and Darcy carry out a remarkable meta-conversation while dancing:  a conversation about what they should be talking about while dancing.  What are we to make of such ironic detachment in relation to Wickham’s analogous, literal self-distancing?  Does Austen even underscore the parallel with Wickham by emphasizing that Elizabeth isn’t just ironically detached but absent minded, that she doesn’t know what she says, and that “her thoughts had wandered far from the subject” (64)?

3.  In pointed contrast to this self-absenting, however, this chapter also involves two instances of apparently excessive self-presentation:  Mr. Collins’s self-introduction to Darcy (“vexing” Elizabeth to see him “expose himself to such a man”) and Mary’s “exhibiting” and “display” (which leaves Elizabeth in “agonies.”)  Austen seems to be emphasizing the importance of striking the right balance between too much and too little self-presentation but how is this balance defined?

4.  Does anybody escape moral censure here?  is Austen setting up a situation in which you’re doomed by showing too much and equally so by showing too little?  in other words is the game of Austen’s fiction rigged?  is it basically uncompromising satire in which that the only way not to lose is not to play but instead, like Darcy here, to be privileged to stand somehow aloof from it all?  Is Austen building Darcy up not by saying anything good about him so much as by portraying everyone else so negatively that he seems good simply by virtue of being spared–or absented from–Austen’s withering satire?

5.  How are we supposed to feel about Charlotte Lucas?  are we to share Elizabeth’s contempt for choosing to marry without love?

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25 Responses to notes & questions for Oct. 4

  1. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    Just a very badly thought out impression:

    I think the trouble is not to strike a balance between too much self- presentation or too little. I think the trouble is being preoccupied with your self-presentation at all.

    Mr. Collins and Mary are, by Mary’s estimation of the word, vain– they are using their self-presentation as an object for everyone to look at. Darcy on the other hand, and Wickham too, by their intentional non-presentation, proud. Mr. Collins and Mary are focused on what other people think of them and Mr. Wickham and Darcy are focused on what what they think of themselves.

    Elizabeth is so busy worrying about the vanity of her relations reflecting badly on her own character and the pride of Mr. Darcy wounding her pride that she hasn’t the sense to stop trying to be so damn clever and just enjoy herself. Mr. Bingley and Jane aren’t bothered either way. Good for them.

  2. Arin Vaillancourt says:

    Personally, I do not consider Thel to be a despondent teenager. I think she expresses a real fear that lives deep within all of us. How many of us are afraid to live and to die? . We are too afraid to experience some of the exhilarating aspects of life, and yet life is so short, we regret the fact that we never experienced them. Thel is also expressing a fear of the unknown here, she does not know what life will be like in a physical state save for the short journey she took in the earth, and that was completely terrifying. All of the descriptions offered here are things of fleeting beauty. How long before the smile on the infant’s face turns to incessant crying? Lines 8 to 11 are not objects of permanence, and it is frightening to Thel to know that her beauty and youth will be lost as quickly as it came. Thel’s fear of impermanence is what scares her the most, and I can agree with her. It scares me too.

  3. Vlad Cristache says:

    I have two questions of my own about this week’s readings:

    1. In Chapter 19 of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Mr. Collins asks for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. When Elizabeth says “No” Mr. Collins takes her to merely be attempting to “increase[e] [his] love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females” (74). Elizabeth remarks: “If what I have hitherto said may appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one” (74). With this problem in hand, Elizabeth believes that going through her father might be the best way to refuse Mr. Collins because his “negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive” (75). Finally, let us keep in mind that Mr. Collins believes that Elizabeth is merely playing a game also because “the establishment [he] can offer would [not] be any other than highly desirable” (74).

    The following is my question: Although we might take Elizabeth’s inability to have her “No!” heard out as oppressive against her as a woman and thus sexist – especially when considering Mr. Collins’ comment that it’s the “usual practice of elegant women,” and her own belief that her father might be able to settle it – aren’t all subjects trapped within the symbolic order in her position? In other words, as we’ve discussed in class, when we say “No!” against the symbolic order and attempt to occupy the position of the “beautiful Soul” (Hegel) or “detached observer,” doesn’t this “No!” implicate us even more within the functioning of the symbolic order, so that, just as it is for Elizabeth, we appear to increase the desire of the Other (and thus our own desire), by suspense? And isn’t then the idea that Mr. Collins can say the decisive “No!” an illusion –as Professor Earle has already hinted? It’s worthy of note that Mr. Collins mistrusts Elizabeth’s “No!” not only because she’s a woman, but also because he assumes that she is in(terested in) the exchange economy – an economy which would give his proposal value.

    Also: How is Elizabeth’s “No!” finally communicated to Mr. Collins? Is her method the exemplary one for actually getting one’s “No!” across, from a position of oppression? In other words: is the best method to give to appear “headstrong and foolish” (75) to the Other? Or does Mr. Collins give up more easily than the whole of the symbolic order would?

    2. In “Che Vuoi?” Zizek is basically putting forward Marx’s concept of ideology. Ideology is when “they don’t know it, but they’re doing it.” In other words, ideology is structured by those aspects of the world that we take as natural, that we don’t question because they are above criticism, they are above other signifiers, therefore they are the “signifier[s] without a signified” or the “quilting point[s]” of our world.[1] For example, capitalism (at least in one of its modes) is necessarily reliant on a notion of the “sovereign individual.” This notion is not questioned by those that believe in capitalism – and even for us that don’t, we still all assume that we are indeed unique special snowflakes, and act this way. It is the quilting point that structures capitalism from the very bottom – without this notion the entire edifice of capitalism would collapse, since the entire “fairness” if its ideology rests on it. At the same time, the sovereign individual cannot be defined positively. We are supposed to have been born with these magical things called “self-identity” and “free will” – both of which have a tautological definition. And this sovereign individual falls under the name of “Vlad” – a name that indeed “bring[s] to a halt the metonymic sliding of its signified.” That is, it resolves the “Vlad” that was two years old and made of entirely different cells with the “Vlad” of today.

    If, however, “the crucial step in the analysis of an ideological edifice is thus to detect, behind the dazzling splendour of the element which holds it together (‘God’, ‘Country’, ‘Party’, ‘Class’…), this self-referential, tautological, performative operation” (109) wouldn’t this: 1) Necessarily have to be done from a position of “detachment” that we’ve already rejected? 2) Go against the Burkean thesis that we agreed on last class: that we shouldn’t relegate all of the sacred to the profane, or take the emperor’s clothes off, or give up on suffering?


    1. A point which I generally still don’t understand is whether there can be more than one quilting point or “master-signifier”? That is, what grants unity to a quilting point apart from our retroactive conceptualization of it as unified?

  4. Looking at Thel’s motto and how it relates to the rest of the piece, I think Blake wants us to go beyond reevaluating the union between mind and body (which would make humans more aware of our existence as matter that is never created or destroyed, only cycled through different stages and forms of existence) to consider the connectedness between various different mind/body unions. Oftentimes as humans we have issues with parasitic situations in which one party benefits while another suffers. I feel like Blake, with his portrayal of value (like of the cloud) in terms of how something contributes to that beyond itself would not see parasitic relationships as one side suffering and another benefitting. Considering his message that “Every thing that lives/Lives not alone nor for itself” (Blake 2.26-2.27), the seemingly parasitic relationship is all “good” in that the ‘criminal’ benefits (straight-forwardly) and the victim is, unlike Thel, able to embrace a purpose for his/her life. Domination and predation become the harmony of living when one is aware of their inevitability, and how to maneuver thoughtfully within their frames. Considering Blake’s representation here of the importance of unconsolidated diverse perspectives, it makes sense that the motto that precedes the piece would celebrate the structure and bigger picture of the tensions that ought to exist between individuals, to an extent, restrictively.

    At the end of the piece, when Thel refuses to embrace or surrender to the cycles of nature (the domination/predation tensions amongst those who co-relate), could she be representing Blake’s view of conventional humanities ego-driven singular and isolated perspective, from which people can’t recognize the union between mind and body, let alone the union between various mind-body compositions (aka, people and potentially animals and potentially even things that conventionally seem to be without a consciousness.)

  5. Sorry, that last paragraph was a question and so should’ve been marked as such.

  6. Alyzee Lakhani says:

    I think that Hardy’s poem largely assigns a moral/political meaning to the sunken ship. Unlike in Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, where the speaker is still sensitive to and affected by the exotic otherness and mystery of the Belle Dame, Hardy’s speaker often describes the Titanic’s sinking as a “pride goes before a fall” censure. The lines “Over the mirrors meant/ To glass the opulent/ The sea worm crawls . . .” (7-9), suggest the that humans were foolish to raise themselves to a self-concept of opulence as this conception made them forget their mortality, something they share with the sea-worm and their social inferiors that they go through some much trouble to differentiate themselves from. The Titanic is an example of “vaingloriousness” (21), of something that puffed itself up with pride and forgot what it was – a symptom of “a time fat and dissociate [and decadent]” (27).

    This highly moral response to the Titanic’s sinking is a precise example of what Zizek is referring to here: “all the effort to articulate the metaphorical meaning of the Titanic is nothing but an attempt to escape this terrifying impact of the Thing, an attempt to domesticate the Thing by reducing it to its symbolic status, by providing it with a meaning…” Hardy’s speaker “rigidly designates” a moral interpretation of the Titantic’s sinking, and in doing so empowers himself with the position of knowing cause and consequence. The speaker attempts to strip the Thing of its arresting power by calling it a result of historical decadence. At the end of the poem, the Titanic is no longer an obscure source of fascination and terror, (more terrible because of its obscurity) but is the relic of a divine punishment [Till the Spinner of Years/ Said “Now!” . . . and jars the two hemispheres (37-39)]. The word “jars” connotes containment, and paired with “Now!”, suggests a motion of quick capture. The Titanic is a de-fused issue at the end of the poem – it has been captured, overpowered and examined. With the moral conclusion that the poem leaves us with, the Titanic is no longer a mystery and will no longer plague our minds. This ending is in contrast to “La Belle Dame”‘s ending, where any speculation about the woman and who she was and if she’s real and what she represents is up to us to piece out and speculate about. The Titanic on the other hand, can be put away in the “jar” it was captured in. (couldn’t resist that last pun)

  7. Madeline Fuchs says:

    In response to question #3 regarding Austen’s P&P:

    This particular chapter at the Netherfield ball is a great example of the emphasis of self presentation and formalities between individuals in Austen’s work. It seems evident that due to the emphasis on social class and rank, there is a threatening importance put on social formalities. I choose the word threatening because, as Elizabeth seems to express in this chapter, if you preform these social rites of passage improperly, it seems to be “social suicide”.

    Examples of these are, as mentioned, when Mr. Collin’s introduces himself to Mr. Darcy and when Mary pushes her piano performance on the rest of the group. Also noted, the conversation Mrs. Bennet has with Lady Lucas, at a rather loud tone, which Elizabeth believes Mr. Darcy overhears. All of these situations cause Elizabeth to be embarrassed; however, it is interesting to note that none of these individuals in question actually notice or care or realize how embarrassing they may be.

    It is also interesting to take in Wickham’s lack of presence at the ball. In comparison to the aforementioned three individuals, Wickham’s decision to NOT attend the ball has more significance than the three individuals push to be recognized and noticed at the ball.

    We can see another example of proper formalities and self presentation in the engagement that ensues between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. The announcing of their engagement is conducted formally from Sir Lucas, as he comes to present himself to the Bennet family. It is an interesting note, as Charlotte so informally tells Elizabeth of her news, and the relationship between the families appear casual and friendly, but this announcement must be conducted so formally.

    I agree with Rhiannon when she says that Austen is much too concerned with self-presentation in the first place, and to not put the focus on whether it is too much or too little. However, I think that during a time when Austen was writing, this would have been a common social trend. Especially during a time where social class was so highly valued and was also so transient, it became very important in how you presented yourself.

    I also just wanted to put a quick comment at the end of my writings to point out Zizek’s reading on the Titanic. This was such a powerful piece this week, it is so creepy and terrifying to think about the Titanic in this sense. I also found this particular section to be extremely understandable and coherent. Here’s too understanding Zizek on the first read through!

  8. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    Just to clarify– I think that the trouble is the /characters/ of Austen’s P&P are too much concerned with self presentation– not Austen herself. If I had to say so I would assume that Austen was aware of this fault in society and that the whole point of the novel was to satirize that.

  9. Raquel Baldwinson says:

    Hardy’s poem illustrates the inherent lyricism of meaning—a sort of beautifying, softening of immediate affect through a sort of extensive invocation of the process of cognition-feeling. The Titanic crashes into the iceberg—we know this. But like an airbrush enthusiast, Hardy post-processes this (f)act and transforms it into the “convergence of the twain.” Hardy uses lyricism to mediate between the (f)act and the experience of the (f)act—experience consisting of the cognitive processing and eventual feeling of the subject.

    True, Zizek’s phenomenon can be witnessed in full action in Hardy’s poem: “The meaning obscures the terrifying impact of its presence.” However, obscurity is an oscillating term in theoretical history and is up for interpretation. Burke, of course, sees it as a facilitator of terror. In fact I think Burke would assert that terror isn’t so much about impact as it is about charming a snake. So while Hardy’s exemplary lyricism is admittedly obscuring, maybe Hardy and Zizek are after two different types of “impact.”

    Is it possible that Zizek needs the Titanic as much as Hardy does?

  10. Natassia Orr says:

    Considering the original date of publication (1813), I don’t think that we’re meant to feel contempt for Charlotte Lucas. Now it would be easy to say that she is, essentially, selling herself, but in those days Charlotte would always be under the control of her husband or her father. In some ways, her marriage is the optimal solution. The marriage would leave her financially secure and she’s already demonstrated that she possesses some influence over Mr. Collins. One must also consider what might happen to her if she in unable to marry. In 1813, there was no such thing as old age pension. With the number of male siblings she has, she is unlikely to ever inherit property. If she is unable to marry and therefore has no children or husband to support her, she risks being either dependent on one of her brothers or destitute.

    I do think that while we aren’t supposed to feel contempt for Charlotte, she is supposed to make Elizabeth seem more impressive by contrast. Charlotte’s pragmatic nature highlights Elizabeth’s idealism. We are meant to see Elizabeth as exceptional and Charlotte average, rather than Charlotte as contemptible and Elizabeth merely average.

    Tying in with the previous question, it seems that there is a fair bit of moral censure, but it isn’t applied equally to everyone. Take the Bennet sisters. Elizabeth is the heroine, and is elevated to the highest moral status of all the sisters. Jane is presented as being next to Elizabeth in moral standing stature, though she lacks some of Elizabeth’s character. Next are Lydia and Kitty. Both seem rather average in the scheme of things. They are both frivolous, but Austen’s critique of them seems essentially good natured–they could be portrayed in a far worse light than they are. The only one of the sisters that is harshly criticised by Austen is Mary. She is an unpleasant character. She is self important. She lacks any real talent. She is annoying–the BBC’s production in which Mary is shown signing solemn music in a shrill, thin voice seems very much in spirit of Austen’s portrayal of Mary.

    Censure is distributed in a spectrum, rather than a binary. One can show too much, one can show to little, or one can be moderate in one’s actions. Austen separates her characters by the degree of censure, rather than it’s presence. Austen acknowledges her main characters to be flawed. Both Elizabeth and Darcy are proud, both are cynical. I find this part of the allure of Austen’s writing–flawless characters are insipid. Austen uses the more pronounced flaws of the other characters to elevated Darcy and Elizabeth to their status as the champions of the novel.

    • Alyzee Lakhani says:

      Natasha, I was really glad to read your post about Charlotte Lucas. I think Elizabeth is far too hard on her. I think your point about women’s dependence on either husband or father in 1813 England is extremely relevant, because it means Charlotte would be left with a small and dwindling fortune after her father’s death unless she found another male to support her. The number of siblings she has in never specified, but I get the impression that there are a gaggle of younger sisters in the Lucas house, of whom Maria is the eldest. Wouldn’t this mean Charlotte’s small inheritance from William Lucas would be divided between all his children?

      I think no lesser of Charlotte than I would of someone who chose a vocational career as a means out of poverty, however unpleasant that vocation was. I guess, however, Charlotte’s “vocation” of life with Mr Collins is different from a job in that it is binding for life. If someone signed a binding life contract to clean industrial sewage to pay their bills, I would think of how desperate their situation must have been to drive them to that choice. I think Austen’s main purpose in having Charlotte marry Mr Collins is to show us the desperation that accompanies finding a husband for women without means – it is a question of one’s basic survival. In “Emma”, Austen has a character say that there is nothing disgraceful about being unmarried, but it is an infinite source of shame to be poor (and getting progressively poorer).

      Elizabeth’s idealism is admirable from a modern perspective, where we’re all about “daring to dream” but I can see how in her own time it would be seen as an unrealistic disregard for the inevitability of being dependent on marriage for survival, or an extreme short-sightedness. Perhaps, put more positively, her value for her own preferences that is out of proportion to her options. If Elizabeths existed in 1813, don’t you think that more often than not they would end up without partners, and perhaps having to spend their later years paying for their idealism with poverty? I hate to propose such a depressing idea, but I am afraid that there might be fewer Mr Darcies in the real world than their are in fiction. (Oh dear, how sad…someone argue against me! Please!)

  11. Lindsay Vermeulen says:

    In response to the second question about Thel-

    All the things Thel to which compares herself are transient, beautiful and unknowable. Once they are experienced, they cease to exist and leave no trace behind except in memory. This encourages parallels with both the state of life and the state of virginity, and in turn with death and loss of innocence/sexual climax.

    The clear impossibility of preserving these things hints that Thel herself realizes the impossibility of perpetually existing in her virginal state; that it too will pass and leave no trace behind in her new, knowledgeable female body. However, she is inclined to delay this transformation for as long as possible, as demonstrated by her shrieking and running back to familiar territory at the end.

    Still, she realizes the transience of her current state, and so being like these things resigns her to the natural transition or “death.” While many humans accept and come to terms with the inevitability of death, it does not logically follow that they therefore seek it out.

    The phenomena to which she compares herself are infused with beauty and (in some cases) innocence. However, the absence of these phenomena, or time/space after they are gone, is not necessarily unpleasant. Once music has passed through the air, the air afterwards is just standard air, nothing wrong with it. Perhaps the same principle can be applied to virgins. They are a momentary occurrence of something lovely, and must quickly pass into the throngs of other women with nothing very exceptional about them. A flash of something that catches your eye and then ceases to exist.

  12. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    What do you mean by Mr. Darcies? Do you mean devilishly handsome men who are brave enough to love a woman in spite of her social and financial inferiority? I’m not sure what you mean…

    But I think you’re both right about Charlotte. I always understood Austen to be poking fun at both their views of marriage– Elizabeth’s and Charlotte’s. Elizabeth is idealistic, potentially to her detriment, since, as you pointed out, in her position with regard to inheritance, refusing to marry anyone she was not deeply in love with would leave her penniless in old age. Whereas Charlotte is so pragmatic about the whole thing that it’s almost embarrassing. She’s not exactly wrong– she’s just a little too open about her views of marriage being mainly about financial gain– she demystifies it and exposes it for what it is underneath the romance which makes everyone uncomfortable.

    Personally I’ve always felt that Jane and Bingley were the only sensible types– careful enough to keep their mouths shut when they ought to and wise enough to try to take joy in whatever they could.

    What do you think?

  13. Alyzee Lakhani says:

    I guess by Mr Darcies I mean just what you say, men who would marry women for their characters – men who would dare to see the companionship aspect of marriage over the realities of the additional wealth a marriage would afford them. Of course it would help if they were devilishly handsome…:)

  14. Kellie Gibson says:

    In regards to the second half of the Pride and Prejudice questions, I would agree that Austen emphasizes a need for striking a balance between too much and too little self-presentation. Behaviour appears to fall into unwritten and for the most part, unspoken societal “norms.” These norms, while assumed to be understood by all, do escape some – either by choice or by a different perception of what may or may not be acceptable in a given situation. While dinner party etiquette is certainly on a different level than the laws that govern society, there is still a social contract that is entered into; pleases, thank yous, excuse mes, keeping your elbows down, your butter-knife off the tablecloth and a coaster under your water glass… The fallout in breaking this kind of contract is not as consequential but still results in suffering. In Mr. Collins forgetting his place during his self-introduction to Mr. Darcy and Mary not understanding the limits of her talent, Austen shows the action and the reaction – everyone’s severe discomfort and a negative re-evaluation of the two’s character. The balance is a fine one between doing what you please and not annoying anyone in the process or making an ass of yourself.

    While ignoring societal conventions can be disastrous for you and everyone else involved, focussing too much on them can be problematic as well. The more heightened one’s awareness is of things one should not do, the more likely one is to, A. find them, and B. be aggravated by them. The Victorian era is notorious in its need for keeping up appearances and I would agree with Rhiannon in that Austen is very much aware of this, and commenting on it. She is not so much setting up a situation where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but showing that the situation that already exists.

  15. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    Alyzee– that’s a sad thought! Do men only marry for money these days? It seems to me that people marrying at all is something that is becoming rare–staying married even less so. Certainly money is a stress factor in any relationship–finances are stressful period, but I don’t believe it’s much of a motivating factor for western marriages.

    Having said that, I think women are not brought up in the west to believe that their character is their most important quality– not if MTV has anything to say about it. As women I think, instead of money being our primary attractive attribute, now our sexuality is. Which we give away freely regardless of commitment or interest in our characters. So perhaps you are right– the “Mr. Darcies”, the men interested in the character of a woman, instead of her other “attributes” can sometimes be difficult to find, but probably no less difficult than in Austen’s time. And you mustn’t blame their either– they’re part of the MTV generation too. We’ve completely rewritten, in the last 40 years, what men and women out to value in one another and somehow character gets left aside every time.

    The difference, it seems to me, is that women of our generation have chosen for themselves what men ought to value in them (other than their character), whereas Jane Austen’s contemporaries were just stuck with the circumstances of their own fortune over which they had little or no control. Does that make sense.?

  16. Tina says:


    I literally LOL’d at Prof Earle’s ah-may-zing description of the book of thel as ‘the most hippy-dippy, commune with nature, acid trip fantasy you could want’! Some will think of Thel as the anti-hero – I mean, we are doomed to live in this world of carnal desires, ever since we made the choice to come out of our mother’s wombs. Thel pretty much took the easy way out of pain and suffering. But for me, I think she acknowledges what’s ahead of her and sees through the blur and confusion that has blinded of the nature critters. For instance, she scorns the worm as an “image of weakness”, perhaps as a phallic reference.

    Thel explores the different perspectives to life, with a special emphasis on gender differences. She, the virginal celestial FEMALE infant, learns of the injustices in life.and decides to flee from it. She sees the clod of clay (the saddest character of all, in my opinion), battered and bruised, marked and possessed by the bands around her breast, suckling an infant that is the child of weakness and sorrow. The clod of clay strives to retain grace and dignity amidst all this carnal obsession and degeneration but she fails. Definitely too, Thel’s virginal fear of nature is representative of her fears of sex. Sex itself is nature – a physical, temporal and mortal experience.

    The questions posed in the pit indicate the vulnerability of our sensory organs – the organs are designed and intended to fall into sin, or to create sin. The flesh is weak. It is almost designed to ensure our failure – so why bother? Run, flee – return to the heavens, beware, beware, the world is flawed.

    I cannot take this any further, I will have to ponder over it for a few days, and there is this nagging voice at the back of my head that keeps telling me that I’m taking this a little way overboard, but whatever, I would highly appreciate any form of feedback or suggestion from y’all!

  17. 1. Quick question: wouldn’t the “aggregation of all the particular, worldly perspectives” necessarily be finite, and not infinite? Although, they may appear to us to be infinite because we cannot grasp them all. Thus, Blake’s ‘god’ as “the sum total of worldly existence” would be a finite notion: so how does he use the word “infinite” and what does he mean by it?

    On another note, the article: “How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect” posted by Prof. Earle has an amazing quote: “The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.” Could ideology then be our way of satisfying the need for order when faced with a chaotic universe? (could the theory of evolution be just this, a need to respond to the uncanny origins of humanity by carefully trying to map everything out?) (could love be an attempt at order, despite every evidence pointing to the worthlessness of humans, or the absurdity of love? as zizek would claim)

    Question 2: It seems like our ability to ask “why”, our ability to imagine infinity, or the apparently innate idea that we were born for “something more” makes the reality of being “born but to smile and fall” unbearable. Presumably all other animals do not ask these questions/ lack imagination (in the real world): they participate in the ‘circle of life’ without any ‘greater’ desire to escape it (every animal desires to survive for a long as possible but resignes to death), or, with any greater picture of harmony. Ignorance is bliss. Which reminds me of a quote: “Man’s unhappiness, as I construe, comes from his greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite” –Thomas Carlyle. For me, Thel is the hero for recognizing her feelings, but also, for seeing herself as different from the ‘little nature beings’: she says, “I fear I am not like thee”(2.17).
    5. Would you see yourself more likely following the little nature beings or resisting like Thel?
    Personally, it seems that both options offer an illusion: the “little beings” offer a kind of perfect harmony, and Thel offers a “hollow pit” (4.10) whereas both seem an exaggeration of reality. (hollow men).

    I would like to point out two things: 1.the quote at 1.9 “Like a reflection in a glass” seems to me to a an allusion to a widely used quote from the Bible : “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13: 12), or the Plato’s cave certainly comes to mind. Certainly, there is religious language/allusion through the poem, such as : “Lilly of the valley” “manna” “eternal vales”; “And fearest thou, because I vanish and am seen no move/ Nothing remains?… when I pass away It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace and raptures holy”(2.9) As Thel sees “the secrets of the land unknown”(4.2) and becomes disillusioned with the stories of the ‘little beings’ (although, confirming her own fears), all of the previous religious language is rendered meaningless.

    6. Secondly, in regards to personifying nature: perhaps we can only sympathize with people/the world to the extent to which we can imagine ourselves experiencing their situation/circumstances. When you see someone hurt, you sympathize because you imagine what it would be like for you to feel that pain. Thus, Thel personifies nature in an attempt to sympathize with it: but perhaps she finds out that you cannot (or the brain is limited) sympathize with a non-human subject, and the end experience of her own body is more powerful than her attempt to sympathize with external…otherness…

  18. Lauren Weatherdon says:

    As Prof. Earle suggests, “The Book of Thel” addresses a multitude of themes: I interpreted the poem as predominantly focusing on the existential crisis Thel faces, and her hesitance to accept the reiterated claim that “Every thing that lives / Lives not alone nor for itself” (2.27). Her overwhelming terror of the flesh leads her to look “pitying[ly]” (3.19) on those whose souls are entrapped by the physical form, which is inevitably to “fade away” (2.21) and will be “seen no more” (2.9). The Cloud endeavours to remind Thel that the Soul will not perish with the Body: “Nothing remains? O maid, I tell thee, when I pass away / It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace and raptures holy” (2.10-.11). The Clod’s assertion that “I know not, and I cannot know; I ponder, and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love,” following her [the Clod’s] reference to Jesus, correlates with the biblical notion that one must not question the ‘word of God,’ but simply “live and love” accordingly—that there are things beyond our ability to, and which we are not meant to, comprehend. The poem also emphasizes Thel’s trepidation that the Body will act as a barrier between herself and “the voice / Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time” (1.13-.14) – however, the Clod of Clay demonstrates that this is not so. Thel’s preoccupation with her “self” – her Soul and Ego (Aron astutely phrases it best) – prevents her from acknowledging the beauty of Nature’s cycles, and the prospect of living “not for ourselves” (3.10) but for the benefit of others: she is too concerned that “no one hears [her] voice” and her complaints (2.41). Thus, while Thel laments over the temporality of the Body within which she will soon be confined, she has veritably transformed her Body, which had the potential to increase her own spiritual awareness, into “her own grave plot” (4.9). Thel’s eventual flight from the looming physical world, remaining unborn, is more pitiful than if she had heeded the words of the Lily of the Valley, Cloud, Worm and Clod of Clay – she is destined to remain spiritually deficient.

    Thel’s dilemma strongly reminds me of Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body.” In Marvell’s poem, the Soul accuses the Body of enslaving ‘her’, with “bolts of bones” and’ “in chains / Of nerves, and arteries, and veins; / Tortured, besides each other part, / In a vain head, and double heart.” Conversely, the Body accuses the Soul of her “tyranny,” exerting previously unknown “maladies” upon her [the Body], “Whom first the cramp of hope does tear, / And the palsy shakes of fear; / . . . Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex, / Or sorrow’s other madness vex.” Therefore, if—as the footnote suggests—Thel’s motto asks “Is it possible to experience genuine love and wisdom . . . in a physical state?”, then Marvell’s poem suggests that the Body does not hinder such genuine feelings of love and knowledge, but rather is subject to them, living vicariously through the Soul. The Body merely allows the expression of feeling, literally existing (one would for hope) for the purpose of having a beneficial impact on others. The Soul alone would be incapable of this (as illustrated by Thel).

  19. Cristina Ciotinga says:

    For anyone interested in Christian theology today’s conversation was just that: 1. Christianity is just that, looking at the cross, looking at the abject instead of turning our gaze away from it. 2. Complete gratification is death, and since god is the end or fulfillment of all desire, we in a way, die: in our present mentality we cannot accept the possibility of satisfaction… That is why we die and christ lives in us. The point is life after death, life after the fullfilment of desire .

  20. Cristina Ciotinga says:

    Obviously I need to work those theories out, but I find it interesting how religion t
    tries to make sense of ideas of abjection and desire and incorporates them into it’s ideology, so that the average Christian( for example) thinks about these concepts even without realizing it, or without having the more specialized vocabulary that we use in class.

  21. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    Cristina– sorry to contradict you, but that is a specifically /Western/ Christian view of the the death of Christ. The tendency reify (in a sense) the cross and the death of Christ is something only pertaining to the Catholic and Prostestant churches. The Eastern Christians (ie the Orthodox and the Copts) have never, since the time of the apostles, considered this to be the primary point of Christology.

    Christ’s death is not at all complete gratification– it is precisely the opposite. The /resurrection/ is the gratification, but it is important to point out that, unlike the fantasy of the exact thing that we (or the disciples) wanted, when Christ appeared to them they didn’t recognise him. He wasn’t the mere embodiment of the imagined object of desire–He was something altogether different and yet perfectly satisfied that desire.

    Christians are able to take in the abject–the Cross–precisely because of the resurrection. For Christians the abject is not bearable because of the hope of something beyond death or mortality–which at the time of Christ would have been taken for granted. The abject is bearable because it has been trampled down–transformed from death to life, from the end to the beginning, through the resurrection of Christ. The abject of the death of Christ is meaningless without His resurrection.

  22. I totally agree with you, in the sense that I haven’t followed through with the ideas…

    i was trying to draw a connection between this “killing of the self” in christianity (I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself up for me” Galatians 2:19-20) and the morbid satisfaction of desire in Keats… in the sense that, if we want to really be satisfied, we have to be ready to die… and, yes, because of the ‘ressurection’ once we die, we can get new life, in christ. So i wasn’t contradicting you. For keats to be satisfied is to die, and there’s nothing more. For the Christian, after death, there is life.

    As for the ‘primary point of christology” yes, there is the hope of resurrection, but until then, the whole point is this remembrance of the cross, that jesus was made abject for humanity, the ultimate abjection…

    I was thinking of these verses: “23but we preach Christ crucified” &1 Cor 2:2 “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” & Isaiah 53: He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
    Like one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

    I don’t think the abject has been redeemed yet, in the sense that the christian is constantly supposed to remember Chirst’s suffering (communion), the body that breaks down, that is tortured, that takes upon itself all that is abject and bears it… until the second coming;

    like the movie, The Passion of the Christ: people complained it was too violent, but that is the point, to look at the suffering…

    there is of course much more to say, and this class doesn’t really offer ways in which to approach theology, so i better leave it there…

  23. nevermind, my command of christian theology is not very strong, and I’m sure that the ideas of abjection/suffering/self/horror/sublime in Christianity and Judaism would demand a more thorough exposition on my part, if i were to follow them.

    As for this course, it is definitely revealing the limits of my abilities as an academic; I have to try and separate this ‘denial of the self’ or of ‘suffering’ that we see in Adorno or Keats etc. from christian ideology, or religious suffering, which for me is essentially the cross. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” which also reminds me of Pope: “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot, the world forgetting, by the world forgot; eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, each pray’r answr’d and each wish resign.”

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