what casaubon would write on middlemarch?

I am Casaubon.

This isn’t a compliment. There’s a tincture of the self-hating scholar in me, a result of being a reformed wannabe academic.

How this came about is a long and longer story. It gets bigger with each telling.

Of course I’d be happy to share it with you, but I’ve read Middlemarch and have ingested its lessons and know that I don’t know what I think I know, and know, too, that you don’t know what you think you know.

That is, obscurity happens at the moment when transparency is most ardently desired, and perhaps most then. Desire is tricky that way. It plays the black magician with us all.

If I were a literary scholar, I’d devote my life to Middlemarch. That’s a plain fact. It’s an absolutely stunning work, filled with so many pleasures and ideas that one could plunder its pages for years without ever exhausting its treasures.

If in good Casaubon-fashion I were to write The Key to All the Sentences of Middlemarch, I’d write probingly on the subtle shades of difference between mentorship, patronage and subordination.

I’d write about secret hidden thoughts and fugitive feelings and their role in motivation, and show how Eliot’s treatment of the unconscious is superior to Freud’s right at the spot where he think he’s strongest.

I’d write on hunger and desire, on self-deception and rationalization, and draw parallels with Schopenhauer who, like Eliot, has a fine eye for the wily ways of the will and its power to summon the intellect to justify egoism.

I’d write about transparency and obstruction pace Rousseau.

I’d write about searching for love and striving for achievement, and the difficulties and collisions that result from shifting perspectives.

But mostly I’d write about idealism, not in the Kantian transcendental sense, but in the Elitonian phantasmagorical sense, i.e., the power of images, hopes, expectations, illusions and delusions to posses our minds and lead characters in Eliot’s universe, including her insignificant readers, astray, confusing thoughts for things.

Between the subject and the world is a layer of thought and perception, feeling and imagination — and so I would write on the promise and perils of connection, society and vulnerability.

Thank god I’m not a scholar.

17 Responses to what casaubon would write on middlemarch?

  1. On the other hand, or perhaps the same hand, there is to be said for becoming an amateur specialist. Do you know Terry Vertigo’s Sebald site. It is an exemplar of what a non-professional can do with an author. You do not have to be a scholar to be a real expert.

    I’m not saying you ought to do anything in particular. I am saying that a Middlemarch-centered Vertigo-like blog would be awesome.

    Are you going to do any secondary reading? That is what I usually do in cases like this. Rohan can give recommendations! Barbara Hardy tops the list, I know that much.

    • I agree, it would be awesome. But a Vertigo-like blog won’t come from me. I’m a philistine and dilettante at heart. A dabbler. At wine parties I want beer, for instance. I haven’t consulted secondary reading since Proust, where I really needed help taking in the structure of the work at a glance. Reading what smart people have to say about beloved works also makes my palms sweat. Like I said, I’m a true Casaubon.

  2. Richard says:

    I’m glad to hear your Eliot chunkster turned out to be such a fulfilling read for you, Kevin. I haven’t read the author since a proscribed reading of Silas Marner in high school–too long ago for me to remember much about it but not too long ago to remember that I wasn’t super excited about it at the time. Man, I can hold a grudge, I tell you!

  3. Tony says:

    ‘Middlemarch’, a wonderful book, and set in my home town too…

    …which is nice 🙂

  4. Anthony says:

    It’s a conspiracy to turn me back to the Victorians, all these readers I respect raving about Middlemarch. I say go with the amateur scholarly blog, then I read your thoughts and imagine I’ve read the book.

    • Raving is right. I almost began rereading it right away. But decided that I want to let it marinade before my next reread. Although I didn’t mention it, I hope to pay close attention to nature/wildness in Middlemarch. It makes an appearance in a kind of regular determinate manner, and then abruptly shifts toward the end of the novel when one relationship is finally consummated. I’m not sure I’m a fan of Eliot’s use of nature imagery, but I’ll enjoy thinking about it.

  5. Rohan says:

    Apparently (though I suppose this story might be apocryphal), once when asked the origin of Casaubon GE pointed to herself. So you’re in good company!

    • Thank you for this tidbit. It also helps explain why Eliot is so generous and sympathetic with him right when he’s the most hobbled.

      • Pykk says:

        Her sympathy for him is one of the wonderful things about the book I think, and the way she never completely condemns or redeems either side of the Lydgate marriage. She has a brilliantly calm way of looking at the question, Who is at fault?

        (Proust — following on from that mention of Proust further up — Proust liked Middlemarch and Floss, and he worried about being a Casaubon, a fretting man with a massive pile of papers and nothing published. I can’t remember the reference for that but I think it was one of his letters. To his mother? Something along those lines.)

  6. Colleen says:

    I think I too could spend my life on Middlemarch (and I’m only, perhaps, a quarter of the way done); but I don’t know that it would be a good idea, for I rather too deeply identify with Causabon’s fruitless obssession myself. I’d be looking for something esoteric and original to say about this beautiful beast when really, in some ways, what makes Eliot probably the best novelist ever to have written in English is that her primary question was how to be human (and humane!) among humans.

  7. Exactly! Very eager to read your take on J & I.

  8. Frisbee says:

    I love Middlemarch and don’t hear nearly enough about Casaubon. I don’t remember reading anything about him on the internet this year, though many are reading Eliot with Dovegreyreader.

    So I would say you’re ahead of the curve with your blog!

    This book could be reread right away. In fact I sort of feel like rereading it right now.

  9. […] Kevin at Interpolations is glad he’s no Middlemarch scholar. […]

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