Jane Austen and modern life

austen_warholizerIn his 1954 essay “Mansfield Park,” Lionel Trilling, one of the greatest public intellectuals and literary critics of the 20th-century, writes:

It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being. Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and difficult and exhausting. Hegel speaks of the “secularization of spirituality” as a prime characteristic of the epoch, and Jane Austen is the first to tell us what this involves. She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of “sincerity” and “vulgarity” which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, and so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty. She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality, whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spirituality, to put our lives and styles to the question, making sure that not only in deeds but in décor they exhibit the signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect.

She herself is an agent of the Terror – we learn from her what our lives should be and by what subtle and fierce criteria they will be judged, and how to pass upon the lives of our friends and fellows. Once we have comprehended her mode of judgment, the moral and spiritual lessons of contemporary literature are easy – the metaphysics of “sincerity” and “vulgarity” once mastered, the modern teachers, Lawrence and Joyce, Yeats and Eliot, Proust and Gide, have but little to add save in the way of contemporary and abstruse examples.

* * *

Jane Austen’s primacy in representing this mutation in the life of the spirit constitutes a large part of her claim to greatness. But in her representation of the modern situation Mansfield Park has a special place. It imagines the self safe from the Terror of secularized spirituality. In the person of Lady Bertram it affirms, with all due irony, the bliss of being able to remain unconscious of the demands of personality (it is a bliss which is a kind of virtue, for one way of being solid, simple, and sincere is to be a vegatable). It shuts out the world and the judgment of the world. The sanctions upon which it relies are not those of culture, of quality of being, of personality, but precisely those which the new conception of the moral life minimizes, the sanctions of principle, and it discovers in principle the path to the wholeness of the self which is peace. When we have exhausted our anger at the offense which Mansfield Park offers to our conscious pieties, we find it possible to perceive how intimately it speaks to our secret inexpressible hopes.

— The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Select Essays


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