Habits of gentle selfishness

Literary critic John Sutherland informs me that Pride and Prejudice is to the United States what Emma is to Great Britain: the most widely read novel by Jane Austen. I am undertaking Emma for the first time with my students.

Austen’s psychological and moral acumen impressed itself upon me when I read a description of Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. In the first chapter of Volume 1, father and daughter alike grieve the departure of Miss Taylor, the governess of Hartfield who has now married.

It was a melancholy change; and Emma could not but sigh over it and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful. His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable; and he was by no means yet reconciled to his own daughter’s marrying nor could ever speak of her but with compassion, though it had been entirely a match of affection, when he was now obliged to part with Miss Taylor too; and from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself, he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad a thing for herself as for them, and would have been a great deal happier if she had spent all the rest of her life at Hartfield. [emphasis mine]

In the second chapter, there is further elaboration on Mr. Woodhouse:

There was no recovering Miss Taylor—nor much likelihood of ceasing to pity her: but a few weeks brought some alleviation to Mr. Woodhouse. The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself. What was unwholesome to him, he regarded as unfit for any body; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it. [emphasis mine]

While Mr. Woodhouse does not satisfy the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the narrator characterizes him as a soft narcissist, which should cause some unease for the reader. As a postlapsarian creature, I plead guilty to those “habits of gentle selfishness” that turn me inward, failing to “suppose that other people could feel differently from [myself].” What is “unwholesome” to me, I tend to regard as “unfit for any body.”

Narcissism rears its ugly head in subtle ways. Mr. Woodhouse has trouble rejoicing in the matrimonial joy of Miss Taylor because he loathes a disturbance of custom. He also steals the pleasure of eating wedding-cake because his own fragile stomach refuses sweets. Austen tries to disabuse the self-congratulatory reader who imagines himself free of centripetal impulses, which she names “gentle selfishness”—gentle because the habits usually go undetected by others, causing negligible harm. If I halfheartedly pray for the anniversary of a couple in church because I do not share in the covenant of marriage or I pooh-pooh friends who listen to the jazz genre of bebop because it grates on my ears, I am no different than Mr. Woodhouse.

Austen teaches me that soft narcissism develops from thoughtless habit more than conscientious decision, and involves a failure to distinguish the self from external objects. In light of this, it is no wonder why Jesus instructs his followers, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31), since we already love ourselves exorbitantly, and the apostle Paul commands, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Lord, forgive my gentle selfishness.


Death comes for Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, “a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world,” has died, as reported in the New York Times obituary. Like all gifted poets, Oliver was an apprentice in attention, famously saying: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” While critics did not always appreciate her poetry, perhaps owing to its popularity among readers, writer Ruth Franklin says: “Mary Oliver isn’t a difficult poet. Her work is incredibly accessible, and I think that’s what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn’t feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver’s poetry. She’s speaking directly to you as a human being.” Franklin adds, “The way she writes these poems that feel like prayers, she channels the voice of somebody who it seems might possibly have access to God. I think her work does give a sense of someone who is in tune with the deepest mysteries of the universe.”

Here are two lovely poems, both read by Mary Oliver.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In her poem, “When Death Comes,” Oliver writes her own obituary of sorts, expressing how she wishes to be remembered:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


How shall we become spiritual?

Living in age when being “spiritual” is trendy and “religious” is old-fashioned, we may care to ask: How shall we become spiritual? I welcome the perspicacious answer from the Cappadocian theologian, Basil the Great (330-79): a person becomes spiritual through the indwelling of the Spirit. Once this occurs, we can experience the manifold power of the Spirit, which Basil memorably enumerates below:

Souls in which the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual and send forth their grace to others. From here comes [1] foreknowledge of the future, [2] understanding of mysteries, [3] apprehension of what is hidden, [4] the sharing of the gifts of grace, [5] heavenly citizenship, [6] a place in the chorus of angels, [7] joy without end, [8] abiding in God, [9] being made like God and—the greatest of them all—[10] being made God.

Imagine, the Spirit is the guarantor of my passport to Heaven, even reserving a spot in the chorus of angels that praises God for eternity. Imagine, the Spirit ensures that I possess “joy without end,” in contrast to happiness with an expiration date. Imagine, the Spirit not only makes me like God, as western Christians understand with the process of the sanctification, but goes even further and makes me God, as eastern Christians understand with the process of deification. No, I will not be identical to God, but I will conform to the image of Christ so much that my union with Him is seamless. I shall be “a little Christ.” Riffing on St. Athanasius, Lewis says the point of the incarnation is “the Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God,” and none of this is possible without the indwelling of the Spirit. Amazing stuff!

Mistaken identity


No one does cartoons better than The New Yorker, so I relish the desk calendar of daily cartoons that entertains and puzzles me every day. This cartoon capitalizes upon a pet peeve of mine when posers mistake the true identity of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). I also laugh because I would be that guy at a party correcting some ignoramus. Does that make me a monster?

“Who are you, where are you?”

Choose LifeDuring Advent and Lent, I have developed a habit of reading a book that will focus me on the season of the Christian year. For Advent 2018 and Lent 2019 I picked up Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral by Rowan Williams, who is the greatest living theologian in my estimation. This is the first collection of sermons I have ever read, and I already plan on returning to it because of their power to edify. Here is an arresting excerpt from his sermon, “The Word of Life, the Words of Prayer” (Christmas 2011), which explains why the book is entitled Choose Life:

It’s been well said that the first question we hear in the Bible is not humanity’s question to God but God’s question to us, God walking in the cool of the evening in the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam and Eve who are trying to hide from him. ‘Adam, where are you?’ (Genesis 3.9). The life of Jesus is that question translated into an actual human life, into the conversations and encounters of a flesh-and-blood humans being like all others – except that when people meet him they will say, like the woman who talks with him at the well of Samaria, ‘Here is a man who told me everything I ever did’ (John 4.29). Very near the heart of Christian faith and practice is this encounter with God’s question, ‘Who are you, where are you?’ Are you on the side of the life that lives in Jesus, the life of grace and truth, of unstinting generosity and unsparing honesty, the only life that gives life to others? Or are you on your own side, on the side of disconnection, rivalry, the hoarding of gifts, the obsession with control? To answer that you’re on the side of life doesn’t mean for a moment that you can now relax into a fuzzy philosophy of ‘life-affirming’ comfort. On the contrary: it means you are willing to face everything within you that is cheap, fearful, untruthful and evasive, and let the light shine on it. Like Peter in the very last chapter of John’s gospel, we can only say that we are trying to love the truth that is in Jesus, even as we acknowledge all we have done that is contrary to his spirit. And we say this because we trust that we are loved by this unfathomable mystery who comes to us in the shape of a newborn child, ‘full of grace and truth.’

Teach us, artists, how to be bored again

In his Image essay, “In Praise of Boredom”, philosopher James K. A. Smith writes eloquently about how the “boredom” of art can bore through our distractible attention in late modernity and re-enchant us again:

Every work of art that is true or beautiful is, one might say, a pièce de résistance, telling the truth about how the world really is and offering us a portal to what we’re called to be. Such art resists lies, apathy, and all the forces that would diminish us to mere consumers or enemies or copulating pieces of meat. Such imaginative works are at once disconcerting and enticing. They remind us that we’re not as good as we think we are, and they call us to so much more than this. As in Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, a dappled light finds its way through the cathedral of palms while war rages below, making us look up and wonder. And hope.

But how to overcome distraction? How to break through the bedazzling glare of our screens, the latest threat to parade as an angel of light?

The problem isn’t simply that the technologies of distraction prevent us from making or appreciating art. This isn’t simply a competition for attention. The concern is more egregious: our distraction demeans us.

* * *

In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.

* * *

We need artists with the courage to teach us how to be bored. Who tease us with anticipation even when we’re befuddled by the poem. Whose prose demands an attention that we want to give because of promises laden therein. Whose sculpture arrests us and frustrates us and jackhammers into our soul and unsettles us with recognition. The creators who teach us to be bored will be cultivating in us habits of stilled attention in which we might finally hear our creator.

* * *

Teach us, artists, how to be bored again. Invite us into the boredom that is the antechamber to the mesmerizing. Tease us with some unexpectation. Bore us so that God can bore into our souls and we can find ourselves again.

The Augustinian Call vs. the Benedict Option

In his Comment review of Rusty Reno’s book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, philosopher James K. A. Smith diagnoses the ailments of America:

If “progressivism now seeks freedom from human nature itself,” Reno points out, then we “need to understand that these developments have sprung from the American dream of freedom.” If Christian conservatives in the United States are worried about a coming reign of terror, they can’t restrict blame to the infamous 60s. Autonomism is the fruit of seeds planted in the Revolution. And to his credit, Reno sees within this dream an inherent risk. “Anti-Americanism,” Reno rightly points out, “is a kind of hyper- Americanism.” The multicultural ideals that lament the looming constraints of American values and interests are another form of the revolutionary overthrow of constraints that gave birth to America. This is why we eat our own.

Yet Reno doesn’t recognize how the Right has played out a similar libertarian trajectory. While the Left has amplified the liberationist project with respect to social mores and traditional morality, the Right has undertaken its own revolutionary demolishment of constraints on capitalism, industry, and the economic habits that shaped earlier expressions of market practices. It’s precisely when the Right effectively sacralized the free market that it also turned it into an idol and fetishized “freedom” in a different form.

* * *

But Reno seems more interested in Christianity than the church, more concerned with Christian social thought than congregations. It’s telling that Reno’s proposal is to resurrect the idea of Christian society. Indeed, there is a kind of intellectualism about Reno’s project: the social renewal he imagines stems from the ideas and arguments that Christians can and ought to contribute to our public discourse—as if the resuscitation of solidarity and the common good would be the conclusion to a national argument. Thus Reno regularly calls for Christians to “speak up” for the necessity of “restoring our voices as Christian citizens.” While he should be commended for encouraging Christians to speak into public discourse from the specificity of their Christian convictions, the problems that Reno diagnoses will not be solved with ideas. North American society hasn’t been argued into its egoism; we haven’t embraced the cult of independence because we were convinced by Lockean apologetics. Our autonomism is caught more than it is taught. What we have here is not a logos problem but an ethos deficiency. And you can’t fix that with the right ideas or argument.

What we’re witnessing is the erosion of habitus, the cultural scaffolding that sustained healthy, meaningful, even prosperous lives in the past. It’s not just that society needs to be convinced by Christian ideas; it needs to be upheld and supported by the habits we used to learn in the church.

How, then, should the church respond to “the erosion of habitus“? In his Comment essay, “The Benedict Option or the Augustinian Call?”, Smith considers two ancient options for the contemporary church: the former involves separation from the world, whereas the latter involves integration with the world—but not accommodation. Each option has its scriptural foundations.

For the Benedict Option, we could quote the apostle Paul, who urged Christians to avoid godlessness in the last days:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:1-15)

For the Augustinian Call, we could quote the prophet Jeremiah, who exhorted exiled Jews to serve the welfare of the city during their Babylonian captivity:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:4-14)

In my estimation, Smith makes a persuasive defense of the Augustinian Call. Here is a key excerpt from his essay that should be read in its entirety:

In the treasure trove of Augustine’s letters, you’ll find a remarkable, ongoing correspondence with a man named Boniface, a Roman general and governor in North Africa. At one point in his career—embattled, bitter, despairing—Boniface is tempted to abandon his post, withdraw from public responsibility, and take up a kind of monastic life. Given that Augustine founded monastic communities and wrote his own Rule, Boniface probably expected his plan to receive an encouraging reply from the aging bishop in Hippo. Instead, Augustine counsels him to remain in his post as a matter of divine calling. While some are called to lives of chastity and perfect continence and cloistered devotion, Augustine notes, “Each person, as the apostle says, has his own gift from God, one this gift, another that (1 Cor. 7:7). Hence others fight invisible enemies by praying for you; you struggle against visible barbarians by fighting for them.” His counsel is rooted in an eschatological caution: “Because in this world it is necessary that the citizens of the kingdom of heaven suffer temptation among those who are in error and are wicked so that they may be exercised and put to the test like gold in a furnace,” Augustine says, “we ought not to want to live ahead of time with only the saints and the righteous.” Augustine’s admonition not to “live ahead of time” is his way of saying: Don’t fall for the temptation of a realized eschatology. We pray “thy kingdom come” among those who oppose it. Indeed, it’s a prayer we can tend to forget when we dwell “with only the saints and the righteous.”

When this temptation to withdraw haunted Boniface again and he again wanted to abandon public life and retreat to a monastery to devote himself to “holy leisure,” Augustine continued to counsel otherwise. “What held you back from doing this,” Augustine reminds him, “except that you considered, when we pointed it out, how much what you were doing was benefitting the churches of Christ? You were acting with this intention alone, namely, that they might lead a quiet and tranquil life, as the apostle says, in all piety and chastity (1 Tim. 2:2), defended from the attacks of the barbarians.” Augustine the pastor is mounting a theological case for the Roman general to man his station, do his job, be faithful as count and governor. Whatever disputes or frustrations Boniface might have with Rome, he still owes a debt: “If the Roman empire has given you good things,” Augustine says, “albeit earthly and transitory ones, because it is earthly, not heavenly, and cannot give save what it has in its control—if, then it has conferred good things upon you, do not repay evil with evil.” In these letters we hear something of Augustine’s hopes for Boniface and those like him: the hope for faithful agents of the coming kingdom who answer the call to public life and administer the common good in this saeculum of our waiting.

In a sense, Boniface could be our contemporary. He lives in a fractured political context—he’s literally fighting barbarians—in which paganism still holds sway, whatever the emperor might think. What does it look like to follow Christ in such a world?

* * *

The Augustinian counsel of stability is an admonishment to stay in the mix of things, among those in error—to inhabit our callings in what Augustine called the permixtum of the saeculum, the mixed-up-ness of the time between cross and kingdom come.


On reading well

On Reading WellKaren Swallow Prior, English Professor at Liberty University and author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos), writes in her Christianity Today article, “Good Books Make Better People”:

The word virtue simply means excellence. A virtuous person is someone of excellent character. Reading virtuously, or with excellence, means putting into reading all that it demands so that you can harvest the fruit it is designed to yield.

Reading is inherently virtuous. Consider the fact that Christianity is a religion of the word, a faith centered on words and, ultimately, the Word itself. From the inscription of God’s will in stone at Mt. Sinai to the God-breathed inspiration of the Bible’s 66 books (which include numerous literary genres, from poetry to epistles, from history to prophecy), Christianity places primacy on reading—and reading well. Indeed, the widespread literacy of the modern world was a gift from Christianity; followers of Christ wanted to spread the Word of God by teaching as many people as possible to read it.

Now, centuries later, in the midst of what many cultural critics describe as a post-literate age, the major questions we face in both the church and our nation center on reading: How do we read Scripture? How do we read the Constitution?

Two inseparable disciplines are at the heart of virtuous reading: the straightforward task of comprehending the words on the page and the more complicated project of judiciously interpreting their meaning, both within and beyond the text.

Reading well isn’t just a virtuous activity in itself. It can also help cultivate other virtues. Consider what reading requires of the body and the mind: stillness, rest, reflection, focus, attentiveness. It’s easy to imagine how luxurious and indulgent such an activity was hundreds of years ago, when life, for most people, revolved around long hours of hard, physical labor. Yet even as life has become more sedentary in the 21st century, our lives are anything but quiet and focused. So even today the very act of reading helps moderate the excesses that characterize much of modern life. And this is the essence of virtue in traditional thought: It is the mean between an excess and a deficiency, or the moderation between two extremes.

In a world rife with choice, where so many activities compete for our attention, the simple decision to set aside time to read requires a kind of temperance. If, like me, you have lived long enough to have experienced life—and reading—before the internet, perhaps you now, again like me, find your attention span shortened and your ability to sit and read for long stretches diminished. Researchers have studied the disruptive, fragmentary, and addictive nature of our digitized world—the demands of its dinging, beeping, and flashing devices—and cataloged its dangerous effects on our minds. As Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, “the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” Our brains work one way when trained to read in logical, linear patterns, and another way when continually bouncing from tweet to tweet, picture to picture, and screen to screen.

To read virtuously is to rebel against this chaos. Above all, reading well requires reading closely: being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading—the kind we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or social media posts—requires patience. Careful interpretation and evaluation require prudence. To practice any of these skills is to cultivate the virtues they demand.

Everyday matters matter

Jane Austen EducationIn my Modern European Literature, we always read a novel by a British author, usually Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. For the last few years, I taught Mansfield Park (1814), which remains my favorite novel that I have read from Austen, including Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride Prejudice (1813). Eager for a new challenge, this year I will undertake Emma (1815), arguably Austen’s masterpiece. Nothing has piqued my interest more than Austen’s remark, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”

To prepare for this novel, I will assign my students the relevant chapter in William Deresiewicz’s excellent book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Here is the wisdom that he derived from Emma—wisdom that could apply to all of Austen’s fiction.

Emma’s cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused in me were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.

Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn’t been marking time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter—and much wiser—than I could have ever imagined.

I returned to the novel in a completely different frame of mind. Mr. Woodhouse’s banalities, Miss Bates’s monologues, all that gossip and small talk—Austen put them in as a sign that she respected her characters, not because she wanted us to look down on them. She was willing to listen to what they had to say, and she wanted me to listen, too. As long as I had treated such passages as filler and hurried through them, they had seemed impossibly dull. But once I started to slow down long enough to take them on their own terms, I found that they possessed their own gravity, their own dignity, their own sweetness.

Jane Fairfax’s letters and where they may have been hiding, little John and Henry’s cleverness and pretty ways—these things mattered, because they mattered to the characters themselves. They made up the texture of their lives, and gave their existence its savor. I got it now. By eliminating all the big, noisy events that usually absorb our interest when we read novels—the adventures and affairs, the romances and the crises, even, at times, the plot—Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don’t accord enough esteem, in novels or in life. Those small, “trivial,” everything things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about. (12-13)

* * *

If I was having trouble seeing the importance of the world that Austen was putting in front of me, in other words, it wasn’t entirely my fault. Like all the great teachers, I now saw, she made us come to her. She had momentous truths to tell, but she concealed them in humble packages. Her “littleness” was really an optical illusion, a test. Jesus spoke in parables so his disciples would have to make an effort to understand him. The truth, he knew, cannot be grasped in any other way. Austen reminded me, I realized, of something that Plato said about his great mentor Socrates, who also taught by telling stories. “His words are ridiculous when you first hear them, for his talk is of pack-asses and smiths and cobblers . . . so that any ignorant or inexperienced person might feel disposed to laugh at him; but he who sees what is within will find that they are the only words which have a meaning in them, and likewise the most divine.” (15)

* * *

This, I now saw, was how all of Austen’s language worked. No strain, no display, no effort to awe or impress. Just everyday words in their natural order—a language that didn’t call attention to itself in any way, but just rolled along as easily as breathing. It wasn’t the words that Austen used to create her effects, it was the way she used them, the way she grouped and balanced them. And so it was, I saw, with her characters. A thousand authors could write novels about ordinary people, but only one of those books would be Emma. Austen’s characters came to seem so vivid, so meaningful, because she put them down on the page exactly the way she placed her words: without condescension, without apology, but with a masterful talent for arrangement. Emma was balanced by Jane Fairfax, and Miss Bates by Harriet Smith, and Mr. Martin by Mr. Elton, and all of them by one another, setting the whole story in motion and creating scenes that felt as natural as real life. It didn’t matter how small the frame was, because it contained a whole world. (16-17)

* * *

To pay attention to “minute particulars” is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes. But it is also, I realized, something more. By talking over their little daily affairs—and not just talking them over, but talking them over and over, again and again (the same story in brief, then in full, the same stories in one house, then another)—the characters of Emma were doing nothing less than attaching themselves to life. They were weaving the web of community, one strand of conversation at a time. They were creating the world, in the process of talking about it.

Yet again, it was Emma herself who had trouble with this. She loved to gossip with her special friend Mrs. Weston, of course, but when Miss Bates started in, she couldn’t get away fast enough, and Jane Fairfax’s letters were a fate worse than death. She was the cleverest and best-looking person around, and richer and more wellborn than just about everyone else, and she thought she deserved a more interesting life than the one that was on offer in Highbury. Like a bad reader, she was looking for intrigue and adventure, but all she ended up doing was cutting herself off from the people around her. And as a result, she cut herself off from herself. The fun of Emma was the way that heroine, with her supreme confidence in own judgment, was always screwing up, but the reason wasn’t that much fun at all. Like me, she was numb. She couldn’t feel what she felt, or know what she wanted.

But Emma finally learned that everyday life is not only more joyful—and more dramatic—than she could have imagined, it is also more joyful and dramatic than anything she did imagine, any of her plots or daydreams. With those, she just played at feeling. But dull old, trivial old everyday life—that is where feeling truly lies. Finding that out, she found out whom she should marry, and I found out that this was where the novel had been heading all along. It really had its heroine’s romantic future in mind, but its mind turned out to be very, very deep. In the end Emma didn’t lack a plot; its plot was so clever that it could keep itself hidden until the very last, when all of its disparate parts leaped into order in a single instant, like iron filings around a magnet. (31-32)

Before Deresiewicz encountered Austen, he favored modernist literature because of its complexity and grandiosity:

What I really wanted to study was modernism, the literature that had formed my identity as a reader and, in many ways, as a person. Joyce, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov: complex, difficult, sophisticated works. Like so many young men, I needed to think of myself as a rebel, and modernism, with its revolutionary intensity, confirmed my self-image. I’d pass my days in a cloud of angry sarcasm, making silent speeches, as I stalked down Broadway in my John Lennon coat, against everything conventional, respectable, and pious. I’d walk right up alongside the buildings, in the shadows—it makes you feel like a rat scuttling for cover—to aggravate my sense of alienation. If I was waiting for someone and had nowhere else to go, I’d sit right down on the sidewalk with my Kerouac or my Catch-22, just you try and stop me. I smoked weed, listened to the Clash, and snorted at the business monkeys who’d sold out to the Man. Like the modernists, I was hot to change the world, even if I wasn’t exactly sure how. At the very least, I knew I wasn’t going to let the world change me. I was Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, raging against the machine. I was Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the rebel artist who runs rings around the grown-ups. I was Conrad’s Marlow, the world-weary truth teller who punches through hypocrisy and lies. (2)

After reading Emma as a college student, Deresiewicz says Austen’s attention to “all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends” punctured his self-importance, and helped him to take life seriously—life as it is actually lived and not how it is contrived in modernist literature:

What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow. I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel. I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person. (33)

* * *

My ideas about literature were no more able to survive these revelations than were my ideas about anything else. Having worshipped at the altar of modernism, with its arrogant postures and lofty notions of philosophical significance, I believed that great literature had to be forbidding and esoteric: full of allusions that flaunted their own learning, dense with images and symbols that had to be pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. A book, to be really valuable, had to offer truths that seemed as recondite as metaphysics and as final as Scripture—had to promise to reveal the nature of language, or the self, or time. Modernism was superior art for superior people, or so that snobbiest of literary movements believed. No wonder I disdained the herd; I’d learned that pose from T. S. Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov, every line of whose work strutted its contempt for ordinary people. Emma refuted the notion that great literature must be difficult, and it also rebuked the human attitudes that that idea was designed to justify. I still loved modernism, I just no longer believed it was the only way to make art, and I certainly didn’t think that it was the way to live. (34)

When Deresiewicz compares Joyce’s Ulysses, “the modernist novel par excellence”, with Austen’s Emma, he sides with Emma because its style does not get in the way of its substance:

As any English major can tell you, Ulysses also celebrate the everyday. With it, Joyce sought to create a work that was comparable in artistic majesty and cosmic scope to the great epics of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, the summit of Western literature, but at its center he placed, not a heroic figure like Achilles or Odysseus, but the most unremarkable man he could think of, a Jewish advertising agent named Leopold Bloom—a sad sack, a cuckold, a loner, a loser. The novel’s epic grandeur comes instead form the symbolic structures that Joyce builds around him, starting with the title. Unbeknownst to the man himself, Bloom becomes a modern-day Ulysses, his single day’s journey around Dublin a contemporary equivalent, in miniature, of his predecessor’s ten years of wandering among gods and monsters.

The gesture is exhilarating, even ennobling. Like Austen, Joyce was saying that every life, including yours, is heroic in its own way. But the reason Ulysses had never brought me to the recognitions that Emma did was precisely the means by which Joyce had chosen to say it. So obtrusive were those symbolic structures, so ostentatious were Joyce’s artistic effects, that you finally got the sense that Bloom’s importance had nothing whatsoever to do with Bloom and everything to do with his creator. Bloom’s robes were borrowed; it was not his life that was worthy of notice after all, but the artistic treatment to which that life had been subject. The figure Bloom’s story ultimately magnifies is Joyce himself—the one incomparable artist, not the everyman. From this perspective, the message of Ulysses was the very opposite of Austen’s. Ordinary life is important only because of what a James Joyce can do with it. Aside from that, your life isn’t very important at all.

As it happens, someone once tried to tell me about a theory she had heard that Emma itself—by critical consensus Austen’s greatest work—was designed to be a kind of epic, too, Austen’s subtler contribution to the same high tradition that Joyce would so loudly seek to enter a century later. The picnic episode, where Emma hit bottom, morally speaking, was supposed to be the novel’s version of the hero’s descent to the underworld, the central convention of Western epic, and so on and so forth. This, keep in mind, was a fan of Austen who was making me this argument; to her, it exalted her favorite author to the status of the big boys. But to me, it utterly missed the point of what Austen was trying to do—even, in a sense, disparaged it. We don’t need to pretend that Austen’s novels are really epics in disguise in order to value them as highly as they deserve. She didn’t need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good, and every bit as grand. Austen glorified the everyday on its own terms—without the glamour of Joyce, and modernism, and epic archetypes, and the whole repertoire of epic conventions. What she offered us, if we’re willing to see it, is just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies. (35-36)