'All the Light I Can Command'

In the middle of the night George Eliot calls:

A great historian, as he insisted on calling himself, who had the happiness to be dead a hundred and twenty years ago, and so to take his place among the colossi whose huge legs our living pettiness is observed to walk under, glories in his copious remarks and digressions as the least imitable part of his work, and especially in those initial chapters to the successive books of his history, where he seems to bring his armchair to the proscenium and chat with us in all the lusty ease of his fine English. But Fielding lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evenings. 

We belated historians must not linger after his example; and if we did so, it is probable that our chat would be thin and eager, as if delivered from a campstool in a parrot-house. I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.

That last section really gets at something I've observed in relation to the relatively meager prominence I've enjoyed over the past couple of years. You would be shocked how often I am offered the opportunity to hold forth on subjects of which I have only the scantest knowledge--sometimes with a check at the end. There's a certain kind of intellectual hustle that really extends from the Ivy Leagues schools on down founded on "thin and eager" chat. 

It isn't just the matter of cable talk-shows. It's something about the market, and thus something about us. Perhaps it's our earnest desire to actual know more, a laudable curiosity oppressed by the very forces Eliot cites. Our summer afternoons are not so spacious and we too are short on that specimen of winter evening. From that angle the writer/historian/intellectual/philosopher who speaks in the language of branding is really just feeling a need. I don't know. 

I spent this weekend doing a lot of reading about Niall Ferguson's new book Civilization, as well as John Lewis Gaddis's book on George Keenan. On the one hand we have the end result of some three decades of toil, all to grapple with the effect of one life. On the other we have an ostensible attempt to untangle a near millenia of culture, science, evolution, and technology  delivered via killer apps or, less charitably, bullet points. The contrast is bracing.

Eliot's book is a beast--a work of philosophy, and a conversation with her literary ancestors packaged in a novel of manners. So far Age of Innocence is still my favorite foray into this particular subgenre of the bound society. But the ambition of Middlemarch is deeply inspiring. In its sprawling scope it reminds me of what I love about Moby Dick.

This is not a "fun" or "thrilling" read. I'm nowhere near as attached to its characters as I am to their maker. She really does command the light.

As an aside, I highly recommend Louis Menand's piece on the Keenan book.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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