George Eliot's Spellcraft

With all due apology, a bit more from George Eliot:


If to Dorothea Mr. Casaubon had been the mere occasion which had set alight the fine inflammable material of her youthful illusions, does it follow that he was fairly represented in the minds of those less impassioned personages who have hitherto delivered their judgments concerning him? I protest against any absolute conclusion, any prejudice derived from Mrs. Cadwallader's contempt for a neighboring clergyman's alleged greatness of soul, or Sir James Chettam's poor opinion of his rival's legs,--from Mr. Brooke's failure to elicit a companion's ideas, or from Celia's criticism of a middle-aged scholar's personal appearance. I am not sure that the greatest man of his age, if ever that solitary superlative existed, could escape these unfavorable reflections of himself in various small mirrors; and even Milton, looking for his portrait in a spoon, must submit to have the facial angle of a bumpkin. 

Moreover, if Mr. Casaubon, speaking for himself, has rather a chilling rhetoric, it is not therefore certain that there is no good work or fine feeling in him. Did not an immortal physicist and interpreter of hieroglyphs write detestable verses? Has the theory of the solar system been advanced by graceful manners and conversational tact? 

Suppose we turn from outside estimates of a man, to wonder, with keener interest, what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity: with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labors; what fading of hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within him; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause. 

Doubtless his lot is important in his own eyes; and the chief reason that we think he asks too large a place in our consideration must be our want of room for him, since we refer him to the Divine regard with perfect confidence; nay, it is even held sublime for our neighbor to expect the utmost there, however little he may have got from us. Mr. Casaubon, too, was the centre of his own world; if he was liable to think that others were providentially made for him, and especially to consider them in the light of their fitness for the author of a "Key to all Mythologies," this trait is not quite alien to us, and, like the other mendicant hopes of mortals, claims some of our pity.

I was thinking this morning how much I wish I could have taught myself high school composition, when I was in high school--and even English composition in college. I failed English in the eleventh grade and then failed Brit Lit in college.

Among the things I would have told myself is that beauty is an actual, functional thing, and that great sentences are, in fact, functional. So when Eliot gives us these rangy sentences (bolded above in this case) wherein with each semicolon she pounds home the point, the form of the sentence--its awkward elegance--actually makes it stick. There is, of course, a great deal of poetry here, most of it built on hard, muscular words "the report," "hindrances" daily labors" and "deeper fixity." Again, the payload is to the back--"his heart to its final pause."

And then there are sentences that care nothing for intrigue, but are all upper-cut Grant is a master of this--"Ifs defeated the Confederates at Shiloh," or "There are always more of them before they are counted." I would have liked to have told myself these things, but then I don't even know that I would have listened. I have been writing, now, for over fifteen years and I'm just starting to see these things like this.

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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