Key Passages – Daniel Deronda

Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in media res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact which our story sets out.

This, the opening to the novel, proceeds the famous opening line: “Was she beautiful or not beautiful?” We do not know who asks this question and we do not know of whom it is asked. Thus the starting point is already displaced, the object coming before the subject that would produce it. Throughout the novel, the toggling between cause and effect is crucial (is Daniel determining his future according to liberal civic codes à la Mill or is he being determined by biological histories?) and here Eliot is making that ambiguity immanent to the very production of narrative. There is also a critique of Copperfield “Retrospects,” which make a bid on narrating origins. The passage also forcefully naturalizes traditional images of fate (stars) through the use of “sidereal,” which refers to the measurement of time by comparing the earth’s rotation with fixed stars. Also relatable to the mathematical sublime (the smallness of the unit becomes an object of wonder). And such problematic beginnings will look forward to the problematic ending, in which Eliot will unsatisfactorily attempt to suture her double-plot.

 

[Human life] should be well-rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth…a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, a kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys may spread, not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as sweet habit of the blood

A rather curious importation of pre-cosmopolitan fantasies more appropriate to Mill on the Floss. By the time one gets to Deronda, these utopian visions are realized as unattainable. As opposed to earlier novels, Deronda is not about constructing a world, but showing how various characters navigate a larger society that is not conducive to their aims.

 

 

This claim, indeed, considered in what is called a rational way, might seem justifiably dismissed as illusory and even preposterous; but it was precisely what turned Mordecai’s hold on him from an appeal to his ready sympathy into a clutch on his struggling conscience.

Throughout the novel Eliot plays with the rational-emotional binary. Think of this as a way to bring the culture debate into the psychological realm. This is also an updated form of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility binary. Here, sensibility becomes the work of careful cultivation. To much sense would lead to a state literally without culture (critique of Bentham, etc.). There is also an engagement with the discourse of sympathy.

 

She was the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving…[S]he could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all anger in self-humiliation.

The moment when the ethical force of the novel turns over the Gwendolen. Theorized in terms of receptivity to the other’s demands. Think of this within the terms of the heroine whose historical worth/validity/legibility is constantly in question. Here, the dialectic is turned: in order to become a full character in the narrative/story, she must be radically unseated from her presumed role in history. Contrawise, Daniel’s graduation into history effectively excises him from the novel.

 

Daniel, where a kenn personal interest was aroused, could not, more than the rest of us, continuously escape suffering from the pressure of that hard unaccomodating Actual, which has never consulted out taste and is entirely unselect…. Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy:–in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.

Just one of many moments when Eliot compresses the plot-character dynamics with her artistic practice. But even here the Jewish-English binary is brought into play. Is it that English art is the best mode of representation, but Jewishness is the best object for art? Role of the author.

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