Friday, December 07, 2007

Emma (49-54)--"How nicely you talk..."

The word "clever" is used at least three time in the latter half of Chapter Nine. It is an important word in the novel, one that we have touched on already. In the context of the opening chapter, "clever," along with "handsome," and "rich" are back-handed compliments (at best) or outright critiques that stand in contrast to similar words with more positive connotations.

"Clever" stands in contrast with "sense," and both terms are fairly strongly gendered in the novel. "Men of sense, whatever you man choose to say, do not want silly wives" (41), Knightley has informed Emma. He has held up Robert Martin as a man of sense at least three times:

"I never hear better sense from any one than Robert Martin" (37).
"...he is as much [Harriet's] superior in sense as in situation" (38).
"Robert Martin's manners have sense, sincerity, and good humor..." (41)

Harriet, by contrast is "not a sensible girl" (39). Knightley does imply that Emma has some sense, saying: "Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do" (40). This latter quote ties "sense" to reason but suggests that is has more to do with the use one puts to reason than the quantity of it which one possesses that earns this mantle. Elton, remember, acts rationally in selecting a wife, but Knightley says only that he is unlikely to make an "imprudent" match (42). "Elton may talk sentimentally," Knightley continues, "but he will act rationally" (42).

Cleverness is more commonly attributed to females in the novel, Emma particularly. In this chapter, we get a rare comment about Emma's mother, from Mr. Woodhouse: "It is no difficulty to see who you take after! Your dear mother was so clever at all those things!" (51, in reference to riddles and charades).

The most common current definitions of "clever" denote quickness, wit, and intelligence, with only some of the latter conceding that the word often connotes those who have it are "cagey," "shrewd" or in some other way in possession of a moral deficiency that is inextricably tied to their mental superiority. One might even go so far as to suggest that the underlying defense of patriarchy in Emma is the implicit assertion that (some) men can govern their use of reason to guard against its abuse for selfish ends while (most) women cannot. When I think about this theme, I'm often reminded of how this word is used in almost precisely the same way in Henry James's Washington Square, with the difference being that the gender assumptions are reveresed. Dr. Sloper's use of reason is morally compromised while Catherine's total lack of cleverness is tied to her Romantic innocence. I'm also reminded of how the Satan figure in Russel Hoban's science-fiction masterpiece Riddley Walker is aptly renamed "Mr. Clevver."

Perhaps what the latter half of this chapter illustrates, more so than some other examples of where characters are labeled "clever" or "sensible" is that the prominent way in which cleverness is displayed is through rhetoric. "How nicely you talk" Harriet says to Emma. "I love to hear you. You understand every thing. You and Mr. Elton are one as clever as the other" (49). Harriet is here talking about the charade that is painfully easy for Emma to decipher but which must be explained to Harriet and, later, to Mr. Woodhouse. Harriet is a bit of an idiot savant, to be sure, and it is through the contrast between her estimation of the situation and our own that we experience the verbal irony that is so often deliciously comic in Austen.

She's not wrong, though, at least not about Elton and Emma being clever. The essence of verbal irony is that a statement is true but not in the way the speaker intends. The evidence of Emma's cleverness lies not in her deciphering of the charade (which, remember, she misinterprets on one fundamentally important level) but on her ability to coerce agreement from those inferior through the use of rhetoric that passes as an exercise of reason. It becomes important, then, to make a distinction between places where Emma is just wrong and places where, as Knightley says, she abuses reason. After Knightley warns her that Elton will not marry imprudently, the narrator discusses Emma's state of mind:

He had frightened her a little about Mr. Elton; but when she considered that Mr. Knightley could not have observed him as she had done, neither with the interest, nor (she must be allowed to tell herself, in spite of Mr. Knightley's pretensions) with the skill of such an observer on such a question as herself, that he had spoken it hastily and in anger, she was able to believe, that he had rather said what he wished resentfully to be true, than what he knew anything about. He certainly might have heard Mr. Elton speak with more unreserve than she had ever done, and Mr. Elton might not be of an imprudent, inconsiderate disposition as to money-matters; he might naturally be rather attentive than otherwise to them; but then, Mr. Knightley did not made due allowance for the influence of a strong passion at war with all interested motives. (43)

This passage is classic Emma. Notice, for instance, how quickly Emma moves from an insistence that Knightley "could not have observed" Elton as she had done to an admittance that she might not have observed Elton as Knightley had. The word that jumps out to me, though, is "skill." Emma's claim, even to herself, that she has more skill than Knightley as an observer, is felt, even to herself, to be suspect and so must be bolstered with the parenthetical "she must be allowed to tell herself." I hate to use this word, because no pun is intended, but Emma is doing the job here of persuading herself that she is right. She goes about doing it by the same means she persuades others, through the skillful application of rhetoric.

The classical tradition of rhetoric is one of the fabrics of contemporary (Western) society, and its assumption inform everything from mass media to politics to education. George A. Kennedy's justly praised Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times helps illustrate the fact that for many ancients, the act of persuasion was viewed as the proper focus of training. In many of the most common forms in which it is (mis)taught, the "skill" of rhetoric is something divorced from its content or subject matter. Clarence Darrow used to say how he enjoyed nothing more than demonstrating his rhetorical skill by debating one side of an issue until his audience agreed and then changing sides to show how he could persuade them of a different, contradictory point of view simply through the exercise of his skill.

There have, of course, been those who have eschewed rhetorical power in favor of service to some higher goal. Christian scripture and history is sprinkled with examples of those who sought a different means of persuasion. (Though it is also, sadly, sprinkled with more than a few of those who were satisfied with coercion rather than persuasion). Paul said to the Corinthians: "When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." I interpret this to mean that Paul felt (justly if his reputation was deserved) that he could win a lot of arguments through the exercise of his rhetorical skills but wanted the response to his evangelism to be a genuine one prompted by the truth of his statements rather than the power of his rhetoric. William Bradford, in setting out the history of Plymouth Plantation said he wished to tell the "simple truth" in the "plain style." The gospels are littered with claims that Jesus startled people by speaking with "authority," suggesting it was his position relative to the truth that allowed him to speak persuasively rather than his skill in saying the things he did.

Emma doesn't out and out lie. She borders on the willfully blind at times. She sees what she wants to see and interprets contradictory evidence away. She will not, though, as we shall see, knowingly advocate what she knows to be false. Her weakness is more about an inability to distinguish between that certainty that comes from direct knowledge or authoritative pronouncement and that which comes from skillful application of rhetoric. When Harriet says, "Yes, very true [....] you understand every thing" (49) it is response to Emma's argument that a match between Harriet and Elton "must be agreeable" to her friends because Mr. Elton's "amiable character gives every assurance" of Harriet's eventual happiness (49). This pronouncement is not a knowing falsehood, though it does prove to be false. It is, however, persuasive, in that it achieves its desired end, which is not an arrival at a position of truth but a deference to the proposition the side of the argument on which Emma has been laboring:
"It is one thing," [Harriet] said presently--her cheeks in a glow--"to have very good sense in a common way, like everybody else, and if there is anything to say, to sit down and write a letter, and say just what you must, in a short way; and another to write verses and charades like this." (50).
On a first reading, this could be taken as more verbal irony from Harriet. Close (re)reading highlights a couple of facts that are ominous. First, Harriet is adopting Emma's rhetoric. Her use of "common" here smacks of an elitism that is neither natural to her nor appropriate for one in her situation. The other is that it is not merely Harriet's decision (relative to Robert Martin) that is changing. That would be bad enough. Her rejection of "good sense" and direct honesty and truthfulness in favor of cleverness, charades, rhetorical games, and exercises of skill show that her values are changing as well. That change is the real damage that Emma is doing to Harriet, and she will be very fortunate that, in the last, Harriet's own character is strong enough to survive that damage and realign herself with the truth (of her own feelings) rather than to cling tenaciously to the position in which Emma's skillful rhetoric threatens to leave her when the truth of Elton's feelings are finally revealed.

What are we to make of Austen's gendering of cleverness? Is this just an example of Austen taking the part of men against her own sex, suggesting that women must be ruled by men because they can't master themselves? Some have read the book that way, and the characters of Mrs. Elton (and to a lesser extent, Miss Bates) lend ammunition to that side of the argument.

The chapter continues, though, with another conversation between Emma and her father, and it is helpful in reminding us that, whatever position of power or influence Emma's skill helps her attain, she is pretty much powerless in the face of patriarchal privilege. Cleverness might very well be a coping mechanism for power discrepancies since the only hope of attaining concessions (intellectual or otherwise) from her father is through persuasion. He is rather dim-witted, so the exercise of logic seldom operates on him in a way that alleviates his egoism (I'm tempted to say "selfishness"). We get, in fact, a familiar list of complaints from Mr. Woodhouse about Isabella's impending visit: where will the children sleep? (Isabella shall have her own room as she "always" has; the children get the nursery.) Won't she be disappointed at Miss Taylor (not Mrs. Weston, mind you) being there? (They shall invite the "Mr. and Mrs. Weston" to dine.) Will there be enough time for everything? (They must do all they can and understand the shortness and infrequency of her visits is by necessity not through rudeness.)

Just as in the first chapter, a negative portrayal of Emma is mitigated by a reminder of how she must tend to an overbearing and cranky father--and an illustration of her doing so with relative good cheer and seeming lack of resentment at her sister for not sharing some of that burden. It is interesting, though, how Emma's strategy of countering her father's arguments, either accidentally or by design, changes:

"But I do not see why poor Isabella should be obliged to go back so soon, though he does. I think, Emma, I shall try and persuade her to stay longer with us. She and the children might stay very well."

"Ah! papa--that is what you never have been able to accomplish, and I do not think you ever will. Isabella cannot bear to stay behind her husband."

This was too true for contradiction. Unwelcome as it was, Mr. Woodouse could only give a submissive sigh; and as Emma saw his spirits affected by the idea of his daughter's attachment to her husband, she immediately led to such a branch of subject as must raise them. (52)

The phrase "too true for contradiction" is resonant here. Among other things, it suggest that in the end, Mr. Woodhouse submits to the truth rather than Emma's skillful applications of arguments or appeasements. To be sure, Emma's application of attention and change of subject take some of the sting out of that submission and raise his spirits, but it is her speaking of the truth, and his recognition of it, that ultimately persuades him to alter his plans.

I'm left with a question. Is anything "too true for contradiction" for Emma, or does she have such faith in her own skills of observation and argument that no apparent truth cannot be argued (momentarily) away? The answer, I think, is that Emma will eventually submit to the truth, be it the truth of her own feelings, the truth about her conduct towards Harriet or Miss Bates, and the truth of what friendship demands of her in freely giving Knightley her support when she thinks he will pick Harriet.

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