Notes After Austen (Updated, Again, Again)

Each summer I re-read all of Jane Austen. This year, I decided to post a bit about it on Facebook, just some notes and jottings, noting more. I will move future FB posts here as I go so you might want to check back periodically. (Original posts and comments are on my FB page.)

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Mr. Collins, proposing to Elizabeth Bennett: “And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affections.” Austen! Hard to think of any sentence whose form more completely stutifies its content. All you can do is bow and delight.

Finished Austen’s *Emma* this morning, and was struck by the final chapters more than I recall being before, particularly the similarities between Emma and Frank Churchill, remarked upon near the end by Emma herself. We might say that both Emma and FC are ‘imaginists’ to use the novel’s own term for Emma, but Emma’s imagination mostly imposes on herself, while FC’s imposes on the entire village (more or less): Emma fools herself, FC fools Emma, the Westons, and many others. Still, like FC, Emma manages to emerge from all her foolings uninjured, ‘the child of good fortune’ (Knightley’s description of FC). In the end, Robert Martin, by proposing yet again to Harriet Smith (and by being this time accepted), saves Emma from the one lingering secret she has kept from Knightley, and a raider of neighboring poultry yards motivates Emma’s father to allow her to marry sooner rather than later. — The child of good fortune, indeed! What a remarkable novel.

Reading *Mansfield Park*, my favorite of Austen’s novels. Chaps 8-12., roughly, are given over to differentiating Fanny Price from Mary Crawford. Although the word does not, so far as I recall, occur until Chap 9, and there not in application to either woman, — the word ‘disinterested’, as Austen used it so often in *Emma*, hovers over the differentiation. Fanny is disinterestedly engrossed in everything around her on the trip to Sotherton; Mary cannot manage disinterested engrossment in anything. She can be engrossed (if that is the right word) only where she is *interested*. She can see only for her own sake, not for the sake of seeing, or, better, for the sake of the thing seen. And so she is unseeing, blinded (“she saw Nature, inanimate Nature, with little observation”). Worse, Mary’s blindness is communicable, infecting Edmund as well as herself, although he has a restive sense that something is wrong with Mary, and wrong with him for being unable to *observe* it clearly. It will take Fanny a long time, and much suffering, to clear Edmund’s vision.

Austen’s ability to force characters into hearing what they do not want to hear, in a form to warm and wound the heart all at once. *Mansfield Park*, Chap 27, Edmund to Fanny, discussing his hopes and ‘misgivings’ about Mary Crawford, his planned proposal: “You are the only being upon earth to whom I should say what I have said; but you have always known my opinion of her; you can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded.” But blinded and blind he has been and is.

Reading the amazing 34th chapter of Mansfield Park, the chapter in which Austen shows the character of Henry Crawford to the fullest. He is a man of genuine powers, agreeable to a remarkable degree. But for Austen — as Tave has shown — the relationship between ‘agreeableness’ and ‘amiableness’ is always under investigation. The two terms are so intimately related that they can be — and often are (by Austen’s characters, in life) — conflated. In many ways, their relationship is much like that between ‘truth’ and ‘validity’: they can be mistaken for synonyms, but they can part company. In the chapter, Crawford reads Shakespeare aloud so well that he eventually entrances even the reluctant Fanny, but as the conversation turns to reading aloud well (more generally) and eventually to reading Scripture aloud well, and to preaching, Crawford cannot manage himself for long. For all that he says of which Fanny approves of, he eventually wanders into the peculiar careless self-regard that is her aversion. Fanny involuntarily shakes her head in disapproval. Crawford sees her reaction but cannot really understand it. He sees nothing to repent of: he was sincere in what he said. Of course, Crawford is so thorroughly admixed with the false that even what he says sincerely is gainsaid by his being the speaker. — But that is part of the problem. He can talk ‘sincerely’ about himself but with no proper response to the things he ‘believes’ about himself.

Finished MP. Lots of thoughts, but here’s one. There’s a fascinating subjunctive paragraph as the novel ends, one that details a successful bid by Crawford for Fanny. Its tone suggests that it details what *almost* happened. — But that’s false. To use the lingo of analytic philosophy, the world described is no *nearby* possible world. Given Crawford’s watery character in the actual (fictional) world, the stoutness of resolution that bid involves makes it quite *distant*. The tone, I believe, is Austen’s narrative voice ventriloquizing Crawford’s own, showing his point of view on the unfolded events, his very unhappy sense that a different, better life was *almost* in his grasp.

MP is a novel about conscience, consciousness and the (intertwined) corruptions of each. The stress on vision and blindness figures a stress on moral vision and moral blindness. The late, severe language on the Crawfords, on Mary’s mind as ‘bewildered’, ‘darkened’, and similar language about Henry’s, has been built to in careful stages. The long, centerstage section on the MP theatrical accomplishes much of the work, as conscience, its use, abuse, and absence is displayed. As the literature on conscience bears out, and as Austen understood full well, there’s no blameless exit from the predicament of an erring conscience: the person in the predicament is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. She either does what her erring conscience demands, and does wrong, or she violates her erring conscience and so does wrong. Austen elongates the section because of the delicacy of the predicaments of the characters. No one’s conscience is simply absent, but various consciences are being abused. Mary and Henry’s err in crucial ways. So too Maria and Julia’s. Edmund’s actions cause Fanny so much distress because she sees him violating, and even laboring to befuddle, his own (non-erring) conscience. Fanny herself is worked upon by the theatricals, and is dangerously close to duplicating Edmund’s folly. The unexpected arrival of Sir Thomas saves her from having to choose whether to play (read) Cottager’s wife. The problem with the Crawfords is that they do not just have bad ‘principles’, though no doubt some of their ‘principles’ are bad: they can’t see clearly enough as to justly apply principles of any sort. Their consciousnesses themselves are corrupt. They do not and will not see.Near the book’s end, Henry suggests to Fanny that, married to him, she will become, in effect, his conscience. Fanny rejects the imputed role. No one can be anyone else’s conscience. But she reminds Henry that he does not need her. Each of us, she tells him, has in him or her what is necessary for determining right and wrong. I find that line tragic: Abstractly, Fanny is right, and her saying what she says is charitable. But it is not clear that Henry, the particular concreted human being, has any longer in him what he needs to determine right and wrong. Beneath his errors of conscience lurks a more fundamental moral debility, the protoplasmic untruth in which his heart itself is and has long been afloat.

I’ve started S&S, more on it soon, but, for now, a couple of final notes on MP.— For a great deal of her life (and of the novel) Fanny seems almost voiceless. No one hears her, seeks out her thoughts (except Edmund). But she hears herself, the voice of her conscience. Fanny listens to Fanny, even when no one around her does, and despite no one around her else listening to himself or herself. — I’m thinking I will write an essay on MP. “The Moral Grandeur of Fanny Price”. — The Crawfords are such smiling villains. Complicated, gifted, they call forth sympathy and regret as they repel. Seeing them for what they are requires keeping in mind something J. L. Austin once pointed out in a footnote (about the dangerous tendency to conflate succumbing to temptation to losing control of oneself). Imagining himself succumbing to temptation, to taking his own and someone else’s serving of ice cream at High Table, Austin asks: “But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels…and wolf them down…? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.” Just so the Crawfords, at least until Henry’s ‘etourderie’ (Mary’s word) with Maria.

S&S: Austen’s gift for delivering crucial character descriptions in ways that can easily slip past the reader: Early in S&S, when Colonel Brandon must cancel the pleasure party to Whitwell, Sir John tries to reverse Brandon’s decision by reminding Brandon of the sacrifices made to attend that morning (it’s after 10am). The two Miss Careys have come from Newton, the three Misses Dashwood walked from the cottage, and Willoughby “got up two hours before his usual time”.

Austen, S&S.
— More one-liners than in Emma or MP. The prose is far less complicated. Reminds me a bit of passages of H. James before he rewrote them and after he did (although Austen’s are obviously not the reworkings of passages).
— The very careful apparent parallel constructed in Marianne’s situation with Willoughby and Elinor’s with Edward Ferrars. The contrast then from the beginning between Marianne self-feeding misery and Elinor’s efforts at self-command, made all-the-more strenuous by facing an almost omnipresent tormentor in Lucy Steel. Lucy’s clever, coldly cruel indirection in her speeches to Elinor — wow. She strikes home with dagger-point precision while seeming all smiles and amiability. “She looked down as she said this, amiably bashful, with only one side glance at her companion to observe the effect on her.” Ouch. What Austen gives with one hand she takes back with the other.
— Austen’s careful foreshadowing of Lucy’s capacity for clever cruelty (the foreshadowing does not come long before the revelation of the fact) and of Lucy’s sister Anne’s blunt cluelessness (the foreshowing does come long before the decisive effect of the revealed fact).

More on S&S

— It’s easy to miss, despite her being the center of consciousness in the novel, that S&S really is the story of Elinor and Edward. The story of Marianne and Willoughby (and later, Brandon) plays a contrapuntal role in the overarching structure. Elinor’s story is ‘told’ by and in the telling of Marianne’s, in Elinor’s moments of identification with and distance from Marianne. It’s easy to lose sight of this in part because Elinor’s self-command creates inner stillness, and that inner stillness can seem (and often does to Marianne and to Mrs. Dashwood) like a lack of feeling. But it’s not that at all, as Marianne will come to understand. That inner stillness costs Elinor tremendous exertion.

— The wonderful, subtle similarity between the nasty letter from Willoughby Marianne receives in London and Lucy Steel’s torment of Elinor! We will later discover that Willoughby’s letter was dictated to him by his wife-to-be, making it all-the-more like Elinor’s torment by her rival.

More on Austen.

Much to think about as I finished S&S, but I wanted to note something that carries across the novels I have read — the notion of *tolerable happiness*. Austen uses the term repeatedly (along with a variant, ‘tolerable comfort’) in the novels, and it characterizes the happiness of the novels’ happy endings. I suspect that Austen is doubling meaning here — a not-uncommon feature of her prose. ‘Tolerable’ can describe that which can be borne or endured; it can also describe that which is moderately good or agreeable, that which is not contemptible. (In *Emma*, I believe, we also get the phrases ‘happiness a la mortal’ and ‘finely chequered happiness’, both of which belong to this discussion.) Austen knows that what we often want when we want happiness is moments of transport, of body-leaving joy (there are such moments in the novels) but she also knows that such moments are (grammatically) *moments*: such happiness is intolerable; it cannot be borne, supported, for long: the business of embodied living goes on, a la mortal. The happiness that will satisfy is one that is moderately (another doubling word in Austenian contexts) good, agreeable, supportable. It is happiness compatible with wanting rather better pasturage for one’s cows…But, someone might ask, what of Emma and Knightley’s ‘perfect happiness’? That sounds more than tolerable, at least in the second sense? — True. — Still, I wonder if the ‘perfect’ there is not a bit of deliberate ironic archness, a bit of Emma’s imaginist point of view entering into the narrator’s voice? Not that I mean they were not happy: but rather that their perfect happiness was, after all, perfectly tolerable.

Austen.

— I’ve been accompanying my reading of Austen with sallies into Crabb’s English Synonyms. Crabb, prefacing the work: “Should any object to the introduction of morality into a work of science, I beg them to consider that a writer whose business it was to mark the nice shades of distinction between words closely allied could not do justice to his subject without entering into all the relations of society and showing, from the acknowledged sense of many moral and religious terms, what has been the general sense of mankind on many of the most important questions which have agitated the world.” It seems to me that this captures a deep ambition of Austen’s novels, her writing.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— While *MP* is my favorite Austen novel, Anne Elliot is my favorite Austen character. — The beautiful handling of Anne’s history with F Wentworth, the proposal, and eventual parting: it is easy to understand even if not to agree with the views of all the interested parties. And the subtle ways Austen shows the reader just how deeply in love Anne was (and, really, still is). Much of the novel’s power is drawn from the continuing strength of her feelings, her constancy.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— Two observations. (1) In an early paragraph about the mutual affection of Anne and Frederick, Austen’s notes that “the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail…they were rapidly and deeply in love.” And so they were, and so they are. Anne, although the least self-deceived of Austen’s central characters (she is certainly less self-deceived than Frederick — but then he was the one rejected, not the one who did the rejecting), is self-deceived about the continuing strength of her feelings for Frederick. Austen shows this to the reader (even before Anne realizes it) in the comments about her loss of ‘bloom’. The return of it later in the novel is not due to Lyme’s sea breezes but to her gradual rehabitation of feelings that have long been treated as alien, abandoned. When Anne first sees Frederick in person, the meeting deeply unsettles her, and she finds that to “retentive feelings” eight years may not be a long time, indeed not much time at all. But despite that acknowledgment, she will continue to resist her feelings, sure that Frederick is no longer for her. (What a wonderful phrase, “retentive feelings” — a ‘conative’ word modified by a ‘cognitive’ one, and their conjunction tells us a great deal about Anne’s mind, in the sense of ‘mind’ that is so important in Austen, the sense that Ryle delineates in his famous essay.)

(2) The fall of Anne’s sister’s son and the consequent events not only allow Austen to delay the first meeting between Anne and Frederick but they serve to foreshadow the fall of Louisa in Lyme and that fall’s consequent events. That’s obvious enough I suppose, but I am embarrassed to say I never really recognized it before. More on that soon.

Austen, *Persuasion*:

—”Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume along the way.” Beautiful. I love it when Austen lets the prose spring into poetry. Such a paragraph. The play with ‘p’ and ‘sp’s!

— Anne is, in general, clear-sighted, self-commanding. That she is renders the three moments when she completely loses herself and her senses all the more memorable: when Wentworth first sees her again (and she him) at Uppercross, when she first sees Wentworth again in Bath, and when she realizes what his comments and stammering mean at the concert (“He must love her”).There are two other similar moments: one when she finds out that Wentworth is not in love with Louisa (“joy, senseless joy!”) and the other after reading the note Wentworth writes to her while she talks with Captain Harville (“It was an overpowering happiness.”)

Austen, *Persuasion*

—The early scene in which Anne’s nephew, Mary’s son, falls from a tree and breaks his collarbone is crucial to the tale. It establishes Anne’s willingness to help and presence of mind in an emergency. I recall reading once that Tiger Wood’s pulse rate fell when he lined up a put. Something like that, less reductively captured, seems true of Anne. It matters later, of course, in Lyme, in the aftermath of Louisa’s fall, but it also helps to underscore just how in love with Wentworth Anne has been and still is. She loses her senses in various scenes, always because of him, but in (other) emergencies, she exhibits a coolness and readiness that Wentworth himself fails to equal. (The exquisite irony of the ship’s captain failing in a moment of extremity, lapsing into an absence of mind, inability, while this slip of a woman, Anne, remains in control, thoughtful, able!) Wentworth overpowers her in a way nothing else does. So much of the book works only if we come to believe in Anne and the reality and justice of the depth of her love. We know relatively little of Wentworth, and some of it, certainly, *seems* unflattering, but we take Anne’s word for it — and we should.

*Emma*. I was caught today by an opinion of *Emma* held by Mr. and Mrs. James Austen, recorded by Jane Austen. She notes that they liked the book, but that they thought “the language different from the others; not so easily read.” This is perhaps the thing that has stood out to me above everything else in reading the novels this time. The complications of the language of *Emma*: it doubles more, shimmers more, twists more. Although Austen is ever fascinated by self-deception, it is in *Emma* that she makes the very center of the novel’s consciousness the most deeply self-deceived of any of her primary heroines. That requires Austen to do so much more in the writing, to find ways to allow the reader to see the deception and to see past it. Austen’s strategy and tactics for doing so are a study by themselves. To borrow a favorite Austenian term, the language of *Emma* “imposes” on itself, on the reader, but Austen takes care to make the imposition discoverable.

*Northanger Abbey*

Reading the novel this time, what struck me was the feeling of the emergence of a power, of Jane Austen herself. Guy Davenport has a collection of essays entitled *Every Force Evolves a Form*, and *NA* is Austen, an emerging force, evolving her form. To do it, she has to write herself — and her heroine — out of the fantastic, the romantic, call it the metaphysical, and reorient herself — and her heroine — on the probable, the commonplace, call it the ordinary. Most difficult of all, Austen has to demonstrate that her callow heroine’s modest victories over her ignorance, her undisciplined imagination, and her reticence to judge for herself satisfy more deeply than the knowing romantic heroine’s triumph over murderers, black veils and skeletons. And just to make it harder for herself, — because, why not? she is a power — Austen uses her authorial voice to mock, scold and pity Catherine for the modesty of her victories: especially for returning home, evicted and confused, in a hack post-chaise, — worlds away from Cleopatra in a chariot. Austen dares her reader to acknowledge what Austen wants to be acknowledged: the romance of our ordinary lives, the triumph in modest victories over ourselves.

 

Bill Mallonee, Lead On, Kindly Light (Album Review)

A few words about Bill Mallonee’s lush, cornucopia of songs.

Ending the Preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes these words.  

It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.


Bill Mallonee’s newest offering, Lead on, Kindly Light faces a similar problem.  Mallonee would no doubt grant the poverty of his work, and he calls attention repeatedly to the darkness of this time.  But, much like Wittgenstein, he stubbornly hopes to bring light into one heart or another. No, it is not likely. We each have a heart full of weeds, tall weeds; it is hard for light to get in.  And even if we see a little light, true blue, we are too ponderous, too full of devices and of the 21st Century to rouse into concerted action. Mostly, like Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’, we blink. And turn on the blue-light filter.  A little sleep, a little closing of the eyes in sleep. All apps, we lack application.  


Kindly Light is a dialogic album, lush with interlocutory guitars. Mallonee’s singing, his plain but precise phrasing, his wife Muriah’s delicate, tasteful harmonies, needlework through the songs, stitching together the different conceptual orders of melody and words.  Like exceptional conversation, the songs become bearers of meaning as wholes beyond what they are about, centrifugallyIn an elusive sense, they are meaningful in themselves, centripetally.

But, centrifugally, what are the songs about?  — About the accumulated weight of human experience, bourne by an individual but touching the lives of all: about the unappeasable hunger of the human imagination, the irrepressible vanity of human wishes, the endless tedium of another day and our sickened anxiety over wasted time, — about our damaged hearts and darkling fates.  There is no emigration from a world bursting with evil and sorrow, despite the fact that we all seem to have immigrated here. Death guards the borders, fencing us in.

That makes Kindly Light seem more about (the) darkness (of this time) than about light, and that is misleading.  The songs chart the path of light in the darkness, its dimming and brightening. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  The light is there, never really gone, but we will not admit it.  It’s easier to lapse into darkness. A little sleep…

The songs of Kindly Light all are cries of, cries for, wakefulness, for admitting the light, fighting toward it, for it. But it is also a reminder that our spontaneity is ever a receptive spontaneity, that our words were never the first words, are never The Word.  And the light we admit, fight toward, fight for, will never allow us (to borrow John Henry Newman’s phrase) “to see the distant scene”. Light enough for the next step — that is what we can admit, fight toward, fight for. Some light in the brain, in the heart, enough to hazard everything, as we all do everyday, — no choice —, though we hide the fact from ourselves.  We do not choose or see our path but we have to walk nonetheless. Time forces our footfalls. Will we sleepwalk or take the single step, awake, we have light enough to see?

The songs are sermons but not of the televangelist variety that rules today, preachers on screens, holygrams.  No.  The sermonizer here is sermonizing himself: Mallonee is his own congregation.  He needs to hear what he is saying. We all need to be reminded more than informed.  No message here from on-high, UHF.  The message is sung from a modest place among the least of these, in poorness of spirit, from among the weeds by the wall.  

For fans of melody, there is much here, songs that stay in the ear of the mind, that end up being hummed almost absently during the day’s business.  The songs are unhurried, the guitars linger on, over and around the melodies. The listener is drawn into the dialog of the songs, asked to join it, given spaces to fill.  These songs are, as Mallonee says life is (in “A Borrowing of Bones”), “a gift by slow degrees…


No blinding flash of light & few epiphanies/No one really leaves with anything that is his own/You get your doubts and a borrowing of bones…

Mallonee gets his doubts and he gets ours.  All our bones are borrowed bones. We must return them in the end, like it or not.  But, until then — lead on, kindly light.  These songs hallow that light and, moonlike, reflect it back to the listener.      

Merton Paper, Intro

Here’re the first paragraphs of the introduction to my new Merton paper, “Under a Doom-shaped Sky, Or Hats off to the Human Condition”.  The paper discusses Merton’s book-length poem, Cables to the Ace.  There are a couple of qualifying footnotes to these paragraphs, but I have omitted them.

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Orienting

Worship is a norm of human life.  Merton knew this–knew what David Foster Wallace knew when he later commented:  “Everybody worships.”  Merton’s alternative title for Cables is Some Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding.  —Liturgies because human life lives up to its nature almost always already in this one respect:  it is worshipful.  The question is not typically whether it is worshipful, but what is worshipped, and even more, how it is worshipped–because here the how determines the what. Merton’s poem repeats the basic structure of liturgy; it is loosely composed of litanies, entrances, hymns, homilies, etc.  –Merton’s poem is familiar liturgies in two senses.  First, it is largely, almost entirely in the vernacular.  And, second, and more important, because what it liturgizes is modern life, our ordinary life (despite the fifty years between the poem’s publication and now).  Even those parts of the poem hard to understand create the nagging feel of a song you recognize but cannot name. The words of Cables are on the tips of our tongues. –The poem is familiar liturgies of misunderstanding because the liturgies are wrong–worshipful in the wrong way, worshipful of the wrong object.  And because they are, they are display the way our lives are down-destroyed instead of upbuilt by our life, our life with our language, a life we cannot avoid, even in silence.  These are liturgies of deformation, not of formation. They are the bad news; they are the tidings of unhope.

Let me start by dwelling on that last point.  Christian liturgy upbuilds. That is not all it does, of course.  Its intentional structure is worshipful, worshipful of the triune God.  Participants in it are thus ordered toward God, not toward themselves.  But in virtue of participating in what is ordered toward God, they are themselves ordered toward God, and such ordering is always upbuilding. Now, this is not two different intentional structures, a worshipful one and an upbuilding one.  It is one structure that has a particular effect on its participants in virtue of their participation.  To the extent that we enter into the how of the liturgy, we reach toward its what, its object, but participating in the how also changes our what, what we are.  Participant liturgical knowledge is connatural knowledge–and that is a bit of grammar.  We become what we know and know what we become:  blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

This is importantly reverse-true of what Merton takes to be our familiar, unChristian liturgies, our liturgies of misunderstanding. Cursed are the impure in heart, for they shall see UnGod, Gog or Magog, the False. Our participation in these liturgies results in our deformation.  We become what we ‘know’ and ‘know’ what we become.  Connatural ‘knowledge’, in this case, is damning ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowing’ nothing we hasten our own nothingness.

With an ‘L’ on his Forehead…

There are more values available for response in human life than anyone can possibly be responsible to.

I think of this as the Not World Enough and Time Problem:  we are all missing out on things that are objectively such as not to be missed.  That is the human predicament.

I am strongly tempted to think that a lure to relativism, and to psychologizing the values of others, is our desire to deny the Problem:  we are never missing out; we just made different decisions, believed or desired different things, than so-and-so did.  We aren’t missing out and neither is he, neither is she.  But we know–and we do know–that in many cases we are missing out and that we will have to miss out.  It may not be our fault, but it is always our loss.

Fenelon on Self-Love

While we are so imperfect, we can understand only in part.  The same self-love that causes our defects injuriously hides them from ourselves and from others.  Self-love cannot bear the view of itself.  It finds some hiding place, it places itself in some flattering light to soften its ugliness.  Thus there is always some illusion in us while we are so imperfect and have so much love of ourselves.

S3 Question 1: Why Doesn’t Sarah Believe Chuck?

An essay about a central question of S3.  I will be posting a least one or two more such essays in the next few of weeks.  Spoiler warning for anyone watching the show for the first time.

For more than two seasons, when no one else would or did or could, Sarah trusts Chuck; she believes him and believes in him.

Then–the Red Test.  And now she does not believe him, even though she knows that she did not actually see Chuck shoot the mole.  Sure, what she saw, arriving seconds later, looks like the immediate aftermath of Chuck shooting the mole.  But Sarah is a spy.  She manipulates appearances for a living.  She knows how far things can sometimes be from what they seem to be.  (In fact, a logical difference the show insists on is this:  in real life, things are almost always what they seem; in the spy life, they are never quite what they seem.)  So, why won’t she believe Chuck? I do not think the answer to this question can take the form of a rationalizing her disbelief.  The best that can be done is to make her irrationality understandable.  Chuck’s Red Test depresses all of Sarah’s buttons at once; it is no wonder she short-circuits.

So why does Sarah fail to believe Chuck?  Why does she disbelieve his denial that he shot the mole?  –Is it because she loves Shaw?  No.  Of course not.  Sarah does not love Shaw and she knows it.  She has what she felt–and still feels–for Chuck to compare her feeling for Shaw to, and, whatever she feels for Shaw, is not that.[1]  As she says, what she has with Shaw is different (she says this when they are on stake-out in vs. the Final Exam.)[2]

Is it because Chuck changes during the weeks and months as he struggles to become an agent?  That plays a role, because Sarah sees him lying to Hannah, for example, in a way that clearly indicates that his character is under pressure, perhaps is cracking. But she also sees him pull back from the precipice.

Is it because of Prague?  That, too, plays a role, an important one.  Even when she seems to have moved past it, that disappointment haunts Sarah throughout the season, and it helps explain her choosing Shaw.  Despite her bravado in telling Chuck he cannot hurt her, he can hurt her–he has, and he still does: the whole situation of S3 appears for Sarah against the background of her crushed dreams for the two of them.  She is living through her wretched hollow.  Every day with Chuck is a reminder of what she does not have:  a real life with him. Every day stabs.  Every day cuts her with some shard of what-could-have-been.  Choosing Shaw is choosing a back-up, makeshift life-in-waiting.  It is not what Sarah wants, and she knows that, even if she tries to ignore it. (Sarah does surely like Shaw; and, equally important, she admires him.  As she says, she has a type.  But liking plus admiring have never equalled love, not in any sober calculus of the heart.)  Sarah has retreated to her old posture, treating her own emotions as if they were her asset, and she their handler.  That did not work out well before; it is not working out well now.  Complete emotional invulnerability demands complete emotional numbness.  Sarah can no longer be numb.  Chuck quickened her emotions for good, and they refuse to be deadened again. She cannot kill her love for Chuck; she can only deny it.

So why does she not believe him? Answering the question forces us to go back to a much earlier conversation between Chuck and Sarah.  In vs. the Truth, Chuck, Sarah and Casey, all suffering from the effects of the truth serum/poison, are sitting in the hospital hallway.  Sarah, clearly making no effort to withstand the serum at that moment, tells Chuck how sorry she is about all that has happened.  And by all, she means all–not just Ellie’s being poisoned or Chuck’s being poisoned, but everything that has happened since she arrived.  This is an important speech.  It comes from deep inside Sarah.

From nearly the beginning of their fake/real relationship, Sarah has felt a mixture of gratitude for the presence of Chuck in her life and of regret for her presence in his.  Just as Chuck cannot easily see himself as a hero, Sarah cannot easily see how much of a role she plays in his being heroic.  But others, especially Morgan, can see how much Sarah catalyzes growth in Chuck:  “When Chuck is around Sarah, he’s the Chuck we all knew he could be.”  Sarah is so involved in Chuck’s effects on her that she often fails to see or forgets her effects on him. (This fact bulks large in the dysfunction of S3:  Sarah cannot see that Chuck refusing to run with her results from her good effect on him.  She has actually succeeding in making him think that maybe, maybe he can be a hero.)  Sarah tends to focus only on how she complicates Chuck’s life, and how the complications cause him frustration, anxiety, shame and pain. She regrets all of that.  And she carries that regret with her into S3.

At Traxx, when Chuck joins Sarah at the table, flushed with excitement about (he thinks) having become an agent, and about having dinner with her, Sarah has to tell him that he now faces his Red Test.  He must kill the mole to become an agent.  But before Sarah can deliver that doom to him, Chuck thanks her for all she has done and comments that he would never have gotten to where he is without her.  She does not want him to say that.  It is–literally–the last thing she wants to hear.  Her regret about her presence in his life crashes in upon her.  If she had never come along, Chuck would not have had to undergo any of this (Seasons 1-3), or to face the choice to kill the mole or to fail to become an agent. Sarah realizes the vise that Chuck is in:  He can kill the mole and so lose her, or he can fail to become an agent and so lose her.  Chuck may not see all that quite so clearly, but he can feel the vise closing.

Later, when Sarah arrives in time to witness the immediate aftermath of the shot that kills the mole, Sarah reports to Shaw:  “Chuck is a spy.”  From her point of view, the Chuck she knew and loved, her Chuck, is as irrevocably dead as the mole. But, still from Sarah’s point of view, Chuck does not kill himself:  she kills him:  she is responsible for pulling the trigger that causes Chuck to pull the trigger.  Sarah is so sure that she is responsible for what Chuck has done that she never really stops to consider whether or not Chuck has actually done it.  Her pervasive guilt for all that has led up to the Red Test colors how she sees the Test. (It is worth remembering here too the guilt Sarah feels about her own Red Test.  It is no accident that she is thinking about her Test immediately after Chuck’s.) The crashing wave of guilt she feels swamps Chuck and everything else.  She cannot distinguish her guilt from his–all the guilt is hers.  But, strangely enough, this makes it impossible for her to believe–at least initially–that Chuck is not guilty.  She is guilty, so he must be.  After she has had a little time to reflect, she begins to wonder if maybe Chuck is telling the truth.  At least, she is wondering enough to ask him about  it when Chuck takes Shaw’s place at the restaurant table (in vs. the American Hero).

She has still not sorted it all out when Chuck saves Shaw–or when Chuck at last professes his love to her.  She has sorted it out enough to take it to be somehow possible that Chuck did not kill the mole.  He is no longer swallowed up in her pervasive guilt. But if she no longer disbelieves him, she still does not yet believe him.  She does intuit this much:  Shaw’s decision to infiltrate the Ring’s compound is reckless, not courageous; Chuck’s decision is courageous, not reckless.  At some level, Sarah can tell the difference.

An aside:  generally, Shaw’s actions seem virtuous only because they are instances of vices that look like virtues, and so are easy to confuse with them:  foolhardiness with courage (as in infiltrating the compound), cruelty with honor (as when he brutalizes the bound assassin for his inappropriate remarks to Sarah), manipulation with mentoring (as in his relationship with Chuck) obsession with loving memory (as in his relationship with his dead wife), possessiveness with love (as in his relationship with Sarah).  Shaw manages to be broken, bad, while looking good.  From the moment Shaw first appears, burning his Zippo in Beckman’s office, it is clear that there is something wrong with that man.  But getting it into focus is hard, because he seems right, he seems good. It will require a certain sort of context, an appropriate series of events, to sift Shaw’s virtuous appearance from his vicious reality.[3]

As I said, Sarah is beginning to notice these things about Shaw.  No one else–not Chuck, not Casey, not Beckman–notices.  Well, no one else other than Morgan, whose comment about Shaw’s stiffness (“He’s a stiff as a board!”) seems to me to penetrate deep into Shaw, to a fundamental unresponsiveness, a lack of genuine care, in him.[4]  But even though Sarah is starting to notice these things, she is not clearly conscious of them.  She cannot articulate them.

Sarah can tell that Chuck’s decision to go after Shaw is noble.  He does it for her sake and not for his own.  But she is still awash in her own feeling of guilt, and she still does not exactly believe Chuck; so, she cannot satisfactorily process what she feels about him and about what he is doing.  He seems like he is virtuous, her virtuous Chuck, the man she loves.  But in her guilt she has convinced herself that that man is dead, and that his blood is on her hands.

When Chuck professes his love for her, when he kisses her, when he forswears convincing her–wanting her instead to freely choose him–he effectively washes her hands.  His words are a benediction.  It may still be wrong to say that she exactly believes Chuck.  She has not worked that out completely yet.  There are also the complexities of her commitments, to Shaw and to Beckman, still to work through.  But, at long last, the high tide of confusion, hurt, guilt and regret begins to go down.  She can begin to remember:  she is grateful for Chuck’s presence in her life.  Casey will soon transchange that gratitude into joy.  Sarah will have waited it out.[5]


[1] In the tumult of The Red Test (and of S3 generally) it is hard to keep the sequence of events in mind.  Sarah makes her trip to DC with Shaw before The Red Test.  And it is right after the Red Test that Shaw asks Sarah if she still loves Chuck.   She answers:  “No.  Not any more.”  So while she was with Shaw in DC she was still in love with Chuck–and Shaw knew it.  Although I do not know how to prove it, I am reasonably convinced that Chuck’s Red Test and Sarah’s ‘proctoring’ of it are compelled by Shaw to drive Chuck and Sarah finally apart.  His question, coming when it does, reveals that.  

[2] As I mention in my book, ‘different’ for Sarah almost always means ‘worse’ or ‘compares unfavorably to’.  It is a bit of emotionally controlled shorthand, and Sarah has a set of such terms at her disposal.  They are among her techniques for avoiding the use of first-person desiderative verbs, to avoid having to express desire or aversion, emotional satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Later in S3, she will be able to answer Chuck’s question:  “Sarah, do you love me?” by saying, “Yes”.  But she will struggle to use the word ‘love’ herself (vs. the Tooth).   

[3] Keep in mind I say all this while still harboring a certain sympathy for Shaw.  There is a story to tell about how he got to be as he is. It does not excuse him but it does make him less opaque. Also, I am not saying that Shaw is purposely deceitful about himself, as if he realizes his viciousness and tries to keep his vices hidden.  He does not realize (fully) that he is vicious.  He is as taken in by his looks as anyone else.

[4] Watch carefully.  Morgan’s judgments about other people are perceptive, particularly about those closest to him.  And he has something of the visionary or prophet about him where Chuck is concerned.  Time and time again he predicts something–“Chuck and Sarah will come right through that door”–and is proven right.  This surely matters for his S5 prediction that one kiss will revive Sarah’s dormant memories.

[5] I have been weaving Imogen Heap’s “Wait it Out” into the essay.  I have done so in order to bring the song to mind.  That song does far more in S3 than comment on what is happening early.  It takes us into Sarah’s inner life and allows us to understand its shape, to understand what is happening in her, from the beginning of the season all the way to Casey’s revelation.  The parallel to this song for Chuck is Frightened Rabbit’s “Backwards Walk”.  I will discuss that soon.  

Is Stupidity a Sin? (St. Thomas)

II-II Q. XLVI. ART. II.

Article II.–Is stupidity a sin?

R.  Stupidity implies a dulness of perception in judging, particularly about the Highest Cause, the Last End and Sovereign Good.  This may come of natural incapacity, and that is not a sin.  Or it may come of man burying his mind so deep in earthly things as to render his perceptions unfit to grasp the things of God, according to the text:  “The sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God;” and such stupidity is a sin.

2.  Though no one wishes to be stupid, still people do wish for what leads to stupidity, by withdrawing their thoughts from things spiritual and burying them in things of the earth.  So it is also with other sins; for the lustful man wants the pleasure to which the sin is attached, though he does not absolutely wish for the sin; for he would like to enjoy the pleasure without the sin.

Cicero on Inconsistency with Yesterday

You appeal to my writings, and testify to what I may at some time have said or written. You may deal in this way with others, who in their discussions follow prescribed rules. We live for the passing day ; we say whatever strikes our minds as probable ; and so we alone are free.

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