Passing Judgment, Conceding Perfection: Third-Person Narration and Versions of the Cavellian Secular

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Passing Judgment, Conceding Perfection: Third-Person Narration and Versions of the Cavellian Secular

Anne-Lise François
University of California, Berkeley

Les hommes nous doivent ce que nous imaginons qu’ils nous donneront. Leur remettre cette dette.
Accepter qu’ils soient autre que les créatures de notre imagination, c’est imiter le renoncement de Dieu.
Moi aussi, je suis autre que ce que je m’imagine être. Le savoir, c’est le pardon.

Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. Forgive them this debt.
To accept that they are different than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God.
I too am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.
—Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

A judge should be able to decide, by hearing what was said, what locutionary and illocutionary acts were performed, but not what perlocutionary acts were achieved.
—J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words

There is no end to the things that happen to people.
. . . . . . . . . .
In the mode of passionate exchange there is no final word, no uptake or turndown, until a line is drawn, a withdrawal is effected, perhaps in turn to be revoked.
—Stanley Cavell, Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow

1.         I begin with an acknowledgment of gratitude to Eric Lindstrom not simply for providing generous and illuminating comments on earlier drafts but for imagining an essay worthier than the one here presented. At the start of his own “Austen and Austin” Lindstrom juxtaposes the story of Jane Austen’s short-lived engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither—in which she gave her consent one day and retracted it the next—with J.L. Austin’s off-hand comment from Sense and Sensibilia: “There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back” (qtd. in Lindstrom 501). However indirectly, the following essay has been written as an extended meditation on the brilliance of this juxtaposition, which helps de-dramatize a consent no sooner given than withdrawn, where the consent and its withdrawal constitute a single, finished non-drama, and not an invitation for further courtship.

2.        "The verb needs modifying," is the lesson of Austin's "excuses"—their tenor "is that I did it but only in a way, not just flatly like that" (“A Plea for Excuses” 187). [1]  Excuses do not deny or cancel a given action: they modify it, and potentially endlessly, as one might glean both from Austin's own many discriminations and from the multiple near synonyms—mitigate, extenuate, temper, etc.—for "alter[ation] in the direction of mildness or moderation" (OED). By contrast, third-person accounts of Austen's broken engagement (such as Deirdre Le Faye's, cited by Lindstrom) perhaps necessarily tend to retain something of the novelist's own flatness and model a different kind of tact: explanation for why Cassandra and Jane had to be fetched from the Bigg household sooner than expected may eventually be given, but none for the withdrawn consent. Somewhere between the rich insufficiency of the interminably proliferating Austinian excuse and the minimal sufficiency of unapologetic Austenian report lies the dialectic that this essay hopes to explore: on the one hand, the strangely generative powers of retraction-through-verbalizing modification; on the other, the even stranger generosity of another mode of recession that declines even to assume the work of articulation.


3.        My first engagement with Cavell’s work concerned his tendency to identify “romanticism” with what he calls the “process of secularization,” whereby finite individuals are asked to play “God” to one another by verifying and bearing witness to one another’s separate existences. In this early work Cavell’s originality lies in reconverting into the passive voice a crisis of knowledge commonly expressed in the active: skepticism about other minds turns out to be a drama not of insufficient or unreliable or as yet imperfect levels of knowing but of too much being known—a tragedy that ensues when the skeptic refuses to allow himself to be found out by the other to be, like her, mortal and separate, and attempts to convert into a reparable “intellectual lack” the irreparable “metaphysical finitude” the other has already revealed in and for him. From the start, then, Cavell implies that what seems the harder role—the active task of making oneself known—may be an evasion of the passive role of allowing oneself to be known.

4.        In Open Secrets I argued that “romanticism” so defined—as the last, unfinished act of a drama called “secularization”—puts humans in the position of playing impossible roles for one another—my allowing myself to be known, your playing God to know me—each rife with heroic temptations toward “absolute activeness” and “absolute passiveness”: the Protestant emphasis on a law of the heart means that it is now up to me to determine what is asked of me, while what constitutes the acknowledgment of this unsummoned gift remains in turn equally unspecified (Cavell, Claim 470). [2]  Such schematic stagings of something called “romanticism” or “secularization”—as a drama of revelation and abandonment that could never (and indeed need never) have happened to particular individuals—betray Cavell’s own preference for dramatic genres, a preference itself readable in terms of a Romantic desire to give dramatic form to human history. [3]  The impatience they may elicit from incredulous readers itself replays at the metalevel the difficulty of believing in acknowledgment as a decisive action.

5.        For again, as I argued in Open Secrets, if for Cavell the “humanization” of acknowledgment places “infinite demands upon finite resources” (Claim 470), then assuming the burden of the power to confirm one another’s self image means, in large measure, renouncing these demands, as my acknowledgment of your capacity to sustain “infinite interest” inevitably shades into a sense of how little this can do for you (361). If we accept Cavell's account of the skeptic’s doubt as indicating not cognitive uncertainty but the disavowal of having already been found to be a mortal among other mortals, acknowledgment constitutes an advance on knowledge, but not in the sense of the discovery of a new and decisive piece of evidence, rather in that of a change in attitude—an adjustment whereby the questioner may simply stop questioning and let go not so much of the possibility of certainty as of a fantasy about what achieving certainty might mean. [4]  Acknowledgment in this sense can look more like relinquishment than resolution, but because he wants to preserve the distinction from cognitive advance, Cavell perhaps too strongly insists on “acknowledgment” as above all an expressive act, even if at other points he concedes that this attitudinal relaxation of the skeptic’s demand for proof may never in fact take definitive expression. Compare, for example, the following passages:

Acknowledgment “goes beyond” knowledge, not in the order, or as a feat, of cognition, but in the call upon me to express the knowledge at its core, to recognize what I know, to do something in the light of it, apart from which this knowledge remains without expression, hence perhaps without possession (Claim 428).

If my attitude towards him expresses my knowledge that he has a soul, my attitude may nevertheless not be very definitely expressed, nor very readily. It may take ages; it may be expressed now in the way I live[. . .]. The word “attitude” can be misleading here. It is not, in the matters at hand, a disposition I can adopt at will. It will be helpful to take the English word in its physical sense, as an inflection of myself toward others, an orientation which affects everything and which I may or may not be interested in discovering about myself. (360)

Such divergent passages bear witness to the difficulty of reconciling Cavell’s heroic investment in “acknowledgment” as the duty and burden of secular individuals, with the figures of “decline,” “lapse,” and “concession” by which one signals one’s disappointed acceptance of the other’s finite and fallible knowledge of oneself. [5] 

6.        When proposing this essay I’d originally promised to explore these tensions as they inform Cavell’s more recent work, where the ambiguous call for some kind of demonstrative, expressive act or sign acknowledging the unreliability of signs reappears, and where what was once the “secularizing process” is redescribed as the double project of meeting the demand for intelligibility while giving up on the fantasy of perfect expression. Here in terms that sound less “romantic” or post-secular than Habermasian, Cavell warns us that if we do not accommodate the imperative of expression to ordinary language, we are “stopped short in the obligation to make our desires, hence our actions, intelligible and hampered in our demand and right to be found intelligible in those desires and actions, to ask residence in the shared realm of reason” (Philosophy 188). But as often happens with the promises one makes in an abstract and their somewhat inconsequent realizations, in the course of reading essays from Cavell’s Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow, my thoughts took a slightly different turn toward Cavell’s longstanding interest in marriage, and more particularly, in marriage as a daily or diurnal event—an event that, as Eric Walker also argues, Cavell frequently defines as essentially incapable of definitive achievement because it consists of the precarious sustaining (or not) of a conversation over time, one felicitous instance of which can never absolutely guarantee the dawn of another. Indeed “felicity” here, in direct contrast to the sense in which J. L. Austin uses the word to measure the successful performative, may be predicated on continued uncertainty as to whether full, exact communication has actually and finally occurred, whether the invitation to exchange has been accepted or rebuked. Thus, according to Cavell, in both the Hollywood remarriage comedies and melodramatic refusals of marriage discussed in his earlier Pursuits of Happiness and Contesting Tears,

nothing legitimizes or ratifies marriage—not state, or church, or sex, or gender, or children—apart from the willingness for reaffirmation, which is to say, for remarriage [. . .] and what makes marriage worth reaffirming is a diurnal devotedness that involves friendship, play, surprise, and mutual education, all manifested in the pair’s mode of conversing with each other (not just in words). (Philosophy 121-22)
In an earlier chapter in Philosophy he cites Benjamin’s enigmatic claim from the essay on Elective Affinities that “marriage is never justified in law (that is, as an institution) but is justified solely as an expression of continuance in love, which by nature seeks this expression sooner in death than in life” (qtd. in Philosophy 86-87). Cavell offers the following parenthetical gloss: “perhaps Benjamin means this as a smack at a Romantic suggestion that it is easier to love eternally than diurnally” (87).

7.        Now, of course, marriage so conceived—as a never conclusively achieved diurnal continuance—works in tension with marriage as pronounced by law, whether civic or religious. Marriage in this latter sense constitutes perhaps the most famous example of Austin’s illocutionary performatives—speech acts supposed to occur once and for all and whose felicity is determinable according to clearly established conventions: I can’t be uncertain as to whether I’ve been married in the eyes of the law in the same way that I can doubt what counts as the renewal of the vows the next day and then the next. Although Cavell never quite explicitly says so, this potential disjuncture between the closure to progressive, iterative tenses of the Austinian performative “I do” and his conception of marriage as a kind of shorthand for the ongoing and difficultly evinceable project of acknowledgment more or less maps onto the comparison he makes in the chapter “Performative and Passionate Utterance” between illocutionary acts, where the doing lies in the saying (I do, I give and bequeath, I bet, I christen, etc.), and perlocutionary ones, where something happens—some strong emotional effect is released, whether inadvertently or intentionally—by virtue of the saying but where the doing and the saying don’t usually line up with the same first-person form: to take Cavell’s examples, to say “I seduce you” is no guarantee that I do, or an utterance may be extremely embarrassing or painful but not necessarily because its utterer says, “I now embarrass you, I now injure you” (Philosophy 178). [6] 

8.        For both Austin and Cavell, perlocutionary speech acts differ from illocutionary ones in that with them “there is no accepted conventional procedure and effect. The speaker is on his own to create the desired effect” (180). In this respect, the “perlocutionary” belongs to the realm of the “secular” as Cavell uses the term to designate the sense of not knowing what the rules are, of having to make them up as one goes along, as if being finite or mortal were also being subject and subjecting oneself to potentially endless interpretation. Hence, if “a performative utterance is an offer of participation in the order of law,” then, “a passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire” (185, emphasis added). And just as the appropriate agents cannot be determined beforehand, knowing when the speech drama is at an end is nearly impossible, since, unlike the definitiveness with which in Austin’s examples one may refuse to recognize a challenge or an offer of marriage and this is the end to the matter, “in the realm of the perlocutionary, refusal may become part of the performance” (183). Thus to cite again the line I took for another epigraph, “there is no end to the things that happen to people” (175). Yet in the midst of thus emphasizing the unstoppable and uncontrollable proliferation of responses that in turn elicit further responses, Cavell introduces an example of a line that he reads as exceptionally end-stopped—Carmen’s “No. You do not love me”—a response that listeners and performers alike usually hear as an invitation for Don José to contradict her but that Cavell takes as a mere constative:

Every critic I have read on the subject takes Carmen at that moment of refusal to be further seducing Don José, ridiculing his sense of honor, enticing him to come with her into the life of freedom from law. But the written score (it is not always performed so) marks her line pianississimo (triple piano). She is at that moment, as I perceive her, paradoxically, and as far as humanly possible, expressionless, without implication, utters with no expression a pure constative, the simplest of truths, that he does not love her. She stares blankly at the truth and is bewildered. The unprecedented event, finding no love where she has commanded and returned love, causes her to issue a flurry of invitations and taunts to cover her bewilderment, confused and confusing gestures to which this man, in her eyes, has, within the space of a song, a song she rejects, become irrelevant; she denies that it is she who has been singled out in his song. That much has ended in her. But how will it end between them, who will have the last word? Who does have the last word? (184)
Under such conditions, there seems to be no choice but to rely on the “other”—the conversational partner or interlocutor to fill in the blanks—to finish off the unsaid, to read past the silences. We can see the appeal as well as treachery of this paradigm in which we are called upon to be active readers, readers capable of weighing the partial meanings with which a certain silence may be filled. The good “other” or marriage partner would be the one who helps us to expressiveness, and for an instance of this happy partnership, Cavell turns to Jane Austen’s Emma at the end of the chapter. Most difficult to imagine, however, would be the interlocutor capable of assenting to the finality of Carmen’s constative.

9.        I will come to Austen myself momentarily, but for now by way of further exploring the impossibility of a statement such as “I persuade you,” I want to make a brief detour through perhaps the most operatic writer of third-person fiction, Stendhal. Cavell's “Performative and Passionate Utterance” begins as a critique of Austin’s relative neglect of perlocutionary effects as symptomatic of his unease before the messiness of human passions, but the idea that “perlocutionary acts make room for, and reward, imagination and virtuosity, unequally distributed capacities among the species” (Philosophy 173) might be part of what gave pause to the advocate of “plain saying,” since it evokes the familiar topos of the indeterminably elect—an aristocracy of the imagination whose special powers would be differently called into play by passionate utterances than by “illocutionary acts” where no such questions arise: “I do not, except in special circumstances, wonder how I might make a promise or a gift, or apologize, or render a verdict,” whereas persuading, consoling, confusing, and seducing you “may take talent” (Philosophy 173). Stendhal’s 1827 novel Armance offers a remarkable example not so much of the difficulty of persuasion per se as of the non-relation, or the unpredictability of relation, between effort and success. Stendhal’s young hero struggles to persuade his cousin of his indifference to the wealth into which he has recently come and which will enable him to marry well; after days of wondering how to defend himself against her accusation of his worldliness, an accusation she has, of course, never expressly addressed to him, he finally settles on this:

J’ai longtemps cherché à me justifier auprès de vous, non par de vaines paroles, mais par des actions. Je n’en trouve aucune qui soit décisive; moi aussi, je ne puis avoir recours qu’à votre sens intime. Or voici ce qui m’est arrivé. Pendant que je parlerai, voyez dans mes yeux si je mens. (64)

I have long sought to justify myself to you, not by vain words but by actions. I can find none that would be decisive; I, too, can have recourse only to your intimate sense. Well, this is what has happened [literally, come] to me. As I will speak, see in my eyes if I’m lying. [7] 

Oddly juxtaposing past, present, and future, Octave’s proposal is hit upon in the past tense but offered—tendered—to the future of Armance’s reception, as if his speaking had not yet begun; irreducible to the irony of using speech to circumvent the unreliability of speech, his words amount to a surprisingly uncynical assumption of the disjuncture between intention and effect—a recognition that, while the content of his speech may be as good as empty, what happens while he is speaking isn’t. From the histrionic demand for action and not mere words as proof of a resolution to sacrifice, he falls back on the very vanity of these “mere” words, as if in inversion of Hippolytus’s “my tongue swore to, but my heart did not”; abandoning his attempt to persuade her, he gives in, with his impossible invitation that she “see in his eyes if he is lying,” not to a naive faith in the truth of physical presence, but to her powers to do something other than listen (while he babbles on). [8] 

10.         Several pages earlier, the reader has in any case been informed that Octave’s fruitless search for the means to persuade Armance of his integrity has of itself already been effective in persuading her by its very desperation (of adequate means): if he searches in vain, it is because nothing can be good enough (for her? for him?) and this is enough to make him worthy of her:

En cherchant en vain les moyens de se justifier de l’accusation qu’Armance lui adressait en secret, Octave laissait voir, sans s’en douter, combien profondément il en était touché; c’était peut-être la manière la plus adroite de mériter son pardon. (53-54)

While seeking in vain the means to justify himself before the accusation that Armance addressed him in secret, Octave was unconsciously revealing how deeply he was touched by it; this was perhaps the most adept way of deserving her forgiveness.

This same structure of a discourse whose emptiness or vanity at the level of content in no way determines its decisiveness or seriousness, and indeed whose status as mere babble in fact facilitates its import, will later define Armance’s discovery that Octave loves her (before he knows this himself) as he speaks to her about another woman whom he has been pretending to pursue in public:

Il y avait dans l’accent profond et presque attendri avec lequel Octave disait ces vaines paroles, une si grande impossibilité d’aimer les grâces un peu hasardées de la jolie femme dont il parlait, et un dévouement si passioné pour l’amie à laquelle il se confiait, qu’elle n’eut pas le courage de résister au bonheur de se voir aimée ainsi [. . .] Tout ce que sa prudence pouvait obtenir d’elle, c’était de ne pas parler; le son de sa voix eût fait connaître à son cousin toute la passion qu’il inspirait. (108)

There was in the deep and almost softened accent with which Octave was saying these empty words so great an impossibility of loving the somewhat chancy graces of the pretty woman of whom he spoke, and so passionate a devotion for the friend to whom he was confiding himself, that she did not have the courage to resist the happiness of seeing herself thus loved [. . .] All her prudence could obtain from her, was not to speak; the sound of her voice would have revealed to her cousin all the passion that he was inspiring.

Nothing, in a sense, could be further from the renewed commitment to ordinary language with which Cavell ends his essay, citing again Austin’s caution, “Accuracy and morality alike are on the side of the plain saying that our word is our bond” (Philosophy 191), and for the remainder of this essay I will follow Cavell in turning to the more familiar psychological realism of Jane Austen’s fiction, whose characters (with the possible exception of the diffident Fanny Price) show a different (although, I would argue, not greater) faith in the possibility of communication than Stendhal’s histrionically hermetic heroes do. Yet, in the end, the directness with which point-blank declaration occurs for Octave and Armance in and through, as well as after, so many rounds of deferral, disguise, mutual deceit, and self-deception in the end does not so much differ from Cavell’s own movement of return to the ordinary through the passionate, charted in this essay and elsewhere in his work. The heady combination of directness and indirection, of trenchant circumlocution and perfected error characteristic of Stendhal’s prose, derives in large part, of course, from the flat definitiveness with which his third-person narration reports his protagonists’ attempts to obfuscate and delay the crisis of mutual encounter and revelation such that every sentence performs the conclusion the characters would postpone. It is tempting in this context to cite again Cavell’s claim that the “book of philosophy” that Thoreau would find “suitable” to students “would be written with next to no forward motion” because it would “culminate in each sentence” (Quest 18). [9]  How might third-person narration effect such singular stopping points? With this question in mind, I now return to Carmen’s “last word” and its possible equivalents in Austen’s prose.

11.         Indeed what if, instead of awaiting rescue from a patient Mr. Knightley, we were to introduce into this conversational paradigm, premised as it is on a model of language as communication between a sender and a receiver, the innovation for which Austen is perhaps most well known in the history of the English novel: free indirect style in which no one speaks? [10]  For this particular mode of narration frees protagonists from the burden that Cavell takes as the mark of secular individuals—that of making themselves known and accepting to be known by one another. In Cavell’s model, it is the good, discerning interlocutor—the rather preachy Mr. Knightley—who is capable of bestowing acknowledgment and simultaneously forgiving the heroine for her double failure with respect to adequate expression: her inability not to express herself all the time and her failure to express herself as she would like. [11]  But I want to suggest that Austen’s novels—and third person narration in general—also afford another kind of forgiveness for the failure to arrive at fully articulate, transparent expression. Elsewhere I have described how free indirect style frees characters first from the work of speaking for themselves, giving accounts, and making themselves legible to others that constitutes the right and duty of Habermasian individuals, and then from the no less onerous burden of having to signal “deep” or unfathomable emotion. Cavell’s relative neglect of third-person narrative modes, which his late turn toward Jane Austen’s fiction makes all the more noticeable, belongs to his investments in dialogical, dramatic forms, investments themselves indicative of his commitment to self-expression as the measure of having assumed the burden of the other’s separate existence. Yet this neglect seems all the stranger in light of his claims for the ordinariness of desires that may remain without expression, or rather his ambivalence toward the “Rousseauian” or “Romantic” myth that I am essentially unknowable, incommunicable to others, and his wish not to exaggerate the gulf between the mystery of inchoate private experience and the formal articulations required of public life. If the double, contradictory injunction to invest the self with secret proprietary value and make it publicly accountable ends up faulting thoughts for not “ris[ing] to the level of the expressible” (Ferguson 167; François 14), no such negative judgments attend the experiences rendered by free indirect style—mental states no less achieved for not being said aloud by one speaker to another—because their realization is not predicated on their being claimed, voiced, and communicated.

12.        In other words, the silent agency of narration may do for a character what the musical notation “pianississimo” in Bizet’s opera does for Carmen, or indeed what Cavell’s speculative interpretation of what is happening within her at that moment does, which is not so much to supply the unspoken words as to explain the sufficiency of what she does utter. Transpose his “She stares blankly at the truth and is bewildered” to the past tense and it acquires the easy weight of a novelistic truth we would not hesitate to credit—a “pure constative” in its own right. The interchangeability of “pure” and “mere” and “simple” in such cases points to the sometimes but not always problematically unassuming character of the constative as a statement both beneath and beyond contestation. To take an example worlds apart from Carmen, Austen’s sentence describing the situation of Fanny Price abandoned if only temporarily on her bench as the others wander Sotherton’s grounds together—“she seemed to have the little wood all to herself” (Mansfield Park 117)—repeats at the level of form the passing by or minimal notice of which Fanny is the object; or rather it transposes the other characters’ potentially ill-willed neglect into a kind of benign negligence. Fanny’s self-consciousness of herself as abandoned is registered as the illusion of possessing the little wood; something or someone in the sentence smiles wryly at this illusion, whether this smile belongs to Austen or Fanny herself does not really matter.

13.        Simultaneously unhesitating and unforthcoming, frankly assertive and closed to further elaboration, third-person psycho-narration promises to suspend the multiplying cascade-effect of perlocutionary utterances and bring to a term the potentially endless spiral of rejected rejections, inconclusive farewells, fallings silent, and resumed “no”s. This, of course, sounds a lot like the ideological use often attributed to impersonal narration—that of offering a measured mode of disclosure, a cool middle way between the sense of ourselves as utterly opaque and utterly exposed to one another. The long-standing association of free-floating, impersonal narrative agency with the similarly invisible divinity of textual monotheism, or the equally bodiless “voice” of ideological discourse, would also seem to cast the disclosure of unspoken thoughts made possible by free indirect style as a regression from the scene of secular judgment that so interests Cavell—a falsely safe retreat, then, from the loneliness and uncertainty of having to discern the other’s meaning on one’s own. Yet I hope in the readings that remain to suggest otherwise by distinguishing the kinds of resting-places precariously achieved from the false comfort of the illusion of total transparency and by emphasizing the sense of heightened proximity to unretractable error and incorrigible blindness. For Andrew Miller, who also addresses the relevance of the effects particular to Austen’s narrative style and Cavell’s project of acknowledgment, the “conversation” between her two narrative techniques—objective narration and free indirect discourse—simultaneously provokes our desire to complete a character’s near but fatally flawed self-understanding and leaves us powerless to do so (72). Miller shows remarkably little anger toward the double push and pull by which, he claims, Austen’s narration simultaneously goads and halts us, because he reads it through the lens of Cavellian perfectionism as an invitation for us both to wake up to the gap between ideal and actual self and not to experience this gap as a cause for despair (80-82), as if by helping us to a renewed sense of our helplessness Austen were rewriting in less stark terms Kant’s famous formulation of the predicament of human reason—solicited to attempt something it knows it cannot achieve. [12]  On this reading the erring human subject who reads and is read by Austen’s perfectly finished sentences cannot avail herself of their achievement, but where Miller assumes a subject who will always therefore try harder, I take the appeal of a “prose [that] never needs help but is unfailingly up to its aims” (71), as an invitation, in the other direction, to give up trying and happily resign oneself to the ready help of more capable hands.

14.        “Edmund, you do not know me” (Mansfield Park 492)—Fanny exclaims to herself of her future husband, quickly dispensing of the illusion of marriage as an exercise in mutual knowability through witty or cutting repartée of the kind that Cavell idealizes. What would it mean to reimagine marriage as something occurring between novelist/narrator and protagonist rather than, according to heteronormative assumptions, between hero and heroine? What reparative work can we assign to the gently mocking maternal narrative voice who does the work of acknowledging Fanny’s bad faith and by the same gesture forgives or excuses it? In the following passage, for example, Austen’s judgment on Fanny as a moralizing prude doubles that of Fanny upon herself as hypocrite, but the one seems to cancel the other out, yielding in the place of moral heaviness, a sense of exhilarated exculpation (the “them” in question are Mary and Edmund whom Fanny is not displeased to see quarreling at her first ball):

Fanny, not able to refrain entirely from observing them, had seen enough to be tolerably satisfied. It was barbarous to be happy when Edmund was suffering. Yet some happiness must and would arise, from the very conviction, that he did suffer. (324)
The middle sentence, which appears to belong more clearly to Fanny’s consciousness than the last, whose concluding and abstracting insight may or may not be hers, uses strongly moralizing language—“barbarous”—to condemn what it also presents as a mere temporal coincidence. The following sentence goes further in asserting an invidious causal connection between her happiness and Edmund’s suffering, but withdraws the moral condemnation. Yet it is not so easy to parcel out what here belongs to the subject of the happiness (Fanny) and what to its ironic reporter (whom we call Austen for shorthand). For if the impersonal, agentless construction—“it was barbarous”—and the use, specific to written language, of the auxiliary verbs “must” and “would” to refer to an indefinite happening in time, rather than an imperative or hypothetical condition, indicate narrative detachment from the character’s subjective experience, they also register this character’s own tendency toward queenly, self-absolving, analytic cool. If Fanny were to have written to some confidante, “It was barbarous [of me] to be happy when Edmund was suffering,” she might have been told she was sentimentally over-estimating her guilt but she could as easily have been taken as wittily and urbanely yoking moral hyperbole to the obviously unperturbed, deflationary “it was.” As it is, Fanny must accept to be happy, and to find her happiness where she does, at however tainted a source, exercising a kind of non-punitive self-knowledge in doing so without too loud a protest. [13] 

15.        A few more examples will, I hope, round out the sense of this easing off of judging and relaxing into sufficiency, whether on the part of narrative agency or protagonist; perhaps appropriately, none of these passages quite meets the requirements of what I’m looking for: a judgment or last word that would simply lift the exacting pressure of the demand for an answer. A certain sly way of getting the last word, without in fact uttering it, is in any case the natural prerogative of free indirect style, whose ironic effects derive in large part from putting into play and leaving without comment the disjuncture between a character’s beliefs or meanings and the plot’s actual or imminent truth. So several chapters before the novel’s own dénouement, Chapter 11 of Volume III of Mansfield Park concludes by markedly not resuming narration, ending instead with a rendering of Fanny’s growing excitement as she warms to what appears to her as the prospect of Henry Crawford’s soon desisting from his suit:

Not considering in how different a circle she had been just seeing him, nor how much might be owing to contrast, she was quite persuaded of his being astonishingly more gentle, and regardful of others, than formerly. And if in little things, must it not be so in great? So anxious for her health and comfort, so very feeling as he now expressed himself, and really seemed, might not it be fairly supposed, that he would not much longer persevere in a suit so distressing to her? (479-80)
As marriages go, the alliance between Austen’s narrative agency and Fanny’s point of view here would seem to strand the girl high and dry. For as if continuing the spring outing from which she has just returned, the passage, in its quick stringing together of questions and clauses, records a kind of quickening or thawing of Fanny’s speculative imagination, as she indulges in wishful thinking and begins to hope, admittedly for very little: that a man she does not love will simply go away and accept her “no” as definitive, for why should solicitousness for her health and well-being not be indicative of a more general wish to respect her choices? To this much, Austen gives Fanny reason and the logic remains intact, so that of the many jokes in play here, one is that she would like him better—and might be prepared to accept him—if he would only give up his pointed attention, and another is on the reader who, eager for Crawford’s chances, was prepared to take Fanny’s reconsideration of his qualities as a sign of her warming to him as a lover.

16.        So in the previous chapter perhaps nothing disposes Fanny toward Henry more favorably than his declining her father’s invitation to join them for Saturday dinner. Here too there are too many jokes fully to unpack, for where Fanny seems to overestimate his delicacy (as women are always supposed to be doing according to the gendered ideology of gentility), the concluding contrastive judgment, whether Austen’s or her own, only continues to consign him to the damned who will never be worthy of her hand: if she is right to want to spare him, it is only on account of his vices:

Before they parted, she had to thank him for another pleasure, and one of no trivial kind. Her father asked him to do them the honour of taking his mutton with them, and Fanny had time for only one thrill of horror, before he declared himself prevented by a prior engagement. He was engaged to dinner already both for that day and the next; he had met with some acquaintance at the Crown who would not be denied; he should have the honour, however, of waiting on them again on the morrow, &c. and so they parted—Fanny in a state of actual felicity from escaping so horrible an evil!

To have had him join their family dinner-party and see all their deficiencies, would have been dreadful! Rebecca’s cookery and Rebecca’s waiting, and Betsey’s eating at table without restraint, and pulling every thing about as she chose, were what Fanny herself was not yet enough inured to, for her often to make a tolerable meal. She was nice only from natural delicacy, but he had been brought up in a school of luxury and epicurism. (472)

Finally there is a further joke in the discretion with which the narration leaves open whether Henry reads Fanny’s distress on her face and decides to decline the invitation accordingly, or whether he really does already have another engagement and is, as usual, putting his pleasure first—a miniature allegory of the difficulty of telling discretion from selfishness that informs the plot as a whole.

17.        Indeed if Fanny deludes herself at the end of Chapter 11 of Volume III (since at this moment Crawford has no thought of giving her up and indeed never will have such a thought), the plot will soon prove her correct in supposing that “he would not much longer persevere in a suit so distressing to her.” Not until the final chapter does Austen step in to account for this arbitrary lapse, in an unusually extended exercise in counterfactual fiction where the verb “persevere” once again appears, this time in the conditional mood:

Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her. Would he have deserved more, there can be no doubt that more would have been obtained; especially when that marriage had taken place, which would have given him the assistance of her conscience in subduing her first inclination, and brought them very often together. Would he have persevered and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward—and a reward very voluntarily bestowed—within a reasonable period of Edmund’s marrying Mary.

Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny. (540)

“Reward” is the same chilling word reserved for Marianne in Sense and Sensibility in the thoughts of her sister and mother, who with the maternal narrator thus conspire to sacrifice her to the double demands of fortune and virtue represented by Colonel Brandon’s long-suffering deserts. [14]  Austen’s repeated use of it here suggests that Henry’s reformation, however satisfying as a tale of moral redemption, would not have been worth the price of Fanny’s prostitution. At the same time, Austen rarely lays it on so thick, and in her haranguing of Henry for so completely if mindlessly ruining this alternative ending, we can read unease over the arbitrariness with which she has sprung her heroine from a plot from which Fanny herself could not so easily have extricated herself, since her giving ground in forming the hope that he would go of his own accord would have given him his first real grounds for hoping in the first place.

18.        Or so it would have gone were Fanny and Henry Stendhalian characters. Instead, Austen shows Henry extracting himself from a resolution metonymical of his proposal to Fanny, in a sentence that ironically produces the gentled sequence of deferral-turned-desertion and postponement-become-abandonment for which Fanny wishes, a movement parsed over three mental decisions among which Austen’s narrator finally does not decide: delay, performance by other means, cancellation:

But he was pressed to stay for Mrs. Fraser’s party; his staying was made of flattering consequence, and he was to meet Mrs. Rushworth there. Curiosity and vanity were both engaged, and the temptation of immediate pleasure was too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right; he resolved to defer his Norfolk journey, resolved that writing should answer the purpose of it, or that its purpose was unimportant—and staid. (540-41)
The repeated resolution (not to do x today, not to do it directly/in person, not to do it at all) finally does not resolve, and the last somewhat unsettling “or” amounts to a kind of shrug of the shoulders on Austen’s part: she does not care to know which way out Henry finally took, as all or any would have been sufficient.

19.        “Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. Forgive them this debt” (Weil, Gravity and Grace 9). In one breath Simone Weil makes an outrageous claim—there is nothing we cannot legitimately ask of others, or to put it in novelistic terms, “the schoolgirl is owed nothing less than what she imagines men will give her”— and in the next retracts it. I deliberately invoke the figure of the adolescent girl, simultaneously more exacting and less demanding than her adult parents who have entered into contract with one another, for in both its content and movement Weil’s thought follows the high-flown gestures of Stendhalian heroines: “A beloved being who disappoints me. I have written to him. It is impossible that he should not reply by saying what I have said to myself in his name” (Weil 9). The reader is not told just how the man has let her down or how she has excused him to herself. The novel that Weil here leaves unwritten, and that I have been suggesting in this essay Cavell’s famously uncontrolled prose often steps in to write, would concern the state of the man (the mortal?) who has been both accused and absolved of his insufficiency—from whom the secret of his having proven an illusion, unable to meet the other’s desire, has not been kept.

20.        I’d like to close with a passage that cuts the dialectic between the mildness of Fanny’s hopes and the extravagance of Weil’s, both of which can so easily shade into the coldness of no expectations at all. The passage finds Elizabeth Bennett (Fanny’s supposed anti-type) taking pleasure in the joke she imagines Darcy enjoying at her expense if he could, as she reflects on the irony of her changed feelings with respect to his earlier marriage proposal:

What a triumph for him, as she often thought, could he know that the proposals which she had proudly spurned only four months ago, would now have been gladly and gratefully received! He was as generous, she doubted not, as the most generous of his sex. But while he was mortal, there must be a triumph. (Pride and Prejudice 344)
She imputes a cruelty, a laugh at her expense, for which she does not fault him. Perhaps such a going ahead of the other’s power of injury is all too readable according to the by now familiar reading of the disciplinary movement of Austen’s marriage-directed novels, where marriage is the reward for the wound the heroine inflicts upon herself and her narcissistic image of self-sufficiency. But such a reading hardly does justice to the multiple ironies of this fantasy of Darcy unable not to smile, powerless to resist his power over her, phrased as it is in the abstract form of the universal axiom. However one parses the thought—“it would take a god not to laugh at the errors of mortals”; “it would take superhuman strength not to find some pleasure in the weakness of the other”—one hardly begins to approach the riddle of a sentence that here finally does what it says and achieves a triumph—unassigned in Elizabeth’s mind because non-culpable, free of personal guilt, but in another sense unassigned because belonging to the immortal hand that writes the sentence and whose particular triumph is precisely to leave in doubt the reality of a triumph its human protagonist so decisively asserts, on the basis of finding her lover mortal.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

---. Mansfield Park. Ed. John Wiltshire. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

---. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Pat Rogers. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

---. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Edward Copeland. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1975. Print.

---. “A Plea for Excuses.” Philosophical Papers. 2 Edition. Ed. J.O. Urmson and G.J. Warnock. London: Oxford UP, 1970. 175-204. Print.

Banfield, Ann. Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. Print.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.

---. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print.

---. Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.

Critchley, Simon. Very Little . . . Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Ferguson, Frances. “Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form.” Modern Language Quarterly 61.1 (2000): 160-180. Print.

Finch, Casey, and Peter Bowen. “‘The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury’: Gossip and Free Indirect Style in Emma.” Representations 31 (1990): 1-18. Print.

François, Anne-Lise. Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2008. Print.

Lindstrom, Eric. “Austen and Austin.” European Romantic Review 22.4 (2011): 501-520. Print.

Miller, Andrew. “Perfectly Helpless.” MLQ 63.1 (March 2002): 65-88. Print.

Miller, D.A. Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Web. 31 May 2014.

Stendhal. Armance ou quelques scènes d’un salon de Paris en 1827. Ed. Henri-François Imbert. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1967. Print.

---.The Shorter Novels of Stendhal. Trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1946. Print.

Walker, Eric. Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism: Wordsworth and Austen After War. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Trans. Emma Craufurd. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

---. La pesanteur et la grâce. Paris: Librairie Plon, 1988. Print.


[1] All further citations from Austin refer to How to Do Things with Words. BACK

[2] See François 212-217. BACK

[3] For Cavell’s indebtedness to Romanticism’s post-Kantian, necessarily failed project of giving aesthetic form to what can have no form—the freedom that Kant had saved for humans only by declaring impossible to intuit empirically—see the lecture “Unworking Romanticism” in Critchley 85-140. BACK

[4] See, for example, Cavell’s summary of his previous arguments at the start of In Quest of the Ordinary, in which he addresses those who have misread him as giving up on the philosophical project and advocating acknowledgment as some kind of leap of faith beyond the limits of human knowledge: “I do not propose the idea of acknowledging as an alternative to knowing but rather as an interpretation of it” (8). BACK

[5] Underscoring the redundancy of a phrase such as “mutual acknowledgment of separateness,” Eric Walker indirectly points to this link between concession or retraction and acknowledgment as an assertion or finding whose object is always negative—something one does not want or is disappointed to find—so that acknowledgment may be assertive as an expressive act but recessive as a propositional statement: “‘acknowledgment,’ as I understand it, carries with it a sense of the inescapable persistence of the separate self: to acknowledge in Cavell’s lexicon, to respond to the disappointment of knowledge of the world and of other minds, is to be by definition separate, both from the world and from other minds” (Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism: Wordsworth and Austen After War 43). BACK

[6] Here as everywhere in Cavell communicativeness is not a matter of imparting information but of exercising a capacity for projecting and anticipating the expectable but never fully calculable response of one’s listener, as the speaker “makes herself intelligible” only by imagining, doubtless never quite precisely, her words as they will be heard by her interlocutor: “if I could not rationally expect, by variously expressing myself to you, to have the effect of alarming you or reassuring you, of offending or amusing you, boring or interesting you, exasperating or fascinating you, [. . .] I would lack the capacity to make myself intelligible to you. And what you would lack is not some information I might impart to you” (172). BACK

[7] The following translations are my own, although I have consulted C.K. Scott-Moncrieff’s The Shorter Novels of Stendhal. Scott-Moncrieff’s more idiomatic translation of the last sentence reads: “While I am talking, look in my eyes and see whether I am lying” (78). BACK

[8] For Austin the line from Euripides’ Hippolytus is emblematic of the hypocrisy to which are inevitably led those who make the metaphysical mistake first of thinking of words as outward pictures of inward mental acts and then of prizing the inward performance above all else (9-10). Cavell returns to the line and to Austin’s reading of it (among other places) in Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow (176). BACK

[9] Cavell concludes this speculation by suggesting that such prose would know nothing of poetic enjambment or the continuance of thought from one line to the next, which may explain why when paraphrasing this passage Critchley adds or elaborates that we would “find no reason to continue reading from one sentence to the next” (124). According to Critchley, Cavell praises writing that “knows when to stop,” because such knowledge “opens a certain relation to finitude” (124). Yet the irony of these multiple rephrasings of a sentence that would need no other—an ideal supposed to be Thoreau’s even if it does not exist on his printed page—suggests that the thought of the thought that would require no further thought itself cannot come to term, whatever Critchley’s worries about Cavell’s temptation to short circuit “the vertiginous forward motion without destination” of Schlegelian irony. There is perhaps no sharper instantiation of the difficulty of telling the “inertia” of the finished sentence from this “vertigo” than the staccato of Stendhal’s prose. BACK

[10] For the argument that no one speaks, see Banfield; for the extensive literature on Austen and free indirect style, see as well, among others, Cohn; Ferguson; Finch and Bowen; Andrew Miller, “Perfectly Helpless”; and D.A. Miller, Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style. BACK

[11] Cavell gives the last word to Knightley’s exclamation to the woman he can now sincerely and truthfully call “his” Emma: “My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?” (Emma 486; quoted in Philosophy 191). But he thereby passes over an irony that Austen’s wry narration does not let pass—namely that Emma at this point is still withholding from her future husband her role in unwittingly redirecting Harriet Smith’s attentions toward him: “Emma agreed to it, and with a blush of sensibility on Harriet’s account, which she could not give any sincere explanation of.” BACK

[12] Cf. the famous opening, also cited by Joshua Wilner in his “Afterword” to this collection, of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: “Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of mind” (xvii). BACK

[13] See François 226. This unwilling opportunism will also mark Fanny’s happiness at the novel’s end, for this too will arise from a similarly tainted source: Henry’s re-seduction of and then entrapment with Maria. BACK

[14] Thus Elinor “felt that to his sufferings and his constancy far more than to his rival’s, the reward of her sister was due” (Sense and Sensibility 379); “They each felt his [Col. Brandon’s] sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all” (429). BACK

Published @ RC

July 2014