Thursday, December 31, 2015

Favorite Moment Notebook: "Emma," vol. 1, ch. 6

Marie–Denise Villers: "Young Woman Drawing" (1801)
From the Met's Heilbrunn Timeline.
In chapter 6 of the first volume of Jane Austen's Emma, the title character is trying to make a match between Mr. Elton, the local vicar, and Harriet Smith—a pretty girl from the village school of no social rank whatsoever (Austen's phrase: "the natural daughter of somebody") whom Emma Woodhouse has attempted to "cultivate" as a kind of charity project. Emma fails to see that Mr. Elton is actually falling for herself, not Harriet: she agrees to produce a portrait of her young friend in the hopes of enticing Mr. Elton to fall further in love, not realizing that Mr. Elton is more interested in the artist than the subject.

There are several things that I love about this chapter that I haven't seen sufficiently appreciated elsewhere. One is its summary of the dynamic between Emma and Harriet through the metaphor of artist and subject—Emma trying to craft the raw material of Harriet into whatever she likes, not necessarily a faithful representation of what Harriet actually is. This subplot of Emma is the grandparent of Shaw's Pygmalion: a comic drama concerning how much a person's social habits can be changed when elevated from one social stratum to another, where the stakes are the potentially devastating consequences of failure in the form of hybridity—being comfortable neither in one environment nor the other, with all suitable matches lost in the process.

Emma is not just an artist, but an amateur artist, just as she is an amateur matchmaker. The description of Emma's amateurism is one of the best passages on the subject—along with its companions, dilettantism and minor giftedness—ever written:
[Emma] had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang;—and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.
The way in which we cultivate our abilities tells us something about the people we are: it's a matter of ethics in the broadest sense—how and why we decide to act. Austen is never an author to jump to the Bible, but Emma's development here evokes the parable of the talents (at Matthew 25:14): a gifted person fails to make the fullest use of what she has been endowed ("ought not to have failed of"). The reasons will provoke sympathy in anyone who has ever felt spread too thinly, loved just a few too many things without having time to develop any of them: "She had always wanted to do everything," and "steadiness had always been wanting." When we collapse into dilettantism, we do so not necessarily because we have no great love, but just as often because we have too many. And for Emma, this comes atop an insufficient ability to apply herself ("so little labour as she would ever submit to"), that lack of steadiness needed to make good on one's potential.

The danger of the amateur artist is inaccurate representation of reality to others and even to oneself. It's the self-delusion, the susceptibility to flattery that are most dangerous here. As long as the amateur has the critical distance and good humor to see her own failings, she is safe—she has the reality principle necessary for sensible judgment. But when she acquiesces to the pleasure of flattery ("she was not unwilling to have others deceived"), she has already begun the descent toward misjudgment.

As with art, so with matchmaking. Mr. Knightley already tried to disabuse Emma of the notion that she is a "gifted" matchmaker in chapter 1:
"I do not understand what you mean by 'success;' " said Mr. Knightley. "Success supposes endeavour. ... But if, which I rather imagine, you making the match, as you call it, means only your planning it, your saying to yourself one idle day, 'I think it would be a very good thing for Miss Taylor if Mr. Weston were to marry her,' and saying it again to yourself every now and hen afterwards,—why do you talk of success? where is your merit?—what are you proud of?—you made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said."
But Emma persists in telling herself that she has a talent for matches, and that betrays a weakness in judgment—an injustice, in the Platonic sense of an unsettled disposition of character due to good reason being dominated by an appetite for a certain kind of pleasure. That injustice makes her, at the novel's outset, a danger to both herself and others. Amateurism, whether in life or art, demands that good judgment accompany it. There's nothing wrong with enjoying your drawing hobby as long as you always know where you have fallen short, the limits of your own ability, the ways you could improve. Losing this makes you the potential subject of both comedy (one thinks of certain failed reality-TV auditions) or even tragedy.

The chapter really deserves a sentence-by-sentence reading, but for want of time, I'll jump to the moment when Emma finishes her sketch. The great moment comes when every character that Austen has developed thus far, and their relationship to Emma, is typified in their reaction to her sketch (her Galatea, her work of art):
Every body who saw it was pleased, but Mr. Elton was in continual raptures, and defended it through every criticism.
Mr. Elton is in love with Emma, and this causes him to depart from reality as well. The portrait is not, in fact, as good as he says it is: he must either be deluded, or lying in order to flatter. (That Emma cannot see the emotional subtext of this delusion as flattery speaks to her own failure to be the master psychologist that she would like to believe she is.) In comparison, Mrs. Weston (Emma's best friend and former governess), is capable of seeing divergences between reality and representation, but frames them in the most flattering way:
"Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted,"—observed Mrs. Weston to [Mr. Elton]—not in the least suspecting that she was addressing a lover.—"The expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss Smith has not those eye-brows and eye-lashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not."
Mrs. Weston sees the inaccuracy, but again out of either affection or deceit, her judgment is framed as praise to the artwork and judgment on the sitter. The portrait aspires to some loftier ideal than reality instantiates, and Emma has merely perfected the underlying matter. This is a Pygmalion-esque reading of the dynamic between Emma and Harriet—Emma as the master artisan, catching a diamond out of the rough and having the good eye to place it in a more glamorous setting. Mrs. Weston thus responds to Emma's undertaking by mirroring how Emma would like to see herself—a replication of their dynamic as spoiled intelligent child and indulgent governess-friend.
"Do you think so?" replied [Mr. Elton]. "I cannot agree with you. It appears to me a most perfect resemblance in every feature. I never saw such a likeness in my life. We must allow for the effect of shade, you know."
Here we get the first hint that Mr. Elton is lying in order to flatter: that last aside, "We must allow for the effect of shade," reveals that he does see some departure from reality in the portrait, but chooses to minimize it for the sake of heaping overwhelming and undeserved praise on Emma. Finally Mr. Knightley chimes in:
"You have made her too tall, Emma," said Mr. Knightley. 
Emma knew that she had, but would not own it, and Mr. Elton warmly added, 
"Oh, no! certainly not too tall; not in the least too tall. Consider, she is sitting down—which naturally presents a different—which in short gives exactly the idea—and the proportions must be preserved, you know. Proportions, fore-shortening.—Oh, no! it gives one exactly the idea of such a height as Miss Smith's. Exactly so indeed!" 
Verbal style does the heavy lifting of characterization here. Mr. Knightley's remark is concise, measured, calm, and, as foiled against Mr. Elton's and Mrs. Weston's, bluntly critical. In contrast, Mr. Elton's paragraph-length response is full of near-stammers ("certainly not too tall; not in the least too tall") incoherent fragmentation ("which naturally presents a different—which in short gives exactly the idea"), fake exuberance ("Oh no! ... Exactly so indeed!"), and ridiculous justification.

We have good internal evidence here that the only person who is not benevolently lying in order to flatter is Mr. Knightley. The touch of consciousness that seals the scene is Emma's reaction: "Emma knew she had, but would not own it." Emma's judgment matches Knightley's. She just can't admit it out loud. What's more, this is the first time in the scene that we the audience have been given any sense by the narrator that there is an underlying truth to the quality of the portrait. Before this, we have been left in doubt about who has the best judgment of the painting. Now for the first time, a character knows something about the painting—Emma knows that she made Harriet too tall.

We are still inclined to dismiss taste in art as wholly subjective and not, at the end of the day, all that important to evaluations of character. Part of Austen's work here is to show how we might be legitimately disturbed by another person's wrong aesthetic judgment. A verdict on a painting, novel, or album that seems wrong might be a sign of motivated reasoning—partiality, flattery ("Emperor Nero, your playing is simply divine!"), or an inability to see what is real. (I don't have the time here to set Austen against Plato, but I do think that in this scene, she offers a partial rebuttal of Plato's claims about the ills of mimesis in the tenth book of the Republic—that representation necessarily creates an internal division within the mind, and that the excellence of art itself is to excite the emotions against reason.) In this early scene in the novel, reaction to an artwork is used to peer into the character (in both the dramatic and the ethical senses) of each cast member in turn. Aesthetic judgment is related to ethical judgment—not collapsible to, but a testimony about, the characters' respective capacities to act rightly with respect to Emma.

The grace note on the passage is the reaction of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's hypochondriac father:
"It is very pretty," said Mr. Woodhouse. "So prettily done! Just as your drawings always are, my dear. I do not know any body who draws so well as you do. The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that she seems to be sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders—and it makes one think she must catch cold."  
"But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer. Look at the tree." 
"But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear." 
Our reactions to a work of art speak to the peculiarities of who we are; and in coming to know them better, we hope that we are stumbling—often amateurishly—toward tools for better knowing ourselves and others. Some readers are Eltons; others Westons or Knightleys; and still others old Mr. Woodhouse, doddering off on some odd tangent irrelevant to the matter at hand. 

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