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‘This Alarming Hearsay’: Public Opinion and the Crisis of the Liberal Imagination in Middlemarch

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Abstract

In Middlemarch two alternative interpretive models of scientific order are shown to be equally self-centred, albeit one rewrites as a trap what the other had designated as internal consistency. In the first, a candle illuminates no reality, but rather mandates the illusion of coherence in an empirically random field. An arbitrary source ‘creates’ a discipline which it also grounds. This positing of a unitary, recoverable origin seems entirely appropriate to the mid-nineteenth-century privileging of the intellectual search for some ‘instantiating moment’ shared by Cardinal Newman, Darwin, Casaubon with his Key to All Mythologies, Lydgate’s search for a ‘primary tissue’, or later, John Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary Project and its recovery of genealogies of verbal descent from a source. All meaning must be informed by some antecedent which lends it a priori intention.1

Keywords

Public Opinion Private Life Social Reproduction Small Talk Liberal Imagination 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 3.
    Calvin Bedient, Architects of the Self George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and E. M. Forster (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 87–92.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Janet Ridley, Foxhunting (London: Collins, 1992) suggests in her account of the decline of the sport at the mouth of public opinion, that what had been imagined as a ‘sport’ in the eighteenth century, by the mid-nineteenth century was perceived in images embodying the domestication of the ‘natural’, which left no hedgerow unturned. Dorothea Brooke has an aversion to sports (which as Lévi-Strauss has reminded us in The Savage Mind are disjunctive insofar as they separate ‘winners’ from ‘losers’, as opposed to myths which are conjunctive), favouring instead the mythic imagination which would make us all equal partners. An unnatural domestication, games and gossip both share a control of miniaturization which separates chosen from damned.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    See Alan Mintz, George Eliot and the Novel of Vocation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978) for a comprehensive elaboration of this theme in George Eliot’s novels.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 7.
    Michael Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). In Serres’ analysis, an interruptor disguises itself in such a way that it can no longer be ‘read’ as an intruder by the host. As with gossip, a ‘disturbance’ comes to be read as part of a continuity. A host’s correct ‘reading’ would result in a negation.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    See Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 38–46 for the various rhetorical modes used to interiorize the transcendent sublime among the British Romantic poets. It is possible to think of the gossip’s intrusions as some ‘conter-sublime’.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), especially pp. 1–49.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Hugh Witemeyer, George Eliot and the Visual Arts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979) discusses the evolution of an ‘aesthetic realism’ in Eliot’s taste. One must, however, be on guard against the easy application of the label in this case. The Nazarenes used realistic techniques in the service of private allegories. As is the case with Casaubon’s research, the attempt to return to the ‘ground’ of art history or mythology usually masks an egoism. Most attempts at realistic reproduction are an occupational hazard in George Eliot’s work.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Neil Hertz, The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society trans. David Webb (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 4–6, argues that the notion of a ‘mass media’ (which gossip poses in the nineteenth century) makes society more complex in a transparent way which is not necessarily homogeneous, as the later members of the Frankfurt School had argued.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    Alexander Welsh, George Eliot and Blackmail (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 113–31, draws attention to the blackmail motif as George Eliot’s response to invasions of her privacy by reviewers as well as changes in criminal law. Although Welsh’s study is suggestive, he may fail to recognize the extent to which blackmail is part of a larger, philosophical issue. For characters so interested in establishing a ‘name’ for themselves, gossip is the vehicle by which names enter public consumption. Blackmail, in setting a specific value on information, monetarizes one’s name, and hence makes it ‘negotiable’ rather than being self-made or inherited as part of an historical descent.Google Scholar
  11. 23.
    Bernard Edelman, Ownership of the Image: Elements for a Marxist Theory of Law, trans. Elizabeth Kingdom (London: Routledge, 1979) argues that in its very structure the subject in law is constituted on the concept of free ownership of itself. The ‘commodity form’ of the person — which gossip would introduce — presents the extraordinary characteristic of pondering in itself the relation of the person to itself; man would (impossibly?) invest his own will in the object which he constitutes, a radical ‘omniscience’.Google Scholar
  12. 30.
    T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).Google Scholar
  13. 33.
    Peter Garrett, The Victorian Multi-plot Novel: Studies in Dialogic Form (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980). Middlemarch is a novel whose characters are especially vulnerable to being ‘grouped’, not merely formally, but ideologically. Fred Vincy and Dorothea Brooke, for example, share an interest in economies of scale. Ladislaw, Casaubon and Fred Vincy are chronic postponers of projects which makes all of them ‘late bloomers’, even though Casaubon would criticize Ladislaw’s delayed beginning to a productive life. This sharing of interests, by characters that would otherwise appear antithetical, achieves on the narrative level what gossip achieves with its unique patterns of consumption: the ‘relatedness’ of the superficially ‘unrelated’. A collective narrative gains hegemony over the narrative of private life, and any hope of individually directed reform.Google Scholar
  14. 35.
    M.-F. Xavier Bichat, Recherches Physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (Paris: Chez Brosson, Gabon, et Cie, 1800), p. 162.Google Scholar
  15. 42.
    Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederic Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), pp. 102–40.Google Scholar
  16. 43.
    J. S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’ in Collected Works, (ed.) J. M. Robson (London Toronto: Routledge & Kegan Paul and University of Toronto Press, 1984-) 18: 268–9.Google Scholar
  17. 44.
    A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Meyer and A. P. Kerr (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1969), p. 399.Google Scholar
  18. 49.
    Jacques Attali, Noise, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp. 66–82.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jan B. Gordon 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tokyo University of Foreign StudiesJapan

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