Friday, January 13, 2006

Much Ado About Abso-freakin'-lutely Nothin'


Contributing to some inane survey of extreme contrasts, I'm now sitting in a laundromat in Louisville thinking about Pride and Prejudice. Digression: how can anyone ever allow themselves to smoke in a laundromat? How can it not strike one that it would be rude or inappropriate to smoke up the clothes that someone else has come here exactly to get clean? I am nowhere more tedious, I know, than in my exploration of the subject of smoking; so I will leave it here.

But even without this tornado-bait trailer trash vantage point, you could hardly contrive a greater contrast than between 19th Century middle class English society and a 21st Century urban laundromat.

I'm still not finished with P&P, but it's not really the final unfolding of the plot which piques my curiosity (or at least my urge to blog)--everybody knows the story anyway. (Translate: I'm not going to have anything more interesting to say at the conclusion of the story, so don't y'all wait around for it.) The story is obviously wonderfully contrived and detailed, and the plot artfully combines all these varied threads and contingencies, gaining in interest from each. I can't really add anything that wouldn't be obvious to anyone who would read the book themselves.

For blogging purposes, I'm more struck by how society--English-speaking, Western society--has changed in the succeeding near-two centuries. I have this same reaction when I read anything about our own colonial period (like David McCullough's wonderful recent biography of John Adams). Our present society traces so many of its conventions back to the England of Jane Austen, and from a time period not long before this book was written. But everything has changed, however much we can see traces of what we have now in what existed then.

The characters of this book seem so weighed down by the suffocating etiquette of polite society, and even the most elementary communication seems nearly paralyzed by cumbersome conventions toward decorum and nicety. Only Lizzy and her father seem to have anything like what we would now consider direct communication. The need to adhere to what seem now to be quite arbitrary social conventions--things like HOW a person was asked to a ball, or in what manner a dinner was served, or in what order women were asked to dance--were sources of real weight and consequence to these people. Mrs. Bennett's life seems to have been almost entirely absorbed by these details. People addressed each other stiffly and made great effort to hit all of the expected points of protocol--inquiring after the health of one's family (whether or not one cared), for example. We do many of the same things today, true, but they seem greatly simplified and unencumbered in comparison.

(This all leads to a tangent on reciprocal altruism and Anatol Rapoport / Robert Axelrod's experiments with a social modeling computer program called tit-for-tat, wherein we can see that some social mechanism for testing people must be contrived, and preferably one enabling us to test people without expending many resources. The current domination of our species on the planet belies what a razor's edge of advantage we may have ridden in ancient history to arrive at the present day. And if everything comes down to survival, it's fascinating to see how far afield our behaviors have evolved, still, presumably, in the service of that goal.)

It would be an interesting exercise, though it would deprive me of the stupefying eloquence of Jane Austen's miraculous prose, to recast this book in modern vernacular. At the very least, I'm convinced before examining the idea that the book would lose a third of its length. But what I'm trying now to figure is whether the importance of this flowery eloquence extends only to linguistic convention & nicety, or whether there is some greater depth of feeling or detail of cognition underlying the difference. To be sure, the long statements, often burdened with subordinate clauses and other little perambulations to the hinterlands, often arrive home having collected all their wayward children admirably--(this is one of the things that also makes Virginia Woolf's writing so thrilling). And a restatement in a modern mode which hit all the same bases and details might be nearly as long-winded. But some of this is just way over the top. Is this just convention, or does it serve a useful purpose?

I will refrain from quoting Mr. Collins, whose presence in the book is to deliver comedy relief exactly by way of this over-elocution (which, of course, shows how aware Austen was of a nuance that probably seems far less clear to us today). But honestly, so many social situations which develop in the book had me screaming during paragraph after paragraph of decorum (while envisioning someone rolling their hand forward in a gesture of impatience) "Get the fuck on with it! What's on your mind, Chuckles?" (Actually, I have it on good authority that this very line was expunged from the original document after the Fifth Earl of Sandwich-shire protested its "brutal brevity and debased coarseness, not to exclude our shocked countenance at such abashed intercourse at coition.")



So, plucking a paragraph almost at random--say, from Elizabeth's upbraiding of Mr. Darcy in the middle of the book, which is brimming with period parlance--I will take it upon myself to offer before and after versions--translations, if you will.

Darcy:

"This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But, perhaps these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by every thing. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?"

And our transliterated rendering:

"I should have kept my mouth shut! I had a bad feeling about you, and fuck if I wasn't right! You can't cross the tracks. Your family are a bunch of laundromat-frequenting trailer trash and you're a bitch!"

It's only a matter of time before Austen's prose passes into the functional netherworld of Old English, as Chaucer has done and Shakespeare is doing. We're lucky to have this link to a distant past that is still accessible to us without lots of specialized training.

I guess I can take my clothes out of the smoker now.

12 comments:

Esbee said...

Bravo! Bravissimo! I think you should rewrite the whole thing.

I'm the only female I know who isn't taken with P&P. I don't hate it. I just don't care about it at all. It doesn't speak to me.

wunelle said...

I can only dimly relate to the storyline; things are so different. But I love, love, love the language, and I think (especially for the time) the portrayal of Elizabeth is remarkable and fabulous.

I'm glad I followed up the movie with the book.

I wonder if someone has already done a modern adaptation? (A hip-hop or ghetto version would be a scream, but I'm too old and detached!)

Esbee said...

Didn't Billy Joel do just that, flipping the genders and setting it to music in Uptown Girl?

Kate said...

Like Amy Heckerling's Updated Emma known as Clueless? Please give us a picture of the BBC adaptation with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.

I've actually spent way too much time reading fiction and non-fiction about the Regency period of England, starting with Georgette Heyer's novels in Middle School. Which of course makes me absolutely not an expert. ;-) My take on the social restrictions of the time is that they were a backlash of the aristocracy's rather free-for-all Georgian period. The social pendulum swinging back to end at the other extreme with the Victorian age.

Now add in the fact that they really were bored. Reading novels was still considered not the thing for ladies. Gentlemen were ostracized if they did anything other than run the esates. I'd go nuts just writing letters and waiting for someone to marry me so I didn't end up starving to death in genteel poverty.

Anyway maybe you should try this movie.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0361411/

Kate said...

BTW I loved your updated version.

wunelle said...

I'm just finishing up now. Interesting how, like Shakespeare, it's such a capital story. When everything else is stripped away, they are compelling and clearly-drawn characters, placed in a vividly made series of dilemmas. It does keep one on the edge of one's seat (which is unexpected given the period).

P&P via Baliwood! Fabulous. (I think I'll just read the summary... ;-)

Now I'm curious about the lyrics to Uptown Girl, which I've never paid the slightest attention to (preferring recollecting my visions of Kristy Brinkley in the video, ande my teen-age reactions to them. Speaking of which, I remember mostly that Billy Joel cannot dance).

Esbee said...

Uptown girl
She’s been living in her uptown world
I bet she never had a back street guy
I bet her mama never told her why

I’m gonna try for an uptown girl
She’s been living in her white bread world
As long as anyone with hot blood can
And now she’s looking for a downtown man
That’s what I am

And when she knows what
She wants from her time
And when she wakes up
And makes up her mind

She’ll see I’m not so tough
Just because
I’m in love with an uptown girl
You know I’ve seen her in her uptown world
She’s getting tired of her high class toys
And all her presents from her uptown boys
She’s got a choice

Uptown girl
You know I can’t afford to buy her pearls
But maybe someday when my ship comes in
She’ll understand what kind of guy I’ve been
And then I’ll win

And when she’s walking
She’s looking so fine
And when she’s talking
She’ll say that she’s mine

She’ll say I’m not so tough
Just because
I’m in love
With and uptown girl
She’s been living in her white bread world
As long as anyone with hot blood can
And now she’s looking for a downtown man
That’s what I am

Uptown girl
She’s my uptown girl
You know I’m in love
With an uptown girl

My uptown girl
Don’t you know I’m in love
With an uptown girl
My uptown girl
Don’t you know I’m in love
With an uptown girl
My uptown girl

wunelle said...

A publick service, most admirably perform'd!

Thinking back to Kate's comment, I loved the recent Gwyneth Paltrow "Emma," and Susan watched and loved "Clueless," tho I did not see it. Perhaps I'll rent it, since I'm lodged in an antique chique flique frame of mind.

Maybe I'm in a different frame of mind these days, since I remember trying to read Dickens ("...that's Dikkens with TWO Ks, the well-known Dutch author!") quite some years ago and giving it up as impossibly artificial. It might go down better now.

Kate said...

I've never made it through any Dickens with the exception of A Christmas Carol. Pretty miserable stuff. But Oliver! the musical was great.

Esbee said...

Total change of topic:

My, my, Angie Harmon's far afield from her L&O days:
http://gofugyourself.typepad.com/

Esbee said...

Oh, and I loved The Pickwick Papers in context.

wunelle said...

So Angie Harmon has NOT been eating bon-bons in a nonstop depressive binge as has been rumored... It's so hard to keep up.

She would have won more cases with that outfit. At least with the male juries.