A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for a few years. His idea of solitude has inspired my posts “No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude” and “Alone Again… Unnaturally.”

I’ve not seen any pictures of him, but know that he has taught English at Yale for ten years. So I’ve always thought him to be one calm, cool, and collected (older) academic. Well, I was totally surprised as I read his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Expecting a book on literary criticism, and from the title, maybe a dash of personal anecdote, I found it to be much more than these.

It is all of the following: literary analysis, biography, memoir and even confessional. Introduced to Jane Austen by his professor in graduate school, Deresiewicz had encountered numerous ‘eureka moments’ of self-discovery from reading her six novels. He unabashedly discloses how his own life experiences, and often youthful foibles, parallel those of Austen’s characters from each book. For us who have savored Austen’s works, we already know how wise and perceptive she is. But Deresiewicz has gone much deeper by being so brave as to reveal his self-absorbed psyche of younger days, his romantic mishaps, true friends and those who appear to be, the painful conflicts between his parents, and his search for self apart from a domineering father, all in light of Austen’s colorful literary canvas.

So before the calm, cool and collected guy emerged, there was one rebel, alienated follower of the modernists. Seems like every guy who comes to Austen is being dragged along with much reluctance, “just thinking about her made me sleepy.” But his reading, studying and writing a dissertation chapter on Austen’s works totally reshaped his views, and life.

Here’s an outline of Deresiewicz’s journey of maturity, of finding true love, and most importantly, of becoming one who has the capacity to love, all due to Austen’s novels. Too good to be true, isn’t it? I admit at times I found there were too many coincidences and perfect parallels, a bit contrived. But as I read, I knew I must decide one way or the other. And I was persuaded to see it as audacious honesty. His self-deprecating and revealing account of his journey towards maturity and improvement is entertaining, bold even as he mentally draws the line between friends and ‘foes’, true and fake, albeit keeping them anonymous. I’m sure those he’d described would definitely recognize themselves in the book.

As with Austen’s opening lines in her novels, Deresiewicz’s opening line sets the stage of what’s to come:

I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life.

That woman, of course, is Jane Austen. Here are some of the key lessons:

From Emma, he learns to put aside his academic snobbery, that there’s no one too lowly for him to know, nothing too trivial or common for him to pass by. For these are the very ingredients that make up life.

Not that I hadn’t always taken my plans and grand ambitions seriously–of course I had. What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow, I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel, I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person.

From Pride and Prejudice, he learns to grow up.

For [Austen], growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct… Growing up means making mistakes… to learn to doubt ourselves…

By making mistakes, and recognizing her mistakes, and testing her impulses against the claims of logic, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice learned the most important lesson of all. She learned that she wasn’t the center of the universe.

From Northanger Abbey, he learns to learn, and by so doing, to teach.

The habit of learning: if Catherine could learn to love a hyacinth when she was seventeen… I could keep learning to love new things my whole life. Of course, it was my professor himself who had helped me learn to love Jane Austen in the first place, against expectations at least as stubborn as the ones that Catherine brought to Northanger Abbey. But I was starting to get it now: the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.

From Mansfield Park, he learns to see it as a mirror of “the rich Manhattanites” circle he was trying to get in.

… the greed beneath the elegance, the cruelty behind the glow–and what I myself had been doing in it… If my friend was a social climber, then what the hell was I?… my attraction to that golden crowd, my ache to be accepted by them, what did it amount to if not the very same thing? Who was I becoming? Who had I already become?

… we also have an aristocracy in this country, and I was looking at it.

From Persuasion, and from his own experience, he learns to prove Nora Ephron wrong. Unlike her movie “When Harry Met Sally”, man and woman can be friends, without “the sex thing getting in the way.”

A man and a woman, even two young, available ones, could talk to each other, understand each other, sympathize with each other, be drawn to each other, even share their intimate thoughts and feelings with each other–as Anne and Benwick did–without having to be attracted to each other–as Anne and Benwick clearly weren’t. They could, in other words, be friends.

Anne and Harville shared a common footing in the conversation, debating each other with mutual respect and affection and esteem. Men and women can be equals, Austen was telling us, so men and women can be friends.

And finally, from Sense and Sensibility, he learns what it means to fall in love.

To Austen, love at first sight is a contradiction in terms… As dull as it sounded, I now saw, Elinor’s way of going about things is the right one: to see a great deal of a person, to study their sentiments, to hear their opinions. … And it is a person’s character, not their body, with which we fall in love.

Like all Austen’s novels, Deresiewicz’s book ends with a marriage, his own. But without first reading the six Austen novels, he would have been totally unprepared for such a relationship. “Love, for Austen, is not becoming forever young. It’s about becoming an adult.” The book is the best way to show his gratitude to the matchmaker.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, 255 pages.

This article has been published in the Jane Austen Online Magazine. CLICK HERE to go there for more Regency and Austen reads.

CLICK HERE to William Deresiewicz’s website, and watch interviews of him with the editorial director of Penguin Classics, Elda Rotor.

Alone Again… Unnaturally

A year ago around this time, I wrote the post ‘No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude’. It was in response to the news about some Roman Catholic bishops urging the faithful to restrain from texting as a penance during Lent.  And around the same time, I came across the article by William Deresiewicz ‘The End of Solitude’, pointing out the difficulty of remaining alone in our over-connected society.

Now a year after Deresiewicz published his essay, the number of tweets had grown by 1,400%.  Now there are 50 million tweets per day, an average of 600 tweets per second.  So, if you’re calling for ‘No texting’ at Lent, you might as well tell people not to use the phone, the computer, the iPhone, all the smart gadgets, in other words, get off the human race for the time being.

Hey, that may not be such a bad idea.  The current issue of The American Scholar has another article by Deresiewicz, yes, on solitude again.  I’m glad to read articles on ‘Solitude’, why?  There just aren’t too many written on this topic.  And thanks to Deresiewicz, seems like his is the only voice crying in the digital wilderness.  The article is a lecture he delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year, entitled ‘Solitude And Leadership’.

If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.

This quote at the beginning of the article just about sums it all up.

Speaking to this class of freshman, all eager and gung-ho to fall in line with the rank and file of this prestigious Military Academy, Deresiewicz has the audacity (ok, guts) to tell his audience to shun conformity, break away from regimentation, to ask questions, to seek their own reality, to form their own opinion, and to exercise moral courage.  And his main crux: it is only through solitude can they do this.

Facebook and Twitter, and yes, even The New York Times, only expose you to other people’s thinking. Whenever you check your tweets, or get on to your social network, or read the newspaper for that matter, you are only hearing other people’s voices:

That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

He urged them to read books instead.  Well aren’t books other people’s opinion too?  True, sometimes you need to put them down too to visualize you own reality and formulate your own stance.  But, books, especially the time-tested ones, have weathered social scrutinies and oppositions, and yet still stand today offering us wisdom of perspectives in finding our own path.

Further, the major difference between a well-written book and a tweet, or a Comedy Central episode, or even a newspaper article, is basically, time.

The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day… for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Of course, this may sound reductionist.  But, I like the idea of slowing down in this rapidly shifting world. Deresiewics urged the freshmen of West Point to practice concentrating and focusing on one thing rather than multi-tasking. He charged them to take the time to slowly read, think, and write, in solitude, an axiom that’s so rad that his audience probably had never heard before.

In this über connected world we’re in, it’s unnatural to be alone.  A solitary moment has to be strived for with extra effort, and much self-discipline.  That means unplugging the phone, turning off the computer and anything smart, yes, including friends, real or virtual.   For Lent or not for Lent, it could well be the only way to find out who we are and where we are heading.  Even if we’re not aspiring to lead, at least we know whom we should follow.  And, you’ll never know, others may be attracted to our slowness and surety that they just might step right behind us.  So it’s best not to steer them too close to the cliff.

No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude

Roman Catholic Bishops in Italy have added some contemporary relevance in the fasting tradition during Lent:  High Tech Fast.  The faithful are urged to free themselves from the bondage of technology and gadgets, and refrain from surfing, emailing, twittering, texting … in order to prepare themselves for Easter.  This could prove to be a penance much harder to practice than not eating meat, even just on Fridays, for texting could well be the newest form of addiction today.

At about the same time, I heard an interview on the CBC Radio program Spark.  Host Nora Young conducted an interview with William Deresiewicz, literary critic and essayist, who has recently written an article entitled ‘The End of Solitude’.

Deresiewicz taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.  When he asked his students what place solitude had in their lives, he got this reply: “Why would anyone want to be alone?”

With the ubiquitous use of high tech gadgets, and the torrents of Internet social networks around us, we are caught in a web of connectivity like never before:

Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely.  Now, it is impossible to be alone.

Not only that, the goal now seems to be to gain as much self-exposure as possible, to be visible.  It seems that the number of friends we have on Facebook, and the number of hits on our blog directly leads to our self-esteem and our quality of self.  The irony is, the pseudo and the virtual are substituting the genuine and the authentic.

What does friendship mean when you have 532 “friends”?  How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven’t seen since high school, and wasn’t all that friendly with even then) ‘is making coffee and staring off into space’?

Deresiewicz notes that solitude used to be a desirable social value.  From religious sages to the Romantics like Wordsworth, solitude is the channel one hears the still, small voice of God, or heed the beckoning of Nature.  As modernism crept in,  the literati turned inward to find validation of self, like Woolf, Joyce, Proust.

Then came urbanization and suburbanization.  The generation that used to vegetate in front of the TV has given way to the child of the Internet, the networked self.  And we no longer believe in the solitary mind.

So what does it matter when we have lost the moments to be alone?  What have we lost?

First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct.

Also, the urge to be instantly connected has bred a new generation of skippers and skimmers, replacing readers.

… five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity

No wonder we’re told to keep our blog posts short if we want to attract readership.

With the loss of the capacity for solitude, we’ve lost the ability to cultivate depth of self  and create independent thinking.  Emerson said that “Solitude is to genius the stern friend.”  Deresiewicz goes on to say:

…no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.

The irony is, the more we are connected with the virtual world out there, the less we are connected with ourselves inwardly.  But this is what’s valued nowadays, isn’t it, to be open, sociable, gregarious.  But to maintain a sense of authentic self, we may have to sacrifice popularity, to be not so polite:

Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings.  He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself.

Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

Maybe this is one meaningful connection we should strive for: solitude, introspection, slow blogging, quality thinking, quality reading, quality writing, quality self.

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Click here to listen to the full interview.

Click here to read the article ‘The End of Solitude’ by William Deresiewicz.

Click here to read my review of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together

Click here to read my post on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in which she explored the privilege of Solitude.