Friday, September 21, 2007
An old man playing at see-saw
I've been reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and have struck a piece that has an oddly familiar ring - familiar, that is, from conversations in real life. Anyone else find it familiar?
Catherine, our heroine, meets the egregious John Thorpe, a vulgar, opinionated and generally tiresome young man, described by the expressive noun 'a rattle', and, being an enthusiastic novel-reader, tries to talk to him about books. Unfortunately, she runs up against a conversational brick wall, because he's not really very interested in books. However, there's a particular bit that you, my dear readers, may find striking if you've ever got into conversation with someone and can't make much headway:
'I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant. '[John Thorpe says; Catherine answers...]
'I suppose you mean Camilla?'
'Yes, that's the book; such unnatural stuff! An old man playing at see-saw, I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it.'
'I have never read it.'
'You had no loss, I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not.'
Am I the only one who feels like they've also had this conversation? It's the harping on the detail about see-saws that does it. Camilla by Fanny Burney is the book being referred to, and Austen thought Burney 'the very best of English novelists', according to her nephew, and considered the 'old man' character, Sir Hugh Tyrold, 'extremely well drawn'. So Thorpe has obviously missed the point - but it feels like he's almost deliberately missing it: that he saw one detail - a fairly insignificant one at that - and, finding it unlike anything he'd want to do himself, is now using it as a reason to dismiss the whole thing.
Doesn't that sound familiar? The way someone will strike a particular detail about something, a fairly minor one, and because it's not congenial to them, blow it up to such proportions where they've got nothing else to say about the whole issue? I should say, in case anyone I know is reading this and feels accused, that I'm not referring to a recent conversation; it's more a general conversational pattern that I've encountered at various points in the past. But it's always frustrating to try and converse with someone who's refusing to think. Mental flexibility, that's what we need.
Funnily enough, I've also just been rereading "Northanger Abbey". It's a fun book, especially the scenes with poor Catherine's utter inability to comprehend John Thorpe. She's one of the more courageous of Austen's heroines--refusing to conform to Thorpe's demands on her, and bravely pursuing the man she wants. Go girl!
Someone on the Critters ng recently picked out one (admittedly long) sentence from Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and presented it as an example of what's "typically" wrong with the book. Except that one sentence is exceptional, not typical. H'annoying.
I've read "The Road", and yes, it is difficult at times, and that one long sentence is a doozy. But if you can get past the style quirks, it's an amazing book.
(but who am I to talk? I refuse to read a book with no commas!)
To me, the most unnerving thing about the mindset is its randomness. That and the fact that the people who embrace it also apply it to real life more often than not. It assumes an unreasonable universality -- "I hate this -- how could anyone NOT? -- and therefore of course it is worthless."
I grew apart from a decades-long friend for this reason -- you could never tell what little incidental was going to set her off and earn her general contempt. Too stressful. (Stops you from buying them presents as well.)
It just seems sad to me to miss out on something wonderful because it isn't perfect -- what is?
That whole "I hate it, therefore it's worthless" attitude drives me nuts. Even though I've probably been guilty of it, at times.Post a Comment
I've seen it with modern art here in the UK. When a warehouse full of works of art burnt down, and many irreplaceable pieces were destroyed, a lot of people were actually gloating. Because they didn't like the art, its destruction was a good thing. I just cannot get on board with such bigotry....
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