Monday, September 17, 2007

Reading Victorian Prose

Among the pragmatic educational advantages of reading essential prose passages from the great Victorian writers of literæ humaniores is the experiential benefit: the opportunity to use your response to the experience as a means whereby the mind and character of the Victorians is revealed in its contadistinction to your own. For Mill, and Carlyle, and Newman were how the literate -- in effect, the entire bourgeoisie -- in the ninteenth century took their entertainment. If you did not find John Stuart Mill 'On Nature' and entertaining experience, well, then you now have an experiential window into the sensibility of your counterparts in that period.

Of course these sections also give an indispensible store of knowledge of what is perhaps just as elusive as the temper of a past Age: its background ideas, assumptions, and default principles. It is my belief that just to read the fiction solely, or to just read the fiction with the summaries of ideas that lecture provides, is a simulacrum: an incomplete and ultimately bloodless experience. The æsthetic experience is, of course, of very high value -- in George Eliot, indeed, it is in effect Final Cause -- but it is not the sole high value. The intimate, organic, and for them unexamined, unity of idea and æsthetic, of intellect and feeling, is just that characteristic note which veritably defines what it is to be a Victorian novelist.

This is so well encapsulated by a passage from John Stuart Mill's Autobiography: indeed the emboldened phrase is what I consider the very motto of the Victorian literary sensibility.
What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.
If you should be having any challenges with the experiential pedagogy we are using this term, by all means stop by an office hour or make a special appointment to develop the understanding even further.

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