Middlemarch and Science

A while back, I mentioned I would do a post on the science in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Sadly, I read the book online, as many of us have to do for whatever reasons, and I now find the pagination of my notes no longer corresponds to the versions of the book I have bookmarked - which is to say, some of the notes are missing. This incomplete post will be but a casual assembly of passages about observation, related scientific claims on knowledge and the shortcomings therein due to the fallibility of the human medium; some examples of science used as metaphor; what science is contrasted with and two little notes about morals and narrative.
The conflation of science with the less empirically clear human subject is most obviously illustrated in the figures of doctors, of whom there are quite a few in the novel: ranging from those with little knowledge but with the tact of what to say to their patients to the ambitious and educated newcomer, Lydgate. Science, particularly through him, is shown to be up against a society that checks scientific zeal by promoting the unqualified or stymieing the advance of an impartial practice with local personal histories (106). Society in this novel is often symbolised by furniture - such as the kind Lydgate feels compelled to purchase to show his birth and to satisfy his spoiled wife, but also in offhand comments, such as, owning the 'right' furniture allows one to cultivate extreme opinions (256).
At the same time, science penetrates the language of the novel, forming part of many a metaphor. Love has symptoms (85) and is the also name of "many wonderful mixtures in the world" (221); the "hidden soul" is to be "interpreted" (117); mistakes can work at a man "like a recognised chronic disease" (437).
The theme of "watching keenly" (68) is applied throughout the novel, a paean to observation. In this way, invention which is the "eye of research" is described most scientifically as the "minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish" (120). Men are observed as if they were animals in the wild or natural phenomena, and it is noted, for example, that to see a man for the first time in his home is to recognise his "changed aspect" (123), just as the way one sees a person is not the same during courtship as it is through close companionship (143). Like the biologist reaches understanding through his observation through a microscope lens, the struggle to gain resolve through vision gains communicating power (274). It is close observation that reveals to the narrator that "controlled self-consciousness of manner ... is the  expensive substitute for simplicity" (319).




At the same time, attentive watching is not always possible for the fallible human. I will cite in full my favourite passage illustrating this point (which I cited here before):
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all  ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the  squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the  other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well  wadded with stupidity.  However, Dorothea was crying, and if she had been required to  state the cause she could only have done so in some such general  words as I have already used: to have been driven to be more particular would have been like trying to give a history of the lights and shadows; angered by syllables from lips of near observer (143).
Other problems with humans include their quickness to imagine more than fact (147); ability to go to lengths in things without anything coming of it (203); seeking justification instead of knowledge (242); prejudices. "Prejudices,  like odorous bodies, have a double existence both solid and subtle —  solid as the pyramids, subtle as the twentieth echo of an echo, or as  the memory of hyacinths which once scented the darkness" (321). Equally as harmful is the ego:
It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your  candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent (194)
Sight is also blurred where characters do not account for the multiple dimensions of the human character and human life (it is not only about scientific experiment in laboratories). Human weakness and failure (such as checked ambition) is derogatorily relegated to Troubadour poetry (105). The complexities of science are given more serious attention than those of love, which Lydgate foolishly thinks he had already learned about through literature and male conversation (119).
 

By contrast, Eliot depicts knowledge as "filling the vast spaces planked out of ... sight by ... worldly ignorance" (104). Just like metaphors, this knowledge is to be far-reaching, pervasive, "like gas light; learning whole and parts" (107). Dorothea's consciousness is depicted as "reaching forward ... towards the fullest truth, the least partial good" (149 - vs. anger and despondency). Miscellaneousness is presented as making the mind "flexible with constant comparison" at least in one character, who was saved from, "seeing the world's ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connection" (156).
Thus it is still possible in this novel that is so much about science to nonetheless breach classical topics such as goodness, described as being "of a modest nature, easily discouraged, and when much elbowed in early life by unabashed vices, is apt to retire into extreme privacy" (237). On a side note: surely this is why Socrates was so interested in discoursing with youth: to attempt to help them protect this goodness that is harder to call upon later in life if allowed to lie dormant. Similarly, Eliot writes in defense of exploring "low" topics - which we also see in Dickens' novels given primacy (e.g. in the fuming, oily, noisy trains). Eliot's apology is one to do with narrative: a narrative which we have seen is further encompassing than the restraints of science, restrained by the narrowness of man:
PARABLES whatever has  been or is to be narrated by me about low people, may be ennobled  by being considered a parable ; so that if any bad habits and ugly  consequences are brought into view, the reader may have the relief of  regarding them as not more than figuratively ungenteel, and may feel  himself virtually in company with persons of some style (251).
Regarding what we said about the furniture of society at the beginning, and knowing that the scientific 'project' runs throughout the book if also revealing its shortcomings, the offhand remark that ugly furniture may be dignified by being lifted into the serene light of science (194) is worth meditating on in terms of the 'project' of some modern art and what it loses without the parable and by not addressing the high/low duality.


Magazine in background: Marie Claire Maison
Brush: Lace by webgoddess at DeviantART.

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