Not Fool's Gold

Thomas Hardy gives a twist to what is meant by a liberal education in his description of Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles: "Almost at a leap, Tess thus changed ... to a complex woman. Symbols of reflectiveness passed into her face ... Her eyes grew ... more eloquent ... her soul that of a woman whom the turbulent experiences of the last year or two had quite failed to demoralize. But for the world's opinion those experiences would have been simply a liberal education." The education thus affords a straying if also an implied return to golden rules. Heeding the golden rules is difficult because their truth cannot be felt, and is implicitly easy to stray from: "'By experience,' says Roger Ascham, 'we find out a short way by a long wandering.' ... But it had not  been in Tess's powernor is it in anybody's powerto feel the whole truth of golden opinions while it is possible to profit by them. Sheand how many moremight have ironically said to God with St. Augustine: 'Thou hast counselled a better course than Thou hast permitted.'" Where education implies a striving towards ideals, liberal education allows for the (unnecessarily) prolonged empiricism of mistakes made by a sensitive soul (Tess is not just any literary character).
The passage reminded me of Vico's Heroic Mind, where university is described as the cure for students depraved by original sin, ailing in mind and soul to perfect their better nature. In this classical education, poetry is to "calm the uncontrolled turbulence of the imagination", taught alongside, for example, geometry, taught to "hold in check innate errors". Poetry is read for its representations of ideal types, wherein even the wicked, "is most beautiful, because always self-consistent, always true to itself, harmonious in all its parts." By contrast, men in real life fall short, as they are not consistent and do not cohere. Poetry is curative by sharply delineating "the pure ideal type". By comparing a difficult boss to the evil ideal, one might realise the boss's potential for good and set to work to find ways to showcase those aspects. By addressing golden rules even when showing some practical difficulties of practicing what is preached, medicine may be had for the incoherence of lives through lengthy explanation and analysis.
For example, through the character of Tess's suitor, we see how what looks new, "the ache of modernism" is but a new definition of something timeless: "advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition-a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries." The novel shows in so many ways how easy it is to get carried away: by sensations, zeitgeist.




Hardy's novel, actually, I really only want to think of the first part, is very much about how much or whether or not one can shake off even the sensation of guilt, which like other sensations roughly guides the actions and makes an incoherent mess of things.
Adding to the problem of self-mastery, by which one can learn to manage sensations, is interference by society which may insidiously stunt this learning. In Hardy's novel, it is suggested that one can even be blinded by university. Through the character of Angel, who was not Cambridge-educated like his brothers, we see its failings (though I think that implicitly we also see its success in that it was Angel who made such tragic life decisions). University produces cogs in machinery, to the church or to academia, and not the well-rounded "hero" Vico describes, who knows physics as well as metaphysics; logic as well as poetry. The university-educated brothers, "whatever their advantages by comparison with [Angel], neither saw nor set forth life as it was really lived." And in this novel, life as it is really lived is a life of mistakes.
It would seem that but few people have the strength of character to accept their mistakes and also to stand up to those who deny the legitimacy of the 'prodigal' education. It is accidental that 'prodigy' sounds so close to 'prodigal', but to play off those words, where the prodigal wastes, the prodigy makes into signs and omens, possibly through the root of aio, I say. Taking this verbal happenstance further, the true liberal education is in part narrative and very much in need of special interpretation because the character is no longer that of the ideal, but is not wasted, being one seeking the ideal, seeking to be filled in by it as much as possible given depravity. It may be that for many fool's gold is hypocritical adoption of golden precepts that does not allow for their difficult and profundity. This is not true of everyone, and certainly not true of anyone at all times, because features like the good if philippic nature of Reverend James Clare must also be explained. If gold is the timeless lessons that keep one safe, fool's gold is the ism and logy of those sensations that can't just be resolved by the mechanical rotations of newness masking through newness the various forms of mistakes and sacrifice, so unfortunately fashionable in their many guises throughout the ages.



Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees. 
Brush: Ewansim tape at DeviantART.

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