I would like to continue with my thoughts from the last post.
In “About ‘Emma’ (I)”, I mentioned an article on The Atlantic “On Teaching, but Not Loving, Jane Austen”. In this article, a main complain about Jane Austen is that she did not mention anything about Slavery. But if we think about what I said about the relationship between men and women in my last post, that it is important for men and women to identify with each other, then we can conclude the same thing can be said about racial relationship. In fact, when I talk about love is very important, it has a lot to do with this point. If a man and a woman that are in love with each other cannot identify with each other, then what hope we can have for other relationships between people?
But the importance of love goes further. I have been talking about the misunderstandings about “good” and “bad”, “ultimate good”, and “good will”, etc. I want to summarize my points a little here. I think the fundamental problem with talking about “good” and “bad” is that these terms are used out of context. We can only say something is good or bad under particular situations. Without context, saying something or someone is good or bad is at least confusing. If “Ethics”, or “moral system” as we know it is telling people how to be “good” people. So, it is understandable that “Ethics”, or “moral system” as we know it is very confusing.
But if we judge people in the context of “love”, then we can build a more reasonable “moral system”. Yes, I am suggesting to build an entire human “moral system” based on intimate love between individuals (here, the love will include love between homo-sexual people as well). I don’t think it is as strange as it sounds. Who else could be more capable and willing to make judgment on each other? We often say one should not judgment someone unless one understands this someone. And, love is based on good understanding of each other. So, the “moral judgment” between lovers should be most reliable, right? Here, I like to mention that I am aware that it seems to contradict many things that we have heard of, such as, “love is blind”, etc.
I have not given a definition about “love” yet. But here, I like to emphasize that in order to establish a “moral system” in the context of “love”, we need to reconsider many things said about “love”. In fact, we need to reconsider many things said about many other things as well. I think we can achieve these things by analyzing “Emma”, especially the relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley.
First, I like to say Emma is a very unique woman, and “Emma” is a very unique book. “Emma” is a very unique book because it does not really follow the traditional format of story lines. In fact, one cannot find many stories since that are quite similar to it as well (although I have to say my knowledge about this matter is very limited). The traditional story lines usually will focus on the central characters. And, most love stories in modern days did not fall too far from this tradition, or one can say they are sometimes even more focus on the central characters, as if everyone in the stories lives their lives either to serve them or to cause some troubles for them (I might comment on this later).
But “Emma” is not exactly this kind of story. So, this is not a typical “love story”. But it is a story about “love”. Or, I sometimes think it is basically a “love manual” (similar to something like an auto-mechanic manual), although as I have said, it is much more than it. I heard from a Jeremy Northam interview that he tried to read “Emma” when he was 14 (I can see why), but he did not go very far on it (I could also see why. I don’t want to comment too much directly on this, as the reasons might be quite philosophical, mostly related to Epistemology. But what I am going to say in the following would have something to do with it.)
I think the story line of “Emma” does focus on Emma and Mr. Knightly, but not in traditional way. It focuses on contemplating issues Emma and Mr. Knightly would encounter that are at least somewhat related to love (but most importantly related to Love and Reason. If I have not made myself clear, I want to say it now. I don’t think one can properly love someone, without good understanding of Love and Reason. This statement basically is the reason I think if we are to build a “moral system”, it will have to be based on Love and Reason), or even in a broader sense contemplating on Emma and Mr. Knightly their own persons in comparison (or in a form of mental exercise) with others. So, it is not really a porporri like many contemporary love stories.
Emma is a very unique woman because she did not “search for love”. Actually, she did not even “will” to “love” (although she did not necessarily intend to reject “love”). So, one may question whether I am right to say that “Emma” is a story about “love”. But I still insist it is at least a “study about love”.
I think we can say that Emma is a passionate woman, although it is debatable what she is passionate about. I think one can say that she is passionate about being passionate, although I suspect she might have some ideas about what she is passionate about, even if she might have trouble identifying it, because the thing that she is passionate about might not have been recognized at the time. [When I first heard Jeremy Northam said that Emma is a woman ahead of her time, it was quite a shock. It immediately put me on alert, and finally led me to realize the true meanings of “Emma”.]
I think there are many explanations about what Emma was doing, and what she is passionate about. Or, we probably can say that her passion has multiple facets. But to put it simply, we can say what Emma is passionate about is searching for the “Purpose of Life”, although she is far advanced from basically everyone, because she did not merely search for “Happiness”. And, to think that at least officially women were not considered to have the ability to own their independent brains at her time, one probably cannot even imagine how advanced she was from the vantage point of today.
Actually, one might be able to make different analogies using Emma’s story (this is what makes this book so interesting), but this would be for another time. For now, my focus is on Emma’s search for the “Purpose of Life”. First, I want to say she did not grow in vacuum and her governess, the former Miss Anne Taylor, a.k.a. Mrs. Weston (Frank Churchill’s step mother, or his birth father’s second wife) must be an important influence. Considering being a governess is basically the only way a respectable (to some degree) woman can earn a living (and in some degree permitted to own her own brain), this would not be a coincident.
But I cannot exclude Mr. Knightley’s influence as well. There are so much to talk about Mr. Knightley’s relationship with Emma, I often feel so overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. But I have to choose, so I will start with something modest, that how apparently there is no “undue influence” from him towards Emma, but quite the opposite. There are a lot to talk about on this subject, but here I will simply point out this point as true, and emphasize that he must have very positive influence on her. For example, she was able to freely disagree with him, and had the confidence to maintain her own opinion, so he must have encouraged her to do so, expressly or not.
I think I will not be mistaken to say that many people will consider “Emma” being an “elitist’s tale”. And they might also think that the passion to search for the “Purpose of Life” is “elitist’s game”. I think they are wrong. I am still not quite sure whether searching for the “Purpose of Life” is the only way to live. It is quite possible many people don’t have the “luxury” to do so. For example, Miss Bates generally speaking might not be able to afford the passion to search for the “Purpose of Life”. Ultimately, it is for each individual to decide whether one can afford something. But it is probably reasonable to say that the succeeding rate of her search might not be very high. But it does not mean we should conclude that the search for the “Purpose of Life” is “elitist’s game”. In fact, since “elitists” might have more means at their disposal, so the rate of success might be higher. So, what is important is not whether searching for the “Purpose of Life” is “elitist’s game”, but what kind of search it is, and what effects it could cause.
From what we can see in “Emma”, we have many reasons to support her. Well, I like to emphasize we need to be careful to know what it is that we support, and also what is the reasonable way to support her. “Emma” also provided a good source for the thought exercises. The reason I emphasize the importance of being a “barefoot philosopher” and we should always remember to use Love and Reason as the basic principle is to emphasize we should always use our own brains to make decisions, because after all, what we are supporting is for her to use her own brains, so it will be ironic for anybody do things in other ways.
It is quite obvious she made some pretty big mistakes. But I like to point out she is not as “clueless” as many people have seemed to suggest. She believed what she thought were truth, only to find out later she was living in a big lie (according the novel).
Actually, if we carefully looking at what Emma did, we might say what she did is not very unconventional. There are countless people searching for “Purpose of Life”. In fact, we can even say that she was searching for “Happiness”, and following the “traditional way”, by trying to gain wisdom, and try to help people with “good will”.
So, what makes what she did so unique? I think there are many factors in play, but the most important one is she truly identified with others, others that are situated differently, seeing them just as herself, which is the primarily reason for her failure [which is probably why she is laughed at so often. This is basically why I compared “Emma” with “Don Quixote”].
But is she wrong? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is not her that was wrong, but the world was wrong, and still is. This is basically the most important point I want to make if we want to build a new “moral system” based on “love”. Because it is a very important point, I want to reiterate it. I think Emma basically is our model of Love (in comparison, Mr. Knightley would be our model of Reason. They are each our model of applying the principles of Love and Reason, but they each has their own emphasizes, and there are problems arise from them), because she truly identified with others, basically as a prerequisite (so, fundamentally, she is not really an “elitist”, if my assumption about the concept of “elitist is correct. By the way, I think the problem with the definitions of concepts is a serious problem now, like always).
As I said, I think the ability to identify with others is the most important “virtue” in our new “moral system” based on “love”. But as we see from the story of Emma, we encountered some problems. If we apply the principles of Love and Reason, then what would be our conclusion? If we think the ability to identify with others is the most important “virtue” in our new “moral system”, then probably should look at other things before we conclude that this “virtue” might not be as important as one would think it is.
As I said, Emma did not act too far from the “conventional wisdom”, and, if we think about it, it is quite reasonable for her to identify with Harriet Smith. How different Harriet Smith is from Emma’s own sister? Besides birth and education, not very much. I don’t think the “conventional moral system” actually said anything about birth (at least according my readings). But in “reality”, it was a dominating factor in people’s life (in Emma’s time, and now it is still an important factor at least). But even in consideration of “birth”, the situation with Harriet Smith is not very clear cut. So, it seems quite reasonable for Emma to think that by improving Harriet Smith’s education, she should be able to help her to be a “better person”? But what is a good education, and how we can measure if someone is a “better person”? I think it is quite clear that the stories in “Emma” post a serious question about these matters, and about the conventional “moral system” based on the conventional “virtues” as well.
I will stop here, and continue in my next post.
October 22, 2017