on the maddening popularity of Jane Austen novels
or: Whether to Write Your Congressman
Bear with me on this one. We’ll get there.
If you believe that, then this is for you.
A Jane Austen novel is driven by a single narrative strategy. The impetus of the plot is that two people do not understand each other on some important point, i.e. Mr Darcy believes that Elizabeth scorns him, whereas Elizabeth believes that she is the scorned victim. The plot is driven by the inability or unwillingness of people (in general) to resolve the matter — they won’t talk about it — and is resolved when the truth is revealed by some adventitious circumstance.
Jane Austen characters are averse to fact-checking.
So are we all.
The popularity of Jane Austen derives from the hope that, given a chance, the truth will reveal itself, and that there is such a thing as truth. We believe, however, to the contrary. Jane Austen novels are popular because they reinforce the truth, so we believe, that things are to the contrary, and we readers are thereby proved superior beings.
Which we believed to be true before we picked up the book.
Inferior people do not read Jane Austen novels.
This phenomenon is ubiquitous.
There is a Taoist cautionary tale of a man with a horse. A neighbor is scandalized when the owner of the horse lets it run free.
It doesn’t matter, says the man with the horse.
The horse returns with a mate, and the man’s wealth is doubled by not wishing for it, and so keeping his horse confined.
The world is composed of two sorts of people. The Taoist believes that it illustrates a valuable truth. The non-Taoist believes that the other is a fool.
Likewise, the depressed person preserves his comfortable and familiar way of life by the certain knowledge that those who think otherwise are deluded.
This is not a profound insight.
What is overlooked is that Jane Austen novels encourage bullies and the practice of writing your Congressman.
Let’s explore a familiar case, the collapse of sexual relations following the birth of children.
One partner (the man, in this case) believes that the other has switched loyalties, and that the other (the new mother) now cares for the child rather than for him. This is proved by the mother’s new disinterest in sex, and furthers the belief that women choose their mates primarily in order to get children. The man feels used. Our present feminized culture condemns this as sexist.
The other partner (the woman) believes that the cause of the collapse of sexual relations (her partner’s disinterest in sex) is that he cares more for sex than for her. This is proved by his unwillingness to partner enthusiastically in the care of their child, which he persists in regarding as hers, and she feels accordingly used. Our present insistently unreformed culture condemns this as sexist.
Each set of beliefs is self-reinforcing. The way to break the impasse is to behave as the Taoist in the story about the horse. Both partners should pursue the strategy of allowing the other to do as they please indifferent to the outcome. Our present culture of authenticity disparages this as hypocritical. Not being Taoists (as most of us are not) this will be done not out of true indifference but out of the hope of each that they are wrong and the belief that they are right and the other will be proved a fool.
Thus the popularity of Jane Austen novels.
Thus the belief in the efficacy in writing your Congressman — you hope that it is efficacious but believe that it is not because to so believe proves your superiority and the Congressman a fool. Our present political culture regards this as foregone.
Thus also the legacy media practice of seeking out two views on any matter of contention. Our present rationalist culture regards this as fair. And so it would be, if what we were given were actually two views. What we get is each party’s (usually bombastic) recitation of his or her positions without explanation or conversation. Thus it is in a Jane Austen novel. We all hope that the matter will be resolved expediently without taking any part in it, each thereby proving himself to be the superior and his opponent as mendacious, stupid, hypocritical, and deluded.
The media reinforces its false belief that it is promoting the public’s ability to discover the truth when it is not, thereby reinforcing the belief that the public are fools which the media’s services will ameliorate.
The solution to this impasse is indifference to Jane Austen novels, sex after childbirth, and the behavior of Congress. If you don’t care about these matters they may come to pass. If they don’t that is a matter of indifference, but you will have stepped onto the Way of the Tao, which is the true way to the enlightenment of us all.
If you believe that the Way has no end, then this is for you.
If you don’t, then you are on your way to being a bully.