Discontented Thoughts

Here is a passage I found in Middlemarch this week.  There is not the slightest indication that the author, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) or the character who thought them, intended these remarks to be taken in a political way, but for me, this is the week before the most fraught election of my life and it sounds political to my ears

For me, just for this year, I find myself wishing that election day were further from Halloween and closer to Thanksgiving.

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement,

I’d like to examine this passage as a literary product first.  I think that is how it stuck me when I read it.  I had to go back and look at it again to find out what it actually said.

First, I liked “look…and see.”  We look passively and we see our figures [passive verb] being acted upon.

Second, once I got to looking at the actions, I liked the adjective + noun patterns.  Notice “dull consent” followed by “insipid misdoing” followed by “shabby achievement.”

Third, consider the tone of the adjectives.  It isn’t just, I think, that these are not words in common speech today; I think that they may be extraordinarily precise words.  Consider “dull” in “dull consent.”  There are lots of other words available to suggest that the consent is less that full and active.  You could say it was “grudging,” for example.  That is probably what I would have said.  Or “thin,” setting up “thick” or “full” as a better grade of consent.  I think “dull” is better than any of those.  For one thing, “dull” is the kind of thing you can feel.  You would’t want to say that you had given “sharp” consent, but you know that when you are sharp, you would not give dull consent.

The Latin adjective is sapidus, “tasteless.” [1]  If we may consider misdoings to be sins, it gives us “tasteless sins.”  In the modern imagination “sins” are daring violations of God’s “law” or even of society’s laws.  We imagine “sinners” to be bold adventurers, daring the consequences.  But a sin that didn’t even have an interesting flavor…that wouldn’t be much of a sin.  It is, plausibly, the kind of sin into which one might be led by dull consent. [2]

Before we get to the third one, achievement, note the pattern of the last two: we have misdeeds first, then achievements.  “Wrong-doings” and “right-doings;” neither of which meaning much of anything to us.  With that quality of consent, neither deeds nor misdeeds provide a significant experience.

So, finally, we have “shabby achievement.”  I like it that it was a failed attempt at an achievement.  This is an actual achievement, but it is shabby.  “Shabby” is a tone word.  Behavior that is not “wrong” exactly, can still be shabby.  One person can treat another shabbily.  Shabby behavior is overused and under-maintained.  It is not polished and fit for the task at hand.  It is functional, but ragged.

This indictment is not a powerful charge against any human or any kind of human.  It is really more of a reflection; something one might mull over about oneself.  That is why I especially like “experience words” like dull, insipid, and shabby.  They are words that anyone with a good vocabulary might use in thinking about their own life and their behavior.

It is an altogether exalting passage.  I am glad that something stopped me and made me go back and celebrate it.

[1}  Ironically, the verb form, sapere, is also the source of sapient, and carries the root meaning “to be wise.”  It is why we are called homo sapiens, although it must be said that we gave that name to ourselves.

[2]  There is a recent Polish film, Ida, in which Ida wants to be accepted as a nun, but due to some events, she is required to leave the convent for awhile, comes into a bunch of money for awhile, and commits in rapid order all the sins she has heard of.  She moves down her imaginary list, checking each one off.  All these “sins” baffle her.  She has given them her dull consent and they don’t really taste like anything to her.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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