Monday, March 11, 2013

Bronte Viewed from the Heights

I once asked Joseph Pearce, the most well-read man I've ever met, how he managed to get such a good education without going to college.

"Kevin," he replied, "I am well educated BECAUSE I did not go to college."


I have the great honor of tutoring a very intelligent 15-year-old home-schooled student.  Together we just finished Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which I read aloud to my student, over the course of several days, changing my voice for each character and dramatizing the action the best I could.

And, as Joseph Pearce will tell you, there's an advantage to a lack of much formal education.  Thus, although I did graduate from college (I am ashamed to admit), I've learned everything I know on my own - but that everything has never included any of the rich and complex novels of the Brontes.  So I was able to approach the Heights as my student did, unprejudiced by any agenda one might pick up at university, either feminist or post-modern or what-have-you.

Emily Bronte
And to my eyes, unfamiliar with the literary criticism that has assessed the novel for the past 170 years, it was clearly a story about forgiveness, about how clinging on to vengeance or jealousy is literally self-destructive, for the climax of the story is a simple moment where two young people forgive one another (Cathy and Hareton), end up in love, and thereby complete an imbalance and an injustice that has lasted for a generation.  There was, of course, much more to the tale - complex and three-dimensional characters, social commentary, Gothic romance, a touch of horror, intense passion expressed in a lyrical and spiritual manner - but the point of the story overall is something the critics have apparently been missing all this time.

Joyce Carol Oates gets it, and chides those who don't.

Who will inherit the earth's riches? Who will inherit a stable, rather than a self-consuming, love? What endures, for mankind's sake, is not the violent and narcissistic love of Catherine and Heathcliff (who identify with each other, as fatal twins, rather than individuals), but the easier, more friendly, and altogether more plausible love of the second Catherine and Hareton Earnshaw. How ironic, then, that Brontë's brilliantly imagined dialectic, arguing for the inevitable exorcism of the old demons of childhood, and professing an attitude toward time and change that might even be called optimistic, should have been, and continues to be, misread. 
She goes on to compare (in a brilliant essay that you can read in full) mis-reading critics to censors who judge a book not by its cover but by an offensive word here or there.  The mis-readers who see Bronte's imagination as "narrow", or who see the novel as extolling the self-indulgent Victorian narcissistic Gothic romance it clearly undercuts, or who see it as a novel that exalts the moral authority of individual longing and rugged independence (when this is not at all what the novel does) are similar to such small-minded censors.

But it's understandable that the novel would be misread.  The power of its "chick flick" elements, and the atmosphere that is reminiscent of Poe or the darker scenes from Dickens, the stunning love story that keeps the reader enthralled over the long recounted history, and the rebellious and morally ambivalent character of the very masculine Heathcliff, serve to obscure the structure of the story and the overall theme that is being conveyed.  Critics, Oates tells us, get caught up in the process of the novel and thereby lose sight of its design - failing to see the book (I would say) from the Heights, and wuthering thereby in confusion.

And need it be said that this is a typically modern mistake, this misreading of Wuthering Heights?  I think this is because of a dichotomy that Oates calls design vs. process.  She seems to mean this: PROCESS is the reader or viewer's involvement in the emotions of the story, the "Dionysian" immersion into the work, while DESIGN  is the "Apollonian" overview of the work, by which design the reader or audience sees the meaning that the characters, acts and emotions reveal.

In Dante's day, design was paramount; with Shakespeare design and process co-exist; the neo-classicists of the 18th Century tended more toward design; the romantics of the 19th Century tended more toward process.

And today nobody believes in design.  There is no design in nature, we are told - either human nature or the rest of nature.  How, then, can there be design in art?  Isn't reading a novel all about feeling things, just like the faith is supposed to be all about feelings and not about the structure of life, or about insight?  Given this modern disregard for appreciating design as an element of art, and given the power and beauty of the process of Bronte's novel, is it any wonder that the book is not seen as the great work of Christian fiction that it is?

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