Tuesday, November 22, 2016

George Eliot and The Lifted Veil

Eliot at age 30
English author Mary Ann Evans, who was born on this day in 1819, wrote epic books like Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss under the name George Eliot. Literary critic Harold Bloom placed Eliot among the greatest Western writers of all time; Middlemarch has been described by Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as the greatest novel in the English language. Conservative columnist George Will put the book on a list of ten things he would take to another planet, along with Tokin' Woman Susan Sarandon.

Will Ladislaw, a character in Middlemarch, “made himself ill with doses of opium. Nothing greatly original had resulted from these half-measures and the effect of the opium convinced him that there was an entire dissimilarity between his constitution and De Quincey’s.”

In an earlier novel,  The Lifted Veil (1859), Eliot writes in first person as Latimer, a man having premonitions of his own death who is "cursed with an exceptional mental character....weary of incessant insight and foresight." A dreamy and sensitive sort of man who is not appreciated by himself or others for these qualities, he writes to the reader, "we have all a chance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, when we are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven....while the creative brain can still throb with the sense of injustice, with the yearning for brotherly recognition—make haste—oppress it with your ill-considered judgements, your trivial comparisons, your careless misrepresentations."
After an illness, Latimer begins to have visions, and says, "I had often read of such effects—in works of fiction at least.  Nay; in genuine biographies I had read of the subtilizing or exalting influence of some diseases on the mental powers. Did not Novalis feel his inspiration intensified under the progress of consumption?"
Eliot is speaking of the 18th century mystic poet and philosopher who called himself Novalis. According to a review of Marcus Boon's book The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs by George Gessert: 

Novalis, who had tuberculosis and used opium medicinally, came to believe that sickness and opium, which arose from nature, could lead the soul beyond nature. "All sicknesses resemble sin in that they are transcendences," he wrote. He associated his own sickness with "excess sensibility," or extravagant soulfulness which, like opium, was a way of becoming God, hence a sin. However, sickness and opium use were also ways of perceiving the world anew. This interpretation of drug experience, as a material path that partakes of sin and death, but transforms perceptions, and can renew life, has been with us in one form or another ever since.

During the 19th century many writers and artists experimented with opium, and after 1840 with hashish, and coca. Boon mentions Coleridge, Delacroix, Daumier, Sir Walter Scott, Poe, Baudelaire, Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Rimbaud, Conrad Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Yeats, among many others. Opium and hashish not only tied romanticism to science, but spanned Europe and its colonies, infusing into Western consciousness molecules of the mysterious East. Records of opium and hashish dreams during this period are overrun with Orientalist imagery.

In The Lifted Veil, the narrator begins to have "moments of happy hallucination" from his newfound "abnormal sensibility." He faints after having a premonition of meeting Betrtha, a young woman who is always described as dressed in green leaves or jewels.  Eliot deftly works in hashish when describing Latimer's relationship with her:

"And she made me believe that she loved me.  Without ever quitting her tone of badinage and playful superiority, she intoxicated me with the sense that I was necessary to her, that she was never at ease, unless I was near her, submitting to her playful tyranny.  It costs a woman so little effort to beset us in this way!  A half-repressed word, a moment’s unexpected silence, even an easy fit of petulance on our account, will serve us as hashish for a long while."

Englishmen and women who traveled to the East in the mid-1800s brought back hashish for domestic consumption; tinctures were also available in pharmacies for a variety of illnesses. In “English Traits” (1856), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The young men have a rude health which runs into peccant humors. They drink brandy like water...They stoutly carry into every nook and corner of the earth their turbulent sense; leaving no lie uncontradicted; no pretension unexamined. They chew hasheesh....and measure their own strength by the terror they cause.”

Eliot may have been criticized for her wild imaginings (or realities) in The Lifted Veil. In a second edition published 15 years after the book was first printed, she adds an aphorism to begin the book:

Give me no light, great Heaven, but such as turns
To energy of human fellowship;
No powers beyond the growing heritage
That makes completer manhood.

I won't ruin the ending of the book, but it does seem to have an interesting, moralistic twist, as do the works of Eliot's contemporaries Robert Louis Stevenson and Louisa May Alcott

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