127. (George Eliot)

This post will open with George Eliot and then drift, possibly to return. For a starting point, consider one of the most beguiling and frustrating of passages in nineteenth-century British literature:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithful a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

As a biographical aside, this passage would have been the cornerstone of a  dissertation that I did not write on wasted life in nineteenth-century British literature. I did not know how to write the dissertation, and though friends and advisors agreed that the topic, wasted life, was rich with possibility, nobody seemed to agree on, or clearly articulate, what those possibilities might be; I was not ready to write the dissertation. I still would not be, but now I see in this passage a clue: wasted life and waste is not enough of a hook–there needs, to my mind, to be a  region or problem of language intersecting with the ethical dimension. That I lacked and, looking for synonyms and key-words for waste, could not find.

But now the answer seems clear–or an answer–seems clear: the language of measurement and calculation, whereby waste is calculated, or proves impossible to calculate. It is a source of prevarications in Victorian literature–as above, where Eliot hedges in writing “half owing to the number who lived faithful”–but, even in the moments of prevarication, is also, because it is a place where authors feel the inadequacy of language, a moment where Victorian literature reaches for something new, bringing something into breathtaking view (“tBut the effect of her being on those around he was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts…”).

The challenge is verbal and analytical at once: what metric would be adequate for measuring what is wasted and lost in a  life, for calculating influence and significant? And even if such a metric were found, in numerical terms, then what would it mean, in verbal terms? What would the judgment-laden verbal description of such numbers be?

The challenge arises simultaneous to the rise of statistics, to the swelling of evolutionary and geological time, to the acceleration in population growth, and to a related concern with self-cultivation and education.

But the real division might be best approached through Weber’s distinction, formed to grapple with a modernity nascent in 19th century Britain, between formal and substantive rationality. The former (formal rationality) is, in the words of Weber’s intellectual biographer Fritz Ringer, characterized by “predictability and calculability in the legal environment of economic enterprise…[Weber] initially defined formal rationality in economic action as the degree to which calculation is technically possible and actually applied in it. He further specified that money calculation is the indispensable means of maximizing the formal rationality of an enterprise. Substantive rationality by contrast, is the degree to which the provisioning of human groups through economic action is guided by “normative postulates.” In Weber’s own words, substantive rationality “puts forward demands of an ethical, political, utilitarian, hedonistic, status, egalitarian, or any other kind, in terms of which the results of economic action are assessed in a value-rational way.”

I am suggesting that the notion substantive rationality be expanded to include the assessment of fruition in an individual life, or even the collective life of  a civilization or society, determined by an aggregate of individuals.

The necessity and challenge (perhaps an impossibility) of substantive rationality in measuring the course and waste of a life prompts some of the great literature of the 19th century. As is evident, substantive rationality does not abolish money as a unit of measurement, but it subsumes it within other metrics that do not allow for calculation and  predictability. For one moment at least in the intellectual history of the nineteenth-century, there was an alignment of the two: in the first flowering of Classical Political Economy, which historian Boyd Hilton labelled “evangelical economics” in the “Age of Atonement,” the thought was that the markets provided a guide to divine judgment, lessons for how to live, and punishments for those who failed to follow those lessons.

But hardly satisfied everyone; and the ideology of economic-atonement driving evangelical economics had dissipated by mid-century (when, Hilton asserts patly, the incarnation rather than the atonement had gained priority in structures of faith). Besides, the struggle for authors would be different: though language, ineluctably normative in its functioning, can describe the terms and aims of substantive rationality, it struggles when confronted by formal rationality’s expectation to measure or calculate the gains and losses when substantive goals are met or fail to be met. And such expectations infiltrate discourse over the century.

I had at first thought to start the project with Wordsworth, but that now seems a wrong-step, or a step onto another path. For Wordsworth encounters something similar but crucially different, and encounters his challenge for the first time in his poetry at the end of the unsettled, and unpublished, poem “The Ruined Cottage.” Faced with the tragic death of Margaret after a painful erosion of her life the poet turns to the view site of her cottage to find consolation:


At  length towards the cottage I returned

Fondly, and traced with milder interest

That secret spirit of humanity

Which, mid the calm oblivious tendencies

Of Nature, mid her plants, her weeds and flowers,

And silent overgrowing, still survived. 


Wordsworth seeks to discern what influence a life can have on the world, and whether tragic losses can be redeemed; it is a perennial problem of tragedy, containing the subset of Victorian cases that interests me. The pressure-point in the lines above is the word “survive,” and Wordsworth’s poetry investigates as much as any poetry what survival means, what value survival and endurance can have in itself. But the Victorian cases that interest me can be distinguished from Wordsworth’s, although they share with him a preoccupation with waste and loss. By the mid-nineteenth century, that is, it is not just loss of potential or waste of life that animates literature; it is reckoning with that waste and potential within a context teeming with claims that waste and loss ought to be measurable, or at least assessable by a publicly-verifiable, historically-neutral rubric.

Wordsworth is able, in his poem “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” to simply reject the “Statesmen” and their demand that the life of vagrants be put to productive ends in a workhouse, appealing instead to a vision of organic communal life that would conserve for its own sake; such an alternative rhetoric of valuation is still available to Wordsworth, writing not-so-long after Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village,” at a time when Crabbe was a first-rate poet in the public eye, and Hannah More a hero of evangelical piety. And even for those Statesmen who would place the beggar in a workhouse, their concern was as much with piety as with measurable economic output; labor was godly, as well as convenient for social organization. The thought that there is a real problem with not assessing the waste of life in some way that could be verified, assessed, or calculated does not impinge on authors until much later–Carlyle perhaps is the first to strike against it, and with savage results, both in his survey of the contemporary scene and in his retrospective account of the French Revolution, which so disorients the reader as to provoke a hunger for rational assessment that Carlyle implies cannot be provided.

In Tennyson, we can see the inheritance of a fascination with endurance and bare survival from the earlier generations, Wordsworth’s and Keats’, meeting with a pervasive sensitivity to the rational calculability made possible by clock-time, coming to pervade the world with the standardization of the railway clocks across the nation (early 1840s), and with coordination of global time as telegraphic technology increased. Ulysses despairs not only of a life that is wasted, but a life whose waste is counted out:


As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more, 

A bringer of new things.


But for Ulysses, and for Tennyson himself in other poems, there is a need to assert oneself against the time parceled out by clocks, that beat out the lives of men; he sets sail to redeem the time that is left to him. Tennyson’s sensitivity to clock-time, and his resistance to the order it imposes, is a resistance to one component of formal rationality. Wordsworth also would redeem the time, but for Wordsworth, the time redeemed has not been calculated as it has been for Tennyson, and in Tennyson’s poems.

For Dickens, the cases are quite otherwise; the tragedies of his novels, and the near-tragedies, are often those who measure their own lives with an understanding of status and value that is imprisoned within the formally rational metrics of money; even fallen gentlemen, clinging to that title, cannot separate it from monetary distinction.

Browning’s dramatic monologues form part of the story here too: in “Andrea del Sarto,” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb,” the specter of personal waste sits uneasily against the riches of the Renaissance civilization to which they belong, and the poems are tense with uncertainty as to how we are to measure the waste of human potential in the Renaissance when the calculability of wealth and objets d’art is blindingly grand. At the same time, both poems present the destructive temptation that such wealth and assessable grandeur represents to those who produce, sustain, and are sustained by it. In the best dramatic monologues, the proliferation of production, consequence, and value in a single life, at whatever historical removes, with whatever historical perspective Browning is afforded as he looks back, staggers the potential for adequate calculation; no ledger has rows and columns sufficient for the task. They are defiantly anti-whiggish, refusing us the ability to neatly parse what has led to fruitful modern ends, and what has not; refusing us the summary judgments of Macaulay.

As interesting as cases that fit my narrative are those that do not; of these, Christina Rossetti stands out as a poet who, like Wordsworth and like Tennyson, writes with intensity and inventiveness about endurance, the waste of life, and the virtue of patience–but who is indifferent to the prospect and problem of calculating waste; it is not, for her, a human task. But the poem’s are restless in the absence of such accounting; they throw their muscular effort into turning away from it, and waiting instead, in a struggle of patience, for God’s final word.

Central to it all is George Eliot: her novels, especially the late novels, RomolaMiddlemarch, and Deronda are experiments in straddling the contradictions between formal and substantive rationalities in a rhetoric that accepts the charge of the first while answering the demands for the second; accepting that waste and potential can be described, without accepting that they can be reduced to calculable means, and struggling as a consequence with a description that feels warranted and fair, that does justice also to what it means to speak of life in such a context at all.





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