Friday, November 25, 2011

On Leavis On Daniel Deronda

(From an anonymous comment on the internet as slightly adapted, i.e. not mine but I adopt a lot of it.)

....I'm firmly on the side of F.R. Leavis. The problem is not that the Jewish sections are Jewish, it's that they're bad -- boring, didactic, unsubtle -- while Gwendolen's sections are some of Eliot's best work. One oughtn't to accuse Leavis of anti-Semitism by virtue of this review, but I've seen that accusation implied in other essays about Daniel Deronda, and I don't think there's any reason for it. Leavis just wanted to salvage the better half of a book that's clearly uneven.

I think the main problem with the Jewish half is that Eliot, determined philo-semite though she is, simply does not know how to write Jewish characters as if they're real people. So Mirah is a timid, saintly epitome of well-bred Jewish womanhood, despite her upbringing in the theatre, and Mordecai is practically a stereotype -- at any rate, he's firmly in the tradition of intellectual Jewish mystics.

Meanwhile, all the lower class Jewish characters are greasy, vulgar, money-grubbing, etc., and while Eliot is careful to assure us that poor urban Gentiles are vulgar as well, she never actually shows us any.

The only Jewish character who is not in some way either a philo-semitic or an anti-semitic stereotype is Deronda, and he is a terribly boring character when left to his own devices. He works best as the mysterious figure occasionally popping up in Gwendolen's life, since Gwendolen's imagination invests him with much more interest and personality than he actually has.

Meanwhile, Gwendolen is over in her half of the book, being one of the most interesting and human characters Eliot ever created, but every time you get immersed in her story you're suddenly yanked back over to the Jewish half and forced to read pages-long paragraphs about Zionism.

If Eliot had merged the two halves of her book a little more the discrepancy wouldn't be quite as obvious, but since she essentially wrote two books and joined them at the hip, it's easy to see why Leavis would be tempted to perform surgery on them.

Me: The only part of this comment I disagree with is that the presentaton of the Cohen family is more rounded and sympathetic than suggested above. And, ironically, by not being ideal types, they and Mirah's father, too, are more resonant and interesting than the idealized Jews, including Deronda.

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