Tuesday, November 26, 2013
November is misty, cool and enigmatic. It is charming, but not charismatic like December. It is resourceful, but not unpredictable like October. Determinedly placed between these two months, November is its own entity. It declines persuasion by cultural trends, but assuredly recognizes the influence of surrounding customs. It is dignified and respectful, but by no means is it dull or boring.
The fog of November quiets the cacophonous sounds of boisterous self-importance and shutters our interest in pompous displays of self-worth. The beguiling yet rare qualities of authenticity, duty and honor quietly occupy the backpack’s space this month.
Sharing the chasm, struggling to identify with this triumvirate of virtues, stands the philosophical concept of the self. In its confidence and uncertainty, its strength and faultiness, its humanness and resilience, the self finds its November philosopher in Jane Austen. She is the self’s champion, its advocate for betterment, its promoter of genuine existence.
In our contemporary society, there is a great deal of discussion and material surrounding the concept of the self: self-help books, self-image suggestions, self-confidence builders, self-esteem workshops, self-preservation efforts and the awkward, current phenomenon of “selfies.” We claim particular rights and truths to be self-evident. But, really, what is this “self” of which we speak?
The self is our personal identity, our microcosm defined as independent (but not separate) from the macrocosm. My “self” is a term used to recognize my collection of habits, actions and personality traits, or, in essence, my entity of personhood. Importantly, we cannot run or hide from our self. To put it in Mike Brady’s (of “The Brady Bunch”) terminology, wherever you go, there you are. And, of course, Shakespeare famously suggests, “To thine own self be true,” reminding us that, in the end, one must contend with the self and make peace with the reflection in the mirror.
In addition, it becomes more difficult to discuss the self when we begin to recognize nuances of its definition. The self, when confident, is labeled “secure.” When it is too confident, it is labeled “self-centered.” It is a tricky thing, defining the self in the context of community, too. When termed as a collective plurality of similarly identified, individual selfs, it becomes “ourselves.”
November manifests this complex concept of the self. The fogginess of the 11th month encourages the inward, self-examination Socrates esteemed, it embodies the paradox of the human condition Pascal acknowledged and it illustrates the leap of faith Kierkegaard recognized as necessary for authentic self-development. If November could nominate a novelist and philosophical commentator to represent the self’s struggle to define its authenticity, to embody duty and to live with honor, Jane Austen would be its candidate.
As Anna Quindlen comments in her essay, “Pride and Prejudice and the Mysteries of Life,” “(I)t is about the dance of attraction between two brilliant, handsome human beings who teach each other, through trial and considerable error, the folly of their greatest faults. ... ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is also about that thing that all great novels consider, the search for self.”
Austen’s books, and the stories she tells, articulate the conflict between identifying and defining what it means to be our own “self” and the labels we receive by our greater communities that help create our identities. True, her narratives exploit human frailty, misgivings and weaknesses, but they also show what honor, duty and authenticity really look like as lived principles. In Austen’s book “Emma,” one of the main characters, Mr. Knightley, responds to a censure from the protagonist, Emma, when he defends his criticism of the captivating Frank Churchill, saying, “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.”
“Reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices, helps me figure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world, even helps me adopt the proper tone and manner in dealing with others,” admits James Collins in “Fanny was Right, Jane Austen as Moral Guide.”
Austen’s characters complicate our understanding of the world around us by challenging social mores, but they also embody the resoluteness of the confident, authentic, honorable, duty-driven self. Her heroines and heroes act passionately and uncompromisingly as genuine individuals with rational capability of thought — not in spite of, but because of, their very real humanness, and all of their many missteps to which we relate. As Jay McInerney proposes in his essay “Beautiful Minds,” “Given the choice between rationality and emotion, Austen chooses both.”
In November’s fog, where the self has the opportunity to develop within integrity’s primordial soup, Austen’s conviction of universally acknowledged truth is clear: Authenticity matters. Duty counts. Honor is a noble and worthy virtue. Thank you, dearest, loveliest Jane. Thank you for reminding us of November’s gifts to the self.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.