[ilds] [Fwd: moral economy in durrell's writings]

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Wed May 13 09:47:17 PDT 2009

Godshalk, William (godshawl) wrote:
> I will admit that I am puzzled by the phrase "moral economy. Could it have something to do with "candles?" 
Ah, you catch me out there, Bill, outing the Victorianist who dabbles in 
things of the next century.

I do find it useful to role-play, pretending to be a Victorian reader 
who has accidentally picked up a novel from the future and is instantly 
shocked into realizing differences and continuities.

When I use the phrase "moral economy," I mean to indicate something like 
the "rules of the game" by means of which the reader learns to imagine 
or understand a work of literature.

For the characters within a novel, "moral economy" /might/ represent the 
system of checks and balances, permissions and prohibitions, rewards and 
punishments that face them as they try to get along, succeed, or survive 
within their fictional world.

In Jane Austen's works, there is a finely drawn "moral economy," binding 
characters actions, keeping them within a certain set round of 
behaviors. Emma may imagine that /she/ makes the rules, but the pattern 
and energy of the novel are set up to teach her the true governing rules.

Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw exist within a strikingly different 
"moral economy" from the wayward but recoverable Emma. For much of 
/Wuthering Heights/, the reader has the uncanny sense that the 
fierceness of Heathcliff and Catherine's erotic desire and hatred may be 
breach any normally understood rules of existence and reality. At a 
certain point, we really may get the impression that the old mortal 
limits of /right/ and /wrong/ and /life/ and /death/ and /love/ and have 
been scattered, eliminated to make room for something more primal or 
titanic in nature, something to which society "normal" notions of "moral 
economy" may no longer apply.

That reading of /Wuthering Heights/ follows Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who 
told a friend:
> I've been greatly interested in /Wuthering Heights/, the first novel 
> I've read for an age, and the best (as regards power and sound style) 
> for two ages, except /Sidonia/. But it is a fiend of a book — an 
> incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from 
> Mrs. Browning to Mrs. Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell,—only it 
> seems places and people have English names there. Did you ever read it ?
There are less interesting and less complex variations of "moral 
economies." Maugham's moralizing tendencies in the passage from /Moon 
and Sixpence/ seem to me an easy sort of ironic moralizing.
> I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what 
> you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace 
> with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an 
> eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I 
> suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which 
> you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual. But again 
> I held my tongue, for who am I to argue with a knight?
I am reasonably certain that the narrator has come close to seeing what 
has gone wrong with values in this world and what view might be needed 
to recover balance. Again, a bit too easy. "You remember Pursewarden 
writing: 'A novel should be an act of divination by entrails, not a 
careful record of a game of pat-ball on some vicarage lawn!'"

With the /Quartet/, we find ourselves upon much less steady ground, and 
the "moral economy" tends to complicate and undercut our desires to 
locate the set rules. Many readers initially take Darley's declarations 
about "the joyous compromise through art" &c. &c. to be Durrell's own 
maxims. It is only later that various perspective and Pursewarden's 
ironies start to pull that assurance away, leaving the reader somewhere 
less certain.

I /think/ that I do mean "disinterested," although I am aware of the 
prejudice against the too easy use of that word. (Cf. the note copied 

But careless or not I imagine that I use "disinterested" because I 
picked up the meaning via Durrell's prose, where we find Darley 
recalling how

"I hastened to tell Pursewarden that I was certainly not a doctor, and 
advised him to telephone for one: but the phone was out of order, and 
the /boab/ could not be roused form his sleep: so more in *the spirit of 
disinterested curiosity *than anything I put on a mackintosh over my 
pyjamas and made my way along the corridor." (/Justine/ 1957.55)

That scene, in which Pursewarden summons Darley to "examine" the 
hysteric Melissa, is perhaps a prime example of Durrell provoking his 
readers, challenging of our preconceptions about what "rules" or "moral 
economies" novelists should use in writing their works.

You will find Durrell using "disinterested" again and again and again, 
early and late in his writings. And yes--another outing!--I probably 
soaked it up from Walter Pater. Cf. his "Conclusion" to /The Renaissance/:
> For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many 
> pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us 
> this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various 
> forms of enthusiastic activity, *disinterested* or otherwise, which 
> come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does 
> yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this 
> wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for 
> art's sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give 
> nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and 
> simply for those moments' sake.
For your appreciation, /cher maitre/:

> *usage* Disinterested and uninterested have a tangled history. 
> Uninterested originally meant impartial, but this sense fell into 
> disuse during the 18th century. About the same time the original sense 
> of disinterested also disappeared, with uninterested developing a new 
> sense—the present meaning—to take its place. The original sense of 
> uninterested is still out of use, but the original sense of 
> disinterested revived in the early 20th century. The revival has since 
> been under frequent attack as an illiteracy and a blurring or loss of 
> a useful distinction. Actual usage shows otherwise. Sense 2 of 
> disinterested is still its most frequent sense, especially in edited 
> prose; it shows no sign of vanishing. A careful writer may choose 
> sense 1a of disinterested in preference to uninterested for emphasis 
> <teaching the letters of the alphabet to her wiggling and supremely 
> disinterested little daughter — C. L. Sulzberger>. Further, 
> disinterested has developed a sense (1b), perhaps influenced by sense 
> 1 of the prefix dis-, that contrasts with uninterested <when I grow 
> tired or disinterested in anything, I experience a disgust — Jack 
> London (letter, 1914)>. Still, use of senses 1a and 1b will incur the 
> disapproval of some who may not fully appreciate the history of this 
> word or the subtleties of its present use.

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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