Wednesday, October 17, 2012

common things become uncommon

James Wood has written an oddly distant essay at The New Yorker to mark the 350th Anniversary of The Book of Common Prayer. One has grown to expect more from "the 21st century's answer to Matthew Arnold." The essay begins:
Suppose you find yourself, in the late afternoon, in one of the English cathedral towns—Durham, say, or York, or Salisbury, or Wells, or Norwich—or in one of the great university cities, like Oxford or Cambridge. The shadows are thickening, and you are mysteriously drawn to the enormous, ancient stone structure at the center of the city. You walk inside, and find that a service is just beginning. Through the stained glass, the violet light outside is turning to black. Inside, candles are lit; the flickering flames dance and rest, dance and rest. A precentor chants, "O Lord, open thou our lips." A choir breaks into song: "And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise." The precentor continues, "O God, make speed to save us.” And the choir replies, musically, “O Lord, make haste to help us."
And ends:
For Austen, belief was stable enough so that the liturgy could be mocked, fondly and without danger, exactly as a silly vicar could be safely made fun of. Both Woolf and Beckett approach Cranmer's words without easy mockery but with something closer to reverent irony. Yet they both use the language of the Prayer Book to enact prayers that have no hope of answer: at best, we are "vouchsafed" something, but cannot say what it is. The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.
"A loss, one supposes"? A far cry from "cold comfort"; from "what is the purpose of these eighty or so years we spend on earth not having the tears wiped from our faces?"; and from, of course, "I'll go and sit in a cathedral." No doubt writing supercilious partisan crap--with constant reference to Ahab's "pasteboard masks"--for The New Yorker in between reviews takes its toll on one's sense of loss.

There is one interesting section where Wood describes Mr. Collins' proposal of marriage to Elizabeth Bennet as, among other things, Jane Austen's "joke about the order of the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer."
Not until the priest [reading from the Book of Common Prayer] reaches reason No. 3 does he begin to get around to what most people would imagine to be the first and best reason to marry: "for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other." Surely it struck the canny and satiric Jane Austen as intolerably pompous that the Church apparently prized the production of Christian children and the avoidance of fornication above the happiness of its congregants? And so she gave Mr. Collins a narcissistically exaggerated version of the Prayer Book's liturgy. Thomas Cranmer's words live on in Jane Austen's, even if not in the form he would have desired.
I have always liked Persuasion a little bit more than Pride & Prejudice -- and, in the latter, Jane a little bit more than Elizabeth -- because of the presence of a few children to look after. Anyway, insofar as children do enter into Austen's books, I would say her concern with them is not with childhood itself, but with happy marriage as the condition for the possibility of the best childhood. Elizabeth can take pleasure in hearing about the sort of boy that Darcy was while being at the same time less than interested in babysitting someone else's children. If there is satire in Austen's possible reference to the Book of Common Prayer on marriage, it seems to me that it would be in service of uniting the three reasons--children, prevention of fornication, mutual society (none of which Collins cares about)--rather than in elevating one over the others. None of those things fail to appear as important when one reflects on the marriage between Lydia and Wickham, for example. Then again, one or other may become more or less important to someone who has come to think of belief as only a supposed loss. Wood shows some interest in the "vouchsafing" task of language, but it seems that his "one supposes" is rooted in a limited understanding of what is "vouchsafed" in marriage.

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