by Mara Naselli
Narrative omniscience in storytelling has often been described as God's point of view, but we can hardly take for granted God's existence anymore, let alone what we know of God's scope of vision. If we cannot imagine God's all-seeing, all-knowing perspective, then what becomes of the nature of omniscience in storytelling? There is a reason it has become an increasingly rare point of view in contemporary literature.
What can an author know of her characters? James Wood notes Muriel Spark raises this very question in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a short novel about a schoolmistress and her young charges, published in 1961. The story is set in the 1930s. Fascism is taking hold in Europe. Spark's superb control in the storytelling reflects the tyrannical authority of Miss Brodie herself. Miss Brodie is “a fascist and a Scottish Calvinist . . . , predestining the lives of her pupils, forcing them into artificial shapes. Is that what the novelist does too?” writes Wood. “That is the question that interests Spark. The novelist adopts Godlike powers of omniscience but what can she really know of her creations? Surely only God, the ultimate author of our lives, can know our comings and our going. And surely only God has the moral right to decide such things.”
There is much we don't see in Spark's novel except through the slow reveal of the characters' own blindnesses. Think of works like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Endgame. These characters are drawn sparely, but are still affecting and evocative. The austerity of context has become a hallmark of modernist literature. Its close narrative distance erodes the omniscient view. As a counterexample many have pointed to George Eliot's Middlemarch, published in 1872. This study of provincial life, as it was called, set in the 1830s amidst significant political and cultural change, is so richly drawn that no hillock, no hovel, no character's position or innermost aspiration goes unnoticed. The novel is chockfull.
Indeed, the narrator in Middlemarch speaks with a certain omniscience, but it is not distant and removed. It is not Godlike, in the usual sense. Zadie Smith calls Middlemarch a riot of subjectivity. The narrator in Middlemarch speaks as if she is there, moving from within one character's consciousness to another. And though we see the characters with a certain kind of fullness—access to their most inner thoughts and blindnesses—there is a lot we don't know about them, too. Perhaps there are different kinds of omniscience. And perhaps God, or at least our culturally and historically shaped notion of who God is and where God is, has something to do with it.
The characters in Middlemarch enact an elaborate ballet of perception. Eliot sets in motion one pas de deux after another, showing how major and minor characters alike see and interpret, or misinterpret, one another. Eliot conscripts us into the dance, too. The direct address to the reader implicates our own perceptions, interpretations, and judgment of the characters. Eliot gives us an elaborate tableau vivant of misperception, particularly in the courtship and marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon.
Dorothea is a well-to-do young idealist who strives for an intellectually rigorous piety. Casaubon is a wealthy, elderly bachelor immersed in his scholarship—a lifework titled The Key to All Mythologies. He has been so absorbed in his studies that the business of marriage and family has slipped Casaubon's mind for a few decades. He now finds himself aged and in need of companionship. Though he is unskilled in the art of social intercourse, Dorothea admires Casaubon's mind and scholarly dedication. Sir James, a sociable sporting young man who attempts to show his interest in Dorothea, is hardly noticed.
When we first meet Casaubon, we share in Dorothea's delusion. The narrator inhabits Dorothea's mind, a knowing but intimate point of view. After three conversations, Dorothea concludes that her first impressions of Casaubon's exceptional mind, his seriousness, and his interest in her own intellectual and spiritual development “had been just.” For he was all she had imagined him to be. “This accomplished man condescended to think of a young girl, and take the pains to talk to her, not with the absurd compliment, but with an appeal to her understanding, and sometimes with instructive correction. What delightful compansionship!” Her only disappointment is Casaubon's indifference to the decrepit cottages and the plight of the poor. This unhappy thought is interrupted when James, ever helpful, arrives to discuss the building plans for new housing for the villagers, and Dorothea is off thinking about other things.
The reader, however, sees Casaubon in a way Dorothea does not. Where Dorothea sees intellectual engagement and consent to her religious devotion, the reader sees condescenstion and impatience. In fact, we see her blindness more clearly than we see Casaubon himself. Our supposition strikes a chord with the opinions of him held by other characters in the novel. No one considers Casaubon a suitable match for Dorothea. He has one foot in the grave. He is all parentheses and semicolons. Have you seen his legs?
Indeed, Casuabon has little appeal. His single love letter to Dorothea strains under rigid grammar. His sentences are overful and wanting at the same time. “No speech could have been more thoroghly honest in its intention,” the narrator tells us. “The frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.” But then the narrator interrupts our own suppositions: “Would it not be rash to conclude that there was no passion behind those sonnets to Delia which strike us as the thin music of a mandolin?” We see Casaubon's earnest, lonely formality. The narrator helps us see his encumbered feeling.
But how does the letter's intended audience interpret its bark? “Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.” There is a moral dimension to interpretation, the narrator tells us. She (I have taken Eliot's narrator to be female, though it is possible early readers assumed the narrator was male) frames the scene and tells us something we might not be prepared to hear. Dorothea sees what she wants to see in Casaubon. And so do we.
It's not an accident Eliot chose the word “believer” to describe someone who can flesh out a meaning that might not exist. We are all believers, Eliot would argue. Our vision is colored by belief, limited, unaided, crude. Investigation is the best defense. The intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment illuminates Eliot's vision—examination over belief, reason over superstition. “Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop,” the narrator tells us, “we find ourselves making interpretations which may turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated taxpennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at the receipt of his custom.”
Things are not as they seem. The remedy to our clouded vision, Eliot's narrator instructs, is microscopic investigation. Only with examination can we see the indifferent forces of nature at work. How do we, as readers, position ourselves with respect to the chorus of criticism toward the unsuspecting Casaubon? In our privileged position, have we not enjoyed Mrs Cadwaller's contempt, Sir James's poor opinion of his legs, Mr Brooke's failure to spark conversation with him, Celia's disapproval of his aged appearance? The narrator then turns to us. Need our own judgments reside with Dorothea's illusions or everyone else's dismissals? Are we not capable of a more nuanced perception? Can we not consider what the man himself is burdened with? “Suppose we turn from outside estimates of a man, to wonder, with keener interest, what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity: with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labors; what fading hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within him; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause.” The passage is headlong. The momentum of the text moves us from one diligent consideration to the next, we hardly know what we are in for, until she strikes, lancing our own unexamined assumptions.
The chief reason that we think he asks too large a place in our consideration must be our want of room for him, since we refer him to the Divine regard with perfect confidence. . . . Mr Casaubon, too, was the center of his own world; if he was liable to think that others were providentially made for him, and especially to consider them in the light of their fitness for the author of a Key to All Mythologies, this trait is not quite alien to us, and, like the other mendicant hopes of mortals, claims some of our pity.
You, dear reader, are the center of your own universe just as poor Casaubon is the center of his. What we know and what we don't know of the characters has taken an epistemological turn. We cannot, after all, achieve the Divine regard. Omniscience is not available to us, says Eliot's narrator. The point of view Eliot has designed for her narrator is not so much omniscience, as much as an earthly, human view, a point of view that moves from within the consciousness of one character to another. The narrator is modeling for the reader what it means to see others not for oneself, but to see them for themselves.
Casaubon's only labor—The Key to All Mythologies—aspires to rise above the trivialities and confusions of daily life on earth. Poor Mr Casaubon indeed. Eliot's narrator guides the reader's compassion for Casaubon's loneliness, even as she enacts an argument against omniscience, against the all-knowingness to which Casaubon has dedicated his life. For if there are truths, they are to be found in the world, among us, through our own ability to think and feel at once.
In 1833, David Strauss published Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus)—the first book to treat Jesus as a historical figure and to ask who Jesus was as a human being. The book was wildly controversial at the time. Strauss reads the miracles attributed to Jesus as myths. These myths, Strauss argues, were instrumental in the establishment and legitimation of the early church. When The Life of Jesus was translated and published in English in 1846, the Earl of Shaftsbury called it “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.” Its translator: Marian Evans, also known as George Eliot.
Strauss’s book was one of many symptoms in the secularizing intellectual landscape in the nineteenth century that influenced Eliot’s thinking. She had worked at the Westminster Review, which published John Stuart Mill and played a role in spreading the word of Darwin’s work. Intellectuals were beginning to think about science and its application to human nature. The notion that humans were of the world, not separate from it, sounded across the disciplines. For the Utilitarians, like Bentham, humans avoided pain and were drawn to pleasure just as animals did. This had implications for social justice—for if no one’s pain was more valuable than others’, the suffering of the working poor could not be justified for the pleasure of the rich. Secularization, in other words, had a moral dimension. And Eliot was in the thick of it. She had translated Strauss. She translated Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, which argued that God, what humans call Absolute Being, is actually a reflection of human existence. (Strauss called Feuerbach’s work the “truth for our times.”) And she translated Baruch Spinoza, who had also, two centuries earlier, applied scientific thinking to proving the existence of God in a radically new way.
The German poet Novalis called Spinoza the God-intoxicated man. He was a lens grinder by profession. In 1656, at age twenty-three, Spinoza experienced the blunt instrument of religious judgment when he was excommunicated. The united congregation of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam marshalled the power of the heavens in a stunningly vitriolic expulsion.
By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with consent of God. . . . Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.
No one shall communicate with Spinoza, they decreed. No one shall be “under the same roof nor within four cubits of his vicinity.” And no one shall “read any treatise composed or written by him.” Scholars don't know exactly why Spinoza was excommunicated, but his controversial application of mathematics to understanding the existence of God might have had something to do with it. After his banishment, he went on to write several philosophical works. Spinoza died at age forty-four. While we don't know exactly how he died, either, some suspect that he suffered the cumulative damage of inhaling glass dust from a lifetime of grinding lenses.
Even in the philosophical tradition, Spinoza was considered an outcast. His views of God threatened any connection between state and religion as Spinoza considered religion superstition. This idea rhymed with the growing tide of secularization in Eliot's intellectual circles, as well as Britain's own embattlement with the “Catholic Question” at the time. Though he was writing centuries earlier, Spinoza's proof of God resonated with arguments in the nineteenth century over the location and nature of God, or whether God existed at all.
For Spinoza, there is no God outside the physical world, no personal God. Even more controversial was Spinoza's claim that because the law of physics show everything works by necessity, there is no free will. Only through logical thinking, based on the laws of the physical world, can we discern the truths of reality. Especially appealing to the Romantics was Spinoza’s notion of conatus—the inner propulsive force that drives creatures and things to be what they are. In other words, the nature of a thing was not expressed in free will or choice, but in action derived from an innate force. To put it another way, for Spinoza, and many he influenced, the expression of God is not discerned through prayer or faith or religious authority or a celestial will, but in the physical workings of the world. Spinoza’s God is immanent, not transcendent. These physical workings, therefore, ought to be perceived without judgment, through the glass.
Spinoza, Strauss, and Feuerbach all located God in a new way. Strauss argued God was human. Feuerbach argued God was a projection of human consciousness. Spinoza argued God was everywhere. So, we might ask, if God is of the earth and not of heaven, what is to become of omniscience? What becomes of the “Divine regard” from which we so easily judge and decree, as in our view of poor Casaubon, or in the congregation’s condemnation of Spinoza? From what perspective do we imagine how the world works and tell a story about it?
If God is of the earth, of the physics of the natural world, of human consciousness, then knowing and all-knowingness are no longer the task. The challenge of understanding must then orient subjectivity in a larger whole, with both feeling and thinking. Eliot’s narrator models this balance. Four perspectives are held in tension throughout the novel and are under constant pressure from the narrator’s critical insight and distance. We see the characters (1) as they see themselves, (2) as other characters see them, (3) as we as readers see them, and then, finally, (4) as the narrator herself sees them. Each of these positions is at one time or another made explicit by the narrator, and the first three are often gently interrogated. The fourth is compassionate and can step outside of the limits of time, looking slightly forward, but it is often also provisional. The narrative mind in Eliot’s novel is intelligent, but not all-knowing. She turns directly to us, the readers, and instructs how we ought to look when Dorothea has realized marriage has become something other than what she had imagined.
Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the course emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
The keenness with which Eliot’s narrator sees and hears the pulse of creation would kill us mere mortals. And yet she wants us to lean in that direction, to be more attentive, more attuned, more sensitive. She wants us to resist the stupidity that makes our lives easier to live.
Perhaps it is not quite right to call Middlemarch a riot of subjectivity, though I understand what Zadie Smith means by it. The reader cannot help but be a bit overwhelmed by the range and depth of life portrayed in that microcosm of humanity. The domestic doings and the weaknesses of well-intentioned characters are what Henry James deemed trivial, and their sheer abundance, he thought, diffused the novel of any dramatic gravity. But Eliot is after something much larger. She is creating universes in the way that our own minds create them, only she gently pushes us to consider the intersubjectivity of the larger whole. Eliot’s narrator is within and without at the same time. If she has a God’s eye view, it is through the limited and horizontal vision of her characters as well as the larger, migratory perspective that makes room for compassion for their blindnesses. If God is human, or located in human consciousness or immanent, it is this God’s omniscience she inhabits.
Who is Eliot’s narrator, then? Her perspective is Godlike insofar as she can access the interiority of the characters, but human in its determination to examine the natural workings of worldly things. Feuerbach and Spinoza both argued religious belief comprises stories. Their meaning, of course, was intended to undermine the authority of religious institutions. Mere stories, they might have said. But Eliot seems to take up the challenge, to answer with a story that enacts a Godlike intelligence these philosophers might recognize. To call Middlemarch a conventional nineteenth-century novel of provincial life misses the scope of her ambition. Eliot shows the reader there is a moral and epistemological dimension to our ordinary perceptions. It is not an elevated or all-knowing Godlike view. It can’t be. Like Muriel Spark or Samuel Beckett, Eliot’s characters are on their way to showing us how little we know of others. As James Wood has put it, “people are enigmas, and we know them by not knowing them.” The difference, though, is the confidence Eliot has in the magnifying lens. Contemporary authors have no God and no science on which to build the scaffolding of artifice. We deploy the irreducible “I,” narrating our own identities, our own place in the world, as if by doing so we will come to know ourselves.