Friday 29 May 2009

Of Noble Past

We all know that our life stories are just that—stories. As with all other stories, they are constructed and distorted depending on our current motivations. If that sounds too cold and formal, we could say our stories are chopped, salted, spiced, cooked, baked—all depending on our current tastes, and on the customer of our life-story dish. What we forget, though, is that our dishes have a peculiar power to shape our tastes—that our stories and theories shape our lives.

It is this very assumption—that personal ‘mythologies and ideologies’ shape our lives, in this case writers' lives, that drives Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. By reference to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans, Rose brings the discussion of the pitfalls of public life into a domestic sphere, home hearth of the five 19th century writers and philosophers: Carlyle, Ruskin, Mill, Dickens, and Eliot.

What struck me as rather surprising is the extent to which it still mattered to writers and philosophers of 19th century whether their lives were in accord with their philosophies. There is a neoclassical flavor to this worry—original philosophers were supposedly there to teach youth how to live, and it would have been in poor taste (and very poor advertising) for them not to live according to the principles they had espoused. The necessity of the past, however, acquired a different, more distinguished flavor from 17th century on. There is something noble about John Stuart Mill’s feminist preoccupation that the world recognize his partner, Harriet Taylor, as a full co-author of his works. There is something noble about Ludwig Wittgenstein renouncing his enormous inheritance and teaching in a one room school in remote rural Norway village. There is something noble about Nietzsche, unable to live up to his own ideas, having a nervous breakdown.

This nobility is in marked contrast to how modern day theoreticians of human conduct—philosophers, psychologists, theologists, sociologists—treat their theories. It turns out it is not a tenure requirement for an academic to live according to her own theoretical principles. This kind of deep belief in one’s theory could be even considered fundamentally biased and anti-scientific. So the new, more equivocal relationship to one’s theories, might be a good thing. After all, we are told we have ideas so they can die in our stead.

Still, the noble glow of lives lived out according to one’s theories is hard to extinguish. I can’t but wonder what would happen if academics were asked to bet a life, their own life, on their theories. Perhaps theorizing would become dangerous and sexy—and academic journals a much more interesting read.

Phyllis Rose (1984). Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Alfred Knopf.

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