Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lecture Attempts to Explain Liberalism through Literature

By Sam Kaulbach, Staff Writer

Diet Coke bottle firmly in hand, Professor Amanda Anderson, the Caroline Donovan Professor of English Literature at Johns Hopkins University, began her lecture by saying “I swear at some point I’ll wake up.” Having just finished a long day of attending the Edith Stein conference held earlier on Friday, Professor Anderson presented a lecture entitled “Bleak Liberalism,” to an audience of more than forty in 104 McKenna Hall. “Bleak Liberalism” was the third in the Ward-Philips lecture series entitled, appropriately enough, “Bleak Liberalism.” She gave the other two, “Framing Liberalism” and “The Liberal Aesthetic,” on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. The series was sponsored by the Department of English.

Professor Anderson first had to reconstruct the main lines of her previous two talks for the benefit of those who missed them, and give her lecture a context. Anderson intended her series to “provide density to Liberalism in novels.” She concluded that Liberalism is the reconciliation between bleak objectivity and idealistic moral action.

Drawing from the works of George Eliot as well as from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Anderson argued, “Liberalism follows a utopianism accompanied by a bleak realism of what is going on around it, a bleakness and pessimism like that of John Stuart Mill.” Such a structure is the product of what she called “reflective enlightenment,” which is a fundamental rejection of authority and commitment to debate. This mindset and its consequences give rise to “concerns of social cohesion over such an environment.”

A Liberal temperament, Anderson stated, “is rationalistic rather than religious, there is no absolute acceptance of belief without reason to back it. Liberals see a need for argument in this, especially with those who think that belief trumps the arguments of reason.”

Anderson continued on to establish the connection between liberalism and the Aesthetic. “Aesthetic values shift an emphasis… they jar with the cathexes of liberal and normative philosophies.” She gave as examples of such values “complexity, ambiguity, excess, and paradox.” Professor Anderson then pointed out, “the Liberal ethos leads to a sort of anti-aesthetic, providing a narrowing of focus to thematic- and character-based criticism.”

Drawing upon the literary examples of two of George Eliot’s characters, Mordecai and Romola, Anderson attempted to show a problem of moral action. “It may be seen here that Liberalism might cause people to be unable to act on the ground, as it were, and neutralize moral action because one is too attuned to sympathy and moral consequences.”

This was the third lecture’s focal point: the conflict between what Anderson called “third-person perspective and first-person moral action, which are not conducive to each other.” Her object was to show that Liberalism tends to stray toward the third-person perspective, allowing for a certain bleakness in one’s outlook (hence “bleak” Liberalism). However, Professor Anderson used excerpts from Dickens’ Bleak House to show how both Eliot and Dickens “emphasized the necessity of a dual vision in a non-fatalistic way.”

Using this as a basis, Anderson maintained that Liberalism is a reconciliation of these two views. However, she did say that Liberalism tends to the “bleak” side of things. Because of this shying away from the first-person sympathy, Anderson concluded, “many of the academic Left desire to distance themselves from the political Left.”

Professor Anderson fielded three questions related to the third-person as a sociological analysis, and the relation between the stringent critique of the bureaucratic system of England in Bleak House and the Aesthetic values of the narrative. In answering these, after reflecting upon the sociological context of Bleak House she again dwelt upon the problem between social analysis and moral aspirations as Dickens expanded upon in Bleak House.

Throughout the whole lecture, likely because she had already attended lectures that day and had delivered two earlier in the week, Professor Anderson laughed after comically mispronouncing words. She was not the only one, as her introducer could not pronounce the word “Liberalism,” and in the end had to give up.

Anderson stated that “the Liberal Moment is that moment when there is an association between bleak assessment and idealistic movement.” Although she showed that Liberalism tends to shift away from the first-person element of moral action, due in large part to the refusal in Liberalism to accept established norms, she also asserted that there is a fundamental part of the Liberal temperament which is inclined toward the Aesthetic and first-person moralism. Both of these elements of the Liberal character Anderson held as necessary to Liberalism as a whole.

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