More Complex Form

One couldn’t come up with an artist further from the concerns of modern day, formalist inclined abstraction than George Eliot—her novels are all about moral challenges. I can hardly express my esteem for what she did, and who she was. You have a feeling of enormous natural power and presence, and that’s not damaged in any way by her constant moralizing. So…the validity of any aesthetic position is proven by its capacity for contradiction. But one thing that always struck me is the diversity of her works. No two are really alike. I’ve been reading Daniel Deronda, her last novel. One part of it is about the titular hero, brought up as an English gentleman, who gradually realizes he is Jewish. The other part is the story of young Gwendolen Harleth, and her disastrous choice of a husband. The two characters do meet, and their interaction is central to the author’s designs on us, but one can not avoid the impression that the book is jammed together from different and unrelated parts. In addition, though important scenes are dramatized, in the best novelistic way, others are passed right over, and others are presented as flashbacks. I don’t think it’s really improvised, but it appears to be written as the author thought and not really crafted. Again, it doesn’t much suffer for all of that. That an artist would take such a chance probably means that she felt herself the equal of Shakespeare, or that she was at least trying for the same naturalness beyond nature and beyond art. The biggest challenge faced by abstraction is to become more capacious of possibilities, and less unified. Even George Eliot can be an inspiration.

Photograph of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

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