Saturday, November 5, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life II

Prior to meeting Marian Evans, as she called herself in 1851, Lewes had tried his hand at several professions. He wrote plays which were rejected in 1842 and another play which was produced in 1850. In 1847 he published his first novel, which was a commercial and critical failure and was followed by a second dud novel in 1848. That same year he acted in an amateur play sponsored by Charles Dickens to raise money for indigent writers such as Leigh Hunt, and the following year he acted professionally in the role of Shylock. All the while he continued to write reviews. He and Thornton Hunt founded a new publication, The Leader, in 1850, in which Hunt covered political matters and Lewes covered literary subjects, writing under the name "Vivian."

Lewes's personal life began to disintegrate in 1848, when Agnes became pregnant with her first child by Thornton Hunt, with whom she eventually had four children. Lewes accepted the first as his own, which subsequently made it impossible for him to divorce her under British law and later prevented him from marrying Marian Evans, forcing a more scandalous life on them than they would have preferred. Ashton astutely points out how Lewes's reviews at the time reflect an agitated mental state, with Agnes and his strained financial condition causing him to write terse, churlish reviews of new Brontë novels, including Wuthering Heights.

One of the reasons why I am enjoying this book is that it describes an alternate, contrasting intellectual environment to the one inhabited by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and the one available today in the U.S. There was an intellectual freshness in the London of 1850 that scarcely resembles Paris of 1945. The British Empire and the Industrial Revolution were at a peak, and both the arts and the sciences were vibrant in London, with a few quack exceptions such as then-popular phrenology and paranormal fads. Liberalism of the sort with which we're familiar didn't yet exist and Marxism was in its infancy, yet intellectuals and industrialists alike were thinking about fairness for the working class. The British are to be respected for their emphasis on empiricism and their disdain for metaphysics, which is fully in evidence in Lewes. The nineteenth century in England was the century of the gentleman naturalist, and even Lewes, a literary man, became captivated by science. He attended lectures in Berlin and rejected German metaphysics entirely. In my opinion, one of the main reasons why continental philosophy became irrelevant was its adherence to the works of minor thinkers such as Hegel. As Tony Judt clearly demonstrated, Sartre, who descended from that line of thought, was completely out of touch with his times – yet he was revered as one of France's great thinkers.

Given their preference for the scientific method, it is unfortunate that British and American thinkers were unable to discover more plausible social solutions than the ones generated by Marx and the earlier thinkers of the Enlightenment. However, science is slowly moving in the right direction, finding, for example, that capitalism causes inequality and that humans are fundamentally irrational, and finally there may be realistic solutions on the horizon for managing human affairs. Democracy and capitalism are badly in need of replacement, and research is beginning to prove it.

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