Postmodern Conservative

The Men Mr. Stillman Added to Jane Austen

Some philosophical-historical detective work explains Whit Stillman's additions to Austen's novel.

I’ve delayed my second post on the charming comedy Love and Friendship to listen to the Ricochet podcast interview with writer-producer-director Whit Stillman himself – by the way, he says it: The Cosmopolitans, about American doomed-bourgeois-in-love types in latter-day Paris, is going to be an Amazon show. The funny pilot is still out there somewhere, so you can enjoy it and then enjoy anticipating the show.

There are many other interesting things in that interview, some of which matter to our ongoing discussion (Carl’s Qs and his As and my remarks). The Sixties matter to Mr. Stillman; that’s when time came out of joint. He thinks of comedies of manners as comedies of mores or morals. Also, we get some scientific measurement: About a third of the dialogue in Love and Friendship is new; the other two thirds — vintage Austen. This leads me to my previously unpublished correspondence with Carl. So let’s talk about men and women in Love and Friendship. I’ll do the ungentlemanly thing and put men first. I will talk in this post about two male characters, one minor, because they are the clearest examples of the additions Mr. Stillman has made to Austen’s novel.

Mr. Stillman’s main work in transforming the epistolary novel into a movie was not writing the scenes described, implied, or suggested in the letters, but writing the male characters. They are observed, but not observers, in the epistolary novel, in more ways than one. Now, the character of the characters was to a large extent chosen by Austen and it cannot suffer much change before it ruins her scheme. But Mr. Stillman has found ways to take liberties with the characters so as to add a certain depth or maturity to the story while adding levity to the plot. This is the kind of work Austen herself did in her celebrated novels, as opposed to the ones she left unpublished. So let us study the silly rich man, Sir James, and the strangely silly curate. Let us see in them body and soul in a weakened or confused state; let us see an inability to withstand temptation and, respectively, to do one’s duty; let us see the intellectual and moral poverty of wealth or luxury or comfort.

I tried to show previously how the confusions of our times are somewhat clarified by the plot and social structure Austen contrives in her book. Now, I’ll try to show how the movie speaks directly to our concerns, in the character and actions of the male characters. Sir James, the callow youth whose lack of manners seems to be mitigated by his foolishness alone — it’s some kind of innocence, after all . . . – seems the most up-to-date. We should recognize him immediately. He not only recalls the frat boys of Mr. Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, but also many callow youths who are less innocuous.

Let’s do some work to find the serious correlative of the comedic conceit. Freedom and the privilege of wealth in Sir James lead to being unserious about everything. His incompetence and his ignorance are staggering, if humorous. Education has done nothing for him. Now, what does this say about the latter-day America Mr. Stillman inhabits? Let’s take a cue from John Locke, who said that the poor man of his day enjoyed privileges and wealth unknown to kings in the past — say the king of the Indians. So, too, the poor of our times can without much difficulty live in luxuries unimagined by the likes of Sir James. But are these men fit for leisure? Do they work or have they learned by work anything important about human powers and how to use them?

The inadequacy of Sir James to man and world alike is supposed to show the sensational irresponsibility of modern privileges. This is a comedy, so it is overdone, but it is worth taking seriously nevertheless. Now, the poor as we know them today do not much speak for themselves, but they have found ways lately, in America and Britain alike, to make their displeasure known to the world. They have made a noise, as we said in the olden days. This shows a competence and a dignity denied to Sir James, who is humiliated more than any other Austen character. But for all the difference between the dignity of the politically active poorer citizens and the indignity of Sir James, there is a deep connection so far as society is concerned.

Sir James is unable to relate to the world through work — and we ourselves have finally moved into a world, long prophesied, in which the majority of mankind in the civilized state cannot work in any meaningful sense. Or we are on the cusp of that world and most of the people speaking to the matter voice unseemly enthusiasm. Those of us who read Jane Austen used to mock fans of sci-fi, with its silly psychology and sillier dialogue. Well, we were prophets and did not know it! If the devotees, not to say fanatics, of technological revolutions have their way, everyone will end up living in the mode, if without the adventures, of those stories. Why? Because an inability to relate to the world through work leads to an inability to relate to man. Of course, in the case of an English aristocrat two centuries back, it was not expected to master crafts or to labor physically, but directing the affairs of an estate and being knowledgeable about them was. Sir James shows in caricature something simply inherent in aristocracy, the danger of losing all responsibility while retaining privilege.

But let us abandon abstract talk of relating or relationship. Love and friendship are the names we used to give to that which we now call relationships. Our loves and friendships are our immediate experiences of the goodness of life. Inasmuch as we see ourselves in our friends and family, this self-love is about the best we’ve got by way of self-knowledge. Sir James is incapable of love, being entirely blind to himself, and is nevertheless desirous, acquisitive. He is incapable of friendship in a meaningful sense for the same reason he is so easily exploited: He does not pay attention to people. He lacks manners, too. Put these two things together and you come upon the suggestion that learning manners and observing manners is the way to learn the characters of people in a civilized state. We see that Sir James’s mind is not activated by the habits and speeches of his acquaintance — paying attention to them seems difficult and uninteresting to him. But noticing similarities and differences is the characteristic activity of the intellect. This portrait of a man who pays no attention to the actions of people and therefore cannot judge them adequately is a caricature of democracy and may call to mind our latter-day attack on being judgmental, which implies the desirability of not noticing any differences between people. Mr. Stillman doesn’t go into the causes of Sir James’s thoughtlessness — he merely shows what it would truly mean not to discriminate. You may also recall that Mr. Stillman also mocked the miseducation of boys in Damsels in Distress.

Well, you might say, man might fail, but God will save us! And so we move from the spectacle of wealth without human powers to wield it to this second male character we owe entirely to Mr. Stillman, the curate, whatever his name is. We move from aristocrat to priest, from body to soul, from wealth to holiness. Where your treasure is and all that . . . This man’s treasure is in the trees or forests or wildernesses. He does not quote the Apostle in church: he quotes Baumgarten. Now, why should that be? Well, your amateur philosophical-historical sleuth will hazard some suggestions. Alexander Baumgarten is an unimportant scholar, but he is mentioned by Kant as a kind of originator of the most distinctly modern branch of philosophy: aesthetics. (Burke is his other example, but that’s an entirely different story for a different time.) Why does he do this?

For an American, the story starts with Emerson and Thoreau — the Transcendentalists who tried to correct American Lockeanism by Kantianism. Remember Melville’s joke about Locke and Kant as twin whales weighing down the Pequod in Moby-Dick. This is an old quarrel among American poets. Aesthetics was supposed to be the noble twin of property or profit or acquisitiveness. Modern wealth was supposed to protect or even nurture modern beauty. This has not worked out so well, or hippies and hipsters would hate corporations less. Before American Transcendentalists, Transcendentalism was a doctrine brought by Romantics like Coleridge to Britain from Germany. Coleridge was an enthusiast for Kant. We need not consider Mr. Stillman a Kant scholar — he knows his Romantics and Transcendentalists from his school days — the men who tried to make good Kant’s claims, but ultimately failed.

Our curate is also a failure, but an exemplary failure. Mr. Stillman uses him quietly to orchestrate the showdown between Austen and Romanticism — Rousseau- and Kant-powered, ultimately. Austen orchestrated this attack in her mature novels Persuasion, Sense & Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. The latter is not so important; but the former two are shows of her clever use of titles. The single quality persuasion is supposed to bring together in some philosophical way the two qualities separated by a conjunction in her earlier work, sense and sensibility. Both novels include her most sustained attacks on Romance. Romantic characters are shown as exploiters and fools — examples of a mutilated soul: Sense without sensibility is exploitative and sensibility without sense is self-destructive; and Romantic poetry is specifically attacked for its reveling in sickness or suffering, especially Byron, the manliest of Romantics, and therefore the exemplar of political and intellectual irresponsibility. The alternative to this recklessness is medicine for body and soul; ill characters are healed and their broken spirits are also mended.

Mr. Stillman faces the curate with this selfsame challenge of mending broken spirits, but the curate fails. The curate is faced with Lady Susan’s scared, friendless daughter, whose soul is endangered by the combined malignancy of her mother and the ignorance or indifference or powerlessness of her other relations. Instead of listening to her and guiding her, or at least assuring her that Christianity teaches us about God’s love, that we all matter — well, he gives her a spiel about the beautiful and the sublime, stewardship of nature and the world, and all that aestheticism. The moral failure is obvious — the girl leaves, uncomforted, unguided, alone. “Our religion,” as Lady Susan calls it, might actually end up the religion the likes of her use to exploit other people. So there is a deep political failure here, too. It has a practical level: The church was supposed to be a check on the license of aristocratic freedom. If aristocratic freedom is democratized by incredible, machine-created wealth, license becomes a universal problem. Facing this proud licentiousness requires a backbone, to say the least. The childish curate does not even seem to know people are suffering and in need of consolation and help — we cannot imagine him confronting human suffering without collapsing. This is Christianity without a Crucifixion.

The theoretical level of his failure comes back to Transcendentalism and Romanticism. In our own times, what’s left of these sects is used to fight a losing fight against science, but in the original incarnation, science and Romantic revolution of mind, body, and spirit were meant to go together, like in Kant’s system. The Romantics were fascinated with science. This creates its own problem. Man’s stewardship of his world as the curate talks about it cannot distinguish between the most exploitative acquisitiveness and the most benign contemplation. It is utterly blind to the truth suggested by the famous joke: Americans love nature almost as much as they love the conquest of nature. The curate’s aestheticism fails to take people seriously as moral beings and fails to take seriously the dangers to our humanity that stem from our new power over nature. He cannot be truly counter-cultural — he cannot say no to anyone.

There are three other male characters to consider, leading the two families allied by marriage, Vernon and DeCourcy. They deserve their own discussion, but they are not primarily the creation of Mr. Stillman. They do not lend themselves to quite the same kind of analysis, having more depth and a closer connection to the women who lead the plot secretly. Especially the younger of the three, Reginald DeCourcy, seems to develop against the foil provided by Sir Martin and the curate, by dealing with both Lady Susan and her daughter. He is not perfect in any way that corresponds to the way in which these two characters are imperfect, but he does offer the spectacle of a man alive to the concerns of morality and intelligence.

Ricochet podcast, link to page.

Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.

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