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Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’


Phineas (Donal McCann) off to his election campaign in Loughton, for a 2nd time (1974 Pallisers 5:9)

Dear friends and readers,

I have come to the end of teaching the second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn, or the Irish Member, and, as with the close of my teaching of the first Palliser, Can You Forgive Her?, I find so much was said of serious, and yet in such varied areas, that it would take a full chapter in a book to begin to do them justice. So, as with my first blog on teaching the Pallisers, I’m going to single out two threads or themes. One of them links Palliser 2 back to Palliser 1 and indeed many of Trollope’s novels; the other led us to some insights into Trollope’s modernity, the feeling as you read a good many of his novels, that they are not picturesque or pastiche history, but living vital modern-sounding texts.

In Can You Forgive Her? I suggested that we find heroines who seek autonomy, liberty, a way to remain true to their seemingly innate instincts by self-negating. If you refuse to be aggressively after desires that are presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find or create an identity for yourself in. A secret self, another authentic existence. These natural desires are social constructs, not natural for all of us; many of us just don’t want for real what we are assumed instinctively to want. This is Alice’s standpoint: she wants out of the choices on hand; so too Lady Glen, for when confronted with Burgo’s demand she elope with him now, for there will never be another chance, she does not.


Phineas as the beginner, walking through the park to reach the Pallisers’ apartment, taking a cab only for the last 2 minutes (Pallisers 4:7)

In a book about a young man building a career for himself, making a place in the world quite different from the one he was born in, this following of the innate self or desires takes another form: Bill Overton (The Unofficial Trollope) described the pattern of action as self versus society. Again and again in Phineas Finn, he decides to do something, say not follow a legal career with Mr Low, but rather go into Parliament based on one man, Barrington Erle, finding a place (a rotten borough) he thinks Phineas could win. Everyone he talks to outside the Parliamentarians and his mentor and patroness, Lady Laura Standish, tells him how wrong and self-destructive such a choice will be. We move from his father (who doesn’t mean it), to Mr and Mrs Lowe, to Bunce, to Phineas himself. Late in the novel when he decides to vote for Irish tenant rights, and thus leave his gov’t place (and salary) and then Parliament itself (as he cannot afford it), everyone but his then admired mentor, Mr Monk, tell him how wrong, self-destructive and counter-productive such a choice will be. We get two sets of chapters of people “attacking” him.


Phineas stalking Violet (Mel Martin) (Pallisers 5:9)

He is not alone. Violet Effingham has four suitors, two she is drawn to, Oswald, Lord Chiltern and Phineas, and two she is not, Lord Fawn (very foolish) and Lord Appledom (very old), and each time she draws near a choice, she is surrounded by voices who urge her against her determination, be it Chiltern, a violent idle man, or Phineas, a poor, non-ranked needy one. Lady Laura marries Lord Kennedy in spite of her father and brother’s advice, distaste; then she leaves him in spite of not only her father and brother’s reluctant approval, but the hostility of the rest of her world.

This repeating pattern is what fuels the patterns and rhythms of many of Trollope’s novels, from Mr Harding in The Warden, Josiah Crawley in Framley Parsonage and Last Chronicle, Mark Robarts and Lucy (against different people but mostly Lady Lufton) in Framley, Lily Dale against so many when she refuses Johnny Eames, and nowadays legions of readers. I could go on but I’ve said enough: it is a pattern of alienation, of resisting the pressure to socially conform. The character does not have to be making the ethical choices: Lord Chiltern resisting his father and Violet. Sometimes a character acts this way, and were we not convinced that Mary, Lady Mason did the right thing in defying and disobeying the law, forging a codicil to a will because her mean selfish elderly husband would not leave any property to the son she had by him so he could not have been educated to be a gentleman, we might say she is hardening herself in her crime.  When late in Orley Farm Lady Mason is anticipating her trial the next day Trollope raves over John Everett Millais’s depiction of her earlier in the novel:


Found in Orley Farm, Volume 1, Chapter 5, “Sir Peregrine Makes a Second Promise”

She was now left alone, and according to her daily custom would remain there till the servant told her that Mr. Lucius was waiting for her in the dining-room. In an early part of this story I have endeavoured to describe how this woman sat alone, with deep sorrow in her heart and deep thought on her mind, when she first learned what terrible things were coming on her. The idea, however, which the reader will have conceived of her as she sat there will have come to him from the skill of the artist, and not from the words of the writer. If that drawing is now near him, let him go back to it. Lady Mason was again sitting in the same room—that pleasant room, looking out through the veranda on to the sloping lawn, and in the same chair; one hand again rested open on the arm of the chair, while the other supported her face as she leaned upon her elbow; and the sorrow was still in her heart, and the deep thought in her mind. But the lines of her face were altered, and the spirit expressed by it was changed. There was less of beauty, less of charm, less of softness; but in spite of all that she had gone through there was more of strength,—more of the power to resist all that this world could do to her … As she now sat thinking of what the morrow would bring upon her,—thinking of all that the malice of that man Dockwrath had brought upon her,—she resolved that she would still struggle on with a bold front. It had been brought home to her that he, her son, the being for whom her soul had been imperilled, and all her hopes for this world destroyed,—that he must be told of his mother’s guilt and shame. Let him be told, and then let him leave her while his anguish and the feeling of his shame were hot upon him. Should she be still a free woman when this trial was over she would move herself away at once, and then let him be told. But still it would be well—well for his sake, that his mother should not be found guilty by the law. It was still worth her while to struggle. The world was very hard to her, bruising her to the very soul at every turn, allowing her no hope, offering to her no drop of cool water in her thirst. But still for him there was some future career; and that career perhaps need not be blotted by the public notice of his mother’s guilt. She would still fight against her foes,— (Orley Farm, Vol II, Chapter 63, The Evening Before the Trial)

We may seem to have gone far from Phineas: we have not. He too holds out, holds firm, stands for his version of integrity.

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Now for Trollope’s modernity:


Phineas and Mr Monk (Bryan Pringle) in Ireland around Christmas discuss the coming vote in Parliament for Irish tenant rights (Pallisers 5:10)

To move to the thesis I presented to the classes, which enough people found interesting to discuss: after all the reasons we’ve come up with to explain why after hundreds of pages of struggle to get into Parliament, please and make friends with colleagues, and thence into office, and do a good job, to show what an able orator he is, Phineas decides to do what others and he himself regard as self-destruction, self-engineered defeat from his adherence to his Irish constituents (he does not seem very Irish, let alone Catholic) and principles (Trollope will not allow him so much as a peep to curtail landlord’s property rights), to feeling he is Irish (I used McCourt’s book, Writing the Frontier, & Owen Dudley Edwards’ long article on Trollope as an Irish writer) and should have a seat which is not rotten, to sheer melancholy (self-berating, disillusioned appraisals of everyone around him and himself), I suggest Phineas behaves the way he does because he feels he does not belong to the upper class English world all around him; then when he comes home, he discovers he has become an alien of sorts there too. He belongs nowhere and yet can function everywhere: in London he can plan a good railway for western Canada. He and Madame Max are uprooted people, like many of us.

The book I suggested delves into the causes of modern uprootedness is Simone Weil’s 1940 existential L’enracinement (mistranslated as The Need for Roots)

She explains or gives a history of how money and the state came to replace much more natural attachments: local, and now the familial is a desperate resort. Nation replaced religion which was seen to be powerless to help you – only controlled you – for African-Americans church was the one place to turn to. She gives history of industrialization as a building of prisons (factories) with severe limits on people desperate for a means of survival – by money. Families break up and shame is used to silence people. Taxes are a totally arbitrary imposition by one of these totalitarian nation-state gov’ts – or groups of people sometime headed by a king. People learned to hate the state but then in an odd inversion worship the very thing in concrete forms (the country) that they hate in people forms (bureaucrats) because they are deprived by people who manipulate these gov’ts for their own aggrandizement.

Here is Sartre’s description of how this alienation forms:

we must move deep into our own minds and remain true to them. We are obligated to feel a reality of anguish and abandonment when we realize we cannot turn to others to create our own meaning; at the same time as irrespective of others, no matter how they might try to stop us, we must fulfill our talents. We find we are here existing. (This reminds me of Heidegger’s thrownness.) The individual exploration of the self is what matters. We are a presence to ourselves. At the same time we must be responsible for our acts. If circumstances are against your doing something, Sartre says it is still cowardly not to do it — he insists you have the potential or capacity to act so not to act is a choice. Beauvoir (The Ethics of Ambiguity) says we have this impulse to disclose our real selves, to be found out and then to act out amid others what this real self is.

Is not this Phineas in so many of his soliloquies and finally his speeches in Parliament so carefully performed?

Weil again: she says since industrialism, the growth of enormous cities, the eradication of a sense of place by our having to move with say a job and the job itself can disappear tomorrow – employer knows no obligation to you – so what happens people latch onto nationalism, this idea of an imagined community we all belong to and call home. This identity we attribute to others and then ourselves. Well Madame Max has moved with her marriages, and now that she is (rumored) to be paying a second husband to stay away, it seems that in Vienna she cannot live the respected high social life she craves. So she comes to London to find a new community, and works hard to be accepted and rise “towards the light,” with her exquisite dinner parties, her dress, her wit.

What is so modern about Trollope is characters who are at home nowhere, who have no sense of belonging and long to belong and are at home everywhere – Madame Max a chief surrogate for this kind of thing. You can’t belong. There is nowhere to belong to. People in the room may not be willing to go so far as me in this idea. You can try to erect your own home – halcyon place (I recall Camus with his absurdist resolutions in Sisyphus.


Máire Ní Ghráinne as Mary Flood Jones reading Phineas’ letter promising to return and marry her (an addition by Raven who felt Phineas’s return might otherwise not be believable) — there is much brilliant use of filmic episotolary in the Phineas matter of the Pallisers (6:11)

Lest my reader think me gone mad with modernity, I called attention to an essay by Henry Rogers (“The Art of Madame Max,” Philological Review, 33, Fall 2007) on being in love with Madame Max her at the close he argues that Marie Goesler is the most quintessentially autobiographical of all Trollope’s characters. She plays many roles where she discloses her self – and reveals a carefully crafted persona protects her: in her Trollope unites the self and society, the internal and external worlds, realizing herself and being hersel, but she has known and continues to know much pain and loneliess – Barbara Murray tries to convey this again and again – the singing for example – in Phineas Redux she is superb – when she learns of his marriage to Mary Flood Jones and her pregnancy remarkable moment – who could do it today?


Here is Marie at the Duke’s extravaganza party at the Horns just after Phineas has rejected her offer of her money, with or without marriage (Pallisers 6:11)

And the idea that Phineas is a surrogate for Trollope is so common (having been in effect voiced by Trollope himself) I need not argue it.

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I conclude on how we ended our penultimate session (the last one was devoted to showing clips from Raven’s Pallisers): I brought into class an essay just printed in Trollopiana, by John Graves, where he argued that Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux are two separate books, among other things that PF stands very well just on its own with no loose ends. My two classes begged to differ. We took Trollope’s view that we have one novel or one story in two books. An overarching trajectory of the evolution of a specific group of characters over time links the two. One person even read aloud the final sentence of PF, and said when she had finished that, she turned the page expecting another chapter


In a brilliant wholly invented scene Phineas breaks up with his original friend, Laurence Fitzgibbon (Neil Stacey) as Fitzgibbon insults Phineas savagely as nobody, nothing, a cheat because Fitzgibbon thinks he has roots & rights as a landowner’s son and Phineas is threatening that (Pallisers 5:10)

Most people seemed very much to enjoy the novel and the older serial drama too — the final sessions in both classes were on Simon Raven’s Pallisers.  This series has stood the test of time (and no one else getting a true chance to re-adapt with full needed budget):  there I was describing filmic epistolarity, over voice, how a film is an art in its own right, and yes admitting to the losses of hidden inner life the novel as a form has on offer.

Next Up: The Eustace Diamonds

Ellen

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