Rarity in George Eliot

The Stamp of Rarity: Ancestrality and Extinction in Daniel Deronda


The essay begins:

In chapter 40 of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda we learn that the title character’s “more exquisite” quality lies in his “keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness,” his “profound sensibility to a cry from the depths of another.” Earlier on, Deronda is said to have “the stamp of rarity in a subdued fervor of sympathy, an activity of imagination on behalf of others” (178). This is not a casual trope. Deronda is extolled for being “receptive instead of superciliously prejudging,” and “receptiveness” is described as “a rare and massive power” (492). The terms rare and rarity recur in the novel, denoting what is very uncommon or unusually fine. As a modifier, rare is almost invariably paired with the nouns of Jewish singularity—moral “receptiveness” (496), vocal-physiognomic “perfection,” verbal “quality” (809), and “visionary excitement” (513). By the time Gwendolen realizes that her feelings have turned Daniel “into a sort of trust less rare than the fidelity that guards it” (430), the suggestion that moral redemption presupposes rarity is simply overbearing. The rationale of the polysemy is catachrestic because scarcity connotes value. The rare item is precious because its limited currency eludes the wider circulation of commodified objects and persons in liberal-capitalist society:

To save an unhappy Jewess from drowning herself, would not have seemed a startling variation among police reports; but to discover in her so rare a creature as Mirah, was an exceptional event which might well bring exceptional consequences. (378; emphasis mine)

Like the jewels bartered back and forth by the novel’s characters (Gwendolen, the pawnbroker, Daniel, Grandcourt, Lydia), something rare is valuable because it is ontologically unlikely: its ancestrality attests to the value of survival, and its exposure to the risk of extinction folds back on the value. However temporarily coopted by wider trade orbits, the jewels remain an intractable, inassimilable surplus. And so do Deronda’s Jews, always on the brink of an excessive, sacrificial, and sublime self-waste. Even the renegade Baruch Spinoza got “his crust by a quiet handicraft” (472) in lens-grinding before completing his Ethics. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of rarity.

The contention that “receptiveness is a rare . . . power” involves a twofold implication: first, that receptiveness is a power, and second, that receptiveness is rare. Mesmerized by the range of hermeneutic possibility that the concept of sympathy affords, Eliot’s critics have addressed the former implication while neglecting the latter. Predictably, then, the response to Daniel Deronda has been spellbound by the shine of a familiar faculty (moral sympathy) that, because in principle unrare in Eliot’s narrative world, seems in little need of special examination. Indeed, the near scientific symmetries of a plot conceivably modeled upon the Goethean allegoresis of elective affinities reinforce the impression that everything in the story depends on moral relatedness. On the one hand we have the English characters, with the rich Grandcourt at the extreme of emotional stolidity. Then comes Gwendolen Harleth, an ungenerous dweller in “the border-territory of rank” (Deronda, 23) who marries Grandcourt to allay social anxiety. This doesn’t prevent her from cultivating an interest in Daniel, the character that occupies the novel’s central position. Daniel enjoys the best of both worlds: groomed impeccably as an English gentleman, he can also boast of “the keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness” that, in the novel’s logic, belongs to the Jews. Because, it turns out, he is also a Jew. On the other hand we have Mirah and Mordecai—Deronda’s Jews—which I designate as such to distinguish them from the common, money-minded, shop-keeping Hebrews also present in a novel where, let me recall, “there are Ezras and Ezras” (567). Mordecai is placed at the extreme, in figurative opposition to Grandcourt, whom he never meets. He is a concentrated, unproductive version of Jewish rarity: the passionate man who sacrifices his life to dig up the historical grounds of his people’s moral superiority. Grandcourt and Mordecai are both unrealistic, near Dickensian characters who belong in the world of romance (if not romantic farce): significantly, both die before the tale comes to a close. Between Mordecai and Deronda stands Mirah, Mordecai’s sister, a destitute Jewish girl, in a position of structural equivalence to Gwendolen. Like the English girl, she is saved by Deronda and falls in love with him. Unlike Gwendolen, she becomes the object of Deronda’s favor. The end of the novel describes their wedding and trip to Palestine to start a new life devoted to the construction of the nation of Israel.

The value of the central characters (Gwendolen, Daniel) is a measure of their ability to relate to characters standing—or seeming to stand—across the Gentile-Jew divide. Understandably, critics have been less interested in the dynamics of that ability than in the origin and function of Eliot’s sympathy toward the Jews. This sympathy most critics take for granted. I argue, however, that the overdetermined specificity of the cultural-ethnic division dramatized in Deronda forces Eliot to depart from the more generic-universal treatment of moral sympathy at work in her other narratives. And she certainly knows it: “Nothing is here narrated of human nature generally” (Deronda, 91). It forces her to realize, somewhere in her narrative unconscious, that sympathy is a passion not exclusively based on receptivity (the ability to receive the other), since it also depends on the givenness of the other. And her novel, I contend, construes the Jew as a poorly given, if not ungiven, alterity. The reason for Jewish ungivenness is rarity, a quality that stands in direct proportion to receptivity within the group: the higher your receptivity to those of your group (race, nation), the less chance you have of being received—even by the people inside the group whom you are most willing to receive. The “unpleasant” grabbing of Deronda’s arm, an action performed twice, first by the white-bearded Joseph Kalonymos in the Frankfort synagogue (368) and second by the consumptive Mordecai in the secondhand bookshop (387), testifies to the dilemma of ethnical-cultural asynchronicity and moral interruption that my article sets out to explore. The fact that rarity is bound up thematically and rhetorically with the parallel notions of ancestrality and extinction calls for biological considerations that Eliot may have discovered, as I will argue, in Charles Darwin. But insofar as these notions (ancestrality and extinction) map out a deep time without human time, Eliot’s depiction of Jewish rarity in Deronda raises the kind of metaphysical challenge that Immanuel Kant aimed to meet in his first Critique: What is the ontological status of nonhuman time? And what kind of epistemic (narrative, rhetorical) processing does it demand?

My attention to the rhetorical effects of this thematic focus on rarity may result in a corrective to standard accounts of George Eliot’s philo-Semitism. Although this is not the primary goal of my article, I do not disown it as a hermeneutic corollary. The fact that readers with a stake in Eliot’s philo-Semitism unfailingly overlook the existence of deconstructive approaches to the novel shows that disregard for the novel’s complex rhetorical texture can foster belief in versions of Eliot as a utopian ideologue, a champion of either proto-Zionism or cosmopolitanism. My interpretation, by contrast, draws on extant deconstructive and rhetorically focused readings of Daniel Deronda by critics such as Cynthia Chase, Catherine Gallagher, and Ian Duncan and yet seeks to reach beyond them by putting into play the metaphysical question of time that instigates the rhetorical-narrative processing of temporality.

When Deronda’s friend Hans Meyrick boasts that “there is really little difference between me and—Maimonides” (642) he is wrong in ways that go beyond—and against—his intended irony. In the novel’s moral-lexical economy, difference-making rarity is the exclusive property of the Jewish people. But they pay a great price for this distinction. They reach the present from an immemorial past—David Kaufmann has stressed “the enigma of their marvelous preservation”—and have limited hope of reaching the future. Compared to some of the substantial English people dwelling in the novel’s present, they seem hardly real. The figural etymology of rare underpins this unreality. Since the mid-fifteenth century, the adjective rare has meant both “unusual” and “thin, airy, porous.” The more specific implication of rare as “few in number and widely separated, sparsely distributed, seldom found,” can be traced back, via Old French rere (“sparse”), to the Latin rarus, meaning “thinly sown, having a loose texture; not thick; having intervals between.” Thus Jewishness and rarity concur in a shared implication of dissemination or diaspora. Thinly sown, airy, and scattered, Deronda’s Jews are inexorably disembedded, whence their paradoxical status as archaic ultramoderns. They roam the narrative as dialectical images of an Urgeschichte (prehistory) whose discrepancy in and for the present might harbor a utopian future. Alienated from the English community, they also risk losing touch with their related particulars: Deronda nearly missing Mirah, Deronda on the verge of discounting Mordecai, Mirah close to overlooking her family, Deronda, of course, forgone by his mother. The existence of these singularities is, moreover, steadily encircled by a void. If their future is dizzily open, their past is a riddle and a mire. Daniel, described at one point as a “yearning disembodied spirit” (365), ignores his origins; Mirah flees from them and attempts suicide; Mordecai tumbles into them and dies. Remote and obscure like Mordecai, elusive and unfocused like Daniel, fragile and fugitive like Mirah, these Jews cherish nonetheless a gift—a rare talent—of moral receptiveness that is at odds with the utilitarian lifestyle of most of the English. Hence the paradox: the differential aspect (the stamp of rarity) that deepens their unrelation—with the English, at least—is precisely their ability to relate, their extraordinary receptivity. This doesn’t mean that the problem is an English incapacity to receive them. In the novel this is less a problem than a fact. The problem—and Eliot makes it very clear that there is a problem—lies with the Jews, who cannot be received because, however fit to receive others, they themselves posit an unacceptable otherness. Though explicitly perspectivized through English prejudice—Deronda’s, the Meyrick women’s—the first forthright depiction in the novel of a Jewish person (Mirah) answers no other purpose than to uphold the racist preconception, denounced by Kaufmann, of the Jews as “a peculiar people.” Recall that, in its extended meaning, rare also means anomalous. Or that no English character wishes to keep the diamonds: the jewels end up “scattered around [Gwendolen] on the floor” (359). Just like the Jews at the end, shipped toward the uncertain. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of diaspora. Continue reading …

There are patterns of continuité discontinu (Derrida) in the figural transactions between human groups and between humans and animals in George Eliot’sDaniel Deronda that remain underexamined. By emphasizing ironic incommensurability and difference, this essay seeks to reveal the logic of ungivenness organizing human interactions in a novel haunted by images of deep time and species extermination. Eliot’s interest in ancestrality and extinction was fueled by her readings in geology and biology (Darwin), but it also evinces a metaphysical concern with uncorrelated time (Kant) that is inseparable from her fascination with the idea of moral rarity.

JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Córdoba, Spain. He is the co-editor (with Paula Martín Salván and Gerardo Rodríguez Salas) of the volume Community in Twentieth-Century Fiction and publishes on Victorian literature, modern fiction, narrative theory, and deconstruction.

Thermal Science Meets Prosody

Thermodynamic Rhythm: The Poetics of Waste

by Ewan Jones

Illustration from John Tyndall, Sound: A Course of Lectures (London, 1867)


The essay begins:

Toward the end of 1858, Herbert Spencer was feeling out of sorts. His malaise surfaces in an undated letter written around that point to a close friend, the physicist John Tyndall, whom Spencer had recently seen. “That which was new to me in your position enunciated last June, and again on Saturday,” Spencer states,

was that equilibration was death. Regarding, as I had done, equilibration as the ultimate and the highest state of society, I had assumed it to be not only the ultimate but also the highest state of the universe. And your assertion that when equilibrium was reached life must cease, staggered me. Indeed, not seeing my way out of the conclusion, I remember being out of spirits for some days afterwards. I still feel unsettled about the matter, and should like some day to discuss it with you.

It is difficult to behold Spencer’s dismay without a modicum of vindication. From at least as early as Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought (1955), which connected his evolutionary sociology to a variety of more or less totalitarian twentieth-century worldviews, our culture has been accustomed to regard Spencer’s remarkable celebrity as one more Victorian faute de goût. Yet where Spencer’s notion of equilibrium (“the ultimate and highest state of society”) sought to balance the economic laws of supply and demand, or competing class interests, the second law of thermodynamics (to whose consequences his letter refers) identifies it rather with the inexorable cooling of the universe into dispersed entropic heterogeneity. However bleak that eventuality appears, we might at least derive consolation from the fatal compromise of Spencer’s teleology.

Yet Tyndall’s revelation did not simply spell the end for Spencer’s syncretic philosophy, as Bruce Clarke supposes in a rather summary treatment of the letter just mentioned. Rather, it instigated a sustained attempt to reconceive the very notion of the biological or social system. One concept proved singularly significant in this regard: rhythm. That term had already proven pivotal for Spencer, underpinning his influential 1857 essay “On the Origin and Function of Music”; from late 1858 on, however, he would brandish it as a sort of talisman. His First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1862) enlisted it in an attempt to salvage some notion of regularity through (rather than despite) variation: “It will be seen,” wrote Spencer, “that rhythm results wherever there is a conflict of forces not in equilibrium”; in a footnote to the same passage, he elaborates, “After having for some years supposed myself alone in the belief that all motion is rhythmical, I discovered that my friend Professor Tyndall also held this doctrine.”

Only in 1873, however, would Spencer return directly to the dispiriting second law, engaging in an exchange of letters with James Clerk Maxwell, to whose credentials Tyndall had earlier appealed. The debate hinges on the best way to account for the kinetic motion of gases, which Maxwell was in the process of investigating. Spencer, who was always a popular expositor and synthesizer rather than a true experimentalist, suggested that his own philosophical concept of “the instability of the homogenous” might usefully describe what Maxwell had termed “agitated” fluctuations. Even molecules whose paths diverged significantly from the overall distribution within a stationary container could, Spencer continued, be described as “rhythmical,” to the extent that we could measure divergence itself.

Maxwell demurred. On 17 December 1873, he responded to Spencer:

If, as I understand the word rhythmic, it implies not only alteration, but regularity and periodicity, then the word “agitation” excludes the notion of rhythm, which was what I meant it to do. . . . A great scientific desideratum is a set of words of little meaning—words which mean no more than that a thing belongs to a very large class. Such words are much needed in the undulatory theory of light, in order to express fully what is proved by experiment, without conceding anything which is a mere hypothesis.

Maxwell’s desire for linguistic hygiene is quite justifiable: no one wants a concept of rhythm capacious enough to include everything, and thereby nothing. Yet the language game over “agitation” or “rhythm” masks a serious question: to what extent can we measure divergence? Such questions still hold purchase for any attempt to measure the probability distribution of stochastic processes or turbulent flow. We can replay the same thought in a metrical key: to what extent can a given poem tolerate inversion, syncopation, or disappointed expectation before such deviations abolish the pattern or norm from which they spring? My analogy is purposefully leading. For although thinkers such as Gillian Beer, Michel Serres, and Bruce Clarke have traced at length the broad cultural (and literary) response to the second law of thermodynamics, we have yet to grasp the extent to which the specter of entropy engaged the concept of rhythm in general, and the practice of poetic rhythm more specifically.

It can prove difficult to grasp the full extent of this conceptual transformation, in part because the notion of rhythm has become so essential a part of our conceptual armature that we struggle to imagine things ever having been different. Yet different they were. The word “rhythm” is in fact conspicuous by its absence prior to the nineteenth century: across the whole of Eighteenth Century Collections Online (which numbers more than 150,000 documents), only 257 texts contain the word “rhythm”; compare this to 6,854 texts that employ the word “metre,” despite the latter word’s appearing to have a narrower extension. This quantitative trend reflects qualitative differences: in keeping with the pattern, Samuel Johnson does not define “rhythm” in his Dictionary of 1755–56. He does, however, define “rhythmical,” and in rather striking terms: “Harmonical,” runs Johnson’s minimal gloss, “having proportion of one sound to another.” In the space of a century, then, definitions of the term have moved nearly full circle: from Johnson’s harmonious proportionality, we move toward Spencer’s conflictual disequilibrium.

This essay claims that the second law of thermodynamics plays a crucial role in this broader reconceptualization. It enumerates three broad, complementary responses to the specter of entropy, each of which recurrently engages with prosody: I call these rhythmical innatism, rhythmical transmission, and entropic rhythm. While they are distinct enough to be enumerated separately, several figures (such as Tyndall, Edmund Gurney, and Spencer himself) offer theoretical impetus to more than one designation. A great deal of this historical process occurs just as conceptual reformulation typically does: through propositional argument and discussion, over the course of which the word “rhythm” becomes increasingly central. Yet the most significant interaction between thermodynamics and verse rhythm, I conclude by arguing, occurs on the nondiscursive level of experience and prosodic technique: having charted the strange fascination with A. C. Swinburne’s poetry that several scientists share, I read his long poem Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) as an abundant, excessive instance of what we can call the poetics of waste. Continue reading …

In this essay Ewan Jones argues that the cultural reception of thermodynamics in the late nineteenth century reformulated the concept of rhythm in an attempt to manage, mitigate, or acknowledge the problem of waste. Having demonstrated an overlooked historical dialectic between the thermal sciences and prosody, he concludes by reading A. C. Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse to demonstrate how rhythmical excess represents a positive expressive resource.

EWAN JONES is Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Downing College. He is the author of Coleridge and the Philosophy of Poetic Form (Cambridge UP, 2014) and is currently completing a second book on the history of the concept of rhythm in the nineteenth century.

What Do Nanquan and Schrödinger Have Against Cats?

“It is with a certain trepidation that I broach the topic of Buddhism and quantum physics,” writes Buddhist scholar Robert H. Sharf in the “Field Notes” section of our new issue.

He goes on:

There is, of course, already a large literature on the subject, propelled in part by two popular books that appeared in the 1970s: Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. But there were many more in the decades that followed, including Amit Goswami’s The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World, Evan Harris Walker’s The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life, as well as new offerings by Capra and Zukav. Despite, or perhaps owing to, the appeal and commercial success of these books (The Tao of Physics has appeared in forty-three editions and twenty-three languages), this area of scholarship has acquired a rather tawdry reputation among scholars. The critical concern with these books is not, however, what one might suspect. It is not that the authors lack an adequate understanding of quantum physics. Rather, the problem is their naïve and facile grasp of Asian philosophy. Continue reading …

ROBERT H. SHARF is D. H. Chen Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, as well as Chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley. He works primarily in the area of medieval Chinese Buddhism (especially Chan), but he also dabbles in Japanese Buddhism, Buddhist art, Buddhist philosophy, ritual studies, and methodological issues in the study of religion. His essay was originally prepared for the conference “Buddhist Beasts: Reflections on Animals in Asian Religions and Culture,” held at the University of British Columbia, April 20–22, 2018.