Friday, June 19, 2009

Malthus, from the Essay on the Principle of Population

Thomas Robert Malthus was a "romantic" only by an accident of history; by temperament and thought he was anything but. Nonetheless, Malthus's ideas about population and economic distress were very much in play as writers from Charlotte Smith to William Godwin to Percy Bysshe Shelley considered the causes of the economic inequities that were themselves the causes of the political upheaval that was pervasive during the romantic period. Malthus was a fine writer and subtle thinker, but the idea for which he was most famous can be gleaned from these sentences from the opening chapter of his Essay on the Principle of Population... (1798, followed by several expansions and reprints).

1. The root cause of social and economic inequities "is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it."

2. "[P]opulation, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio."

3. "[C]onsidering the present average state of the earth, the means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favourable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio."

The basic idea here is relatively simple from a 21st-century perspective already familiar with interpretations of culture and economics based on demographic and statistical data. This was news in the late 18th century:

If one thinks of economics in the broadest terms as the access to and distribution of the material means of survival (e.g. a species' access to food), then one of the driving forces of economic activity is captured in Malthus's tragic logic. The population of a species "increases in a geometrical ratio" (that is, populations increase exponentially) while the food supply increases in only "an arithmetical ratio." For example, suppose one husband and wife have four children, and, in twenty five years or so, each of these children has four children of their own who, in another twenty five years or so, have their own four children, &c. &c. Clearly this population will expand very rapidly. At the same time, however, the production of food can only increase comparatively slowly as new fields are opened, better agricultural methods are developed, and so forth. Even under "circumstances the most favourable to human industry," says Malthus, the food supply can only grow by an "arithmetical ratio"—that is, by adding a bit here and there, but not nearly so rapidly as the exponential growth in population. One might quibble about the exact numbers, but the simple fact, from Malthus's point of view, is that populations increase faster than food supplies, and, if unchecked, this leads inevitably to periodically repeated catastrophic starvation events which wipe out whole swaths of the population and thus restart the clock on the way to the next Malthusian catastrophe.

It's a simple, if tragic model for understanding the evolution and history of human societies.

But what does Malthusian theory have to do with romanticism? Well, a number of romantic writers were deeply concerned with revolutionary politics. The early Wordsworth was a great supporter of the French Revolution, William Godwin (and his son-in-law Percy Bysshe Shelley) were both advocates of the "perfectibility" of human societies, and the overwhelming political and economic question of the day had to do with the increasingly strained relationship between a small number of people with resources, power, and money and a larger number—the "lower orders"—who lived in desperate poverty and were sometimes on the brink of starvation. The reformers of the period were motivated by an idealism that dared to imagine a more perfect society of freedom and, if not universal wealth, at least more equitably distributed resources. Such idealistic thinking is everywhere in the period—from Godwin's "perfectibilitarianism" to Shelley's social idealism. One might even cite the Preamble to the new American Constitution with its emphasis on forming "a more perfect Union" which will "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Malthusian theory is a warning to such heady idealism. If Malthus is right, then the kind of "perfect Union" the reformers are imagining is simply not possible—and not because of some corrupt, greedy, and self-serving political or ecclesiastical establishment. Instead, the very expression of human passion, which Malthus identifies (for reasons obvious enough) as the root cause of the "geometrical" growth of the population, will need to be regulated or "checked." The only alternative is to spin ever closer to the destruction and despair of the next Malthusian catastrophe.

Malthusian thinking was, to say the least, controversial during the period. Conservatives tended to embrace Malthus's population logic, seeing it as a tragic explanation for the poverty of the "lower orders." In the most cynical of such appropriations, extreme poverty was portrayed as an inevitable and necessary condition since it held the overall population growth in check and thus prevented an even greater Malthusian catastrophe. (The fact that such logic also allowed persons of authority to sidestep responsibility for the misery of the "lower orders" was also useful.) Other writers saw some genuine potential in Malthus's thesis—by refraining from having children, the poor could materially improve their lot without necessarily resorting to some political revolution. Still others, saw the implications of Malthus but also saw a kind of heartlessness in treating people as so many demographic statistics and then justifying systemic cruelty based on such findings. Among these latter writers was P. B. Shelley who, in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound, says: "I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon, than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," lines 36-50

         Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This is one of the most often quoted, most often remembered passages from Wordsworth's poetry. "Tintern Abbey"—for such the poem is almost always called, though the actual title is the ungainly "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey..."—offers an early formulation of Wordsworth's pantheistic philosophy. It may be the first full-blown expression of a Wordsworthian High-Romantic ideology (perhaps theology); much of the rest of Wordsworth's poetry is essentially an expansion on, clarification of, or reaction to the lyrically measured claims of "Tintern Abbey."

Prior to the quoted lines, Wordsworth describes the immediate "here and now" of the poem—a visit to the Wye Valley, ostensibly on 14 July 1798—and he then details the benign influences of his recollections of nature when, during the five years since his last visit, he was living "in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities" (26-27). Thus, the chronology represented in the poem thus far has a visit to the Wye Valley (in 1793, presumably) followed by a five-year span in which the poet was in a lonely urban space, and now in 1798 he has returned to the natural scene. This recent history allows the poet both to admire the beauty of the natural scene before him and also to reflect on the value of his recollections of that scene even when he is removed from its immediate presence. This last reflection is the focus of the lines quoted above.

Initially, when the poet is lonely and stuck in the city, his recollections of natural beauty offer a kind of psychological solace and comfort: they provide "tranquil restoration" in "hours of weariness." But this is something more significant than a mere psychological palliative against urban alienation. The recollections have a moral element since they are involved with "acts / Of kindness and of love," and they lead ultimately to the moment of spiritual vision recorded above.

The central idea of the passage is that contemporary life is confused and often oppressive—it is a "heavy and ... weary weight" that makes up an "unintelligible world." But these recollections of natural beauty serve as a sort of catalyst producing a "serene and blessed mood" which Wordsworth describes in terms that seem almost mystical. The ordinary motions of the "corporeal frame" (respiration, circulation of the blood, etc.) are "almost suspended" while the mind (or "living soul") can suddenly "see into the life of things." Clearly this is a visionary moment, a momentary revelation of some "life" beyond the ephemeral appearances of "things" and beyond the confusion and alienation of ordinary urban life.

One aspect of such a passage that I find particularly intriguing is the context it provides for Wordsworthian nature ideology. It is clear everywhere in Wordsworth's writing that nature, or, more accurately, a feeling response to natural beauty, is the source of psychological comfort, moral judgment, and now even spiritual vision. What is sometimes overlooked, though, is the necessity of some non-natural space as well, some space like the "lonely rooms" described in "Tintern Abbey." One cannot fully appreciate nature unless one can recollect images of nature from a vantage point outside of nature. That non-natural vantage point is thus an essential element of the psycho-spiritual development expressed here in "Tintern Abbey" and elaborated throughout Wordsworth's life in The Prelude.

Following through on this observation, I would suggest that calling Wordsworth a "nature poet" is much too simple if one sees the term in a sort of binary system where nature is positive and non-nature (i.e. the city) is negative. It would be much more accurate to identify Wordsworth as a poet concerned with the movement back and forth between natural and non-natural environments, for in that movement Wordsworth can trace the development of his own poetic sensibilities. The fact that Wordsworth was writing at a time when England itself was being transformed from an agrarian/agricultural to an urban/industrial culture likely has some significant relationship to this central thematic concern of his poetry.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Austen's Pride and Prejudice, iii.14 (or chapter 56)

Here is a late-novel conversation between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet. Lady Catherine has the first lines:

   "I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended on the maternal side from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up."
   "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."
   "True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."
   "Whatever my connections may be," said Elizabeth, "if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

It was once unusual to see Jane Austen in a political context, but passages like this certainly support such a reading. "The Spirit of the Age"—as William Hazlitt and others described the late 18th and early 19th centuries—was in large measure a spirit of revolutionary change. An older aristocratic/monarchic system preserved money, power, and cultural authority in the hands of a few dominant, titled families, and those titles were handed down through the arcane rules of primogeniture from one generation to the next. This was not a system to inspire and reward individual merit—one's place in the social order was determined chiefly by the circumstances of one's birth. The emergent social order, however, tended to emphasize and reward individual merit and individual judgment. It was a more democratic (and capitalistic) social order that allowed for much greater mobility among social classes and that granted some power and cultural authority to persons who did not necessarily belong to established, "respectable" families. In one sense, the political debates of the 1790s that set conservative writers like Edmund Burke against radical/reformist writers like Thomas Paine or Mary Wollstonecraft offer a microcosm of this social, political, and economic sea change.

The passage above is imbued with this debate. For her part, Lady Catherine offers an almost cartoonishly extreme image of the aristocratic concern with family wealth and noble status. She begins with a bald assertion of her sense of cultural authority by issuing a direct command to Elizabeth: "Hear me in silence." She follows with a detailed account of the Darcy/de Bourgh lineage and the further assertion that the "fortune on both sides is splendid." These are powerful aristocratic credentials that are supposed to awe Elizabeth into submission, and, by extension, to assert her own "ancient" rights to power and to keep such bounders as she imagines Elizabeth to be in the "sphere, in which [they] were brought up." Note that there is no place in this system even to recognize any individual merit in a person like Elizabeth. From Lady Catherine's point of view, Elizabeth is of a class that is to be kept in its place. The fact that the marriage that Lady Catherine hopes to encourage between her daughter and her nephew is vaguely incestuous (at least from a twenty-first century vantage perspective) simply underscores the jealously guarded intra-familial relations of the aristocratic system.

Elizabeth, of course, will have none of Lady Catherine's pretensions, though she does adopt a version of the "family heritage" argument. Her first response is to assert the status of her own connections: "I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal," and even Lady Catherine must acknowledge the validity of Elizabeth's claim (though she continues to question the "connections" on Elizabeth's mother's side). Of greater importance, however, is Elizabeth's argument that it is the nephew's—Mr. Darcy's—views that count here, not Lady Catherine's: "Whatever my connections may be, if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

Granted, one would not go so far as to claim Austen as a radical reformer, but there is a crucial difference here between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine that mirrors the logic of the political radicals. Lady Catherine's conception of the social order allows no place for individual judgment—everything depends on the historical and financial circumstances into which a person is born. But Elizabeth contends that such general claims of authority based on nothing more than social rank (e.g. Lady Catherine's initial command to Elizabeth) need to be subordinated to the concerns of the individuals involved. If what is at issue is a potential match between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, it is the prerogative of these individuals to decide their own best interests. The "ancient" aristocratic order is subverted by a new emphasis on individual judgment and individual merit.

The echoes of the socio-political debates of the period are obvious enough in a passage like this that pits the old-guard Lady Catherine against the plucky and self-reliant Elizabeth, and it is clear that the novel favors Elizabeth. This raises a broader question about Austen. Several posts here on Romanticism @ UAB have focused on the revolutionary moment of romanticism. Where exactly would Austen's novel fit into this debate? Does Elizabeth's individualism put her on the side of the radicals? Or do the portrayals of such well-tuned and tasteful estates as Pemberley put her on the side of the conservatives?