Daniel Wright. Victorian Studies. Volume 56, Issue 4. Summer 2014.
“Form,” George Eliot argues, “as an element of human experience, must begin with the perception of separateness” (“Notes” 432). No concept of form is comprehensible without a more basic concept of one thing being separate from an adjacent thing. In her unpublished essay “Notes on Form in Art” (1868), Eliot restates this point in various ways: “Fundamentally, form is unlikeness” (432); “every difference is form” (433); and finally, “what is form but the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another?” (434). But from where, Eliot wonders, does difference come, and why do we perceive things as distinct wholes even when they are entirely continuous with what surrounds them? Eliot points out that “with this fundamental discrimination [of separateness] is born in necessary antithesis the sense of wholeness or unbroken connexion in space & time: a flash of light is a whole compared with the darkness which precedes & follows it; the taste of sourness is a whole & includes parts or degrees as it subsides” (433). What begins as an equation between form and separateness develops into a dialectical model of the manifold ways in which difference and sameness interact in the genesis of form:
And as knowledge continues to grow by its alternating processes of distinction & combination, seeing smaller and smaller unlikenesses & grouping or associating these under a common likeness, it arrives at the conception of wholes composed of parts more & more multiplied and highly differenced, yet more & more absolutely bound together by various conditions of common likeness or mutual dependence. (433)
Eliot is concerned with the paradoxical interdependence of likeness and difference, or with the ways in which the distinctions that make form possible and perceptible appear, upon closer inspection, to waver and blur. She is concerned, in other words, with the philosophical problem of vagueness and its way of hobbling our capacity to perceive separateness: the exact point of transition from light to dark or from sour to sweet.
In what follows, I will argue that this philosophical problem becomes, for Eliot, a problem of representation, especially as regards the capacity of language to represent erotic life and its ethical claims. Eliot marks the confluence of erotics and ethics in The Mill on the Floss (1860), for example, as “the seductive guidance of illimitable wants” (325), a phrase which turns the problem of vagueness and delimitation to simultaneously erotic and ethical ends. Ethical thinking, it seems, should be precise, whereas erotic life tempts us away from precision with its languorous blur. In Middlemarch (1871-72), on the other hand, Will Ladislaw celebrates vagueness as a property of language when he insists that, unlike painting and sculpture, “language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague” (191). According to this idea, vagueness allows a satisfying fullness of meaning, rather than pointing to the danger of overflow. It is difficult to decide whether Eliot is, like Ladislaw, a straightforward advocate for the evocative power of vagueness, or if she neutrally describes linguistic vagueness, or if she shares Maggie Tulliver’s sense of the ethical peril of illimitable desire.
In this essay, I attempt to register all three possibilities, arguing that Eliot advocates for vagueness only insofar as it is a real dimension of language, of linguistic meaning and representation-a problem with which we must reckon if we are to have a full picture of erotic life and its ethical force. The vagueness of language, for Eliot, cannot be pushed aside and must not be merely repressed. We must visit with vagueness, inhabit its blurred forms, and use its difficulty as an ethical exercise, with the hope that we might return, in the end, to clarity, although perhaps clarity of a different kind than we initially imagined: a clarity that is only ordinary rather than ideal. Eliot’s engagement with the vagueness of language, I’ll argue, has two dimensions, both relating to language’s representational capacities. First, Eliot investigates ordinary language and its often vague forms, as opposed to the ideal clarity of logical form, at a moment in intellectual history when the scope of logic as a science of reason and language was under debate. Second, she investigates the power of figurative language: those moments in which the imaginative precision of metaphor affords an alternative to a precision that is lost to language itself.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theorization of vagueness in Philosophical Investigations (1953) helps us to see these dimensions of the problem more clearly, since he is an eminent theorist of vagueness who is also deeply invested in the use of metaphor as a heuristic. After thinking about how to define the concept of a “game,” Wittgenstein confronts the idea that the category of games might not have clearly or predictably defined boundaries. The game is, he says,
a concept with blurred edges—’But is a blurred concept a concept at all?’—Is a photograph that is not sharp a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace a picture that is not sharp by one that is? Isn’t one that isn’t sharp often just what we need? … Is it senseless to say ‘Stay roughly here’? Imagine that I were standing with someone in a city square and said that. As I say it, I do not bother drawing any boundary, but just make a pointing gesture-as if I were indicating a particular spot. And this is just how one might explain what a game is. (§71)
Wittgenstein points out here that some vagueness in language is natural and indeed workable. Some flexibility in the way that we understand and apply concepts is required to communicate at all. If my concepts are too rigid, and if nothing less than a perfectly precise overlay of my concept upon yours will satisfy me, then I risk a tragic kind of solipsism by which the world becomes unnavigable. But if I allow vagueness to become too generalized and lose all sense of boundaries, then I’m equally lost, groping through a world where “anything-and nothing-is right” (§77). This idea of the “blurred concept” eventually leads Wittgenstein to his famous conclusion that language “has not the formal unity that I imagined, but is a family of structures more or less akin to one another.” To define a concept by family resemblance is not, strictly speaking, to provide a logical solution to the problem of vagueness, but for Wittgenstein it offers a way of coping with blurred concepts. “The preconception of crystalline purity,” Wittgenstein continues, “can only be removed by turning our whole inquiry around. (One might say: the inquiry must be turned around, but on the pivot of our real need.)” (§108, original emphasis). Wittgenstein’s way with metaphor contributes to his reputation for a literariness that flies in the face of the analytic tradition and its ideal of logical precision. He wonders what it would look like to “pivot” my inquiry into language, as if panning around and changing my point of view, imagining that the pivot around which I rotate is my “real need,” something at the center of myself that isn’t seeable or speakable. What real need does our language fulfill, or attempt to address? How might we see the vagueness of language as born of its messy interconnection with something like desire?
Despite the association of the vagueness problem with twentieth-century thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, it has ancient origins and continued to be an object of inquiry for philosophers and novelists in Victorian England. Eubulides, a contemporary of Aristotle, is usually credited with the first elaboration of the sorites paradox, from the Greek soros meaning “heap,” which demonstrates the ways in which vagueness inheres in everyday language. The paradox asks us to picture a heap of sand from which we begin to remove grains one by one. At what point, we’re asked, does the heap become a non-heap? We don’t doubt that this change must take place at some point, but it seems impossible to ascribe the change to the removal of any particular grain. The concept “heap” is blurry, seeming to include any number of borderline cases where we might struggle to assign a truth value to a simple statement such as “this is a heap.” Thus vagueness poses deep problems for logic and epistemology, problems that ramify, as Wittgenstein points out, into ethics and aesthetics, which rely especially heavily upon our capacity to understand concepts, such as “good” or “beautiful,” that are intrinsically vague (§77).
The sorites paradox suggests that binary logic might not always work in defining such concepts, since the borderline cases highlighted by the paradox aren’t amenable to sharp divisions between “true” and “false,” “this” and “that.” This has led some logicians to various versions of “many-valued” logic, whether it’s a system that imagines several discrete truth-values between true and false, or a system of “fuzzy” logic that imagines truth as a kind of spectrum. If we decide to persist with binary logic, then we may be forced to accept that our knowledge about the world has severe limits: there must be a sharp conceptual boundary between heap and non-heap, specifiable to a single grain of sand, but it’s a boundary that we cannot intuit. This is the “epistemicist” position. We may also decide that those troublesome borderline cases simply don’t have truth values, and stipulate points at which cases become clearly true or false on either side of that indeterminate gap. This is the “supervaluationist” approach. In Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke makes the epistemicist plea of ignorance in response to Sir James Chettam’s remark that her “power of discrimination” allows her to distinguish “sense” from “nonsense.” Dorothea insists, “On the contrary, I am often unable to decide. But that is from ignorance. The right conclusion is there all the same, though I am unable to see it” (31). Sense and nonsense are different, Dorothea argues, and are separated by a line as sharp as any, but it is impossible to bring that line into sharp focus. This may seem like a trivial problem when attempting to distinguish a heap from a non-heap, but Dorothea’s distinction invites us to wonder about crucial ethical questions beset by vagueness. It seems especially worrisome to claim that we cannot know the shape of moral concepts accurately, or that defining those shapes is simply a question of arbitrary agreement.
It is important to remember the temporal and spatial dimensions of vagueness. The sorites paradox considers the difficulty of isolating the moment in time when one thing turns into another by a series of infinitesimal alterations, but it also considers the insufficiency of our diagrammatic and symbolic methods of representing categories as bounded by sharp lines. Bertrand Russell famously pointed out that vagueness is neither an intrinsic property of objects in the world, nor one of any given language, but rather inheres in representation itself. It arises as a problem only when we consider the relationship between the symbol and the thing that it aims to describe. “Apart from representation, whether cognitive or mechanical,” Russell insists, “there can be no such thing as vagueness or precision; things are what they are, and there is an end of it” (62).
My reading of Eliot’s manner of dealing with this representational problem is in conversation with David Kurnick’s work on the relationship in Eliot’s fiction “between novelistic eroticism and social understanding” (“Erotics” 584), and I follow him in seeing these two domains as intimately related rather than mutually exclusive. But while Kurnick focuses on the practice of novel reading as a model for the ways in which detachment and objectivity can themselves be understood as objects of erotic desire, I suggest that in Eliot’s fiction erotic desire aims for a kind of miry depth of situated ethical knowledge rather than (or perhaps in addition to) the detached, critical view of the narrator or the reader. I also respond here to Franco Moretti’s recent reading of the quantifiable transition over the course of the Victorian period from clear ethical concepts that express judgment, such as “shame” or “virtue” (128-29), to the dominance of vague adjectives, such as “strong” or “dark” (129), characterized by an “ethico-emotional mix” that aims for “less ethical clarity, but greater emotional strength: less precision, more meaning” (130).
Moretti links the “fog” of these Victorian adjectives to the logical problem of vagueness but mistakenly claims that such concepts are not logically vague in the same sense as “child” or “heap,” “where a certain amount of vagueness is a condition of meaning” (142). Yet ethical life and affective or erotic life do not stand on opposite ends of a spectrum from clarity to vagueness. Rather, ethical concepts, even ones that pretend to clarity, are almost always intrinsically vague and thus not so different from affective or erotic concepts. Moreover, Victorian writers did not always use vagueness in order to evade precision in naming certain kinds of concepts, as Moretti implies by using the shiftfrom the clarity of “the bourgeois” to the vagueness of “the middle class” as his culminating political example (144). For Eliot sees vagueness and clarity as thoroughly interdependent when it comes to ethical thinking and erotic life. The basic question for Eliot is this: if it seems dangerous to be guided by what is entirely “illimitable,” then when and where do the limits appear that would make erotic desire meaningful rather than merely seductive?
“Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending” (832). This is the narrator of Middlemarch, claiming in the novel’s final chapter that a fictional conclusion involves a shading offinto an implied but shadowy fictional future, an acknowledgement that characters’ lives continue somewhere, in the readers’ or the author’s imagination perhaps, and that our exit from a fictional world is never as sharp or as simple as slamming a book shut. This philosophical aphorism is quintessentially Eliot, not only in its pithiness and the way it lends itself to excerpting, but also in the image it offers us: a sharp line-a limit-is drawn and then immediately blurred or made to vibrate in our field of mental vision through the invocation of an uncertainty principle. Eliot’s opening epigraph to Daniel Deronda (1876) picks up where Middlemarch leaves off, as ending cycles back to beginning: “Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought” (3). For Eliot, the “limit” is only an arbitrarily drawn line that divides what is fundamentally continuous or blurred, whether in time, in space, or in novelistic form. When the narrator of Middlemarch describes Dorothea’s bewildered experience of Rome, with its many-layered histories crowding in upon her, we get a similar description of “historical knowledge” as the distanced perspective that “traces out the suppressed transitions which unite all contrasts” (193).
Keen insight and profound knowledge, at least in Eliot’s view, promise not neatly-organized understanding but an often vertiginous sense that there are no real limits, no genuine contrasts, but rather only our words and our forms and our suppressions, which comfort us with the appearance of sharp outlines. Eliot’s understanding of the ancient sorites paradox seems to have been deep, and she uses Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, to mount a parody of the Stoic argument that the best way to avoid the trap of the sorites paradox is to refuse to be led down its slippery slope in the first place. “Human reason may carry you a little too far,” Brooke warns Dorothea, “over the hedge, in fact. It carried me a good way at one time; but I saw it would not do. I pulled up; I pulled up in time. But not too hard. I have always been in favour of a little theory: we must have Thought, else we shall be landed back in the dark ages” (17). There is a distinct echo here of Cicero’s account of an unnamed Stoic philosopher who declared of the sorites paradox, “like a clever charioteer before I get to the end, I shall pull up my horses, and all the more so if this place to which they go is precipitous” (qtd. in Bobzien 225). For both the Stoics and Mr. Brooke, to be carried away by reason, or to cross over the hedge, is to end up outside of the realm of reason altogether. We should have a little bit of thought and theory, Mr. Brooke admits: just enough with which to get by, to make sense, to be civilized, and to be understood. The haunting question posed by his metaphor is: where would I be if I did not pull up in time? What if I drop the reins, and allow the “reason” that carries me to gallop on? Even Mr. Brooke understands that finding the limit is often a game of feeling things out: “There are oddities in things,” he says. “Life isn’t cast in a mould-cut out by rule and line, and that sort of thing” (41).
Mr. Brooke attempts to avoid vagueness even though he knows it’s in some sense unavoidable: we must work hard to feel out and maintain “rule and line” even where they don’t really exist, as when “oddities in things” defy our efforts at precision. His attempts at clear thinking and speaking, however, tend to fail spectacularly and comically. The joke is that by blinding ourselves to vagueness altogether or avoiding the dangerous paths that would lead to its traps, as Mr. Brooke does (and as the Stoics did before him), we might only become more confused. Casaubon is in this sense similar to Mr. Brooke, invested as he is in creating a system of knowledge to organize what may in fact be hopelessly messy. Notably, Mrs. Cadwallader wryly refers to Casaubon as “our Lowick Cicero” (53).
John Stuart Mill agreed with Eliot that vagueness is inevitable in ordinary language and that this gives us useful room for debating where the boundaries of a concept lie. In A System of Logic (1843), he anticipates Wittgenstein in arguing that “vagueness may exist without practical inconvenience; and cases will appear, in which the ends of language are better promoted by it than complete precision” (46). Mill offers the example of the “human” as a vague concept. Although we might agree to define humanity in terms of rationality, we run into trouble when we realize that rationality is “a quality which admits of degrees” and that “it has never been settled what is the lowest degree of that quality which would entitle any creature to be considered a human being” (46). This vagueness is a good thing in Mill’s view. It allows us to be open-minded; to consider borderline cases of rationality, such as infant children, with liberal flexibility; to arrive at provisional or working definitions that remain open to change; and to stay in some sense true to the inescapable problem of vagueness while still drawing clear, if temporary, forms on top of it.
Mill aimed to incorporate logic into a kind of unified field theory of human psychology, linking it tightly with ethics and epistemology, and so his version of “logic” is closer to what we would call ordinary language philosophy. This is true of much of the Aristotelian tradition that dominated logic from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. But the mid-Victorian period also saw the development of an important countermovement in logic, represented by thinkers such as George Boole and John Venn, who insisted that logic should be a branch of mathematics, specialized to deal with objective, positivistic domains of knowledge and deduction. This version of logic is more familiar to us today than Mill’s ordinary language logic because the association of mathematics and logic became entrenched with the rise of analytic philosophy. This analytic tradition of “logicism,” which reached its peak with the work of Bertrand Russell, originated with Gottlob Frege, whose Conceptual Notation (1879) improved Boole’s algebraic logical notation. Frege followed Boole in seeing symbolic logic as a means of constructing an artificial language freed from vagueness, but Frege’s motivations were more specialized and focused on the reform of mathematics; he wanted to solidify what he took to be the shaky foundations of mathematics by grounding mathematical axioms upon the laws of logic. Rather than a logic founded upon mathematics, this was a mathematics founded upon logic.
But even Frege admitted that an ideal language missed out on a great deal that ordinary language, with all its vagueness, could best capture. In an 1882 essay defending Conceptual Notation against its critics, Frege clarifies his position:
The shortcomings here stressed are caused by a certain softness and instability of language which, on the other hand, constitute the reason for its many-sided usefulness and potentiality for development. In this respect language can be compared to the hand which, despite its adaptability to the most diverse tasks, is still inadequate. We build ourselves artificial hands-tools for special purposes-which function more exactly than the hand is capable of doing. And how is this exactness possible? Through the very rigidity and inflexibility of parts, the lack of which makes the hand so dexterous. (“Scientific Justification” 158)
Just as the artificial language of logic is a tool customized for mathematical work, which can admit no vagueness, ordinary language is like the supple hand that can grasp and touch and react in ways that the mechanical hand cannot. In Conceptual Notation, Frege uses a different metaphor, one that Eliot would have appreciated, when he writes, “I can make the relation of my ‘conceptual notation’ to ordinary language clearest if I compare it to the relation of the microscope to the eye” (105). For Frege, as for Wittgenstein, the imaginative resources of metaphor promise clarity when it comes to talking about vagueness.
Like Frege, Boole allowed that the positive knowledge about thought and its structures that symbolic logic affords still leaves out other kinds of knowledge less amenable to mathematical symbolization. Boole describes the outer limits of logical insight with a metaphor that invokes vagueness: “As the realms of day and night are not strictly conterminous, but are separated by a crepuscular zone, through which the light of the one fades gradually off into the darkness of the other, so it may be said that every region of positive knowledge lies surrounded by a debateable and speculative territory, over which it in some degree extends its influence and light” (400). The point at which the insights of logic cease to be useful, at which we end up wandering in the darkness despite logic’s distant illumination, is itself a kind of vague limit, somewhere at the uncertain edge of that “crepuscular zone” that separates positive knowledge from, for example, ethical or erotic knowledge. In one of Middlemarch’s most famous descriptions of the reach and focus of its narrator’s “light,” we hear echoes of Boole’s metaphor as well as Frege’s argument for focus and specialization: “I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” (141). Eliot’s narrator sets concentration against dispersion, and nothing could seem less vague than the concentration of a spotlight, with its crisp edges keeping that insidiously “tempting range of relevancies” cloaked in darkness and at bay. It seems that there is no “crepuscular zone” here, and yet it’s the temptation that’s important. Even what’s kept in the dark seems, in this image, to beckon to us. We may concentrate our beam of light and draw a clear circle around our objects of interest, but it’s only an arbitrary selection, not a rational or logically necessary one. Desire seems to beckon to us from across that wavering, tenuous edge.
We know both that Eliot was very familiar with Mill’s A System of Logic and that it lefther uninspired. As she wrote to a friend in 1875, “Though I have studied his books, especially his Logic and Political Economy, with much benefit, I have no consciousness of their having made any marked epoch in my life” (Letter 163). One might of course rejoin here that the failure of Mill’s ideas to make a “marked epoch” in Eliot’s memory does not preclude their having made some vaguer kind of impact. In any event, it is clear that the narrator of Middlemarch shares Eliot’s indifference-even her skepticism-toward Mill’s theory, in which vagueness can be resolved by drawing arbitrarily stipulated boundaries. But without clear concepts and sharp circumscriptions, the representation of psychological life can become difficult. In a description of Fred Vincy’s weak-willed return to gambling, Eliot’s narrator insists that “Fred did not enter into formal reasons, which are a very artificial, inexact way of representing the tingling returns of old habit, and the caprices of young blood … It is in such indefinable movements that action often begins” (672). This is the ethical equivalent of the paradox of the heap: just as we can’t locate the precise tipping point from heap to non-heap, the movement from “tingling” desire to reasoned intention, and from intention to action, is fundamentally “indefinable.” Along with Eliot’s narrator, we resist the idea that this tipping point is ascribable to any one definable moment, one nameable reason in a series of reasons. But this leads us into trouble, because if the structure of our ethical thinking is vague, the world of reason and desire, and its representation, become a blurry mess.
How, indeed, does a novel represent in concrete terms those troublesome borderline cases of psychic life in which erotic impulse and reasoned ethical reflection seem difficult to disentangle? One solution is to use metaphor, as Frege and Wittgenstein do in their attempts to define the strange powers and capacities (and weaknesses and incapacities) of vague language, which seems comprehensible only through the metaphoric structure of comparison: ordinary language is the eye as opposed to the microscope, a human hand as opposed to an artificial one, the rough gesture as opposed to the precise mark. In order to represent the indefinability plaguing the interior world of reason and desire, Eliot assembles a family of metaphoric figures that tend curiously to disrupt the novel’s realism and veer toward the allegorical form of the psychomachia. As the narrator of Middlemarch puts it when describing Rosamond’s complicated attraction to Lydgate, which mixes erotic excitement with a more reflective and strategic interest in the possibility that he is a “man of family”:
If you think it incredible that to imagine Lydgate as a man of family could cause thrills of satisfaction which had anything to do with the sense that she was in love with him, I will ask you to use your power of comparison a little more effectively, and consider whether red cloth and epaulets have never had an influence of that sort. Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common table and mess together, feeding out of the common store according to their appetite. (166)
The narrator is trying to defend the verisimilitude of her representation of Rosamond’s motivations: despite our moralizing tendency to distinguish good reasons from bad, or the mere “thrills” of erotic attraction from the more deeply reasoned but related response of love, we must admit that our psychic and erotic lives are far more tumultuous. The question then becomes: what is the nature of the “common table” where our various passions “mess together”? What is the “common store” out of which they feed?
It is Dorothea Brooke who most stubbornly resists the narrator’s picture of a “common table” and “common store” in her tendency to separate the ethical from the merely personal. She understands fuzziness of thinking as a failing that must be corrected by reason or a resolute act of will. Dorothea’s yearning for moral clarity is described this way: “For a long while she had been oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like a thick summer haze, over all her desire to make her life greatly effective” (28). And yet, prior to this, the narrator hints at something else in Dorothea, an openness of vision and feeling oriented toward the very vagueness that she desires to eliminate from her mind. Although she appears to us as a thoroughgoing ascetic, the narrator tells us that “there was nothing of an ascetic’s expression in her bright full eyes, as she looked before her, not consciously seeing, but absorbing into the intensity of her mood, the solemn glory of the afternoon with its long swathes of light between the far-off rows of limes, whose shadows touched each other” (27). Absorbing rather than seeing this scene, Dorothea’s vision encompasses sharp-edged “swathes” of light (this is the sense of “swathe” as a unit of measurement for a piece of land, or as the sharp slash of the mower’s scythe), but also the tantalizingly vague image of shadows beginning to touch, perhaps soon to merge. It is difficult to tell where one shadow ends and the other begins, or to find that zone of deeper blackness where one overlays the other.
Dorothea, in other words, suppresses what seems to be her natural impulse toward vagueness. She takes refuge from it in what she understands to be the highly organized taxonomies of Casaubon: “She was looking forward to higher initiation in ideas, as she was looking forward to marriage, and blending her dim conceptions of both” (86). Even here, Dorothea’s tendency to imaginative “blending” of love with wisdom, the erotic with the rational, is understood as a failing, or at least as a kind of “dim” naivete. During her honeymoon in Rome, as she grows disillusioned by Casaubon and his frigid romantic unavailability, she laments in even more pointed terms her inability to seize upon a “distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself,” since it seems that Casaubon’s failure to excite must merely be a result of “her own spiritual poverty” (192). Without the active mentorship in reason that she had expected from Casaubon, Dorothea feels unable to know and to shape her own mind: “By a sad contradiction Dorothea’s ideas and resolves seemed like melting ice floating and lost in the warm flood of which they had been but another form. She was humiliated to find herself a mere victim of feeling, as if she could know nothing except through that medium” (198). Here, the image of the common table at which the passions feed out of a common store is refigured as a body of water filled with quickly melting floes of ice. But in this revised metaphor, instead of separate passions emerging from locked chambers and coming to feast together, we have a change of state. Indistinct eros and the finished shape of reason have the same molecular structure, which only has to change the frequency and heat of its vibrations in order to take on new appearances and new functions.
The culmination of what I’ll call Dorothea’s vagueness plot returns us to the problem of limits when, late in the novel, Dorothea discovers Ladislaw and Rosamond in what she mistakenly believes to be a moment of illicit intimacy. She sees them together “in the terrible illumination of a certainty which filled up all outlines,” admitting no vague undecidability (775). But this bright certainty leads to emotional tumult: “She had seen something so far below her belief, that her emotions rushed back from it and made an excited throng without an object” (776). These are not the passions seated together at a common table, but a chaotic mob of emotions searching for a clear concept to which they might attach themselves. Dorothea tries to find an “object” around which to organize her emotional energy, but that object has now become hopelessly general. When her sister Celia asks her what’s troubling her, she replies, “Oh, all the troubles of all people on the face of the earth” (776), turning the vague “indefinable movements” of emotion toward an equally indefinable generality (672). Later, Dorothea hides herself in a locked room and sinks down, broken, into the “throng” of her emotions:
The limit of resistance was reached, and she had sunk back helpless within the clutch of inescapable anguish … S he locked her door, and turning away from it towards the vacant room she pressed her hands hard on the top of her head, and moaned out-
‘Oh, I did love him!’
Then came the hour in which the waves of suffering shook her too thoroughly to leave any power of thought. (786)
Even as Dorothea crosses the “limit of resistance” by which she has tried unsuccessfully to contain and circumscribe her emotions (or, indeed, to organize them by sublimating them) and sinks back into anguish, announcing her love as the clarity of hindsight washes over her, her last, literal gesture of repression is to press her hands down upon her head to try to maintain a physical limit in the place of the psychic limit that has dissolved into painful indistinctness. And then come the “waves”-in French, les vagues-of suffering that presage a kind of rebirth for Dorothea as she rises the next morning: “She had awaked to a new condition: she felt as if her soul had been liberated from its terrible conflict; she was no longer wrestling with her grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts. For now the thoughts came thickly” (787). The imagined animosity between Casaubon’s moral claim to Dorothea’s loyalty and her own feelings for Ladislaw transforms into an image of sharing, a companionship of self with self, thought with thought-and indeed the thoughts swarm “thickly” in this shared psychic space, impossible to corral.
Dorothea, long a pursuer of the “distinctly shapen” idea, arrives at a different conception of psychic organization and, indeed, of the kind of accountability that we can expect of ourselves where the moral claims of erotic desire are concerned. This is a mode of accountability that must be clear about vagueness and its real impact upon our thinking, desiring, and speaking, measuring the impact of “indefinability” by trying to clarify the relation between vague categories through metaphor: as friends eating at a common table, as ice melting into water, as the violent throng that settles into friendly companionship. Form is, after all, about difference for Eliot, and metaphor is fundamentally a study of difference and similarity as they interact in unpredictable ways. The question of vagueness is finally a question of form and formlessness, and of what lies between them. How do the forms of thoughts and desires take shape from what Eliot repeatedly imagines as an infinitesimal formal principle, or a fundamental unit of form, not least in Lydgate’s search for the “primitive tissue” that underlies all organic structures (148), or Casaubon’s search for the master key of mythology? Lydgate’s scientific ambition is later subtly refigured as a more expansive pursuit of the mysterious turning points of psychic experience: “He wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness” (165). It seems that our only way to access the “minute processes” or principles organizing the “delicate poise and transition” of thought and desire is to look closely at the finished forms that these infinitesimal gradations produce. What remnants of that origin cling to their edges, making their shapes blurry, difficult to behold steadily? Sigmund Freud takes up these same questions in his concept of the intensely pleasurable “oceanic feeling” of infancy, “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole” (Civilization 12), and in the related concept of the polymorphous perversity that distributes erotic pleasure indiscriminately over the entire surface of the body. But these powerful metaphors nonetheless figure vagueness as a developmental stage to be outgrown in the shaping and circumscribing of our erotic selves and in the naming of our erotic investments, a process which Freud compares to the building of “dams” that over time “restrict the flow” of pleasure toward normative stimuli (Three Essays 43). In the end, Freud offers little sense that vagueness might be, not an incipient threat of psychic disintegration, but a place in which to dwell or to return to periodically, as an object of reasoned reflection or a real mechanism of psychic and erotic organization.
Leo Bersani has recently suggested a corrective to this tendency of psychoanalysis to pathologize, or else to rarefy, our states and feelings of formlessness, and with his argument we return at the same time to the question of the outer limits of a novelistic world, limits that Eliot found so hauntingly impossible to draw. In “Sociality and Sexuality,” Bersani revisits the psychoanalytic question of the origin of relationality, an origin that is in some sense impossible, he suggests, because it requires that we imagine the impossible scene of nonrelation, of sheer undifferentiation, that would have to precede it. We are nonetheless beset by the anxiety that what has taken form might just as easily have failed to take form out of that bogeyman fantasy of nothingness. Art, Bersani argues, is the means by which we work through our anxiety about the tenuousness of form and the inaccessibility of its origins by imagining situations in which the formal relations of art seem to have arisen out of thin air, and thus just as easily can dissolve again. “The coming-to-be of relationality,” he writes, “which is our birth into being, can only be retroactively enacted, and it is enacted largely as a rubbing out of formal relations. Perhaps traditional associations of art with form-giving or form-revealing activities are at least partly a denial of such formal disappearance in art” (104). What begins, in other words, must end; what has taken shape can be rubbed out, or at least smudged.
My argument so far has been to propose that we read Eliot not merely as a novelist of ethical clarity or “sharpness” but also as an artist who registers the sheer difficulty of the kind of self-understanding required to give our erotic lives a meaningful shape-to speak about erotic feeling as a “lasting companion” to reason, a “sharer in thoughts.” In Eliot, thoughts come thickly, and ideas and desires often change from solid to liquid and back again before we know it. We must reckon with vagueness, and in doing so risk becoming stuck in its mire, because not to do so would represent a dangerous superficiality in ethical thinking, a refusal to acknowledge the real ethical force of erotic life, and a gullible overinvestment in the arbitrary lines that we so often use to organize our psychic lives and our rational concepts.
When Lydgate tries to “pierce the obscurity” of the mind, to burrow down to the place where all form might disintegrate, he finds himself cast adriftdespite his careful scientific method and feels “that agreeable after-glow of excitement when thought lapses from examination of a specific object into a suffusive sense of its connections with all the rest of our existence-seems, as it were, to throw itself on its back after vigorous swimming and float with the repose of unexhausted strength” (165). Eliot’s description enacts the suffusion it describes, as thought and its “specific object” can each be understood as the antecedent of the vague pronoun “its”: “a suffusive sense of its connections.” If we’re meant to imagine thought’s connections, then we might see this as something like Freud’s oceanic feeling, in which the psyche feels so vibrantly connected to the external world as to lose its defensive outlines and its spatial bearings. On the other hand, we can easily understand this pronoun as referring to “the specific object,” in Lydgate’s case the mysterious process by which thoughts and desires take form out of obscurity, or the infinitesimal transitions from desire to desire, thought to thought. But the more we try to bring such a process or mechanism or structuring principle into focus, the more it seems that form and obscurity, taxonomy and tumult, are so intimately connected as to be inseparable, so densely admixed that they are suffused by their very interconnections.
The image of Lydgate’s mind thrown on its back and floating suggests what an ethos of vagueness might look like: a lived commitment or aspiration to the kind of epistemic disorientation that comes with submerging oneself in the dark places between, behind, or before clear forms. Amanda Anderson has argued that critics and theorists too often invoke “ethos” as a way of describing situated commitments and practices while nonetheless attempting to avoid the normativity associated with liberal and rationalist models of ethics. “Ethos” allows these theorists to have their cake and eat it too, rejecting what they understand as the coerciveness of norms while still describing aspects of life that seem inherently normative (137). In characterizing vagueness as an “ethos,” I risk seeming to idealize (or to suggest that Eliot idealizes) states of confusion and ethical debilitation as a kind of utopian liberation from norms of rationality. But the problem of vagueness is internal to systems of language and rationality, and therefore to the practice of making normative claims at all, a practice which Eliot undoubtedly values. And so while vagueness is not an absolute ideal for Eliot, it is nonetheless an important point of orientation in our ethical lives, something that must be experienced and acknowledged to be understood and to be made use of, but that would make ethical life untenable if it became a permanent condition of hazy confusion. If vagueness is real, Eliot suggests, and if we cannot get away from it either as a property of language or as a property of feeling, desire, and thought, we must learn how to make use of it, or how to understand it as strengthening, rather than disintegrating, our ethical lives. Far from Mill’s solution of pragmatic efficiency or analytic philosophy’s escape to the ideal (and ideally lucid) language of symbolic logic, Eliot’s psychological realism commits her to a reckoning with our all-too-human confusions of desire and reason, of eroticized pleasure and reasoned intention.
Thus, rather than considering vagueness as a philosophical problem to be neatly solved, Eliot’s fiction asks: what is the experience of vagueness? What does it feel like to take the borderline case as an object of examination, as a guide to action, or simply as an inescapable state of psychic existence? When is this practice good and when does it go wrong? This reasoned, exploratory approach to the effects and origins of vagueness makes it difficult to determine whether vagueness represents an ethically good or bad kind of pleasure or psychic dissolution in Eliot’s novels. The possible outcomes of such states are various enough that they can seem ethically neutral or contingent. While “ethos” provides us with a broad sense of the kinds of commitments and goals that would lead one to sink into the comfort (or the disorientation) of vagueness, it also might encompass a set of norms about how and when to give in to the seductive haziness of vagueness as a mode of reflective self-understanding and moral reasoning.
What I’m describing as vagueness in Eliot has been understood by critics in other ways as part of a broad attempt to understand her preoccupation with the dense interconnectedness and overlapping of psychic life, as well as her skepticism toward easy classification. I want to pause before concluding to take stock of how our understanding of Eliot has tended to circle around versions of vagueness primarily as a scientific or aesthetic problem, without being fully able to account for its force as a problem of language and logic. Gillian Beer (in Darwin’s Plots) and Sally Shuttleworth (in George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science) have pointed to Eliot’s interest in evolutionary biology and the Victorian movement toward a model of organic form in biology, psychology, and social theory as contextual explanations for her ambitiousness in representing infinitesimal shades of psychological detail, formal complexity, and social interdependence. More recently, Nicholas Dames has argued for a powerful link between Eliot’s theory of the long novel form and Richard Wagner’s theory of long musical form, both of which work to achieve a combination of “elongated temporal length and insistent complexity,” or in an even more suggestive formulation for our purposes, “demanding and exhausting forms” of “unbroken complexity” (125). Jed Esty reads The Mill on the Floss as a Victorian origin-point for his story of the modernist bildungsroman, partly for the way in which Eliot positions “the mediating, reconciling chronotope of the nation” as the seemingly impossible “overlapping” of local space and imperial/global space (56-57). Evolution, organic theory, musical form, and the relationship between local, national, and global spaces all provide Eliot with useful analogues for the theorization of forms that are fundamentally continuous, overlapping, or interpenetrating in both space and time, but also overwhelmingly complex in that continuousness-made up of indistinguishable elements that are thickly layered and overlapping.
Indeed, Catherine Gallagher has taken the concept of the category or “type” in its supposed opposition to the instance or the particular as a crucial problem for Eliot’s strategies of characterization. Gallagher suggests that in Eliot’s work, fictional individuals take general types as their referent, even while realist novels always “conjur[e] as their own ‘background’ an empirical cultural understanding that the type is only a mental abstraction from more real concrete individuals in the world.” The novel form is therefore “structured like a triptych, in which ontologically distinct categories of ‘the particular’ appear on either side of a category of ‘the general,’ creating a centrality for the middle category not normally sustainable under the empirical assumptions that contrast the ideality of the type with the substantiality of the experientially available individual” (62). According to Gallagher’s model, the “general” characterizes the zone of overlap between distinctive versions of particularity, one fictional and the other real, rather than merely standing in opposition to a monolithic concept of particularity. Gallagher goes on to argue that we have overemphasized Eliot’s ethical conception of particularity, which is the basis of her theory of sympathy and which inspires the caricature of her stern Victorian moralism; instead, “Eliot’s ethics are preceded and animated by an erotics of particularization,” generated by the reader’s identification with fictional characters who yearn to pass to the other side of the zone of “generality,” to become embodied and concretely real (70, original emphasis).
We might imagine Gallagher’s “triptych” form of novelistic characterization (and, indeed, Esty’s overlapping chronotopes) as Venn diagrams, and the purpose of this survey of recent Eliot criticism is to argue that vagueness is implicit or obliquely registered in many of our ways of describing both her aesthetic commitments and her ethical and scientific worldview. And yet even John Venn, the Victorian logician who popularized this distinctive diagrammatic way of representing overlapping categories, understood that such a representation conceals the vagueness intrinsic to the very concept of “overlap.” He suggests using dotted lines in the overlap segment of the diagram or, in the case of diagrams that include many categories, filling different areas with different saturations of color, from shades of grey to the black of maximum density of overlap. He suggests too that we might use shapes other than circles, shapes with a better capacity for representing vague boundaries (427-38). Venn goes on to argue that a rigid insistence upon the exactness of logical diagramming as a mathematically precise representation-in which the sizes of individual compartments would match up, for example, with the relative extensions of various categories-actually confuses logic with mathematics, or the “qualitative” with the “quantitative”:
The compartments yielded by our diagrams must be regarded solely in the light of being bounded by such and such contours, as lying inside or outside such and such lines. We must abstract entirely from all consideration of their relative magnitude, as we do of their actual shape, and trace no more connection between these facts and the logical extension of the terms which they represent than we do between this logical extension and the size and shape of the letter symbols, A and B and C. (438)
Here diagrams act as visual aids that offer us easily apprehensible boundaries and shapes by which to understand the relationships between various concepts or classes. Yet these shapes are in another sense mere phantasms, arbitrarily situated in space. As Eliot puts it in relation to aesthetic form: “Boundary or outline & visual appearance are modes of form which in music and poetry can only have a metaphorical presence” (“Notes” 433). The shapes of a Venn diagram are used as variables or metaphors in just the same way that we use other symbols as simplified stand-ins for a dizzyingly complex range of possibilities. They represent, as Venn says, a qualitative kind of experience rather than a quantitative mapping of logical language onto empirical reality.
A New Organ of Knowledge
As Will Ladislaw insists to Dorothea, “To be a poet is to have a soul … in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only” (223). Perhaps, then, to be a Victorian novelist is to have a soul in which knowledge passes slowly and laboriously into feeling, and feeling flows or diffuses just as slowly and laboriously back again. Ladislaw is dismissive of the problem of vagueness in his description of poetic sensibility; to him, the transformation of knowledge into feeling (and back again) is an instantaneous flash. And yet when feeling “flashes back as a new organ of knowledge,” it seems to bring something with it, interfusing itself into knowledge in a way that raises (by now familiar) problems of vagueness. What is the maximum amount of feeling that can be imparted to knowledge before we cease to call it knowledge and insist that it’s something else entirely? Does feeling in this case overwhelm knowledge, so that we have a simple transition of one to the other? Or do we need another name for what happens when these two kinds of experience become thoroughly mixed?
Stanley Cavell describes these kinds of questions as persistent problems for our philosophical conception of what kinds of claims are understood as vitally social rather than merely personal. Turning to aesthetic knowledge, Cavell describes “the aesthetic claim … as a kind of compulsion to share a pleasure, hence as tinged with an anxiety that the claim stands to be rebuked. It is a condition of, or threat to, that relation to things called aesthetic, that something I know and cannot make intelligible stands to be lost to me” (9). Erotic knowledge, it seems to me, occupies a similarly liminal position between the idiosyncratic (something that I know and experience and that no other can feel as I do) and the social (something that I want to make known, to share with someone else in a way that is meaningful and intelligible). It also seems to carry with it a similar anxiety about its potential to be “rebuked” or lost if it cannot be made comprehensible, cannot find a life outside myself.
If the philosophical interest in vagueness is, at its root, a challenge to the idea that our language can be represented by the formal system of logic, Eliot’s interest is in discovering what other forms we might imagine as guiding our rational, ethical, and erotic lives, especially insofar as these various modes of knowing and thinking merge together. I’ve argued that figurative language provides one such model, one that helps Eliot to clarify the concept of vagueness, and one useful to philosophers struggling to be precise about what we might gain and lose when we toggle between ordinary language and logical formalism. What does logic look like beyond form or at its vague edges? As we have seen, “logic” was undergoing a redefinition in nineteenth-century England, from an empirical science of ordinary language and ordinary reasoning to a mathematical science of the objective relations between truth-functional propositions, relations that are self-evident and are thus not contingent upon particular psychological states. Aligning logical form with mathematical form, Frege writes: “Neither logic nor mathematics has the task of investigating minds and the contents of consciousness whose bearer is a single person. Perhaps their task could be represented rather as the investigation of the mind, of the mind not of minds” (“The Thought” 308). With this shiftaway from the particular mind and toward the ideal mind, away from the vagueness of ordinary language and toward the purity of an artificial language, the realist novel takes on a new significance as an arena for the investigation of individual or private psychology as we represent it to ourselves and others. But what if the structures of language that provide this representation are, no matter what we do, fuzzy instead of clear? Theorists of “fuzzy” logic have taken this question very seriously but tend to do so at a high level of mathematical abstraction, whereas Eliot tries to show us what such a fuzzy structure looks and feels like, what it enables and disables in our everyday experience of the world: what we might gain by sinking into and possibly emerging out of vagueness, and what stands to be lost by sharpness.