Reflection by Sam Tett

Do All Lives Matter? George Eliot would respond with a resounding “yes”—at least according to the many readers and critics who have understood her ethics in terms of universal human fellowship. And yet, wouldn’t that answer be fraught?

Though differently framed, this is the conundrum Thomas Albrecht brings to our attention in The Ethical Vision of George Eliot. Eliot’s ethics are often aligned with sympathy, empathy, and fellow feeling. Under these “communal imperatives,” as Albrecht styles them, one strives to overlook individual differences and recognize  instead the commonalities between oneself and others. As Albrecht puts it, individual differences become an “existential predicament . . . that ethics should attempt to bridge” (2).

In his chapter on Daniel Deronda, Albrecht demonstrates Daniel’s adherence to the communal imperative through his “spontaneous compassion for a stranger” (121). Coming upon a despairing young woman—Mirah Lapidoth—by the Thames, Daniel “fe[els] an outleap of interest and compassion towards her” that results in his saving her life (121). In what would seem to be a display of true Eliotic ethics, Daniel overlooks Mirah’s status as a stranger, and shows an “inclination to care indiscriminately for the feelings and situations of others” (121). Surely, this is ethical behavior that reflects, in turn, Eliot’s ethical vision?

According to Albrecht: no. Despite the seemingly incontrovertible goodness of indiscriminate fellow-feeling, Albrecht remains suspicious of it—and he derives this suspicion from Eliot herself. From Eliot’s essays and letters to her final novel, Albrecht uncovers an undercurrent of censure toward the communal imperative. In the case of Daniel Deronda, Albrecht posits that Daniel’s empathy toward Mirah is founded upon on two related (and unethical) conceits. First, it depends upon denying Mirah’s individuality: likening her variously to “a song, a painting, a statue, and . . . a character from a tragedy,” Albrecht says, “Daniel subsumes Mirah’s specific tragedy . . . into a general category” (122). Second, having successfully negated her individuality, Daniel “egoistically assimilate[es] her into himself” (124): Mirah “blends with Daniel’s images of himself and his sorrow,” coming to represent his own despair (122). Far from encompassing Eliot’s ethical vision, Albrecht argues, Daniel’s spontaneous communion with the other is “fundamentally self-referential and self-serving” (124).

Returning to the fraught question with which I began, it strikes me that the communal imperative is precisely the mechanism by which Black Lives Matter is subsumed into All Lives Matter: the insidiousness of ALM is that its claims to ethical correctness are bolstered precisely by its refusal to acknowledge difference. Put this way, the suspicion with which Albrecht treats Eliot’s celebrated communal ethics seems not only justified, but also urgent.

Irrespective of ALM, Albrecht’s arguments draw attention to the flawed and insufficient nature of the communal imperative. Who among us, for instance, would claim that texts are worthy of consideration based solely on their “relatability”? Do any of us believe in practicing social distancing only insofar as we are ourselves immuno-compromised? These are just some of the timely issues raised, if only implicitly, by Albrecht’s reassessment of Eliot’s ethics.

Indeed, one question to ask about this book, particularly in the context of V21, might be: why always Eliot? One of V21’s theses proposes “a new openness to presentism,” and another rejects “a situation in which Victorianists are our own and only interlocutors.” The title of this book is The Ethical Vision of George Eliot, and it delivers on that promise—but given the scope and relevance of its topic, should it have promised more? In other words, should it have framed its powerful synergies with the current political moment more explicitly? What might be gained or lost by doing so?

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