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One of the more intriguing accounts of the life of the inimitable Jane Austen emerged in the pages of The Times in 1926 with the publication of a letter which had been carefully guarded and passed on within her family up until then. The document hailed from the time of Austen’s near-fatal illness in the late winter of 1815-16, just after she had finished up Emma and rushed it to the printers. She had turned delirious, but, in a moment of lucidity, she suddenly began to mouth some rather fantastic words in French. “Mon sortilège a été le pouvoir que les âmes fortes doivent avoir sur les esprits faibles,” she said, “My magic spell was the power that strong spirits may have upon the weak.”
These were the words that Voltaire put in the mouth of Eléonore Galigaï de Concini, a favorite of Maria de’ Medici, who was accused of witchcraft and was executed in 1617.
So this “sorcery,” Voltaire reminds us, is the sort of manipulation to which high politics is accustomed. It is the modern sort of sorcery. This is one of several passages in Voltaire’s historical opus where a seemingly innocent observation is vested with dramatic power; it seems to fly off the page as the perception of a deep human truth behind the historic pageant.
And, as we learn, the words had just this influence on the mature Jane Austen. We don’t know how or when she came across them. We do know that they penetrated deeply into her conscience. In fact, the timing makes clear that Austen had been thinking a great deal of this passage as she completed one of her greatest, and darkest novels: Emma.
It’s a quaint, domestic work, recounting a tale of ordinary life far from the reach of the great and powerful. But this indeed is part of the greatness of Jane Austen, her ability to show us that important moral choices occur in the every day world of the little people, not just among the high born and powerful. Emma is a person well-liked in her community, and a person who thinks very well of herself. She is also one of Austen’s most flawed characters. Emma was cast as a demonstration of the courtroom words of Eléonore Galigaï.
The novel turns on Emma’s robust, assertive, and clearly snobbish character. Emma fancies herself a matchmaker, indeed she suggests that the game amuses her. She exercises her influence on Harriet Smith, the naïve and rather simple illegitimate daughter of a “somebody” (at least this is what Emma presumes, though, as we learn near the end, her natural father is merely a tradesman). Harriet has a suitor whom she likes, but Emma intervenes to persuade her that the suitor is “beneath” her. Harriet gives way to Emma’s stronger will, though the decision leaves her unsettled and unhappy.
Emma’s strong-willed snobbery and inclination to meddling leads her astray several more times, and causes her to visit unhappiness on several other friends as the novel winds on. Indeed, her misdeeds make for one of Austen’s more complexly interwoven plots. It seems, even as we approach the end, likely to be the first Austen novel with a truly gloomy ending. But in the final chapters, a chastised Emma recognizes that her manipulative and coldhearted conduct has brought unhappiness on her friends. She rights her course, and the novel ends with reconciliation, marriage and bright good cheer.
Jane Austen, her family tell us, expressed revulsion over the infidelities and excesses of the Prince Regent, detested the death penalty, considered slavery and the slave trade an abomination, thought her local Tory M.P. a hopeless boor—and beyond this was utterly indifferent to politics. But in a sense of course, her novels are subtle and ironic portraits of the society of her times, filled with profound moral assessments. What seems at first trivial or inconsequential is really the stuff of the moral judgments that people of her time and circumstances were called upon to make. Her treatment of these matters is witty and bright, but it is also infinitely serious. (Edward Said, of course, though recognizing the seriousness of Austen’s writing in Mansfield Park also finds that it show her the willing beneficiary of the luxurious life that the slave trade brought to slaveholders. But Said understates Austen criticism of slavery and the slavetrade in Mansfield Park.)
On the political stage, the modern sorcery involves no supernatural powers, but it does entail people of strong will influencing the weak. In particular, the strong-willed are the political strategists and the weak are the journalists who uncritically write about them. The unchallenged master of political manipulation and gamesmanship in recent times is Bush’s “brain,” Karl Rove. His full tool chest is impressive, and many of the tools he uses are legitimate. Others, and in fact, his forte, fall under the heading of “dirty tricks.”
But today we see the sorcerer pushing his skills to the breaking point. In an appearance on the “Charlie Rose Show,” Karl Rove decided to explain the origins of the Iraq War. This war has been the Bush Administration’s grand misadventure, and Rove shamelessly turned it into partisan political fodder like no war in prior American history. But with public opinion now turned on the president and the Republican Party over its handling of the war, Rove decided it was time to rewrite history. Here’s the exchange:
And here’s a transcript of the key exchange:
ROVE: The administration was opposed to voting on it in the fall of 2002.
ROSE: But you were opposed to the vote.
ROVE: It happened. We don’t determine when the Congress vote on things. The Congress does.
ROSE: You wish it hadn’t happened at that time. You would have preferred it did not happen at that time.
ROVE: That’s right.
So evidently the White House was stampeded into the war by overzealous Democrats in Congress. Apparently they’re the same Democrats who in prior Rove formulations treasonously shortchanged the White House with their support of the war effort.
Obviously, Rove follows the same formula he’s used since his cadet days in the Nixon campaign. Tell a falsehood, but tell it firmly, unequivocally and forcefully enough, and the weak-minded will actually believe you. Rove has proven that this formula works. Hell, he’s even elected a president using it.
But in the end how good a sorcerer is Rove?
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Average number of Americans who are injured by chain saws each year:
A farmer in Kenya bit a python who tried to eat him.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”