Act Four: When political criticism misses the point

Don’t stick Jane Austen in boxes where she doesn’t belong.
 
Act Four
Alyssa Rosenberg on culture and politics
 
 
“The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen” by British painter Ozias Humphry. (Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images) I always enjoy it when the New York Times’ Ross Douthat devotes a column to a cultural question. And his piece this week on the alt-right’s attempts to use Jane Austen’s novels as a model or even an argument for a white, patriarchal society does not disappoint. “There is nothing natural or inevitable about the way we think about aesthetics and politics today,” Douthat writes, arguing that great art can just as easily lead us in conservative or illiberal directions as it can bring us to liberal conclusions. “Only a certain kind of racist idiot would read [Austen’s] novels as a brief for white supremacy. But amid all the academic arguments about whether she was a Tory or a crypto-radical, much of her popular appeal clearly rests on the contrast between her social world and ours — the sense that hers was more romantic and more civilized, and that in becoming more liberal and egalitarian we have maybe also sunk a bit toward barbarism.” As a critic writing from the left, I think the Austen kerfuffle is a strong argument for encouraging folks across the political spectrum to devote more time to nuanced and careful reading of art, and less effort to claiming movies, novels, television shows or music for their particular camps. Austen’s novels remain enormously appealing because of their carefully drawn characters and her skill at writing conversations and constructing plot arcs. Unless she was secretly an enormously gifted prognosticator, Austen could not possibly have been writing in support of movements on the left or right that she never knew would come to exist. Trying to fit her into contemporary politics is a deadening enterprise that actually strips Austen of the credit she deserves for writing novels that transcend centuries of shifting tastes and manners. Understanding her to be a product of her time while appreciating the resonances with our own moment that she could not have anticipated is a rewarding one.
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