Zizek About Austen

Slavoj Zizek in The Sublime Object of Ideology included this subchapter about Jane Austen:

Hegel with Austen

Austen, not Austin: it is Jane Austen who is perhaps the only counterpart to Hegel in literature: Pride and Prejudice is the literary Phenomenology of Spirit; Mansfield Park the Science of Logic and Emma the Encyclopaedia… No wonder, then, that we find in Pride and Prejudice the perfect case of this dialectic of truth arising from misrecognition. Although they belong to different social classes – he is from an extremely rich aristocratic family, she from the impoverished middle classes – Elizabeth and Darcy feel a strong mutual attraction. Because of his pride, his love appears to Darcy as something unworthy; when he asks for Elizabeth’s hand he confesses openly his contempt for the world to which she belongs and expects her to accept his proposition as an unheard-of honour. But because of her prejudice, Elizabeth sees him as ostentatious, arrogant, and vain: his condescending proposal humiliates her, and she refuses him.

Darcy is about to give his letter to Lizzy.

Darcy is about to give his letter to Lizzy.

This double failure, this mutual misrecognition, possesses a structure of a double movement of communication where each subject receives from the other its own message in the inverse form: Elizabeth wants to present herself to Darcy as a young cultivated woman, full of wit, and she gets from him the message ‘you are nothing but a poor empty-minded creature, full of false finesse’; Darcy wants to present himself to her as a proud gentleman, and he gets from her the message ‘your pride is nothing but contemptible arrogance’. After the break in their relationship each discovers, through a series of accidents, the true nature of the other – she the sensitive and tender nature of Darcy, he her real dignity and wit – and the novel ends as it should, with their marriage.

The theoretical interest of this story lies in the fact that the failure of their first encounter, the double misrecognition concerning the real nature of the other, functions as a positive condition of the final outcome: we cannot go directly for the truth, we cannot say ‘If, from the very beginning, she had recognized his real nature and he hers, their story could have ended at once with their marriage.’ Let us take as a comical hypothesis that the first encounter of the future lovers was a success – that Elizabeth had accepted Darcy’s first proposal. What would happen? Instead of being bound together in true love they would become a vulgar everyday couple, a liaison of an arrogant,  rich man and a pretentious, empty-minded young girl. If we want to spare ourselves the painful roundabout route through the misrecognition, we miss the Truth itself: only the ‘working-through’ of the misrecognition allows us to accede to the true nature of the other and at the same time to overcome our own deficiency – for Darcy, to free himself of his false pride; for Elizabeth, to get rid of her prejudices.

These two movements are interconnected because Elizabeth encounters, in Darcy’s pride, the inverse image of her own prejudices; and Darcy, in Elizabeth’s vanity, the inverse image of his own false pride. In other words, Darcy’s pride is not a simple, positive state of things existing independently of his relationship with Elizabeth, and immediate property of his nature; it takes place, it appears, only from the perspective of her prejudices; vice versa, Elizabeth is a pretentious empty-minded girl only in Darcy’s arrogant view. To articulate things in Hegelian terms: in the perceived deficiency of the other, each perceives – without knowing it – the falsity of his/her own subjective position; the deficiency of the other is simply an objectification of the distortion of our own point of view.


I’ll add that the book as such approaches the theme of illusion and ideology that is mistakenly supposed to be a consciously prepared image of the world. According to Zizek we are all wrong thinking that we are free from misconceptions and live in the post-ideological times (times of truth), and assuming that we are not vulnerable to manipulation, while, in fact, everything that we see as truth, all our knowledge about the world, ourselves, and our system of arranging the world, is an ideology par excellence. People are led by their unconscious desire to set the world in order, to look for truth. This desire makes them create an illusion of humans being dividable into good or bad, of their being definitive personalities. In fact no one can be so easily described, and those images of ourselves and others created by us (or to some extent imposed on us by our families and others) are the very ideology we think we are free from.

The idea of the Misrecognition of the Truth assumes that the truth that becomes recognised already exists in us. I.e. people who believe in God can give many reasons for His existence, but no number of proofs will change the mind of an atheist. A naturally tallented person can suddenly become a great artist, but no number of lessons will make for a genius. And the truth can be recognized only by accident, since only an accident can make us look at ourselves from the outside.

So neither Darcy nor Lizzy learn from each other something new, but rather thanks to the clash they recognise the truth that was already in them. But it also means that neither of them would ever be happy with themselves if they never met the other, because they’d struggle living according to their mistaken, false images of themselves that they used to believe to be true.

Relevant posts at Austenette:

Easter in Pride and Prejudice
Woman in Love

sm-plusWritten by Sylwia

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