Thursday, April 01, 2010

Savonarola's end

I have finished Eliot's Romola. One of its criticisms, and a reason that it is not considered one of her major novels, is that her fictional characters are overwhelmed by the political and historical character of the novel. Girolamo Savonarola dominates the last third. The heroine Romola has come under his bracing influence in the wake of her miserable marriage; her husband's numerous betrayals include plotting against the infamous prophet; and the last act of the novel concerns the events that lead to his excommunication and public execution for heresy.

Eliot examines minutely, not only Romola's crisis of faith as her moral compass fails her in a very public way, but also Savonarola's failure to live up to his fiery sermonizing. Was he a poser or was he in earnest? He had declared to the people that God would intercede on his behalf to prove his prophecies were true. The people took him at his word. And when he ran afoul of the Pope, whose corruption he excoriated, his followers were eager to witness Savonarola's miraculous rescue when subjected to a trial by fire. Unfortunately, he was not so convinced:

Not that Savonarola had uttered and written a falsity when he declared his belief in a future supernatural attestation of his work; but his mind was so constituted that while it was easy for him to believe in a miracle which, being distant and undefined, was screened behind the strong reasons he saw for its occurrence, and yet easier for him to have a belief in inward intuitions; it was at the same time insurmountably difficult to him to believe in the probability of a miracle which, like this of being carried unhurt through the fire, pressed in all its details on his imagination and involved a demand not only for belief but for exceptional action.

Eliot investigates the psychological burden of a figure such as Savonarola, neither condemning him entirely, or holding him up as a martyr. This is the dilemma Romola faces; she has invested in Savonarola's message of purity and goodness as an example for her own life, when she had nothing more to cling to, but when faced with having that last belief stripped away, where does that leave her? Here is her (and Eliot's) humane and compassionate conclusion:

Whatever falsehood there had been in him, had been a fall and not a purpose; a gradual entanglement in which he struggled, not a contrivance encouraged by success.
In Eliot's progress as a writer Romola occupies the space between her earlier triumphs (Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss) and her later masterpieces (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda). I'm glad to have filled this gap. I can definitely see the more refined expressions of ideas she explored in Romola that turned up in more artful ways in the latter two novels, particularly Deronda. Romola, almost too saintly in her suffering, becomes the more deeply flawed, yet still beautiful, Gwendolyn Harleth in Deronda, with Daniel assuming Savonarola's role of moral compass for her even as he struggles with his own mysterious identity and mission as a Jew in Victorian Britain.

It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which as been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness. (Daniel Deronda)


TheBob said...

Just finished Romola. I really liked the exploration of moral character in an unironic way -- it's not that I yearn for a return to Victorian anything, but I was interested in Romola's nuanced relationship to religion and how scrupulous she was in her own self-examination.

I thought Tito's demise was, um, unsatisfying. I wasn't looking for anything neat or tidy, but ultimately he just sort of dies and Baldasarre with him. I grant that by that point of the book, you're quite willing to see him strangled, but I was hoping for a moment of something from either Tito or his father -- a recognition of the tragic outcome on the part of either of them.

Good book -- thanks again for pointing my way to it. From the "and now for something completely different" department, I'm moving on to "Super Sad True Love Story".

TheBob said...

PS Savonarola reminded me a lot of Mitch Snyder -- I saw Mitch speak once, and he had much the same effect on his listeners. He forced a reaction -- I think few people remained entirely neutral to him after hearing him speak.

Selena said...

I agree about the ending -- it sort of whimpered out with the way Tito and Baldasarre met their deaths, and then Romala's near beatification also struck a weird note. Still, up to then it was completely engrossing. I'm still reading about the Great Game -- that is some crazy stuff! Fiction could not be more bizarre than some of those fiascos in the Afghan Wars. More later on that.

TheBob said...

I'm interested to hear about that! Have you ever read anything by Rory Stewart? He's almost like the walking accumulated wisdom of the 100's of years of British empire making. He was an official in Iraq directly after the invasion.


"We were crippled by who we were, but we were defeated by Iraq itself."

"We overestimate the power of the US and its allies. Even critics of the war mistake our capacity...Such critics imply that the problem is that we sent the 'B team.' And that somewhere else an 'A team' exists, or that at least such a team might be created, of ideal nation builders with the qualities of a Machiavellian prince -- informed, charismatic, intelligent, flexible, and decisive, supported by their own populations and powerful enough to fundamentally reshape alien societies. But in fact there are no such Machiavellian princes. If they emerged, our societies would not support them; and even if they existed and won support, they would not be able to succeed in Iraq."

"We often speak as though Bremer could have sat down after the invasion and drawn on a blank sheet of paper the social and economic conditions of an ideal democracy. Plato would have failed at such a task. In reality, nation building starts from a muddled and half-understood picture of Iraq under Saddam and perhaps an equally muddled and half-understood picture of our own societies in Britain or the US."

"The job of an administrator on the ground in Iraq was not the job of a diplomat, a development worker, or a soldier; it was the job of a 1920's Chicago ward politician."

Stewart has an interesting book about Afghanistan as well (he walked across it several years ago). Check out his blog -- I wish we had a politician like that.