Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"The Hunger of the Imagination": Discordia Concors in Emma

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"The Hunger of the Imagination": Discordia Concors in Emma

Article excerpt

A TRUISM IN POST-MODERN CRITICISM holds that the world, and hence literature, is composed of binary opposites. But binary opposition is no new discovery. The healing power of balance between opposites can be traced to ancient times and the discordia concors, often called concordia discourse, the little war of opposed qualities which can result in harmony. In Discordia Concors: The Wit of Metaphysical Poetry, Melissa Wanamaker traces the concept to Greek and Roman writers such as Horace and Virgil and finds it basic to the thinking of British metaphysical poets. Wanamaker discusses two approaches to discordia concors in her study of seventeenth-century poetry. The first pattern she describes as "unity in multiplicity," a blending of opposites from which harmony emerges. The second she calls "a violent yoking of two opposites that logically contradict each other" (5) and connects to metaphysical wit in Donne and other poets.

The concept of discordia concors, specifically Wanamaker's first-mentioned version, lasted well into the eighteenth century. Bernard Mandeville includes a passage in "The Grumbling Hive" section of Fable of the Bees (1714) that demonstrates his acquaintance with it. Of Alexander Pope, Wasserman writes that discordia concors or "the active harmonizing of differences, ... permeates almost all of Pope's writings and is probably more central to his thought than the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being" (103). Indeed, Pope's juxtapositions of reason and passion, virtue and vice, nature and art, and self-love and social love in Essay on Man are direct adaptations of the discordia concors. "Two Principles in human nature reign," writes Pope in Epistle Two of Essay on Man; "Self-love, to urge, and Reason, to restrain./ ... On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,/Reason the card, but Passion is the gale" (53-54, 107-08). The principle would seem to apply also to Swift's juxtaposition of Yahoos and Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels. Later in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson defined discordia concors (which he calls concordia discors) in his biography of Cowley in Lives of the Poets as "'a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike" (200), a definition that agrees with the second description quoted from Wanamaker.

While Jane Austen lived in a time when the discordia concors had been largely forgotten in intellectual circles, her novels demonstrate that the little war of opposites lived on in her imagination. Sense and Sensibility gives us two sisters whose values, named in the title, are eventually harmoniously balanced. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice must learn that his pride, on the one hand, and her prejudice, on the other, are excessive and must be brought into balance. In Persuasion, the imbalance of Captain Wentworth's romantic values of individualism and Anne Elliot's earlier obedience to authority clearly cause them unhappiness, while they find their bliss when each moderates from the extreme. But perhaps none of Austen's novels demonstrates the discordia concors more interestingly than does Emma in bringing about a harmony of two souls in marriage after a discord signaled by repetition of words.

Austen guides the reader's response to her theme, the necessity of balance between opposing values sets, through repetition of the words imagination and fancy, on the one hand, and reason and understanding, on the other, with various cognates for both. The frequency and placement of the words seems well beyond normal discourse. My count revealed that fancy/imagination appear 113 times in the novel while reason/understanding/sense appear on 53 occasions. The disparity between imagination/fancy and reason/understanding can be accounted for because the novel comes to the reader from the imaginist Emma's point of view. My count includes only direct references, but in addition, the novel abounds with passages in which the words do not appear but their meanings are clearly implied through the characters' actions, responses, and discourse, with earlier appearances of the oft-repeated words preparing the reader to perceive the implied meanings. …

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