Monday, September 20, 2010

Two Rivers

Many of my thousands of readers have asked about the title of this blog.

The River Floss is the topographical center of George Eliot's classic English novel, The Mill On the Floss.

The central characters of this story are Maggie and Tom, children of a mill owner who loses his mill in a legal dispute. Tom vows to regain the lost mill (he succeeds) and remain forever the enemy of the family that took it away. After their father's death, Maggie, in disturbing contrast, renews and deepens her long friendship with the son of that very family.

Imaginatively, the River Floss is a place of unresolved tensions. Tom's purely utilitarian approach to education confronts Maggie's authentic love of learning. Tom's unyielding regard for a merely conventional morality, which compels his hatreds as much as it restrains his vices, confronts Maggie's desire for true moral virtue, for the "more excellent way." As the story approaches its climax, brother and sister are deeply alienated from each other.

In the end, the tensions between Tom and Maggie are resolved only by death. They drown during a flood, swept away in the engorged Floss. There is an implied reconciliation, as they die in each other's arms. But Eliot was unable to imagine a fuller resolution. In this respect the moral imagination of Mill on the Floss, for all its poignancy and richness of expression, has a kind of quiet poverty at its core. Human lives not only turn out imperfectly, but the imperfection defines the outcome rather than qualifies it. It is the difference between wearing a somewhat worn shirt and wearing that shirt inside-out.

I can recommend Mill on the Floss for showing that the desire to be authentically human inevitably leads to conflict. But Eliot does not show a way through that conflict. Ultimately, the river does not give the victory to those who struggle; it only ends their struggle. The river neither forgives nor redeems. It merely terminates. It is the River Floss, not the River Jordan.

Our prayer can only be that the river running through this vale of tears is the Jordan, not the Floss.

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