Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Does Martineau hold herself to the same standard as she those she addresses?

In How to Observe: Morals and Manners, Martineau discusses how making generalizations about different societies is dangerous because they create an incomplete view of the culture. She is ultimately making the point that when traveling to other countries, and writing a travel book, there is very little that the average person on one trip can definitively conclude.  However, I find it interesting that, while explaining how difficult it is to understand others behaviors, she uses the example of not necessarily understanding your neighbor down the street or the family underneath your same roof, even though you are exposed to both very often (13-14). Your daughter may cry because she ripped her dress, but does that mean that is the only reason she would cry? Or that crying is the only response she could have to ripping her dress? She seems to emphasize that people are more complex than what we can determine about them after only a few weeks of observation.

However, this very perceptive observation into the complexities of people begins to negate one of Martineau’s own social observations of “literary lions.” Basically she contends that popularity as an author creates a situation where the author can no longer write. Popularity creates a new class for the author in which they cannot see outside of. The main problems she sees is the author would not be able to view humanity as an impartial observer, the author would become too egotistical about their work, and never be able to move beyond it and improve. In this judgment of literary lionism, Martineau commits the same generalization that she proposes to be dangerous. She takes every author and believes she can anticipate what their response to popularity would be. It is this discrepancy between what she says and what she does that makes her seems to believe herself an exception to the rules of observation. If we cannot know our neighbors or our family completely, then how can Martineau generalize how all authors would react to popularity?

She says that writers would not live up to their potential if they are lionized because they would become big-headed about their work, thinking that it is the best thing they could ever create. However, is it not possible that acceptance of their work would propel the authors to continue their work? Martineau is also concerned that a popular writer would no longer be able to operate as an impartial observer. But this concern stems from an unrealistic premise: that anyone can truly be an impartial observer to begin with. People are biased. Based on the norms of their experiences there are certain activities or behaviors that will trigger as ‘non-normative.’ An unbiased observer is impossible, so popularity would potentially only affect a writer’s already held biases.

The discreptency between Martineau’s observations and her guidelines for observation emphasis one of her more poiniant statements: generlizations “reveal more of the mind of the observer than of the observed” (Morals and Manners 13). Martineau’s concerns reflect more her own fears about being lionized than her concern about other authors. Perhaps she envisions how she would react to being valorizes and assumes that everyone else would react as she would. Martineau doesn’t seem to hold herself to the same standard of observation that she requires of others.

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