Lessons on Radicalization from George Eliot

The attraction of young, idealistic Muslims to the pompous frauds of radical Islamism is often hard to fathom. Only by understanding that radicalization is a fundamentally expressive act, a questing after coherence and meaning, can we grasp it. And the supreme portrayal of what we might call supply-side “radicalization” is George Eliot’s ardent young Dorothea Brooke in her great novel Middlemarch, later hailed by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” I believe it is unparalleled as a depiction of how the mix of youth, idealism, illusion, and projection can open up an individual to a disastrous detour in their life-project.  


In the provincial town of Middlemarch in the years before the great reform bill of 1832, Dorothea Brooke, young and idealistic, noble but ignorant, enters a disastrous marriage to a much older man, Mr. Casaubon, a “dried bookworm towards fifty,” a petty and egotistic scholar with the touch of the charlatan about him. (His book, The Key to all Mythologies, will never be written, and he knows it.)

The calamity is caused not by Casaubon’s pursuit of Dorothea but by Dorothea’s headstrong pursuit of “an epic life.” Her idealism settles on an entirely inappropriate object, in good part because she projects onto Casaubon greatness that isn’t there and never can be. Her enthusiasm, writes Eliot, is “lit chiefly by its own fire.” For Dorothea is at the mercy of a soul-hunger to escape “a social life which seemed nothing but a labyrinth of petty courses” and she believes she can only meet this need by “voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.”

Similarly, memoirs of “radicalization” often revolve around that moment when an individual persuades himself (and is persuaded, for the recruiter is present) that their prosaic life project could be advanced by aligning it with the glorious, transcendent poetry of the extremist group. Radicalization often involves exactly this phenomenon—the projection onto a ramshackle and tawdry organization of the shiniest hopes and the largest dreams. Thus, Dorothea’s great need for Casaubon to be “a man who thinks a whole world of which my thought is but a two-penny mirror” blinds her to the fact that he is not. Dorothea is “altogether captivated by the wide embrace of this conception. Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies-school literature. [Casaubon’s] work would reconcile complete knowledge with devoted piety.” And that, of course, is what the extremist seeks.

Dorothea was not particularly attracted to Casaubon the man so much as to Casaubon the symbol. “The union which attracted her was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.” When he eventually sends a rather poor letter proposing marriage, Dorothea barely looks at it. For as Eliot tells us, “How could it occur to her to examine the letter, to look at it critically [when] her whole soul was possessed by the fact that a fuller life was opening up before her; she was a neophyte about to enter on a higher grade of initiation.” And that is as good a description as I have come across of the inner life of radicalization.

Beyond the smallness of self

And just what is it that the soul hungers for? Well, let’s begin with a phrase from the late Irving Howe, the most important postwar socialist intellectual in the US. Howe was a Trotskyist for many years, joining the revolutionary socialist youth movement in the Socialist Party in the late 1930s and only leaving the Independent Socialist League in 1953. He recalled in his memoir, A Margin of Hope, that these groups promised a life “beyond the smallness of self.” Howe was not looking for violence (he says he could barely stand a hot bath), but he did yearn for a life infused with purpose and meaning. Middlemarch begins with a short prologue about the life of Saint Theresa who, like Howe, like Dorothea, and like the radicalized of today, wanted above all else (in Eliot’s words) to “soar after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.” One hears something like this in many memoirs of radicalization. It is not only Eliot’s Saint Theresa who wishes to “go and seek martyrdom.”

When ‘every variety in experience is an epoch’

Eliot also understands the importance of the youthfulness of Dorothea, who “heard and retained what [Casaubon] said with the eager interest of a fresh young nature to which every variety in experience is an epoch.” Indeed, Dorothea submits to Casaubon in part because he takes her more seriously than anyone has ever bothered to (a trick extremist recruiters understand well): “This accomplished man condescended to think of a young girl, and take the pains to talk to her, not with absurd compliment, but with an appeal to her understanding, and sometimes with instructive correction. What delightful companionship!”

Deradicalization and unhistoric acts

The paradox at the core of each project of radicalization is that it is creative and grandiose, but also imprisoning. What begins as a search for a limitless expansion ends in a shrinking of individual autonomy to zero. The individual gives himself or herself over to the authority of the group and becomes obedient to it. The recruit discovers that the Islamist network, like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust, strikes a hard bargain. Whatever their hopes, they soon discover that “The Devil is an egoist / And is not apt, without a why or a wherefore / ‘For God’s sake,’ others to assist.” In other words, just as Dorothea painfully discovers, the self is surrendered to another authority.

“Deradicalization” happens when individuals gain critical distance on their own journeys and so understand that they have merely taken their life project on a detour. Then the individual can detach from the extremist group and, often though not always, write themselves a new role in a redemptive script.

In George Eliot’s novel, after Causabon dies, Dorothea marries young Will Ladislaw and gets involved in practical reform efforts. Her nature, redirected rather than altogether changed, then “spent itself in channels which had no great name on the Earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”

Deradicalization—as opposed to mere disengagement, something to be welcomed but perhaps not trusted—looks very like Dorothea’s redirection of her life project to the general good of the world.

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