The Lifted Veil and the Opacity of Others
By Preston Waddoups With Halloween coming up in less than a week, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about one of my favorite horror stories: George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil.
As a horror novella by a woman who is famous neither for novellas nor horror, The Lifted Veil is one of Eliot’s lesser-known works. It features a sentimental hypochondriac who becomes cursed with the ability to read other minds—or perhaps only the illusion that he can do so. The novella is fascinating when looked at as an expression of Eliot’s anxiety at her true identity being revealed, as George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, who used a male pen name for reasons obvious in Victorian England. It’s also worth reading for the suspense alone. However, the story also brings up a conceptual problem with communication and human relationships generally, something I’ll call the opacity of others.
I’ve long found it maddening that we can never directly access the thoughts or feelings of others. Through imagination and interpretation of intermediaries such as words and facial expressions we can guess what others think and feel, and generally this works just fine. But when we reflect on this process of approximation, it often begins to look like there’s an impenetrable barrier between the self and the other, and that we never fully reach another person. In other words, others remain opaque. I think this idea—that for each person, others can only ever be a projection or faulty objectification—has only become more prevalent and concerning in the past century, following the influences of existentialism and psychoanalysis.* As social beings, I think we tend to find this idea rightly horrifying, even if it’s difficult to say what alternative there is without wandering into the supernatural (as Eliot does).
As the novella’s title suggests, The Lifted Veil looks at a world where unmediated access to another mind is possible—and, without revealing too much, it gives a chilling case for why opacity may be for the best. *I think it’s probably correct to say that the opacity of others is a uniquely western and uniquely modern concern, or that the posing of the problem requires much questionable ideological baggage. But insofar as anyone finds themselves amid that individualistic and internally-oriented baggage (and I believe many do), the problem remains relevant.