Just Finished: Histories by Sam Guglani

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Medics are human!

So hard to remember when they are  speaking to you as though you aren’t, or when, godlike, they are fixing you.

Hard for the medics, too, when  their much of training and daily grind conspire also to create a wall of  (sometimes vital) professionalism  between them and us.

When my father-in-law had cancer we did not care one jot about the human skills of the  consultant: we just wanted Big Science to come with its battering rams and attack the disease. Later, we were touched by the kindness of the man whose medicine could not save the day, but whose shared  humanity lit Dad’s last weeks with loving concern. That loving concern, the exchange of feeling between doctor and patient, human and human, is Sam Guglani’s subject matter, both in this novel and his extra-curricula activities as an oncologist in Cheltenham, and the founder of Medicine Unboxed, which aims to engage health professionals and the public in conversation around medicine, illuminated through the arts (www.medicineunboxed.org).

I saw Sam speak a couple of weeks ago  at Gladstone’s Library , partly a  reading from the book, partly a talk about the  need  for medicine and art to meet , particularly literature, more often, and more publicly.  As he spoke I remembered some work I’d done with medical students when we had a few years’ experiment with literature modules in the School of Medicine at Liverpool – first, how hard those medical students were willing to work, something some arts students might have profitably learned from.  Second, how useful some of them found poetry. Third how distressing some members of some Shared Reading groups found it to have a student doctor in their midst – as if the enemy had shown up in your sanctuary.

It seemed to me that Sam Guglani might help spearhead a movement to change that dynamic, and I was a bit sorry that he was an oncologist: we need  him to work in mental health.

Of course, there are many humane, careful, loving people working in the discipline of psychiatry.  I know some of them. But not many people I meet through Shared Reading seem to have been in relation to them in many years engagement with Mental Health Services. Hence the distress of some group members  when finding ‘doctors’ on placement in Shared Reading groups some years ago.

After he’d finished speaking, Sam read  the opening chapter of the novel, which made a great stand alone story, strangely shocking.

I bought the book and read it last week – a set of inter-related stories from hospital; doctors, patients, cleaners, nurses, porters, doctors-as-patients, the voices are woven into a  swelling chorale: this is human life in a contemporary hospital, a workplace, the demands of being human often pressured out of kilter by the demands of  ordinary organisational any-workplace situations. Anyone at work can find the printer’s broken, IT help-desk not helpful, I haven’t managed to grab any lunch, am worried about home, or am still flustered by what happened before…but here, you are face to face with the next patient, and another test of your  often failing humanity:

They’re waiting, someone is always waiting, always wanting something from her, wanting an answer. Even now, looking away from both of them and down at the notes on her lap, Emily feels the couple sitting there tight-lipped and straight-backed, the entitled press of their stares.

She’s been falling in slow motion from the minute she walked in here, apologising but not really meaning it. No, she had meant it, she was sorry, but only just. In a contest of apologies it would be weightless: sorry to keep you waiting, sorry, you’ve months to live; sorry, these days I struggle to feel very much for you, my patients.

She’d sat next door first, hoping to read through the notes and print off a path report. But the printer had crashed again, its red light blinking after brief, hopeful whirrs. She called IT and someone young, some terribly young and relaxed-sounding girl, said it was  too late in the day, that they couldn’t possibly fix it now, surely there must be another printer? Then Nancy had arrived, telling her that Freda, their woman on the ward, was set to leave, she wouldn’t stay in for tomorrow’s MRI, that her daughter and husband were with her and they were packing up. This news, this and the sound of the clicking printer, pushed Emily from her chair and propelled her into the consultation, unprepared and flustered.

 

It’s  little moments like that, almost unspottable, that make Sam Guglani such an excellent human diagnostician. That the  printer could have pushed you, that the previous patient’s walking out could have propelled you into action with the next patient, like a domino fall, one into the other, with your conscious self scrabbling about behind, trying to self-question. Am I sorry? No? Yes? A bit? He is carefully observing and sescribing  humans asked to work in  overly demanding and finally inhumane situations, mostly doing their failing best.

Guglani wants to draw attention to the failings as well as the best efforts. He’s angry, often  through  the non-medical voices ithe book, the porter, the hairdresser, or here, the medical secretary:

Take Munro in our office yesterday, telling us all about Jim. I’ve some bad news everyone, he says. And even then his voice stays hollow. How must that be for a patient? Important words offered as empy sound. I stood at the back of the room and watched him as he talked at us.

‘Important words offered as empty sound… he talked at us’  Of course we all get angry about this, and it is us non-medics perhaps who feel it most. But this isn’t a critique to be applied only to senior doctors. I’ve met it often in professional, highly educated people, women aswell as men, who use it as cover, a kind of armour. As members of a civil society, we have to ask ourselves, why do such people need that armour?

For the medics, the pressure to save lives, to heal, to offer cure is a hard pressure to bear for best among us. For more on that read John Berger’s A Forunate Man. Histories would also sit well with a rereading of  Lydgate’s part in Middlemarch. Feel a weekend study group on  medics and  literature coming on…

With this novel Sam Guglani joins a fine tradition of doctor-writers – he quoted Chekov (much read in Shared Reading groups)  at the start of his talk, and I thought as  he spoke about  William Carlos Williams and Oliver Sacks. I remembered, too, the group of medical students I spent an afternoon with who berated me for thinking they had time to waste on literature – we have  blood clots and heart attacks to learn about! People could die!

Cant remember if I have written about this in The Reader magazine?  I wrote about it at the time, I know. Will dig it out and post tomorrow.

Paradise Lost 12: Can Thinking Make It So?

 

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Nasturtiums in the rain

First, an apology to regular readers for my radio silence last week and the somewhat intermittent signal prior to that.

I’ve been very busy with things at The Reader and often times when I wake up I have got some pressing matter leftover from the day before and simply have to do the practical thing and deal with whatever it is. I hope that period of huge busy-ness is going to slow down in the weeks ahead. But if I go offline don’t think it means I’m  having an extra hour in bed (though  if I can, I will) just think of me reading or writing documents, ploughing through email trails or travelling on those early trains.

It makes  me think about the difference between the life of contemplation and the life of action, an old chestnut to many readers, I’m sure, but one I’ve not studied, though I’ve had powerful experience of it. It’s  twenty  years since I founded The Reader, with my colleague Sarah Coley, when we produced the first issue of The Reader magazine in Spring 1997. The Reader has since become one of the defining acts of my life, and often has demanded action at the expense of contemplation. I’m lucky in that I had an equally  long period of  contemplative life  before The Reader, from 1980, when I enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool Univeristy.  All I did, apart from personal life, and the practice of  writing, cookery, sewing and DIY, for twenty odd years  in the centre of my human span, was read and think about and sometimes teach literature.

That stood me in good stead, charging my innner battery for the long years of Reader action ahead.  But when weeks become the kind of busy-no-stop weeks I’m in at the moment, I miss the rhythm of my life contemplative and my Daily Reading Practice. So I was glad this last week to enjoy two Reader Thinkdays with colleagues – the first at Calderstones, where for the first time we brought everyone working on site to share some reading and to do some thinking about organisational development and ethos. How can we use our cafe coffee grounds for compost and how get  literature into the Ice Cream Parlour? How make a human connection between the kitchen and quality team?

Later in the week I traveled to a Polish Community Centre in Birmingham where our  national and far-flung criminal justice team  were meeting for their own Thinkday – same feeling of  excitement and pleasure at spending contemplative time with colleagues. We read Chaucer’s poem, Truth and spent a lot of time on the pressures of  working in high secure environments.  We asked ourselves, what is the value, for our group members,  of an hour of calm group attention – a moment of contemplation –  in a week of danger, self-harm, despair?

Those hours with colleagues felt like a sort of contemplation, and a valuable use of  my time, though they didn’t translate into anything visible here.

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to about line 250, Book 1. Satan, fallen from Heaven after challenging god in battle, is utterly ruined, chained to a burning lake in deepest hell. He is speaking to himself and  looking about, he has risen from the lake and found some  burning land on which to find a footing. And now he is contemplating his lot:

                           and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Last week I was thinking about the way a mind may change. Satan feels sorrow, perhaps sometimes something approaching remorse but it is a flickering sensation, always overcome by his determined will to remain the same. Does this mean that   he is unchangeable, a given  like gold or air or fire, simply what it is, immutable? Can it be true that  this  how minds, beings, human beings, are?

Certainly there are some givens that do not seem to change – those who have brought up babies will have seen some element of what we call  ‘personality’  or perhaps character, always present.  Is this Satan’s case? He’s essentially an assertive fighter? He boasts that he is Hell’s ‘possessor’, as if  simply arriving there makes him its boss. And what is it about him that makes him that boss? His mind, which is his own, and which gives  him a  power to own anything, anywhere. He is

                                            One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

Like the noun ‘possessor’, the verb ‘brings’ is powerful, and gives Satan agency. This is  in one sense false – he has no agency about being sent to Hell,  for nine days and nights he fell, and was unable to stop himself , and is now unable to go back to Heaven (though his thoughts often turn longingly in that direction). Yet there is a powerful will in his mind – is that the same as agency? What you can do, think, in your own mind is one thing. How you can affect reality – the outside world – is another. Satan brings to Hell ‘a mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time’.

Powerful equipment, but perhaps broken  – though still dangerous – equipment? Could such a mind hold you up (I  imagine Nelson Mandela in the Robbin Island Prison) and hold purpose and  self-control together in terrible situations? Yes. Could it be a broken mind asserting itself – I imagine an incarcerated murderer, never repentant, never sorry.  Yes.

Now Satan gives us two of the poem’s most famous lines:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]

This is a power that minds – any minds, good or bad, working well or broken – may have, just as lungs have the power to take in – more or less – oxygen.  Satan asserts the greater power of his mind over external reality.  Each reader must surely recognise some truth in this – how we think  about things does change them. But in what sense can the extremity of Hell be made Heav’n? If that was true why not stayed chained on the burning lake? And the next line seems in some way to undercut the sense of power Satan is desperate to hold on to;

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

I don’t know why I have a feeling that  ‘ if I be still the same’ is sad:  perhaps implies being stuck with yourself, the  rigidity of not being able to change. It is no matter where he is –  he is himself.  For a fraction of a second this does not feel good.  Then Satan reasserts himself – he’s only ‘less than he/Whom thunder hath made greater’.

That ‘less’ must chafe and gives rise to the thought that  God is only greater because he makes more noise.

Can you make a Heaven of Hell by thinking? I think so. This a power humans have, one we both do and often don’t recognise. There’s also external reality in which we stub our toes on reality whenever we try not to believe in it. And yet the world changes because people think thoughts.

Time to stop for  today because there is action to be taken in the garden – the ivy must come down, I think. It’s a hellish job.

But if I simply said ‘There! I’ve thought: the ivy has come down and been carted to the dump…heaven!’ I don’t think the garden would look any different. So in what sense is the mind it’s own place, making a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n?

More next week.

Paradise Lost 11: Can You Ever Change Your Mind?

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Indoor Plants lighting November

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to Book 1, Line 241, and had seen the fallen Satan talk himself into trying again and rising from the lake of fire where he had fallen after his nine days fall from heaven,. He’s found a footing on land now (though still all fire) and looks about him:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Here’s a key moment in the poem. Since we have first seen him, Satan is in a state of  flux, one moment despairing, another, rallying himself to  fight on, sometimes seeming almost broken, moments later, resurgent. I think it is worth wondering what this feels like in human terms. The amount of energy consumed by changing mental gear in this way must be immense.

I’m thinking now about my own mind. I don’t feel I have a lot of control over it, and remember the  the ‘white bear’ experiment first proposed by  Fydor Dostoevsky. It’s very hard to stop your mind doing things it wants to do.  But can you will it to do some things you want it to do – can you think of a blue flower, thus pushing the white bear aside? An interesting experiment  on the rebound effect has shown that  while suppression by distraction of other means may work for a while, the under-thought will return later and perhaps stronger.

That seems to ring true for Satan, moving all the time between despair and grief for what is lost, and angry self-assertion about what he gains by that loss. So, looking about, he sees  loss:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

‘This mournful gloom’ is now the medium in which the fallen angels must have their being and there is no doubt that Satan suffers as he looks about him and realises this.  He accepts it (‘be it so’) and seems in acccepting to accept that God is all-powerful.

since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right:

But I wonder if the  underlying thought ( I should be all powerful – not Him!) if asserting itself even as  Satan seems to accept thereality he finds himself in.  His resistance is in the word ‘ now’  (‘since he/ who is now Sovran’)  which suggests that God has not always been, and perhaps will not always be,  Sovran. That is just  ‘now’, at this moment. There is in Satan’s mind a potential other time, which he believes in more strongly than the evidence of ‘now’,, when he will  be, might be, Sovran.  And this  nascent thought is picked up and amplified in the next lines:

fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

Only ‘force’ has made God Supream, Satan  boasts to himself, in terms of ‘reason’, they were, are ‘equals.’

Is this true?  Satan thinks it is and seems to feel utterly secure in that thought.  Yet there is a sadness to his thinking that seems to  undercut his rational thought. The tone of  his thought is melancholy:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor:

I have to stop now as going  out today to Gladstone’s Library

—————————————–

Sunday, 5th November

10.15am – 11.15am: Sam Guglani – Medicine, Science and the Arts

What are the human and moral challenges of contemporary medicine? Why are the arts an urgent and necessary means of knowledge towards better medicine – and ultimately, better society? Join poet, novelist and consultant oncologist Sam Guglani for an hour’s reflection, including the Medicine Unboxed project and readings from his work.

Sam Guglani is a poet, novelist and consultant oncologist who specialises in the management of lung and brain tumours. He has a background in medical ethics and chairs the Gloucestershire Hospitals Trust law and ethics group. Director of Medicine Unboxed since he founded it in 2009, Sam uses the arts and creative industries to illuminate challenges in medicine. He is a published poet and writes for The Lancet, and his debut novel Histories is released in 2017.

 

 

 

A sentence worth stopping for… how I read prose in my Shared Reading group

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I’m reading Celia, a novel by E.H. Young, 1880-1946. She’s a woman, a provincial person and her novels are quietly domestic, largely about women’s lives. I read Young’s Miss Mole a while ago, recommended by my beautiful recommender, Angie Macmillan (editor, A Little Aloud) and it has stayed quietly in my mind, asking me to re-read it, maybe during the Christmas break. You’ll find half a dozen of E.H. Young’s novels in the old Virago Modern Classics series  – worth seeking out in second-hand shops.

At the beginning of the book, Celia and her cleaner, Miss Riggs, are  working on a clean-out in one of the bedrooms and talking about the (recent, to them) First World War, where a generation of men, including Miss Riggs’ fiance, were wiped out. Miss Riggs is thinking about the fate of men who came back from the war. They’ve come back from the biggest thing that’ll ever happen to them ( risking their lives at war) and now they’ve got ordinary daily life;

‘The baby cries and the man gets vexed, and may be, the money’s short. There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain! And that’s where I think I’m lucky. You never know what life’ll do to you. Death’s kinder, often. Very comical he was, too. He wouldn’t laugh himself, but he’d make me, right enough, and that’s the kind that makes you laugh most, isn’t it? Often times I laugh now, when I think of the things he’d say. But what if he’d come back and by this time there wasn’t a smile between us?’

I have been thinking about the difference between reading prose and reading poetry, or Shakespeare, in a  Shared Reading group. Poetry and Shakespeare may be harder, but in  a strange way that may make them easier to read and discuss because there is so much to notice; nothing is normal,  everything is up for question. Whereas when we’re reading a novel, a short story, often the  narrative itself takes over and the headlong rush to see what happens can be irresistible.  But we still need to slow it down so we can think about what we’re reading and share our responses.

But how do you know where to stop?

As I’m reading, I’d be reading with a pencil and I’d mark bits where I felt something as I read. You’ve got to look out for your felt responses. At first they can be hard to spot – like Matthew Arnold’s ‘Buried Life’ (see previous posts) those feeling responses can be buried out of sight.

Sometimes people think this finding somewhere to stop and talk is about noticing  good writing and perhaps because of school leftover habits, they  think this means descriptions of stuff, nature etc. (‘The writer successfully conveys a picture of the fruit and veg in the shop window’). No.

I’m talking about feelings.

Where do you feel moved? What touches you? Where do you care about what is written?

In preparing a Shared Reading group with prose, you’ve got to read slowly enough to feel your own feelings in the first place.

In this novel I was really struck by this page. Miss Riggs seems to have kept her happiness by losing the actual man – can that really be so? I was trying to work out if she was fooling herself. But when I stopped to re-read, the bit that really got me was this sentence:

There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by.

This may not be a universal truth, but it rang a big bell with me about the shape of life and the  power of the little things that seem so insignificant.

I felt something, and I suppose you’d call it recognition.

Some biggish things have happened in my life – can’t go into them here, but say, the death of my mother, which profoundly affected me for ten, fifteen years, midlife. Other things, bigger than that. But whatever the impact of those big things, it remains true that the little things add up. Say adult life begins at 21, and we assume an adult life  is about ffity years, then fifty years of day to day do become very big, very dominant, and possibly, the biggest thing. Small matters.

I loved the fact that  Ms Young picks up this ‘things mount up’ thought and turns it in the next sentence but one into ‘a mountain’.

There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain!

It’s a mountain alright, but one we often can’t even see.

I thought this was a good bit because it made me feel – almost like an ouch! – at first, and then it allowed me to think. I thought this is good writing,  good because it makes connections and makes me both nod acknowledgement and think about some  bits of real experience. It’s real.

In my Shared Reading group I’d want to stop here, and  get some conversation going about what the big things seem to be –  getting married or not, the day your first child is born, gaining or losing a job –  and then share our thoughts on the reality of the long stretch of  life, also a big thing, but much harder, perhaps because it is so big, to see.

 

The Buried Life: A Bolt Shot Back

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Small, intensely scented Viburnum flowers, spicing the garden air

I’ve been reading Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘The Buried Life’ here for the past while. Find the whole poem here.

I’m in this long central section – I read it aloud to get myself into the water this morning:

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

As I read I  think – I’ve missed some lines – did I notice, last week, ‘unspeakable desire’? Did I notice ‘tracking our true, original course’? And above all, did I notice, key lines for the whole poem,

A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us
I don’t think so! I was rushing to get to the many thousand lines, to these lines,
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—

which seem to me the wellspring of the poem. The disjunction between the nameless feelings, the sense of ‘something’ under our day-to-day selves, ‘something’ almost impossible to get at, get into words, know in consciousness, and our  top selves, the brainy bit that goes around thinking rationally and processing direct experience, that’s where this poem finds itself, reaching after knowing, failing, reaching again.

 

Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!

And even a poet is reduced to not being able to get at this area of being – I see Matthew Arnold uses the word ‘skill’ to try to  pinpoint what you’d need to do it, but later the word ‘eloquent’ is a throwaway – eloquence, poetry won’t necessarily do it.

This is useful as a reminder to me – I don’t always feel what Matthew Arnold describes feeling but I do recognise the disjunct. I don’t mind so much not being able to put that buried life into words, though I think I did mind when I was younger, was always writing, getting stuff down  in notebooks as if knowing or trying to know what I felt was of key importance. Now I am just glad to feel it. And I do feel it.

Yesterday for the first time  in a few weekends I spent some time in the garden, mowing the lawn, taking some cuttings, looking hopelessly at the ivy problem. As I got the lawn mower out of the shed (stupid, irritating, difficult process, needs a rethink)  and put it down on the grass I had a  shot of intense pleasure, the sunlight, the grass, the scent, the quiet of the garden all pleased me. My being in the garden pleased me, and I thought of what someone had said to me earlier in the week about football being good for his mental health. I thought ‘gardening is good for my mental health’ and it is because I get this delight, this joy.  Though ‘delight’, ‘joy’ won’t quite do.

myrtle 1.JPG
Myrtle berries, tremendous harvest

There was the Myrtle bush, completely drenched in its  jet ovoid berries.  What can I do with them? I looked up  Uses of Myrtle and found that they are used in bridal bouquets in England, and for roasting meat in Sicily. They gave me a massive jolt of pleasure, the cornucopia of them, and I took cuttings for the Secret Garden at Calderstones, where, one day, weddings will be held.

myrtle 2.JPG
In summer, Myrtle has tiny, frothy, white scented flowers, ideal for a bridal bouquet, in Autumn these amazing black-jewel berries, which you can dry and they become like peppercorns (let’s see what happens). The leaves are evergreen.

I didn’t talk, or write, I just felt it. And that was good. And that is more or less what happens to Matthew Arnold, through love,  in the poem;

Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

Love is the most direct way to that connection but it isn’t only romantic love that does it. Love of any sort will probably do it.  You’ll know it by its effect, not its cause;

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

This is an effect I have often seen and experienced in Shared Reading. It’s a wonderful experience to sit alongside someone who is formulating words to express what they feel when they get to this place. I saw it recently in the films produced by the CRILS team as part of the AHRC Cultural Value project.  A man in a drug rehab, an old woman in a Care Home – both moved, unlocked, reach for words which speak of the heart which lies plain,

And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

There’s a beautiful  completion to these words, as if things don’t get any better for humans than this.  It feels almost a state of rest? And when I look again at the final lines, it is a sort of rest;

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

So, for a moment, we have ‘got free’. It won’t last, it is a ‘lull in the hot race’ but the coolness and the calm are a delight which create a sort of channel for a kind of knowledge: ‘he thinks he knows’, nothing certain here, but a different kind of knowing, perhaps. An intimation.

The biggest moment in this poem – so often frustrated and stuck – is the bolt being shot back. The image is a powerful one – there is almost a violence in it, as there so often is in real bolts, in real life.  They are rarely well-oiled and easy to shift! I love that Matthew Arnold makes the experience universal – look at the pronouns;

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

Situations where that bolt shoots back are vital to us – we need that to happen and we don’t have enough experiences of it.  That is part of the mental ill-health epidemic we’re beginning to suffer.

I’m going to finish my daily reading practice by rereading the whole poem.

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

 

Paradise Lost 10: part sci-fi, part theology and real life in between

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Autumn Chrysanthemum welcome on the front step, 29 October

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – and read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

I’m starting today at line 192,  just after Satan has encouraged Beelezebub (and himself) to  believe fighting on  is the best way forward.

Let’s read the next paragraph aloud to warm up :

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large [ 195 ]
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast [ 200 ]
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning lake, nor ever thence [ 210 ]
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. [ 220 ]
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

This falls into 3 sections, and is worth separating out. First line 192-208,  I think the first section since the opening where  Milton puts in a lot of references to things/places/classical figures we might not know about.  What I do with these is  read over them as if it didn’t matter what they are or whether I know about them, trying to get the rough sense of  the verse.

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large [ 195 ]
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast [ 200 ]
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:

What’s happening here? I’d be asking my group, give me a rough translation? It’s about how bog he is, someone may say, he’s comparing him to a whale.

It’s very visual, filmic, isn’t it? There he is – eyes sparkling, but the rest of him, ‘Prone on the Flood, extended long and large’. Those references, Titanian, Briareos, Typhon and Leviathan are all about giants or gigantic creatures.  The Dartmouth edition is really helpful, because you can easily look things up or ignore them, as you choose.

Milton moves happily from Greek mythology to contemporary seafarer chat when he speaks of Leviathan, the whale:

Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:

Is it true – have sailors ever thought a whale to be an island and  moored up on his sccaly side? Having seen some great whales off the coast of Maine a few years back I very much doubt it – they move fast. But the size is the point isn’t it? And while I am struggling to get the size of a  real life whale back into my mind ( I think the whales I saw off Bar Harbour were humpback whales –  they are big, especially when you are in a small boat, but nowhere near as big as Blue Whales, which are the largest animals on the planet).

All that is a simile, (note the ‘As’ line 197, and the linking ‘So’, line 209) to help us imagine Satan’s enormous size. Milton wants us to see it, like a play  or like pictures (or for us a film) which is interesting given that most of  what he is trying to put into our heads is  thought, isn’t it?  or if not thought, inner experience? He is trying to make real inner states, which don’t easily map to language and pictures. In another dimension, I suppose, this ‘story’ could be told as ‘theology’ and in other parts of his writing life, Milton does that. But here – he is  trying to ‘justifie the wayes of God to men’  and he goes for mighty, dramatic, unfolding narrative illustration as the way to do it.

Let’s read the second part of this paragraph:

So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning lake, nor ever thence [ 210 ]
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. [ 220 ]

This huge creature, ‘chained on the burning lake’ is allowed to heave up his head, to rise, by the ‘will/And high permission of all-ruling Heaven’. This is one of those moments  when I falter in my reading. God allows evil – can that be right? Yes ,according to this poem – it is given. It is all part of the whole  thing.  and the whole thing is complicated  -containing as it must – but why? – evil? I’m going to put this part in my list of  worries on my Paradise Lost page  on the top line of this blog. God allows evil in that

…with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness,

This is one of those parts where God seems small, and I don’t want to think that because I know for Milton that can never have been the case. So rather than standing over Milton and thinking I know better, I need to get myself to work at understanding what it means for him. Why enrage your enemies? Why make the evil-doer feel bad? Or does God care about, or create, that rage? Or is it something that is part of Satan and therefore Satan’s own responsibility? For man,  God offers

                                                   to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn

but for Satan there is only ‘Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance ‘.  Does God need a scapegoat?

Or am I thinking amiss?

Let me think of a human who is/was when alive, evil.

If that person never repents of what thy have done  can they ever be anything but evil or in thrall to confusion, wrath and  vengeance – say of the legal system, or the judgement of history or of their own mind. For humans in this poem, there is always a chance of  redemption. For Satan, not. Why? Because he doesn’t want it. Say there was a bad human who didn’t want redemption – wanted to only think  ‘what I did was good. I enjoyed it, and it pleased me’. Would we have to say of that person they were irredeemable?

Can I understand Satan as a principle of the irredeemable?  Certainly, that spirit seems a presence  in the human universe. We’ve seen it.  There is a responsibility at the heart of things then, to accept evil as evil. In Satan that is never (or rarely? there is a moment) accepted – he’s always blustering on about how he only just lost the battle and might have won..so his sense of what is might nearly have been proved right. If I imagine Satan not as a loser/victim but as murderer/tyrant/corrupter then the fact of his not being able to see what he has done as wrong becomes an explanation of why he  is forever damned. He is damned for being himself and for choosing to be that self. Is it a choice? Or did God make him like this? We’ll com to some of this later.

Milton is making me justify the ways of God to myself here!

On, to the next third of the paragraph:

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

Now, having briefly gone inward ,to think about the psychological damage the external action is causing, Milton takes us  back out again, to see Satan, in his enormity: his will seems to break, to disappear, the chains that held him there.

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.

The very flames of Hell are driven back by his movement, which clears a space. This is reminiscent of the parting of the sea in Exodus  and is an indication of Satan’s massive power. His will gives him the use of  his wings:

Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;

But the fires of Hell are everywhere, and on dry land the fire burns as a solid. and to make this real, Milton reinds of  real earthly fire – volcanoes:

And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak:

Milton is creating  a movement between inner worlds of the spirit, one’s psyche or psychology (where I have to keep asking myself ‘do you recognise this? ) and the  powerful pictures which  make connections to reality or to myth (where Milton reminds us, you know about Mount Etna? you know about Whales? It’s like that!). I’m reminded of a bit later on (Book 5)  when Raphael is visiting Adam and is about  to tell of the war in Heaven, and says he will use simile, metaphor, analogy  to make the connection between Adam’s understanding and the heavenly reality:

       what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By lik’ning spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best, though what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

I’ll come to this when we get to Book 5 (several years hence at my current speed) but for now just want to say that I do believe this is the method Milton himself is using throughout the whole poem – telling us things via dramatic story – that  are actually to be experienced in other dimensions, dimensions the contemporary Western world no lnger has much language for. Milton’s way seems part sci-fi, part theology.

The second thought, here,

what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

Is also an intersting one.We may have to use simile, metaphor, analogy but  what if in some way those things hold  further apart those dimensions than they actually are? What if  all these levels of being are relfections of the same thing?

But let me go back to the poem: has Satan gained anything by moving from the sea of fire to the land of fire?

Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

Well, the change of scene seems to have given them a sense that they can move, that they have autonomy,  that they have strength. Is this false, given that both places are full of fire? Ye the rebel angels  take the move as sign of their own powers, ‘thir own recover’d strength’.

Which makes me think, they are not going to stop here. More next week.