Paradise Lost 19: Seeing What You’ve Done, and the Yets Ands and Buts

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‘I will survive’ : roses growing through stacked bricks on building site

What I am doing in this series is reading Paradise Lost, a few lines at a time, in  instalments.

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’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

Last time, (here) I was reading about how having/being  a great, well-oiled, mechanical army makes you feel strong but how that strength comes at the cost of literal heart-hardening. You feel pride but not much else. Satan reviews the army/machine, his heart hardened with pride, but what do the host of fallen angels see when they look at him ?(we’re in Book 1 line 587):

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

I’m thinking about real armies, or even gangs, and how when we are part of such a group, we might look at our leader.  Not always with total admiration, I imagine, even if you have adopted said leader willingly.  I watch. I see  what he is, I know what he is. Supply your own real life leader, where you know they know they are tricking themselves but you don’t say – or even hardly dare to think in consciousness – that  they are doing so. They army ‘observ’d/Thir dread commander’, where ‘observd’ is not the same as ‘looked’, or even ‘watched’ :there’s a distance and perhaps even a judgement in ‘observd’. At first we see only the leader’s strength and pre-eminence:

he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr;

But that is soon undercut by the sense of loss that attends all the fallen:

his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d:

The ‘yet’ is crucial. It raises issues of time and what continues after an act.  When we’ve done something wrong – imagine your own wrong thing, whatever would count as ‘sin’ or ‘corruption’.  A simple time-bound act, which is completed, is one thing.  (But is any act ever simply time-bound? Doesn’t everything have reverberation and consequence, ongoingness, internally even if not externally). And many other acts of wrong-doing are not, can not be, time-bound, because they affect the being of ourselves and others. In Satan’s case, he has not  yet lost everything, though the ‘yet’ gives us the clue that that will inevitably perhaps happen.  If you do something bad, and stop, that’s one thing. If you do something bad and continue, that’s another.

He looks like an ‘Arch Angel ruin’d’, but you still get the  words ‘Arch Angel’ in a sighting him before you get to the word ‘ruind’. Something  of his original state yet remains. I’m thinking of the innocence of babies and small children. They are, as Blake might have thought, innocent of experience, experience has not sullied them yet. All experience  is (is it?) corrupting. I’m thinking of a speeded up film of a peach rotting –  there’s corruption – it is natural, it must happen, given that we are in time, rather than in a frozen moment. The closer you are to  young childhood the less sullied by experience. Is there an adult innocence which might remain unsullied? Some people do seem closer to ‘good’ than others. And when we see it, we can see what cynicism looks like and how  corrupting it can be.  How things unfold and continue in time matters.   I believe this  makes it possible for those of us who live to change, when we’ve done wrong, to do better or less wrong.  If we wish. And if we can. For Satan this is never a possibility, as we will see.

Next comes a longish Miltonic simile, which you might, in a Shared Reading group, want to spend a little time on, going forward in order to look  back again at what we’ve just read:

his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs.

Good to get your group remembering what it looks like when mist obscures the brightness and yet lets us  see the sun. Or to remember the strange cold unnaturalness  of the eclipse. And to feel, that feeling e have in an eclipse does not feel good. So while Satan is upright like a tower, Milton is also undercutting him and  wanting us to also feel, Satan has lost the best of himself. It’s not good. And his  troops can see and feel that  -remember,  we started this secton with them observing him.

And now, as if a camera turned from a long panning shot of the army to a close-up of Satan, we learn how it feels to see what he sees:

Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

First we see him, from the outside:

Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime,

What a complicated picture of experience this is – however he is darkened by his loss, yet he still shines more brightly than any of his followers. I’m noticing the qualifier ‘yet’ then the next qualifier, ‘but’:  even as he is brighter, he  is also scarred and careworn . Now another ‘but’ –

but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge:

These lines are full of ‘yet’, and ‘and’ and ‘but’. Milton doesn’t want to us to say one simple thing about Satan – he wants us to see as much complexity as we can take. Including finally – and for the first time? – ‘signs of remorse’. This comes as he sees the state of his fellows:

but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

The ‘yets’ and ‘buts’ and ‘ands’ are so important  for building the complexity of the situation. I wonder if any of  the recent world dictators/tyrants/murderers have ever felt like this – bearing the guilt of corrupting others, ruining them. How awful too to  feel them both ‘faithful and  yet ‘withered’. But  then, does it need to be tyrant, I ask myself, could you imagine being that person? Seeing what you’ve done wrong writ large across the faces and lives of others? And of course I can.

Life after the fall is full of such misalignment, paradox, odd conjunctions, yets ands and buts. That is why I love this poem: there is no other work of literature that so strogly sets out whast it means to be fallen, me, you, the world, the lot.

The Winter’s Tale Day 10: A State Visit, Old Friends or an Affair?

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Myrtle in the back garden – literally buzzing with bees – you can’t see them but there are hundreds 11 July 2018

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay longer. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2.  Leontes has failed to persuade Polixenes to stay a little longer and  has asked his Queen, Hermione, to try to win him. This she has done, by entreaty, gentle word play, perhaps a little flirting. We’re going to have to decide how much flirting…And we have to remember Leontes, standing near but not in the conversation, watching it unfold.

As the not-so-State-visit of the Unmentionable has unfolded before our eyes this last few days, I couldn’t help remember the play, these moments of strange cross-over between public and state affairs and the private. Look at photos of various bits of hand-holding.

But, back to the text! Let’s just read the next section:

POLIXENES

Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

HERMIONE

Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

POLIXENES

We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.

HERMIONE

Was not my lord
The verier wag o’ the two?

POLIXENES

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours.
HERMIONE

By this we gather
You have tripp’d since.
POLIXENES

O my most sacred lady!
Temptations have since then been born to’s; for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not cross’d the eyes
Of my young play-fellow.
HERMIONE

Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils: yet go on;
The offences we have made you do we’ll answer,
If you first sinn’d with us and that with us
You did continue fault and that you slipp’d not
With any but with us.
LEONTES

Is he won yet?
HERMIONE

He’ll stay my lord.
LEONTES

At my request he would not.

A good example of thinking about how much you might read ahead in a Shared Reading session. I’m the world’s slowest reader, except where I need to speed up in order to show or experience the run of the action. That’s what I’d do here, speed up – because I want my group to know where we are heading – that terrible, childish, petulant line ‘At my request he would not.’

This is the point at which Leontes  really begins to lose himself and his grip on reality.

I want the serious reality of this terrible moment live in the room before we go slowly through more verbal play from Polixenes. I want to get this moment in the room, because it sets an emotional tone and kind of background to what we are going to read.  So, as in a poem, we’re reading  not just a linear narrative but back and forth, up and down the ines.

A question someone asked me recently: how do you know  when to glide over and not be too bothered about not understanding things and when to slow down and work at it?

Let’s read the opening again:

POLIXENES

Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

This is a moment of slightly complex or hard to easily get language that anyone might think – what? Not sure what he’s just said.  I’d glide here –  the first line contains the real meaning: he’s going to stay.  but just for interest, what does the next bit, which takes three lines, mean?

The word ‘import’ is an odd one here –  one of the reasons an ear unfamiliar with Shakespearean language would or might be  put off…but it just means, bring in, doesn’t it? Hhhm, not quite. Import as in suggest?  To be a  prisoner suggests you’ve committed an offence, that’s the import of it. I’m going to look the verb up in the good old Etymological Dictionary.

early 15c., “signify, show, bear or convey in meaning,” from Latin importare “bring in, convey, bring in from abroad,” from assimilated form of in- “into, in” (from PIE root *en “in”) + portare “to carry,” from PIE root *per-(2) “to lead, pass over.”

So that is  why Polixenes speaks of  a crime Hermione might punish: prisoner signifies offence.

And the next bit? A bit of harmless flirting, harmless wit, wordplay…

Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

meaning – harder for me to commit a crime against you, than you to punish it.

But if you were looking for a hidden meaning (as Leontes, watching, may be – look at him! ) it might mean, I’d never do anything against you, but you could hurt me. It might mean that. Might not. We’ll have to wait and see. Is Leontes waiting to see?

Whatever it is, Hermione floats over this and turns the subject and lays down a line:

HERMIONE

Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

She’s saying: I’m your hostess. That’s it. Nothing more. Tell me about your childhoods, your boyhood friendship.

I wonder about Leontes, what is he doing right now? What do we see on his face?  – is this another ‘not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord?’ – is she deliberately appeasing him? And that word ‘come’ implies a turning away – if you’ve got to be Hermione, on a stage, physical, are you  moving at that point? Are  yo taking Polixenes arm? Holding your hand out?

Oh dear times up, more next time.

Silas Marner Day 41: George Eliot and George Saunders: Live Human Being

 

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It’s not human, but it’s sure a live presence: unidentified plant, Zakynthos, July 2018

Long time since I read and wrote on Silas Marner.  (See that previous post here )I’ve been away from my routine, such as it is,  and latterly I’ve been even further away – having a long swim and lot of sleep and reading in  lovely Zakynthos, which I found a land of  great plants, generous hospitality and welcome, fine courgettes and  the cooking of courgettes.

I asked our host, Demetrios, why Zakynthos has two names (sometimes Zakynthos, sometimes Zante) and he replied, Let’s start with the bigger picture… Why does  Greece have two names? Hellas (as the Greeks call it) and Greece (from the Latin, as the Romans called it…) Ah, there was time there for slow answers.

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Courgette Balls, home-made  by Maria at Dopia’s House,  Vasilikos, Zakynthos

I didn’t do much apart from read and swim and in the cool evenings walk to Dopia’s House for fine home  cooking and a visit to the one of the  three village shops. But I did think, when I get back, I will re-establish my daily reading and writing practice. So here we go.

I look back and see I last read and wrote about Silas Marner on the 30th April.  Hoooo.  That’s not good.

Silas was in my mind because before I went on holiday a much-respected colleague told me she was reading Silas Marner, but she didn’t say ‘reading’, she said ‘getting through’, which made me think she was finding it hard going, and when I asked her, she said she was…Which made me think ‘most people would find it hard going’.  Which made me think, ‘how could it not be like that?’ And it’s such a wonderful book –  what a shame to be put off by the slow opening chapters, or the ongoing problem of it being hard-to-get-through.

Reading aloud with others would help, because one of the hard-to-get through things is the  length and complexity of sentences. That is made easier by the slowness and added concentration of reading aloud. Another – the long-ago-ness.  Shared Reading would help share the strangeness – you’d ask each other questions about hand-loom weavers and poultices and the like. Another, things to do with tone. Tone is still hard to get right in reading aloud, but it is more likely to be got right by your voice when voiced than when read silently.

In my experience, when you are reading something hard-to-get-through in your head two things happen – you drift away from the hard sentences and don’t absorb them, and you lose sense of the longer rhythms of meaning which are often about tone of voice.  Recently, have I had this experience with George Saunders  prize-winning novel, Lincoln in The Bardo.

I like to think of myself as George Saunder’s greatest fan, so it’s not easy to admit I found that novel hard going.  I was, like my colleague, getting through it, because I wanted to, because I love George Saunders, because it is his first full-length novel and I wanted it to be great. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to give up on it. I wanted to get it!  But I couldn’t concentrate enough to make it come to life.

So I was delightful to I find Audible has a brilliant recording, with many great voices.  And that got me into it.  The recording  fails a little in that it records all the  historical research notes, which in a written text you’d pass over, and they got in the way during my listening… but even so, listening  broke the book open for me, and got the tone and voices in my head.  So I was sorry to see so many disappointed and perplexed reviews on the Audible page –  this is just not a good a starting place for getting to know George Saunders.  Disappointed readers/listeners: start with  the short story collections – I’ve written about them, in passing, before:  Pastoralia, Tenth of December.

I’m going to have some downtime in August when I will be having an operation on my foot. Have been stockpiling things to read, and will add Lincoln In The Bardo to that pile, as I think it is time for a re-read.

But meanwhile, back to Silas. Last time I was writing about George Eliot as a kind of pre-psychology psychologist, working out how human minds work. Thinking about Nancy Lammeter and  her husband Godfrey Cass. We’d been reading about Godfrey’s desire to adopt  Eppie (his own child, though no one but he knows it), and his inability to imagine Silas’ feelings;

It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

This is interesting, isn’t it?  We’d probably be naturally inclined to want to cross Godfrey off – to  set him up as a no-good-nik, and take no notice of  his inner workings. But that, George Eliot feels, would be a mistake; her big premise is, it’s better to try to understand people we are not naturally sympathetic to.

What do we learn here?  Godfrey, as posh person, doesn’t have an opportunity to realise poor people have feelings in the same way he has:

we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means

Some radical education would be needed to overcome this  natural seeming state of social affairs. Godfrey doesn’t know these people, doesn’t mix with them, doesnt meet them, talk to them.

It’s all very well, for me as a twenty-first century middle class  Guardian-reader, being outraged that a posh landed gentry type didn’t know what it meant to be one of his own villagers. But then I think back to before The Reader and ask myself how much time I actually spent with homeless multiply addicted young men living with psychosis before I began reading in hostels and rehabs?  I  give the pseudonym  ‘Jay’ to one of those young men…I  would theoretically have known  that Jay has feelings like me, but I’d never have  been close to Jay, never seen him moved to tears or being loving to another person, only seen him as a threatening  presence  in a deserted car park. Never saw him have his feelings. Not to my credit, but true. I had not gathered the impressions – him asking me for change at the car park exit frightened me – which could have helped me overcome my fears of Jay. Without getting to know him, how could I really know him?

Now I look at this choice of word, ‘adequate’, thinking of myself or other modern versions of this Cass problem.

It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project:

Think of fear of refugees, fear of  others, fear of those not like us… what is ‘adequate knowledge’ in such situations, where people are not seeing others as fully human. Very few of us would be ‘deliberately unfeeling’ if we knew (‘adequately’) what it meant to be other person.  ‘Adequate’ – it’s not a lot of knowledge.  It’s enough to make us feel. But  perhaps we are becoming too kind to Godfrey?  Here’s a real corrective;

his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

How complex he is!  He has  had a ‘blighting time of cruel wishes’  – that person who did not  own up to nor  take responsibility for his first wife and his own child – that was Godfrey. Who suffered the blight? The cruelty? Yes – his dead wife, yes, his abandoned child. But also  – prehaps – he, himself?

As well as that cruelty, there is in Godfrey, ‘natural kindness’.  That’s real, too, though how  I am to hold the two things (  ‘cruel wishes’ and ‘natural kindness’ ) in balance is a real and very life-like question.  Despite the kindness, I’m still worried about the now past time of cruelty.  And that worry is extended by the  added comment on Nancy.

Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

He is naturally kind, when not pressed by more terrible needs. Nancy is  not entirely tricking herself. Oh, but the presence of that ‘wilful illusion’, even as a partial negative!

Being a live human is complicated business.

Is that why I love George Saunders despite sometimes not getting it and not getting through it? Yesterday I re-read his short story ‘The Falls’. ( It’s in Pastoralia.) Highly recommended for some live human being.

 

 

 

Garden Bargain Hats Off…

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Hot garden with  Cosmoss and Clematis

Before I went on holiday I asked my Mum-in-Law, if it wasn’t too much for her, (as she is 90 and doesn’t feel like walking down to our house everyday), to water the pots in my back garden.

I had no idea England was about to enter a 1976 style heat wave and neither did she and she is not a gardening fan, either. So while I was away, I more or less assumed total wipe-out, but then came back to a 97% survival rate and this lovely floriferous display. Hats off to you, Mum, you did me proud.

In a big pot which I bought in the ‘bargains’ section of the nursery, reduced because its rim was a bit chipped, are three white Cosmos ‘Purity’. These were bargains, too. I bought them from Lunt’s, the greengrocer in West Kirby – can’t remember how much they were but very reasonable, as everything in that shop tends to be, and I fed them with some 6x before I went away. They are exploding now, flowering their blooming hearts out. I’ve ever put Cosmos in a pot before but I will keep doing it from now on. I also thought how good a huge clump of the simple white flowers and ferny-asparagus-like foliage would be filling a border. And I mean huge…for my garden. A dozen plants, grown from seed, could do the trick on a grand scale. But would I need a greenhouse?

Behind them, in a tall and very heavy clay pot I’ve had for years, is this gorgeous clematis, which had been in flower for a couple of weeks before I left and is still going strong. A most wonderful do-er,  this red-purple and gold stunner is called ‘Voluceau’. I love those handsome dark velvet petals and even more, that terrific, almost luminous, boss of golden stamens. Fancy Mum keeping that lot going through two weeks of a heat wave!

I bought ‘Voluceau’ last year from Lidl or Aldi, can’t remember which, and it, too, will have been a bargain buy. I don’t have a lot of success with clematis, and they rarely survive two years for me…so a second year, loads of flowers and more of them coming is a bit of beautiful garden luck. Again, I gave it plenty of 6x early on. Love that organic matter. Finally, what’s the lovely geranium in the background? It’s Rozanne. I bought 3 for £6 in the B+Q ‘we’ve let them die’ stand about two years ago…stood them in a big bucket of water and all three began to flourish.  Rozanne at Crocus are more costly, but every plant I’ve bought from them has been  terrific, healthy, well-gown, well-delivered. Wherever it comes from, it’s one of the best Geraniums going, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show ‘Plant of the Century’ 2013. And a true survivor.

But it was Mum who kept them going through the heat wave – so hats off, Mum, you’ve done a lovely job. Actually, looking at the weather, keep that hat on.