Reading In Space

I’m looking forward to spending some time with Jeanette Winterson tomorrow when she comes to visit The Reader at Calderstones, before going on to the launch for Mental Health in Context research group at the University of Liverpool, where JW will give the keynote talk.

I’d reread Jeanette’s terrific book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal to remind myself of some of the brilliant formulations she comes up with in that very moving story of personal lost and found. I was particularly struck by Hardy’s poem ‘The Going’, and its place in Jeanette mind – deeply embedded with the lasting resonance that great poems have for us once they have burned in through learning by heart or massive necessary rereading.

Yesterday, between bouts of gardening, I was flipping through Antonia Fraser’s 1992 book to celebrate the bi-centenary of W.H. Smith, The Pleasures of Reading when I found a young JW there at the end, thinking some wonderful thoughts about books.

 Art communicates, that is certain. What it communicates, if it’s genuine, is something ineffable. Something about ourselves, about the human condition, that is not summed up by the oil painting, or the piece of music, or the poem, but, rather, moves through it.

I was struck by the truth of ‘ineffable’ and ‘moves through it’. It reminded me of a woman, years ago, when I was new teacher of literature in the Dept. of Cont. Ed at the University of Liverpool. Let’s call her June. Towards the end of every session, when we’d been struggling for two hours with the ineffability of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or King Lear or Piers Ploughman, June would clear her throat and ask politely, pen poised, ‘But you could put it in a nutshell, Jane?’

Over several years this would gradually induce a Basil Fawlty-like rage in me.

‘No, June, I cannot and I will not. There are no blinking nutshells! There are No Nutshells in English Literature! Don’t ask me for nutshells!’

June wanted digested, note-downable points that she could take away and ‘know’. I suppose that was not so very unreasonable, given that Art is meant to ‘communicate’.

My rage was induced by the fact that she continued to ask, week after week, term after term, year after year, though I had patiently (and then impatiently) explained the impossibility and finally the pointlessness of any sort of summing up. But June was not at home in that kind of space, it made her uneasy, she wanted facts, information. There is information (sometimes facts, too, but always information) in literature. But it cannot be put in a nutshell. It is not sum-up-able, it ‘moves through it’  In The Pleasures of Reading, JW writes:

 Inside books there is perfect space and it is that space which allows the reader to deal with the normal problems of gravity.

My friend Violet has been struggling with a number of serious ‘inner’ problems. These problems profoundly affect Violet’s outer life – the life where gravity gets us. Growing up, getting something to do in the world, becoming. She is stuck. I’ve been urging her to read her way through that stuckness, and recently she wrote me a letter with some quotations from George Herbert. This is a young, non-Christian, gay, addictive person with a powerful social viewpoint. What could George Herbert have to say to her? In a nutshell? Everything. He is ‘a king of infinite space’, as Hamlet says. Unemployed, she quotes me from Herbert’s poem ‘Employment’:

Man is no starre but a quicke coal

Of mortal fire.

Who blows it not, nor doth control

A faint desire,

Lets his own ashes choke his soul.

You’ve got to know about fires to understand this – how it is necessary to blow gently and encouragingly on a small flame. How, if you use a sheet of newspaper to blow the fire up, it can burst into huge flames if you’re not careful. You’ve got to know about being stuck and then blowing yourself up stupidly. You’ve got to know about the danger of being human, the need for humility, the power of self-control, the danger of desire and the problem of free will. If you know it experientially, it will speak to you, then you will know it in words. Remember the words. Pro-gravity medicine for the soul. In a nutshell.

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