Seinfeld, Captain Macwhirr and Thinking Ahead

viburnum late.JPG
Late flowering Viburnum in the Old English Garden at Calderstones Park 3 May 2017

What does reading do for me? No one could describe reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home or Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed as entertainment. I mention those two because they’ve been perhaps my most powerful reading experiences of recent years. I think of them more as information of a very particular kind. It was this kind of information that I set up The Reader to pass on. Books should makes us better or more bearable, to misquote Samuel Johnson. For me they have a way of thinking  about and facing serious problems that otherwise might, as we say in Liverpool, do me in. Books are the opposite of escapism. Books, for me, are ‘always facing it’ as Captain Macwhirr says during the storm in Typhoon. ‘Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through.’

If I want to pass time without thinking or doing much I watch a film, or Seinfeld. They can be engrossing or brilliantly witty but they are ephemeral, compared to books (though, you can  sew while watching, which is a plus).

A reading experience of the best sort, for me, is a deep experience. When I say ‘deep’ I’m reaching for words like ‘psychodynamic’ or ‘spiritual’ but actually the word I’m going to go with is ‘literary’: whatever it is, this experience, you only have it with written stuff (as I write, I ask myself is that true?). A literary experience, for me, is something to do with shaping up, naming, re-ordering my own deepest experiences. It is about language and recognition and ultimately about order. Literary reading helps me think by actually making me experience – experience in the language processing parts of my brain – thoughts which the author has wrestled into words. My job is to take the words and re-translate them, wrestle them, at my end, getting the human  meaning out.

Lots of  people don’t want to do that, which I suppose is like lots of people don’t want to go for a thirty mile hike or learn to run a marathon or lift an enormous weight or cook an intricate 8 course dinner. Car, couch, potnoodle and potboilers offer comforts of their own. I don’t want to stop people doing any of that (unless they are close members of my family when, irritatingly to them, I do want to stop them). But I positively do want to encourage people to get into reading hard literature.

Perhaps because of certain serious and painful problems – people dying, and worse, people living very damaged and damaging lives – I began to think in my mid-twenties, life is serious. Gotta get serious. Gotta think. One bit of Seinfeld that’s lives in me forever is the moment where, called to assist Kramer, who has found himself naked in a downtown department store, Jerry asks ‘How did this happen?’ and Kramer wails, ‘I didn’t think ahead, Jerry!!!’  Wow, that one hit home. It’s become one of my most-used catch-phrases.

I think reading tough subject matter literature helps me, at the deepest level, think ahead.

So, today I am finishing the George Herbert poem, ‘Affliction III’.  Just got the last couple of lines to read. Here it is  for a get-back-into-it read-through:

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,                                                             5
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,                                                       10
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.
Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,                                         15
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

I’d got to the point of realising that Herbert was making his mental anguish meaningful, as opposed to merely pain-filled, chaotic, destructive. God is ‘in the grief’ and indeed, the grief is God in Herbert. God’s life on earth was and is a life of sorrow. Suddenly the humanity of Christ is shifting into a new light for me as I read the poem. Last couplet, then:

They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

Some people (‘they’) who ‘lament one cross’ – meaning cry for, mourn –  one cross only, that one two thousand years ago, miss the point. Christ is not an historical figure or if he is it doesn’t matter. What matters to Herbert is that  Christ dies every day, in ordinary human beings like himself.  There are millions of crosses. Thinking in a time bound and person bound (that particular human body of Jesus of Nazareth) is to miss the point of God becoming human. It is to make God small. Such historical factualists, ‘praise thee to thy loss’.

It’s a very typical movement of Herbert’s mind to insert the clause ‘thou dying daily’  into  the other thought, and into the middle of it. The whole of thought one is: ‘they who lament one cross (people who think God is to be located in the body of a man called Jesus who lived and died at a certain time, in a certain place) praise thee to thy loss – diminish God by what they believe. Why? Because God dies every day in many human lives, in the anguish of people crying out, as Herbert does at the beginning of this poem, ‘Oh God.’

I don’t know anything about the history of theology and am aware I could be quite wrong, but this seems to me an extremely radical belief. So radical, in fact, that it seems quite close to what I, as a non-believer, almost believe.

Ah, time’s up. Boo.

Why do I think that far from wasting time, reading in this way, slowly, trying to get myself to feel the feelings, follow thought by thought another human’s experience,  is somehow creating something in me? I’ll think about that more another time.

5 thoughts on “Seinfeld, Captain Macwhirr and Thinking Ahead

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V. May 4, 2017 / 11:58 am

    Hi Jane, sorry haven’t time to comment on poem ( or will be late for reading), just to let you know the comments thingymabob on the page is working. Feed back can be ever so helpful.
    Toodle pip

  2. orientikate May 4, 2017 / 10:54 pm

    Good, yes, I was wondering if you’d switched off the comments function deliberately … Glad to see this morning that it’s back. Not that I’ve anything particular to say except that I’m really glad to be journeying through the poems with you & I’m grateful for your almost (?) daily ‘practice’. Thank you!

    • drjanedavis May 5, 2017 / 8:01 am

      Yes thanks Kate think I turned them off by accident when fiddling with various settings!
      Always glad of your comments!

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