Silas Marner Day 8: What are human beings for?

Very new pine cones in Japanese Garden at Calderstones Park May 2017

I’m returning to Silas Marner today for my daily reading practice. We’re in chapter two and starting at the paragraph that begins ‘About this time an incident happened…’

You can catch up by using the search box to find posts tagged ‘Silas Marner’.  Here George Eliot is showing us how Silas, traumatised by a terrible experience, and having settled far from the site of that trauma, is settling into a  cut-off, solitary, state of suspended animation where we’ve seen only the ‘bright faces’ of gold coins seem to make him happy:

One day, taking a pair of shoes to be mended, he saw the cobbler’s wife seated by the fire, suffering from the terrible symptoms of heart-disease and dropsy, which he had witnessed as the precursors of his mother’s death. He felt a rush of pity at the mingled sight and remembrance, and, recalling the relief his mother had found from a simple preparation of foxglove, he promised Sally Oates to bring her something that would ease her, since the doctor did her no good. In this office of charity, Silas felt, for the first time since he had come to Raveloe, a sense of unity between his past and present life, which might have been the beginning of his rescue from the insect-like existence into which his nature had shrunk.

First we want to notice that the cobbler’s wife reminds Silas of his mother. We don’t know much about her but we learned earlier that she and Silas were very close, and she had taught him herbal remedies, and he had loved collected the herbs long ago.  This connection may be a knitting up: ‘in this office of charity, Silas felt, for the first time since coming to Raveloe, a sense of unity between his past and present life…’

Yesterday, at work, I spent some time thinking about principles underlying Shared Reading and one of the things I thought about, suggested by a colleague, was that the Reader Leader must always get to ‘what counts’ in a piece of literature.  I was struck by the simplicity of the phrase  ‘what counts’ and also by the impossibility of defining it. It relies on the instinct of the Reader Leader: she or he must know ‘what counts’.

In this respect the movement of Shared Reading is very different to say  Girlguiding or The Scouts or the slow food movement or Parkrun. It is possible to quantify what makes a good camp or slow experience or a Parkrun run. It is not possible to  say – in the abstract, in general – ‘what counts’ in a piece of literature.  Yet I write that sentence and am really not at all sure if it is true. It may be possible but difficult. I may be being lazy.

Certainly ‘what counts’ is not – sorry, aesthetes – ‘achingly beautiful prose’ nor  anything else that is purely about the ways in which literature may be beautiful . (I have nothing against beauty, in fact, I am for it, as I hope my photos of plants show). But in literature beauty is a second-level consideration. The understanding of human experience comes first. Finding ‘what counts’ requires the reader to check their own life experience and to recognise key moments in their experience and the experience of others (the others that feature in the literature, either as characters or as the author, the poet).

In a novel by a great novelist, many things ‘count’. Here, in today’s reading, what counts is the act of kindness and the sense of unity between past and present . A discussion of the heart-helping properties of foxglove and its relation to modern heart disease pharmaceuticals may start up in a Shared Reading group, and the Reader Leader would almost certainly let that run, because it’s interesting and people in the group might have stuff to share about it, or about their other medications, or health situations etc. But the bit you’ve absolutely got to get to is

a sense of unity between his past and present life, which might have been the beginning of his rescue

Silas has closed down. He no longer lives a full human existence. That counts more than  a discussion of the healing properties of foxglove. In a Shared Reading group I might be balancing my sense of ‘what counts’ with the conversational offerings of a man who  is recovering from major heart surgery. That man, his story, his contribution is  very important. I must bring his voice into the circle of attention. But at some point – as a general rule, and there are always exceptions – I must take the responsibility of getting to ‘what counts’ not only amongst group members but also in the text.

Perhaps I would link these two pressing matters – asking something like ‘did you feel a different person before it happened?’ – which might offer way back to the text.  I must find that way. That’s my job, as the Reader Leader.

The question I want to get to here is: why is it important that our lives are whole? For surely it does matter that we do not have a great gash separating us into before and after, that love and energetic engagement with others should survive our traumas? A human being is not an insect. As a reader, I want silas to come back to human  life.

We don’t know enough about insects, of course, and for thousands of years humans have told themselves we’re special and to be seen as distinct from all other life-forms. That seems an increasingly untenable position, but say we were able to accept what George Eliot might  have understood as the difference between a man and an insect…that difference might be love, consciousness, creativity.

What are human beings for? This was an  evolutionary and spiritual  question Doris Lessing asked me long ago on a train at Lime Street Station. I had no idea of an answer then, but now I think  that  those three words – love, consciousness, creativity –  would do for a start.

Silas needs to be rescued from a mechanical  existence into human life. What a big word that is: rescue. It doesn’t look as though it can come from within.  In The Winter’s Tale,  Hermione, wherever she has been for the past sixteen years, cannot come back to life unaided, she is a statue until Paulina cries ‘Music, awake her; strike!’  Following that sound,  Hermione moves, but she does not, cannot speak until Paulina says ‘Our Perdita is found!’ Perdita, the lost baby, whose loss was the partial reason for the original traumatic break.

The successful knitting up of trauma –  healing the gap of before the bad thing and after it – often depends on something outside the sufferer. Here in Silas’ case, the possibility of reconnecting with his old self through the practice of herbalism might have done it, but, as you’ll see when you read the next paragraphs, that possibility is blighted by the villagers ignorance and mild and not even unkindly meant allegations of something like witchcraft.  An avenue for potential regeneration is thus  closed off.

Time’s up. Poem tomorrow.


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