Silas Marner Day 12: in which I enter George Eliot’s mind marathon

several bowls.JPG
Bowls of Beauty welcoming the weekend 27 May

Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box. We’re in chapter three, and I’m picking up just after the conversation between the Cass brothers about selling Godfrey’s horse, Wildfire, to get the money they need to get out of the mess they are in.

Don’t let it be something stuck in the past! Translate, translate, translate. Imagine two brothers from some rich family now, in some mess, used to have several but only got one car left! Going to have to sell the Range Rover!  The car-dealing brother more likely to get a good price. Both of them really sick at losing the car – how the hell will they get about?

Then come back to the book, and pick up the reading:

With that, Dunstan slammed the door behind him, and left Godfrey to that bitter rumination on his personal circumstances which was now unbroken from day to day save by the excitement of sporting, drinking, card-playing, or the rarer and less oblivious pleasure of seeing Miss Nancy Lammeter.

Godfrey Cass is the better of the two brothers, we heard earlier, and certainly the more liked by almost everyone. But  Godfrey is in a mess which provokes constant ‘bitter rumination’, and doesn’t seem to have whatever he needs to get out of it – he only has the temporary distractions of  ‘sporting, drinking, card-playing, or the rarer and less oblivious pleasure of seeing Miss Nancy Lammeter’.

As I read this, I’m thinking of Silas, and difference between his poverty – which is at once economic, cultural and personal – and the riches of a Cass brother. Silas is massively more permanently psychologically damaged (though we sense ruin may lie ahead for Godfrey…) and has retreated to an insect-like routine that means his humanity is somehow on hold: nothing is required of him. (Though I remember he has that evening ‘revelry’ when he enjoys his stash of gold coins…)  But Godfrey, not (yet) awfully damaged, cushions himself in a very different way (the normal pleasures of young men of his class: sporting, drinking, card-playing and Miss Nancy). And is this actually a cushioning, or is it part of the damage he is doing to himself?

George Eliot seems to be about to pick up this thought or some relation to it in this hard sentence. I am struggling to follow her, but I want to follow her, because I think it will be worthwhile, despite the difficulty. She’s like a marathon I’ve entered!

The subtle and varied pains springing from the higher sensibility that accompanies higher culture, are perhaps less pitiable than that dreary absence of impersonal enjoyment and consolation which leaves ruder minds to the perpetual urgent companionship of their own griefs and discontents.

Lots of problems here. I’m not giving up, but I am struggling to follow.  I need to concentrate hard.

First of all, there’s a potential worry about some kind of elitist perception of the world which comes from the word ‘higher’. My two questions are: is there any such thing as ‘higher’ in relation to anything other than physical upwardness? If so,  is that higher really being pointed at here? Should I take that word seriously?

The clue is  in Godfrey. Here he is, rich, educated and pretty useless, with some massive problem (secretly married an alcoholic drug user) which causes him to lie and to distract himself  with gambling and drinking etc. This ‘higher’ is a class matter. Can we really read the  word’ higher’ – higher sensibility, higher culture – here with a straight face? George Eliot, though we may not realise it immediately is being ironic, is being sarky. is getting a little jibe in at us, her cultured readers.

Your Shared Reading group might want to stop and talk about whether there is a ‘higher culture’.

You don’t want to jump the gun. It’s important to get through this thought at the right speed.

First question , is there any such thing as higher , except in relation to  physical upwardness? (Answer: In George Eliot there often is, but when it is not sarky, as here,  it comes through more as a demand on me – be higher! get yourself up! I’ll no doubt return to this thought another day as we read on in the novel.)

To get to an answer we may need to translate that word into something which will make the thought more accessible to us.

Let me go back to food as an analogy, as it seems  easier to think of better and worse, higher and lower food culture… Haute cuisine (the high cookery) is  different to both wholesome peasant food and rubbishy contemporary  junk food. What a person likes is a matter of taste (often of habit, and always of experience: you can’t like a Peach Melba if you’ve never tried one.) Can we all agree on that?  I wrote about this in a post long ago, Cheap Beans.

There is great food – characterised by complexity and quality, time and art – and there is more ordinary food – say, baked potatoes with cheese and a bit of salad. And there is rubbishy food, may I say without offence, frozen chicken nuggets or a cheap burger?

To go back to the second question is ‘higher’ really meant here?

 

 

The subtle and varied pains springing from the higher sensibility that accompanies higher culture

Someone like me, a rich first worlder , can afford to worry about all sorts of things (slugs eating my hostas, my creme brulee not turning out as well as I had hoped, whether my sandals look nice) that a me living three hundred years ago or now in a poor part of the globe, could not possibly care about. They are my ‘subtle and varied pains’. Am I with George Eliot here? Yes! Can I take those subtle and varied pains very seriously – no! The look of my sandals doesn’t matter. To a certain extent all modern people are Godfrey Cass. It’s not hunting, drink and cards, for our distractions, but for example  telly, shopping, the internet, hostas, trips abroad, drugs…

 

I ask myself, do I feel more now  than I would feel if I was me living as a servant woman 300 years ago? I don’t think so. As first worlder I just have more time to notice more about myself. I’m a Godfrey Cass. My great great grandmother was a Silas Marner.

What would you rather be? A Silas Marner – at least he’s not a liar, and his nightly  revelry with the gold coins harms no one.

The sufferings of those highly educated Cass types, George Eliot continues

are perhaps less pitiable than that dreary absence of impersonal enjoyment and consolation which leaves ruder minds to the perpetual urgent companionship of their own griefs and discontents.

This goes back to the thought GE had earlier – in chapter one, I think –  about the poorest people having to live with the very real present fears of  simple tragedy: no food, no housing, pestilence, war. These ‘ruder minds’, less developed, less educated minds, live with ‘the perpetual urgent companionship of their own griefs and discontents’.  You can’t get away from them if you’ve got nowhere to go.

I think of Mrs Gummidge, in David Copperfield.  She can’t get her mind off her own woes. It makes her unbearable to live with, though Mr Peggotty bears it, and has invited her to live with his family, and  feels pity for  her sorrows.  If Mrs Gummidge could take an interest in something outside of herself, gardening, say, that interest might help her get away from the ‘urgent companionship’ of her own ‘griefs and discontents.’

As anyone who has been depressed knows, as anyone who has lived with anyone who is depressed knows, you can’t get Mrs Gummidge interested in gardening, partly because of the revolving dark of depression which means it is hard or impossible to notice or care about lovely things like  flowers.

This makes me think that it is in some weird way a good thing that Silas has the pleasure of his revelry with the gold – at least it keeps a sense of joy alive in him.

To go  back to the text:

The subtle and varied pains springing from the higher sensibility that accompanies higher culture, are perhaps less pitiable than that dreary absence of impersonal enjoyment and consolation which leaves ruder minds to the perpetual urgent companionship of their own griefs and discontents.

In other words, GE knows we feel more easily sorry for Silas than we do for Godfrey and she probably shares that impulse.  I wonder if she is going to be able to make us feel more pity for middle class got it easy first worlder Godfrey at some point?

What a hard morning’s reading. Way over time so no proof reading this morning, sorry for mitsakes.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s