Meaning Seeking Creatures: Jeanette Winterson and George Herbert

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Aliums in the rain at Calderstones, 30 May 

A short post this morning as I’m on the 6.05 from Lime Street and it’s wobbly on this Virgin Pendolino. I can’t be looking at the screen for long.

In preparation for my Sparks series reading day on Saturday (see previous posts) I’m rereading Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. 

Jeanette was adopted into a Pentecostal family and grew up with daily religious activity and  summer Gospel-tent crusades. By the time she left home to live in a car at sixteen her belief in all that had completely left her: in its place, English Literature A-Z in Accrington Public Library.

The early part of the book takes a cool-eyed but sometimes not unaffectionate look at that religious life. Winterson is particularly good on the effects of King James Bible language on uneducated people , including herself, but the powerful influence goes deeper than language:

I saw a lot of working class men and women – myself included – living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.

A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce – we are meaning seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

With the imminent development and opening of The Reader’s HQ and home at Calderstones, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the difficult question of why The Reader is no longer only about reading. When I read this paragraph, it touched that nerve and seemed to offer a clue. I wondered, as I read this, whether meaning and community (or ‘meaning and unity’ as Jeanette calls it here) have not been the invisible, underlying purposes of The Reader since I founded it in 1997. Yesterday, trying and think my way around this with some colleagues, I remembered the wonderful quotation from Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, which Sarah Coley and I used  as the linchpin for the  editorial in the very first issue of The Reader magazine:

The people who come evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.

I have realised many times in the last twenty years that The Reader is not simply about literature. If that was the case, it would be no different to English Departments in Universities across the world. Shared Reading groups are not like seminars, and nor are they Book Clubs. they create conditions in which all kinds of people might find, or create, ‘something real to take home when day is done’.

Many shared Reading groups will resemble the Bible study groups Jeanette describes, particularly when she writes, ‘the sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.’

I’m interested in what she means when she writes of ‘religious impulses’,

we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough

Jeanette becomes an adult who provides for herself – money and leisure, houses and a career as a writer – and these things, as the book goes on, are clearly  ‘just not enough’. She studied English Literature at Oxford. George Herbert became a key influence, a most beloved poet. under the skin of their personal biographies there is a familial connection.

The sense of life as an unfolding ‘yes’ is strong in the first half of the book. The religious impulse – is that the impulse to higher purpose, to meaning, to beyond-the-self? – is in many ways addressed for Winterson by reading and writing. Mixed up in that religious impulse is individual story, individual trauma, personal mess.  The second half the book is going to open some of that up.

Looking forward to reading more on my journey home.

Forgive today’s typos and lack of proof reading. Train wobbles.

 

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