‘All things are moral’: looking at Godfrey Cass through Emerson’s lens

 

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Palm being its self, Bay of  Kotor, 25 July

Yesterday I ended by starting to read a bit of  Silas Marner and thinking I wanted to read it alongside ‘something’ from Emerson. The bit from Silas Marner was  this:

He walked up and down, unconscious that he was plunging ankle-deep in snow, unconscious of everything but trembling suspense about what was going on in the cottage, and the effect of each alternative on his future lot. No, not quite unconscious of everything else. Deeper down, and half-smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child. But he had not moral courage enough to contemplate that active renunciation of Nancy as possible for him: he had only conscience and heart enough to make him for ever uneasy under the weakness that forbade the renunciation. And at this moment his mind leaped away from all restraint toward the sudden prospect of deliverance from his long bondage.

And the bit  I was remembering from Emerson was from the essay on ‘Discipline’, in Nature. As usual, with something  profoundly Christian, as a non-Christian, I have to  lend myself to possible meaning and translate what a Christian might mean into something I might mean.

All things with which we deal preach to us. What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun—it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields. But the sailor, the shepherd, the miner, the merchant, in their several resorts, have each an experience precisely parallel and leading to the same conclusion, because all organizations are radically alike. Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which thus scents the air, grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world is caught by man and sinks into his soul. The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him. Who can estimate this? Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman? How much tranquility has been reflected to man from the azure sky, over whose unspotted deeps the winds forevermore drive flocks of stormy clouds and leave no wrinkle or stain? How much industry and providence and affection we have caught from the pantomime of brutes? What a searching preacher of self-command is the varying phenomenon of health!

 

Looking at them together now, rereading both, I’m not sure what originally  connected them in my mind. I think perhaps the sense in both pieces of thought there is the  belief that  morality is innate. This is  massively contentious I know – ask Nietzsche – but I don’t want to think about contending it for  now. I want to see if  I feel any truth in what these two quoted above both say.

‘All things with which we deal preach to us,’ writes Emerson. I think about Godfrey Cass  outside Marner’s cottage, waiting to find out whether his life will go  one way or another, depending on whether Molly lives or dies. He longs for her death.

Emerson’s argument  is that everything contains the ideal, teaches us, what is. The snow Godfrey treads though in  thin dancing shoes is cold. It teaches its coldness by its coldness though Godfrey can’t hear the lesson – his consciousness is too taken up with his own concerns. The lesson of snow is irrelevant to him.

But what does the natural phenomenon called ‘Godfrey Cass’ teach? If ‘a farm is a mute gospel’, what is a man?

He walked up and down, unconscious that he was plunging ankle-deep in snow, unconscious of everything but trembling suspense about what was going on in the cottage, and the effect of each alternative on his future lot.

This mute gospel that is a human being teaches danger and anxiety, fear, suspense and  the terror or the ‘lot’. Suddenly I’m thinking of Silas Marner and the  moment in Lantern Yard when the drawing of lots condemns him to become the outcast. It’s not the same use of the word, but  thought – that something random, unthinking , out of your control,  will decide your future – is the same.

What else does the ‘mute gospel’ that is this man teach us (and I have to ask myself, does it teach him too, even though it is so deep down as to be almost out of consciousness?)

No, not quite unconscious of everything else. Deeper down, and half-smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child.

There is else something to  learn here in the ‘mute gospel’ that is  simply what is. it comes in the form of a feeling – a sense – ‘that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives.’

that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child.

So he knows – even though his knowing  is ‘half-smothered’ and barely alive. That’s a reality in him.  It is there to be felt, understood. If a man wanted to know. But this man is not brave, and that’s what we (and he?) learn from this moment of his life:

But he had not moral courage enough to contemplate that active renunciation of Nancy as possible for him: he had only conscience and heart enough to make him for ever uneasy under the weakness that forbade the renunciation.

Is it only George Eliot (and us, reading along as she writes) who knows that this is about shaping character as well as simply being it. she writes ‘for ever’  but does Godfrey Cass know it is ‘for ever uneasy’ – I don’t think  he does – yet.  Time must be added to the mix.

So a man’s life might show – mute gospel –  to himself, if not to anyone else, what  he really is, has been, was, might have been. Who, in the absence of God, would see such a whole life?  The man himself? But we will build up  shells around ourselves (as per Bion) to prevent such knowledge.

Want to turn quickly to  Emerson. I was struck on first reading by the idea that a ‘farm is a mute gospel’ – struck by  the thought that every thing is, every thing we make or do, a ‘mute gospel’ – that’s to say  an unwritten demonstration of what you believe, what you are.  As someone engaged in the building of a community of Shared Reading at Calderstones  that  struck me very forcibly.  ‘All organizations are radically alike,’ says Emerson, while Iam still reeling from what seems to me the truth of the farm.

But the sailor, the shepherd, the miner, the merchant, in their several resorts, have each an experience precisely parallel and leading to the same conclusion, because all organizations are radically alike. Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which thus scents the air, grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world is caught by man and sinks into his soul. The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him.

Agh, out of time. Will return to this tomorrow.

One thought on “‘All things are moral’: looking at Godfrey Cass through Emerson’s lens

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. July 26, 2017 / 6:07 pm

    Hi Jane,
    In regards to Cass not noticing the “coldness of the snow”.

    He doesn’t notice the cold because it is not there.
    Until Cass observers the snow and it’s associated coldness, therefore bringing it into what people like to call “physical reality” it only has the potential to be cold. It is a immaterial concept.
    Basic physics ” the observation affects and changes the state of the observed”.

    Once he alters his obversational state of mind and notices the snow and more importantly his feet.
    Then the change of state will be noticeable as his feet will be flipping freezing.

    Sorry two bee a bit sigh hence see.

    Back too the Hugh man knit teas.

    Does anyone else feel sympathy for the shoes?
    Given Cass took them out of their natural environment and ruined them by placing them in a place where they were unsuited.

    Perhaps this was the fate for Molly, if he hadn’t disavowed/ abandoned her.

    Currently reading: Nothing, in between books at the moment.

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