Experiencing the click: what language adds to consciousness

treading your own path.JPG
The traveler, treading her own path in the snowy wastes, Norway, January 2018

I had really intended to carry on reading Silas Marner this morning but I’m preparing for a staff teaching session later in the day and found myself really wanting to read Wordsworth, so I’m going with that flow.

I’ve been thinking about how reading  helps a reader know herself. I’m sure there are a number of key ways, and this is only one of them.

There’s a click that needs to happen which  makes you think, I’ve got to understand this… this… whatever it is, this person I’m in, this life, this Jane.  Time is partly that something. Time and the pain of repeated mistakes. Time and patterns.  You are in The Matrix. You might stay  in it forever. Or perhaps something will happen to make you realise – click – you are in the Matrix. Only once you know you are in, can you start think of getting out.

For me, one of the moments of  click came long ago  in Middlemarch, Book 4, Chapter 42, when I read these terrible words about human wastage. A man in trouble doesn’t respond to the touch of his wife’s hand on his arm because he fears she pities him and he can’t stand the thought of being pitied:

 it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge.

I think it was during the writing of my Ph.D   – so between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty – that that particular click happened.  That wasn’t  my first reading of Middlemarch, when this half sentence probably passed me by. But by the time I was rereading the novel as part of my doctoral study, life  had  battered me into learning  something about joy, and wastage, and devastation and calling denial knowledge.  Perhaps without the heavy thumping of pain! mistake! pain! error! in my own and other people’s lives, and deaths, I’d never have had the understanding.

But, like the hero of Les Murray’s poem about his autistic son, ‘It Allows a Portrait in Linescan At Fifteen’, by the time I was  writing that Ph.D I knew I had to learn  to stay  alive,

I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!

How did I come to that understanding?

First, I had the experiences that  led to that ‘gotta get smart’  feeling. Then I read the words:

 it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge.

Experiences, feelings, words. That’s a possible pattern.

The words here gave voice to the feeling. If I hadn’t read Middlemarch, I’d still have had the feeling, which  was a response to stuff that happened, and is an evolutionary tool for survival. Feel this! Feel this! Note it!  But seeing it written, as many people in Shared Reading groups have told me over the years, makes some sort of difference.

It is partly ‘someone else has felt this’.  That, too, may be an evolutionary tool. If one person gets a stomach ache from eating those bitter green berries it might be bad luck or it might be the after effect of too many sweet white tubers from yesterday. But if twenty people feel sick after eating bitter green berries, you know it’s probably the berries.

The recognition of ‘I know that’, or ‘That’s me, that is!’, or ‘I’ve felt that!’ is a powerful one. Yes, it’s probably the validation of one’s feelings and experience in another, but it’s more than that, it is also the explosion into consciousness through language of self-validation, of knowing your self. Language brings more of us into the light. Language helps us know.

I was thinking of how a person might gather self-knowledge and remembered  that when Wordsworth starting writing The Prelude he began by looking at himself:

When, as becomes a man who would prepare
For such a glorious work, I through myself
Make rigorous inquisition, the report
Is often chearing; for I neither seem
To lack that first great gift, the vital soul,
Nor general truths which are themselves a sort
Of elements and agents, under-powers,
Subordinate helpers of the living mind.
Nor am I naked in external things,
Forms, images, nor numerous other aids
Of less regard, though won perhaps with toil,
And needful to build up a poet’s praise.
Time, place, and manners, these I seek, and these
I find in plenteous store, but nowhere such
As may be singled out with steady choice—

He’s got a lot and feels pretty cheerful about it until he realises he hasn’t got the main thing – a subject, ‘time, place and manners, these I seek…’ and  pretty quickly the sense of not having or being able to fix on a subject, ‘singled out with steady choice’ begins to wear him down:

The true questioning of self is hard:
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting—so much wanting—in myself
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In indolence from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.

There’s a feeling of wastage here, isn’t there? Of loss? Even deceit or cheating? A steward is a person to looks after something (often a house or homestead)  for someone else. A steward would have bed and board, a home. and yet this false one, give nothing back, you’re in an unequal and untrue  relationship. Agh ! Stuck! Agh! Idiot! Agh! Can’t do it! And he doesn’t give up. and that not giving up  leads, almost despite Wordsworth’s conscious thought, to an opening, when he starts guiltily kicking himself:

—Was it for this
That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov’d
To blend his murmurs with my Nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his fords and shallows, sent a voice
That flow’d along my dreams? For this, didst Thou,
O Derwent! travelling over the green Plains
Near my ’sweet Birthplace’, didst thou, beauteous Stream
Make ceaseless music through the night and day
Which with its steady cadence, tempering
Our human waywardness, compos’d my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me,
Among the fretful dwellings of mankind,
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves.

He’s off now, with a subject, and the subject is, though he doesn’t know it yet,   what am I and how did I come to be it? And how did he get to his subject?  He got there by looking very hard at what he had and what he didn’t have…He had the feeling right at the beginning of the poem  (‘oh, there is blessing in this gentle breeze’), the feeling of    hhmmmmmm going to do something going to get something going… then the hits the wall of, oh, no subject. (Most young writers will know this moment) I wonder how long – hours, weeks, months or years, he was stuck at this point?

see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting—so much wanting—in myself
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In indolence from vain perplexity,

But the stubbornness of not giving up, of keeping looking, questioning, asking  gets him beyond it and into – despite himself – something else.

This is too rushed for a big subject but time’s up.

One thought on “Experiencing the click: what language adds to consciousness

  1. karen mitchell January 19, 2018 / 12:32 pm

    Hi jane just love wordsworth ,I see him as a fellow traveler along life road.. A friend.

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