Oh, I’ve been having trouble with myself, lost my rhythms and struggling to do anything other than get my daily work at The Reader done – I’ve been busy interviewing new people for roles at The Reader, probably the most important thing I have to do there, preparing for the AESOP Conference, and then travelling to meet with Flemish colleagues… but also simply lost. rhythms, habits, do not come easily to me and somehow I lost them and now I am struggling to get them back. Family came to visit. Our old people have needed time and attention. None of which stops me writing at 6.00 am but it has stopped me.
Yesterday I said to myself, you’ve got to get it back. You’ve got to. I was angry and used my anger to dig up and destroy a massive ivy root I’ve been battling in the garden. I don’t really care why I am like this – my chaotic childhood, oh, I’m sick of hearing about it – I care about why I can’t consistently be different. I want order!
Yesterday it came to a head and I took myself to task in the garden as a way of fighting it out. I dug and bashed and cursed and sweated and cut my finger and sawed and heaved and jimmied and cursed this tortured thing out of the ground. It’s about as big as a bull’s head. It’s the root of a large-leaved ivy I planted about twenty years ago. I planted it! I planted it! I did it myself! Oh, ignorance.
I was filthy and exhausted and had a sore finger. I felt better. I had a long bath and, as so many times before, agreed to ‘forgive myself the lot’ as Yeats says, and resolved to try to pick up again. ‘The urge to destroy is also the urge to create…’ as Mikhail Bakunin said.
Books I’ve been reading away from this page include Tara Westover’s Educated. (Yes, lost the rhythm of recording ‘Just Started’ – need to do a batch lot). This is book about the awakening of a mind: the story of an end-of-the-world Mormon girl from a mountain in Utah learning to think outside of her family. Last night I read a section where she discusses being touched by a single line from John Stuart Mill in On the Subjugation of Women. Marvellous section. The sentence: ‘It is a subject on which nothing final can be known’ …Mill writes of ‘women’, and Tara – bullied, abused and subjugated as a female in her family – responds from her deepest, most hidden self.
Blood rushed to my brain. I felt an animating surge of adrenalin, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are a woman.
this morning when I came to my desk I looked up On The Subjugation of Women, a book I’ve not read in more than thirty years. Gosh. It’s very good. I would like to read it again. Saturday Dayschool perhaps, along with some of George Eliot’s women?
Why that connection? This was one of the sentences that struck me as I browsed:
Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character.
I was looking over my last post on Silas Marner, (find a full text of the novel here) and had been thinking about George Eliot as a mind-mapper, a literary psychologist. She does exactly what John Stuart Mill thinks is needful to be done. She shines the light of intelligent observation on the ‘influences which form human character’.
We’d been reading about Nancy Cass (nee Lammeter), and her instinctive repugnance to the idea of adoption. The narrative switches adroitly to Godfrey, and the reader understands, with a shock, that Godfrey is thinking of adopting not just any child, but his own child, Eppie, happily adopted by Silas.
Godfrey had from the first specified Eppie, then about twelve years old, as a child suitable for them to adopt. It had never occurred to him that Silas would rather part with his life than with Eppie. Surely the weaver would wish the best to the child he had taken so much trouble with, and would be glad that such good fortune should happen to her: she would always be very grateful to him, and he would be well provided for to the end of his life–provided for as the excellent part he had done by the child deserved. Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower? It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.
This becomes an analysis of how Godfrey could make such a callous mistake when George Eliot looks beyond any desire he might have stated himself, to a general law she observes in many humans. Godfrey thinks,
Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower?
This is Godfrey’s inner voice, thinking its own thoughts.
Next comes George Eliot’s thought, as she observes her subject:
It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it.
The ‘common fallacy’ is the law of behaviour, observable over countless subjects: you want something to happen so you think it will be easy to make it happen. (Thinking of myself and the need to develop habits. Want them! Should be easy! Not easy! Failed again!). Now George Eliot turns her attention to the relations between people of different classes and their ability to understand each other. The tone here (‘we must remember’) is one that includes us, as the reader, with her as the scientific observer.
This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience.
It’s personally damning of Godfrey as well as damning our social structures: Godfrey ‘had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience’.
The lack of power to enter into another’s experience is also self-damaging, I think, Godfrey can’t imagine what it is or means to be Silas, but he is also hidden, disguised from himself, like Tara, like me.
George Eliot believed that women were no different to men in that we are all subject to our experience and education. Men had more of it but, as with Cass here, that more was often also limiting. How are we to get out of our ignorance and lack of self and experience understanding? Education, my dears, but education of a particular sort. Education that speaks to us in the places we need it – as John Stuart Mill spoke to Tara Westover.
Joseph Gold writes in The Story Species,
Literature is a form of language that humans have evolved to help themselves cope with the world they inhabit. Creating and sharing complex stories is an adaptation of language to help humans survive well.
Tara’s story of the voice coming out of the darkness to a place of darkness within her, its meaning as yet unknown, is a wonderful example of the way in which literature may be the means of education (and survival). Godfrey Cass needs to read more.
As for me? Just got to come here and do it every day.