Silas Marner Day 27 : A Quickening and a Growth Mindset and then Dress That Baby!

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Some growth mind set yellow flowers at Kew – at least tewn feet tall – what are they?

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently for a few months. I’m in Chapter 14, at the point where Dolly Winthrop is offering to  help Silas in looking after the child. I want to read this chapter very slowly, stopping to think a lot about Dolly, and why she matters as a human model. Why do I love Dolly Winthrop so much? She’s astute and quick, which is deeply attractive, but it’s her loving kindness, too, that pulls me towards her. Here is Silas, not just a bachelor, but an oddball, who has been called a witch and probably worse, in the village and is known to have fits; what does Dolly see? A human creature vulnerably roused to life by caring for a baby;

 “Eh, to be sure,” said Dolly, gently. “I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children. The men are awk’ard and contrairy mostly, God help ’em–but when the drink’s out of ’em, they aren’t unsensible, though they’re bad for leeching and bandaging–so fiery and unpatient. You see this goes first, next the skin,” proceeded Dolly, taking up the little shirt, and putting it on.

“Yes,” said Marner, docilely, bringing his eyes very close, that they might be initiated in the mysteries; whereupon Baby seized his head with both her small arms, and put her lips against his face with purring noises.

“See there,” said Dolly, with a woman’s tender tact, “she’s fondest o’ you. She wants to go o’ your lap, I’ll be bound. Go, then: take her, Master Marner; you can put the things on, and then you can say as you’ve done for her from the first of her coming to you.”

Marner took her on his lap, trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child. He took the garments from Dolly, and put them on under her teaching; interrupted, of course, by Baby’s gymnastics.

Dolly’s general observations about men are undercut by specifics she has observed and noted, (‘I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children’). There’s also the loving ,uncritical ‘god help ’em’ which seems to forgive or at least generously accept the general ways of things. But what I really love here is the inconsequential conversational meander from men being bad at leeching and bandaging ‘so fiery and unpatient’ with barely a full stop between her kind instruction to Silas, ‘You see this goes first, next the skin.’

She’s teaching and talking, talking partly almost to herself. Silas  has so much to learn – not just about the baby, but about being in a room with another creature, about conversation. Everything in this scene feels to me tender, almost raw, there’s something almost baby-like about Silas himself, he is a creature just born into this new part of life.  How lovely to have Dolly alongside. When the baby grabs him, she takes it as a clue:

“See there,” said Dolly, with a woman’s tender tact, “she’s fondest o’ you. She wants to go o’ your lap, I’ll be bound. Go, then: take her, Master Marner; you can put the things on, and then you can say as you’ve done for her from the first of her coming to you.”

Is Dolly imagining here, with an instinctive growth mindset, what will happen to Silas as the years of raising this child unfold? She is a parent herself. It’s the thought – that Silas might want, need, to say he has done for the baby from the first, that I find so moving. Dolly imagining the pride and sense of achievement Silas will build. I know right now that she is going to be a good friend, a guide, to him through whatever lies ahead. This generous – you take it – act is an act of belief. A less tactful, or a less sensitive, or a less feeling intelligence, would simply have dressed the child, instructing Silas verbally.  But Dolly trusts him and hands over.

Marner took her on his lap, trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child. He took the garments from Dolly, and put them on under her teaching; interrupted, of course, by Baby’s gymnastics.

I’d want to reread Silas’ trembling  ‘something unknown dawning on his life’  and ask my group have you ever had that feeling of something irrevocably serious in your life? Can we imagine how that feels?

My group will say things like:

I felt like  when I made my wedding vows.

I felt like it when I got my divorce papers someone else will laugh.

I felt it  when I got my diagnosis, though it wasn’t a happy feeling like this is, it was like, oh, this is my life now.

I felt it when my first child was born.

I’d want to think about how those feelings felt and whether or not we can think when we are feeling so much. I’d want to look again at the words in the paragraph;

Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child.

Silas is thinking  (gold/child/child/gold)  and feeling (gold/child/child/gold) at the same time. We know he loved the gold, felt warm companionship  when he gazed on the faces of the coins. But the word ‘love’ isn’t here, we only know, and he only knows, it is ‘an emotion mysterious to himself’. It is deeper than language or thought, this exchange of one love object for another. And dressing the child, taking parental responsibility for her, soon elbows complicated  language-less feeling aside.  In the next sentence he is dealing with baby’s gymnastics. So life pushes us on.

 

Silas Marner Day 26: Dolly Winthrop and Shakespeare’s Paulina, my top women

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Mature Beauties in the Long Border at Calderstones 11 August

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner’) intermittently for a few months. I’m in Chapter 14, at the point where Dolly Winthrop is offering to  help Silas in looking after the child.

Long quotations this morning, but I want to emphasis how important it is to read slowly and to notice things. People may  initially struggle with the way in which George Eliot writes dialect. No need to over-worry about that. Just read slowly and stop whenever  anyone is troubled. I don’t think it matters what kind  of accent you land on for reading – mine veers around from county to county!

Here’s Silas and Dolly as Dolly brings him clothes for the child. Let’s read  this aloud before we go on:

“Yes,” said Silas, meditatively. “Yes–the door was open. The money’s gone I don’t know where, and this is come from I don’t know where.”

He had not mentioned to any one his unconsciousness of the child’s entrance, shrinking from questions which might lead to the fact he himself suspected–namely, that he had been in one of his trances.

“Ah,” said Dolly, with soothing gravity, “it’s like the night and the morning, and the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest–one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how nor where. We may strive and scrat and fend, but it’s little we can do arter all–the big things come and go wi’ no striving o’ our’n– they do, that they do; and I think you’re in the right on it to keep the little un, Master Marner, seeing as it’s been sent to you, though there’s folks as thinks different. You’ll happen be a bit moithered with it while it’s so little; but I’ll come, and welcome, and see to it for you: I’ve a bit o’ time to spare most days, for when one gets up betimes i’ the morning, the clock seems to stan’ still tow’rt ten, afore it’s time to go about the victual. So, as I say, I’ll come and see to the child for you, and welcome.”

“Thank you… kindly,” said Silas, hesitating a little. “I’ll be glad if you’ll tell me things. But,” he added, uneasily, leaning forward to look at Baby with some jealousy, as she was resting her head backward against Dolly’s arm, and eyeing him contentedly from a distance–“But I want to do things for it myself, else it may get fond o’ somebody else, and not fond o’ me. I’ve been used to fending for myself in the house–I can learn, I can learn.”

Dolly is one of my favourite women in literature. If she was to be in a Shakespeare play, she’d be Paulina, in The Winter’s Tale. I might want to stop here, after only a few lines and get my group thinking about her and her womanly wisdom. So I’d pick out this philosophical sentence which would give us all a chance to think about big things that had come, or gone, in our own lives:

We may strive and scrat and fend, but it’s little we can do arter all–the big things come and go wi’ no striving o’ our’n– they do, that they do;

A lot of the conversation which is typical of a Shared Re ading group would arise out of this – what can you control and what can’t you control – and we might be talking to each other for some time about our real experiences. But before we read on, I’d want to stop again to see some of the busy practicality of Dolly:

and I think you’re in the right on it to keep the little un, Master Marner, seeing as it’s been sent to you, though there’s folks as thinks different. You’ll happen be a bit moithered with it while it’s so little; but I’ll come, and welcome, and see to it for you: I’ve a bit o’ time to spare most days, for when one gets up betimes i’ the morning, the clock seems to stan’ still tow’rt ten, afore it’s time to go about the victual.

In the first sentence, she’s providing moral support in a world of village gossip where the possibility of a man taking care of a child is unlikely and odd –  as we saw from the Cass party, people would prefer if  the child went  to the workhouse, just as these days , the proper channels of Local Authority Care might be seen as the right  course of action. Dolly wants to make it clear she supports Silas, ‘seeing as its been sent to you.’ But after this she’s on to what the actual experience of taking in a toddler will be like – ‘You’ll happen be a bit moithered with it while it’s so little’. And from there to practical help: ‘but I’ll come, and welcome, and see to it for you: I’ve a bit o’ time to spare most days, ‘. And finally, we see something of her character.  she’s a busy intelligence, and not enough demands on made on her, ‘I’ve a bit o’ time to spare most days, for when one gets up betimes i’ the morning, the clock seems to stan’ still tow’rt ten, afore it’s time to go about the victual.’

Interesting that the power of Silas’ feeling for the child (or for his own needs) allows him the courage to argue with Dolly:

“Thank you… kindly,” said Silas, hesitating a little. “I’ll be glad if you’ll tell me things. But,” he added, uneasily, leaning forward to look at Baby with some jealousy, as she was resting her head backward against Dolly’s arm, and eyeing him contentedly from a distance–“But I want to do things for it myself, else it may get fond o’ somebody else, and not fond o’ me. I’ve been used to fending for myself in the house–I can learn, I can learn.”

I love the observation here in the body language of the child – it’s like a lovely quick sketch by a very confident artist; the child is ‘resting her head backward against Dolly’s arm, and eyeing him contentedly from a distance’.

Silas understands his own motives very clearly – so powerful and straightforward are they, ‘But I want to do things for it myself, else it may get fond o’ somebody else, and not fond o’ me.’

This self-interest leads to a key change. Where  before Silas has been stuck in his long years of spider-like repetitive behaviour, he now has motivation to change. It’s a great moment when he tells Dolly, ‘I can learn, I can learn.’

The next section is astonishingly tender, and seems built from the feelings new parents might have as they struggle to dress a brand new baby – but time’s up. I’ll paste it here in case you want to read it now. More tomorrow – no, not tomorrow as busy  early London day and won’t have time to write. See you Wednesday.

“Eh, to be sure,” said Dolly, gently. “I’ve seen men as are wonderful handy wi’ children. The men are awk’ard and contrairy mostly, God help ’em–but when the drink’s out of ’em, they aren’t unsensible, though they’re bad for leeching and bandaging–so fiery and unpatient. You see this goes first, next the skin,” proceeded Dolly, taking up the little shirt, and putting it on.

“Yes,” said Marner, docilely, bringing his eyes very close, that they might be initiated in the mysteries; whereupon Baby seized his head with both her small arms, and put her lips against his face with purring noises.

“See there,” said Dolly, with a woman’s tender tact, “she’s fondest o’ you. She wants to go o’ your lap, I’ll be bound. Go, then: take her, Master Marner; you can put the things on, and then you can say as you’ve done for her from the first of her coming to you.”

Marner took her on his lap, trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. Thought and feeling were so confused within him, that if he had tried to give them utterance, he could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold–that the gold had turned into the child. He took the garments from Dolly, and put them on under her teaching; interrupted, of course, by Baby’s gymnastics.

 

Silas Marner Day 25: literature makes history disappear

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Inlua flourishing in the Old English Garden at Calderstones, 7 July

This morning, after my days with mind-bending Traherne, I’m returning to the solidity of Silas Marner. I’ve been reading Silas very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner) intermittently for a few months, and have this is my twenty-fifth session on it.  Writing ‘Silas Marner Day 25’ in the title of this post made me think about the reality of such a reading in a group: on a weekly basis, that’s half a year!  But a Shared Reading session would cover more ground than I do here, wouldn’t it?  Yes, probably.  But not necessarily. Slowing down is key part of Shared Reading and why would you want to rush this?

But there’s a hard balance between  deep thinking, or what might be called personal reflection, and the story. ‘Get on with story!’ said Terry, a young man living in a hostel, in one of my early groups. We were reading Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce and had stopped to talk about life after death. Terry was so frustrated  by the diversion of our  talk that he picked the book up and started trying to read the next chapter. Terry couldn’t read. But his desperation for ‘what happens next’ provoked him into a serious attempt.

Everyone feels that need for continuing the narrative and it is easy to agree to the forward pull.  I don’t myself plan in advance what I am going to stop and talk about  in a Shared Reading session, I just read and see what happens, see how the mood and the meaning take me. But I stop a lot. I would hardly make any progress with the story. So many sentences offer the opportunity of  meaningful thought, and that’s what I want to bring about in my groups.

So here we are at the opening of chapter fourteen. Molly has brought her child to Raveloe, Godfrey Cass has denied (to himself)  his  paternity, the child has ended up with Silas, and Silas wants to keep it.

There was a pauper’s burial that week in Raveloe, and up Kench Yard at Batherley it was known that the dark-haired woman with the fair child, who had lately come to lodge there, was gone away again. That was all the express note taken that Molly had disappeared from the eyes of men. But the unwept death which, to the general lot, seemed as trivial as the summer-shed leaf, was charged with the force of destiny to certain human lives that we know of, shaping their joys and sorrows even to the end.

Would you stop here, so close to the beginning of the chapter, with everyone only just settling to their tea and biscuits? I would. I want to think about  people who might disappear from view and no one notice. I want to think about the ‘unwept death’.  And I want to think are we really as different from the Victorians as we think we are? That couldn’t happen now, could it – that a woman and child would have no social connectors? That a woman could appear as a lodger or a tenant for a short while and then disappear? that no note would be taken when two humans disappear ‘from the eyes of men’? Worse than that, it could not still be the case that such a death might seem  ‘as trivial as the summer-shed leaf’, could it?

For me, in leading a Shared Reading group who are reading this book, a key aim would be to make links with the human experience, so that we wouldn’t think of the characters, the author, as somehow different to ourselves. I want to make making links between ‘now’ and ‘then’. A key aim in my leadership of the group is to make Raveloe, and the entire world of Silas Marner deeply recognisable, here and now. I perform or call for translations into our  own language. Do we still have pauper’s burials now we have the welfare state? We do, and they are called public health funerals.

A question I might want to ask to slow things down is:What is moving in those opening lines, which bit is most like poetry?  I hop someone will find the word ‘unwept’, and we will have the chance to talk about the prefix ‘un’ – it gives us the verb, ‘wept’, but it takes it away. It makes us feel the loss of no one to cry for her.

Now I read on:

Silas Marner’s determination to keep the “tramp’s child” was matter of hardly less surprise and iterated talk in the village than the robbery of his money. That softening of feeling towards him which dated from his misfortune, that merging of suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy, was now accompanied with a more active sympathy, especially amongst the women. Notable mothers, who knew what it was to keep children “whole and sweet”; lazy mothers, who knew what it was to be interrupted in folding their arms and scratching their elbows by the mischievous propensities of children just firm on their legs, were equally interested in conjecturing how a lone man would manage with a two-year-old child on his hands, and were equally ready with their suggestions: the notable chiefly telling him what he had better do, and the lazy ones being emphatic in telling him what he would never be able to do.

Lots of stuff here!  Oh dear, how ever will we finish this book, with me wanting to stop every ten lines. But really – worth noticing two human psychology things here, way before the discipline, through the  practice and writing of William James, was born. George Eliot is brilliant at noticing and recording how humans work.

In this paragraph, first how groups change their behaviour, second how individuals take a positive or negative stance. Taking the first of these first. Silas was an outcast; people began to ‘soften’ towards him when he was robbed. the village had got to the point where it had merged ‘suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy’.

No one would call that sympathy, yet George Eliot nearly does. She refers back to this state when she says it was  ‘now accompanied with a more active sympathy’. Does ‘more active’ imply that the previous state of feeling  towards him was an inactive sympathy? Can contemptuous pity change into  more active sympathy? If so, hurray! We need to understand how and why.  What is pity? What is sympathy? ( I look them up in the  online etymological dictionary – they are deeply connected at root) How do we distinguish those things, and how – why – do they merge into each other?

These are useful  social questions for a group of humans to ask, in a world where ‘diseases of despair’ , as The Times calls them this morning are rising at such an alarming rate.

The next  point is about a distinction between ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’ mothers – a distinction bound to get some people’s backs up.  I’m sure I am a lazy one and have nothing to  protect on that score. But leave motherhood aside for a moment – because it’s painful to be critcised there, for many.  Aren’t lots of humans, let us say at work, ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’? Isn’t that a  natural bell curve distribution in any field?

What’s interesting is how George Eliot jumps to the nub of things in a way that contemporary psychology would  recognise. The ‘notable’ believe things can be done. Those who are ‘lazy’ believe things can’t be done.  What I love is how both groups are united in the slightly malicious pleasure they take in imagining a man dealing with a two-year old child. That conversation is taking place right now as a  real  twenty-first century woman plans a weekend away with her girlfriends. ‘Let’s see how he gets on.’ Well, we will. Silas is becoming a single parent dad, which not what we think of when we think of a Victorian stereotype.

 

Doing My Thing: Silas Marner Day 24

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Part of the front garden that is reverting to nature, July 30

‘All things are moral’ writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in the essay ‘Discipline’ in his extended essay, Nature. It is what it is, and we see that.

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?

Emerson, deeply influenced by Wordsworth, believed that  the nature of experience itself, especially our experience of nature, teaches us (shows, demonstrates) a universal morality: right ways to live and be.

That’s a massively contentious position now, when we are all more or less libertarians –  we each do what we want and we don’t want anyone to make rules for us. Rules, even perhaps the idea of the  moral, they’re out  – unless it is us trying to control the behaviour of someone we don’t agree with and for whom we would definitely like to make some rules.

I’ve been thinking about the previous Silas Marner reading (here) and about moral teaching in George Eliot, and in Shared Reading. When I first met (my hero/mother) Doris Lessing  she asked me what I was working on for my ph.d and I replied: George Eliot. (Visionary Realism: George Eliot to Doris Lessing 1986) ‘Oh, never liked her much’, Doris said, supremely dismissive, ‘too moral.’

I sat  alongside my hero/mother in the taxi, devastated. She didn’t love my other  hero/mother. How could I hold those two bits of reality together? But nature was holding them together – there they both were, alongside each other in reality. What I had to do was learn from that, accept the difference. Doris had grown up in a post-Victorian age and, as a Communist, lived through the  Stalinist show trials of the 1950s. Now she was a Sufi disciple of Idris Shah. She didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t  like the idea of moral teaching (though she was a terrific layer down of laws herself).

But I,  still trying to make myself a livable life that fitted me badly needed ‘moral’ in my life. That was one reason I was so affected by Doris Lessing’s novel, Shikasta. That was why we were in this taxi together in the first place!

Moral didn’t seem like rules or  other people’s laws to me, it felt like necessary equipment for staying alive. I’ve written about the need for  a lifesaver and how my own difficult early life fed into the creation of The Reader here.

The Reader  began from an impulse, not an idea. I had no plan, no worked-out ambition. I had an instinct, a feeling, that what had worked for me – hard reading – might work for other people. Twenty years on, since the first issue of The Reader magazine, fifteen since the  first Shared Reading group,  two things matter to me: the experience in the group and the content of the reading matter. It’s easier to legislate – to set parameters, a quality framework  –  for the experience of being in the group than it is for the content of the reading matter.

And as the future unfolds, I believe that everybody is going to do their own thing –  James Brown had it right.

The way I like, it is the way it is,
I got mine, don’t worry ’bout his

James Brown, Sex Machine (Get On Up)

I accept – grudgingly but even so, I do accept – that all kinds of readers will  want to read all kinds of things with their groups.  I can’t force a reading list on anyone. But for quality control,  surely the key question must be: does it get to the heart of a real human experience?

For me, personally,  a lot of that real human experience is about choices, how to live. I’m always looking for that info and I think the world needs it, as much as I do. George Eliot is full of such moral stuff, and that’s why if I only had one stab at a novel with a group I’d probably be going for Silas Marner.

Picking up where we were last time, Godfrey Cass has struck lucky in that his secret wife, the opium addict, Molly, has just died, before she could expose their marriage to his family.

I read this, and on one level I am thinking of Cass, while on another am thinking of myself. but thinking is not quite the right  word. It is more like Emerson’s sense of simply being there, absorbing, learning something from it.

And when events turn out so much better for a man than he has had reason to dread, is it not a proof that his conduct has been less foolish and blameworthy than it might otherwise have appeared? When we are treated well, we naturally begin to think that we are not altogether unmeritorious, and that it is only just we should treat ourselves well, and not mar our own good fortune.

I pick up on the word ‘naturally’ here. The complication of human nature as an element within nature is that our minds, unlike rocks or stones or trees, can lie, can twist things. In nature there is a firm and visible cause and effect – as  ye sow, so shall ye reap – but for humans there’s so often the possibility of  manipulation or tricks or even just luck, as here. Luckily for Cass, things are turning out differently:

And when events turn out so much better for a man than he has had reason to dread…

I see first ‘turn out’ – an immoral sort of result, isn’t it – as if you had nothing to do with it?  Just happens. Lucky! And how oddly ‘turn out’ sits alongside ‘dread’, that huge Old Testament word, which seems to come from a different place  in the human mind altogether. If you forget the ‘dread’,  perhaps the strongest natural warning in the human pysche,  and Cass is going to forget it if he can,  then  it doesn’t feel too good for your survival rate. I think it is in Daniel Deronda – written at the end of her career – that George Eliot has Gwendolen  says she’s going to hang to to her ‘dread’ and try to learn from it…

But, staying with the text,  human choice is able to interrupt the  pattern of seed-time and harvest, to change the course of nature. Godfrey forgetting the seed, can go from ‘dread’ to ‘happier’ in one wink of the eye:

Where, after all, would be the use of his confessing the past to Nancy Lammeter, and throwing away his happiness?–nay, hers? for he felt some confidence that she loved him. As for the child, he would see that it was cared for: he would never forsake it; he would do everything but own it. Perhaps it would be just as happy in life without being owned by its father, seeing that nobody could tell how things would turn out, and that–is there any other reason wanted?–well, then, that the father would be much happier without owning the child.

I look back at the Emerson, and wonder about how natural moral teaching works and why it sometimes – as in Cass here, or myself, countless times, fails. Emerson says;

The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him.

What is needed in the human being to receive the moral influence which is naturally present? Sometimes, perhaps often, our twisted nature wants the easiest way out – nature may be there illustrating but who is looking at the pictures?

As for the child, he would see that it was cared for: he would never forsake it; he would do everything but own it. Perhaps it would be just as happy in life without being owned by its father, seeing that nobody could tell how things would turn out, and that–is there any other reason wanted?–well, then, that the father would be much happier without owning the child.

Here’s Cass doing his thing – using one word, having one experience (‘he would never forsake it’) and doing a little self-trickery sleight of hand to change everything  (‘he would do everything but own it’) Those two  clauses cancel each other out.  I looked up forsake in the Etymological Dictionary – yes, it has an emotional resonance which is quite undercut by the legal  tone of ‘own’.

What is the ‘happier’ Cass aspires to? He wants to get back to a state before he had married Molly, where he can marry Nancy Lammeter, as if he were a free man.  That’s not actually possible. Nature – in the form of what actually is –  is telling him, and us, so. Nature is demonstrating – there’s the child to prove it!  – seed-time and harvest.

All kinds of odd things are going through my mind – because it’s been in the news today I’m thinking of the Prince of Wales wanting Camilla Parker Bowles after he had married Diana, but also of the Grenfell Tower and the Council’s desire for an ‘economical’ solution to the cladding issue, also things of my own where I’ve ignored a bit of reality in order to try to  create another bit that suits me better.  All this is human, so often appalling, but part of our nature. I’m thinking of reading Bion and the need to sift through all that detritus. Psychoanalysis might help Godfrey Cass – one day – not now, because he is still intent on getting his own version of reality into reality, against nature. But he may come to a time when he needs it.

How long does ‘happier’ with an untruth last? Until your moral luck runs out…and the nature of reality shows itself again. Let’s see what happens.


‘Holday over, time to work’ was the grim but realistic motto found  in a Fortune Cookie by one of my children at a New Year’s day dinner during GCSE year. My summer break, with all that reading, is over today and I’m back to work tomorrow. Hope I will make the transition back into daily reading and writing routine but bear with me… it may be rocky for the first week or so.

 

‘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.

What’s great? And who says? Making choices about books.

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Great! Damsons coming along nicely in a Perast garden, 24 July

Been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan  novels, My Brilliant Friend and  The Story of A New Name, and enjoying them. And I’ve been asking myself : would I take them to a Shared Reading group?

People often – always – ask the question, how do you choose what you read?

The answer is: the Reader Leader chooses. The Reader Leader has that responsibility, though they sometimes involves group members in the choosing. So, if choosing a novel, a group leader might bring along a bagful of novels and  a group spend a session reading bits of them, seeing what people fancy. But the Reader Leader will have chosen the books in the bag. Many groups only read short stories and poems – the Reader Leader chooses them.

Sometimes, some Reader Leaders will choose to let group members decide. I think that’s a mistake – and undemocratic –  because often the  group members have no basis on which to make a choice, and the  person with the most determined voice wins the toss. ‘I read a really great book once, called The Da Vinci Code,’ said a  guy in a hostel. ‘We should read that! ‘

It’s the Reader Leaders job to be tactful – be kind – but to make sure that a book s/he thinks is a good book, a book of high quality is brought to the table – so you have also to be bold. For me, as a Reader Leader, a great book could never be The Da Vinci Code. And yes, I have read it. It is one of the few books I’ve ever finished and – literally – put in the bin.  So I have to stand by that, saying, tactfully, but maybe equally forcefully, ‘No! what about ….’ and that is my responsibility.

Because I must take responsibility for the hours and hours  of reading and talking that lie ahead. We can’t go on a long pointless journey.

So while I’m  thinking about the  Elena Ferrante novels, I’m also thinking, I may only have one chance at a novel with  four of these people in this high-turnover group. Is this the right novel for that one chance? Maybe I’d be better reading George Saunders’  short stories, Pastoralia? Anna Karenina? Jane Eyre? Hester? The Golden Notebook? As far as I am able I want to be sure the book we start is going to yield good stuff, and stuff that is good for this particular group of people. But what is ‘good stuff’?  What is ‘good’?

It’s the Reader Leader’s responsibility to decide on that, knowing the  reading matter, knowing, however slightly, the people in the group.

Is it possible that someone could lead a nine month Shared Reading of The Da Vinci Code?  I’m really afraid it is possible – because  we have to trust the Reader Leader to  think about what will work for their group: we don’t have laws, in Shared Reading, we can’t stop people. We trust that if it doesn’t work, people will vote with their feet, or say something. And  we try, through Read to Lead and through Masterclasses and the Reader blog, and the Spark Series and  the Membership website and The Reader magazine and this blog of mine to show  what ‘good’ might look like in lots of different guises.

To return to  the Neapolitan novels…These are compelling stories and they’ve been making me think a lot about my past, growing up the in the pub in Parliament Place where my mum was the landlady, and our street was  a place of  strange transition between nineteenth century slum and the modern world. I went to Blackburne House High School in a green blazer and a hat, and people in the pub said ‘She goes to college!’ Men went ‘down the pool’ to get a ship, some of the women  had beehive hairdos and sometimes black eyes, two teenage girls in across the road from us were prostitutes, a powerful and unapologetic racism played out amongst us, and I was taken to the pictures by a boy who paid  for everything in sixpences: when we got back the police were waiting. He’d  robbed the phone box on the corner to take me out.

I’m enjoying thinking about all that as I read and  learning about the world and people Ferrante presents me with. There’s a lot in these novels about  what being a woman  under constrained circumstances means.  You’re really brainy and you get married at sixteen because nothing else can happen. Could I imagine reading these novels then in a women’s hostel, a women’s prison? Perhaps I could. Yes, think I would do that. I’d be choosing on behalf of the  women, who  might really enjoy the story, and possibly, like me, recognise some of it.  and that’s important first off,  but I’d be choosing also because the books offer  the opportunity to open a conversation about serious choices, serious blockages, what a life is, how you make it.

For me – personally –  the important choices have been about learning about morality. Funny word, hard to use in public. Going to try.

I’d start with whatever would work to get my group together and into Shared Reading but always want to get to a point where I was sharing what seems to me the very best stuff, for example Silas Marner  ( a book that has worked well in a women’s prison, by the way) or The Winter’s Tale –  truly, from  my point of view, these are the great books. I don’t mind standing by  the word great, or my ability to use it. And such works being so great, I naturally want to share them. Just as I want to share a great Albanaian dessert I’ve eaten here in the Bay of Kotor –  I don’t have link to the Daily Mail from this site, but here’s a good recipe for Tri Leche  from Rick Stein…

It’s natural, isnt it, to want to share something fantastic? So it is  I want to encourage other people to read thses  books which h vae been great to me, and that includes my fellow Reader Leaders  who might not yet fancy a Shakespeare play, a Victorian novel.

Why do I love them so? because they put me on a spot where I can think about how to be good, how to live a good life. Not that I do,  but I do want to learn. So here I learn from George Eliot and Godfrey Cass about  how hard bravery is, and what being weak feels like. He waits outside Silas ‘ cottage while the doctor pronounces Molly dead or alive:

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.

I’ve run out of time today, but tomorrow I want to read this alongside some of the Emerson.

George Eliot’s people in one of Bion’s groups: Silas Marner Day 23

 

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Pine at water’s edge, Kotor Bay, 22 July

I’ve been reading Silas Marner intermittently here for a couple of months – search ‘Silas Marner’ to get  the posts. Last time, I’d read, in chapter XII, the journey of Molly, the opium-addicted secret wife of Godfrey Cass, towards Raveloe; her collapse, the child’s wandering into Silas’s cottage, Silas’  fit and finding of the child, his feeding of her…

Chapter XIII  begins with Silas carrying the child to Squire Cass’s house. So, here’s Godfrey Cass, a man at a  high-spirited Christmas party:

But now all eyes at that end of the room were bent on Silas Marner; the Squire himself had risen, and asked angrily, “How’s this?– what’s this?–what do you do coming in here in this way?”

“I’m come for the doctor–I want the doctor,” Silas had said, in the first moment, to Mr. Crackenthorp.

“Why, what’s the matter, Marner?” said the rector. “The doctor’s here; but say quietly what you want him for.”

“It’s a woman,” said Silas, speaking low, and half-breathlessly, just as Godfrey came up. “She’s dead, I think–dead in the snow at the Stone-pits–not far from my door.”

Godfrey felt a great throb: there was one terror in his mind at that moment: it was, that the woman might not be dead. That was an evil terror–an ugly inmate to have found a nestling-place in Godfrey’s kindly disposition; but no disposition is a security from evil wishes to a man whose happiness hangs on duplicity.

Godfrey has recognised the baby as his own child, recognises the woman as his wife and  finds – here at a Christmas social, in his own house, himself  wishing she  is dead. That evil thought seems  out of place  – ‘an ugly inmate to have found a nesting-place in Godfrey’s kindly disposition’ – but is the natural result of his  duplicity: ‘no disposition is a security from evil wishes to a man whose happiness hangs on duplicity’. I look up ‘duplicity’, a word I suppose to be connected to two-facedness, to doubleness.  Having a ‘kindly’ disposition is no security against  being double, being split. And the secret split part of Godfrey is in terror lest it be exposed and outsiders should see he is  man living two lives.

As we are reading this in a Shared Reading group, I wonder what I would do  with this moment? I want to stay here a while because  there is something about Godfrey’s position that I want to make explicit. This is about not judging him as a  bad ‘un but recognising something of him in myself. It’s all very well having the kindly disposition. But what you going to do about the bits you don’t want anyone to see? The easiest thing to do here is judge him as if he had nothing to do with me. I’d want to open up that area of thinking, and might simply do it by going back over the passage – reading again. Perhaps the comparison between ‘kindly’ and  ‘evil terror’. Interesting that it is terror, presumably the fear of being exposed, that  makes him evil.  He’s not thinking rationally but rather acting naturally and instantly, saving himself, preserving his doubleness.

I try to think of very small faults that I don’t mind talking about, and that anyone will recognise – secretly eating biscuits when I’m supposed to be on a diet is a perennial good one – so that such thoughts  are admissible and do not seem to frightening,  or too exposing. We can then all make private connections that do not have to be spoken out loud.  Using myself as an illustration of the way in which literature serves to make me think, I hope, then serves as model to others. I don’t require anything. I just believe  that what works for me will work for others. Once the pattern  is possibility in your mind, you might  use it.

Then I return to the text: I’ll reread some.

Godfrey felt a great throb: there was one terror in his mind at that moment: it was, that the woman might not be dead. That was an evil terror–an ugly inmate to have found a nestling-place in Godfrey’s kindly disposition; but no disposition is a security from evil wishes to a man whose happiness hangs on duplicity.

The doubleness began somewhere, once, long ago,  as a piece of armour ( I’m thinking back to Bion – mental debris, stuff we create or bring along that makes the truth of our living difficult to see) perhaps when Godfrey first took up with Molly, perhaps before that. The doubleness isnt just about keeping his secret marriage a secret, but keeping some part of himself a secret…presumably the relationship with Molly came from that secret place.

I’m thinking too of ways in which Silas (or any of us) also has doubleness. Silas has had two or more lives and they have been sundered. He didn’t become two people after being cast out of his  church in Lantern Yard, he became a sort of half-person, or less. When the child wandered into his cottage his first thought was of his own childhood, his baby sister, whom he had carried around and cared  for…as Cass’s fight to preserve his doubleness pushes the two parts of his life further away, Silas is finding that two parts of his life are knitting up:

By this time, however, the ladies had pressed forward, curious to know what could have brought the solitary linen-weaver there under such strange circumstances, and interested in the pretty child, who, half alarmed and half attracted by the brightness and the numerous company, now frowned and hid her face, now lifted up her head again and looked round placably, until a touch or a coaxing word brought back the frown, and made her bury her face with new determination.

“What child is it?” said several ladies at once, and, among the rest, Nancy Lammeter, addressing Godfrey.

“I don’t know–some poor woman’s who has been found in the snow, I believe,” was the answer Godfrey wrung from himself with a terrible effort. (“After all, am I certain?” he hastened to add, silently, in anticipation of his own conscience.)

“Why, you’d better leave the child here, then, Master Marner,” said good-natured Mrs. Kimble, hesitating, however, to take those dingy clothes into contact with her own ornamented satin bodice. “I’ll tell one o’ the girls to fetch it.”

“No–no–I can’t part with it, I can’t let it go,” said Silas, abruptly. “It’s come to me–I’ve a right to keep it.”

The proposition to take the child from him had come to Silas quite unexpectedly, and his speech, uttered under a strong sudden impulse, was almost like a revelation to himself: a minute before, he had no distinct intention about the child.

In these few lines the men become what they are: Godfrey, denying his own child, against his own better instincts, his words of deceit ‘wrung from himself with a terrible effort’. The doubleness is deeply in him now. ‘After all, am I certain?” he hastened to add, silently, in anticipation of his own conscience.’ Of course he is, but the question let’s him let himself off the hook. Let’s him salve his conscience. He cannot be straight, true.  the doubleness is  overwhelmingly written into him. You wonder – well I do – what might help him change?  Here, now, nothing.

And in the same moment, Silas, changes. A man who had become  almost less than human, a spider weaving , weaving all day, for gold , gold , gold, to  enjoy the brightness of at night, suddenly finds this child which has come in place of the gold makes him claim her:

“No–no–I can’t part with it, I can’t let it go,” said Silas, abruptly. “It’s come to me–I’ve a right to keep it.”…

…his speech, uttered under a strong sudden impulse, was almost like a revelation to himself: a minute before, he had no distinct intention about the child.

I’m thinking of these characters in a novel as like people in one of Bion’s group – the a-z of human being laid out for us all to read.  Here’s one man, Godfrey Cass, bullied by his father, no love in his family life, finding love of some sort once with Molly,  and since abandoning her… abandoning his child and now denying her, even as the mother is dead or dying. The fibres of good life, of liveliness are wasting, drying up  in him. He’s becoming the insect like creature that we have seen Silas as… And at the same time , the  fibres of life are filling out again for Silas, who has been three times over broken – his mother and little sister dead, his life in Lantern Yard broken up by false accusation,  his gold stolen from  his  own home… and yet this impulse ‘almost like a revelation to him’ comes from his deepest self and is irrefutable, almost a revelation.

As Godfrey  lies even to himself in the deepest parts of his being, Silas’s nature and need is revealed to himself, the single truth emerges. He wants to love something:

“No–no–I can’t part with it, I can’t let it go,” said Silas, abruptly. “It’s come to me–I’ve a right to keep it.”…

I’d like to see someone try to take this child from him.