The Buried Life and Four Great Books

cotoneaster.JPG
Cotoneaster Doing Its Best in Calderstones Park, 10 October

Humans beings are meaning-making creatures: making meaning is how we  do our being. We’re here, born into the world, apparently needing to survive even beyond or aside from our biological purpose of perpetuating the species and we’re happiest when we are completely absorbed by compelling activity.  I think that whatever else Shared Reading does (and there are many useful offshoots) what it does primarily, what in essence it is, is the making of  meaning. Those meanings aren’t always shared, often times they are profoundly individual and are simply witnessed by others. That sharing through witnessing is profound. I’m thinking of a moment in a Drug and Alcohol Addiction Centre when we were reading The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. I’ve  written about this great novel before, here.

This is a book I would always aim to read in a Shared Reading group, but especially  in a group where people have had or are having a hard time. It’s a children’s novel but it is funny and sophisticated, a painful novel of a hard  journey that ends  happily with a homecoming and a  self-assembled family. The Story: a father-mouse-and-child-mouse clockwork toy gets broken and  thrown out on the street: they have to get fixed, escape an enemy, find a road, find a family and fight for their territory, make a home and eventually, become self-winding.

We’d  just read the  part where, for a second time, the father and child get smashed apart. Haven’t got the book here, so can’t quote it but it is a terrible moment when the father cries out, ‘We’re broken!’  and the novel tells us that the  saying of the word ‘broken’ is as terrible as the experience of it.

As we read, a bunch of us, raggedy and battle-scarred adults sitting around a table in an institutional room with our cups of  tea, taking in those hard words, one man responded with a broken, involuntary cry,  saying something like, ‘I know how that feels, I’m broken: I have bowel-cancer. Saying that is harder than having the disease.’

Everyone was moved by the man’s cry, and  after a few moments another member of the group, a guy with a terrible stammer  leaned to towards  him to say, in a moment of profound solidarity, ‘We’re all f…f…f…f…f****ing broken, Jim.’   As he spoke he made a wildly expansive gesture with his arm and knocked three or four cups of tea over all of us.

Why am I remembering this? It was one of the great moments of  meaning and witness I’ve experienced in my Shared Reading life.

I  was thinking  yesterday as I continued to think about the films I had seen on Thursday, that  my relation to Shared Reading starts from  the belief that things are broken, and a work of literature that gives a great account of  that is The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. (I think I am going to start adding an ongoing reading of the play into my weekly  reading pattern.) That the pattern of my belief, as set out in books, could be  everything starts from the broken and the stuck (Winter’s Tale), discovers moments of life-making but transitory meaning (as In Wordsworth, ‘Intimations’ or The Prelude) turns to the workaday world of George Eliot (Middlemarch: there has to be vocation, habit, to hold you in place). This is a template of sorts.

The poem I am reading at the moment, ‘The Buried Life’, by Matthew Arnold, homes in on one area of the template, the moment when ‘something’ pokes through the  ordinary and takes you fleetingly into some other order of feeling.

I’m having trouble making the stanza breaks show, for some reason, when I paste the poem here, so do look it up here, where it appears  in the way it should!

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.
On previous days I’d got to this point in Stanza 2,
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

Interesting that Matthew Arnold sees the inability to be direct as a problem of others, ‘the mass of men’, ‘they’ for  in a moment he will make himself part of that mass. But  at first it seems as if it is ‘them’. Even more interesting  is his sense that  the mass of men, most people are or see themselves as ‘alien to the rest/Of men, and alien to themselves.’  That addition, ‘alien to themselves’ is the complicated bit. How does he know?

 

Do I know? How do I know?

Because I love this bit of the poem, and I believe it. I suppose I know because , though I don’t like to admit it, I recognise at some level, that it is true in me. Alien to  myself.  Read it! Read it again!

It’s as if we revealed even to ourselves what we really felt and thought it would be frightening, alarming. And yet ‘The same heart beats in every human breast!’ – do I believe that, too? Yes.  I’m both in disguie, hiding, to others and oftentimes to my self and I also recognise I’m doing that and so is everyone else. We feel as others feel.

That brings the close of the stanza. There’s normal life – hidden, disguied –  and that should be different to our life in love (open, together, connecting) , but it seems it is not:

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

Is there something that one individual cannot share with another, however close? Look at all the joining pronouns : we, my love, our hearts, our voices, we. Yet they can’t get seem to get over it.

New stanza.  If you look at the  Poetry Foundation version of the poem and see the stanza breaks, it’s worth some thought about them. Why do they come where they come? It feels as if Matthew Arnold  has to keep starting again – get’s to a dead-end, can’t take his thought any further, stops. Starts again.

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

This stanza seems to offer a small possibility that  communication might be possible, for the closest lovers, ‘even for a moment’.  Previously the problem was couched in terms of ‘spell’ and dumbness, but now the language points us to  some sort of locking up,  ‘free’, ‘unchained’ and ‘seals’ point  me towards a sense of something present but un-get-at-able! And whatever it is – it ‘hath been deep ordained’. That’s interesting isn’t it, because ordained seems a religious word, so I am slightly thinking,  is it a god-given fact?  But ‘deep’; makes it feel biological, as if it is in the very depths of our being , in our DNA , in our cells, in our heart of hearts.

Yet there is possible movement here – it might happen that we could ‘get free/our heart’, even if it is only ‘for a moment.’

Yes, that is the moment that sometimes happens to  readers in Shared Reading groups. It doesn’t happen all the time, it doesn’t happen to everyone. But when it does happen, everyone who witnesses it knows they have been close to something profound. And we are all affected by that.

Time is up.

Lifesavers

In June 1983, at the age of 27, I sat in the garden of the Albert pub in Lark Lane with Brian Nellist, who had been my third year tutor at University and told him, ‘I want to teach adults to read.’

My degree, First Class honours, top of my year, was the first success I had had in the world. I was a not-very-mature mature student about to start her adult life.

The day the results came out my ex-partner committed suicide.  I had ended our relationship – which involved a lot of drugs and drink – so as to be able to concentrate on my degree. I was left with a terrible sense that I had to make my life count for something – that the thing I had chosen, ‘literature’, had to pay.

Within 3 years my mother would die of alcoholism. These two deaths were utterly significant in the much later development of The Reader Organisation. They seemed to stack up an equation – what life is, and how you value it, what matters, what things cost.

In the pub garden that sunny day, Brian persuaded me that instead of becoming an adult literacy tutor, I should do a Ph.D. I took his advice and the three years I spent writing my thesis, Visionary Realism: from George Eliot to Doris Lessing laid down the foundations of my adult life. I became a university teacher of literature. My desire to ‘teach adults to read’ stayed stubbornly put, however and I taught Adult Continuing Education for the next 20 years.

I had no ambitions and absolutely no sense that I could affect the world in any way, nor would I want to. I thought the world wasn’t very good, and I didn’t respect it very much.

As I look at memories of what I felt at that time, it seemed that the most important thing was to make a small good world around myself, immediately – in my house, with my family, in classes I taught.

That was the world I could affect. I had to make my own life pay – I felt – for those two lives which, if I had if not actively taken, I had not been able to save. This has always been at the back of my sense of my own adult life and behind my teaching or sharing of literature. Can it help?

For a long time, I wanted to be a writer. Finishing my Ph.D.  had taught me that I could complete things, so for many years each day I got up at 5.00am and wrote. I wrote six novels during this period, none of them publishable, but all important to me: I was remaking the world in images I chose. I wrote stories of people whose lives had been smashed up, whose worlds were broken. And  then I taught literature, part-time, to adults. Being an unpublished novelist was a sad state (though I didn’t care a jot for a long time:  I just had to write), but it served as a sort of preparation for the hard slog that would become The Reader Organisation: I was learning to believe in and to build structures. It was a fifteen-year apprenticeship in not giving up.

During this long and intensely private period of my life a traumatic event took place.  I felt the world, the cosmos, was broken. Literature, in this period, assisted me – as breathing apparatus assists in a major fire. I can remember reading Psalm 91 when I was so frightened that, night after night, I was scared to go to sleep:

          He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,

and from the noisome pestilence.

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust:

his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

I did not, do not, ‘believe in god’ in any sense that a person with a formed  religious faith would recognise. Yet I needed those words  – ‘fortress ‘ ‘deliver thee’  ‘snare of the fowler’. The words met me in my place of terror and offered –what? Recognition? Language?

They are ancient words, words to  which people, for more than two thousand years, have turned in their terrors.  Unable to sleep, I took comfort from those countless human beings, and the words to which they had turned. The verses seemed to offer structure, shape, and yes, refuge. I liked reading them aloud. They gave me, in the deepest sense, comfort.  And it was a surprise – I had no idea those poems, The Psalms, were still alive.

Many other books also helped me – the entire works of George Eliot (including the nine volumes of her Letters). Shakespeare. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing.  The works of Russell Hoban. Poetry, starting with Chaucer and going as far as my dear old friend Les Murray’s An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow, and probably further. George Herbert. Paradise Lost. The Prelude and everything else by Wordsworth.  These books gave me back my inner and outer experiences in words and sentences, feelings and thoughts, images, worlds, cosmologies, voices, languages.  They gave me meanings which matched what I already – wordlessly – knew.

The Reader Organisation has grown out of and from the wonderful compost of sadnesses, ruins, breakages, losses and terrors of my own real life and the lives of others I have known.

When I started my mission (‘great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them’) in 2002, it was with the intent of passing on this strong, life-saving stuff to others.  Having felt the true weight of the trouble many humans, most humans, have to live through, the seriousness of needing some strong help really comes home.  Of course there is lightweight reading, and some people are lucky enough to live on the surface most of the time. Let them continue to bob along happily, reading for pleasure.  But many of us are shipwrecked, drowning. We are reading, like the child Davy in David Copperfield, ‘as if for life’. Is that reading for  pleasure? Is it bibliotherapy? These are not the right words but no matter, so long as they bring us what we need.  We need lifesavers, the great books.

——————————————————-

This blog is based on a talk I gave to colleagues at  The Reader Organisation’s ThinkDay,  July 2013

2013-07-22 16.00.21We combined ThinkDay with Sportsday, as we have a garden at Calderstones Mansion. Picture shows Team A lining up for their innings in a very competitive game of rounders.

Meg, Mog and Middlemarch

Photo on 13-09-2013 at 06.14

The Institute of Education’s recent report into Reading for Pleasure  indicates that reading for pleasure between the ages 10-16 affects cognitive power, giving readers better results even in non-language based subjects such as maths. The study allows for socio-economic influences, and seems to point to reading for pleasure as a greater indicator of educational success that whether or not your parents went to university. It looks as if it comes down, causally, down to increased vocabulary. Or is that a outcome of something else?

I was delighted to receive a copy of the draft report from Dr Alice Sullivan, and I’m looking forward to giving it my full attention over the coming weekend. My initial scanning glance set a couple of thoughts off . First, is it about vocabulary – greater power to communicate – or is that a sign of some other, deeper, structural  development? Need to read the paper properly to see what  the researchers are saying. and  secondly,  do we have to call it reading for pleasure? I have reluctantly accepted this misnomer for  years, simply because there seems no other word or phrase for it. But ‘pleasure’ is not good enough. I read pleasure as ‘trip to Alton Towers’ (though have to admit, I’ve never been). But reading is more like ‘expedition to Kilimanjaro’. Would you call that order of experience ‘pleasure’? Pleasure may be in it, but there is also trial, testing, pain, failure, exhilaration, defeat, new start, amazing sights, bleakness, terror, joy etc. Alton Towers is  a cheap simulacrum. So what is the  word for what we do when we read  hard stuff ? And why, uncompelled, would anyone read the hard stuff?

For more than twenty-five years, while I was studying and teaching literature, my job was to read, to think about what I had read, and to talk to people about that. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but I struggled to imagine why readers found it difficult to get into reading complex books, and sometimes thought it a failure of will: they just didn’t really want to. But here I am, wanting to reread George Eliot for the first time in seven or eight years, and finding it difficult to concentrate: hard paragraphs in Middlemarch shout less than the need to sort new staff contracts. I am going to have to devise some regular daily plan for attentive reading, because these days, like most other adults, I haven’t got the concentration at the end of the day.

You might say, why bother? Isn’t the active life as important as the contemplative? Yes, and having founded The Reader Organisation – a great experiment involving people and books – I am choosing the active during this part of my life, and enjoying it, too. All the same I am beginning to feel the need for some element of the contemplative life. It might come from meditation, or study, or prayer or perhaps even as the by-product of a very long walk, but contemplation’s serious thinking, imagining and feeling also arises in the course of reading a complex novel or epic poem. This accosting kind of thought is a natural function of being human: babies and small children are concentrating in this way most of the time – building thought-models of reality.

On the mantelshelf I have two brass cauldrons, about the size of small tangerines, gently dented by three generations of play. They have a minutely serrated rim, which you only become aware of when you pick them up. Holding one now, running my finger around that rim, I re-feel the pleasure I had in those serrations when the cauldrons sat on my grandparents’ mantelpiece. I also feel a sense of the mild fear I had of the legs of the things: sharp fat brass pencil points. Sniffing them, I remember their thin, high-metallic smell and I am back in the living room of my grandparents’ house, where we went after school for tea and stories and toast. We often had the light off, to save electricity. In the dark, the cauldrons shone in the light thrown by the coal fire.

That kind of relation to those cauldrons is what the great human scientist George Eliot is talking about in The Mill on The Floss, when Tom comes home from his boarding school for the first time, and enjoys the vivid return of things that have always been there:

The happiness of seeing the bright light in the parlour at home, as the gig passed noiselessly over the snow-covered bridge; the happiness of passing from the cold air to the warmth and the kisses and the smiles of that familiar hearth, where the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

This is hard writing because it requires us to actively participate, not simply to absorb. As modern readers, we generally read too fast: but here you need to read as you would in a book of scientific thinking, Freud or Darwin. You need to concentrate and slow down and come alive to it. Look at that seamless passing from a child’s reported experience, ‘seeing the bright light… the snow-covered bridge… warmth and kisses’ to the complicated thought about the nature of a child’s experience:

the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

If you don’t actively follow these words as you read, you will soon be lost. From the description of Tom loving being home, George Eliot brings in a hypothetical general law of human being: what surrounds us in early childhood sets a pattern which lasts into adult life. We may choose other rugs, other fire-irons when we are older, but we are built up out of the feelings that we attached to those early objects and experiences of our childhood:

There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs … And there is no better reason for preferring this (particular thing) than that it stirs an early memory; that it is no novelty in my life, speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and color, but the long companion of my existence, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.

There is wonderful sense of what contemporary thinkers would call ‘wellbeing’ here: a sense of a unified life where feelings and objects and time are bound together in one person, through joy. I would never choose to buy these cauldrons in a shop. They do not speak to me ‘through my present sensibilities to form and color’; they are not my style. I love them partly because they are mixed with memories of my grandparents, of the fire, and the toast and their love, of things I felt when my joys ‘were vivid’. They give me that elusive thing: wellbeing.

I am now the grandmother who has these cauldrons on her mantelpiece. My grandson (two years, nine months) is in the bath playing with a plastic tea-set. This is a creative experimental process and Leo is full of earnest concentration as he tries to float the cups and fill them with water, as he watches the water pass effortlessly through a sieve but less effortlessly through a small colander. His favourite word at the moment is ‘more!’ He wants things repeated ad infinitum because he needs to see them many times in order to establish them as realities, strong possibilities, likelihoods in his mind. This is a sort of scientific enquiry.

But it is time to get out. The water is getting cold, his fingers are beginning to shrivel, and the adults want to eat supper in adult peace, after he has gone to bed. None of that matters to Leo. When I suggest ‘out’ he’s still enjoying this fabulous experiment. He cries out in frustration and distress, ‘Not yet! Not yet!’

‘Not yet’ is a language spell that allows him to hold back the reality principle for a moment and continue what he is doing – and sometimes it works. But not now: our needs are more pressing; we want to eat.

He’s furious when I lift him out, screams ‘Not yet! Not yet!’ over and over and finally subsides into body-racking sobs as his mother and I rub him down and get his pyjamas on. When we are in the bedroom, I offer a story and the sobs stop: suddenly everything is different.

We open the book. It’s one of Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog stories. The witch and her cat are making a spell but something is going terribly wrong. There are explosions. ‘Where’s Mog?’ I ask him and he points to the cat. ‘Where’s the cauldron?’ Leo points to the cauldron. ‘What’s Meg putting in the cauldron?’ I ask him and he recites the list of spell ingredients. He is altogether caught up in the discovered world.

In the bath-experiment, Leo was actively manipulating objects and forces – water, gravity, plastic. While part of his intelligence was involved in creating the experiment, part was engaged in observing it and another part in thinking about it. But with the book there is nothing for him to do physically, the concentration is total: all his energy goes into the observing and thinking about what he is observing. The book it is all here: the pictures and words present a created universe with experiments going on (as in George Eliot). What we have to do – our part – is to observe, meditate, reflect. Well, my dear reader, Leo in the bath is a model of a person living a life in the world. You are busy. Things happen, you try to work them out, a lot’s happening at once, some of it incomprehensible. Only part of your mind can ever be on the experience because most of your mind is doing, making, acting. And without the thinking, meditative self it is finally just chaos: we must think.

The book is a selective, ordered model of reality. It is easier to see here: things slow down; we can concentrate on one thing at a time. This may be the key aspect of reading and the reason that the read-aloud, shared reading we have developed over the past 13 years at The Reader Organisation, (whole books read aloud slowly over time in a group) is so powerful. It allows us to be here now, to keep a concentrated mindfulness going. If I were reading Middlemarch in a Get Into Reading group with other concentrated people, I would be getting a lot more out of it than I am on my sleepy own late at night.

The next day when we are lighting the sitting room fire (coal, real fire, sticks and paper), Leo looks up and sees one of the brass cauldrons – notices it for what must be the first time.

‘Cauldron?’ he says, as if to himself.

‘Cauldron,’ he says again as if checking the brass reality with his mental image from the last night’s book. Then again, more confidently, he asserts: ‘Cauldron.’ reaching for it now. I can see he is remembering Meg and Mog. I observe his fingers touch the serrated edge. He looks at the coal and mis-guesses brilliantly ‘Coal-dron’. He’s not right but he is making his world, an active presence, made more active by the book. Making me more active, too: I do not know the etymology of ‘cauldron’. I look it up.

What Leo has done: read a book, thought about it deeply, not really understood it all (because he did not know what a cauldron was in actuality) but he has got from that experience a template, a shape, a map, a set of pointers about life. Going back into life, he is able to recognise something he learned in the book (cauldron). He has been a creative reader and he has experienced a bigger reality because of the book. This is exactly what is happening, albeit in a more complex way, to me as I read George Eliot. That section about Tom coming home in The Mill on the Floss cleared a space in me and filled it with a thought-shape which was later filled out by Leo and cauldron. Books go forwards into our experience as well as backwards: they anticipate things you might know or understand later as well as things you know now, which is why we should all read books that are too hard or too old for us sometimes.

The New Economics Foundation has formulated 5 Ways to Wellbeing. One of them is ‘Take Notice’. Books build our capacity to do that. I must make more time for reading.

 This post is a slightly extended version of an article that appeared in The Reader No.37 (Spring 2010)

 

http://www.thereader.org.uk/

http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/five-ways-well-being

http://www.skyarts.co.uk/video/video-jan-pienkowski-on-the-book-show/