The Winter’s Tale Day 9: Life Under A Time-travelling Magnifying Glass

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Shutters and pines, Zakynthos,  29 June

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2. She’s just said ‘you’ll stay?’…

POLIXENES
No, madam.
HERMIONE
Nay, but you will?
POLIXENES
I may not, verily.

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the
stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.
POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

I’d been thinking about how it felt to be Leontes, having failed to persuade someone to do something (getting Polixenes to extend his visit) and having then to ask someone else (your wife, Hermione) to have ago.  Is there any way that could be ok? I try to imagine my feelings:  if I really, really wanted the person to stay, if I was totally secure with both that person and my spouse?  But there would still be the under-feeling of ‘he wouldn’t stay for me…’ I imagine Leontes watching this plea from Hermione.  I wonder how close he is to her: are they together, standing with their arms around each other? Is he across the room? I see them perhaps starting out close together and later, moving apart. When does that happen?

It starts off pretty straightforward, as if Hermione assumes that Polixenes’ saying no was a form, that really, he will stay. So she’s simple about it; ‘you’ll stay?’ she’s like an English lady in a flowery dress at a garden party: not much can go wrong here.

But when Polixenes continues to refuse what can she do? She chooses teasing; ‘Verily!’

Is that  the moment she moves away from Leontes? Her ‘Verily’ feels as if it is a reaching forward.

That’s a very real moment between friends. ‘I may not, verily’ (serious, grown up person with things to do) ‘Verily!’ (what do you think you are ! talking to me like that! I know you are not a grown-up with serious things to do  even if you seem to be one!) and that gives Hermione her teasing opening to have a go at him.

Her whole argument is a play on ‘verily’ and not so much the word as the way he said it, as if he were a grown-up, a King, affairs of state etc. Hermione offers a little friendly arm-wrestling; verily!

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

Did I get the idea of arm-wrestling from her word ‘limber’? Not sure what she means by that, but I think I thought she meant ‘strong’. I’m going to look it up here.  Hhm, so, pliant, flexible.  As if, ‘you’ll say anything’ and therefore I can’t take seriously anything you say. From limber, pliant, flexible , Hermione goes to a distant extreme –

but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s.

She exaggerates, because he’s not trying to unseat the stars with his oaths, he’s merely been gently protesting.  She’s playing – slapping down her own ‘verily’ to match his.  And then, ‘a lady’s ‘Verily’s’ /as potent as a lords.’

Can you take the word ‘potent’ without thinking of something  even mildly sexual?  Or is it only about strength of will! Would you like to try reading that line as a tease? As a bit of flirting?  As an assertion of your feminine power?

What’s happening while she is speaking? Where is she, in relation to Polixenes – and where, still, silent – is Leontes? I imagine her pretty close to Polixenes now, maybe  holding his arm or his hands… certainly this kind of conversation doesn’t take place across a formal state distance.  It’s intimate. It expects to win. But maybe he still needs more arm-twisting? Hermione continues;

Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

That ‘will you go yet’ seems to imply he has made to go, seems as if she might be responding to some movement of his.  I see her putting her arms across him – blocking a possible movement.  Using her arms as  bars, maybe standing, laughing, sure of herself, blocking in his path.

Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

All  sweet, funny, winning. And then I think of Leontes, watching.  It don’t feel good to imagine being him’! You’d have to be a pretty secure person to watch all this and not feel undermined.  But so far the text doesn’t give us a clue to him (though we saw last time we read, Hermione reassuring him – ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’ and that was a little worrying).

I’m aware of different kinds of time going on as we read. The straightforward reading time, where things happen straight consecutive linear unfolding… and the time travel we can do up and down the lines, thinking back and forth in time : looking back, once we’ve heard that key line, ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’, we can’t help see what came before it in its light, too. It’s like being in psychoanalysis  or time-travel everything counts and every moment  influences every other moment. It’s all one.  Life is like that but usually we can’t see it, too busy in the moment or  in the past or future, rarely  holding it all in mind at once.

Is it because of Leontes (and where is he as all this happens, where is he positioned on the stage? How close or distant is he?)  that Hermione turns the conversation as soon as she has won Polixenes assent? I’ll stay he says and she replies, tell me about when you and  Leontes were boys…

 

Ask for The More

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Thistles in an olive grove. ‘A tough life needs a tough language’  J Winterson

For Jo, the Crossing Sweeper

I’m thinking ‘Why Great Literature?’ and I am thinking of Jo, the Crossing Sweeper. Jo, orphan street-boy, at the heart of Dickens’ great novel Bleak House.

Great, great I say, despite the fact that it’s patchy and there’s stuff I don’t like in it. Great because it tries for the biggest of pictures, top to bottom, the whole shebang, and it ties everyone together in one flailing mess and says, we’re all in it together.

‘I don’t know nothing,’ says Jo. No one looks after him, and he has to look out for himself as best he can. He can’t read or write. There isn’t a happy ending.

Great, I say, because it makes me cry when Jo dies, when Esther faces her smallpox-marked face in the mirror for the first time, when I feel the piteous waste of Lady Dedlock’s life.  Great because ridiculous Sir Leicester Dedlock does love that woman and is human, not merely a cut-and-paste stereotype, as I might have wanted him to be, so I could more easily class-hate him, when, after his stroke and having learned of her running away, he writes on a slate, ‘full forgiveness’.

The stuff I don’t like – I’ll not go into it – I ignore. Because I want the great. I am hungry for the great, for that which is more than me, bigger than me, better than me. If I only read books which encompassed what I already know and like, what would be the point? The point – for me – is growth, is to be the more. When I founded The Reader it was to take books which offer ‘more’, books often referred to as ‘great literature’, to people who didn’t already have it.

Sounds very nineteenth century – posh ladies taking religious tracts to the poor –  as here in Chapter 8 of Bleak House, ‘In The Bricklayers Cottage’:

I was glad when we came to the brickmaker’s house, though it was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt- pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s.

Mrs. Pardiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination and talking with much volubility about the untidy habits of the people (though I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place), conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner, the ground-floor room of which we nearly filled. Besides ourselves, there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome.

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too businesslike and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom – I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she is a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty – it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a Lie!”

He had pulled his pipe out of his mouth to say all this, and he now turned over on his other side and smoked again. Mrs. Pardiggle, who had been regarding him through her spectacles with a forcible composure, calculated, I could not help thinking, to increase his antagonism, pulled out a good book as if it were a constable’s staff and took the whole family into custody. I mean into religious custody, of course; but she really did it as if she were an inexorable moral policeman carrying them all off to a station- house.

Ada and I were very uncomfortable. We both felt intrusive and out of place, and we both thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people. The children sulked and stared; the family took no notice of us whatever, except when the young man made the dog bark, which he usually did when Mrs. Pardiggle was most emphatic. We both felt painfully sensible that between us and these people there was an iron barrier which could not be removed by our new friend. By whom or how it could be removed, we did not know, but we knew that. Even what she read and said seemed to us to be ill-chosen for such auditors, if it had been imparted ever so modestly and with ever so much tact. As to the little book to which the man on the floor had referred, we acquired a knowledge of it afterwards, and Mr. Jarndyce said he doubted if Robinson Crusoe could have read it, though he had had no other on his desolate island.

We were much relieved, under these circumstances, when Mrs. Pardiggle left off.

The man on the floor, then turning his bead round again, said morosely, “Well! You’ve done, have you?”

“For to-day, I have, my friend. But I am never fatigued. I shall come to you again in your regular order,” returned Mrs. Pardiggle with demonstrative cheerfulness.

“So long as you goes now,” said he, folding his arms and shutting his eyes with an oath, “you may do wot you like!”

Mrs. Pardiggle accordingly rose and made a little vortex in the confined room from which the pipe itself very narrowly escaped. Taking one of her young family in each hand, and telling the others to follow closely, and expressing her hope that the brickmaker and all his house would be improved when she saw them next, she then proceeded to another cottage. I hope it is not unkind in me to say that she certainly did make, in this as in everything else, a show that was not conciliatory of doing charity by wholesale and of dealing in it to a large extent.

She supposed that we were following her, but as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill treatment from the poor little child.

Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by its appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.

“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”

Such compassion, such gentleness, as that with which she bent down weeping and put her hand upon the mother’s might have softened any mother’s heart that ever beat. The woman at first gazed at her in astonishment and then burst into tears.

Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping – weeping very much.

When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.

An ugly woman, very poorly clothed, hurried in while I was glancing at them, and coming straight up to the mother, said, “Jenny! Jenny!” The mother rose on being so addressed and fell upon the woman’s neck.

She also had upon her face and arms the marks of ill usage. She had no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy; but when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty. I say condoled, but her only words were “Jenny! Jenny!” All the rest was in the tone in which she said them.

I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.

We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.

Ada was so full of grief all the way home, and Richard, whom we found at home, was so distressed to see her in tears (though he said to me, when she was not present, how beautiful it was too!), that we arranged to return at night with some little comforts and repeat our visit at the brick-maker’s house. We said as little as we could to Mr. Jarndyce, but the wind changed directly.

Ah, the danger of becoming Mrs Pardiggle, with her tracts for babbies. I wanted to avoid that, because the drunk man who gives his wife a black eye is certainly not a babby. What would he recognise, I wonder, what book would work for him? Or perhaps clean water would be a better starting place?

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban. Read it – it’s hard to find, but seek it secondhand in an out of print collection of Hoban oddments called The Moment Under The Moment. I took a poem along with in case things went pear-shaped and the poem was ‘Crossing The Bar’ by Tennyson. The poem exploded with reality and there were tears. From my point of view, all was well. After a few weeks, Frank, an ex-welder from Birkenhead said to me, ‘Jane, when are you going to bring out the good stuff?’

The good stuff?

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘What the posh-nobs have – Shakespeare, Tolstoy, all that.’

Frank thought I was holding back, which in a sense I was, but soon after he made his request we started reading Othello in that group. Couldn’t recommend it more highly. Lots to talk about and more than that – new thoughts, or old thoughts, put into words for the first time. ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light…’

I’ll read Iago, said a woman in the group, one week when I begged for help with the reading, I was married to that bastard for twenty seven years.

*

Then there’s Jay (not his real name), a twelve year old boy in a foster placement, unable to read or write. Well, he’s not on the streets like Dickens’ Jo, is he? He’s not bouncing from pillar to post. We have a social care system, we have Ritalin, don’t we?

What do you usually do, Jay?

Go down the shops, hang out.

We were working on a summer project in which we were reading The Unforgotten Coat and making a Guide to Our City.

What’s a guidebook? asks Jay.

A book about what people could do here, what they might want to see, where they might want to go.

Here? Said Jay, incredulous.  S’just alkies, innit?

Why shouldn’t Jay have Great Literature, works of art, that will make his experience bigger? Given a choice (which he isn’t, because his family and me and you, that’s to say, society and education, have all failed him and he has no choices, especially not about reading) but say he had achoice, at the moment he wouldn’t choose to read anything.

So I’m not thinking about choice, I’m thinking about primitive modelling: I love reading books, copy me. If that’s what I’m doing, it matters that the books are ones I genuinely love. Why? Jay will feel the love, and like the Bricklayer’s family, he’ll smell  the fake if I don’t.  But I must choose something I love that Jay might get interested in – it’s no use me taking him Bleak House or Othello first off. Yet it can’t be a book for a babby, because Jay is no babby. I’ll take picture books probably, but complex ones, so a twelve year old with violent and desperate experiences of life won’t feel insulted. But I’m not taking a World of Warfare comic, because Jay probably already knows about them. And yet no one has ever read to him and school he’s been out of the classroom a more than in it. So I started with I Want My Hat Back, great pictures, totally witty, a story of terrifying murderous rage, with more emotions than a psychologist’s office.

*

Who decides what is ‘great’?  The person having the experience, of course.

So much depends on the Reader Leader, who must try to choose something that will offer a great experience to their group members. You choose beyond your comfort zone, for yourself, but with your group in mind, because way beyond any format, any type of reading, any structure, is the truly recognisable reality of something new happening as we read. Do you love it? Does it take you somewhere you haven’t been? That’s it. That’s the more.

 

 

 

Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

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Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.

 

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The Winter’s Tale Day 8: That Jar o’ the Clock and the Questioning

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Cow Parsley in Calderstones Park

 

If you are new to this reading of Shakespeare’s great play, find earlier posts by typing ‘winter’s tale’ into the search box. Find the entire text here. Or, as if you’d just arrived at a Shared Reading group for the first time, just jump in. It’s mainly happening in the moment. Think of reading Shakespeare as some time with the most human of thinkers, this carefully observant psychotherapist, the great listener. He hears so much in a single moment, in the movement of the hand of a clock…

Hermione, Queen of Sicillia has been charged by her husband, Leontes, to persuade their visitor, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of  Bohemia, to stay a bit longer.  She’s doing her best. We pick her up in mid-flow:

HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?

On stage  Hermione’s own son is present – Mamillius, aged about eight or nine.  He’s a much-loved boy. It’s natural perhaps that Hermione  thinks a longing to go home after a nine month state visit might be prompted by missing your boy.  But Polixenes hasn’t said that at all.  That’s Hermione’s own thought, she’s so moved herself – it’s an excuse she’d be glad to hear.

I ask myself now, what kind of Mum thinks the most powerful thing she can think of  is missing her child? I don’t answer that question, just ask it.

And what’s a distaff, someone might ask.  Hmm, something about women, about the female side of a family? We’ll have to look it up. So we do and we find or remember ,or someone in our group will know, that a distaff is the spindle used in spinning, a deeply  female bit of kit. It’s a bit  like saying I’ll hit him over the head with my handbag, comic but also serious at some level about womanliness, about woman power. Charged by her husband to make this old friend stay longer, Hermione is using charm, wit, her femininity. When she makes the distaff joke others will be (gently) laughing. So, having got a laugh, she homes in with a realistic ask:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week.

The word ‘royal’ is good there, just after her pantomime-style joke  – pulling herself back a respectful distance, acknowledging Polixenes still a king, despite her feminine power. And a week – it’s hardly anything after a nine month stay. It’s a ‘borrow’ she offers to pay back with high-rate  interest:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting:

A week for a month? Irresistible bargain. Yet she pulls herself up now, as if she fears she may have gone too far.

yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord.

it’s worth reading this whole speech of  Hermione’s through at a rush to get the gist of it and feel the movements of her mind as she powers through her  ask of Polixenes. In that context, this last section – an aside to her husband – seems worried to me.

We might want to stay here for some time thinking about a ‘jar o’ the clock’, seeing a hand move,  asecond-hand, or the moment when a minute hand actually moves.  That jars. We might need to think about  old-fashioned mechanical clockwork clocks. Did they really have clocks in Shakespeare’s time? I think of a sundial, or the hourglass, but not clocks. Over to wikipedia I go.

The first mechanical clocks, employing the verge escapement mechanism with a foliot or balance wheel timekeeper, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century allowed portable clocks to be built, evolving into the first pocketwatches by the 17th century, but these were not very accurate until the balance spring was added to the balance wheel in the mid 17th century.

and later, still in the same article, I find the Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a wrist watch by Robert Dudley.  Lovely. That’s a poem for someone to write. So mechanical clocks, yes.

Do we want to think about the word ‘jar’?  A jar o the clock. A moment when something changes, moves. time has moved on; we are in a new moment. Has something now clicked? Does Hermione turn to her husband at that moment?  Why would you say something like that, in public? Does it jar?

Let’s replay it in my own vernacular:

Leontes – aren’t you going to ask him? Hermione – of course!   persuades persuades to now vail , jokes about good reason to go (your son)  offers the swap – a week for a month,  then ‘but Leontes, I really do love you!’ and then, to Polixenes, brightly, hopefully ‘ You’ll stay?’

What kind of husband has to be reassured of his wife’s love in public when she is flirting (is it flirting? persuading? playing? teasing?) with his best friend?

A lot of questions must be raised about the likely relationships between these three.  Let’s say we agree that she’s only playfully teasing in order to get Polixenes to do what Leontes wants… but now I am bothered about Leontes asking her to do that. Is it just that Leontes knows she’s a good talker?  Is it because he needs her help with this kind of thing? Is he a bad talker? Does he think Polixenes will be more easily persuaded by Hermione?

Under what circumstances would you say to your beloved, go on, you ask… ?

If I try to imagine that, I think it would only happen when I was sure the beloved would  have more sway than me.  And perhaps I might not like that feeling – that my beloved has more sway than me, with my best friend.  I might be quite wrong to have that anxiety. But it was me who asked the beloved to do it. Is this test of some sort?

What is Leontes’ state of mind when he passes the responsibility for securing Polixenes longer stay to  Hermione? It’s always horrible when you fail to persuade someone to something, especially in public. Is he humiliated? We can ask – should ask – all the questions we can think of… we turn the little three-D model one way and then another. We look at it all in one light, and then change the light. How does it look now?  You cn stay here a long time, thinking. But as the play know, only unfolding time will give the answers. And those answers  may only provoke more  questions.  The questions are the thing!

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 6: Is Something Up?

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Euphorbia  ‘Black Pearl’ springing into beauty, March 26

Last time, we’d got a little way into Act 1 Scene ii, with Leontes, King of Sicilia,  trying to persuade his childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who has been on an extended visit to the court of  Sicilia, to stay longer. Polixenes seems pretty set on leaving.

In my opening sessions I’d noticed some words which had given me  cause for concern – ‘if the King had no heir’  in particular – but nothing has yet happened to make  these more than  very slight, almost sub-atomic alarms.  All seems well.

I’d want to pick up the reading and get another goodish rush at it and get some rhythm going, even at the expense of meaning – wait, wait. The meaning  will come eventually. Just get the feel.

 

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.
POLIXENES
Sir, that’s to-morrow.
I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’ besides, I have stay’d
To tire your royalty.
LEONTES
We are tougher, brother,
Than you can put us to’t.
POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.
There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.
LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

I’d ask my group to imagine two old boyhood friends in a slight argument – are we seeing a  bit of arm-wrestling? I get that from Leontes lines, ‘We are tougher, brother,/Than you can put us to’t.’ This feels slightly aggressive,  perhaps mildly so, but I don’t think you’d mention your toughness if you weren’t feeling a little the need for it. but I’m rushing ahead!

When Polixenes explains why he must leave, he first gives a reasonable political reason:

I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’

A literal translation into contemporary English might read: I’m worried about what could be going on at home. ‘Sneap’ means rebuke so  I think that second part must mean, ‘am worried that something may happen which would make me think that hints I should return to govern my  country may  have been true…’ Slight worry, what if it had a basis in fact?

So far, so sensible.  But then he adds what might be a throwaway politeness: ‘besides I have stay’d/ To tire your royalty.’

Is it throwaway?  Leontes now responds with his ‘I am tough’ thought.

Has Polixenes really tired him? Is something wrong? Are they -while all seems fine of the surface – really beginning to tire? to fall out? Now the arm-wrestling really does begin:

POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.

Let them be  playing – arm-wrestling, playing table tennis, play boxing. Just while we imagine it. Get the feeling of that back-and-forth into the room. But now the rhythm changes as Polixenes seems to think more seriously about  what or who might persuade him to stay:

There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.

There seems the possibility of real love in this belief that there  is no tongue that could win him ‘so soon as yours’. That’s one bit of what Polixenes says. But what follows: a second thought which remembers the business of being King : ‘Were there necessity in your request, although/’Twere needful I denied it. ‘

I think that means that  if Leontes has a good reason to plead with him to stay, he would, even though  he needs to go home.

I notice that there are mixed feelings here: that the feelings move thick and fast – are they really close friends? Could any thing cause them to fall out?  Does Leontes really want  Polixenes to stay? I look more closely at the language:

My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble:

Polixenes does not want to go, his business, affairs of state, are what drag him away. Hindering that movement makes an act of love painful – Leontes may  think he is keeping him   out  of love, but staying is hurting Polixenes.  Is it true that his staying is to Leontes a ‘charge and trouble’ ? Is that  a thing we say – I’m putting you to trouble? Or is it a get-out?

All these microscopically slow reading decisions must be made in a flexible way – we’ve got to be able to change our minds later as things unfold. As in life we do.That’s one of the great things about reading Shakespeare: it requires this practise of flexible attention.

And now, suddenly, Leontes, apparently out of the blue turns to his wife, Hermione, who so far we’ve not noticed:

LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

Again, a slight air of menace or up-for-a-fight? Why not, ‘Hermione? Cn you persuade him?’ Leontes words feel abrupt. Surely if we’d said ‘tongue tied, Jane?’ in ordinary colloquial language we’d mean – I’d expect you to have something to say on this’. It’s a small-scale accusation.

You might think this is too slow as a way of reading. Are we really going to discuss every word, intonation, possibility?  I hope we are! Because this is what makes the reading our own, rather than what someone else says it is. We work out what it means, word by word,  inch by inch.  We do the work.

As in life we do. In real life we have sometimes to pick up deep and extended meanings from small words. Judging someone’s character in a trial or in a job interview or on a first date or by their email… each word may hint something. May, or may not. We do well to read them carefully, always remembering we might be wrong.

I’d ask my group now to reread this scene so far, all of it, in one reading, then to think again: what just happened, and what do you think of these two men? Then we’d  note in pencil what we thought, ready to rub it out, if necessary, as time unfolds. Actually what happens in life – speakig for myself anyway – is that we write in pen. Awfully hard to rub out later, when you change your mind!

 

So put your little hand in mine/there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb

Clasped_Hands_of_Robert_and_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_MET_DT8282
Clasped Hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning Sculpture; Sculpture
Harriet Hosmer – http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/11156 This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Interesting piece in The Times today, which set off thoughts about loneliness, sadness, chronic pain and, you’ll not be surprised to hear from me, reading.  Pavel Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, The Times reports, has published a paper on hand holding and pain in the journal PNAS,

Neuroscientists think that the empathy one partner feels for the other can be passed on through touch as the pair’s brainwaves begin to dance to the same rhythms. This in turn helps to curb distress and floods the brain with reward chemicals that muffle the pain.

The pain relief appears to be tightly bound up with affection. It was most powerful in the couples who had the most closely connected patterns of electrical activity in their brains.

Lots to think about here, as the study did not find the same effects in both women and men. Further, other scientists, of course, disagree;

Flavia Mancini, of the University of Cambridge, said it was important to show that the effect could work on chronic pain as well as short, sharp suffering. “Social touch may help, but in my opinion what really matters is social connection,” she said. “We should not let others suffer in isolation, with or without the touch of a partner.”

What came into my mind as I read was the memory of Doris Lessing talking  to me about people synching brainwaves (something she had learned in or through her Sufi practice, I seem to remember, but it is all so long ago, perhaps I’ve made that part up).

At the time – but what time? Shall we say  late 1980s, when I was oh, not yet forty… At the time, I thought it was a deeply attractive, true-feeling possibility but also impossible to prove and  maybe a bit crazy. Doris was utterly convinced. I paraphrase but she said something like , when people sit together and concentrate their minds sink and their brain waves all enter the same state…

I think Doris was talking about meditation or prayer groups (but look at the Nurenburg Rallies, I bet  brainwaves were synched there, too) Later as The Reader developed, and I had many experiences in Shared Reading groups of people sitting together and directly their  concentration in one place I  knew that Doris was right.  People get together in someway, and it feels good.

What has this to do with pain?

I don’t know, I was thinking about another recent study which showed that physical pain inhibitors such as paracetamol  also inhibit emotional pain.

I was thinking  I wish I would stop thinking of the  body as one thing and the rest of me as something else.

I was thinking of the importance of physical touch and ridiculous risk-averse guidelines which routinely suggest children should not be hugged  or kissed even by foster-parents? Can this really be true?

Thinking of love poetry, too.

Thinking of young (and old) lovers holding hands.

And thinking of a circle of people, linked and synched by the language of the book.

No time to work these thoughts out this morning, just jotting them there, for perhaps future reference.

 

‘A Lost Pulse of Feeling’ : What is it and Why Does It Matter?

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The Front Step with Hydrangea and Milk, 20 October

Yesterday I had the extraordinary experience of watching the rushes of a series of AHRC-funded films being made  by CRILS about Shared Reading.  The team have been filming groups and talking to Reader Leaders about how they do  what they do when they are running groups.  The plan is to use the films for helping The Reader  to teach new volunteer Reader Leaders, as well as to have some new footage on our website so that everyone can see  Shared Reading in action,  adding to our existing stock, which you can find here

Some of my favourites:

Why Reading Matters – an old one but still relevant, part of a BBC series, this shows a n open community group in Birkenhead

Get Into Reading – an early film from colleagues in the South West, showing Shared Reading for people with depression and/or dementia and  in an inpatient Mental Health setting, and featuring GP Dr Mary Embleton

NHS Mersey Care and The Reader – this is an extract from a longer documentary made by The Danish Broadcasting Corporation as they  followed NHS Mersey Care’s Reader in Residence, Selina McNay, as she ran Shared Reading groups in community and in-patient settings. This is a truly wonderful film, and the second half  in particular gives an intense impression of the emotional power of Shared Reading.

Shared Reading in Libraries – some beautiful testimonies from members of groups and thoughts from library colleagues on why they spend time building such groups and how Shared Reading helps libraries deliver social inclusion

Phoenix Futures and The Reader in which colleagues and service users from  partner organisation, addiction rehabilitation charity Phoenix Futures talk about  what they  get from Shared Reading

Reading for Resilience: How Shared Reading can support people living with dementia – a Press Association film, made by Tom Brada, about a Shared Reading group  in a London Care Home

Shared Reading – Transforming communities, one story at a time – a film from partners in New South Wales, Australia, in which we see how easily the idea translates to another country.

All of the above are terrific, but the AHRC/CRILS films are going to add something new to our library. We’ve made them as teaching films, so they  show a  lot of detail on how we make the magic of Shared Reading happen. I was struck by what a demanding experience it is, whether you are a reader in  rehab or a Care Home or in an open community group. It was extraordinarily moving to see people working so hard to get thoughts – often thoughts that were happening right there, being formed, forged –  into words. It seemed such a courageous and vital  thing for humans do.  I spent much of the afternoon quietly moved to tears, glad that we had the lights out.

I watched a woman in a Wigan Care Home do valorous  battle with language and her own inexperience in formulating expressing such thoughts, and she was working as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen working to get a complicated feeling, her response to the poem ‘Walking Away’ by C.S.Lewis, into words. (There’s a copy here on this very interesting web page).

I thought as I watched, of the poem I’m currently reading here, ‘The Buried Life’ by Matthew Arnold.

I’m sorry that the stanza breaks don’t always seem to come out when I paste and copy. If the poem is appearing for you as a monolithic block, please read it here, where all is as it should be.

The Buried Life
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.
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!

But I’ll go on with that tomorrow, because with that woman of Wigan still in my mind this morning I want to jump forward to this bit, starting at line 77:

Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,                                                                                  80
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.                                                               85
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.

This ‘lost pulse of feeling’ what is it? And why do I feel it matters so much, when after all, it is by its very nature transient. One of the most  striking moments on my life at The Reader came in a Drug and Alcohol centre when a man who was street alcoholic and drug user, and was clearly going to continue to be a man living on the street, spoke movingly about the poem which was getting him to muse (muse, like a poet) about how he came to be in the state he was in.

‘I stood on the shore of Lake Windermere,’ he said very quietly, ‘And threw my passport and ISA in and said, ‘He’s gone now’.’

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.                                                               85
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say,

That this was a big moment for him, and  for all of us sitting around that table, that was undeniable. But what was the moment? What actually happened?  And what is the  value of what happened?

I am out of time, spent too much of it looking at the films this morning…