Silas Marner Day 35: Circling round that rock again

a Building in Lysebo, Norway
A building and blurry me, well wadded,  in Lysebo, Norway January 2018

Last time reading Silas, chapter 16, (text here) I’d been thinking about modes of knowing things about our lives: thinking and feeling. We had read about Dolly Winthrop turning her attention to the old problem of Silas’ traumatic early life. And today she  comes back to it.

Having trouble with Dolly’s country accent? Read it aloud and take it slowly:

Dolly was too useful a woman not to have many opportunities of illumination of the kind she alluded to, and she was not long before she recurred to the subject.

“Master Marner,” she said, one day that she came to bring home Eppie’s washing, “I’ve been sore puzzled for a good bit wi’ that trouble o’ yourn and the drawing o’ lots; and it got twisted back’ards and for’ards, as I didn’t know which end to lay hold on. But it come to me all clear like, that night when I was sitting up wi’ poor Bessy Fawkes, as is dead and left her children behind, God help ’em–it come to me as clear as daylight; but whether I’ve got hold on it now, or can anyways bring it to my tongue’s end, that I don’t know. For I’ve often a deal inside me as’ll never come out; and for what you talk o’ your folks in your old country niver saying prayers by heart nor saying ’em out of a book, they must be wonderful cliver; for if I didn’t know “Our Father”, and little bits o’ good words as I can carry out o’ church wi’ me, I might down o’ my knees every night, but nothing could I say.”

“But you can mostly say something as I can make sense on, Mrs. Winthrop,” said Silas

“Well, then, Master Marner, it come to me summat like this: I can make nothing o’ the drawing o’ lots and the answer coming wrong; it ‘ud mayhap take the parson to tell that, and he could only tell us i’ big words. But what come to me as clear as the daylight, it was when I was troubling over poor Bessy Fawkes, and it allays comes into my head when I’m sorry for folks, and feel as I can’t do a power to help ’em, not if I was to get up i’ the middle o’ the night– it comes into my head as Them above has got a deal tenderer heart nor what I’ve got–for I can’t be anyways better nor Them as made me; and if anything looks hard to me, it’s because there’s things I don’t know on; and for the matter o’ that, there may be plenty o’ things I don’t know on, for it’s little as I know–that it is. And so, while I was thinking o’ that, you come into my mind, Master Marner, and it all come pouring in:–if _I_ felt i’ my inside what was the right and just thing by you, and them as prayed and drawed the lots, all but that wicked un, if _they_’d ha’ done the right thing by you if they could, isn’t there Them as was at the making on us, and knows better and has a better will? And that’s all as ever I can be sure on, and everything else is a big puzzle to me when I think on it. For there was the fever come and took off them as were full-growed, and left the helpless children; and there’s the breaking o’ limbs; and them as ‘ud do right and be sober have to suffer by them as are contrairy–eh, there’s trouble i’ this world, and there’s things as we can niver make out the rights on. And all as we’ve got to do is to trusten, Master Marner–to do the right thing as fur as we know, and to trusten. For if us as knows so little can see a bit o’ good and rights, we may be sure as there’s a good and a rights bigger nor what we can know–I feel it i’ my own inside as it must be so. And if you could but ha’ gone on trustening, Master Marner, you wouldn’t ha’ run away from your fellow-creaturs and been so lone.”

This is probably almost enough for a Shared Reading session by the time we’ve really read it and considered Dolly’s words. I’d first want to stop and think about Dolly, who tells us about her own relation to her own thoughts:

but whether I’ve got hold on it now, or can anyways bring it to my tongue’s end, that I don’t know. For I’ve often a deal inside me as’ll never come out;

This uneducated, illiterate, country woman is a thinker, though she doesn’t have as much language as she needs for some of the complicated things she needs to think about. I would be keen to consider how many of us have thoughts or feelings or ways of knowing inside us that can’t come out, and for me this would be a chance to introduce a really big thought into the group. That thought comes from the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion and I’ve written about it here and elsewhere before because it seems to me central to some of our biggest problems.

If a person cannot ‘think’ with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of ‘thinking’ which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.

W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience

Dolly is one of those remarkable human beings whose power of thought is so great that she finds ways of thinking – using her emotional experience to understand life and lives – all that stuff she refers to as ‘a deal inside me as’ll never come out’ – without much in the way of formal language to help her do so.

And what is ‘thought’ anyway, in such a context? It’s not an academic, or even a rational, spelling an argument out by logic. It feels deeper than that. I’m thinking more of a deliberate, concentrated engagement with life, but an engagement, a grappling with, that takes place internally. As a maker, say a cook or a potter, grapples with the physical materials of their trade, a thinker like Dolly Winthrop grapples mentally with the stuff of life. Not in language perhaps but in pure thought/feeling, in gut responses.

Would you take the Bion quotation to a Shared Reading group? Why not? I’m really interested in it and I think it helps me think some things about the experience of being a human…Would you take it to any Shared Reading group? No, I@d take it somewhere where  I thought there would be readers who because of our previous Shared REading would be able to  respond with some sort of confidence. But I’d still take it 80% of groups I’ve been in. People are intersted in thinking – trust them!

But to return to the text! Dolly, thinking in  her  own feeling way, finds thoughts forming when she is tending the sick or doing other practical things for people in the village and,

it comes into my head as Them above has got a deal tenderer heart nor what I’ve got–for I can’t be anyways better nor Them as made me; and if anything looks hard to me, it’s because there’s things I don’t know on; and for the matter o’ that, there may be plenty o’ things I don’t know on, for it’s little as I know–that it is.

Now I probably need to stay here a while to  feel out my responses to this, and  those responses come on a number of levels.

For Dolly, God (though it is interesting she refers to God as ‘Them’) is above and made us, made humans. So far, so primitive – old man or men or higher caste folk up in the sky who create us. This thought has been around for humans since we began to develop language and perhaps even before. All over the world,  early human conceived of  God or Gods, who made and affect  humans. Dolly  is part of a long-established tradition that seems to fit only loosely with the Christianity she experiences every week at Church, most of which, by over own admission, goes over her head.  She has the feeling of there being a ‘Them above’  and that is enough for her to work with.

She believes ‘I can’t be anyways better nor Them as made me’, which you might read as Dolly being a humble working woman and knowing her place. I think it is deeper and odder than that.  Dolly seems very certain of it – her ‘anyways’ points that way.  She feels  there is  ‘them’ and that they are both mysterious and benign. Shes not better than them, they are better than her. Better in what way? They created her – whatever they are.

if anything looks hard to me, it’s because there’s things I don’t know on;

Better in how they understand, comprehend? Dolly’s incomprehension – why is there suffering if God is good – is an old theological problem, but she doesn’t know that: she only knows she feels the problem and she doesn’t know an answer. And she takes her own ignorance as a strange comfort. This is Dolly, without a complex theological language, yet able to think her thoughts.

When I read this I am thinking about forces in life, patterns, necessities, underlying structures in our experience. When I read ‘Them above’ I am thinking – hhhmm   there is no God in that sense, there’s no above, there’s only in everything, through everything. Then I make myself rethink that.  Take out the ‘only’, which is rarely  a good word or thought response.

There’s everything. In the sense of its enormous complexity it is certainly above my head. When I think of everything I realise that like Dolly, I don’t know much.

I have to leave to one side, for now, her thought,

if anything looks hard to me, it’s because there’s things I don’t know on;

because I don’t  believe that: I believe if anything looks hard to me it’s because it is hard.  I don’t expect the universe to be kind, everything to be ultimately good. I don’t believe in a loving personal God.

Oh dear, back to that rocky place again. Will continue with this tomorrow.

 

Emerson, my dear dog’s long-done death & some deep family utterances

Winter Jasmine climbing overthe courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm.JPG
Winter Jasmine climbing over the courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm            16 January 2018

Yesterday I started reading ‘Brahma’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I only read the first two lines. Here it is;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

I was thinking about the  violence of the words ‘slayer’, ‘slays’ and ‘slain’.  The poem makes death seem a vile and brutal battering and this morning, as I reread what I’d written yesterday, I thought that however a death happens,  it usually feels a brutal psychological experience to those who witness it.  Is that why Emerson has gone for that violent word?

Thinking about when my dog, Davy, died, oh, it’s years ago now. He was at the natural end of  his life and had  lost his sight and then had a stroke. He was dying and I knew it, and surely he did too, one beautiful summer morning when the garden was warm and sunny at 6.30am, and he lay on the lawn along the edge of a flowerbed, just as he had always lain along the edge of things,  the edge of the sofa, the edge of the bottom stair, the edge of the  Esse cooker. His poor dying body, panting slightly,  made a lovely golden shape, because he was a dog with great shapes, and everything about his physicality was beautiful.  I lay beside him knowing that soon it would be over and the time was gentle and peaceable, and full of love. There couldn’t have been a better goodbye.

Yet, there’s a violence to it.  In the weeks following his death he haunted me. His head,  just at the height your hand is when you stand there wanting something golden to stroke, seemed to be close to my hand.  His poor sideways sightless walk came back to me and made me cry when driving or looking for tomatoes in the supermarket. I missed him and it hurt.  Slayer, slay, slain.

Those elements of violence seem in every death because they cut us off from our time-bound, our mortal, relationships. Then the cuts hurt, because we love and because we know we are mortal.

But the second big word in the opening two lines is ‘think’. Could it be  that the sense of violence, of slog, of battery, is to do with the way we think of it? After all, ‘the mind is its own place and can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n’.  Could I have thought differently about my loss?

Many years before, our little son stood at the grave we had dug in the woods for our first family dog, Chia, and as we laid her, wrapped in a blanket, into the grave, he raised his arms in an embracing-the-universe-gesture and said, ‘Chia, you are gone, into earth, into heaven.’  That made us laugh and was a wonderful comfort in its unexpected and appropriate gravity. We buried/planted her beneath a tiny sapling.  Years before that my little daughter had written a poem about Chia, then a pup:

Little Chia,
Little loving Chia,
I’ll always remember you
When you’re gone.

The last line seemed to have  adult brutality – facing it! always facing it! – but now I concentrate on what turned out to be true; ‘I’ll always remember you when you’re gone.’ But where has Chia ‘gone’?  Into Earth? Into Heaven? Yet she’s in our brains, as memory, in our hearts. Is that a place? In our brains she has a physical being, in the energy of the  firing neurons. Is she with us? Odd the sensation of a Welsh great (or great-great) Grandmother, Niyne, whom I never met and only knew through my grandfather, Sid Smith, whose mother or grandmother she was, so powerful in his mind years after her death that she was part of  my childhood and is, even now, in my mind.

What is that passing on of memory, of being?

To remember the text:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

There’s one way of thinking – slayer, slays, slain, slain. And there is another. ‘I keep, and pass, and turn again.’ Who is the ‘I’ here, then?

Going to reread the whole poem;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Is there another, let’s call it a dimension, in which there is no such thing as slayer, no slay, no slain? In which whatever it (‘I’ in the poem) simply keeps moving?

Those of us living in the world of difference between life and death do not know, or forget

the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

I’m struck by ‘keep’, ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ as the actions of this force or being. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, perhaps  ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ are not the actions of the force but of those who think… so it would read,

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep,

and they pass (me, my ways, by) and they turn again.

I think that makes more sense.

Time to stop. Still in the first stanza, but it’s not a race, is it? It’s a reading meditation.

See Davy running on Caldy Hill at the bottom of the page,  here. And here’s a poem I wrote about him (see, the deep family likeness will come out) when he was a young dog:

Dog Geometry

On a lead he’ll bisect my line with an obtuse angle.
When he sets his haunches down in mudpond
he becomes the perfect long-backed isosceles.

Wheeling like the stars dog feels joy describing
gigantic circles bending low into the arcs
he draws gold across the sodden field.

Looking Westward, to the East: Brahma, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

swim
Remember there was summer? Montenegro 2017

Thinking back to the summer – writing here in the dark at 6.30am that seems a lifetime ago! – when I was reading Emerson (just had a look back at those posts and seem to have forgotten the content of them completely.  They might have been written by someone else. Oh dear. But I  felt excited reading the quotations from Emerson, just as I must have done the first time round.) I don’t know why I didn’t think to look at his poetry but I didn’t. This morning when looking for a short poem to read (short because I need to leave the house early today), I found ‘Brahma’ in  All The Days of My Life, an anthology I’d have said I knew inside out. Yet this is a poem (I believe, but see above, my memory is not good) I have never read before.

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Here’s a poem in the voice of Brahma, a  Hindu god about whom I know very little. I looked  him up and found he is a creator god…I wondered how Ralph Waldo Emerson knew about Brahma and thought, I’m going to read a biography of Emerson.  I wonder what Emerson knows of Brahma? I don’t know who or what the ‘red slayer’ is – something from Indian culture I don’t know about? Blood? American Indians? These thoughts are uncomfortable, (the not knowing), and jostle in my mind as I try to get into the poem. I have to do what I always have to do with not knowing and tell myself, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the red slayer is – just say, it is something that kills.

In the opening two lines the root ‘slay’ appears: slayer, slays, slain, slain. Violent death is on Emerson’s mind. ‘Slay’ means to kill with a weapon, and  is connected to slog – it’s a violent battering.

But in those opening lines full of violence and death we  have only two other elements – the connective tissues of syntax and pronouns (if, he, or) and the  twice repeated verb ‘think’.

The poem is setting up a massive opposition between what we think about death  (even when it is based on the bloody and battered evidence at our feet) and what actually is – which comes in the next two lines:

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

But 7.00am – time to go. More tomorrow.

 

Silas Marner Day 34: Dead Donkey or Live Fish?

snowy trees norway jan 2018
Snow and trees and sky and silence, Holmenkollen, Norway 2018

Long time since I stopped reading Silas Marner – which, looking back seems to be October 1st. Things got very busy and I was reading a lot of poetry. But last night I thought tomorrow I’ll go back to Silas and my heart warmed.  When we stopped, I was reading Chapter 16, where  we shoot into the future and find  Silas and Eppie grown into father and daughter and Dolly Winthrop gently quizzing Silas on what went wrong in that terrible early part of his life.

I was writing about how to read prose in a Shared Reading group – not sticking to a set number of pages or the plan you’ve made in advance, but trying to follow the rhythms of prose-thinking as it unfolds in the room. Some parts of a novel will be very fast movers, others – sentences, words, paragraphs, will need you to slow down and absorb or reflect for good while. Last time we read we’d been looking at this section, and as there’s been a long break, I’d like to start again and go back over it. Silas has been explaining about  the drawing of lots in Lantern Yard, and his subsequent rejection of both people and God.

“Oh, dear, dear,” said Dolly in a grieved voice, as if she were hearing an unfavourable report of a sick man’s case. She was silent for some minutes; at last she said–

“There’s wise folks, happen, as know how it all is; the parson knows, I’ll be bound; but it takes big words to tell them things, and such as poor folks can’t make much out on. I can never rightly know the meaning o’ what I hear at church, only a bit here and there, but I know it’s good words–I do. But what lies upo’ your mind–it’s this, Master Marner: as, if Them above had done the right thing by you, They’d never ha’ let you be turned out for a wicked thief when you was innicent.”

“Ah!” said Silas, who had now come to understand Dolly’s phraseology, “that was what fell on me like as if it had been red-hot iron; because, you see, there was nobody as cared for me or clave to me above nor below. And him as I’d gone out and in wi’ for ten year and more, since when we was lads and went halves–mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, had lifted up his heel again’ me, and worked to ruin me.”

Dolly is uneducated and humble but highly intelligent and especially intelligent in human matters. She might not understand some of the parson’s big words but she rightly identifies what is causing Silas’ pain:

But what lies upo’ your mind–it’s this, Master Marner: as, if Them above had done the right thing by you, They’d never ha’ let you be turned out for a wicked thief when you was innicent.

How could a just God, taking part, as the God of Lantern Yard was said to do, in all human affairs, right down to the drawing of lots, have found Silas to be guilty when he wasn’t? Thus God, Dolly rightly infers, has not ‘done the right thing’. How can Silas believe in any such God?

“Ah!” said Silas, who had now come to understand Dolly’s phraseology, “that was what fell on me like as if it had been red-hot iron; because, you see, there was nobody as cared for me or clave to me above nor below. And him as I’d gone out and in wi’ for ten year and more, since when we was lads and went halves–mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, had lifted up his heel again’ me, and worked to ruin me.”

For Silas, the loss of faith in God comes after the loss of faith in human beings and indeed the two seem connected, ‘there was nobody as cared for me or clave to me above nor below’. Perhaps it all comes down to the human in the end. In a group I’d be asking someone to read this sentence again so we could get the marrow of it:

And him as I’d gone out and in wi’ for ten year and more, since when we was lads and went halves–mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, had lifted up his heel again’ me, and worked to ruin me.”

That ten year and more, for man of twenty, is half a life. As lads they went halves –  sharing whatever food  they had; they were familiars, the one seeming to represent part of the other. And that relationship and the trust it was grounded in had been broken, and not by accident.  That ‘familiar friend…lifted up his heel again me’. This was not bad luck, not random ill-chance, but a deliberate attack by one who you thought loved you.  How could you  trust again? No doubt, in our Shared Reading group, we will want to stay here a little while, sharing thoughts and feels and experiences of trust or its breakage. How long this takes will depend on who is in the room and what they want to talk about.

But now let’s read on;

“Eh, but he was a bad un–I can’t think as there’s another such,” said Dolly. “But I’m o’ercome, Master Marner; I’m like as if I’d waked and didn’t know whether it was night or morning. I feel somehow as sure as I do when I’ve laid something up though I can’t justly put my hand on it, as there was a rights in what happened to you, if one could but make it out; and you’d no call to lose heart as you did. But we’ll talk on it again; for sometimes things come into my head when I’m leeching or poulticing, or such, as I could never think on when I was sitting still.”

Dolly was too useful a woman not to have many opportunities of illumination of the kind she alluded to, and she was not long before she recurred to the subject.

“Master Marner,” she said, one day that she came to bring home Eppie’s washing, “I’ve been sore puzzled for a good bit wi’ that trouble o’ yourn and the drawing o’ lots; and it got twisted back’ards and for’ards, as I didn’t know which end to lay hold on. But it come to me all clear like, that night when I was sitting up wi’ poor Bessy Fawkes, as is dead and left her children behind, God help ’em–it come to me as clear as daylight; but whether I’ve got hold on it now, or can anyways bring it to my tongue’s end, that I don’t know. For I’ve often a deal inside me as’ll never come out; and for what you talk o’ your folks in your old country niver saying prayers by heart nor saying ’em out of a book, they must be wonderful cliver; for if I didn’t know “Our Father”, and little bits o’ good words as I can carry out o’ church wi’ me, I might down o’ my knees every night, but nothing could I say.”

In a nineteenth century novel the sentences are generally  hard for contemporary readers and in a Shared Reading group we need to take care to  be sure that everyone is getting the gist, and getting to opportunity to go more deeply in. Sometimes I’ll ask – can anyone put that into modern English please? Sometimes I’ll simply say, can someone read the first sentence again? It’s hard to understand.

Someone will read it again, or I will. Gradually we get to the marrow. The key to Dolly’s speech here is  in the centre of it:

“Eh, but he was a bad un–I can’t think as there’s another such,” said Dolly. “But I’m o’ercome, Master Marner; I’m like as if I’d waked and didn’t know whether it was night or morning. I feel somehow as sure as I do when I’ve laid something up though I can’t justly put my hand on it, as there was a rights in what happened to you, if one could but make it out; and you’d no call to lose heart as you did. But we’ll talk on it again; for sometimes things come into my head when I’m leeching or poulticing, or such, as I could never think on when I was sitting still.”

‘I feel…there was a rights in what happened to you, if one could but make it out’  There’s the key! Look at the verb: feel. She can’t think, as she says. But she can feel something about this situation which needs to come out.

I’d be asking my group to talk about the difference in these kinds of knowing –  thinking and feeling, the knowledge that comes to  you when you are leeching or poulticing (modern translation: in Tesco or doing the ironing). Reader Leaders needs to know  that something about ‘feeling’ as a way of knowing is important, and it is more important that  knowing what ‘poulticing’ is or the history of leeching, for Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Leech Gatherer’.  Knowing facts is not important, knowing how human beings feel and think and have their being is.  We might stay in this spot – not getting much reading done, not getting to the end of the chapter or the section I’d planned, for the rest of the session. Better to  be chasing a live fish than listing the bodyparts of a dead donkey, surely?  Where the excitement of  the thought, the feeling,  goes, that’s where our shared attention should be.

Wresting my wayward self, again

light on mountains oslo 2018
Snow and morning light on the hills outside Oslo, January 2018

Happy New Year, readers.

The last but one time I wrote, here, on Sunday November 12th,  I said my online intermittency might continue and lo… that ‘might’ became a reality through December as first Reader business, then illness – just a cough and cold but a terribly long, low-spirit-inducing one – then a long holiday time at home, a massive marmelade-making madness, family illnesses, and a quietly restorative trip to peaceful snowy Norway,  took  my routine and shook it like paper out of my hand, flying off into the winter sky.

The wind drops, I regain consciousness and it’s the 14th of January 2018. Phew.

I want my routine back! Twas a poor, ill-fed, wobbly, insecure thing but mine own and I’ve missed it.

Indeed I want a lot more routines, but the creating and living of routine seems to go against my nature, or is it only against the exigencies of my life?  This morning when I woke  I felt as I imagine a wildly-off-the-wagon-for-the-last-two-months-alcoholic must feel on the day they take action (again) towards sobriety.  Wresting my wayward self towards some other kind of self. That’s a thing humans can do, but it doesn’t feel natural.

Routines I would like to have:

Daily Reading and Writing Practice
Daily walks in the woods/park/swimming
Weekly Gardening
Do some household repairs/upkeep on some sort of regular basis – glad of anything., so let’s say quarterly.
Do my expenses on time so as not to keep Finance team waiting

That doesn’t seem too much to ask, and I’m sure my friends, colleagues and relations could all add to the list… But after forty-ish years of living my own adult life I know I can’t reliably develop such routines. Or do I ?

All of which makes a return to Paradise Lost this morning feel the right thing to do. Last time I was reading it I’d been reading ‘the mind is its own place…’

Is it though?

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last time,  I’d got to  line 270 in Book One, but because  it’s been a while, and I’ve got some new thoughts (or repeats I’ve forgotten, more likely) I’m going to start again, at same place.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Thinking this morning about how far my mind is its own place and how much it is determined, controlled or made by things external to it – my parents DNA and their lives, demands of working at The Reader, that fact that I was child  in the 1960s and came of age in the 1970s, to name but three.  Last night I was reading a book which quoted a sentence from Albert Einstein which I’ve not read before: ‘We will never be able to solve our problems at the same order of complexity we used to create our problems.’

I don’t know if that is really a quote from Einstein: it wasn’t attributed in the book (Kegan and Lahey: How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work) and there seem to be various versions of the sentence floating around the internet.  All the same, Einstein or no, it gave me pause for thought because it suggests a massive gap in our  ability to comprehend reality.

Problems come about, and the complexity that goes into causing them is immense and not  the result of human thinking, but rather forces, influences, of many different sorts, including randomness, chaos.  Then a human has to try to solve the problem – not an equal mass of forces, influences, but one brain/heart.

As an example, I think of one problem: I have a room in my house which I use as a study.  This is my own  room, my workroom. This room is usually a mess: I look about right now.  Dressing up clothes I bought in a charity shop which are heading for Storybarn, shoes I wore in Norway, papers that need shredding, headphones, old business cards, a garden arch I haven’t put  in the shed, two bags of stuff I want to take to the charity shop, drinks, books, a yoyo… a room in medias res if ever there was.  The complexity behind all this mess is – a busy working life with lots of  stuff, my childhood, and disposition towards chaos. The solution looks simple : tidy up once a day.  But the additional problem, an additional layer of complexity, is that my room reflects my mind: I don’t seem to be able to ‘tidy up once day’. Whatever I  say in the way of resolutions, I revert to being myself.  The problem is in my mind, not my room.

(I  imagine a kindly friend, who occasionally pops in for a spot-check to help me try to keep my room on track, saying, No Jane, it’s not in your mind, it is in your room. Just tidy up, FFS.)

I look back to Milton. Here’s Satan talking himself into being his old self in  six moves:

  1. The mind is its own place, and in itself
    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]

In the first move, Satan sets out a proposition: the mind is the centre of existence and it determines what and how we experience: what we think determines what is. I agree with this proposition. I am a messy person. I wonder what would happen if I started thinking, I can be ordered? (that is what the Kegan/Lahey book is about, btw)

2. What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

In this second move, Satan, backs his original statement –  it doesn’t matter where he is, it matters who and what he is : still I notice that Satan’s language is veering towards power, the underlying complexity in this thought, is that even if the mind if its own place, Satan is mostly obsessed with  who is the greatest, him or God? Something is asserting itself – and it seems without his conscious will. What is that?

3.                                             Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]

In this third thought, Satan tries to enjoy the freedom of Hell – it’s all for him! There’ll be no being chucked out. Couldn’t he be happy there?  yes, looks like maybe he could but…

4. Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Yes, he’s happy here: he reigns here. Better to be the greatest here than ‘serve in Heav’n.’ Yet, seems to me as I read that  the very idea of serving in Heav’n gets into Satan’s mind and irritates him. He immediately starts looking for allies, and when a  body has allies, can a battle be far behind?

5. But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion,

And once he’s remembered them (th’ associates and copartners of our loss) he begins to imagine another fight for absolute power:

6. or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Is his mind its own place? It seems not.  He starts out wanting to be happy in Hell and ends up, a few words later, ready to start  battling God again. He seems to have patterns of response which he can’t control: he’s got to challenge God’s authority, he can’t escape that desire.

Yet it remains true or at least a possibility, sometimes, doesn’t it, that  ‘the mind is its own place’?

Today’s reading has made me think of two other poems, first the idea of being on our own line in ‘The Buried Life’ – read about it here.  The second is in Wendell Berry’s poem, ‘The Slip’, which I quoted here. The lines from ‘The Slip’ that are in my mind are these;

Human wrong is in the cause, human
ruin in the effect–but no matter;
all will be lost, no matter the reason.

It’s the ‘in’ that makes the connection here: there is no simple cause and effect. Lots of things are in both the cause and in the effect. And yet it remains true: some things can be simplified. I hereby publish my resolution to  get my expenses done on time and not hold up the Finance team this coming year (tho I think I’ve already let them down once already) Don’t wish me luck. Wish me action.

plant growing in rock and snow Norway Jan 2018
Unknown but impressive plant growing in a crack in a rock, under a few feet of snow,  in not much light, Norway 2018

Just Finished: Histories by Sam Guglani

guglani.JPG

Medics are human!

So hard to remember when they are  speaking to you as though you aren’t, or when, godlike, they are fixing you.

Hard for the medics, too, when  their much of training and daily grind conspire also to create a wall of  (sometimes vital) professionalism  between them and us.

When my father-in-law had cancer we did not care one jot about the human skills of the  consultant: we just wanted Big Science to come with its battering rams and attack the disease. Later, we were touched by the kindness of the man whose medicine could not save the day, but whose shared  humanity lit Dad’s last weeks with loving concern. That loving concern, the exchange of feeling between doctor and patient, human and human, is Sam Guglani’s subject matter, both in this novel and his extra-curricula activities as an oncologist in Cheltenham, and the founder of Medicine Unboxed, which aims to engage health professionals and the public in conversation around medicine, illuminated through the arts (www.medicineunboxed.org).

I saw Sam speak a couple of weeks ago  at Gladstone’s Library , partly a  reading from the book, partly a talk about the  need  for medicine and art to meet , particularly literature, more often, and more publicly.  As he spoke I remembered some work I’d done with medical students when we had a few years’ experiment with literature modules in the School of Medicine at Liverpool – first, how hard those medical students were willing to work, something some arts students might have profitably learned from.  Second, how useful some of them found poetry. Third how distressing some members of some Shared Reading groups found it to have a student doctor in their midst – as if the enemy had shown up in your sanctuary.

It seemed to me that Sam Guglani might help spearhead a movement to change that dynamic, and I was a bit sorry that he was an oncologist: we need  him to work in mental health.

Of course, there are many humane, careful, loving people working in the discipline of psychiatry.  I know some of them. But not many people I meet through Shared Reading seem to have been in relation to them in many years engagement with Mental Health Services. Hence the distress of some group members  when finding ‘doctors’ on placement in Shared Reading groups some years ago.

After he’d finished speaking, Sam read  the opening chapter of the novel, which made a great stand alone story, strangely shocking.

I bought the book and read it last week – a set of inter-related stories from hospital; doctors, patients, cleaners, nurses, porters, doctors-as-patients, the voices are woven into a  swelling chorale: this is human life in a contemporary hospital, a workplace, the demands of being human often pressured out of kilter by the demands of  ordinary organisational any-workplace situations. Anyone at work can find the printer’s broken, IT help-desk not helpful, I haven’t managed to grab any lunch, am worried about home, or am still flustered by what happened before…but here, you are face to face with the next patient, and another test of your  often failing humanity:

They’re waiting, someone is always waiting, always wanting something from her, wanting an answer. Even now, looking away from both of them and down at the notes on her lap, Emily feels the couple sitting there tight-lipped and straight-backed, the entitled press of their stares.

She’s been falling in slow motion from the minute she walked in here, apologising but not really meaning it. No, she had meant it, she was sorry, but only just. In a contest of apologies it would be weightless: sorry to keep you waiting, sorry, you’ve months to live; sorry, these days I struggle to feel very much for you, my patients.

She’d sat next door first, hoping to read through the notes and print off a path report. But the printer had crashed again, its red light blinking after brief, hopeful whirrs. She called IT and someone young, some terribly young and relaxed-sounding girl, said it was  too late in the day, that they couldn’t possibly fix it now, surely there must be another printer? Then Nancy had arrived, telling her that Freda, their woman on the ward, was set to leave, she wouldn’t stay in for tomorrow’s MRI, that her daughter and husband were with her and they were packing up. This news, this and the sound of the clicking printer, pushed Emily from her chair and propelled her into the consultation, unprepared and flustered.

 

It’s  little moments like that, almost unspottable, that make Sam Guglani such an excellent human diagnostician. That the  printer could have pushed you, that the previous patient’s walking out could have propelled you into action with the next patient, like a domino fall, one into the other, with your conscious self scrabbling about behind, trying to self-question. Am I sorry? No? Yes? A bit? He is carefully observing and sescribing  humans asked to work in  overly demanding and finally inhumane situations, mostly doing their failing best.

Guglani wants to draw attention to the failings as well as the best efforts. He’s angry, often  through  the non-medical voices ithe book, the porter, the hairdresser, or here, the medical secretary:

Take Munro in our office yesterday, telling us all about Jim. I’ve some bad news everyone, he says. And even then his voice stays hollow. How must that be for a patient? Important words offered as empy sound. I stood at the back of the room and watched him as he talked at us.

‘Important words offered as empty sound… he talked at us’  Of course we all get angry about this, and it is us non-medics perhaps who feel it most. But this isn’t a critique to be applied only to senior doctors. I’ve met it often in professional, highly educated people, women aswell as men, who use it as cover, a kind of armour. As members of a civil society, we have to ask ourselves, why do such people need that armour?

For the medics, the pressure to save lives, to heal, to offer cure is a hard pressure to bear for best among us. For more on that read John Berger’s A Forunate Man. Histories would also sit well with a rereading of  Lydgate’s part in Middlemarch. Feel a weekend study group on  medics and  literature coming on…

With this novel Sam Guglani joins a fine tradition of doctor-writers – he quoted Chekov (much read in Shared Reading groups)  at the start of his talk, and I thought as  he spoke about  William Carlos Williams and Oliver Sacks. I remembered, too, the group of medical students I spent an afternoon with who berated me for thinking they had time to waste on literature – we have  blood clots and heart attacks to learn about! People could die!

Cant remember if I have written about this in The Reader magazine?  I wrote about it at the time, I know. Will dig it out and post tomorrow.

Paradise Lost 12: Can Thinking Make It So?

 

nastutiums.JPG
Nasturtiums in the rain

First, an apology to regular readers for my radio silence last week and the somewhat intermittent signal prior to that.

I’ve been very busy with things at The Reader and often times when I wake up I have got some pressing matter leftover from the day before and simply have to do the practical thing and deal with whatever it is. I hope that period of huge busy-ness is going to slow down in the weeks ahead. But if I go offline don’t think it means I’m  having an extra hour in bed (though  if I can, I will) just think of me reading or writing documents, ploughing through email trails or travelling on those early trains.

It makes  me think about the difference between the life of contemplation and the life of action, an old chestnut to many readers, I’m sure, but one I’ve not studied, though I’ve had powerful experience of it. It’s  twenty  years since I founded The Reader, with my colleague Sarah Coley, when we produced the first issue of The Reader magazine in Spring 1997. The Reader has since become one of the defining acts of my life, and often has demanded action at the expense of contemplation. I’m lucky in that I had an equally  long period of  contemplative life  before The Reader, from 1980, when I enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool Univeristy.  All I did, apart from personal life, and the practice of  writing, cookery, sewing and DIY, for twenty odd years  in the centre of my human span, was read and think about and sometimes teach literature.

That stood me in good stead, charging my innner battery for the long years of Reader action ahead.  But when weeks become the kind of busy-no-stop weeks I’m in at the moment, I miss the rhythm of my life contemplative and my Daily Reading Practice. So I was glad this last week to enjoy two Reader Thinkdays with colleagues – the first at Calderstones, where for the first time we brought everyone working on site to share some reading and to do some thinking about organisational development and ethos. How can we use our cafe coffee grounds for compost and how get  literature into the Ice Cream Parlour? How make a human connection between the kitchen and quality team?

Later in the week I traveled to a Polish Community Centre in Birmingham where our  national and far-flung criminal justice team  were meeting for their own Thinkday – same feeling of  excitement and pleasure at spending contemplative time with colleagues. We read Chaucer’s poem, Truth and spent a lot of time on the pressures of  working in high secure environments.  We asked ourselves, what is the value, for our group members,  of an hour of calm group attention – a moment of contemplation –  in a week of danger, self-harm, despair?

Those hours with colleagues felt like a sort of contemplation, and a valuable use of  my time, though they didn’t translate into anything visible here.

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week,  I’d got to about line 250, Book 1. Satan, fallen from Heaven after challenging god in battle, is utterly ruined, chained to a burning lake in deepest hell. He is speaking to himself and  looking about, he has risen from the lake and found some  burning land on which to find a footing. And now he is contemplating his lot:

                           and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Last week I was thinking about the way a mind may change. Satan feels sorrow, perhaps sometimes something approaching remorse but it is a flickering sensation, always overcome by his determined will to remain the same. Does this mean that   he is unchangeable, a given  like gold or air or fire, simply what it is, immutable? Can it be true that  this  how minds, beings, human beings, are?

Certainly there are some givens that do not seem to change – those who have brought up babies will have seen some element of what we call  ‘personality’  or perhaps character, always present.  Is this Satan’s case? He’s essentially an assertive fighter? He boasts that he is Hell’s ‘possessor’, as if  simply arriving there makes him its boss. And what is it about him that makes him that boss? His mind, which is his own, and which gives  him a  power to own anything, anywhere. He is

                                            One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

Like the noun ‘possessor’, the verb ‘brings’ is powerful, and gives Satan agency. This is  in one sense false – he has no agency about being sent to Hell,  for nine days and nights he fell, and was unable to stop himself , and is now unable to go back to Heaven (though his thoughts often turn longingly in that direction). Yet there is a powerful will in his mind – is that the same as agency? What you can do, think, in your own mind is one thing. How you can affect reality – the outside world – is another. Satan brings to Hell ‘a mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time’.

Powerful equipment, but perhaps broken  – though still dangerous – equipment? Could such a mind hold you up (I  imagine Nelson Mandela in the Robbin Island Prison) and hold purpose and  self-control together in terrible situations? Yes. Could it be a broken mind asserting itself – I imagine an incarcerated murderer, never repentant, never sorry.  Yes.

Now Satan gives us two of the poem’s most famous lines:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]

This is a power that minds – any minds, good or bad, working well or broken – may have, just as lungs have the power to take in – more or less – oxygen.  Satan asserts the greater power of his mind over external reality.  Each reader must surely recognise some truth in this – how we think  about things does change them. But in what sense can the extremity of Hell be made Heav’n? If that was true why not stayed chained on the burning lake? And the next line seems in some way to undercut the sense of power Satan is desperate to hold on to;

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

I don’t know why I have a feeling that  ‘ if I be still the same’ is sad:  perhaps implies being stuck with yourself, the  rigidity of not being able to change. It is no matter where he is –  he is himself.  For a fraction of a second this does not feel good.  Then Satan reasserts himself – he’s only ‘less than he/Whom thunder hath made greater’.

That ‘less’ must chafe and gives rise to the thought that  God is only greater because he makes more noise.

Can you make a Heaven of Hell by thinking? I think so. This a power humans have, one we both do and often don’t recognise. There’s also external reality in which we stub our toes on reality whenever we try not to believe in it. And yet the world changes because people think thoughts.

Time to stop for  today because there is action to be taken in the garden – the ivy must come down, I think. It’s a hellish job.

But if I simply said ‘There! I’ve thought: the ivy has come down and been carted to the dump…heaven!’ I don’t think the garden would look any different. So in what sense is the mind it’s own place, making a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n?

More next week.