Just Finished: Histories by Sam Guglani

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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.

Just Finished: There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult

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Alchemilla Mollis taking advantage of the rain to look good in the front garden

Readers of a nervous disposition look  away now. This was a grim and frightening read.

And yet here I am recommending it to anyone who may have the stomach for it. It’s about a woman living with dementia, written before we had begun to understand the disease.

I only know about dementia at some distance: I’ve met and read with people living with the disease in care homes, and I have heard the distressing stories of friends whose parents have lived and died  with it.

The novel, first published in 1944,  is set in London during the war, and that external hell seems to be a kind of showing forth of the internal hell that is the life of  Claire Temple as she  loses her self and descends into fear, paranoia and desperation.

Oddly,  after I finished the book I found myself thinking back to the toddler book, Chickens, that I wrote about yesterday.  Is There Were No Windows a single subject book? No, not really, though it is ‘about’ dementia, but it is also about  the second world war, the breaking down of the  Edwardian class system, the value of life, the meanings lives may have. It is about being a particular person – Mrs Temple, but also about her  cook, Kathleen, the  paid companion, Miss Jones, and Doctor Fairfax all take turns to lend the reader their consciousness as they each live  in their own particular way with this terrible situation.  So while there is insight into  what dementia looked like and how it was understood  before we knew what it was ( people describe Claire as losing her memory/ a difficult person to deal with/sometimes incontinent/mad/mental/possessed) the really compelling aspects of the book are the direct human experiences. And the key experience is not so much dementia as loneliness. ‘There were no windows’, as the title of the book has it,  because Claire, and perhaps the other people in the story, are shut in to themselves, alone. Claire is lonely because she is trapped in the house with none of the literary/social life from which life was built.

Here she is having supper with her friend Edith, who comes to see her once a week, Edith pressing her to eat:

‘…And you really must have some tart.’
‘Must I?’
‘You see, if you don’t eat your memory will just go on getting worse and worse. You won’t make enough blood to feed your brain, you know.’
‘I know what you mean. You mean pernicious anemia. I do try and eat, but it’s so lonely having all my meals by myself. It’s like living in a cave without having any scenery about one. People have always been my scenery, you see. The props and the decor. Remove them, and really what’s the good of having the play at all? I always so disliked those horrid little repertory theatres with no orchestra, and everything done in the dark or else in the kitchen. Cook does occasionally let me have my meals with her in the kitchen. Would you and your sister come here to live, and then we could all have our meals together? It would be so nice.’
Edith paused a moment and drew a deep breath. The she said:
‘Apart from everything else, my sister wouldn’t dream of moving further into London with the increased risk of bombs.’
‘I thought only the lower classes were afraid of bombs. They go into shelters and down the Tubes. Does your sister go into a shelter?’
‘No, she doesn’t because we haven’t got one.’
‘Poor Lisa gets frightened. Oh where is Lisa? I must find her.’ Mrs Temple rose with a distracted air.
‘Sit down, Claire. you know we agreed some time ago that when I came to lunch on Sunday the cat should be kept downstairs, don’t you remember?’
Reluctantly Mrs Temple sat down and reached for her glass.

There’s a grim humour in the book  as sometimes there is in life when  domestic situations are very hard. I enjoyed the chapter where some younger visitors take Claire to the pub, where she is conspicuously out-of-place and remarks to the assembled company ‘Isn’t this nice? I mean to see everybody drinking so happily together… This is public house, isn’t it? I do think it is  so pleasant to see everybody sitting together and drinking. Why don’t I  come here more often?’

The pub is lively, compared to home, and Claire enjoys it, though she quickly alienates everyone with her posh toff voice and patronising approval. Minutes latershe is screaming in panic, not understanding why she is in a taxi.

It’s a tough read, so I’ve read it slowly, a little bit each night, and it has felt like drinking  fish oil.

Why do I think, despite my fear of the content, that it is good for me to read it? Why didn’t I just give up, as I give up on many books?  What in me wants to read it?

I’m sixty-one and think about  old age, death, dying, dementia  more than I used to – possibly every day at some point some such thought will be in  my mind. I need to think – how am I going to do this mountainous task  of getting old and dying that lies ahead?  I glimpse the foothills now. Gotta get smart, as Les Murray’s poem says.  I have got something to learn  about getting through the next decade or two.  There was learning  in this novel, and  that’s why I continued to read, despite the darkness of it. I want to know what is going to happen.

There a really good section at the end when the doctor thinks over his thoughts about ends of life.   I won’t reproduce it now –  no time for all that typing –  but he sets up some very interesting questions,  which would be good to talk about sometime, when I do a Saturday Day School on Age and Ageing. If anyone has the stomach for that?

Silas Marner Day 28: I want more Dolly

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Agapanthus and Red Hot Pokers at Kew. 

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently for a few months. I’m in Chapter 15 today.  Yesterday’s post was continuing that slow read –  in chapter 14 – but today I’m speeding up a little. I’m thinking about how I time things when running a Shared Reading group. Not everything goes at the same speed. sometimes Shared Reading is a slow canal boat, sometimes a walk, but sometimes you get in the car and go fast.

People who have read with me a lot will say, ‘You don’t time things! You always go slowly!’ and I have to admit that’s true in the sense that I’d be happy to spend two hours going deeply into some lines… but then to make up time – and not get bored –  I’m going to rush past lots of other stuff.  Whole chapters sometimes. Whole books of  Paradise Lost – the war in Heaven, pah! But these lines, from Book 4, seem worth staying in for an hour or two:

                                                             for now
Satan, now first inflam’d with rage, came down,
The Tempter ere th’ Accuser of man-kind, [ 10 ]
To wreck on innocent frail man his loss
Of that first Battel, and his flight to Hell:
Yet not rejoycing in his speed, though bold,
Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,
Begins his dire attempt, which nigh the birth [ 15 ]
Now rowling, boiles in his tumultuous brest,
And like a devellish engine back recoiles
Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
His troubl’d thoughts, and from the bottom stirr
The Hell within him for within him Hell [ 20 ]
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more then from himself can fly
By change of place:

Paradise Lost is in my mind because Megg sent me a notice about @Milton’sCottage ( http://www.miltonscottage.org/) and I’m excited by the idea of their all-day reading aloud of Paradise Lost coming up on Sunday,  the 350th anniversary of the  poem’s publication. Hurray!

I’m going to read  some lines from Paradise Lost here on this blog so I can join in, in spirit. But that’s Sunday! Jane – get back to today’s text.

So deep slow waters, getting to the bottom of things, then  the passing over. We left Silas dressing the baby, and now I  float through the rest of the chapter – where Silas gives the baby his mother and sister’s name, Eppie (Hepzibah) and we’re into chapter 14.

As Silas becomes Eppie’s parent, we turn back to Godfrey, still trammelled in his inability to be honest:

There was one person, as you will believe, who watched with keener though more hidden interest than any other, the prosperous growth of Eppie under the weaver’s care. He dared not do anything that would imply a stronger interest in a poor man’s adopted child than could be expected from the kindliness of the young Squire, when a chance meeting suggested a little present to a simple old fellow whom others noticed with goodwill; but he told himself that the time would come when he might do something towards furthering the welfare of his daughter without incurring suspicion.

Do you find yourself judging Godfrey? I do. I get angry with him and I dislike his hiddeness ,and yet I can’t help identifying with him, too.  He’s here father but the  exigency of class and Godfrey’s desire to married to Nancy Lammeter override that. He’s weak! ‘He dared not’… but he comforts himself with the thought that he might ‘do’ something later. And George Eliot pushes it a bit further, go on, ask yourself, those things you’ve left undone, do they bother you?

Was he very uneasy in the meantime at his inability to give his daughter her birthright? I cannot say that he was. The child was being taken care of, and would very likely be happy, as people in humble stations often were– happier, perhaps, than those brought up in luxury.

It is easier for Godfrey to assume all’s well ( and it is, luckily for Eppie). Do you sense an edge of self-pity in his thought that those in humble stations are often happier than those brought up in luxury, such as himself ?

That famous ring that pricked its owner when he forgot duty and followed desire–I wonder if it pricked very hard when he set out on the chase, or whether it pricked but lightly then, and only pierced to the quick when the chase had long been ended, and hope, folding her wings, looked backward and became regret?

I don’t remember the story of this ring – have to look it up in the notes. But I haven’t got any notes here this morning, so I’m guessing – as I would do in a group, if our books had no notes,  this is a reference to some myth or fairytale  but George Eliot is  putting the metaphor of that ring into reality:  when do you feel the pain of putting your own desire before a duty?  Probably not at the moment of  indulging the desire  – which she calls here the chase, the hunt –  but much, much later, when it is all over when ‘hope’ becomes ‘regret’. Ouch.

George Eliot is going to show us that change from ‘hope’ to ‘regret’ in Godfrey – and as her work as novelist unfolds, in many, many people – but it is going to take some unfolding. It’s going to take time. Meanwhile, with a lucky escape behind him (lucky for him that his wife, the drug-addict Molly, died before she could expose him) and the prospect of marrying Nancy before him, he is feeling pretty good;

He felt a reformed man, delivered from temptation; and the vision of his future life seemed to him as a promised land for which he had no cause to fight. He saw himself with all his happiness centred on his own hearth, while Nancy would smile on him as he played with the children.

And that other child–not on the hearth–he would not forget it; he would see that it was well provided for. That was a father’s duty.

The key word here is ‘felt’.  He felt a reformed man but he was not a reformed man,  nothing had changed. He is lying to himself, tricking himself, lettinghimself off. He is not ‘delivered from temptation’ – he’s had a narrow escape but he hasn’t resisted or fought temptation in any way. He just got lucky. Now the promised land  of Nancy is going to slide towards him with ‘no cause to fight’.  He’s not going to win a life, he’s going to get it, but with very little effort.  Easy living. And as for Eppie –  not recognised as one of his own children, not playing on his own hearth – he’ll salve his conscience. He won’t feel bad. He will let himself off the hook. He’ll be at ease.

Next chapter  takes us forward 16 years, so we’ll stop here for now.

Phew, that Godfrey Cass has got me into a pretty bad temper. I need more Dolly Winthrop!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My group will say things like:

I felt like  when I made my wedding vows.

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

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

I felt it when my first child was born.

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

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

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

 

‘All things are moral’: looking at Godfrey Cass through Emerson’s lens

 

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Palm being its self, Bay of  Kotor, 25 July

Yesterday I ended by starting to read a bit of  Silas Marner and thinking I wanted to read it alongside ‘something’ from Emerson. The bit from Silas Marner was  this:

He walked up and down, unconscious that he was plunging ankle-deep in snow, unconscious of everything but trembling suspense about what was going on in the cottage, and the effect of each alternative on his future lot. No, not quite unconscious of everything else. Deeper down, and half-smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child. But he had not moral courage enough to contemplate that active renunciation of Nancy as possible for him: he had only conscience and heart enough to make him for ever uneasy under the weakness that forbade the renunciation. And at this moment his mind leaped away from all restraint toward the sudden prospect of deliverance from his long bondage.

And the bit  I was remembering from Emerson was from the essay on ‘Discipline’, in Nature. As usual, with something  profoundly Christian, as a non-Christian, I have to  lend myself to possible meaning and translate what a Christian might mean into something I might mean.

All things with which we deal preach to us. What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun—it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields. But the sailor, the shepherd, the miner, the merchant, in their several resorts, have each an experience precisely parallel and leading to the same conclusion, because all organizations are radically alike. Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which thus scents the air, grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world is caught by man and sinks into his soul. The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him. Who can estimate this? Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman? How much tranquility has been reflected to man from the azure sky, over whose unspotted deeps the winds forevermore drive flocks of stormy clouds and leave no wrinkle or stain? How much industry and providence and affection we have caught from the pantomime of brutes? What a searching preacher of self-command is the varying phenomenon of health!

 

Looking at them together now, rereading both, I’m not sure what originally  connected them in my mind. I think perhaps the sense in both pieces of thought there is the  belief that  morality is innate. This is  massively contentious I know – ask Nietzsche – but I don’t want to think about contending it for  now. I want to see if  I feel any truth in what these two quoted above both say.

‘All things with which we deal preach to us,’ writes Emerson. I think about Godfrey Cass  outside Marner’s cottage, waiting to find out whether his life will go  one way or another, depending on whether Molly lives or dies. He longs for her death.

Emerson’s argument  is that everything contains the ideal, teaches us, what is. The snow Godfrey treads though in  thin dancing shoes is cold. It teaches its coldness by its coldness though Godfrey can’t hear the lesson – his consciousness is too taken up with his own concerns. The lesson of snow is irrelevant to him.

But what does the natural phenomenon called ‘Godfrey Cass’ teach? If ‘a farm is a mute gospel’, what is a man?

He walked up and down, unconscious that he was plunging ankle-deep in snow, unconscious of everything but trembling suspense about what was going on in the cottage, and the effect of each alternative on his future lot.

This mute gospel that is a human being teaches danger and anxiety, fear, suspense and  the terror or the ‘lot’. Suddenly I’m thinking of Silas Marner and the  moment in Lantern Yard when the drawing of lots condemns him to become the outcast. It’s not the same use of the word, but  thought – that something random, unthinking , out of your control,  will decide your future – is the same.

What else does the ‘mute gospel’ that is this man teach us (and I have to ask myself, does it teach him too, even though it is so deep down as to be almost out of consciousness?)

No, not quite unconscious of everything else. Deeper down, and half-smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child.

There is else something to  learn here in the ‘mute gospel’ that is  simply what is. it comes in the form of a feeling – a sense – ‘that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives.’

that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child.

So he knows – even though his knowing  is ‘half-smothered’ and barely alive. That’s a reality in him.  It is there to be felt, understood. If a man wanted to know. But this man is not brave, and that’s what we (and he?) learn from this moment of his life:

But he had not moral courage enough to contemplate that active renunciation of Nancy as possible for him: he had only conscience and heart enough to make him for ever uneasy under the weakness that forbade the renunciation.

Is it only George Eliot (and us, reading along as she writes) who knows that this is about shaping character as well as simply being it. she writes ‘for ever’  but does Godfrey Cass know it is ‘for ever uneasy’ – I don’t think  he does – yet.  Time must be added to the mix.

So a man’s life might show – mute gospel –  to himself, if not to anyone else, what  he really is, has been, was, might have been. Who, in the absence of God, would see such a whole life?  The man himself? But we will build up  shells around ourselves (as per Bion) to prevent such knowledge.

Want to turn quickly to  Emerson. I was struck on first reading by the idea that a ‘farm is a mute gospel’ – struck by  the thought that every thing is, every thing we make or do, a ‘mute gospel’ – that’s to say  an unwritten demonstration of what you believe, what you are.  As someone engaged in the building of a community of Shared Reading at Calderstones  that  struck me very forcibly.  ‘All organizations are radically alike,’ says Emerson, while Iam still reeling from what seems to me the truth of the farm.

But the sailor, the shepherd, the miner, the merchant, in their several resorts, have each an experience precisely parallel and leading to the same conclusion, because all organizations are radically alike. Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which thus scents the air, grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world is caught by man and sinks into his soul. The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him.

Agh, out of time. Will return to this tomorrow.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Just finished: One of The Boys, by Daniel Magariel

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Yesterday a day full of  addiction and hope.

I visited the wise Karen Biggs, CEO of Phoenix Futures, one of  the UK’s leading addiction/housing charities. We’ve done some great work with Phoenix over the years, and it’s always a joy to spend time with the energetic heart and brain that is Karen.

Later in the day I spent time talking to playwright Sonya Hale, a truly remarkable woman. Sonya became an addict in her early twenties, and was street homeless for a decade. Much later she changed her life, partly through meeting the charity Clean Break.  She won the Synergy Theatre’s national prison writing competition with her play, Glory Whispers. She spoke to me of  the pain of losing her son, when her addiction became unmanageable, and he went to live with his Dad, and how that finally helped her confront her addiction and get into recovery. The interview will be published in The Reader magazine at a later date.

It was a long chat with Sonya. We’ve a lot of common and I’m always interested in learning how people live and why they sometimes learn to change.  I feel as if something new has entered my bloodstream and I’ll be processing the  conversation for weeks ahead.

On the  train on the way  down to London I finished (a two-sitting book) Daniel Magariel’s One of The Boys. I think I found this through a recommendation on twitter by the exceptionally emotionally intelligent writer, @carysbray. It also came with a blurb from my top-rated author, George Saunders. Those are two very remarkable writers, so I ordered my copy. I thought Karen or others at Phoenix might be interested in it so I when I arrived at her office in Elephant and Castle, I gave my copy to Karen Biggs.

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The wonderful green wall at Elephant and Castle

It’s slight in terms of pages, a novella, but it is enormous in its content and concentrated experience, not unlike my two-hour conversation with Sonya. I felt I had been reading for a week, not two one-hour sessions. Reading with eyes glued to the page, full-pelt, non-stop. Told through the eyes of a child, the younger of two in a family where the father is a drug-user and is a manipulative, violent man, it’s a slice of real time, an immersion in an experience you might not want to know about. It’s not an easy read but its a real good one, with exceptionally careful writing about emotions.

The story is almost all about ‘the boys’, the father and his two sons; we don’t see the mother much and we don’t know her story,  but the scene where she dances ‘salt and pepper shaker’ had a grim and utterly real  graveyard humour. Apart from that, I did not laugh. I found the book frightening and true to life. Like Frank Alpine in Malamud’s The Assistant, when he is reading Crime and Punishment, I had the crazy feeling I was reading about myself.

When you have parents who do not parent you, you live a cycle of  caring for them when they need looking after, craving their attention when they don’t and then suffering when they don’t look after themselves, or when they turn on you. All that is carefully detailed here, in under 170 pages.

Every care worker, every social worker or children’s home assistant, every teacher, should read this book.

Scrub that, it’s a big problem with wide  ramifications. Everyone should read it.

Neither of  my parents were straightforwardly ‘like’ the parents in this book but there are certain underlying resemblances, the bone structure of addiction remaining the same whatever the flesh looks like. An addict is not a grown up, is not responsible, is broken, is ill. As the child you carry a lot of weight for them. You think their thoughts, feel their feelings. As a result you never really know where your own emotions begin and your parents’ end. That’s what most struck the chimes here.

After a particularly bad night, where the father and younger son (‘we’ in the quotation  below) have attacked and threatened to kill the older son, the younger struggles with guilt, anger and loneliness:

That night after we had cleaned up and dragged the coffee table to the Dumpster, my father called him into his room. I listened outside the door as he told my brother that he should never have contacted our mom. That we’d felt betrayed and did not know what else to do. “I would never hurt you,” my father said. “We only meant to scare you. Please forgive me. Do you forgive me?” Then he said, “Thank you, I forgive you, too. Can I have a hug?” The bed squeaked as my father scooted closer, I guessed, because a moment later he said, “Put your arms around me, son.”

I stepped outside to the park.

Overhead the moon was hidden. Clouds were backlit at their feathery edges. A strong wind from the east, from the Sandias, swept over the grass. I winced at the thought of today. My father turned us against each other – it was his method of control. And I’d fallen for it again. Any remorse I had for the Polaroids now felt false. I had let down my brother just as I had my mom. I was so disappointed in myself and I swore then that I would never again choose my father. I never again wanted to harm anyone I loved. I was on my brother’s side now. He was my brother for life. I’d been lucky today that he had not been not more seriously hurt.
A flock of birds came to rest on a nearby pinon tree, populating its limbs like leaves. and though I could hardly see them, hear them, I was happy for their quiet company and hoped they would not leave me soon.

Frightening, touching and educative – highly recommended.