Silas Marner Day 25: literature makes history disappear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I read on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The American Scholar, Wendell Berry, Bion’s groups and no more Parrots

unknown plant growing from wall on seashore
Unknown plant growing in a wall at the shore, Kotor Bay, 22 July

Yesterday I reread the Emerson’s  ‘The American Scholar’ , thinking of Bion but also of Wendell Berry’s tremendous and for me hugely significant essay, ‘The Loss of the University’ (buy a pdf download here for $3 but there’s also a volume here.). Berry argues that with no unifying language (e.g. religion, poetry, literature) a university becomes a mere technical college where ‘skills’ can be taught to distinct professions, but the  making of human beings, which ought to be the  role of the university, ceases.

I think  it is absolutely true that making human beings is not the province of  modern universities and nothing could be further from modern curricula at all levels than asking students to think about what makes a good human being. We need  to imagine what the study of literature could do for  humanity.  Oh but what vision that would take.  ‘Without vision,’ writes Emerson, quoting the Bible, ‘the people perish.’

Trying to put together  some of these thoughts which really need a week  to emerge into something thoughtful and considered, and  here can only be  short lumpy little notes to self so I don’t forget I was interested in this…

This is an old idea – is it an ancient  Jewish story  about light being broken into fragments of sparks? –  but I was struck, because of the Bion thought about a group being, as it were, a human alphabet, a-z,  with everything you might humanly need spread about between or amongst individuals.  Emerson writes:

…the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man,—present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship.

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

How to fix this broken state? Not that the  breakage into fingers itself is a bad thing – some specialisation is  good because we can’t be good at everything and need to practice hard at some few things…but as soon as we have broken into specialists, then a weird  compulsion to degenerate begins to be the main force. We saw this in the nineteenth century when  factory workers became ‘hands’. And we see it  when scholars know  little or nothing of the world, or accountants can’t see or care about the human cost of money movements, or politicians only care about politics and so on.

How to fix?

A strong vision of what it means to be human, to care about  the human world,  to practice humanity… once all this was cared for  in that corner of reality called ‘religion’  (and for some, I know, it still is…) An education that taught us to think of ourselves as one body would help.

The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered.

To have the  human overview – ‘Man on the Farm’ instead of ‘farm labourer’ –  people must have ways of coming together,  gatherings.  As Wendell Berry argues, literature is a language that might perform such gathering for us.  For that to happen we’d have to give  parroting. Scholars would need to become humans amongst humans, speaking not to each other only in specialist lingo but to all in the universal tongue, Man Thinking:

the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

Alas, that has not got me very far.

Time’s up for today.  I’m starting to read  a new novel, My Brilliant Friend. Wish me luck.

The great iamb: King Charles III

 

beech trees
A family of Beech trees  in Calderstones Park 10 May

Not reading Silas Marner today – you’ll find all Silas postings if you search under the tag ‘Silas Marner’. But today, it’s about telly, then a bit of Shakespeare.

Came home and had my tea in the back garden, the day still warm and sunny, did a little pottering, admired my new plant ( Paeonia, Bowl of Beauty – photos to come) . Had to make a few phone calls. Lay on sofa talking to my old mum. Went to find husband watching TV. Some programme about the Royals was just starting. Watched for a few moments out of sheer nosy interest (I go to bed early – sometimes at 8.30pm) and was surprised to find myself thinking the music was rather good, not what I would have predicted for a TV mini series. But it wasn’t a TV mini series – it was play. It was a play ! On telly! This was like living in 1967 when people still thought you could put culture on the box. And even more weirdly, it was a play written in iambic pentameter.

Don’t swipe away! That meter’s good for stuff! (That’s an iambic-ish pentameter)

If you didn’t catch King Charles III, written by Mike Bartlett, on BBC 2 last night, I recommend it. Inventive, moving, well-pitched, and with lively intelligence at play all the way through, it kept me up until 10.30pm, and not much does that. Iambic pentameter! Fancy that, though. It made the play seem related to Shakespeare, and there were echoes of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, but it wasn’t pastiche. It was something new, its self, made of  bits of old stuff and bits of modern stuff. It was creative and witty. There was a great (iambic) line from Kate to the Duchess of Cornwall (sorry I can’t remember it) about the need for ‘column inches’ but there was also another that drew on Lear’s ‘nothing comes of nothing…’ There were also echoes of ‘say this was a mini series’ and echoes of ‘say you were reading this in the Daily Mail’ which made the play feel incredibly up to date. Lots to think about. I might even watch it again.

But mainly it made me think about blank verse, which is  verse without rhyme and verse often (usually?) written the meter known as iambic pentameter. I love it! I’ve been wanting to read a little Shakespeare, so that is today’s poem for the day.  It’s a little portion from the end of The Winter’s Tale. Perhaps a little connected to Silas Marner, in that Queen Hermione, falsely accused by her husband of infidelity and treason, and who has lost two children to her husband’s rage, has been ‘gone’ (presumed dead) for sixteen years. As we join the court at the culmination of the play, a great reunion  is about to happen, Hermione is not dead but has been absent, turned to stone (lots of ways you might understand it: e.g. in a state of psychotic splitting, severely depressed, so deeply traumatised as to be locked in, etc.) Paulina, her friend, a great lady of the court, is about to bring her back to life and her daughter, Perdita, also presumed dead, is found. Here Paulina calls on Perdita to come forward and help bring her mother back to life:

 

 

PAULINA

That she is living,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale: but it appears she lives,
Though yet she speak not. Mark a little while.
Please you to interpose, fair madam: kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.

HERMIONE

You gods, look down
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! Tell me, mine own.
Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found
Thy father’s court? for thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
Myself to see the issue.

The great iamb, the two syllable sound pattern that underlies our normal English speech  (say te-tum and you are sounding out an iamb, short unstressed syllable followed by longer stressed syllable) is set in groups of five  to make the classic line-rythym of blank verse (te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum).

Where hast/ thou been/ preserved?/ where lived?/ how found

Why does this matter, I can hear someone shouting, for goodness sake, Jane, I thought you were against formal teaching of English Lit?

I am against bad teaching. I’m against  things being turned into dead stuff! But I’m for good teaching! And I love playing with iambs! If someone had  playfully taught me about these at school I might have liked it.

Reading literature is partly a process of noticing a lot of tiny things. You have to notice as much as you can. there’s an awful lot to notice and most of it goes by us. Noticing a lot of tiny things and caring about them  must go into good practice of anything – cooking, gardening, sub-atomic physics, accounting, dog-training.

The meter of a poem is one of the things you can train yourself to notice. Noticing this kind of stuff began to matter to me early on in my life as  a teacher because it does something in the poetry. I thought  that last night while watching King Charles III. Now what does it do?

It formalises ordinary speech into general patterns, which means you can play with rhythms, with emphasis. Look at this

Please you to interpose, fair madam: kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.

Paulina is talking to the lost, now found child, Perdita. Hermione is standing like a statue frozen in her sixteen year loss. The iamb (te-tum) is like a gentle, rhythmic heartbeat under the  lines. Read the lines aloud very slowly. Feel the rhythms. Shakespeare can leave a word like ‘kneel’ pulling against the rhythm at the end of the that line because it is a single syllable word  in a two-based pattern, so we get different rhythms playing over each other. These rhythms affect the meaning, add to the emotional charge: speak it, th command ‘kneel’: you have to wait there despite the fact that the sense rushes on. And here’s another, where (I think) the underlying rhythm changes a little, a slight variation. Though this line has ten syllables and therefore might be an iambic pentameter, the stresses fall in other places. (There are other names for other types of stressed and unstressed syllables but I have no time for that today, look here).

As when tones or keys change or resolve in music, our mind is looking out for the pattern and the change of pattern alerts us to something or moves us in some way. The stresses are on the first parts of  mothers and blessing and the last three words are all stressed; ‘Turn, good lady.’ Perhaps ‘good’ is slightly less stressed ( you have to keep saying, reading the words, to feel it), so that the big message is ‘turn lady’.

Ow, time’s up. Messy post.

 

Setting off up Mount Silas

early
Early Morning in the Front Garden 6 May

One of my readers, Orientikate, called my writing here ‘daily practice’ and I  have been thinking about that.

What am I practising?

At about 1000 words a day, written in an hour or under, it’s of necessity speed writing. But I am trying to keep the reading very slow. That’s why it can take me three or four days to read a short poem. (And the speed writing explains the typos and spolling mistkaes…no time to go back over and proofread). That daily practice of concentrating hard on a few lines of poetry has been a source of deep delight for the past two months.

But yesterday I began to think about reading more than poems. Could I read Silas Marner? I am following Loubyjo’s advice, doing what I like here with no pressure, so I will make a start on Silas Marner and see what happens. If I miss the poems, I’ll stop and go back to them. Other things  – book notices, reports on where I’ve been – I’m going to write at other times of the day so that this early hour remains the practice of reading and writing about the reading.

Reasons to read George Eliot even though you might be put off by the slow tone, the seriousness, the long sentences? She’s one of the most intelligent human beings  ever to have put pen to paper and she has a great heart. She was a forgiving understander of human beings, and does terrific human thinking work in those long sentences.  Sometimes she can be tough, literally as well as morally, but there’s a reward in taking on something tough, as anyone who has climbed a mountain knows.

So put on some stout boots,  get a rucksack of provisions, and join me on this beginner’s mountain trek. I’m copying the text here from http://www.fullbooks.com/Silas-Marner1.html. I’m aiming to read about 500-1000 words of Silas  each day, and I’ll  drop  the day’s section in a quote box. I am going to paste in the full text for today’s reading, then reading it a bit at a time. Read it aloud to start, if you can. Read it slowly, whatever you do. Just the opening two paragraphs to start:

SILAS MARNER, The Weaver of Raveloe

by George Eliot

“A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.”
–WORDSWORTH.

PART ONE

CHAPTER I

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses–
and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their
toy spinning-wheels of polished oak–there might be seen in
districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the
hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny
country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The
shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men
appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for
what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?–and these pale
men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The
shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag
held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong
linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of
weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely
without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition
clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted,
or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the
pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had
their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained
unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?
To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct
experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their
untravelled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as
the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and
even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to
be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any
surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had
ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any
reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. All
cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument
the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in
itself suspicious: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner,
were mostly not overwise or clever–at least, not beyond such a
matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which
rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly
hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring. In this way
it came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers–emigrants from
the town into the country–were to the last regarded as aliens by
their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits
which belong to a state of loneliness.

In the early years of this century, such a linen-weaver, named Silas
Marner, worked at his vocation in a stone cottage that stood among
the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from
the edge of a deserted stone-pit. The questionable sound of Silas’s
loom, so unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the
winnowing-machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail, had a
half-fearful fascination for the Raveloe boys, who would often leave
off their nutting or birds’-nesting to peep in at the window of the
stone cottage, counterbalancing a certain awe at the mysterious
action of the loom, by a pleasant sense of scornful superiority,
drawn from the mockery of its alternating noises, along with the
bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver. But sometimes it happened
that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became
aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he
liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom,
and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always
enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was it
possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas
Marner’s pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not
close to them, and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart
cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth at any boy who happened to be in
the rear? They had, perhaps, heard their fathers and mothers hint
that Silas Marner could cure folks’ rheumatism if he had a mind, and
add, still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair
enough, he might save you the cost of the doctor. Such strange
lingering echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be
caught by the diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for
the rude mind with difficulty associates the ideas of power and
benignity. A shadowy conception of power that by much persuasion
can be induced to refrain from inflicting harm, is the shape most
easily taken by the sense of the Invisible in the minds of men who
have always been pressed close by primitive wants, and to whom a
life of hard toil has never been illuminated by any enthusiastic
religious faith. To them pain and mishap present a far wider range
of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is
almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all
overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear.
“Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?” I
once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and
who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. “No,” he
answered, “I’ve never been used to nothing but common victual, and
I can’t eat that.” Experience had bred no fancies in him that
could raise the phantasm of appetite.

 

Though we start off with what seems a historical novel opening, it’s worth noting the epigraph from Wordsworth before we get going.

A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts 

This is going to be a book about the effect of a child on a declining man, a book of hope. At the beginning it doesn’t seem so, and I know a lot of people are put off by the slowness and the darkness. Wait it out. And though it looks as if it is set in the past, there will be many connections for us. Look, for example, at that unwillingness to accept strangers:

In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?

We re in pre-industrial times, and the figures  we see, walking to farmhouses with packs on their backs, are the sellers of fustian and other cloth, which will have been woven on hand-looms.  if you’ve seen or read The Winters Tale you’ll remember Autolycus, the trickster who comes to the sheep-shearing to make a bit of money and get a girl…George Eliot  reminds us that these itinerant pedlars caused suspicion among country people whose lives were unchanging from generation to generation. A small indication of the human thinking that lies ahead is given a slight fore-showing in this:

those scattered linen-weavers – emigrants from the town into the country – were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness.

if you are regarded as an alien by your neighbours it is very likely that you will contract ‘the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness’.

I think here of lone gunmen and others who have  become completely cut off from ordinary face to face life – ‘he kept himself to himself’. Eccentricity may have been more tolerated in the past?  We are very much aware now, initially because of TV and red top newspapers, and latterly because of the internet, of how everyone else looks/is doing/seems. Against such strong group pressure eccentricity looks even more eccentric. But it’s interesting and sad to see that anti-social individuality was so immediately visible at the beginnings of industrialised life, and that George Eliot ascribes the root cause to loneliness.

The novel will ask us to think about  loneliness and where anti-social impulses arise. Having set those thoughts gently into our minds, George Eliot now introduces  us to Silas. Boys, half-afraid of the noise and machinery  of his handloom, come to peer in at his cottage windows, and  Silas – near-sighted – stands at the door to scare them off.

But sometimes it happened that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in his thread, became aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of his time, he
liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from his loom, and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was always enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was it possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas Marner’s pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not
close to them, and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart
cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth at any boy who happened to be in
the rear?

There’s already misunderstanding and suspicion here. the boys are part-scared, part-fascinated and part-scornful. Silas is annoyed at being interrupted. The boys frighten themselves by imagining Silas could put some kind  spell on them. This thought comes partly from their parents, who regard Marner as something off a witchdoctor.

The next half of this paragraph is a bit complicated – we have to think about ‘peasantry’  – is there a contemporary equivalent? – and a complete absence of education – hard  for us to imagine in our own time of universal free education?  My time is up, so more tomorrow.

If You Want Escapism, Look Away Now

garden 5 may
Spring in the Front Garden, 5 May

Yesterday I mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s  Home and Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed as examples of novels which are the  kind of book I want to read. Not entertainment, and definitely not escapism. In fact, these two are the opposite, coming as close to life as it gets. Are they great books? I’m very alive while reading them, and that feels great! If the hairs stand up on the back your neck, said Les Murray, that’s poetry. That’s a sort of definition.

People often ask me about what we mean by ‘great books’ at The Reader. ‘Great’ is a relative and malleable word. Great as they may be, no books can easily be pressed on people who don’t want to read them (hence the sad state of our  national literary education). So is it a canon? If so, it’s a  very elastic one, decided week by week by whoever has the leadership of each group.

Our work is about passing on our love of literature, and trying to demonstrate that pwerful literature about real life  is compelling  and opens new areas of  self (and good fun, too, a lot of the time – there’s plenty of laughing in Shared Reading). It’s not so easy to create such meaning with books that are mainly there for entertainment or escapism – no offence to them, but most murders, romances, spies, thrillers, shopping or porn stories have a different purpose. They might be ‘well written’ but it is not about ‘well written’ in the end. It’s not about technique, or ‘achingly beautiful prose’ (a phrase which makes me put down a book immediately),  it’s about opening up the actual experience of human beings. If that’s happening, it might be a good book for a Shared Reading group.

We use the word ‘great’ to raise a flag for trying hard stuff.  A walk in the local park is good,  and beyond that, hillwalking is terrific but a trip to Everest is a completely different thing. Yet a walk in the park will be a hard task for someone who hasn’t been out in years. And walking in the Dales might be a doddle to someone who does it every weekend. Is Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 a great book?  Is War and Peace ? Is E.H. Young’s Miss Mole? What about Hamlet? Are they the same kind of ‘great’ ? No! They are all good in different ways.

I grew up with adults who were  looking away. Alcohol put up reality crash barriers and felt good. Pub not sorrow. Pub a laugh! Pub not bills, not money worries. Pub borrow a few bob! Pub not dull by yourselfness. Pub jokes and laughing. Sing songs! Pub paarrty ! Or drink at home!  Off licence, miniature whisky if broke. Cans of lager. Smoke dope, smoke, smoke, smoke.

This led to death, as all life does, but what I saw was that pub joy ran out while life itself ran on to the bitter end. I wanted to learn how to live differently. So the underlying flavour of my reading got serious. I’ve written about my book-turning-point, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, elsewhere. After that came the novels of George Eliot, through my third-year university reading with Brian Nellist.

Daniel Deronda clarified things for me. I was in my mid-twenties and at a stage where decisions about the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of  life I wanted to live were more or less consciously pressing on me.  I saw my self and my own existential problems in Gwendolen Harleth and in Daniel  Deronda. They are very different people, but there I was in both of them…it’s a book about choices and purpose in life.

When I first read the book my mother was in her late forties and it was clear her life was coming to an end. It was a long frightening time, that approach to death. Daniel Deronda shone light on lots of things I hadn’t known how to look at, think about. The predicament of Gwendolen Harleth, forced to learn by the uncontrollable consequences of  her own behaviour, terrified me into thinking seriously about the way in which I made choices.

I grew to love George Eliot and read everything she’d written, including, while I was writing my Ph.D. the nine volumes of her Complete Letters. This was (and still is)  like having a parent who teaches you stuff. George Eliot helped me  to grow up.

She can be hard to read – she has a rhythm that is long-sentenced and she uses complex syntax to work out complex things about human experience. Some people find the tone ponderous. I don’t. For me it is like spending time with a very clever person who knows a lot more than me. I have to keep saying, ‘Say that again!’ and I don’t understand it all, but I love being with her because I learn things.

Here’s Gwendolen (still a very young woman) at the end of the book, realising the man she loves has a bigger purpose in life than looking after her. You can’t read this stuff fast. Read it like a poem, slow and aloud.

That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving. All the troubles of her wifehood and widowhood had still left her with the implicit impression which had accompanied her from childhood, that whatever surrounded her was somehow specially for her, and it was because of this that no personal jealousy had been roused in her relation to Deronda: she could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all her anger into self-humiliation.

I wouldnt start (as I did) in the deep end with Daniel Deronda. I’d start with Silas Marner. If you read it at school and hated it (so many people did!) please give it another go. Perhaps I’ll have a look at it tomorrow.

Becoming George Herbert : the transfer of human experience across time and death

two paths
Two Paths Diverging in Calderstones Park 2 May 2017

Yesterday, you left me with my fingers in my ears and my heels dug in,  shouting, ‘I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife!’ Not an edifying sight. I wish I could amend that to, ‘I don’t know if I believe in any sort of afterlife.’ I feel that would be a more reasonable, even more logical,  place to be. But reasonable, logical, as it may be, I’m not there. I’m here, in this Mayfly experience of being a human living on planet earth. It’s short and I’ve no sense of anything for me before or after. That ‘for me’ really matters.

To the universe I may look like a goldfish, swimming round and round in my bowl, forgetting I’ve been here before, not realising I’ll be coming round again. (Though they say that scientists now believe goldfish do have memory and consciousness: they are not as simple as we once thought. All of which is not a fact, but possibly fake news I probably read on the internet. I’ve no idea if it is true. But I believe it. Why?). To visit this area of thinking, reasons to consider the possibility  of an afterlife and many other oddities, read the much derided Rupert Sheldrake  – is he crazy, bad or just outside the box?).

I’ve been reading George Herbert’s poem, Affliction III. Here it is, don’t forget to read it aloud to get back into it. Nice and slowly, please.

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,                                                             5
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,                                                       10
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.
Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,                                         15
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

My heels got dug in at the point where Herbert calls death ‘my bliss.’ That’s all very well for a Christian, I was shouting. For me it’s just game over!

I can’t get out of that state of mind. I’m stuck at some distance from the poem. Though this is a difficult place to find myself in, I’m  glad that this has happened because I think this is a common experience for many readers and that we thus  lose lots of good stuff because it doesn’t match our mindset. I love George Herbert, and I’ve known him long enough, and in some very hard circumstances, to know that I can rely on him. I trust him. Therefore, as a responsible person, I need to do something to fix this breakage in our relationship.

So now I have to do that thing that literature exists to make happen.

Just as I would have to do in a real-time relationship, I have to lend myself to him by allowing my imagination to draw on my own experience to help me understand his.  I have to enter George Herbert’s heart and mind, his being.

I’m going to transfer over. I’m going to be him. I read again, this time, reading as if I was George Herbert, not myself;

So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,                                                       10
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.
Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,                                         15
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

The mortal agony of his broken state of mind, his ‘sighs’ seeming to bring him towards death (my modern self noting, like a doctor, ‘an almost life-ending depression’. This takes places even as  I am trying to read as GH).  As Herbert, I have to rest some time at ‘bliss’. (As Jane I rush away from it). I imagine the ‘bliss’ of escape from this pain, and of a greater bliss, the being one with ‘Thou’, who despite the pain  of this poem, is yet loving and kind. There are only two good words (by good I mean perhaps not pain-filled) words in the whole poem: they are ‘relief’ and ‘bliss’.  They both point to something, someone, ‘Thou’, outside of Herbert’s  pain-filled experience. That you might reach the bliss through being blown about by a gale is  still frightening. The main thing I have, as GH, is trouble, pain, fear, hurt, but I do believe there is an end to it. I do believe there is ‘bliss’ – somewhere.

As a reader, I note the full stop after that word. (The poem is five sentences long. It is worth reading each of them, as a sentence, as a thought in its own right). As Herbert rests for a little while with this thought of bliss the storm of his thoughts  seems to die down a little. Another thought arises. Still being GH, I read on:

Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,                                         15

Now GH is feeling himself connected to ‘Thou’ through the pain, the grief, he suffers. God is constant to the nature of the life he lived as Christ, a man of sorrows. I wonder (as myself) if there is a third ‘good’ word in this poem: ‘constant’. and a fourth: ‘honour’. The pain does not abate, but this sentence offers a meaning for it. A paraphrase: God suffered as  man  on earth and that experience remains constant. Where Christ is in GH so pain also is, must be. And this is deliberate, necessary, right ‘a point of honour’. The grief is God. This is an amplification of the feeling I had at the beginning that God ‘was in’ the grief. At that point GH could hardly see God. Now he sees God’s suffering in his own suffering and is in fact at one with God in it. That’s a kind of relief.  It brings a meaning to a place where there was no meaning.

I’ve lent myself to GH to try to understand his experience as he tells me about it in the poem. I’ve no longer got my fingers in my ears, and given the level of his suffering and sorrow, I’m glad of that.

I’m going to leave the last two lines til tomorrow.

Me With My Heels Dug In

pansies.JPG
‘The pansy at my feet doth the same tale repeat…’

I’ve been reading George Herbert’s poem, ‘Affliction III’, and I’ve been reading it very slowly. No apology for that – why need we rush? One line of meditative meaning is as good as twenty skim-overs. Here’s the poem again. Read it aloud to get back in:

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,                                                             5
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,                                                       10
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.
Thy life on earth was grief, and Thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,                                         15
And in Thy members suffer ill.
They who lament one cross,
Thou dying daily, praise Thee to Thy loss.

I’m going to pick up at line 7 and go on a little way from there:

But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,                                                       10
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.

Herbert is in a grim state of (what we would now call) depression. It’s not hyperbole in line six, when he says he thinks the ‘sigh’ might have broken his heart. It’s good that although it feels killingly bad to him at the moment, the sighed words ‘Oh God’ have changed what might otherwise have been the tenor of his mind. In the opening lines he’s concentrating on what good he can sense in his situation, not the utter misery he feels.  I’m trying now to understand these lines:

But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?

I feel stuck, as if I can’t understand this, so I  try a paraphrase to get my head round as much of it as I can.

‘But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape’ = God your spirit gave me both spirit and form. (Therefore) ‘Thou know’st my tallies’ = you know what I’m made up of, or owe you, or you know what is the relationship between us. Perhaps also something about cost?  A tally is the stick notched to mark what’s owed. So perhaps I can read that line as – ‘you know what I owe you’.

The owing here seems connected to the very creation, and shape and being of the man; God knows what’s owed because ‘Thy breath gave me both life and shape’. This is one of those places where a contemporary non-believer like me gets stuck.  I don’t like the idea of owing anybody anything. I didn’t ask to be born!  If something (apart from biological parents)  birthed me – not just my body, my form, but also my life, my spirit – what would that be? What’s the translation here  for a non-believer? I’ll try letting x mark the spot as a holding ground for now.

But since X gave me both life and shape,
X know’st my tallies ;

I owe something by being here – whether I asked to be born or not. For a moment I’m going to assume there is (to use the AA phrase) a power greater than myself at work in the universe; that somehow ‘I’ come out of that, am created by it, and owe it. And when I think of all the possible non-existence (most of the universe is nothing! there’s  vastly more nothing than anything else…) then it does some an extraordinary – could I say – miracle – that I, or yesterday’s blackbird, or even couchgrasss have come to be at all.

Need to reread the whole poem now, to get back into its mind, as I’ve been going off on one in my attempt to understand. I reread it and concentrate again on the next bit of this thought:

But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?

I start at the end here – wonder what he means by ‘behind’. Think it has a specific kind of meaning, which I’ve read before in other poems by George Herbert, though I can’t quite remember it. Does it mean – what is left?  To paraphrase – you created me, you know what I owe, and when so much breath is assigned to a sigh, whats going to be left?

The paraphrase makes me concentrate on ‘assigned’ and on the difference between ‘breath’ and ‘sigh’. The word ‘assign somehow connects to ‘tallies’. It’s an old, legal word. I look it up. The ‘sigh’ is an expression of sadness, misery, even despair but it is full of ‘breath’  – life. If we put the gift we’ve been given (thing owed, the thing signified by the tally) into ‘a sigh’,  what is going to happen? Not quite sure about this as I read and think – maybe I haven’t understood it well. But I do think I’ve made some headway. I leave this bit for now and move on in case what is coming next will cast a light back for me.

The next bit does seem to develop that thought. Let’s read it all through to that point:

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, “O God !”
By that I knew that Thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
Making a sceptre of the rod :
Hadst Thou not had Thy part,                                                             5
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart.
But since Thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou know’st my tallies ; and when there’s assigned
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behind?
Or if some years with it escape,                                                       10
The sigh then only is
A gale to bring me sooner to my bliss.

I’m not sure of the function and tenor of ‘Or if’  I don’t think line ten on is an alternative to what came before. Perhaps more a development of the logic. These sighs cost actual life. This wind blows me towards death (‘my bliss’) Herbert is a Christian and believes in life with God after death.

But I don’t.  I’m not coming with you in this thought, George.

Time is up for today.  And me with my heels dug in.