Silas Marner Day 39: Truth, Lies & Life before psychology was invented

muscari
Muscari March 18

The women in Silas Marner  (full text here) are humans who struggle under the  difficulty of not being emancipated in different ways: Eppie’s drug-addicted mother Molly, the scrub-polish-make-bake-and-run-your-household-like-an-army Dolly Winthrop, and here, Nancy Lammeter. She is somewhat educated, but for no purpose, and having  no children, her days are emptier than  her childed sister’s, her  consciousness left to ruminate on  what seem at first to be the smallest  and least significant of things.

What I get interested in here, as I read about Nancy, is how the author, George Eliot, an exceptionally well (self) educated woman of immense intelligence imagines the movements of the human mind. This is psychology before William James, before Freud.

Watch the way we go in and in:

Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled.

Nancy’s like a  woman in prison, imprisoned in her life. There is no stimulation, only repetitive reflection on her ‘remembered experience’. But what else is there for her mind to dwell on? Having little external stimulation, she must live ‘inwardly’. The only subject matter of  depth she has is her relationship with her husband.  At First we have no idea what Nancy is going to think about.  Only very gladually do we  dig down the the realiy of what is bothering her.

She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable.

She won’t say – Nancy won’t think, won’t put into words – whatever it is we are talking about. we’re going roundthe houses.

At the same time as George Eliot is observing this action of a mind turned in on itself, she’s also noting that this is a kind of norm. This is likely, in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, to be the lot of a middle class woman: inwardness, self-judging, obsessive, the mind pacing like a caged polar bear, in its too-small arena:

This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow.

Later, George Eliot will pick up this idea in the persons of other women  – the Aunts’ Glegg in Mill on the Floss, obsessed with the designs of their china and muslin, the only choices they have really had, Romola, who comes to massive life  through calls from without in a national tragedy in the novel of her name, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. For an under-occupied childless man of a similar class there was study, Darwinian collecting, politics, horses, gambling or  other dissipations. For a woman? The mind turning in on itself:

“I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.

I notice now that George Eliot doesn’t seem quite to be talking about Nancy.  She has looked up from the story, from the character  she’s writing about, to  think on a more generalised level about laws of being.  She’s taken an example, but drawing a wider conclusion. ‘And there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy’  The pronoun ‘her’ in that sentence is not simply referring to Nancy.

But now we turn back to Nancy, and see some of the precise and particular moments of Nancy’s particular experience, and uncover something painful and hard to admit:

There was one main thread of painful experience in Nancy’s married life, and on it hung certain deeply-felt scenes, which were the oftenest revived in retrospect. The short dialogue with Priscilla in the garden had determined the current of retrospect in that frequent direction this particular Sunday afternoon. The first wandering of her thought from the text, which she still attempted dutifully to follow with her eyes and silent lips, was into an imaginary enlargement of the defence she had set up for her husband against Priscilla’s implied blame. The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds:–“A man must have so much on his mind,” is the belief by which a wife often supports a cheerful face under rough answers and unfeeling words. And Nancy’s deepest wounds had all come from the perception that the absence of children from their hearth was dwelt on in her husband’s mind as a privation to which he could not reconcile himself.

Oh dear.  Her sister finds fault with Godfrey because Godfrey is not happy about having no children – that was the conversation in the garden. I wonder, does he blame Nancy? ‘The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds’ Sounds like  she is wounded, and wounded by the loved object – Godfrey – she now defends. He cannot ‘reconcile’ himself to no children. How does that make her feel?

But of course we, unlike Nancy,  know that one of the drivers for Godfrey’s inability to reconcile himself is the fact that he has a child, a child he  cannot acknowledge, and that child lives with Silas Marner, in the village outside Godfrey’s house. Godfrey  has seen his daughter every week at church for the last ten, twelve, fourteen years.

Nancy, imagining and feeling her way through this complex  and  not entirely known emotional situation, has only part of the story.  She makes excuses for her husband but retains  great control over her own emotional life:

Yet sweet Nancy might have been expected to feel still more keenly the denial of a blessing to which she had looked forward with all the varied expectations and preparations, solemn and prettily trivial, which fill the mind of a loving woman when she expects to become a mother. Was there not a drawer filled with the neat work of her hands, all unworn and untouched, just as she had arranged it there fourteen years ago–just, but for one little dress, which had been made the burial-dress? But under this immediate personal trial Nancy was so firmly unmurmuring, that years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given.

Did I not notice it before or have I only just learned that Nancy had indeed had a baby but  that baby had died?

I  read back and realise that this is the first I’ve heard of Nancy’s lost baby. Here is the  information, packed away in the drawer, at the centre of the emotional  problem. There was a burial dress, and that burial dress memory is the clue to Nancy’s loss and her somewhat rigid reaction to it:

years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given –

She is religious, and desires to do and be right. Other children have not been ‘given’, and she believes it would be wrong of her to long for them. Therefore she denies herself  the possible comfort of looking at the baby clothes.  This is sad and possibly self-damamging.

I find myself thinking back to Silas’ trauma and wondering  what connections may lie between these two very different people. Silas’ cutting himself off feels much more animalistic – he retreated to a cave to lick his wounds and got stuck there, licking,  for ever, til Eppie wandered into his life.  Nancy’s response to her trauma seems more controlled but is it? ‘years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit’ –  is that control or a desperate measure to prevent pain?

Now, having opened the drawer with  the baby clothes in it, we get to see the lost baby and other potential children, too, as the problem at the centre of the problem is slowly revealed: a years’ experienced psychotherapist could not have done it better:

Perhaps it was this very severity towards any indulgence of what she held to be sinful regret in herself, that made her shrink from applying her own standard to her husband. “It is very different– it is much worse for a man to be disappointed in that way: a woman can always be satisfied with devoting herself to her husband, but a man wants something that will make him look forward more–and sitting by the fire is so much duller to him than to a woman.”

And always, when Nancy reached this point in her meditations–trying, with predetermined sympathy, to see everything as Godfrey saw it– there came a renewal of self-questioning. _Had_ she done everything in her power to lighten Godfrey’s privation? Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?

Now, like the lost baby, we find another layer of secret pain – the marital battle over adoption. Godfrey has wanted to adopt and she has resisted that idea. Twice. He longs for a child.  That she knows.  Of course she questions herself. Has she done what she can to make him happy? Everything but agree to adoption.

The question for Nancy, as she meditates over her Bible, is  did she really do her duty by refusing to adopt a child when her husband told her he wanted to do so?

    Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child? Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on. They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

When we read the first sentence we are reading  in Nancy’s own voice,

  Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?

But then something odd happens, and we suddenly find ourselves  seeing Nancy’s decision from outside herself. Dutiful she may be, by she’s also rigid, perhaps life-denyingly so:

Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on.

George Eliot finds something appalling in this:  ‘opinion’, ‘precisely’ ‘every’ ‘unwaveringly’; all these words colour the sentences above and show us that Nancy is  limiting her self and her possible reactions by her inflexible sticking to what come down to  – not thoughts, not feelings but opinions. How  thin ‘opinions’ feel as a basis for life.

They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

Some terrible words alert me to a judgement being made by author: tenacity (which might in other circumstances be a good thing) pretty (again, could be good but here point to something merely external and at odds with the inflexible inner Nancy…) and finally, damningly, little. ‘Her unalterable  little code’. There’s something appalling to George Eliot in the coming together in one person of  girlish prettiness and rigid tenacity and smallness of mind. It’s a type of being that she will return to many times in her work over  the years of her writing life, most notably in Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch.

Is it partly the result of the subjugation of women?  How can you grow fully rounded when  the space around you is so powerfully restricted? Yet if there is power there… and it displays itself in mental rigidity,  an inability to grow, or to change with circumstance.

pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

that the setting out of your dressing table should be ordered in the same way as your  thoughts on adoption – I’ve always thought this and so I stick to it – is a damning indictment.  or is it an indictment?  Is it simply an investigation into  a particular person?

More next week.

Splitting The World Open: Celebrating International Women’s Day With A Poem

women's press (2)Sometime in the late seventies I bought an anthology of women’s poetry,  The World Split Open, edited by Louise Bernikow, published by The Women’s Press. That’s an easy sentence  to write in 2018  but it might have been nearly impossibly fifty years ago in the year of  the world’s youth revolution, 1968.  Earlier this week I opened The Faber Book of C20 Verse, edited  by J.Heath-Stubbs and D. Wright (1953), to find that only 6 of the more than 90 poets included were  women.  At University in the 1980’s a teacher, a man, told me that women weren’t concentrated enough for poetry.  I think that was a pretty widespread view.

Ah, the dear old Women’s Press. How I loved that little  iron, its logo.

I’d go to a bookshop and look for Womens Press books then choose from amongst them, books I knew might be of interest to me.  Virago was a women’s publisher, too, but The Women’s Press list was odder, more homemade, less corporate, more extreme. And all that seemed summed in that little steam-iron logo.

I was trying to become myself as a young adult, and that self was a woman writer and reader. I wanted books  to help me build my self up.  I wanted role models. But I hardly remember any of those books now (Gaining Ground, a novel by Joan Barfoot, notable exception.) But this excellent anthology of poetry has been  with me through nearly forty years reading.  I’ve just had to buy another copy, as the first literally fell to pieces in my  hand.

I had two books of poetry by women. This, and the Penguin Book of Women Poets. That was  it.

bernikow

Looking her up, I see Louise Bernikow is still going strong, writing and talking about women (also dogs).    Looking at the book’s cover now, I remember that it made me uncomfortable. That women in the photograph looks a bit  too masculine, I don’t know what the two metal balls are doing there and I can’t figure out the perspective. The cover may have unsettled me, but the contents inspired. Realising that Queen Elizabeth I, the centre of the Elizabethan age, an age of great poetry, was herself a poet delighted me.

 

 

 

 

The Doubt of Future Foes
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
Yes, the sonnet is long-distance interesting in the psychological cost of political trouble, but I didn’t connect with it: there’s was nothing here to latch onto my own experience at that time.  But this fragment, written with a diamond on her window at Woodstock, where she was being held prisoner,  seemed to zap through time, connecting her to me:

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

It wasn’t so much the words, as the act of graffitti, of being moved in a strange way to write. I could almost feel that diamond in my fingers as I scratched.

behn

 

I was glad to meet Aphra Behn in this anthology, the first English women to make her living from writing.  I never really liked her poetry but I liked her, her drinking in taverns and brawling with the lads. And I remember later  getting involved in her novel, Oorinoko, which perhaps I’ll read again.

 

 

Love in Fantastic Triumph sat,
Whilst Bleeding Hearts around him flowed,
For whom Fresh pains he did Create,
And strange Tyrannic power he showed;
From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But ’twas from mine he took desire
Enough to undo the Amorous World.
From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his Pride and Cruelty;
From me his Languishments and Fears,
And every Killing Dart from thee;
Thus thou and I, the God have armed,
And set him up a Deity;
But my poor Heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the Victor is, and free.

Emily Bronte, Anne Bradstreet, Sylvvia Plath are names that come to mindwhen I try to remember the anthohlogy but I don’t remember reading the poem from which the book’s title is taken.

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
        her life?
     The world would split open

Muriel Ruksayer’s words are famous – you’ll find them embroidered on Pinterest and made into posters. You’ll find the poem they come from, honouring the German artist Kathe Kollwitz here. Worth reading on this International Women’s Day.

And for growing humans everywhere, my poem of the day, Denise Levertov’s The Metier Of Blossoming.

I’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day  by visiting Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust , to talk and read with women in the Forensic Unit there. I’ll be taking Levertov’s Metier with me.

 

 

 

 

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.