Paradise Lost 11: Can You Ever Change Your Mind?

indoor plants.JPG
Indoor Plants lighting November

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

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

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

Last week,  I’d got to Book 1, Line 241, and had seen the fallen Satan talk himself into trying again and rising from the lake of fire where he had fallen after his nine days fall from heaven,. He’s found a footing on land now (though still all fire) and looks about him:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Here’s a key moment in the poem. Since we have first seen him, Satan is in a state of  flux, one moment despairing, another, rallying himself to  fight on, sometimes seeming almost broken, moments later, resurgent. I think it is worth wondering what this feels like in human terms. The amount of energy consumed by changing mental gear in this way must be immense.

I’m thinking now about my own mind. I don’t feel I have a lot of control over it, and remember the  the ‘white bear’ experiment first proposed by  Fydor Dostoevsky. It’s very hard to stop your mind doing things it wants to do.  But can you will it to do some things you want it to do – can you think of a blue flower, thus pushing the white bear aside? An interesting experiment  on the rebound effect has shown that  while suppression by distraction of other means may work for a while, the under-thought will return later and perhaps stronger.

That seems to ring true for Satan, moving all the time between despair and grief for what is lost, and angry self-assertion about what he gains by that loss. So, looking about, he sees  loss:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

‘This mournful gloom’ is now the medium in which the fallen angels must have their being and there is no doubt that Satan suffers as he looks about him and realises this.  He accepts it (‘be it so’) and seems in acccepting to accept that God is all-powerful.

since he [ 245 ]
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right:

But I wonder if the  underlying thought ( I should be all powerful – not Him!) if asserting itself even as  Satan seems to accept thereality he finds himself in.  His resistance is in the word ‘ now’  (‘since he/ who is now Sovran’)  which suggests that God has not always been, and perhaps will not always be,  Sovran. That is just  ‘now’, at this moment. There is in Satan’s mind a potential other time, which he believes in more strongly than the evidence of ‘now’,, when he will  be, might be, Sovran.  And this  nascent thought is picked up and amplified in the next lines:

fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals.

Only ‘force’ has made God Supream, Satan  boasts to himself, in terms of ‘reason’, they were, are ‘equals.’

Is this true?  Satan thinks it is and seems to feel utterly secure in that thought.  Yet there is a sadness to his thinking that seems to  undercut his rational thought. The tone of  his thought is melancholy:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail [ 250 ]
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor:

I have to stop now as going  out today to Gladstone’s Library

—————————————–

Sunday, 5th November

10.15am – 11.15am: Sam Guglani – Medicine, Science and the Arts

What are the human and moral challenges of contemporary medicine? Why are the arts an urgent and necessary means of knowledge towards better medicine – and ultimately, better society? Join poet, novelist and consultant oncologist Sam Guglani for an hour’s reflection, including the Medicine Unboxed project and readings from his work.

Sam Guglani is a poet, novelist and consultant oncologist who specialises in the management of lung and brain tumours. He has a background in medical ethics and chairs the Gloucestershire Hospitals Trust law and ethics group. Director of Medicine Unboxed since he founded it in 2009, Sam uses the arts and creative industries to illuminate challenges in medicine. He is a published poet and writes for The Lancet, and his debut novel Histories is released in 2017.

 

 

 

Euphorbias & Viburnums v Sullenness & Rage

euphorbia close.JPG
Euphorbia asserting its noble beauty in an unkind world

March has been a difficult  month on almost every front, but I don’t want to describe or even list any of those difficulties.

Instead,  after a particularly difficult day yesterday, in which I felt a lot of feelings I did not wish to feel, including – rare one for me – rage, and in which the good that happened (Teamwork, time with Megg, euphorbias, Carys Bray, my dear and loving husband) all seemed overshadowed by bad stuff,  I woke up with these words in my mind;

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

These words come from the Bible, Letter to Phillipians 4:8, but I first got them from Iris Murdoch, in her strange, wonderful and difficult book, Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. She’s talking about what you can do if you don’t have religion to assist with difficulties of living, and writes about filling your mind up, deliberately, with good things.

The book came out in 1992 and I think I first read it then or the following year. Soon after that I was in the thick of the hardest time of my life and in my desperation I found her advice helpful. I particularly found the quotation from Philippians helpful and what’s more, it seemed to stick. I used it like a mantra but it also gave me something active to do. When bad stuff came into my head I would recite, ‘whatever is good…whatever is honest…whatever is just…’ and the very presence of  such words, and the thoughts associated with them, seemed to help me. As one of our readers in a special project where volunteers read with children in extremely difficult situations said, ‘when Jess reads with me it makes all the bad memories go away and good memories come in…’ I know that feeling well.

So, whatever is good, think on these things.The habit is a useful one. It also works with poetry.

Well, grandchildren  – all babies! –  are good and make me feel great joy. I think  on them, and see them whenever I can. Birdsong is heartening at this time of year. Dogs rarely fail to delight me (you know who you are, you dogs who don’t delight). Euphorbias display such energy that I find they restore my faith in life, and the small pink viburnum (don’t know what variety it is and need to know because I want one in my garden) on the right of the gate into the  walled gardens at Calderstones Park is currently providing daily inner restoration through its gentle colour therapy. I do think on these things.

viburnum close.JPG

An unequivocal good has been changing my morning routine so that I read and write about my reading every day before I go to work. There is never enough time but even the smallest amount of it seems to do me some good. After years of ‘no time to write’ and reading while falling asleep, it feels a breakthrough. This change is the result of a chance meeting with a kind stranger on a train the day Bearhunt blew away. That’s how it happens isn’t it?

I’ve been reading Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality for the past three mornings. The whole poem is here. But I’ve been reading a few lines each day. Yesterday we got  to the point where Wordsworth, feeling some ‘glory’ is lost from life, finds something ‘glorious’ in the world and tells himself

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

The word ‘sullen’ seems to do for bad feeling what ‘whatever is good’ does for good. It puts it in my mind.  It’s foul. And then I see it, hiding behind ‘sullen’,  ‘Oh evil day’  as if Wordsworth first feels the evil before he has identified where/what it is. Evil emanating from my sullenness. Ouch. Thinking bad things is not good.  Is that how ‘evil’ starts?

Instead of continuing with his feeling (‘sullen’) he lets it go, looks around, looks for good and sees it;

…Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:

I love that line, ‘the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm’ and it is an important one for me, but I am out of time and need to carry on tomorrow.

viburnum form.JPG

 

 

A Poem to Hold You Up

alder may 2016
A fine structure for life

Herman Hesse writes of solitary trees:

They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

How hard it is, sometimes, to have the gift of life. Most of the Universe,  astronomers tell us is nothing. Nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum, it mostly is one. Only  in the rarest  flecks of the universe  is something, is matter. We are tiny bits of that matter and we have what seems even rarer, consciousness and self-awareness. It is the greatest, shortest, most spectacular and powerful, rare thing:  the chance to be alive and become yourself, your life. And yet how hard it is to endure the struggle that  Herman Hesse describes here, in the struggle of  solitary, individual trees to be themselves;

they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

This is a task all humans take on, more or less consciously. Unlike trees (I speak in  trepidation, not certain of my ground here,  for who knows what mystery there is in trees…)  we have conscious minds and that brings us a mighty  burden as well as  great power. Sometimes it feels as if having a  mind, by which I mean a self-conscious centre of consciousness, is like have a  super-powered roaring engine strapped onto our body, an engine that makes us buzz around like a balloon flying round with air coming out of it at speed,  high-powered, but with no controller, no purpose.

Trees, I am sure, do not ever feel like that.

I myself hardly ever feel like that these days, but when I think back to the hard years of my teens, my twenties, my thirties and, sorry to say, my forties, my blurry memories of that long period of becoming my self (no, not finished yet but going now at a different pace, and going in a particular way, which wasn’t the case then) I cannot imagine weathering some of those  storms, winters which went on for what seemed a decade, without George Herbert. For some of us becoming what we are often feels impossibly difficult. George Herbert seemed to stand beside me offering an arm while I tried to stand upright.

During a period of years when I had no idea how to  make anything of my life –  that possibility wasn’t even on the map, so  I didn’t  think about it –  I walked the dog every morning,  wrote poems, and read poems. The poems I read in the hardest of those winters were religious because they opened a space in which it was possible to recognise my shape, and they offered a structured language for the experience I was living through. All the ‘Affliction’ poems were leaning posts for me. They helped shape me for the future, they held me up. Now they are part of me, in my bones.

Affliction 1

When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,
I thought the service brave;
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me;
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth;

Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I serv’d,
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserv’d
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,

And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way;
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,

Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believ’d,

Till grief did tell me roundly, that I liv’d.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more, for my friends die;
My mirth and edge was lost, a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,

Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threaten’d oft the siege to raise,
Not simp’ring all mine age,
Thou often didst with academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweet’ned pill, till I came where

I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth thy power cross-bias me, not making

Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout;
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

No time, this morning to read through the whole poem, but only to point to a few lines that still touch my with their truth:

…a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Why did it help me to read these lines?  When you are  not in good shape (see good shape in picture above and compare to  when your life is out of joint) not being ‘of use’ is one of the burdens. And a knife is dangerous – sometimes a blunt knife more dangerous than a sharp one. Then he turns sideways and you see – oddly, brilliantly – ‘without a fence’  is he cast out? Yes. Is he unprotected? Yes. Is he stick thin? Yes. Does the slightest thing set him off? Yes. Is he easily blown about  by  any wind? Yes.

Recognise it all ? Yes.  I love the  time  he arrives at the tree-thought, right now, as if the poem is living through terrible real-time:

None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Now. Now Now. Can’t get out of it. He treads water. ‘I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree.’ But the imagination of being a tree  is a tiny, tiny moment of change. A tree is not a bit of thin lath in a fence. A tree is not a blunted knife. The lovely hope that a bird might  nest in him, some living creature might ‘trust’ him, is a possible future.  But George Herbert doesn’t get there in this poem, which is written  in medias res, in the absolute thick of it. The last stanza is frustrated, stuck, going round in circles;

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;

In weakness must be stout;

He knows intellectually what he is supposed to do – be stout – but, angrily, childishly, frustratedly, can’t do that;

Well, I will change the service, and go seek

Some other master out.

Bah! Give up!And then, a bigger, more difficult problem and a restating of it as GH’s own responsibility:

Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

Does it matter what God (read ‘life’) is doing to him? No. The responsibility rests with he who is living that life. Got to go with the flow, got to act with it.

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

How do I love thee? Ah life, let me count the ways. Wake up, count blessings, look at a tree, a bird, a baby. There is an infinite universe of nothing. Then there is this, this spark of life, this us. Painful, worth having.  Keep going.

Lifesavers

In June 1983, at the age of 27, I sat in the garden of the Albert pub in Lark Lane with Brian Nellist, who had been my third year tutor at University and told him, ‘I want to teach adults to read.’

My degree, First Class honours, top of my year, was the first success I had had in the world. I was a not-very-mature mature student about to start her adult life.

The day the results came out my ex-partner committed suicide.  I had ended our relationship – which involved a lot of drugs and drink – so as to be able to concentrate on my degree. I was left with a terrible sense that I had to make my life count for something – that the thing I had chosen, ‘literature’, had to pay.

Within 3 years my mother would die of alcoholism. These two deaths were utterly significant in the much later development of The Reader Organisation. They seemed to stack up an equation – what life is, and how you value it, what matters, what things cost.

In the pub garden that sunny day, Brian persuaded me that instead of becoming an adult literacy tutor, I should do a Ph.D. I took his advice and the three years I spent writing my thesis, Visionary Realism: from George Eliot to Doris Lessing laid down the foundations of my adult life. I became a university teacher of literature. My desire to ‘teach adults to read’ stayed stubbornly put, however and I taught Adult Continuing Education for the next 20 years.

I had no ambitions and absolutely no sense that I could affect the world in any way, nor would I want to. I thought the world wasn’t very good, and I didn’t respect it very much.

As I look at memories of what I felt at that time, it seemed that the most important thing was to make a small good world around myself, immediately – in my house, with my family, in classes I taught.

That was the world I could affect. I had to make my own life pay – I felt – for those two lives which, if I had if not actively taken, I had not been able to save. This has always been at the back of my sense of my own adult life and behind my teaching or sharing of literature. Can it help?

For a long time, I wanted to be a writer. Finishing my Ph.D.  had taught me that I could complete things, so for many years each day I got up at 5.00am and wrote. I wrote six novels during this period, none of them publishable, but all important to me: I was remaking the world in images I chose. I wrote stories of people whose lives had been smashed up, whose worlds were broken. And  then I taught literature, part-time, to adults. Being an unpublished novelist was a sad state (though I didn’t care a jot for a long time:  I just had to write), but it served as a sort of preparation for the hard slog that would become The Reader Organisation: I was learning to believe in and to build structures. It was a fifteen-year apprenticeship in not giving up.

During this long and intensely private period of my life a traumatic event took place.  I felt the world, the cosmos, was broken. Literature, in this period, assisted me – as breathing apparatus assists in a major fire. I can remember reading Psalm 91 when I was so frightened that, night after night, I was scared to go to sleep:

          He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,

and from the noisome pestilence.

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust:

his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

I did not, do not, ‘believe in god’ in any sense that a person with a formed  religious faith would recognise. Yet I needed those words  – ‘fortress ‘ ‘deliver thee’  ‘snare of the fowler’. The words met me in my place of terror and offered –what? Recognition? Language?

They are ancient words, words to  which people, for more than two thousand years, have turned in their terrors.  Unable to sleep, I took comfort from those countless human beings, and the words to which they had turned. The verses seemed to offer structure, shape, and yes, refuge. I liked reading them aloud. They gave me, in the deepest sense, comfort.  And it was a surprise – I had no idea those poems, The Psalms, were still alive.

Many other books also helped me – the entire works of George Eliot (including the nine volumes of her Letters). Shakespeare. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing.  The works of Russell Hoban. Poetry, starting with Chaucer and going as far as my dear old friend Les Murray’s An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow, and probably further. George Herbert. Paradise Lost. The Prelude and everything else by Wordsworth.  These books gave me back my inner and outer experiences in words and sentences, feelings and thoughts, images, worlds, cosmologies, voices, languages.  They gave me meanings which matched what I already – wordlessly – knew.

The Reader Organisation has grown out of and from the wonderful compost of sadnesses, ruins, breakages, losses and terrors of my own real life and the lives of others I have known.

When I started my mission (‘great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them’) in 2002, it was with the intent of passing on this strong, life-saving stuff to others.  Having felt the true weight of the trouble many humans, most humans, have to live through, the seriousness of needing some strong help really comes home.  Of course there is lightweight reading, and some people are lucky enough to live on the surface most of the time. Let them continue to bob along happily, reading for pleasure.  But many of us are shipwrecked, drowning. We are reading, like the child Davy in David Copperfield, ‘as if for life’. Is that reading for  pleasure? Is it bibliotherapy? These are not the right words but no matter, so long as they bring us what we need.  We need lifesavers, the great books.

——————————————————-

This blog is based on a talk I gave to colleagues at  The Reader Organisation’s ThinkDay,  July 2013

2013-07-22 16.00.21We combined ThinkDay with Sportsday, as we have a garden at Calderstones Mansion. Picture shows Team A lining up for their innings in a very competitive game of rounders.