‘All things are moral’ writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in the essay ‘Discipline’ in his extended essay, Nature. It is what it is, and we see that.
The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him. Who can estimate this? Who can guess how much firmness the sea-beaten rock has taught the fisherman?
Emerson, deeply influenced by Wordsworth, believed that the nature of experience itself, especially our experience of nature, teaches us (shows, demonstrates) a universal morality: right ways to live and be.
That’s a massively contentious position now, when we are all more or less libertarians – we each do what we want and we don’t want anyone to make rules for us. Rules, even perhaps the idea of the moral, they’re out – unless it is us trying to control the behaviour of someone we don’t agree with and for whom we would definitely like to make some rules.
I’ve been thinking about the previous Silas Marner reading (here) and about moral teaching in George Eliot, and in Shared Reading. When I first met (my hero/mother) Doris Lessing she asked me what I was working on for my ph.d and I replied: George Eliot. (Visionary Realism: George Eliot to Doris Lessing 1986) ‘Oh, never liked her much’, Doris said, supremely dismissive, ‘too moral.’
I sat alongside my hero/mother in the taxi, devastated. She didn’t love my other hero/mother. How could I hold those two bits of reality together? But nature was holding them together – there they both were, alongside each other in reality. What I had to do was learn from that, accept the difference. Doris had grown up in a post-Victorian age and, as a Communist, lived through the Stalinist show trials of the 1950s. Now she was a Sufi disciple of Idris Shah. She didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t like the idea of moral teaching (though she was a terrific layer down of laws herself).
But I, still trying to make myself a livable life that fitted me badly needed ‘moral’ in my life. That was one reason I was so affected by Doris Lessing’s novel, Shikasta. That was why we were in this taxi together in the first place!
Moral didn’t seem like rules or other people’s laws to me, it felt like necessary equipment for staying alive. I’ve written about the need for a lifesaver and how my own difficult early life fed into the creation of The Reader here.
The Reader began from an impulse, not an idea. I had no plan, no worked-out ambition. I had an instinct, a feeling, that what had worked for me – hard reading – might work for other people. Twenty years on, since the first issue of The Reader magazine, fifteen since the first Shared Reading group, two things matter to me: the experience in the group and the content of the reading matter. It’s easier to legislate – to set parameters, a quality framework – for the experience of being in the group than it is for the content of the reading matter.
And as the future unfolds, I believe that everybody is going to do their own thing – James Brown had it right.
The way I like, it is the way it is,
I got mine, don’t worry ’bout his
James Brown, Sex Machine (Get On Up)
I accept – grudgingly but even so, I do accept – that all kinds of readers will want to read all kinds of things with their groups. I can’t force a reading list on anyone. But for quality control, surely the key question must be: does it get to the heart of a real human experience?
For me, personally, a lot of that real human experience is about choices, how to live. I’m always looking for that info and I think the world needs it, as much as I do. George Eliot is full of such moral stuff, and that’s why if I only had one stab at a novel with a group I’d probably be going for Silas Marner.
Picking up where we were last time, Godfrey Cass has struck lucky in that his secret wife, the opium addict, Molly, has just died, before she could expose their marriage to his family.
I read this, and on one level I am thinking of Cass, while on another am thinking of myself. but thinking is not quite the right word. It is more like Emerson’s sense of simply being there, absorbing, learning something from it.
And when events turn out so much better for a man than he has had reason to dread, is it not a proof that his conduct has been less foolish and blameworthy than it might otherwise have appeared? When we are treated well, we naturally begin to think that we are not altogether unmeritorious, and that it is only just we should treat ourselves well, and not mar our own good fortune.
I pick up on the word ‘naturally’ here. The complication of human nature as an element within nature is that our minds, unlike rocks or stones or trees, can lie, can twist things. In nature there is a firm and visible cause and effect – as ye sow, so shall ye reap – but for humans there’s so often the possibility of manipulation or tricks or even just luck, as here. Luckily for Cass, things are turning out differently:
And when events turn out so much better for a man than he has had reason to dread…
I see first ‘turn out’ – an immoral sort of result, isn’t it – as if you had nothing to do with it? Just happens. Lucky! And how oddly ‘turn out’ sits alongside ‘dread’, that huge Old Testament word, which seems to come from a different place in the human mind altogether. If you forget the ‘dread’, perhaps the strongest natural warning in the human pysche, and Cass is going to forget it if he can, then it doesn’t feel too good for your survival rate. I think it is in Daniel Deronda – written at the end of her career – that George Eliot has Gwendolen says she’s going to hang to to her ‘dread’ and try to learn from it…
But, staying with the text, human choice is able to interrupt the pattern of seed-time and harvest, to change the course of nature. Godfrey forgetting the seed, can go from ‘dread’ to ‘happier’ in one wink of the eye:
Where, after all, would be the use of his confessing the past to Nancy Lammeter, and throwing away his happiness?–nay, hers? for he felt some confidence that she loved him. As for the child, he would see that it was cared for: he would never forsake it; he would do everything but own it. Perhaps it would be just as happy in life without being owned by its father, seeing that nobody could tell how things would turn out, and that–is there any other reason wanted?–well, then, that the father would be much happier without owning the child.
I look back at the Emerson, and wonder about how natural moral teaching works and why it sometimes – as in Cass here, or myself, countless times, fails. Emerson says;
The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him.
What is needed in the human being to receive the moral influence which is naturally present? Sometimes, perhaps often, our twisted nature wants the easiest way out – nature may be there illustrating but who is looking at the pictures?
As for the child, he would see that it was cared for: he would never forsake it; he would do everything but own it. Perhaps it would be just as happy in life without being owned by its father, seeing that nobody could tell how things would turn out, and that–is there any other reason wanted?–well, then, that the father would be much happier without owning the child.
Here’s Cass doing his thing – using one word, having one experience (‘he would never forsake it’) and doing a little self-trickery sleight of hand to change everything (‘he would do everything but own it’) Those two clauses cancel each other out. I looked up forsake in the Etymological Dictionary – yes, it has an emotional resonance which is quite undercut by the legal tone of ‘own’.
What is the ‘happier’ Cass aspires to? He wants to get back to a state before he had married Molly, where he can marry Nancy Lammeter, as if he were a free man. That’s not actually possible. Nature – in the form of what actually is – is telling him, and us, so. Nature is demonstrating – there’s the child to prove it! – seed-time and harvest.
All kinds of odd things are going through my mind – because it’s been in the news today I’m thinking of the Prince of Wales wanting Camilla Parker Bowles after he had married Diana, but also of the Grenfell Tower and the Council’s desire for an ‘economical’ solution to the cladding issue, also things of my own where I’ve ignored a bit of reality in order to try to create another bit that suits me better. All this is human, so often appalling, but part of our nature. I’m thinking of reading Bion and the need to sift through all that detritus. Psychoanalysis might help Godfrey Cass – one day – not now, because he is still intent on getting his own version of reality into reality, against nature. But he may come to a time when he needs it.
How long does ‘happier’ with an untruth last? Until your moral luck runs out…and the nature of reality shows itself again. Let’s see what happens.
‘Holday over, time to work’ was the grim but realistic motto found in a Fortune Cookie by one of my children at a New Year’s day dinner during GCSE year. My summer break, with all that reading, is over today and I’m back to work tomorrow. Hope I will make the transition back into daily reading and writing routine but bear with me… it may be rocky for the first week or so.