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The artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity obtained at a given point in . . . life, along with the characteristics [they] may have assimilated from [the] national culture, [the] local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tuman Mirror of the Divine – page 118)

The Mad Woman in the AtticI was complacently reading my way through The Mad Woman in the Attic in pleasant anticipation of my moments with Middlemarch as the high spot of their analysis of women writers in Victorian England, when my worldview was overturned. I was going to have another Mansfield Park and Daniel Deronda experience, possibly on a larger scale.

The final chapters of this uneven but brilliant book deal with poetry.

I already knew that, in so far as when I had bought the book I had read the final chapter on Emily Dickinson with some interest. What I had not expected was to be blown away by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the penultimate chapter I had previously vaulted over. After all I’d read all her good stuff, hadn’t I? Sonnets from the Portuguese especially was the critics’ favourite, and mine till now perhaps. As a lover of Robert Browning’s poetry, I also knew enough about her life to realize she’d never attempted anything as ambitious as his The Ring & the Book, had she?

How wrong could I be?

Aurora LeighAurora Leigh

Gilbert and Gubar flagged up Aurora Leigh after a lengthy consideration of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. They describe it as Barrett Browning’s ‘masterpiece’ (page 575), going on to explain why:

It is so much better than most of its nonreaders realize, but also because it embodies what may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century.

Along the path of their relatively brief exploration of this poem, there were small gems of insight quoted that rang bells for me, but not dramatically as yet. They quote her as writing (page 577) ‘Art is much; but love is more,’ and ‘Art’s a service.’

They clarify that the story she tells in blank verse concludes with what seems to be (page 579) ‘a perfect compromise between the docility required by Victorian marriage and the energy demanded by poetry.’ They describe how Barrett Browning places her transformative vision in the male character’s mouth so as to make it more acceptable to her Victorian readership (ibid):

Part of this poet’s compromise consists in her diplomatic recognition that Victorian readers may be more likely to accept millenarian utterances from a male character.

It is only when they quote this millenarian vision that the full import of this poem struck me with full force:

                                                       The world’s old,
But the old world waits the time to be renewed,
Toward which, new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men;
Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws
Admitting freedom, new societies
Excluding falsehood: He shall make all new.

And, as I discovered via Wikipedia, it’s divided into nine books. Nine! A very special number for Bahá’ís!

‘I have to buy this book,’ I thought, and immediately found a Norton annotated edition on the web which I decided to order via my local Waterstones on the following Monday (this all happened too late on Saturday to dash down and do it straightaway, and ordering on the web forfeits the stamps on my loyalty card).

Patience! Patience!

Before I take this further I need to share the next sequence of events.

What made it even more amazing was that, having decided to buy a copy as soon as possible, the following day, the Sunday, my wife and I visited a National Trust property — Berrington Hall — and, after wandering the grounds and having a cup of coffee, we finally found the second hand bookshop there, which my wife was encouraging me to look into in case they had the book. I thought the chance of that was so very slim I nearly didn’t bother.

But I was amazed to find at the second attempt, after nearly leaving the shop, a slim copy of the book tucked away on the next-to-bottom shelf of the last stack. How weird and unlikely is that, for such a little known and not very popular book!

IMG_4107

It wasn’t the exact edition I wanted, which I still might buy for the notes and letters it contains, but for the price of £1 how could I possibly resist? It seemed to confirm my own strong feeling that I was meant to read it.

Just in case it seems as though this enthusiasm is a misguided response to one pair of critics, I’ll end with a quote or two from the introduction to my newly acquired and priceless one pound purchase. Cora Kaplan writes (page 11):

In spite of its conventional happy ending it is possible to see it as contributing to a feminist theory of art which argues that women’s language, precisely because it has been suppressed by patriarchal societies, re-enters discourse with a shattering revolutionary force, speaking all that is repressed and forbidden in human experience.

In terms of the plot of the poem as she sees it, the blinding of the main male character, after the manner of Rochester in Jane Eyre (page 24), ‘simultaneously robs him of his “manly” image and his masculine, mechanical projects for social improvement.’ Shades of McGilchrist here again.

Kaplan also clinches the idea explored by Gilbert and Gubar, that Barrett Browning goes a long way towards integrating male power with feminine sensitivity by quoting approvingly her lines (page 27):

                                   Either sex alone
Is half itself and in true marriage lies
Nor equal nor unequal: each fulfils
Defects in each…

While she feels the poem is weak in the way it deals with the issues of class, she endorses its great value (page 35):

. . . [F]or all its difficulties the poem remains radical and rupturing, a major confrontation of patriarchal attitudes unique in the imaginative literature of its day.

One critic sourly complained that it was 2000 lines longer than Paradise Lost. So, it is clearly a work that merits comparison with the lengthy masterpiece her husband wrote in his grief after her death.

And this view was reinforced, in my opinion, as I read through the poem and found many passages such as this one, which confirms that Barrett Browning was firmly behind the view that art should balance the material with the spiritual (Book 7, lines 763-769):

                                         Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points.

As it stands at this point, although I feel my high regard for George Eliot’s work, most especially Middlemarch, is completely justified, I clearly have failed to give due consideration to a major poet, someone I have so far dismissed as a minor artist working on a miniature scale, somewhere below Jane Austen’s ironical description of her own work as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.’

Time to remedy that, I feel.

I’ll pause at this point having marshaled at least some evidence that the feminine mindset probably does have the capacity to create a more balanced portrait of reality both in prose and in poetry than has so far come easily to men in our machine-minded left-brain culture.

And just to prove that the spirit of Barrett Browning is by no means dead, and was not just carried briefly albeit powerfully by the likes of Sylvia Plath, I’ve just read these words in Gillian Clarke’s Collected Poems (page 49):

        Our airing cupboards
are full of our satisfactions.

The gulls grieve at our contentment.
It is a masculine question.
‘Where,’ they call ‘are your great works?’

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At a time when conquest and aggression have lost their credibility as means of solving difficult problems, qualities in which women are strong, such as the capacity to link intuition to the other rational processes, and facility with networking and cooperation, are gaining importance. Thus as increasing numbers of women are admitted into centers of decision-making, consultation is being enlightened by fresh perspectives; a new moral and psychological climate is spreading, enabling new dynamics of problem-solving to emerge. The inclusion of women thus directly affects the pace and success of the peace-building process.

(Bahá’í International Community, 1993 March 15, Women and the Peace Process)

The Mad Woman in the AtticPicking up from where I left off last time, I was after evidence of some kind that the feminine take on the representation of reality might be more balanced than the masculine. I thought I’d found that principally in a key chapter on George Eliot.

Before plunging into The Mad Woman in the Attic‘s treatment of Middlemarch, her masterpiece, I’ll take a brief detour into Austen territory (Chapter 5).

Early in the chapter Gilbert and Gubar capture an essential quandary for women at the time (page 162):

All women may be, as she is, split between the conflicting desire for assertion in the world and retreat into the security of the home – speech and silence, independence and dependency – Austen implies that this psychic conflict can be resolved.

Austen battled to solve this dilemma in her fiction. I recently read Mansfield Park for the first time, having been deterred by a sense that it was considered a flawed work by too many critics, partly because of Fanny Price’s supposedly unprepossessing character. In reading the book for myself, I saw her as complex and strong. According to Gilbert and Gubar she may have a key role in Austen’s attempt to deal with her quandary (page 165):

Recently, two feminist critics have persuasively argued that, when Fanny refuses to marry for social advantage, she becomes the moral model for all the other characters, challenging their social system and exposing its flimsy values.

One of the most unconvincing aspects of this novel is the rapidity and suspicious neatness with which Austen ties up all the loose ends, wherever possible into marriage knots. The authors’ take on that pattern, which they claim is not unique to this book, is intriguing (page 159):

Many critics have already noticed duplicity in the “happy endings” of Austen’s novels in which she brings her couples to the brink of bliss in such haste, or with such unlikely coincidences, or with such sarcasm that the entire message seems undercut.

Much else that they say suggests that Austen was unable in the end to resolve her dilemma in her fiction, though she was acutely aware of how fiction was failing to do so in a way that left her dissatisfied. Her last novel, Persuasion, imbued as it is with yearning, pins down the main problem when she creates the discussion between Anne Elliot and Captain Harville, in which Anne explores ‘her sense of exclusion from patriarchal culture’ (page 179):

‘men have had every advantage of us in telling their story… The pen has been in their hands.’ Anne Elliot will ‘not allow books to prove anything’ because they ‘were all written by men.’

I want to leap now over several chapters, all fascinating and mostly concerned with the Brontës, to one key chapter (Chapter 14) which focuses on one of my favourite novelists and her greatest book: George Eliot and Middlemarch. Until I read further in their book I thought Eliot had gone as far as it was possible for a woman to go at this period of history.

Right at the start of the chapter Gilbert and Gubar captured my deep interest by quoting Margaret Fuller, an American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate (page 479): ‘Will there never be a being to combine a man’s mind and woman’s heart…?’ They write of Eliot’s ‘commitment to heart and hearth’ and the ‘tension between mind and heart’ in her life and writing.

They describe Eliot (page 482) as being drawn to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s emphasis on ‘the need for men to develop “feminine” receptivity, specifically that of female nurturance.’ More even than that, in a way that resonates with the Bahá’í position on the equality of men and women, they point out that (ibid):

Stowe’s revolutionary books insist that maternal sensations and feminine powerlessness alone can save a world otherwise damned by masculine aggression.

They see the central concern of Eliot’s work, almost from the very start (page 484), as wanting ‘to expand our faith in the redemptive possibilities of compassion.’ They also amplify on this (pages 498-9):

Eliot dramatizes the virtues of a uniquely female culture based on supportive camaraderie instead of masculine competition. . .

Eliot’s fiction . . . associates women with precisely the traits she felt industrial urbanized England in danger of losing: a commitment to others, a sense of community, an appreciation of nature, and a belief in nurturing love.

She realizes she harbours this problem within herself as well. It is not just outside her (page 500):

[S]he is fundamentally concerned with the potential for violence in the two conflicting sides of herself that she identifies as the masculine mind and the feminine heart.

MiddlemarchIn Middlemarch she explores these tensions through character and plot. For example (page 508) ‘if Casaubon represents the intellectual bankruptcy of criticism and the arts, Tertius Lydgate tells as much about the moral mediocrity of the sciences.’ Bulstrode, plotting murder, is part of her portrayal of the dark side, which she carefully counterbalances with the light. Rebecca Mead in her engaging book, The Road to Middlemarch argues that, while Bulstrode in Middlemarch, exemplifies what happens when protestations of piety are betrayed in corrupt action, the Reverend Camden Farebrother is the touchstone of genuine religion and morality (page 227):

He delivers pithy sermons, which draw listeners from parishes other than his own, but his religion is shown in how he treats others, rather than how he preaches to them.

In examining acts (page 517) of ‘sympathetic identification between women’ she links them with ‘a perspective on life that widens as the heroine escapes what the novelist depicts as the ultimate imprisonment, imprisonment within the cell of the self.’ Also for a character, not surprisingly a female one, tuning into nature can allow her to ‘obtain . . . a sense of “the largeness of the world.”’ This leads Dorothea, the main character of Middlemarch, to a ‘realization that she is herself a part of “that involuntary, palpitating life’” outside her self. In the end the widowed Dorothea abandons the wealth inherited from her oppressive husband and marries again for love.

In discussing Eliot’s role as narrator they argue that she transcends the conflict that held Austen back (page 523):

Meditative, philosophical, humorous, sympathetic, moralistic, scientific, the narrator presents her/himself as so far above and beyond the ordinary classifications of our culture that (s)he transcends gender distinctions. Doing in a woman’s way a traditionally male task of knowing, Eliot makes such gender-based categories irrelevant. Because her voice sympathetically articulates opposed perspectives, because it is highly provisional and tentative even as it risks generalisations, this narrator become an authentic “we,” a voice of the community that is committed to accepting the indeterminacy of meaning, as well as the complex kinship with people and things.

They feel she manages this without discounting the hard reality that in Victorian society ‘female characters’ are ‘forced to live within conventional roles.’

Eliot feels (page 528) that women have a ‘special capacity for altruism,’ but, the authors feel, if Dorothea (page 530) does ‘not escape the confining maze of social duties and definitions, this is because no such transcendence seems possible or even necessarily desirable in Eliot’s world.’

So, even though Eliot had accepted certain limitations as inevitable, I think the authors make a strong case for supposing one female author at least achieved an almost miraculous balance in her writing between apparently irreconcilable opposites.

I think, as I have explored previously on this blog, that she strove to go even further.

Daniel DerondaI shared my astonishment about the time I finally came to read her grossly under-rated final novel, Daniel Deronda published in 1876.

It strives to achieve an integration of two divergent cultures, of two distinct ways of life, of two sometimes seemingly contradictory worldviews – the Jewish and the Christian – into a transcendent pattern at a higher level than the component parts could achieve alone. I may be going too far in seeing in it glimpses, from an imperial island in the 19th Century, of what the world needs now in the 21st.  I feel it is, if only partially realised, a truly admirable striving towards a more world embracing vision – another and greater example of the way her concerns so consistently anticipate ours.

It seems to me an amazing attempt to see where the world might be going. Frederick Karl expresses it intriguingly, unbiased as he is by any desire to read Bahá’í thought backwards into her text (though Tolstoy had heard of the Bahá’í Faith, there is no evidence Eliot had living so early as this in the Faith’s history – page 547):

The Jewish and Christian elements [of the novel] link as a historical, temporal unity. If we view the novel in this perspective, we can connect the two plot strands into a universal entity or into a generalised human struggle reaching for some transcendental level, a form of ultimate health.

He goes onto describe her as (ibid.) ‘reaching towards some cure for the Western world as for herself,’ and failing in the attempt. Most critics, perhaps rightly, also feel she has failed and the two threads of understanding expressed in the two plot lines fail to blend as she would have wished, and the novel is irremediably split.

On the other hand, what she was striving for needed to be attempted and, I feel, there is so much depth and vigour in what she has succeeded in expressing that the novel is a richly rewarding read. As such, it took my breath away when I read it only a few years ago. The unsympathetic assessment of the book by the critics had put me off, in the same way as I had been steered away from Mansfield Park, and I regret that.

I was about to discover another discounted and neglected classic that I regret not having read much sooner. More of that next time.

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[A] fact of equal importance in bringing about international peace is woman’s suffrage. That is to say, when perfect equality shall be established between men and women, peace may be realized for the simple reason that womankind in general will never favor warfare. Women will not be willing to allow those whom they have so tenderly cared for to go to the battlefield. When they shall have a vote, they will oppose any cause of warfare.

(From The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, p. 167)

tenant-of-wildfell-hallLos Solitarios in the end led me to the idea that the feminine perspective may create a more balanced result in the novel.

Three novels immediately sprang to mind at the time as having combined darkness with light in a more balanced way.

First of all was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interested me particularly was the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that many will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable. This gels with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s analysis (more of them in a moment – page 80):

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) is generally considered conservative in its espousal of Christian values, but it tells what is in fact a story of woman’s liberation.

So, even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

I concluded that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (‘The Pure One’), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I felt it necessary to also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows ‘even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order’ (Slate).’

I concluded that the blending of art and spirituality clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach.

In addition, for me at least, they combined the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, I noted, all three books were by women authors.

The key point was that art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

I felt that I needed to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of several authors before I leapt to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

The Mad Woman in the AtticThe Mad Woman in the Attic 

It may be synchronicity, or simply coincidence, depending on your outlook, but it wasn’t long before the world pressed that button again. I couldn’t resist watching yet another adaptation, on the BBC this time, of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Because I soon realised they had made some tweaks to the text with which I was not comfortable (for example knocking at least 20 years off Count Fosco’s age), I dug out my copy and set to reading it again. I was even more enthralled with the book than with the adaptation. This was no more than I expected. There were at least two reasons for this. First, there was the sensitive portrayal of a strong female character, which broke the 19thCentury stereotype, and secondly the narrative was captured only through the eyes of the various characters – there was no omniscient narrator. In addition, there was at least one strong statement reinforcing the oppressed woman’s point of view. Marion Halcombe bursts out in frustration at one point:

Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace — they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship — they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return? Let me go, Laura — I’m mad when I think of it!”

It perhaps not surprising then that reading this led me to revisit Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic. At first I simply checked what they had to say about The Woman in White (pages 619-20):

Anne Catherick’s white dress, which gives Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White its title, suggests the pathos of the Victorian child-woman who clings to infancy because adulthood has never become a viable possibility. Even more than her half-sister and double, Laura Fairlie, Anne is completely dependent and naïve, so much so that she falls victim to the machinations of that impostor-patriarch Sir Percival Glide, who imprisons her . . . in a madhouse.

They contend, in their review of the literature of the period, that ‘Anne’s white dress tells a realistic story of female powerlessness.’ They ask whether Emily Dickinson’s anxiety about madness – expressed in poems like I felt a Funeral in my Brain – [could] owe anything to the madness of fictional characters like Anne Catherick, Miss Havisham, and the Lady of Shalott. They ask, ‘Was her white dress in any sense modelled on the white costumes nineteenth century novelists and poets assigned to such women?’ Their final touch is to say, that ‘white is the colour of the dead.’

This proved to be an irresistible cocktail of elements. I had to read the book again from the beginning, wondering as I did so why I had never finished it at the first attempt.

I won’t be attempting to convey even a distillation of all that they say in their 650 pages. I planned originally to cherry-pick quotes from what they write about two of my favourite novelists: Jane Austen and George Eliot. There was though a surprise in store, as you will see, that derailed that plan. However, for now I will simply capture one of their basic theses in a handful of quotes.

In their introduction, as an example of the constricting disservice paid to women writers in the 19thcentury, they pick up on the sanitised image of Emily Dickinson purveyed by John Crowe Ransom (page xxi) who described her as a ‘prim little home-keeping person.’ Their view is very different:

On the contrary, hers was ‘a Soul at the white heat,’ her ‘Tomes of solid Witchcraft’ produced by an imagination that had, as she herself admitted, the Vesuvian ferocity of a loaded gun.

The skewed tradition of authorship was noted even as early as Chaucer, in the words of the Wife of Bath (page 11):

By God, if women hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,
They wolde han writen of men more wikednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.

They punningly point out the extent of female incarceration in literary stereotypes (page 13):

As a creation ‘penned’ by man, moreover, woman has been ‘penned up’ or ‘penned in.’ As a sort of ‘sentence’ man has spoken, she was herself being sentenced . . .

This disempowered version of femininity had not just been internalised, to the detriment of woman’s thought and writing: it had been destructively acted out in many ways in the social sphere, not least in terms of the self-harming image women felt compelled to express (page 25):

The aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and delicate beauty –- no doubt associated with the moral cult of the angel-woman —  obliged ‘genteel’ women to ‘kill’ themselves… into art objects: slim, pale, passive beings whose ‘charms’ eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the dead. Tight-lacing, fasting, vinegar-drinking, and similar cosmetic or dietary excesses were all parts of a physical regimen that helped women either to feign morbid weakness or actually to ‘decline’ into real illness.

Hopefully, that is enough to get the main point across.

This posed a double challenge to women writers. First, how were they to shake off their internalised distortions of their true nature to find a voice of their own, and, secondly, how were they then to use that voice to convey something beyond the prevailing caricatures of femininity that (quoted on page 25) Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh summarised as the ‘ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch and sprite.’

I’m not going to attempt to convey the full complexity of their approach overall. I’ll use a very abbreviated summary of their take on two books to illustrate why that would be impossible in a short sequence of blog posts. They examine what they see as the roots of two nineteenth century classics, Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, along with a detailed explanation of how Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë each used their novel to assert their own take on the matter.

Frank & Wuther provenance v3

They borrow Gertrude Stein’s expression ‘patriarchal poetry’ to capture the zeitgeist of the 19th Century and earlier. In this early literary tradition women are portrayed as either angelic or satanic, the authors suggest. They feel the latter derives from the role of Eve in the fall of man and the former is the role on offer to women to ensure that no one can mistake them for the latter. In the perpetuation of this simplistic and constricting take on femininity, Milton played a key role, in their view, principally through the influence of Paradise Lost. Shakespeare does not escape unscathed. King Lear portrays both aspects with nothing in-between: on the one hand Goneril and Reagan are on the Satanic side of the equation, whereas Cordelia represents the angelic possibility. This tree of descending influences represents the genealogy of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights.

It would distract from my main purpose here to go into more detail. I simply wanted to convey something of the full range and complexity of their scholarly and feminist perspective on the literature of the 19thcentury before homing in, in the next post, on at least two writers that concern me more at this point.

As an interesting post script, I came across a recent reminder that the symbolism of white is by no means dead. A friend gave me the heads up that she was exhibiting at the Hereford College of Art Graduation celebration. My head was ringing with many bells in the light of my recent reading when I saw her piece. It’s called The Shape of Absence (see below for a picture of part of it) and, I think, attempts to capture that elusive sense of a hidden presence behind ordinary objects.

The Shape of Absence (for source of image see link)

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What_s It Worth v3

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Mirror of the DivineHow is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

To explore further this issue of whether or not there is a self beneath the flux of consciousness with some hope of clarity, I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

The No Self Issue

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

Setting aside my sense, which I have explored at length elsewhere, that the mere existence of consciousness warrants a transcendent explanation, and that reductionist explanations are missing the point, where does this leave us?

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

I am reminded here of the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander. I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with books that explore near death experiences (NDEs) in a more scientific way (see above links). I have chosen to quote here from one person’s experience partly because it is more appropriate to this examination of literature and also because it counterbalances Harris’s one-person account. If sceptics are happy to accept Harris’s conclusions from his experience, I can see no reason for me not to accept Alexander’s.

I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

Proof-of-HeavenHe, as a sceptical scientist, on the basis of his very different experience, made a different decision from that of Harris.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, as Harris is, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

What do the passages I have just quoted suggest?

Well, I think they bridge the gap between what Harris describes and what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us (Tablets: page 730):

Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognize one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life that thou hadst in the material world.

How come?

For a start, it shows someone conscious but without any memory for who he is – awareness stripped of self, in the terms we are using here. This leaves me feeling it maps onto, even if it goes beyond, the state of mind Harris describes.

So, with at least some resemblance to an extreme meditative state, it takes us one step further. It demonstrates consciousness without a brain. The coma has helpfully disconnected his brain, without any need for him to learn how to do it himself via meditation, and yet he is still aware.

Even more amazing is that, with his brain shut down, he has been able to retain detailed memories of a rich week-long experience and begin the process of reintegrating it into his brain-bound identity.

Equally surprisingly, a consciousness he didn’t know but which clearly knew him, a survivor of the body’s death, connects with him. Even though, in this NDE Alexander has forgotten who he is, and therefore does not confirm that aspect of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, the consciousness of his dead sister had obviously retained a sense of who she had been and what her relationships were, even when there had been no interaction physically with Alexander during her mortal life. It seems legitimate to assume that, if Alexander’s experience is a precursor to an eternal afterlife, there would be time for him to reconnect with memories of who he was.

What has all this got to do with los Solitarios and Lehrer’s ideas about the novel?

Just to clarify, I am not simplistically concluding that all the Solitarios are equally reductionist. Pessoa, Machado and Rilke each have their own more spiritual take on reality at times. What I am suggesting here is that Proust and Beckett, along with other modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, have fallen into the modernist trap to some degree.

Why do I call it a trap?

Once we deny any form of spiritual or transcendent reality it is only a short step to concluding that life has no meaning beyond what we arbitrarily give to it. Beckett’s existential despair becomes a predictable symptom, as does what Richard Davenport-Hines summarized as the degenerative, secularised squalor of the world Proust saw around him and depicted in his work.

A further consequence of this world picture is a powerful sense of alienation. This adds to the dispiriting bleakness of life as experienced through this lens. Both Beckett and Proust lived lives that were profoundly disconnected from the social world around them. I am on dangerous ground here if I simplistically attribute this disconnection only to their materialistic approach to the world. My other Solitarios are equally alienated from the social world but, with the possible exception of Rilke, do not inhabit as bleak a subjective reality. My contention is that the combination of a tendency to extreme introversion combined with a reductionist worldview is a toxic prescription for despair. As such the literature it engenders will render a seriously distorted view of existence.

If their versions of reality are unbalanced, what to do?

Is the novel, part of Beckett’s and all of Proust’s greatest work, an inherently materialist form? Is the same true of drama as well, so no get-out for Beckett there? Is only poetry suitable for and tending towards spiritual matters, hence the difference that exists between these two novelists and the work of Rilke, Machado and Pessoa?

The quality of Beckett’s and Proust’s writing is indisputable: the deficiencies of their moral and spiritual perspective create significant flaws in their overall achievement. What, if any, might be the remedy?

Beckett clearly felt there was none.

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

Reading Proust is less of a journey into an existential Arctic. However, although he has a strong sense of what he feels is right, the world his work explores has lost its moral compass a long time ago.

Three novels immediately spring to mind as having combined darkness with light in  a more balanced way.

tenant-of-wildfell-hallI recently drew attention to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

Bahiyyih-Nakhjavani-009

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih(“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I must also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

It clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach. These novels are very much in the tradition of Joyce, Beckett and Proust in this respect. But they do not lack a sense of the spiritual or transcendent also.

In addition, for me at least, they combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, all three books are by women authors.

Art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

Anyhow, when I now ponder on my current pantheon of novelists, women outnumber men. Jane Austen, the Brontês, Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Elizabeth Gaskell, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantell, A S Byatt, Margaret Attwood, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and Marilynne Robinson, to name but the most important to me, leave Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Doestoyevsky trailing forlornly in the rear.

This realisation has come as a bit of a shock to me. I hadn’t expected it to turn out quite such a one-sided contest. It was not always thus – it’s only since I recently realised that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray amongst others, have fallen from grace in my mind’s eye over the years.

I need to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of some of the authors I’ve just mentioned before I leap to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

Whatever the truth of the gender idea may be, that at least some writers can achieve this balance confirms it is not impossible, and, if we believe as I do, that there is a spiritual dimension to reality, for the reasons I have given throughout this blog, then art has a duty to incorporate it into its representations of experience. It does not need to do so explicitly, any more than The Handmaid’s Tale has to spell out in detail the moral code that condemns the abuses it depicts but the moral code has to at least be implicit and not completely absent.

Well, that new slant on things has made my rather demoralising exploration of Proust and Beckett well worthwhile.

There will soon be more on the value of the feminine perspective.

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

At the end of the previous post I indicated that the helicopter view of the lives and art of Proust and Beckett leaves us with a number of serious questions. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete. I’ll try and tackle this now.

Cronin BeckettIs it out of balance?

Some people certainly thought so (Page 450 – Cronin):

[Arnold] Toynbee alleged that what Beckett had done was to carry ‘his despair and disgust to the ultimate limits of expression – indeed beyond them.

. . .  by continuing to live, and still more by continuing to write, the author refuted his own message and it is no use saying, in such a case, that we must not confuse the creator with the creature and so on. This book [Molloy] is a serious statement or a personal attitude or it is nothing. I am inclined to think that it is nothing.’

Toynbee was on surer artistic ground perhaps when he called for a more inclusive vision, saying that Malloy expressed ‘an attitude to life which cries out for at least some opposing one.’

He’s singing from basically the same hymn sheet as François Mauriac here, speaking Night at the Majesticabout Proust (pages 200-01 – A Night at the Majestic):

One feels that Sodom and Gomorrah are confused with the entire universe. A single saintly figure would be enough to re-establish the balance. . . . ‘God is terribly absent from Marcel Proust’s work,’ he lamented in a major assessment that he published a fortnight after Proust’s death.

Mauriac later shared a similar caveat about Beckett (page 540 – A Night at the Majestic).

Richard Davenport-Hines quotes Claudel about Proust (page 200): ‘It’s the light of God that shows the best of human nature, and not, as in Proust, the phosphorescence of decomposition’ along similar lines as Anthony Cronin quotes Tynan about Beckett (page 466):

Tynan described the sort of pessimism displayed as ‘not only the projection of personal sickness but a conclusion reached on inadequate evidence.’ He was ready to believe, he said, ‘that the world is a stifling, constricted place,’ but not if his informant was “an Egyptian mummy.’

LehrerRooted in Reductionism?

If we accept Lehrer’s depictions of Virginia Woolf and Proust, as quoted in the first post of this sequence, then the bleakness of the visions we are encountering here might have its roots in the soil of a radical reductionism.

Our ‘ever-changing impressions’ (page 172) ‘are held together by the thin veneer of identity’ and (page 176):’ the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the “unified soul“ simply because we didn’t have one.’  He concludes that (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

If so, is there any need to adversely judge these works on the grounds of a materialistic perspective, no matter how skillfully that is depicted?

Cronin thinks not (page 482)

[At a symposium in response to criticisms from Brien, Cronin] replied that where art was concerned, one truthfully expressed vision as good as another; that this truth is seldom anything but partial except in the case of one or two very great, very inclusive artists, such as Shakespeare; but that even such a partial vision had immense value if its truth had never been encompassed before. This argument still seems to me to be central to a defence of Beckett, if defence is needed.

To get even close to explaining why I think materialistically biased accounts of human experience, even if honestly corresponding to the felt experience of the writer, are not only dispiriting but false, I have to rehash some old material. In doing so I will share other reductionist views so as not to fudge the difficulty of the issue.

Buddha BrainA Spiritual Perspective

Hanson and Mendius in The Buddha’s Brain have a fair bit to say about the nature of the self. At one level it doesn’t particularly challenge my core beliefs, even though the writers themselves do not accept the existence of anything like a soul as a source of self (page 204):

. . . now we come to perhaps the single greatest source of suffering – and therefore to what is most important to be wise about: the apparent self. . . . When you’re immersed in the flow of life rather than standing apart from it, when ego and egotism fade to the background – then you feel more peaceful and fulfilled.

What’s the problem with that? Most ethically minded people, whether theists or not, regard the ego with great suspicion. But problems then begin to creep in whose full degree of dissonance needs unpacking (page 206):

Paradoxically, the less your “I” is here, the happier you are. Or, as both Buddhist monks and inmates on death row sometimes say: “No self, no problem.”

What exactly do they mean by ‘no self’? Is that no self at all, of any kind? Well, maybe. We need to look at various other expressions they use before looking at what an atheist practitioner of Buddhist meditation thinks it means.

First of all, they explain (page 213): ‘It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing.’ More than that, they feel we should (page 214): . . . try to keep remembering that who you are as a person – dynamic, intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable, and remarkable than any self.’ And most dismissively of all they describe the self as (page 215) ‘simply an arising mental pattern that’s not categorically different from or better than any other mind-object.’ That sounds familiar.

Sam Harris meditation pic v2

For source of adapted image see link

While there is a sense that they are slightly hedging their bets here, Sam Harris is not so coy about the matter. In his fascinating article – An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality– he pushes the boundaries somewhat further:

Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.

To illustrate the moment when this can be experienced he refers to the ‘awakening’ of Ramana Maharshi(1879– 1950), ‘arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century.’

While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.

Ramana described his conclusion from this by saying at one point:

The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Though Ramana’s disciple, Poonja-Ji, had a great impact on Sam Harris, there was a teacher who made an even greater impression: ‘Another teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, had a lasting effect on me.’

What he feels he learnt from Tulku Urgyen he describes with dramatic clarity:

The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.

He unpacks its implications in the light of subsequent practice:

This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.

For Harris as an atheist one of the greatest benefits of his assisted experience, he believed, was that he did not have to accept any of the ‘baggage’ of the religion in whose context these insights and practices had been generated – he could make sense of the experience in his own way. I’m not so sure it was really as simple as that.

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to what Harris says: ‘The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows’ and ‘consciousness is intrinsically free of self.’

More of that in the final post of this sequence.

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Cronin Beckett

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

At the end of the last post there was a pointer to suggest that it would not be wise to adopt a simplistic approach to Beckett, the man. Cronin, his biographer, had met met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

There does seem a consensus, though, that his later writings at least are unremittingly bleak.

Beckett

The dark side of Beckett’s life was very much reflected in his work.

At the very beginning, when Beckett was transitioning from religion to writing, there was a soon to be eradicated tinge of transcendence (page 147):

[Of his book on Proust Cronin writes that] Although this opportunity to attribute a transcendental belief to Proust is passed up there is certainly a general impression of an attitude to art which partakes of a sort of religious fervour, or rather an attempt to make a sort of surrogate religion art. This attempt is not uncommon among hitherto religious young people who discover art at the same time as they are in the process of abandoning religion.

It didn’t take long before his inherent pessimism kicked this into touch (page 307):

In his vision at its starkest, nothing really changes. As one cause succeeds another, calling for meaningless loyalties and betrayals, we get deeper into the mire. ‘We belong to suffering,’ [says one of his characters].

This was made even more painful in what he saw (page 398) ‘as the artist’s special burden and torment, the categorical imperative to create when combined with the impossibility of creation.’ The effect of this take on creativity was not all bad though (page 374) in the sense that ‘in the work of no other author does hatred for the necessity of creating a fiction shine through so clearly or is the detestation of that necessity expressed with so mordant a wit.’

Kenneth Tynan expressed the opinion (page 448) that ‘for the author of Godot’ passing the time in the dark ‘is not only what drama is about but also what life is about.’

Perhaps the most important factor in shaping Beckett’s art was his insight, after his unpublished early work, that (page 359) ‘instead of writing about that exterior world he should have written about the inner world, with its darkness, its ignorance, its uncertainty.’

Beckett playsOthers, such as Proust, Joyce and Woolf, made the same choice, without ending up in the same place as Beckett did. His decision carried other complicating factors that impacted upon the pattern of his writing:

From this point on there would be an entire abandonment of pretence of any kind, including the ordinary fictive pretences of plot, a total renunciation of all certainties, including philosophic certainties of any kind; and there would instead be a reiteration of ignorance, a restitution to their rightful place in his work of the uncertainties and confusion of which life was made up.

This almost inevitably meant that ‘the mode for such a reiteration and restitution would be the only possible one: first person monologue.’

The bleak legacy of his vision of life did not stop there (page 364): ‘something else would now be banished besides plot and description – something that might be called the hope of salvation.’ And this banishment was unqualified (page 365 – my emphasis) for ‘in the novels and plays Beckett was to write there would be neither the hope nor the fear of any outcome.… Nobody would be found wanting because all Beckett’s characters have already been found wanting. There is no hope for them.’

Cronin has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

. . . reduced as his characters are to the extreme simplicities of need and satisfaction, indeed by virtue of the fact that they are so reduced, Beckett does succeed in laying bare much of the reality of human situation as well as the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions.

He seems to accept that life is as meaningless as Beckett felt it was. We’re in the realm of extreme existentialism here: life is meaningless even though we cannot help creating meanings to help us live.

He endorses Beckett’s vision as more authentic than most of the work that preceded him (page 383): ‘. . . one could argue that the Beckett man, in all his abysmal aspects, is ‘truer’ to humanity’s real lineaments than most of what has gone before.’ His conclusion is that (page 384):

For 3000 years the bias of literature had been tilted one way, towards the heroic and the lyrical-poetic. Now it has been tilted the other, a process which began with the appearance of the first modern anti-heroes and culminated in Beckett.

Even at this point, such a position runs into serious problems. For example, Cronin lauds Beckett for his honourable uncertainty. Such a degree of uncertainty would be incompatible with a belief that all is meaningless. We may not be able to reach a firm conclusion that there is a meaning and decide definitely what that meaning is, but we would similarly not be able to conclude there is no meaning at all. A secondary problem is that someone’s position of stoic nihilism dismisses the rest of us as deluded and contains more than a hint of arrogance. I am all in favour of Keats’ doctrine of ‘negative capability’ and the need to resist ‘irritably reaching after fact,’ but that is not the same thing as nihilism at all. I will be returning to an examination of this later in the sequence.

Beckett Novels

It is interesting that Rilke, one of my solitarios, confronted his inner emptiness and, according to Robert Hass in his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations of the poems (page xvi), sought ‘to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else.’

Probably the simplest summing up comes towards the end of the book (page 451) When Cronin writes that, in a review, René Lalou lists those critics ‘who had been among the first to hail Waiting for Godot’and ‘proclaim the value of this tragedy of despair not even lit by a glimmer of consciousness.’ Lalou referred to Beckett’s ‘constant use of monologue as an artistic technique, his implacably pessimistic vision and his insistence on the degrading functions of the human body.’

A few additional points may again be worth making.

The first of these paves the way towards Proust (page 182)

. . . few things are more striking about Beckett than his willingness to abandon himself to the life of memory, both in young manhood and later on. Most of the events of life may have been ‘occasions of fiasco’ as they occurred; but the subsequent remembrance of them was nevertheless more tolerable than present existence could ever be.

The second simply amplifies on the dilemma residing in his persistent creativity in the face of his sceptical pessimism (page 375): ‘ The object of the fiction must be truth of some sort; but by definition it is necessarily a lie.’

The last idea points to where he is absolutely different from Proust (page 376):

He yearned for silence, the blank white page, the most perfect thing of all. . . [He felt] more intensely than others that the object of true, achieved and necessary utterance is silence…

The consequence of this being that (pages 376-77) ‘his works would after a certain point get shorter and shorter.’

Night at the MajesticProust

Proust’s relationship with his writing was perceived by his contemporaries as damaging (page 284) in that Dr Maurice Bize felt that ‘Proust was killing himself by overwork,’ and he is reported to have said to his servant, Céleste, (page 303) ‘only when I have finished my work, will I start looking after myself.’ This attitude extended to the minor aspects of self-care as well. Jaloux (page 304) spoke of Proust’s ‘miserable little under-furnished room that testified to his indifference to comfort.’ François Mauriac expressed it rather dramatically in saying (page 305) ‘We must reflect on the extraordinary fate of a creator who was devoured by his own creation…’

His aim was to focus almost exclusively on his writing after his mother’s death (page 83) when he:

sought (during the seventeen years of life that remained to him) to confine himself in a Noah’s Ark of his own devising. . . His life in the Ark helped to preserve the immediacy of his vision of people, objects and sensations.

He (page 91) ‘believed it was the only way he could discover the meaning beneath appearances: that is, to create great art.’

His most celebrated contribution to the novel are his madeleine moments, when a sensation such as taste can trigger a flood of memories (page 98):

These sudden intuitions of a moment are presented with pictorial vividness, and were intended to be as beautiful and suggestive as Old Master paintings… [They] were tantamount to a series of religious revelations, as Middleton Murray wrote in a tribute after Proust’s death, ‘this modern of the moderns . . . had a mystical strain in his composition.

In that sense he is inspiring the work of Joyce, Beckett and Woolf, fellow explorers of the recesses of consciousness.

LehrerJonah Lehrer, in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, focuses his discussion of Proust particularly on this part of his legacy. He explains that Proust (page 77) believed that ‘only the artist was able to describe reality as it was actually experienced’ and that (page 78) ‘the nineteenth century novel, with its privileging of things over thoughts, had everything exactly backward.’ Proust had concluded that (page 81) ‘only by meticulously retracing the loom of our neural connections… can we understand ourselves, for we are our loom, adding that ‘Proust gleaned all of this wisdom from an afternoon tea.’

Proust was ahead of his time, Lehrer argues, in other ways as well. He believed that (page 82) ‘our recollections were phoney. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications. Take the madeleine. Proust realised that the moment we finished eating the cookie,… we begin working the memory of the cookie to fit our own personal narrative.’ Lehrer contends that (page 85) ‘Proust presciently anticipated the discovery of memory reconsolidation. For him, memories were like sentences: they were things you never stopped changing.’ Lehrer quotes the incontrovertible evidence that our memories are subject to constant editing and reediting.

Richard Davenport-Hines essentially concurs (page 128), quoting Proust when he wrote ‘the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths…’

There are other characteristics of Proust’s art that need adding into this mix. Davenport-Hines feels (page 103) that:

Temps Perdu is the work of an implacable and often anguished moralist who scorned the ways that people‘s conversation and behaviour were usually directed, regardless of their class, by neither the desire to be good nor to be truthful, but by the wish to affirm by their words the sort of people they wanted to be taken for.

He clinically dissects his contemporary world (page 104) ‘in scenes of social comedy and of moral tragedy.’ Proust exposed ‘the babbling, hypocritical, corrupt, decadent tendencies – the negative mass psychology – of his secularised age.’

Davenport-Hines sees Proust’s treatment of homosexuality as a trope (page 139) in that ‘Temps Perdu. . . placed homosexuality more centrally in human experience than any previous novel or treatise, and used it to demonstrate the degenerative squalor of human emotions,’ and used it as (page 183) ‘a secularised representation of humankind‘s fall from grace.’ It was a brave move to make at that point in history, and Proust was anxious about its impact on the acceptance of his novel and his own reputation after the publication of the fourth volume of his sequence. His choice would be viewed rather differently were he writing now.

His jaundiced view of humanity was not confined to sexuality though, it seems (page 216) given that, as Davenport-Hines argues ‘his interests focused on degenerative processes. His fiction is a prolonged study of class degeneration, of moral degeneration and of physical degeneration.’

This helicopter view of their lives and art leaves us with a number of serious questions. These will have to wait till next time. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete.

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