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Posts Tagged ‘George Eliot’

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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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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George Eliot

Given my recent repeat rant about neuroscience’s resistance to the facts of neuroplasticity, reposting this short sequence seemed a good idea.

Kicked-Started by Coincidence

Till just over a fortnight ago I would not have connected George Eliot with neuroplasticity. Why on earth should I have?

Well, I can now think of at least one reason.

During the same period I was spending part of my book token loot on ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy‘ (see previous post) I had the chance to spend what was left. Not surprisingly I went to the same shelf (‘Popular Science’) in the same Waterstones. I was on the hunt for two books, one by Norman DoidgeThe Brain that Changes Itself, and one by Jonah Lehrer Imagine: how creativity works. I ended up buying the Doidge but a different one by Lehrer – Proust was a Neuroscientist.

Bear with me a bit longer – this is going to get interesting in a minute. I had no idea that I was setting up a remarkable juxtaposition of events.

It’s my month for such things I suspect. Just recently a couple I had not seen for many many years came to visit us from London. On arrival at our house the wife was in a state of astonishment. ‘You two,’ she said incredulously to her husband, ‘have been exchanging Christmas and Bahá’í New Year cards for decades but I never saw the address you were sending our cards to. This is the very road I used to live in when I was a child. How unlikely is that?’

I had no idea, when I was paying for the two books, that I’d just bought into another improbable coincidence, maybe not so dramatic but a touch more generally significant. Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance was gaining credibility by the second.

Marshalling Middlemarch in his Argument

When I got home I kicked off by starting to read Lehrer’s book. There was a mildly interesting chapter on Walt Whitman – no offence to his memory but I’ve always found Emily Dickinson, though secretive to the point of invisibility, far more impressive. But I would prefer the introverted poet of the two, wouldn’t I?

Then Lehrer moved on to one of my all-time favourite writers discussing her greatest novel: it was a chapter involving George Eliot using Middlemarch as a springing off point. He quoted her as follows (page 38):

Dorothea – a character who, like Eliot herself, never stopped changing – is reassured that the mind “is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing.”

I don’t think I’m being pedantic to point out that this is not the exact quote. At the beginning of Chapter 72 Dorothea is talking to Mr Farebrother and the conversation goes like this:

“Besides, there is a man’s character beforehand to speak for him.”

“But, my dear Mrs. Casaubon,” said Mr. Farebrother, smiling gently at her ardour, “character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

Lehrer isn’t making the mistake of absolutely identifying Eliot with a statement of one of her characters, albeit a vicar and a man of some integrity. He is looking at how Eliot examines the capacity for change we all have through a variety of lenses. She is part of his body of evidence that science and art are not irrevocably at odds. It is unfortunate that he strengthens his case for her as an early proponent of neuroplasticity by this substitution of ‘mind’ for ‘character.’ It does make the subsequent shift to talking about brains easier though. And she is as ‘anti’ any form of reductionism as Lehrer is.

Science or Scientism?

And when he does start talking about brains the discussion becomes fascinating. One reason for this is that the other book I had bought is entirely focused on aspects of neuroplasticity. The second completely unexpected reason is that both discussions of this issue contain page after page that vindicate Sheldrake’s contention that science in its current form is ‘dogmatic.’ Sheldrake wrote in The Science Delusion (page 4):

I have written this book because I believe that the sciences will be more exciting and engaging when they move beyond the dogmas that restrict free enquiry and imprison imaginations.

His main aim is to attack its materialism as a creed not a fact (page 6):

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

However, dogma also operates within science even where there is no such violation of this creed. The mind/brain problem is a powerful example of where dogma within science has clearly impeded our proper understanding of the brain and the mind/brain relationship for decades to the detriment of huge numbers of people. It illustrates how assumptions can and often do become fossilised, useful only for stoning into oblivion all those that disagree.

A Heretic at Work?

Lehrer, in his book, looks at the career of Elizabeth Gould, for example (page 39). In 1985 Pasko Rakic had proclaimed he possessed conclusive proof from experiments with rhesus monkeys that neurones are only generated ‘during pre-natal and early post-natal life.’ So the adult brain could not grow neurones: end of story. Everyone that mattered seemed to have believed him. No resurrection then for the notion of neurogenesis lying discredited in its mausoleum.

In 1989, during a completely different piece of research, Gould had found the unexpected: ‘the brain also healed itself.’  Gould assumed she must have been mistaken. She went back to the literature expecting to find that this was the case. To her astonishment she found the opposite. She found a wealth of evidence dating back to 1962 that all sorts of fully grown creatures were capable of growing neurones in their adult brains. All the evidence had been arbitrarily dismissed out of hand and entombed out of sight on neglected library shelves.

What happened next will have to wait until the next post.

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Middlemarch

My replacement secondhand copy – found 22 April 2014

The previous post looked at Rebecca Mead’s engaging exploration of George Eliot’s greatest novel in her recent book The Road to Middlemarch. In that post, after lamenting the disintegration of my paperback copy, I ended up discussing narrative styles and wondering whether having the author speaking directly to us was now so old hat as to be completely off-putting and pointless. Mead feels that we should not necessarily dismiss Eliot’s use of that device as a weakness.

Not all bad though

Mead feels that authorial intervention of the kind that Eliot makes does have a value (page 55): “By directly addressing us, Eliot draws us deeper inside her panorama. She makes Middlemarchers of us all.” There is more even than that (ibid): “Eliot does something in addition with those moments of authorial interjection. She insists that the reader look at the characters in the book from her own elevated viewpoint.”

Making use of this broader view, which is not locked into any particular perspective within characters, enables us to enlarge our sympathies in an important way, Mead feels. She quotes Eliot as stating (page 56): ‘the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.’

We are again moving among ideas that we are also finding important for us now, in the 21st Century. We are, almost to the last syllable, in the all-important Robert Wrightterritory of Robert Wright here in his thought-provoking book, The Evolution of God. In his consideration of the over-riding need for us to widen our compass of compassion, he states (page 428-429):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that.

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

This idea is clearly close to Eliot’s heart. Mead returns to this later in her book (page 158) quoting Eliot as writing in an essay published in 1856, called The Natural History of German Life, the following observation:

. . . the greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether a painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Eliot’s Creed

There’s more than this to Mead’s case for the novel being one for ‘grown-ups.’ Her chapters weave information from the book itself, Eliot’s own life and Mead’s personal experience into an engaging process of exploration. Each chapter has a theme. She says, towards the end of the one I have quoted from, almost by way of summary (page 72): “One of the things that makes Middlemarch a book for grown-ups – a book for adults, even – is Eliot’s insistence upon taking moral questions seriously, and considering them in their complexity.’

I don’t intend to go through every scene of every chapter in my attempt to demonstrate that the book is well worth reading. I shall just leap to a later point in the book and pick another illustration of particular significance to me and leave it to you to judge whether you want to buy the book and read it. The fact that I have enjoyed the book may not be a compelling reason for your making the same choice.

whirlpoolseymoreI struggled for many years to find a faith that would help me realise my desire to help others and to improve society. This was largely because the faith I eventually espoused had to sail most skilfully between two equal dangers: it had to avoid what sinks many an ideology, the rock of supposing that its ends justify almost any means that might achieve them, and to steer clear of what sucks most of the others to a watery grave, the whirlpool of being so determined to look harmless that they become of very little actual use in the real world.

Not surprisingly, both on my way towards discovering the Bahá’í Faith, in my view a ship of faith that steers successfully between the two hazards I’ve described, and also afterwards, George Eliot wrote a great deal that was helpful and it is fascinating to find that Mead also draws inspiration from this (page 221):

To the extent that she had a faith, it was in what she called ‘meliorism’ – the conviction that, through the small, beneficent actions and intentions of individuals, the world might gradually grow to be a better place.’

She unpacks further what George Eliot might have meant by that (page 223):

Her credo might be expressed this way: if I really care for you, if I try to think myself into your position and orientation – then the world is bettered by my effort at understanding and comprehension. If you respond to my effort by trying to extend the same sympathy and understanding to others in turn, then the betterment of the world has been minutely but significantly extended.’

'Animal Farm': for source of image see link

‘Animal Farm’: for source of image see link

Her Bête Noire

With that, we are in Robert Wright’s territory still. Shortly we will find ourselves stepping across a border into Jonathan Haidt’s country (page 224):

. . . [I]n the last essay that she wrote for the Westminster Review Eliot gave as good an exposition of her moral code as she did anywhere. The essay is a scything indictment of Edward Young, the 18th century poet-cleric whom she had adored in her youth. By 1858… she had diagnosed a falsity in his theology and morality…

Young, she wrote, adheres to abstractions… ‘Religion coming down from the skies’ – while paying no attention to ‘virtue or religion as it really exists.’ Virtue as it really exists, she went on to say, can be found ‘in courageous effort for unselfish ends, in the internal triumph of justice and pity over personal resentment, in all the sublime self-renunciation and sweet charities which are found in the details of ordinary life.’

Mead feels 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.

I heard echoes of my own faith tradition in those words. In the 20th Century Shoghi Effendi wrote: ‘it is not preaching and rules the world wants, but love and action…’

Mead argues that the roots of this insight go back much earlier in Eliot’s thinking (page 232):

In The Mill on the Floss, she warned against the “men of maxims”… the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.’

For these reasons, Eliot had little patience with Young’s (page 238) ‘unintermitting habit of pedagogic moralising.’ She feel this is a ‘moral deficit’ on Young’s part. Mead quotes Eliot’s explanation (ibid.):

In proportion as morality is emotional, i.e., has an affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule.’ Minds that are ‘primarily didactic,’ Eliot feels, ‘are deficient in sympathetic emotion.’

Mixed Dictators v5Jonathan Haidt is if anything even more scathing, though this is not perhaps surprising after the modern world has seen, in Auschwitz, the Gulags and the caves of Yenan, what blind ideology, mindless or terrorised obedience and the fanatical enactment of a creed can do. Under such circumstances even the most well meaning people can end up committing atrocities, especially if we come to accept an extremist regime’s propaganda, which uses dehumanising labels such cockroach (Rwanda) and sewer rat (Nazi) to switch off our compassion, and then it’s as though the people we are torturing and killing are suddenly a different and inferior species.

In his humane and compassionate book The Happiness Hypothesis Haidt  indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

One chilling sentence conveys all we need to know about the horrors that can result from such a scenario  (Mao: the Uknown Story – Chang and Halliday; page 254):

At night, amid the quiet of the hills, from inside the rows of caves screams of lacerating pain travelled far and wide, within earshot of most who lived in Yenan.

It’s this kind of idealism that turns rules and ends into juggernauts under whose wheels multitudes are crushed, especially when the leaders are pathological narcissists, as seems all too often to be the case.

The difference between what Eliot is describing and what we have now seen is one of degree rather than kind. The French Revolution had already given a clear indication of where unbridled and self-righteous idealism could lead, when practised on the industrial scale to which we have now grown more accustomed. Eliot must surely have been aware of that. Frederick Karl, the one biographer of hers that I have read, suggests as much (George Eliot: a biography: page 95):

She had little but contempt for Louis Philippe, who, she knew, had to be overthrown if France was to enjoy the ‘Rights of Man’; but she also refused to see the revolution as some panacea for man’s ills or as a direction which would make a better life for the English if the revolution could be exported.

Her detailed analysis of the situation and her reasons for reaching this conclusion as a young woman of 29, from which he quotes at length, leave much to be desired, but it is clear she was thinking about the issues from an early age.

Towards the end of her engaging and uplifting book, Mead adds one or two more pointers in this direction (page 265): ‘[Eliot] believed that growth depends upon complex connections and openness to others, and does not derive from a solitary swelling of the self. She became great because she recognised that she was small.’

Middlemarch

Her Last Reach for a World-Embracing Vision

As a footnote, I would like to share my astonishment when 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 world views – 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.

While her last novel might have been a noble failure, her life and her art are an inspiration, and Mead’s book helped me to see more deeply into that than I had before. I think it’s a truly worthwhile read.

 

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Middlemarch

I recently finished The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead.

George Eliot has long been one of my favourite novelists. I tasted her first in my schooldays, even though my leisure choices were usually Byron and the Brontes. At this point, it was only her earlier work such as Silas Marner, mixed with Dickens’ more popular productions such as A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s best seller Pride and Prejudice – a bland and fairly easily digestible salad for my still developing palate.

Later at university I moved onto more demanding dishes altogether – Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend and Emma. I can’t quite remember when I started to savour the cuisine of other cultures such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Conrad and even Joyce’s Ulysses, but I think it was a lot later even than that. My digestive system failed completely and irreversibly, I’m afraid, at Finnegan’s Wake.

Anyway, enough boasting.

In spite of everything, Middlemarch stubbornly remained a favourite especially after teaching it at ‘A’ level. I had resolved to read it once a year once I retired but have only managed to finish it once in those five years! Rebecca Mead’s performance puts me to shame. By my calculations, from her account on page 8, she has read it at least five times and probably more. Even so, under such light pressure, my paperback copy has collapsed – I have only the cover left to remind me of how fond I was of it! This is now kept inside my copy of Frederick Karl’s biography.

GE pic

Ahead of her Time

In Mead’s treatment I was struck by how much Eliot anticipates important contemporary themes from the very specific to the broader brush. This will become the focus of much of the second part of this review. While I found her sharing of the ways that Eliot illumined her path through life, and her descriptions of the places she visited to retrace Eliot’s steps, held my interest sufficiently well, they weren’t hugely informative.

I was more gripped by the overlap of ideas that broke through the surface narrative at regular intervals.

For example, in her discussion of The Mill on the Floss Rebecca Mead touches on an interesting point when she quotes Eliot on page 38:

 . . . surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the grief of our children.

That phrase ‘strangely perspectiveless conception of life’ rang important bells for me. I was back with Margaret Donaldson’s brilliant book, Human Minds, and her concept of point mode (op.cit. page 30):

The first mode, which is called the point mode, [is] a way of functioning in which the locus of concern is that directly experienced chunk of space time that one currently inhabits: the here and now.

This mode of experiencing reality is not confined to infancy and early childhood though (page 43):

. . . .  although direct concern with what is here and now is accompanied in early infancy by narrow temporal awareness, this does not have to be so. . . . . When an adult concentrates on a skilled task, such as uppholstering a chair, there is the absorption in the moment that is typical of the point mode, yet there is a great reliance on past experience and a well formulated goal that is some way ahead: the finished chair.

That Eliot was able to pinpoint this kind of experience so accurately in words in such an early novel is what gives me confidence to trust the validity of her later conclusions about other things less easily corroborated.

Possible Limitations

Mead is not naïve about Middlemarch though. She unpacks what Virginia Woolf might have meant in her praise of the novel.

VirginiaWoolf

Virginia Woolf (For source of image see link)

She picks particularly on Woolf’s expression “with all its imperfections.” She writes (page 46):

What are these imperfections? Woolf gives few specifics, though she cites Eliot’s unwillingness to let one sentence stand for many and contrasts it with the delicacy shown by Jane Austen’s Emma. . . . . . She says that Eliot – the grand daughter of a carpenter, as she reminds us – is out of her depth when it comes to the depiction of higher social strata, and resorts to stock images of claret and velvet carpets. Eliot’s hold on dialogue is often slack. Occasionally, she lacks taste. She suffers from ‘an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration.’

She quotes (page 47) Woolf’s further comment that there is however a melancholy acknowledgement of human limitation which makes the book distinctly appropriate for ‘grown-up people.’

Mead also defends Eliot’s use of the now unpopular authorial voice (page 54) and quotes examples to prove its value:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lives on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’

This contrasts strongly with the experience of reading Jane Austen, for example, where her device of free indirect speech means that the story unfolds through the consciousness of her characters rather than through any kind of explicit statements of her views. As Wikipedia explains: ‘What distinguishes free indirect speech from normal indirect speech is the lack of an introductory expression such as “He said” or “he thought”.’

What surprised me was that, as a student of English literature in the 60s in Cambridge, I had failed completely to take on board that this is how Jane Austen wrote. So much so, that when I recently read Mansfield Park (I am ashamed to say, for the first time), I was astonished to find that the whole narrative was carried along almost completely from within the consciousness of her characters. The caustic nature of her irony makes her presence felt even when she is nominally in the head of a character, especially that egomaniac, Mrs Norris. When the plan to bring Fanny, the daughter of her impoverished sister, to Mansfield Park, is being discussed, we get a typically caustic glimpse into her mind with only the faintest of obvious authorial touches at the start (Chapter 1):

The division of gratifying sensations ought not, in strict justice, to have been equal; for Sir Thomas was fully resolved to be the real and consistent patron of the selected child, and Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance. As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.

Ford Maddox Ford does the same thing even more consistently in his greatest works such as Parade’s End.

The value of this approach is unquestioned. You are drawn deeply into the experience of the characters and, as in life, you can never be completely sure you have understood exactly what happened in an objective sense – all you have is a composite of subjective points of view.

I believe it is crucial that we all come to realise our interconnectedness. I therefore welcome the way the reading of novels has been shown to relate to increased empathy and social skills. Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. He feels that one of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):

In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.

He asks a general question (page 95):

If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?

In this book he sees fiction as (page 99)

. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.

And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

Clearly, if that is what we are after, free indirect speech would be a strong candidate for one of the best ways of enhancing empathy.

However, there are also advantages in a similar direction, as Mead points out in this engaging tour of Eliot’s thought, to the use of the author’s own voice which we will come on to next time.

Related

The film of Mansfield Park lacks the depth and subtlety of the book but it was the impact of this film that helped me overcome the resistance engendered by the negative critics, go back and read it for myself.

 

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George Eliot

Kicked-Started by Coincidence

Till just over a fortnight ago I would not have connected George Eliot with neuroplasticity. Why on earth should I have?

Well, I can now think of at least one reason.

During the same period I was spending part of my book token loot on ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy‘ (see previous post) I had the chance to spend what was left. Not surprisingly I went to the same shelf (‘Popular Science’) in the same Waterstones. I was on the hunt for two books, one by Norman DoidgeThe Brain that Changes Itself, and one by Jonah Lehrer Imagine: how creativity works. I ended up buying the Doidge but a different one by Lehrer – Proust was a Neuroscientist.

Bear with me a bit longer – this is going to get interesting in a minute. I had no idea that I was setting up a remarkable juxtaposition of events.

It’s my month for such things I suspect. Just recently a couple I had not seen for many many years came to visit us from London. On arrival at our house the wife was in a state of astonishment. ‘You two,’ she said incredulously to her husband, ‘have been exchanging Christmas and Bahá’í New Year cards for decades but I never saw the address you were sending our cards to. This is the very road I used to live in when I was a child. How unlikely is that?’

I had no idea, when I was paying for the two books, that I’d just bought into another improbable coincidence, maybe not so dramatic but a touch more generally significant. Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance was gaining credibility by the second.

Marshalling Middlemarch in his Argument

When I got home I kicked off by starting to read Lehrer’s book. There was a mildly interesting chapter on Walt Whitman – no offence to his memory but I’ve always found Emily Dickinson, though secretive to the point of invisibility, far more impressive. But I would prefer the introverted poet of the two, wouldn’t I?

Then Lehrer moved on to one of my all-time favourite writers discussing her greatest novel: it was a chapter involving George Eliot using Middlemarch as a springing off point. He quoted her as follows (page 38):

Dorothea – a character who, like Eliot herself, never stopped changing – is reassured that the mind “is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing.”

I don’t think I’m being pedantic to point out that this is not the exact quote. At the beginning of Chapter 72 Dorothea is talking to Mr Farebrother and the conversation goes like this:

“Besides, there is a man’s character beforehand to speak for him.”

“But, my dear Mrs. Casaubon,” said Mr. Farebrother, smiling gently at her ardour, “character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

Lehrer isn’t making the mistake of absolutely identifying Eliot with a statement of one of her characters, albeit a vicar and a man of some integrity. He is looking at how Eliot examines the capacity for change we all have through a variety of lenses. She is part of his body of evidence that science and art are not irrevocably at odds. It is unfortunate that he strengthens his case for her as an early proponent of neuroplasticity by this substitution of ‘mind’ for ‘character.’ It does make the subsequent shift to talking about brains easier though. And she is as ‘anti’ any form of reductionism as Lehrer is.

Science or Scientism?

And when he does start talking about brains the discussion becomes fascinating. One reason for this is that the other book I had bought is entirely focused on aspects of neuroplasticity. The second completely unexpected reason is that both discussions of this issue contain page after page that vindicate Sheldrake’s contention that science in its current form is ‘dogmatic.’ Sheldrake wrote in The Science Delusion (page 4):

I have written this book because I believe that the sciences will be more exciting and engaging when they move beyond the dogmas that restrict free enquiry and imprison imaginations.

His main aim is to attack its materialism as a creed not a fact (page 6):

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

However, dogma also operates within science even where there is no such violation of this creed. The mind/brain problem is a powerful example of where dogma within science has clearly impeded our proper understanding of the brain and the mind/brain relationship for decades to the detriment of huge numbers of people. It illustrates how assumptions can and often do become fossilised, useful only for stoning into oblivion all those that disagree.

A Heretic at Work?

Lehrer, in his book, looks at the career of Elizabeth Gould, for example (page 39). In 1985 Pasko Rakic had proclaimed he possessed conclusive proof from experiments with rhesus monkeys that neurones are only generated ‘during pre-natal and early post-natal life.’ So the adult brain could not grow neurones: end of story. Everyone that mattered seemed to have believed him. No resurrection then for the notion of neurogenesis lying discredited in its mausoleum.

In 1989, during a completely different piece of research, Gould had found the unexpected: ‘the brain also healed itself.’  Gould assumed she must have been mistaken. She went back to the literature expecting to find that this was the case. To her astonishment she found the opposite. She found a wealth of evidence dating back to 1962 that all sorts of fully grown creatures were capable of growing neurones in their adult brains. All the evidence had been arbitrarily dismissed out of hand and entombed out of sight on neglected library shelves.

What happened next will have to wait until the next post.

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