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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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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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Since vowing, in the wake of reading The 40 Rules of Love, to focus more on spiritual poetry, I have conspicuously failed to follow through. Yes, I’ve finished my volume of selected poems by Machado, dipped into a few of Eliot’s later poems, been diverted by very brief excursions into Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, and a far longer exploration of Samuel Beckett’s life (more of that in a minute), only to end by picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the intention of finishing it at last, after starting it more than 12 months ago. That was after the eye-opening experience of reading Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage. I baulked at reading on at the time because I wasn’t sure that I could handle the nightmare of Helen’s marriage as Emily has her depict it.

Maybe Auden was right when he said in his Letter to Lord Byron (Stanzas 13 and 14 of the first part), after mentioning Jane Austen:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

I don’t really agree with that, and nor did he I think: I sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His other praise of novelists is similarly faint and less ambiguous when he writes ‘he must become the whole of boredom’ and ‘if he can,/Dully put up with all the wrongs of man.’

So, perhaps not surprisingly the novel still insists on commanding my attention.

While Anne Brontë’s dialogue seems sometimes improbable and slightly stilted, her insights into character and her deep understanding of the dynamics both between and within men and women at that time (and I would argue still) is masterly (sorry, but mistressly doesn’t seem to work – and consummate has the wrong connotations. Any other suggestions would be warmly welcomed.)

This is one of the novel’s great strengths.

I am gripped once again at the point where Helen begins to understand her mistake in marrying the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington (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.’

Faith is unfashionable these days. I completely understand why. On the one hand, the abuse of religious teachings by unscrupulous zealots is vilifying the whole idea of God. And on the other hand, worshipping the material world can bring immediate rewards. ‘Why waste time on religion? It’s an outdated and destructive delusion,’ we might say. ‘And damaging to the art of the writer.’

I disagree. Her novel integrates her faith with her art and that only 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.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: the only other book I can think of off-hand that comes anywhere close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Much, a 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!’

On further reflection I must 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).’

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. Even so, I do remember enjoying being involved in a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago when working at Kilburn Polytechnic. As I recall we emphasised the comic music hall aspects rather than the existential angst. That play is perhaps the most accessible and amusing and least unpalatable expression of his bleak view of reality, and it appealed to my scepticism at the time about religion and God.

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.’

There is nonetheless something about his perspective I do appreciate.

At the very end of his book Cronin concludes (page 592):

It is doubtful if he believed in any sort of survival of consciousness, or disbelieved in it either, since belief – or disbelief – was not something he permitted himself. He thought that all the guides were poor ones and that it was better to live, and to admit to living, in complete uncertainty . . .

In The Eclipse of Certainty I quoted Lamberth about William James. Lamberth reports William James’s point of view as follows (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

The sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in James’s worldview. So, my position is not as absolute as Beckett’s.

Literature, which at its best serves to express a writer’s enriching take on reality and cannot really do otherwise if it is to work, needs to tread a fairly narrow path between dogmatically preaching any form of doctrine, whether that be religious or nihilistic, and simply pandering to the reader’s desire to escape into an unreal but more comfortable or more exciting world.

And now I have another decision to make.

There are two wolves waiting in the wings – Wolf Solent (again half finished) and Wolf Hall (barely started yet). Neither of them preach or pander, as far as I can tell up to now. Which one will most reward my continuing immersion in its world, I wonder? Or will I end up somewhere else altogether? Time will tell.

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. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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You’d think that I’d be able to answer that question with a great deal of confidence at the age of 73, nearing 74. And at one level I can.

And by that I don’t mean through detailed knowledge of my ancestry. All I know already (or am likely to know in the future, for that matter) is logged on this blog either tagged as poems or autobiography.

Nor am I talking about my fundamental reality as a spiritual being, something else I have explored at length elsewhere on this blog usually tagged as spirituality.

No. What I am getting at is far more mundane.

It’s that I know I have a tendency towards introversion. I like a fair amount of my own company and devote it to reflection, reading and writing whenever I can. It was in my teens I realised that I needed to disguise this pattern if I was to get anywhere in the world. I have persuaded myself I hide it reasonably successfully now. I may have done quite well in what, in her biographical chapter, Jane Stabler (Reading Douglas Dunn – page 5) claims the poet succeeded at – cultivating ‘an extrovert public profile which deflected attention from his private book-buying self.’

I read Susan Cain’s Quiet with a quiet sense of satisfaction that I had nailed all I needed to pin down in terms of my temperament. So much of what she said fitted me so well.

But not entirely.

There was the pool of pain problem, the inescapable fact that deep inside me there has always been a hurt that does not heal. Apart from my People Not Psychiatry work over the encounter group weekend in the mid-70s, which I have blogged about, there are numerous examples of when this pain gets triggered, of the kind the 2006 diary entry illustrates (see my italics in particular):

I’ve just seen the latest Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright with Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn and Matthew MacFadyen. It never fails to move me as a story in a passable rendering, which this was (though not as good as Simon Langton’s with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

I suspect that it is not the tough-minded observation of moeurs nor the positive resolutions that does the trick each time. It’s that Jane Austen has plumbed the very depths of unfulfilment, of unrequitable passion, of thwarted intensity. She knew what yearning was. Though she uses tales of manners satirically dressed with wicked accuracy, it is the undertow of sadness and longing that gives them power to move me so profoundly. Yes, I love her needle-sharp deflation of pomposity and hypocrisy. It makes me roar with pleasure. I admire her moral sense that probes the cracks even in the endearing Mr Bennet. But it is the pain as Elizabeth believes she is watching the man she has come to love and respect walk out of her life forever that touches my soul. Always for me it is the longing that is most real. There is some longing in me that has never been assuaged. Marriage, fatherhood, literature, religion, work and nature never do more than palliate the pain for a brief moment. There is a beauty always out of reach that my heart keens after. Most people seem not to feel it. They find effective anodynes it seems or maybe never feel this pain at all, plain and simple.

I am still inventing ambitions – to think and write about spirituality and psychology for instance when I retire – to convince me that life still has some hope. But all I really see is a future of exits – valued beings and things leaving me.

focus-of-exploration

When I was blogging about transliminality recently someone stopped by to comment. She wrote:

I just stumbled upon your post in looking for images on transliminality, and I think your diagram is right on. I just finished a PhD in Religion, Psychology, & Culture at Vanderbilt University and wrote my dissertation on Transliminality & Transcendence: An Exploration of the Connections among Creativity, Mystical Experience, and Psychopathology — I felt very fortunate to have found institutional support for this topic.

She offered to send me a copy. I leapt at the chance.

And now I come to what has triggered this recent burst of introspection.

As I read with keen interest through the first sections of her thesis I came across the following:

What does it mean to be an HSP, a highly sensitive person? Such persons are part of the 15-20% of (not only humans but) every animal population studied so far that is characterized by greater sensory awareness, responsiveness, and caution than the other 80-85% (Aron 1997, p. 12). Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this variation develops in all known species because its traits are advantageous in certain circumstances—like hiding from predators, or refraining from starting wars—while the majority’s less-cautious and less-reactive tendencies are better at things like adjusting to new conditions and bringing home the bacon.

In people, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) entails four qualities that can be summarized with the acronym BEDS: Behavioral inhibition, Emotional reactivity, Depth of processing, and Sensitivity to subtle stimuli (Aron et al. 2012, p. 7-11).65 Highly sensitive persons tend to hold back and inhibit their actions until they have “paused to check” out the situation at hand; their emotions are stronger or more extreme versions (both “positive” and “negative”) of what others tend to experience; they tend to, and need to, process (think about, introspect, assimilate) their experiences, feelings, relationships, thoughts, and circumstances more thoroughly than do others; they can easily become overaroused and anxious from sensory and situational stimulation that the majority of people would find comfortable; and they pick up on subtle sensory and emotional stimuli that most people do not notice. Additionally, in Aron’s initial three- to four-hour interviews with HSPs, “persons across all categories volunteered early that their particular form of spirituality (e.g., ‘seeing God in everything,’ long meditation retreats, a religious vocation) was central to their lives” (Aron et al. 2012, p. 11).

In less academic terms and with a different acronym Sezin Koehler in an article on the Huffington Post website summarises it neatly:

‘In Sensitive: The Untold Story Dr. Aron breaks down the four major traits of a highly sensitive individual into the acronym DOES: depth of processing, overstimulation, empathy and emotional responsiveness, and sensitivity to subtleties. . . . . Because of this above-average depth of processing, the highly sensitive person is easily overstimulated — aka overwhelmed — by events going on around them, and especially chaotic, loud, or crowded situations. The highly sensitive require a great deal of downtime in order to decompress after overstimulation. . . . . . . The highly sensitive show more brain activity in the insula — also known as the brain’s seat of consciousness, which helps integrate an individual’s inner and outer experiences into usable data for survival. The highly sensitive are easier to cry than others because they are emotionally tending to everything around them in a deeper way, which is not a bad thing. Dr Aron notes, “Emotions generally lead to better thinking, because we only think thoroughly about something we care about.” . . . . . In an interview in the film highly sensitive person Alanis Morrissette says, “I spent most of my life thinking that how I was was a problem for people.” I certainly relate to that sentiment. And Dr. Aron, herself a highly sensitive person, reveals, “I think I went into clinical psychology because I didn’t know what was the matter with me.”’

hspWhat was both amusing and irritating when I read about Aron was that I immediately recollected that I had started her 1997 book on iBooks two years or more ago but had given up halfway through. My highlights and notes indicated that I had got the point that what she was saying might apply to me but had failed to register that it might matter.

So, I’ve gone back to her book and finished it. I think what put me off before was partly her tone rather than the content of what she said. There was a touch too much American hyperbole for my understating English palate.

There is clearly enough of an overlap between my perception of myself and the other aspects of this trait to make me suspect that sensitivity might be the missing piece in my jigsaw. Introverts can also display this trait it seems, so it doesn’t negate that aspect of my personality.

What this realisation might do, after I have reflected on it for a bit longer (I can’t help myself – I must be an HSP!), is convince me that I do not need to uncover some forgotten loss, above and beyond those I have already explored, to explain why I am prone to bursting into tears and feeling so deeply sad at times. It’s just how I am. I’m more intense than I thought was reasonable, and this is apparently not unusual for HSPs, who tend to see themselves as inadequate when they needn’t do.

It also possibly explains two other disquieting tendencies I have, apart from my habit of trying to read their state of mind from the faces, postures and gestures of everyone that comes within eye-shot on the street, in cafes and just about everywhere else as well.

silent-impact

First, I have always felt pathetic about my performance anxiety, which is also a correlate of the trait, it seems. I can remember once I was playing really well and comfortably winning a game of squash. Then I noticed that someone was watching the game from the glass window overhead and staying there, not just moving on as most people did. My game crashed and I went to a humiliating defeat.

Secondly, Aron’s research indicates that ‘hunger has an especially strong effect on HSPs.’ Maybe that’s why I have always found the Bahá’í Fast so difficult.

This was obvious right from the start.

I had been dreading the first day of my first Bahá’í Fast – no food, no drink between sunrise and sunset in March. For someone who had never missed lunch in his life, this was a daunting prospect.

I had a long two-and-a-half hour commute at that time. So, I got up at just before my usual time and prepared a bowl of porridge for myself as the most sustaining breakfast I could think of. I sat down with the porridge and a cup of tea. I had ten minutes to finish my breakfast. That was no problem as I have always been a fast eater (no paradoxical pun intended).

As I sat down I felt an agonising pain in my gut and passed out. I later speculated whether it must’ve been some form of colic, probably brought on by my extreme anxiety at the prospect of the impending fast.

When I came round it was too late to eat. The sun had risen. I paused and wondered what I should do. I made the wrong decision. I left my tea and porridge untouched, got ready for work and headed for the tube.

To cut a long story short I spent the day with a slowly rising temperature and an increasing headache, until I ended up waiting on Guilford Station to head home to Hendon. I had a sandwich and a can of Coke in my bag. The train came, I boarded and found a seat.

Still not time to break the fast!

The other passengers must have found it weird to see someone peering at their watch every few seconds with a sandwich on their lap and a drink in their hand. At last the hour struck. I wrenched at the ring on the top of the can. It didn’t budge. With my hands shaking by this stage I wrenched harder. The top came off and cut me as it did so and the blood poured out.

The final irony!

I had to fidget with a handkerchief to staunch the blood I could ill afford to spill before I was able drink my Coke.

The following two days I phased myself slowly into the fast with water and salad in the middle of the day before I attempted a full day’s fasting again.

Even now my wife comments if we’re out and I start to get irritable, ‘Let’s find a cafe and sit down. You’re hungry, I can tell.’

Now I think I know why that is too.

Time will tell whether this explanation for my well of tears, my performance anxiety, my reaction to hunger pangs, my dithering and my people-watching holds good. I hope it does.

Hold on though. I may have to contact Elaine Aron to check something out.

She doesn’t mention anything in her sensitivity profile about a tendency to start a book, abandon it halfway through to start another and so on ad nauseam. At present I’m halfway through at least thirteen books that I can remember, never mind the ones I’ve forgotten I started. I think she may have missed something here. I’m definitely not a Completer-Finisher and perhaps this is why. I’m too sensitive.

Anyway, what were you saying about that post I said I’d write about procrastination?

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