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Posts Tagged ‘The Brontës’

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[Emily Dickinson] conceived of herself as a martyr poet.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson page 55)

At the end of my sequence on the value of the feminine perspective I indicated that I would be returning to that theme. It was already clear to me by that point that I could not leave the topic behind until I had done justice to the unique and compelling voice of Emily Dickinson. As will become conspicuously apparent, Dickinson also had a fascinating quality that links her with Los Solitarios.

I intend to do this by taking, mostly in sequence, the perspectives of four very different books about the poet (their publication dates will prove significant later): The Mad Woman in the Attic (1994 first edition: also 2000 edition), The Passion of Emily Dickinson  (1994), Lives like Loaded Guns (2010) and A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (2004).  

The Mad Woman in the Attic

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the last chapter of their uneven but compelling analysis of Victorian patriarchy and its impact upon women, pin their colours firmly to the mast early on in terms of how they see Emily Dickinson (page 583):

Emily Dickinson herself became a mad woman – became, as we shall see, both ironically a mad woman (a deliberate impersonation of a mad woman) and truly a mad woman (a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in a room in her father’s house).

As we shall see later, when we look at Lives like Loaded Guns,this may be simplifying the situation in at least one crucial respect.

Their feminist take on the matter is summarized when they write (page 384):

. . . the verse-drama into which she transformed her life enabled her to transcend… the ‘double bind’ of the woman poet: on the one hand, the impossibility of self-assertion for a woman, on the other hand, the necessity of self assertion for a poet.

But there were significant costs to what they see as a strategy which Dickinson was forced to choose.

The persona she adopted became a prison (page 591):

. . . while freeing her from the terrors of marriage and allowing her to ‘play’ with the toys of Amplitude, the child mask. . . eventually threatened to become a crippling self.

Also, there was a painful irony at work (page 595):

As a girl, Dickinson had begged to be kept from ‘what they call households,’ but ironically, as she grew older, she discovered that the price of her salvation was her agoraphobic imprisonment in her father’s household, along with a concomitant exclusion from the passionate drama of adult sexuality.

She was painfully aware of the effects upon her of patriarchy (page 606):

She went on to analyse with terrible clarity not only her imprisonment in romantic plots but the patriarchal structures she knew those plots reflected. . . “Is it because, as a woman, I am bound by a physical law, which prevents the soul from manifesting itself?“

She celebrated pain as leading to art (page 612):

From the centre of this cave of flame the poet speaks with a priestess’s oracular voice, … describing the smithy in which her art and her soul are purified: ‘Dare you see a Soul at the white heat?/Then crouch within the door – …’

They spell out an important insight into the creative process exemplified by Dickinson (pages 612-13):

. . . she is a prophet of Imagination whose brain is a furnace in which the gross materials of life are transformed into the products (the refined ore) and the powers (the designated light) of art.

They deal at some length with the paradoxes connected with white (pages 615-23). It frequently represents both creative energy and the loneliness ‘Romantic creativity may demand.’ It’s ‘a two-edged blade of light associated with . . . both triumph and martyrdom.’ It’s ‘not just a sign of her purity but the emblem of her death.’

A key passage lists a collection of powerful associations (pages 621-23):

Impersonating simultaneously a “little maid“ in white, a fierce virgin in white, a nun in white, a bride in white, a mad woman in white, a dead woman in white, and a ghost in the white, Dickinson seems to have split herself into a series of incubae, haunting not just her father’s house but her own mind.

They then shift into an intriguing way of describing this, which resonates both with the work of Pessoa, and his heteronyms, a focus of interest for me, and of course my own relatively light-hearted exploration of my own sub-personalities, My Parliament of Selves. They state:

The ambiguities and discontinuities implicit in her white dress became, therefore, as much signs of her own psychic fragmentation as of society’s multiple (and conflicting) demands upon women. . . . In addition, and perhaps most frighteningly, they dramatised an ongoing quarrel within that enigmatic self which became the subject of much of Dickinson’s most pained and painful poetry.

They quote a famous poem in support, after first quoting Harriet Beecher Stowe (page 624):

‘ what a fool is he, who locks his door to keep out spirits, who has in his own bosom a spirit he dare not meet alone.’ And here is Dickinson, on an equally terrible haunting:

One need not to be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
the Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –

They grimly summarise their conclusion (page 631):

It is in her own body, her own self, that her many selves are imprisoned or buried; she is their grave, tomb, and prison.

This gels with Vivian Pollak’s description of Emily Dickinson as ‘[a] poet of the inner civil war.’ (From A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson – page 3).

Before I move on to look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson,I think it will be useful to check out briefly some ideas expressed by Raj Patel and Jason Moore in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.

Emily Dickinson looked across the Atlantic to the work of the Brontës, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pollak – page 5), and resonated to their struggle with the English version of patriarchy (Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar: Chapters 15 and 16). Coverture is one example, whose persisting impact I had until now failed to recognize as such (page 125):

New traditions of control put bourgeois women in a bind, particularly in England. The law there enshrined coverture – the status of a married woman, including the placing of her person and property under her husband’s authority. . . . Coverture persisted from the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. So great was its power to rob women of rights and identity, campaigners against it called it ‘civil death.’ It is from this institution that a wife’s taking of her husband‘s name originates.

The control women surrendered made marriage uninviting. Marry they none the less did (page 127):

Yet even as the economic imperatives for women to choose marriage increased, so did the covering philosophy describing this choice as uncoerced. This . . . mirrors the relations of workers under capitalism, who needed to appear free agents at least in theory, even if their freedom boiled down to the choice of working for a pittance, starving to death, or serving in a debtors’ prison.

Housework, something against which Emily Dickinson rebelled, was (page 129): ‘considered precisely beyond the domain of wage work, a favour that women did for men, akin to the free gift that nature offered enterprise.’

We will be coming back to nature as well.

In the next post I will take a look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson.

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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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Grave & Courtyard v2

Last week, I walked through soft rain at a brisk pace to get to the venue on time. I was sweating slightly as I walked to the counter to get my coffee. That’s the trouble with waterproof coats. They trap the heat as well as keeping out the rain.

As I ordered my coffee the Death Cafe facilitator indicated we’d switched rooms, but at least we had a room this week. We went upstairs together to a room tucked away in the far back corner. Apparently we’d been asked to keep our voices down a bit so the audience in the next door studio cinema weren’t disturbed in their enjoyment by any thoughts of death.

She went downstairs to direct people to the room. I stayed and sipped my coffee enjoying the silence and the opportunity to cool off a bit.

By five-past-six the room was still empty. Then, to my relief the Buddhist lady came in. By ten past no one else had arrived except the facilitator. In fact, it wasn’t until 6.30 that the fourth person arrived fresh from her yoga class.

Even so, what we lacked in numbers was made up for in intensity, depth and excitement. It was another great two hours of exploration of death-related issues from almost every possible angle. We had a Buddhist, a Bahá’í, a humanist (well, at least, that’s my label for her) and someone still searching, someone ‘on a quest’ as we put it later.

We roamed across such themes as our interconnectedness, the Buddhist and Bahá’í seeing this as something spiritual. The humanist agreed with the basic idea but not its spiritual dimension while the searcher was not completely sure.

The thorny issue of science and religion came up, and science’s dismissal of any idea of an afterlife. We pulled in references to Ken Wilber and his book  The Marriage of Sense & Soul. I’ve dealt with his powerful arguments elsewhere so I won’t dwell on him too long. For example he forcefully argues, science has invaded spirituality and the arts (page 56):

. . .[T]he I and the WE were colonised by the IT. ..  . . . Full and flush with stunning victories, empirical science became scientism,  the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers. . . . Consciousness itself, and the mind and heart and soul of humankind, could not be seen with a microscope, a telescope, a cloud chamber, a photographic plate, and so all were pronounced epiphenomenal at best, illusory at worst. . . . . Art and morals and contemplation and spirit were all demolished by the scientific bull in the china shop of consciousness. And that was the disaster of modernity. . . . it was a thoroughly flatland holism. It was not a holism that actually included all the interior realms of the I and the WE (including the eye of contemplation). . . . [I] as the reduction of all of the value spheres to monological Its perceived by the eye of the flesh that, more than anything else, constituted the disaster of modernity.

Margaret Donaldson also came into the mix with her brilliant book, Human Minds: an exploration, which addresses a closely related question (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

And that’s just a small sample of the invigorating ground we covered.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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feb-17-death-cafeJust another week to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 15 February from 6-8 pm, so just re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended in January. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

It took longer than usual to get my coffee at the Courtyard prior to the Death Cafe meeting last Wednesday. There were far more people at the counter than usual, most of them in my age group. The thought crossed my mind that we might be going to get a record attendance at the meeting, though there was no one in the queue I recognised.

I finally got my cappuccino just in time to make it across to the meeting room by a touch after six o’clock. As I approached I could see someone struggling with the wedge to make the door stay open. The room was dark. This did not bode well.

Holding my coffee perilously in my hand I unsuccessfully attempted to help with the wedge. ‘Better sit down before I drop this on the carpet,’ I thought. I switched the light on as I passed.

As I was arranging my coat on the back of the chair someone else came in before promptly disappearing again for a coffee.

By the time I’d sat down and made myself comfortable there were four of us in the room – the smallest number of people so far at any meeting I had attended. Even so, yet again I was energised by the range of issues we dealt with, some of them in considerable depth.

Maybe I was primed to enjoy this meeting whatever the numbers or the topics. I’d had about a fortnight of immersion in the tragic and death-dominated lives of the Brontës. Also within the last week I’ve had news of the deaths of two people I knew quite well – both much younger than me. Memento mori has been the flavour of the year so far.

This time the ground we covered included whether we preferred burial to cremation, whether we would want to be resuscitated or not, what did the idea of our own end make us think about, whether there is an after life or not and did we mind, did it matter what kind of funeral takes place after we have died, where have the supportive communities of old disappeared to, should we feel responsible in some way for creating the conditions that have made possible so-called ISIS and its killings, and how did we feel about the fact that our society is still letting so many people die.

Despite what they sound like, such topics don’t lead to one-foot-in-the-grave-type discussions. Unexpected positives often emerge.

The community question, for example, flagged up the existence of a promising initiative in Sandwell — Compassionate Community:

A Compassionate Community is a community that provides support to someone who is dying. The community could be family, neighbours, local organisations, a faith group, local businesses or people living in a particular area. It could be some or all of these.

People in a Compassionate Community help care for a dying person through small acts of compassion, supporting the dying person during their end of life, often enabling them to die well and, if possible, at home.

Palliative care professionals, such as doctors and care workers, are also a vital part of a Compassionate Community. However, to provide the best possible end of life care to someone they need extra support from the patient’s community, particularly if the patient wishes to die at home.

By working and pulling together a Compassionate Community can help a dying person, and their family and friends, get the support and care they need, helping them to deal with dying and death and the subsequent bereavement and loss of those left behind.

There are plans to test out a pilot project in Hereford apparently.

Even the worst sounding topics can trigger potentially life-enhancing deliberations.

Pondering on what our deaths made us think about, we delved into the problem of how do we decide what are the most important things to spend our time on. Does it have to be something useful? Can’t it just be something joyous and enriching like a trip to the opera? Would watching a murder mystery on television count as worthwhile enough? What about a walk in the country? We all probably felt that the arts and a connection with nature were worthwhile in themselves and that doing things that benefited others definitely qualified as a good use of our last days. Interestingly, in the context of our discussion at that point, no one mentioned using our time to come to terms with death even though that’s what we all have said is a crucially important task in life as a whole. Perhaps we all thought it too obvious to mention!

As usual the time flew by and the meeting was almost over. We found ourselves wondering at the end how we could attract more people to these meetings. I’m still pondering that one.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Grave & Courtyard v2

It took longer than usual to get my coffee at the Courtyard prior to the Death Cafe meeting last Wednesday. There were far more people at the counter than usual, most of them in my age group. The thought crossed my mind that we might be going to get a record attendance at the meeting, though there was no one in the queue I recognised.

I finally got my cappuccino just in time to make it across to the meeting room by a touch after six o’clock. As I approached I could see someone struggling with the wedge to make the door stay open. The room was dark. This did not bode well.

Holding my coffee perilously in my hand I unsuccessfully attempted to help with the wedge. ‘Better sit down before I drop this on the carpet,’ I thought. I switched the light on as I passed.

As I was arranging my coat on the back of the chair someone else came in before promptly disappearing again for a coffee.

By the time I’d sat down and made myself comfortable there were four of us in the room – the smallest number of people so far at any meeting I had attended. Even so, yet again I was energised by the range of issues we dealt with, some of them in considerable depth.

Maybe I was primed to enjoy this meeting whatever the numbers or the topics. I’d had about a fortnight of immersion in the tragic and death-dominated lives of the Brontës. Also within the last week I’ve had news of the deaths of two people I knew quite well – both much younger than me. Memento mori has been the flavour of the year so far.

This time the ground we covered included whether we preferred burial to cremation, whether we would want to be resuscitated or not, what did the idea of our own end make us think about, whether there is an after life or not and did we mind, did it matter what kind of funeral takes place after we have died, where have the supportive communities of old disappeared to, should we feel responsible in some way for creating the conditions that have made possible so-called ISIS and its killings, and how did we feel about the fact that our society is still letting so many people die.

Despite what they sound like, such topics don’t lead to one-foot-in-the-grave-type discussions. Unexpected positives often emerge.

The community question, for example, flagged up the existence of a promising initiative in Sandwell — Compassionate Community:

A Compassionate Community is a community that provides support to someone who is dying. The community could be family, neighbours, local organisations, a faith group, local businesses or people living in a particular area. It could be some or all of these.

People in a Compassionate Community help care for a dying person through small acts of compassion, supporting the dying person during their end of life, often enabling them to die well and, if possible, at home.

Palliative care professionals, such as doctors and care workers, are also a vital part of a Compassionate Community. However, to provide the best possible end of life care to someone they need extra support from the patient’s community, particularly if the patient wishes to die at home.

By working and pulling together a Compassionate Community can help a dying person, and their family and friends, get the support and care they need, helping them to deal with dying and death and the subsequent bereavement and loss of those left behind.

There are plans to test out a pilot project in Hereford apparently.

Even the worst sounding topics can trigger potentially life-enhancing deliberations.

Pondering on what our deaths made us think about, we delved into the problem of how do we decide what are the most important things to spend our time on. Does it have to be something useful? Can’t it just be something joyous and enriching like a trip to the opera? Would watching a murder mystery on television count as worthwhile enough? What about a walk in the country? We all probably felt that the arts and a connection with nature were worthwhile in themselves and that doing things that benefited others definitely qualified as a good use of our last days. Interestingly, in the context of our discussion at that point, no one mentioned using our time to come to terms with death even though that’s what we all have said is a crucially important task in life as a whole. Perhaps we all thought it too obvious to mention!

As usual the time flew by and the meeting was almost over. We found ourselves wondering at the end how we could attract more people to these meetings. I’m still pondering that one.

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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trawden-cottages

Trawden Cottages (for source of image see link)

A few weeks ago I was up in Trawden without a thought in my head about the Brontës – well, not until someone in the pastoral meeting I was attending mentioned that we were a mere eight miles from Haworth. We may have been in a different county, but almost within hailing distance none the less.

As I stared out of the big bay window on that bleak Saturday, watching the snow flakes swirling down against the backdrop of the steeply undulating moorland, it became obvious that I was in what most of us have convinced ourselves is authentic Brontëland.

It began to seem very appropriate that, as we had driven the snaking icy roads to get there earlier that day, my friend and I had exchanged stories of the people we had worked with professionally, people wounded by traumas, some of them from childhood, some of them more recent.

bronte-timelineThe Brontë family history is a painful one. They were well acquainted with grief. Even when I seemed to be distancing myself from it by putting it in a table to help me understand better how old the younger sisters were when the sequence of deaths that bedevilled their childhoods began, the pain of it was if anything even more visible. The trauma was not only about death. It was about the separation of the two older sisters from the youngest children, following so close after the mother’s death. It was about the atrocious conditions in the boarding school which ultimately contributed to the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth (see two earlier posts for the traumatic nature of boarding school education, even in the 20th Century). The table I’m including here stops at 1829: that was not the end of all the pain, but that’s something that will have to wait until a later post.

take-courageI’ve referred recently to later triggers that reinforced the hint life gave me in Trawden. One of them was hearing about Samantha Ellis’s book. I’m only half-way through and already I have picked up a number of useful clues about the possible relationship between trauma and creativity.

What I want to focus on briefly here is her account of what happened to Anne Brontë’s greatest achievement after she was dead. According to Ellis, after the second edition, Charlotte vetoed further publication: Ellis argues this was part of her attempt to whitewash Ann’s reputation, which seemed to her to have been tarnished by the book. This gave Thomas Hodgson his chance to steal some profit. He hacked the text down to fit into one volume so he could publish it more cheaply than if he’d stuck with the original three. After Charlotte died her publishers made the mistake of using his text as their source. This is the one that is still alarmingly prevalent. Ellis writes (page 142):

The mutilated editions are still everywhere. My own copy of the novel is a mutilated edition. It takes a while to find one that isn’t. I get slightly obsessive about checking, and find butchered texts in bookshops, in libraries and on friends’ bookshelves, all bought in good faith, because unless you knew they weren’t right, you couldn’t tell.

Her use of the word ‘mutilated’ intrigued me. It is as though this were for her a sort of posthumous traumatic atrocity. Some degree of outrage is, though, understandable, as I discovered soon after reading her words.

To my alarm, I checked out my own copy of the Folio Society Edition. Surely you can trust the Folio Society to get it right? Apparently not. It is a mutilated version. This explained my own difficulty when I recently picked it up to read the novel for the first time. That’s right. I said ‘for the first time.’ I admit it. I was an Anne ignorer as well. Anyway, back to the main point. I was puzzled by the abrupt beginning, the result of Hodgson deleting the real opening from his version. I didn’t even realise at first that it was meant to be a letter, let alone who Gilbert was or why he was writing it.

Fortunately Ellis prescribes a remedy (page 142): ‘There are better versions – the best, I think, is the 1996 one edited by Stevie Davies.’

tenant-of-wildfell-hallIt didn’t take me long to work out via the web that my local bookshop had a copy. I rang them to make sure it was still there: it was and it was the only one they had. I put on my shoes, grabbed my coat and set off on the twenty minute walk to the shop as fast as I could in case someone else might get there first.

Even as I walked I asked myself why was I so fired up about this. Anne has been dead just over a hundred-and fifty years. She’s not going to be upset, surely, if I buy it later, or even if I just read the butchered Folio copy I’ve got on my shelf. Then I remembered how Patrick Brontë had regularly walked ten miles to meet Anne’s mother before they married and ten miles back to his home. I remembered the integrity with which he had fought for justice later in his life, making far greater efforts than a twenty minute walk to do so. The injustice of a mutilated novel may seem small beer, but I realised it mattered to me. To appropriately honour Anne’s memory it was only right that I should rectify this travesty done in the name of easy money.

As I walked home at a slower pace, taking the long route over the modest upward slope of Churchill Gardens, I was glad that I had made the effort. I had checked that the book did indeed contain the missing opening: then I was sure it also had all the other missing details, some of which are crucial to Anne’s depiction of her heroine, Helen. Some kind of justice had been done. I can now read what she really wrote when she created a book that would give women even then the strength to fight against oppression in the home.

As I opened the door to go in, my wife asked where I’d been. She was surprised at my explanation.

‘Why didn’t you ask them to keep it for you? You could’ve saved yourself a walk and picked it up tomorrow when you’re in town anyway.’

I couldn’t find a way to explain it then. I’m not sure whether I fully understand it now. Maybe this is all a sentimental rationalisation of an unfathomable impulse. The one thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be coming back to the Brontës on this blog sometime soon.

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