Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Middlemarch 3: The Seeds Disperse...

Imagine someone writing this about her father:

"Father's birthday. He would have been 96, yes, today; & could have been 96, like other people one has known; but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;—inconceivable."

The man about whom that was written was Leslie Stephen, an eminent-in-his-own-mind Victorian. (Was there any Victorian male who was not eminent in his own mind?) His daughter, who wrote those words in her diary, was Virginia Woolf.

I say this because it was also Virginia Woolf who famously called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." This seems plain and straight-forward, until one adds the knowledge that her father had himself written a book on George Eliot, a patronizing study of a famous novelist read not for her talents as a writer but because people felt they "should" read her.

Woolf is saying, "My father was not a grownup." She also writes in her essay "George Eliot" about "the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself," again a veiled reference to the patronizing view of Eliot [and perhaps all women of talent, imagination, and intellect] as exemplified by her father's book.

"His life would have entirely ended mine," Woolf could admit in her diary. In her public writing, she all but called her father a child. It is a bittersweet revenge, but something that I think of often as I read American and British literature in the light of how that literature was received in its time and how it has withstood the tests of time.

In Middlemarch, George Eliot returns to the subject of pity, and how nothing kills love faster. Even Leslie Stephen picked up on this, when he wrote of Causabon, "No doubt there is a pathos in devotion to an entirely mistaken ideal." Little did Leslie Stephen realize he was writing his own epitaph.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Middlemarch 2

Last night, as I read the last seventy-five pages of this—"novel" doesn't seem the right word; one wants something that means "world in a book" or "life woven from paper and ink"—okay, novel, I was deeply moved by this line. This is Dr. Lydgate, after a significant conversation with Dorothea Causabon. Dr. Lydgate, I should mention, had never before considered the possibility of having a significant conversation with any woman. But as he leaves her house a changed man, having been honest for the first time with another human being and with himself, he thinks, "She seems to have what I never saw in any woman before — a fountain of friendship toward men — a man can make a friend of her."

This is the tragedy of which I wrote in yesterday's blog post, the tragedy that it doesn't occur to these men until after friendships must be severed that friendship was possible in the first place. This is a novel about friendship, in that it depicts people who have no friends. Trivial acquaintances are in abundance, but no one in this novel knows how to be or make a friend.

After reading my blog post yesterday, my husband George said, "Don't we have Middlemarch on DVD? Let's watch it." When we realized we have a set of DVDs with dramatizations of five George Eliot novels, my George said, "It will be a George Eliot summer."

This is why one marries one's best friend.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Middlemarch, part 1

I have been spending these past several days of my summer break reading one of my favorite novels, Middlemarch by George Eliot. Every fifty pages or so (I'm in the 700s) I think, I should go write a blog post about this...but then I just keep reading. So now the blog posts I felt were so necessary have built up in my mind into a towering impossibility. Forgive me, then for resorting to bullet points:

  • Imagine my wonder last night when I got to a chapter I had completely forgotten about. That's all I can say, because there will be no spoilers in this post. But it got me thinking (as I was reading) about the fickle nature of memory, and the importance of re-reading those creative works that have changed us, do change us, will change us.
  • Earlier in the novel, I had this realization: Dorothea Brooke, Mary Garth, and Rosamond Vincy are all about the same age. (In fact, Dorothea is the youngest, just 19 when the novel begins, which makes it all the more interesting that she seems the oldest by far of these three women.) The novel is really about these three women: their personalities, their choices and lack of choices, their actions and the ripple-in-a-lake effects of those actions, and mostly it is about their minds and the shaping of those minds. In a way—hidden just below the surface of a compelling fictional story—George Eliot is illustrating Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Eliot details how each of these young women were educated, and how their intellect is regarded by the men in their lives. The men—all of whom have had access to the best education of their times (the novel is set from 1830-1833) often come up lacking, though a few recognize the tragedy of the educational deficits with which these women have had to contend. The men also recognize among themselves that education does not necessarily make one intelligent. The men do not consciously recognize that they recognize these things. No one in this novel is really "ahead of" his/her time. They are trapped, and some make the best of what life has to offer. Some do not.
  • And always, George Eliot is showing us two opposing truths: Even our most trivial actions can have far-reaching consequences, and yet we must not live life fretting over trivialities. Yikes.
More after the next 700 pages. (Just kidding; only a couple hundred to go...)

Friday, April 19, 2019

Became an Economic

Earlier this week, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was badly damaged by fire. To lose (or nearly lose) a living part of our past, a medieval monument to the blood, sweat, and tears of generations of workers—from the original builders to the ladies who just last week scraped the wax from around the base of the votive candles—seemed to me one cosmic insult too many, hurled from an indifferent universe upon our already angst-ridden psyches in these uncertain times.

As donations came pouring in for rebuilding, so did the sneers on social media, which came down to one theme: Why don't we spend billions alleviating world hunger or extinction or some other very real and very close-to-home social ill, rather than using private or corporate money to rebuild this relic of a patriarchal, domineering, abusive, and at times in the past few centuries downright criminal organization?

It almost seemed to bring a twisted joy to some, the cleansing flames gutting this image of human greed and pomp and privilege and cultural appropriation and hypocrisy...

Wait, what?

I realize it didn't help that "billionaires" (our new expletive and social scapegoat) were the first to donate large sums, thus making themselves targets for this vitriol of self-righteousness.

Come with me as I jump ahead a few nights. I was sitting at a reading at a local poetry center, an organization that was created by one family donating several tens of thousands of dollars, the interest from which would support readings, workshops, a poetry journal, and other events for the benefit of the community. Small potatoes, compared to Notre-Dame, but those tens of thousands of dollars could feed all the hungry in this rural county in which I live, and house a few homeless vets for a year or so in a local boarding house, and do other positive things in this area.

Why not, then, un-endow the poetry center and turn those funds loose to make the world a better place?

A world without art. A world in which we'd starve for something more than physical sustenance. Easy for me to say, full of eggplant rollatini as I am. But seriously, all the people I saw posting about letting Notre Dame remain a pile of ashes were people who themselves support the arts in numerous ways, either creating it themselves or buying it for their own comfortable homes. I am certain they also donate to charitable causes that help make people's lives better. Would they really advocate doing this in place of and instead of and before any more money can go to arts organizations or endowments for symphonies, historic renovations, museum, poetry?

Am I the only atheist who desires to see Notre Dame rise from the ashes?

These are cynical times. Most of my friends wonder how the corrupt and craven political shenanigans to which we are exposed every day will affect us in the long term. I think we saw this week, how our critical thinking skills are giving way to a moral relativism that is inconsistent with the better (secular) angels of our nature. We cannot live by bread alone. We need poetry. We need art. We need to lift our eyes to sunlight streaming through stained glass, even if we do not believe the saintly doings depicted in that glass (as we do not "believe" the novels we read or the plays we see, although we return to them time and time again for glimpses of "truth").

These are cynical times. I hope I didn't add to that this week. I hope when I teach medieval poetry again in the Fall, that a new generation of stonemasons and carvers are busy with their work. And that no one is hungry, and no streets run red with blood, and no vulture waits for an abandoned child to die.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Context Clues

Context Clues

A memory too alsmingstrup to be shared.

I am durnstipplefied, or else I would accompany you.

What happened there was loudapurn, tending toward tragic.

Happy, shobraiched, immeljayed.

To see an enellmonter, ask an expert.

No, the opposite of travingstun—archiped, molten, vexed.

All this margin, when even the prose seems convilliconned.

Senolibria, without which all is numeralimon.

Mixed media: grave askings, neep peelings, pinking shears.

I disjunctive in the furthest corner from another's unknowable unfathom.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Thoughts while listening to Rigoletto...

I have been listening to the opera Rigoletto in preparation for seeing it live a little later this month. It is a strange thing, listening to the opera in the new age of the Me Too movement. The Duke could be any one of the males in the entertainment industry whose predilections for waving their cazzi around for the fawning admiration of any woman in the vicinity has disappeared them from their former realms of power. Like these erstwhile movers and shakers in contemporary American society, the Duke in the opera blames his victims; in his most famous aria, he tells us that women are as fickle as feathers in the wind, as well as simple, and prone to lying to get what they want.

It is the role of Gilda, the doomed soprano, that has taken on a new psychological resonance in our more (supposedly) enlightened times. Her decision to do what she does at the end of the opera (go listen to it!) rings ever truer through the lens of survivor's trauma in a society in which slut shaming is the national sport.

I was always entertained by this opera, one of my favorites now for about thirty years. Before listening to it again recently, I wondered if it had been rendered ridiculous, meaningless, an embarrassment, with the passing of time.

It has not.

L'inferno qui vedo, indeed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Visual Poems

"In writing about this world, you create another," I once wrote in some notes I was making on the poet Wallace Stevens. I have been exploring this aspect of creativity using asemic writing. Asemic writing is defined as writing that is "post-literate," or "has no semantic content," or (my favorite) "abstract calligraphy." I have begun to see asemic writing everywhere: the rippled reflections on the surface of a lake; dried reeds bent at all different angles around the edge of a pond; birds' footprints in snow; beetle burrows in wood. I love how something I do at my desk (abstract calligraphy) reveals itself to me as I walk outdoors.

I think of this abstract calligraphy as part of visual poems that I create. These poems tell a story—no, wait, not “tell,” but “suggest”—these poems suggest a story, no doubt a different story for each person who “reads” one. I have emotions, images, even sort of a story in mind as I create each visual poem, but I leave it to the reader/viewer to bring his or her own meaning to the work. The asemic writing on the piece adds to the mystery, the tone, and to the subconscious associations present in each piece for each viewer.

What does it mean? You tell me. In viewing this world, after all, you create another.


Photographs: Top left: "autobiography" by Jean LeBlanc, collage and watercolor on cardstock; bottom right: grasses in ice (a Paulinskill River view), photograph by Jean LeBlanc