Maggie Smith in Lady in the Van — towards the end of the film she allows herself to be taken to a hospital
Friends and readers,
I don’t know how this happened but I seem never to have read this poem by Emily Dickinson before last night:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My mind was going numb —
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here —
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down —
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then —
None of this false closure,”uplift, ego-imposed hope. The poem was read aloud in a Future Learn course (these are videos, podcasts, conversations, essays, links to other sites with videos …) I’m following dubbed “Mental Health and Literature.” As I heard it read aloud, the beat of the tread overcame my brain, and I felt my mind and body too roll like some body amid a tempest of waters, my soul cracked open, yes bells bells bells, and then the silence. It is a profoundly grief-haunted poem. Filled with the sounds, the noise of active presences. I had gone to a Body Strenghtening Class (music and mild exercise) at the JCC in the early morning and then had a day’s satisfying reading of a good book on Elizabeth Gaskell, listened to Claire Willis’s eloquent dramatic reading aloud of her North and South (CDs in my car), seen Alan Bennett’s Lady In the Van, featuring Maggie Smith (on which I shall write a separate blog), which had been cathartic, downed two large glasses of wine, so I didn’t go mad listening to it, just turned my head to the side so as not to be hit by thrust of its imagined actors. I don’t know how Dickinson survived after writing such a poem while staying in a few quiet rooms almost all the time, with just close family (several of those living in a house next door she hated), perhaps talking to only her sister (only one picture of her sombre-looking survives). She ends falling into an abyss. Reaching no one (it seems), her arms uplifted as she goes down, how to respond to such a extraordinary poem?
I seem continually to come across the assertion by widows, widowers, those who have the capacity genuinely to care if someone, some place, are taken from them, some set of memories all they have left, that they live among ghosts. Are haunted. They see the beloved face now vanished through experience, hear the beloved voice now silenced, predict or say what their beloved would have thought or said upon this or that emergent occasion. I cannot. If Jim comes to me in dreams, and I have half-memories, he has, his face is dissolved, his voice not there. To be sure, I don’t read those of his letters I have in the form of emails. How could I endure hearing that loving tender and sometimes half-comical tone he could adopt to me. I don’t delete them but I dare not read them. I don’t experience a funeral in my brain except when I read of others’ experiencing analogous depths of bouleversement (only the French word will do).
Mental Health and Literature is led by Jonathan Bate (whose marvelous Shakespeare and his World I’ve described here) and Paula Byrne, an Austen-centered independent scholar (though married to someone big in an Oxford college and knowing everyone who matters it seems, she has not held a salaried position in a university — for which I’ve heard her sneered at by tenured American academics), or maybe professional author (she has written at least two publish books, one on Austen and theater and the other a brilliant elaboration on the idea of “small things” in Austen’s life and oeuvre). I was drawn in by the “introduction” where various people (scholars, actors, apparent common readers) told of how reading profound poetry helped them find adequate enough meaning, fulfillment, sheer company and validation in life. The first week on poetry and stress began with a reading and discussion of Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree:” the very poem I once memorized and would repeat on days of unbearable hopelessness after Jim and I moved to Virginia suburbs in 1980 (you don’t want to know). I was disappointed by the artificiality, generalized of the talk (guarded cant) and sheerly awkward staged feel of Byrne and Bate (who did rightly turn us to Wordsworth).
But the second week was on poetry and heartbreak and a professor of poetry, Jack Lankester was willing to voice genuinely what reading Philip Sidney’s (Renaissance) sonnet sequence to Penelope Rich (Stella) meant to him:
I was less alone and less afraid of it, less ashamed of actually expressing myself … Poetry, however, did make me aware of it and almost— not enjoy it, but understand and revel in that intensity of emotion … but it allows us to grapple with these emotions on the stage, or even emotions we haven’t felt ourselves with that intensity. Tony Harrison says poetry allows us to kind of stare into the darkest aspects of the world and our own life … with a sonnet you’ve got the iambic pentameter and the rhythm: There is a structure to it, which is something we can take comfort in, almost like music. So I would get them reading aloud and then talking and the response would be deep and startling sometimes.
Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence was what set off the proliferation of these sonnet sequences where people bared their souls. I have long thought the determination to deny autobiographical content sheer social censorship on the part of 20th century critics. Other poets took the paradigm further: Sidney does not quite reach the levels of dark despair even found in Petrarch or (one of my favorites) Samuel Daniel, but he tells a coherent story — as does Shakespeare if only people would pay attention.
Byrne talked movingly at length about the heartbreak in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (both heroines) and Anne Elliot in Persuasion, but the state of being was defined sheerly as when you lose a beloved person, a spouse, a deeply loved friend or partner. There are many other causes for heartbreak — you can be shattered when you lose a parent or child or anyone who means a lot to you to death or if they reject you, that includes parent and child who estrange themselves. There really are people who care enormously whether they succeed in a career, whether their book is widely read and praised, whether something they invented is respected, whether they are promoted high. And if they don’t get what they drove themselves intensely to get are heart-broken. People can be shattered when an animal companion is lost or dies.
The third and last week was on grief, bereavement and it was another English teacher who could bring herself to talk adequately on the poetry of bereavement in Dickinson’s poem and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Clarke said that before her mother had died, she had never responded to Hamlet as a person grief-struck from death: for her “the beauty of works of literature like Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that they offer a constant, unchanging source of solace, reflecting and articulating her own emotions without ever putting any pressure on her to ‘feel better’ or ‘move on’.
One problem about Byrne and a psychiatrist Andrew Schuman’s conversation was the the two people seemed to assume that because the grief-striken person is carrying on publicly, all is well or well enough, and the person is adjusting. Not so at all. I carry on actively since Jim died died two years, four months, and three days ago but I am as deeply grief-striken and desolate as if I did nothing or hallucinated. This measuring of the inward soul by the outward behavior is as artificial and wrong as Kubler-Ross’s silly categories.
Among the learner’s threads and comments (these are spaces appended for those following the course to write to one another), I told of how it was after my father died that I began to read gothic literature and especially ghost stories utterly differently: the latter now seem to me to be about the irretrievable; I could never make up for what I had not done, never compensate, never explain. I had this fear he was there reproaching me. But he never materialized and within a few months the acute guilt, thwarting, sense of his absence from the world, and how unfair it was faded. I still miss my father, have not forgotten him or what our relationship was.
This experience left me with an understanding of the apparently common belief in ghosts for the first time. I began to study and have taught this genre ever since. I can connect a book I read just this December back to my father’s death: Lucy Morton’s Ghosts: a Haunted History for which I insert this brief synopsis with a few details:
She begins with the idea or truth that belief in ghosts are pervasive, universal across cultures. The word ghost means the essence of life and she goes into the Bible to discover uses which can be reduced to “soul,” some spirit or breath; the use of the word ghost to mean the spirit of the dead is first found popularly around the time of Chaucer. This is how Shakespeare uses, and this is where she began to persuade me: first ghost animals are found in many cultures, and the world’s religions treat ghosts in a variety of ways, so that they are prophetic as well as dark and mischievous, Kafkaesque, malicious. Equated with deities in Homer. They become expanded to mean dead men again first seen in literature in the middle ages. She successfully show how ghosts (spirits or spirits come back from a dead person so that is central) intersect with other supernatural entities and can be seen as demonic (gellos want to kill children in Sappho). In dreams they may arouse fear or not; Scottish folklore had them as a wraith or fetch.
She goes with Freud after going over Spiritualism and seances; our fear contains the deep belief (not to be gouged away) that the deceased is a kind of enemy of his or her survivor and wants to carry him or her off to share the life of the dead. She thinks about how ancient tragedies and accidents in life are instigated by a dead spirit, who sometimes resorts to a letter! These are often about land and money disputes (so maybe forgeries so to speak). Those dead before their time particularly vengeful and active. Strong malevolence and often involved in body acts — so they are more revenants than ghosts – she thinks of a revenant as dead person come back. The Romans had many rituals and ceremonies to appease them — Halloween as originally done (before the modern trivialization) belongs here. The most famous ancient and first full ghost stories is found in Pliny the younger — a malevolent ghost has clanking chains and is demanding to be buried properly; once this is done the spirit vanishes.
She covers an enormous amount of time and varied societies and tells of some barbaric terrifying practices and murder. It is an excellent book and I cannot begin to do it justice here. For the “west,” she shows Christianity brought about more focus on this world of ghosts, of the dead, of demons as spirit children (this is found in women’s 19th and 20th century ghost stories). The first literary ghost story Defoe’s famous “Mrs Veal” was part of an introduction to a religious work, Christians Defence against The Fear of Death. Joseph Glanvil’s narrative – a collection of (dangerous) witch stories did much harm. She cites Wm Hogarth’s wonderful anti-superstition print: Credulity, superstition and fanaticism, set in a church with a preacher with dolls for devils and we see the harm done. She speaks of Jewish belief in a dibbuk or dybbuk, the spirit of a dead person who takes possession of a living person who has sinned. The dibbuk leads a melancholy existence. Maybe I am better off not being haunted.
After the dark ages when tens of thousands of people were accused of witchcraft or mobbed out of superstitious ostracizing and scapegoating, the secular world begins to emerge: A new kind of haunting by ghosts proliferates. 1847 is the date she uses for the rise of spiritualism and séances. She moves to the middle east, Latin America and Hispanic cultures, modern movies. The point is people do believe in this stuff and that’s why it’s popular on TV too.
She suggests at the close the origin of all these similar phenomena (horror on TV shows however crude is not distinguishable from sophisticated terror when it comes to a ghost) is fear of death, a sense the dead are angry comes from the persistent inability to accept that death is final, annihilation. I think death is final and annihilation.
I have had intelligent people tell me suddenly preposterous interpretations of things they said happen. One stays with me for now: a woman told me when she saw a butterfly land on her car she knew it was the spirit of her dead mother. She said this with such total conviction that she was not pretending or kidding or half-believing. But it seems to me just as mad to say when you are about to have a C-section to give birth that the hour of prayers you did before made God take the hand of the surgeon and make it the easiest C-Section he ever did. Since I usually tell people upfront if we ever get into these discussions — which I have since Jim died — that I’m an atheist, I rarely hear such stories. I heard them in these grief-support groups and much else. The one about the butterfly was told by the person running the group, the lady with the degree in social psychology. Yes the woman having a C-section wants to believe God is in charge of everything; she reads almost nothing, seems incurious of all around her but what is personal or part of her job. She is afraid.
Manzon’s I Promessi Sposi opens up on a mob incident where a huge group of people murder someone said to have put marks on buildings and then infected the whole population with plague. The narrator wants us to see how dangerous such beliefs are. Ill add old women living alone especially.
This ghost belief seems to me part of a larger world view. If I believed or could believe there is an afterlife or some sort of god, then logically ghosts might exist too — or witches, or the undead or whatever supernatural phenomena one wants to name. Yet each belief is separate and comes with its own vibes, subset of beliefs and so on. From what I see or have been told while some of these phenomena — say vampires too — are domesticated to be less terrifying, it’s altogether too easy to make them all powerful and vengeful and then easy to attach them to people. Students enjoyed reading and could talk about ghost stories (they have a simple paradigm of injustice/justice, evil, guilt, the irretrievable), but after about 5 years when I realized or began to take seriously many students’ half-embarrassed or frank admissions they believed in ghosts, I stopped assigning ghost stories lest I be doing harm.
Like Jenny Diski, I concede, know, that if I could believe there is an afterlife and Jim still existed somewhere, and better yet somehow was aware of me and what’s happened since he died, it would be comfort. But I cannot and do not. She says this in talking of confronting her own coming death, but to me his death was a death of me too. Yesterday around 4 after having been in the house alone most of the day confronting these awful holidays insisted upon all around me, I lost it for a time. Became deeply depressed, upset, went out without my money, couldn’t focus. It’s the thought he does not exist and never will again.
By myself is the title of Lauren Bacall’s first memoir (1979) written in the wake though it was nearly a quarter of a century before she got herself to do this of her husband Humphrey Bogart’s death from esophageal cancer (1957, age 58). He endured a version of the criminal operation Jim submitted to, chemotherapy and radiation as practised in 1956. I came to this book this week because a friend quoted one of Bacall’s aphorisms (which can be found on the Net) where Bacall responds to the way others reacted coercively to her after Bogart’s death, demanding in effect that she not mourn and consider herself lucky.
In reviews, Bacall is praised for the honesty of what she writes, which matches (it’s said) her conversation. June Allyson, another 1950s woman star whose husband, Dick Powell, also died early of cancer (they all smoked like chimneys and it was regarded as sexy, glamorous) quoted Bacall as having said: “I’m learning a lot and I guess the main thing I’ve learned is, when your husband dies, you go too.” So there is another key to Dickinson’s poem. Someone has died, something had died, and she ceases too.
The book arrived on my stoop today (it’s very cheap) and I have read the section about Bogart’s death and its long long aftermath (I can see the rest of her life) where she says after a time all the things she and Bogart had accumulated together had lost much of their meaning — except their children. She says she found deepest calm by sitting in a silent church. Among her worst problems were coping with her growing children’s grief reactions. Her future was the future he had given her too. She says keeping things inside lengthened the time before she was able to put memory into perspective.
Possession does not give safety (she is right about that), she had herself brought hardly any possessions to the marriage (neither had Jim or I), but such things, concrete, holdable, there, my home are what substitute for ghosts for me. These are the forms of ghosts I know. Jim’s spirit in his letters could be such. Writing preserves the minds of others much of which I and Jim valued together and thus give me continuity and some weight and solace and things for me to do — if only to read and write about them — for my true existence. For me without these the world is without meaning, without anything for me to turn to.
I’ve gotten over being unprotected (which was another deep anxiety Bacall had as her career had begun with Bogart next to her) but what I cannot alter is Jim is no longer between me and the world. Bacall says how it was hard to care about things she did when Bogart was not here for her to show what she was doing. I cannot tell Jim about our cat Ian’s new personality. Lady in the Van was cathartic because Jim read Bennett, and (as Jim said) though Bennett had gotten too full of himself in his last years, I felt I was reaching Jim as I responded to Smith today and remembered the two of us watching her as Susan, the desperately alcoholic Vicar’s wife, in a video recording of the visceral — magical — Bed Among Lentils, which I can embed in the comments. Miss Shepherd was the ghost of his mother come back to haunt him: the film shows how he became involved with her out of guilt over his own mother having been put in an asylum when he was a boy and having died there.
I cannot reach him though. And if anything the emotions get stronger and worse. I felt deeply distressed by Smith’s performance of a woman terrified someone would put her in an asylum — which does connect back to why Susan gave up her drink. This fear of aslyum reflects Bennett’s deep guilt over his mother having been put in one and dying there, and it is presented as why Miss Shepherd never appealed to anyone for permanent shelter and lived in her van on the checks the gov’t sent her.
I cannot become Emily Dickinson but I can come closer to her inward strength and try to lose less of myself in frustrating attempts to find any substitutes for what I cannot ever find or know again. I’m near the end of my promised Poldark paper for the coming ASECS conference. Now that I care less I find I can do papers more quickly and produce in size and aspect something more like what’s wanted. I have also caught up with preparation for my coming courses, so I can now think of returning to deep loves of books in French, Italian, on women living alone, women’s novels.That is another aspect of my latest phase of widowhood, facing that any dreams I had of building satisfying peer relationships locally are delusions. I have found I cannot tell even passing thoughts about the movies I’ve seen to those people I meet locally.
Finally, widowhood is falling out: in this upper class neighborhood I live in many of the houses are being renovated: turned into huge mansions: a whole house built around the old one, on top of it, or razed and some modern cottage-looking mansion, buildings too large for their lots. Next door the the young couple (now not so young) have moved and I’m told a gay couple with big incomes are going to renovate. I expect the sky and light will end up blocked from that side. My house will become that familiar small plain widow’s house out of sync with everyone else’s. but I dislike these often tasteless extravaganzas (to be fair, some are attractive, when rightly-sized, not overdone in character so not false). For my part I’ll fix the kitchen, paint the house cream. I won’t move from the place where life has meaning. Also I’m protecting it. It would be a tear-down, and it’d be another heart break to see it too vanish.