It is an odd feeling, writing against the current: difficult to entirely disregard the current — Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas
Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! — George Eliot in her letters
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been puzzling over the term “friendship” more than usual for the last couple of weeks, and this morning thought I’d help myself by reading what Samuel Johnson has to say in two of his journalistic essays memories of which have stayed with me down the years (Idler No 23; Rambler 99). In my mid-twenties studied Johnson for my orals for my Ph.D, and again in my mid-forties I used to teach at George Mason university a volume of his writing (in the Penguin series, edited by Patrick Cruttwell): we’d read his Journey to the Western Islands,” his literary biographies (especially the life of Savage), his journalism, letters, poetry
The one I recalled better starts with the sentence (now I’ve found it) “Life has no pleasure higher or nobler than friendship,” only to devolve into how fragile are such relationships: how frighteningly easy (“very slender differences”) can “part” people after “long reciprocation of” courtesy or generosity. Sometimes people long to meet after years of being apart (or let’s say Internet friends) to find there is no similitude where it counts such as had been imagined. He talks of more than “opposition of interest:” his focus are “a thousand secret and slight competitions, scarcely known to the mind upon which they operate,” and how “minute ambition” once found out (and “vulnerable” to the other) will be become a sort of fear, and resentment and the shame felt will not be explained as the last thing the person wants is discovery. This “slow malignity” can be obviated if you know your friend (frenemy?) well enough.
But then there is “a dispute begun in jest” becomes a desire to triumph, then vanity takes over as anger grows, and before you know it you are in the midst of strong “enmity:” “Against this hasty mischief I know now what security can be obtained: men will be sometimes surprized into quarrels.” Friendship appears to have so many “enemies:” caution becomes suspicion; delicacy becomes and repels disgust; people grow angry that compliance with another’s taste is “exacted.” The most “fatal disease” is “gradual decay:” when gradually people just don’t want to or are “unwilling to be pleased.” He regards this situation as “hopeless.”
To become friends in the first place requires “mutual pleasure” in one another’s company. This is not always in our power to feel. To be “fond and long-last” it seems there must be “conformity of inclination.” People must share tastes; I’d put it have a closely similar sensibility. Appreciate how the friend spends his or her days (and/or nights). People practicing the same profession can understand and respect one another. They must enjoy one another’s conversation is another area I’d bring in. Contradictorily, Johnson does say (just briefly) people who are (as we might say) stuck together (families, in his era that would include coerced marriage) should try to “approach towards the inclination of each other,” see if you can conform in things that don’t carry a weight of need, show curiosity. By his own admission this is hard. Jane Austen would have us consider Mrs Smith:
“Even the smooth surface of family-union seems worth preserving though there may be nothing durable underneath” — Persuasion
I am now touched (as I probably was not when young) by how he says we all “require” acts of “tenderness” because we have “grievances which only the solicitude of friendship will discover and remedy.” (The need for and offering of tenderness is seen in grandparents.) Johnson says people have to care about you beyond the usual need, have bothered to know, recognize, try to “remedy” miseries usually “unheeded in the mighty heap of human calamity.” Again, hard.
My reader will scarcely believe that I used to read disquisitions like these I’ve paraphrased and quoted from to find some comfort and strength. But I did.
Henri-Jean Martin (1860-1943), La Tonnelle (an imaginary gazebo)
It happened that later in the day a kind friend here on the Net pointed me to an essay by Audrey Lorde in which she suggests that we wrongly avoid the erotic in life; the emotions that comprise eroticism can provide power for creative and good change (“The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Sexualities and Communication”). My first reaction was to remember Carol Gilligan’s In a Different voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development and Lyn Mikel Brown’s Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development, two of many books on female psychology where the authors argue women have and further develop out of their innate nature and the experiences of life our social organization imposes on them an “ethic of care,” of concern for one another; instead of interacting through competition, as individuals vying to be superior to others, to wrest the necessities and luxuries of life by purchase (after doing what one must to get money), act as one in a community looking out for one another to enjoy in companionship without regard to status. This could be norm encouraged which Gilligan and Browne feel would give the deepest pleasure and gradual security were it central to structured experiences in life.
But then I thought it’s not “care” and “love” but “erotic,” and the use of the term erotic changes the idea. Lorde wants us to enjoy sex with one another, or sensual experience and says if we do so, we will open up to one another, feel good and then be powerful to do something. Tonight I find myself worrying over that second word, “power.” After all the context seems to have something to do with competition, and control over someone else, getting them to do something out of the sensual and sexual. She is trying to get power out of nature and to manipulate. In my experience opening up to most people, and especially sexually has ended in their trying to take something, and a feeling of self-directed self-felt triumph is central to the erotic. The sexual postures and things we do are or can be humiliating when I’ve felt the other person feeling this triumph. Can we ever rid ourselves of our position literally as well as figuratively to one another.
In classic characters from Don Juan to Lovelace to Austen’s Lady Susan, what is actuating the character when they proceed to move through erotic experience is a desire to triumph and use. My experience has taught me there is yet worse: the person takes over your character as your self-control may dissolve away, as you start to trust; and what they call cooperation with them becomes form of submission. The next step is bullying.
This relates to my theme of friendship tonight as my experience since becoming a widow is people do their best to avoid getting deep with one another to be safe, not to be obliged, not to get into troubles and ignite all those enemies to friendship Johnson surveys (I particularized only a few of these, admittedly the ones that have causes me most hurt). Lorde seems to suggest people are refusing to be loving; refusing what comes natural. Does it? The world is filled with people completely oblivious to other people’s actual minds, who cannot participate in another’s experience unless they have known it in a literally similar way. They begin with a fierce egoism. They hear and interpret what you say in terms of their particular attitudes of mind. They enjoy aggression and threatening hurt and get a kick out of avoiding someone aggressing at them. People who go out hunting to kill animals are not doing that to protect themselves.
There are dozens of great stories about this — from the old movie, The Servant (if you’ve ever seen that one with Dirk Bogarde and James Fox where the servant becomes the master) to the Lord of the Flies — the person who ends up the scapegoat and whipping bag for others. People go so far to justify these happenings by claiming the hurt person is masochistic; they want to be hurt, they enjoy it. I am here to say they do not. The woman who does not try to escape her abusive husband fears if she does she will suffer more from it; she will not be rescued; if she is freed of him, the authorities will see her weakness and take her children from her.
My friend said Audrey Lorde used the term “erotic” instead of “care” because she feared her reader could ridicule the term and vision. To use use the word “erotic” is sexier, more provocative (ah! so now we are provoking some one) and would gain attention (as sex usually does). This reminded me of why George McGovern was quickly labelled as “out of the question” someone no one could vote in for president the way Jeremy Corbyn is described in the British press. No one will go for such a person because they are too nice. My father said most people in their minds are mean, small, operate out of what they see as justifiable mistrust, expecting others to try to take all they can. If someone behaves better than this, they resent this as an indictment of their own nature, as “hypocritical.” That’s not fair. I have seen groups of people work together for the common good in narrow causes, and they are helped along enormously if values like care and concern as in our mutual interest and leading to good things coming, and not promoting hardness, competition and especially any kind of violence. Here you need to be in a middle status group that does this.
So to return to Johnson who is trying to explain friendship so we may by lower expectations have what our natures will allow of it, although repression of an instinct to have and find and share love is impoverishing the best we can know, cuts us off from the best and deepest fulfillment people can have in one part of their natures, leaves us so alone, more at risk, it is also a necessary guard. Gilligan and Browne believe (or affect to) that the “masculine” psychology that has been allowed to rule the world and have full play into the very privatest of our moments together (as in relationships set up on the basis of what each gets out of it materially) can be offset, modified, qualified by the feminine, even overturned — as it is for some when they are bringing up their children. They feel we can extend what can happen in mother-child, parent-child, friend-friend, lover-lover relationships beyond these. That we should try.
Jean Lucy Pratt and her cats (see “Blunted Joy” by Catherine Morris, TLS, Sept 7, 2016)
Mac is one of the men Jean loves and loses (later, she records that he has been killed in a car crash). Her loneliness is oppressive, at times – almost crushing; but as the years go by, her yearning starts to dissipate, or evolve. “Why does anyone worry about ‘love’,” she writes in 1958, “about being loved and finding the Right Person, and about missed opportunities and ‘I’ve never had a chance?’ and ‘It isn’t fair!’? There is no need to let these moods colour your life. Love can illumine every moment of it, whether you are ‘loved’ or not. But let us not nail that poor butterfly. Make your own discoveries and keep them secret” — Jean Pratt
All very solemn you may think or say — if you have got this far. But I have been very hurt this past month, a kind of culmination, or hammering blow, after much less stunning events and trivial ones too over the past three years, and as the third anniversary of Jim’s death draws near, I want to understand what has happened since my world fell apart and I tried to build a new one for myself, and gain strength to pull back. i said the fourth wall of my house had vanished; well now I have to rebuild that wall.
Two long-time friends, mostly known by years of letters here on the Net, told me when I told them I had been accused of being a “false friend,” offering “false friendship” for years, and offered a clause the person refused to explain (“you threw my friendship back in my face”) that this was senseless, not using words meaningfully. By going over what Johnson wrote I feel I have been enabled to understand what happened recently and over the course of all the cases I’ve been brooding about, and this helps because I feel what happened was not my unique doing or fault. In these various instances I see a general version of what has happened to me, what I’ve seen and been told happens to others. So myu case is that of many others. I feel like Austen heroines who will sometimes say they have looked and looked and find nothing crucial to reproach themselves with, and that helps. Sometimes eighteenth century texts really do help against large and petty pain too.
I nowadays divide my days into three types (most of the time): quiet reading days, days where I am writing either on and for people on the Internet, or for teaching, or for papers and reviews. And days where I go out somewhere to something social (teaching), sort of (a lecture) or a movie, play, concert, HD opera, a reading of poetry. Here is something hopeful: for nearly three years now I’ve also been taking a pill to help me sleep at night and in the last year I think I now get deep sleep (REM sleep) each night: I’ve not experienced such a period like this since maybe before I was 12. And I find I can read at night, understand what I am reading and even more wonderful, remember what I read the next day. Gentle reader, that is why I am blogging less. Tonight I was reading Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s biography of Dora Carrington, about whom I hope (that word) to write my next “woman artist” blog.
To show affection is to comfort oneself — From Kobayashi, Bonsai Miniature Potted Trees