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Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’


Helena Bonham Carter as Eleanor (55 Steps, 2017)

Friends,

Tonight I’ll concentrate on one kind of experience I’ve been having a lot of these last few weeks. I’ve been watching movies screened for me, and screening movies for others in my classes. I’ll save the Tudor Matter movies for Austen reveries (especially a great one I’d never seen before, Henry VIII, scripted Peter Martin, featuring Ray Winstone), and the film adaptations of Howards End (1992 Merchant-Ivory, 2018 Lonergan for HBo) and now Room with a View (1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala, 2007 ITV Andrew Davies) for a blog on E.M. Forster, of The Nun  (1966 Jacques Rivette, 2013 Guillaume Nichols) for a blog on Diderot. What unites the rest of them?

That film has become the central medium of our time? Izzy and I also saw this past weekend a moving and creditable performance and film of Sanson et Dalila (music Camille Saint-Saens, with one exquistely beautiful song, “Responding to your tenderness” the refrain) at an HD Screening (Robert Alagna especially effective up close). Yes it has, but something else, which may be seen as a push-back against what is happening in the powerful US gov’t.

Daily the behavior of a large but countable number of groups of people who have power over the well-being, prosperity, liberty of millions of people literally around the globe grow more heinous, and what do I discover myself effortlessly watching: a series of movies exposing similar behavior of earlier groups of people. Just in the last three or four weeks or so: Battleship Potemkin, Journey’s End, Judgment at Nuremberg, A Dry White Season. As with the harassment, rape and humiliation of Christine Ford, film-makers can make these with impunity as it might seem to those countable groups of people. The Nazis at the of the Nuremberg trials were most of them set free within a short time; the situation in South Africa in 1989 was desperately grave as the South African courts would do nothing to stop mass murders and torturing of black people. One black man manages to take revenge on one chief torturer. All the men is the Journey’s End, and which generals were ever called to account for this mad slaughter. Potemkin escaped the ferocious wrath of the Czar because the Russian armed forces would not fire on them, but then no one would take these men in at any port. Story after story ends this truthful way. Last year I was stunned by Paths of Glory. Everyone in an army unit stood by while a single innocent low rank soldier was scapegoated in lieu of the general who knowingly through hundreds of lives away. Probably none of these could be made in most of the states controlled by the people I began with.

What I wonder is if telling a particular local story has more resonance. Half the population of Yemen is starving to death, and it’s hardly mentioned in mainstream or most media, but the murder by torture and dismemberment of Jamal Kashoggi is this week being heard all over public media as detail by detail is let out into the public. It is true that in the movies I’ve named our attention is called to particular protagonists, complicated victims and heroes and heroines alike. How do you sear the consciousness of someone? Diderot in his essay on slavery said it was so hard to eliminate as the world is filled with people who feel no guilt over using people as abject slaves. This to introduce yet another movie that will hit you hard based on a personal story and single performance. As 55 Steps (alternative title: Eleanor and Colette) begins we see Helena Bonham Carter being shoved, into a room where there is only one blanket; she is wearing white gown used as a strait jacket; she is shouting and protesting and begging the crowd of people not to imprison her in that room, not to inject her with the drugs and they throw her on the ground, hold her down and inject her. She goes silent and still and then begins to twitch. They walk out, shutting the door behind them. Only one high window. She soon has to go to the bathroom and no one will answer her calls for help, so she urinates and defecates in her gown and all over the floor.

It’s unforgettable. How it happens that when she is let out, cleaned, and put into a room with a bed, and given food, she has the ability to phone for a lawyer we are not told. But she does. Slowly the story emerges or evolves. she is told by Colette Hughes (Hilary Swank) that the lawyer can work to release her pretty quickly, but she can also agree to stay in the asylum longer in order to argue as representative of a class action suit. (By the way the present supreme court has done all it can to stop class action suits). Almost unbelievably Eleanor opts for the second choice. Had this not been based on a real story, I would have said here is where it is not believable.


In court with Jeffrey Tambour as Mort Cohen and Hilary Swank as Colette Hughes

This is another protest film, this time on behalf of mentally disabled or troubled patients. She seems originally to have been epileptic and still can have minor seizures. Mark Bruce Rosen Bille August, and Sarah Riser dramatize how the attorney, Colette Hughs (Hilary Swank), with the help of a professor of philosophy, Mort Cohen (Jeffry Tambor) over the course of many hearings and trials managed to persuade a judge and then a review board that patients have the right to refuse medication even when they are mentally disabled. Despite several other scenes that were for me deeply distressing to watch, and although this woman died fairly young because these drugs had so weakened her immune system, she succumbed to a kidney infection (age 47), this is an upbeat story. It’s not just that Eleanor’s case was won, but that we were shown her through a camera and script that respected her as a full human being. She was not made into a plaster saint. Her very experiences taught her to survive by being obnoxious, being difficult, telling uncomfortable truths to those trying to help her (like I embarrass you, don’t I?) or demanding they accede to her needs however inconvenient at a given moment. She needs time to find a dress or suit that looks decent on her awkward body. She needs time to be listened to. She intrudes herself, is a busy-body, she likes crass music. She is unembarrassed to ask about someone else’s religion or to impose hers on the shared space equally as more discreet ways of coping. In the story she is Catholic. She is determined to be who she is. One has to live with her not understanding everything and being loud.

Carter’s performance is the film. She makes her character so touching, brings out her tender heart — for she cares for the other mentally disabled people around her. She is not shy and gives a Christmas party for these people to which her lawyer, now become a friend too, comes. She gives advice to the lawyer about how to handle her boyfriend. We do like how the professor is won over to fight for a first amendment right to speech as part of an argument — he fears to bring this up will make the case harder to win. I have seen Carter get so many good roles and have wondered why she did, as I never was that impressed with her performance. I admit I thought she was given characters not that hard to portray. Well here she is given something precious to do, make us feel her character is precious and like any living creature as worthy of the life she can achieve as anyone else. The film makes the point because you are disabled one or more ways, that does not incapacitate you from other achievements or other talents. She can get home by herself on a bus with difficult suitcases. She can live alone, pay her bills, take complicated medicines, find places.


In some shots, Carter is meant to evoke the Bride of Frankenstein: Frankenstein we recall is a protest figure

As I was watching, I found myself very distressed; I could hardly keep my eyes on the screen, and it was only that this kind of cruelty was forced on Eleanor fully before our eyes the one time, and that tin the case of the others (we do glimpse a couple of others cases), we see in passing a girl chained to her bed, we hear crying, terrible crying, or begging not to do this to her, in the midst of a plot-design which is moving upwards. The lawyer comes. Despite the lawyer’s warning, she might not be able to get Eleanor released for quite some time (even years), she is released within months and that’s happens quickly in film time. So that made what we were seeing more emotionally endurable for me. The way the film “worked” was centered on Helena Bonham Carter and as we feel her helplessness and distress and see the faces and behavior of the perpetrators (called doctors, nurses, assistants), it is driven home into our bones or hearts or feelings, how profoundly wrong this is — if we have any decent mind (I realize that Trump and regime would laugh or despise the women or simply never go to a film like this).

Such a film is frightening for me to watch. As I watched I felt there but for Jim could have gone I. It’s seeing what one dreads most put up before you. I can speak with authority. I have spent a week in a ward in an English hospital, trying to recover from a breakdown where I had just sat and cried for days. In the US I could not have had the benefit of a hospital without spending thousands. No one forced any drugs on me. Again in my very late 20s, early 30s, my state of mind was intense and fragile because I was finishing my Ph.D and didn’t have the skills to pass an interview and so became inwardly distraught as I saw my opportunities lost. I was held up by Jim, and a year or so later by a proper psychiatrist in Virginia. The right help and the person stays in society; the wrong and the person is cast away and made much worse. This is one of many areas where US society is going all wrong. Individuals are not valued because money comes first, and you can only escape the vise if you have high status or rank.

Maybe others can imagine themselves so caught up and then victimized. In small compass this is what the new psychiatry (not worthy the name does): insists on conformity, makes psychology a mild boot camp (mild is there only for social reasons of writing this). You find yourself in a mild form of boot camp; you are not validated, not comforted. I was told by one person, Oh you’re afraid to swim (I wasn’t but used that as an example), the thing to do is throw you in the water where it’s deep. Oh you find yourself abroad and unhappy; just turn round and go home. As if by magic. Completely the wrong kind of personality is encouraged to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, and then they do the bidding of the drug industry. And I know from close association with disabled people that they are treated as morons and one disability is considered the whole of the personality — if say the person doesn’t dress fashionably. That’s why the film-makers dressed Carter the way they did.

So the film has accomplished its core business: make you identify so you will want to act on her behalf. At the same time by making her such a difficult personality (again she has not learned much about socializing and what socializing she did was meet by derision or incomprehension), we see that this is not a sentimental portrait, and then when she does accomplish a lot (as I’ve outlined). It’s one part of her mind though it affects her looks. I learned to be angry at myself for at first being embarrassed at how she dresses somehow wrongly. When at the end she dies, I did think to myself, it is going over the top, and perhaps the funeral oration by Colette was repeating what we had learned too explicitly. But then the credits inform us Eleanor Riese did die age 47 as a bye-blow of these drugs. My friend, Vivian, felt that her years on drugs left her debilitated, unable to sleep and who knows if these years were not unrelated to the cancer that killed her at age 62. Camera shots of the real Eleanor Riese and then we see how Carter was dressed and behaved to look like her and the real Colette Hughes and Hilary Swank ditto.

I had worried so for Eleanor. Even if the constitutional right was proved, would the doctors obey it? would another case take away that right? could she be hurt in her apartment. Now dead, she was safe from all these.


Now and again a nurse is decent: after she wins her case, a few step forward to tell her they had not wanted to behave the way they had (then why did they so? they could quit, refuse to go along)

I have read many times that autistic children such as Izzy once was (at age 2) are sometimes put in institutions and never have a chance to develop or fulfill themselves. I’ve been reading Louise De Salvo’s Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her and her work. I am completely persuaded by De Salvo that not only was Woolf abused sexually and many times, so was her sisters Stella and Vanessa emotionally and intellectually abused, and her half-sister Laura institutionalized because she wouldn’t obey the conformist patterns demanded of the Victorian child in a strict patriarchy. I’ve mentioned I’ve been watching, reading, following a course on Violence Against Women on Future Learn. The later weeks are on the survivors of abuse, how they fare afterwards, how they are treated by society, what the trauma does to them. They make the point that trauma can cut deep and be caused by banal everyday behavior in life, if that includes the right of authority figures and men to harass, humiliate, rape, beat, silently enforce patterns of behavior. We are shown how case workers fail the victim because they stay at a high level of abstraction, turn away from the particular patterns of the perpetrator and demands that the perpetrator change his ways. Worse of all is the punishment for complaining and that is what that opening scene in 55 Steps records. So 55 Steps has general application. The underlying paradigm is the one Diderot uncovers in his La Religieuse, or Nun (which I’ll blog about separately under Austen reveries).

The film was first screened in a festival for prizes in August 2017, and it has taken all this time to reach a Virginia film club; it has yet to be distributed generally so I write to urge people to go see it if they have the slightest chance. As you can see over the past few weeks as a result of the courses I’m following, I had several others I could have chosen to write about. But somehow this common experience from the now abusive world of psychiatry and violence against women and non-conformist seems to me to reach more of us.


As friends, watching a wedding

55 Steps are the number of steps it takes to reach the courthouse room where Eleanor’s case is adjudicated. She counts the steps as they go up. They are the two lawyers who holds her hands and go up with her, steadying her. She counts the steps to get to her apartment too: 27. I remember Laura and I counting the steps up to the Milan apartment last spring after a few days and nights in Milan. The apartment on in effect the fourth floor, with its narrow stone stairwell and steep steps hurt one’s thighs after a long day. I had to pull myself up sometimes. As Eleanor was pulled and pulled herself up.

Ellen

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Victoria Crowe (b. 1945), November Windows, Reflecting

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world” — Virginia Woolf

Friends and readers

As many know who might be reading this blog, this third Thursday of November brings the annual US Thanksgiving day. Like Christmas is a Winter Solstice festival, so this is an autumnal day for memories. We are urged to get together with other people to remember what happened this year that was good, something that meant a lot to us. I can’t meet either demand tonight for myself. The bar is too high. Some good things happened, nothing spectacularly bad.


Laura at a press conference for a Downton Abbey exhibit in New York City, with Joanne Froggartf (Anna Bates)

I can say that my older daughter had become a paid freelance entertainer blogger last year here on the Net where she created and made a great success out of an entertainment blog, Fan-Sided, and is very pleased this year to be regular (in effect staff) writer for WETA, specialty British mini-series. You see her above with a central actress in the once stupendously popular Downton Abbey; Laura had told Froggartt that her mother especially bonded with the character of Anna, and Froggartt was generous enough to insist on sending a photograph of herself with my daughter. Izzy carried on being a successful librarian. They are now blogging together (Ani & Izzy). Those who read this blog regularly know how I spent the year.

I’m in contact with a friend I made at Road Scholar in the Highlands this summer; if I can get up the courage (I know how to do this one), I may go to NYC for three days during December through February (that’s the window of opportunity) to see said exhibit on Downton Abbey, go to a Trollope lecture, play on or off Broadway and then home. Two more photos Laura took:


Leslie Nicol (Mrs Patmore) and Sophia McShera (Daisy) with on-site actors as cooks


The set for the bedroom

Happily this week our local quasi-art movie-house has three (!) decent movies so tomorrow I’ll go with my friend, Vivian to see a film by a film-maker whose work I enjoy very much, Agnes Vara’s Faces Places, on Thursday Izzy and I will make a roast chicken (more than the two of us can eat) and go again to see the latest Jane Goodall documentary, Jane. I used to show these to my writing class in Natural science and tech, and Saturday night, weather permitting or not, Vivian and I bought tickets to go to our first ghost tour in Alexandria. Neither of us have ever done one before. The third is Abdul and Victoria, which I hope will be there next week as I shall go with another friend, Panorea, after which we’ll do lunch. I’ve bought the book.

I am somewhat relieved that teaching is coming to an end for this semester next week, and I’ve just about finished two Austen papers for publication, one (seasonally enough) “For there is nothing lost, that may be found, Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s [autumnal] Persuasion” (to be linked in when it appears), in which I quote from Smith’s

Sonnet 32: To Melancholy

Written on the banks of the Arun, October 1785
When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil,
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eye;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet,
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!
O Melancholy! — such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And soothe the pensive visionary mind!
— by Charlotte Smith


The beach at Lyme (1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell)


Anne is “minded” to accept Wentworth — Sally Hawkins — how I loved her Maudie, near my favorite actress at this point (2007 ITV Persuasion Simon Burke)

Three reports from the recent AGM: Post-Austen matters (Gillian Dow, Whit Stillman); Fervency (Devoney Looser, Sanditon, Susan Allen Ford); Among Janeites (Sandy Lerner et aliae)

I can look forward now to throwing myself into my part of a paper on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as biographers, and at long last moving again on my book project on Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels (in case you forgot). I like autumn; after all, autumn is the (as it were) continual season in Leeds, England, where Jim and I met, married and lived the first two very happy years of our lives together, a place and atmosphere idealized repeatedly by Alan Bennet’s favorite painter, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93)

A November afternoon in Leeds (1881?).

My cats will be more talkative than in the next couple of months than me (they talk a lot nowadays), at any rate make more sound — my talk being of the writing kind. And I thought I’d begin this time with a second poem, this anticipating the season to come, by Patricia Fargnoli (from her volume Harrowed, which I’ve been reading nightly)

Winter Grace

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.


Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Angelica Garnett (his daughter)

I’ve been reading a marvelous biography by Frances Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life, alongside Virginia Woolf’s equally (but differently) profound Roger Fry, a biography. I like his landscapes very much, but also his thoughts on art as explicated by both women. Orlando is (I think) more profound, as (dare I say it), Richard Holmes’s book on Samuel Johnson’s Life of Savage, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, if not as passionately alive with a life, more profound with true insight. I will end on a few of these:

For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing … Memory is her seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one …

Your only safety, your salvation is

Obscurity … dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffussion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful … being like a wave which returns to the deep body of the sea; thinking how obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite … allowing the giving and taking without thanks … (Orlando, Chapter 2, pp 56-77)

From Spalding’s Fry: “each of those things is accepted as a symbol of a particular social status. [Most people like art which bestows status on them, will go only to art and lectures where someone’s prestige is asserted.] I say their contemplation can give no one pleasure …” In contrast: “Here nothing is for effect, no heightening of emotion, no underlining .. an even, impartial, contemplation of what is essential — of the meaning which lies quite apart from the associated ideas and the use and wont of the things of life” (209, 175)


David Tutwiler, American Railroad Art

In Johnson’s hands, biography became a rival to the novel. It began to pose the largest, imaginative questions. How well can we learn from someone else’s struggles about the conditions of our own; what do the intimate circumstances of one particular life tell us about about human nature in general … the long journey of research and writing, somewhere behind them walk the companionable figures of these two eighteenth century presences, talking and arguing through a labyrinth of dark night streets, trying to find a recognisable human truth together … if my book’s title strikes some curious chord in the reader’s mind, it came to me on such a night in the small, deserted public garden that now stands behind St John’s Gate in the City, when a light winter rain was falling like a mist round the lamps. The echo you hear, of course, is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Richard Holmes, the final page).

Perhaps the problem with Woolf’s biography of Fry is he’s not an alter ego (why it feels so distant), while Vita Sackville-West, about whom and whose house Orlando swirls, could be, or is. Virginia is Orlando too. Latest book: Vita & Virginia: the work and friendship of V. Sackville West & Virginia Woolf. I have now joined the Virginia Woolf Listserv attached to the International Virginia Woolf Society. I’ve belonged since 2003, and when I went to MLA meetings, went to every one of their sessions, and once to one of their parties.


Tilda Swinton as Orlando in just one of many incarnations

One coming loss: my Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo keeps going awry so no messages may sent or received. There is no one and no where to ask for help. The sites offered take me round and round or offer only boilerplate explanations. I need to move or invite to move the few people still there elsewhere. If not, and this software equipment continues to function badly, I’ll lose some friendships. I hope it does not come to this. I know I’ll return to reading more book of Renaissance women as that is one area few people seem to want to join in on that I know. The very first adult books I ever read were dark brown tomes of the lives of Margaret of Navarre and Jeanne d’Albret. A book on one of TBR piles is Francoise Kermina’s life of her, La Mere passionee d’Henri IV — Kermina wrote the best life I ever read of Madame Roland. Another is Enzo Striano’s Il Resto de Niente, a life of Eleonora Pimental de Fonseca, hung during a revolution in Naples, 1798 (her death concludes Sontag’s Volcano Lover. And study my French and Italian. Nothing is more deeply engaging than going back and forth with women’s poetry. I try hard not to be isolated but if I find I am, I’ll turn back to where I began. I don’t want to kill myself.

My Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall lectures/discussions with my OLLI class at American University are going very well and they make me want to return to good biographies and literary studies of such women and the Renaissance too.

This comment by MacFarquhar on why Mantel is drawn to historical fiction might interest some

MacFarquhar on Hilary Mantel and historical fiction: What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts … The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.

I cannot bring Jim back, I cannot reach him. Perhaps through writing fiction, biography one does. A ghostliness; there is a real feeling of the author and heroine beating death in Outlander when she returns to Scotland; and, while there, when the novel switches to the present and characters go look at the graves of those the heroine is with in the 18th century; it has this eerie feel.. Other titles by Mantel are Beyond Black (“Black Book” a subtitle for one of Gabaldon’s chapters) and Giving up the Ghost and I’ve learned Mantel’s first popular books were macabre gothics. Winston Graham’s short stories are ghostly chilling gothics.


Dead Nettle Fairies of Winter by Ciceley Mary Barker — thanks to Camille-Sixtine who has again vanished from face-book

I need to read, to listen to Gaskell’s Life of Bronte. When I’m with aka reading Gaskell, I feel I’m with a friend.

Miss Drake

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I planted chrysanthemums this week

I woke three time in the dark predawn. First in sorrow, then in joy, and at the last, in solitude. The tears of a bone-deep loss work me slowly, bathing my face like the comforting touch of a damp cloth in soothing hands. I turned my face to the wet pillow and sailed a salty river into the salty taverns of grief remembered, into the subterranean depths of sleep.

I came awake then in fierce joy, body arched bow-like in the throes of physical joining, the touch of him fresh on my skin, dying along the paths of my nerves as the ripples of consciousness spread from my center. I repelled consciousness — turning again, seeking the sharp, warm smell of a man’s desire, in the reassuring arms of my lover, sleep.

The third time I woke alone, beyond the touch of love or grief. The sight of the stones was fresh in my mind. A small circle standing stones on the crest of a steep green I hill. The name of the hill is Craigh na Dun; the fairies’ hill. Some say the hill is enchanted, others say it is cursed. But no one knows the function or the purpose of the stones.

Except me –Claire, Prologue to Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber.

Friends,

Lately this past week or so. I am lying in bed and have half-woken, and I remember something it seems to me that Jim and I did during the day just gone. I feel intensely happy again, so comfortable. It’s something Jim and I used to do as a matter of course, go somewhere together, buy something together, maybe seen a play — walked in Old Town together down to and along the Potomac together. I think to myself, well we’ll continue it when the morning comes. And I fall back to sleep (or worse) I find I cannot fall fully to sleep and lie there with the cats snuggled in tight. Sometimes bad thoughts come; sometimes I feel so tired, look at the clock and discover it is but 3 am, and I’ve been sleeping at most an hour and a half and know this is not enough. So one night-before dawn I took a temazepam and had three drugged hours. As with other times this sort of thing has happened by the third time I realize this is a dream. These events are not happening. He’s not here any more — And last night as I again half-woke, this time four hours after sleep had begun, if I had had such a dream, I couldn’t remember it.

And as with my dream life before, now that I sit down to the computer to try to describe the experience, it fades from me, and nearly vanishes. I wish I could remember the details but they are now beyond my conscious mind, hidden, obscured beyond in that realm my mind when awake and rational or feeling-clear-lucid can’t reach. Did I dream he was alive again? I don’t know.

As you might remember (I mentioned this last week), I didn’t participate in the “#metoo” meme. It went too deep, the results of that wretched and fearful three years in my early teenagehood. It was responsible for a pattern of behavior to protect myself I can’t throw off — because it has protected me, from much hurt and the kind of pain we feel in the marrow of our bones. I know it has to do with why I married Jim, why I behaved with him the way I did, and my inalienable, unalterable love. There is no time long enough because it has become so part of me. It’s what I meant when I’d say he was the blood that flowed through my heart, outside he and I lay the junkyard of what did not matter. But it was also pain-filled this and a reaction-formation to cruel misogynistic social life and the women (or at the time, girls mostly, but my mother too with her corrosive “nasty” [another ruined word now] tongue) that supported it.

Some of this — these dreams, these half-sleepless nights — brought on by doing too much. This coming week starts a ten-week photography course for 2 hours at a Smithsonian site. I signed up because it is for utter amateurs and I’d like to learn practical realities about photography, since I love art so and am so interested in film, which is finally moving photography, moving pictures. I worry it will be too much. Yesterday I was out between 10:40 am and around 5 pm, and came home so depleted I craved specific things to eat, salty pita chips, wine. I am glad fall is here, and soon this hectic schedule will be over — by mid-November I’ll be teaching in just one place, and all conferences will be over.

I miss my one good friend who enabled me to do many things badly. I can never replace him. The organization or structure of society as I have found it is not one which I am able to thrive in so as to publish conventionally or even at my age anymore achieve what people admire. So I lose myself in activities, passing friendships, reading and writing here on the Net about movies too. As ever in my life, I am doing what it is in me to do, what I can. I am learning a new mode too: being alone, that much of social life is performative in the sense of in any deep way insincere, a matter of forms, and having to teach myself to do without support companionship.

So I turned tonight to read some women’s poetry volumes that have been mounting up, the kind that don’t lie (the other meaning for that word now) and are not there to soften the blows. All four of these books and authors write greatly at moments; all four volumes have powerful great women’s texts. Two are as volumes masterpieces: Patricia Fargnoli’s Harrowed and Margo Berdeshevsky’s Before the Drought. Millicent Borges Accardi is near that; she is still maturing. I’m not sure about Maggie Smith; the verse pieces are much weaker; what she might want to say originally not as clear. Ferrante is baring her soul’s nightmares to us once again, this time as a pretend child’s picture book; she must’ve had a terrible relationship with her mother. Hers is a graphic novel. I quote or describe them here in order of the age of the putative narrator or subject.

Perhaps had I gone out at night two weeks ago at Huntingdon beach, and stood there when the bonfires are on in winter, I might have thought of a book of poetry in disguise, that I read some months ago now, Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night.

Since what I have read about this book doesn’t make sense, is essentially contentless, or misleading. It’s a truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the girl child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis), is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down.

It’s not a novella. It looks like a child’s picture book. It’s not quite though because it has full paragraphs and will suddenly swerve into lines of verse and then back again. I suppose the full paragraphs are a give away that this is not a child’s picture book. It’s pretending to be that. It’s an art book, not a graphic comic but an art book because the art work — nightmare pictures with horrible things coming out of terrifying creatures’ mouths: this looks like some kind of twisty corkscrew the monster is eating — reminding me of illustrations I’ve seen of Dante’s hell where in one of the deep circles there are three creatures being munched for all eternity by Satan. It now strikes me as disingenuous the people who say in passing this is a children’s story book and then that European children can take this kind of thing more than Americans: no child could find it appealing.

It’s a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before her Quartet. It’s like Rachel Cusk in two life-writing books, with full attitudes to motherhood, how she was treated by her husband, what marriage is about. Here we have the anguished nightmare core of Ferrante’s fiction. The doll is saved, just, lest you worry, not by the child, but the kitten who spots it, curious and trots off with it and is noticed finally by the child. The art work is gothic, all colors, reminding me of Audrey Niffenegger; the illustrator is Mara Cerri. I should say the cover is more reasonable — the doll sits up, there is a watering can, a piece of wood which is whole.

Then the student, younger woman.

Millicent Borges Accardi’s Only More So, autumnal, is on the surface more prosaic than the others (mostly narratives like Fargnoli’s), stories of her life and those around her, and equally about women’s bodies, in Accardi’s much younger case, being fixed, having cancer, the world we live in being taken from us, or left to rot (as unsellable). I offer this as characteristic:

Portuguese Bend

Every semester, Doc would take
His geology students from Long Beach City
to Mojave, the painted desert
Anza Borrego for unapproved field trips.
But his great delight was predicting
What would happen next at Portuguese
Bend, the last and largest area
of natural vegetation on the Peninsula.
Doc would look Sideways at the road,
Following the black ribbon of ever-changing
reality, about how the tarmac had jumped
three feet since last semester.
The shaky red cliffs, that once held the future
N ow left to wild, the opposite of development.
But that which was and is now unsuitable
for building also holds our planet’s future.
He smiles in morbid glee, about his
Game of predicting the next house to
Fall. We crouched under stilts, walked gently
Across dried out lawns, examining the movement
Of the earth, the landslides, the slow slippage
Of time back into the sea. The Orange-crowned
Warblers, the coastal sage brush and the Pacific-Slope
Flycatcher our arms entangled with a species of
Love-forever Dudleya virens on the Peninsula headland.
Long before our field trips, this was the homeland of the
Tongva, for thousands of years before Portuguese explorer
Joao Cabrilho wrote of Chowigna and Suangna settlements
And of how Native Americans blessed Palos Verdes
I stoop to look under a house,
half fallen into the sea, leaning against itself
as if it were terminally ill. Soft. Weak.
Yellow caution tapes drawn around its waist.
Portuguese Bend, named after Captain Jose Machado
Who, sailing past Deadman’s Island,
brought a crew of Azorean whalemen in 1864.
Taking barrels of oil from the blubber £lenses
of gay whales off the coast of California.
The ground slips beneath my feet,
a slight landslide of broken rubble,
rock fragments, shale, sand and silt, basalt.
Hollow channels cut beneath the earth
form channels for soft zones to settle …

Then the middle years. Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, about mother-and-child, to me mother-and-daughter relationships, conceived in bone and blood and flesh, a water world


Jane Goldman, Tidal Pool (2001)

And last night Margo Berdeshevsyky’s spectacular Before the Drought about this world of death for “the other” immediately, and the rest of us not-so-long range begun when, well before last November. It’s hard to choose which part of a poem to quote (for these are long and odd shaped so I cannot reprint them properly).

Smith’s book is said to have re-told fairy tales, which it does, and very well done too, its eponymous poem, “Good bones” is said (albeit in the book’s blurb) to be well-known. I like these lines:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine …

…………………….The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,

but even more the bitter ending about the jackass realtor:

…………………….Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

I also like from “Transparent”

Once the girl
was part of the woman, tethered,

inside her, transparent herself
until the winter she writhed into air …

If she held a lantern
before the woman, would she see

what became of the unfinished child
bled away on the far field. She wonders

if it’s ghost is still on the mountains,
hovering birdlike ….

Dark birds hover over Margo’s volume, natural beauty haunting by the killing going on everywhere. Carolyn Forché crowds the imagery into a splendid paragraph:

Before the Drought is a lyric meditation on corporeal existence, suffused with atavistic spirit and set in historical as well as cosmic time, a work of radical suffering and human indifference but also sensual transport. The tutelary spirits of these poems are the feminine principle, and a flock of messengers that include blue heron, ibis, phoenix, egret, and blood’s hummingbird. In the surround we find ourselves in the magical world of a floating balcony, and a field of cellos, but it is a world in peril, now and in the time to come, on the night of the Paris massacres and in a poisoned future. In the City of Light, Berdeshevsky writes poems commensurate with her vision, poems that know to ask How close is death, how near is God? Hers is a book to read at the precipice on which we stand.

From “Whose Sky, Between”

This day, how many white cranes remember all the bombs we’ve made to make the ‘other’
dead. Said: so we may never die. Said: hang a thousand small wings from our branches.

May one crane fly, one jasmine open, one thrush sing — all fragile night. One bloom of
a peace that cannot die.

Margo’s volume is probably the greatest of all four, set in Paris, the one that comes closest to Sylvia Plath’s vatic, only more soaring.

The way I like the 18th century poet Cowper for his quiet calm sense of keeping order, his winter poetry, I will return to the poems in Fargnoli’s volume.


Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes

Soothing consolation steady-now, keep your sanity type, woman aging, Patricia Fargnoli’s Winter and Harrowed. I can’t resist her “To an Old Woman Standing in October Light.” I can go back to Hallowed (a compilation) again and again. It’s not that she’s forgotten what’s happening outside the place she’s lucky to live in. I see the same desperation in a neighborhood feral cat, the saddest one I’ve seen, calico, so thin, so scared. I’ve tried to give her food, but am not sure she came near enough long enough:

The Undeniable Pressure of Existence

I saw the fox running by the side of the road
past the turned away brick faces of the condominiums
past the Citco gas station with its line of cars and trucks
and he ran, limping, gaunt, matted, dull-haired
pastJim’s Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat,
past the Thai Garden, his sides heaving like bellows
and he kept running to where the interstate
crossed the state road and he reached it and ran on
under the underpass and beyond it past the perfect
rows of split-levels, their identical driveways,
their brookless and forestless yards,
and from my moving car, I watched him,
helpless to do anything to help him, certain he was beyond
any aid, any desire to save him, and he ran loping on,
far out of his element, sick, panting, starving,
his eyes fixed on some point ahead of him, some fierce
invisible voice, some possible salvation
in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.

The above is probably not characteristic. How the composer says this is how we should live our lives; leave-taking, how to live without companions, arguing for life, watching the light, the hours (as in “Compline:” “I have done only a little … forgive”).

How can other women readers I come across on the Net make do with men’s books (which is what they cite they reading, especially novels), men’s films, which either excludes or re-frames them for men’s use. All these women poets write women’s lives, out of a woman’s body.


From Elena Ferrante and Mara Cerri

I miss Jenny Diski, because there will be no more new great books from her — as there have been several, Skating to Antartica, What I don’t Know About Animals, Apology for the Woman Writer. I need to read much more by her — the way I am reading Woolf nowadays. I have become deeply engaged, now reading Orlando. I must make the next blog for Austen reveries after I finish the JASNAs one on Ferrante, wade into this controversy about her attempt to remain anonymous.

Miss Sylvia Drake

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openingshot
An shot early in The Salesman before Rana has been attacked

Dear friends and readers,

In my mostly literally solitary widowhood — though I’m online with friends a good deal (letters) and participate in reading groups, Future Learn courses, and these blogs to the point I feel companioned and some of what I do regularly are these joined-in activities (more reading, more writing, occasional f-t-f meetings) — in my mostly solitary state (as like some Defoe character, I say), I’m finding that the love of characters so many readers attest to when they talk of what they read has come upon me more strongly than it used to. I feel this especially when I watch a great film adaptation of a great novel where there are many episodes. Good films, moving books. Beyond these imagined congenial souls, I have my cats — such my topic this week.

shahab-hosseini-and-taraneh-alidousti-in-salesman
A close up

I burst into tears at one point while watching the Iranian film, The Salesman, written, directed, produced by Ashgar Farhadi’s (2016): fine sensitive intelligent (keep adding good words). I saw this in a nearly empty theater late yesterday (Thursday) afternoon — a first it seemed I and one couple were the only people in the audience, but by the end of the film there were about 10 people I saw when I got up at the end and turned round to look. I urge you to see it if it comes near you. It is a touching realistically done story of a couple in Iran who are part of a theater group putting on Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Emad Etesami (Shabab Hosseini) teaches English in what seems the equivalent of an American high school, except all boys. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), his wife has no job or occupation beyond being his wife — though she is very capable one can see, even well educated (how I don’t know). Emad plays Willy, and Rana Linda. The play is acted in English and it seems everyone in the audience understands without subtitles.

[It has proved impossible to find any shots of the play within the movie; frequent shots are of Rana looking out a door from the side, through glass-y barred windows; standing behind Emad — these reinforce stereotypes.]

I asked about Iranians’ knowledge of English on two listservs but no one answered. I know few Americans can speak or read Arabic; even the state department under a decent president had limited resources this way. Miller’s is also apparently a story Iranians are familiar with. Does anyone who reads this blog know if Iranian education includes a thorough grounding in English? I used to have a loving friend on the Net, an Iranian woman and poet who shared my love of poetry, of Virginia (my friend has translated Woolf into Farsi), of books, and cats. She no longer can reach me by email. A great loss for both of us. She wrote beautiful English and Arabic and Farsi are both “Greek to me.”

As the movie begins, the building Emad and Rana are living in collapses, and they must move hurriedly, and get into an apartment where the previous female tenant’s things are still there. One afternoon while he is gone either teaching or rehearsing, she goes to take a shower and thinks he has buzzed her from the ground floor. She buzzes back without checking to see it’s him, and goes off to the shower. We stare at the door ajar — an allusion to Hitchcock’s famous sadistic scene. We hear screams, see a shadow. When Emad comes home she is gone, blood all over the floor, on the stairs. Cut to the hospital: he has learned she is there, her face badly bruised, arm wrenched, back sore, but apart from these ailments physically unhurt. She was taken there by a neighbor, Babak (Babak Karimi), also part one of the players. He found the apartment for them we later discover.

talkingitover
After the assault

So that’s the initiating situation. The results in their emotional and economic (the play doing, the teaching) causes havoc. We see the problems in calling the police; she can’t tell. She is terrified to be in the apartment alone; she won’t let Emad near her at night. The rapist (? — we are not sure what he did, the wife seems to indicate not) left his pick-up truck downstairs. This furnishes the clue for the husband to find the man is a set of keys and pick-up truck downstairs; the keys are in the apartment and they fit the pick-up truck. Since Rana won’t go to the police (she’ll be blamed she says for opening the door to let the man in), Emad begins to have a need to find the man and punish him himself. It’s a telling detail (to my or American eyes) how no one in the apartment building appears to get excited over this pick-up truck. The women seem to turn a blind eye; the men say ignore it. Slowly we (and he) realize that other male neighbors, especially Babak,, were also this woman’s lovers. Babak (and everyone else) knew the woman supported herself by having lovers. Emad becomes furious: why did you not tell me? The film is not explicit but it seems that men are casually promiscuous in this society but they are also intently hypocritical and hidden and they do all they can to hide such behavior from wives and families. When wives find out they wax fiercely angry. The men seem to dread shaming of any kind.

onroof
Emad pacing on the roof — he has much more active visible agency than Rana but she has power over him because he needs to be a respectable married man with seemingly loving respectful wife

The sex and family lives of these people is a different combination of hypocrisy and interwovenness than our own, and we are studying Iranian society from the angle of this situation. Rana cannot bear to be in the apartment alone; she wants to go everywhere with Emad. She appears angry with him and won’t let him near her at night (he says, accusingly); she can’t eat. One of the women in the cast who plays Willy’s on-the-road mistress, Sanam (Mina Sadati), is herself divorced with a child. Or separated. Sanam has accused the cast members of disrespecting her for the role she plays: Willy’s casual mistress upstate for whom he buys stockings. It hurts her reputation further to play such a role. She has her child with her always and it is a relief when Rana offers to take him home one night to keep Rana company. We see a family-group when Emad comes home and the two attempt to have a decent evening because the child is there. They are cheerful; she has cooked some food she bought in a store, but soon the pretended cheer breaks down when he realizes she uses money she found in a drawer that must’ve been this intruder’s. The marriage is now under terrific strain as he asks her to go to the police, and she says no, and she won’t leave him alone. He follows the pick-up truck to a restaurant and finds Majid (Mojtaba Pirzadeh), the young man who drives it. This is his rapist; Emad has to corner and pressure him to get him to work for Emad at a wedding (Emad claims — weddings appear to be sancrosanct and all bend before its needs and demands).

The play and teaching carry on. Emad can’t sleep and falls asleep as his class and he are watching a movie. The young men begin to cut up; we saw they were not disciplined much before. Their gender makes them all important. Maleness must be allowed aggression? Emad is now ridiculed by them, but he holds his own when he threatens to tell their families. At the theater, Emad and Rana are having trouble carrying on with their roles. Emad moves into a rage at Babak at one point — Babak is one of the characters in the play. Rana’s speech over Willy’s dead body was what hit me. Her grief let loose as Linda’s grief, mine at hers. I began to keen and sat there silently shaking and weeping.

At one point, cut to a new apartment Emad and Rana have found. The next day or so, not Majid, but his father-in-law, an old man shows up at this new apartment. And again slowly it emerges this old man knows is there as a substitute for his son-in-law because it was he who was an ex-lover, angry at the woman for something, who came into the apartment and then “tempted” attacked Rana. The confession is tense with shame; Emad is determined to make the man’s family know, especially his wife. We see how important are family ties in this society, far stronger than ours. The old man tries to run away, but Emad locks him in and he has a heart attack.

When Emad returns, with Rana (from another day of playing theirroles), they find him semi-paralyzed. Emad is still determined to humiliate the man before letting him go, and calls the family to get him. The family arrive, Majid all tender loving care for this old man, and the old man’s daughter, and a hysterical wife who says the old man is her whole life. Rana takes Emad aside and says if Emad tells them the truth, she, Rana, will leave him. She will go home to her family. She is making this family’s harmony more important than anything else, including her terror. They are at first grateful to Emad for saving their father as they know nothing it seems of this history of the man, but when Emad demands he take the old man into a separate room, they begin to be frightened. Emad is unstoppable and when he gets the old man alone Emad hits him hard. Another heart attack ensues. Emad had claimed to call an ambulance but hadn’t, now Rana or he does, and the family follow the instructions by phone to revive this father.

oldman
An intense emotionalism characterizes the behavior of this family — yet in dialogues with the old man it seems that underneath there is distrust and all demand strict conventional behavior from one another; my father used to say among naive people emotionalism is prevalent (one reason for Dickens’s popularity)

The last scene shows us Rana being dressed for her part as Linda and Emad for his as Willy. They have stained unemotional looks on their faces. They have not broken up, but they have not made up. It’s probably significant that Rana has had no child, but I am not sure what how this would be read by an Iranian audience.

I was startled at the overt sentimentality of the families towards one another because at the same time the women overlook the men’s promiscuous behavior as long as they are not told or do not have to learn explicitly the men are unfaithful. The society is so interwoven and desperate economically (most buildings are aging, supermarkets are full but it’s clear that lots of better goods are not on the shelves for most people). Many people make it by odd jobs — taking in one another’s laundry I used to call it. Family members utterly need one another. They have no one else to turn to.

Best of all it made Iranians utterly human. I hope the empty theater is not the result of Americans not wanting to be associated with Muslims lest they somehow get into trouble. The Trump administration is demonizing these people so such a film is important. Iranians are so dependent on family members because the US among other powerful gov’ts and the leaders of factions in Iran prevented a social democratic gov’t which was elected in the 1950s from developing. A coup put back a dictatorial theocracy; then the Shah tried to develop capitalism, freeing women as a sop and as necessary for a modern society. We know where that went. A huge proportion of people were left in poverty. Men find keeping women submissive, under their control, soothes and bucks up their ego and pride. Today in our gov’t the Republicans are removing or trying to all our social helps outside the family, including a meritocracy through education so that they can keep their enormous, take in more, live off us more, and in the process destroy outer non-religious (and thus free and progressive) social world insofar as they can.

Don’t miss it! It won awards and is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The director is famous, his films are events, so are the leading cast members stars.

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william-wordsworthwhenyoung
William Wordsworth when young — endorsed as strongly accurate by Kenneth Johnston in his Hidden Wordsworth, which I’ve been reading also

So, another week or so and now on bonding with characters in fiction. Take Wordsworth’s Prelude: it brought back memories. The natural world for me as a child. Not very much. I grew up in the Southeast Bronx. When I think of nature, I think of how Shakespeare says when we live in an artful world, the art comes from nature. Say the word nature to me and I remember a terrifying hurricane my family drove through when I was about 3 — my father’s family had a sort of cottage, home-made where we stayed for a few weeks in summer, on the north shore of Long Island, Suffolk county, a pump in the yard for water, an outhouse. Hurricane Carol hit not far from where we were, and the water coming miles up and high as the cliffs, roofs coming off, trees ripped.

turner_buttermere_lake_with_park_of_cromackwater
Turner’s Buttermere Lake — this image is the cover illustration for my parallel texts of two of Wordsworth’s Preludes (1805 and 1850; there’s a third, a short plain evocative 1799)

[I have no pictures of myself when young by a pump in Long Island, no photos of myself climbing up and down fire-escapes in the Southeast Bronx, anyway the block I lived in was torn down decades ago after it was (in my father’s words) abandoned by people, left to the dogs. Now it is rows of small private houses with hispanic families living in them. There is a Crotona Park, in bad disarray when I lived there. In the 1980s, my father meet other older white men from the suburbs there who once lived in these communities, and eventually these other white men brought their equipment from the suburbs and rebuilt the handball walls. Those playing, all male, all hispanic were grateful.]

When he gets to university, Cambridge, wow, the son of a high level agent of a ferociously mean high ranking super-wealthy man, his father dies and the lord refuses to pay the legacy the man had garnered up, so the boy or young man now has a precarious future. Still he is among the privileged boys of his era. As I read I see him as coming there with a group of expectations and a sense of his place. Myself I think how we measure our success or what we define as success comes from where we started out, and what we expected from life from that place. When I went finally to Queens College at age 18, public though it was, I was ecstatic, so relieved. College was not assumed in the cards for me at all. I never thought about — really — the lack of status or where I was going to go afterwards. To me this was a height. I didn’t want it to end. I was there to study, not to get somewhere. It was probably too painful for me to think about what might be my future. I did so much better than others in the class not only because I chose an area or areas that I find myself good at (English, humanities, history of art) but because I valued what I was doing. I knew all around me at the time many didn’t. Dorothy didn’t get to go.

He also says that when he was supposed to leave, maybe he was better off not to have a place to go to. He admits he missed out on something — did things he regrets, but doesn’t say what. For me I grieve not; happy is the man/Who only misses what I missed, who falls/No lower than I fell. Happy is the man is an old Horatian formula.

Well for me years after being in school I knew that I had not profited from “learning” forced on me,for which I had no aptitude — like math, physics — which I did poorly in. Rousseau in the 18th century says we must follow the child or person’s bent. That was a radical idea then: you were paying attention to the individual and saying he (not she in Rousseau) matters; you weren’t forcing them to do or become something for the family’s sake, as part of the family business. Rousseau also says that’s the way a child learns.

I wasn’t badly off in my undergraduate years. I was naively happy in my studies, though it took shutting the future out from my mind. I liked all my courses (even some of the required ones outside humanities) but the honor courses I found myself simply in in my last and have to agree I did read more interesting books in such courses. The shock was to come back and see this institution which had meant so much to me — it did free me, it gave me the scholarship to England I did leave the social class I had been born in basically forever — and that to another (my daughter) it was irrelevant as a place and worse. She couldn’t learn in it even if it’s academic program in music for a librarian was excellent. The social world mattered in her case.

We’ve also talked of Coleridge this week on Trollope19thCStudies: I’ve long loved best “This lime-tree bower, my prison” to Lamb, but as others spoke of Coleridge rhythmic ballads I conceded:

It’s both hard and easy to get back to an earlier self. I’ve said a few lines in Michael confirmed my resolve to be an English major, to go and study British literature for the BA. In that term where I first read Coleridge too I was swept away by the intensity of the “faery” side of his poetry, the unfinished romance, Christabel was it called, also loved and reread over and over Frost at Midnight. And Kubla Khan started — especially with the story about it. But I remember this and cannot feel the same today. I don’t mean to say they are at all inferior to the contemplative type poem only that as I look at them now, I remember how naive I was. I admit I was never “gone” on The Ancient Mariner. Him stopping one of three and the rest of the ritual type chant, even the moral with the albatross at the end seemed something imposed.I grant though lines have stayed with me all my life . Ah sleep it is a blessed thing/Beloved from pole to pole. How many times I’ve repeated that one. It is a mismemory I’ve just discovered: “it’s gentle thing ….” For me until I began with my nightly trazadone it was something often out of reach, only gotten in 3 hours snatches at best. Coleridge ended his life living in a kindly person’s attic, giving free lectures to those who could appreciate great literary criticism, among others of Shakespeare

elisakaysparkseraglia-large
Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

I’m now read/skimming and listening in my car to Woolf’s The Voyage Out as read by Nadia May. I remembered my “voyage out” as I read/listen. Over on Trollope19thCStudies I said going to Queens College transformed my life, but I was plucked out of the limited frustrating environment to which I was born by a scholarship offered through Queens: to go to Leeds University, half paid by Queens and half by a Chancellor’s scholarship from the UK. I took a boat trip that took 12 days. For 12 days I was aboard a boat loaded down with students my age — I had been married and had some adult experiences they hadn’t, but they had had all sorts of social experiences I hadn’t. Fine art films all day long, one of 4 in tiny rooms (Bunk beds). I’ll never forget that experience and coming up the channel to see the white cliffs of dover. Much as I didn’t understand was going on round me, and had a week long nervous collapse in Leeds as result of what to me was also an ordeal — I was with a group of 12 students shepherded by an British history teacher teaching at Queens for the great salary — but fascinating, all so news, 3 weeks in London, arrive at Leeds, a flat shared with another student in a private house (attached), Leeds itself and then I met Jim.

It’s a book much influenced by Austen — as her next, Night and Day, is much influenced by the Brontes. There is a trek the characters take up a hill to look down. It’s not that they go on donkeys or that the breaking into groups is uncomfortable, some of the conversation (though some sublime and refreshing), but Woolf’s characterization of the whole long incident as a group of people “very dull, not at all suited to each other,” and not really wanting to come (some of them). There’s a scene strongly reminiscent of everyone sitting on blankets in a circle and talking. At the end as in the 2009 Emma for some they’ve had too much of a good thing. Then there’s a dance, how Rachel loves dancing, the partners — just very like. She has Austen in mind.

And for a backwards proof, as with male critics writing about Ferrante’s fiction, so Mitchell A Leasla, resentful of Helen (shepherding Rachel in something of the spirit but much smarter, more generous, for the girl’s interest) of Emma with Harriet, Leasla cannot understand what this book is on about.

As for bonding with characters in films that go on for episode after episode and are taken from deeply felt realistic fiction, see my latest blogs on the new and old Poldark films and the 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins Pierre, Morag Hood, Natasha, Joanna David Sonya …. )

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

ianclaryontheotherdeskinmyroom

We don’t credit animals the way we should. To my mind this is part of our defense from treating them with equal respect and affection. Since becoming so close with my cats my understanding of animals has improved and my general behavior. I now buy only “free range” chicken, and I look at labels where I ‘ve read the packaging or company treats their pigs or lambs decently — or not cruelly anyway (so it’s claimed). I try to eat much less meat. I wrote a couple of blogs on books that tell the history of the increase of animal protection laws and companionate relationships. For years when I taught Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Tech I had a unit where we read Jane Goodall, and a couple of times showed Wiseman’s Primate. We are such a cruel species it’s hard to get my mind around what scientists do to chimps: primates to other primates.

I was thinking that one of my narcissistic impulses is when I feel glad to see my cats react to things that are recognizable that seem more like a human reaction, something we wrongly do not expect from animals. So for example, when a car drives up to my part of the sidewalk — not close to my house, my boy growls and often the girl will get off her perch and trot to a front window — or she’ll scurry away. They know immediately when someone is coming down the path.

For a couple of weeks I lived with a woman friend who was vegetarian: her diet included cheese and eggs and she was wonderful cook so we had all sorts of vegetables and pasta. I didn’t mind being without meat for the time. I’ve never tried it otherwise but I nowadays understand the logic of the position. You’d have tobe careful to get the vitamins and nuitrition you need. I “use” far too much sugar, wine but we don’t eat much processed food. When we first brought our kittens home, they had one another and (it’s hard to remember) it seems to me pretty fast the problem was how to keep them out of the bedroom. They were too lively to sleep all night and Jim was very bothered by the whole thing. I somewhat forced the cats on him with my older daughter — I wanted them for myself, to find common ground with this older daughter (didn’t work) and to provide Izzy with more creatures to interact with. At the time she was not working and having a very hard time.

My two have been with me since birth. They are frightened to go out the door and start away from it. I know if I were to leave it open they would go out and so keep all doors shut. They both twitch with intensity when they see birds, squirrels outside but I doubt they’d know how to kill them. The boy, Ian, does stalk and by playing with kill insects and occasionally he has brought one to me to show his stuff. It is all routine. I wake with them cuddled into me. We get up when it’s fully light.Into the kitchen where I top up their dry food. Then they just stay round me all day as I go about my routine. They know when I’m going out of “our” workroom from when I turn off the computer or put on my coat. Clarcat looks sad then. They can tell time duration; when I’ve been away on trips, at first they are not friendly and then get intensely affectionate. Usual times away — say an hour or so or 4 at most – one or both come to the door. Around 5 or so they seem to know it’s time for wet food. They do know their names I think; at least they respond to them They know “wet food” I think. I go open a can and pour myself a glass of wine. So all are content. I do differ routines in food: sometimes I give them tuna with or instead of the wet food. About an hour before I go to bed, they go into my room and wait. I have a high cat bed near mine and Ian sleeps there. We have play periods and sitting on lap periods, and he presses himself against my chest and nudges my head. She thinks I’m another cat and licks me industriously sometimes.
Going to the Vet is an ordeal I have described here before.

They do love string. They can’t resist playing with me with string — like people, me, in front of a movie.

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New Yorker Cartoon

Last night I knew a strange moment of intense peace, highly unusual. I had read hard all day, written, and when I drank that glass of wine, and this mood came over me. My mind collapsed. I could no longer read or write. Suddenly I felt so deeply in my gut, What did it matter if I didn’t want to put myself through an ordeal of travel to a Jane Austen and Arts conference. I felt I could choose to not go without telling myself, where does it stop here? Lose contact? what am I talking of? what mad dreams obeying? I just relaxed into myself. I shall have no grandchildren. I re-watched Last Orders, the film I watched the day of Jim’s funeral as it only lasted for 3 hours and by 3 I was home alone again. i’m going to teach the book this coming spring, listen to it read aloud by Juliet Stevenson when my MP3 comes. I sat and tears came and went as I wiped my eyes. And went to bed.

I am now in the fourth year of widowhood and have no words for the kind of grief I live with all the time. Nameless because society refuses to recognize this, give it a vocabulary.

Next up: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, on the BBC radio worlds. I’m nearly to the end of her nearly perfect The Bookshop: desperation as courage who loses out to the machinations and human instruments of silent ruthless power enacted, controlled, by one blight of a woman. Any hope I ever had of a full-time contingent position at Mason was destroyed similarly years ago by Rosemary Jann, the chair of the department. So bonding again …

Miss Drake

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Standing Rock, this Thanksgiving Day: by Medea Benjamin the water protectors

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since Jim died (and perhaps a few years before that), Izzy and I had a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner and with other people. A beautifully cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, a kind of puree of broccoli (with various delicious ingredients blended in), red cabbage (somehow made sweet), stuffing, muffins, for me wine, for her apple juice. My neighbor who lives across the street invited us over and made this dinner: I brought an apple pie and bottle of wine. We talked, and ate, and talked again with good music from NPR: like Aaron Copeland, while we sat around a table doing some serious puzzle putting together. I’ve no photos to prove it; you’ll just have to believe me. I did read an article in the Washington Post which had your regulation photos of turkeys (not cooked, but alive): Debbie Berkowitz told about the terrible conditions poultry workers (that’s people who prepared the unfortunate chickens too) endure (freezing cold, dangerous hard repetitive work, very low wages). A thought which might hinder the usual showing off by photographing the unfortunate bird.

We went across the street around 4 and were there about four hours. The generosity of this woman gladdened our hearts and made the coming winter time more cheerful to contemplate. I wish I could get myself to volunteer in a local homeless shelter where they make meals for people on Christmas day, but I hesitate each year since Jim died. They want me to fill out forms, to agree to have any photos they want, and this year $50 on top of that. So I don’t know again. At any rate, we came back me to read, and she to sleep because she’s promised to write for Fan-Sided another report on ice-skating (I think it is) which starts US time at midnight; she’ll watch, take notes, off to work at 7:30 am, and back again to resume work. Do not underestimate the great solace of writing. About mid-morning today I wrote four letters to friends who had written me, two because it’s Thanksgiving and they know I have birthday coming up.

Another is reading. Over on Wwtta @ Yahoo, about three of us are reading Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and we are into Chapter 24 or so where Lee writes of how important to Woolf was reading. I loved the chapter, but my companion in reading, Diane Reynolds, suggested there is something missing: Lee does not tell which were Woolf’s “touchstone” books (the word from Matthew Arnold’s famous essay on how he tells if a passage is great writing (he reads it against “touchstone” lines of greatness): “which books did she return to again and again in the course of her life.” And why these? In the case of Woolf, one problem is she read so much, it’s not clear she might have thought to write about this until until her immersion was such, she would probably talk of a kind of book (Russian, say, classical). Then as a paid reviewer, she’d have had to think about so many she was paid to read.

So I thought in this desolate, desperate and frightening time before Trump takes office (it’s hard to take in that huge numbers of human beings are willing to allow this corrupt bully monster such power — what a mass failure of imagination is here, Jim might have said), I’d cite the books that I’ve read and reread and reread and those that have changed my reading life and thus me profoundly.

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At 8 I’d read and reread P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park — for the park: I lived in the Southeast Bronx and loved tracing the park on the end papers. I loved the quietly magical adventures where this enigmatic strict woman emerged as all kindness, courtesy, reciprocal love. In another of the Poppins books the children visited the Pleiade, the “seven sisters” Margaret Drabble called them and I remembered ever after the drawing of Maia skipping along on the sidewalk. Alcott’s Little Women over and over and I still think in terms of some of its parables. I was lured by The Secret Garden too. I read one copy of Gone with the Wind until it fell apart. All this around age 10 to 12.

From the time (same age) I’ve read Sense and Sensibility Elinor has helped me. She provides a way of thinking, a kind of (yes) self-control, self-protection, that I’d try to emulate and hold to. I remember doing that around age 17 and thought it helped keep me sane. Having spent 5 years on Richardson’s Clarissa it too has been central — though I wish I had known Mary Piper’s Saving Ophelia. It might have helped save me years of mental anguish — I probably would have practiced the same kind of guarded retreat as the best way for me to cope with aggressive heterosexual male culture. How I identified with Fanny, loved the melancholy neuroticism of Anne Eliot. I have never stopped reading Austen for long, especially the six famous books, even Emma which at least has the rhythms of deep heart beat with order and harmony in the sentences, rather like letting Bach or Handel get into the pulses of my blood going through my chest and heart Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre are books I read and reread in my teens. Bronte sent my pulses soaring with her comments about having a treasure within her she’d not sell away

These will seem strange and won’t resonate but this set of books has been as important: Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A user-Friendly Guide. For the first time I could understand what was meant by de-construction, all these “theoretical” outlooks put into words which were meaningful. It was Tyson’s book which made me a feminist. I am not a feminist out of a search for power, or influence, or about a career (none of which I’ve ever had), but as a liberation from the dark nightmare of the way sexuality is conducted in our society. For the first time I had words which did not shame me to discuss the experiences I had endured, and this book took me to others where I understood for the first time I was not only not alone or rare, but my experiences were commonplace. Lois Tyson’s book enabled me to utter my thoughts to myself clearly and at least think about them and then voice them (here on the Net mostly) to others. Emily White’s Fast Girls (about how such girls become “fast,” are stigmatized, treated horribly), Peggy Reeves Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape (ought to be required reading for every girl) and especially Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (wherein we learn why there is no recovery if by that is meant forgetting, going back to what one was). These did changed how I read.

Close at hand, near to heart: I have Trollope’s books and all sorts of secondary studies in a book case that stretches from ceiling to floor and is about 4 feet wide — he helps and certainly he changed what I do 🙂 The novel I read first and never forget was Dr Thorne I was 18, it was assigned in a college class; I wanted to write a paper on it but was discouraged by the professor because Trollope was (just) “a mirror of his age. Then re-hooked when the Palliser films were aired on PBS in the 1970s: Jim and I watched and read the books in turn as we went through the series. Then re-hooked in the 1990s with Last Chronicle of Barset in Rome (it got me through) and The Vicar of Bullhampton (given me by my father when I landed in hospital.) I have read and re-read Trollope’s books, and while his depiction of women leaves much to be desired, his attitude towards colonialism shameful, he does see the truth and is candid enough to suggest it. I give him the high compliment of saying he sees the same world Samuel Johnson does.

Over the years I’ve added this or that author who speaks home to me: there has got to be a strengthening offered, a way of coping as well understanding what existence is — especially for women and in books by women. There is a strong perpetual fault-line between women’s and men’s art. Lately it’s been Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell (yes I like older books) but before that Elsa Morante (in the Italian) as well as Elena Ferrante’s first couple of books (Days of Abandonment is astonishing), Chantal Thomas (Souffrir), Jenny Diski. Graduate school introduced me to Samuel Johnson (how’s that for a different voice), Anne Finch’s poetry, Charlotte Smith but she is so corrosive; she permits self-expression through her but not the calm acceptance and understanding of how this came to be; now and again in different life-writing, memoirs I find women who do this: Iris Origo, George Sand, George Eliot (though too much violation of natural impulses).

In the first few years after graduate school, I discovered Renaissance women wrote (who knew?) great sonnets, and loved Vittoria Colonna (why I taught myself Italian, though I first loved her poetry in fin-de-siecle French translation), Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampa, Lady Mary Sidney Wroth. I discovered Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, read all three volumes. Now and again I’ve clutched some contemporary woman author as yes yes yes: Rosamund Lehmann’s mistitled The Echoing Grove comes to mind (The Weather in the Streets might contain the first frank story of an abortion, had just around the time the heroine reads Austen’s Pride and Prejudice); Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children tells such good hard truth but offers not enough comfort.

Well of course each day (almost) I reach something which makes being alive worth while. I love reading about women artists, and reading women’s poetry. Today I was having a deeply enjoyable time reading Martha Bowden’s Descendents of Waverley, a stimulating book about historical romance and novels whose reflections criss-crossed with another set of post-modern historical fictions I had been reading about in another book I’m reviewing: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River and Cambridge. Between this book and others about historical fictions and films, and reading Booker Prize versions of these, thinking about earlier ones (Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, even the Poldark novels, Walter Scott) I’ve come to the thought that we so love post-modern historical fiction with great dollops of romantic fantasy (time-traveling, re-enactment, erotic giving of the self to a beloved) because through intertextuality they include precious historical documents (books from previous eras), the remnants of a past that have survived which can open worlds of minds and places to us, cultures, while the 20th and 21st century authors, film-makers produce a perspective on this past and our present that is sustaining and comforting today.

Do you love the older images on Virago covers? often I do. Also black-and-white picturesque illustrations.

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This Monet is my header picture on Twitter

So that’s what I have been thinking and what I did this Thanksgiving day. It was a day where no further irrational (unless you believe everything must be set up for a few people to make as much profit as possible), vile (deeply inhumane) and despicable (choosing inept people who known nothing about the area except that they want to destroy what’s there) appointments were paraded by the president elect, not even one of his snark jokes. I’ve in effect praised the Post for one of its Thanksgiving day stories, so let me be clear: the rest of their page was advice to those who see what Trump is to be humble before those who voted for this man if we have to sit down to dinner with any of them: the overt theory is again they are good deluded people (the old shibboleth of “false consciousness”) and we are to blame for this horror about to unfold because we have been elitist: with such a conclusion, how can the paper’s staff hope ever to help those poultry workers they grieved for on the same page?

So I also remember the lesson of the 1930s when a segment of my then extant family in Europe was rounded up, send to camps and many of them exterminated or died of hellish treatment or were shot. I’ve saved for last two books, both slender. The first a sine qua non for a 20th century reader: Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (if you can in the Italian, but if not the English translation is good). I read these (bound together as one book) when I was teaching myself Italian (I was about 44). Indirect, but saying the same thing is Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, which each time I was given the second half of British Literature to teach I assigned as our penultimate read.

Miss Drake

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New Yorker cartoon: On rereading together …

Gentle readers,

I’ve had one marvelous and one worrying experience since I last wrote: I braved the disrupted Metro services last a week and a half ago to spend nearly 7 hours listening to a lecture on and the music of Beatles, and wrote more fully about it on my other blog than the remit of this one allows; I found myself surrounded by huge number of people going and coming from a mass prayer rally (frighteningly delusional and non-questioning, ultimately a political demonstration if only the mass of people would or could acknowledge this).

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The last of this summer’s flowers

Summer teaching at the OLLI at Mason came to an end: Trollope’s The Small House of Allington went over very well, and I was taken out for lunch by some 14 people in the class today. I keep on teaching at two places because I enjoy and need them both for company and direction, though I don’t have time to present original material at both each term; today confirmed I’m right to do so. I finally finished Adhaf Souef’s Map of Love, whose last pages I found unbearably moving. There are at least four heroines, they blend together from at least four different periods, all indwelling in our narrator’s mind as she sits in her room reading and writing. I had to keep putting the book down as I would look away, or find myself tearing up, calm and then return. The 19th century heroine’s beloved Egyptian husband is murdered, and she returns to England with their son, and finds it in herself to retire from social life, staying at home bringing up her son, with her beloved father-in-law (from her first marriage) to whom she had written regularly across the novel. I so envied her ability to do that. I wish I could have when Jim first died, and wish I could be more like that now.

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But I’ve had a new invite, which I’ve almost accepted: to give a paper on Ekphrastic patterns in Jane Austen’s writing. A conference on Austen and the Arts (dancing, pictures, music) at a SUNY college in October.

Mirable dictu brought up an interesting topic to which I don’t have a quick answer: which authors do we reread? we don’t reread all authors we decide are truly great. And if we decide to reread, why do we reread this author over and over, and which of his or her books do we favor? Trollope is to me endlessly rereadable. I am ever finding something new, especially if I let a few years go by. That means that far from obsolete, his books “update” themselves, naturally. Anyone who feels like me (there are some I know who find it hard going to get through one Trollope novel, even Dr Thorne)? So too Richardson’s Clarissa. And of course Jane Austen: I’ve read her books so many times they are interwoven into on my soul. I am again re-reading Margaret Oliphant, this time about her novels. I find what she writes sustains me: her strong intellect and deep disillusion, and how she holds out seeing what is all the while. I spend a lot of time rereading — to teach too. With the right author it can give deepening satisfaction. On Trollope19thCStudies we are embarked on a slow reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, giving time for people to read other texts by, about, and related to him as we go. I know of two people there who have read and re-read War and Peace.

Also re-watching good films so as to draw more from them. Just now The Hollow Crown once again: I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare reproductions are really the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated but keeping the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace, inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance. i am almost to the end of the first season of Outlander: this is my third time through.

It’s probably what one takes from this process of re-going that makes people say they could manage on this or that book for the imagined desert island. For me Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale used to encompass all I needed. Jim used to say he’d want a manual on how to build a boat.

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Hubert Robert, The Gardens around the Louvre Palace (1802-3)

I also took myself to a one of these blockbuster exhibit of great art: at the National Gallery, at least 7 rooms given over to paintings and drawings of Hubert Robert (1733-1808), long one of my favorite painters of the 18th century. It made me meditative: not many people came to this exhibit; the pictures were quietly contemplative. This too I want to write at length about and provide pictures elsewhere (Austen Reveries).

I spend long hours alone. What intimate companionship I have is with a few friends here on the Net through letters. Jim had now been dead 2 years and 10 months. I’ve had people say (write) to me, he’s been dead a few years now. That is how they see it. The phrase feels so light. I used to see the world through him; he was my all. Now I see it through so many experiences, passing, closer up (some people talking with more details); I am still puzzled by insistence on some social phrases and emphases that puzzle me (such as to me the silly reiteration on the Republican convention that “members of the party are not here” with the implication of “many,” but that seems to reduce itself to the Bush family, Romney and those Trump treated with shameful derision, so why is this repeated?), but I assume now this emphasis is understood by those who understand social life.

Three of us (it’s down to three) on Wwtta are trying for a group read and discussions again: several years ago we had a real success with a Virginia Woolf summer. I read a good deal of her criticism, some of the life-writing, and The Years (which I loved). Everyone read slightly different books, overlappings of course. The fiction seemed to be preferred. I listened to To the Lighthouse read aloud in my car. Now we are beginning with Hermione Lee’s massive literary biography, reading a bit at a time, hoping that this will re-make a community of sorts slowly. I hope to go off on tangents now and again, read this or that by Woolf.

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Woolf’s working table at Monk House

A sad loss: I can’t find my Woolf files. I know I wrote and saved a large set and they have vanished. I probably by mistake placed them on a wrong stem. I’ve no idea how to search my computer efficiently (the engines I know of are crude) and cannot re-located them. I read the Death of the Moth for the first time not long ago, and made a blog of that meditation last year so do have that: Upon first reading The Death of the Moth. From that:

It is extraordinary. To me it seemed about how life is death, that every moment of living is a fierce struggle and exaltation of the particular creature to experience what he or she is capable of feeling. That in that is why animals, including people, carry on. We don’t live on for anything rational or any of the excuses we might give ourselves but simply the experience of being alive as comes deeply natural to our material selves (which includes our mind as part of our functioning brain and neurons). The moth is so fragile and its life so limited but there it is trying to get all it can. …

Moths don’t appear to have a consciousness — at least not one that is coherent and can express itself in any way we can reach. That’s what people so value and some use this to use badly other creatures who seem not to have as much mind — like cats or other mammals we come close to. Her short piece then includes a sense of all living being’s equal rights.

But I love best Woolf’s fierce uncompromising sense that life is death and in death’s wild moment we touch life’s electric essence — my words are inadequate as only poetic images can express this. Now that I’ve come as close as any in having held Jim in my arms in his last moments of being, of being alive, and felt his heart gradually stop and that moment when his being suddenly let go, I know life is death too. We are ever watchful once we awaken until we let go to sleep again, in a state of self-protection, ever keeping ourselves going, drinking, eating, sleeping, keeping warm (or cooler) …

Yet Jim gave in to death, saw it was coming soon, as of August and would not consciously engaged in the fierce struggle. His body did and he couldn’t stop it doing that. Had there been euthanasia available I thought in September that I would have helped him to reach release. The horrible doctors were horrified when I mentioned this. … I know now that I would have made the same choice as Jim did. I felt bad for him sometimes that he could not reach release but I wanted him so to be alive I couldn’t make that thought any more active than inquiring to these deeply inhuman physicians.

But not Woolf’s moth. It would not make this choice for death. Yet there’s Shakespeare’s Duke in Measure for Measure: Be absolute for death says the Duke in Measure for Measure.

I write blogs so I can return to what I wrote seriously.

I called this entry, Marcus Aurelius because one of the reviews of the Hubert Robert exhibit I came across (in the Washington Post) included these words by him:

Everything that belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and a vapor, and life is a warfare, and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion.

Most of the time when I come across phrases from Aurelius’s writing, I cling to them; they resonante with me. One of the most profound books I’ve ever read is Eleanor Clarks’ Rome and a Villa (a sort of meditative-cum travel book) where she makes his consciousness her perspective again and again. Now there’s one I should reread.

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Miss Drake

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Moth

Friends and readers,

Another profound poetic text I seem never to have read until three days ago is Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth. Please to take out a few minutes to read it if you continue on to read the reverie it prompted from me:

Extraordinary. She enacts through the moth her perception that every moment of living is a fierce struggle and exaltation of the particular creature to experience what he or she is capable of feeling. We don’t live on for anything rational or any of the excuses we might give ourselves. The experience of being alive is a violent passionate response of our material selves — which includes in people the mind as part of a functioning brain, a set of neurons attached to spinal cord which fans out. The moth is fragile and its life so limited in comparison but there it is trying to get all it can.

A vehemence, an anger is in this moth because it is so fragile, it’s life so limited, it so near death continually: there it is trying to encompass all it can. And so human beings, fragile, limited. So the inference is an uncompromising understanding that life comes out of the nearness of death and in death’s wild moment we touch life’s electric essence. Woolf’s poetic image expresses this. Now that I’ve come as close as I was capable to death in having held Jim in my arms in his last moments of being, of being alive, and felt his heart gradually stop and that moment when his being suddenly let go, I know she’s caught it. Life is death too. We are ever watchful once we awaken until we let go to sleep again, in a state of self-protection, ever keeping ourselves going, drinking, eating, sleeping, keeping warm, cool.

Remember Shakespeare’s Cymbeline song:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages …

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;

All follow this, and come to dust.

Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have ..

This brief meditation shows why Woolf wrote her later fictions the way she did — the envelope of consciousness was the thing itself, all else ephemeral — but not trivia for most of us at all.

Jim gave in to death, as of the first week of August 2013 saw it was coming soon, and when the misleading delusions those doctors persuaded us into his having an operation were over, he refused consciously to engage in any more heart- and body-rending false hope. Or to try to prolong the agony he felt partly as a result of this operation. He could not eat anything without nausea and pain.

But his body would not obey him — like this moth — and he couldn’t stop its ceaseless painful struggle against the painful devourer.

In September I too had the idea of euthanasia as the kindest act our human capacity could offer available I would have helped him to reach painless release. The morally imbecilic doctors turned away in self-interested rejection when I mentioned this — it’s against the law and they feared for their licenses. (May every single oncologist, every single physician I saw in the hospitals we found ourselves in during that time, most of the dense self-protecting hospice people, the hateful administrative people behind those desks, each and every one of them I saw know an awful death too. I can’t remember them all but I do that surgeon who is growing very rich, and both brutally oncologists.) I wanted him so to be alive I couldn’t make that thought any more active than inquiring to these deeply inhuman physicians.

I can face now that I would have made the same choice as Jim did, reach for release, for oblivion as I did during my first experience of full childbirth, when I said, just put me out, I don’t want to know this any more. And over my shoulder I heard this voice promising that and all went blank until I woke again having (I was told) “given birth.” (By someone else cutting open my abdomen, pressing down and pulling out the baby, called Caesarean section.)

But not Woolf’s moth. It would not make the Duke in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,
Hourly afflict. Merely, thou art death’s fool;
For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun,
And yet run’st toward him still. Thou art not noble:
For all th’ accommodations that thou bear’st
Are nurs’d by baseness. Thou art by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok’st; yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get,
And what thou hast, forget’st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
… [and so on] Thou hast nor youth nor age;
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What ’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid more thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.

As understood by Shakespeare, this takes great courage. But not Woolf’s moth. She says it cannot make this choice for death.

Burns’s “To a Mousie,” which I read two weeks ago now and printed on this blog (part of an online course) moves in this direction over the creature’s shelter that Burns has inadvertently destroyed. Burns is softer, with more seemingly humane feeling, kindly, rueful; he doesn’t go so far as to see the mouse’s death-in-life, only that in its struggle to carry on, it’s lost its shelter.

In her latest essay on her coming death, her grasp of death-in-life Jenny Diski says she’s “scared of dissolution, of casting my particles to the wind … of knowing nothing when knowing everything has been the taste of every day, little by little … and then I get to the nub of it? when great minds have gone to dust, what could it possibly matter what I know or don’t know … What will I not know when I’m not a knowing machine … ” (“Mother’s Prettiest Thing,” LRB, 4 Feb 2016). I think of how Jim has not known all that has happened since Oct 9, 2013 at 5 after 9 in the night. She’s been given yet another chance (more hope): another pill, part of a trial.

Jenny has had this much luck (we need not envy her) that her brain has remained alert, functioning; at first with the harsh strong medicine to kill the pain, and then the experience of this devouring cancer itself Jim lost his clear consciousness and his mental powers were only there flittingly. In the first weeks after the cancer metatasized he pretended to be much there than he was — this to maintain his privacy from me, maybe to keep his mind from himself as every time I ask, he would reply he didn’t want to die.

Moths don’t appear to have a consciousness — at least not one that is coherent and can express itself in any way we can reach. That’s what people so value and some use this to use badly other creatures who seem not to have as much mind — like cats or other mammals we come close to. But Woolf’s description suggests the moth has a consciousness if so unlike ours. A sense of living it wants to continue that it will burn itself out to live.

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Cave to Canvas, Dancing Couple by Vanessa Bell (1914)

From this to bathos: one hot summer in New York City in a kitchen that had no air-conditioning so the fridge mounted huge amounts of ice quickly in its top icebox (no automatic de-frost that one), we agreed we needed to de-frost and clean. We peered in and Jim said look there, the little bodies turned upward, frozen waving antenna. He asked me if I had the heart to remove them. They had struggled to get out of that place and hadn’t made it. “Lost among the frozen wastes” he said.
At the time I reminded him of Burns’s “To a mousie.” Remember, dear reader, that he and I commemorated Burns’ night each year and had 4 volumes of Burns’s books (poetry, literary criticism, biography). Burns was part of our shared world.

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Ian twisting round to look at me as I type this — he pulsing too, but seeming calm, absolute for life, for himself in me

Sylvia

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