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Posts Tagged ‘Widowed’


Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe


La Peste by Camus

Friends,

These two books are those that come to mind when I try to think of literary treatments where you can find both an experience of a deadly epidemic and profound meditations on the meaning of what happens to individuals and a society when such a calamity occurs. I’ve taught them both (La Peste Englished as The Plague). I’ve read others where the deadly epidemic is either secondary, something creating an atmosphere of devastation and despair (Mann’s Death in Venice), or there as a direct cause of utterly irrational destructive and from a pragmatic standpoint useless behavior (the opening of Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, where an epidemic is turned into a mass hunt for human scapegoats to blame).

The New York Times today laid out what is happening in US society as the viral infection, COVID-19 or coronavirus spreads.

My friend, Bryan Alexander’s blog laying out the global story, continually updated.
Each of us will be affected differently once it begins to spread inside the nation state and particular region of a country we live in; beyond larger social political and economic decisions made by people who can control large groups of human behavior, and a multitude of individual reactions by those not sick (some people will rush out and buy large amounts of groceries, or pharmacy supplies) and those sick. Self-protective measures (self-isolating, washing your hands to the soliloquy of Lady Macbeth beginning “Out, damned spot!”) are also socially responsible. What kind of housing you have, with whom, your age and state of health. What you do usually to occupy yourself, make a living, keep sane.

For myself I’m 73, I live in what in NYC we called a private house, with my 36 year old daughter. She is well, I have had a mild cold for about two weeks now, and I cannot throw it, but it gets no worse. What I do to occupy myself is to teach voluntarily at life-long learning organizations for older retired people so I feel I am contributing to the lives to those who appreciate this the knowledge I have gained over a lifetime of study (of literature) in an enjoyable social situation. A form of school and social club combined. Well we have been hard-hit because 1) the Trump administration so cut the budget of medical agencies there to temper, ward off, and care for people during emergencies as well as daily life, that no general testing has been done (thus the only safety measure that can be taken is mass social distancing), and 2) refused to make available for free or securely affordable such tests, or treatments as are needed so to contain the spread. Not only are most social places closing down in order to prevent masses or groups of people from getting together indiscriminately and infecting one another. Also since the demographics of one group especially at risk (past age 60) is precisely the age of OLLI groups (most people somewhere between 55 and 85), the two classes I began to teach last week (The Novels of E.M. Forster) and the three classes I was beginning to attend (on Louisa May Alcott’s books but especially Little Women/Good Wives, Italian Jewish writing, Hamlet) and was scheduled to begin (Difficult Women with Elaine Showalter) are cancelled as face-to-face classroom in person experiences.

I am told that I can try to teach by remote access using a program called Zoom. I am crucially without confidence in my ability to pull off such a thing as in all previous experience I have failed (e.g., online Webinars). There are going to be training sessions for those who agree to use this technology to reach students this coming Monday. When I have gone to such training sessions (say in how to do wikipedia) I have not learned anything as the speed, lack of precision, and assumptions about what I know and can do to start with preclude my learning. I am also very reluctant to expose myself visually and orally that way. I would “virtually” “be there,” supposedly with people in a teaching situation at a distance through videos they can study except they are not there, not themselves physically involved, not at risk themselves in the same way, and thus can react differently to. I worry what others will pick up about me. Two of the three people teaching other classes are willing to try to do this zoom. I am willing to try to be a student in a class where someone else is teacher so that I could join in the class with others but more so I can understand what this experience is before I would ever volunteer to be the person in the center. I hope that I will be able to reach one of these people: the paragraphs sent imply this will be easy. I have no confidence in that and have asked my older daughter to come over if I need help, and I will try the IT guy if he can do it by remote if I cannot. I have to wait and see.

For the one of my two E.M. Forster classes that started two weeks ago — going splendidly in the class — I offered to communicate through email. You could as alternatives communicate through conference calls or email. Thus far 12 people have said they would rather the class be canceled and given the usual classroom way another time (several of them tactful enough to say they enjoyed the in-class so much more in comparison to a silent email) compared to 4 who liked my email letters — I wrote a more detailed one today where probably as to content I conveyed far more and precisely than I do in a classroom. Most of the people who come to these classes come for the social experience primarily; so do I but perhaps I also value the literary content I learn from (when there is something new or insightful in a way I had not thought of or understood) somewhat more than the average person in these classes. Hard to say. Any way it does not seem to me the email alternative will “fly.” I feel one must have 8 people communicating to one another in a listserv situation for it to be socially enjoyable as well as educational.

As you know I find life alone without Jim difficult to endure or enjoy all by itself.


Izzy noticed this walking into the front garden on her way home from work: she walks up a hill from a bus stop. It is a baby cherry blossom tree that she and I bought last spring and a man who does my mowing and some gardening planted for us. It’s a bit behind the others, just beginning to bud. So there was a leavening moment of cheer.

Nonetheless, this week stress from this situation was added to because by Tuesday of this week I realized that the Fairfax Regional Libraries could close; that is where I have been having my taxes done for 2 years. I have not mentioned that I cancelled my trip to ASECS last week: the paper was not going well, and I could no longer live with the idea I would have to find the restaurant and the place where the Marivaux play was being done after three times getting lost attempting to go on a 7 minute trip from the OLLI at AU to Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington, and once because the usual entrance to South 110 which takes me to the Virginia highway I use was closed off and I could not work my Waze right. Once I decided not to go to ASECS, I had free time to go and made an appt with my financial advisor for today to go over what he withheld and Izzy and I would go next week. But I began to dread that the library would close before we could get there. The alternative is an awful abrasive shyster lawyer who I paid $500 to for two years to do the taxes. He produces them last thing. When we went to H&R, they asked $400 and made mistakes.

I woke this past Wednesday morning shaking. I’d had enough. I determined Izzy and I would go that evening to that library and get those taxes done & transmitted. I spent the morning calling the library to make sure it was still open, and what time the AARP people who do your taxes for free with you would be there. I called my financial adviser so he could explain to me what he had withheld from my IRA investment distribution and I explain it to the AARP person. Izzy and I set off by 4:15 am (she came home early) and (as the last two times) mine took 2 and 1/2 hours. Izzy’s takes a much shorter time. You sit there with a person who does the form with you out of all the papers you bring; then a third person evaluates what has been done. All done online. I could never do it. Then I pay direct deposit through my routing number at my bank. They print out the forms I have done; everything is put neatly in an envelope and the next year I can bring it back. It was dark when we got out and I did make one bad mistake as I tried to turn onto a lane and instead turned onto the place by the edge of the street where you can stop if your car is in trouble. I was able to get back into the traffic but it was a scary moment. But if we had waited for the weekend, when Izzy can go during the day, it would now be too late. As of tomorrow or Monday all schools and libraries are closed for the next two weeks or more.

*************************************

There have been some good moments, even hours and half days or evenings, stretches of time.


This is the cover of the British edition and a limited one of 300 copies signed by the author — I have an uglier duller design but like contemplating this image

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me — brilliant, true, inspiring, comparable to James Baldwin. Paradoxically I agree with Coates’s comparison: “The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.” His book explained to me how African-American people are voting for Biden when his record over crucial African-American issues has been bad (voted for mass incarceration, to cut social security, engineered the Iraq war): they do not believe the white world will share their power and wealth with blacks and so they do not believe that Sanders can win ever since Sanders will take from the white supremacy and make the US into a social democracy with effective measures to make people equal and life’s necessities affordable for real.

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. It arrived two days ago and my copy is sturdy, lovely good quality paper, sewn. A fine book.

First response to first 50 or so pages. Spoiler warning in the unlikely case the reader does not know how Cromwell ended up. She’s done it again —

Let me put a couple of early responses in: It’s deeply inward attempt to try to explain to us (it’s historical) how inside 4 years a man so leant upon and seemingly central to Henry had his head cut off (a terrifying act) by this same man. Mantel has the problem that unlike the first book were at first Cromwell is a nobody and unknown, now he has his finger in so many famous pies. In the second here was a single trajectory and stealth heroine, Anne Boleyn. This time what she is doing is laying the groundwork for his downfall – which she laid in the first book too. He is nobody still and worse he has an agenda that has a conscience at its heart. He is a genuine Protestant — protester — and secular. Array ed against him are everyone, just about. the Boleyns were Protestant and Anne and George seriously so — so too Catherine Parr, wife 6, married to Thomas Seymour and bringing up Elizabeth. Henry came near to beheading Catherine Parr over her paraphrases of the Psalms.

The Howards (remember the duke of Norfolk, the Plantagenets, the Scots group) — all fervent Catholics. Then there are the old lines families — all Catholic — Chapuys, from the Emperor, catholic, Mary’s allies, bloody catholic, Spanish ambassadors catholic and france Catholic too.

Now why was Cromwell beheaded inside 4 years. I repeat that’s astonishing. Yes he got too powerful — and rich — like Wolsey and Forche in the time of Louis XIV. But Henry was attached.
Well he tried to get Henry to marry Anne of Cleves; it’s talked about how ugly she was – but to Cromwell she was a female from the Protestant German groups. Wife No 5: Catherine Howard, beheaded, was Catholic. She was in way over her head (stupid) and promiscuous. The day Cromwell was beheaded Henry married Catherine Howard.

Henry wanted to be all powerful (think of a contemporary — this fiction is about our world too) but he knew intuitively Catholicism was the ideology that supported mindless power and he believed in the older faith. Ghosts for example. So does Cromwell. Henry too and Henry shown as continually unstable

This is a haunted book. It is hard to get into — I had to look up who Henry’s sister was, Meg, and who she married, who she went to bed with, because her heirs are rivals to Henry — Mary Queens of Scots is her grand-daughter. You miss much if you don’t know what is behind a joke about Meg’s promiscuity and lack of legal secure marriage.

All arrayed against this man – who stands also for a secular state.

So in the opening we are watching Mantel preparing the ground. but also re-realizing this female hero in male drag. For then we go with him into his home: there’s Rafe off to Helen, Richard Cromwell ….

It does restore my faith in historical fiction and its great variety too.

It seemed to me (excuse vanity) that some of these first responses (not Mantel’s herself though she is talking out of a need to perform) are missing the inner life of the book. It is a woman’s novel as well as a superb historical fiction.

An online friendship that means a lot to me has been renewed. I spent afternoon with friend from OLLI at Mason watching David Lean’s Passage to India: we talked of Forster, books and life, and ate grilled cheese sandwiches, drank tea …. The week before we went out to Cinema Art movie-house and saw The portrait of a Lady On Fire, written and directed by Céline Sciamma — about the relationship of three women, one hired to paint another who is about to be coerced into a loveless marriage, and a third, their servant, whom the painter helps obtain a safe abortion. Deeply satisfying portrait of slowly growing friendship, equality, depth of feeling. Beautiful colors, landscape of Northern Brittany, appealing seascapes. It goes a bit slow, is a bit over-produced, pompous, self-important but these do not detract from the core experience. My favorite scene is the three playing cards by the fire

I am more immersed in Forster studies than ever: reading a superb biography at last: Wendy Moffat: A Great Unrecorded History. I joined a local neighborhood book club! We met at Panera; that’s where I began to read Ta Nehisi-Coates. They are mostly women and intelligent enough. I persuaded them to make Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices their choice in two months. At the last minute I changed my courses at the OLLIs for the summer, which I still hope will be realized in classrooms (that this plague time will be over). The Eustace Diamonds is way too long: I can’t stand how Trollope hates his awful heroine or the anti-semitism; I do like the governess-Lucy Morris story, and what we see of parliament as well as the choral group at Matching Priory but that’s not enough to hold me or a class. Here it is — it was written with the cancellation of this E.M. Forster class in mind.


One of many favorite pictures by (Dora) Carrington An Artist’s Home and Garden

The Bloomsbury Novel

This course will examine a wide range of novels & art covered by the term Bloomsbury through three texts. We will read E.M. Forster’s Howards End, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. None are long, one very short. Bloomsbury novels are recognizable as written by people who belonged to this amorphous early 20th century creative group, or were printed at the Hogarth Press. Closer to the time if classes are not canceled for the spring, I may substitute Maurice for Howards End This subgenre is splendidly interesting, many thoughtful highly original texts of powerful art. There are three superlative movies for Howards End & All Passion Spent, (and if the substitute is made) one for Maurice from which we will view clips

I will include excerpts from Roger Fry’s art criticism and go over pictures by him, Douglas Grant, Carrington; excerpts from the books on biography by Andre Maurois and Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf’s autobiography.

Izzy finished her art class at the Torpedo Factory and at its end drew a lovely sketch of two birds she had photographed by the beach while we were at Calais this summer. It’s now on one of the walls of her room.

I’m reading Gita May’s biography of Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. She often quotes Vigee-LeBrun’s Souvenirs, which I’ve read in the French; both books very good. Also Trollope’s brilliant and at times so uncomfortably relevant Last Chronicle of Barset in the story of the impoverished outcast Crawley accused of stealing, and then harassed and left to kill himself if he was minded to (no real help offered). In my car I listen to Caroline Moorehead’s somber A Time in Winter, and soon I watched the first episode of the French TV series, A French Village (2017) — also about the dire German occupation, the ferocious cruelties of fascism/Nazism. It speaks to our present struggles to cope with the latest version of ethno-nationalism/fascism. Many many movies in this realm but this stands out because of its sincerity, brilliant acting, and intelligence.” No excess violence. We do see enough — three children killed as the Nazis fly a plane over shooting everywhere everyone in sight — implacable bullying of men in trucks armed. We are introduced to three or four family groups plus others, one Jewish couple and child. Yes this is serious and worth your time and feelings and thoughts. Still watching Mary Beard’s documentaries and the British 9 part Civilisations, with Simon Schama too.

Real grief that is permanent when Sanders lost Michigan after SuperTuesday. No real reform and change in my life time — no going back to where we were in the 1960s and early 1970s. I felt for the loss of Elizabeth Warren too. Men would not vote for her. Imagine Sanders as president and Warren as his vice-president. He made a true presidential speech tonight about what needs to be done socially over this COVID-19 calamity crisis. She would work to prevent what happened to me these weeks too: the airline refused to refund my $365. Her Consumer’s Bureau is right now de-funded, its power legislated out of existence.

So there you have it, another diary entry, another 3 weeks. You must take this as understood: my loving cats playing, being with me on and off all the time, shoring up my existence with their affectionate attachment to me. No small thing. I try to reciprocate, be responsible by not leaving them alone for more than an afternoon and making them know now and again I am aware of and with them.


Lots of seagulls on the river — photo by Izzy on her way to work

**************************************

Let me admit at the end of all this I am very troubled. I cannot sleep for more than 4 hours unless I take sleeping pills, and sometimes not that. When I cannot sleep 4 hours,I do take a pill (zolpidem), but then I wake groggy, and distressed even more than when I wake after 4 hours with no pills. I am better rested with no pills, alert, and feel more healthy. I cannot help it that I am afraid and I don’t want to go in for “zoom training” if I show others that I am nervous and begin to cry. I was near crying after someone was unkind to me about this inability (or disability, which is what it is) yesterday. I am a depressive, with bad anxiety attacks, unable to travel without it becoming an ordeal (I had learnt to do it with Jim by my side). I don’t know if I could cope with life ordinarily were Izzy not here living with me. I help her too — she cannot drive for example, and sometimes she has meltdowns and my talk helps.

I am afraid for our society with a cruel sociopath at its head in such a position of authority and power. Many businesses might go under; many people go without money enough for food and medicine or other necessaries (like company. I wrote on twitter the other day everyone must vote for Biden as he is infinitely more decent and intelligent and humane than Trump. I fear that Trump will try to suspend the election and the powerful and wealthy let him get away with it. Now I agree with black people in the hope that since Biden is a conservative democrat, if he wins, he will be allowed to take power. What a relief that would be.

Ellen

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Keeley Hawes as Mrs Durrell reading aloud — her family and household listening (Durrells S2E4)

THEY are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

— Season 2, Episode 4 of The Durrells explores the nature of a widow’s loneliness & grief (not well understood) through Louisa Durrell’s case, and the story includes a fradulent spiritual medium, Louisa’s relationship with three men (by this time), her children, theirs with her and one another, not to omit Aunt Hermione (Barbara Flynn) come for a visit). Towards the close Keeley Hawes reads aloud the above poem by Edward Dowson

Dear friends,

The quiet winter time is coming to an end, and for a couple of months I will be busy with teaching and going to (mostly) literary classes at the two OLLIs (AU & Mason), the Politics & Prose bookstore, with the (to me) frightening trip to an ASECS conference at St Louis (where I am to give a short paper). I have been enjoying the preparation (reading & writing and movie-watching) as well as my online life on FB, twitter (I now go over there more regularly), the listservs (Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset is an extraordinary masterpiece, and I’m thinking Morrison’s Beloved is going to be painful one). Last night I became immersed in Atonement, Ian McEwan’s book and the Wright/Hampton film, yet once again, and today find myself eager to read more Louisa May Alcott, her books for adults and about herself. I was much moved by reading in Italian Natalia Ginzburg’s Inverno in Albruzzo (English found in a book which ought to be translated Small Virtues).


Snow in Abruzzo

I practiced twice going to OLLI at AU from this house, and then the P&P places from the OLLI, and I did explore parking in these neighborhoods just a bit (for the first time). Very stressful: some days since becoming a widow, it’s demoralizing to be forced to learn to be independent at age 73.

I told one of my letter friends here on the Net that I have ended living the life of what might be called an independent scholar. Truly I have made efforts for what I thought/think is a social life but have not managed it. It’s too late. I on myself must live.  ( I rephrase and think differently but analogously with Anne Finch’s I on my self can live.) I invent goals for myself, and the teaching schedules for reading on listservs, papers reviews give me a structure. Then I have to take care of this house, my car, pay the bills. The resulting daily structure and its patterns I call my “routs” (the term is Daphne DuMaurier’s). They stretch from around 7 am or when I get up to around 1 pm or when I put out the nightlight and go to sleep. I revise them every few days. Through these I fend off depression, and keep sane. When people respond that gives me meaning — so it means a lot when people write back about these various books or movies. Or appreciate my teaching. There are my daughters and my cats too. Tomorrow Izzy and I go to an HD screening of Handel’s Agrippina from the Metropolitan opera; we talked of the story matter over dinner; she is enthusiastic and looking forward to this one. Me too.

I told of how on Trollope&Peers a few of us told of our first memory from political life; yesterday after reading Caroline Moorehead’s review of Elena Ferrante’s La vita bugiarda delgi adulti (The Lie-Filled Life of Adults) Moorehead says Ferrante has her heroine feeling she is growing up, remembering a moment that woke her up from the “innocence” of childhood, its unawareness into adulthood — seeing the world in a disenchanted more abstract or in terms of larger wider adult perspectives. For Ferrante’s heroine it was when she overheard her father calling her fat; a similar devastation overcame Simone de Beauvoir in The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: Ferrante’s heroine feared she was ugly; Beauvoir says she was found unmarriageable; Morrisons’ heroine is disturbed out of complacency when the abused orphaned child her family takes into their home longs for the bluest eye, and declares African genetic features ugly. I remember my father mocking me for being “too plump” when I was 15, too late for waking up, but in time to help trigger my anorexia. Girls are made to experience trauma over their face and body as seen by men.

But adult awareness happened earlier than that: when I was 9 into 10 during the time I and my parents moved from the Bronx to Queens. It was moving from an area called a slum, where most people would regard living as awful (bad schools, violence, no greenery in the streets anywhere, tenement houses) to an area most people might long to live in. I know my mother did. Kew Gardens, where we had a three room apartment in a tall building. I was suddenly in a neighborhood of trees, parks, one family fancy homes, apartment buildings kept looking well. I found myself in a neighborhood of (to me at the time) super-rich houses, great snobbery (the desire for prestigious possessions, creditable surroundings, people eating out the heart of every community), constant class slights, no playdates with other children through their mothers for me — and became very unhappy. Also in the schools prayers were enforced — I was startled and at first just didn’t cooperate. After a while I was forced to put my head down while the teacher read from the Bible and everyone was said to be praying. The southeast Bronx was majority black by that time, large minority of hispanic – what whites were there were mostly Irish. It had been an Irish neighborhood in the 1940s. Kew Gardens was all white, heavily Jewish, with a nearby Richmond Hill heavily Italian American, and Forest Hills said to be upper-middle. Yes no violence, the streets utterly quiet. No one on them. Very hard to meet anyone at all. Moving was the great shock, the clash of values, the kinds of people I saw, the way they behaved to one another. My father took to returning to the Bronx and old friends regularly. I didn’t have that option. I found a library I could get to myself — which was an improvement. In the Bronx my father had to take me – it was said to be too far to go on my own (a subway ride on the Bronx El). Now I had just to walk 10 blocks and I was there.

What else shall I tell you of? I have found three choral societies Izzy could try out for (audition), attached to NOVA, attached to Mason, part of the Fairfax county volunteer arts organizations, but she demurred, showed strong reluctance, she would have to work very hard, they demanded she sell tickets (!), rehearsals at night. It only took seven years. But at least I have found these exist.

**************************

Late Winter afternoon & evening thoughts. Wind makes for fiercely felt cold outside and in. I sit in my chair blanket hours ahead of my usual time, Clarycat in my lap, electric radiator just by us (with tissues on top for my cold), Ian across the way. Outside GreyMalkin freezes but I give him/her a dish of food, some milk, and stroke and talk to him/her.


Clarycat and Ian


Grey Malkin I call this cat — a lonely cat who visits me a couple of times a day — for food and affection …

I read as how “democratic establishment leaders” (who are these mostly unnamed people the NYTimes continually cites) are determined if Sanders does not win on the first ballot to stop him. I don’t see why if they choose Bloomberg who has bribed so many of them with money in so many ways shouldn’t send me $500 too. Why should I be expected to vote for him for free? The question is, Should I write him when the time comes? And is that too small a percentage of the take (i.e., otherwise known as the American dream). His “girlfriend,” Diana Taylor, says of women suing men for sexually harassing, raping, assaulting them, “get over it.” I.e., we as women do not have the right to pursue a career or job without enduring harassment, attempted rape or assault. If we are traumatized by such experiences of sex, that just shows how weak and ridiculous we are. She did (get over it), look how successful she is. Well, I can’t get over it, never will, my experience shattered my teenage years and crippled my ability to be pro-active for myself ever after. Trump says the coronavirus spreading about the world is not happening; it’s a hoax by the democrats seeking to discredit him. There is something wrong with what passes for a brain in his head.

Meanwhile there are daffodils which come before the swallow dares & take the winds of March with beauty …

I am reading Nina Auerbach’s brilliant Haunted Heiress (about DuMaurier), to teach myself how to write about material that compels me but I recognize is repulsive (i.e., Winston Graham’s whole oeuvre); and David Constantine’s wonderful biography, Fields of Fire, on Sir Wm Hamilton and his wife Catherine Barlow — they are an attractive couple and much kinder to their adopted monkey-child, Jack, than Sontag lets on … then very funny on Sir Wm, Emma and her mother (rather like a Dickensian novel the three of them).

Zadie Smith on Kara Walker in NYRB It’s actually open to the public: It’s in the February 27, 2020 issue

Zadie Smith asks what we want history to do to us? that seems to me an odd way to put it. I have asked myself in the last couple of days why do I like historical fiction truly — from a personal standpoint. Books about people long dead — or who wrote about people long dead from their time. So the question is, What do I want it to do for me? either writing it or reading it. We can define Last Chronicle of Barset as a historical novel and other older classic books since for us in a way it is — it teaches us history, it is set in the past as well as written in the past.

But there is a difference. The book self-consciously put in the past is different and for the 21st century readers (which is what we are) we have to approach history from today and also remembering who invents our past and says this is our past controls and shapes our future. (That’s Orwell.)

One reason is I often like the heroine at the center of such books — or the heroines. I can bond with them easier than heroines in really contemporary tales (say written in the 21st century). I can identify more, often they are realer to me, I feel less inadequate than I do before contemporary heroines — who seem to me not quite real — given agency that women in the worlds I’ve lived in never had and still don’t have — unless the book is by a woman writer who is giving a true account of ordinary life (not mystery or any of the other popular genres). I can relax with Demelza Poldark. I can escape with Claire Randall at the same time as nothing is asked that is beyond me that I find asked in say a Margaret Drabble book about a woman having a career or a Mary MacCarthy about a woman who thrives in social life in upper class New York City in the 1940s. They are also not as badly off, constrained as heroines of books written in earlier centuries. I am loving the Durrells, Keeley Hawes as Louisa and Barbara Flynn as Aunt Hermione because they ask less of me too — suffer as I do (especially in Gerald Durrell’s trilogy). I bond with Catherine Barlow, and Emma Hart, the two Ladies Hamilton


Sir William Hamilton and Catherine Barlow, the first Lady Hamilton, listening to, playing music (by David Allen)

Zadie Smith’s article is about what is erased and also how much pain and truth can a reader stand — especially black readers. I agree with her in her opening that was I taught in school was an utter white-wash and most of it utterly unreal – I was never told about what really counted maybe until college and graduate school.

We will be reading Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris on Trollope&Peers this coming summer. It was over 40 years ago now I read it in the original French. Hugo’s birthday was two days ago. I end on Hugo’s entry into his now severely disabled character, Quasimodo’s consciousness:

This justice must, however be rendered to him. Malevolence was not, perhaps, innate in him. From his very first steps among men, he had felt himself, later on he had seen himself, spewed out, blasted, rejected. Human words were, for him, always a raillery or a malediction. As he grew up, he had found nothing but hatred around him. He had caught the general malevolence. He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded.
After all, he turned his face towards men only with reluctance; his cathedral was sufficient for him. It was peopled with marble figures,–kings, saints, bishops,–who at least did not burst out laughing in his face, and who gazed upon him only with tranquillity and kindliness. The other statues, those of the monsters and demons, cherished no hatred for him, Quasimodo. He resembled them too much for that. They seemed rather, to be scoffing at other men. The saints were his friends, and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and guarded him. So he held long communion with them. He sometimes passed whole hours crouching before one of these statues, in solitary conversation with it. If any one came, he fled like a lover surprised in his serenade.
And the cathedral was not only society for him, but the universe, and all nature beside. He dreamed of no other hedgerows than the painted windows, always in flower; no other shade than that of the foliage of stone which spread out, loaded with birds, in the tufts of the Saxon capitals; of no other mountains than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their bases.
What he loved above all else in the maternal edifice, that which aroused his soul, and made it open its poor wings, which it kept so miserably folded in its cavern, that which sometimes rendered him even happy, was the bells. He loved them, fondled them, talked to them, understood them. From the chime in the spire, over the intersection of the aisles and nave, to the great bell of the front, he cherished a tenderness for them all. The central spire and the two towers were to him as three great cages, whose birds, reared by himself, sang for him alone. Yet it was these very bells which had made him deaf; but mothers often love best that child which has caused them the most suffering

I read Hugo’s Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man more than 2 decades ago: its radical condemnation of all capital punishment, all murdering by a state has as yet not been sufficiently listened to.


Laughton as Quasimodo (the final scene in the rightly famous movie, Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1939)

The hardest thing about widowhood for me is being so alone for long periods of time, hours, days, weeks. Going out is an interruption in a sense. I remind myself that the way our society has been structured and has been reinforced in the last quarter of a century many people live or are in effect as alone — or not. For my loving cats are always near me or aware of my presence somehow, and they are real presences too as are & were the people in my books and on the screen.

Ellen

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One morning over the past two weeks, photo taken from sun-porch/room window

A poem I came across, which I like:

Reading Greeting Cards Before and After

His photo in the hallway greets me each day
Being in my life was an extraordinary gift
He left my world leaving a huge vacuum

Still I feel his ever presence in my life
Triggering a burst of smiles and tears
Looking at the gardens he built for me
Coming across a book we read together
Hearing the evening news and imagining his comments
Knowing he would re-load the dishwasher if he were around

An accomplished writer of research papers but not love letters
He’d spend hours searching for my perfect greeting card
Now assembled in a large basket I select one daily
Before I used to read them quickly and thank him with a kiss

Now I read them slowly, sometimes over and over again
Savoring each written word and signed “Love, Charles”
Yet to me his actions spoke more softly
Than the words on any card

—- By Ruth Perry

Dear friends and readers,

This winter I have become more intently aware than I’d been in a few years (since Jim died) of the fragile fleeting character of social life as I experience it. How easily people drop you, are glad of an excuse to ostracize or exclude someone.

One dark morning as I lay in bed waiting for the sunlight to come into my room (with my two cats beside me), I tried to think of all the places or organizations I belong to that now provide me with what social experience I have: above and beyond all in frequency, intimacy (yes) and closeness as well as a spectrum of socializing from acquaintance-polite to friendly to friends where I know something of the person for real and the person me, plus experiences of exclusion, discomfort, hurt, on the Internet as much face-book nowadays as list-servs, blogs, websites, Future Learn courses, twitter.

But after that, what physically in the face-to-face bodies and places-in-the-world included? the two Oscher Institutes of Life-long Learning (at AU and at Mason), classes at Politics and Prose (Northwest Washington Bookstore-as-community center), the Smithsonian (more impersonal) lectures, twice a year conferences (ASECS), the WAPG, an Aspergers group in Washington DC (I rarely go but I keep in touch by email), a summer film club at Cinema Art theater (once a month for 5 months). I live with one daughter, Izzy, and occasionally the other, Laura, visits or we go out with her. I’ve joined on three and this summer I’m going on a fourth Road Scholar trip. That’s it. I’ve counted 22.

Two of the experiences over the last two weeks have been especially fun — or felicitous.


Covers of audio recordings

In a dramatic reading class I listened to people read aloud passages from Dickens and we discussed Dickens, reading aloud, listening to another read, in a group, by a CD audio in a car, or reading silently (how they differ) and one I read aloud (very well if I do say so myself), the opening chapter from Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged” — with that bitter caustic yet very amusing dialogue of Mr and Mrs Bennet), the closing dialogue in Volume I where Mr Bennet tells Mrs Bennet she should not worry about Charlotte Lucas replacing her in Longbourne for perhaps she will predecease him (she finds little consolation there), and then the explosive proposal of Darcy to Elizabeth where he unknowingly insults her deeply and she refuses him. On another I read the scene from Emma where Emma deeply hurts Miss Bates in front of a group of people (Box Hill), Frank wounds Jane by in front of others saying how easy it is to make a mistake at a watering place and engage oneself to someone you don’t want, and Mr Knightley lights into Emma so damningly — all the while we hear the pain of Miss Bates, of Jane, the swelled complaints of the obtuse Mrs Elton. The others read from Dickens and I was astonished to realize that Dickens wrote a near-rape scene at the end of Dombey and Son, where a much abused wife excoriates marriage as then practised — who knew Dickens could be so subversive? Now I wish we had talked more about the spreading popularity of dramatic readings in audoibooks


Just Mercy: Bryan Stevenson (Michael Jordan) and Walter MacMillan (Jamie Foxx)

On two Thursdays at the Mason OLLI I participated in class discussions of movies where the teacher is very good at teaching (he spent decades doing it before retirement) — they were lively, intelligent, fun, one on Just Mercy and the other The Parasite (see further down below).

On Just Mercy: a powerful film done in direct simply ways. I was struck after a while at how little filmic “tricks” of the trade; no flashbacks, not subtle in juxtaposition or dialogue at all. It moves forward,and the language is direct, simple. The movie is nerve-wracking to watch because I didn’t know it ended. The young African American lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael Jordan) is almost throughout the film at risk for his life — he patiently endures set-back after set-back and finally gets the case on Frontline from which he gets to go to the Alabama supreme court to ask that the charges against his client, Johnny McMillan (James Foxx), simply be dropped immediately as the original trial was gross miscarriage of justice. It is an anti-capital punishment film. We see a black man who should have been put in a hospital for PTSD and was left to stew and put off a bomb in front of a house and killed a woman, now lamenting and so sorry, a one incident actually killed by an electric chair. They were still killing people that way in Alabama in the 1980s and early 90s? we the full barbarism of it — how there is this pretense of humanity on the day the man is murdered.

As with When They See Us, Dark Waters, and Chernobyl, at the end of the film we see photographs of the real people the actors played. It is very effective to do this. The African-American actor, Michael Jordan, playing the lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, has been snubbed: his performance is as good as James Foxx (nominated for best supporting actor, partly because played Ray Charles in another film)

A third was enjoyable in the class (at Politics and Prose) but it was the books we read and movie I watched that mattered: Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and Alan Pater and Cellan Jones’s 1987 Fortunes of War. There is so much time to be alone.

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Sometimes it is so hard to get to and from these places. This to introduce a distressing — frightening in implications — experience I had this past Friday early afternoon.

As I was driving from Northwest Washington DC to get to Northern Virginia and took my usual turn to get onto some feeder road which takes me to South 110 and that to South 395, I found the whole roadway blocked. There was no way I could get onto that feeder road. I was quickly hopelessly lost. I became bewildered as I usually do in streets I am not accustomed to even if some of them were familiar to me from previous excursions. My garmin showed itself to be dead and I couldn’t get the cell phone even to connect to the network. I kept making wrong turns and feared in my bewildered state I would get into an accident. Finally I remembered I had put the phone on airplane mode so that it would not disturb a class I had been in. Luckily I was able to find a sidewalk I could park by. I put the setting back and voila the Waze program began to work.

But alas I have never been able to make the Waze program or app talk — or to be truthfully only intermittently. In fact what has happened is once it starts talking and I get home I can’t figure out how to shut it up. I don’t always get an “exit” box.

Another problem I have is I never knew where I want to go west or east — say on 66. I can’t tell what is north, south, east or west. I can with thought say to myself this is left and this right. Is there a long word for this for an autistic person? So that’s my first question. I would feel better if my condition — this has happened before – had a name. Getting lost. Not being able to tell where I am — have a big picture of coordinates unless I’ve lived in an area for a very long. A good pictorial memory but it has to be real buildings or streets I recognize.

So what I had was a map with lines and arrows. I managed to put it on the seat next to me and very slowly attempted to follow all the turns and arrows. It was difficult because Arlington around Rosslyn (I live in Alexandria) is no fun. The ironic paradox is what I knew to be true; I was at most 5 minutes away from some highway if I could figure out how to get to it. What happens is the lines and arrows began to show this way to South 110. I recognized that was one of the highways and going in the right direction. I drove very slow and kept adjusting the cell phone to face me.

Anyway I swung onto the highway from another exit but I could recognize pictorially where I was, and could calm down and saw this way to Exit 27, South 395 and knew where I was and then got home. Whew!

I am like a blind person when it comes to understanding directions or what I am on a map. Utter bewilderment is awful. I have tried buying a new garmin twice. But I cannot program it. All of them require some programming and I have no one to do that for me. Everyone says it’s so easy, nothing to do. I have no idea what to do and twice I have had to take back an expensive Garmin or GPS. The one I have now was programmed for me by a kind IT guy who was in my house shortly after my husband died — and helped me install a computer.

Intensely relieved to be back home. My younger daughter, Isobel, cannot help me because she is autistic and asking her to help, this kind of experience makes her intensely nervous.

My older daughter came the next day and — what happened? — within no time she had no problem.

At first the Waze was silent. Her response was to say “Waze stinks” and download google maps. She tried to look at the settings and could find nothing wrong. She did fiddle with them. Then she tried both Waze and google maps and both talked! We get in the car and both talk. But the problem is she never figured out what I had been doing wrong or what I needed to do to make the thing talk because it was talking. I did see that I often put my own address into location and she said don’t do that, just type where you want to go in the next rectangle below.

The problem is Laura (her name) really had no problem. She clicks away and after a while the Waze program talked. She finishes, somehow an exit box is there, and she clicks on it. Calm as the proverbial cucumber. I did sit with her in my car and I clicked and it talked. She could not fix for me what was working.

So a week and a half from now I have two new places to go. I worry the thing won’t talk for me. Has anyone had this problem of the cell phone Waze not talking — My cell phone is an Apple iphone 8 — I think.

To me it’s a wonder I go anywhere at all. If I were black, I would fear a cop might kill me. Laura installed for me Uber — I have Lyft. This is for my coming trip to St Louis. If I want to find a restaurant I am to go to on Friday night, and then a play on Saturday the only way is to hail one of these cab services there and back.

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The destitute-desperate family in The Parasite

Bong Jong-ho’s Parasite is part of my theme tonight: it seems to be a study of social modes of interaction exposing gross class inequities among three families. I’ve now watched it twice and people you should not miss it. It will absorb and entertain and then maybe horrify you. I am still not sure what I think about it.

First thing to be said about the film is how hard it is to talk about it, part of this Is the story line is unpredictable – that’s why you keep watching (even if it’s not assigned). You get drawn in because you are not sure what is going to happen next at all

Second it seems to me most of the thematic descriptions don’t apply generally. It’s not a thriller. We see a class war only at the very end when the destitute family driven to desperation because there’s another desperate destitute pair of people hidden deep in a many level basement of the super-rich people’s many layered – crack up and out comes from them terror, hatred, an urge to destroy these people who are exploiting them utterly – smiling all the while as if it’s perfectly okay to the destitute to be so exploited. The super-rich husband-father drops his mask for a moment when the destitute father playing a chauffeur for the first balks at an order – and threatens to fire him.

For a horror film (another designation) it’s constantly witty and funny – we laugh very uncomfortably at these desperate people – up to their chins in sewer water when it rains – yet they are endlessly ingenious, crackerjack it seems at surviving – they are all kept at a social and psychological distance from one another.

Realism is besides the point: the mother-wife is unbelievably naïve, believes anything – I saw misogyny in the way she was treated as someone who has nothing to do with her life but make expensive parties – we are better not knowing what happened to the employees the destitute family replaces – the housekeeper come back is living nightmare with her husband fleeing creditors

So I looked up Korean films and could find only a history which offered no interpretation, but I did find an essay on films called “periphery” films. Idea is developed countries, run by white people are at the center, and countries like Korea, Palestinine, Saudi Arabia – countries colonized – Australian are periphery. So I’ll conclude on 4 characteristics such films are said to have and this one has these:

1) An intense focus on place and setting. You never forget this is Korea and the two different houses are centrally photographed to stay in your mind as character in the drama – the people in the semi-basement stealing wifi in such appalling conditions – and the rich with all space hardly enough furniture, gadgets everywhere – I suppose it’s order if order is soulless.

2) A use of folk or story telling traditions – at the beginning of the film a brief fairy tale looking picture seems to suggest that the family is going to get their dearest wish using some stone – and this stone appears in the opening and closing sequences of the film. The son carries it around – it is dangerous and bad things happen around this stone. The talk is in European tradition — the fisherman and his wife, with its moral of watch out what you wish for ….

3) Looking at everything from the point of view of the excluded – no matter what it is or how – you might say those colonized whose everything is taken from them or are not allowed anything – cannot accumulate – so destitute cannot go to college — along with this these excluded people feel they can’t belong anywhere. They don’t fit in. The son says this at one point. It ends on the father in the deep basement obviously doesn’t belong anywhere. Even the super-rich don’t belong anywhere – their home is not a home, it’s an place for the real estate sellers furniture makers gadget makers, party makers to supply and sell stuff to — to make money on

4) Money and bullying. Any time a rich or powerful person is denied anything he or she resorts to bullying. But the predators all of them prey on other predators – -like the destitute family on the original employees – everyone searching for an identity – I saw an Israeli film (art film) where the characters are all seeking an identity – queasy comedy and sudden stark tragedy happen over money and bullying ow or what – at any moment a mask drops and you are facing the faceless

At any time the mask drops and you are facing the faceless

So I thought about movies made from the center as a control mechanism –- say The Durrells of Corfu, which I wrote about in my previous diary entry.

The exact place does not at all matter – they can make a home of anything.
No one bullies others and minimal money does – you need some but not a helluva lot.
The know who they are – they really do.
Point of view is that of the privileged those who assume courts are on their side – no masks – and those who have to wear masks very poignant, like Sven the homosexual man – everyone feels for him.

Last night I re-watched The Parasite, having read about cinema at the periphery (movies made by film-makers who don’t come from powerful countries run by white people, countries not colonized i recent history) and it struck me the destitute desperate family’s behavior is like that of us — when it comes to airplane travel. That is one place middle and upper middle white people come across the treatment poorer people across the globe do all the time. Similarly it appears on the surface and maybe is true that these white people accept this treatment from the airlines. They don’t go to war or paroxyms of rage, the candidates for office don’t use as one of their promises to regulate the airlines and stop their outrageous behavior to everyone but those who can afford to be deeply gouged.

OTOH, the movie makes this analogy hard to see because it calls itself Parasite and in Korean parasitic worm and seems to refer the to the destitute desperate family – a squalid word, and it also means blotches on your skin from such worms. I am not sure that the film is not problematic — partly because in the class I was in many of the people in the room defended the super-rich family: they were paying the others, they were “decent to them;” okay they were tactless and unaware of the horrible conditions of life of the others. But that’s not their fault.

If you can reach it, Michael Wood of the London Review of Books for January 2020 is very worth reading

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How to end this entry? We are today surrounded by creeping and overwhelming fascism in our public media and art — that is the mindset actuating not only the Trump administration. Every day another evil deed, yet more ugly hateful ideas and feelings spewed out. Yesterday the Trump regime rescinded decades of work to change attitudes to protect birds from wanton killing — now you may kill them as you please (and you can have as many and what kinds of guns you want. Public schools? why these are low-class government schools which debased people attend — a sign of their inferiority is no one is excluded.

Human beings need to think more about the nature of our social lives today in the year 2020. What are we seeking? What do these activities of ours depend upon? how or on what basis are we setting up our relationships with one another? Is it to escape from a default setting (to use the ubiquitous Internet jargon) of alienation, a world of cruelty and indifference as seen in Parasite and Last Chronicle of Barset and Curate in Charge? (David Copperfield ends in a wish fulfillment fantasy and the emphasis is — to be fair to the book — more about the richness of a life of solitude, of inner development of self and strength and also about death and sheer vulnerability.) These questions are urgent as we find ourselves more and more without the solid social support systems our daily lives and attitudes (beliefs in our togetherness) used to provide, more and more turning to the Internet worlds, to voluntary organizations unsupported by anything but human need.

Ellen

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Izzy took this photo of a tree on our block on her way to work about a week ago ….

Dear friends,

I’ve two happenings in my life since last I wrote that have mattered and I want to remember — and share with others. One began some 5 weeks ago now, and has (I regret to say) come to an end: I attended 4 sessions on 4 works by Margaret Atwood led, taught, more or less shaped by Elaine Showalter. I took a class she gave this past summer on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the book, together with the two film adaptations, the 1958 travesty which reversed Greene’s point of view, so that instead of an exposure of US brutality, and ruthless colonialism (as the US took over from the French) in Vietnam, we were to see Pyle as a hero undermined by Fowler, and the 2002 Philip Noyce film, which presented the book’s searing condemnation, but (as it had to) diluted by the usual anti-woman point of view of spy-thriller-mysteries. I was a bit disappointed in Dr/Prof (shall I give her the proper title?) Showalter’s presentation of clips from the two films (she is not a student of film) but I could see in her treatment of the book subtle insight where it mattered, albeit held back by her awareness of the pro-Americanism and patriarchal domination (by a few of the men and silence of the women) of the class members’ conversation.


A recent photo

Well in presenting Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, The Edible Woman, Stone Mattress, and a few texts online (like “Rape Fantasies” from 1975) to a class just about made up of all women (in each there was one male, but not the same one) she was not so held back: I found myself in a room of suddenly not-silent older women, intelligent and willing to speak for real. She was also absolutely in command of her material, which included a history of feminism (she told of events and phases in the 1970s-80s 2nd phase which she had partaken in), a full study of Atwood (well maybe she was not as up on the poetry as she ought to have been), and generous as well as evaluative responses to her audience (I’ll call this) for real.

I have long been an admirer of her books. How I was inspired by her A Literature of Their Own I told her at the end of that summer’s class. Over the years various of her essays, amused by her Faculty Towers — albeit taken aback by her buoyant optimistic outlook which in the 1970s I had not discerned. I began not to be sure how to take her – the way I am not sure about Margaret Anne Doody any more. I tell myself their willingness to conform, and real cheer reveals complacency due to luck; this temperament is how they got ahead — as well as having had the right parents or home environment that taught them what networking is, gone to the name respected schools. But I found myself forgiving her even when, as in a recent review of a biography of Susan Sontag where Showalter faults her for speaking out against the blind reaction to 9/11 (Sontag said, rightly, that this kind of thing is what the US as a military power has been serving up to other countries and all socialist progressives for decades): she lost adherents. There are more important things than our place in public media. I was able to speak of my own anorexia in one class, and in others contribute moderately to the discussion for real — though I soon understood most of the woman there, as in the OLLI at AU, I am not like most of those speaking as most of them (like Showalter) had gone to name colleges (where they had to pay real money to get in, pass interviews), most worked for much more money in professional occupations they were promoted in; or they were upper class home-makers for successful men. I’ve never experienced any of that — though I could (as no one else did) speak to what it is to have an eating disorder for real.

She was unpretentious, genial, as far as realistically possible, candid. It was enough to almost make me have some faith in the possibility of the academic world honoring someone worth honoring. Almost but I consider that if the norm is not this at least I have found an instance of a woman of integrity, remaining a Feminist (as she said of herself when described by the late Harold Bloom, the usual small man, with a capital letter), nonetheless rewarded. Not that she could understand someone like me. I do not kid myself. I volunteered when the class was talking of 1970s feminism that before then I found when I knew I wanted to write my dissertation on rape in Clarissa I couldn’t. I didn’t have the language to talk of this kind of crucial event in many women’s lives which would not shame me, would force me into taking attitudes I knew were falsifying my own experience. She looked surprised.

I am alive to the irony that at 72 I could have a somewhat self-altering experience from coming into contact with an outstanding woman I can admire. She told of what it was actually like to be a judge of the International Booker Prize, and I learned about this prize from an aspect I’d not considered: how sometimes when one wins, it can harm your career if the publishers and promotional booksellers don’t think your book is capable of being a best-seller. I’ve regathered up the books by her I own, the essays I have in my computer, and am making my way slowly through her Inventing Herself, which I hope to write a separate blog on for my Austen reveries, where I’ll include some of our discussion on Edible Woman and “Rape Fantasies” especially. It is too late to make any effective change in my life. I tell myself I will finally read all of A Jury of Her Peers, tackle Sexual Anarchy (on the fin-de-siecle) and go back to her 1980s essays.


Mary Trouille

I am reminded of how the French 18th century scholar Mary Trouille asked my some 10 years ago to be on her panel and deliver a paper on Rape in Clarissa. I didn’t have to produce a proposal, just send general thoughts, and then Mary included me in her decisions as to who to include, and I saw why she chose who she did. I longed then to have had such a woman as my dissertation adviser, or what’s called a mentor. Gentle reader, I never had what’s called a mentor. I had written a thorough good and favorable review of Mary’s book on wife abuse in the mid-18th century, and she had appreciated that. But she did what she did because she understood my mind moved in the same tracks as hers did. Mary also wrote Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Read Rousseau, which I studied, and she is the first modern translator of the important book by Rétif de la Bretonne, where in the person of his daughter, he retells the horrific abuse she suffered from her husband, and how all around her were complicit in urging her to endure it, Ingenue Saxoncour, or The Wife Separated from her Husband, which I have just bought! In all I’ve written about rape and abuse hitherto I’ve relied on a reprint of the 18th century French text.

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Gettysburg Hotel, 1 Lincoln Square

It was not the first EC/ASECS conference I attended partly at Gettysburg Hotel, and partly on the campus; I had come here with Jim in 2006 and remember vividly the day’s trip and talk (from a guide) around the infamous & huge battlefield. At that conference I gave a paper on Anne Murray Halkett and broke out in hives (hardly anyone came and I had delivered it badly; it was too long and too indirect). I’ve been going to these EC/ASECS conferences for some 20 years, almost without a break and was awarded the only prize I ever have gotten — for service to the group. I flubbed for I didn’t sit where I was supposed to, too embarrassed. This year I am chair of the Molin Award committee.


Gettysburg college

So what new mattered? The regional group seemed to come alive again on this 50th anniversary and I had a very good time at the sessions I attended, felt rejuvenated by the conversations I had with people who share my valuation of scholarship enough that they seem to be spending their existence as I do — or try to do. I drove myself there and back,without too much anxiety — I used both my garmin and the Waze app on my cell phone (which I still can’t get to talk). The person who was supposed to chair the Johnson panel didn’t come and asked me to substitute for him, and for the first time I didn’t read a paper through, instead half-read and half-talked it. The room was full, with a number of Johnsonians (!) and I was commended for my performance as chair. Thomas Curley’s paper was a retelling of his magnificent work on Robert Chambers with the startling (apparently to many in the room) that Johnson was a major collaborator in Chambers’s first works on law. Tom had parallel passages showing texts from this collaboration (in effect) and Johnson’s (highly conservative) False Alarm, Taxation No Tyranny &c — showing Johnson justifying colonialism, taxing colonies, and not all that against slavery. Chambers went on to become a supreme Chief Justice in India — married a woman many years younger than himself.

He had come a long way — I went to dinner with him — a cab to a plane, a plane and then rented a car. He is an older man and it was gratifying to see that his work is at least being made more public. He said since he wrote he has had hardly any sense anyone paid attention — someone remarked people might feel they have enough Johnson, also there’s the problem of what’s his.


Aspects of Biography — I referred to this during the session

I also was so gratified to listen to Lance’s paper and afterwards talk with him (as a Johnson expert) and a couple of other people. What emerged is that my view that Savage was a fraud, that the woman he claimed was his mother was not so at all is not uncommon! It was that insight that I couldn’t get past — I couldn’t get myself to write on Johnson’s Life of Savage because while it is a extraordinary work of biographical art, paradoxically it is centrally wrong and I felt I must bring that out. I wish I had known that more people think this – -they don’t write it down lest they be attacked or find themselves in a morass. That wouldn’t have bothered me. I find the Life of Savage more interesting because Johnson is so deluded — bonding so with this man and yet has written a remarkable strong biographical work. Lance and I talked of Holmes’s book and how his analysis of the trial is particularly illuminating — the man was also a thug murderer. I know to talk to students of this as a remarkable biography and maybe to the average person so “fact” oriented this would not make sense. But it does to me. Lance’s paper was about how much that is written about London is based on conclusions with inadequate evidence about Savage’s relationship to the poem.

I felt my own paper on the literature of Culloden and its aftermath went over very well — I did read it but it’s written in a talking style (I’ve put it on academia.edu so anyone may download and read it). We had a much larger audience than I anticipated as there were two other panels with far better known people going on at the same time.

I disappointed my self only when it came to going to the Irish folk singing in a tavern on Saturday night. I get almost no chance for such experiences, but I came back with Tom (above) at 8:45 pm or so and there was no one around to go with. It was dark, looked like a longish walk and I chickened out. But (I tell myself) I read away in my room and was fresh for the long Saturday. I will tell of this conference and some of the papers in more impersonal way on Austen reveries. For now we can listen to Jim McCann and the Dubliners singing Carrickfergus — I remember Coilin Owen, who was a friend, an older faculty member at Mason, liked this one so (he died this fall)

Most of all to be with like-minded kindly intelligent well-educated people who are spending their lives the way I am, who value the humanities, arts, liberal in thought was like coming to a halcyon haven.

It was important because (I find I must tell because not to speak of it would be to falsify this life-writing blog) for three days and nights I was bombarded by harassing bullying emails from someone accusing me of heinous treacherous behavior, I’m a freak who behaves strangely and with powers of intimidation beyond my own belief. I single-handedly seem to have silenced her face-book page (I should be so powerful…) and changed the minds of countless people towards a serial drama (seemingly at the center of her existence). I endured deep distress because I was away from this computer and could not block, ban, or respond to her restless immediate demands. I’ve had many soul-shaking experiences in social life both on- and off-line but this was a new form for me. Unfortunately (I’ve been told) I cannot ban her from seeing my blogs: the only way to do this is to make the blogs private and then other people could read it only if they have passwords. The same holds true of my time-line on face-book: I cannot ban anyone from reading it unless I make it private. I gathered from what she said she had been reading my blogs almost obsessively and with intense interest for months! I wondered if not setting up software to allow this makes more profit for face-book and wordpress.

It is (I hope) over, because I can ban all remarks from being recorded on the blogs, from reaching my gmail, and myself block seeing any remarks she makes on face-book. I am not sure this is enough, but I will not be threatened out of writing about the realities I come up against and have been helped to put this in perspective by my daily experience at the OLLIS I teach at, on listservs and different face-book pages, and during this time this conference (which I did have trouble in concentrating on — say the papers, the driving — and in sleeping).

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For the rest over the last three weeks I continued to go to classes, teach very successfully (Phineas Finn just about teaches itself) and carry on life with Izzy and my two cats. Two Caturdays on face-book: October 12th:


Clarycat

It is my cats who keep me sane because every morning they do want food, across the day they do enact a calm collected pattern of behavior which keeps them alive and active (they often look interested in what is going on around them), they rest collectedly and follow me about and would be disturbed if in my human way I acted out what I feel in my consciousness. They are alert around 5 waiting for their evening meal. They wait to play with string wit me around 6:30 pm each night as Izzy and I prepared our meal. They are there in my room late at night waiting to go to bed with me. If I behave in an upset way, they get upset. So they help keep me sane. Here are two further pictures of this needed Clarycat taken by Marni during the week I was away from her and Ian this August at Calais. Right now she is resting in her cat-bed and Ian is nearby gazing out the window while I sit and read and write at my desk in the same room.


Ian (as Jim used to say) “resting from the rigors of his existence while I work-play away on my teaching of the Pallisers DVD episodes adapting/along with Trollope’s novel, Phineas Finn. The other part of this desk has a laptop where I’m playing one of the DVDs. If you look carefully, you will see his eyes are open. He has two comfort toys under him — the small grey mouse with a tail and the smaller varied colored-mouse with a bell on a ribbon.

My cat, Ian, continually hides, and each time I find the new difficult-to-find hiding place and he realizes I know where he is, he will find a new one. A cat’s mind and motivations deviate utterly from the person he or she is genuinely attached to. They are predators and distrust the world — they have hardly any weapons now that they have evolved into 10-12 pound creatures. So the hiding is an experience of renewed comfort — he was in a comfort zone. One problem I have is I rely on my confidence he did not get out of the house and my sense of him that the last thing he really wants to do is escape: he keeps away from the door most of the time. Once when he was a kitten, and before the porch was enclosed he leapt into it; I got so excited at him, he never did that again. Why that’s a problem is occasionally or regularly I pay people to do stuff in my house. Every other week a 2-3 women to clean. So I feel I have to be here to let them in or out so as to be at the door when they come in; when I’ve had contractors in I manage to close both cats into Izzy’s room. But it means sometimes having to miss something so I can be here when the door opens and closes. Or I’d regularly lose peace of mind over wary Ian.


For my present Friday movie class (genre, gender, race & class in American film) I re-watched Woody Allen’s (and Diane Keaton in) Annie Hall for the first time in decades — I found much that still made me laugh, but on the whole felt saddened because romance companionship can be a form of happiness and it’s one beyond me now forever

What am I looking forward to: working away on my Poldark/Winston Graham and historical fiction projects; now a review of Berta Joncus’s immense Kitty Clive, or the Fair Songster. It’s hard for me because it’s part musicology — but it tells a story of the second half of Clive’s life that resonates with me. After Catherine Clive became so successful on stage, she attracted deep resentment, envy, and found herself under severe attack and had to alter her act to make fun of herself, to humiliate and ridicule herself to carry on. She needed to make money. Finally she retired to live on Horace Walpole’s estate. I’m not sure the biography goes over this second half but no one in my knowledge ever even explained the second half of her life

And after all I must read the long densely researched life of Charlotte Lennox — by Susan Carlile. I had put it up on the shelf in order to get on with Margaret Oliphant. Now I think no hurry on that any more. One of the scholarly experts on Lennox, a friend of mine, was at the conference & for the “newsletter” (it’s become a journal really) wrote a long review of this important book. Two new biographical books on Vittoria Colonna are sitting on my desk, and one interpretive of her relationship with Michelangelo. I still want to return to my Italian and French studies. And I’m back to studying a film adaptation of one of Austen’s books, the fragmentary Sanditon (scroll down to the last part of the blog), which I re-read this weekend.

So, gentle reader, I don’t change very much after all but the two experiences I’ve tried to convey here have made me feel somewhat better about the world and myself.

Ellen

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Vilhelm Purvitis (1872-1941), Winter, Latvia 1910 — I’ve been reading much Atwood this week, stories of ice and snow …

“We still think of a powerful woman as an anomaly, a potentially dangerous anomaly; there is something subversive about such women, even when they are taken to be good role models. They cannot have come by their power naturally, it is felt. They must have got it from somewhere. Women writers are particularly subject to such projections, for writing itself is uncanny: it uses words for evocation rather than for denotation; it is spell-making.” Atwood, “Witches.”

From Atwood’s poem, “Spelling,” 1981

My daughter plays on the floor
With plastic letters
Red, blue, and hard yellow,
Learning how to spell,
Spelling,
How to make spells.
*******
How do you learn to spell?
Blood, sky, and the sun,
Your own name first,
Your first naming, your first name,
Your first word.

My blog-reading friends,

A friend and I were talking of how when people grow old, they must to smaller quarters. and that “it is extremely hard to pack up your life and say goodbye.” Especially, to sell and/or give away one’s books.

I remembered a section in Carol Shield’s Mary Swann where a character who is a widower is forced to sell his and his wife’s library and says “Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” I thought of how Jim and my books were the center of our lives together: we read them together, consulted them, collected, loved, gave them a good home, and told him I have nearly 11,000 books now. About 1,000 more since Jim died. Specifically, 10,989. As I’ve said here more than once, I had told him I have 5 rooms (excluding the kitchen, two bathrooms and a hall and vestibule), large square spaces with high ceilings, and each room has two walls with one large window each. That leaves a lot of wall space for books. Since Jim’s death I enclosed my porch, adding a sixth rectangular sun-room (much sun comes in as it faces east) with one wall having two large windows on the long wall. I also use the long hall in the back of the house for book cases on one side.

And he replied: “I cannot visualize what 11,000 books look like.” So I took photographs across my house and sent a representative example to him.


My living room showing the fireplace, mantelpiece, coffee table and a ceramic cat I bought in Milan as a keepsake — also a home-made doll I fell in love with at the Museum of the American Indian and could not leave behind. You see a sort of shrine I’ve made for Jim: his urn, glasses, picture, a toy sheep we bought at Stonehenge when we went there with our daughters, and a toy penguin Izzy added after she & I visited Chawton House


Another angle


The same living room, the other side — facing the neighbor’s house


I and my cats’ bedroom with a tall cat tree Izzy and I built to one side


Another corner of the bedroom, door leading to the small bathroom just by it


Part of the hall between the two rooms — to one side is a large bathroom and on the other Izzy’s room and my workroom (in both the latter we have books across the walls)


My ex-porch, now an enclosed sun-room: you see my stationary bike


And one more of my porch — oddly the porch, though I don’t spend that much time in it, is my favorite room. It’s without any pretensions whatsoever and the chair is comfort itself.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death: Oct 9th, 2013:

Those who are left are different people trying to lead the same lives … Demelza to Captain MacNeil who attempted to console her for death of infant Julia (Bk 1, ch 4, p 55)

This week I saw on face-book many photos of women looking ever so happy in pairs and groups, dressed in 18th century clothes, at the JASNA: the cherry-picking who could come and who was excluded was shamelessly transparent this time, but as I told one friend I felt better off totally excluded because when I go I experience long hours of wasted time in soulless hotel spaces: nothing to do as only 4 to 5 hours have sessions of papers (9 on at a time, so you cannot participate in most of it). Last time I returned repeatedly to the pool where they serve decent whiskey and ginger ale. Another friend said of the 2012 as “the AMG committee thinks that by reducing the numbers who can attend and upping the cost they can “control” who can and cannot enter,” and found “dreadful,” “grown women dressing up, a clubbish attitude, a bovine-like system of hierarchy that puts one in one’s place if you didn’t “belong,” and on and on.” I don’t belong to any of the “clubs” (as in “life-long member reception,” with more and more private parties on in people’s rooms at night) so I’m left with no one and away from all the comforts of my home, in a sense my existence itself. This past week I enjoyed myself at the classes I taught and went to, and the rest of the time at home or in car listening to books, working away at projects so I was not lonely.

I had thought Izzy hadn’t noticed what this conference was like for real (so taken up was she by distracting activities, the sessions she did get to go to, the ball), because she never said anything (and loves to dress up and has learned to go to the ball and dance), but on Saturday evening when we returned from a marvelous performance of Henry IV Part I (Ed Gero as Falstaff unforgettable, so alive) at the Folger Shakespeare library, to eat out together, her talk suddenly showed she had: she said that people join professional organizations (for her librarians) and were they to be excluded from the AGM, what would be the point of paying the yearly fee. Said she, JASNA gets away with this because there is this “pretense of disinterest.”


A good review

I read this week the first of 9 tales of Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, “Alphinland,” (also all of The Testaments) and lo and behold it’s about a woman whose husband has recently died and she hears his voice over the day and at night talking to her telling her what she needs to do: it’s just ice-stormed so she must go out and get salt and food stuffs; the electricity goes out, so she must find her candles. Her grown children keep telling her she must move, downsize, sell her furniture, give away his clothes, but she will not because then she will be parted from him. In our end is our beginning, a powerful original early book of literary criticism about Canadian literature and culture by Atwood is called Survival and is about how the harsh cold climate is at the heart of their worlds. Our widowed witch remains seemingly cheerful because his spirit is with her. It is not irrelevant to know that just upon the publication of The Testaments Atwood’s partner of many years died.


Another fine review

I am still suffering from the loss of my supposed friend on the internet because I find letters so wonderful and now I have to get through most of my days without this imagined support. It’s time I learned to do without this — a last left-over from the idealism of the first decade of the Internet when one could make real friends even frequently through this medium. But, to paraphrase Johnson, it may there are some who would dismiss such susceptibility (“common losses”), but he says of their lack of tenderness, they lack humanity:

“It is the part of a man to be affected with grief; to feel sorrow, at the same time that he is to resist it, and to admit of comfort” (Rambler No. 47).

For this week’s Caturday I wrote about my “third” cat and put photos on face-book: I’ve been in a relationship with this cat ever since the man who owns him/her left him (I’ll chose a gender) for two weeks with only someone the owner called his (“my”) daughter visiting the house to leave food for the cat once a day. (Maybe 2 years ago.) There is apparently a way for the cat to leave the house. He first began to visit me during this time when I responded with affection. I left food for him as at first there was no collar and I thought he might be starving. But no he is “owned” by by this man who seems to show him little affection because the cat does not know how to show it easily and moves to hissing nervously. Other neighbors had complained because they saw him on their lawns and he might shit on these. Can’t have that. Or just a sense of nuisance: how dare this animal be there? Then I saw a raccoon and knew I was endangering this cat’s life. I tried calling local authorities but saw quickly all they would do was come and take and probably kill a cat without a “owner, and this one has this legal tie (such as it is)


The cat laying on my sidewalk waiting for me to come out

The cat apparently goes missing once in a while: once the man who owns him came over to see if he was with me — I said no and I had not seen him for several weeks. Nowadays the cat sits under a tree just on the side of my lawn, a bush, or lays on my sidewalk waiting for me. Often when I come out he scoots or walks slowly over to me. He meows at me and waits for me to pet her. I give him a small amount of food once in a while which he finishes quickly but he doesn’t go away. Stays mostly under the bush. He is very wary. He does not expect or know how to show affection: will hiss after he has nudged me lest I hurt him. The other day I saw on his head a shaved spot and wondered if the “owner” had done that. The owner is someone who moved into one of these obscene McMansions in my neighborhood after he married a woman who looks 50 from afar; she has a daughter of her own but they seem to have nothing to do with this cat. He is a small grey cat with white feet; if I thought the cat a boy for sure, I’d call him Martin. The photos were a close-up, him outside waiting for me, walking about me, wanting to be petted, coming over to me when I open my front door ….


Here is the close-up


Him circling me, warily but wanting to be petted

A small instance of basic human reactions this cat has mostly known, ranging from indifference to callous selfishness (neglect) in a world bursting with these … This morning the hairless part of this poor creature’s head has grown larger and looks reddish. He greedily drank the water I put out for him. The cat is going into a new phase. He avoids people — that’s what animals do when they are very ill. He stands aside on the side of my house all elusive, looking at me when I come out to go somewhere or stand in my stoop area looking about. Close-by or passing neighbors have asked me if he is my cat and I say no and they say he comes up to them and acts oddly and is seen now and then about my house. I point to the house of the owner and say “he is said to or does lives there.” There is so much misfortune in this world but this cat could have been taken good care of, and had a good longer life.

Having gone through all four seasons of Outlander (Claire a white witch) now four times, I’m back to re-watching the whole five seasons of the new Poldarks, one episode after another in a row as far as time and evenings allow. I had been doing that for over a month (or so) when my Irish Internet friend sent me DVD copies of the British BBC programs as they appeared on British TV. I much prefer these because the American ones are rearranged, often cut (sometimes drastically or carelessly, which comes down to the same thing).

So coming back to Season 3 (The Black Moon and part of The Four Swans), I am impressed by how a few of this particular season are mood pieces — if you simply ignore (more or less) the specifics of what’s going on, enough of that (like the seashore romance of Drake and Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles), of the setting (as in the episode where our local friends learn that the ship Dwight was in was captured or fear that Andrew Blamey’s ship has gone down), allows for many sequences of filming (or whatever you want to call this) of the sea, the near landscape accompanied by appropriate music. The effect is sort of symphonic — a pleasing visual and aural experience. There are mood sequences in seasons 1 and 2, but I feel that in season 3 this kind of thing is allowed to take over and is enjoyable if you can lend yourself to it. They did not try for this except briefly in the 1970s — they didn’t have the kind of mesmerizing computer techniques (and cameras) they do today.


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (season 3)


Elise Chappell as Morwenna following Drake

I’ve also embarked on a study of Austen’s Sanditon, using Janet Todd’s edition, after reading her brilliant essay (crisply written, with a fresh feel), going over and over Davies’s new adaptation, returning to Brindle’s, Anna Lefroy’s continuation. See if I can make some sense of this fragmentary text, written by a dying woman, in bad pain on and off, where the beach, the seashore, the air all around it, is a central character.


From Episode 2 of 8 (2019, an ITV product, scripted mostly by Andrew Davies)

To conclude this entry, a woman on a closed face-book page for “Autistic Women” (how I was told about this or got on I no longer remember) told of how at her new job as a cashier, she found the pace and crowds hard, but was trying hard when one customer accosted her for “not paying attention,” and when the woman kept up this harangue and she tried to explain she is autistic, the woman rushed over to her employer’s office and complained bitterly about anyone hiring such a person. So I wrote:

I have learned, much to an increase in sadness and regret, that if you tell someone of your disability or inexorable problem, far from feeling for you, many will act out contempt and try to expunge you away. Thus the way to protect yourself is not allow most others to see your social predicament. It’s the only way to maintain the respect of the cruel, stupid, selfish, unthinking bandwagon types. And that is why a space like this where we are all here together in candour and true support and friendship can mean so much. It is very hard how one cannot tell but must bear on alone. You expected some understanding instead you got hate — you must tell yourself this woman is horrible, behaved truly horribly and not blame yourself but her even if the world is filled with people who react in such ways to disabilities.


A rare oil painting by Honore Daumier: On a bridge at night — a homeless woman, perhaps refuge, with a child or disabled adult

Ellen

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The World at Evening — Summer

As this suburban summer wanders toward dark
cats watch from their driveways —

The color of the sky makes brilliant reflection
in the water

There is a time, seconds between the last light
and the dark stretch ahead …

— Rachel Sherwood

A little more than a year ago, I made a summer interlude for my Sylvia I blog; now I’m content with a few words. Then I was gone for 16 days, now it’ll be 10. Then I went with a Road Scholar group to the lake district and borders of Scotland and England in the UK; now we go (me, my two daughters) to Calais, northern France.Why? well I said I wanted to go to the beach, Laura said she wanted to go to France, and Izzy was not going to be left behind.

This sculpture commemorates an eleven month siege on Calais by the British during the hundred years war …

The town or small city has a long history, it’s one of the channel ports between England and France and was owned by England for a very long time. Lots to see beyond the beaches. Castles, prisons, towers, a cathedral, museum. I looked it up on Amazon and bookfinder.com and found many books: on the recent history of immigration to the place and the development of what was known as The Jungle; as a place of war, from 14th century to WW2; where peace treaties and the like were signed; fishing and trading, commerce; a place to set mysteries. Today there are beaches, hotels, shopping, roads to drive, walks to do, markets to buy food and all sorts of goods. There are even ferries.

Laura rented a bnb for us that looks lovely in the picture: it has air-conditioning and wifi. We’ve bought to go to London at least once (see Kensington Garden exhibit), to Paris more than that (we signed up for a food fest). So we’ll use cabs and trains — spend money. The hard question for me is which books to take — to guess which ones will hold you when traveling and away is not easy, but I know Trollope may be relied upon, and so one will be Phineas Finn (as I will teach it this coming fall). I should probably take a good book on or by Austen too. They usually “work.” A small French dictionary — though for a long time it was an English city in France.

Google produces many pictures. Painters like to paint fantasies and semi-realistic images.

I love the art of Eduard Vuillard; many years ago with a visiting friend, I saw a gigantic exhibit (rooms upon rooms tracing his career) of Vuillard’s paintings, murals, drawings at the National Gallery: Dinner with Two Lamps: rue de Calais:

Chez nous, here in Alexandria, Laura’s friend, Marni, will come every day and has promised to stay 45 minutes with the two pussycats, provide food, water &c. Clarycat already made friends with her, and I hope before the end of the time, Ian will come out of hiding and join them in play.


An archetypal harbour scene by Nell Blaine (1986) — Banner Hills, 1986

From Three Poems at the End of Summer by Jane Kenyon

I stood by the side of the road,
It was the only life I had.

Miss Drake

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Simone de Beauvoir’s early existentialist essay

Frank: Might you have forgotten him, with time?
Claire: That amount of time doesn’t exist — “All Debts Paid” (Outlander 3:3)


Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) — Boston, 1968: he the tragic figure

Hope is the thing with feathers — Emily Dickinson

Friends and readers,

I get so tired sometimes. I want to stand or to sit ever so still, and hold my head with my hand on my forehead, over my eyes, and to keen. To give way at last. I am so fond of my nearly furniture-less sun-room. I wonder what Jim would think of it. I’ll never know. He would laugh, not mockingly. I do not remember him ever laughing mockingly. No jeers. His laughter was ever kind, gentle teasing, cordial, lightening up life. If it were not that I fall asleep because my one plush rocking chair is so comfortable, I’d sit there many hours in sunpuddle reading.

I seem this summer to be feeling more grief than I have in a while. I was so stunned that first year. It may be how things accumulate: this summer I realized too late (typical of me) that the ISECS (International 18th century society) meet in Edinburgh in July was one to go to — I could sense it from the photos I saw on face-book. To have been there then. I would have known enough of the people. I would have walked new streets that I’ve not tried, alleyways, maybe seen a play. I had been earlier this year regretting that Jim and I didn’t go to a Renaissance Society meeting that was held in Florence: he wanted to go in the early 2000s, but I was still so seared from a time in the 1990s when I tried on my own and was shattered by the experience — I knew no one and found it an endurance ordeal. He was right: we could have learned so much while we saw what was worth seeing; he would have been with me this time. Not so here. Now it’s come to me my reason for resolutely turning away, that my idea that I wanted to teach to take up the full six weeks had not taken into account I could have gone by saying I would teach a 3 week session at the OLLI at Mason summer session; no one would have minded. Why didn’t I think of this? Ah, if there is ever a next time.

Jim used to say when I’d cancel a class at Mason where it was a matter of required courses with grades, and it seemed no one or few minded at all, why didn’t he have a job like that; one where when he didn’t show up, many were relieved ….


Giovanni Volpato and Louis DuCrois, Temple to Sybil, Tivoli (1750) — once the wallpaper on Jim’s laptop (now mine, with a different picture

And then I had a panic attack trying to find a restaurant on a central Alexandria Old Town Street — having been invited to lunch there by two thoroughly monied Northwest DC-resident women (from the OLLI at AU). But he has missed so much. I merely miss my friend, my partner, the daily absence, the easy fun together.

***********************************


Clarycat this past Wednesday morning ….

I thought for this entry I’d transcribe my notes from a remarkably at moments exhilarating class experience I’m part of at the Politics and Prose bookstore for 3 evenings, 6-8 pm: it’s called “3 Odd Humanists,” but it’s about three existential texts and writers: Sartre’s Existentialism is Humanism” (it’s not), Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (Of Ambiguity is a more accurate, indeed close translation), and Weil’s The Need for Roots (Uprootedness in French). Ten highly intelligent some well-read people all reading the text, with a professor, David Johnson, from Georgetown who comes prepared. He startled me the first night by beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I remembered back to my early undergraduate days reading “selections” of philosophy by myself (300 people in the class, we sat in a vast lecture hall while the teacher talked on up front) for a required course whose absurd title I can’t quite recall.

I enjoy also when I come out around 8 and the sky is just darkening seeing how crowded the store is (a lecture upstairs will be going on), the people drinking, eating, reading and taking notes in the store (one guy at a table surrounded by books and papers), outside in the street everyone eating ice cream (I finally saw where the ice cream store is further along on the block), people sitting on benches, strolling about, eating out on the sidewalk by or in a restaurant, a good city life scene. Once three summers ago Vivian and I bought ice cream cones in a crowded store in Old Town in summer, it was around 9:30, people milling people all about us, two blocks from the river, an uncommon scene (some special event had occurred earlier in the day). I even ate mine. Then on both occasions, I could come home to my bed, my cats, my house, and relax. This time I ate supper and started this blog. I gather at Politics & Prose this kind of thing goes on almost nightly.

I want to transcribe a few scattered notes in the context of my own reading of the three books thus far. My handwriting is so feeble, the class proceeds by conversation mostly, not lecture, but I suspect I’ll get more out of what was said or remember some of it by writing the notes out, turning my Pitman stenography and memory into readable English.

What is now wonderful about philosophy is I’m learning it’s about finding a rationale, an encompassing perspective for oneself (with others) which explains and predicts how things are and can comfort. A kind of meaning or patterns. And it’s fun to do. The last or only time I took a real philosophy course before was a small class where we read a new book each week, starting with Sophocles, moving “through the ages” and languages, to include Dante’s Inferno, and on to 20th century texts: each time, in a manic way I thought, interpreting what we read to show that this text too exemplifies Heidegger’s existentialism — as explained to us in a readable more or less coherent text by Magda King. And it worked each time! after a while I could parrot and apply the Heidegger as-told-by King outlook to the point of getting an A+ in that course. But I did not see my own thoughts, feelings, acts intimately in terms of existentialism; that is what we are encouraged to do in these grown-up sessions.

So, on to what I have from Sartre & Beauvoir & Weil thus far:

Sartre (translator Carol Macomber): “In reality things will be what men have chosen them to be. Does that mean I must resort to quietism [conform]. No.” So in my life that means that although I was born to very poor unconnected parents, I ignored all attempts to make me make a life’s choice based on making a middle class income. Instead I chose literature, writing, and ended with low paid teaching (because that’s what the society has chosen for someone like me who does this ….)

I see Prof Johnson said that Sartre shows us a paranoid view of reality and what Sartre says we must do is move deep into our own minds and remain true to them. We are obligated it seems to feel the reality of anguish and abandonment when we realize we cannot turn to others to create our own meaning; at the same time as irrespective of others, no matter how they might try to stop us, we must fulfill our talents. We find we are here existing. (This reminds me of Heidegger’s thrownness.) The individual exploration of the self is what matters. We are a presence to ourselves. At the same time we must be responsible for our acts. If circumstances are against your doing something, Sartre says it is still cowardly not to do it — he insists you have the potential or capacity to act so not to act is a choice. David Johnson said that for Sartre subjectivity is your presence in the world.

He asserts that human relationships are fundamentally hostile. I fear this is so. We must affirm the value of what we choose. Must we?

He seems to think morality must have a broader scope than sympathy and devotion to another. Yet the concrete goal of helping another (rather than the vague group) is more useful. Reality alone counts. Dreams expectations only serve to define us as broken dreams, abortive hopes, and thwarted expectations. I feel I am in Samuel Johnson’s world here.

One problem I found is that Sartre is prescriptive, not descriptive as I remember Heidegger was. I think of an old Bible story about how if you are given certain talents, you must use them or God will punish you. No one supernatural will punish you in Sartre’s scheme — but yourself. He is unforgiving. I also found him defensive — especially against communists (!) who he said demanded that we give ourselves over to group idea or set of ideas. Thus we lose our freedom. Why not just ignore them? He was very bothered by Camus’s Stranger because he felt the book argued for the futility of any attempt to explain the world. (This is a branch of nihilism, commented the teacher). He says we must ignore others and yet himself cannot dismiss someone else’s admired book. Sartre says what has happened today is a breakdown of central social systems, so that people are aware their way of life is not universal nor their norms or values: we daily live in close proximity to disillusionment, disenchantment because we have woken up. Now to me we are with Kant saying that the enlightenment is a movement where we are adults and our own authorities based on our own experience and developing judgement.

How is existentialism humanism I asked the teacher: because we are centering ourselves on ourselves, on people relationships; through people the world is created. Well, I’d say in part. I read that Sartre says humanism is thinking man is the end we work for, humanity the supreme value. Well this is just wrong. Other animals count too and we must value them and act for them as much.


Ian this very morning on what was Jim’s desk, now my third library table, with the laptop on it too.

My notes on Beauvoir are more coherent and extensive. I felt that she was explaining Sartre — it is an early work, before The Second Sex, before any of her novels and long memoir.

The past is never to be used as a template for the present — David Johnson’s comment on a passage by Beauvoir which is not my understanding of her.  To me she subtilizes, nuances, and interjects an ethic of care. We might say hers is the woman’s point of view, his the man’s. She is concretely about politics and  the cruelties of fascism (as is Weil):

I know that Beauvoir write at her outset our nature has two basic impulses we must obey: to disclose ourselves to others and to will, to act out what we want or feel as mirrored by this disclosure. (She was accused of essentialism.) I thought how solitary confinement is a form of torture: the person can neither disclose him or herself, nor can he or she will an effective act.

Well, Johnson said for Beauvoir subjectivity is terrifying, as we are a mere small presence in a particularly unjust or evil world. She does insist that evil is real, that there are bad actors in the world, they rise to power and will evil. There can be no general ethics for all. We are left in ambiguity. We find ready-made values imposed on us by “serious” people, and these values veil our liberty from us. She is not a nihilist. When we genuinely act authentically we must not impinge on others’ liberty either – or speak or act for them.

Freedom for Beauvoir brings about transcendence, not in any divine but by opening up and providing for indeterminate possibilities. We do have to exist in the present. The last part of her text is her worrying over the Heideggerian idea that people to be human must thrust themselves forward into the future. The enslaved person is denied a fundamental need because he or she can have no future, can plan nothing as at any time he or she may sold or forced to do something he or she would rather not. Johnson remarked the future is the not yet. Religion tells us to throw ourselves into a future that’s is not so, so we must dismiss that. But many philosophies show how people live in terms of the future. I remember learning in the class on Heidegger that he explains why slavery is so de-humanizing: Nonetheless Beauvoir says we must live in the present; the future can be seen through what we are doing in the present, it is incarnate in the present. We must not lose ourselves in the not yet?

I was impressed by how often she brought up childhood, how many references to Rousseau, a long passage on Emile. She declared that “the child does not contain the man he will become.” At long last. There were several passages on how women have been enslaved, how even in cultures where there is opportunity to disclose themselves authentically to someone other than a trusted confidant, to act according to her will, she has been taught submission, struck by how she saw through the gaiety of women who are complicit with the wills of men, how quickly their graciousness can become hard, bitter fury. She too demands we not resign ourselves or we have failed. A piece on Mlle de Lespinasse’s abject letters in love, that Lespinasse is in love with suffering; she sees Lespinasse’s many renouncements, her dependence as frightening. So does Austen in Marianne Dashwood.

She gave me freedom when she said (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood) it is enough to be liberated in one’s thought. I felt comfort when she allowed for joy in history (and presumably historical fiction) because you assume a relationship of sheer contemplation and aesthetic enjoyment. The past is past.

Outside of time and far from men, we face history — Beauvoir, as translated by Bernard Frechtman

But I do know from Orwell “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls [our understanding of] the past.”

Johnson also seems to have talked of failure — or I have notes where he seemed to be saying how intentional we are, we may not be able to disclose ourselves to another. They are in their subjectivity. I cited RLStevenson, a favorite passage:

There is indeed one element in human destiny
that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever
else we are intended to do, we are not intended
to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business
is to continue to fail in good spirits. — Robert Louis Stevenson

To which one of the people said, Becket said that more concisely: fail better. I thought of all the exchanges on the Internet I’ve had over the years and how I misunderstand others and they misunderstand me, or how what I have said does not register as important to them, but some side issues or details I cited, and maybe vice versa too.

So we fall back on “the appeal:” we try to appeal to others based on their groundwork to understand us and we try to respond to appeals. An ethic of looking to the other, but respecting (not fearing) them except when evil actors, she can be brought together with Carol Gilligan’s humane groundwork on the psychology of women. And hence l’ecriture-femme.

I have begun Simone de Weil – the cover to my edition of her book is silly: a photo of carrots (root vegetables anyone?). Translator Arthur Wills. I know she starved herself to death, so desperately hideous to her was the barbaric WW2. She is so different from the other two, though. Not just the belief in God but an assumption we must take this belief into account in our understanding of life, death &c The publisher has TS Eliot as introducer because he was an overt fervent (in his later poetry) Anglican. Then he’s right about Weil having a way of beginning with a very wrong idea, indeed lopsided (to my mind), sometime perverse, but then from this point A she leaps to Point B, where she is uttering a brilliant explanatory truth and moving from truth to truth, some just statements and others encompassing utterances … There is paradoxically a lot more pragmaticism and open politics about the 1940s wars and the horrors of Nazism. Yet the soul’s needs is what she is on about: what are “the vital needs of the human being.” She is very Samuel-Johnsonian.

She offers concrete alternatives to the anti-humane organizations of our society, their de-humanizing and uprooted values. I discover too I have her deeply anti-war commentary, The Iliad or The Poem of Force, ed and trans. Hames P Holoska.

I’ve been reading in these two Weils this morning. I am troubled by my discovery that in her Uprootedness (The Need for Roots), the central presences are men. Once she leaves universal needs and talks of society, it’s the working men who must be freed, the peasant is a man. Women come up only as pregnant wives, as prostitutes (which she want to outlaw) or sewing.

There is no more masculine work I know than The Iliad, and all Weil’s words are couched as universals, not as gendered situations, yet here most frequently she picks out passages about women’s grief, women’s subjection. I gave up on Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls because its realism made it so monotonous; the heroine never had any choice, any separate subjectivity; this makes me want to return to it but I know I won’t find there what Beauvoir, Sartre and Weil all claim is possible: freedom in subjectivity through the mind. Frederick Douglas was able to achieve it and then fled — barker did not want to dwell on the unusual person.

I find Weil’s analysis spot on, her memory of the poem is mine. A poem about force, exulting in brutality, incessant and at the same time including all these passages of poignant helpless loss.

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Sissinghurst Kent: the gardens

I want to bring up all-day “course” I took at the Smithsonian a week ago Saturday, “The Splendours of English Country Houses:” Bonita Billman talked a nearly 6 hour lecture (putting it all together and eliminating the breaks and lunch) on “the splendors of English country houses,” historically conceived; we began with Bess of Hardwicke and Renaissance massive structures and ended on a renovaton of a 14th century castle by another filthy rich family with personally aesthetically ambitious people with their hands on great gobs of money, the Courtaulds’s Elthan Palace. She was genuinely informative, insightful, wry, lots of information. I’ve ten pages of dense stenographer, 5 pages of a xeroxed summary of what she said, names of houses, architects, places, a good bibliography. Pictures of architectural elements.  I just can’t transcribe this material.

So my faith in the Smithsonian as a place to go for reasonably intelligent lectures is restored. Once, one long summer day a miraculous nearly 8 hours by a man who knew all these is to know about the Beatles and their music, with accompanying music, pictures. But the last 3 lectures I went to at the Smithsonian were embarrassingly bad; one was morally moronic (about surgery in the 19th century in the UK). I worried I would be getting hours of talk intended to elicit gasps at the obscenities wealth inequality that made these places possible over the centuries (still supports some), or these irritating giggles. There was still this curious stupid laughter (common in film audiences). I like art history – I in effect minored in art history in college. One got only 2 credits for every course you took: so to me that just allowed me to take more of them and I did. The Smithsonian has many art history lectures, most mediocre — the speakers speak as if they never read any deconstructionism or theory. Still, the Smithsonian still has far fewer literary choices than they did when I first joined.

But afterwards I realized that there were serious lacks in her talks. She omitted to evaluate what we were seeing from a truly aesthetic and moral standpoint. If we divest ourselves of alluring richness-worshipping preconceptions about showing off wealth, prominence, making a stage or set to emphasize power, status; many of the rooms Billman showed and a helluva lot of the objects were anything from ludicrous, ridiculous and to objectively seen obscene. Useless. Extravagant and done on the backs of the abysmal low wages and fierce hard physical labor of huge numbers of people. Imagine what John Berger would have said — he’d have perhaps produced an hour’s lecture of what was worth looking at truly, the rest cultural study of the super-rich and super-powerful. I did fall asleep for a while over the long part about Palladian houses and objects. Thank you for this critical funny observation.

The TLS for August 2, 2019 had a review by Michael Hall, of yet another of these books which insist on sheer celebration of the houses the rich for themselves, which had this aware perspective. The houses named were most of them Billman discussed. It is no longer true the 1% must give up these houses; they are buying some of them back and re-converting them into luxury palaces for themselves and their friends. Take Eltham Palace, a renovated 14th century castle:

Inside the house the decor is strictly and unqualifiedly art deco, with the accent on name furniture interior decorators:

Someone on my timeline commented: “This looks like the lobby of the headquarters of a life insurance company. I trust it comes across better in person.” This fits into these existentialists: we are to ask whose subjectivity, what values are these houses imposing on us, at what cost to whom and why cannot this money be spent on the poor, the vulnerable, the refuge (a section of Weil is on the ultimate uprooted, the refuge), or some social services program, how about comfortable for free buses and trains.

*************************************


Izzy and I at the neighborhood summer block party Tuesday evening this past week — it’s talked about as if a central event; for the second of two times we’ve come, we found it sparsely attended

So I come back to where I began: this summer or this time of this summer is again hard. Truthful talk of a widow’s life. At that lunch I did after all make at the fine restaurant, with the two women we discussed what it is to be an older woman alone.

One said she was a widow of 40 years and epitomized her experience thus: “yes you get to go out for lunch like this,” but then spend your life as an outcast come evening: suddenly you are not invited to places you were because you are not a couple; how other women regard you as a threat. Yes. The other has been widowed twice, on her third and now unhappy marriage; her first husband was simply shot to death one day in their house; she came home to find the corpse; no one ever discovered who did it or why; she was left with three young children. The second a successful companionship, died of cancer. I remembered a third woman (online friend) this week told me (as she has before) of all the reproaches she has been the target of if she brought up she had been unlucky or looked sad — her husband died when she was 37 and he in his mid-40s:  the speakers seem to resent that she got a social security check, and pension as this man’s widow. She too left with two children. Why do people resent the minimal needs of others their class being met by some group set up for this through some shared scheme.  Jim was dead two weeks and I was told “it’s your own fault now if you are miserable” (but someone I hadn’t realized disliked Jim very much for his reclusive ways); that first year:  “get over it!”

We have been reading and discussing Trollope’s mid-career Miss Mackenzie on Trollope&Peers: its focus is a 35 year old spinster, left a lot of money, and trying to make a choice of life for herself and we’ve been discussing what were and are attitudes towards people who never marry, never have a partner, nor children. Why people marry? Why have children? One of the most moving modern plays of the 20th century of the realistic kind I’ve seen is by Lillian Hellman, The Autumn Garden; it focuses on a 50 plus year old woman now divorced (the husband left her for a much younger woman) whose 3 children are anywhere from indifferent to scornful. How lonely she is, how unappreciated she feels. Maybe I’d like a deeply compatible relationship once again, but I don’t think I’d get one like what I had where I’d again be allowed all the the time to read and write and watch what I want on TV, and nowadays go where I want (to classes) and (as a single man said on our list) I’ve an idea that no relationship could be worth giving up those freedoms for me — even if the price is years of nights alone and coping with my disabilities.


Trollope is having an Italian renaissance …

It’s called facing or accepting one’s lot, which I am doing this summer.

Ellen

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