August Reading

The stand out here, was of course, Middlemarch. I had read it in college and remember thinking to myself, “am I really going to expend my youth reading about agricultural practices in 19th century rural England?” But of course, it is so much more. Many people have called it the greatest English novel, and, to disprove this opinion, I would have to read a whole lot more English novels. So I provisionally agree. 

Last month’s reading of Faulkner required the antidote of Morrison, and I read her essays, and her first novel The Bluest Eye.  Also of undisputed greatness–though censors the world over have been trying to suppress it for years. I doubt they’ve read it. 

The book that left me straddling the fence, wavering in opinion, and wondering about its suitability for prize-winning, was the International Booker Prize winner, The Discomfort of Evening–which announcement and ceremony I accidentally happened upon as it was taking place live online. Prizes invite dispute, which enlivens book reading in general, so I welcome them. The book was great, but green. I was amazed to learn that the distinguished judges read all the contenders, starting with 128 books. 

And if you haven’t already read Signs Preceding the End of the World, run don’t walk to your local bookstore, and pick it up curbside. 

 

Middlemarch and Civil Society. Chapters 23-42

Occasionally, in literature, good men appear. I am thinking of Martin Cunningham, in Ulysses, who always had something kind to say on behalf of Leopold Bloom. And here in Middlemarch I encountered another one.

The good Caleb Garth, whose kind nature was exploited by the n’er-do-well spendthrift and gambler Fred Vincy, who impoverished his family and expunged their savings–Garth is offered his old job back, as the manager of the farmland for the local gentry, and he has this to say:

“…it’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business; to have a chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, as they say, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for. I’d sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honorable work that is. … it’s a great gift of God, Susan. “

“That It is, Caleb,” said his wife, with answering fervor. “And it will be a blessing to your children to have had a father who did such work: the father whose good work remains though his name may be forgotten.”

It is because criminals are occupying the highest offices in the nation, because the gangrene of corruption has spread to the furthest corners of America, because we are so endlessly subjected to the most repugnant appalling and reprehensible behavior–that this stood out so much for me: the modest but deep satisfaction that comes from honest work, giving much and leaving things better than they were found. 

Middlemarch is the story of a town, a community, a civil society, and its various personalities, their struggles with each other and themselves, and their eventual fates. Their responses to cultural change, the introduction of new technologies and scientific discoveries. The perspectives of both maids and Lords. And one of the terrible things I realized as I read this book is that, in America, we no longer seem to be living in a civil society. We’re being told that we don’t have it, and can’t.

In a civil society, there’s a sense of trust, fellowship, and solidarity. Even with deep disagreement, and political conflict–which are unfolding in Middlemarch in these chapters–all townspeople and members of the civil society, from the snobbiest Baron, to the filthiest farmhand, grant dignity, humanity and self worth to one another.  Discussion, irritation and exasperation results from differing points of view–but not hatred, contempt, violence or dismissal. The book shows arguments between opposed parties that are not inflammatory. Respect prevails. Any position counter to that of another, any dispute, any selfishness is superseded by that person’s membership in this community, town and society.

Which is still mostly the case in the United States, and in spite of our differences, we mostly agree. So why don’t we bring public conversations back around to the temper and mood of conversations the people are having in Middlemarch? Where has our civil society gone? How do we get to a Middlemarch of our own?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Middlemarch Diary #2, Chapters 14-22

George Eliot, circa 1849

Proceeding apace! After the evocative gothic image of the sanctimonious peaches-and-cream maiden marrying the cadaverous Casaubon, Middlemarch has quickly devolved into a village comedy with all the usual types: the aunt busybody, the congenial parson, the young rake, the dull but earnest suitor. I’m a jaded English Lit major, and have never been a fan of the Marriage Plot, general in 19th century novels, unless there is, say, a madwoman in the attic or an egregious breach of manners, say, nakedness in the drawing room. It’s all too genteel and proper, and I await some grisly murder or monstrous betrayal beneath the scrim of politesse. There was a recent interview with Emma Cline, whose first novel was The Girls, about a Manson-like murderer with a cult of young women. She has recently written a story from the perspective of a Weinstein-like protagonist, and her interviewer suggested there might be something wrong with presenting a predator and criminal in a way that might make him sympathetic. Cline rightly retorted that monsters and madmen are better subjects for stories than the upright and respectable, and doesn’t humanizing them serve us all better, enabling us to finally see them? I agree. Unless, say, the subject is repression itself. I’m thinking of Anita Brookner novels, or The Remains of the Day. There are no hard and fast rules anywhere in literature. But are we, with Middlemarch, headed towards Anna Karenina on the train tracks? The Ace of Hearts at the end of Tess of the d’Urbervilles? I know where this is going, I’ve read it already, and every other one of these Marriage Plot books. The women cannot win. 

Except, have you heard of Miss Marjoribanks, by Margaret Oliphant? I hadn’t either, until today’s London Review of Books arrived in the mail and I read this article by Tom Crewe, where he writes:

“The novel tells the story of Miss Marjoribanks, and of her return, after finishing her schooling, to live with her widowed father in Carlingford, where already

preparations and presentiments had taken vague possession of the mind of the town, as has always been observed to be the case before a great revolution, or when a man destined to put his mark on his generation, as the newspapers say, is about to appear. To be sure, it was not a man this time, but Miss Marjoribanks; but the atmosphere thrilled and trembled to the advent of the new luminary all the same.”

Doesn’t this sound good? Read on, that article has choice excerpts. Miss Marjoribanks never gets married! Or does she? I have ordered a copy. Apparently Mrs. Oliphant wrote 98 books, so this may be the start of something I can’t finish. But first, let’s find out what happens to Dorothea Brooke. I have forgotten the details. It’s not looking good for her, let’s all agree. 

And before I go, I quite enjoyed Chapter 13, and the argument between Mr. Vincy and Mr. Bulstrode, with its suppressed insult, insinuation, veiled threat and oblique jabs. So English. Bulstrode is emerging as a villain, a character it gives one pleasure to detest. If the result of all this repression is vicious and amusing banter, and elegant eviscerations, OK OK, I’m along for the ride.

 

 

Anxy, Hilma & Vassar

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  • I am a huge fan of the new magazine Anxy by Bobbie Johnson et al. which is a beautifully designed, thoughtful bi-annual magazine about our inner lives, our psychology and our behavior. Recent issues have centered on Boundaries, Workaholism and Anger. In the most recent issue, on the subject of Masculinity, I found some terrifying quotes from pre-teens, who, when asked the question, “What is Masculinity?” presented the most violent, aggressive and insensitive men as paragons of masculinity. Can we all watch The Mask You Live In again please? 
  • I’ve had many vicarious experiences, which are often better than original, immediate, actual, personal experiences. A wonderful example of this is in a short story–a very short story–by Lydia Davis, reproduced here in full:

Happiest Moment

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then sat it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck. 

I recently had the experience of attending the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim vicariously, since all my friends have gone, and raved about it. Who says these things can’t be among your happiest moments?  I also feel as if I have seen Saturday Night Live through other people, never having seen it myself, as well as having read Thinking Fast and Slow and Sapiens by osmosis, surrounded, as I have been, with people who have in fact read it themselves. We can live through other people, much of the time, and experiencing the joy of other people as if it were your own is one way of guaranteeing your own happiness. 

  • Vassar, my alma mater, has a beautiful campus, full of trees and old buildings, exactly the way you imagine a college campus to look. I went back recently to give a keynote at the Sophomore Career Development event, and was happy to note that very few students were staring at their phones. 

More:

Have a look through the Vassar Quarterly to see what a great school Vassar is. I love small, liberal arts colleges, and my education there was exceptional. The cover of the most recent issue shows the campus in all its autumnal leaf-changing glory. And downtown Poughkeepsie is on track for a wonderful revival, having started some projects with the amazing non-profit design firm MASS Design Group

 This is a wonderful collection of very short stories by Lydia Davis, who also does beautiful translations from the French, such as Swann’s Way, the first book of In Search of Lost Time; a new translation of Madame Bovary, as well as translations from Maurice Blanchot, another of my favorites, such as The Gaze of Orpheus.

 

Another way I’ve vicariously experienced the Hilma af Klint exhibit is through this book, which I was given as a gift by another exhibit attendee. This, and her book of Notes and Methods, are gorgeous. 

Greetings from Utopia Park

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A cast of characters doesn’t get any better than this: Levitating yogis, a dreamy, beautiful, transcendent mommy, Midwestern thugs in metal t-shirts, and one wide-eyed, unicorn-loving, pure-hearted girl–all of this in, yes, Greetings from Utopia Park, by my friend Claire Hoffman.

This childhood was not easy, you gather from Claire’s story. She tells of the ups and downs of growing up in a religious community, in this case the Fairfield, Iowa community built by the famous guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the home of Transcendental Meditation. TM was made famous by some of the Maharishi’s disciples: Paul, John, George and Ringo, and was subsequently slammed by the same. David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) is another famous proponent of the sect, who has written books and made videos in support of the organization, and has become its unofficial spokesperson. In TM each person is given a special, magic mantra, all of their own. They use it to meditate, and eventually, hopefully, reach enlightenment.

Claire’s mom, a single mom, managed to pursue peace and truth while raising two children and struggling to make a living–a feat in itself. Claire and her brother grew up as members of a community that sought enlightenment and harmony, but struggled under its share of controversy. She thinks hard about her experiences, and what they meant, and how they shaped her. To live in a utopia–what a privilege! But to look behind the curtains almost destroys her belief. How do you know you’re on the One True Path? Sham or Shangri-La? Were the rumors about her guru true? All believers must confront their doubt. All seekers must question what they find. In the era of Hoffman’s childhood, many sought something greater, something higher. Many of them were parents, who wanted the best for their children, and brought them along.

The beauty won from this alternately lovely and terrible childhood was hard fought for. She details the picnics and ceremonies, the school days and meditations. She feels the pain of being an outsider among the uninitiated. Watches her friends go astray. And in the end, after her angry teens and resentful twenties, now a married mother in her thirties, Claire goes back to what was good and true about her upbringing, and returns to her spiritual home. She goes back to meditation, to reap its fruits. She makes her peace with her childhood and her mother’s decisions. And she takes her small daughter down to the TM center to learn her mantra, and meditate.

The suffering can be borne and meaning wrung out of wasted days. Deceptive gurus and false messiahs litter the paths of pilgrims. But they don’t have the last word. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. Sometimes you climb the mountain, and you fall and fail. Maybe there is a different path that will take you up. Sometimes a different mountain. Greetings from Utopia Park tells you the path of the seeker is a path with a heart.

Keep climbing, keep seeking.