Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Woolfian Year

Because I have not been teaching, time has opened up for Woolf reading, a project I had put off for lack of time.

Woolf in 1923. From (HT Fran).

My goal this year was to read all ten Woolf novels: I read nine, but comfort myself that I also read her biography of Roger Fry, along with rereading Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own. I also read Leonard Woolf's roman a clef, The Wise Virgins, and Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book.

Images like these help bring the Hogarth Press alive: this is from a British Library article found at (HT: Elaine Pigeon)

My list of Woolf reading is below (books by Woolf are further down in the blog), excluding articles on Woolf and bits of Quentin Bell's biography:

Vita and Virginia by Sarah Gristwood
A Boy at Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy
Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses by Douglas Orr
Mausoleum Book by Leslie Stephen
Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf
Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Louise DeSalvo
Deceived with Kindness by Angelica Garnett

As I said in my best books blog, the DeSalvo biography was the best book I read all year. All of the rest of these sources (with the possible exception of the Orr) were extremely helpful, and I am not at all sorry I read the Orr, which was a solid attempt to get at possible physical causes of Woolf's "mental" illnesses.

If Leonard's depiction of Virginia in Wise Virgins is accurate, he married a thoroughgoing lesbian, not a "bi-sexual:" they made their deal and had a partnership that was mutually beneficial--and they clearly liked and respected one another. Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book was also revelatory. Written in the wake of his wife Julia's death, Stephen, though trying to put his best foot forward, showed what a needy, insecure, self-absorbed (though not unloving or uncaring) drama queen he was--I felt the blast of his personality even through a book and across the distance of more than a century. Although I know he did not spend all his time in the throws of the grief his book expresses, I can understand why his daughters found him a  difficult person: I would not have wanted to deal with him in person, even remembering his positive attributes.

Books I read or reread by Virginia Woolf:

Roger Fry: A Biography 
Three Guineas
A Room of One's Own
Jacob’s Room
Mrs. Dalloway
To the Lighthouse
The Voyage Out
Between the Acts
The Waves
Night and Day

Most of these book were rereads, but read with new eyes. In terms of new reads, I very much appreciated the Fry biography and Flush, and enjoyed her first novel, The Voyage Out, far more than I expected.

Next year, I plan to begin with the novel I did not read, The Years (and also its draft, The Partigers). I then will move into Woolf's journals: this year I purchased most of them, but read very little. As for secondary sources, I hope to read Julia Briggs's Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. I also plan to read Leonard Woolf's first novel, The Village in the Jungle and to delve into research on Caroline Stephen. I welcome any book recommendations people might have, but would not like links to lists of "must read" Woolf books: as it unlikely I can read much more than seven books beyond what I have already outlined and the articles I will undoubtedly continue to read, a list of forty books, for example, is not helpful. But if you have read and loved a book about Woolf, or plan to read one on strong recommendation, I would be delighted to hear about it.

I have left out of my above list books such as the Hermione Lee biography or Moments of Being, and the many Woolf essays and short stories that I read before last year that also inform my understanding. However, as  I get "legs" under me, I am starting to assemble my own portrait of who Woolf was. I am deliberately putting off delving into her letters at this point--my instinct is  that she was honest in her novels, essays, nonfiction, and journals in a way she was not in her correspondence, so I hope to bracket that piece of her until I get a firmer picture in place. 

Odds and ends and Hall of Shame: 2018

Odds and Ends: Honorable mentions

First the good news: I wanted to mention two books that didn't make my "best of 2018" list but that I nevertheless read and have been thinking about. The first is Ann Boyd Rioux's Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, a very heavily promoted bio/critical appreciation of Little Women. Partially it is on my mind because it--and Little Women--have come up this year so often on book discussion lists. Second, I was scheduled to interview Rioux about the book for Publishers Weekly, and in one of my big disappointments of the year, the interview was cancelled because of complicated promises the publisher had previously made to the The New York Times. But life goes on ...

I enjoyed this book, especially the first part, but thought the second half could have been condensed: we didn't really need every living female writer on the planet (it seemed) quoted saying Jo March influenced her to become a writer, and  the chapter comparing the book to Tom Sawyer and arguing it doesn't have the same stature because it's a girl's book was a misfire. Little Women is so much better --and different--than Tom Sawyer the comparison simply seemed, if on the surface reasonable, below the surface, bizarre.

Moving on, I recently read Ivy Compton Burnett's Manservants and Maidservants. This is not a best book, but a curious and interesting novel. Like Compton Burnett's other books (I understand) it is almost all dialogue. It exposes truths because of its stark format, and it emphasizes the subaltern in its focus on children and servants in a Victorian great house. Its portrait of the young boy Avery is compelling. It reminded me of Woolf's The Waves in being  much about childhood. Woolf's narrators are all portrayed through their stream-of-consciousness interiority while Compton Burnett's are primarily portrayed through exteriority in their dialogue, but both books also have a sense of stripping out conventional elements of the novel to try to arrive at core truths.

Switching gears completely, I also feel compelled this year to include a Hall of Shame that includes three movies and three books. I would never include a small film or small book that somehow misfired, but I include these because they won or were nominated for major awards in three cases, and in the other three have been either prominently or misleading  promoted. The fact that several of these works won very prominent awards should give us pause and make us think again about the value of awards: just because a movie or book has won multiple awards doesn't mean it is any good--or espousing anything good.

Hall of Shame Movies:

The Shape of Water: I did not blog about this movie, but could have. This  misogynist and homophobic film about shaping an abject handmaiden cleaning woman to be the fit mate of the ideal Adonis heterosexual man (who happens to be a water creature) incredibly won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year. Yes, dear reader, I know it is difficult to fully wrap our intellects around this. We thought for the last fifty years there has been something called a "women's movement" that penetrated into powerful male consciousnesses to some minute degree, at least with the idea that women were not put on this planet solely to service men. Well, if the election of a racist, misogynist buffoon over the most highly qualified presidential candidate in history weren't enough, and if #MeToo weren't enough, a movie about a woman being molded as a perfect helpmeet for a hetero male won the Academy Award. I am sure it was billed as a heartwarming and whimsical story of two outsiders, but that is not what it is about.  If it were truly about sympathy towards outsiders, it would not include the ritual humiliation of a woman and a gay man. The nasty government officials might want to destroy the water creature, but that doesn't make the water creature an "other."  The water creature is the True Man, the Noble Hero. Note, too, that at the end of the movie, the male creature does not, ala the Little Mermaid, come out of water with great pain to join his beloved. No, she must join him. She must be transformed to be part of his world. And this ideological nonsense was considered by Hollywood to be the year's best picture. One lesson from this: the Democrats, much as it horrifies me to say this, must not even dream of running a woman for president.

Phantom Thread: this misogynist exercise also was nominated for Best Picture. The mind does reel. Two hours of women fawning over and servicing the Great Man--what more would any woman want to do with her life?  Oh, but it was set in the 1950s, and what else did women want to do then? (The movie implicitly asks: Why did things ever change?) Did we really nominate this movie for Best Picture? If we want to honor Daniel Day Lewis, let's honor him, not the misogynist swan song film in which he plays a prima donna white alpha male. I blog about it here:

BlackkKlansman: It may be slightly harsh to "hall of shame" this film--and the ending redeemed it, imo (my husband disagrees), but Lee's sledgehammer approach to race, where racists are depicted utterly as buffoons, ignoring all the insidious, subtler forms of racism that are far more common and dangerous, got entirely too much air space and praise. A far better film (it's on my "best" list) is Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You.

Hall of Shame Books

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: This book won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, and was longlisted for the Booker,  among a long list of other awards. The problem is, it is not a very good book. I loved the idea of an alternative history in which the underground railway was a subway train, and I find intriguing the idea of mashing historical periods together, but this book is far too crudely executed. Again, like Spike Lee's film, it is a sledgehammer that replaces novelistic nuance with stock scenes and characters meant to evoke pre-packaged responses that really don't require any thought. It's boring--titillating, but fundamentally, intellectually boring and bereft. Whitehead can be a good writer--at least I remember John Henry Days as a good book--but my feeling reading this one was that he breezed through it with as little effort as possible. Its simply not well-imagined and doesn't do justice the problem of racism. So let's pile it with awards.

Women Who Write are Dangerous by Stefan Bollman. I debated whether to include this book, which I got for free, as it has not received big press (that I am aware of it), but when I saw it prominently displayed in not one but two bookstores, I thought this is not good. Then I saw on Amazon that it is misrepresented as by Bollman and Francine Prose. No doubt the publisher figured out it would be a good idea to add a woman's name to the credits. But Prose only wrote the introduction. So, what we are left with is a man, who apparently has no  qualifications to write such a book, let loose to pen snarky little entries about whatever woman writers happen to catch his fancy. He seems mostly interested in these writers' sexuality--but why not? What else are women on earth for?  This book should never have been published ... but ... see above.

Laura Thompson's Agatha Christie biography: I fell for the good press on this. This is one of the worst biographies ever, leading to the question of exactly what Thompson's reading comprehension skills are. Do not read this misinformed book. I dropped it a third of the way in, as it became increasingly evident that it was nothing more than Thompson's none-too-insightful ramblings.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Best books 2018

I have written this year's "best books" blog  in the context of a popular internet meme that asks "what books have most influenced you?"

As the meme progressed during the year, I drew back from what seemed to me often dishonest lists of books, seemingly chosen because they would put a best foot forward, strike a pose, or make an individual look good or poetic: the most pernicious being a highly masculine author whose list included the first volume of Woolf's journal (really? The first volume, the "Miss Jan"  and "Stella took me for an ice cream" volume?) It sounded good, but I didn't for a moment believe it.

In defense of such lists,  however, the first books that jumped to my mind as most influential were Portrait of a Lady and Middlemarch--so perhaps it is our initial instinct is to veer towards the canonized and acceptable. Those books did astonish me with what seemed to be their near perfection the first time I read them, but as I went deeper to bring up influential reading, laying it, as Forster might advise, out in the sunlight to examine it, my most influential books were not always the most acceptable.

And yet how interesting if we could get to the books that really influenced us. Every such honest list must, I believe, include at least one or two works of children's literature, as how do we become readers if not from those powerful early experiences? Yet how many of these lists include a children's book? Very few. Almost all of us probably also have an influential "middlebrow' book, perhaps of self help or genre fiction, that deeply touched us because we read it at such a young age: I can think of several, all gateways into a different way of thinking about the world. What if we mentioned these books instead of feeling ashamed?

All of this is a prelude to my approach to this year's reading.  Rather than lists of fictions and nonfictions, organized, carefully considered, and balanced,  I relied on memory to bring up the books  that emotionally touched me most deeply this past year. I worked from the assumption that if a literary work remains in my memory, it made an impression and an impact. These are perhaps not the "best" books, objectively speaking, that I read last year, but those that I subjectively responded to most fully.

In another departure, I did sustained Woolf reading this year, especially in the past six months, and 19 of the roughly 73 books I finished in 2018 (more than a quarter) are by, about, or connected to Woolf. Therefore, I will, with one exception below, exclude Woolf from this list in order to focus a later blog exclusively on that reading project.

I wrote down from the top of my head my "best" books without regard for categories. As it happened, I ended up with five fiction, five non-fiction, and one "bridge" books, so I reorganized them that way. Despite my conscious efforts to read more women, my list still split almost equally between genders:


 Louise DeSalvo's Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse: This was the most shattering book I read in 2018.  DeSalvo makes a strong case that Woolf's childhood was fraught with trauma. She argues that the psychological abuse and neglect that were characteristics of a normal upper class Victorian childhood permeated Woolf's upbringing, along with sexual abuse.  Treating all the members of the Stephen family with respect--noting especially that Woolf's parents were damaged themselves by their own childhoods--DeSalvo shows how Woolf made a point to quietly encode childhood abuse and suffering in her novels.  DeSalvo makes sense of and ties together Woolf's writing, her adult relationships, and her mental illness. It is a form of biography Woolf herself would have appreciated: passionate, with a strong point of view, and focused on approaching and illuminating the unspoken spaces of a life. I bought the book because I came across it in a Wooster, Ohio, used bookstore and had it on my list of Woolf books to read--but otherwise I would not have gone out of my way to read it. Once I started it, however,  I couldn't put it down. All else went on hold as I pored over this book that struck me to the core as coherently and convincingly explaining Woolf's struggles and pathos. If the book has a flaw--and no biography can cover everything--it is perhaps downplaying the opposite pillar of what Woolf's status as a member of a wealthy and prominent literary family at the center of empire did for her in positive ways (of which she was well aware)--but an intelligent person can add that to the mix. As an aside, I was sorry to hear of DeSalvo's death this year, just as I had "discovered" her.

Adrienne Rich's The Essential Essays: I can't praise this compilation of essays Rich wrote over the course of her career highly enough. Rich, who died in 2012, is an extraordinarily humane thinker and writer,  appalled and insightful about the political mess our country has been in for the last 40 years. Rich believes as firmly as can be in the underdog, and in the right of all people for leisure, the chance to pursue art, which she finds deeply humanizing, to be treated with dignity, and to have access decent work and education. She loves literature, writes eloquently about it,  and never forgets it is political.

Katie Briggs's This Little Art: I discovered that this book, purportedly about translation,  dismays people in translation studies as too superficial, but I loved it as a celebration of Barthes' deep humanity (Briggs translates Barthes), the open ended quality of literature,  and the provisionality of all interpretation.

Caroline Weber: Proust's Duchess: How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siecle Paris:  I seem unable to stop thinking about this long, densely written and well researched book. It focuses on three leading society women who were melded into Proust's Duchesse de Guermante. The book fascinates because of the granular level of research it provides: what these women wore and what it cost, details about homes and living arrangements, accounts of how days were spent. With that in hand, one doesn't need Marx to show that these extraordinarily wealthy people were  stunningly stupid, narcissistic, and sociopathic parasites (and these generalized terms don't begin to describe them)  who contributed next to nothing to the larger society while wasting vast amounts of resources. Not only the French, but the British aristocracy--much worshipped by the French--are indicted, such as Robert Bulwer-Lytton, viceroy of India from 1876-80, considered by the French as "royalty." He had one the longest--60 days-- and most  expensive feasts on record, deliberately held during a mass famine, sometimes considered a deliberate genocide, that killed more that five million Indians. Nice guy, eh? The French aristocracy apparently thought so and feted him accordingly.  
Here is a link to a Guardian article about the book: Anyone who thinks there is nothing wrong with allowing a few people to accumulate vast wealth will think differently after this book: I wondered that all these people weren't guillotined in a revolution.

Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion/Voltaire's Candide: This may be one of the most unusual pairings ever, but a paraphrase from Kelly will--eventually--lead to Voltaire. It has been a joy to reread Kelly's Quaker classic about mystical spiritual encounters. Anyone who has had the spiritual experiences Kelly describes can almost feel the thought processes behind the words on the page. Kelly, writing about the plight of Quakers and other humane people in Nazi Germany, states that the German Quakers have learned what has always been true: that there is no earthly security and never has been. This truth is foundational to my understanding of the world. Nothing material is secure. Anything you think you have can be gone in an instance. This is simply truth. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that other people interpret the ending wisdom of Candide: "let us cultivate our gardens," as implying this cultivation  will make us secure. In fact I read a scholarly article (HT: Ellen Moody) that asserted harshly that Candide was a "gull" for putting his faith in this "garden" wisdom. While Candide may be a gull, for me cultivating my garden has been an important touchstone phrase as I pursue a year of retreat and contemplation, but certainly not because I equate it with security. Because there is so little security, it seems all the more important--urgent even-- to cultivate our gardens when and how we can.  I have not reread Candide cover to cover but have found solace this year in dipping into it and enjoying its vignettes, particularly near the end.

And that fictional work leads to this year's novels. I read far fewer novels than nonfiction works last year. These stood out:


Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown: This densely written 1966 novel, the first of Raj Quartet, with its layered perspectives from the points of view of different people (often women), provides a nuanced picture of social graduations in India under the British during World War II. It purports to be the story of the gang rape of Daphne Manners, a young British woman, but make no mistake: it is really the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian brought up British in England only to end up poor and despised in Mayapore, the fictional Indian town where the story takes place. If I have a quibble with this novel, it's that Daphne herself and her rape are treated dismissively, Hari's arrest dealt with more sympathetically than Daphne's terrifying and painful gang assault. (But, of course, are not men and what happens to them more important than women? Will such an attitude never change?) The details  make this novel come to life: for instance, Daphne's casual spending  for LP records in the same bazaar where Hari in raggedy clothes cannot muster a few pennies for a book. The tragedy of India is that people living side by side know nothing of each other's lives: or more precisely, that the British know nothing of the Indians.

E.M. Forster's A Room with a View: I will admit this is not, objectively speaking, as strong as Howard's End, which I also read this year (both books through the Trollope group) but it delighted me more. I had read the book decades ago, but  this time it appeared to me as a whole new novel. I have been for some years interested in the question of a l'ecriture humaine or humane writing: Forster completely understands the humane and inhumane in human nature, and this book shows all the small ways people can savage others under a guise of "goodness." Inhumanity is not here disguised as strength or an admirable trait used by "winners," but as the soul destroying force it is. I found myself copying quote after quote from this lively, kind, and insightful novel.

Ann's Leckie's Ancillary Justice: This is another reread. It was on my best reads of last year or the year before, and I said I hoped to reread it. This year I did, and it was just as good the second time. This is a sci-fi genre novel, which won't appeal to everyone, but I was taken by its deep humanity. The first-person narrator, Breq, is an ancillary--a person refashioned into a robot, and in her case, into the consciousness running an entire large spaceship. Breq is the colonized other, a servant, a worker, a being of no consequence in her culture. Because of her view from below, she is, however, a being/person of deep humanity. This only gradually emerges. Breq (or Eck One) presents at first in a very masculinized opening chapter as a possibly brutalized and threatening character--though she does save the life of a person she doesn't much like. Readers could easily be put off by this opening: this is story that has to be "stayed with" to be appreciated.  In both readings, I did fall in love with Breq  as a shattered, suffering, musically sensitive underdog who retains her core humanity. I also appreciated her culturally conditioned inability to distinguish gender, so that she refers to everyone as "she." Science fiction can be a radical genre, allowing us to explore new ideas in a variety of guises, and I appreciate it when it rises to that level. Leckie has several sequels to this novel: I am frankly afraid to read them for fear of disappointment. If Leckie is not a great writer, she is good enough--better than good enough--and her vision pulled me in.

Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn: I have been wanting to read Pym for 35 years, and finally did, again in a reading group. If this novel did not have quite the impact on me of the three above, it did delight me despite its "grim" topic of a "quartet" of single older people, two male, two female, on the brink of retirement. It was very well written, quietly humane, and about ordinary people. It seemed real, and had an upbeat ending, while in no way being falsely cheerful. I liked it so well that I ordered three more of her novels ... which are now on my book stack.

Michel Tournier's Friday: I was deeply drawn into this 1967 retelling of Robinson Crusoe. This Crusoe is a repellent character, but redeemed as he takes on Friday's far less repressive worldview and learns from him. The writing is very strong. My complaint with the book is that Crusoe never really, to my mind, becomes fully human, even after being changed by Friday. But what a compelling retelling of a story I keep stumbling across as influential--for good or ill--to so many writers and thinkers from Woolf to Deleuze.

More to come...

Friday, December 21, 2018

Best filmed and live media 2018

Five films, one mini-series, and one live play made a list that, as with my best books list this year, derives from memory, and reflects my heart. All of these productions moved me deeply. 

The Bookshop: I loved this film, which was faithful to the novel  in showing how small-mindedness, parochialism, and "motiveless malignancy" (ie spite) can destroy an outsider. As my husband, who had not read the book noted, the film's ending was surprising. One expects some redemption, some way, ala a Hollywood film, for the protagonist to fight back and win: but the film shows that sometimes, and maybe more often than not, justice is not done. Yet while cheated of her shop in outrageous and unethical ways, Mrs. Green is never defeated or broken. Her life moves onward and outward.  
     The film was criticized for being slow moving--and it was slow-- but that didn't bother me. What unsettled me most was its being shot in Spain and Ireland, away from its supposed East Anglian fens setting. In these days when travel is so accessible and tourism the largest global industry, filmmakers can no longer convincingly substitute settings any more than they can convincingly use Hollywood backlots. I knew instantly the shots of the village were shots of Ireland and spent time puzzling over where. But that detail aside, the overall beautiful filming and many small humane moments, including Mrs. Green's many instances of joy at owning a book shop, make this a radiant and bittersweet rather than a depressing film.

Mrs. Green in front of her shop.

Roma, an amazing  Mexican film set in 1971, though directed by a male, is a woman's film through and through. It focuses on the life of a young maid in an upper middle-class household named Cleo, and while it doubtless idealizes the servant-employer relationship, it also shows the reality of a maid's life in a way a series like Downtown Abbey does not. The focus is entirely on women and the domestic, and women are treated with dignity and respect by the film (if not by the men in the movie). The black and white filming is beautiful, and there is an amazing scene near the end in the ocean. Politics are a backdrop; the domestic day-to-day life is in the foreground. I can't shake the image of Cleo climbing the seemingly endless metal steps to the roof with the laundry basket so she can do the wash by hand--downstairs is always downstairs even when it is upstairs.

 Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley, is a stunning satire that hits the bull-eye on the reality of our times. It takes place in a slightly alternative-universe  Oakland, taken out only a few degrees from our own culture. The movie is a Swiftian puncturing of our culture's obsession with money, violence, and success. In this film, the lead character "Cash" Green is so desperate for a job that he is glad to get work as a telemarketer. He lives in a garage with his girlfriend Detroit, an artist, and is surrounded by a world of poverty and desperation that makes the Leave No Trace universe look prosperous. People are so desperate that they sign lifetime contracts with a company called Worry Free, which gives them room and board in return for their labor. Worry Free ads show people living stacked in bunk beds, where their meals are brought on trays. Cash's uncle, whose garage Cash rents, thinks about joining Worry Free because his house is about to be foreclosed on. The US Congress, consistently shown in cahoots with big industry, passes legislation that deems Worry Free not slavery, though obviously it is. In addition, people enjoy a reality TV show in which other people are beaten up called "I Got the S**t Kicked Out of Me."To abbreviate the plot, Cash moves up to become a Power Caller because of his "white voice" and ability to telemarket, where one of his clients becomes none other than Worry Free. He is exposed to Worry Free's sociopathic owner, Steve Lift. We see the vast gulf between the haves in the luxury  Power Caller offices upstairs, and the have nots crowded into the bullpen office below. Cash as Power Caller makes enough to pay off his uncle's mortgage, buy a fancy car, and move into a luxury apartment. Meanwhile, a worker name Squeeze organizes the employees downstairs into striking for a living wage, and Cash's humane artist girl friend holds is feet to the fire. I heard people grumbling at this film's end--yes, it cuts uncomfortably close to home.

Sorry to Bother You

I thoroughly enjoyed Won't You Be My Friend, the documentary about Mr. Rogers. Given what we have in the White House and the general level of discourse in this country, it was impossible to get too much of a man who lived his life promoting and enacting gentleness, compassion, and mercy. Mr. Roger's utterly puts to shame our culture of cruelty and triumphalism, and its celebration of a brutalizing masculinity that includes celebrating sociopathic brutal  women as "feminists."  Though the idea would be much ridiculed, a gentler Mr. Rogers world would be one in which we would all thrive. I also enjoyed RBG, the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, but I couldn't quite put it on my best list: she is a little too comfortably in bed with power and a little too narrowly focused on identity politics. Nevertheless, it came close. 

I found myself riveted, however, by the My Brilliant Friend miniseries that aired recently on HBO. Based on the first of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, it tells the story of best friends Lenu and Lila, both highly intelligent girls, who become close friends in the Neapolitan slums. Lenu, just barely, gets the opportunity to move ahead with her education; Lila, though  more intelligent, is forced to end her education early. The filming, the acting, and the details are all moving done and the evocation of female friendship--and love of learning--is stunning. I have long had the novel on my shelf and long been meaning to read it: it is next on my list. 

An iconic moment as Lenu and Lila read Little Women.

King Lear: I saw the recent Anthony Hopkins King Lear. It is a wonderful production.

A Winter's Tale: I saw a production of this play at the Richmond, Indiana Shakespeare festival. An exceptionally strong Hermione made this well-staged version riveting and moving. I especially appreciated Shakespeare's understanding of how a powerful person's echo chamber can drown out all truth when he has decided that what he believes, true or not, is the Truth--and that demonstrations to the contrary are all the more confirmation of his truth. Shakespeare, as always, condemns the misuse of power.

A powerful Hermione

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A year of solitude and contemplation: a halfway mark

"Take rest. A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop." Ovid

Fallow Fields by Ellen Anderson

As Christmas and the year's end approach, I continue on in my year of solitude and contemplation. This period of retreat started after the spring semester ended, when I realized I would take a year from teaching. 

It took me a few months to understand that my enterprise encompassed more than merely taking time "off. " I recognized after four months had passed that my period of "not teaching"  has been a spiritual journey of quieting and focusing. I felt, according to Adrienne Rich, what the poet Muriel Rukeyer calls an "intolerable hunger." Clayton Eshleman calls it "the desire, the need, for a more profound and ensouled world."

Moving, if ever slightly, from getting and spending is a quietly subversive activity.  Rich notes that "humanity" is 

time and space for love, for sleep and dreaming, time to create art, time for both solitude and communal life, time to explore the idea of an expanding universe of freedom.

This year's Christmas tree. It is a five foot tree I purchased last year at IKEA.

 I should mention I am not entirely in solitude as I have my husband and a son at home, and a small round of social events and travel. But I do experience more solitude, which carries with it the risk of melancholia. I take solace in Rilke words for his Letters to a Young Poet

Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working on you?

It is difficult to put the last months into words as externally little has changed. I have felt less harried. I have had time to journal, to do some water color painting, to read, to think, all this amid the paid work I still do, my Quaker volunteer work,  and the everyday tasks that fill a life. 

From Forster's A Room with a View, the following describes my experience or perhaps my aspirations:

Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.

 I appreciate the image of pulling buried or packed up thoughts out of oneself and spreading them in the sun as one might the jumble of trash and treasure in an attic or basement. 

This excavation of thought, this "work of soul," in Rilke's words, undergirds my outward activities. I have two writing projects. I will spend a month in Malta from mid-February to mid-March for the experience of warmer weather and an older culture, with a stay at the end in Chawton to visit Jane Austen's home. I know a month long trip abroad would not have been possible were I teaching in the spring.  I think of the trip as pilgrimage rather than vacation. 

As I have cast back through memories  in response to an internet meme about the books that most influenced me, I have been trying to be honest rather than posturing about this and also to recover more of my emotional reading self: the self that allows me to respond with deep feeling to a text; this is the way we begin reading as children if we fall in love with literature. 

Because of my extra bits of free time, I have been able to embark too on a focused project of reading Woolf and about Woolf. I have had more time to work on a project on "l'ecriture humanine" or humane writing, with a focus lately on the treatment of single woman in literature and life. 

My life has been rich and varied since May, if quiet. Since I began my year of retreat and contemplation, I have had the chance to visit my daughter in Austin, who is getting married next November, (and also visit with her partner and fiance, Ben). I took a quiet trip in October to see the lovely blue waters of Maine with my friend Jane. 

Like Woolf, I dream:
I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. 
But at the same time,  I never forget--especially in the midst of the politics we are living through these days, which reflect a world uncomfortably like that of  Chekov's Russia--that: 

one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children die of starvation. . . . And such a state of things is obviously what we want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible. 

That doesn't fall from my mind. I don't do enough to alleviate it, and that weighs on me. I remember Rich's question: "With whom do you believe your lot is cast?" 

I think too of  Rich’s image, taken from a painting she saw of an arm breaking out of a canvas to describe the way she was determined, at the end of her life, to live apart from the ethos of  our current time, and instead, harken back to a time that seemed to her to be lost, a time when a certain set of values—of public values—were allowable. I try to do that too,  a particularly Quixotic endeavor, and I take heart from the Talmud:

 The highest form of wisdom is kindness.