Going hence

Last night our dear friend Elaine left this life. These last few years she's been in a growing darkness, a coming night where the light gets dimmer and the sounds less distinct. She was still good-humoured (until the last stay in hospital), and you could still make her laugh that belly chuckle of hers, but she's been losing, faster lately, finger by finger, her grip on this world. So, when it came, it was a mercy. An end of darkness. We know where she is and who she's seeing now in wondrous light.

But that doesn't make her going any easier. Death, even a merciful death, is still an enormity. It was the end of her suffering but also the end of a long, loving life.

She'd grown up near Mildura, a redhead like her Dad. She and Chris met at Bible College. They got married in 1965, and crossed the Nullabor in a Volkswagon. They had two children of their own, and fostered a dozen Aboriginal babies in their years as missionaries in the dusty West. Later they travelled the world together. She loved the castles and lakes of Europe, and she had an amazing ability to read maps and timetables, even in foreign languages, and find their way wherever they were. She was bright and quick, she had an extraordinary memory. She dreaded the loss of it. She'd seen her mother go down into that darkness and she did everything she could to avoid it. But it came in the end.

She had long, bony fingers and an everlasting pile of knitting. Until lately she did crosswords and sudoku in record time. She loved jewellry, china, collectable dolls and bric-a-brac. Anything with 'Grandma' written on it. Any kind of Royal memorabilia. She had more Andre Rieu than you would have thought possible. Apparently she was a wonderful cook, but that had gone by the time I met her. She would never say no to a cup of tea, nor to another cup of tea. She loved hymns and songs, especially the Sunday School songs she learned as a child. She had a lot of funny sayings, colloquialisms. She told us her husband, a talker, had been vaccinated with a gramophone needle. “You should be on the stage!” she’d tell him. “There’s one leaving town in half an hour.”

She had a quick temper, but she was quick too to laugh, and the first to help or give. She had a special love, that never dimmed, for her autistic granddaughter, who got her last words: "Hello darling." She was warm and brave and kind. Her whole heart was in her face.

I'll miss her terribly. But I wouldn't wish her back from where she's gone.

“If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going."

Healing reason's wounds

We drove past Bellevue on our bus-top tour of New York. It's America's oldest hospital, ivy-covered, venerable, haunted. It bears a name almost synonymous with madness, but it also handles injury, maternity, malady, vagrancy. And, unbeknownst to our bus-top tour guide, Jose, it publishes a Literary Review. The editors describe Bellevue as a “witness to nearly three centuries of human drama," and their Review as a forum for illuminating humanity and human experience." They publish fiction, nonfiction and poetry about illness, health, and healing, which, as far as human experience goes, about covers it.

Editor-in-Chief Danielle Ofri, a doctor at Bellevue and a professor at NYU, writes about the burgeoning use of poetry and literature in medicine, and her own use of poetry with her patients as a way of disarming and reframing the experience of being ill, helping patients split apart by illness find their way back to wholeness. I had come across Rachel Naomi Remen already, a doctor who's pioneered holistic healing and emotional engagement of doctor and patient. But literature and medicine strikes me as a particularly apt pairing: poetry as the richest expression of human being, and human suffering; the humanities at work in and on humans.

Around the time that Bellevue's old bricks were first laid one upon another, the Enlightenment struck the human enterprise and scattered its flocks. I like the thought that science now finds its complement in art. I like the thought that the human being, dissected on Enlightenment's table, is recompacting, reforming, finding its way back to wholeness. Poetry heals reason's wounds.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair

My eye was caught by the story of a message in a bottle, washing up on a Croatian beach after spending 28 years crossing the Atlantic. What could be more romantic than this unlooked for redemption of a human voice, a human appeal, from the unregarding years, the oblivious depths? Unfortunately, the message was a deep disappointment for anyone of a romantic turn of mind. Here's what it said:


You are a really great person.
I hope we can keep in correspondence.
I said I would write.
Your friend always,


Nova Scotia ’85

Against this inconsequential blather, so miraculously preserved, the soul cries out: How utterly banal! How bland! How jejune! And, the soul might add, how '80s. I'm sure it was not Jonathan's intention to offend; quite the reverse. His subtext is patently "Hey, let's just be friends. But I'm too chicken to tell you that in person so I'll just throw this into the sea." There is an insult to Mary in that, but there's also an insult to language and its innate poetic possibility. There's an insult to mystery and the mind's imaginings; an insult flung out against the great romance of the turning world. It's as if we translated the Rosetta Stone and it revealed itself as mere doggerel or drivel. Or as if we saw from afar some writing on the moon, and when we looked more closely it said "Buzz woz here '69".

Humans, it seems, have more capacity for inconsequence, as well as for consequence, than any other creature. If the '80s bore witness to this, how much more our present moment, when texts you wouldn't cross the street to read, let alone an ocean, are preserved still more carefully and irrevocably than by the crude method of an ocean-going vase? Seeing our words and works are likely to last, perhaps unto immortality, we should take care that they should be worth the lasting.

A dream of spring

There are many cultural anniversaries this year - the publication of Pride and Prejudice, the deaths of Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, and CS Lewis to name a few. But one in danger of being overlooked is the 1993 film Groundhog Day, turning 20 this year. This is one of those singular films that comes along every now and then that manages to combine comedy, novelty, and philosophy in a way that gives it a (if you'll pardon me) timeless appeal. Not all that popular at the time, the film has a vast critical afterlife, and a following among various faithful who all see in it their own theologies (as this 2003 New York Times article notes). Watching it for roughly the 114th time, I was struck less by the philosophical journey of Bill Murray's character Phil through hedonism, nihilism, charlatanism, to creative humanism (explored here) and more by the breadth of literary reference in the film.

Andie McDowell's character Rita quotes Sir Walter Scott, and has studied nineteenth-century French poetry in college. Phil quotes lines from Jacques Brel that roughly translate “The girl I will love / is like a fine wine / that gets a little better / every morning”; later he tries to entice her to his bed with promises of Baudelaire. When he begins to undergo his transformation, we find him reading Treasury of the Theatre: From Agamemnon to A Month in the Country in a cafe; the portent of further enlightenment to come. He cites Chekhov in his final weather broadcast. On his last evening with Rita, they are reading from an anthology called Poems for Every Mood, and Phil says the last thing Rita heard before falling asleep was “Only God can make a tree,” the last line of Joyce Kilmer's poem “Trees” (which I've posted before). All of these references (and I'm sure there are others) are significant in the film's imaginative schema, where mortality, time, seasons, weather, human and divine nature are all entwined.

One in particular leapt out at me, and it's one of those instances where the two lines quoted fit the scene nicely, but the entire poem fits the film in a much richer way. The lines are Coleridge's and Phil quotes them in passing to an inconsequential fellow guest: “Winter slumbering in the open air, / Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring.” They sound hopeful, but they're from a sonnet called “Work without Hope,” which speaks to Phil's predicament as a man at odds with nature's flow, “the sole unbusy thing” trapped in an eternal day that no tomorrow illumines with hope. The spell breaks, though, when Phil (“love” in Greek) learns to work, and to love, without hope. 
All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair -
The bees are stirring - birds are on the wing - 
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
Yet, well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.


Brontë on Austen

I mentioned in my last that Charlotte Brontë was not an Austen fan. I had a vague recollection of some remarks she'd famously made on the subject, and went looking for them. They appear in letters she wrote to the critic GH Lewes, and to her publisher's reader WS Williams, both of whom admired Austen and encouraged Brontë to give her a try. 

“Why do you like Jane Austen so very much?" she complained to Lewes in a letter of 12 January 1848. On his advice she had read Pride and Prejudice, but all she found there was a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck... [George Sand] is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant."

To Williams she wrote, in 1850, that she had just read Emma: “read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable—anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress."

It's a difference of period as well as temperement, but it's also, I would venture, a misreading. Brontë's own preference for sturm und drang (the aspect of her novels I find least appealing) leads her to read Austen's calm as a preoccupation with surfaces. In fact surfaces are precisely what Austen is concerned to trouble and displace. Customs and courtesies cover a seething multitude of relational subtleties and human failings. Masks and impressions fall before knowledge and revelation. Austen's sharp penetration of civil surfaces makes for inspired comedy and an enduring social realism for which Brontë never strove.