Quiet

Susan Cain's book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking is an intelligent, literary reflection on the undue dominance of extroversion in our society and the neglected strengths of introverts. It is a cultural critique but critique is somehow too harsh a word for this gentle, personable, historically grounded, psychologically precise defence of introversion. Cain describes the rise of the extrovert as cultural norm and ideal, and the impact this has had on schools and workplaces in the last few decades. We've adopted a bias toward the extrovert as a better leader, the group as a better generator of ideas, and the open plan office as a better way to work, but numerous studies show this bias is misleading. Cain reminds us how much creativity (in all fields) is solitary, and how our understanding of genius and proficiency has all along involved introverted behaviours - like solitude and concentration; the 10,000 hours theory - that we've somehow misfiled as eccentricity. She is generous toward extroverts - they have, it emerges, many fine qualities - but I confess to a certain smug satisfaction (and confirmation bias) in some of her descriptions of their shortcomings. 

As an introvert, I found the book affirming and liberating. I don't have to feel guilty for being quiet or reticent. It's fine to prefer my own company to yours. I might even be some sort of genius! It opened my eyes to the complexity of personalities trying to relate to one another in marriages or friendships or at work: personality encompasses far more than how much you want to party. And as the mother of an introverted child, I took especial note of Cain's caution that introvert children do not need to be taken out of their shells, should not be told they are shy or that their shyness is something they must overcome. As Olivia gets older and the demands on her limited supply of social energy grow, I want to be mindful of her need for space and her right to have and be quiet. 

Coincidentally, just as I finished reading, I came across this lovely poem, 'His Wealth,' by Robert Francis - a poet influenced by Robert Frost and whom Frost called the greatest of all the great neglected poets. It speaks to the wealth that silence both creates and conceals, and the perilous line introverts walk between the riches of solitude and the risks of being alone. Whether you find this alienating or affirming might depend on your personality more than on your taste. Having read Quiet, I feel as though I'm in on the secret of his wealth. It's mine too. 

His willingness to be alone,
His happiness in being alone,
Was what they never could forgive.

Either he loved his loneliness
Too much, or loved his friends too little.
And didn't the one imply the other?

True, what they missed and wanted most
Was not so much his company
As evidence he wanted theirs.

Where had he kept himself all week? 
Always they seemed to want to know,
Yet at the same time not to know,

As if they hoped and feared to find
That all his secret wealth was both
Within and far beyond their reach. 

Unhealthy and o'erdarkened ways

After last year’s parade of horrors, I began this year hopefully. In spite of the world’s wild entropy, this would be a year of calm flourishing. I made my usual list: more yoga, more vegetables, more beauty.  I might still reach for my phone as soon as my eyes opened, but I would read poetry, not politics.

But the bad news centrifuge is strong, and so are the outcry and uproar that hourly spout from the internet’s blowhole. Before it was a month old, this year seemed worse than the one before. Calm flourishing seemed quixotic. 

Of course, outcry is the right response when civil society suddenly descends to the eighth circle of hell.  And yes, Danish coziness is probably insidious. But the lie of life online is that it resembles life at all; that you can sustain the rage it makes room for, or be sustained by it. Being immersed in the stream, the feed, is not the same as being engaged. It's at best a distraction; at worst, it's outrage as recreation. 

If I sound insular, it’s because last year I felt as though the walls around my inner life were too thin. So much of what I consumed was not nourishing. So much of what consumed me was gone within a week, sometimes less. This year, I wanted to resist that lure. I wanted to spend time in places of restorative quiet and beauty, and on things that will still matter a year, or a hundred years, from now. I believe that's a way to flourish, but it's also a way to see the stream, the feed, for what they are - to see how small they are. 

A month in, I haven't kept those resolutions. But the year is young. There's still time to find those quiet bowers beauty keeps for us. 

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: 
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing. 
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth, 
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days, 
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all, 
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon, 
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
’Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake, 
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms: 
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead; 
All lovely tales that we have heard or read: 
An endless fountain of immortal drink, 
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Keats, from Endymion (1818).

An incandescent fall

 

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.

 

(Luci Shaw) 

Anniversary

I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me, 
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May.
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

(Christina Rossetti)

On Emma

Counting from its actual publication date of December 1815, or from the date on the frontispeice of 1816, Emma is now 200 years old. Looking back through these pages I find I haven’t had much to say about it, but I’ve read it about as often as the others, and more than Northanger Abbey, which I never read at all. The book’s first line describes its heroine as ‘handsome, clever and rich.’ It’s not too much of a stretch to say that that description fits Emma as well as it does Emma. This novel is handsome: it shares with Persuasion the elegance and assurance of Austen’s mature style. It’s also very clever, in more ways than one, and richly sown with secrets: the more you look, the more you see. The use of games and charades is one kind of cleverness, but there’s another kind altogether in the way the storytelling works. It’s easy to miss how cleverly Austen uses Emma’s consciousness (which Emma herself fondly thinks penetrating) as a mask for the real machinations of the plot and the true motives of the other characters. Even after many readings, it’s Emma’s version of Frank and Jane that we see—Jane as cold and insipid, Frank as silly and trifling—though there are plentiful clues that she’s wrong about both. It’s Emma’s mind that not only unfolds but shapes the story, and cajoles the reader into missing exactly those clues that Emma herself misses too. And unlike a detective novelist, Austen is completely inconspicuous, almost impassive, in planting her clues. 

John Mullan in The Guardian points out how many clues are buried in Miss Bates’s long monologues (which many readers will probably skip). He goes as far as to say Austen here invented the free indirect style that came to characterise the modern novel. This novel does feel modern, because of Emma’s plainspoken inner monologue and because Emma herself is so flawed. Compared with Pamela or Evelina, the virtuous, one-dimensional heroines of eighteenth-century novels, she’s much more real and rounded, much more modern. As Austen said about her: “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Emma is likeable, though, in spite of her flaws, and she grows more likeable the less she is self-deceived. Like Pride and Prejudice, the plot of this novel hinges on the heroine’s self-knowledge. With Emma’s dawning self-awareness comes truer perception (for herself and us) of the others around her.

Mullan also points out how all but imperceptibly Austen uses a character like Mr Perry, who never speaks a word of his own, to reflect the other characters. Something similar happens with Miss Nash. Harriet looks up to Miss Nash, but the attentive reader, conditioned by Emma’s rigid class consciousness, will notice how pitiful Miss Nash’s claims are: a teacher in a boarding school, on the vertiginous edge of gentility, desperately in love with Mr Elton but with less chance even than Harriet of his ever reciprocating. She only ever appears in Harriet’s reports, never in person; her principal role is to make Harriet look pathetic. Harriet is another cleverly drawn character, whose abysmal vacuity is given in a few lines. Mr Wodehouse and Mrs Elton, even Mr Weston and Mr John Knightley, are comic creations, subtly but sharply drawn.

In a novel about perception or the failure to perceive, one of Austen's most incisive observations is the rarity of true discernment. Mr Weston’s main flaw—a frustrating one for Emma—is his lack of discrimination. He gives equal weight to the company and opinions of people so widely different as Miss Bates and Emma herself. Mrs Elton (nee Hawkins), properly despised by Emma, is liked and lauded by all the rest of the village. Here is her introduction: “A week had not passed since Miss Hawkins’s name was first mentioned in Highbury, before she was, by some means or other, discovered to have every recommendation of person and mind; to be handsome, elegant, highly accomplished, and perfectly amiable [and] in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten.” Common report so blurs true character, common chatter so elevates the commonplace, that it’s no wonder a deception like Frank and Jane’s can be practiced so easily. Emma’s is not the only blindness. 

Charlotte Brontë objected to Emma that it lacked passion, that it was only concerned with “delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people.” What Austen so cleverly achieves in the new narrative style of this novel is to show how deceptive those surfaces can be, how the interplay between surfaces and inner lives both constructs and conceals realities, and how appearances and perceptions are the charades we all play.