Mary Oliver; Loving the Work

Many years ago now, when I was struggling to understand the limits of my responsibility towards people who were sad or suffering, my therapist gave me a poem to read by Mary Oliver.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old rug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I thought it was a wonderful poem that fulfilled literature’s brief, as formulated by Chekhov, that ‘a writer should not provide solutions but describe a situation so truthfully that the reader can no longer evade it.’ I promised myself I would read a great deal more Mary Oliver, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally bought myself a copy of Dream Work, her collection from 1986.  A short while later, I read that Mary Oliver had died, and as is so often the case, a wealth of articles followed that told me a great deal more about her life than I had previously known. What I read was a depressingly familiar story of a woman with immense talent, transmuted into tangible success, who was nevertheless regularly disparaged by the critical elite in the poetry world. So it was for reasons on a number of levels – personal gratitude, solidarity of the sisterhood, and a strong belief that Oliver’s poetry expresses a way of living we desperately need to embrace if the 21st century is to become survivable – that I felt I wanted to do some critical justice to her work.

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 to a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother.  You would not know this from her poetry which seeks not the release of the confessional, but the relief of turning one’s attention elsewhere. Walking in the woods of Ohio while reading Walt Whitman was her route to escape and renewal. She became fascinated by nature, by self-expression, by the spiritual life. When she graduated from high school, she decided to take a trip to Edna St Vincent Millay’s home in Austerlitz. There she met Edna’s sister, Nancy, formed an immediate friendship and moved in, for several years, to help sort out the late poet’s papers. She went to live in New York and then, on a return visit to Austerlitz in the late 50s, met the photographer, Molly Malone Cook, who became her life partner. The two women lived for the next forty years in Provincetown. Quietly. Unobtrusively. Just getting on with things.  Oliver published her first collection in 1963, won the Pulitzer in 1984, won the National Book Award in 1992. None of this went to her head.

For Mary Oliver’s poetry was – is – a practice of devotion as much as it is – unarguably – an art. ‘If I have any lasting worth,’ she said in a rare interview late in life, ‘it will be because I have tried to remember what the earth is meant to look like.’ If you’ve ever read any Mary Oliver, then you will know that a profound, vital attentiveness to nature is the foundation stone of her work. In Dream Work, the subject matter might be turtles or marsh hawks or starfish or clams, but each receives a portrait of startling vivacity and insight, one that understands the nature of its being. Oh wildlife, you might say to me. Well, lots of poets write about that. What makes Oliver special? And it’s hard to put into words, but I’d say it’s because the looking and the attention matter viscerally to Mary Oliver. It’s not about being clever with words. It’s about finding a way for the poet to be plugged into the main circuit of the universe.

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

This comes from ‘Landscape’, and expresses with characteristic simplicity and directness the bond with the world that breathes through every word of her poetry. But can you guess where she takes it? This is what happens next:

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong thick wings.

I think what Mary Oliver understands is the extent to which we are earthbound animals with dreams of going beyond ourselves. For me, her poems only reach their full potential when humans, and their unbearable humanity, get bound up in them too. Oliver’s poetic patience, her attention, never flinch even if faced with brutality or futility. But unlike so many other poets (and yes, Ted Hughes, I’m looking at you), the violence of nature is only a fragment of the whole, and not necessarily the most important part at that. Oliver taps into the dignity, self-sufficiency, tenacity and grace of the animal world, and she remind us how close our dreams of self-extension are to these other attributes, how much we desire them, how maybe we want them even more than power and violent conquest, but gave up on them as being too difficult, too subtle for us, a long time ago.

‘You do not have to be good,’ runs the first line of one of her most famous poems, ‘Wild Geese’. ‘You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,/ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves./ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ Nature, Mary Oliver understands, is our Home. It is origin and end point, it is sustenance that is both physical and spiritual, it is allegory and information. If the world were not exactly as it is, we could not exist exactly as we are, and it is only the monstrous egotism of man that obscures the nature of our dependence. But if we are completely a part of the natural world, then what we see outside has something to tell us about who we are inside.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

What the critics who underestimate Mary Oliver fail to understand is that her poetry does not ask the reader to analyse it, but to live it.

***

I don’t know about you, but every morning lately, I seem to wake to a world that is a little more crazy, a little more corrupt and unethical than it was yesterday.  It feels like the end of times, or at least the far extreme of an argument pushed to its limits. The argument is, I think, one for selfish capitalism, its components are certainly those of narcissism, venality, grandiosity and intolerance. In the confusion that this has created, I offer Mary Oliver as a kind of North Star by which we might orient ourselves again.

Mary Oliver was not interested in fame or riches, or the spoils of power and influence. No wonder those literary critics were disdainful; she eschewed the great game they were playing in which they decided who was in and who was out. I often wonder whether Oliver had read the psychologist Alfred Adler, who was writing about a hundred years ago with astonishing prescience about the courage we need to find to be normal. Adler believed that we were all longing to be extraordinary in order to overcompensate for early wounds, early fears, and that we equated in consequence being normal with being incapable. This was a dangerous position, Adler felt, because when the project of being exceptionally good failed, then we were tempted to make the leap to being exceptionally bad.

Mary Oliver knew something about this. The poem ‘Shadows’ opens with the lines

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

The poem is about the difference between the damage human beings can do, and the damage caused by natural disasters – ‘I mean/ the waters rise without any plot upon/ history, or even geography.’ Oliver writes. ‘Whatever/ power of the earth rampages, we turn to it/ dazed but anonymous eyes, whatever/ the name of the catastrophe, it is never/ the opposite of love.’ The quality of cruelty in the human world is of a different order, rising so often out of the failure of the desire to be exceptionally good, which curdles into feelings of hatred and envy. Though I think we may have created a category of catastrophe that neither Adler nor Oliver imagined, in our new, radical uncertainty about what good and evil look like. But both had the same solution to the problem – and that was to focus consistently on the work we were destined for, the work that is intrinsic to being alive.

Adler believed we had three main tasks to undertake. These are the tasks of friendship, of love and of work. In each case we must attend to learning and understanding what constitutes service to the community, what loving another person means, and what our individual purpose might be. Adler was very firm about the dangers courted by intruding upon another person’s task. (For this reason he was completely against parents ‘helping’ their children to do their homework, but I digress.) The point here is that these are the tasks that are given to each and every one of us to accomplish, and it is not doing those tasks that blights our experience of being alive.

Mary Oliver has an even neater formulation. As far as I see it, she rolls all three tasks into one: ‘To pay attention,’ she wrote. ‘this is our endless and proper work.’ Oliver had a very special kind of attention in mind, and she defined it when writing about her partner, Molly Malone Cook, after she died. She described how:

watching M when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the dark room, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – and empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.’

I think, if I read her right, that Mary Oliver is advocating a way of being that is the complete opposite of how we often live today. She had no interest in insecurity, pride, the relentless tracking of threat, the indulgence of competition. Her poetry invites us to turn ourselves outward, away from the demands of the ego, and be profoundly attentive to otherness with compassion and curiosity. And here I bring Adler forward again. The attention we give in this way is not supposed to be extraordinary, and it is not intended to intrude on the tasks of others.  Mary Oliver did not try to save the world; she simply undertook her work of being a terrific poet. She was clear, repeatedly, that salvation was was a problem for the individual. In the poem ‘Dog Fish’ she wrote:

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging towards them.

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

***

Back in 1938, three years after Mary Oliver was born, Sartre made literary history with a character who, staring very hard at a tree, and its root in particular, nearly drives himself mad. The problem with the tree root is that it resists definition in the mind of the male protagonist. Whatever words he chooses to describe it, those words are not precise enough, not satisfying enough, and in this battle between vocabulary and veracity, the real threatens to win. Roquentin risks going eyeball to eyeball with existence and out of this terrifying struggle the doctrine of Existentialism was born. And a bleak, loveless doctrine it is too, exhorting mankind to have the courage necessary to live in an alien and meaningless world, taking responsibility for the overwhelming freedom of being alive. What would Existentialism have become, I wonder, if a poet like Mary Oliver had gazed at that troublesome tree root instead of a short, egotistic, entitled, male philosopher? It would still have been about full presence in the moment, but significantly, it would not have been about the battle for mastery.

Existentialism can be read, I think, as an exhortation not to be exceptionally bad in a world that is indifferent to our attempts to be exceptionally good. It has its chip of a heart in the right place. But it could not free itself from that desire for overreaching heroics. Camus came a little closer to fundamental acceptance in his myth of Sisyphus. Describing how the gods condemned Sisyphus to roll a giant rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down every time, Camus said that we must imagine Sisyphus is happy. He meant that the smallness of life might have its pleasures, even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were. When I look at Sisyphus through Mary Oliver’s eyes, I wonder whether he rolled that rock to the top of the hill again and again because he loved the magnificence of the view.

What if we were to swap overreaching and dominating and achieving for living alongside and paying attention and reflecting? What if we understood the enormous power of nature to be something we might respect? What if we realized that grandiose ambitions are precisely what keeps us away from doing the real work of being alive? And where we are right now, at this point in history, isn’t this meaningful humility something we can’t afford NOT to try?

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Any anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.

 

Advertisements

The Year in Books So Far

It’s been a funny old year, reading-wise. I was pondering why this might be so when it suddenly occurred to me that my algorithm for purchasing books has changed. As audio books are pretty much all I use these days, I’m mostly on the lookout for cheap kindle books with cheap whisper-sync options. I used to  have the monthly audible credit and audible’s regular sales to add into the mix, but my library of unread books reached a figure Mr Litlove must never know about, and so I’ve cancelled my membership until the TBR pile is tamed.  But still I find myself searching the amazon deals, an occupation which has taken me into a demi-monde of publishing that I never knew about before. Basically I had no idea so much crap was published. In all fairness there are probably some great books out there, but the amount of nonsense you have to wade through to find them is a little overwhelming.

So I think this explains why I’ve read so few good new releases this year. Two exceptions, however, go straight into the top ten. Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. I haven’t got much to say about them except that they were absolutely brilliant and made me excited about what the novel can do. They were both so astutely observed and chose intelligence over sensation.

In the big book category, however, I had two notable disappointments. The first was Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Last summer I listened to Swallows and Amazons and loved it, so this year I decided I’d try another children’s classic that I never got around to with my son. I should point out that I generally don’t choose YA or children’s books. But I’d loved Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke and enjoyed The Shadow in the North (though I never approve of killing off main characters – I blame J K Rowling for this trend which to my mind breaks a sacred trust with the reader, but that’s just my feeling). Northern Lights is objectively a terrific book. The plot never slackens and not a sentence is out of place. But… I found myself listening to get it finished, not because it had truly engaged me. I’m tempted to say it lacks psychological depth, but honestly, Swallows and Amazons hardly owes a debt to Freud. I don’t know what the matter was. The other big disappointment was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. On paper this sounded perfect – bookshops and mysterious authors with hidden pasts. In reality I lost the will to live less than a quarter of the way through. I don’t think the audio version did it any favours. Setterfield has the kind of style that I might classify as Goes On A Bit, and whilst some parts were beautifully written, others verged on the cringeworthy. Also, most characters had a tendency to be one-dimensionally mad, which I found tedious, and the gothic parts were just implausible. I expect lots of people loved this story: sorry.

On a cheerier note, I’ve done very well with memoirs, listening to three really good ones: Tara Westover’s Educated, Rebecca Stott’s In The Days of Rain and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own. Westover pips Stott by a feather, but both were mesmerising. Religious fundamentalists make for wonderful batty parent stories, though I spent a great deal of time feeling furious on behalf of their children. It seemed to me that their behaviour had nothing really to do with religion; instead, what these books show is how dangerous people become when they decide they are unequivocally right and that all their conduct is uniquely blessed and sanctioned. The Claire Tomalin was a very different kettle of non-biblical fish. Tomalin’s life as an editor and biographer was a resounding success, but her private life was full of tragedy. Her journalist husband was killed in the Middle East crossfire, and of her four children, one died shortly after birth, another is severely disabled and one committed suicide at Oxford. Yet Tomalin’s account is remarkably low-key, sometimes to the point of sterility. I scoured the reviews afterwards, wondering what others made of this and the response in the mainstream papers was very positive. Other journalists applauded her absence of emotion. I didn’t need sob stories but for me one significant dimension of a memoir is an account of what life has taught its author about herself. Educated is fantastic in this regard. Maybe Tomalin couldn’t leave the biographer’s attitude behind, refusing to draw conclusions? Well, it was a fascinating book, if odd, and sometimes fascinating because of its oddness.

If there’s one category, though, that I’m doomed never to find a decent book in, it’s contemporary mass market. The curse of the sympathetic character has ruined most of them, and a strange contagious plot disease has weakened the rest. I was going to name and shame but I can’t be bothered. They’re not worth it and I should never have gone there. But what has really worked for me, and been perhaps the most bizarrely successful part of a generally bizarre year, has been a sentimental return to books I read and loved as a teenager. This all began right back at the start of the year when I noticed that Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels were going to be issued in audio book format. It’s tragic, I know, but this was my most anticipated event of the year. The Merlin novels always struck me in retrospect as a mirage. Mary Stewart’s other novels are okay, not great, and I wondered whether youth and enthusiasm had skewed my perspective. Not a bit of it. They are still outstanding – clever, powerful, vivid, stirring. I’m not sure how they would go down with younger readers these days, as there’s much more description and plot moves more slowly. But I appreciated the space this gave to the story to live and breathe in my imagination. They are not fantasy novels, though. They are much more about political power, and as such seemed to resonate for me with our 21st century plight in which power is used against the gullible and disadvantaged to get what the powerful want.

Thus encouraged I started poking about amazon’s bargain bins with my teenage years in mind. And I ended up listening to a lot of Joanna Trollope and Georgette Heyer. And they were fab! Really nice sentences, great plotting skills, credible characters. There were things going on at all points in the book which made me curious to see how the characters would react. No great middle-section wastelands where we must all tread water in anticipation of a twist. Honestly, when I was looking for an agent a couple of years ago – and a most depressing business it was – the vast majority were most keen to find a chilling psychological thriller with a truly original twist! I have read such books from the supermarket and they are laughably implausible. Why has this become the Ur-book of the new millennium? What does this say about our culture? Or, in all fairness the alternative must be considered, is this just what getting old looks like?

So currently, I am listening to Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds and Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, both of which I am enjoying. And I’m theoretically listening to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, when I feel strong enough. It fooled me by having an opening page of terrific humour, but by the end of the second chapter there had been three tragic, tear-jerking deaths. I’m about five chapters in now and have lost track of the body count, and am afraid we might run out of characters. Be warned, Cranford is obviously the former name of Midsomer but without the jolliness.

Real Hope For Dark Days

It’s a sore trial living in the UK at the moment. After three years of the shambolic Brexit debacle, in which zero progress has been made, we’re now forced to witness a leadership contest that showcases the most dismal collection of candidates – more of a police line-up than a beauty parade. Worst of all, Boris Johnson is supposed to win, which makes me feel like I’m living in a piece of Dadaist theatre except they tell me it’s really happening. How a man who has been sacked twice for lying, who caused chaos in the Foreign Office and wasted millions as Mayor of London, who basically has no principles and is known to be lazy, self-serving and ready to give up at the first obstacle can possibly become Prime Minister beggars belief. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t sat here laughing at Trump all this time. Anyway, enough. It’s just depressing to acknowledge what the plausible leaders of our country now look like.

It’s just as well, then, that books can offer genuine hope and solace. If you have inadvertently glanced at the online comments on the Guardian website lately and lost all hope in humanity, I have two books that will restore it. Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy are both non-fiction accounts of lives spent helping children to find their best and most promising selves. Mike Shooter is a child psychiatrist in the NHS, Kate Clanchy teaches English in a multi-cultural comprehensive, and they have brought much joy and inspiration into our house lately, with narratives that are a patchwork of fascinating case histories.

Growing Pains is the story of Mike Shooter’s career listening to adolescents (and their families) in crisis. He begins the book with an honest account of his own depression and his early work in medicine. It’s one particular encounter, at 2am on a terminal ward that changes the course of his life. He is following the Senior Registrar – ‘aloof, taciturn, straight-backed’ – to check on a Mr Dobbs, who is dying of an aneurysm. They find, as one might expect, a terrified man.

Simon sat on his bed and asked him if he was frightened. Mr Dobbs nodded; he was beyond words. Then Simon, straight-laced, Simon, the man we thought more suited to a brigade of guards than patient care, took him in his arms and rocked him to and fro like a baby, while Mr Dobbs sobbed into his shoulder.’

The next morning, Simon is absent and Mike Shooter is asked if he’ll talk to Mr Dobbs instead. He is so afraid of the prospect that he goes to see the Dean of the Medical School instead, to tell him he’s quitting. But the Dean, a wise old soul, says no he isn’t; he’ll make a good doctor one day, but he’s depressed. ‘And the worse you feel about yourself, the harder you work to prove you’re wrong. You’ve been fighting against what you really feel for years. This was bound to happen. Mr Dobbs was just the final straw.’ The Dean arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the next few years, the treatment Mike Shooter receives makes him realise that this is the field he wants to dedicate himself to. The ability to ‘see beyond [the] patient’s symptoms to the human being behind them’ was the rule he wanted to follow.

Well by now you might be able to see beyond the words of this review to the readers behind them – the only problem we had with it was that it kept making Mr Litlove cry. And if Mr Litlove cries, then I cry, that’s just how it goes. I need to stress that these were not tears of sadness, but the more complicated throat-tightening tears of beauty and humanity. And I should also stress that this is not at all a manipulative book. Dr Shooter never dwells on any part of his story and in consequence the narrative was not harrowing, despite the subject matter. It was inspirational, in the most grounded and humane ways. One of the stories that stays with me still concerns another middle of the night emergency call that summons Dr Shooter to a household in crisis.  An eight-year-old child, Danny, is threatening to kill himself. When the doctor arrives, the child is on the landing, his pyjama cord around his neck, the other end tied to the banisters, and his desperate, angry, fearful parents are hypnotised by the situation. Mike Shooter’s response is to come in as if everything were normal, exclaim at the lateness of the hour and express a strong need for a cup of tea. He asks if Danny would like a snack before bedtime, and the spell of craziness is dispelled by the autopilot of ordinary hospitality. Everyone comes and sits around the tea tray in the middle of the living room where it becomes apparent that the man is the mother’s new partner whom Danny is rejecting and that ‘they all wanted to change things but didn’t know how to do it without tearing each other apart’ A problem with which I imagine we are all familiar, and where salvation can come so much more quickly with someone calm, kind and firm to help.

Kate Clanchy’s book also focusses on individual students as they struggle and triumph on the battlefield of education and the stories she tells are just as fascinating, whether it’s the way the word ‘gay’ has signified in classrooms across the years, or what the parents of excluded children are up against when they try to get their kids a fair educational deal. Kate is also a poet and her poetry club becomes one of the major features in her stories, as she finds it can be a real liberation for all kinds of children, including those who have English as a second language or who suffer from dyslexia. She tackles knotty subjects like selection in schools – both streaming in classes and the nightmare parents face when trying to decide what school to pick for their children. And she talks about the pleasures and pains of teaching English.

There are so many stories I love, I don’t know which to tell you about. But just off the top of my head, there’s Allen, a large, capable boy more suited to open spaces, but bright and interested in English literature. He was that mythical beast, an adolescent boy willing to talk about emotions, and as such he stimulated real class discussion. It just so happened that this class was one in which Kate could exercise her own judgement to some extent and choose the books that would best inspire her students (not something that happens these days). Twenty-five years later she looks him up on Linked-In and finds out that he runs an engineering business and is a self-made millionaire, He in turn remembers her lessons as a place where ‘I learned who I was.’ ‘English:’ Clanchy writes, ‘the lesson where you laugh about sex, and argue about war, and talk about jealousy. English: where you grow up.’ The problem is that English, like poetry, does not ‘WALT’ well. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ and has become the staple of ‘formative assessment’ which the government likes a lot. It comes from the best of motives, Clanchy explains, the desire to open up a learning process that might appear hidden or opaque. But what works well for a science lesson is altogether harder to pin down in the arts and humanities. The consequence has been that WALT dominates lesson plans and the non-WALT aspects of education, like artistic creativity and all that nebulous maturation process get left out of the curriculum.

The stories in both books inevitably bump up against politics because both authors are working on the cliff edge where the vulnerable and the economically-nonprofitable clash with government funding. But these are not polemical books. They are about thoughtful people who are really good at their jobs understanding the pressures on all sides and doing their best for children, however that shakes out. Listening to these books has made me think a lot about what’s wrong with the world today, and for my own part I think it boils down to an insufficient engagement with reality. I blame the media mostly, for their two-note grizzles of sentimentality and outrage, emotions that reliably sell papers, but which have made us all happy to be ignorant. It takes terrific courage to face the truth of our lives, and mostly we are invited to side step that reality and find someone else to blame. Or we end up letting ourselves be sold ideals of perfection and purity that are equally dangerous.

What I loved about these books is their authors’ readiness to talk about getting things wrong. Clanchy produces such an admirably nuanced description of Cheyenne, a poor working class child who spent her time pushing Kate’s middle-class buttons and stalking her children, whom Kate could not truly like. And I loved the story in which Mike Shooter is called to deal with a psychotic break in an adolescent who has been wrongly placed in the adult ward. Hassan escaped his nurses and ran around the grounds of the unit, talking in Somali and scooping mud and grass into his mouth. Shooter thought it possible that he was just terrified and involved in some kind of prayer ritual he didn’t understand, so he called the Somali elders from the community to come and advise him. After a few minutes they turned on him. asking how he dared call himself a doctor and telling him to get the boy some medication. It’s not about mistakes – if you’re a human being engaged in something you care about, you will be making mistakes. They are inevitable. What these stories show is that it’s about the process – the process of finding out what’s wrong and of learning and becoming more self-aware in consequence, possibly the most important process that we are called upon to practice on a regular basis and which we avoid and fumble and foul up out of embarrassed pride or some weird, punitive notion that it ‘shouldn’t happen.’

These have both been terrific books, loved and admired equally by myself and Mr Litlove. They have made us laugh and cry and feel deeply in touch with both the difficult business of growing up and the authentic hope embedded in the care of people like Mike Shooter and Kate Clanchy that we might actually make it. For they have a lot to teach adults too, as a quick glance around the political candidates for Tory party leader can tell us. They’ve made me want to have a completely different kind of identity politics, one in which gender, skin colour, race, religion, none of these thing matter, but where the identity is question is that of a grown-up and it’s an identity to which we all aspire.

Decades of capitalism have encouraged us to stay children with the goal of becoming spoiled children. I think it’s given us very complicated feelings about people who are able shamelessly to make a fool of themselves in public, and that sometimes such people can be used to assuage us about our insecurities. This is an indulgence – something that makes us feel better in the short-term but worse in the long-term. What we need is to admire the grown-up again, the sensible, grounded person who doesn’t make a fuss about things, but who won’t sit passive when they could offer help. The sort of person who, currently, says the wise, placatory thing on social media and is totally ignored. We need the kind of grown-up who has a strong moral compass and a great deal of compassion, who has emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the courage to look reality in the eye, even when it is ugly. The kind of grown-up who can sit with people in emotional distress and not make it about themselves. We need more Mike Shooters and Kate Clanchys, basically, and the fact that they have written these books shows that such people are out there, it’s just that we so rarely get to hear about them. For me they’ve been a properly optimistic antidote to everything going on in the news, and the embodiment of an aspiration that is as difficult as becoming rich and famous but infinitely more desirable.

 

 

Blood Out of a Stoner

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this when I have completely lost faith in this kind of blog post, but Mr Litlove and I have discussed Stoner and its problems so much he said he’d be interested to see how it came out. So, for what it’s worth, these are the processes of thought that occurred to me over the course of the past couple of weeks, as Mr Litlove read John William’s novel, Stoner, to me, and the book turned out to be so very different to my expectations. All I knew about Stoner was that it had had a massive rediscovery somewhere around 2011 and been hailed as an unjustly forgotten masterpiece. I’d seen loads of rave reviews in which it was called beautiful, gentle, moving, sad. I was in no way prepared, then, for how much it would annoy me.

The story is indeed simple: William Stoner grows up on a farm in the Midwest of America, but when his father sends him to college to study agriculture, Stoner has a revelation and a change of heart. He falls in love with American literature and carries on at Columbia as a teacher for the rest of his working life. He makes a disastrous marriage to a neurotic harpy who seems determined to ruin any chance of domestic happiness, and he makes a dangerous enemy of a neurotic colleague who becomes Head of Department and impedes Stoner’s career progression.  Stoner remains stoic throughout these trials, maintaining his passion for literature, or maybe just putting one foot in front of the other, it’s hard to tell in John Williams’ masterly style which I came to think of as: don’t show and don’t tell.

For instance, Stoner’s epiphany and his conversion to literature come in a Shakespeare class in which he is asked the meaning of a sonnet. All Stoner can get out is ‘It means….’ in a sentence he simply cannot finish. And that is all we’ll ever hear about Stoner’s passion for literature. Mr Litlove felt that this was deeply unsatisfactory. He came to think that Stoner loved literature because work on the farm was so hard, so awful, and by comparison an English degree was a doddle. I didn’t think that; I could believe that Stoner loved literature, but I wondered then how Stoner could be so unable to articulate himself, despite that prolonged and profound study in how language is used to describe and shape life.

The real problem for me began with Stoner’s marriage. He falls in love with a young woman, Edith, who happens to be staying for a few weeks with relatives who are connected to the university. Stoner sees her and falls in love with her and then he lays siege to her. Their relationship is from the get-go awkward, embarrassed and without a trace of love. They aren’t even friends. But Stoner persists in desiring marriage and Edith seems to go along with it. Then we get to the honeymoon which is always going to be difficult with two innocent and stilted people. So far, so plausible, and we can all wonder how any of our ancestors managed life prior to the availability of the internet. Then Williams takes us right into the marriage bed:

When he returned Edith was in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, her face turned upward, her eyes closed, a thin frown creasing her forehead… For several moments he lay with his desire, which had become an impersonal thing, belonging to himself alone. He spoke to Edith, as if to find a haven for what he felt; she did not answer. He put a hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her night-gown the flesh he had longed for. He moved his hand upon her; she did not stir; her frown deepened. Again he spoke, saying her name to silence; then he moved his body upon her, gentle in his clumsiness. When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound.’

And the next line is: ‘Afterward he lay beside her and spoke to her in the quietness of his love.’ Now John Williams can load up this passage with all the pity for Stoner that he wishes, and he can try to insist on his gentleness, but this is still a brutal act. He forces himself upon a deeply unwilling wife. As I had Mr Litlove right there to represent the male gender, I asked him what in pity’s sake made a man keep going under such dreadful circumstances,when every indication from his partner was bad?

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove thoughtfully. ‘He’s been brought up on a farm and so he’s seen animals mating and that’s all he knows.’

‘Yes,’ i said, ‘but what about instincts? Surely he has some basic human instinct that this is NOT going well and that he ought to hold back, maybe even ask a few direct questions?’

‘Hmm,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘I guess it’s being brought up on a farm.’

So much for male insight. But as I realised that this was something that Mr Litlove didn’t understand either, I began to see an answer. Oh you can say this was a different era, when men and women didn’t have a clue and men’s conjugal rights were a thing of law. But it bothered me so, that ability of Stoner’s to persist against all odds, to keep going when he ought to try and have at least a full conversation with Edith first, on any topic, before attempting to have sex with her. And it occurred to me that intimacy was the missing factor here.

‘I said to Mr Litlove, ‘Isn’t it the case that men don’t need intimacy to have sex, whereas for a woman, sex without emotional intimacy is an insult, a violation.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘But after all, farmyard animals….’

In these few moments the full extent of men’s capacity for blindness to the quality of intimacy was brought home to me as never before. If they don’t need it, they don’t need to know they’re missing it, and so they may have no conception of it. So what happens next in the Stoner household? Does Stoner realise the error of his ways and attempt to get to know his wife as a whole human being? Of course not. He takes to having sex with her when she’s asleep and less resistant and he can almost pretend to himself that she quite likes it. By this point, I felt that whatever Edith might do to Stoner in the future, he deserved it.

Well, Edith decides she wants a child, but when Grace is born, she develops a kind of chronic fatigue that makes her unable to look after her. So poor old Stoner, thanks to his misunderstood, emotionally abandoned and sexually abused wife, has to work AND do the childcare. Outrageous, no? Not to mention the fate of most working mothers to this very day. A few years later, with Edith more or less recovered, and Stoner shut away in his study with Grace all the time he’s at home, Edith makes a bid to take back power of parenting. She does it in an ugly way, clearly intent on exerting the control over Grace that she has lost over her own body. Stoner has an attempt to talk to her, but by now a spell of atrophy has taken over Stoner’s common sense and the rule of ‘nothing can change’ has overwhelmed him. He fails to make Edith see reason and, fearing reprisals on the child, abandons them both to each other. If I’d been angry with Stoner before, now I was absolutely furious with him. If one parent has gone a bit crazy, you do not start abandoning your child to them because you lack the backbone and the moral fibre to stand up to their poor behaviour. But Stoner’s busy grizzling because he’s lost the space he used to research in and can’t write his book. Oh poor, kind, gentle Stoner! All he suffers!

But never fear, because no white male author will deprive his white male protagonist of what he really wants. Into Stoner’s life comes a mistress, Katherine Driscoll, a talented graduate student. Katherine is Stoner’s soulmate and wants lots of sex, which is great because then Stoner doesn’t have to learn anything about creating and maintaining relationships. They’re found out, of course, but Stoner carries on, seemingly unbothered by guilt, until his department nemesis is hellbent on causing trouble for Katherine. Now this is a shame because despite himself, Stoner is learning something about love: ‘he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.’ Now this is good stuff, hopeful and illuminating. This is a big step for mankind as represented by Stoner. But when it comes to it, and they either have to make a break for it together or split up, well, you can guess by now which Stoner chooses:

‘Because in the long run,’ Stoner said, ‘it isn’t Edith or even Grace, or the certainty of losing Grace, that keeps me here; it isn’t the scandal or the hurt to you or me; it isn’t the hardship we would have to go through, or even the loss of love we might have to face. It’s simply the destruction of ourselves, of what we do’

I’ve read this sentence many times now and I still don’t understand what Stoner means. Is he saying that they are too moral? Because that would be weird, given the public nature of the affair. Is he saying they wouldn’t get work? Because Katherine’s subsequent career refutes that. The only thing I can think of that really fits with Stoner’s behaviour is that he would have to accept change and loss, both things he has never done, except for that one moment at the start of the novel when he chose literature over the farm. It’s as if a rock has fallen in love with literature and this is so extraordinary that one can expect nothing more from it – any more would be blood out of a Stoner.

And there is nothing more to expect from Stoner. He suffers the loss of Katherine, he ages prematurely, he dies. I was left wondering to what extent we were meant to feel sorry for him. The narrative is full of compassion for Stoner, it portrays him as perpetually wronged, as being unfortunate and unlucky. But whenever I looked closely at that text, Stoner seemed to get exactly what he wanted. Throughout the novel he denies and rejects the possibility of change, choosing instead to remain with the comfy and familiar, and in doing so he denies happier lives to Edith, Grace and Katherine. And I wondered so much, oh so much, how come this novel had been so widely acclaimed in the 21st century when it is fundamentally the story of a would-be gentle man who doggedly perpetuates gender rancour?

The thing is, for me Stoner embodies white male privilege, and we endorse it if we feel sympathy for him. Stoner has been little more than adequate in everything he has done; do we really think he deserved more than he got? If Stoner’s is a sad, unjust life, then we must believe that he should be given rewards for minimal exertion, that he should not have to make sustained, prolonged effort for what is good in life, nor engage in complicated, difficult negotiations and compromises. Life is cruel, yes, but not especially so to Stoner, whose real tragedy lies in his overwhelming passivity and his inability to speak his emotional truth. Stoner has no curiosity about the emotional life of others – his own is a mystery to him – and so he has no idea of the care he might give, of the potential generosity of spirit he might embody. Instead he choses minimal responsibility and emotional cowardice, and this is what life looks like under the auspices of such choice.