Of Primroses and Books

On this warm Spring day, my primroses are dying.

I killed them.

I really did, because I didn’t water them. And now I’m sitting calmly writing about it while their drooping leaves are draping themselves over the pots.

I should take care of my flowers.

I used to think  I would be a horrible gardener, because whenever I went outside I would most likely read and not attend to the earth.  At other times I think I would make a wonderful gardener, because I love feeling the dirt on my hands, and tending the flowers and herbs.

I admire people who garden.  When I’m gardening, I usually think: “I wonder how many pages of such and such a book I could have covered,” or, “I wonder how much I could have written in a blogpost or a story or an essay.”

I’m sitting here writing about all my faults, all the while neglecting a comparison essay on Darwin and Marx…

There’s been a thought in my mind that I’m sure has been there for my whole life, but has been experiencing micro-evolution, and has been growing with me.  It is the idea of a holistic life.  I do know how to cook, I know how to write, and I know how to play piano.  But I also know how to read, and that seems to send all the other things into the water.  I read when I’m supposed to write, I read when I should cook, and sometimes I grow impatient when I’m playing the piano so I go read instead.

As a writer, I have become convinced of the importance of “being accomplished” as the Jane Austen prigs would say.  I’m not saying that I have to know French, German and have “a general knowledge of all contemporary languages,” or that I have to play the piano incredibly well, or that I need to be able to paint screens and embroider cushions.

But I do believe in experience.  I believe that experiences form the most poignant stories.   That’s why true stories grip us.  When Gene-Stratton Porter writes about birds, insects, and nature in fiction you appreciate it all the more because she was, in fact, a naturalist.  The same goes for any author who describes the way a drawing or portrait is done, if he has a knowledge of art.

Beatrix Potter’s stories are charming because she wrote and illustrated them, and because she kept many of the animals she writes about as pets.  Arthur Ransome wrote and illustrated his own works as well.  And we mustn’t forget J.R.R. Tolkien, whose illustrations for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings lend a whole new perspective into the work.  They are truly beautiful, and you know that this is exactly what he wanted things to look like.

Historical literature is a wonderful thing, let me tell you.  But what makes it so interesting?  That the writer has knowledge enough of history to know what he’s talking about in fiction that he knows how to write. (We’re talking about the good historical fiction here, yes? Yes.)

What I’m trying to say is that fiction is always more interesting when it’s not just a romance where people talk back and forth about how they can’t live without each other.  (By the way, I think that romance in literature is biblical and sometimes, depending on the context, necessary, but I think it needs to be well-mixed with other elements.)  Fiction is always more interesting when there’s a law intrigue (Bleak House by Charles Dickens, for example) or when there is an art theme (A Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevelier) or when there is historical background (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.)  But if you think about it, all these books have many, many other elements combined.  In order to have a variety of characters, there must be a variety of characteristics.

Imagination is a beautiful thing, but imagination also tends to go overboard. (I always tell myself that I can’t write stories about Switzerland until I go to Switzerland… but maybe that’s beside the point.)  Imagination tends to make things out to be more than they really are.  The problem with mine is that it tends to blow up a circumstance—one I’ve never been in— like a balloon, and then make the character respond as I would imagine they would respond, not taking the time to see the character as a real person with their own personality.

This is why the study of life is so important to those who are going to write.  I know I’ve said it before, but I like to say it again because it sounds nice and studious and thoughtful.  I would like to have a general knowledge of art and drawing and painting… Then I could draft my illustrations and have some other painter who’s good at the thing paint them.

It’s always nicer reading a book where the mother is cooking something and you know that the author knew how to cook because of the way he describes the food, lovingly, in a way, and thoughtfully.  He knows what he’s talking about.  I’m guessing Dickens didn’t cook because the way he approaches food is rather indifferent.

Chesterton is another matter.  If he didn’t know how to cook, he certainly was passionate about his food (see here Chesterton on Cheese) and that fact alone makes the meals described in his books more interesting to read about.

Then there is the aspect of music.  I love music.  I play piano, but not like I should.  Every day I sit down to play and I think: “Good heavens, I wonder why I’m so sloppy.” I shouldn’t be surprised when I never really practice.  I know enough about music, the history of music, genres, and composers to appreciate it in literature.  The First Violin, by Jesse Fothergill, is not very well known, and the romance is a bit sentimental  but I was able to appreciate the many musical aspects of it because I was introduced previously to Beethoven and Bruckner and others.

The thing of it is, people don’t appreciate books that were written by unintelligent and misinformed people.  Perhaps the majority of America love Stephanie Myer, but I have to wonder if she really knows what love is.  Awhile ago there was a rumor that J.K. Rowling was a witch.  If she was, then we know that Harry Potter was truly penned from the heart.

All this gets back to the idea of a holistic life.  It is not enough to imagine myself doing the gardening, or cooking a meal, or painting a picture.  It is not enough to simply read about them.  Even on a small scale, it is enough to experience.  This is because sight, sound, texture, smell, taste… these are all part of it.  I love the way the air tastes around the basil and oregano plants.  I love the way it feels to play Chopin passionately.  I love the way the paints swirl together while your mixing colors for a picture.  I love the way bread dough feels under my hands.  You cannot experience the feelings that come as natural consequences of these activities through reading.  You must do them.

Dickens: The Mind of A Murderer

(A morbid tale.)

This is a morbid tale, and may contain spoilers.  For those of you who are reading or planning on reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, and don’t want anything spoiled, I would suggest skipping this post.

Have you ever wondered about the mind of a murderer?  I’ve always assumed the same thing for each case: the murderer, deep deep down inside, felt a tinge of guilt… and his conscience plagued him, of course, even if he didn’t necessarily regret it.  Though Charles Dickens never murdered anybody, and could never really see into the mind of a murderer, he lent a new perspective to me.

In Our Mutual Friend, this is basically what happens.  Eugene Wrayburn is a lawyer who’s never had a purpose in life.  He’s never wanted a purpose, and he always gets bored… and he continues in a perpetual state of boredom… until he meets Lizzie Hexam.  She changes his life, though she his exact opposite.  Though he’s well above her station, Lizzie begins to love Eugene because she sees his purposelessness, and she wants to give him a purpose… help him find one, through her interest, help him become interested.  Eugene, always doubting himself because of his Boredom, doesn’t know whether he really truly loves her or not.

Enter school master: Bradley Headstone.  He meets Lizzie, and immediately falls in love with her.  Here is compared the difference between two loves: Eugene is hesitant to admit his, for he would never want to do her any harm, and he is only interested in doing what is good for her. (Sure proof of love.)  The schoolmaster becomes inflamed with passion for her.  He also sees her undoubted love for Eugene, and this maddens him.  The thought consumes him, the passion eats away his sense of right from wrong.  He hurriedly proposes, and is rejected.  Almost makes her accept by force, but finally goes away.

The premise is, after Lizzie leaves to escape this man’s terrible passion, Eugene tries to find her, and Bradley follows him.  Lizzie and Eugene have an interview, in which they both confess their love for each other, but the awful fact that they can never, never be married.  Most of it is the class difference, the other part is the passion of Bradley Headstone.  Lizzie fears for Eugene’s safety, and begs him to go and never come again, but the entire scene is spied upon by Bradley Headstone.  As soon as Lizzie leaves, Bradley mutilates the body of Eugene with an oar and throws him in the river.  Eugene is saved, but it is believed he will die.  Unsettled in spirit, Eugene makes one last request: that Lizzie would be his wife ere he died.  And there, upon the death bed, Lizzie and Eugene are united… and she must help him put her ring on her finger, because he’s too weak and hurt to do it himself.  And they watch the sun rise together.

The next chapter began to delve into Bradley Headstone’s mind.  I settled down and thought, “O, here’s where we deal with the guilt. Woe to you, Bradley Headstone.”  But oh no, something quite different.  The thought plagued him, the scene embittered him.  Why? Well… Was Eugene really dead? Had he done it the best way? It wasn’t perfect… he should have done this, altered this, made it less dramatic, made it quicker… etc.  I was shocked.  Was this the mind of a murderer? I thought there was remorse?  But I wonder, did I have any reason to think there would be remorse?  Had I ever hated to such an extreme, or experienced that kind of passion to such an extent?  No, I haven’t.  Bradley Headstone’s hate and passion went so far, that no remorse, no grief lingered behind.  In the end, his conscience was dead, he was lost, he could not be brought back.  In this I experienced something else: the awful sense of hopelessness. I felt that there was no hope for him, absolutely none.  People might try to bring him back out of this, but nothing could ever heal him.  He was hopelessly gone, and no amount of hope could bring him back.  Is this what the mind of someone God-forsaken looks like?

I know that in C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity he talks about how man always has a sense of right and wrong… It’s like the moral code, underneath everything there’s a conscience, something that tells right from wrong and plagues you if you do the wrong thing.  But Bradley Headstone had none of that.  I’ve always wondered, if Lewis’ theory was correct, where did that leave the Indians, or the cannibals, who felt absolutely no remorse at killing/eating the people that came their way?  Wasn’t that wrong?  Why didn’t they feel guilty? But who can tell? I’ve never been an Indian, and I’ve never been a murderer.

Who was right? Dickens, or Lewis? I’m not saying I believe one or the other, but Dickens presents a dark, lost, forsaken side.  It’s morbid, it’s horrific, and it’s evil.  Lewis present a side that’s “good but gone a bit wrong, with the ability to do right.”  But it seemed as though Bradley Headstone couldn’t do right he was so lost beyond healing.

What about the people today?  Mothers are horrified when their children come home from school or from anywhere and start swearing.  If they aren’t Christians, or “religious,” why are they horrified?  Because it’s not appropriate to swear? Well, why not?  It presents a bad view of your family? Well, why? WHY?  It eventually gets back to the fact that long, long ago, Christ set an example for use.  God set down the rules.  We aren’t supposed to take His name in vain, we are supposed to treat everybody with respect, “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth,” etc.  That’s where it originated, and it’s been passed down through the years, but the reason has become antiquated, and lost.  Some people swear and “do all the bad things” without feeling guilty in the least. It’s natural to them. But a Christian would be horrified, wouldn’t he/she?

I’ve never been a murderer, I’ve never been an Indian, I’ve never been a “swearer.”  I cannot tell you if there is a conscience in any one of them, I can’t tell you whether Dickens or Lewis was right.  I would lean towards Dickens, because I do believe that God has forsaken some.  The “wicked” to be exact.  And if there is any such thing as a God-forsaken mind, then I think Dickens represented it in a horrifyingly true nature.

For the record, Bradley Headstone, in the end of the book, wraps his arms around a man he tried to blame the murder on, and jumps into the river.  They both drown.  This is after he hears of the marriage of Lizzie and Eugene, and Eugene’s decided progress in health.

Through the eyes of an idiot

I was captivated and humbled by this speech in Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, given by the idiot Barnaby Rudge.  The entire novel is seen through his eyes, and it lends a swirl of color and fascination; it appeals to your conscience, saying: “There! was that right? Poor, wronged Barnaby!” But I’ll explain after the text.

*              *              *

“Speed!” said Barnaby, folding the little packet in his breast, “Speed! if you want to see hurry and mystery, come here.  Here!”  With that, he put his hand, very much to John Willet’s horror, on the guest’s fine broadcloth sleeve, and led him stealthily to the back window.

“Look down there,” he said softly; “Do you mark how they whisper in each other’s ears; then dance and leap, to make believe they are in sport? Do you see how they stop for a moment, when they think there is no one looking, and mutter among themselves; and then how they roll and gambol, delighted with the mischief they’ve been plotting? Look at ’em now. See how they whirl and plunge. And now they stop again, and whisper cautiously together—little thinking, mind, how often I have lain upon the grass and watched them. I say—what is it that they plot and hatch? Do you know?”

“They are only clothes,” returned the guest, “such as we wear; hanging on those lines to dry, and fluttering in the wind.”

“Clothes!” echoed Barnaby, looking close into his face, and falling quickly back. “Ha ha! Why, how much better to be silly, than as wise as you! You don’t see shadowy people there, like those that live in sleep—not you. Nor eyes in the knotted panes of glass, nor swift ghosts when it blows hard, nor do you hear voices in the air, nor see men stalking in the sky—not you! I lead a merrier life than you, with all your cleverness. You’re the dull men. We’re the bright ones. Ha! ha! I’ll not change with you, clever as you are—not I!”

With that, he waved his hat above his head, and darted off.

“A strange creature, upon my word!” said the guest, pulling out a handsome box, and taking a pinch of snuff.

“He wants imagination,” said Mr. Willet, very slowly and after a long silence; “that’s what he wants. I’ve tried to instil it into him, many and many’s the time; but”—John added this, in confidence–”he ain’t made for it; that’s the fact.”

*                 *                 *

Oh you stiff-necked John Willet! Oh you and your terrible facts! Your sense of reality, believe me, is idealistic.  Your idea of an imagination must be terrible indeed!  How can you talk so!

Barnaby’s speech captivated me.   How, though an idiot, he could pick out these simple things… things we see every single day and take for granted… and find beauty in them.  When he was first describing the clothes, it reminded me of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies.  Actually, that’s what I thought he was talking about.  And I was very surprised—and pleased—when I found that he was talking about something quite different.  Just a few pages later I read this:

*                *                 *

“Stay.—Look. Do you wise men see nothing there, now?”

He bent eagerly down on one knee, and gazed intently aat the smoke, which was rolling up the chimney in a think black cloud. John Willet, who appeared to consider himself particularly and chiefly referred to under the term wise men, looked that way likewise, and with great solidity of feature.

“Now, where do they go to, when they spring so fast up there,” asked Barnaby; “eh? Why do they tread so closely on each other’s heels, and why are they always in a hurry—which is what you blame me for, when I only take pattern by these busy folk about me? More of ’em! catching to each other’s skirts; and as fast as they go, others come! What a merry dance it is! I would that Grip and I could frisk like that!”

*                 *                 *

O, to have a mind like Barnaby’s.  There is something beautiful, albeit a little pathetic, in his speeches.  It is beautiful because he creates a beautiful thought out of a “crude” image, if you will, like the laundry hanging out to dry, and the fire.  It is pathetic because it seems as though it is a waste of time.  We don’t have time to think about that.  After all, couldn’t we be thinking of other higher thoughts that require attention or improve the mind?

Well, I said it humbled me too.  It did humble me.  It was because thinking of those higher thoughts that improve the mind made me proud.  I have an imagination.  I am able to conjure up these things.  But Barnaby humbled me.  In his little speech, he said so much.  The guest, when he replied: “they are only clothes…”  I would have said the same as he, before Barnaby spoke.  I would have looked at them and thought: “Oh, how lovely; some domesticated housewife has done her laundry today. Good for her.”  Barnaby is right.  If this is considered wisdom, it is better to be an idiot like him.  He sees the beauty everywhere.

Here’s what humbled me… Even in the lowliest mind, even in the most pathetic nature, there is the ability to think a beautiful thought.  Something more beautiful than a “normal” person might be able to think.  Barnaby’s was beautiful because he is so sharp and quick-witted, and yet and idiot.  He lives completely outside of this world, or this reality.  The sight of blood makes him cry out in horror, and have fits.  It is the blood.  It is because it represents violence, and Barnaby cringes from it.  But I wonder—I do wonder if Barnaby’s world is not better than this one that we live in.  Have you ever stood on the corner of a busy street and just watched the people?  They talk on their phones, they walk fast to where they need to get to.  They pass each other, they walk into shops… there is a ceaseless flow of people.  It would be rare indeed to see a girl skipping down such a street, looking up and smiling back at the sky, laughing at all the pretty things in the windows, bursting out in song or dance.  Wouldn’t you think how odd that was? How slightly crazy?  And yet, we must admire the people who resist the rush of every day life, and take time to live their life.  Amidst everyone else’s rush, they are taking in the moment, breathing the air, soaking in the glory of the day.  They are creating memories.

Through the eyes of Barnaby Rudge, through the eyes of even an idiot, I, the proud one, can see the earth as it really is, and the world as it stands.  He gathers the beauty of nature, the beauty of living.  He sees the deception of men, he points out their so-called “wisdom,” which is little better than foolishness.  How much I have to learn from people!

O, to have a mind like Barnaby…

As C.S. Lewis said: “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”