Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Use of Nostalgia in George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life

Chapter numbers appear in parentheses following quotations.

The three stories in George Eliot’s first published work of fiction Scenes of Clerical Life are all set in the past, though the focus is primarily psychological (and after that moral) having little engagement with historical events. Her stories did indeed owe a sufficient number of details to her own memories of childhood in Chilvers Coton that the locals figured out who had written the book and her published asked her to apologize to John Gwyther, the model for the pock-marked curate prone to solecisms. By removing her narratives to a previous generation, Eliot has taken a single step in the direction of the “once upon a time” of legend. Yet we think of nostalgia as differing from immediate lived experience by the editing of the unpleasant and an unrealistic generalized tone of satisfaction, and, indeed, many find in the past a lost perfection. In these tales, however, displacement in time implies a reduction in humanity, in living conditions, and, most of all, in insight, yet, by this very diminution, she generates a warm affectionate glow about her scenes, a sort of sentimentality that affects contemporary readers no less than her own generation.

Eliot has been paired with Flaubert as the source, through Henry James and Marcel Proust, of the modern novel. [1] Conscious of her role as an innovator, Eliot had earlier written a devastating attack on “ Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” [2] which criticizes the lack of reality in popular novels, the idealization of the heroine, the overblown unnatural language, and the facile moral tags. Though surely less guilty of the second of these weaknesses than Georgiana Chatterton whose “Ossianic” rhetorical flight attributed to an four and a half year old she quotes, [3] Eliot is more susceptible to the first and last.

At the outset of “The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton” the significance of the displacement to the past (which is true of all three narratives) is emphasized. With a swelling rhetoric of romantic conservatism, the narrator enumerates the changes a generation has brought to the fictional Milby. Change, of course, is inevitable and universal, but Eliot’s narrator assumes an attitude of “Toryism by the sly,” (I) meaning an imaginative preference for the past, for “dear old quaintnesses.” (I) Part of this indulgent regard for the attractively inferior aspects of the past is a fondness for the slightly absurd curate, the Rev. Barton. With six children he is hard put to put food on the table, he is in need of an income though, apart from his bad complexion and errors in usage, he seems to have little true vocation. What he makes is a pittance since he is a mere curate, serving as a sub-contractor to the actual vicar, a man of far more substantial assets. Apart from being associated with low church practices, he is "sadly unsuited to the practice of his profession," and, worse, he tends to be thoughtless of his hard-working and loyal wife Milly. His friendship with a dubious countess which seems to the reader to arise from a mild sort of snobbery and pride excites suspicion of graver sins among the town gossips.

These shortcomings in the good cleric and the hierarchy for which he labors, though, are cast upon a benighted past, toward which the author adopts a condescending attitude very similar to that of contemporary American who think that in the 1950s everyone was corny and tasteless but that “things were much simpler then.” Finally redeemed in the eyes of the community through his suffering at the loss of his wife, the Rev. Barton never presents a spectacle other than pathetic, the reader’s sentiments being engaged more sluggishly than the residents of Milby or perhaps more shallowly. His failings were gently comic like those of all but the real villains in Trollope. At the story’s end one might well agree with Mrs. Hackit’s opinion expressed in the first chapter, “I think he’s a good sort o’ man, for all he’s not over-burthened i’ the upper story.”

This essential goodness is rewarded in the end in an utterly conventional way. All the children have done well; they prosper like those in other people’s Christmas letters. His wife’s passing, apparently the sole rough spot of the good cleric’s life having concluded, he slowly slides toward his end in comfort, even the departed Milly is replaced by the satisfying surrogate of a faithful daughter.

Eliot distances her working class characters by the use of Midland dialect which creates an image of country folk, outside the sophisticated ambits of the author and reader. The exchange in the first chapter of “Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story” is typical. Already somewhat comic through her professions of leech-breeding and lollipop vending, Dame Fripp describes for simple comic effect, unrelated to the main trajectory of the story, her motives for keeping a pet pig: “A bit o’ company’s meat and drink too, an’ he follers me about, and grunts when I spake to’m, just like a Christian.” (I)

This lady’s amiable qualities emerge in the course of telling how her loyalty was won by Mr. Gilfil with a gift of bacon, after which the narrator describes the vicar’s more general spiritual influence. He performs his duties responsibly if somewhat mechanically, selecting a sermon from his stack without reference to its content and delivering it while the farmers dozed, secure in the sense that their presence alone would magically benefit their relation to God. And the freethinker Eliot diffidently compares them to an audience of her own day. Following the service, they were, she says, “perhaps almost as much the better for this simple weekly tribute to what they knew of good and right, as many a more wakeful and critical congregation of the present day. “

The theme of the story, Mr. Gilfil’s youthful romance, unsuspected by those who knew him in later life, may remind some readers of Mr. Chips, another muddling commonplace sort of fellow whose onetime passionate attachment is described in Hilton’s unabashedly sentimental novel. Just as Barton’s story centered about the recognition of the curate’s flawed humanity, revealed only in suffering, this second story indicates the depth of feeling to which an apparently inconsequential cleric is susceptible. He, like Barton, settles into the decrescendo of old age in which “the dear old vicar” “had something of the knotted whimsical character of the poor lopped oak.” (Epilogue) The image neatly expresses the affectionate yet superior attitude consistent through these stories.

The final story “Janet’s Repentance,” though it also concerns a local priest, differs from the first two stories in that it introduces a markedly more vicious antagonist in Mr. Dempster and it focuses on a female character. Yet it maintains the same tone toward the narrative’s era. “Pray, reader, dismiss from your mind all the refined and fashionable ideas associated with this advanced state of things, and transport your imagination to a time when Milby had no gas-lights . . .” (II) Here it is the male, the Rev. Tryan, who expires, leaving Janet to survive to a dignified old age, sustained by contact with the young, evidence herself of her husband’s cure of one soul at least.

This book through its displacement of the stories to a diminished past steps away from the advance into literary realism marked by Flaubert and Balzac. The fact that each tale describes a single crisis, the death of Milly Barton and that of Caterina Gilfil in the first two and the expulsion of Janet Dempster and her subsequent loyalty to Mr. Tryan in the third, and that after these decisive events, life is largely uneventful is enough to suggest the fairy tale character of the stories. In her essay Eliot had scolded the “lady novelists” of the “the mind-and-millinery species” for lacking plausible plots. She ridiculed a work that mixed a realistic modern setting with “mere shreds from the most heterogeneous romances.” Yet her own readers may catch a scent of romance (or may it be anti-romance?) in the fact that each of her heroines is a submissive wife for whom the solidity of Victorian marriage is the only desirable course of life.

Every story also follows a simple pattern of retributive justice. The townspeople who had failed to appreciate Mr. Barton perceive his value through his suffering, and he lives to a ripe old age. The depth of feeling inherent with the heart of the aging Mr. Gilfil emerges through the story of his onetime love as the unassuming fellow plods through his paces without asking for more. And the vicious yahoo Mr. Dempster dies wretchedly while his repentant wife sobers up and receives a second chance at life. Eliot brings each piece to a conclusion without surprising or disturbing her readers or causing them to think.

Though Eliot had decried the “oracular” and “white neck-cloth” species of novels for their obtrusive moralizing (of high and low church persuasion respectively), her own clergymen are all characters whose grasp of theology of or of even the very best pastoral practices has little significance. Each demonstrates spirituality through love and common humanity which, however admirable a value, and however consistent with what we have of the words of Christ, certainly challenges no one.

Eliot indeed wrote about people in modest circumstances while the authors she criticized “write in elegant boudoirs.” These stories of village people and village events, like the later work of American regionalists, depicted the high drama that plays out in every village, indeed for the sympathetic sensibility, in every life. Yet her initial explorations in Scenes of Clerical Life are tentative and qualified. By casting her stories into a nostalgically remembered recent past she creates about their characters a genial warmth that allows their travails to bear a measure of grace and charm. By including the reader with herself as a pair who have most assuredly “gone on” she encourages a view of the puppets of the past as largely entertaining, while her themes are restrained, gentle and accessible. The monument of Middlemarch can scarcely be recognized in embryo.

1. See, for instance, Barbara Smalley, George Eliot and Flaubert: Pioneers of the Modern Novel , 1974.

2. Published under her own name, as all of her early nonfiction had been, in The Westminster Review, vol. 66, October 1856, 442-461.

3. From Compensation. In the twenty-first century, virtually any rhetoric beyond the most simple and colloquial may strike many as “unrealistic” fustian

A Structural View of Certain Oracles

On even the balmiest of days we are all aware that the specters of mortality, disease, want, violence, and a myriad of other causes of suffering hover nearby. Each of us has experienced the fragility of life and fortune. Tomorrow always poses a threat, vague or vivid according to circumstances. In an attempt to gain some measure of control over a fundamentally unmanageable environment, people have sought patterns in the phenomena around them. While this habit clearly leads toward the recognition of cause and effect and thus in the direction of science, magic and superstition arise from the same source. [1] One of the principal concerns of intellectuals over thousands of years of human history has been the prediction of the future, whether their findings are couched in the hypotheses of experimenters or the resounding rhetoric of Isaiah.

The oracle in Solomon’s temple is described in detail in the book of Kings while little, unfortunately, is said of its uses. In the ancient world kings regularly consulted oracles for advice on war and statecraft, but many who consulted experts on the future were individuals with more personal priorities. For instance, among the queries that have survived inscribed on lead strips from Dodona, Greece’s oldest oracle, is one from Nikokrateia asking to which of the gods she should sacrifice in order to be better and stronger and cease from her illness. Another implies what may have been a heated issue several thousand years ago: “Lysanias asks Zeus Naios and Dione whether the child which Annula is carrying is not by him.” [2] How suggestive it is that this proposition is stated negatively!

In antiquity the desire for prophetic knowledge resulted in the formulation of a great many oracular technologies. Some methods, like that which seems to have been practiced at Delphi for over a millennium, were spontaneous, relying wholly on the inspiration of a human intermediary who is thought to directly convey divine knowledge. Similarly, in most shamanistic procedures the prophet simply conveys to listeners what the deity has said. Clearly, from a modern point of view, the efficacy of these oracles depends on the prudence and wisdom of the one delivering the divine message, both in shrewdly analyzing the question posed and in maintaining the kind of ambiguity or obscurity that has, for instance, allowed excited enthusiasts to trumpet Nostradamus’ accuracy with different readings for every generation. Often such prognosticators (and indeed their contemporary incarnations, the reader/advisors that can be found in every American city) have been compared to psychiatrists and other counselors only some of whom hold degrees. Today we hear even of “life coaches.”

A great many systems of divination involve the priest’s interpretation of specified signs. These vary enormously; among the well-known methods are the observation of cracks in heated shell or bone (practiced in ancient China), of birds (such as much Roman augury), or of tea leaves (called tasseography). These allow for almost unlimited latitude in decoding and thus, like the direct methods above (and such related beliefs such as explaining the meaning of dreams) reflect more than anything else the acumen of the practitioner. Parallels might be made with such varied agents as brokers who rely on the mysteries of “technical analysis.”

People have also sought to discern the future by selecting one of an inventory of options meant to be encyclopedic. [3] Rather like an Aristotelean essay, such lists of possibilities analyze in the etymological sense, breaking down a topic into constituent parts to produce an anatomy as Burton did for melancholy and Frye for literature. Thus Freud divided the mind into id, ego, and superego and Marx saw proletarians, bourgeoisie, and aristocrats. The scala naturae assumed by Aristotle and elaborated by neo-Platonists similarly aims toward a comprehensive classification of phenomena into a framework sufficient to include all the data. Familiar examples of such symbolic systems that persist in contemporary times include astrology and Tarot. The signs of the zodiac define a comprehensive set of personality types. Just as everyone must have a birth day, everyone must fall into the categories associated with that day (or hour or minute, for the lovers of precision). Were it not used for fortune-telling astrology might claim to be a scientific treatise, resembling the psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual setting forth the possibilities among which to locate each individual person.

The deck of playing cards which spread from Persia to India on the one hand and to Egypt and Europe on the other, clearly breaks down society by status, [4] but its symbolic application might apply to countless other possibilities and the ordinary deck was early used for divination. Tarot cards, which first appeared in 15th century Italy, with picture cards called trionfi (triumphs, as they served as trump cards) were used for hundreds of years to play trick-taking games before they, like ordinary playing cards, came to be used to predict the future. Yet they ultimately came to be regarded as an inclusive system for representing the innumerable and shifting shape of individual fortune.

The very ambitious analyses of such oracular systems seek to describe the world of possibilities potential in any given moment. The delineation of the entire array has a value apart from any oracular value. In reading fiction one may come upon this or that chance turn of fortune – but these systems aim to present them all at once as they would appear to the sublime eye. They seek to embrace every possibility after the manner of the multiverses imagined by science and science fiction alike. It is though one were to see from above the entire complex of plot in Ts'ui Pên’s novel (in Borges’ story “The Garden of Forking Paths”). [5]

The most elaborate systems of this sort of which I am aware are the Chinese I Ching and the West African Ifa which exhibit structural similarities though one existed in written form millennia ago and the other remained in oral transmission until quite recently. [6] Each features 256 options, in the former derived from the eight lines in each of the sixty-four hexagrams and in the latter generated by combinations of the 16 basic Odù. The use of either system involves the selection through a random method of a particular verse as relevant to the question posed to the oracle. The Chinese had used the cracks in heated tortoise shells in ancient times, and more recently the patterns resulting from tossed yarrow stalks. Among users of the Bollingen Wilhelm translation, coin tosses were substituted. Similarly, among the Yoruba and other users of the Ifa the priest or babalawo might use the opele or divination chain, or counters (palm nuts, kola nuts, or cowries) on a divination tray or opon ifá. This aspect of the ceremony is trivial.

The creator of the I Ching is said to be the culture hero Fu Xi while the Ifa is attributed to Orunmila who governs knowledge in general as well as divination. Their inventories of possibility are taken by believers to be exhaustive. To Jung the I Ching represented a technology based on synchronicity. Confucius, often thought to be the anti-mystic, in spite of his fondness for music and poetry, said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would devote them to the I Ching. Claims no less grand are also made for the verses of the Ifa. A well-known contemporary enthusiast declares of Ifa that the odùs “represent EVERY SINGLE energy, situation, combination of situations that have, are or will ever be,” while some modern professors of computer science assert the validity of Ifa’s predictions and add that the oracle is a sort of computer system. [7]

In the characteristic way or art, including the art which is called religion, the attitude implied by these oracles is profoundly ambivalent, a passionate assertion undercut by deep doubt. Whether the claims of their partisans are valid and whether any system can in fact predict the future, the I Ching and the Ifa remain as ambitious attempts to classify all experiences in existence from the human point of view and to in a way redeem, with the mandala-like symmetry of the possibilities arrayed in the imagination’s mental theater, the often distressing turns of every life. Such a symbolic pattern allows the adept to rehearse again and again the defeats and the victories even unto the final denouement. Little wonder that a sensitive and intelligent practitioner might gain a sense of mastery from repeated familiarity with such a document either written or oral, and that such a person might occupy a legitimate place in the professions of her or his day.

Yet the oracles can also evoke pathos, their desperate and unattainable goal of anticipating reality (not to speak of the controlling it through magic) always beyond the grasp of anyone for all the salesmanship and charlatanry of the centuries. They speak the naked voice of desire, the fundamental drive to make all right through possession of one thing or another, as though we could ever find oneself masters of the wild horses of our lives. And, in the lyric beauty of their images, they eloquently testify as well to the satisfaction of play in the manipulation of symbols, the dazzle of a few rapid dance moves, of some liquid sounds (whether verbal or tonal) succeeding to touch the heart, or a tale too striking to be forgotten. Whatever their other virtues or failings, the I Ching and the Ifa resemble, as art does, the human heart, though more composed, more serene, and markedly more wise than the diviners’ agitated customers and a good many of the diviners themselves, and very likely me as well if not the reader. Not every believer in art is a fundamentalist, and all the most reputable seers have sought meaning not in the letter but in the spirit. The predictions retailed on the street in Lagos and Hong Kong may not be debased currency, but merely the form of wisdom most useful to some. The most competent prophets I have no doubt are wise indeed and provide a useful service to their customers today as their predecessors have surely done since mammoths roamed the Alps.

1. Joseph Needham in the monumental Science and Civilisation in China details the East Asian association of divination and scientific inquiry. Indeed, until quite recent times, scientists of substantial achievement often practiced such “parasciences” as alchemy, divination, and astrology. Newton, for instance, pursued alchemical experimentation and predicted the future. John Maynard Keynes commented that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.” (“Newton, the Man”)

2. G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 4: Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1979, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997, p. 135.

3. A practice like bibliomancy, in which one randomly selects a passage in scripture or another book is similar but not intentionally inclusive in scope and thus unconsidered here.

4. To Claude François "Pére" Menestrier, the hearts are the church, the spades (or pikes) aristocracy, the diamonds (paving tiles) merchants, and the clubs peasants. (See his Bibliotheque curieuse et instructive de divers ouvrages anciens & modernes.) To Jessie Weston, however, in Ritual and Romance (Chapter 6) they are mystic symbols which are simultaneously sexual.

5. Many of Borges’ stories include such limitless texts (surely the most extravagant fancy of a librarian) in one form or another. The most directly literary are perhaps “The Library of Babel” and “The Book of Sand.”

6. Probably the best edition is Wande Abimbola’s Ifa: An Exposition of the Ifa Literary Corpus (London: Oxford, 1976). There are now a good many version by Africans as well as one by Maulana Karenga, the inventor of Kwanzaa, who produced a partial version under the title Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings.

7. See http://www.academia.edu/5315636/A_Comparative_Study_of_Ifa_Divination_and_Computer_Science “Computer Science takes it origin from ifa divination.”

Arrival in Nigeria

On our way to take up teaching positions on the Nigerian Airways flight the featured film, which, though I did not watch, I saw on a dozen monitors, was, I swear, Raquel Welch wearing a fur bikini as Loana the Fair One in One Million, B.C. Why this was shown so long after its production I cannot say. What I do know is that it complicated the already peculiar knot of associations for “the primitive” which I carried with me to Africa. We had left New York snowed under, only to be enveloped by heat and humidity the moment we stepped off the plane at Mohammed Murtala Airport, then a modest and shabby place, filled with touts and other small businessmen. Many if the affluent Nigerians on the flight carried vast amounts of merchandise while we had shed many possessions. Five-year-old Clare had even happily given many most of her toys.

We made our way to the Palm Heights Hotel in a remote neighborhood amid goats and chickens wandering free down lanes of shanties and more substantial workers’ homes and then, unaccountably, this second or third class hotel, rather grand by contrast. The neighborhood’s fishy odor mingled with the scent from the open sewer in the center of the roads. I thought of Shakespeare’s London and all the other pre-modern cities that did for so long without running water. It is little wonder that many of the old homes have the plainest of facades on the street, holding courtyards and gardens within.

The Palm Heights was a proper place, running water and all, though its pretensions had moderated. Towels and half the signs bore the prior name The Paradise Heights. It had the odd characteristic of much ritzy Nigerian architecture: expensive materials and shoddy workmanship. The marble stairs, for instance, were set so awry as to challenge footing in a few places. Months in the future Mr. Elempe would explain the phenomenon: “They are paid so little, they are sloppy most often on purpose.”

The room was just fine, however, and we set out to get a sense of where we were. There were no businesses except a few tiny shops. Clare began to get acquainted with a little goat until several people who had settled in to enjoy the afternoon by observing us shouted cautions, “No! No . . .worms. The goat has hookworms.”

Once we returned to our room, the youths who worked at the hotel and their friends and hangers-on had heard of our arrival and came calling. We asked whether it were possible to hear Fela and his band at his famous club in his compound the Kalakuta Republic which the army had assaulted only a few years before. While I cannot pretend to know the facts, we were told that he was indeed in residence, but the show would not begin until after midnight. Each concert-goer receives a basket, we heard, in which to store clothing since nothing but undergarments is permitted inside the shrine-like hall. We did not make it to hear Fela.

One of our guests had spent the last half-hour of his visit in our toilet. Once everyone had left, we found that the toilet was plugged and on the verge of foully overflowing. A call to the front desk seemed to inspire no action. Repeated requests eventually brought a helpful lad up carrying a chamber pot. The toilet was never fixed during our stay, though it doubtless needed nothing more than a good plunging.

The next morning I woke to the song of the mosquitoes. After a single conscious inhalation, I wondered whether it was our toilet or the world outside that so emphatically struck my nostrils. Our spell in the tropics was undeniably underway in either case.