The books that last

Early one morning, around a week ago, I opened the front door to take a draught of clean morning air when I detected something in the breeze that awoke a cheer in the heart. There was in the wind an unmistakeable autumn quality – a new chill, the smell of damp earth – that had not been there even the morning before, and that meant two things. Firstly, and most obviously, it meant that autumn was here, and autumn has always been my favourite season. Second, it reminded me of an event that always happens at this time of year. There is in my memory a certain someone who famously waited for the autumn before setting off on a perilous quest: someone who felt, surely correctly, that summer was the time for relaxing and making the most of the comforts of home; autumn for journeying and adventure. That someone went by the name of Frodo Baggins. This year, as in so many of the years since I first attempted it, and despite the terrifying perils that await any who do, I decided once again to join Frodo on his quest.

I am talking, of course, about JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. It may seem odd that a (relatively) grown-up and (sometimes) serious person should spend so much time, year after year, reviewing yet again a tale concerned mostly with furry-footed creatures that first made their appearance in a children’s story. Of course, many people get obsessed with silly and trivial things and build a life around them – we have learnt to tolerate this or even admire it as part of “geek” culture. But a decision to reread Lord of the Rings regularly is not that, or not in all cases at any rate. It goes deeper.

In my life I have read many books that deeply moved and affected me in various ways, and I have not forgotten them. I am grateful for the lessons they taught and the pleasures they gave. But I never go back to them now. They were books of the moment, and the moment has passed. Enid Blyton enchanted my childhood. But there’s no going back now. Kurt Vonnegut and Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx fomented a rebellion. Revolutions can’t last for ever.

Other books are not books of the moment: they are for ever. They do not just satisfy passing needs and fancies but have depths unguessed of when one first reads them. They are like a deep well – you go to them and draw as much water as can satisfy the needs of the moment; you carry away with you according to your capacity. But when you go back, you’re surprised to find that more can be drawn – ever more, to satisfy the soul-thirst of a lifetime.

Again, that The Lord of the Rings is such a book may surprise some. Perhaps they tried it in the past or know it by reputation and just can’t get on with fairy tales or take seriously hobbits and elves and goblins. Perhaps they enjoyed it on the level of the story as a child, and never went back. Perhaps they have learned to despise the book, as have several miserabilist and materialist critics, finding that the book appears to their intellect as too simple-minded, too reactionary, a glamorisation of war or apology for class division or backward-looking, petit-bourgeois romanticism – even fascism.

The latter cannot have read the book at all, or not very closely – they certainly cannot have read in it deeply.

The Lord of the Rings is very much like the Bhagavad Gita. On the level of the material events of the story, it is indeed a tale of a war. On the intellectual level, it is full of aphorisms that provide much food for thought and stories providing entertainment and amusement. Whether these appeal to you in the manner presented may well be a matter of taste. But the real force, the real meaning, of the book is deeper and more spiritual. The Gita and The Lord of the Rings both are really about the inner war for the individual soul.

The Ring of the title is a magical object that gives its bearer and all who use it great worldly powers. (It’s something like a mind fixed on worldly goals then.) All who hear of it greatly desire this power – they want to get their hands on this magical and precious object, have it for their own, use it for their own ends – and, from the first, perhaps they genuinely desire such power that they may do good with it. But desire and the lust for power have their own logic, their own demands, and these all too easily overpower one’s more noble intentions. You seize the Ring intending only good; but only the smallest missteps lead one away from the path and into the dark forest, where the undergrowth of tangled wants will ensnare you for incarnations. The path to evil is paved with good intentions.

The corrupting influence of such desires on all the heroes of the book at every step in their quest and battles gives the lie to the notion that this is a simplistic and simple-minded tale of a battle between good people and evil ones. The evil are not inherently evil, not even Sauron, but are fallen angels – they started out just as we all do, as the heroes in the book do – as ordinary beings with contradictory desires and impulses. They choose the wrong path and go over to evil, ever more irrevocably as they progress down the wrong path. The good are not inherently so, and again and again must struggle with their own inclinations and lack of courage to do the right thing. Even as you progress in this righteous quest, your strength may fail you in the end – as it fails Frodo. In the battle over your soul, you turn again and again to the places where you might find comfort and strength – to your friends and comrades and loved ones, to your hearth and home, to guidance from the wise, but always in the end to the hero inside yourself, your own resources and courage and faith that choosing good will always in the end be its own reward, just as much as evil will in the end be its own punishment.

Such deep moral issues belong to no one age of man nor to any particular historic period. That is why books that deal with them seriously are not books of the moment, but of eternity. The road goes ever on and on – and as long as it does, a map and a guide will be helpful, particularly in dark and treacherous spots, in heavy weather, when you are lost or despair of ever reaching your goal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that The Lord of the Rings is such a book. Keep it by your heart always.

The embarrassing non sequitur of death – and a silent rebellion

“It seemed that episcopal authority had now triumphed in the Church. But worshippers at the Eucharist, seeing the bishop seated before them with his presbyters, might be aware that there was an alternative source of power and spirituality in the Church: an institution which had only gradually emerged during the third century [monasticism]. The closer the Church came to society, the more obvious were the tensions with some of its founder’s messages about the rejection of convention and the abandonment of worldly wealth. Human societies are based on the human tendency to want things, and are geared to satisfying those wants: possessions or facilities to bring ease and personal satisfaction. The results are frequently disappointing, and always terminate in the embarrassing non sequitur of death. It is not surprising that many have sought a radical alternative, a mode of life which is in itself a criticism of ordinary society. Worldy goods, cravings and self-centred personal priorities are to be avoided so that their accompanying frustrations and failures can be transcended. The assumption is that such transcendence has a goal beyond the human life span, the goal which some term God […] The Church might well have seen [the] silent rebellion [of those who lived this life] as a threat […] because […] simply by their style of life, they denied the whole basis on which the Church had come to be organised. ”

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity

The Book of Margery Kempe

I was recently asked to read The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436-8) for a course on Northern Renaissance art. The idea was to get an insight into the medieval spiritual life, particularly as experienced through ‘affective piety’ – an emotionally charged practice of prayer, reading and meditation on scenes from the Bible, the lives of the Saints, or other religious material as represented in art. The idea was for the “viewer” to engage with the scene as if she or he were physically present and to stir up feelings of love, fear, grief, and repentance for sin. Margery tells how she visualised herself in scenes from Christ’s and the Virgin’s life, then took part in the actions of the scene –  as a midwife to St Anne, for example, and experiencing Christ’s suffering on the cross, which caused her great emotional distress which resulted in outbursts of weeping.

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While reading Kempe’s book, I was reminded that active visualisation is still practised today. In some strands of the modern pagan movement, for example,  active visualisation is practised either by meditating on and acting out a narrative in the mind or contemplating an image to place oneself within it. In both cases the participant is encouraged to talk to and interact with the people, animals, situations, etc., he or she finds there. This doesn’t strike me as very different from what Margery Kempe was doing. Obviously, it is less ‘affective’, there is no physical suffering involved and ‘God’ is not the Christian God, but the basic method is the same.

It’s too easy to dismiss this as a kind of craziness. People who set themselves aside from the norms of society are often misunderstood and labelled as unstable. Pagans, spiritualists and mystics tend to be viewed in this light today. I’m not sure that this is a helpful way to see Margery Kempe. It’s difficult for us to understand the medieval mindset and the importance of religion and devotion within it. Margery’s ‘extremes’ may be explained by the fact that she was describing events to a scribe and may have been prone to exaggeration. She could simply have felt things more keenly. Whatever the case, her experiences were individual and heartfelt. I see her as a devoted medieval women enthused – very enthused! – by the word of her God.

The description of pain and suffering in her book is fascinating and lends credence to the concept of ‘philopassionism’ – an empathetic identification with Christ during his Passion – and how works of art functioned as channels for it. I think Margery, despite what we see as her excesses, gives us a small glimpse into how that process worked and this can enrich our own experience of Northern Renaissance art – indeed, of our own experience of life.–Lynn Wright

The magic of Danny, the Champion of the World

What follows is an extract from Dave’s work in progress, currently entitled From Solipsism to Socialism – Memoirs of a Political Animal. It traces Dave’s personal, social and political development from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, trying to discover what may lie behind the social and political ideas we choose to identify with. For Dave, there is a complexity of subjective factors underpinning our ideologies, and more often than not, they are in no way ‘political’…

The first thing that happened when I joined the Junior section of Redbridge primary school was the short walk from the main building across the playground to our new classroom. This was a large wooden hut painted dark blue which was set upon wooden legs. That the existence of such a makeshift classroom was possibly related to the public spending cuts being carried out by the Callaghan Labour government was of no interest to me. We had a separate section for our coats and hats and we only had to enter the main building for assembly or to use the toilet.

Perhaps this created an air of freedom for both Miss Marshall and her pupils. We seemed to enjoy being cut off from the rest of the school, and I believe that this was reflected in the lessons – certainly how I experienced them at any rate. One of the things that set Miss Marshall apart from other teachers was her smile – or the fact that she smiled. There was a warmth attached to it, a friendliness that made me want to please her in an unconscious way. Until this point, school had been something I just experienced in an existential solipsistic way. I did not love or hate it – just did it. I was there almost as a spectator, but with Miss Marshall, laughter regularly occurred in the classroom and she hardly had to raise her voice to maintain order. She told us about dinosaurs and I was particularly fascinated by who would win a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Triceratops. At one stage, she took us out of our caravan classroom, onto the playground, where she drew a life size Tyrannosaurus, in white chalk, on the playground surface. It was an incredible sight. She also told us about Australia, and how she wanted to live there one day. I think that this was the first time I heard about the Aborigines, and that it took a full day on an aeroplane to get there. When we did sports, she commented on what a fast sprinter I was, which gave me the confidence to win just about every race I entered. As if this was not enough, she introduced me to Roald Dahl.

***

I recall her beaming face, enthusiasm coming from every pore. “Today, we are going to start reading a book in class. It is called Danny – The Champion of the World, and it is written by a man with a strange name: Roald Dahl”. I think she gave us a brand new copy between two pupils, which in itself was strange because nearly all the exercise books we ever looked at were extremely dog-eared and old. This may have been due to the fact that the book had only recently been published (in 1975), and Miss Marshall proceeded to tell us: “If you look at the inside cover, you will see the date when it was written and a little letter ‘c’ in a circle. This means that the story inside belongs to Roald Dahl, and if anyone tries to pretend that they wrote the story, Roald Dahl can go to the police”. Wow – I grasped the concept of intellectual property rights at the age of eight! “And because it is such a beautiful story, that we are going to love reading together, somebody may actually do this, so Roald Dahl has made sure that no bad person steals his story”.

This was very impressive. It had never previously occurred to me that words could belong to an individual person, because words were not like things which could be stolen, such as Dad’s Hillman. This was also the first time my attention had been turned to the concept of an author. My ladybird books were predominantly fairy tales so I did not associate the contents with a particular individual and although we had listened to Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree being read to us in the infants’ school, it was read by a teacher who had no enthusiasm for the story, and barely referenced that Enid Blyton was an actual person. Subsequently, I hated those sessions (normally on a Friday afternoon), detested the story and would sit there fidgeting, yet fearful of incurring the ire of the suitably named Mrs Cross. Miss Marshall was not like Mrs Cross at all. Whereas Miss Marshall was young and vibrant, Mrs Cross was middle-aged and possessed an angry countenance which scared me. I was so terrified that I may actually end up in her class for the final year of Infant school that I prayed to God on the eve of the September term: “Please lord, do not make me go into Mrs Cross’s class”. My prayers were answered, and I got Miss Kenvin instead; a young benign alternative. My main memory of my year with her was learning all about a cat named Gobbolino, who apparently belonged to a witch. There was an accompanying song which we used to sing, and I can still remember some of the words.

However, everything about Miss Marshall’s class from our physical environment to her expressive face was different. The cover of Danny – The Champion of the World was a reddish orange and it showed a father and son walking through a forest. The love between these two characters was unmistakable. I could tell this by body language, including facial expressions, alone. She then told us to turn the book around and look at the back cover. “When you buy a book, you should always look at the ‘spine’ to see if it looks interesting, then the cover and finally the back cover where there will be a quick description about the story. If you like it, ask mummy or daddy to buy it for you”.

The confidence of how to ‘handle’ a book was possibly instilled in me from this point, and to this day the most natural thing in the world for me to do, when I see a book, is to instinctively and lovingly repeat this procedure. Each book contains a life of its own – its personal universe. It is inconceivable for a book to be on a table, or anywhere I am, without me recognising it, and making some kind of contact with it. If I see someone with a book, I have to know what it is, and if I am familiar with it, or indeed have read it, do everything I possibly can to attract the reader’s attention in the most subtle of ways, in order to signify the secret solidarity which exists between all genuine bibliophiles.

This is the gift that Miss Marshall gave me.

Everything about this process was real and human. She told us a little about Roald Dahl: how he got his funny name, and the fact that he wrote fantastic stories for children as well as adults. This was no longer just a pile of bounded printed paper. Thanks to Miss Marshall’s alchemy, it was alive, and throbbing with the taste of the fantastic. My anticipation was palpable, and I could hardly wait to start.

Unsurprisingly, it was as good as Miss Marshall had suggested. We would each take a turn in reading, including Miss Marshall, and there were wonderful pictures which only further fuelled the imagination. Danny, and his doting father, lived in a gypsy style caravan next to a small garage and petrol station. Danny’s father was a practical man who could fix and do almost anything, particularly when it came to cars. But he was also an extremely tender and loving man. I was so touched by the way he would sit on his son’s bed talking to him about his dead mother, kiss him goodnight, and refer to him as ‘my love’. I was overwhelmed by this father/son relationship; it was both beautiful and magical. From this position of love, Danny was able to learn and absorb practical skills, but most importantly he learnt to love and be loved. I imagined Danny being tucked up in his caravan bed, safe and warm, his father’s workplace next door. Everything felt so contained, so balanced. And indeed it was within itself, but this idyllic cocoon was situated on the edge of a forest that was owned by an extremely obnoxious landowner called Mr Hazel, who was having continual problems with people poaching his pheasants. Miss Marshall explained to us that this was a fancy word for stealing. Needless to say that we were shocked and surprised to find out that Danny’s wonderful father was one of the poachers, as was Danny himself. And then one night, after awaking to find his father missing, Danny demonstrated the wherewithal to jump into one of the garage’s cars in order to drive into the forest to rescue his father who had fallen into a poacher’s trap. His father was not only able to legitimise his stealing, from the hateful Mr Hazel, but won his son’s support for the final big poach which included sowing crushed sleeping pills into raisons in order to drug as many pheasants as possible.

Today I can find many themes in this book that went over my childish head. A good example being class struggle. This must have been the first time in my life that a greedy landowner was cast in the role of villain, with the oppressed petit bourgeois as hero, who also happened to have the support of the local community (including the police sergeant). This book seemed to suggest that stealing was a relative concept, and that poaching was a form of art. There was a complexity to Danny’s father which fascinated me. Like Jesus, he was tender, loving and mild, and like Jesus he was an element of society that could be deemed as ‘criminal’ and prone to a righteousness which may be backed up with the threat of violence. Perhaps this delicate matrix of love, hate, morality and criminality entered my subconscious, but all I knew was that this was a wonderful story, facilitated by a teacher who demonstrated warmth and kindness as first principles.

The magic of the ‘book’ had been revealed.

The Inimitable

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” So claims an oft-repeated quote of Isaac Babel’s. I doubt any lover of Tolstoy would have trouble understanding or sympathising with this claim – if perhaps wondering whether the implied artlessness isn’t an illusion created by some very great art indeed. The whole of life is in Tolstoy’s novels, and, as in all our great writers, it is his genius for close observation that helps us see for ourselves what has all along been under our very noses. If the world was able, however, not just to write by itself but to tell a good ghost story, then it would write like Dickens.

Of course some of Dickens’s stories feature actual ghosts – A Christmas Carol being the obvious example. But in a broader sense, all his stories are haunted, in the same way that we are. For the world really can “write by itself” – and what it writes resembles Dickens more than Tolstoy. I mean the dreams and memories and fancies that arise unbidden in our minds, and most especially the strangely dramatic, moving and oddly coloured memories of our childhood. We all have stories that we tell to ourselves and to each other and, consciously or not, these tales have grown in the telling. The comedy is better timed than if life had written for itself, the trials and tribulations more dramatic, the horrors and evils more grotesque, the depressions deeper and darker, the joys and loves cast in brighter lights, the triumphs more glorious, the battles more heroic. This is not in any way to downplay Tolstoy’s art or story-telling genius. It is just to marvel at the airy products of our own imaginations – to shudder at the ghostly power they can hold over us – and to admire the art that enabled Dickens to trap them, in the forms in which they appear to us, rather than as may be in reality, on a page.

In the real world, as the Buddha taught us, our selves and characters and stories have no substantial reality, no permanence. We are bubbles of earth, floating along and before too long – gone! What a pity for us that the ghosts that haunt our minds can seem so real, so terrifying! How seriously we take life! How scared we are by… never mind by gargoyles or ghosts or extreme poverty, but by the cupboard under the stairs! The hatch that leads to the attic! By Mr Pumblechook giving us a sum to perform. No one captures life as it is caught and fretted over by our egos better than Dickens.

Dickens is often accused of penning caricatures, but are caricatures not precisely what haunt us, the things with which our imaginations populate our inner world? That chap sitting there across from us now – he may well be a very well rounded and complex character, from the inside, from his own point of view, from a God’s eye point of view, from the point of view of a world “writing by itself”. But how does he appear to us, in the never-ending ghost stories that run constantly through our minds? Do we not tend to see people and other objects of reality through the glasses of our minds, and then somewhat darkly? We peer through the masks we have created for ourselves and what do we see? Leering and goggling and grinning back at us are the masks we have put on other people – or perhaps rather the masks they most insist on being seen in themselves. This is a mistake. We must make an effort to see more clearly if we are not to go on creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves and for the world. Yet we do it. If we cannot see that we do it, if we come to take ourselves and our stories seriously, if our characters continue to insist on the reality of the absurd tragedies we play, the dramas where we star in the lead role, a spotlight on our own importance and achievements, we become hard, unfeeling, grotesque monsters – we start wars. We become Dickensian. Our modern world is Dickensian still.

This is what Dickens shows us. But he also shows us the possibility of breaking these spells, of dismissing the ghosts, of exorcising the well-trodden paths we cut through life. He shows us the possibility of love and compassion for the suffering in this world. When we see this clearly, perhaps we might do some good. Perhaps one frosty morning we will leap from our beds like Scrooge on Christmas day, eager to begin, and with a smile in our hearts. As John Cowper Powys says, reading Dickens gives one a healthy disdain for flippancy and cynicism. Dickens may lapse into sentimentality, as critics are all too eager to point out, but it is after all better to cry than to comb one’s hair all day with an ivory comb.

But no, no, I’ve still not captured what I most love about Dickens. Yes, Dickens is Serious Literature. Who didn’t know it? But there’s a lot of that about. What makes him stand above all others for me is that he is such a pleasure to read. My happiest memories of reading date from when I was very young and I would make the conscious decision to stay indoors, spurning the sunshine, to lie on the floor, pick up an Enid Blyton, and read it from cover to cover for no other reason than the sheer thrill of it. No reading experience came close to that until I discovered Dickens, many years later. Dickens makes you see the world through the eye of a child once again – surely no one does this quite like Dickens –but he grows you up too. He is a moralist, but one who understands the vital importance of a full belly, warmth, good cheer and “some rare and startling occurrence” (as Powys puts it in a different essay, sadly not online). His novels are the fifth gospel – and for moderns such as myself, not brought up on the Bible, his gospel speaks much more powerfully to my heart than do the other four. He truly is The Inimitable.–Stuart