Posts Tagged ‘George Bernard Shaw’

Think we have it bad? Eavan Boland’s poem about Ireland’s Great Famine

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020
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Eavan Boland: one of Ireland’s leading poets

Ireland’s terrible period of starvation and disease from 1845 to 1849 was called the “Great Famine” or the “Great Hunger” – George Bernard Shaw had a different term for it: “the Great Starvation.” About a million died, and a million emigrated. The worst year was 1847.

I ran across Eavan Boland‘s poem “Quarantine” the other day over at the Poetry Foundation website. I asked her how she came to write this poem about the Great Potato Famine, and whether the story was true. Here’s what she replied:

The story itself is anecdotally true – that is, it comes from a book called Mo Sceal Fein by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire (the title means he was a priest). The book was published  as autobiography somewhere about 1907 and in the Irish language. The title means “My Own Story.”

There is a brief recounting in that book of the story of Kit and Patrick, who left the workhouse during the 1847 famine to return to their cabin. Both were weakened by lack of food and she had famine fever. In the morning they were both found dead. In the text it says “the feet of the woman were in Patrick’s bosom, as if he had tried to warm them.”

It’s a very brief story and I first heard it as just that, when I was a teenager. Later I read a translation of it in the book. It seemed to me then, as it does now, to bring together so much of the public agony and private experience of the Ireland of that time. Just a terrible parable of people on the dark side of history, who somehow amend it for a moment by the grace of their actions.

Quarantine

In the worst hour of the worst season
.  of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
.  He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
.  Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
.  There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
.  Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Simone Weil and “the mark of slavery”

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
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George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “Only fine arts and torture changes a man.”

Simone Weil focused on the “torture” part. Malheur is usually translated as “affliction” – best option, perhaps, for describing the conditions necessary so that, as she wrote, “the human creature may un-create itself.” “Unhappiness” is too subjective and mild; though “affliction” doesn’t quite convey the inevitability and doom of “malheur.” In his introduction to the piece, which was pulled together from her notebooks, George Panichas wrote about affliction: “Along with beauty, it is the only thing piercing and devastating enough to penetrate the soul.”

I sent this to an ailing friend, not knowing what he’ll make of it. I’m having a Job-like day today, so I need to reread it, too:

weil2In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. Slavery as practiced by ancient Rome is only an extreme form of affliction. The men of antiquity, who knew all about this question, used to say: “A man loses half his soul the day he becomes a slave.”

Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. Even in the case of the absence or death of someone we love, the irreducible part of the sorrow is akin to physical pain, a difficulty in breathing, a constriction of the heart, an unsatisfied need, hunger, or the almost biological disorder caused by the brutal liberation of some energy, hitherto directed by an attachment and now left without a guide. A sorrow that is not centered around an irreducible core of such a nature is mere romanticism or literature. Humiliation is also a violent condition of the whole corporal being, which longs to surge up under the outrage but is forced, by impotence or fear, to hold itself in check.

On the other hand pain that is only physical is a very unimportant matter and leaves no trace in the soul. Toothache is an example. An hour or two of violent pain caused by a decayed tooth is nothing once it is over.

It is another matter if the physical suffering is very prolonged or frequent, but in such a case we are dealing with something quite different from an attack of pain; it is often an affliction.

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death. Here below, physical pain, and that alone, has the power to chain down our thoughts; on condition that we count as physical pain certain phenomena that, though difficult to describe, are bodily and exactly equivalent to it. Fear of physical pain is a notable example.

When thought is obliged by an attack of physical pain, however slight, to recognize the presence of affliction, a state of mind is brought about, as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine the that is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. …

Read more here.

Happy 600th birthday, Jeanne d’Arc!

Thursday, January 5th, 2012
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Almost all little girls have a love affair with horses. They also seem to go through a Joan of Arc phase, too. I was indifferent to the equestrian sports – but I read all the books in my library on the illiterate virgin from Domrémy who gave birth to a nation.

So I was pleased to learn in my online peregrinations that today is her 600th birthday.  How the experts have determined her birthday when we’re not even sure of the year she was born, I can’t remember, if I ever knew.  The picture at right was made about half a century after her death; the only contemporary portrait made of her has not survived.

She may be a powerful reminder that events can be successful without turning out quite as we imagined.  Charles VII, the king whose coronation she engineered, appears to have been a truly nasty piece of work.  Having recently attended the exhibition of The Mourners at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, I enriched my appreciation for what a first-class creep he was:  “the mourners” adorn the tomb of John the Fearless, done in by the king-to-be in a particularly treacherous way.  Old habits die hard:  he did nothing more than a decade later to save his warrior and savior when she was captured by the Burgundians.  She burned at the stake in 1431.

We know her, not only as a warrior, patriot, and saint, but also as the heroine of two great plays:  Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, and Jean Anouilh‘s The Lark.

The most famous passage from Shaw’s play follows her agreement to sign a confession renouncing her “voices,” to live under permanent confinement.

“You think that life is nothing but not being dead? It is not the bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again climb the hills. To make me breathe foul damp darkness, without these things I cannot live. And by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your council is of the devil.”

Below is a 1957 Hallmark video of the play, starring that remarkable and generally underrated actress Julie Harris as Joan and the better known, for different reasons, Boris Karloff as Pierre CauchonLillian Hellman made the English adaptation and Leonard Bernstein composed the incidental music. (Otherwise you could watch Carl Dreyer‘s reverential and acclaimed The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I have always found a little like watching paint dry. Guess I’m a lowbrow.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole Anouilh play, but it looks pretty good in the bits I’ve seen. You’ll have to skip through Hallmark’s 2-minute cheesy commercial at the beginning, and a very blurry video version – but Harris is worth it, I think.

Rebecca West called for “a new and abusive school of criticism.” It’s still needed.

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010
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Saving souls through litcrit

A few months after World War I began, writer Rebecca West wrote:  “Disgust at the daily deathbed which is Europe has made us hunger and thirst for the kindly ways of righteousness, and we want to save our souls.”

The New Republic, almost a year ago, reprinted her 1914 remarks, calling us to “a serious duty … the duty of listening to our geniuses in a disrespectful manner.”

So much for “kindly ways.”  West wrote, “Criticism matters as it never did in the past, because of the present pride of great writers.”

West’s prose is a little febrile, and she hopelessly confuses the mind and the soul, but in an era of anomie, her passionate outcry is refreshing:  “Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practise and rejoice in art,” she wrote.  “For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”

She continues:

“A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism. There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger. We reviewers combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism; we reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods. So great is our amiability that it might proceed from the weakness of malnutrition, were it not that it is almost impossible not to make a living as a journalist.

Well, that much has changed at least.  Journalists are feeding out of dumpsters nowadays.

Nor is it due to compulsion from above, for it is not worth an editor’s while to veil the bright rage of an entertaining writer for the sake of publishers’ advertisements. No economic force compels this vice of amiability. It springs from a faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.

But they do matter. The mind can think of a hundred twisted traditions and ignorances that lie across the path of letters like a barbed wire entanglement and bar the mind from an important advance.”

Sleeping with the enemy

Is West’s call to arms dépassé?  We think not.  Dana Gioia wrote nearly two decades ago in “Can Poetry Matter?” that in literary journals

the essays and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. If it publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them. … The unspoken editorial rule seems to be, Never surprise or annoy the readers; they are, after all, mainly our friends and colleagues.

By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art. Since there are too many new poetry collections appearing each year for anyone to evaluate, the reader must rely on the candor and discernment of reviewers to recommend the best books. But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments.

Robert Bly wrote in a similar vein about the same time:

We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, “I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself,” . . . but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.”

West concludes:  “Now, when every day the souls of men go up from Finance like smoke, we feel that humanity is the flimsiest thing, easily divided into nothingness and rotting flesh. We must lash down humanity to the world with thongs of wisdom. We must give her an unsurprisable mind. And that will never be done while affairs of art and learning are decided without passion, and individual dulnesses allowed to dim the brightness of the collective mind. We must weepingly leave the library if we are stupid, just as in the middle ages we left the home if we were lepers. If we can offer the mind of the world nothing else we can offer it our silence.”

West hammers into George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.  She says nothing about the ethics and politics of sleeping with the authors she reviews.  She was Wells’s lover for a decade and bore his son.