Remarks Prepared For The Forum at Phillip’s Mill
On the Topic: Mind Over Millennium
March 14, 1999
I’ll begin with a quotation from Tocqueville because not to quote Tocqueville on an occasion of this sort would be, almost, to commit a felony.
This passage is only marginally related to the points I want to make today, but it’s very directly related to this event. You’ll recall that in Tocqueville’s second volume of Democracy In America he emphasizes the importance of private associations--associations like the one that has brought us here today. And he says:
Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made. Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.
I want to place myself beside Tocqueville in that opinion, and join him in his implied, and quite prescient, compliment to the Phillip’s Mill Community Association.
Since I’ve quoted Tocqueville once, I might as well quote him again, and this time more to my point. Also, in the second volume of Democracy in America, he includes a chapter in which he argues the need for democratic communities to pay attention to the literature of the past. In that chapter he writes:
All who aspire to literary excellence in democratic nations ought frequently to refresh themselves at the springs of ancient literature; there is no more wholesome medicine for the mind. Not that I hold the literary productions of the ancients to be irreproachable, but I think that they have some special merits, admirably calculated to counterbalance our peculiar defects. They are a prop on the side of which we are in most danger of falling.
The writers I’ll mention briefly today were not ancient by Tocqueville’s standards, but they would probably be considered ancient by today’s high school and college students. At any rate, they come to us from the last quarter of the millennium we are about to get out of, and they represent qualities I have admired for much of my life which are in danger of passing, if not into oblivion, then into a state of infrequency that will cause them to appear increasingly peculiar.
The three people I have in mind are Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf, and about all I want to do today is to refer to a couple things each of them said, and then speculate with you about whether the qualities of mind which brought these sayings into being are characteristics we can well do without as we move on to the happy world of the twenty-first century.
I start with Samuel Johnson who was solidly a man of the eighteenth century, having been born near its beginning in 1709, and then, having managed to stay alive for three-quarters of it, abandoning it in 1784. Johnson was, by the standards of our therapeutic age, both a physical and a psychological mess. There can be little doubt that a child such as Johnson was, if he were today in the hands of right-thinking people, would be fixed up to the extent that he would never say anything that anyone would remember. But little Sam was denied those blessings of security and innocence which we now say are every child’s birthright, and as a consequence was forced by the stringencies of his upbringing to face the genuine relationship of humanity to the world, and to discover that the one is not overly concerned with providing a warm nest for the other. This gives his adult pronouncements a somewhat bleak tone, but they contain in their very bleakness a celebration of human resiliency that is cheering in a time when every event, from birth to the mid-life crisis, is said to be a trauma, and when to have lived through a fall off a bicycle earns for one the exalted title of survivor.
Johnson grew up accepting the truth that not only was the world not made for his convenience but that the human makeup is such that we don’t even know what convenience is. On August 21, 1766, he answered a letter from his young friend James Boswell, in which the latter had simultaneously announced his admission to the Scottish bar and grumbled that he wasn’t sure he was suited for the life of a lawyer.
Johnson, in effect, told him not to worry about it. And, then, he added this striking comment:
To prefer one future mode of life to another upon just reasons, requires faculties which it has not pleased our Creator to give us.
Not only is this true; it’s immensely soothing. If we go through life believing that we could have made decisions that would have caused everything to turn out all right we’ll transform ourselves into neurotic wrecks. Yet our entire public life is now designed to affirm this hideous lie. Switch on your TV at night and there’s Charles Schwab telling you how much money you would have if you had just got in touch with him ten years ago, and Bob Dole, telling you how much fun you could be having if you were courageous enough to go to your doctor and confess that you are afflicted with E. D.
The Johnsonian ability to look at life’s imperfections, face them for what they are, and go ahead and eat dinner is a wonderful thing. And it’s beneficial not only for our individual psyches, it infuses health into public discourse.
Johnson as the creator of the first genuine English dictionary was, of course, interested in seeing words used to mean what they do, in fact, mean, even though he himself, upon occasion, violated his own principles, as in the famous case of defining “pastern” as the knee of a horse. But, generally, he was very precise, nicer, we might say, about his definitions than about his linen. At a gathering one afternoon, a lady came to him and announced, indignantly, “Dr. Johnson, you smell.” To which he replied, “Madam, you are wrong. You smell; I stink!”
I don’t know that we have to be as scrupulous as Johnson was to take in the lesson he was offering, but we would do well to accept it to some degree, lest meaning be swept away in a flood of abstractions, and we descend to using words only as comforting clucks for the intellectually challenged.
Turning to Jane Austen, we find a different sensibility, but one, I think, no less bracing. A Johnsonian insult was felt immediately, whereas being skewered by Jane Austen may have left her audience bewildered for weeks before they realized what had been done to them. And that process is still going forward. D. W. Harding, in one of the better essays written about Jane Austen said that a great portion of the readers who admire her today are precisely the sort of people she despised. She wasn’t, of course, always subtle. She could be as direct as anyone, as, for example when she wrote to her sister Cassandra:
Mrs. Hall of Sherborne , was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.
The first of her admonitions I would like to bring to your attention this afternoon comes from one of Jane Austen’s juvenile writings. When she was about thirteen, she wrote a tender epistolary novel titled Love and Freindship in which the heroine Laura had a dear friend Sophia, who was the greatest treasure of her heart. Though these two young ladies were devoted to one another, they were quite different in temperament. Laura was a tempestuous girl, who, when anything disturbed her, had a fit, whereas Sophia, softer and more delicate, when bothered fell into a swoon. They were visiting together at a cottage in the country when Sophia began to complain of violent pain in her limbs, caused no doubt by her having fallen senseless, into the dew-covered grass, several times the previous evening. A fever came on, and within a very few days it became evident that Sophia was, shortly, to be no more. But before she passed on, she turned to her dear friend Laura, and said, with her dying words:
Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.
I’m particularly fond of this piece of advice because my daughter Elizabeth chose it as the motto to appear beside her picture in her high school yearbook. Yet, aside from the personal connection, I think it’s good counsel for us all, and one we don’t hear as often as we should.
As important as not fainting is, there’s something even more important we can learn from Jane Austen, and we can approach it best, perhaps, by recalling a passage from her novel Emma. In one of its scenes, the title character walks out onto the porch of a shop in the village of Highbury and looks up and down the street. Nothing much is going on in Highbury that day because Highbury is the sort of place where nothing much ever does go on. Still, it is a view Emma finds pleasing, and we are told by the authorial voice in the background:
A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing and can see nothing that does not answer.
Of all the qualities which seem to be disappearing from the world, we can least afford to lose the ability to be content with our own thoughts and observations. Many people I meet are too busy for contentment. And not only are they too busy, their children are too busy. I have heard of kids seven and eight years old who have to have calendars kept for them so that their lessons, and appointments, and sessions with this and that expert can be sorted out. I’m not sure what Jane Austen would have to say about this, but I’m fairly certain it would be nothing to boost the self-esteem which we are now told is the most significant thing we can possess.
Our concentration on self-esteem bespeaks a psychological fragility which Virginia Woolf recognized, and to an extent exemplified--though not to the degree many commentators claim she did. Consequently, she serves as a good transition figure for the theme we’re discussing here today.
She is noted for having said of Jane Austen that of all great writers she was the hardest to catch in the act of greatness. Ms. Woolf was wrong about that as she was wrong about many things, but it does remind us that it is a judgment not applicable to her. She is easy to catch in the act of greatness. Many of her insights are so striking and so magnificently crafted they take your breath away. The fact of Virginia Woolf’s greatness is not in question; but the meaning of it is.
It would be arrogant of me to suggest that I could capture that meaning in a short paper on a single afternoon. I can’t. I will, though, point to a feature of Woolf’s work which I believe is an essential part of her meaning, and that helps us towards a clearer understanding of what we’re dealing with as we approach the death of one age and the beginning of another. A signal truth about Virginia Woolf is that though she is known as one of the major artists of the modernist sensibility, she was deeply grounded in an older vision of reality, and she never surrendered a longing for the goods of that earlier world. We can see this more directly in her essays than in her novels. One of the prices paid for her creative greatness is the turning of attention away from her critical writings, which strike me as being as being of the very highest quality. In an early essay she wrote on Chaucer and the Paston letters, that wondrous collection of 15th century family expression, she has this to say about Chaucer’s style:
There is a pungency in this unfigurative language; a stately and memorable beauty in the undraped sentences which follow each other like women so lightly veiled that you see the lines of their bodies as they go.
One cannot speak this freshly of such beauty without regretting its loss, and hoping in some manner to hold onto it. I think Virginia Woolf maintained that hope all through her life and all through her tangled literary experimentation.
Indeed, right in the heart of her most experimental work we find passages that echo, in their direct simplicity the quality she found so winning in Chaucer. In To the Lighthouse, which is widely regarded as her finest novel, there is a scene which displays unerringly the tension Virginia Woolf tried to manage all her life. In it the young, single artist Lily Brisco is resting her head on the knee of the woman she is visiting at the seashore, the alluring Mrs. Ramsey, who exemplifies everything Victorian woman was supposed to be, and who was modeled on Virginia Woolf’s own mother, the beautiful Julia Cameron. Lily can’t understand Mrs. Ramsay. She suspects there is something there more magnificent than she can imagine which she, herself, can never reach. And this is how that something is described:
In the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was physically touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public.
When Virginia Woolf, on that March morning in 1941, decided to stop trying to figure things out, and walked into the chilly waters of the River Ouse, with rocks in the pocket of her coat, I suspect she still had those sacred scriptures in mind, and I hope that somewhere in the recesses of her soul she was still hopeful of reading them. I don’t suppose we can ever know about that. But we can know that all the struggles of the people who came before stand as a sacred scripture to us, and that if we move on into the bright, technologically adept world of the third millennium, without carrying them with us and still trying to read them, that new world may prove not to be nearly so rich as the futurologists tell us it is going to be.
All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont