Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Thomas Hardy and The Ache of Modernism

The following lines were lifted from a conversation between Tess Durbeyfield and Angel Clare, the two main characters of Thomas Hardy's greatest novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)

Tess: “The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?—that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,—’Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’. . . But YOU, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”

He was surprised to find this young woman—who though born a milkmaid had just that touch or rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates—shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases—assisted a litte later by her Sixth Standard training—feelings which might almost have been called those of the age—the ache of modernism.

Tess is working as a milkmaid because that's the best job she has been able to find; Angel Clare is a gentleman who happens to be working on this farm in order to learn how to be a gentleman-farmer— much to the disapproval of his high-toned ecclesiastical family. The word 'you' in the second line does not refer to Angel who has yet to learn, as Tess has learned, to fear the future; that 'you' is generalized: it refers to all of us, but especially to her who, having born a child out of wedlock, doesn't dare attract attention to herself by using the first-person, singular, pronoun.

Though the second paragraph begins with Angel's surprise at hearing such a talk from a milkmaid, the second sentence ("She was expressing in her own native phrases . . .") could only have come from Hardy himself. Angel Clare could not have come up with a phrase like the "ache of modernism" because he has yet to feel it; nor could he have understood Tess's "sad imaginings" as any other than her own; certainly not "those of the age." (Angel Clare considers himself a free spirit but when Tess finally finds the courage—encouraged by his own confessions—to tell him her story, he turns into a cold, hostile, self-righteous prig and abandons her to her fate, whatever it may be.)

What, in 1891, might Hardy have meant by 'modernism'? Something like a way of thinking characteristic of 'modern' times. And 'modern'? Not 'modish' or 'fashionable', which is how Rosalind uses it in As You Like It; by 1891 the word 'modern' was beginning to take on the sense of 'modernity' as a historical development without precedent: different not in degree but kind from all that had preceded it. And what is it about modernity that makes us ache? For Hardy, it was all about deep time,  of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, as Tess imagines the future, "all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away"; but the past as well, with all our yesterdays growing smaller and smaller until they vanish beyond recall, so that the present moment which is all we've got becomes infinitely tiny, evanescent, and precious.

Again and again, in Hardy's novels and poems, we become aware of the absolute oblivion that swallows us up as soon as we die—obviously, Hardy had no illusions about an after-like—which makes especially poignant the beautiful poems he wrote about his estranged wife, Emma, after she died (in 1912)—as if, having more or less ignored her for years, he wanted to do all in his power to keep something of their love alive and precious for as long as possible. That was 100 years ago and we're still reading and, it may be, aching, over those poems. See, especially, "The Going," "The Voice," "After A Journey," "At Castle Boterel," "The Phantom Horsewoman."

Should you like these poems, there are a lot more: Hardy wrote almost 1000 poems during his long life (1840-1928) and many, many of these are worth reading. But working your way through this huge body of work is not easy. Claire Tomalin's excellent biography is helpful.

Here's a late poem I like—four lines long, it may be Hardy's shortest poem:

Christmas: 1924

"Peace upon earth!" was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand year of mass
We've got as far as poison gas

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading the Koran

I have been trying and failing to read and understand the Koran. Some
would have it that it can only be understood in its original language,
but that can't be true—I can read the bible and make sense of it, so
why not the Koran? Others say, don't try to make sense of it; read it for
its poetry. Poetry always gets lost in translation—unless a poet does the
translation,and even then. So far as I know, no poet has translated the Koran.

The trouble with this book is that there is no there there, no narrative, moral
or theological logic; only the logic of the strictly local politics of
Mecca and Medina—that it to say, essentially random vicissitudes in a
struggle for power in a remote corner of the world, largely insulated
from outside influences which went on for many years. Each sura (is
that the right word?) was composed not as part of a developing strain
of thought but in response to some particular event. There is, no
doubt an overall logic of some sort in this supreme fiction, but it is
not available to ordinary readers; only to those who have committed
the whole thing to memory. Hence the enormous authority of those who,
having committed the book to memory are able to devote their lives to its

For 1500 years, the catholic church wielded similar authority; but then
the bible was translated into vernacular languages and ordinary people
were able to read it for themselves, with, naturally, violent consequences.
The Church shattered into many different churches with radically
different ideas about sanctity and salvation and that, more or less,
was the beginning of modernity in the west. No similar 'reformation'
is possible for Islam because it is impossible for ordinary people to
challenge the authority of the Imams and Mullahs. So, for example,
Muhammed had very liberal ideas about the rights of woman but if the
guardians of Islamic gospel choose to ignore these teachings—and they have—
there is nothing that ordinary people can to do to force the relevant texts
out into the arena of public political discourse. Or so it seems to this
largely ignorant outsider.