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τι μέγεθος: Some Kind of Magnitude in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

In the early chapters of The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot describes Maggie, her young, feisty and vivacious heroine: “There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passions only; but the essential τι μέγεθος (some kind of magnitude) which was present in the passion was wanted to the action.”

τι μέγεθος is a phrase from Aristotle’s Poetics* which he uses to describe an action of “some kind of magnitude” that is an essential part of any tragedy.  Maggie has a passion for life that makes her charge forward into deeds and actions that other “nice” little girls would never dare.  The descriptions of her mop of wild, thick hair and her darker skin also make her stand out amongst other girls her age.  One of my favorite scenes that demonstrates Maggie’s unbridled spirit and her refusal to conform to expectations is when she listens to the music from her Uncle Pullet’s snuff-box.  She can’t sit quietly and listen like the other children, but immediately jumps up and expresses the emotions stirred up through the music by grasping her older brother, Tom: “But when the magic music ceased, she jumped up, and, running towards Tom, put her arm around his neck and said,  ‘O, Tom, isn’t it pretty.'”  Unfortunately for Maggie, Tom had a glass of cowslip wine in his hand which was spilled during Maggie’s enthusiastic embrace.  As a result, Maggie is, once again, subject to a litany of scolding from the adults:

‘Why don’t you sit still, Maggie?’ her mother said, peevishly.

‘Little gells mustn’t come to see me if they behave in that way,’ said aunt Pullet.

‘Why, you’re too rough, little miss,’ said uncle Pullet.

But these numerous reprimands never deter Maggie or dampen her spirit and I find myself admiring the girl because of her bravery.  Eliot is obviously foreshadowing an event that will be much more tragic, of some kind of greater magnitude for her heroine.  I am glad to have this book to keep me company on what is supposed to be a lovely spring weekend here in New England.  I would enjoy hearing about what others are reading this weekend.  Let me know in the comments.

 

*Aristotle Poetics 1450b: κεῖται δὴ ἡμῖν τὴν τραγῳδίαν τελείας καὶ ὅλης πράξεως εἶναι μίμησιν ἐχούσης τι μέγεθος. (It occurs to us that tragedy is the mimesis (imitation) of a complete and whole action and some kind of magnitude.)

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Love’s Obstacles: Subleyras’s Diana and Endymion

Diana and Endymion. by Pierre Subleyras. 1740 Oil on Canvas.

When visiting a large museum like The Met or a gallery as immense as The National Gallery my habit is to wander though the collections and see what catches my eye.  During my recent visit to The National Gallery while I was in London, I kept circling back and spending time with Pierre Subleyras’s painting of Diana and Endymion.  The image reminded me of Ovid and his various descriptions of transformations in the Metamporhoses, especially as they relate to the theme of love.   There are many variations of the myth, but I suspect Subleyras had in mind the version in which Endymion is an Aeolian shephard who captures the attention of the goddess Diana. What makes the story particularly striking is that Diana is a virginal goddess but her attraction to Endymion  overrides her proclivity for solitude.  (It is even said in one myth that the couple bear fifty daughters.) Diana asks Jupiter to give Endymion eternal youth and he is also placed in a cave where Diana can visit him every night and admire him in his sleep which is her favorite way to view him.

I find it fascinating that Ovid doesn’t include this story as part of the Metamorphoses, but instead writes a few poignant and striking lines about Endymion in Heroides XVIII.  Ovid composes a letter from Leander, a young man who sneaks out of the house at night to swim the Hellespont so he can be with and make love to a young woman named Hero.  Hero, a devotee of Venus, lives in a tower and lights a lamp each night for Leander so he can find his way to her.  As Leander is reminiscing about his noctural swims, he invokes the image of Endymion and Diana (translation of Heroides XVIII.57-66 is my own):

No more delay, instead I threw off my clothes

along with my fear and I launch my pliant

arms through the liquid sea.  The moon, like a

dutiful companion along my path, was offering

her trembling light to me as I was gliding along.

And I, looking up at her, said, “May you,

oh shining goddess, support me and may the

rocks of Latmos rise up in your mind.  Endymion

does not allow you to be severe in your heart.  Turn

your face, I pray, to help me in my secret love. You, as

a goddess, glided down from heaven to seek a mortal

love.  May it be permitted for me to speak the truth!—-

The woman whom I pursue is herself a goddess.

As I am drawn back again and again to that peaceful look on Endymion’s face in the Subleyras painting, I can’t help but think that he must have been a soothing presence for Diana.  As I contemplate the painting in relation to both of these myths, their many parallels make themeselves evident; if Diana wouldn’t let a little thing like mortality stand in the way of love, then Leander can’t let geography or  the sea impede his way either.  If only Endymionis somnium dormire (to sleep the sleep of Endymion.)

For the extra curious, here is a link to the Latin text: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.her18.shtml

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The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The plot of The Juniper Tree is, at first, deceptively simple. Narrated in a matter-of-fact, emotionally detached tone, one would never guess the hardships and suffering that are yet to come in this story. Bella Winter escapes her cruel and harsh mother by moving in with a boyfriend who has a tendency to be verbally abusive towards her. Bella’s face is permanently scared in an car accident which her boyfriend, Stephen, causes. When their relationship finally dissolves, Bella moves on from Stephen but finds herself pregnant after a one night stand with a black man she never sees again.

But Bella is never bitter or harsh, she accepts her life and loves her daughter and even finds happiness by working in an antique shop. Bella’s daughter, Tommy, thrives on Bella’s love despite the fact that many people, including her own mother, are judgmental about her biracial daughter. Comyns’s depiction of what it is like for a single mother and her innocent daughter to suffer from racism in 20th century Britain is true to life and heartbreaking. I was captivated by Bella’s simple yet happy outlook as she doesn’t view her scar, her daughter or her occupation as obstacles to her contentment. But Comyns draws the reader into the tragedy that will eventually occur in brilliantly subtle ways.

When Bella meets Bernard and Gertrude Forbes, a wealthy couple who take Bella and Tommy under their wing, hints of tragedy start to appear. Although she spends weekends at the Forbes’s well-appointed home and garden and becomes a integral part of their family by helping them with domestic chores, Bella still retains her freedom and cherishes her antique shop and her own space. Bernard, in particular, seems patronizing towards Bella and views her as his pet project. His attempts to educate her about art, music and languages reminded me a bit of Ovid’s Pygmalion myth.

Tragedy strikes in the story when Bella, against her better judgment, gives up her freedom. She thinks she is making decisions to enhance her daughter’s education and future, but she knows that sacrificing her own, simple joys, is a bad decision. This book is equally as important and relevant in the 21st century as a commentary about women, social roles, and the balance that mothers and wives have to make between the comfort and safety of their families and their own individual needs. It’s something I struggle with personally every day.

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Ours is the Long Day’s Journey of the Saturday: Conversations with George Steiner

Even in reading this brief interview with literary critic, scholar and polyglot George Steiner one is impressed with the scope of his erudition.  Born in Paris in 1929, his Jewish parents had fled Vienna because his father sensed the impending danger posed by the Nazis.  Steiner’s father moved the family, once again, to America just as the Germans were invading Paris.  The details of his upbringing and early years as a scholar that he discusses with his interviewer Laure Adler in this book are fascinating.

I thought it would be fitting for my last post of this year to share Steiner’s metaphor of “A Long Saturday” of life.  Steiner explains in greater detail what he meant when he wrote in his book Real Presences, “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday.”

I took the Friday-Saturday-Sunday schema from The New Testament.  Christ’s death on Friday, with the darkness that descended on earth, the tearing of the veil of the Temple; then the uncertainty that—for the believers—had to be beyond horror, the uncertainty of the Saturday when nothing happened, nothing moved; finally the resurrection on Sunday.  It’s a schema with limitless power of suggestion.  We live through catastrophes, torture, anguish; then we wait, and for many the Saturday will never end.  The Messiah won’t come, and Saturday will continue.

So how should we live this Saturday?

This Saturday of the unknown, of waiting with no guarantees, is the Saturday of our history. In this Saturday there’s an element both of despair—Christ killed in a terrible manner, buried—and of hope.  Despair and hope, of course, are the two sides of the coin of the human condition.

It’s very hard for us to imagine a Sunday, except (and this is important) in the realm of our private lives.  Those who are happy in love have known Sundays, epiphanies, moments of total transfiguration.

This was another book that someone from literary Twitter recommended to me in the early fall.  Time’s Flow has done a wonderful series of posts on Steiner  which I highly encourage everyone to visit, that reminded me I had this book sitting on my shelf.   I am so grateful for the literary community of likeminded readers who have had a profound influence on my reading choices for this year.

Happy New Year and happy reading in the new year.

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The Expectation of a Body: From A to X by John Berger

In this epistolary novel, a woman named A’ida writes to her boyfriend Xavier who has been given two life sentences for committing some non-specific political act against the totalitarian regime under which they live.  Xavier is not allowed to have any visitors and their request for a marriage license is denied three times, so they only means of contact they have is through letters.  A’ida’s missives to Xavier are full of images of her daily life—visits with friends, her work as a pharmacist, trips to the market, run ins with soldiers from the military.   The enduring message in all of her writing is her longing, always hopeful, to keep a human connection with Xavier no matter how long he is in prison.  Images of different senses pervade her letters.  First touch:

There’s such a difference between hope and expectations.  At first I believed it was a question of duration, that hope was awaiting something further away.  I was wrong.  Expectation belongs to the body, whereas hope belongs to the soul.  That’s the difference.  The two converse and excite or console each other but the dream of each one is different.  I’ve learnt something more.  The expectation of a body can last as long as any hope.  Like mine expecting yours.

Then sound and voice:

I stare at this paper I’m writing on and I hear your voice.  Voices are as different from each other as faces and far more difficult to define.  How would I describe your voice to someone so they could infallibly recognize it?  In your voice there’s a waiting—like waiting for the train to slow down a little so you can  jump.  Even when you say: O.K., let’s go, give me your hand, don’t look back!  Even then there’s this quality of waiting in your voice.

She also starts drawing pictures of hands at the of her letters which we learn that Xavier keeps taped to the wall of his cell.  One letter ends with such a drawing and these words:

In the dark folds of time maybe there’s nothing except the dumb touch of our fingers.

And our deeds.

 

Even in the last few letters A’ida’s hope continues:

And in our life today we are condemned to endless irregularity.  Those who impose this on us are frightened by our irregularity.  So they build walls to keep us out.  Yet their walls will never be long enough and there’ll always be ways round, over and under them.

In a single piece of writing Berger manages to compose a stellar example of the epistolary technique, a political commentary on oppressive regimes, and a story about an enduring love that survives time and space.   Whether I am reading his essays, poems or novels Berger’s writing has that special quality that forces me to look inward.  I kept thinking to myself while reading her letters : if I were A’ida, how long would I wait?

 

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