Howling winds at Haworth

Going to a manufacturing town

It was a perfectly windy & foggy day for a pilgrimage into Brontë-country. Taking a gleaming train at touristy-amiable York to commercially-prosperous Leeds, and then changing there for a shabbily rattling & puffing train to Keighley, the Yorkshire manufacturing town close to Haworth village where the Brontës lived.

Riding that train amongst particularly surly & rough looking men I read what Elizabeth Gaskell had to say (1) on the nature of Yorkshire people and on the looks of Keighley:
“the practical qualities of a man are held in great respect […] and if [virtues] produce no immediate and tangible result, they are rather put aside as unfit for this busy, striving world”. “Nothing can be more opposed [to] any stately, sleepy, picturesque cathedral town in the south than […] such a new manufacturing place as Keighley in the North. […] Nearly every dwelling seems devoted to some branch of commerce.”

Leaving the train-station I immediately exult in the sheer grimy fogginess of it all, avidly taking in the vista of brick chimneys, mills and rows of greyish-yellowish work-man’s houses. But mind you, this is not some miserable decaying industrial town – oh no, it literally thunders with activity, what with the continuous flow of lorries and vans roaring by.
Walking to the center I am struck by the peculiar nature of the many shops – how very no-frills, how eminently useful &practical their trade seems: “tailor & clothing alteration”, a furniture shop , a vacuum-shop and, by far my favorite, “Tools Solutions for Trade and DIY”.

The center of town does have some stately dignity – not the pompous parvenu buildings as in Leeds or Liverpool, but earnest buildings in tune with this un-assuming, industrious town. As Mrs Gaskell perhaps a tad over-optimistically (2) remarked: “ Yet the aspect of Keighley promises well for future stateliness, if not picturesque-ness. Grey stone abounds; and the rows of houses built of it have a kind of solid grandeur connected with their uniform and enduring lines. […]”

Meekly queuing at the bus-station I almost have to giggle at how in character with the town my fellow-travelers are: sturdy men & women clad in sensible rain-wear and carrying bags out of which protrude sensible wares such as leek, onions, screwdrivers etc. How utterly un-bookish, un-romantic, un-gothic and un-oversensitive they seem – in short, what a perfect no-nonsense backdrop for the simmering Brontë-genius…

To Haworth!

But on drives the bus to Haworth, on that winding road through foggy valleys … leaving me to imagine Mrs Gaskell’s evocation of the Brontë-sisters’ return home from a Keighley-book-trip: “they were allowed to get books from the circulating library at Keighley; and many a happy walk, up those long four miles, must they have had, burdened with some new book, into which they peeped as they hurried home”.

And then, there is Haworth …. saved from touristy cobble-stone romance by the grey-ness and wetness of the day, by the sheer solidity of all those thick bricks which have weathered many a storm, by the uncompromising surrounding vastness of foggy vales & hills.
I climb on foot to the top of the hill, to the Brontë-parsonage and the graveyard. It’s a genuinely English-gothic graveyard with congregations of old moss-covered gravestones, pushed aside by age-old trees . And yet, I did not find it sinister, not even in the silently pouring rain. No not sinister at all, rather melancholy- peaceful, perhaps thanks to the tranquil resignation those worn stones and ancient trees inspire.

None of the Brontës are buried in the graveyard, but on my retina lingered the memorial inscriptions reproduced in Gaskell’s book (3). They all died so young …. only the father grew old, surviving his wife, his children …

Inside the church (not the one the Brontës knew, it was rebuilt in the late 19thC) there’s a gilded memorial tablet with some dried flowers another pilgrim has left.
And in the half-dark lights up the imposing presence of a bible …. opened on some pages out of Genesis, listing a whole genealogy of “names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt” .

The moors ....

But my true Brontë moment came, standing in a field near the parsonage, looking out into vast grey spaces, listening to the howling winds.
Standing there, slightly swaying in the blowing gale, unconsciously almost adopting that pose of Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, one leg straight, the other slightly bent to brace myself against the pounding winds. And yes, the pure power of those sights & sounds – one can well imagine those moors being a great resource for the imaginative Brontës.

“This is an autumn evening, wet and wild. […] The wind cannot rest ; it hurries sobbing over hills of sullen outline, colourless with twilight and mist. Rain has beat all day on that church tower. “ (4)

The parsonage

Seeking refuge from the rain in the parsonage, it indeed looks welcoming & bright & cheerful – and so full of books & letters testifying to the irrepressible imagination & creativity of the Brontë children. As Gaskell evokes: “the sound of the night-winds sweeping over the desolate snow-covered moors, coming nearer and nearer, and at last shaking the very door of the room where they were sitting – for it opened out directly on that bleak, wide expanse – is contrasted with the glow, and busy brightness of the cheerful kitchen where these remarkable children are grouped”.

And yet, there’s the sofa upon which Emily died ….and there’s the “gnawing pressure of daily-recurring cares” – the stints as governesses (5) to make up for a lack of a stable, sufficient source of income, a debauched brother, a father going blind, ….

Afterwards ...

Afterwards, in a tearoom, eating some very English pie and drinking (of course) tea with milk I read on in Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. What a tribute from one great woman writer to another! And such empathy and loving insight Gaskell shows when she writes of Charlotte: “The deep and exaggerated consciousness of her personal defects – the constitutional absence of hope, which made her slow to trust in human affection, and consequently slow to respond to any manifestation of it – made her manner shy and constrained”. (6)

And yes, CB’s was undoubtedly a shy, sensitive and melancholy nature but she also had a ferocious sense of integrity & autonomy as well as great resources of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity . Both of her great novels, Jane Eyre & Villette feature heroines with such precious internal resources. Though they may well be too sensitive and impressionable for their own good, they do show great resilience and self-respect (ie respect also for the “self without society”).

However dejected and powerless and at times hopelessly depressed Villette’s Lucy Snowe may be, never ever does she relinquish her integrity (7).
And ah, Jane Eyre, emerging from all travails “unbroken in spirit and integrity” . Blessed be this Jane Eyre who, far beyond melodrama and conventional morality , stubbornly maintains :

“I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give”

“The more solitary, the more friendless, the more un-sustained I am, the more I will respect myself”

Note that the Oxford edition has Gaskell’s text supplemented with 10 (!) pages of Explanatory Notes & with at least 10 (!) notes per page (obviously this blog's footnotes' apparatus still has some way to go)
(1) Elizabeth Gaskell – The Life of Charlotte Brontë
(2) Or rather it’s Gaskell’s admirable ability of doing justice to both “North” (manufacturing & commerce) and “South” (cathedrals & colleges) ; not only does she lack any condescending attitude vàv the “North”, she has a real appreciation of the North’s merits, all the while being an insightful critic of the social abuses its commercial drive spawned (cf also her excellent novel ‘North & south’
(3) Maria Brontë (mother): ‘departed to the savior in the 39th year of her age’; Maria Brontë (daughter of the aforesaid) died in the 12th year of her age ; Elizabeth Brontë who died in the 11th year of her age; Patrick Branwell Brontë who died aged 30 years ; Emily Brontë who died aged 29 years; Anne Brontë, died aged 27 years; Charlotte Brontë, she died in the 39th year of her age
(4) Out of CB’s “Shirley”, as quoted by EG in The Life
(5) And governess life being so uncongenial to the sensitive yet staunchly autonomous natures of the Brontë –sisters.
(6) In modern parlance this “absence of hope” , this absence of natural “buoyancy of expectation” would be called a lack of “sense of entitlement” (thanks for the formulation, Moss, yet again). And yet, also without hope, without arrogance or presumption, enterprise and perseverance are possible …
(7) Yeah well – I so love Villette, therefore I ‘ll indulge in lavish quotations even though they’re not quite fully relevant to the post (or are they ….?)
- Lucy Snowe soliloquy: “a sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. […] If [hopes] knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn. […] I dared not give such guests lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption”
(& when pondering going for a walk or not on a secluded path: ) “For a long time the fear of seeming singular scared me away; but by degrees, as people became accustomed to me and my habits, and to such shades of peculiarity as were engrained in my nature – shades, certainly not striking enough to interest, and perhaps not prominent enough to offend, but born in and with me, and no more to be parted with than my identity”
“and in quarters where we can never be rightly known, we take pleasure I think, in being consummately ignored”

&also in Villette, the outdoorsy moors-girl CB writes thus passionately about wandering about in London: “Prodigious was the amount of life I lived that morning […] I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got – I know not how – I got into the heart of city life. I saw and felt London at last: […] I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. Since those days, I have seen the West-end, the parks, the fine squares; but I love the city far better. The city seems so much more in earnest: its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights, and sounds. The city is getting its living – the West-end but enjoying its pleasure”

merciful gloom

Northern weather can at times be so mercifully gloomy - nothing like darkness & rain & sweeping winds to offer a reprieve from the daily obligation to be cheerful (1). The murky London weather, upon my arrival there last Sunday, was particularly welcome – só in tune with the dismal economic news. I’d been feeling quite uneasy about taking a holiday break in the current conditions, but then, at least it was not going to be an insouciant sunny vacation! (2)

Eurostar disruptions had already complicated my trip’s planning, having had to search on the Web for an extra night of London accommodation at very short notice. Extra train delays further helped to mess up my schedule, so it was an acutely stressed out & glum traveler who descended into the Tube. To make her way to far-out Kensington, where the (oddly ominously named) Centaur Lodge (3), was located.

I got out at the wrong tube-station, Earl’s court, and so still had to walk a couple of miles in the pouring rain. Along the kind of busy road not designed for pedestrians, with ferocious cars roaring by, occasionally spraying the hapless hiker with murky puddle-water. At last I did arrive in more quiet quarters with leafy streets – though they did not look leafy-residential but just leafy-wet. Also, the great number of 'for-sale' signs added to a certain demoralizing atmosphere.

But, at last, there it was! The Centaur Lodge did exist and its front-garden gate swung open creakily. Upon my ringing a little boy opened the door, looking puzzled at my claim of having a reservation. He called his father, who after having stumbled down the stairs, effusively pressed my hand, calling me at once by my first name. Then he apologetically explained the prevailing mess : “why, you see, we’re re-doing the carpets, but your room will be done in an hour”. All the while he was smiling broadly and observing me with an almost insulting fascination, as if I were a particularly peculiar specimen of the human race. (4)

I used the idle hour to replenish calorie-reserves in a small diner off West-Kensington tube station. And I don’t know what restored my spirits more – the cozy diner-activity around me, the heartening tea-with-milk and cheese-sandwich or the reading of a dozen of pages of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Anyway, afterwards my lodgings did look a bit less sinister & I could set my mind on more congenial stuff – such as whiling away my time at the British Museum and meeting up with a friend later .

Ah, the British Museum on a rainy day – so sheltering in its 19th Century pompous hospitality. And how consoling to wander about amongst the remnants of civilizations past, in their inexorably logical museum presentation creating an illusion of historical necessity. All those cultural artifacts testifying to humankind's capacity for both savagery and civilization. All those figments of the human imagination ….of which the multifarious winged creatures are definitely my favorites (be they assyrian or egyptian, be they eagle-headed protective spirits or human-headed winged lions).

Given my apocalyptic set of mind, always bent on seeking historical reminders of the rise & fall of civilizations, I was obviously greatly pleased to supplement my stock of decaying empires examples (5) with following notes copied from an educational panel: ”the collapse of the Mycenean civilization in the 12th C BC was followed by a time of cultural poverty, a ‘Dark Age’ that lasted two to three hundred years. During this time […] many of the arts and crafts of the previous era, including writing, were forgotten”. ( Including writing….!) .

Thus my very real present fears could recede and make way for an almost scholarly disinterested fascination with the eternal ebbing & flowing of humankind’s fortunes.

Of course I had to end my museum visit in the great Ancient Greek galleries. Indulging in antiquated feelings of awe and gratitude at that miracle of the Greek aesthetic moment – that unique blend of order and naturalness, that saving grace of beauty, which fuses both ‘quiet grandeur’ and ‘tragic unrest’.

going easy on footnotes
(1) Cf the dreaded ‘rise & shine!’
(2) A very judeo-christian reasoning – thou shall pay with sweat & tears for any enjoyment that possibly might come your way. Well, I did fret about it being irresponsible to not stay at home & shiver real-time at the dismal news – (fear & trembling alas not only out of empathy with the global financial system: my own employer is teetering on the brink of collapse too.)
(3) read & see here why the name Centaur should not necessarily (despite all the deep sympathy & affinity I have with liminal & ambiguous creatures) inspire confidence in a weary traveler
(4) That kind of vaguely disrespectful & over-familiar approach which a lone woman traveler alas often inspires in certain male specimens. And which makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed. (Or could it be that the reserved & wary northerner that I am routinely mis-interprets effusive friendliness?)
(5) I am absolutely fascinated with the ”decline & fall” of the Roman empire – how a whole body of customs, arts, scientific & technical knowledge, how a whole culture could unravel. And as a contemporary cultural pessimist I obviously like to compare the present age’s decadence & turmoil in the Western world with the Roman empire round about AD 350.

the iconography of reading

Well, the grave title may raise expectations this post will not live up to. You’re in for a disappointment if you expect a thoroughly researched, art historical scholarly article on the iconography of reading. (1) But perhaps you’ll bear with my choice of title if it had you fondly envisioning images of people reading. Because that’s exactly what I want to celebrate in this post – those truly heartening sights of people reading, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them.

We’re obviously not talking here about people perusing papers or magazines – no, it must be a book, and the reader must be absorbed in it, forgetting his surroundings, and thus offering the sight of a rapt stillness in the middle of whirling activity.

Over the course of many years I have built a valued imaginary collection of ‘vignettes’ of people reading in the midst of turmoil. Images I found in stations or on the street, as well as images encountered in books or in paintings. Somehow these images serve as edifying examples, as talismans reminding me of what I value.
Precious reminders, since (terrible confession!) I can be such a sloppy reader – all too easily distracted, not only by the claims of the ‘real’ world, but also by my own limitless capacity for brooding (2).
Therefore I cherish these ‘reading icons’, those inspiring examples humbly asserting the autonomy of the reading self. (4)

Only last Saturday (eaten by existential job-stress related to ongoing financial meltdown) I was cheered by the sight of this middle aged black man queuing in front of me at a busy sandwich bar in the station. He obviously had a cold, witness his coughing and the thick red scarf he wore. And he was holding a book, and reading, ah so intently and with such relish …. Oblivious to the bleary neon lights, to the shouting, to the crushing people around him.

Or another favorite image: once upon a sunny but still chilly spring day, in a busy but rather poor neighborhood in Brussels. This old, slender man was sitting on a bench, wrapped up in a thick coat (looking rather threadbare), wearing fingerless gloves. And he was reading, utterly absorbed in his book, only every once in a while looking up pensively to the sun.

And then this description of Hannah Arendt I encountered in some book (have completely forgotten where). The passage described how in the midst of fearful chaotic refugee scenes in France, Arendt was sitting under a tree, reading, engrossed in a book.

No doubt I find these images so uplifting & soothing because they testify of a certain human dignity that cannot be suppressed by even the most adverse worldly circumstances. It’s the kind of hope needed by the sort of people to whom neither religious consolations nor hedonist oblivion can offer shelter . It’s in fact your typical, naïve mind-over-matter hope (5).

Escapism for humanists…. (6)

But no escaping from the footnotes!
(1) actually, I’m unrepentant. This is the title I wanted, precisely because of its overtones of scholarship in the word “iconography” and precisely because of its association with my favorite art historian Erwin Panofsky. And for those who do want to read some solid art historical stuff, I can highly recommend this article by Elisabeth Losh I stumbled upon while checking the use of the expression “the iconography of reading” (the term yields only 15 Google hits) – it ‘s a wonderful exploration of the imagery of Annunciations :
women between a book and an angel. The sheer title!!! “Between the Angel and the Book: The Female Reading Subject of Early Modern Flemish Annunciation Painting”
(2) The unique characteristic of reading is that, brain-processing- wise, it uses up relatively little brain-volume and leaves still ample brainpower for the reader to reflect on what he reads, to “integrate more of her own thoughts and feelings into her [reading] experience “ . (this comes from a fascinating article that really deserves its own footnote 3). But alas, the neurasthenic reader may abuse this extra available brainpower to keep going a simultaneous stream of nagging brooding & worrying.
(3) Caleb Crain's
article in the New Yorker Dec 2007 – Mary-Anne Wolf “Proust & The Squid” - it’s about brain-science backing another Proustian intuition: ““to receive a communications with another way of thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates immediately”
(4) “attention is another form of freedom”, as A. wrote in a comment to her
post. To rid oneself of all pettiness, of all distractions and to choose to concentrate on a sight, or on a thought is indeed a supreme assertion of the freedom and the autonomy of the self as a perceiving and thinking subject . No mere compulsive reaction to stimuli, but chosen attention. It feels as an empowerment of the self – this kind of attention that may well be an instance of the Kantian “ free play of the imagination and the understanding” (= the aesthetic experience). And yes, whenever I’m helplessly at the mercy of worries & dread, the best remedy to get out of that rut is to go to a museum and to concentrate fully and totally on a painting.
(5) It’s such a great tradition, that of the (rightly) deeply pessimistic philosophers living in troubled times, hoping to re-assert by mere thought their dignity vàv the crushing material circumstances they cannot master – like good old Boethius writing “with all the integrity & dignity he could muster” in the face of tyranny and death. & not to forget good old Pascal who wrote “l’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant. Alors toute notre dignité consiste en la pensée »
Escapism = “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine”. Obviously I here refer to escapism-with-dignity (‘otium cum dignitate’), with the reader actively imagining and reflecting. To be distinguished from escapism-through-entertainment, which while it lasts can make you forget yourself and your worries (no mean achievement!) but which will not have shored you up, neither your self’s autonomy nor its confidence when you have to return to the scary world outside.