March 30th, 2011

breaking bad

Father and Son

I got hold of a copy of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son for my Kindle. This is a book I have vaguely wanted to read for ages. Now I have got hold of it, I find that it is very well written, and altogether a pleasure.

Gosse's father Philip Gosse was a well respected Victorian Naturalist, and a fundamentalist Christian (he and his wife were ultra-strict Plymouth Brethren). The theory of Evolution basically smashed his life up, because his two eternal loves - science and the Bible - suddenly became incompatible. Philip Gosse was the man who developed the idea that God created the world 6,000 years ago, but with dinosaur fossils created in the rock strata. This idea was ridiculed by just about everybody. Publishing these ideas (in the book Omphalos) was an act of desperation, attempting to head off the evidence which he knew was gathering. Two years later Darwin published the Origin of Species and it was all over.

Meanwhile his son became increasingly sceptical and hung out with the pre-Raphaelites, and was best friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, and generally broke free. The book recounts the changes in the relationship between them as this happened and his father's life imploded.

The book is a tender and loving portrayal of his father and mother, from a position of complete disagreement with their ideas. His upbringing was in many ways very harsh. Before his mother died, when he was 7, he was not allowed to play with toys, he did not speak to any other child, and he was unaware of the concept of fiction. He was never told a story, or heard any song except hymns.

And yet, and yet, this is what makes the book so good - he genuinely loves his parents, and he felt loved and cared for as a small boy. Certainly while his mother lived. She seems an incredible person: mad, unimaginative, powerful, self-sacrificing, loving and uncompromising. They lived a strange austere life entirely devoted to religion and science.

It's a very well written book, honest and generous. I am not half way through yet, so I might comment again when I've finished it.
breaking bad

Burnt Norton 25-35

Eliot has gone into the garden of innocence, following the echoes of the past. In the next section these echoes are represented as ghosts, and leaves. Leaves, as I say, represent the leavings of the past.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
The ghosts of the past are invisible. Previously I have been emphasising the non-existence of the past, or that it is no more than a 'speculation', but in this section Eliot does make room in the present for the ghostly persistence of the past, although it can't be seen or heard.
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
The leaves, the shrubbery, represent the past. The bird, which is the present, responds to the silent music of the past. The roses, which are present, are different because they were looked at in the past. By ghosts.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dryness, leaves, formality, ceremony, this is one way for humans to relate to the past - with a respect that inhibits and enfolds us. Ceremonial pattern links the past and the future.

'Box circle' means a circular hedge at the centre of a formal knot-garden. Box is a shrub which is quite dull, but very dense and suitable for topiary. Another reference to leaves. But 'box circle' also makes me think of the theatre, where the words are rehearsed and pre-ordained, and also of Vitruvian Man, which represents the ideal formal or platonic version of the human body.

So, I take this section to be about a way of reconciling ourselves to the passage of time, which is through formal stately calmness and ceremony. It is low on excitement, but it allows us to spend some time in the rose garden, before it all goes wrong.

When Eliot depicts his transient happiest times he describes bright warm weather alongside organic sterility. Natural fecundity and uncontrolled growth disturb him. Bright sun in the middle of winter, or as here autumn heat on dead cut leaves. These are soothing images to him.