George Eliot and the Meat Cleaver: An Allegory
I’m a coder, and I like video games. One writer person did change my life, though. Some guy named George Eliot?
I couldn’t get a date, so I decided to do something about it. I found an app called “The George Eliot Conversational Etiquette Game: Correcting Your Ability to Converse with Little Reminders,” designed by “STEMinEnglish.” I downloaded it onto my AR glasses.
Later, my bud Tommy was talking about different Spidermans, and he kept saying “dude” this and “dude” that. I was like “why do you have to say ‘dude’ all the time?”
Then suddenly a black and white photo of a woman with droopy eyes, a bulbous nose, and hair like a travel neck pillow wrapped over the top of her head appeared in my field of vision through the internet glasses. As she spoke, her pupils moved and the mouth dropped like a ventriloquist doll.
No, no, my dear! One mustn’t be Mr. Aristocrat, assessing another’s speech in lieu of listening to what they say. Are you sure you’re not just distressed? -10 points
She kept popping up.
When the trainer explained to a group of us coders how workouts are more mental than physical and I mentioned listening to ABBA while on the treadmill, the lady popped up (Mr. All-About-Me, -17). At the Afternoon Ideation meeting, when I corrected a slight inaccuracy in someone’s comment about HTML, she popped up (Mr. Nitpicker, -14).
There was no reason to these rules. My etiquette score was -87, a rank in the “lesser arthropod” category.
Then I got a notification for an expansion pack, designed by “MeatCleaverXXX”: Improve your training with Pavlovian negative reinforcement. This app would like to access the heat coils in your thermoregulated clothes. Do you give permission?
Tommy said something dumb again, and she popped up (Not-so-honorable Mr. Judge, -30). This time, I detected the seams in the coding where the expansion pack picked up.
The woman’s eyes glowed red.
Time to burn, hombre!
Ten milliamperes of alternating current jolted my torso. I shrieked and jerked forward.
“Whoa, you ok?” Tommy said.
Apologize! The hologram said, nostrils flared.
“Yes! I’m sorry for being rude!” I gasped. The shock stopped.
It hurt, but I kept trying. She kept popping up. A lace collar never induced so much terror. But I NEVER quit a video game.
Just when I was concerned my speech would be permanently slurred, I got a call about an Extended Warranty for my car. The dude talking to me sounded stale. I couldn’t hang up or I’d be shocked. I just kept saying “Ok. It’s ok. I understand.” My back started to sweat, which would make the shock worse.
“Wow, I never got through this whole script,” he said. Then he started crying. He said he hated this. I said it’s ok. I understood. Then I started getting good scores. We talked three hours. He--Daryl--apologized. I forgave Daryl (+500). Daryl said I saved his life (+10,00).
Things waver and vanish, waterily
She feels the pulse between the words. In a crowded dining room, Mrs. Ramsay absorbs the intentions and experiences of every person, lives deeply in every detail she observes.
To the Lighthouse is written how I try to live.
The dinner party begins awkwardly, with rivalry and reluctance preoccupying the characters in attendance. Mrs. Ramsay binds them together partially through social graces, but more through empathy. She possesses the ability to feel, exactly, the mind of the person beside her, whether content or anxious or in love. She is the party’s center because others cannot help but connect their threads to her, offerings for her tapestry. Then, the candles are lit. Mrs. Ramsay knows everyone is “brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass.” She recognizes how the candlelight “ripples” the world outside “so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily.” She has made a refuge in that room. The others enjoy it without thought. Mrs. Ramsay alone feels how the world beyond the glass might swirl and eddy, but the persons at the table are together in that moment, whole.
I try to inhabit moments. I try to watch my beagle’s paws trot on the sidewalk, feel pride at that word my daughter mastered, taste my coffee. Sensations like these are the stuff of memories, but the memory is the attenuated form. The moment itself is the thing. Among petty concerns and distractions, it’s impossible to experience every moment in a life fully, but Mrs. Ramsay succeeds in it that evening, and Virginia Woolf in writing it. She relegates the doings of the dinner to parentheticals. The feelings are the matter, and Mrs. Ramsay prizes them. The guests discuss and eat and jest; among them, Mrs. Ramsay becomes aware of something “immune from change” that “shines out… in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby.”
The novel sweeps forward a decade, during which the seaside home of the dinner party lies vacant, battered by wind and time. The news comes in another parenthetical, midsentence: “...Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before…” Having breathed life into her matriarch with lyrical precision, Woolf quietly snuffs it out.
The characters miss her. Poets, philosophers and artists had sat round her in that candlelit room, but the vision was all hers. Mrs. Ramsay had the gift of attending to the moment. She could break it like bread and share it.
I reread the dinner party this afternoon, in quarantine: a student to whom I was exposed tested positive for the coronavirus. I’m healthy, probably. I sat on my porch. Even in an upstate January, the air can feel crisp without biting, and wind reveal patches of color in the sky.
Words: Seeing Hidden Truths
I was 15 when my mom took away all my books. It’s an odd thing to take away from a child, but for my mom it wasn’t—it was another aspect of my life she could control, taking my freedom to think, to feel, to create.
But she didn’t just take away my books: she took my boyfriend, my friends, my dad, my sister (my best friend), my ability to connect, and my future.
She isolated me.
I. had. no one.
For years, I felt nothing but numbness as the life slowly drained from my body as if I was being poisoned.
Before my mother took my books away, I would read fairy tales and romance to hide the pain and bring out the happiness I couldn’t find. I read to tread the path of non-existent worlds; to forget that I lived in a dying one.
But, when I no longer had worlds to climb, I was left to drown in the real world. Drowning in thoughts I could not navigate through because I had never done so myself. Drowning because I had never been taught how to swim. Drowning because there was no one to save me in my icy cold water world.
But, slowly, my parents stopped injecting copious amounts of poison into my fragile veins and I was able to feel the scars that lined my skin and the pain that beat in my chest.
But, it still wasn’t enough and my body was growing tired of treading the unstable rules of my parents.
Years. It took me years to touch the rough spine of a book, flip through the pages with delicate fear (but love), bask in the rustic aura of beautiful mysteries while the sun of reality warmed my skin to a glow. It took years to be able to feel whole like that again.
And it was after all those years, when I read The Memory of Sun, that I saw that the shore was only feet away. My vision had unclouded to reveal the truths of life that had remained hidden: I was alone, but I didn’t have to be lonely, I was not okay, but I could be, I was alive but I was not living, I was being abused, but I could find the strength within myself to accept and progress. With books came stories, with stories came words, with words came human emotions, with emotions came initiation for change.
So, now I hold words backed by human hands, close to my heart for they are my eyes for the world. And I hunger to explore all the truths that lie beyond my knowledge, for it gives me purpose, it gives me hope.
If it wasn’t for when at 15 my abusive mother took away my books to control me, I never would have been able to bleed poetic truths in beautiful contrast; so I am thankful for the journey that life has led me through—and I am ready for more.
Books in My Watering Can
Before I had books, I had my mother. Whenever I did something unkind she’d take my hand and ask in earnest,“How would you feel if someone did that to you?” She planted the seeds of empathy. Books have since been the water that’s made them grow.
There is no writer who better employs and invites empathy than James Baldwin. When I first read Notes of a Native Son, I was 17 and in a school that was entirely white save for three Black students. I'd experienced little of the world. His collection of essays tells the story of his inner and outer life with such eloquence and force, however, that the world cracked wide open before me even though I'd never left my desk.
Sure, I had liberal parents and read “the classics” that interrogated race in America, like To Kill a Mockingbird. But while Lee’s work highlighted the destructive nature of racism, it was also a story told from the perspecitve of a privileged white girl where the Black characters seemed more plot device than human. Notes of a Native Son was different.
I can never know what it's like to be Black in America, but Baldwin's unflinchingly honest invitation into his mind creates a level of intimacy with the reader that makes it impossible to distrust the sincerity of his account and makes plain how the universal human condition binds us all, even with people you once considered "other". I'd argue that while any good book offers the chance to explore someone else's world, Baldwin's both achieves and transcends this - it makes you better understand your own.
I've since read Baldwin's other work and revisit his pieces often. In the current politcal moment, it's a foregone conclusion that I look to it again now. In re-reading Notes of a Native Son, I've realized that Baldwin not only cultivates empathy, but calls for a nuanced conception of it. He demonstrates that empathy does not equate to pity nor serve as tacit approval. For white Americans to understand the Black experience, pity implies a position of power. True empathy, however, relies on a rejection of the outside circumstances that divide us to see each other as equally human. For liberals to empathize with conservatives, we must recognize the way in which fear and pain can drive a person to act in irrational and dangerous ways. This recognition, however, doesn't mean those actions should be excused. Rather, it provides insight in how to effectively appeal to the actors to change the way they see the world.
Baldwin said, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read." Reading has taught me that we are naturally allied by our shared human experience. We should be wary of anything that leads us astray from this truth. So with each new book, my garden of understanding grows. I’ll tend it until winter falls and pray it keeps blooming long after I am gone.
Ceaselessly into the Past
I have an old dream so vivid that some moments I reckon it to be an actual memory and it’s possessed by the current of a river rustling rapidly underneath a heavy fog drawn as clouds of Hell, and bursting through the darkness emerges a slow, electric green gaze, like the eyes of a material God.
Understanding our dreams is not much different than interpreting fiction, it’s a fleeing and elusive concept, nuanced, a beautiful if haunted image possessing the senses and unconscious into a realm of discovery and revelation.
The importance of literature seems to be found in embracing the torment of our past, the river of our souls--history itself through fiction displays a much more monumental and even truer version of subject and material--so to bring us from underneath the depths of heavy waters, or at least give us peace in drowning.
What is the Civil War and the South without Faulkner or Toni Morrison, the meaning and purpose behind the angst of a self-proclaimed bastard generation without Kerouac or the horrifying humorous truth of the American West and backwoods southern Appalachia without Cormac McCarthy. Fiction puts down a record of historical marker much more significant than textbooks filled with facts and dates, exploring instead the possibilities of space and time while reckoning all the while the realities and pain that even though the world we live in feels infinite, the world as we know it, is awfully constrained.
I first learned the beauty and brilliance of fiction in a high school class reading and discussing The Great Gatsby. The poetic prose runs and cuts through the pages like the colorful scales of a trout swimming through American rivers. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s talent and genius would ultimately cost him his sanity.
Because of his sacrifice and will to the written word, the world has received a remarkable testament and document of the tragedies of the American Dream. The roaring 20’s, the dust-scoped and end-of-times Great Depression, which The Great Gatsby seems to somehow prophesize.
Throughout the novel, the protagonist sees the green light of a ferry across the river, something he wants so fully and wholly to grasp and feel and obtain. The light flashes, and as quickly as it spans from its source to eye sensory, it disperses and is gone.
Fitzgerald gives us a prose so related to our own conscious and heart, that I often forget if this poetic image is a dream I’ve had or an actual event I’ve experienced. It becomes something greater than merely a passage I’ve read. It sends electric shrills through my body, turning me cold and dripping in sweat simultaneously.
With beauty and color, senses and the dreams woven through prose, fiction comes to the rivers of our soul, the blood in our flesh, beating onward, again and again through hellfire and sucks, deeper and deeper into the unknown from which it might pull us up and take us all the way yonder.
I have noticed that people who are reading have a propensity to praise this activity, and I could get why, because there is a great deal of information which is gathered via books, and a lot of it is useful. Besides, and most importantly, a work of literature might represent a portal to another world, an escape from the cruel, unfair, brutal at times reality with which it is difficult to cope. In my case, during teenage, I was struggling with depression and a severe form of insomnia, from whose excruciating pain I could not be free except by immersing myself in the world of an adventure, sci-fi novel. Sure, my vocabulary was extending and I was learning multiple interesting things, meanwhile losing more and more the contact with the practical aspects of life, issue of which I became aware significantly after my 20’s when I stopped to read voraciously and grew down to earth, acquiring a precious state of inner peace of which I wouldn’t have dared even to dream, although before I had kept leading a miserable existence only in an ivory tower. So the important element here is to have balance and to learn that your mind needs to have some rest, and it gives signs to slow down whenever this activity isn’t enjoyable any more. And I do not think that I am surprising anyone by saying that books, even the most beloved, can lose their cham for a while, telling you that you must make a pause.
Another problem reminiscent of the previous one is the fact that, as I noticed observing myself and other intellectual people is that we tend to have a condescending attitude towards those who do not share this passion, sometimes even despise them, which represents drag for us, because we might be isolated, anxious of the presence of other persons in whom we do not see a kindred spirit, and so we are not only bolstering our pain but more importantly depriving ourselves of a very deep, fascinating facet of the world which is the social interaction in its totality, not merely restricted to nerds. Also, we have to pay more attention to the whole universe and discover the exquisite pleasures of the contemplation.
I realise that my advice is far easier said than done and I fail to implement most of the time due to the routine or other petty excuse, but that’s not the point that I want to make here. What I am trying to get to is the idea that, ultimately, literature is just another art form, and we should not rely on it too much. Being human and compassionate matters most. And I learned all this both through reading and experience, unable however to reach to the definitive conclusion until I had the guts to question my adored books and live independently from their influence for a while, which had seemed impossible and unnecessary before.
Planets to Pencils
When I was eighteen I found a copy of The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks on the bedside table of my roommate in the psychiatric ward. I was immediately struck by how easy it would be to read, and perhaps, finish, this novel. My roommate was possibly, and this is not the textbook term, on Mars, and would not notice that this book had gone missing. At the time, I hadn’t read a book in three years, of any kind. My depression made it impossible to penetrate the depths of anything beyond a Facebook post. But The Last Song? Come on. I would have to be on Jupiter to not finish this one.
I didn’t finish the book.
Some time later in college I started reading again. My mental illness, however, wasn’t gone. On a particularly sad winter day in which I was withdrawing heavily from an antipsychotic medication, I decided to miss class. Then I realized it would be my fourth one, and I would be penalized. I raced into the classroom, an hour late.
The class I was destined, perhaps at this point in the semester, to fail, was Contemporary Literature. We were reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. The class contained six people and the professor. I hadn’t done the reading for that week. I listened, spellbound, as a man in my class discussed this fine work of literature. I couldn’t fathom having these opinions. The man speaking was sophisticated and well-rounded. As my withdrawing brain struggled to read over the pages I’d miss, I decided to really read this book.
I finished the book.
White Teeth for me was about the wit, especially the dialogue. I loved the banter of the characters. I loved how this novel wove the characters together in an intricate way. I went to my local coffee shop and brought a pencil. I underlined every piece of witty dialogue, so that the book was filled with mostly underlines when I was done. Such is good literature: every word has its place, its unity in solidifying the piece as a whole.
Reading changed the dialogue in my head. Inside my brain now is a pencil that jots down notes for later use in my writing. I am constantly mentally underlining what people say to me. There are gaps in time that I can’t remember, when I couldn’t put pencil to paper, either to underline or write my own work. But that changed with White Teeth.
I am now someone who sits writing at my computer every morning and evening. And I am someone who reads a fair amount of literature.
I am neither the young woman in the psychiatric hospital on Mars or Jupiter. And perhaps I will never be as sophisticated as the man who could dissect White Teeth with ease. But I am a reader. It makes me better, and my own brand of sophisticated.
“Maha” means great; “Bharata” was the ancient name of the land that later became known as Hindustan, and more recently, the Indian subcontinent. The Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem. It narrates the bitter rivalry between two sets of cousins, the five Pandavas and a hundred Kauravas who lived five thousand years ago. Both vie for succession to the throne of Hastinapur. The Pandavas epitomize goodness, whereas the Kauravas represent arrogance and disrespect.
The Kauravas, consumed by jealousy and hatred, make multiple attempts to destroy the Pandavas. Years later, this animosity leads to a devastating war.
Yet, the war was avoidable. The elders and wise men of the kingdom accept the Pandavas as the rightful heirs. Nonetheless, bound by their oath to support the throne, they fight on behalf of the evil Kauravas. Ultimately, the Pandavas are victorious. Only twelve people survive this war.
The good and mighty men who pledged allegiance to the “crown” are defeated.
Sage Vyasa originally composed the Mahabharata thousands of years ago. It contains within it the Bhagavad Gita, the quintessential doctrine of Hinduism.
Human nature has remained unchanged despite monumental external changes. The single most important principle that I hold dear is that of doing one’s Karma. Do your job without expectation of reward: this is the message of the Bhagavad Gita.
The Mahabharata explores the sacrifices, vows, internal and external struggles of extraordinary men and women in detail.
Perhaps superhumans existed on earth at that time. Even if they possessed exceptional military prowess, the men and women in this tale battled anger, hate, jealousy, and lust for power the way ordinary people do in the twenty-first century.
I have found solace in the Mahabharata’s stories. They provide a roadmap to fight for what is right, be it in personal, professional, or civic life. The cosmic law that guides righteousness is called dharma.
As humanity grapples with multiple calamities, I find myself returning to the lessons from Mahabharata. Do all you can to fight for what is right. Do not support evil because of past misplaced vows. Pledge your allegiance to righteousness, not to a title or throne. No other story has stirred my soul like the Mahabharata.
Do I Know Tolstoy?
Frankly, I must say that I was caught off guard when there was introduced into Tolstoy’s War and Peace numerous sections dedicated to philosophy. I had only heard of the book because it was supposedly a grand and realistic war novel (which in fact, I say it is). However, Tolstoy openly called War and Peace “not a novel” a few years after its publication in a Russian newspaper. It has always held me in great interest that Tolstoy should have considered this to be the case, apparent as his many instances in which the plot line of that grand volume concedes to pages upon pages of philosophical thought.
Most of this thought is focused on the notion of free will. Tolstoy was, after all, composing a very large volume of historical fiction, so why should he not have the right to speculate who had caused those grand events in history: the entrance of Napoleon into Russia, or even before the Battle of Austerlitz? But Tolstoy did not reach a conclusion that directed blame (or, rather, responsibility) at any one, or even several, figures who could have been behind the events of the early nineteenth century - he came to the conclusion that free will, does not, in fact, exist as most perceive it.
According to Tolstoy, every action is the result of several environmental factors around that action. If free will exists, argued Tolstoy, then all of history would simply be a series of completely disconnected events. But on the other hand, actions cannot all conform to a set rule or procedure, or else nothing would ever be…well, new. Tolstoy’s argument that the will of humankind is influenced, however, was not nearly as concise as I have so vulgarly summarized it.
I began War and Peace for the challenge, and I intended to read a prestigious and highly-renown historical-fiction novel. And suddenly, upon completion of this great work of literature, I found myself not reflecting much on the actual plot line or characters (though I love the storylines of Pierre, or Prince Andrew Bolkonsky, or Nicholas Rostov, and so on), but instead I could not vacate from my mind Tolstoy’s thoughts on free will - it was the philosophy that left an impression on me, not so much the actual plot line of the book, as clever as it is.
That I am writing this essay - of which this is not the first - is evidence enough that there is still a part of me forever trapped in that wondrous book. Not to be misinterpreted, I must affirm that War and Peace is easily, in my opinion, the greatest work of literature ever conceived. But I often wonder: because Tolstoy claimed that his book represented philosophy, am I one of the few missing out on interpreting the true, exciting, enthralling story of the characters, or am I one of the few who simply has been captivated by the parts that Tolstoy intended to convey?
Reading Le Carre.
Let me tell you a story about a young girl of colour, named Leonie. Leonie was born to a working class dysfunctional family, in an inner-city area of an industrial town in England. She was quite an unremarkable girl, quiet, introspective, mediocre in many ways, but one thing Leonie loved to do was read. Whilst her boisterous brothers and sisters played and argued and fought, Leonie would often be found alone in her room, reading late into the night- much to the detriment of her eyesight, under the narrow beams of fading moonlight long after her parents had decreed “lights out!”. Hence, she earned the moniker “Leonie the loner”.
One day in her teenage years, Leonie came across a book entitled “Smiley’s people” written by an author she had never heard of before: John Le Carre. It was a random choice, not least because it was the last in a trilogy, but because it was an odd pairing of author and reader, as John Le Carre was an Oxford graduate, raised in an upper-class family in the delightful British countryside and once held a distinguished career in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Mi6.
Their lives were poles apart, yet through this book he spoke to her.
Through this book he introduced her to the principal character: legendary master spy George Smiley, whose quiet and unassuming ways- a loner too much like herself- endeared himself to a nation-wide readership.
As she followed the protagonist’s journey and woven narration of spy craft throughout the globe , she absorbed fanciful descriptions of Russian émigrés and Parisian streets and she imagined a world other than the concrete jungle she was used to and developed a longing to join in on the adventure. And as she learnt new words such as “lugubrious” and “languorous” she wasn’t just expanding her vocabulary and horizons, she was expanding her mind. And as she developed a love for all of John Le Carre’s works, reading beguiling tales of bravery, secrecy and old-fashioned loyalty and betrayal – and learning astute observations such as “the desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world” - she expanded her character.
Years later, when she too learnt a foreign language and travelled the world (not as a spy but an Esol teacher) she would often think back to discoloured pages of that book and in waves of nostalgia, reread it. She would always appreciate the avuncular tones of a John Le Carre novel and have a special fondness for good old George Smiley and his merry band of British spies from a bygone era.
Sadly, John Le Carre passed away last month - and these characters along with him- and if Leonie could meet him in the afterlife, or in her imagination, she would have a drink with him and she would thank him.
Even though John Le Care had long left the intelligence business and instead spent many decades as a prolific author, writing best-selling novels such as “The Constant Gardner” and “The Night Manager” , she would still like to thank him very much, for his service.