Mar 29, 2007

Discussion of Thomas Hardy Continues, This Time at Length

A variety of essays and articles have been appearing on Thomas Hardy on the occasion of the publication of, now, two new biographies of the great poet and novelist, ten of whose poems Yvor Winters chose for the special Winters Canon of the greatest poems in English. I have already discussed two of these articles in recent posts, so I have been reluctant to post about any more of these recent reviews and essays on Hardy. But an essay in the New York Review of Books and a review in the New York Times Book Review are other matters.

The NYT Book Review piece is entitled “Wessex Man” By Brenda Wineapple. This concerns the second new Hardy biography to come out recently, Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life by Ralph Pite. Wineapple characterizes the Pite bio as almost wholly a study of repressed sexuality. The short review was published March 18, 2007, and can be found at:

Earlier, the March 1, 2007, edition of the NYRB offered a long essay on Hardy “Return of the Master” by Tim Parks, which concerns that other new biography, Thomas Hardy, by Claire Tomalin. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy,” wrote a reviewer of the Victorian writer's novel Jude the Obscure (1895), “that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?” The reviewer was referring to the long and painful series of misfortunes that befall Jude, culminating in the moment when his eldest child is found to have hanged his younger brother and sister and himself. So harrowing is the scene that the reviewer's cry for some explanation is understandable. But in her new biography of Hardy, Claire Tomalin declines to offer one. “Neither Hardy nor anyone else,” she tells us, “has explained where his black view of life came from.” Most of his time, after all, was spent working at his desk.
Nice opening, eh? As you see as well, the issue raised therein is sharply pertinent to my discussions of Hardy’s alleged pessimism and atheism in a couple of recent posts. More than that, however, Hardy’s blackness raises a puzzling issue. I have discovered in my years of observing and reading that the comforts of atheism -- as well as the correlated beliefs that evil shows that god does not exist and that death is the utter end of individual human existence, the complete obliteration of the self -- often appeal most to those who have suffered least. Not without fail, of course, but most often. With frequency in the West, it is often among those living at very highest standards, in great relative prosperity and with steady, long, and well-remunerated leisure to pursue the study of abstruse metaphysical questions, that hostility toward belief because of the problem of evil, implacable atheism, and a callous, insolent, Spartan metaphysical materialism have flourished -- in lives lived in places where there always is plenty to eat, where stand convivially comfy homes in winter and lusciously cool homes in summer, where there are often two large, polished cars in large garages, plenty of nights at superb restaurants, and plenty of fine wine too, and from where people can travel, often on institutional budgets, as often as they have a hankering to take in some new sight.

This circumstance has often seemed strange to me, for does it not seem more likely that those who have very little, who seldom find enough food for themselves or their children, who cannot get variety in the diet, who live in near shacks without enough heat -- or air-conditioning at all -- who cannot afford to travel outside the narrow regions where they live and must walk wherever they must go; would it not be these people, faced as they are so much often than the prosperous with the specters of suffering and disease and loss and fear, would it not be these people who shake their fists at god, reject him, declare that he doesn’t exist because of the presence of evil, and cultivate despair with gusto, boil themselves in the acrimony and bracing cynicism that find atheism congenial? Among the least of us, the most ill-treated among us, among people who have truly suffered want and pain, among people who have lived through the problem of evil, among these we find robust religious belief, among these we find the hope of religious consolations, among these we find metaphysical ideas that offer more than the degradations of simple personal annihilation following hard upon real sufferings in life.

From the little I know of Thomas Hardy, he did not suffer a day in his life. He did have a modest upbringing, but did not suffer want. His mother, Jemima, is described by Claire Tomalin in her new biography as having been “powerful, rather than tender.” According to Tomalin, she had a “dark streak of gloom and anger.” Jemima was a literate, book-hungry servant in London before she had to marry Hardy’s father, who was a rural builder as conscientious as his wife with the raising of their smallish, clever boy, whom they educated in rather peculiar ways and then sent off in apprenticeship to an architect.

Yet Hardy spent many of his days calling out against God or the gods, often damning them if he admitted that they, he, or it exist. I admit that I do not feel far from him. For I too have suffered not one day in my blessed and bounteous American life -- I have felt want even less, I would guess, than Hardy a hundred years before in England. Yet religious belief is always tenuous in me as well. The problem of evil troubles me as well. In my case, though, contra Hardy, perhaps, I long for some god or gods to be there, above us all, waiting to welcome us, waiting to give to us all that we need when our time is done, to make up for what we have endured and lacked. Not actually for me. I long for this for those who have truly suffered. I could die and cease to exist myself and never have reason to hurl insults against the gods. I could even suffer before my death (though who desires to suffer?) and still have little reason to remonstrate with the rulers of this universe, if any exist. For I have lived richly every minute I have spent so far on this earth as an affluent middle-class American. But oh, there are so many millions upon millions who haven’t had any hope of enjoying what I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy. Though the object of my faith is as dim as a faint star, unseen by any hopeful eye, I yet hope in a god or gods who will redeem what those who have suffered on earth have never seen and believe with their shallow hope.

As we study Hardy’s poetry and its many hints at and several outright declarations of atheism, it might be beneficial to keep such matters in mind. It might be helpful as well to reflect on whether our views of human existence, of the meaning of life, of the answers to the Big Questions, do not arise more from temperament (and, as I suggest adding, personal circumstance) than from rational argument, as William James discussed at the opening of Lecture I of his famed book Pragmatism:
The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world's character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and 'not in it,' in the philosophic business, even though they may far excel him in dialectical ability.
I have only skimmed the piece in the NYRB, but it appears to be a strong overview of Hardy and Tomalin’s new biography. It is not available on line, but you can find it in your bookstore or library. The title of the essay itself suggests the agreement of the author with Yvor Winters’s lofty assessment of Hardy as one of the very greatest English-language poets ever to have lived. But there are great pleasures and moral profit in Hardy’s novels, as well. Just to whet the appetite, here’s a favorite passage of mine from Jude the Obscure. It comes early in the novel, when Jude Fawley feels a strange sort of compulsion to see again a handsome young woman named Arabella:
The next day Jude Fawley was pausing in his bedroom with the sloping ceiling, looking at the books on the table, and then at the black mark on the plaster above them, made by the smoke of his lamp in past months.

It was Sunday afternoon, four-and-twenty hours after his meeting with Arabella Donn. During the whole bygone week he had been resolving to set this afternoon apart for a special purpose,--the re-reading of his Greek Testament--his new one, with better type than his old copy, following Griesbach's text as amended by numerous correctors, and with variorum readings in the margin. He was proud of the book, having obtained it by boldly writing to its London publisher, a thing he had never done before.

He had anticipated much pleasure in this afternoon's reading, under the quiet roof of his great-aunt's house as formerly, where he now slept only two nights a week. But a new thing, a great hitch, had happened yesterday in the gliding and noiseless current of his life, and he felt as a snake must feel who has sloughed off its winter skin, and cannot understand the brightness and sensitiveness of its new one.

He would not go out to meet her, after all. He sat down, opened the book [for the study of Greek], and with his elbows firmly planted on the table, and his hands to his temples, began at the beginning:


Had he promised to call for her? Surely he had! She would wait indoors, poor girl, and waste all her afternoon on account of him. There was a something in her, too, which was very winning, apart from promises. He ought not to break faith with her. Even though he had only Sundays and week-day evenings for reading he could afford one afternoon, seeing that other young men afforded so many. After to-day he would never probably see her again. Indeed, it would be impossible, considering what his plans were.

In short, as if materially, a compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power seized hold of him--something which had nothing in common with the spirits and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed to care little for his reason and his will, nothing for his so-called elevated intentions, and moved him along, as a violent schoolmaster a schoolboy he has seized by the collar, in a direction which tended towards the embrace of a woman for whom he had no respect, and whose life had nothing in common with his own except locality.

HE KAINE DIATHEKE was no more heeded, and the predestinate Jude sprang up and across the room. Foreseeing such an event he had already arrayed himself in his best clothes. In three minutes he was out of the house and descending by the path across the wide vacant hollow of corn-ground which lay between the village and the isolated house of Arabella in the dip beyond the upland.

As he walked he looked at his watch. He could be back in two hours, easily, and a good long time would still remain to him for reading after tea.

There is so much in that short passage, about will and mind and desire and courtship and sexuality. It’s packed with sharp insights -- as so much of Hardy is. It might be time for you to get back to his great work, poetry and fiction alike. I was lucky: it so happened that I was reading in Hardy’s poetry and starting out on Jude just before this wave of critical interest broke upon the release of the new biographies.

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