The blues are always vamping

Spring is beginning to creep in, slowly, with some setbacks. I spent several days wandering through grassy fields, picking little yellow flowers, and sat on a hillside with sunlight on my bare shoulders. I keep meaning to actually learn the songs I like to sing, but haven’t managed yet. Leaf buds are starting to form on the ends of branches.

Since then we’ve had a week of late winter snow, which is pretty, but wearing out its welcome. It’s still not very cold, so I went for a hike in it, and it was magical. Then I went down to Prizren for a Teacher’s Day celebration, with an awards ceremony and student dance groups at a theater, followed by lunch with the other teachers from my school. Last Saturday I went to Ferizaj to visit a friend, and cafe hopped because it was too slushy to go anywhere else. I didn’t even go into town last Sunday for St Gregory Palamas and Shqip tutoring.

Today was a holiday, “Summer’s Day,” in the Sharr mountain region. The kids decorated eggs, and I joined my neighbors for a walk and little picnic on a hill. They sang, made a rope swing, ate sweets and snacks, and rolled the eggs up and down to one another three times before eating them. Because everything needs to be done in threes, even in muslim villages. It was chilly, but fun. They were going to just leave all their trash sitting around on the hillside, so I brought it back. On the way back half a dozen people told me to just throw it down into the trees by the road or someone’s field, but m host sister stood up for the reasonableness of not littering.

A few nights ago I finished reading Jane Eyre (spoilers follow). It is, of course, romantic, gothic, and deservedly a classic. What struck me most, though, is the narrator’s capacity for judging the character and abilities of those she lives with. She, like Jane Austen, is quite pilling to categorize people based on education, breeding, tastes, convictions, and general fineness of feeling, whatever that entails. For instance, Jane says of her pupil, Adele, “She had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood; but neither had she any deficiency or vice which sunk her below it. She made reasonable progress, entertained for me a vivacious, though perhaps not very profound, affection; and by her simplicity, gay prattle, and efforts to please, inspired me, in return, with a degree of attachment sufficient to make us both content in each other’s society.” She realizes that it sounds like a very cool description of her sole charge, and seeks to defend herself by saying that she’s just giving a just account. Later: “other members of the household, viz., John and his wife, Leah the housemaid, and Sophie the French nurse, were decent people; but in no respect remarkable; with Sophie I used to talk French, and sometimes asked her questions about her native country; but she was not of a descriptive or narrative turn, and generally gave such vapid and confused answers as were calculated rather to check than encourage enquiry.” She is fairly harsh to Mr Rochester’s house guests as well, saying of one of the young ladies, for instance, that “Mary was deficient in life: her face lacked expression, her eye lustre; she had nothing to say, and having once taken a seat, remained fixed like a statue in its niche.” Then, of that lady’s sister, that she was “showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness.” Of another guest she finds that “his features were regular, but too relaxed: his eye was large and well cut, but the life looking out of it was a tame, vacant life.” Mr Rochester trivializes people, especially his former lovers, in a similar way.

Meanwhile, several of the people she really does like, including Mr Rochester and Mr. St. John, strike me as being at least problematic, if not downright bad people, despite Jane’s insistence that the first is amazing (of course, she’s in love), and that the latter is a good man. Mr Rochester basically stalks her in her own house (watching her without her knowledge of his interest for months), manipulates her into jealousy and toys with another woman in the process, denigrates his former lovers, flaunts his more powerful position, and lies. When his crazy wife invades her room in the middle of the night and rends her wedding veil, he suggests that Jane is hallucinating, and never properly apologizes. She trusts him so little she chooses to risk death by exposure wandering alone and friendless on the moors, rather than simply ask him to recommend her for another position. Secrecy is more important to her than either her physical needs, or her dignity as a respectable teacher. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a healthy relationship. Run Jane! But do bring more food with you. And don’t come back just because his folly has led him even deeper into misery.

But instead the book blames his misery on his wife, who is insane, despised by her husband, brought half way across the world, and locked away in a single suite of rooms for a decade. No, Rochester, your misery is your own: you should not need a bright, innocent girl less than half your age to save you.

As for St John, Jane calls him a good man too often, as though she’s trying to convince herself and her readers, but tells nothing of his goodness other than an avowably ego driven decision to become a missionary in India. He is cold, harsh, has no respect for other people’s feelings or inclinations, and finally tried to talk Jane into marrying him despite not loving her, nor she him. He is manipulative and demanding to someone who considers herself in his debt but has already refused him several times, and his cold furies and threats of hell fire suggest that if he did marry her he would not only be demanding and unloving, but what modern women would consider “emotionally abusive.” He’s intelligent, hard working, and persevering, but he is not a good man.

Jane Eyre is a good book, but I don’t necessarily trust Jane’s judgement. For all her principles, she seems too infatuated with brilliance, passion, and suffering, and judges those who do not share her tastes as dull and shallow.

I also finally finished reading Notes From Underground. While Jane’s dubious judgement is offset by her morality, self respect and orderly, industrious way of life, the Underground narrator possesses no such virtue. He sits in his mouse hole fuming and raging; intelligent and well read, but crushed by what the Church Fathers would call “fansasia” and “logismoi” — sick, nearly crazy daydreams and restlessly spiteful thoughts. He uses the “sublime and beautiful” only as a balm for his imagination, while hating the real human beings out in the real world. He has never fit in with them, and show their indifference by walking straight on while he scurries around them. They, like Mr Rochester’s guests, care very little for teasing out the inner workings of another’s mind, nor for the “sublime and beautiful.” Of course, the narrator shows them nothing worth teasing out, except once, toward a prostitute he has already bedded, and then he regrets it, and shortly despises both her and his own compassion. He’s also a good example of the saying “as you judge others, so too will you be judged” — not only by the world, but even by his own sick conscience.

Dostoyevsky is a brilliant psychological writer, and, extreme as he is, the underground world is still closer to mine than Bronte’s: the crazy miserable person is not locked up out of sight in the attic, but is a colleague, a family member, an inner demon — calling out, clamming up, cutting capers, demanding sympathy and then despising that sympathy.


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