The Angel of History and “Ribblesdale”

Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” that he discusses in the ninth section of “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is a mixture of violence, reluctance, and divinity (Benjamin, 251). The angel witness the growing “wreckage” of the past as it the moves through the present and towards the future, and though they want to help, the angel is being forcibly blown into the future and away from Paradise by a sort of unstoppable wind— slide 14 “The Angel Standing in the Sun” of the Turner’s paintings reminded me of this, if it is not actually what Benjamin or Turner were referring to. Benjamin explains at the end of the theses that the storm is a metaphor for “progress,” but leaves the symbol of the angel as an imagined witness to the whole of history. I thought to create one witness who, as angel, is divine and not part of the ongoing earthly history was an interesting tool to use to understand Benjamin’s understanding of the past. The angel of history witnesses the entirety of past events with an expression of horror; he is always looking backward, never forwards. Progress moves the angel forward, but progress is fueled by history which is always referring to past events and generations.

The same kind of sentiment of continual wreckage and history that Benjamin expresses with the “angel of history” I thought was also seen in Hopkins poetry. In “Ribblesdale” Hopkins talks about the earth almost like a person without agency in their environment, like how the angel could do nothing about the catastrophe before them. He says about Earth that “thou canst only be,” repeatedly and that “Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart”— basically its ability to do anything about what is happening— is “dogged man,” (Hopkins, 157). Again, the earth like the angel is forced to do nothing but watch though it is implied that intervention would be appreciated, and is yet unattainable given outside forces. While the angel was propelled away by “progress,” Earth is restrained by having “no tongue to plead” because man is “selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn” in his pursuit of progress. In his poetry and journal entries, Hopkins is very aware of nature and admires its intricacies and details, so it makes sense that here he also criticizes those that “reave both our rich round world bare.” The parallels of Earth and the angel of history in these two readings both argue for a broader perspective of the world around us and our environment, whether that be literally about nature or figuratively about the events of the past.

Sharpe’s “Weather” and “Wake”

Both of Christina Sharpe’s pieces that we read for this week delivered quite striking messages that I had not yet thought of in the context of our class. We have been focused on a person and their environment in a largely white context, and Sharpe brings in another side that has vastly different experiences which she describes through definitions of “wake.” She says that “living in the wake on a global level means living the disastrous time and effects of continued marked migrations…Living in the wake means living the history and present of terror, from slavery to the present, as the ground of our everyday Black existence; living the historically and geographically dis/continuous but always present and endlessly reinvigorated brutality,” (Sharpe, 15). In a lot of our texts this semester the characters have been shaped and supported by the land and history around them, but Sharpe makes a point to show how Black lives have not had the luxury or opportunity to exist in such a way. Their environments are constantly shifting— like how Sharpe had to switch schools so many times as a child— because of their identities and how they have historically been treated. They live in “the wake” by having to constantly re-experience the brutality and migration felt by their enslaved ancestors. 

In “The Weather,” Sharpe expands her point by describing how her use of the word “weather” is the “totality of our environments…and that climate is anti-black,” (Sharpe, 1985). When thinking about this in terms of the environment created by living in “the wake,” she helps us see how continual existence in such an environment is more than a struggle, and it requires a life long endurance. In “the wake” and “the weather” Sharpe says there are “death, disaster, and possibility,” which are themes we have encountered all semester in our novels. Death was reoccurring in Wuthering Heights, personal disasters plagued Middlemarch, and possibility was wished for throughout The Woodlanders. None of these texts compare to the large scale at which all three permeate Black lives throughout history. Is it fair then to study ecologies and environments without dedicating more time to these experiences? Sharpe says that some of the “calamities and catastrophes” that most affected black lives outside of slavery and incarceration are “occupation, colonialism, imperialism,[and] tourism,” which are devices we have read about all semester.

Giles Cultivates but is Uncultivated

After reading Ward’s essay on the cultivation of realism I began to think of her focus on Grace’s cultivation, how her father encouraged it, and how it’s “doing and undoing”  she says relies on a sort of return to nature vs. culture scenario (Ward, 866). What struck me in the first half of this novel though is the weird behavior of the men and their effect on the cultivation of the women. Aside from Mr. Melbury being both excited for his daughter to return home and anxious that she will be changed and look down on her home, there is also the influence of Giles on Grace. Ward says that “Giles’s “want of so-called culture” and his “roughness” become markers of his purity and essential unchanged goodness,” and maybe it is because we are reading this during 2019 where his actions look different under our gaze, but he does some things that don’t scream “pure” and “good” (Ward, 873). He is not cultured, like Fitzpiers or Grace, and is assumed to be part of the nature of Hintock which will eventually un-cultivate Grace if she marries him like her father had promised.

In the story Giles does not seem to think of himself as having any effect on Grace’s nature, he just knows that before she went to boarding school she liked him and acted like one of them and now she acts more sophisticated. He points this out on their carriage ride home after he picks her up and she is not able to recognize a certain person’s or type of apple (Hardy, 46). This does not put him off though because as far as he’s concerned Mr. Melbury promised her to him, so he sets off and does some questionable things to convince her she still likes him. One such thing is the morning after she comes home he waits outside and follows her and her dad to an auction (Hardy, 57). The narrator describes him as having “shy self-control” during this scene, but this seems generous because someone who was shy or had self-control would think twice about standing in their doorway staring at their neighbor’s house (Hardy, 56). Also, she just got home and they are not married yet so a little family time should be a given. He then claims to unknowingly bid on all the things Mr. Melbury was bidding on, but what are the odds of that? The alternative explanation was that he really was so caught up in staring at Grace that he did bid unknowingly, but is that much better or just as odd? Later on in the novel, he is planting trees and sees Grace returning from Mrs. Charmond’s house and he is about to go out into the street and great her, but there is an awkwardly voyeuristic moment where he and Fitzpiers stare at her from behind the bushes (Hardy, 70). He had earlier moments of staring at Grace through her windows, echoing that voyeurism and making his attachment to her seem less genuine and more like a right to ownership. In Giles’s case then, I would argue that his effect on Grace’s cultivation is less about its undoing and more about creating a juxtaposition. While she is going from uncultivated to cultivated, and back again, he is staying the same– which is interesting given that his job involves the cultivation of fields for his apples. All of their interactions so far seem onesided, with Giles reaching out to her. Even though he is staying the same and is watching her change he still thinks he is ‘good enough’ to have a shot at marrying her because he keeps referencing their past; which I think as a reader we see from the beginning that there is little chance of that happening when everyone is on the up and up and looking towards what will be the most beneficial in the future.

Controversial Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton’s writings for this week interested me because I recognized his name from my anthropology classes. Before this, I knew him as an example often brought up when we discussed ethnographers who insert themselves and their experiences into narratives, which was common for anthropologists during the nineteenth century, and also as the founder of the anthropological society in London (which was a pretty racist organization back then). One of the main criticisms about him in anthropology now, however, is that he got too involved with the groups he was studying so that the portrayals were not as objective as they could have been. The Kasidah of Haji Abu el-Yezdi is an interesting example of just how involved he got. He wrote The Kasidah under a pseudonym which misleading made it seem like an actual Islamic text translated to English (Burton, vii). The epilogue includes an excerpt from a Robert Browning poem and calls Burton an “adventurous soul,” which he no doubt was, but overall the work has a feeling of cultural appropriation because it’s written in a classic form for Arabic verse under an Islamic name but by a white male.

The content of the poem is a mix of religious ideas and references to nature. The way he writes it includes many allusions to “the Almighty” and “the Maker” which has connections to both Christian and Islamic ideology (Burton, 42). Burton’s efforts here may have been to introduce Western culture to Eastern ideas through poetry, but by doing it through his own interpretation of the writing style seems controversial when there were original and culturally significant writings that he could have translated and passed on instead. In a stretch, this could be seen as a form of European imperialism in cultural studies. His book Falconry in the Valley of the Indus shows more of this appropriation of culturally significant practices, but perhaps in a way that is easier to read and would have been more entertaining for Western scholars back then. Throughout the first three chapters, he gives a first-hand account of his experiences with falconry while in southern Asia. His consistent references back to England are just one of the ways his writing appears to be slightly prejudiced but it was one that I found most interesting, such as when he says, “It was a fine December evening in Scinde, very like the close of a fine May day in England,” (Burton, 24). Those two places are, as they were then, vastly different. Yet his writing here seems to again try to connect the readers of the western world to the culture and practices of the eastern world. It’s not wrong for him to want to spread knowledge about the places he studied and lived in, but his writings suggest that it was done with an empirical view rather than purely objective. His writing now seems untrustworthy as accurate accounts, and his poetry controversial for the positions he did, and did not, claim. 

Dorothea’s End

“”But it would be much better if you would not be married,” said Celia, drying her eyes, and returning to her argument; “then there would be nothing uncomfortable. And you would not do what nobody thought you could do. James always said you ought to be a queen; but this is not at all being like a queen. You know what mistakes you have always been making, Dodo, and this is another. Nobody thinks Mr. Ladislaw a proper husband for you. And you said you would never be married again.”

“It is quite true that I might be a wiser person, Celia,” said Dorothea, “and that I might have done something better, if I had been better. But this is what I am going to do. I have promised to marry Mr. Ladislaw; and I am going to marry him.”” (Middlemarch, Chapter LXXXIV p. 771)

When Dorothea used her means and position to help Lydgate out of his arrangement with Bulstrode she displays the selfless and charitable characteristics we were told to look for in her at the beginning of the book with the references to Saint Theresa. Is her marriage to Ladislaw the ultimate end of her potential to be a single woman who contributes to her community through charitable acts and lives outside the realms of conventional domesticity? Is this an intentional move by Eliot to say something about reform and the Victorian way of life, or an unavoidable position for Dorothea to return to after having already been married once?

A Pointedly Unsocial Form of Intimacy

We discussed the narrative style of Middlemarch a bit during class last week but McWeeny’s “Comfort of Stranger,” seemed to parse it out in a way that better describes its use within the novel. While getting into the thick of the novel for this week’s reading I began to think of the narration’s free indirect discourse as a kind of mind-reading. The way the narrator jumps around from an omniscient presence to revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of a character makes the reader, or at least me as the reader, feel like I’m an invisible character who is privy to what’s happening in the minds of the other characters if it suits the story to reveal them a bit. McWeeny says that “In trying this form of narration to an impersonal intimacy or the well-socialized self, it is nevertheless important to observe that what free indirect style instances is a pointedly unsocial form of intimacy. It is, in fact, an intimacy predicted on the impossibility of anything like actual social contact between its participants,” (McWeeny, 90). What he put into words here is how that feeling we get while reading, of being involved and connected to each of the characters, is not felt by the characters in the book. While we may know what each of them is thinking and feeling towards the others, they have no knowledge of it. The “impossibility” of our viewpoint while reading relies on the lack of intimacy or feigned social contact in the world of Middlemarchers.

I’ve read other novels with this type of narration but its role here seems particularly important to what Eliot is doing with all the intersecting relationships and plots in Middlemarch. McWeeny describes how the narrative style helps the different voices of characters from various classes by describing it as transmuting “‘noisiness,’ the abstract or indistinct qualitities of strangers and their awkward fit with the socially codifying impulses of plot, into the central narrative,” (McWeeny, 89). Not only are the interjections of character’s viewpoints “unsocial” but also “awkward,” because of the improbability of them all being heard on the same level in the nineteenth century like the way we are reading them now. One instance that stuck with me where I saw this come through was towards the beginning of chapter 46 when the narrator sets the scene by saying “Middlemarch was becoming more and more conscious of the national struggle for another kind of Reform,” (Eliot, 431). Mr. Brook and Ladislaw are discussing another election, and during their chat, we get an inner-look at how Ladislaw is planning his future moves under Mr. Brook while they are together, “Mr. Brook might be in the Cabinet, while I was Under-Secretary…little waves make the large ones,” (Eliot, 433). In the same conversation the narrator provides a general opinion from the town about Ladislaw saying that he had lost “caste”  and his own relation, Casaubon, didn’t really like him (Eliot, 434). This kind of layering of personal thoughts and information characters would never actually share with each other, but do think about, connects them in a web of indirect discourse that links their individual plots together into one often unnoticed community.

Puppies and Cottages

There was one scene in this first reading of Middlemarch that really caught my attention, or at least I found it very amusing. It takes place towards the beginning of the book in chapter three when Sir James interrupts Dorothea’s thoughts about Casaubon by riding up very majestically and offering her a present of a small white puppy— though, of course, Dorothea does not realize he’s offering it to her and not actually intending it for Celia. During this interaction, there is a strong analogy of sorts running through that later on I realize equates Sir James to the puppy and Casaubon to the cottages during their courtship of Dorothea.

The way that Sir James presents the puppy, saying he has brought a “petitioner” or actually brought him to see if she approves of him before actually giving him up, is close to the way he presents himself to Dorothea over and over again to see if she will give her approval. Her quick dismissal of the puppy, as something she sees as having no purpose, independence, or strength, is similar to how she dismisses James for having no opinions or plans of his own (Eliot, 28). She goes so far as to call the puppy a “parasite,” which would mean it lives by feeding off the life of others (Eliot, 28). To equate Sir James in this way to a parasite reveals her feelings towards how she believes marriage with him would be, him constantly feeding off her ideas and opinions. However, the puppy is an innocent creature who had no say in its breeding. For Dorothea to show no mercy towards it and decide “that it had better not have been born,” shows a type of cruelty, or probably more likely a type of obliviousness to those who are weak, that I did not expect from her.

Now, Casaubon as being represented by the cottages in this scenario works best when coupled with the fact from later on that he does not like Dorothea’s ideas for the cottages at all, and hardly even acknowledges them. At this moment though, they are the only thing that keeps Sir James safe from her anger. Once he brings them up she is in “the best of temper” and becomes very excited about the idea of being related to him (Eliot, 29). Sir James is doing the best he can here to support Dorothea and her ideas, even though she had thoroughly dissed him earlier. She’s not excited about him though, she finds the logic and planning of the cottages (and Casaubon) to be more appealing and worthy of her time. When Casaubon shoots down her ideas though, we begin to see how Dorothea has made the wrong choice. She idolized, basically, Casaubon’s studies and intellectualism and dismissed Sir James’ innocence, both of which seem out of character for the pious woman she wants to be.

Rossetti and Haraway, Remembrance Evolving

After reading the biography section of Christina Rossetti I was excited to be immersed in pages of poetry devoted “to the faithful representation of nature, and Sing Song was exactly that (Broadview, 517). Rossetti interpreted many familiar lessons into her verses in a way that children would understand, or at least enjoy the rhymes and pictures and pick up on the metaphors later. One of my favorites is “If all were rain and never sun,” which explains the balance of good and bad (Rossetti, 25). She uses the symbols of sun, rain, and rainbows to explain that bad times and good times go hand in hand and that the bad makes the good even better. She uses nature as a metaphoric tool throughout the entirety of this stanza, which consisted of only four lines that rhymed a b c b. It is short, concise, and extremely visual. The small picture included with it is of an old bent-over woman on a cane talking to a small child, both of them with hoods on, in the rain while a rainbow spreads overhead. It seems that her verses here can be interpreted as wisdom passed down from a person of age and experience to one who has yet to know both good and bad.

It made me think of the poem included in the chapter with her biography “Remember,” (Broadview, 526). It has a similar theme as “If all were rain” but its audience is not specifically children. Her work here contains far fewer nature metaphors, with the only one being “silent land” as a symbol for death. However, she seems to expand on the simple lesson from the children’s poem to one that requires more adult understanding. The last lines are “Better by far you should forget and smile/ Than that you should remember and be sad,” (Broadview, 526). They seem like very familiar words, ones that we hear often quoted in movies when two people are leaving each other and one is consoling the other by telling them not to hold on to what hurts— taking the good with the bad, but focusing on the good, like the children’s verses but more complex subject matter. Rossetti wrote this poem in 1862, and the one from her children’s book is 1893. Her writing on this lesson evolved from poetic verse to include the use of natural elements that she became so popular for.

These two poems made me think of the section in Haraway’s chapter where she is describing grief in relation to the Anthropocene and says, “Grief is a path to understanding entangled shared living and dying; human beings must grieve with because we are in and of this fabric of undoing. Without sustained remembrance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think,” (Haraway, 39). Her statements here seem to contradict the lesson Rossetti is teaching in her two poems mentioned above. In the case of the climate crisis and how we as humans have contributed to it the idea of “forgetting and smiling” or taking the rain with the sunshine seem like very passive stances to an urgent situation. Haraway’s stance that people need to practice continual remembrance through the act of grieving suggests more action, especially when applied to “learning to live” within this age of change (Haraway, 39). Does the contrast between Haraway and Rossetti suggest that the seemingly timeless lessons of children’s books should evolve to better address the problems of today’s world and prepare younger generations?

Death in Wuthering Heights

While reading Wuthering Heights it seems that every other chapter focuses on someone dying, someone who has recently died, or someone who is about to die. None of these deaths happen as a result of old age, and they are often foreshadowed long before they happen. Mrs. Earnshaw dies first, followed by Mr. Earnshaw, Frances, the elder Mr. and Mrs. Linton, Catherine, Hindley, Isabella, Edgar, the young Linton, and Heathcliff. Those who survive the story are Nelly, Joseph, Cathy, and Hearton. A kind of depressing irony comes at the end of the novel when Mr. Lockwood and Nelly are discussing the arrangements for the Wuthering Heights estate and he comments that perhaps ghosts (which there should be plenty of now) might come and inhabit it. Nelly counters by saying, “I believe the dead are at peace, but it is not right to speak of them with levity,” though Nelly has spent the last two-hundred pages gossiping to Lockwood at his request about all the tragedies that happened before he arrived (Bronte, 300).

Eleven deaths. Some are introduced early on, like Frances who arrives at Wuthering Heights during Mr. Earnshaw’s funeral and has a breakdown saying she “was so afraid of dying,” only to die a year or so later (Bronte, 39). Or the young Linton’s arrival to the Grange when Cathy and her father are discussing how well he will do “if we can keep him,” which has a double meaning relating to keeping Linton with them and keeping him alive in general; needless to say he dies (Bronte, 179). I was surprised Edgar lived as long as he did in the story, but when his wife died and Nelly described him as a man who “execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation,” you knew he wasn’t really going to be “living” for the rest of the novel (Bronte, 57). Then there are the deaths of Catherine and Heathcliff, the first of which happens relatively early on and we are aware of for the entirety of the novel and the later which ends the novel. These are the deaths the novel is powered by and then waits for. Catherine and Heathcliff’s unhealthy relationship when they were alive carries over into eternity when she dies and he says, “Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living!… I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” (Bronte, 148). In a way, Heathcliff experiences a living death similar to Edgar, where he is still very much alive but all the good parts of him have died and he is being driven by the sorrow of another’s death. All of the trouble they caused when she was alive is foiled by the madness Heathcliff endures and inflicts after her death, and peace only comes when they are reunited in death. Bronte’s repeated injection of death into this novel is striking and plays with several messages relating to relationships, both familial and romantic. Even though death has a negative connotation, is Bronte using it to promote a negative message or is this more like a morbid romanticization?

Wuthering Heights: Questions for Discussion

1.) Why does Emily Brontë begin the book in a confusing manner, at a point that is years after Catherine’s death, and with Lockwood as its narrator? How does it affect the readers perspective for the rest of the novel?

2.) How does the wildness of Heathcliff and the refinement of Edgar work as opposing forces in the novel? Especially in regards to Catherine?