To vary our fascination with English poets, today we’re going to hark to Tennyson who, yes, is an odd choice for this blog, being very much an aristocratic court poet, but who, never the less was touched by something. (I’m not going to presume on what touches poets, though I’m to understand Tennyson was a very moral man and all.)
I like his cadences, but most of all I find his poems are a never-ending source of titles. And if I can remember not to spell it like a type of onion, the lady of Shalott is one of my favorites among his poems.
Of course, this is not about poetry, except in the sense that I like to pretend to lecture you lot (ATH is culture) when most of you are way more educated/better read than I.
No, this is about separation, distance, and what it does to people.
The Lady of Shalott first commended itself to my attention when I was going through puberty because it was such a perfect resonance to my situation. The poem, itself, of course, has a lot to do with a woman’s sexual longing and a wish for (a form of) liberation even if it costs you your life. Well, at least it does to me, but it might have a lot to do with identifying with it as a teen. We never studied Tennyson in school because he was an icky Victorian and everyone knew Victorians were repressed prudes, and exposing young people to them would probably scar them for life.
For those of you not conversant with the poem, it’s about a Fairy Lady living in her own enclosed space and looking at the world outside through the magic web she weaves. Like her I felt very much set aside, though it wasn’t a matter of space. I attended the local school until I went to school in the city; I shopped in the local general stores; I walked the same streets. But though my family was materially poor (not that we knew it) we were still massively wealthier than the people around us (often a matter of the use we put resources to) and we were also educated. Up to fourth grade I could have been one of the local girls, except I read too much. But after fourth grade, when most of my classmates when to work in the textile factory, and others went to the local middle/high school, mom decided (having looked at scores) that my only hope at college was to go to a magnet school downtown as my brother had done. And in our family college was sort of expected, because – I’ve told my kids this too – we were not wealthy through land (what there had been in the family had been lost long ago) and we were not wealthy through business or not in a general way. My family has always eked out (or often icked out) its living in the affairs of the mind. Mostly through engineering and medicine, but some have gone into law, psychology and even writing (no, I’m not the first, but I’m the first non poet.) My only inheritance as my parents pointed out to me and I point out to the boys is a mind and the ability to use it.
This meant that though I still came home every day, and spent a lot of time hanging around the village, I was no longer of it. A year or two, and I couldn’t really talk to my old classmates and friends.
And then there was the old mating game. There simply wasn’t anyone in the village whom I could date. It’s not just the fact we’d have nothing to talk about, but that well… there was a social distance. Most of the local boys treated me as though I were a vaguely threatening alien. (To be fair, my being an odd, most boys treated me that way once I opened my mouth.)
The normal way for this to go for people in my situation is that you met boys going to high school and you formed your circle there. I went to an-girls’ high school (which is why I’m here to tell you that all-woman planet is not an utopia but all the circles of hell in one.)
I had classmates who made arrangements within the school (I know this because two of them were found beneath some bushes in the ornamental garden. I’m still in the dark about how they managed to drag a double mattress there. They lived nearby, but no one had cars. I’m also still flabbergasted about how I never noticed it, since they were both second-circle friends – i.e. not inner circle but the next level.) but I never had any interest in female bodies.
The more common way to cope was to do “classes in the café” where you cut class and hung out at the coffee shop where the boys from the all-boy school across the street hung out.
Unfortunately there was that thing where I was expected to make it to college. Also, I was an odd, and probably wouldn’t get flirting if it bit my nose off and ran away giggling. (In fact all relationships I’ve had, and those that I declined, the other person eventually had to come out and be blunt as in “Do you want to date?” or more such. Because I’m VERY VERY DENSE when it comes to emotions.)
So I felt like I was living in a bubble where nothing ever happened while real life took place around and past me. In that situation I couldn’t help but be fascinated by The Lady of Shalott.
This situation applies to what I’m going to say – but more applies, too.
What you have in the Lady of Shalott is someone very busy with work that’s not directly related to her sustenance and which only allows her to see the world at a remove. Her life is comfortable: She lives with little joy or fear.
But everything new and everything exciting comes from outside. She’s in a world of her own, both remote and insulated.
If you’re seeing our ruling class, you are right. They too live in a world that has very little to do with the everyday world of men for most of history. They weave their web – of theories, of regulations, of the involutedly just so stories that are Marxist analysis – and then they see the world only in it, reflected in it. This is what I refer to as “drinking their own ink.”
They have been schooled to such an extent that instead of testing theory in the world, they view the world through the theory. The stimulus didn’t work? More stimulus is needed. There are more unemployed? Well, we need more assistance. Health care is too expensive? Making it government controlled will make it cheap. People want to kill us? We need to stop being racist, because little brown people.
Any one of those circumstances can kill us and destroy society, because stimulus only destroys the value of money; unemployed don’t want perpetual assistance and to the extent it works it encourages dependence and lack of initiative; as far as it’s observable from history, since the pyramids, no government project was completed on time or under budget; thinking that people with a tan are inherently oppressed and unable to have just as crazy and non-legitimate grievances as your next door neighbors is not just a form of racism, but one that can kill you when the other culture interprets appeasement as weakness. (Oh, and for the record, I am a person of tannitude, and I can have just as crazy ideas as the my pale-skinned husband. Crazier, arguably, given what I write.)
BUT since they can only see the world through their web, they can’t break out of it. Curiously, they are also enamored of the more ah… carnal aspects of “normal life.” If you go over the Lady of Shalott and even without being an English professor (Maypoles, really?) you’ll see that a lot of courting and mating behavior is highlighted, and when Lancelot bursts on the scene it is as a vision of manly boldness. There are also funerals, though, and that too is important. Because what the Lady of Shalott is seeing in her poem was the “real life” through the rituals that people have imbued in it.
Charlie Martin and I are doing a thing on ritual and its need for writers, over at PJM (yes, yes, doing the piece after this. Yesterday was eaten by re-doing some covers. Sue me.) But ritual is not just needed for writers. It’s quite possible (I ask those of you who know this better) that ritual is the thin layer of lubricant between humans and the world.
There is a tendency in Marxist analysis to view ritual as “the opium of the people” — mayday and Halloween and all being ways of keeping the serfs from revolting.
They’re wrong on that as on so many things. There is a fundamental lack of “getting” humanity which is needed of course, because if they “got” humanity, their beautiful, utopian vision would be ruined.
Humans, serfs and rulers alike, except where impairment exists, are all quite smart enough to know where this life leads. You can say it bluntly, “We’re all dying of a fatal disease. It’s called life.” Shakespeare said it better. Heinlein stole it better. But your average guy on the street knows it too.
Into this knowledge that our time here is brief and that like those who came before us, we too will eventually be dust and bones and our memory forgotten, all we have is ritual. There were ways in which life was supposed to go, and each of them was imbued with its own ceremonies – religious or just customary. There is courting, and it has rules – though those of us who are Odd tend to not get them unless they’re written on the inside of our eyelids – so we have to contrive our own approximations) – there is marriage, there are children, and then there’s death, with its own rituals.
This is how life used to be. The rituals changed, but they usually changed slowly enough – except through invasion or conversion, and even then it wasn’t instant – that people know what they were “supposed” to do.
I’m not going to tell you – I’m an odd, okay? – that I approve of people being forced into a pattern, but even for people like us it is a good thing to know the pattern is there.
The problem with our ruling elites is that their theories say all patterns must be discarded – all traditional patterns. They take the idea of culture-influenced development so far they think ALL development is cultural. They see life through their webs of theories so much they think only the theory is real, and reality can be infinitely molded. Thus their ideas on raising “genderless” children (because hormones don’t matter before the beautiful theory) their ideas on how women should act just like men in sex and life (because hundreds of thousands of years of different evolutionary pressures are for sissies! They have theory, d*mn it), and their theories on how punishing the producers will make us all rich, rich I tell you!
The problem is reality is hard and has sharp corners, and Tennyson knew no less than Kipling that contact between the lovely visions in the web and the real world ends only one way.
At least the Lady of Shalott wasn’t trying to govern those people out there that she knew only from glimpses and longing. But our intellectuals are.
As things spin more and more out of control, their theories are becoming more tattered and strained. Despite their fascination with and longing for “real” – for violence and sex and anything that will break them out of what they know to be an artificial paradise – they cannot see where the true problem lies.
The true problem is in that wheat harvesting and reaping, in the marrying, in the business of life. They’re disengaged from it, separated from the rituals that gave meaning to the lives of humans for centuries.
Instead, they have theory and they want to “change the world” and “make a difference.”
Only the web only shows shadows. You can keep printing money and mask things for a little while. You can keep more glitz, more glamour, more cowbell coming. It has to be kept going, in frantic running to catch up with what can never be caught, like the curse of the lady of Shalott:
No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
But the web affects the real world, not just threads and not just watching it. And the web doesn’t match with the world. And the more they do the more things break. Their theory tells them they are on their way to paradise, but things keep getting worse. The only way they know is to keep weaving – to keep supporting models that don’t work, because if they say or even notice they don’t work they’ll find themselves ostracized.
Maybe they like their ideological predecessors eventually they’ll fight those people affected by their crazed weaving. Maybe they’ll decide it’s all the fault of humans.
Let’s hope not. And if yes let’s hope we have enough guns and enough gumption to keep the mass graves from filling.
But one way or another, the web will tear and the lady of Shalott will make her doomed trip to Camelot, where she can only arrive dead.
One way or another – the long route or the short – whether they get their very short splendorous (ah!) reign of equality in poverty or not, the history of humanity shows that sooner or later sanity returns and the rituals of human life: plant and reap, marry and reproduce, die and be briefly remembered.
They can take many forms and I’m not advocating a return to agriculture – but the underlying form will be there again – because despite moments of cultural insanity, our species usually finds a way to survive.
So – be not afraid. 1984 is impossible in the long run. Brave New World also. There might be choppy waters ahead. They might last the rest of our lives. But in the end, we win, they lose, because reality is on our side, and all they have is fairy weaving.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
The Lady of Shalott.’