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Strange Moon Rises

The title partly comes from a distortion of the debut album by The Smoke Fairies, Sussex born makers of ethereal folky music. I recalled the phrase when reading The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s third memoir. Recounting the period in the 1960s where she lodged with Oxford academics Jenifer and Hebert Hart, Karen often had reason to print the words ‘Moon Rises.’ Her charge, Jacob, greeted her with the phrase each morning. He read the newspapers over breakfast and quoted the day’s headlines and mooncycles to her.

This is the second time I have read The Spiral Staircase, and both times I have felt an affinity with the writer and presenter who left a nunnery after a breakdown to ‘begin the world’ as her second memoir was almost titled. Her next essay of 2004 is a mature overview over sixty years, from novice to scholar, teacher, broadcaster and is now well known for her books on mainly the monotheistic religions. I take courage from the time it took for Karen to find her place in the world, for opportunities and careers to abort before embracing her path on a solitary spiral stair, a secular sacred assent that has recently culminated in her worthy compassion charter.

Perhaps the episodes with the Hart family stand out most for me. It was here that Karen was prepared to deal with and accept her own epilepsy, though sadly looking after Jenifer’s son Jacob did not precipitate a diagnosis for her or keep her away from useless psychiatrists who refused to take her frightful visions and black outs seriously.

Although I have a reaction to the faith she lost, denigrated and kind of returned to, my strongest response is to that era where Karen struggled with her health and believed herself to be a few steps from a mental hospital’s inpatients. Since leaving her religious order, Karen seemed to have been surrounded by so called rationalists. I say ‘so called’ as a dogged belief in only what science approves of and a derisory ridicule of anything beyond that is not rational to me. It is the reverse. And many people have entered mental institutions for disagreeing.

Hasn’t proclaiming someone mad long been the easiest way to silence and undermine? Whether you’re Christine from Changeling, questioning the authorities, or the spurned lover of Mussolini, it’s just another set of cells with actually worse treatments and control than a prison. It sweeps away dissenters and challengers; people who might embarrass – not through their behaviour but often by exposing other’s shortcomings. Last week, I posted on the television series Afterlife. The fictional medium Alison Mundy spent much of her past in mental institutions because of her gift. In the first series, she bravely returns to help a young man who claims he has an alter ego that harms him and others. What’s frightening about re-entering that hospital is not the other inmates but the staff. Any dissent and you are hauled off and then given treatments. The staff are inhumane, talking in that patronising unreal way. All of this is designed to destroy souls that the system often doesn’t believe in.

In Afterlife, Alison says that the drugs actually feed the spirits and do not make anything go away. Karen’s experience of drugs were that they were also ineffectual.

I am interested in Karen’s relief at being diagnosed with epilepsy and her willingness to take drugs for it. As mentioned, she was mostly around people who believe in science and the mind. She had rejected religion, believing Christianity to be academically insupportable. She has not returned to experiential faith and her ecstasy now is from art and study – her definition of ecstasy not being one of transported rapture but an etymological leaving oneself behind. She sometimes felt that her ability to feel had been lost and her ability to think originally was submerged for some years, first under her nun training and then in academia. All this perhaps explains why a medical response was welcomed rather than the ideas that Alison of Afterlife or anything that Louise L Hay or a famous medium might tell you.

For them, spirituality and health are connected. Karen never speaks of a higher self, a spirit world or a personal God, but for other writers these are essential philosophies. Understanding symptoms of epilepsy for them would not be about drugs to control electric jumps in the brain. What is really going on is something that can’t be measured, just as our full humanity cannot be.

I am loathe to even mention the idea of fits and demons being linked. Liberal Christians read Jesus’ exorcisms as in fact dealing with epilepsy. Looking at it that way round, it’s a relief: it takes away the terror of potential possession, relegating the fits and any visions to things that can be cured by a dosage, and which has much less fear and stigma attached (there should be none). Perhaps I will no more than hint of the reverse interpretation except to say that such diagnoses can be harmful emotionally as much as the often poorly handled attempts to release sufferers.

But could spirituality and mental and physical health be more entwined than many practitioners are willing to believe? As The Verve sang, the drugs don’t work.They are a wicked form of control, as much as padded cells and restraints. As Alison in Afterlife points out, some previous mental health candidates would have been seen as witches and burned. We are really not very good at fair treatment and empathy with those that are different, including those who manifest behaviours or powers that perhaps frighten us.

I was relieved to think that Mother Julian’s devil visitations might be explained in the same way of Karen’s ghastly visions. Karen’s doctor said she has temporal lobe epilepsy which affects the sight and smell areas of the brain, which explains her eyeless old man and the malodorous sulphur. Something similar was experienced by Julian, though those in the room with her did not. When I first read of Julian’s fiends, it frightened me that a devout woman should be allowed such visions – why didn’t God step in and rescue one of his own from this attack? Two years ago, I decided her visions were because she had explicitly asked for it, and influenced by cosmic ordering, believed God had given her simply what she had chosen. Now I am less comfortable with that.

I have said this before but it is a point worth repeating: we believe what is palatable. There are some things I don’t want to be true – whether it be the existence of a scary cryptological specimen or demonic interventions. And I will work to discredit them. However, there are some things I am happy to embrace and draw comfort from. Evangelical Christians say that those who deny God do so because if he and the miraculous side of the Bible are true, it calls them to face up to things they don’t want to that requires action. Perhaps that principle is true of rationalism in general – that if something is not denouncable, choices are called for and uncomfortable transitions must be made. I often wonder why the existence of a spiritual realm, especially God, is so unfavourable to many people and why the miraculous elements of the Bible are so hard to absorb. I have a very liberal, non mainstream faith but my attitude to all of the science worshippers’ objections has always been: why not? God, flood, miracles… resurrection… what an unimaginative, narrow world where such wondrous aberrations cannot take place.

You will soon gather that I too have a spiralling mind, a theme and title which have significance in my creative writing. So we circle round the staircase to again find our strange moon, and the family that gave this piece its title. I really warm to Jacob Hart and would like to know more of him. I think he sounds witty and interesting. I have been intrigued and impressed by what I have found out about his parents and how their unconventional lodgings were an oddly nurturing time for Karen. I love how Jenifer rescued Karen from the mental hospital and had stolen second hand sweets to comfort her with. I am shocked when Jacob’s appearance and behaviours are called hereditary – by looking at his father. I don’t claim to know what epilepsy and other illnesses are – even if ‘illness’ is the right word. But I question hereditary theories and, and especially the use of drugs and other treatments from inside hospitals. Karen lists some shocking ways of dealing with epilepsy from the past, but we have not moved on very far, especially not in the general world of mental health; and drugs are tied into pharmaceutical company profits – there is more to their prescription (both senses) than supposed greater success of control. Drugs do not even pretend to cure epilepsy. I am sure that other kinds of healers have a far more healthy and holistic way of assisting. One healer wrote of a client who wouldn’t release his epilepsy because it made him feel special. I can understand why that man hung onto it; like why some people on wheelchairs at a Charismatic healing rally say – it’s OK: I can live like this. I don’t need curing. I am whole as I am. And like Alison Mundy – it is part of me and I’d be lost without it.

This is a staircase I like to tread on and may well return to. For now, I shall watch out for moons and think of not only excellent gigs but of a wonderfully eccentric, radical household and celebrate those whose ideas give them ideas to change the world; and of misunderstood people with gifts and traits that should be celebrated and explored, not quashed and scolded, and heaven help us all: treated.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I have just seen the play. It is not a good one – not that the performance of it at Nottingham’s Lacemarket Theatre was poor: quite the reverse. I do not claim to have a special understanding of Muriel Spark’s book, but I am sure that the adapter, Jay Presson Allen, does not. The playscript is very offputting, with stipulations about the size his name should be printed on posters. And then follows royalties, permission, and an exacting list of costumes, like the Marcia Blain School for Girls would send to parents.

Miss Brodie is often described as dangerous, but Allen’s scripts are. Not only has he written an internationally travelling play, regularly staged, but an enduring screen version that starred Maggie Smith in 1968. (I can hear her saying that as Miss Brodie). I understand about adaptation, being a writer of various media myself, and I believe that you can translate most things between media through utilising the possibilities of the new medium. Both scripts do not exploit these possibilities and are very conventional narratively and stylistically. The film is the worst as it is without Sister Helena, who is the point of the story. The film contains only a linear going forward in time, but the book is full of time changes. The scripts are without the richness and rhythm of the book and do not attempt to include the inner life of Sandy which is so distinct and important in the novel. Sandy’s showdown with Miss Brodie is neither part of Spark’s work, nor a well written scene. The intended nuances are not clear on a stage without seeing Allen’s intrusive set of stage directions. The play and film need a narrator because that omniscient voice is part of Muriel Spark’s literary device with its own disembodied predestination and oversight. The poetic, Biblical style is all lost in translation and the time period simplified to point of P-E-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N of the source material.

It is not that I necessarily highly esteem the novel. Most ingratiatingly, the Penguin introduction says that not a comma is out of place. Therefore I read the book looking especially at commas; some of the sentences jar in the way they are punctuated, as does the repetitions of phrases such as ‘being famous for sex’ or ‘running hither and thither in the flames’ and ‘the crème de la crème’. I understand that this feature is part of the Biblical style that’s key to emphasising the central theme of Presbyterianism vs Popery.

I too have seen the parallel between these competing strands of Christianity, just as there are parallels in between the Brodie set, the Fascisti, and Girl Guides. Predestination and Calvinism are not brought out enough in the adaptations, and without Sandy’s defecting to the other religious team as well as leaving the Brodie set, the film is as ridiculous as Miss Brodie is made out to be.

Sandy is given script lines which denigrate the career of her lover that are not in the novel. It seems that Allen has made the story about a snotty school girl speaking hard satisfying truths. He inserts comments like ‘you went to bed with an artist but couldn’t cope that you woke up with a man’. Miss Brodie never sleeps with Teddy Lloyd in the book. It shows how badly a Scottish women’s story can be retold by an American male, who desperately latches on to the one minor character the author could possibly re-nationalise as his own – the visitor to Sister Helena.

Allen seems to see Sandy as some avenging angel who ‘puts a stop to Miss Brodie’ and the philandering art teacher, and that we as an audience should agree with her. Again, this misses the nuances out and badly misunderstands the story. It also distorts some facts: Mr Lloyd is one armed, and red haired like Mr Lowther. Mr Lloyd does not harangue Miss Brodie in the ladies’ toilets, as Maggie Smith’s real life husband to be does in the film. He is also not guilty of underage relationships with pupils as Sandy is 18 and has left the school when they become lovers for a summer. Mrs Deirdre Lloyd is kept out of Allen’s work, but Teddy’s wife has several lines in the book and becomes Sandy’s friend.

It seems to me that Sandy is also one of the unrequited lovers of Miss Brodie looking for substitutes. Briefly, Sandy decides that Brodie is a lesbian, although I see no evidence for it. However, there is plenty that Sandy is. She fantasises over the policewoman she never meets who helps Jenny after being accosted by a flasher by the Water of Leith. It is Sandy who most loves Miss Brodie. I see her affair with Lloyd as a way of ‘working it off’ [her own crude phrase] on someone else as much as he is, or Miss Brodie does on Mr Lowther. Perhaps Sandy’s feelings are more complicated than romantic love; perhaps it is what she ascribes to Brodie’s affair with the autumnally fallen Hugh: that they were above being physical; a purer love. It might be more what we’d facetiously call a lady crush, but the power of Miss Brodie was enough to send religionless Sandy into a convent, a broken woman.

This act isn’t fully and satisfactorily explained. It says in the book that Sandy extracted Teddy Lloyd’s religion from him ‘like a pith from a husk’, but that does not suffice. Was to to fill that void of not having any religion to rebel against which Sandy speaks of when visiting St Giles’ Kirk? Was it to spite Miss Brodie, who hated Catholicism? Sandy never speaks of a religious calling, a falling in love with God. She does not go out and find other lovers as the rest of the Brodie set did. Sandy hasn’t just renounced the world, she has renounced love because of her broken heart and guilty conscience over Miss Brodie. She has well chosen her nun name to be ‘of the transfiguration’ for she too has tried to metamorphose and has been unable to. Holding the bars of the convent grille is the act of someone desperate and imprisoned, not striding out of the school gates scot free, as in the movie, with Sybil Thorndike’s high and noble mien.

Miss Jean Brodie is a hard woman to ultimately admire as she does not bring out of her class, and she swamps Mary Macgregor’s confidence. To modern teachers, she is especially inappropriate in her dealings with pupils. Whereas we may sometimes sympathise, no character is appealing, especially not Sandy, whose story this really is. And that ultimately weakens the story. It’s a book I want to like more than I do, and when I arrived at the end, there was a sense of dissatisfaction, of being taken on a pretentious ride that didn’t take you anywhere particularly although you feel you may have not taken in all the journey’s details on the way.

I’ve also written about “Leading out or Thrusting in – Miss Jean Brodie on teaching”  – an admirable speech that is preached but not practised. I may repost it here as this link may not still work.

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