How people Ought To Be, continued

(go back to the original blog post or to Pogo or to Family of Origin or to Mantras and Mentors)

Literature [which feels even more provisional than the other sections, and may be revised]

From all the novels I've read over the years one might expect some influences upon 'ought to be', but I can't (so far) locate any that are positive models I've adopted. That's probably because authors rarely try to portray the positive complexity of their characters' personalities, focusing rather upon narrower territory of caricatured defects. That's material for negative examples, and there are plenty of those, in Dickensian villains (Heep, Fagin, Quilp, Squeers) and such poor souls as George Eliot's Casaubon (whose pompous and self-absorbed industriousness flows down the drain of a foolish obsession) and Trollope's Obadiah Slope (oleaginous, obsequious, manipulative). Positive models in fiction tend to be portrayed as great-souled idealists, often rather unidimensionally 'good' and sometimes victims of the machinations of malign others—thus Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, and Septimus Harding in Barchester Towers.

Fortunately, in fiction time eventually wounds all heels and virtue is generally rewarded, but the wellsprings of Character aren't usually explored. Perhaps one might look to biography for such treatment, but the positive is more the province of hagiography, and modern biography seems more concerned with feet of clay and the ambiguous outcome of challenges confronted.

What of Lincoln in the Bardo and Spoon River Anthology, both of which do examine the character of their characters in some depth? Might be worth a more careful reading, though neither has influenced me. Yet.

And what of Freud, Adler, Horney, Maslow, Rogers, Reich... others who have delved in the fields of personality psychology? They might offer useful insights, but blissfully I've never read anything of their notions of personality formation, and at this point in my life I don't need to.

More interesting is Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent Victorians purports to

present some Victorian visions to the modern eye... Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal processes—which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake... (Preface)
Strachey's sketches of the lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold of Rugby, and General Gordon offer quite a few glimpses into how each considered the territory of our 'ought'. Some exemplary bits:
(of Hurrell Froude:) a young man to whom had fallen a rather larger share of self-assurance and intolerance than even clever young men usually possess... (pg.14) [e.g.] "The only good I know of Cranmer was that he burnt well."

(of Manning himself:) ...a child of the Romantic Revival. A creature of emotion and memory, a dreamer whose secret spirit dwelt apart in delectable mountains, an artist whose subtle senses caught, like a shower in the sunshine, the impalpable rainbow of the immaterial world... (pg. 16)

(Florence Nightingale herself:) The thoughts and feelings I have now I can remember since I was six years old. A profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill and employ all my faculties, I have always felt essential to me, I have always longed for. The first thought I can remember, and the last, was nursing work; and in the absence of this, education work, but more the education of the bad than of the young... Everything has been tried, foreign travel, kind friends, everything. My God! What is to become of me? (pg. 136)

(Thomas Arnold himself:) Another day and another month succeed. May God keep my mind and heart fixed on him, and cleanse me from all sin. I would wish to keep watch over my tongue, as to vehement speaking and censuring of others... May I be kept humble and zealous, and may God give me grace to labour in my generation for the good of my bretheren... (pg. 231)

We may have to hark back to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) to find a text based in detailed portrayal of character formation. The scamp in me says that Laurence Stern's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) would make a worthy antidote to the saccharine flavor of Bunyan.

(go back to the original blog post or to Pogo or to Family of Origin or to Mantras and Mentors)