As a teacher, a lot of my life has been given to “ teaching” reading. I really wonder what that means. I have taught reading for “pleasure”, reading for “information” and reading as a “life-skill”. I even remember an address to an educational conference on excellence in the classroom where the author Anne Fine discussed how to teach reading as “therapy”. But none of these ever really fitted with my own experiences of reading. Suddenly, today, it struck me that all of these are time-bound, it is reading for the “now”. “Let’s talk about why you like this. Now put your books away while we do some Science work”. “Look at this paragraph. Can you see the words that describe the spectrum?” “Turn on your computers. Today, we are going to learn how to make a questionnaire about people’s favourite colours. Here are the Key Features for a form-based text.” “Sometimes when we are sad we say that we are “blue”. Reading often eases pain. Have you felt like this lonely little dragon? Oh yes, you are right, racism makes you feel like that”. And on it goes. But perhaps the finest reader who ever taught me was a young guy from Botswana. He would come back to his reading, days, weeks later, and suddenly say, “Do you remember that word? It has made me feel this…”
Education has become so “time-bound” through teaching that we forget to learn about the hatching of words. Nor Hall, in her wonderful book on feminine ways of knowing, The Moon and the Virgin, would have said that father-civilisation has driven out mother-culture. We forget that words are seeds for germination. And this came into my thoughts recently as I read a “blog” by a man about his father. His father, like mine, valued memorisation. And this too has become another main idea in reading reform in the UK: “reading for memory”. “It is important that you can remember your reading, so let us find a poem and learn it off by heart because that is such a good thing to be able to do.” Why? Father-civilisation uses memory to pass on advice. But mother-culture knows that wise words live in memory because they are life-giving. Reading is not about forcing closed thoughts into memory, but we have examination systems based on just that. Reading is about being gently open to the suggestions in words, so that we come back even years later and see a passage, a poem, a novel suddenly open up around a word felt anew. As I read this man’s sensitive writing about his father (yes, sensitive, capable of sensation and being alive, let's get this right before men run off and hide in their closets) I became aware of two different world views. Here was an African father requiring that his African son knew by heart, of all things, Lincoln’s famous “Letter to his Son’s Teacher”. And here was a son responding from his heart with what he had learnt about the father he loved. Remembering speeches (Father-civilisation) had been transformed into speaking from memory’s land (Mother-culture).
…Oh yes, reading as transformation, as alchemy. Later, having read this honest writing, I returned to James Hollis’s Under Saturn’s Shadow, a penetrating reflection on men, father-pain and warrior-culture. Nine years ago, I had marked a passage for memory:
The feminine is experienced by a man on three levels. He encounters it in the presence of an outer woman and in a gay relationship through the feminine side of the other man. He meets it in his relationship to his own anima. And he encounters it in his relationship…to nature… to the life force in general.
How wrong that passage is! What I had taken as gospel spelled itself out into something more concerned with human goodness. Reading as transformation over time. Firstly, there are four levels. How a man encounters a woman and an implied “feminine” man are not the same thing: two, not one shared level. Secondly, why is “gay” allowed to intrude into that sentence? Why did the author not write this? “A male encounters the Feminine Principle outwardly in a woman. A male encounters the Feminine Principle inwardly in the Anima/Archetypal Feminine Principle of another male.” The first is not sexualised, so why is the second? Just because a man responds to the inwardness of another man, a nature that flows from the other man’s indwelling nature, that response does not become gay. This insertion is really odd given the theme of Hollis’s book: men are afraid to be close because they fear their own warrior natures. It does in fact identify where so much male aggression comes from (as does Hollis elsewhere): a fear of loving likeness. Fathers fear sons and sons fear fathers…insert distance…because of what openness might imply to patriarchy. (Incidentally, the whole of Brokeback Mountain could be read in light of the above passage: two males related to "nature…the life force”; two males un-related to "outer women" and to their "own" inner natures; two men who can only relate sexually because the father-land has damaged them so much. Not a gay love story, but a study of brutal isolation and how humanity is cast into a wilderness). It speaks volumes that my own father wished me to recite his favourite poem, "The Highwayman", as an act of filial bonding, for it represents a masculinity that is aloof, fugitive, a high man wayward on the road of inner life, a thing of Saturn’s night. No less interesting is how Lincoln’s address, though it recommends the love of books, has real anxiety about the feminine:
But do not cuddle him
Because only the test
Of fire makes the fine steel.
There speaks a true patriarch who requires affiliation to his political order…a teacher of reading…not an hermetic learner. Such raises little boys who act big, against whose shadows men take time to grow. And time leaves regrets which have to be healed, though not by time; rather by imaginative reading and writing.