As you got older, and felt yourself to be at the centre of your time, and not at a point in its circumference, as you had felt when you were little, you were seized with a sort of shuddering, he perceived. All around you there seemed to be something glaring, garish, rattling, and the noises and glares hit upon the little cell called your life, and shook it, and warped it.
– Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
I remember watching and only vaguely understanding a TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure in the early 1970s. The unsettling title has stuck with me and I recently had the chance to refresh those puzzled early memories by reading the book itself. In typical Hardy fashion it is a difficult world with characters driven by passion and fate to less-than-delightful ends. But I think it is an instructive tale and I want to explore how my own dialogue with the plot and setting helps me to understand and sharpen my own purpose and sense of place in the world.
The story focuses on Jude Fawley’s relationships with two women who represent the conflicting poles in his life: Arabella Donn (the daughter of a pig farmer who constantly calls to my mind the fleshy and entrapping energies of the Odyssey‘s Circe) and Sue Bridehead (Jude’s cousin, an ethereal creature who is a projection of his higher aspirations). The novel is a lengthy explication of Jude’s not-very-successful struggle to negotiate these opposing forces.
This struggle is also represented by the landscape through which Jude moves. Simply put, the novel maps out his journey from the town of Marygreen, where we first meet the boy Jude full of his youthful scholarly ambition, to the university town of Christminster, a place that he returns to repeatedly as he struggles to bring that ambition to fruition. Christminster (which, like all of Hardy’s locations, represents a real place – in this case Oxford) is full of medieval spires and colleges behind forbidding walls; Marygreen is pastoral and unsophisticated and almost indistinguishable from the earth itself. It’s the contrast between these two primary places, the place of beginning and place of ending, that captures my imagination and feeds the building of my own sacred world in resonance with Hardy’s.
What I find myself asking as I consider these poles is: where is my Christminster: the place of worldly success and sophistication that (as I imagine it) I will find calling, recognition, satisfaction? Where is my Marygreen, that part of myself in my naturalness of which I am somewhat ashamed? What has been the story of my journey(s) between these places? Like Jude I have had aspirations to academic study, and I have come across circumstantial limitations, mostly within myself, that have taken me in more practical directions (my stonemasonry is technology program management). In fact with this blog, and particularly writing about poetry and literature, there’s a bit of Christminster-ish energy – both the draw and the limitations of the ivory tower archetype that I am seeking to come to terms with.
And then I ask: what does this character Jude have to teach me about the relationships between these aspects of my life? “Obscure” is such a delicious adjective–it captures Jude’s hiddenness, his inability to make himself seen and known, and above all his confusion in relation to himself. Boggled and twisted by the demands of the people around him (particularly those two women!), he is a plaything of fate (well, it’s a Hardy novel – why wouldn’t he be?).
I’m becoming increasingly fierce about the role of intention in life: this comes to me from a variety of sources–including my encounter with American transcendentalism via Religious Science and its ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a few years ago–but also and most emphatically from my work with shamanism. I’ve heard it said that shamanism is really about just two things: intention and trust. So I am inclined to say that my own obscurity is fading and being replaced by purpose and a sense of agency. I am glad for that!
But in another way Obscure Jude is inspiring to me. Yes, he is beaten down (so very beaten down) by fate. And yet, even with his exquisite sensitivity and his profound disappointments he displays a remarkable calmness, an even keel. He accepts what life gives him. This is a characteristic that I can learn from.
I don’t think it’s an accident that Hardy named his character Jude, after the patron saint of lost causes. So I can hold this shining figure of Jude Fawley in my mind when I lose my way between Marygreen and Christminster; like Jude, I can accept myself in my own obscurity and live into the rich reality of my destiny, even when it seems to make no sense at all.