It might seem a modest ambition: to make less harm than good. Some will find it wholly inadequate. How can accomplishment come from merely doing less harm than good? I wonder myself sometimes. Progress is inadequately counted by dollars. Accomplishment is so often measured in influence, in having our way, in strength over others. Humility is not much appreciated these days. Assertiveness is attractive, and I have been assertive in my day, goodness knows. Goodness used to be measured in other ways, yet some days I aspire to modesty of effect. The desire to leave light prints upon the earth, to dance away without selfish pride, rest without sloth, find joy without avarice, change without harm, accomplishment without making losers of others. Not quite the deadly sins or heavenly virtues, but closer there. Closer to virtue.
This month is Camp NaNo and my commitment is to the modest goal of writing 31 hours in 31 days. Of three possible possible projects—summarize the novel, complete the post-apocalyptic story, write the textbook on teaching writing—the textbook seems to be my focus.
There is a story that George Eliot wrote Silas Marner while avoiding work on the much longer novel Romola. Romola was hailed in her day as a masterpiece, though few read it today. It is based, I believe, on the life of the painter Artemesia Gentileschi. I have read three books about her. I have read Silas Marner three times. I have not yet managed to complete Romola. Wikipedia claims the novel “was based on the life of the Italian priest Girolamo Savonarola.” Perhaps.
According to Wikipedia: “Contemporary and modern critics have questioned the likelihood of the level of scholarship attributed to women such as Romola in Renaissance Italy,” but Gentileschi became an accomplished and celebrated painter at a time when women were not allowed to paint, in the seventeenth century. She was “an Italian Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio. In an era when female painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community or patrons, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence and had international clientele.” Though I personally admire her life more than any paintings from that period, I am always surprised and annoyed to read the painter discussed as if her life and not her painting mattered most.
Eliot lived in Italy, would have seen Gentileschi’s work, perhaps have heard the dramatic story of her rape and revenge through painting religious subjects, placing her violator’s head under Judith’s dagger. She asserted herself in a period when women were expected to remain in the background. She was educated. She was strong.
The connection between Eliot’s fictional character and this historical woman seems to me irrefutable, though I have not completed the research to know if I am correct, to argue my thesis as I should. There was a time when I considered pursuing a PhD. This would certainly have been my thesis topic.
In another life, I might have done that. Does anyone in their late 60s pursue a degree in order to prove a point? Pause. Remind myself of humility. [And, as I now understand from reading Romola, I would be incorrect.]