Gabriel Oak is the central character in Thomas Hardy’s “Far From The Madding Crowd.” The man is a man of his time: a shepherd who aspires to be a farmer in his own right. No mean attainment then, no mean attainment today. If you have read the work, you will know that it does not go well for Oak, and on losing his flock he is left nearly penniless.
The hiring fair at Casterbridge – Hardy’s name for Dorchester, if I remember correctly – is where any jobbing man might find work. The shepherds have their crooks, the cowherds a switch of ash, the tools by which they show their trade. For this was a time when activities appropriate to the pre-industrial, mediaeval times were still at large. The effects of modernity were yet to have any real effect on hammering the proletariat. Our current time requires the human to think for themselves, and if they do not, they will be punished severely. Not by God, not by circumstances, but by each other’s greed.
For all his being a shepherd, Gabriel – for he is such a friendly and genuine character that only the stiffest academic could call him by his family name, ‘Oak’. Those who saw him as their superior might do so too, which in many ways he certainly was to the average farm worker of the mid nineteenth century. The book being set at the time when the industrial revolution was just about to take hold of the countryside: the time when farmers were waking up to the possibilities this brought them.
For all Gabriel’s being a shepherd, he was a very modern shepherd. He has the gentleness, patience and humility that the truest husbandmen exude, yet he has some book learning too. In an age where many still could not read, a shelf full of books was a rare thing for a shepherd to aspire to – leave alone possess. Gabriel would spend his dark evenings with a lamp and a book, where many would sit and simply watch the fire in silence. It was James Wight (writing as James Herriot) who spoke of country folk who, on long winter evenings, would sit comfortably in front of the fire for hours on end. Eventually they would turn to go to bed. For them, reading a book would have been unthinkable. But Wight was writing about people a hundred years later than Hardy. Rudolf Steiner speaks about how the farm worker would reflect on his day by watching the flames of the fire dance of an evening. In this respect, Gabriel is very much a modern shepherd, for his reflections are twofold: those of the new ideas gained from his reading, and his reflections on his own activities during the day.
It is Gabriel who has the touch of a master. I can say this, for I am a master myself and know what it takes in order to be one. The point here is that if Hardy was to be able to depict a master, he would have to be one himself. If you are going to recognize the master, you need the qualities that go to make one. Because mastership today demands a great deal more than it did in the past. It is true that one must master a skill, in Hardy’s case, it was building construction; in my own it was woodwork and in Gabriel’s case, sheep. That is the requirement of the past; characterized by the Guilds that in Britain at least, still hold some sway in the indenturing of apprentices. The master in our modern times must, however, be more than just a skilled man who can teach the upcoming generation. If there was one thing that to me characterizes the master in our time, and it is their complaint: ‘nobody listens to me!’ How many times have I heard this? These people are so willing to share what they know – a sure sign that their consciousness soul is well developed – yet they are surrounded by those who have no interest.
Put two masters together – and be one a weaver and the other a diesel mechanic – and they will find something to talk about. For the true master is as good a listener as they are a speaker. As mentioned, this is not enough, for they still need to meet the requirements of the mediaeval age, in that they need to have attained a mastery of one specific craft.
But it is this ability to talk and share with other masters that gives the modern master a very real advantage over their cantankerous, irritable ‘mediaeval’ brethren. It is the fact that such people can put their hand to anything. If another master should describe something to them, they will not only imagine it, they will have the delicacy in their hands to enact it in reality.
It was Hardy’s writing about shepherding that made me think of his being a representative of the master in the modern sense. For he speaks of shepherding as though he were a true shepherd himself. I will let him explain:
“Sixty!” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“Seventy! said Moon.
“Fifty-nine!” said Susan Tall’s husband.
“Sheep have broke fence,” said Fray.
“And got into a field of young clover,” said Tall.
“Young clover!” said Moon.
“Clover!” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“And they be getting blasted,” said Henery Fray.
“That they be,” said Joseph.
“And will all die as dead as nits, if they baint got out and cured!” said Tall.
Which is where we learn the operation that must be done in order to cure the animals:
“Oh, what can I do, what can I do!” said Bathsheba, helplessly. “Sheep are such unfortunate animals! — there’s always something happening to them! I never knew a flock pass a year without getting into some scrape or other.”
“There’s only one way of saving them,” said Tall.
“What way? Tell me quick!”
“They must be pierced in the side with a thing made on purpose.”
“Can you do it? Can I?”
“No, ma’am. We can’t, nor you neither. It must be done in a particular spot. If ye go to the right or left but an inch you stab the ewe and kill her. Not even a shepherd can do it, as a rule.”
“Then they must die,” she said, in a resigned tone.
“Only one man in the neighbourhood knows the way,” said Joseph, now just come up. “He could cure ’em all if he were here.”
“Who is he? Let’s get him!”
“Shepherd Oak,” said Matthew. “Ah, he’s a clever man in talents!”
“Ah, that he is so!” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“True — he’s the man,” said Laban Tall.
So here we have a builder talking about expert shepherding. Well, no ordinary builder, it has to be said. A man who was a builder in the way Goethe was a gardener. Hardy was a man who would have spent his evenings speaking with the common man, only to discover that the unshaven creature with a crooked briar pipe and battered felt hat was a man with as active a mind as himself. Active minds added to nimble fingers would be able to discern the exactness of the point where the tracheotomy must be executed, even if that active mind was the active mind of a builder — and not that of a shepherd.
Gabriel was already among the turgid prostrate forms. He had flung off his coat, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and taken from his pocket the instrument of salvation. It was a small tube or trochar, with a lance passing down the inside; and Gabriel began to use it with a dexterity that would have graced a hospital-surgeon. Passing his hand over the sheep’s left flank, and selecting the proper point, he punctured the skin and rumen with the lance as it stood in the tube; then he suddenly withdrew the lance, retaining the tube in its place. A current of air rushed up the tube, forcibly enough to have extinguished a candle held at the orifice.
It has been said that mere ease after torment is delight for a time; and the countenances of these poor creatures expressed it now. Forty-nine operations were successfully performed. Owing to the great hurry necessitated by the far-gone state of some of the flock, Gabriel missed his aim in one case, and in one only — striking wide of the mark, and inflicting a mortal blow at once upon the suffering ewe.
It is perhaps that which makes the modern master: it is their ability to be, to twist an old adage spoken about jolly Jack the seaman: “he be a Jack of all trades, but master of one.” Indeed, one might speak of a man like Hardy as being a master of all trades. Builder, poet, writer… shepherd? All it needs is for the expert to share his knowledge with a man like Hardy and the keen mind and agile fingers will execute the required movements as though he had been doing it all his life.
There are those of you who read this who might imagine that I am writing wide of the mark, so to speak. That is to say, speaking of Hardy being able to do things that he in fact could not.
But a man like Hardy could not have written in the manner that he did, had he not been able to at least comprehend the nature of the required operation. That comprehension in itself puts Hardy above the ordinary soul, for as he suggests in the dialogue, it was an operation that few skilled shepherds would dare approach. My experience is that if a man can describe something with the accuracy that Hardy describes the operation, that man has the talent resting in his fingers that would discern that exact point on the sheep’s flank where the tracheotomy was to be performed.
That is to say, if a man be a master, a true master, they will also listen. They are wise enough to listen to all who come near, and will only stop doing so when that other has clearly indicated that they will go no further. It must be clearly understood that if a person puts up a barrier of any kind to a conversation, it is a demonstration that they are not a master in the modern sense — and never will be. The modern master, like Hardy, is someone who gives their time to others and in doing so, will learn something from them. But they can only do so because they give that time freely. But then, they can only listen because they have learned a trade for themselves.
All these things tie together: the conceptual capacity of the mind to form images is formed through the execution of their duties as a craftsman. This, in the case of the truest modern master, is impelled further by their love of what they do and who they do it for. As such, their mastery is channelled through their entire being and there is no part of them where it is wanting. You need only meet it at one point for the whole to be visible.
If, that is, you are a modern master yourself.
Other Parts In This Series:
Part 2: Thomas Hardy and Friedrich Nietzsche. (Published privately).
Part 3: Thomas Hardy’s Good Shepherd.
Please note that privately published posts are available to trusted friends without cost. The content is not intended for the general public and is restricted to those who can demonstrate that they understand the nature – and implications of – Rudolf Steiner’s scientific thinking. It is not for the unready.
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