Episode 4

In last week’s episode I told you about the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a story about an eccentric schoolteacher and her loyal coterie of pupils. I also mentioned how I chose this book because it’s a prime example of how impressionable children can be, that is, how easily they can be influenced by others. Now I don’t want to drone on about how good the book is. I know full well that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I should point out that you can see the film version for free on Youtube and see Maggie Smith, the actress of Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fame, playing the part of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s worth watching the first few minutes just to see what Maggie Smith looked like as a much younger woman. 

Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up again, is that the very title of the book contains a very useful, productive word for advanced learners of English. Throughout the novel Jean Brodie reminds her students that they are benefiting from her prime. She repeatedly mentions that she is in her prime, that is that she has reached her maximum potential and strength as a person. What’s so intriguing is that from what we can tell in the book she is approaching middle-age and would have been considered an old maid or spinster back in those days. Being an unmarried woman was a source of shame for many women, and instead of being meek and mild as schoolmistresses were expected to be, Jean Brodie is brash and opinionated. Therein lies her charisma.

I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to share this chunk, namely to be in your prime, because I think it’s an interesting concept. Given that these past two years have been quite trying for the overwhelming majority of people, the idea of being in your prime under these circumstances seems a bit far-fetched. After all, if you’re in your prime you are full of enthusiasm and vitality, you’re healthy and thriving. And quite frankly that seems like a tall order even in the best of times, let alone in a pandemic.

But for some reason I refuse to give up on this idea of being in my prime. Maybe it’s like a mirage in the desert, but if that illusion keeps me going, so be it. As they say, some fictions are helpful. At the beginning of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot there’s a quotation by François de la Rochefoucauld, a 17th-century French writer. 

It goes like this:

“Il y a des gens qui n’auraient jamais été amoureux s’ils n’avaient jamais entendu parler de l’amour.”

Well, that’s the original. Here’s the actual translation that appears in the book: 

“People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” 

It’s funny, because I actually prefer the English version because it’s less tentative than the original French. In French “il y a des gens” means “some people”, whereas in English it’s just “people”, that is, absolutely everyone. What’s more, “être amoureux” means “be in love” not “fall in love”. I suppose some texts improve in translation.  

Anyway, let me try to tie together these loose ends. La Rochefoucauld’s quotation suggests that language can determine our experience of life. Language doesn’t just name our reality, it makes it. It’s a form of magic. It allows us to conjure up things and people which only exist in our mind’s eye.  

So, let’s return to the idea of being in your prime. La Rochefoucauld might’ve said that to be in your prime you first have to hear people talking about being in your prime. I want you to imagine all of the potential that you have and imagine how you can take some small yet meaningful steps towards making that potential a reality in the coming year.

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