Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions"

"I did not think it worth while to get up in the morning. What could I do but offend God?"
-- from Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions"

Influenced by PBS's Mercy Street, I first intended to read Florence Nightingale's "Cassandra," but then realized it was just an essay, so not really Classics Club material. That led me to this curious volume,credited to Michael D. Calabria, who edited the material, and contextualizes Nightinale's diary with historical and biographical information, along with plenty of excerpts from her letters from Egypt, Greece, and parts of Europe. Those are much more descriptive, and I almost thought I should be reading them instead, but they apparently don't do much to illuminate her inner feelings, which are the focus of her more personal writing.

In 1850, the time of the travels recorded here, she had not definitively embarked on her famous nursing career, and she struggles both with obvious depression over her life, and with determining the will of God for her future. Although she seems to have a mystical temperament, it's still balanced by an unflaggingly practical side: she makes notes about the cook and a tour guide, and then adds "Settled the question with God," as if it's something on her to-do list (46).

It's delightful to see her quick entries about her "dreadful fights with Trout" (25). Trout was her servant on the trip, with whom Nightingale did NOT seem to get along; later though, when Trout has been ill, she'll say she "found the prospect of having that wretched woman ... to nurse cheer me up suddenly" (31) -- probably proving how close she was to finding her permanent vocation.

The diary entries are appended by two pieces of fanciful philosophical writing, a brief "Greek Vision," and the "Vision of Temples," in which she imagines the creation of six real Egyptian temples, and the reaction of an immortal God-figure to them. Each temple represents a different way of approaching God, or a different theological style (one more dedicated to a show of wealth and magnificence, for example, and one to the worship of Nature).

There's a lot of interesting material in this short piece. For example, she says that God "has given them (humanity) to create with toil and trouble, that they might have the satisfaction of thinking, 'I have done this,' " (125) -- an explanation for the hardship of life with roots in psychology. And the poetic reverie that "Night is the genesis of all things; primeval darkness is the mother of the world, for darkness is more ancient than light, and day was born of night" (126). I'll be quoting that, somewhere.

Nightingale posits the correct approach as one that accepts the existence of evil, with "the two spirits of God, Good and Evil" (129), and sees her God as "the great Unknown, the Unutterable, the Infinite Himself ... I will build a temple ... mysterious as the future, and vast as the past; yet it shall be the symbol of a day ... that my people may know that upon the hours of a day are laid the destinies of man" (128). After all her spiritual angst, she comes to a place that combines the Infinite with the small measures of human time, where she'd find the work she believed in.

Calabria, Michael D.  Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions." Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.

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