The Awakening

Still I’m here
And still confused
But I can finally see how much I stand to lose

from “All These Years” by Mac McAnally;
performed by Sawyer Brown

9/11 woke us up – as attacks do. But I think it also made us rethink the assumptions that had little to do with Islamic terrorism or even the fragility of our society. We stopped and took an accounting. And, like the woman in bed with her lover, we began to realize how much we had to lose. We’d liked some adventure – the frisson we feel as we near the abyss, a daring easier when our lives are secure. “Yes, isn’t that interesting,” we’d say, tempted by the pyrotechnics of the post-modernists, by the fun of contradictory abstractions. But here the similarity with the song disappears, because the adventure was in our minds – we’d left history, human nature, our bodies behind.

The abstract nature of these theories leads to Greyhawk’s disgust with The Awakening. His reaction is mainly implicit, shown by the summary of its text from 500 Great Books by Women:

Her triumph is short-lived, however, destroyed by a society that has no place for a self-determined, unattached woman. Her story is a tragedy and one of many clarion calls in its day to examine the institution of marriage and woman’s opportunities in an oppressive world.

Well, such a description deserves his disdain and Instapundit agrees; they see the problem in terms of responsibility. I used to really dislike the novel. Now, I have more complicated feelings about it; even earlier, I recognized its power. Of course, I would not argue that its confused heroine is tragic. Attractive, even understandable, but, finally, she gives up too easily and remains clueless. The tone of the third person narrator is sometimes confusing. Certainly, our reaction to the artful narrative of her life gives none of the catharsis Aristotle describes. Yes, such an interpretation of Edna’s choices ignore our duties to others. To a career soldier, this surely sounds like whining. But it is her failure to feel her duties that is a sign of her hollow, fragmented self. This 1899 nouvelle, like the same year’s Heart of Darkness deals with twentieth century issues; looking back both seem prescient. This is not, however, a cheerful thought.

The narrator as voyeur, our protagonist solipsistic, mired in doubts, unable to act – this was territory farmed heavily by Henry James but one twentieth century writers returned to again and again. The Awakening works, it seems to me, as a story of absence and fragmentation, an inability to reach maturity as an integrated (and responsible and mature) self. It is no more an answer than The Wasteland or L’Avventura, “Design” or Winter Light. I’m not sure that it is a great novel for teen-agers nor for “girls” as girls. I am sure it defines what becomes modernism. Edna falls apart; she demonstrates her inability to find (develop, define, achieve) a centered self. This is her tragedy – it isn’t society’s, her family’s, her religion’s. But it is also their tragedy – she fails them. They expect little of her and she gives less. She fails because she can neither think nor feel her way out – we might say it is because she lacks some intelligence and some passion, but most of all, she lacks purpose. Others find meaning in family, religion, art, duty. Lest we think I am reading in any more than the commenter Greyhawk quotes, I would point out the plot confirms my interpretation – Chopin’s incidents make such an interpretation silly.  For instance, her marriage is remarkably loose in its demands. Chopin knows that even the happiest of marriages limit us. But a husband who quite cheerfully listens to prattle about the man upon whom his wife lavishes affection, who more grudgingly takes over the duties of running the household, who tactfully takes their children to his mother’s because his wife has so little interest in them, who takes it upon himself to represent the family at her sister’s wedding (a connection she clearly sees as posing no responsibilities for her) – such a man is hardly demanding. Chopin sets her story in the Big Easy – New Orleans may not be Eden but a woman of Edna’s status has considerable freedom. (That this is taught in our schools as a novel of women’s oppression when we are opposed by Al Qaeda is remarkable.)

Then, there is religion. She faints in the church of her husband’s faith and has little interest or patience with the Calvinism of her youth: neither ritual nor theology speak to her. While she retains the status as one man’s wife, she enjoys another’s expertise in bed, and retains a romantic drama in her relationship with yet a third. This is a sign not of independence but fragmentation – as she acknowledges in her final thoughts. Finally (and perhaps most importantly) her death is prompted by her reaction to the great drama of childbirth. What Edna faces is the nature of human experience – we are both alone and a part of a community. Neither separation nor immersion is truly possible, but that is not a tragedy. Her suicide is not the choice of an independent woman but one who has not found herself. As Chopin observes, her choice is of someone who has fallen into the abyss and can’t see a way out. That is not unrepresentative of twentieth century culture. Her problem was less that too much was asked of her than that too little was.

But this solipsism, this hesitation, this self-conscious, hyperconsciousness has had consequences on the frame through which many view Iraq. Back here, we hoped progress was being made. At times we doubted it. Unlike most of my fellow Chicagoboyz, I have little context of military history or even military strategy. I was (am) sure, however, that losing would be tragic. That is, an Iraq that is feeling its way toward defining itself in terms of transparency, the rule of law, toleration of sects, religion, the press, assemblies would be a good thing – for them, for their neighbors, for us. We can hope that Bush has found his Grant and that Petreaus’ report – likely to be mixed but positive – will demonstrate how this is so. This is credited with changing poll numbers. Americans are little different from anyone else – we like to win. We aren’t too crazy about losing. And we aren’t all that fond of lost causes.

But it may be something else as well. The turn in the polls may also have coincided with the sense that some of those running for president weren’t all that serious about the war and that perhaps the least we should ask from a Commander in Chief is seriousness.

If the news, increasingly good and increasingly specific, has cheered us, I suspect we are ready to hear it because we’ve also begun to realize what pulling out of Iraq might mean – not that reporters ask that question all that often of those who argue for withdrawal. Some politicians seem to have little trouble with another kind of abyss – less philosophical than real. Barack Obama tells us that staying in Iraq can not be justified by the genocide that will follow our departure. Kerry, too, sees this as the right choice. Certainly the Kos Kids do. And if our question is seldom asked it is even more seldom addressed. What follows, they imply, is none of our business. And, besides, it is Bush’s war. Well, we can all acknowledge that Bush is not likely to die as other Americans will in a raid on a safe house today in Iraq nor is Bush likely to die in the genocide that will follow. But, of course, neither will the Kos Kids. It is responsibility that those like Greyhawk are assuming and it is responsibility that keeps those consequences in mind.

Being anti-war may be a moral position and is certainly defensible. However, even if we assume the good faith of an anti-war warrior (and that does not include those who wear Che Guevera t-shirts), that position is not the only moral one. Others take a different positions on grounds they consider moral. More people were killed throughout the twentieth century from democide than in war. That simple and stark fact is one we can’t repeat enough, can’t try to come to terms with enough. As superficial as Barack Obama may appear, he is right to point out that the United States seldom intervenes in such places. We seldom break down the door of our neighbor, even if we suspect those cries from his wife indicate he’s beating her. We respect the privacy of a family’s domicile and the sanctity of a state’s boundaries. So, democide continues.

Nonetheless, that that means we should not remain in Iraq is a less powerful argument. For one thing, we are in Iraq. That increases our responsibility. We went in knowing that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and that he was interested in financing terrorists – encouraging democide throughout the Middle East. He had invaded Kuwait; the war with us over that invasion had resulted in an insufficient commitment on our part to those who were against him – so we had a greater responsibility than for those in other places. And our commitment had led to a situation that could not last forever – the flyovers by our air force and the deaths the food for oil program were claimed to cause. But if we have any doubts of what will follow, this week’s ethnic cleansing of a marginalized group demonstrates Al Qaeda’s ambitions.

Barack Obama’s position is one we recognize from modernism – a voyeur who sees himself as moral, indeed, too moral to act. Well, maybe. But such a purity is an absence rather than a presence and part of what is absent is the virtue of consciousness of others. He may want to discuss Darfur, but our troops are right now in Iraq. Henry James implied in work after work that the role of voyeur was seductive to modern self-conscious man; this is the position in which a narrative voice is likely to be more subtle and aware. I suspect it was how James saw himself. But he was no fool; he repeatedly demonstrates that that position is empty in terms of morality. So, some, recognizing the evils of democide as others did of slavery a hundred and fifty years earlier, gird for battle sure that it is purposeful.

And an anti-war position implies life is the highest commitment. Of course, that position, given the rates of democide, is hardly defensible. But, in general, life trumps about everything. But I’m not sure it does all. Our acts can also come from a larger commitment – a belief that some ways of living are worse than death – or in a more positive vein, some ways of living are so important to the happiness and well-being of the next generation that deaths in this generation may be purposefully sacrificed to ensure our society’s stability. I think we forgot how much history has shaped our way of life, the peace and order of our existence. When people in my Sunday School class can argue that “Thou shalt not steal” means that we should not have private ownership of property, I suspect some did, indeed, sleep through the twentieth century – but that was possible because no one really believed that all property was theft and that, therefore, these comfortable people in their comfortable houses were likely to be invaded and their belongings thrown out on the street. The core of the rule of law that establishes the kind of society we want for our children has lost its meaning by its very stability. Even as it permeates our lives, we take it for granted. But, like the wife in the song, we can look around and begin to realize how much we have to lose.

We ignored history, even mocked a culture that had corralled human nature – not without its flaws, but strong enough to keep our lives generally peaceful. We knew we were a violent and passionate species, but we forgot. Murders became the subject of formulaic art. We thought our bodies didn’t dictate to our wills but our wills to our bodies – we could decide, we thought. And raised in a society that spoke of so many rights, we began to think we had the “right” to – well, the right to willfully do as we wished. When Jefferson spoke of the “right to pursue happiness” he meant fulfillment. This was no usurious call to pleasure but rather a right to develop our talents within a society. When Franklin spoke of felicity, it was because he longed to be of use to others – to fulfill himself by fulfilling his role in his society. These were old enlightenment ideas and they permeate the vision of rights we have inherited.

But in our post-romantic century, our individualism was more will-oriented, less social. The concept of a “right to die” would, I suspect, be foreign to most generations and in most places. After all, it isn’t like death itself is some choice. We thought we had the right to decide our fates, to choose our gender, to remodel our faces. Some of this thinking has clearly had positive consequences. (Dying among family is preferable to dying among tubes; human biology and gender are complicated and sometimes a helping hand can integrate the public and private self; plastic surgery has liberated many.) But we believed we’d transcended human nature. Our bodies were increasingly understood, but such familiarity bred contempt. Remarkably, we had thought – prompted by sociologists and the Long Peace, by postmodernism and the rather sloppy and atomized form education was taking – that we were outside history. Certainly, history and literature were being taught in increasingly narrow and arbitrary segments, so students had little of that sense of continuity that comes from broad surveys. And I think we had lost some sense of urgency. But we were living out our lives in one of the most transparent of nations. Our history, our expectations arose from a remarkably static history in such terms as land ownership, free markets, rights to publish, speak, congregate, worship. Europe thinks of us as “new” – but that ignores the centuries of stability the rule of law and open marketplace of ideas produced.

Confidently, theorists would speak of the racism of Joseph Conrad or the sexism of Shakespeare as if the speakers were outside history, unaffected by their own transitory (and ahistorical) communities. They were confident of the truth of their new insights. (Their insights were, of course, old – every generation doubts the real, doubts the ideal, doubts history.) But they thought (as each generation does and none more than those on the romantic swing of the pendulum) that the territory they surveyed was new and that there was no way back to the old perspective. Human nature had not been a steady universal through the ages but they saw differences – of course, most generations think they are unique, most generations suffer from hubris. Modern critics felt they could judge from lofty heights the failings of earlier generations; they also seemed to imply future generations would stand where they did. When T. S. Eliot talked about the feeling of tradition in their bones, they didn’t quite understand – to them, there was no tradition.

In graduate school, a somewhat older friend remarked that my desire to have children was socially conditioned. She knew this, she said, because she had no such desire. That this is true of some women is without doubt true. I suspect we need to factor in another influence, however, and not a common one: her mother, because of a major physical anomaly, had throughout my friend’s childhood regularly conceived and gestated babies who died at birth. She didn’t feel that those memories affected her, led her to associate those disappointments with childbirth. Thirty years later, a friend of my husband’s remarked on the artificiality of a sense of place. Well, maybe. And of course the fact that I’d grown up in the same small town my ancestors had helped define a hundred and fifty years ago might make such feelings socially constructed. However, this rather common affection and allegiance to place might be more common than his, and his might well be conditioned by the unusual nature of his own experience – he was an Air Force brat who had moved over twenty times during his school years. The beliefs that our gender is socially determined might seem extreme, but these two demonstrate how such beliefs influenced what we saw as “real.”

Those ideas linger. We hear them in our friends’ thoughts and in much of the teaching that continues in grad schools. Lately, a young colleague, still in grad school, felt himself reading cutting edge Levi-Strauss; he told me there was no human nature. I asked what he thought of Donald E. Brown’s list (though we don’t need that list, we have literature). Still, he looked at me blankly. It seems to me we’ve moved on from the fifties’ structuralism, but some haven’t – they’ve staked their lives and reputations and their beliefs on the arbitrary nature of our identity. And that is what they teach as well. Some see class, some see ethnicity, but all emphasize isolates, set apart in time and space. And such people, looking at a woman in the Big Easy who faints at church and turns from birth, believe such a woman is oppressed by the power of her bourgeoisie culture. The nineteenth century romanticism of Thoreau and Whitman, Emerson and Douglass spoke of the great I – but each saw himself as representative, as describing and representing a human nature and human consciousness we all shared. If Hawthorne and Melville had some doubts about such an approach, they shared a sense of the universality – the humanity – of our responses.

Over coffee with friends who were quite religious, one of my husband’s colleagues explained to a high school student the nature of truth as he saw it – the fact of meaninglessness, of contingency. He clearly felt he was preparing her for college, opening her mind, saving her from the pitfalls of naivete. (She was going to Baylor, so I’m not sure how necessary such sophistication was likely to prove.) What was remarkable was that he so clearly saw himself as outside history – there was no possible path beyond the spot where he stood. He did not see himself as the product of a certain milieu at a certain time – he assumed his was the correct perspective. Hyper and a bit irritated (I don’t think he had much sense of his audience), I told him that I thought what he was saying was old – we’d gone beyond that. The pendulum that swings back and forth had started back from his position, at (I picked out of the air an arbitrary date I didn’t believe at the time) 1985. Now, we see differently.

He registered disbelief, even if he was too polite to counter that my comment was the confrontational bullshit we both knew it was. He teaches film as well as literature. So I remembered that talk when I saw Podhoretz’s grudging obituary (and inappropriately grudging, it still seems to me) of Bergman and his remark that Bergman’s last full-length movie was in 1982, a year that may have signaled a point from which Bergman’s cool slepticism no longer held sway. It seems to me that a change may well have occurred in the eighties, but it took us another twenty years to realize it, to wake up.

A few years ago, that devastation in New York shook me (and many others) out of our sleep and made us examine our beliefs. But it was not effective for all, especially those for whom the old beliefs still make sense, those who had invested long careers in such theories.  Not surprisingly, my husband’s colleague firmly believes Bush is stupid, an egotistical cowboy pursuing a course defined by old fashioned vices. He thinks Bush just doesn’t understand we are beyond all that. All that, apparently, includes sense of place, passion, violence, desire to reproduce – our bodies and our history. (Years ago, I remember him positing that he and his friend could be like Michael Jordan if only their minds were in his body – I was struck by how much he saw the mind and body opposed, how little he saw the body influencing the mind.  He dismisses Pinker and jokes about the “war”, putting the word in quotation marks as he does so much else in his criticism. Global politics, though, is not as he thought in his youth – indeed, was not, I suspect, then as he thought it. He admires a communism he still doesn’t see, whose consequences demonstrated over and over again its lack of understanding of what being human is.  Human nature doesn’t change; its expression – in technology and beliefs – does. He can put quotes around war; that’s okay with me. I just wish his cynicism were in touch with reality.

History might show us that wars contain many variables and even the winners suffer from many mistakes. Even a minor distance might make us consider that why a war is fought needs to be considered as much as the success of any one battle. And a sense of what loss might mean should have weight. But, a lot of people hit the snooze button. And they are really, really pissed – as I am, when someone keeps waking me up and I want to go back to sleep. They want to think it all has to do with Bush. Well, it doesn’t. That delusion would be more obviously false if we had a stronger historical sense. But I suspect it would also be more obviously false if in those little trips to the abyss the importance of history and  biology hadn’t been left behind.

9/11 was a moment when it was brought home to us all too strongly that human nature hasn’t changed. For a moment, it even brought us together in a sense of violation and a sense of sympathy. But that receded quickly as some realized how much they had to lose by acknowledging that universality, that sympathy, and that physical, rock-solid, responsibility. Of course, it was hard for a week or two to argue that violence is the result of capitalism; we sensed that this, too, was man’s nature. Some of the anger and energy is the result of having to keep up defenses to still believe Levi-Strauss is cutting edge.

And I think the real thought of pulling out of Iraq, the real thought that genocide is likely to follow is another wake-up call. We may not be able to win this – but if reporters more often posed the question of what happens next, I suspect more voters (and more politicians) would take the responsibility Greyhawk finds so lacking in The Awakening – one that those who read that book and come up with such a summary do not understand. Edna is a wife, a mother, a friend – these are connections and these are responsibilities. We understand that the exercise of our wills is restrained by our communal life – and that is a good thing. Edna is not tragic because she finds no meaning. She is unfinished, fragmented. She is not oppressed by what is expected of her but rather what her relatively easy life doesn’t expect of her.  Maturity is a pulling together those pieces, establishing an identity, accepting a responsibility. We are responsible for what comes next in Iraq – not the only ones responsible, of course. But that doesn’t mean the next president can wave airily and say, well, that was Bush’s war. Nor does a president’s responsibility end at the country’s shores. We are, after all, a superpower. We may pretend we aren’t, but we are.

(And we and their own people need to hold the Iraqi politicians responsible. Defining who they are is not something we could do even if we wanted to. But our patience should not be short. We were birthed by people who had a long understanding of the rule of law. And the Articles of Confederation worked for a while, but not long. The Constitution was not easily written. Perhaps what we need to remember most is that many people said “The United States are” until a bloody civil war forged us into a people who say “The United States is.)

2 thoughts on “The Awakening”

  1. Arthur Koestler, in Darkness at Noon:

    “The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced—and the Party demanded
    that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course.”

    Sounds like the people you’re talking about believe that everybody *else* is part of the clockwork…whereas *they* are somehow able to stand outside the mechanism and observe its functioning.

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