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Birds of a feather

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Among the pleasures of reading a good book is reliving the pleasures of other wonderful texts it evokes.  Among the pleasures of reading The Age of Innocence was the breadth of references it summoned.  More than a hundred years -- and a gulf of sensibilities, aesthetics and styles of humor -- separate the two that resonate most deeply for me: Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and Stephen Dobyns' "Spiritual Chickens." 

Wharton's novel owes so much (including its protagonist's last name) to James' Portrait that mentioning the debt borders on pedantry.  Wharton would likely be so appalled by Dobyns that the connection risks absurdity.  And yet the two references serve to reinforce the same idea: that our choices about how to engage with the multi-layered nature of reality (to perceive, to deny) define us.

In Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer takes the measure of unyielding reality in a scene when she sits thinking long into the night.  She has deluded herself into marrying the wrong man.  She sees through her illusions to the unpleasant substance of her husband Osmond's personality.  She realizes also an intimacy between Osmond and a family friend, Madame Merle, who introduced them.  The sleep-deprived and hermetic intensity of her thought succeeds in disturbing the surface of her reality and rearranges the relations between herself, Osmond and Merle.  Although Isabel is not ready to articulate her newfound understanding to herself, she comprehends that Merle and Osmond are collaborators in some manipulation against her.

The scene finds its parallel in The Age of Innocence when Newland Archer hosts the first formal dinner of his marriage to mark the occasion of the departure of the love his life, Madame Ellen Olenska.  Newland has been blindsided by Ellen's announcement of her return to Europe, and he is barely functional:

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated where between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless looking [dinner guests] . . . as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right [Ellen] as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers . . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything . . . .
Like Isabel Archer, Newland Archer arrives at this moment of revelation after a process of delusion.  Unable to possess Ellen Olenska physically and share his intellectual and emotional intimacies with her in the course of quotidian living,

he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings.  Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions.  Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absentminded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.  Absent -- that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
This habit of absenteeism reaches its apotheosis at book's end, when Newland Archer opts not to meet Ellen Olenska again, after 27 years.  "'It's more real to me here [on a bench outside her flat] than if I went up [to meet her]', he suddenly heard himself say."

In this behaviour, Newland Archer anticipates the unnamed protagonist of Stephen Dobyns' brilliant poem, "Spiritual Chickens."  Confronted by a chicken he has eaten seven years ago, a chicken returned to the earthly plain because of overcrowding on the spiritual one, a man "runs out of his house / flapping his arms and making peculiar hops."

Faced with the choice between something odd
in the world or something broken in his head,
he opts for the broken head.  Certainly,
this is safer than putting his opinions
in jeopardy.
. . . .
As it is he is constantly being squeezed
between the world and his idea of the world.
Better to have a broken head -- why surrender
his corner on truth? -- better to just go crazy.
Sadly for Newland Archer, he's not as interesting as Dobyns' protagonist.  He has opted to go AWOL instead of crazy, abandoned his life instead of cracking it.  But the fault runs along the same line: cowardice.

A little more than a hundred and thirty years ago, Henry James set out to tell the story of a woman colliding with her destiny; today we might describe her less grandiosely, as a woman "constantly being squeezed / between the world and [her] idea of the world."  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: however worded, the situation remains the crucible of our character, and the measure of our worth.  Embrace of the depths of reality yields the only guaranteed rewards of this existence ("the flower of life" in Wharton's words); avoidance reaps failure.      

And The Age of Innocence?  By providing the opportunity to draw a line between Isabel Archer's gloomy insomnia and Stephen Dobyns' delightful ghost chicken, the harvest has been sheer pleasure. 

Image of Edith Wharton from The New York Times website; image of Henry James from New York University website.

Decency above courage

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Moralizing around Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is difficult to resist.  The book's unsatisfying resolution defies attempts to file it away under "well-constructed story about the age-old conflict between individual self-realization and familial constraint."  Wharton makes so concrete Newland Archer's sacrifice of the love of his life, Ellen Olenska, that the mind demands some purpose to redeem the carnage that has deprived Newland Archer of "the flower of life."  The affront of the novel's conclusion begs the question: what is the meaning of this? 

Closing the book and musing on what I had learned, I was most immediately struck by how The Age of Innocence illustrates that courage is not so much a quality as a discipline.  Without practice, a person cannot exercise it.

In giving up Olenska, Archer capitulates to "the old New York way" of placing "decency above courage."  Decency arises from the discharge of duties, and duties in turn convey dignity: as Wharton explains, Archer's two-and-a-half decade marriage "had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty." 

Dignity, of course, is necessary for human happiness and the realization of individual potential.  But the dignity deriving from duty, though critical for social stability and integral to moral engagement with one's family and community, is not without its drawbacks: "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else." 

Specifically, it "unfits" one for acts of courage: by the novel's last page, Archer cannot face meeting Olenska again; cannot face his emotions so long under wraps ("He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime"); cannot face modernity ("Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough"); cannot face reality ("It's more real to me here than if I went up [to meet her]"). 

The dignity of duty is necessary, but not sufficient, for a fully lived life.

Of course, in the choice between courage and decency, dignity is a common element: it flows as much from acts of bravery as from the discharge of duty.  The difference arises elsewhere.  Courage is a more destabilizing value to cultivate: courageous people are much more difficult to control than decent ones.  But courage is also more nourishing than decency: courageous people have a much better chance both of attaining "the flower of life" and of simultaneously being good people. 

Ellen Olenska herself demonstrates this possibility.  She is courageous: defying social convention, and at personal and financial loss, she leaves her husband.  She tries to establish a satisfying life in New York, and (again, flouting conventions) she negotiates various degrees of independence (physically and geographically, though not financially) from her family, who find her difficult to control.  She is, at the same time, a woman bound by duties: she undertakes the care of her aunt, Medora (who had raised her), and she refuses any betrayal of her cousin, May Welland, despite her love of May's husband, Newland Archer.  When May manipulatively reveals that she is pregnant, Ellen abandons her efforts at living in the United States and retreats to Europe so as to snuff any possibility that she and Newland can consummate their love.

Although Ellen Olenska's flight snaps the bud of Newland Archer's life before it can bloom, she herself is not so disabled.  He has lost the love of his life and spends the next twenty-six years in a tomb ("a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on [Newland Archer] like the doors of the family vault"). 

The indicators suggest that her fate is otherwise.  She has suffered a grievous loss, certainly; but her balance of courage, dignity and duty have enabled her to enjoy a full life before Newland Archer (one enriched perhaps more by pain than joy, but she has known ecstasy as well), and she will continue to do so after Newland Archer.  

Courage has fitted her for life.

Image of Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's film version of The Age of Innocence from Gonemovie.com.

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