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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.

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