Thursday, June 14, 2007

# 84 The Death of the Heart – Elizabeth Bowen

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Alexander Pope wrote and the centathlete affirmed through his own dubious example.

While touring western Ireland the centathlete stopped at a B & B in
The Burren, the timeless, rocky region of County Clare. Taking an introductory stroll down the lane, he met a gray-haired woman tending to her bushes. Greetings were exchanged and the gardener issued a welcome and a wish to enjoy the local flora. The centathlete responded with a recap of his travels through Celtic hamlets, across peat bogs, and up The Reek, where St. Patrick meditated. Then, as he was brimming with a tourist’s freshly acquired pack of historical facts, he impulsively sought to emphasize the formidable history of his own hometown, Huntington, NY, founded in 1653 and named in honor of Oliver Cromwell.

The gardener met this information blankly, reiterated her wish, and returned to her pruning. An indefinite period later the centathlete learned that Cromwell is
“the most hated man in Irish history” and therefore that reference on the lane was tantamount to egregiously gross misconduct.

Geez, whaddaya gonna do? To
paraphrase W. Somerset Maugham, the centathlete blogs on occasion to disembarrass his soul. You can’t undo a faux pas committed years ago in the presence of a stranger in a foreign land; you only hope to make yourself a little less dangerous…

When three men bought a sizeable parcel of Long Island from Raseokan, Sachem of the Matinecock tribe, they called it “
Huntington,” as Huntingdon was the birthplace of Cromwell, the Protestant civil-war hero and the soon-to-be Lord Protector of England. (John Major represented Huntingdon in Parliament for years before and after he was British Prime Minister.) The naming would have asserted the English heritage of the settlers and set them apart from the Dutch constituency to the west, centered in Brooklyn and New Amsterdam.

Peter Stuyvesant, the peg-legged Governor of New Amsterdam, and the Dutch had initially welcomed the English, but international politics were threatening the coexistence on Long Island. Across the Atlantic, Cromwell had begun the First Anglo-Dutch War, which ended in April, 1654. The war’s second installment on various fronts resulted in part in the 1664 English capture of New Amsterdam, immediately renamed New York.

In the years before Huntington incorporated, Cromwell suppressed the Catholic, pro-monarchy Irish rebellion, killing thousands at
Drogheda, Wexford and Kilkenny before returning to England to combat the Scottish. While Huntington added to its initial dwellings, Ireland underwent a rapid, calamitous transformation: “Cromwell and the Parliament passed the Act of Settlement of Ireland in 1653 whose goal was the massive transfer of land from Irish hands to English hands.”

One beneficiary of this transfer was
Henry Bowen, an atheistic Welshman who had abandoned a Puritan wife to become a colonel in Cromwell’s army in Ireland. More than 300 years later, this military force inspired Elvis Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus, to write his 1979 song, “Oliver’s Army.” Having grown up in England of Irish descent, Costello explained his youthful, musical understanding of Cromwell:
“He was a devil incarnate to the Christian brothers. We used to sing very Catholic pieces, they’d be frowned on today as not being in the spirit of church unity, things like “Oh Glorious Spirit of St. Patrick’s” and “Faith of Our Fathers,” lots of take on the history of England from the old-religion martyr’s perspective. And we'd sing the Latin mass without knowing what it meant but loving every line.”
After the campaign Henry Bowen, as a charter member of the “pseudo-aristocracy” of Protestant Anglo-Irish landholders called the
Ascendancy, was given an estate in County Cork. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) directly descended from the colonel; she inherited the estate and its mansion of Bowen’s Court, built in 1776, which she managed until economics dictated its leveling in 1960.

Ireland, its fading “big-house” society, and war do not factor in Bowen’s 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart; the author addressed those subjects in other books. This story takes place in London—where Bowen also lived and frequently engaged with the intellectual
Bloomsbury society—and a southeastern village on the English Channel.

A refined sensibility manifests itself initially through the description of a wintry park scene, and throughout the narrative via perceptions of flowers, the sea, the sky, the woods, and the contemplation of the true inception of Spring. The apprehension of Nature and the Seasons suggests changes and cycles which the characters must obey as they interact and age.

Suggestion is an apt term for the literary style on display; intimation (the word itself appears several times in the text) is better for several reasons. Grown out of the Latin intimatus, “intimate” originally was used in the late 1400’s in English to mean “to publicly or formally announce.” According to the O.E.D., more than 100 years passed before a second meaning was cultivated: “To make known or communicate by any means however indirect; hence, to signify, indicate; to imply, to suggest, to hint at.”

If one person “owns” this latter, more familiar definition, it’s
William Wordsworth, on account of his 1807 poem, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Even an infrequent poetry sampler like the centathlete here recognizes the celebration of an infant’s view of Nature with “the glory and freshness of a dream.”

This joyful innocence is soon forgotten. A six-year-old already mimics the artifice of human affairs: “Then will he fit his tongue/To dialogues of business, love, or strife.” The adult’s best recourse is to fleetingly, partially recapture the earliest perspective, even while praising “those obstinate questionings/Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings.” The final lines sum up the romantic’s heightened perception of the world and his passage through it:

“Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Elizabeth Bowen upholds the heart as the same source for a fulfilling appreciation of life. Her novel displays a nuanced treatment of Wordsworth’s theme of innocence—personified by her heroine, Portia Quayne—corrupted by experience.

Her title reflects the inevitability and totality of this eclipse, updated in the materialistic, manipulative environment of London of the late 1930’s. Decades later, two American musicians, Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby, echoed both Wordsworth’s and Bowen’s outlooks in their 1989 song, “The End of the Innocence.” The
lyrics begin:

Remember when the days were long

And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn't have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by

The song’s
video presents first the view of a child, perhaps Henley (although he seems more of a slick reincarnation of Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager in Our Town), in engaging, comforting small-town surroundings of 1950’s America. The parental security he references was not so cut-and-dried for Elizabeth Bowen or her heroine Portia: both were raised in unstable households and lost their mothers as teenagers (Portia also lost her father).

Continuing with Henley and his video’s director,
David Fincher (who has gone on to direct movies such as Se7en, The Game and Fight Club), we fly over windblown treetops and admire teenage lovers kissing as the “tall grass waves in the wind.” In The Death of the Heart the 16-year-old Portia attempts a similar tryst in bucolic environs but she fails because the older Eddie can’t reciprocate or honor her ardor and innocence.

In another parallel motif, we see Henley lip-syncing in front of a blank movie screen, followed later by a young mother or older sister captivated by a film. Portia first attends a Marx Brothers movie and enjoys the company of Anna and Thomas more than the entertainment; later she attends the cinema with Eddie, Daphne and the Seale entourage, and she is betrayed. Cinema, the dominant medium of man-made illusion, in both works proves to be compellingly necessary yet somehow unsatisfactory in modern life.

In his brief evocation of a girl in Nature and in his chorus (featuring “Offer up your best defense/This is the end of the innocence”), Henley voices a philosophical kinship with Bowen, for whom Portia offers an offense of intense emotional authenticity as her defense. His wistful demeanor in his video suggests he holds thoughts like Wordsworth’s, “too deep for tears,” but his sunglasses toward the close prevent us from really knowing. Henley grafts on a political theme (Bowen and Wordsworth eschew politics) that augments his sense of resignation or, we could imagine, causes him to attain the “slow indignation” with which Bowen’s swans swim in her introductory paragraph. At any rate, “The End of the Innocence” laments an inevitable process.

A Chinese
proverb states, “The saddest thing is the death of the heart,” which can be interpreted as “There is no greater sorrow than a heart that never rejoices.” Wordsworth presents the child’s perspective as the cause and medium for rejoicing. Bowen has her adult characters, Anna and Thomas Quayne, Eddie and St. Quentin, bring about this symbolic death; she would have their own lives enriched by Portia’s alternate rejoicing and awkward missteps.

Her missteps and those of her guardians and acquaintances are muted. Although love and sexuality provide the grist to this dramatic mill, there is no frank depiction or acknowledgment of their physical consummation (Bowen was happily married for almost 30 years to Alan Cameron yet their union was apparently always “
passionless.”). The relations—such as those between Portia and Eddie, Portia and Matchett, Eddie and Daphne, Anna and St. Quentin, and Anna and Eddie—unfold on a charged platonic plane.

Intimations of fulfilled and challenged intimacy (its
meaning of “sexual intercourse” also stems from the same Latin root as “intimations”) charge this plane. Bowen has been compared to Top 100 author Henry James, in whose novels “intimations” appears liberally. Like James, she sees hints of immortality in purely human interaction.

In The Death of the Heart and in James’s The Wings of the Dove we find similar subjects for contemplation. “Sacrificers are not the ones to pity,” Bowen’s narrator writes, “The ones to pity are those they sacrifice.” James’s narrator employs “sacrifice” more than 10 times to describe various attitudes and behaviors. The titles of the three sections of The Death of the Heart—“The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil”—underscore the quasi-religious sense of love and friendship.

A Sufi religious scholar, jurist and philosopher,
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, wrote, “The death of the heart is ignorance; so avoid it.” We might, after reading this novel, think that Bowen would argue that the heart’s death is actually effected by knowledge of human affairs—it can’t be avoided but it can be mitigated by a sympathetic consideration of innocence, a reappraisal of a child’s ignorance. Like an adept cleric, Bowen superbly condenses her observations and lessons into maxims such as, “Illusions are art, for the feeling person, and it is by art that we live, if we do.”

For Bowen, time-old behavioral “patterns” also provoke a religious, pre-Christian, outlook. When Portia anticipates Eddie’s arrival in Seale, the narrator provides another maxim: “The wish to lead out one’s lover must be a tribal feeling; the wish to be seen as loved is part of one’s self-respect.”

The narrative takes its time building psychological and emotional momentum toward this event. When the reality of Eddie’s unsuitability proves devastating to Portia, she says, “But, Eddie, they thought you were my friend. I was so proud because they all thought that.”

With such a simple, candid delivery, Portia powerfully reveals that her expectations of love have been shattered. She loses her innocence in a different, meaner way than she intended. The pride irreparably damaged is complex here: it relates to the social, egoistic and sexual selves. Portia’s status as an innocent 16-year-old woman adds greatly to the damage done, even though it isn’t physical.

Maybe it was pride that prevented the gardener in The Burren from responding at all to the centathlete’s Cromwell gaffe. An older woman, she would likely have frequently experienced a man’s conversational missteps and, unlike Portia, she likely would have recognized that polite silence can be a valuable defense.

The next day at The Burren the centathlete took a most informative and enjoyable walking tour. The guide,
John Connolly, discussed the geography, wildflowers and Celtic folklore and myth. He also addressed the many stone walls pointlessly traversing the barren countryside—they exemplified “futile labor,” ordered built by the British to occupy the starving native Irish during the famine years and keep them from revolting. In Connolly’s polite, matter-of-fact explication, there was the intimation of a pride informed and tempered by History and Nature in your backyard.

More recently the centathlete, at a New York City pub, encountered a group of Irish visitors. Again impulsively, this time lubricated by Guinness, he sought to commune by stating that he is “Irish” in light of one maternal grandfather. “No, you’re of Irish descent,” the young man firmly corrected him. Just one more prompt to get a little more learning.

No comments: