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“this hobble of being alive is rather serious”

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A paragraph from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess has just read a letter that her mother has written her in response to a request for advice on how to deal with her imminent marriage to Angel and the nasty event in her past:

She was recognizing how light was the touch of events the most oppressive upon Mrs Durbeyfield’s elastic spirit. Her mother did not see life as Tess saw it. That haunting episode of bygone days was to her mother but a passing accident. But perhaps her mother was right as to the course to be followed, whatever she might be in her reasons. Silence seemed, on the face of it, best for her adored one’s happiness: silence it should be.

The difference between Tess and her mother in terms of the significance that they find in this event is not simply a question – for Hardy or for Tess – of simple psychological makeup. Rather, it is a historical question. Hardy takes great pains to establish the vast generational difference between the mother and daughter as no mere matter of the conflictual divergence of child from parent. They are rendered as members of different species, very nearly, sundered from each other by the enormous acceleration of the rate of historical change.

Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.

This second paragraph is easy enough to understand. There is a very real gap between the two in terms of education and, it follows, discourse, knowledge. But the first paragraph suggests something more, something that rings very true while it, in a sense, defies explanation. The first paragraph – which registers the fact that what was a “haunting episode” for Tess is nothing more than a “passing accident” for her mother – emblematizes the pervasive modern sense that “today” “we” feel things more deeply than those that came before. That life – and the experiences that fill it – are more vivid, pressing, and real than they once were. That our lives matter to us in a way that theirs do not.

I would argue that this is a fundamental experience of modernity. Not the fact that things matter more to us than to others, but simply the sense that they do. We cannot truly know what it felt like to starve, to be raped, to lose a child at birth back then (or – as I’ll explain – over there) – we only know or think we know that we feel equivalent experiences more now than they did then. For a sixteenth-century peasant farmer to starve must have been hard, for sure; but for “us” to starve today would be unbearable, would cut to our exquisitely developed nerves.

Is it simply that life is improving, and with life, expectations? For Tess’s mother and her generational cohort, was being raped by the son of the Good Family nearby a rite of passage of sorts, an fact of life trivial enough to be universal and thus unworthy of excessive contemplation? There is no sign in Hardy that this in fact is the case. No, it has to be something that’s changed in us… a heightened sensitivity, a doubling-up of feeling that comes of consciousness itself?

Is it in a fact the sense that we are more fully-conscious than they were. The injury would cut the skin, and hurt, but today, bathed in consciousness, we not only feel the cut but feel ourselves feeling the cut. We don’t doubt that the women and the men of the past were conscious… to some degree. Perhaps only minimally-conscious, or so weathered by pain and lack that a sort of callus developed over their sensitive parts, a callus that never has a chance to form today. No, let’s stick with the minimal-consciousness idea, as it jives with so much else that we know – or can assume – about the men and women of the past, who knew no future, could anticipate no change, and filled the hole between birth and death, if they bothered to fill it at all, with the mind-evactuating hum of religious dogma, another anaesthetic – an “opiate” in fact.


My parents, for instance, do not whine about the place that they live. To me my life will have been lived in vain if I do not ultimately and for the most part live just where I want to iive. My father didn’t require fulfillment from his work as I do from mine, just money. I also require if not an ideal marriage at least one grounded in a sort of soul-to-soul contact, a deeper sympathy – ultimately, “real love.” My parents, clearly, did not require this. While I love my child dearly, at time I rage inside for my lost youth, freedom that has disappeared never to return. My wife does as well, but I am fairly certain that my mother did not. The suffocation of childrearing seemed perfectly natural, the only thing for her, right?

And just imagine for a second the simplicity and happy austerity of grandparents… Like children, even when they were in the prime of life.

Sometimes, when the pressures and dissatisfactions mount up, when I very nearly can’t take it anymore because I literally can’t think about anything but what it wrong with everything and everything that is still to be done – I am overworked and undersatisfied, things were better back then and might never be good, really good, again – I put myself in my place by thinking “Just how shitty would it be, really, if you were elsewhere and in other conditions – the conditions of perhaps most people in the world. If it wasn’t just taken for granted that you would eat and stay warm and that this child you have would survive and prosper. If there were bombs falling or strangers in uniform at the door. Or were diseased and dying young. Imagine that – and then complain!”

It works for awhile, but it is not in any way a permanent fix.


Is this – all this – what Hardy / Angel Clare means by the “ache of modernism” that they find in Tess? That despite her meagre origins, she somehow feels it too?

Angel, however, saw her light summer gown, and he spoke; his low tones reaching her, though he was some distance off.

“What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?” said he. “Are you afraid?”

“Oh no, sir … not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-blooth is falling, and everything is so green.”

“But you have your indoor fears–eh?”

“Well–yes, sir.”

“What of?”

“I couldn’t quite say.”

“The milk turning sour?”


“Life in general?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ah–so have I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”

“It is–now you put it that way.”

“All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet. How is it you do?”

She maintained a hesitating silence.

“Come, Tess, tell me in confidence.”

She thought that he meant what were the aspects of things to her, and replied shyly —

“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?–that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,–‘Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But you, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”

He was surprised to find this young woman–who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates–shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases–assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training–feelings which might almost have been called those of the age–the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition–a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.

Still, it was strange that they should have come to her while yet so young; more than strange; it was impressive, interesting, pathetic. Not guessing the cause, there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration. Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.

They are perfect for each other, these two. A love story not unlike my own. They take everything very seriously, too seriously. The fact is that the world exists for them – what happens happens because they are there, at the summation point of history, to feel it, to suffer from it.

Only now does the strange paragraph before Angel’s assignment of the “ache” to his soon-to-be wife start to make sense….


One way the “ache of modernism” become political is Oscar Wilde’s way in the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall,’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions. The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.

Another way – a more recent way – the ache becomes political informs the novels of Michel Houellebecq, in which each moment of discomfort, each disappointment, generally erotic but also drawn from other categories of experience, adds another wire, another sprocket, to the edifice called “post-humanity” that he is steadily building, fantasizing into existence. When it is built, we will be able – so Houellebecq claims – to retreat back into the slumber of the ages, the quiescence of mindless and well-oiled simplicity.


But of course, as we have heard, “modernity” is not just a temporal field, but also a geographical determination. We are not only more modern that those that came before, but also those who live elsewhere. We cannot stop telling ourselves this, as it is the story that explains everything at once, why things are the way they are, and why we are permitted to do the things that we do. It permits the equal sign to stand where ordinarily it could not. And it enables us to explain certain psycho-sociological aporia that otherwise would stick in the craw.

We cannot stop telling ourselves this.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 26, 2007 at 1:55 am

9 Responses

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  1. Proof, expand, and send to n+1.

    Which Houellebecq should I start with? I downlo…purchased through means legal and honorable a couple of his novels, and I’ve been looking for something to occupy the (barely existent) downtime. What say ye?

    (I’ll respond to the post itself more later. I’m editing, editing and editing this week, so congratulations are the best I can offer.)

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    January 26, 2007 at 1:46 pm

  2. CR, this is better than I could have expected or hoped for from any blog entry today. Thank you for writing something that pulls off the difficult feat of breadth (going from Hardy all the way to Houellebecq) while remaining firmly anchored in close readings.

    I don’t have much more to give you here besides praise; “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” has long been one of the most important sources of my thinking about politics.

    I want to highlight the great dissatisfaction that accompanies this excess of consciousness; and to agree with you that it does not come from weakness or from the “nature” of consciousness itself, but rather from a continually misplaced guilt combined with greater expectations of fulfillment.

    Having discovered your site via this post, I’m looking forward to reading what’s to come.

    Joseph Kugelmass

    January 26, 2007 at 6:42 pm

  3. Thanks, Scott and Joseph. Very nice of you to say. I think this actually is a bit closer to what I used to use my blog for, back in the day – and back with my original blog. (Back when I had time to write etc…) But I’m going to try to stay closer to this sort of thing.



    January 27, 2007 at 12:04 am

  4. nice post CR. Do you think the specific content of the “haunting”/”accident” though is also something Hardy is getting at (the alienation of her body and her “innocence” and its thingification)? It’s not the rape, as a traumatic experience, that haunts Tess, it is that she has “lost something” that she is supposed to give to Angel, and that someone else has it. The fetishisation of her virginity, as a magic talisman but also a negotiable item, an imp and a coin, is a big issue; the christian and commercial morality of bourgeois modernity are an uneasy fit (one has to have recourse to “holy madness” to reconcile elfland and england, see below). Whoever has “it” (tess’ viriginity, an alienated thing) is “really her husband”. The thingyness of her virginity and its importance in the marriage contract is what mom can’t grasp; Angel of course it the reference point; it is his idea of the virginity-thing that troubles Tess; she knows he’ll feel “cheated”.

    Chesterton, Orthodoxy:

    But since then the revolutionary or speculative mind of Europe has been weakened by shrinking from any proposal because of the limits of that proposal. Liberalism has been degraded into liberality. Men have tried to turn “revolutionise” from a transitive to an intransitive verb. The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a Sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts.


    January 27, 2007 at 12:18 am

  5. Virginity, Marriage, Flag: a little parade of imp-coins newly fashioned by the ritual performance of irrationality (wit). Virginity in the turkish seraglio, virginity in the english drawing room, boom, by magic, just like coffee.


    January 27, 2007 at 12:24 am

  6. Thanks for helpful comment, chabert. And I like your emphasis on the fact that it is distinctly not “trauma” that we’re talking about – with your leave (and with due citation – but how, acceptably, in a “real” piece?) – I might add in a paragraph or two broadening that out a bit.

    But I do think that the exact nature of what it is that’s the problem for Tess is left deliberately ambiguous. Her mother might well be right – a quick marriage, then a lifetime abroad (plus Angel’s tendency to knock hecklers teeth out before they even get to the “not a maid” punch-line…) Women do this all the time – you have to keep your competitive advantage in a tough marriage market, etc. In other words, I think it both is and isn’t her “virginity” that’s the issue here. We’re somewhere between mystifying reification and Eliot’s bit about the lack of an objective correlative in Hamlet. (That’s going in too, now that I think of it… Along with the dissociation of sensibility that it echoes, which feeds right back into the RWsian Long Revolution motif that we’ve got, right here, in Tess)

    Sorry. I’m being confusing. But let me put it another way – you’re right, elfland and england. Or, let’s say – custom and nature. The book keeps tempting the line that, when crossed, everything starts to look like an illusory meta-effect. No hobgoblins, Tess! is what Hardy’s narrator keep trying to tell her, over and over again…

    Angel of course it the reference point; it is his idea of the virginity-thing that troubles Tess; she knows he’ll feel “cheated”

    This is the point where we diverge a bit. Are we sure? Would he know? Does she think that he would know? Would it matter? On your side – is the materialist-erotic Hardy thinking this through physiologically – is that why he made her have a kid, if only to lose it shortly after? So that Angel would be able to tell? Could he? Is it believable that Tess would be capable of anticipating this sort of issue?

    Oy… But thanks – this is very helpful….


    January 27, 2007 at 12:40 am

  7. well its not just Tess and Angel, there is A-Lex too, who knows.


    January 27, 2007 at 12:45 am

  8. You know what else is going to go in here – giving all my good ideas away now – a bit about David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is due to replace Freud’s babyish Mystic Writing Pad right about now. Meritocratic psychopathological sublime, or something like that.

    The world is divided between those who GTD and those who don’t GTD.


    January 27, 2007 at 12:53 am

  9. Results! – could be a reality tv series.


    January 27, 2007 at 1:07 am

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