“this hobble of being alive is rather serious”
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?”
“I couldn’t quite say.”
“The milk turning sour?”
“Life in general?”
“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.