Friday, March 11, 2011

Wharton and the tragic sense

Although it may be wide of the target, Kevin Neilson’s suggestion that there is some “family resemblance” between Edith Wharton and Sigmund Freud—he goes so far as to call them Edith Freud and Sigmund Wharton—is a welcome reminder that the two great writers were contemporaries. As such they were faced by the same historical crisis, and their writings can be read as immediate reactions to that crisis. In fact, the two are far more interesting when their reactions are seen as strikingly different from each other’s, even strongly opposed.

Six years older, Freud was born into the rapidly modernizing and secularizing Jewish middle class in Central Europe. The Jews of the Habsburg Empire were only granted full legal emancipation in 1867, eleven years after Freud’s birth. By then his family had settled in Vienna after his father’s business failure. And Freud had already been enrolled for two years in a competitive and highly respected Realgymnasium, where he established himself as a brilliant student. Although he later said that he “never felt within [his] depth” in Vienna, claiming to yearn for “the marvelous forests of [his] childhood,” the truth is that he had left the past of his Galician Jewish parents far behind.

Freud was thoroughly at home in Vienna, because he was a champion of modernism in a capital of modernism. For him, the crumbling of traditional communal structures, as symbolized by the gluttonous expansion of Vienna in the late nineteenth century, was a happy development. Psychoanalysis was intended to be a great engine of social readjustment for modern man, who found himself cut off and isolated. As Philip Rieff puts it:

The essentially secular aim of the Freudian spiritual guidance is to wean away the ego from either a heroic or a compliant attitude to the community. . . . [Freud] was not impressed by the clerical strategy of confirming faith by strengthening the individual’s identification with the community. Whatever flush of interior health rises on first being received back into any community of belief after the sickness of alienation is quite temporary, Freud held. The old faiths have themselves produced the sickness they still seek to cure. . . . What is needed is to free men from their sick communities. To emancipate man’s “I” from the communal “we” is “spiritual guidance” in the best sense Freud could give to the words.[1]The crisis of the “I” who remains in thrall to the communal “we” despite the emancipatory surge of modernity—there is perhaps no better account of the human problem in their time, as understood by both Freud and Wharton.

The difference is that Freud’s reaction was therapeutic. However the psychoanalytic goal is phrased, the fact remains that Freud sought the reintegration of the neurotic into society. Wharton did not believe any such reintegration was possible. Human society was, as she wrote in The Reef (1912), an island of captivity surrounded by “the wide bright sea of life.” Her sensitive maladjusted characters itch to get off the island “into a life that’s big and ugly and struggling,” as Owen Leath tells George Darrow. But the choice is not so simple. At the end of the novel, after Anna has learned the truth about her husband’s affair with her stepson’s fiancée, she reflects:The truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure; and the perception gave her a startled sense of hidden powers, of a chaos of attractions and repulsions far beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse. She looked back with melancholy derision on her old conception of life, as a kind of well-lit and well policed suburb to dark places one need never know about. Here they were, these dark places, in her own bosom, and henceforth she would always have to traverse them to reach the beings she loved best!The “hidden powers” that churn “beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse” are not Freud’s neuroses, however. They are the “chaos of attractions and repulsions,” or what Wharton described in The Age of Innocence as a “battle of ugly appetites.” Society’s “ordered surfaces” may hold man in bondage, but human freedom is a mere “chaos of attractions and repulsions.” And where Freud sees the hope of reconciling man to society, Wharton sees such reconciliation as crossing through the darkest places of human experience forever to reach those a man loves.

Wharton’s reaction, in other words, is tragic. No emancipation of man’s “I” from the communal “we” is possible, and thus no therapeutic adjustment, but no life outside the community is possible either. Man does not live upon a wide bright sea. At best he accepts his imprisonment, for the beings he loves if not for himself. To escape captivity would be to abandon them, and to dwell in darkness alone.

[1] Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Garden City: Anchor, 1961), pp. 361–62. Originally published in 1959.


Shelley said...

How an intelligent woman of Wharton's time could have looked around her and found the scene anything other than tragic is amazing to me.

We can't all be Jane Austen. And that's a good thing.