Monday, January 14, 2019

"... protected from the consequences of their ...."

In discussing the novel, Le Divorce, I am commenting on something very few people have read or will read. And, while I love it, I wouldn't put it forward as something everyone ought to read. It's a novel that speaks to me because the heroine, Isabel Walker, and I have a lot in common but, precisely because it is so well-suited to me, it will not appeal to everyone. It also has a rather silly ending.

I don't think the silliness of the ending is entirely the author's fault. Much like Huckleberry Finn, the novel deals with larger social issues that the author cannot solve by herself just as Twain could not solve the the racist problems that still beset the America he wrote for. There is a huge difference between the two books in terms of moral import as there is no racist hatred underlying the cultural conflict in Le Divorce but there is a cultural conflict.

That conflict exists at two levels. First of all, there is the obvious cognitive dissonance that Isabel stirs up in herself. Like a heroine from a Henry James novel, she is attracted to the very different culture she finds in France. This culture operates on different values. That is not the problem, the problem is that it succeeds by operating on these values. Indeed, it is a very attractive culture to Isabel and she wants to spend some time inside it and that means she has to spend some time living with contradictory value sets.

The particular bit I wanted to discuss in this post concerns a struggle over a painting of Saint Ursula. Isabel's sister Roxy took a painting that meant a lot to her with her when she moved to Paris after he marriage. And now she's getting divorced. The painting is part of the communal property that must be divided between the she and her soon-to-be-ex husband. Further complicating matters, it seems the painting may have considerable financial value.

To further complicate this already complicated and tense situation, Isabel is having an affair with Edgar,  the uncle of her sister's estranged husband. Oh yeah, Isabel's sister has also attempted suicide, a situation she and Isabel are trying to keep secret.

So Isabel can't discuss the situation completely freely with her love, the uncle-of-her-brother-in-law-who-is-divorcing-her-sister. She does, however, feel she can safely discuss it as an abstract moral issue:
I continued to sting and seethe as much or more than Roxy about the total injustice of them taking Saint Ursula. Her enhanced value introduced a new element of cupidity and greed into the normal rancor of divorce. This I could mention to Edgar, though I still had not told him about Roxy slitting her wrists.
Edgar gives an answer that seems both sexist and profound:
"Women are too protected from the consequences of their actions," he said. "It always shocks them when there are consequences."
We are discouraged (assuming we're paying attention) from simply brushing off this answer as sexist by the staggering self-deception in Isabel's response:
He meant, Roxy must have known that by taking a piece of property to France, she was subjecting it to French law. But this doesn't address the total wickedness of he Persands ignoring that it was in our family, that it belongs to more people than just Roxy, that it means a lot to us and nothing to them, and so on.
I love that, "and so on." As I'm sure most readers have already figured out, the staggering thing is that Isabel is busy shielding Roxy from the consequences even as she attempts to analyze the situation: that is, she knows that Edgar is right.

And before anyone gets upset, the charge is that women are "too protected" as in protected by others.

Since the facts are against her, Isabel argues the law:
"You make a moral argument about Bosnia but deny the force of a moral argument in the family."
Edgar makes this response:
"What I say about Bosnia is a pragmatic argument from history," he said. "We are not going to quarrel, you and I, chérie, about Roxanne's canapé and an ugly saint."
A common definition of pragmatism is to take it as the opposite of principles. By that definition, Edgar does whatever works while hypocritically evoking moral principles which is exactly what Isabel meant to accuse him of. But it is not Isabel who introduces pragmatism into the discussion but Edgar. He clearly thinks this, incidentally, very American, notion serves him well. What is this pragmatism? Well, it's not the first dictionary definition I mention above as the a common understanding of the word. Rather, it is the philosophy that says beliefs have consequences and that they should be evaluated in terms of these consequences. Edgar endorses a strong moral stand on Bosnia (the action in Le Divorce takes place in the 1990s) because he believes that failing to stand up against ethnic cleansing will have negative consequences.

He doesn't explain w he does not favor a strong moral stand in family matters but form his answer would take is implicit in what he says; either he does not believe that what is at stake is worth taking a string moral stand or, more likely, he he does not believe that taking a strong moral stand will change anything, that neither the outcome nor the people involved will be improved by insisting on moral principle.

I think Edgar is right but I think there is something more. Beliefs have consequences! And we tend to shelter the people we love from the consequences of their beliefs. It's not that Roxy must have known that taking her painting to France she was subjecting it to French law, as Isabel thinks. The problem is that she never thought about that because she believed that everything was going to work out. It never occurred to her that it would come up. Indeed, Roxanne's beliefs about just about everything are that it will work out. A poet, Roxanne picks her beliefs for aesthetic reasons. "Isn't it pretty to think so."

And Isabel? For narrative reasons, Isabel tends to miss the significance of what is going on. She paints scenes without grasping the implications. She wants experience and she does things, mostly take lovers, because she believes these will give her rich experiences. I operated on that principle from age 19 to 29 myself. The problem here is not that Isabel is shielded from the consequences of her beliefs and subsequent actions (she lets us know there have been unwanted pregnancies and abortions) but that she doesn't seem to learn much from them. 

Two thoughts: 1)Pragmatism! 2) How would Henry James have wrapped this story up? Whatever he might have done, he wouldn't have resorted to the melodramatic mess that this novel ends with.

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