Thursday, January 21, 2016

Hardy, TESS, and Psychic Scotoma

The following passages are from Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (New York, 1992), p. 308.

For hours nothing relieved the joyless monotony of things. Then, far beyond the ploughing teams, a black speck was seen. It had come from the corner of a fence, where there was a gap, and its tendency was up the incline towards the swede-cutters. From the proportions of a mere point it advanced to the shape of a ninepins, and was soon perceived to be a man in black, arriving from the direction of Flintcomb-Ash. The man at the slicer, having nothing else to do with his eyes, continually observed the comer, but Tess, who was occupied, did not perceive him till her companion directed her attention to his approach.

It was not her hard taskmaster, Farmer Groby; it was one in a semi-clerical costume, who now represented what had once been the free-and-easy Alec d'Urberville. [p. 308. Emphasis added.]

Tess did not speak to her fellow-worker, nor did he speak to her. Nor did she think of him further than to recollect that he had not been there when it was broad daylight, and that she did not know him as any one of the Marlott labourers, which was no wonder, her absences having been so long and frequent of late years. By-and-by he dug so close to her that the fire-beams were reflected as distinctly from the steel prongs of his fork as from her own. On going up to the fire to throw a pitch of dead weeds upon it, she found that he did the same on the other side. The fire flared up, and she beheld the face of d'Urberville. [p. 342. Emphasis added.]

She was kneeling in the window-bench, her face close to the casement, where an outer pane of rain-water was sliding down the inner pane of glass. Her eyes rested on the web of a spider, probably starved long ago, which had been mistakenly placed in a corner where no flies ever came, and shivered in the slight draught through the casement. Tess was reflecting on the position of the household, in which she perceived her own evil influence....

She was so intent upon these thoughts that she hardly at first took note of a man in a white mackintosh whom she saw riding down the street. Possibly it was owing to her face being near to the pane that he saw her so quickly, and directed his horse so close to the cottage-front that his hoofs were almost upon the narrow border for plants growing under the wall. It was not till he touched the window with his riding-crop that she observed him. The rain had nearly ceased, and she opened the casement in obedience to his gesture.

"Didn't you see me?" asked d'Urberville.

"I was not attending," she said. "I heard you, I believe, though I fancied it was a carriage and horses. I was in a sort of dream." [pp. 347-48. Emphasis added.]

She musingly turned to withdraw, passing near an altar-tomb, the oldest of them all, on which was a recumbent figure. In the dusk she had not noticed it before, and would hardly have noticed it now but for an odd fancy that the effigy moved. As soon as she drew close to it she discovered all in a moment that the figure was a living person; and the shock to her sense of not having been alone was so violent that she was quite overcome, and sank down nigh to fainting, not however till she had recognised Alec d'Urberville in the form. [p. 358.]

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was Thomas Hardy's thirteenth, and penultimate, novel. He claimed late in his life that the official censorship and the vicious public criticism which accompanied the book's publication made him decide to abandon the novel genre and devote himself to poetry. He did write one more novel, but critic Scott Elledge has seen this as "a kind of complement to Tess."

Hardy is regarded as one of the few really important late 19th century British writers of fiction. He was a careful, meticulous craftsman who labored over every detail. His unconventionality in terms of plot, theme, attitude, and characterization is often remarked upon, and he is accorded the honor of being the one author who most clearly heralded the break between Victorian and Modern sentiments. His five "Novels of Character and Environment," of which Tess is perhaps the best, represent his most enduring literary achievement. And so, it is quite puzzling why, toward the end of one of his most mature works, he would have resorted repeatedly to the clumsy, melodramatic device of non-recognition whenever Tess is approached by her nemesis, d'Urberville. (Her failure to see who D'Urberville is until it is too late to escape him seems to be subtly foreshadowed by her initial encounters with her two lovers. When Tess first traveled to the D'Urbervilles' manor to seek employment, young Alec startled her by suddenly emerging from a dark, triangular corner of a lawn pavilion. An early consummation of her relationship with her future husband, Angel Clare, could have voided her entire tragedy, but their introduction was casually aborted as Clare had not paid attention to her due to her "backwardness.")

This apparent aberration was neither a lapse of judgment nor of artistic control on Hardy's part; nor was it a sop to the sensibilities of his time. It was, rather, a literary depiction of an important but neglected psychological phenomenon and serve, metaphorically, as one of Hardy's major insights into the human situation.

The psychological phenomenon in question is what Immanuel Velikovsky, in his posthumous, unfinished book Mankind in Amnesia, called  mental scotoma. Before turning to psychoanalysis, Dr. Velikovsky was an ophthalmologist, so he would have been aware that a scotoma is a partial blindness: some segment within the field of vision does not register upon the person's retina due to a physical defect. A psychological scotoma, then, is the inability to recognize certain facts or to observe certain situations--even though, normally, these should be obvious. This failure is assumed to be due to the inability of one's ego to deal with some painful occurrence, which is erased from consciousness. The cost of such disassociation is tremendous: A list of possible effects includes maladjustment, floundering, self-punishment, aggression, hostility, sexual aberration, criminality, neurosis/psychosis, suicide and murder. So Tess, who had been seduced by d'Urberville, physically saw her tormentor, but her feelings of guilt and failure caused her to disconnect his presence from her, attention. In each case, however, the logical component of her psyche forced her to rationalize her non-seeing, to explain it away without actually explaining it.

Hardy, the artist, was able to use Tess' psychological scotoma to maneuver d'Urberville into close contact with her and, thus, ultimately to put Tess in the intolerable situation of being his mistress again. In this way, the inability to see functions merely as a plot device. On a deeper level, however, it sums up a major part of Hardy's message to his readers. Much of his written work is based upon the human incapacity for recognizing the true aims and attitudes of significant others, and the tragic consequences that ensue. Through initial naiveté, Tess is incompetent at fending off the misplaced attentions bestowed upon her by d'Urberville; as a result, she bears his child, is ostracized by her fellows and is forced to leave her home. Her awkward attempt to confide in Angel leads to mutual sexual frustration and to his desertion of Tess during their honeymoon. It is only at this point in the novel, after her psyche has been severely damaged by these betrayals and she finds herself inadequate at coping with the desperate straits in which her situation has placed her and her now-homeless family, that Hardy resorts to the scotomic structure as a way of moving the plot toward its tragic denouement. Then, underscoring its sudden emergence into significance, he employs the mental scotoma device (perhaps too) frequently--four times within some 40 pages.

Other Hardy novels revolved around similar misapprehensions, but in none of them was mental or psychic scotoma, as such, resorted to as a means of plot development. It was only in Tess, his next-to-last novel--written a decade or more before Sigmund Freud began, systematically, to reveal the psychological causes of such behavior--that Hardy consistently experimented with it as a suitable device for dramatizing the inherent blindness of human beings toward their own limitations as well as toward the limitations of others. Choosing other methods, Hardy entirely neglected its use in Jude the Obscure, his final work.

It may be that, in his own struggles with society and life, Hardy had built up various scotomas of his own. Certainly, a psychoanalyst would claim that the exploration and illumination of such dark spots in the psyche is extremely important as a motivating factor in artistic creation, but that the defenses erected by the ego to protect those secret places are formidable. If some central component of the neurosis is approached too closely, without preparing the patient well for this discovery, the result can be the complete blocking of the problem. Whether such was the case with Hardy or not, it does seem noteworthy that his most overt dissection of the problem of not seeing was followed, almost immediately, by the end of his novelistic career.

There is one further point to make, however, regarding Hardy's conscious exercise of the scotoma as a literary tool. The device was foreshadowed in the early part of the novel and was reused in its final section. I only know of its usage in five instances, four involving Tess (cited at the beginning of this essay) and one involving Clare. The chapter titled "Phase the Seventh--Fulfillment" took place after an unchronicled hiatus, during which time Tess was forced to resume her life as Alec's mistress; it was also the period in which Clare, struck with remorse at his unjust treatment of his wife, returned home to make amends. The reunion resulted in Tess murdering d'Urberville. After the deed, the distraught heroine hurried to catch up with Clare, who had left her again in despair. In an ironic counterpoint to the recent Tess/ d'Urberville encounters, Hardy portrayed Clare's journey like this:

The highway that he followed was open, and at a little distance dipped into a valley, across which it could be seen running from edge to edge. He had traversed the greater part:of this depression, and was climbing the western acclivity, when, pausing for breath, he unconsciously looked back. Why he did so he could not say, but something seemed to impel him to the act. The tape-like surface of the road diminished in his rear as far as he could see, and as he gazed a moving spot intruded on the white vacuity of its perspective.

It was a human figure running. Clare waited, with a dim sense that somebody was trying to overtake him.

The form descending the incline was a woman's, yet so entirely was his mind blinded to the idea of his wife's following him that even when she came nearer he did not recognise her under the totally changed attire in which he now beheld her. It was not till she was quite close that he could believe her to be Tess." [Emphasis added.]

--Duane Vorhees

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