our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness Phaedr. 244a


The necessary agony

Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Still my favorite book. The recent PBS version is wonderful (perfectly cast; we're all quite mad for Gemma and Hans Matheson at our house), true to Hardy. It's online at Amazon. Please -- go buy the full DVD :)

I know Hardy would also recommend this telling, which gets to the deep heart of it: Persephone: Tess as Pagan Figure (and mirrored here after the fold).

 Once again -- follow the imagery of fire, earth, water, smoke/mist: the quaternity that represented the original elements as Empedocles and those before him spoke of so many years ago: All water, the tears of Demeter for Persephone: The deflowering that is destructive, creative, and transforming: The necessary agony of the conditions of incarnation.

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Persephone: Tess as Pagan Figure

April 30, 2009 in Uncategorized

Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, makes a series of clear religious statements. Clearly not plying a course in support of orthodox Christianity, which is consistently portrayed as hypocritical and dangerous to the fortunes of his beloved heroine, Hardy goes as far as turning his primary antagonist, Alec Stokes-d’Urberville, into a preacher, only to have his newfound religion prove empty and without power once confronted with another opportunity to take advantage of young, ill-starred Tess, while Angel Clare, the son of another avowed preacher, is himself a Dissenter, and his ideas idolized. It is a debate among sophisticated systems. However, if we maintain our focus there, we reduce Tess; she is merely reactive, and has no function in the religious debate presented within the novel. She is little better than the object tossed about by these differing views, and loses much of her apparent force as a character. In fact, Tess is something much, much stronger; she is Persephone, a figure of natural, primitive religion, as opposed to the developed religions of society which ultimately fail her. Hardy’s own struggles with Christian orthodoxy, his complex ideas regarding the nature of God as an unsympathetic universal consciousness, certainly influenced him in this regard; indeed, he has a history of portraying the universe as controlled by capricious forces opposed to the good of man, to which, he seems to suggest, the only natural response is paganism, which Hardy appears to consider the only way to rebel against a meaninglessness he could not deny, yet which clearly left him dumbfounded in fear and grief.

The nineteenth century was a period of intense intellectual and spiritual upheaval in European Christianity. Long complacent in its dominance of religious life, it was struck by two outside forces seemingly simultaneously: the first was the materialist worldview made possible by Charles Darwin, who postulated a feasible source for life without the intervention of God, and the second the rise of spiritualism and romanticism, a sort of functional paganism that denied basic Christian ideas regarding the nature of God and the soul, looking backwards to pre-Christian religions, eastward to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, as in theosophy, and inward to personal spiritual experience as authoritative. So we saw in this period prominent writers from Rilke to Yeats treating on myths both ancient and newly-devised, in an effort to construct a meaningful world apart from Christianity; Yeats in particular had strong connections to the theosophical movement. Of particular note was the release of Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough.

The Golden Bough, a comparative mythology, was controversial at its initial unveiling, taking as it did the story of Christ and considering it in the same tradition of the sacrifice of God-kings prominent in ancient world, and claiming the agnostic position that “Man in fact created gods.” Hardy’s difficulties with the materialist worldview, his description of astronomy and geology as “terrible muses” that force man to understand his life as brutish and brief, arising from dust and returning to it in a vast and empty void, likely influenced his appreciation of mythology as a way to cast meaning upon the world. Thus, The Golden Bough, immensely influential in its day, became a principal source for Hardy, who used it to cast his story, an otherwise-unremarkable series of unfortunate events, as the violence of unfeeling fate playing out in the struggle between paganism and Christianity, with Tess as the central victim of that struggle. In fact, the entire sequence of tragedies begins when the Durbeyfields learn of their descent from “Sir Pagan d’Urberville,” an unwelcome pagan past intruding on the Christian present. The conflict sets itself up immediately.

Tess’s pagan associations only escalate. She is shown at the very beginning participating in the last of the Cerealias, the ancient dances of harvest dedication to Ceres, which Marlott alone preserves. Hardy describes it as less a walking club than a “votive sisterhood,” deliberately religious language for a custom which, had it survived elsewhere, would be little more than a cultural relic, which Hardy ties immediately to an additional intrusion of the pagan past upon Tess’s world, “the forests [having] departed…some old customs of their shades remain.” The dance prefigures Tess’s eventual end, the story beginning “with a moving circle of girls and women in white (among them is Tess, marked out by her red ribbon), performing a pagan ritual; it ends within the immobile circle of grey stones, a heathen temple of nature.” In between them fly a cascade of paganism: the woodland around the d’Urberville estate, with its “primeval yews and oaks,” Tess’s association with the earth, Hardy saying “a field-woman is a portion of the field…she had somehow…assimilated herself with it.” Tess is almost an incarnation of nature, and certainly a representative of an older order which has somehow placed itself within her.

Tess, then, as much as she supposes to accept Angel’s philosophy, lives in a world of fate and omens, the signals of the order to which she figures. From her “blighted star” to the afternoon crow which presages her marriages untimely end, her life overflows with portents of meaning. She is, left and right, mocked by fate in the signs that surround her; swearing upon a cross she will never tempt Alec again, she learns that what she had supposed a cross was indeed far more sinister

‘What is the meaning of that old stone I have passed?’ she asked of him. ‘Was it ever a Holy Cross?’

‘Cross – no; ‘twer not a cross! ‘Tis a thing of ill-omen, Miss. It was put up in wuld times by the relations of a malefactor who was tortured there by nailing his hand to a post and afterwards hung. The bones lie underneath. They say he sold his soul to the devil, and that he walks at times.’

Tess, it seems, cannot escape her fate, and has sworn unknowingly to the devil himself. Hereafter does Alec begin his cruel turn, beginning the final crescendo, the weight of which will crush Tess Durbeyfield underfoot. For Hardy, fate is an external force, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, which roves about and does its will through other external forces; Tess is not brought low by herself, her own inclinations and beliefs and actions, but by how she is acted upon; “The few moments spent with Alec doom Tess forever.” Tess is continually frustrated by the actions of fate beyond her control, from the very revelation of her lineage to Angel’s unwillingness to hear her confession. She is, it appears, still very much a victim or pawn, played by fate or by Alec or by Joan, instead of being a force all her own. This is, I suppose, inevitable; Hardy is, above all, interested in fate and fatedness, the forces of the universe acting upon someone. And yet, it doesn’t make Tess as passive as one might suppose at first glance.

Tess’s pagan associations, in fact, make her a force in the novel in apparent defiance of the machinations of fate or the purely material universe, against both of which she sets herself in opposition. In Tess’s character, Hardy proposes that the only sane response to a senseless, dismal, bleak world, the world proposed by his “terrible muses” of astronomy and geology, is to thrust meaning on the material world. The only sane response is to become a pagan.

In fact, our heroine, such as she is, has done much more than become a pagan; she figures as Persephone, or Prosepina, herself, daughter of nature-goddess Demeter, or Ceres in Latin, whose very round she had danced in her first appearance, the Cerealia. Persephone is a life-death-rebirth goddess, of the very cycles Frazier had written in The Golden Bough; broadly speaking, Persephone figures principally in what’s called the abduction myth, that she was taken into the underworld by Hades, forced to remain there in her consumption of a forbidden fruit – here the pomegranate, but such a recurring motif in ancient literature that it could have been anything – and eventually allowed to leave, causing the earth, previously caught in a deep, prolonged winter in Demeter’s grief, to flush to life with her joy. Persephone is, then, the archetypical etiological myth, explaining the cycle of the seasons in her annual and alternating departures from and returns to Hell.

The parallels with Tess are clear, and the entirety of the Persephone myth can be seen allegorically as what I’m going to call the Tess myth, a sort of legendarium of her story. A young girl, intensely close to nature (Hardy calls her a “daughter of the soil”) is thrust into an unhappy connection to a duplicitous man. Unable to sever the tie fully, she tries to leave but finds himself deeper in his care. Her eventual escape involves both quite literally cutting the connection and her own death, followed in her symbolic rebirth in the ‘Liza-Lu, securing for her sister all of what she had sought from Angel for herself.

Granted all that, Tess is no longer merely acted upon, but actor, the Iron Queen of Hades, ensuring the annual return of spring, the marriage of ‘Liza-Lu, and not merely resigned to her fate hanging from the gallows, but embracing it as apositive action to restore things aright. “‘It is as it should be,’ she murmured. ’Angel, I am almost glad–yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!’…’I am ready.’” It is as it should be. This is not the statement of a fatalistic acceptance of the world as it is; she has not merely acquiesced to the inevitable. No, she makes a much broader statement than that, that things not only are what they are, but are what they ought be. It’s a positive statement. Persephone is smiling. Persephone has won.

In this perspective, Tess’s murder of Alec Stokes-d’Urberville was not bending to fate, but the act of severing the chords that bound her to it as much as they did to Alec. Forasmuch as Hardy calls the events of the novel the sport of the “president of the Immortals,” it is notable that it isn’t fate he cites, but rather Zeus, who is master of the Gods, but not of the world. This ambiguity, for an ending seemingly-clear at first in its indictment of the universe for destroying Tess, finds further uncertainty in the novel’s last line, the joining of Angel and ‘Liza-Lu, the very act of Tess’s rebirth. Their taking of each other’s hand is Tess’s act of triumph, begun in Alec’s murder, cemented on the altar at Stonehenge, and sealed and completed at the gallows. Tess’s death allows life to continue as it should. She is not decimated, but the victor. Her struggle has been against a force bound to disrupt, not only her life, but the life of many others.

The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway wide enough for a carriage; and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain. The couple advanced further into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.

“It is Stonehenge!” said Clare.

“The heathen temple, you mean?”

“Yes. Older than the centuries; older than the d’Urbervilles!”

The nature of her death as sacrifice is made clear at Stonehenge. The ancient megalithic temple to the sun, aligned to its movements and therefore likely carrying with it associations of rebirth (also serving as it did as a burial site for centuries), highlights this connection. Upon lying on the altar, her thoughts turn immediately to ‘Liza-Lu, her symbolic continuance, her rebirth, and to making Angel swear promises to take her as his next wife. Asking Angel to whom was offered sacrifice at that place, Angel replies, “I believe to the sun. That lofty stone set away by itself is in the direction of the sun, which will presently rise behind it.” This imagery, the rising sun, brings to the fore Tess’s ultimate declaration of resurrection: “Do you think we shall meet again after we are dead?” Tess, I believe, is sure she has just secured that meeting in arranging the marriage of her soon-to-be widower and her sister.

Hardy has thus set up in Tess practical immortality, used her to force meaning upon meaninglessness, and declared in her that it is possible to fight, and to fight successfully, against the dread intent of an empty, vile world.