Love and Money: A Review of The Wings of the Dove (1902) by Henry James

Readings of this highly regarded novel are weighted on the side of Milly Theale, the innocent dove of the title, and against both the money conscious Kate Croy and her cooperative lover, Merton Densher. Milly, the young American heiress with money to burn, is almost saintly in her selflessness. Kate meanwhile, destined for comparative poverty without the help of her solicitous aunt (on whose dime she is playing the part of a London aristocrat and plotting a prosperous marriage to Densher) is devilishly cunning.

But James, always aware of the complexities of life, could not have adhered to so simplistic an outline. A young Victorian woman like Kate, without financial or marital prospects, had to rely on her wits to open a path for herself toward a future commensurate with her liveliness and energy. Lucky enough to meet Densher, a sensitive and cultivated journalist with little money, Kate walks and talks with him in and around Lancaster Gate and Kensington Gardens (on which sheep then walked) in prose that looks back to some of the most convincing descriptions in James of a gradually developing love. Moreover when Milly travels to London to stay with Kate and her Aunt Maud, the two younger women interact in a way suggestive of how deeply James appreciated female friendship.

This very fact makes it difficult, however, to accept the willingness of Kate to lie to Milly in order to advance her goal of a financially secure marriage to Densher.  Having discovered that her friend has already met and fallen in love with Densher while he was on a business trip to New York, Kate falsely lets it out that she herself has no interest in him so that Milly, who is more than a little unwell, will feel freer to pursue him.  That way, should Milly marry Densher and then die, she will leave her fortune to her husband, who will then be free to marry Kate.

This nasty trick is to be played on Milly in Venice, where she has set herself up in a palazzo and invited a set of her London friends, including Kate and Densher, to join her. Since she has so much money, Milly reasons, she may live as freely as she likes during whatever time, long or short, is left to her. But Milly discovers the plot against her and, apparently crushed by her disappointed love for Densher, does die. She nevertheless leaves him a sum substantial enough for him to marry Kate and care for her in the lordly manner she has hoped for.

The Wings of the Dove ends with Kate and Densher together deciding to reject their extraordinarily gracious inheritance at the very moment they have positioned themselves to accept it. James leaves the reader thinking they can never be to each other what they once were, but this phrasing does not necessarily mean that the two will never marry. Indeed, face to face with their implicit reduction of their love to money, Kate and Densher may well marry, but on less self-preoccupied terms than before.WP_20180505_13_04_20_Rich The example of the dove, that is, may follow them.

An interpretation of the ending perhaps hinges on what the reader makes of the passionate sexual encounter of Kate and Densher in Venice before they return to London to await news of Milly. For once, Densher does not merely comply with Kate in her plot against Milly. Instead he insists that they seal their relationship in the bedroom and Kate, at the serious risk of her reputation, complies with him, and apparently gladly so. To me this suggests that their future with one another will differ from their past only in its new found realism about who, from a moral point of view, they really are.

The above photo is of the young Henry James.

A Week in Barcelona, Spain

My next several posts will be about the energizing trip Mary and I took to Barcelona a few years ago. It was my second visit, the first being when I was only 17 (1956) and Generalissimo Franco was, regrettably, in power.  Barcelona has come to life since then.  It now glories in its status as Spain’s second largest city and especially in its independent Catalonian spirit.

At Barcelona’s exciting center is La Rambla, a tree-lined street extending from the Placa Catalonia down to the Columbus Monument at the city’s 100_2288100_2283100_2290commercially thriving Mediterranean port.  The photos are of Mary and I heading for the first time down La Rambla. I especially liked the motorcyclists.100_2282

The Stigma of PTSD: A Story of Two Brothers

The Invisible FrontI recently came across a middle age man in the supermarket. He was wearing a bright red T-shirt with “PTSD Awareness” written in large white letters across the back. Admitting the reality of post traumatic stress disorder (as opposed, for example, to calling it a contrived excuse for cowardice) looked to me like it was on the rise.

Yochi Dreazen’s The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War (2014) compassionately represents the effects of PTSD on service men and women, meanwhile drawing attention to its less publicized occurrence in civilian life. A military journalist, Dreazen’s research allows him to tell the story of two young brothers both factually and convincingly.

Major General Mark Graham and his wife Carol, a teacher, lost both their sons during the early stages of the Iraq War, Kevin to suicide while he was still a ROTC cadet and then Kevin’s older brother Jeff to patrol duty in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

Mark and Carol could not help but be pained by the starkly different public reactions to those two deaths. A cleverly hidden roadside bomb struck and killed the twenty-four year old Jeff as he led his men down the wide highway connecting Ramadi and Baghdad. Over the objections of his fiancée, who hoped at least to touch Jeff one last time, his parents had his casket closed because an IED had blown off one of his hands, both his legs, and most of his face. Jeff’s body, when returned to his hometown church and cemetery, was greeted by a bugler, a marching band, a rifle-firing military honor guard, a posthumously awarded Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and hundreds of flag waving citizens.

Kevin, an altogether different person from Jeff, adored his older brother nevertheless. A good student, Kevin aspired to a career in medicine while Jeff, a talented athlete, took up engineering. Both attended the University of Kentucky though Kevin, who had other academic options, did so somewhat reluctantly. Idolizing their father, both boys also joined ROTC, Jeff out of enthusiastic respect for the military, Kevin mostly to please his parents, Mark and Carol.

Kevin appears to have spent his early years in college at odds with who he was. He popped Ritalin pills to help him concentrate on his studies, but by his junior year his grades had seriously deteriorated. Diagnosed with depression, he started drinking heavily, which made the depression worse. He was aware that if the military found out about the anti-depressants prescribed for him, he would be considered unfit for duty and cut from ROTC. But unwilling to be thought a “quitter,” as he put it to his dad, Kevin stopped taking his Prozac, his depression intensified, and he ended his life by hanging himself from a ceiling fan.

Kevin’s death was met mostly by an awkward silence. Not many mourners attended his funeral, a few religious folk declared his suicide a sin or implicitly blamed his parents for not preventing the loss of their son by recognizing his illness sooner.

PTSD is generally considered a term referring to the aftermath of traumatic incidents like sexual assault, a violent death, or the repeated horrors of war. I suggest that this disorder may also arise from excessive dedication to an institutional culture that runs counter to one’s identity. In Kevin’s case, the military set up expectations for him that he believed he had to meet but simply could not. Other socially important institutions like governmental agencies, educational institutions, business firms and even religious organizations may also have cultures that tend to erode the very self of a person unsuited for them and aggravate the kind of depression that afflicted young Kevin.

Acknowledging the existence of this more widespread form of PTSD can help keep us on the lookout for its signs: substance abuse, sleeplessness, chronic tiredness, a sapping of motivation, and increasing isolation. Stigmatizing these symptoms, on the other hand, could assist an irreversible extinction of personality by suicide.

Suicide is generally considered an impulsive act, and people who have had suicidal thoughts speak of an emptiness or total darkness enveloping them. Among the most damaging reactions to its occurrence are blaming the person so radically depressed or naming the act itself evil, which is inexcusably cruel to his or her survivors.

Such stigmatizing of a mental disorder, or of those close to the one experiencing it, is the real sin. I recently spotted a billboard headlined “Out of the Darkness: Walk to Fight Suicide.” It was set up to commemorate a high school student bullied into suicide by her classmates.

I spent nine impressionable years (from age 17 to age 26) trying to persuade myself that life in the religious order known as the Jesuits was consistent with who I was.  But my memories, especially of my early twenties, clarify for me now that I was then mildly depressed—a mental state I neither requested nor received help for. Not long after I left the Jesuits, I did find a healthy and productive alternative to that way of life in my marriage (now in its fifty-second year), my children, and my career teaching literature, and for that I am inexpressibly grateful.




Muscular Thinking

Many Americans are too ready to make light of the wounds, mental and physical, that our surviving military men and women have suffered during our seemingly endless twenty-first century wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. As with the lifelong and mostly unreported disorders inflicted on minors by sexual abusers, the aftermath of our veterans’ brutal battlefield experiences may make us shy away from their very presence in our midst, let alone from reminders of their plight. David Finkel’s book, Thank You for Your Service (also a movie), was an effort to wake us out of this slumber.

The focus of the book is on the ruinous mental injuries many veterans suffered not while they were in Iraq–the subject of Finkel’s earlier book, The Good Soldiers—but afterwards, when they returned to the largely indifferent county they had served. Finkel’s catalog of their anguish includes their guilt about the fierce hatred they developed for their Iraqi enemies, about the number of those enemies they had killed, about the buddies they lost through no fault of their own, and about the accumulated rage they found themselves inflicting on their wives and children once they got home. The book details their brain injuries, loss of memory, alcohol and drug addictions, depression, social isolation and the suicidal thoughts they sometimes acted on. The war spread itself through these damaged souls from Iraq to our own shores, and the military establishment was finally confronted with so many such soldiers that it spent millions trying to care for them without adequately trained counseling professionals and often without a lot of success. Superficial therapies are of course easier on the Pentagon budget, but they often need to be supplemented by ones sophisticated enough to dig back into the traumatic episodes some veterans experienced before as well as during and after their service.

But Finkel is not without hope. He credits men like Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense who fought against the callousness represented on one military bulletin board that called men with the courage to seek help for themselves “babies in need of a binky.”

This muscular attitude is widespread in American society, at least for now. Citizens in need of treatments for their post traumatic stress, whether suffered earlier or later in life, are frequently considered “weak,” “crybabies,” or “feminine.”  If they are women, they’re “complainers” or, in the case of sexually assaulted women, outright destroyers of men’s careers. Or they were “asking for it,” or the sex was “consensual,” or it never happened.  If they are men, and their injuries are mental, they are “feminized men” in fight from the tough realities of adult life, or secretly “impotent,” or “homos” in or out of the closet.  In any case they are not men, not really.

Such thinking has now spread so far into to our national life that we find ourselves in an endless need for “stronger” leaders and a “tougher” foreign policy that will make the world shudder and bow before us as, according to this masculine myth, it once did. But is this the way men quietly confident of their masculinity actually think and behave?  Or does the tiring Thank You For Your Serviceinsistence on our superiority in fact suggest a disowned doubt about it?

Demonizing the Depressed

Demonizing depression, common in the Middle Ages, unfortunately remains with us. The medieval idea, based on a dubious interpretation of Biblical sources, was that depression invades the soul from an external diabolical source and possesses it.  The depressed person is in that way distanced from the community, which itself stays conveniently free of the intruding devil. Viewing depression as a fringe phenomenon requiring some form of temporary or permanent isolation from the rest of us perpetuates this unholy tradition. The severely depressed are already burdened by loneliness so the isolation cure could well make their situation worse. What they most need, according to Andrew Solomon’s “atlas of depression” entitled Noonday Demon, is acceptance, friendship, an active interest in their sexuality, love, and belief—if not in God (though that might help), then in finding good reason to go on living.

Distinguishing sharply between the depressed and the non-depressed, Solomon suggests, is a self-congratulating illusion. Depression is an intensified form of our everyday moods—sadness, grief, and anxiety, for example, or the sense of futility that may come with a growing awareness of our mortality. If we have an important business meeting coming up, and it seems terrifying to us at three in the morning but manageable enough when we wake up at seven, we are probably suffering only from ordinary anxiety.  But if we remain terrified at seven, our anxiety may be moving toward depression. Something similar can happen with grief over the loss of someone we love. Sooner or later the loss may appear as a fact we have to accept, but when our grief goes on indefinitely, it can become long lasting depression.

The first effort I made to promote my memoir, Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past, was before an audience of college students hopeful of recovering from their abuse of substances like alcohol or fetanyl. My purpose was to encourage them by dwelling on the story I tell of my alcoholic father whose drinking while I was a child often led him to treat me sadistically. When he finally recovered from his addiction, however, he grew into about as attentive and caring a father as a twelve year old boy could wish for. Recovery is important, I was saying to these young students, because awful consequences can come about later on when the addicted have other people in their lives counting on them.

Solomon has a chapter on addiction and depression that shows their close interconnection. Alcohol usually gives us a temporary high but is in fact a depressant. Since the lower mood that alcohol eventually produces may cause casual drinkers to drink more, depression can lead to alcohol addiction, which can make the addict still more depressed. So the addiction/depression cycle goes on, and the social stigma attached to one clings to the other as well.  But since ordinary sadness can so readily slip into depression, this demonizing of the addicted and the depressed is a sign not of our superiority to them but of our fear that what has happened to them could happen to us as well.

Andrew Solomon himself suffered from severe depression, and what he says about the controversies surrounding how best to think about and treat depression is unusually sensible. We tend to regard depression, unlike heart disease or cancer, as an imbalance in the mind, not the body. So while we approve of bypasses and chemotherapy we are almost as wary of anti-depressants as we are of depressed persons themselves. But depression, much like addiction, afflicts both the mind and the body and therefore generally responds as well to carefully monitored pharmacological treatment as it does to talk therapy and support groups.

Recent increases in the number of suicides, opioid addicts, and victims of post traumatic stress disorder, all commonly associated with depression, should help us view it more as “our problem than “their problem.” Legislating government funding and extending insurance coverage to include this so-called merely mental illness can be a big help. But as Solomon points out toward the end of his book, what about our poor? These remedies normally do not reach the very population where depression related afflictions are most widespread. We remain connected to the indigent, however, by the simple fact that depression, perhaps severe depression, most likely touches all of us at some key point in our lives.

Finally Solomon contends that depressed persons are not exempt from taking some responsibility for their state of mind. We already know that heart and cancer patients help their treatment to a fair extent by taking a hopeful attitude toward it. The same is true of the depressed, who need not suffer passively. They can contribute to their recovery not just by trusting the remedies but by wanting them to be successful.Noonday Demon