My employer shuts down for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. This recent week off was extremely enjoyable—lots of good food, wine, visits with friends, shopping. On the morning of New Year’s Day, I went downstairs to feed my basement kitty, Joplin, and she refused to eat. There was a vacancy in her eyes that suggested pain. She was urinating in her own bed. After this wonderful week of enjoyment, I was soberly reminded of death. I had to face the fact that Joplin was at the end of her life.
While this was not entirely unexpected—we don’t know her exact age, but the guess is that she could have been as old as 17 or 18—it amazes me how I start having anxiety about other “deaths”. I start to worry about the upstairs cat, Shiva. I start to worry about myself, as this is the month of doctor’s appointments. I start to worry about starting school at the end of the month. Really, nothing is any different, but we suddenly come into awareness of existence, and of the fact that with the enjoyments of life there is also a darker side.
So, it may have been a synchronicity that I picked up a new collection of short stories, and started by reading Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”. Mansfield is a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, and one of the early 20th century circle of “modernist” short story writers. Modernist writing is characterized by a “stream of consciousness” narration, where we see the thoughts of the characters, and see events unfold through the lens of their experience. Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is one of my favorite examples of this type of story. While I had studied Woolf in my literature classes in England, I’ve never had a chance to read Mansfield’s work prior to now.
“The Garden Party” is one of her most famous stories, and we view the preparations for a summer garden party largely through the view of Laura, one of the family daughters. She is sent outside to talk to workmen about where to put a marquee for the band, and is generally caught up in the influx of food and flowers. She gives her brother a squeeze, and can’t help saying, “I do love parties, don’t you?”
In the midst of the preparations, news arrives from the servants that a young carter named Scott was killed not far from the gates of the house. He was thrown from his horse, and died, leaving behind a wife and five children. We get a foreshadowing of death when Laura’s mother unexpectedly orders a large quantity of lilies from the florist for the party. Laura is shocked by the death, and insists to her mother and sister that the party be canceled. After all, Scott’s home is not far outside the gate of theirs, surely they would not want to hear the band and the merriment. Her sister gets annoyed, and her mother is merely amused. They would not stop the party on account of a man of the lower classes.
Laura is distressed, but then her mother put on her the other great symbol of the story—a beautiful hat with long ribbons. She sees herself in the hat, and realizes that she is beautiful, and others notice her as beautiful. Her maidenhood takes center stage, and she is caught up in it, managing to forget about the death as she moves about the party. Later, her mother gives her the leftover food in a basket to take to Scott’s widow. Again, Laura is horrified that they would just send “leftover scraps”, but she goes.
Upon entering the house, she crosses a threshold. It’s the juxtaposition of her sweet bloom of youth (and privilege) against the house of the poor woman, with the dead man lying in the room. She is reluctant to cross the threshold, but the old woman who answers the door insists that she come in. She looks at the body, and bursts into tears, apologizing for still wearing her fancy hat.
The story is wonderfully crafted—in the midst of all of our temporal enjoyments and distractions, Death interjects itself, like the Red Death in Poe’s story, only here it is a sobering reminder rather than a horror imminently experienced. There is something existential about it, reminding us that one day we too will die, that the sweet bloom of youth will fade, that parties end. The Crone shows Death to the Maiden. The eternal youth of Shodashi contrasted with the widowhood of Dhumavati, and these are both aspects of the same mystery of the Feminine (the Mahavidyas). But also, one can be taken by death at any time. It is approached with reverence, awe, and anxiety. Laura is the only one with a consciousness of this. The rest of her family uses their position as a barrier, it’s something that happened to one of “them”, it doesn’t affect “us”. When we hear about the horrors of war in the Middle East, our reaction is likely very similar. Terrible thing, but it’s not us, it’s not happening here, so we shake our heads and say “so sad”, and get on with the business of enjoying ourselves.
That said, I’m not sure the story is meant to make us feel guilt at the suffering of others, but rather to bring us into awareness. It’s not only an awareness of death, but an awareness of humanity. Laura learns at that moment that her family sees some people and their problems as more important than others. The carter is of the servant class, and his death is not acknowledged except through some scraps of food. The response would not have been likely to be the same if the person who was killed was a member of their own family, or their own social class. And thus, Laura gains an awareness of the world and its curious structuring of humans into categories of importance. But perhaps her mother did not see Scott’s widow and family as less human. Perhaps she only wished to be distracted from the reality of death, to keep it at a respectful distance.
Martin Heidegger had much to say on this subject in his book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). He attempts to define “Being” and refers to human-being as “Dasein” (being-there). Humans are thrown into the field of time, and face possibilities. In order to live authentically, one must rise to the challenge even in the face of death. “Dasein” always operates within history, and the hero’s path is the one that Heidegger feels gives the greatest possibility of authenticity. And the hero is a hero because he or she has faced death—they have gone to the underworld, and returned a person not just of the ego, but of the depths. In Jung’s terminology, the person is individuated. It is not an accident that ancient Greek heroes were worshipped as gods. The individuated person is the god-man or woman, aware of his or her own inner Spark, and willing to forego the distractions of the ego to encounter it in a meaningful way.
So, where does this leave us? With the reminder that we should enjoy life and its pleasures, but always to be mindful that we don’t live forever, and that we do not exist in a vacuum. Everything we do touches everyone else, regardless of artificial social categories.