Elizabeth Bowen's things: modernism and the threat of extinction in The Little Girls.
One of the social expectations Bowen exposes in her novels is the supposedly solid relationship between subject and object. In what follows, I turn to recent theorists of "thingness" (namely, Bill Brown and Jane Bennett) in order to position a consideration of "things" as an alternative to our thinking about the objects in Bowen's fiction. In their appearance in parlors, tearooms, and boutiques, these things can be read not as supporting social relations but as markers of a type of existence beyond the human. While Bowen's things intersect with the social terrain (that of the realist novel, say), they also simultaneously and paradoxically destabilize that very reality. In a parallel fashion, these things can be located as part of a human spatiotemporal existence--take a teacup, for instance, at four o'clock in the afternoon in any given parlor-but they are also coded as both pre- and post- these same (human) temporal and spatial parameters. The matter of material(isms), then, in Bowen's fiction might have something to do with imagining modes of existence other than the present "human, all too human" one we currently occupy. (3)
Such a consideration of the nonhuman elements (i.e., the "things") of Bowen's work also gives rise to a thinking about the posthuman, which I approach in two ways: (1) as, quite literally, a concern about the world after humanity; and (2) as a nonanthropocentric worldview, which is opened up by our realization that "things" have a life outside the realm of the human. According to Rosi Braidotti, "the common denominator for the posthuman condition is an assumption about the vital ... structure of living matter itself" (2013,2). Braidotti's vital materialism grows out of Spinoza's one-substance philosophy, "a monistic philosophy, which rejects dualism, ... and stresses instead the self-organizing (or autopoetic) force of living matter" (3). Thus, the presence of matter--or, in the terms this essay uses, "things"--raises a set of ethical questions about how we define the "self" and how we understand our relationship to the nonhuman world. Bowen's writing, particularly in her 1963 novel The Little Girls, expresses an obvious need for objects to mean something or to represent the human, but her fiction also recognizes their inability to do so. In her penultimate novel, this obsession with objects is coupled with the threat of extinction, which also operates in a dual manner, where the conversation about extinction reveals a fear for the future of the human but also acknowledges the inevitable disappearance of humanity.
Objects and human extinction
The Little Girls--spanning from the summer of 1914 to the Cold War years of the early sixties--presents from the outset a world in which human extinction is no longer hard to imagine. As Dinah says at the opening, "I'm looking ahead to when we are a vanished race.... Those early races probably never thought; or what I suppose is still more likely, never really expected they would vanish. But we should be odd--don't you agree?--if the idea'd never occurred to us" (LG 10-11). (4) However, as Dinah prepares for a posthuman world (or, at the very least, a world in which the human race as she knows it has disappeared), she also attempts to preserve the traces of the human (in the present of the novel) by collecting and cataloging what she calls "expressive objects": "Clues to reconstruct us from. Expressive objects. What really expresses people? The things--I'm sure--that they have obsessions about: keep on wearing or using, or fuss when they lose, or can't go to sleep without. You know, a person's only a person when they have some really raging peculiarity" (11). Yet as the objects pile up around Dinah, her theory of subjectivity is destabilized. As much as she wants the "exhibits" (4)--what her neighbor Mrs. Coral misidentifies as "a small museum" (9)--to demonstrate the specificities of the subjects who have donated them for her large-scale time capsule, they do not express anything particularly human, beyond, perhaps, the rather homogenous and unoriginal selection of and the arbitrary attachment to these particular objects. While Dinah, in a seemingly radical claim, reverses the subject/object dichotomy in her definition of personhood (i.e., that objects define and thus make subjects), she still conceives of the collection in terms of its (former) use-value, on the one hand, what people "keep on wearing or using" and, on the other, of its value as fetish, talisman, or prop for habit.
The matter (both theme and material objects) of the novel therefore exposes the failed attempt of humans to pattern the nonhuman world into meaningful reflections of themselves, for, even while Dinah wants and expects the objects to signify something about individuals, they do not. Brown's distinction between object and thing is useful for an examination of Bowen's material(s) in The Little Girls (and elsewhere) and of the sense of irrevocable loss that the rubble of war provoked for her. In "Thing Theory" (2001), Brown likens objects to a window, something we look through, not at. We use objects unthinkingly, out of habit. We don't perceive objects in their material specificity or vitality, as we are concerned only with what they can do for us. Brown writes: "As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture--above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things. We look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts." However, when habit breaks down or is interrupted, our habits of perception also shift:
A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the window gets filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation. (2001, 4)
For Brown, an object can become a thing not only when it breaks, but also when a subject perceives it in a longer history, or as an object with its own history. In one interview, he uses the example of a drinking glass, an object we usually pay little attention to beyond its use as a vehicle for hydration or libations. If the glass breaks, however, our attention is immediately on the thing itself because it no longer serves the expected function. Brown goes on to explain another way the object becomes a thing: when we are attuned to the "genealogy of its use" and thus also to the material specificities of the thing. In so doing, "the glass has, in some sense, broken our habits of use" (2010a).
While Bowen pays attention to this sense of the longer history of things throughout her work, Dinah notably refuses to accept objects that have a history beyond single ownership into her time capsule. When Frank attempts to donate his grandmother's "carved bone fan," Dinah exclaims, "This won't do, ... it's an antique! ... Frank, darling--no ancestors, we did say!" Frank replies, "I should have thought, the fact that I'd kept it always--'"Obsession about it, had you?' she asked, more hopefully" ( 2004, 6). If Frank has an obsession about the fan, it would be a suitable donation to the exhibit, according to Dinah's definition of "expressive objects." Yet Dinah's apparent complaint with "ancestors" is that to include items that have been passed down through generations clouds the "raging particularities" of individual identity she attempts to catalog through her collection.
The novel, however, begins in a prehistoric cave, calling the reader's attention not only to the posthuman (what will come after human extinction) but also to the prehuman. Thus, humanity is situated in a longer duration that looks both backward and forward: time began without us and will extend beyond us. (5) The "pre-" and "post-" human converge in a present that is haunted by the unknown: in the first paragraph, for instance, "a man" (later identified as Frank) carefully walks down "steps ... hewn at some unknown time" (3). (6) It is precisely in order to resolve or prevent the unknown that Dinah begins collecting objects in the cave, where it will be sealed to "leave posterity some clues!" "Should there be any posterity," Mrs. Coral responds, highlighting the problem that Dinah attempts to solve: the stubborn persistence of the unknown and the threat of absolute extinction (11). (7)
Returning to Brown's definition of things, in The Little Girls objects do not so much break down as they simply no longer signify the expected meaning projected onto them by the human world. Dinah, in her role as curator, understands the "consumption and exhibition" circuit itemized by Brown above--the relationship between use-value and museification--to be an uncomplicated reflection of the human and, furthermore, of particular individual characteristics. However, The Little Girls exposes the "changed relation to the human subject" (Brown 2001, 4)--when objects expose their material vitality beyond the human, thus revealing themselves as things--in the gap between Dinah's "predisposition to bury things" and the imagined threat of impending extinction (LG 21).
Duration and unhuman history
In Brown's explanation of what is at stake in thinking about "things" in literary modernism, he argues that this theory is "about getting in touch with something like un-human history, with the history of the earth, rather than the history of humankind" (2010a). While The Little Girls engages a particular human history--specifically that of Dinah (Dicey), Clare (Mumbo), and Sheila (Sheikie)--it is also concerned at the outset with objects, and not only in the way Dinah thinks of objects (as artifacts of human individuality or subjectivity), but with objects outside the realm of human duration, or, rather, intersecting only in part with human existence. Take, for instance, the found object, which both Brown and Bennett discuss in the context of their theories of the "thing." For Brown, the found objects of surrealism (8) serve as an excellent example of the thing: the sewing machine and umbrella on the operating table, in a moment of chance combination, reveal a vital excess beyond their typical function and their physical form. This thingness highlights the "possibility that the material world might want to be organized in another way than the way we've organized it" (2010b).
This surrealist technique can also be found in Dinah's cave, although she does not recognize it as such. Mrs. Coral, on first seeing the exhibits, wonders if Dinah is planning a jumble sale (LG 9). Because Dinah is collecting at least twelve items from each person, so as to show a whole picture of each particular "individual," we can assume that she orders objects by sorting them not into categories but into groups based upon who donated the artifacts. Thus, while this is not quite the chance happening championed by the surrealists, objects that would ordinarily never be placed beside each other rest in close corridors in Dinah's cave: a string of artificial pearls, for instance, beside a pair of broken nail scissors (two of the items mentioned in the first chapter). Although Dinah claims that the objects possess some sort of human meaning ("Look, this pair [of nail scissors] has its tip broken: that means something" ), what she does not notice is the way that, in strange juxtaposition, these objects expose their thingness. And, following Brown's theory, even more so in the case of the broken nail clippers, because they can no longer provide the function for which they were created. Moreover, literary modernism is populated not only with found objects but also those that have been lost (Minta's brooch, passed down from her grandmother, in To the Lighthouse, for instance) or even destroyed (the presence of absence haunting The Heat of the Day).
Even Dinah, for all her apparent need to fit objects into a particular individualized narrative, recognizes the slipperiness of ownership (and, thus, of the subject's hierarchical claims over the object). Elizabeth Inglesby is right when she argues that, "despite the humor that enlivens its prose throughout," The Little Girls "also carries a dark undertone of menace directed not only at the characters, but also at their homes and possessions." She goes on to assert that "Bowen's characters do not seem to realize that their things are in danger of slipping away, of failing to survive and memorialize them" (2007, 321). But Dinah does recognize this "danger," which is perhaps one of the reasons she has attempted to collect and seal off these objects for posterity. "Expressive things," she states, "do get lost these days, with all this moving about, like my silver pencil with the tooth-marks" (LG 12). Given Dinah's sense that these objects are carriers of individual personality, the fact that objects are not only destroyed but also (and often) lost is truly a danger. In the recognition of the tendency for objects to go missing, Dinah perhaps unconsciously understands more about things than her current activity as curator suggests. Bennett argues that found objects "can become vibrant things with a certain effectivity of their own, a perhaps small but irreducible degree of independence from the words, images, and feelings they provoke in us." Like Brown, for Bennett, the "liveliness intrinsic to ... materiality" distinguishes the "thing" from the "object" (2010, xvi).Yet lost objects, as markers of the unknown (where did that "silver pencil with the tooth-marks" go?) and of the presence of absence (what was once there, but no longer is), indicate a similar "thing-power. "These lost objects are wily things that pursue alternate trajectories (outside of the confines of ownership--"my silver pencil"--refusing to be used as representatives of human individual personality). Such things, in their movement elsewhere, might in the process transform (or even deteriorate) into something else. Lost things, then, by the very nature of being "lost," adamantly affirm their own particular durations (pre- or post-human time), although intersecting, at points, with the human and often changing in form through this human/nonhuman assemblage (hence, the "silver pencil with the tooth-marks").
According to Bennett, "the claim to a vitality intrinsic to matter itself becomes more plausible if one takes a long view of time," a "perspective of evolutionary rather than biographical time" (10-11). Bowen likewise gestures toward such an evolutionary time with the very setting she creates for Dinah's time capsule. When Frank asks about "the history of this cave"--where the novel opens--Mrs. Coral says, "I always understood it was prehistoric" (LG 9). But the cave, presumably, will also remain after the present "race" faces extinction--hence Dinah's choice of location for the collection of objects. Moreover, this "prehistoric" place exists in a time outside of human history: above ground, "it now was within an hour or so of sunset"; but "down here, however, it was some other hour--peculiar, perhaps no hour at all" (5). This description echoes Bowen's treatment of time in The Heat of the Day, when during World War II a "timelessness" persists--a feeling of, as Frank puts it, "no hour at all"--a sense of time beyond human mechanization that allows characters like Louie, who has "an infant lack of stereoscopic vision," to see "then and now on the same plane; they were the same. To her everything seemed to be going on at once" ( 2002, 15). While some might critique Louie's childish naivete, this "infant" perception is an immensely creative and insightful way of experiencing the world and corresponds with Henri Bergson's theory of duree, time as a nonlinear flux that cannot be adequately represented by spatial or quantifiable categories.
This understanding of time also includes the other-than-human and provides a way of conceiving an ecological vision that includes a vital materialism--in distinction to thinking of the world as inanimate. Brown comments that the philosophical correspondence with contemporary visual art's reimagining of objects (or matter) can be traced to the twentieth century via Bergson's philosophy and, following Bergson, to that of Gilies Deleuze (2010b). (9) For Deleuze, duration (singular) does not occlude durations (plural), (10) an idea already apparent in the way Bergson explains how one might connect with durations other than one's own through the method he calls intuition. For Deleuze, intuition is the through-line in Bergson's philosophy that brings together his theories of time (duree) with his other ideas, such as elan vital (1988, 14).
As I have argued elsewhere, a posthuman impulse is implicit in the Bergsonian intuition necessary for the experience of the flow of real time. (11) Bergson makes it clear in the "Introduction to Metaphysics" that the nonteleological "aim" of intuition is to move beyond the so-called self, to connect with other durations. Although the first step of the method of intuition is to begin with ourselves, "our own person in its flowing though time," one must not stop here, for to do so would be to relegate duration to the psychological rather than the ontological (1946, 136). Bergson writes that "the intuition of our duration, far from leaving us suspended in the void as pure analysis would do, puts us in contact with a whole continuity of durations which we should try to follow either downwardly or upwardly: in both cases we dilate ourselves indefinitely by a more and more rigorous effort, in both cases transcend ourselves" (158). In this way, intuition as method is precisely ontological and ecological, enabling us to connect with durations other than our own, both human and nonhuman, and so allows us not only to "transcend ourselves" but to become otherwise. It is no surprise, then, that theorists of the new materialisms (like Brown and Bennett) find in their thinking about the vitality of matter affinities with Bergson (and Deleuze after him), as the "effort to go beyond the human state" is the meaning of philosophy for Bergson and also for Deleuze (Bergson 1946,163; Deleuze 1988, 28).
Significantly, The Little Girls opens with Dinah's "two flashes"--provoked, in a particularly Proustian vein, by Mrs. Coral's question about who will seal the cave and the sight of the crooked tire swing. (12) While I do not mean to suggest that Proust's involuntary memory is synonymous with Bergsonian intuition, there is a particular quality common to Proust's aesthetics and Bergson's philosophy. For Proust, the sensation of matter (the madeleine dissolving in the tea and on the tongue) opens into a sense of time as flow, although once Marcel attempts to habitualize this chance assemblage (madeleine-tea-tongue), he loses this feeling of unquantifiable time. Here, Dinah explains her feeling of time to Frank: "I've been having the most extraordinary sensations! Yes, and I still am, it's still going on! Because, to remember something all in a flash, so completely that it's not 'then' but 'now,' surely is a sensation, isn't it? I do know it's far, far more than a mere memory! One's right back again into it, right in the middle. It's happening round one. Not only that but it never has not been happening. It's--it's absorbing!" (LG 20). Such a vision of time is a particularly nonhuman one in the sense that, as Bergson makes clear, we do not store memories: rather, time contains us. Dinah's sense of time affirms a sort of quantum reality and, in so doing, gestures toward one of the ways Bowen's things matter: namely, that they suggest alternate durations or planes of existence beyond the human present. Dinah's claim that "it never has not been happening" parallels the novel's form, which, like the earlier The House in Paris (1935), is organized into three sections: the first and last in the "present" and the middle in the "past" (if we were, of course, to arbitrarily segment time).The past is brought into or intersects with the present (a la Bergson); or the past exists in an alternate realm, where it is still "happening," and occasionally, in shocks or "flashes," we can momentarily perceive this reality.
Perhaps Dinah's mistake, which leads to her crisis in the third section of the novel, is not so much that she engineers a search for lost time (a time never really lost, since it is "happening round one"), but that she feels a need to unbury the objects of childhood. Given her theory that objects express the individual, what a shock, indeed, when those objects can no longer be found (at least in the "present" of the novel). The little girls (and the women they have become) do not know all the contents of the box. After discovering the empty coffer, Dinah and Clare do tell each other what they put in the box, but Sheila only tells Dinah's sons at the end of the novel, claiming that she will "go to [her] grave, still, rather than have them [Dinah and Clare] know" (LG 303). The objects are, however, revealed to the reader in totality: a seemingly arbitrary collection that we later discover consists of a book of Shelley's poetry, a gun, and a severed toe, together with a message from the little girls in an "unknown language" written in their own blood. The objects are "lost," but really these things just no longer intersect with the particular human lives of Dinah, Clare, and Sheila. They have moved on to other realms. If these things represent a human meaning, what is it? And what are the girls' motivations for including them? Together, in the coffer "borrowed" from Sheila's house, bound with an oversized dog chain the girls purchase, the collection has, like I suggested of the opening scene, a surrealist quality. What is the relationship between a book of Shelley's poetry, a gun, and a toe? In juxtaposition, these items express not individual personality (or even, perhaps, the collective impersonality of the title--these three girls, after all, could be any three girls) but their own thingly qualities beyond use-value.
When the game turns serious
In section two, a conversation between Dinah (Dicey) and a visiting aunt of one of her schoolmates gives the reader some insight into what has spurred Dinah's "predisposition to bury things." When the aunt asks Dicey what activities she enjoys, she replies, "I like looking for things ... or hiding things, wondering who'll find them. Or doing anything I can do, like getting on people's nerves or swimming" (110). Dicey's precocious description of her activities reveals that, for her, searching and hiding things is a game, and part of the delight of hiding things is the unknown (i.e., "wondering who'll find them"). In this sense, Dicey imagines these things to intersect with other lives beyond her own: she is part of the human/nonhuman assemblage at one point (when she hides the things), but she need not also be the finder. Picking up an earlier thread of conversation about whether or not St. Agatha's is "near where the Romans landed" (109), Dicey asks: "Did Romans leave anything about--did they leave anything behind? Would that be there, if anyone hunted?" The aunt replies that "there are interesting, fine Roman things in museums" and says she is surprised the girls haven't been taken to see them. "Oh, we've been shown them; but all those things have been found. Would there still be anything there, anywhere?" Dicey replies. As she persists in this line of questioning, the aunt attempts to dismiss Dicey by saying, "your history mistress will tell you about the Romans." Dicey bemoans the fact that they only ever talk about the Greeks and that "the Greeks never came here" (112). The Greeks, presumably, do not interest Dicey because they have not left any things to be discovered for her playful games.
As both Bennett and Brown suggest, our experience of the material world as children highlights the inherent thingly quality of objects--a quality that exceeds the current form material takes. For children, matter is alive, not inert. As Patrick Moran argues, how we play as children--when "all objects have the potential to become toys"--offers significant insight into how Bowen's work might be read alongside thing theory. Referencing Bowen's essay "Toys," Moran argues that "the modern novelist is like the child in that he or she is always playing with collapsing distinctions--or hermeneutical ambiguities--which recall our first encounters with the phenomenal world" (2011, 158). For Moran, these "collapsing distinctions" are also extended to the reader of Bowen's novels, who "is returned to his or her earliest childhood encounters with the toy--those in which distinctions between subjects and objects are often blurred" (165). Such a return is thematized in The Little Girls not only in the sense that Dinah, Clare, and Sheila return to the place where St. Agatha's once was (before being bombed in World War II), but also to the extent that the novel brings the past into the present.
Yet given Dinah's sense that what we typically consider to be the past "never has not been happening," the idea of return itself is a fraught one in Bowen's novel. In the attempt to return, these three women (formerly, "the little girls") are confronted with a presence of absence. The narrator states when describing the "site of St. Agatha's": "There is seldom anything convulsive about change. What is there is there; there comes to be something fictitious about what is not" (LG 196). Thus, in the time and place of section three, the absence of St. Agatha's and of the items in the coffer becomes a marker of an unreality and of an apocalyptic vision. While standing over the location of the buried coffer, Clare and Sheila insist that it would be "wrong" to dig up their time capsule, which was intended, like Dinah's current project, to be discovered in the "far future" the contents to remain unknown to the contributors (10):
"The secrets of the tomb ...
"That was what it was intended to be, Clare."
"We are in the wrong," said Clare, turning to Dinah.
"This is not what we said," Sheikie drove in. "It is not what we said."
"Not that it will be there."
"How do you know?"
"How can it be there?"
It was there.
It was empty.
It had been found.
The moment when the pick, through the loosened earth, struck upon the sounding lid of the coffer happened to be rendered apocalyptic. (201)
While "apocalyptic" refers to being caught in the act by the owner of the property they are currently defacing, the word choice here underlines not only how St. Agatha's disappeared, as Clare describes it, "into thin air" and, likewise, how their things have gone missing, but also the novel's preoccupation with extinction (76). When Dinah first proposes her plan to "un-bury" the coffer, Clare reminds her: "We put that there for posterity." Dinah responds: "We are posterity--now." The plan, then, has failed: nothing remains for posterity to uncover about the previous generation. Moreover, Dinah's claim that the three women "are posterity" also suggests an apocalyptical future, where, even if there were things to find in the "far future" no one would be there to find them. What began as a playful game enacted when the little girls buried the box has turned serious when the three women unbury it. As they conclude the evening with drinks at Sheila's home, Dinah insists that she must return home. Sheila, in an effort to extend the evening, responds: "Your home ... won't run away":
Dinah examined the speaker, before saying: "That's exactly what it has done, Sheikie." She took a shaky gulp at her drink.
She added: "Everything has. Now it has, you see. Nothing's real anymore....
"Nothing's left, out of going on fifty years."
"This has done it," said Dinah. "Can't you see what's happened? This us three. This going back, I mean. This began as a game, began as a game. Now--you see?--it's got me!"
"A game's a game," Sheila averred, glancing down her nose.
"And now," the unhearing Dinah went on, "the game's collapsed. We saw there was nothing there. So, where am I now?" (208)
Dinah's sense of unreality echoes the narrator's earlier claim that "there comes to be something fictitious" about what is gone. Her question, "So, where am I now?," indicates that Dinah has overcoded this game with the theory of objects that she explains to Mrs. Coral at the opening of the novel. In this way, she has turned the game (the initial burying and the subsequent unburying) into a sort of experiment to test the validity of her current time capsule project and her notion that people's individual personalities can be inferred from the objects they collect around them. What results, then, when the things are found to be "lost," is that Dinah also feels herself to be "lost"--not necessarily in geographical space, since Clare answers her question by sarcastically reminding her she is "at Sheikie's, one would have thought," but that her very identity cannot be (like the missing things) precisely located (208). Dinah's error is that she looks for herself in space (within the coffer on the grounds of what was once St. Agatha's) instead of in time (which "never has not been happening" and thus, like time, neither Dinah nor the contents of the coffer can ever be truly lost).
Inglesby argues that Dinah's crisis in the last section of this novel parallels Bowen's own personal loss of Bowen's Court and her experience of living through the Blitz in London. She states, "The Little Girls reflects the death of what perhaps might be called a fantasy of Bowen's later years: that she might find a way to preserve from destruction her possessions, the physical evidence that she has existed" (2007, 318). While agreeing with Inglesby's claim, I offer here an alternate way to read the conclusion of this novel. Even if the objects were still in the coffer, they would have failed to represent Dinah's (and, collectively, the little girls') existence(s). As I suggested earlier, these artifacts, by their very lostness, expose a thingly quality in excess of their intersection with particular human lives. These things do not fail to memorialize Dinah, Clare, and Sheila because they are missing but because they are not limited to human history or trapped within a material form supposedly representative of individual personality. Moreover, Dinah's obsession with cataloging individuality through these things returns to a theory of subjectivity to which, by the time Bowen writes The Little Girls, she no longer ascribes. She makes clear in "Truth and Fiction," an interview first broadcast on the BBC in 1956, that following a crisis (like World War II, for instance) contemporary novelists (Bowen cites Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett) expose, through dialogue, not individual subjectivities but a sort of group consciousness or collective impersonality. "Does it [this new style of dialogue] mark the ending of a study of the individualized character? The individual for its own sake?" she asks.
Bowen demonstrates this impersonality in her own dialogue. Here, I offer two mirrored instances in The Little Girls: first, when the girls bury the coffer; second, when they unbury it. When Dicey, Mumbo, and Sheikie gather for the burial ceremony, the narrator prefaces this encounter with an image of extinction that conflates a foreshadowing of the World Wars with the anxiety of Cold War nuclear winter: "The outside world, when they left it, had been extinct rather than, yet, dark. On the ledged hill, as for the last time they looked down, a rain of ashes might have descended" (LG 146). In the passage that follows, the voices are no longer ascribed to a subject but are instead attributed, for instance, to "a shiverer, controlling the shiver." These little girls, who, here, have no names, are no longer even described as human, as they coalesce, collectively, into a sigh: "there was heard a jagged, over-strained sigh. Emanating from each, it was all of them" (148). In the later scene when Dinah, Clare, and Sheila uncover the empty box (quoted earlier), the dialogue is carefully attributed, but only up until these last three sentences:
"Not that it will be there."
"How do you know?"
"How can it be there?"
The statements here are emptied of personal attribution, and, like the earlier scene, the three women are now voices in the dark. This three-line format is echoed in what follows:
It was there. It was empty. It had been found. (201)
Again, no human actor can be identified as the finder of the box, and, structurally, the objects (i.e., the coffer and the contents it contained) become the subject. What The Little Girls exposes, then, is the "changed relationship between subject and object" implicit, according to Brown, in a theory of "things."
While Clare, Sheila, and especially Dinah cling to objects as containers of human identity, Bowen's stylistic innovations not only reveal the folly of such a projection but also address a history of philosophy that has segmented the world into human and nonhuman, animate and inert. As Susan Osborn explains, Bowen's fiction "confuse[s] distinctions" and thus "disturb[s] many of the larger structures of oppositional logic that characterize the foundations of Western philosophy, language, and society" (2007, 229). Thingliness serves as a third option not recognized by a binarized worldview; it not only blurs the separating line between human and nonhuman, but it operates as an amorphous and porous space of becoming between the two. (13) As I have shown, objects express thingly qualities in The Little Girls, yet Bowen goes even further than Brown and Bennett in her exploration of materiality, for her characters also become thingly. Bowens style in the above passage confronts the myth of humans as the center of the universe--effectively decentering the Cartesian (human) subject--as she expresses the possibility for humans to join the nonhuman world of things. (14) She does so precisely with this impersonal dialogue in which characters are not clearly identified and, furthermore, are less individuals than nonattributed affects (shivers and sighs). In this way, the characters are not fixed entities or "condensed matter," as Osborn argues, but are instead "attributes" that "irregularly condense and disperse across the story" (2006, 191). Thus, Bowen reveals her characters to be vibrant matter, no longer (if they ever were) consolidated subjectivities.
Although Bowen affirms that "people are the novels concern, and with people, the novel will remain involved," she also ruminates: "Though who they are, and what parts they are to play, may change with time, and the showing may change accordingly" (1956). The Little Girls, in disrupting the correlation between subject and object to which Dinah clings--in its narrativization of a failed definition of the individual--documents the end of an era and suggests that a new thinking about both subjectivity and things is needed. As Braidotti argues, "we need to devise new social, ethical and discursive schemes of subject formation to match the profound transformations we are undergoing. That means we need to learn to think differently about ourselves" and, I will add, to learn to think differently about the world of which we are a part (2013, 12). In Dinah's failed project to recover the lost things of the past, The Little Girls makes a similar claim. Bowen notes that this novel "is a story about identity," that "the 'box' theme ... is, in fact, little more than the spine of the plot" (quoted in Ellmann 2003, 194). If this book is a book of mourning, as scholars like Ellmann suggest, it can be so only on the level of the individual in the sense that individuality as such cannot exist in the modern world and that the (lost) objects we assume to be "expressive" of our unique personalities actually express their own wily vitality, in excess of ownership, use-value, and fetish. Like Dinah's initial sense that her childhood "never has not been happening," the things she searches for in order to confirm her layered view of time have never "not been happening," on their own terms, in a different duration.
I am grateful to the editors of this special issue, Derek Ryan and Mark West, as well as to Barry Faulk and the anonymous readers, for their generous and thoughtful comments on earlier versions of this article.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bergson, Henri. 1946. The Creative Mind. Translated by Mabelle Louise Cunningham Andison. New York: Philosophical Library.
Bowen, Elizabeth. 1946. Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories. New York: Knopf.
--. (1948) 2002. The Heat of the Day. New York: Anchor.
--. 1955. A World of Love. New York: Knopf.
--. 1956. "Truth and Fiction." Modern Writers: Interviews with Remarkable Authors. BBC Radio, October 3. www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12246.shtml.
--. (1963) 2004. The Little Girls. New York: Anchor. Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity.
Brown, Bill. 2001. "Thing Theory." Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1: 1-22.
--. 2010a. "Big Think Interview with Bill Brown." Big Think video, 38:57. March 4, bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-bill-brown.
--. 2010b. "Your T-Shirt Might Not Want to Be a T-Shirt." Big Think video, 5:20. March 4, bigthink.com/videos /your-t-shirt-might-not-want-to-be-a-t-shirt.
Colebrook, Claire. 2012. "Introduction: Extinction. Framing the End of the Species." In Extinction, edited by Claire Colebrook. Open Humanities Press, livingbooksaboutlife.org/books/Extinction.
Deleuze, Gilies. 1988. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habbeijam. New York: Zone.
Ellmann, Maud. 2003. Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow across the Page. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Inglesby, Elizabeth C. 2007. '"Expressive Objects': Elizabeth Bowen's Narrative Materializes." Modern Fiction Studies 53, no. 2: 306-33.
Ingman, Heather. 2010. "Religion and the Occult in Women's Modernism." In The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers, edited by Maren Tova Linett, 187-202. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mattison, Laci. 2013. "Nabokov's Aesthetic Bergsonism: An Intuitive, Reperceptualized Time." Mosaic 46, no. 1: 37-52.
Moran, Patrick W. 2011. "Elizabeth Bowen's Toys and the Imperatives of Play." Eire-Ireland 46, nos. 1-2: 152-76.
Osborn, Susan. 2006. "Reconsidering Elizabeth Bowen." Modern Fiction Studies 52, no. 1:187-97.
--. 2007. Introduction. "Elizabeth Bowen: New Directions for Critical Thinking." Special issue, Modern Fiction Studies 53, no. 2: 225-37.
--. 2009. '"How to Measure This Unaccountable Darkness between the Trees': The Strange Relations of Style and Meaning in The Last September." In Elizabeth Bowen: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Susan Osborn, 34-60. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press.
Scott, Bonnie Kime. 2010. "Transforming the Novel." In The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers, edited by Maren Tova Linett, 17-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stewart, Victoria. 2007. "'That Eternal "Now"': Memory and Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen's Seven Winters." Modern Fiction Studies 53, no. 2: 334-50.
Summers-Bremner, Eluned. 2009. "Dead Letters and Living Things: Historical Ethics in The House in Paris and The Death of the Heart." In Elizabeth Bowen: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Susan Osborn, 61-82. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press.
Walsh, Keri. 2007. "Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist." Eire-Ireland 42, nos. 3-4: 126-47.
(1.) By the end other novelistic career, Bowen had excised the ability other narrators to eavesdrop and recount the characters' thoughts and instead focused solely on external perceptions of the world. In her penultimate novel, The Little Girls, the narrator describes the characters' thoughts only a handful of times; and in her last novel, Eva Trout, there is no such internal narration. See Maud Ellmann on this point, also. Writing of The Little Girls, she states, "Rejecting personality as a 'claggy' thing, Bowen strives to present her trio of heroines entirely from the outside, revealing nothing of their 'inner weather'" (2003, 195).
(2.) See Ellmann's excellent chapter in Elizabeth Bowen: The Shadow across the Page on furniture in The Death of the Heart, The Heat of the Day, and Bowen's World War II stories collected as Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories. Bonnie Kime Scott also writes, in comparison to Woolf's critique of the materialists in "Modern Fiction," that Bowen's focus on the material world "relates to psychology" and that "her characters have relationships with physical objects, such as furniture, and these stimulate thought and memory" (2010, 29).
(3.) While little has been said about this aspect of Bowen's work, this essay follows in the wake of a critical precedent set by Elizabeth Inglesby and Patrick Moran. Inglesby, in her article "'Expressive Objects': Elizabeth Bowen's Narrative Materializes," highlights the way that Bowen's use of objects in The Death of the Heart and The Little Girls "elucidated not only the human condition but also the hidden current of vitality that she sensed was coursing through the physical world" (2007, 306). Inglesby's article focuses on the way Bowen's narrators offer a perspective on objects and place distinct from that of the characters, who "do not appear to perceive or comprehend" the "animated interior space"; the narration, however, "allows one to imagine that the material universe will continue to operate with or without their [the characters'] participation" (326). Moran (2011), following Inglesby, brings Bowen's work together with a discussion of thing theory, as I do here.
(4.) The Little Girls will be cited as LG.
(5.) As Claire Colebrook argues, "the existence of the human species in time appears as fleeting, exceptional and as a fragment of an inhuman spectrum of possibilities" (2012).
(6.) This theme is directly addressed in other novels by Bowen; see The Heat of the Day ( 2002, 99-100).
(7.) While Frank says that Dinah refuses to "hear a word of it!"--or that no one will exist to find the "clues"--in a humorous discussion of who will seal the cave, Frank says, "'We may all go out with the same bang.' 'Then the bang would certainly seal it up,'" Dinah admits (LG 11, 13).
(8.) Bowen's A World of Love is also preoccupied with found objects (love letters and a muslin dress) that structure the plot of the novel. Notably, it is not so much that Jane "finds" these artifacts in the attic as much as they "find" her. As the epigraph from Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations asks, "Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?" This language is echoed when the narrator describes the evening Jane, returning from the fete, finds a trunk in the attic: "For her the house was great with something: she had been sent for, and in haste. Why?" (1955, 35).Yet no human has "sent for" Jane; she "left [the fete] on an impulse" (34). As she sorts through the things in the trunk and "draw[s] out the inexhaustible muslin of the dress," the letters "fell at her feet, having found her rather than she them" (36). This ability for things to pull a person toward them--that things have expectations and desires that intersect with the human world but are not entirely dependent on us--could serve as an example of how Bennett's "thing-power" destabilizes human agency and affirms that things can be actants (or, borrowing from Gilies Deleuze's and Felix Guattari's theories of becoming and assemblage, that an assemblage of human and nonhuman forces produces an event). Moreover, this power that the things forgotten in the attic possess becomes one of the examples of the ghostly or otherworldly characteristics of material objects in Bowen's work. A World of Love is as much a ghost story as it is a love story. Keri Walsh sees this quality of Bowen's work in connection with Breton's surrealism, which acknowledged "the interpenetration of waking and sleeping states" (2007, 144).
(9.) For Bennett, Bergson notably does not go far enough because the elan vital is a spiritual force inhabiting the material world and is not integral to matter. However, in approaching Bergson's view of matter from the perspective of duree, it is clear that both human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic bodies, exist "in" time. Time is not "in" us. Thus, the method of intuition allows for a different perspective of Bergson's vitalism: all bodies exist within a collective force (duree) and can, via intuition, connect with other specific durations (both human and nonhuman). Such permeability challenges notions of consolidated subjectivity and destabilizes any clear distinction between subject and object.
(10.) Deleuze's virtual finds its impetus in Bergson's theory of time, which, as Bergsonism reveals, offers a way of conceptualizing a unified heterogeneity. In his explication of Bergson's "triplicity of fluxes," Deleuze writes: "our duration (the duration of a spectator) [is ...] necessary both as flux and as representative of Time in which all fluxes are engulfed. It is in this sense that Bergson's various texts are perfectly reconcilable and contain no contradiction: There is only one time (monism), although there is an infinity of actual fluxes (generalized pluralism) that necessarily participate in the same virtual whole (limited pluralism)" (1988, 82). This virtual whole is the past or time itself, the so-called present being, according to Bergson, already part of that past.
(11.) See Mattison 2013.
(12.) Ellmann describes The Little Girls as "Proust burlesqued" (2003, 192). Following Ellmann, Victoria Stewart argues that the novel is not so much "Proust burlesqued" as it is an externalization of Proust's (internal) involuntary memory, as the reader is given the description of Dinah's epiphany after the fact, via dialogue, and not in the moment of experience (2007, 349).
(13.) Although she does not discuss thing theory, Osborn's work is invested in the ways Bowen's very language expresses a "strange materiality" (2009, 47). Her description of this process uncannily echoes the way Brown differentiates objects and things: "Bowen's fiction narratives are written in a queer, opaque style that realizes itself not solely as a style to be looked through but as a style to be looked at as well" (Osborn 2006, 194; 2009, 49). Following Osborn, the passages of impersonal dialogue I have highlighted serve as examples not only of characters becoming things in Bowen's work but of how the language of The Little Girls becomes thingly. In this way, "the style of [Bowen's] stories is their substance; their contents are indistinguishable from what contains them" (Osborn 2006,194).
(14.) Eluned Summers-Bremner argues that the "repetition encounter with an object that refuses to yield its own meaning" in Bowen's fiction "returns us to our object status" (2009, 63). However, given the blurred distinction between subjects and objects in The Little Girls, "thing status" may be a more accurate term.
Laci Mattison is visiting lecturer at Florida State University. She is one of the general editors for Bloomsbury's Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism series and coeditor of a special issue of Deleuze Studies titled "Deleuze, Virginia Woolf and Modernism." She has published articles on Woolf, H.D., and Nabokov.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2015|
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