Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The springs of human action

I had intended to finish up with Jean Devanny, but I found a story of hers on my bookshelf which I can't resist writing about.

It's called "The springs of human action". Devanny uses the story to identify a flaw in her own communist politics. It's the same flaw that struck me on reading Devanny's biography: the failure to hold to the theory consistently.

The theme of the story is sexual liberty. A New Zealand communist, Jimmy, is working as a miner, perhaps in the early 1920s. He exhorts his fellow workers to apply the logic of communist theory to their own homes and marriages:

'Isn't it possible for you to follow a thing out to its logical conclusion?' he demanded hectoringly. 'You can't limit science! You can't annihilate a fact by denying it or refusing to recognise it!'

When he is quizzed about what he means he replies that the miners have two options:

'You can arrogate to yourself every freedom your economic position allows and restrict your wife in the same proportion ... Or you can do as I do - apply the morals of the future regime to your own individual case today. Refuse to make a woman your chattel by tying her to you legally; regard her as a human being like yourself with all the rights and privileges of a human ... she might be the sort of woman that wants a lot, needs a lot from life. She might need other men, for instance ...'

We are told later that:

He and his kind believed in the absolute sex equality of man and woman, believed in freedom of action for the individual.

You can recognise the basic ideas of modernism in such thoughts. According to modernism we are not secure in our status as humans. We only achieve a human status if we are autonomous in the sense of being self-determining individuals. Therefore, it's important to modernist theories, Marxism included, that we not be restricted in what we choose for ourselves.

That's why Jimmy the communist believes that women are being treated as less than human if they are tied to one man and lack the "freedom of action" to take other men as lovers when they desire to do so.

After berating his fellow workers, one of the miners makes a remark suggesting that Jimmy's own woman might be putting his theory to the test. Jimmy picks up on the hint and reacts angrily. He is later forced to admit to himself that he acted from jealousy.

He walks home intending to confess to his de facto, Margie, his own infidelities and to give her the option of leaving him if she wishes. But, arriving home early, he disturbs her with another man.

At this point, Devanny makes some telling points. It's not just that Jimmy struggles with "the fire of his jealousy". Devanny suggests that Jimmy has a transcendent sense of what Margie is as a woman - of her loveliness and goodness - and that he feels deceived to think of her now in lesser terms as just another player. It makes her less special in his eyes, more mundane:

'... you should have told me before you did it ... we always agreed that you would tell me if you liked another man better than me. I'd have let you go.' She dropped her eyes from his.

'I don't like him better than you. I don't like him at all really.'

This turned him cold. He looked away from her and tried to get what that admission meant. It was not hard to get. It means that she was just another - Mrs Phillips ... The Socialist's soul filled with an anguish unspeakable, the anguish of broken trust in something he had reverenced ... His Margie, so good, so kind, so sweet and loving! He knew so much about women. Too much not to recognise now that Margie was an 'old hand' at this game.

(Note how Devanny, supposedly a scientific materialist, once again reaches for words like soul and reverenced to impart meaning to a situation.)

Jimmy tries to apply reason and principles to the situation. He cannot do as other men might and punish her by calling her a bad woman - after all, he believes in sexual liberty as a defining point of a person's humanity. So he has nowhere to go: he cannot bear her betrayal but cannot condemn it either. His principle of liberty hasn't brought him freedom; Devanny writes simply that "He was caged."

Margie then suggests a way out. The answer is to make sex not matter. If it's treated as a meaningless physical act, not expressing anything beyond itself, then the infidelity won't count for much. A relationship between a man and a woman could instead be founded on comradeship or friendship:

... she was right; her attitude was the only one if they were to continue living together. He must conquer himself. What was she saying? - "Make too much of this silly sex act. It doesn't mean anything, really. It is the smallest thing in life. It takes up only a moment or two out of millions of moments. The things that matter are comradeship, congeniality, friendship and kindness ...

(I was reminded when reading this of the modern day feminist who, when it comes to sex, "puts the act itself on a par with sneezing").

Devanny has spelled out the logic of sexual liberty for us. For sexual liberty to be made practicable, sex itself must be made not to matter. It can be made free by being made unimportant. Relationships are to be reconceived in more platonic and mundane terms as expressions of friendship and not of romantic or sexual love.

Jimmy tries to accept the new dispensation:

'She must be right. I must apply reason. If reason can't triumph over emotion, mind over matter, there is no hope for the world. No hope!'

He continues, though, to feel caged and tormented. He comes to think of his situation as hopeless and in a mad despair kills Margie.

So the politics of sexual liberty fails spectacularly in Devanny's story. Why then did she continue to promote this politics? Why stay with a system of thought which you know can't work as it's supposed to in practice?

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