It’s Not Always More Blessed to Give

Mary Snow

Millais, “Angel of Light” (Trollope’s Mary Snow)

I want to follow up yesterday’s post about idealizing self-sacrifice. If I have suddenly and unexpectedly become enthralled with the novels of Anthony Trollope, it is in part because I find in them many of the Victorian values that I was raised on. One of these is denying one’s own desires to help someone else out.

In yesterday’s post I gave an example of a narcissist, Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, who thinks she is selflessly giving up a painter with whom she flirts but, by any objective measure, she is guided only by her own selfishness (which includes seeing herself as a heroic self sacrificer). But while she herself is a fraud, Trollope has any number of heroines who heroically surrender their own claims for the happiness of the man they love.

I remember ascribing to this vision of virtue when growing up and of burying many of my own needs. I felt guilty asking for things that I wanted—would I be seen as greedy?—and regularly censored my desires. The result was that I didn’t know what it was I truly wanted. I was impressed with people who demanded that things be a certain way since I was always willing to be satisfied with whatever I received.

Some deep part of myself must have chafed against this vision, however, because I thrilled to authors who challenged this perspective. I now realize they were rebelling against visions such as Trollope’s.

First of all, there was Shaw’s devil in Man and Superman, which I read as a high school senior. At one point he asserts that “an Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable.” Shaw was drawing on Nietzsche, who I encountered in a sophomore ethics class with a thrill of recognition. In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues Christian self-sacrifice is not noble but rather a plot of a slave religion to subjugate the the free spirited Ubermensch/Superman.

Above all, I was drawn to D. H. Lawrence, also inspired by Nietzsche, who in The Man Who Died imagines a different Jesus than the one Victorians conceptualized. This Jesus lives for himself rather than sacrificing himself for others. A characteristic passage from the novella is this post-crucifixion interchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalene:

 “Do you want to be alone henceforward?” she asked. “And was your mission nothing? Was it all untrue?”

“Nay!” he said. “Neither were your lovers in the past nothing. They were much to you, but you took more than you gave. Then you came to me for salvation from your own excess. And I, in my mission, I too ran to excess. I gave more than I took, and that also is woe and vanity. So Pilate and the high priests saved me from my own excessive salvation. Don’t run to excess now in living, Madeleine. It only means another death.”

She pondered bitterly, for the need for excessive giving was in her, and she could not bear to be denied.

“And will you not come back to us?” she said. “Have you risen for yourself alone?”

He heard the sarcasm in her voice, and looked at her beautiful face which still was dense with excessive need for salvation from the woman she had been, the female who had caught men at her will. The cloud of necessity was on her, to be saved from the old, wilful Eve, who had embraced many men and taken more than she gave. Now the other doom was on her. She wanted to give without taking. And that, too, is hard, and cruel to the warm body.

“I have not risen from the dead in order to seek death again,” he said.

By the end of the work, Jesus is having an affair with a priestess of Isis and learning what it is to accept the body. To a college student in the flush of his hormones who felt vaguely guilty about sex—who felt the virtue meant denying the desires of the body–this was powerful stuff. Looking back, Jesus’ climactic moment some sees overwrought but it didn’t read that way to a 21-year-old:

Now all his consciousness was there in the crouching, hidden woman. He stooped beside her and caressed her softly, blindly, murmuring inarticulate things. And his death and his passion of sacrifice were all as nothing to him now, he knew only the crouching fullness of the woman there, the soft white rock of life…”On this rock I built my life.” The deep-folded, penetrable rock of the living woman! The woman, hiding her face. Himself bending over, powerful and new like dawn.

He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.

“I am risen!”

Magnificent, blazing indomitable in the depths of his loins, his own sun dawned, and sent its fire running along his limbs, so that his face shone unconsciously.

He untied the string on the linen tunic and slipped the garment down, till he saw the white glow of her white-gold breasts. And he touched them, and he felt his life go molten. “Father!” he said, “why did you hide this from me?” And he touched her with the poignancy of wonder, and the marvellous piercing transcendence of desire. “Lo!” he said, “this is beyond prayer.” It was the deep, interfolded warmth, warmth living and penetrable, the woman, the heart of the rose! My mansion is the intricate warm rose, my joy is this blossom!

I learned from Lawrence that too much self denial is as bad as too little and that it is as bad to give without taking as it is to take without giving.

To be sure, I never took Nietzsche to the point that someone like Ayn Rand did, embracing a philosophy of selfishness. Taking without giving bends the stick too much in the other direction. It still seems heroic to me to sacrifice myself for others, which in my case means for my family and my students.

I’m still Victorian in the sense that I continue to have difficulty acknowledging what I want and valuing my desires. But a stick that was bent too much in a 19th century direction is now a bit straighter.

For all his Victorian sensibility, Trollope has a balance worth striving for. In Doctor Thorne, his wonderfully spunky heroine Mary may be willing to sacrifice her claims on the high-born Frank Gresham but, very refreshingly, she won’t deny that she loves him. She doesn’t censor her desires, even though she governs her conduct carefully. In that way, she is a healthier figure than, say, Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette,who denies her feelings so much that she has a mental breakdown.

Trollope offers us a healthy mixture of principled behavior and healthy desire. I’m reluctant to condemn our culture today as shallow, materialistic, and narcissistic because there are many exceptions. But to the extent that this characterization rings true, Trollope provides us with a healthy antidote.

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