Here is another guest post by frequent commenter and friend of the Orthosphere, Dale James Nelson.
Sherlock Holmes: “You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?”
Watson: “The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as–”
“My blushes, Watson!” Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.
Watson: “I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public.”
Doyle, The Valley of Fear (1915)
Holmes’s vanity tripped him up that time. Probably he did blush then. If literature is a reliable guide, people used to blush, or even flush, quite often.
Her blood shrank back to her heart at the very thought [of marrying for wealth], and then rushed to her neck and bosom in a flood of shame.
Haggard, Stella Fregelius (1903)
Examples could be multiplied. It seems there was a Victorian-Edwardian cult of blushing as a sign of lively sensibility – so that the hero of Trollope’s Dr. Thorne (1858), Frank Gresham, blushes when an older woman suggests that a young lady might like to settle at Greshamsbury for life, i.e. marry him, and we readers certainly are meant to approve of the young man’s modesty. Such blushing reassured readers of the persistence of wholesome human feeling in a society increasingly materialistic, hurried, and impersonal.
Those who read more current fiction than I do can inform me if people still blush in novels today. My sense is that they don’t, except perhaps to get “red with anger.”
Blushing is as much a matter of the soul as of physiology. “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to” (Mark Twain). Incidentally, I think writers used to make a distinction: someone’s face might be flushed with exertion or anger, but someone blushed with love, shame or embarrassment. Authors frequently noted the rushing of blood to the face as the sign that someone was much moved.
Blushing was an example of the eloquence of the body-soul unity of the person.
Owen Barfield as recorded by G. B. Tennyson in ToWards 2:6 (Spring/Summer 1985): “one could not do better than Trollope’s Dr. Thorne in seeking an example of [Barfield’s] concept of ‘living in the blood’ surviving into the nineteenth century” (p. 25).
Related to blood is heart. Mary, Thorne’s niece, experiences conflicted feelings after Frank Gresham has declared his love:
Mary had quite made up her mind that the whole thing was to be regarded as a folly, and that it was not to be spoken of to anyone; but yet her heart was sore enough.
Here the use of heart seems metaphorical; just a vivid, if familiar, way of saying that she felt sad. However, we read that, years ago, when the woman Dr. Thorne loved threw him over,
He rushed forth with a bursting heart.
Thorne’s heart, of course, was not exploding. The expression is entirely metaphorical. Or is it? In fact, he probably did feel an uncomfortable sensation in his chest. We may be slower, with this expression, to assume there was nothing “physical,” as compared with Mary’s sore heart.
Authors before our time didn’t distinguish nearly as rigorously as we do between, on one hand, blood and heart as components of the body, and, on the other hand, the “psychological” and immaterial. The earlier authors wrote passages such as these:
And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the scriptures?
St. Luke 24:32
Some of us still use expressions such as “She might not be very smart, but she has a good heart.” If asked, we would say that we are speaking wholly metaphorically. We aren’t talking about hearts at all but about dispositions, outlooks, or the like that have nothing to do with the so-called pump in our chests. We “know” that hearts are “nothing but” pumps – “tickers” – that can be fixed as machines are fixed, even replaced. We perceive our hearts as “machines,” though organic ones. Similarly, we perceive blood as a substance circulated through our vascular systems, bringing oxygen to every part of our bodies, etc. The non-literal uses of heart, blood, etc., we perceive as a matter of literary convention, that’s all.
But perhaps, in comparison to our forebears, we have a diminished experience of the human. Surrounded by machines and encouraged to quantify everything so that performance can be measured and improved, it doesn’t bother us to say, “I’m 99% sure she loves me,” etc. Thinking thus of ourselves, we are increasingly conscious of the relatively “mechanical” aspects (the least eloquent) of our human totality, and decreasingly conscious of the more uniquely human aspects.
By reading older literature we may be able to recover a wider sense of the human.
Two other observations suggest to me a diminishment of the experience of being human.
- People have stopped whistling. Teachers don’t scold kids for whistling any more; if the lad is still happy, at any rate his happiness doesn’t naturally flow forth in music. I think he’s probably just not very happy.
whatever happened to the man walking down the street
with his hands in his pockets whistling a tune?
T Bone Burnett, “The Wild Truth”
Popular music, it seems, tends to be rhythmic rather than tune-oriented and it’s been that way for quite a while. If we listen to older, more tuneful music, we may find ourselves whistling again.
- Young men and women don’t hold hands, or walk around with arms around each others’ waists, nearly the way they did when I was in my twenties – the way I and the future Mrs. Nelson did. I wonder why? I think good people in love might want to consider walking hand-in-hand and shaming the devil.