In a paper I wrote on Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party,' I think in the late-nineties, I started by presenting, in brief, the following facts and numbers. 30% of the programs on French television, at the time the source I used did its research, consisted of news or documentary type broadcastings. The corresponding number for BBC-Television was 22.9%. In the United States, 59% of the people interviewed mentioned television as their major source of information; only sleeping and working took up more time of the day of the average American than watching TV. As I recall the numbers came from surveys done as far back as the seventies, and I pointed out that, by the time of writing the paper, they no doubt had become substantially more extreme; this is true to a still higher degree at the present day, with a host of new technologies and means of communication having evolved. We're now at a wholly different level of news exchange. The point I was making was that people, through modern media, were first-hand witnesses of most of what went on throughout the world, they couldn't possibly, believably maintain they didn't know - as they could, one would imagine, in the pre-mass media days.
I compared the numbers given with some facts on foreign aid (these facts were taken from the eighties/early-nineties, and they too by now will seem too meek). For the three countries mentioned above, France, England, and the United States, foreign aid in percentage of the GNP was in the range of 0.6, 0.3, and 0.2 respectively, showing a clearly downward trend. The point here was that, any aid there actually was for those in need - and there was ludicrously little, as we see - was insufficient, anybody with a TV in their home, or a newspaper, must know that. Nobody in their proper senses could deny it: these were "scraps" in the most detrimental meaning of the word, nothing but crumbs, the last leftovers from the tables of the rich.
The moral issue I addressed was, with what right can people watch how others suffer on the screen, without an earnest thought of offering real help. To what extent are they entitled to enjoy their lucky fortune, in the face of all the misery they see, seated comfortably, at ease, well-fed and sheltered in their armchairs - do they think they somehow earned the privilege? And, since they're not prepared to sacrifice the least piece of their wealth, the slightest bit of what they've got to lend a hand, wouldn't it maybe be more decent to stop watching once for all, just get up and turn the show they're offered off. Like I say, the disproportion at the current point in time (crisis and all) is eminently more severe.
The broader theme, in consequence, was guilt (or rather sense of guilt). I went on to search for parallels in Katherine Mansfield's story.
The story tells about an upper middle-class family in New Zealand; the time is set at the beginning of the previous century. They're about to have a party and the air is of great ease, of affluence and few financial restraints. Expensive dishes are delivered and prepared by domestic servants, decorations are arranged by workmen hired for the purpose, and there is going to be a band, even a band, as an exchange between Laura, the youngest daughter of the family, and one workman lets us know. The story basically is told from Laura's special point of view: a girl just short of becoming a woman, with some hints of sexual awakening and a budding social conscience, she's the central character in Mansfield's account. Although she's obviously a member of the family - the Sheridans - her sensibility and openness of thinking, the honest effort she reveals to free herself sets her apart; she stands for change, potentially, and in her role no other character would do.
While preparations for the party still continue around the house, the family learns that a poor worker from "the cottages just below" has had an accident and died - a completely different world makes its appearance with the news. As it turns out, the lane immediately next door to the Sheridans' garden is a slum of utter poverty and extreme social need; the man who died, who left behind a wife and five underage children, was the inhabitant of one of the slum's cottages, these "little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown," as Laura, in her mind, refers to them. In the context of the reality of the day the husband's death means that the wife and her five children will be doomed, they've lost whatever little means of livelihood they had till then.
Laura reacts wanting to call the party off. "But we can't possibly have a garden party with a man dead just outside the front gate," she says to Jose, one among her older sisters; Jose rejects her attitude as just absurd and extravagant, and Mrs. Sheridan, their mother, shares that view. Laura insists: "They're almost neighbors!" but her mother curtly urges her to use her common sense, "people like that don't expect sacrifices from us." Nobody else sees any reason why the party should be stopped.
The party actually takes place and afterwards, when Mr. Sheridan quite tactlessly brings up the incident, Mrs. Sheridan comes up with what the text presents to us as yet one more of her unique brilliant ideas. To console the mourning family next door she sends off Laura to the cottage with a basket full of food left from the party, the round of scraps that they themselves have no more appetite to eat.
Laura's encounter with the outside world will prove traumatic; she returns her senses shaken, maybe wiser and less innocent than before but by this time decidedly more of a part, or reconciled with her own family. Under the shock her home has turned into a safe, welcome refuge, and if there's something sinister, a deep injustice in the world - she won't be able anymore to tell herself that there is not - there's nothing there in any case that she alone could do to change it. She might as well accept the fact and do the best of what she's got since, finally, in doing so she won't be hurting anybody.
Clearly, the story Mansfield tells us ultimately is of failure. Unlike the others, Laura sees the situation as it is, she recognizes the injustice and the need there is to react but in the end she won't accept the consequences - in the end she's more deplorable than any of the rest because she has the faculties but lacks integrity to use them. She has the gift - responsibility which follows from the gift - and when she's tested she can't rise to the occasion but betrays what was her innermost and honest, unspoiled nature. [Despite its technical deficiencies - as usual, as becomes obvious on reading the initial lines above, I wasn't all too studious in my research, not much concerned about statistics and precise, revealing numbers, rather relying on the force of argument, some dedication in my treatment of the text - in spite of this the paper earned me a good grade, it showed a sharp moral awareness of the world as I recall, I'm still confused about the meaning of the phrase. Moral awareness.? An awareness of the world.?]
'The Garden Party' was first published in 1922. The actual event which it is based on was a party Katherine Mansfield's mother gave in 1907. The girl sent off carrying the scraps wasn't Katherine Mansfield herself but her sister Vera; the events the story relates correspond largely to what actually took place.
Between the actual event and the story itself is the First World War, in which Katherine Mansfield's brother died, in 1915. The incident of her brother's death seems to have influenced her writing.
The brother reappears more directly in 'The Fly,' in the form of the memory of a son killed in the war. Mansfield evidently, to some extent felt herself in debt to her dead brother - at some point she talks about how now her debt to him has been paid [this and other data in this passage are from biographies by Antony Alpers and Ian A. Gordon] - and the moral theme in 'The Garden Party' is surely no coincidence but the expression of an underlying feeling she maintained that she in fact, in some sense should have been there with him. It can't be right to only stand by unconcerned while others suffer, we at least should have the rectitude to share their sufferings with them. None of us really is the maker or the waster of our luck, no one deserves a better fortune than the other - this idea that all are equal inasmuch as they deserve an equal chance, the same conditions to fulfill their innate capabilities, born and developed in the French and the American Revolution, is one we seem to have abandoned recently, taking for granted that things work in the precise opposite way: any measure of success must be in ratio to our merit, any failure or misfortune to a simple lack of it. As we can see, 'The Garden Party' hardly lends itself to such interpretations.
"The Garden Party" by ANTHONY RICHARD TIFFIN (oil on canvas)
Across a rich construct of layers, what Katherine Mansfield is pursuing is our moral decency. Overwhelmed by the enormous disproportion between worlds - her own security against the deadly misery of the huts - Laura decides to blot that part of the reality from her mind. The scraps she brings can maybe be "the greatest treat for the children," at any rate it will do nothing whatsoever to allow the widowed mother to preserve them from their ugly starving fate; the mere dimension of the gorge opened before her crushes Laura, she escapes into the comfort of the customs she's been taught and so the party, and the parties yet to come can all take place. If they do or if they don't, the poor will suffer as before, the trick you have to learn is somehow to ignore them.
But the beginning of the story seems to speak of something else; of an awakening and hope, of change and choices there to make - the part where Laura's youth and character stand out so beautifully. There's something thoroughly offensive in the family's response: they can't call off a social occasion every time "a drunken workman" happens to die; we are made to sympathize with Laura's doubts and her reluctance to conform, gently seduced to take her side against the staid social conventions. When she surrenders in the end we feel the blow of her defeat. And there's the presence of the cottages, unchanging to the end, their unmistaken misery that can be seen from the Sheridans' house. Today technology has made the world much smaller than it was, death and misfortunes now don't have to be next door to be observed, they can be anywhere, in any part of any Continent. To ignore them, any of them now requires a conscious act, the act that Laura is performing as the story, in the evening, comes to a close.
The opening -final- question then remains. How can we possibly, how can we have a party going on while at the same time people languish in their agony at our feet - they're right in front of us, we see them, we can watch them day to day. How can we sit eating our hamburgers - what people like to eat - enjoying it, watching the others starve to death two steps away. How can we morally defend it. Even the most religious mind must see the screaming crime in this: children, defenseless, helpless people, old and sick with no control, no kind of influence on what is going on, who suffer senselessly while we, the others, live on so content (that, as a concept, in itself is always only relative: if things are starting to get worse for others too, it mostly means they have to think of cutting down on their abundance) - suffering, really, so that others have the means to do their shopping. Abstaining from our excess meals won't still their hunger - maybe not, but even so there's something morally perverted in the fact that we accept the situation without taking concrete steps. And if we switch off our devices and forget about the rest - that at the most would be the decent thing to do - nothing will change, the world is out there as before, we know it is. We're past the point where we could credibly deny it. All this occurs to me while editing a short text that I wrote not long ago, in which the dialogue I reproduce below appears; it seems I carried it around for quite some time. It seems not very much has changed during the intervening years - or, if it has, not in the way one too ingenuously could have wished. Or does one actually imagine that things change by their own weight, without an active contribution, one first effort on our part? [In the text, two neighbors meet half involuntarily at a diner; they start to talk about a friend back from their school days who has died, who didn't make it to their level on the local social scale - the cause of death, coincidently, as in Katherine Mansfield's story, is a workplace accident - and at one stage their conversation takes this turn.]
Steve picked up his half-chewed wing and started in on it again. I watched the back-bar TV screen, and there's those images I'd dread. The footline text spoke of Darfur, and you saw kids, their bellies swollen, arms and legs like sticks, dying. You used to ask about those images at home, when you were small (about Biafra, in those days). You never had a good reply. My kids asked me (about Somalia, those days); I never had a good reply. Those images even the gloss-cards CNN couldn't destroy. "How can you eat and watch that thing?" I said to Steve - just what you'd asked yourself those days, going to bed after a meal.
"Doesn't it feel like someone dying at your feet, and you don't care? Or you're indulging in your food while they don't have it. Why is that?"
"Oh boy, you come on like a child. I don't have any kind of clue what you are saying. No one in here that I could see that would be dying without food, nothing my eating or not eating chicken wings could do to change that."
"Yes, well. You're stupid, like I say."
"Not more than you, I'd think," Steve said.
I took my eyes off from the screen and tried the coffee; it was cold. "You think we're better. Don't you, Steve? You think we managed things more shrewdly so it's right we'd benefit. We're somehow worth the edge we've got, that's what you're thinking. Isn't it? So what's a four-year-old in Africa or somewhere ever have that he could manage bad or good, that he'd be suffering for that?"
"Hey, that's too simple. It isn't him or us in person, it goes back. Our people knew what they were doing when they built this country up, and those guys don't."
"And what's that got do, you think, with that kid up there starving to death, what's it to him how someone went and built the country up for him? He's starving now, he's never had another choice except just that. He's got no bigger part in that than you yourself in what our people started here, before you're ever even thought of."
"Those were my people. My own ancestors, for Christ. Everybody just take care of what's their own."
"Ever talked about those matters with a German, Steve? I did. They'll say - not all of them, but some of them will tell you yes, okay, the concentration camps, the Nazis, that was bad, that's unforgivable from any view you're taking on the issue; but don't hold us responsible, there's nothing we could do to stop it. Listen, we're born a good few fifty years or so after it happened. And you'll agree with them of course, what did they do to bring that on. Then you go on and ask the same guys about immigration laws. About the Turks that is, in their case I suppose. No, they will say, we want those people out of here, just keep them out. They come and try to benefit at our expense, from what we've built - fifty years, however long before we're born, but all the same. Our predecessors anyway. So when there's profit it's all theirs, but when there's blame it wasn't them - and that's exactly the same logic that you're using here yourself, the same old song that you keep hearing everywhere, again and again."
"Come on, get out. Talk like a lawyer; talk of Jerries if you will. You're just so guilt ridden for some reason you can't think straight, that's all. If it's the other way around, if we're the ones that starve and those guys that you see got it all made, what do you think those guys would do? Fall on their knees and cry for us, and wave their meals out of compassion?"
"I bet the bastards wouldn't give the slightest fig. What does that change? Or, I don't know, some of them would, some of them wouldn't, just like us."
"And no one acts."
"And no one acts, that's it. You're right, there's few who do - okay, no one. What does that change? That make you hungry, Steve, that's giving you an appetite or what?"
"Oh, I don't know. It won't disturb it, that's for sure."
Something else that bothers me, I might have added there and then. People who get places, like us, who're doing reasonably well: it seems it's always, in all places, the same people. Or say that somewhat differently. People who get places will get places in all societies, from Pinochet's Chile to Red China to the ancient GDR, right up to ours. Suck up to power, that's the game we're taught to play to get ahead; and those beneath us on the scale nothing but bums, or useless whiners. Who'd care one bit about a street sweeper, in any place we've seen? Or about Luke, I guess, as well, who'd care what Luke could have to say?