The State of Exception and Exceptional States in Elizabeth Bowen's Wartime Ghost Stories

Laura Murphy
2019 Open Library of Humanities  
In this article, I consider Elizabeth Bowen's depiction of the impact on citizens of their changing political and legal relationship to the British state during World War II, using Agamben and Freud's writing about wartime behaviour of the state to illuminate Bowen's short fiction, in particular 'The Demon Lover' and 'Green Holly.' Although from different points on the political spectrum, Agamben, like Bowen, is opposed to the expansion of the state into the lives of citizens. As a legal
more » ... . As a legal philosopher, he has written extensively on the early to mid-twentieth century, and the article takes his theory, expressed in The State of Exception, as its starting point. The article goes on to compare the evocation of the state's presence and treatment of its citizens in 'The Demon Lover' and 'Green Holly,' incorporating Freud's essay 'Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.' I then focus on Bowen's portrayal of the socio-legal predicament that women were placed in through consideration of the literary antecedents to 'The Demon Lover,' the history of state surveillance of war widows, and Bowen's short radio play, 'A Year I Remember -1918.' The article culminates with the most exceptional state in the stories, and in Freud: the ghosts. I discuss the extent to which they represent the unmourned wartime dead or the existential anxiety experienced not only because of the threat of death during war, but also, the threat to individuality, rights and legal status created by the state of exception. Murphy: The State of Exception and Exceptional States in Elizabeth Bowen's Wartime Ghost Stories 2 'The individual who is not himself a combatant -and so a cog in the gigantic machine of war -feels bewildered in his orientation, and inhibited in his powers and activities.' (Freud 1985: 62) 'During the war, l lived, both as a civilian and as a writer with every pore open... We all lived in a state of lucid abnormality.' (Bowen 1945) 'World War One (and the years following it) appear as a laboratory for testing and honing the functional mechanisms and apparatuses of the state of exception as a paradigm of government.' (Agamben 2005: 7) Elizabeth Bowen wrote her wartime collection of short stories -The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) -under the stress of living through the London Blitz. As an Anglo-Irish writer, employed to spy in Ireland by the British Government's Ministry of Information, she was an active participant in the state's increased involvement in the lives of its citizens, and those beyond its borders (Lee, 1999: 150). Despite this, Lassner (1991: 157) could still write that 'interest in Bowen's historical and political concerns [has] been limited.' Since then, more attention has been paid to Bowen as a political writer, including by Lassner herself, who produced the first fulllength study of Bowen's short fiction, considering the 'psychological experience' so often focused on in Bowen's writing, but within the context of 'social, economic and political forces.' (1991: 3) Her focus, along with many subsequent critics, was on Bowen as politically informed by 'her Anglo-Irish history,' where 'the horrors of Ireland's endless strife' inform her story writing (1991: 6). 1 More recently, Janice Ho (2015: 88) has explored Bowen's relationship to the British state in her chapter on The Heat of the Day, demonstrating that, 'The question of what ought to be the 1 Bowen's writings are often included in critical works on Ireland and Irishness. See, for example, D.
doi:10.16995/olh.477 fatcat:eauesqv2ljhdpctjkhiccnghdm