Hallucinations as an escape from reality – Elizabeth Bowen’s Mysterious Kor

Elizabeth Bowen is a British author who made herself famous by writing, and publishing war–related fiction during World War II. One of her most notable works is the collection of short stories called The Demon Lover, which was published in 1945. The focus of this paper is Elizabeth Bowen’s short story, Mysterious Kor, which features in the collection The Demon Lover.

This short story is about a couple that feel displaced in war–torn London. They try to make sense of life, and their relationship. However, this paper doesn’t summarize the short story, but offers an analysis of the hallucinations present. Moreover, this research explains why, how, and do hallucinations serve as an escape from reality. This is shown through the character of Pepita, and her relationship with her boyfriend Arthur, and also her friend Callie.

The most important thing would be to explain why and how this short story was written. Mysterious Kor is both the dream, and title of the story. The name Mysterious Kor appears in Rider Haggard’s novel – She. Elizabeth Bowen read this novel as a child, and this spurred her imagination to write her own story – Mysterious Kor. In Natsumi Amano’s paper on Hallucinations in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Stories (2005), he quotes Bowen:

“I saw Kor before I saw London; I was a provincial Child… I was inclined to see London as Kor with the roofs still on. The idea that life in any capital city must be ephemeral, and with a doom ahead, remained with me – a curious obsession for an Edwardian child-She, the book, glutted my imagination with images and pictures of which I could not, it seemed, have enough.” (Amano, 2005: 7).

This quotation is quite important as it gives sense to the crux of the story. Moreover, the psychological background behind Bowen writing this is explained by Sigmund Freud, who in On Creative Writers and Daydreaming (2013), is quoted saying that “A strong experience in the present awakens…a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfillment in the creative work. The work itself exhibits elements of the recent provoking occasion as well as of the old memory.”.  (Person, Fonagy, and Figueira: 2013: 12).

Important to the analysis is the setting of Mysterious Kor. Right from the start, Elizabeth Bowen portrays the bleak and doomy world of war–torn London: “Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct.” (Bowen, 2006: 728). This is the place where the main characters find themselves in. It’s quite ominous and hopeless. A reality which spurs the central character Pepita to daydream and hallucinate. However, before Pepita’s hallucinations, and dreams are illustrated, it is important to explain their origin, or why any such fantasies would occur.

In the Interpretation of Dreams (2005), Sigmund Freud says that “the content of the dream is thus the fulfillment of a wish; its motive is a wish”. (Freud, 2005: 5). This completely fits into the context of this story, as Pepita and Arthur are the ones who wish to escape from London, to escape from reality. However, from his experiences with patients, Freud concludes that “a happy person never phantasies, only an unsatisfied one. The motive forces of phantasies are unsatisfied wishes, and every single phantasy is the fulfillment of a wish, a correction of unsatisfying reality.” (Freud, 2013: 11).  The unsatisfying reality is the war–drenched world that Pepita and Arthur inhabit. Pepita says “The world is disenchanted…that was what set me off hating civilization”.  (Bowen, 2006: 730). The cruel reality made Pepita disenchanted, made her want to dream of something else, of something better. That is why we have the concept of “Mysterious Kor” in the story. Mysterious Kor is her dream destination, her escape from reality. The only thing that makes sense in Pepita’s life, or that gives life meaning.

“I always think about Kor. ‘Not about me?’ he said. When she did not at once answer, he turned her hand over, in anguish, inside his grasp. ‘Because I’m not there when you want me – is that my fault?’ But to think about Kor is to think about you and me”. (Bowen, 2006: 730). Freud, however, says that “The daydreamer hides his fantasies from others, and even if he were to reveal them, others would get no pleasure from them.” (Freud, 2013: 97). This is reaffirmed by the quote above. Moreover, here we get the sense that all is not well in Arthur and Pepita’s relationship. This is further illustrated when Arthur tries to accommodate Pepita’s fantasies, and makes an effort to be romantic, only to be sarcastically spurned: “I don’t know about ‘next’, but I do know what we’d do first.’ ‘What, Arthur?’ ‘Populate Kor’. She said ‘I suppose it would be all right if our children were to marry each other’.” (Bowen, 2006: 731). As we can see, war–drenched London is full of horrible tensions twisting the lover’s feeling toward their vulnerable future.

As we follow Arthur and Pepita’s wanderings through moonlit London, the story comes to a point where they decide to seek refuge, a home, a place to stay where they can rest and be intimate. It is here that we encounter the third character of Mysterious Kor – Callie. Callie is Pepita’s friend, and roommate. They share a flat together, hence this is where the story takes us next. She helps us achieve a better understanding of the other characters. Moreover, it is important to mention that this is a tiny flat, and the three of them cramping together is in a way a scene of social comedy. The irony is emphasized by them getting ready to go to sleep, when Pepita and Callie have an argument about cramping together, having to share the flat, and not being able to sleep under the moonlight, “We can’t sleep in all this moon…And didn’t you hear? I asked if Arthur’s got all he wants. That’s what I meant – have you got a screw loose, really? Pepita, I won’t stay here if you’re going to be like this. In that case, you had better go in with Arthur…What about me? Arthur loudly said through the wall. I can hear practically all you girls are saying.” (Bowen, 2006: 736). Arthur and Pepita have no privacy there, and instead of a shelter, the flat serves as a prison. Furthermore, we find out that Callie had been expecting the two lovers, especially Arthur, “Callie’s innocence and her still unsought-out state had brought her to take a proprietary pride in Arthur; this was all the stronger, perhaps, because they had not yet met.” (Bowen, 2006: 732). We also find out that Pepita had already been having doubts over her relationship with Arthur, and that Callie had been sympathetic in trying keep the romance afloat:

“Sharing the flat with Pepita, this last year, she had been content with reflecting the heat of love. It was not, surprisingly, that Pepita seemed very happy – there were times when she was palpably on the rack, and this was not what Callie could understand. ‘Surely you owe it to Arthur,’ she would then say, ‘to keep cheerful? So long as you love each other -‘ Callie’s calm brow glowed – one might say that it glowed in place of her friend’s; she became the guardian of that ideality which for Pepita was constantly lost to view. It was true, with the sudden prospect of Arthur’s leave, things had come nearer to earth: he became a proposition, and she would have been as glad if he could have slept somewhere else.” (Bowen, 2006: 732).

As the story nears its end, we have to get back to the dreams, or more specifically, Pepita’s dreams. The story presents us with a scene where Arthur and Callie wake up, and begin to talk about Pepita, and her state of mind. “I’m glad she’s asleep – Funny the way she sleeps, isn’t it? You can’t help wondering where she is.” (Bowen, 2006: 738). Here Arthur gives an observation about Pepita and her dreaming. Freud claims that “The dream substitutes itself for action, as elsewhere in life.” (Freud, 2005: 224). Throughout the story, Arthur keeps wondering where Pepita’s mind is, where it has taken her, as obviously she is constantly absent–minded. Her stories about “Mysterious Kor” depict the way hallucinations take the form of escapism into dreams. My belief is that Pepita tries to save her identity, or what’s left of it through fantasy. “’Mysterious Kor’ introduces us to a character who attempts to escape from the trauma of reality by transforming London into the imaginary city of Kor…” (Thowsen, 2007: 152). Furthermore, Arthur stresses how taken aback he has been from all the hallucinations. He believes that her “games” have gone way too far. He is definitely scared now:

“So we began to play – we were off in Kor.’ ‘Core of what?’ ‘Mysterious Kor – ghost city.’ ‘Where?’ ‘You may ask. But I could have sworn she saw it, and from the way she saw it I saw it, too. A game’s a game, but what’s a hallucination? You begin by laughing, then it gets in you and you can’t laugh it off. I tell you, I woke up just now not knowing where I’d been; and I had to get up and feel round this table before I even knew where I was.” (Bowen, 2006: 738).

As we can see, Arthur has definitely lost his sense of place, and no longer knows how he feels, or how to feel about Pepita and their relationship. I think that he has understood that there is no longer any place for him in her dreams, and that her hallucinations will only separate them instead of uniting them. Ingfrid Thowsen confirms this in her doctoral thesis Identity at Risk: An Analysis of the Female Identity in Four of Elizabeth Bowen’s Wartime texts (2007) where she explains that war stands for a time where people’s thoughts to be safe are placed in doubt, and that warfare transforms and destructs the spatial awareness of people. (pp. 121). Furthermore, Thowsen says “Arthur does not explicitly voice the idea that Pepita’s imagination will separate them. Separation is imparted by the narrator’s presentation of the dream where it becomes explicit that Pepita seeks something other than love. Monumental buildings, openness, purity and sterility characterize the topography of Kôr, suggesting an infertile place.” (Thowsen, 2007: 175).

Pepita’s longing for Kor is worrying because she seeks the city of death to get away from civilization. The final scene portrays this perfectly:

“…it became certain, after another moment, that Pepita’s act of justice had been unconscious. She still lay, as she had lain, in an avid dream, of which Arthur had been the source, of which Arthur was not the end. With him she looked this way, that way, down the wide, void, pure streets, between statues, pillars and shadows, through archways and colonnades. With him she went up the stairs down which nothing but moon came; with him trod the ermine dust of the endless halls, stood on terraces, mounted the extreme tower, looked down on the statued squares, the wide, void, pure streets. He was the password, but not the answer: it was to Kor’s finality that she turned.” (Bowen, 2006: 739).

If anything, this tells us that Pepita wanted to escape reality by abandoning civilization, and that she craved for her own Eden sans people, war, and trouble. The distressing realization is that Arthur is likewise missing from this dream. There is not even place for him in her escapist hallucinations. Thowsen adds to this by saying:

“Pepita’s dream presents us to a city with “wide, void, pure streets” and with statues, pillars, archways and colonnades. The structure and buildings of the city seem to be intact, but humans are missing from the streets of Kôr. Thus the saving hallucination for Pepita is not the notion of the mythical city, but that it represents an escape from the crowds and cramped spaces of the wartime city. Consequently, the text suggests that identity is associated with a rejection of the world, rather than an interaction with the world.” (Thowsen, 2007: 176-177). Hence, we can conclude that Pepita has found her identity, no matter how distorted, by trying to escape reality through hallucinations, and compulsive daydreaming.

The story had already put the characters in a situation out of which we got patients ready for psychological analysis in terms of hallucinations, daydreaming, and phantasies. Ignes Sodre in her book Imaginary Existences: A psychoanalytic exploration of phantasy, fiction, dreams and daydreams (2015) says that: “an underlying theme is compulsive daydreaming – the creation of fantasies to deny and distort reality.” (Sodre, 2015: 29). Pepita is the one who constantly distorts reality throughout the narrative. She tries to distance herself from others, and also tries to escape from the horrors of the war–engulfed reality by creating an imaginary place, which of course is the ideal place for her because it exists only in her mind. However, these hallucinations can be damaging. Although helpful, hallucinations can also harm the psyche of a person. About the concept of hallucinations Bowen argues that:

“The hallucinations in the stories are not a peril; nor are the stories studies of mental peril. The hallucinations are an unconscious, instinctive, saving resort on the part of the characters: life, mechanized by the controls of wartime, and emotionally torn and impoverished by changes, had to complete itself in some way. It is a fact that in Britain, and especially in London, in wartime many people had strange deep intense dreams.” (Thowsen, 2007: 124).

However, this can be tricky. As I have said, although fantasy provides a safe haven, if not controlled, it can be quite damaging. We can witness this concern through the other characters in the story, such as Arthur and Callie. The best way to face and overcome trauma is to face it, not to run away from it.

 

Vasko Talevski

 

 

Bibliography:

Amano, N. (2005). Hallucinations in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Stories.

Bowen, E. (2006). The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen.
London: Vintage Books

Freud, S. (2005). The Interpretation of Dreams.
New York: Barnes and Noble Classics

Person, E. S., Fonagy, P., & Figueira, S. A. (Eds.). (2013). On Freud’s Creative Writers and Daydreaming. London: Karnac Books Ltd

Sodre, I. (2015). Imaginary Existences: A psychoanalytic exploration of phantasy, fiction, dreams and daydreams. New York: Routledge

Thowsen, I. (2007). Identity at Risk: An Analysis of Female Identity in Four of Elizabeth Bowen’s Wartime Texts. (Doctoral thesis). Retrieved from https://brage.bibsys.no/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/243425/122932_FULLTEXT01.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y