“My Blushes, Watson!”: Of Blood, Blushing, Whistling, & Holding Hands

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

10 thoughts on ““My Blushes, Watson!”: Of Blood, Blushing, Whistling, & Holding Hands

  1. Note the common etymological root of “flow” (thus, “flower,” “flourish”), “blow,” “bless,” and “bleed, blood.” Our forebears understood the world as flux; vz., Heraclitus, Lao Tse. We understand it as a machine; or, later, a digital computer. Most recently, however, we have come to understand reality as quantal, chopped up into bits of information. And this quantal approach does succeed at cutting through the Gordian knot of the Zenonian paradoxes of motion. But quanta can make no sense as constituents of a world system, properly so-called, unless they are related. Their relations can make no sense unless they are tied together in an orderly net, a nexus, an overall flux of interactions, in which the properties and characteristics – the feelings, the ways that they are, the what it is like to be them – of past events flow into, or are otherwise somehow appropriated by, their successors, so that there is a handing off from one event to another of their common properties.

    The crucial change is from the modern mechanistic notion of matter as composed of bits of dead stuff to the next, orthological age’s conception of reality as composed of bits of information – of feeling, of life. How can bits of dead stuff interact? Prima facie, it is difficult to see how; even collisions between particles are now understood as interactions of electromagnetic fields of potential. But bits of information? Much easier to grasp.

  2. By reading older literature we may be able to recover a wider sense of the human.

    Indeed. This is a fantastic piece. I hadn’t noticed that literary characters used to “blush” more than they do now, although I do seem to recall that Rosie Cotton made Sam blush at least once.

    Something I have noticed in older literature – Sherlock Holmes offers a fine example! – is the phenomenon of the older bachelor who is perfectly content with that status. What’s intriguing about these characters is that never is there any suggestion that something is “wrong” with them. Today, by contrast, a male character who remained unmarried or celibate would be portrayed as a “loser”, or else as a closeted homosexual, and of course sundry characters like Sherlock Holmes *have* been accused of harbouring homosexual tendencies.

  3. My wife is a prolific fiction reader, and reads both modern and classic lit.

    I asked her what she thinks about characters blushing, told her the context that someone on the O’sphere thoguht that modern characters don’t blush as much, speculated on the meaning of that–

    Her experience is that the blushing now is mostly done by women only, and the modern blushing is not usually out of any sense of decency from the character. So in short, without being primed, she noticed the same thing DJN did.

  4. This modern world of ours has been robbed of metaphors, personifications, and modesty. To compare fictional literature of old to the horrible fictional, I hate to even claim it to be literature, of today is heart wrenching. The poetry is hollow because it lacks spirit. All can be summarized the triumph of materialism over imagination.

    Also, Dale James Nelson, this post of yours inspired me to write one of a rather similar theme. I thank you for that.

    Modernity Kills the Imagination: http://occidentaltraditionalist.blogspot.com/2012/04/modernity-kills-imagination.html


  5. And then there was the peculiar habit of ladies fainting every second page in Gothic novels…

    I was interested to read recently (in The Spectator) that the importance of the heart in keeping the blood circulating around the body was not discovered until Cromwell’s time, by a Dr William Harvey. Interested – because I knew that there were many earlier metaphors involving the heart, often (as in the quote above) as the centre of emotion. (I presume these come from earlier Greek and Latin medical notions?)

    I quite like the machine-human comparison/metaphor but I do admit it’s been overused; and I’m sure I’ve overused it myself. The most powerful metaphors for the human are those which compare the human to other non-manmade things.

  6. :”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.”

    Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’d love to see a post from a musical perspective about the decline of melody. One of the most beautiful parts of the musical art – and it’s rather hard to come by these days. And it can be easy to miss a beautiful melody, if it’s submerged under an insistent drum beat.

    • Schubert’s “Ständchen” is, arguably, the most beautiful melody known to man. I think the absence of a drum beat is a major contributing factor to its attraction.

  7. Pingback: Modernity kills the imagination « The Occidental Traditionalist


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