Thursday, September 07, 2006

Week 03, James

Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” (524-53) and “The Art of Fiction” (553-67).

Page-by-Page Notes on Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” (524-53).

James gives us an early example of modernist writing – complexity and obliqueness are his hallmarks, though these terms need not imply that his writing lacks precision. He seems to be pursuing a kind of psychological realism, which combines with his narrators’ analytical precision and refusal to accept explanations or appearances at their initial value. We should add to these comments on style the modernist understanding that much “communication” isn’t strictly verbal – thus the attention to the little things people do (gestures, glances, etc.), and sometimes to what isn’t said.

In James’ story here, we’re given a sense of fact at the outset that rapidly falls apart – John Marcher’s recollection of his meeting with May Bartram is by no means accurate, even though this meeting turns out to have great signficance. I recall Nietzsche’s comment, “facts are precisely what there aren’t – there are only interpretations.” Or Michel de Montaigne’s remark in the Essais (to paraphrase), “It is not things we need to examine; it is interpretations of things.” Memory turns out not to be reliable in the story at hand – it is important, but not a solution or an answer to Marcher’s problems, it seems – if anything, I’d say Marcher traps himself by reconstructing a highly overwrought sense of his own past.

Section 1. On 528-30, the narrator details Marcher’s current understanding of the longtime vague presentiment that shapes his entire life. What is this presentiment or intimation? Marcher waits and watches for the event (natural-seeming to him, but strange to others) that is to happen to him, he awaits his “fate.” I think James is as always an historian of consciousness in his treatment of Marcher’s obsession. That is, the mid-Victorian culture critic and poet Matthew Arnold had referred to modernity as a confusing time in which “everything is to be suffered or endured, nothing to be done” (paraphrase from the Preface to Arnold’s 1853 Poems). The modern human being, in other words, seems unable to act decisively in the world – too much going on, too much information floating around, which results in a feeling of paralysis. (Some internet-based British company markets a Jane Austen action figure – maybe they should offer a Matthew Arnold action figure, too. But what would he be doing? Quoting bleak poetry about inner confusion and loss of the will to act?) Well, then, Marcher is a typically modern man; he spins a a pathos-filled yarn about an event that is to happen to him, something that will be imposed upon him from without but which is nonetheless intimately related to his life’s course, his deepest personal identity. This event will lend purpose to his past and present, and cap off his life at the end with unique meaning. Meantime, it’s all waiting, speculation, exclusion of anything and anyone that doesn’t fit into his personal myth. We notice that Marcher turns May Bartram into a spectator of his life as well as an intimate confidante; she is attracted into his ego-orbit like a satellite circling a planet. Or at least that’s the way he seems to understand the relationship. Modernist authors are, of course, very much interested in “the power of myth” – an author such as T. S. Eliot, for instance, insists on collecting together the fragments of past myths and trying to make them serviceable in the present day. But Marcher’s myth is profoundly personal and even solipsistic – it doesn’t lead to an authentic sense of purpose or meaning, even if he’s quite certain that it does. We, as James’ collective readership, can’t buy into Marcher’s myth, even if we may not be as perceptive about our own personal myths as we are about that of a fictional character.

Section 2. On 532-33, Marcher implies that things between him and May are getting along, but really the story as a whole shares with Seinfeld the quality of “being about nothing.” Marcher’s genteel, Victorian-style regard for May’s feelings gives way on 532 to the naming of the Beast. The spring or leap of the beast organizes Marcher’s sense of the present and his expectations for the future; it is his personal version of the truth. James is as always concerned with the subjective side of life, with the nature of personal experience. But this emphasis doesn’t equate to the claim that getting in touch with subjectivity provides answers for all of life’s problems, either with regard to the individual or an entire society.

Section 4. For me, 540-44 have a “comi-tragic” quality. Marcher is mystified by May’s revelation to him – he has always played the Victorian gentleman with her, keeping her at arm’s distance since, after all, one doesn’t invite a lady on a tiger hunt. The only thing missing from May’s performance in the present section is the stock phrase “kiss me, you fool!” I suppose that for John Marcher, a genuine narcissist, “love” isn’t an event at all. This section makes me suspect that the narrator (and by implication Henry James) isn’t particularly interested in Marcher or his story. Instead, what we are getting is a psychological study of sorts, an analysis of how “life’s meaning” is spun. James was probably acquainted with John Stuart Mill’s account of his breakdown as a young man, and his consequent understanding that “meaning” or “happiness” is precisely what you don’t get when you seek it directly and organize your whole life around that search. “Ask yourself if you are happy,” wrote Mill, “and you cease to be so” (Autobiography).

Moreover, in the third and fourth sections, we see that May Bartram is defined as a Sphinx, that mysterious woman with all the answers. It seems to me that this definition of May as Sphinx (and Sibyl) is just a variation on the old “woman as the inessential other” sham. Marcher may not exactly be a ball of activity. In fact, he’s profoundly passive, waiting for that special something or that special nothing to happen to him. But May functions as the woman who supposedly lives to fulfill Marcher’s destiny. It’s possible that May speaks in riddles to draw us into Marcher’s mystification. By means of his opaque style, James keeps the kernel of a simple story hidden from us.

Section 6. Marcher undertakes a clichéd, empty trip to exotic Asia, and this trip is followed by what seems to be a final recognition on his part that he has thrown away his life in following the trail of his self-made delusional myth. Even so, he dies in the act of refusing enlightenment; he’s just trying to avoid the final spring of the Beast. Marcher has lived “the ancient problem of meaning,” and lived it badly – not heroically, as May claims at one point. I don’t suppose James is naïve enough to think we can dispose of myth-making altogether. So is James, by means of his narrator, offering us any moral here? Is the point of the story something like “all you need is love” or “action is the cure for all spiritual ailments”? I doubt it because James isn’t much of a sentimentalist, and we have heard these old saw about action before. It seems to me that the obliqueness and complexity of James’ style wards off sentimental readings of “The Beast in the Jungle” even as it may make us complicit in Marcher’s confusion and self-mystification. I find it hard to believe there are any easy solutions or answers to the question of meaning that has long driven people half-mad or paralyzed them. There’s a connection, a shock of recognition, for us as readers, I think – “yes, that might be me.” But I don’t feel a great deal of sympathy for Marcher at the point of his demise. I am instead left with a sense that the narrative treats the problem of meaning or purpose in a bemused, disinterested (i.e. neutral), almost jaded way, as if in self-contempt for even bringing up the whole affair yet again, for the umpteenth time in literary history. The ancient Greeks coul embrace the paradoxical notion that “fate” is imposed on us by external forces but also that we are nonetheless somehow still accountable for how we stand up to what happens to us. Marcher lives this ancient problem, and lives it rather badly. I treat Henry James as an historian of consciousness and western culture, not as an author bent upon offering us solutions to ancient (and modern) problems.

General Notes on Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction” (553-67).

James defends realism from the strict moralists who say that art can’t be realistic, that it’s always an attempt to deceive readers into taking fiction for fact. This misunderstanding stems from a failure to understand that there is something fundamentally fictive even about our perceptions of “reality.” Of course the moralists also find the writer’s freethinking and experimental way of dealing with community standards offensive.

James, as an early Modernist, finds the pre-Kantian and Puritanical basis of such arguments vulgar and narrow-minded. I think this goes towards the romanticism the editors find in his theory of fiction—the mind is creative, so it’s acceptable to make fictions. Put in modernist terms, this becomes a demand for formal innovation—the emphasis is on “making it new.” Fiction offers us a way to compare one set of stories with another—the one we call reality. We must maintain some dividing line between them, but not a concrete barrier.

What’s the difference between realism and poetry? It would be worthwhile to mention Oscar Wilde and the symbolists who condemn realism as a failed technique because, they say, it only panders to middle-class vanity and insipid expectations. James doesn’t see realism that way. He might say that prose fiction packs much the same innovational punch as poetry, without the grandiose and apocalyptic claims that have since the days of Wordsworth and Shelley characterized that genre.

On James’ relationship to his public—well, his novels are pretty intricate; he doesn’t exactly write for the masses even though he seems to have been popular. People still joke that James’ subtlety makes it hard to determine when some characters enter or exit his narratives. His style is chiseled, precise, lapidary in its polish and attention to detail. His appreciation for realism and good prose is a way of carrying forwards the tradition that good literary art commands attention, uplifting and improving those who come into contact with it. It is also an art that lends itself to discerning criticism. Mention Shaftesbury in this regard since he sticks up for the much-berated critic against wild poets who rail at them.

James writes about the public—what kind of publics does he favor and disfavor? It’s clear that the novel, being the bourgeois art form, developed alongside advancing literacy and leisure time for ordinary people. This means that it must be defended from some of the very people who favor it most because they would strip it of its ability to offer perspective on life, critical distance and critical immersion. They would trivialize it by treating it in vulgar utilitarian fashion—the aim of reading a novel might be just to get to the happy ending, etc. That turns a novel into an entirely exhaustible commodity rather than one with a kick, that keeps something in reserve as potential to change people, expand their horizons, etc. He opposes the reductiveness of the statement “get real,” the charge that fiction is trivial because it isn’t strictly real life. That implies a misunderstanding of reality, of life itself. The vulgar literalist, as aesthetes had already pointed out, are the most deluded and unrealistic souls of all—they’re farther from the mark than Don Quixote could ever be.

Page-by-Page Notes on Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction” (Different Edition; Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1st. edition).

858. James says that form is artistry, and he defends fiction from the casual consumer. He praises the novelists who maintain their distance from the public aside from the general imperative that a novel must be interesting. There are many ways of being interesting. This is modernist formalism and autonomy in the language of individualism and impressionism. Here James goes further than just say, in audience-oriented or pragmatic fashion, that a book is more than an exhaustible commodity. He seems ill at ease with such pragmatic arguments, and goes beyond them to upholds the principle of formal freedom. Even if we leave aside the book’s effect on the public, I think, James as a modernist would still insist that the artist be true to his mission, true to his own impression of the world and to the autonomy and integrity of art. So we should be careful to keep his view distinct from the older argument that art must make itself useful or be dismissed. Modernism rejects this claim, often rather confrontationally.

859. Painting and the literary word: language is even freer from materiality than is painting, which admits of a more determined “grammar.” But this freedom isn’t free from human concerns. James finds maximum space for personal impression-registering and execution, for feeling. Modernists like Yeats sometimes describe their striving in art as an attempt to get beyond the mire of human veins and transmute troubling passions into pure and eternal form, as in “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium.” I know James thinks in terms of working with form, but I don’t find him downplaying the role of impression and expression, feeling, either. He isn’t saying art is an escape from the human and the fleeting. Art can’t become purely object, purely objective. Why doesn’t he compare literature to music (as Pater would have) even as he compares it to painting? Well, I suppose that music, as pure form, might be somewhat too free from the humanity that goes into its creation. Words may leave more room for expression and creativity, openness to interpretation since a word is by no means as crisp a unit as a musical note. You don’t need an heroic failure like the OED to deal with the “connotativeness” of notes. James isn’t trying to escape criticism or interpretation into a realm of pure and transcendent form. To say that about the novel in particular would be to divorce it from its roots as a popular art form that makes an impact on ordinary people. His theorizing about form and freedom is, therefore, partly a defense against the public and partly a defense of the public’s interest in the novel as a serious art form.

860. James wants to rescue the sense of flexibility for the novel from Besant’s well-intentioned but false preciseness and his broad-minded but still moralistic bent. Reality is plastic and open-ended, so the novelist’s creation-process and formal products can claim the same quality. In what sense does a good novelist honor and even, perhaps, “imitate” nature? By being true to its openness and plasticity. This is at the heart of Baconian empiricism: Bacon says that those who think they’ve already understood nature as a set of fixed principles or processes have done it a great injury. The novelist shouldn’t try to offer instant fruit, but should instead pursue “experiments of light.” Might compare and contrast this idea of openness to experience with Nietzsche’s insistence on how the fixer-uppers reduce and falsify nature, which he takes to be unstable and dynamic at base. I believe James is closer to the British empirical tradition because he doesn’t show much interest in chaos for chaos’ sake, or for shock value in unsettling everyone’s belief in eternal verities. What he says is not that artists are wild-eyed dynamos or lawless intuitionists in touch with the primal rawness of things (if that’s even what N says), but rather that there is a legitimate correspondence between the open way the mind perceives and creates and the way “reality” proceeds. James emphasizes this in a gesture that is both romantic-subjectivist (emphasis on the mind’s creativity) and open to the external world, which he grants some objective status. This is one way to capture the complexity of modernism—yes, it represents a subjectivist, inward turn, but at the same time not all authors preach the doctrine of Paterian isolation from contact with others or the world. James isn’t out to destabilize and then remake our vision of the real from the ground up. Supplement the idea that modernity consists in being “intimately alone together” with this Jamesian sense of possibility, plasticity. That’s his brand of optimism. Looking around one turns out to be looking forward.

861. Here the phrasing sounds Paterian—“let nothing be lost upon you,” etc. Openness to experience—broadly defined as infinite in variety—as opposed to fixity and system and moralism. James doesn’t go for the idea that there is any one way of gathering or processing experience. Anybody worth the title of writer experiences the world in a deeply individual way, and must be true to his or her impression of things.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.

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