Thursday, September 02, 2010

`To Be Moved to a Report of the Matter'

On a bright cold winter morning some fifteen years ago I was rereading The American Scene, Henry James’ account of his return to the United States in 1904-05 after twenty years of living in Europe, specifically Chapter Nine, “Philadelphia.” Throughout the volume James has referred to himself in the third-person by some variation of “the restless analyst”:

“To be at all critically, or as we have been fond of calling it, analytically, minded--over and beyond an inherent love of the general many-colored picture of things--is to be subject to the superstition that objects and places, coherently grouped, disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out: to
give out, that is, to the participant at once so interested and so detached as to be moved to a report of the matter.”

I marked the passage in my copy (Indiana University Press, 1968, with introduction and notes by Leon Edel), and distinctly remember lying on my couch – I was single and lived two minutes from my newspaper office – and feeling stirred by James’ words, the notion of “a mystic meaning” given off by certain dwellings, even arrangements of furniture, books on shelves. James had named an undefined sense I had known since childhood, a recognition of rooms suffused with human auras. I don’t mean hauntings, a phenomenon James toyed with memorably in “The Jolly Corner.” I mean traces of lives imbued in “objects and places.”

Later that morning a photographer and I drove to a rural crossroads in Saratoga County, N.Y. – a clapboard church and its outbuildings, the parish cemetery, a general store and a few houses. I specialized in writing about such forgotten places and got lucky with this one. The church caretaker, an old man with the build and intensity of a jockey, was digging a grave in the partially frozen soil with a borrowed backhoe. He knew the deceased and his ancestors. Talking to him was like reading the family Bible, complete with handwritten genealogy, for an entire hamlet. Of course, I thought of Hamlet and Yorick. Afterwards, the old man let us look around the church and the barn-like garage behind it, packed ceiling to floor, wall to wall, with pews, hymnals, candle sticks, collection plates, choir robes and wooden tables and chairs. None of it was junk, all of it seemed precious, worthy of preservation, redolent of “a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out.” As a writer I felt excited but daunted by this core sample of a gone world, as gone as the person whose remains would soon occupy the fresh grave across the road. James goes on in The American Scene:

“That perverse person [for writing surely is a perverse occupation] is obliged to take it for a working theory that the essence of almost any settled aspect of anything may be extracted by, the chemistry of criticism, and may give us its right name, its formula, for convenient use. From the moment the critic finds himself sighing, to save trouble in a difficult case, that the cluster of appearances can have no sense, from that moment he begins, and quite consciously, to go to pieces; it being the prime business and the high honor of the painter of life always to make a sense--and to make it most in proportion as the immediate aspects are loose or confused.”

As I read The American Scene again, my pleasure is augmented by new layers of association and memory. The old gravedigger has probably joined his customer in the cemetery, “mindful of th' unhonour'd dead.” Acid rain and long upstate winters have further erased its stones. Perhaps the church has burned down, as so many old country churches do. These wayward thoughts were roused by James and his exacting sentences. Nige notes parenthetically, “(one of the joys of growing older is that the distinction between reading and rereading becomes ever more blurred).” This is precisely put and I would add that the intersection of books and life grows ever richer and more complicated, like James’ prose. Reread these lines, the ones cited above, and think of their object not as old furniture but old books, the ones we have read before and that lure us with bonds of fond memory and “mystic meaning”:

“…subject to the superstition that objects and places, coherently grouped, disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out.”

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

"A Girl Like Antigone" Photocopy #20
--John Berger

Today's post speaking to last night's reading.