Friday, February 28, 2014

`Finder of Refuge, Maker of Refuge, in Words'

“These final and faded remarks all have some interest and some character  -- but this should be extracted by a highly competent person only  -- some such, whom I don't presume to name, will furnish such last offices.” 

Eloquent, if somewhat cabalistically obscure, to the end. These are among the final words mustered by the stricken Henry James, still ordering his world in words. He dictated them to his faithful amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet, possibly on Dec. 12, 1915. In The Master (1972), the fifth volume of his James biography, Leon Edel says of this carefully parsed sentence: “At the end, on a day of sore throat and much malaise, he dictated a cogent passage which seemed to show an awareness that he no longer could command his old coherence.” 

Earlier, James had dictated a Herzogian letter to his beloved brother William, who had died five years earlier, and another in the voice of Napoleon. Even as he failed, James triumphed. Even in near-dementia, he writes better than most. This sentence follows the one quoted at the top: “In fact I do without names not wish to exaggerate the defect of their absence. Invoke more than one kind presence, several could help, and many would -- but it all better too much left than too much done. I never dreamed of such duties as laid upon me. This sore throaty condition is the last I ever invoked for the purpose.” 

And here is Edel’s generous gloss: “Implicit in this was still the lingering of an old curiosity, his sense that all of life, even the act of dying, had interest in it, to be discerned and recorded.” (As identifiable as fingerprints, the rhythms of James' prose are contagious.) Edel says he also detects “a note of despair and then resignation.” In her Henry James at Work (Hogarth Press, 1924), Bosanquet renders a fine tribute to James the man, one that often resonates thematically with his fiction (think of Gilbert Osmond and his treatment of Isabel Archer): “He was himself most scrupulously careful not to exercise any tyrannical power over other people. The only advice he ever permitted himself to offer a friend was a recommendation to `let your soul live.’” And this, from Bosanquet’s final paragraph: “His Utopia was an anarchy where nobody would be responsible for any other human being but only for his own civilized character.” James died on this date, Feb. 28, in 1916. In “House of Words” (What Was Lost, 1999), the late Herbert Morris reanimates the aging James in a 657-line dramatic monologue: 

“I, finder of refuge, maker of refuge,
in words. Whose life, indeed, was spun of words,
spun and respun, spun once more, then respun,
a life which has itself become a refuge
(words, in a world bordered by blood, on one side,
by the tumult of passion on the other);
the thinness, yes, the thinness of one’s life:
what has one built if not a house of words?”

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