Tuesday, December 22, 2015

`An Optimist is Pretty Likely to Be a Conservative'

“Her great furtherance was that, intensely intellectual being as she was, the life of affection and emotion was also widely open to her. She had all the initiation of knowledge and none of its dryness, all the advantages of judgment and all the luxuries of feeling. She had an imagination which enabled her to sit at home with book and pen, and yet enter into the life of other generations.” 

Henry James compactly defines the writer’s task, most obviously the novelist’s. Her imagination – and that is James’ subject – must be pliant, billowing and wide, like a net cast on water, collecting all and sorting later. The Hemingway/Mailer model, still dear to some Americans, rooted in manly action, is at best a distraction to the writer and embarrassing to the reader. The writer’s imagination ought to be a machine for gathering essential news of the world, not a fantasy generator or a poser of puzzles. James is reviewing The Life of George Eliot (1885) by J.W. Cross, the novelist’s husband. With Balzac and Hawthorne, Eliot was the defining influence on James’ imagination. He met Eliot and reviewed most of her books, even her 1874 poetry collection, The Legend of Jubal. Of it he crafted the most elegantly evasive of judgments: “. . . we find ourselves uncomfortable divided between the fear, on the one hand, of being bribed into favor, and, on the other, of giving short measure of it. The author’s verses are a narrow manifestation of her genius, but they are an unmistakable manifestation.” Translation: “It’s not very good poetry but it sure reads like George Eliot.” 

In James’ evaluation of Eliot and her imagination I hear an unlikely but serious echo from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Mr Cogito and the Imagination” (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, Report from the Besieged City, 1985): 

“he used the imagination
for entirely different purposes 

“he wanted to make it
an instrument of compassion 

“he wanted to understand to the very end 

“--Pascal’s night
--the nature of a diamond
--the melancholy of the prophets
--Achilles’ wrath
--the madness of those who kill
--the dreams of Mary Stuart
--Neanderthal fear
--the despair of the last Aztecs
--Nietzsche’s long death throes
--the joy of the painter of Lascaux
--the rise and fall of an oak
--the rise and fall of Rome” 

Eliot too sought understanding of the world, empires and oaks, things big and small. In “The Novels of George Eliot” (1866), Henry James describes Eliot’s style having a “lingering, affectionate, comprehensive quality,” and concludes his essay with these words: “Both as an artist and a thinker, in other words, our author is an optimist; and although a conservative is not necessarily an optimist, I think an optimist is pretty likely to be a conservative.” George Eliot died on this date, Dec. 22, in 1880.

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