Tuesday, September 21, 2010

`Those Vibrating Chords'

In his comment on Monday's post, Nige describes the following as “pretty much the quintessential Jamesian sentence”:

“I recall a little those vibrating chords.”

He’s right – a sentence of seven simple words starting in memory attended by modest qualification (“a little”), resonant italics and a metaphor drawn from music. So much is happening in so seemingly small a space, though James is the master of connotation and emotional glow, much like an exacting poet, crafting sentences that create spaces, inward and out, half-convincing the reader they’re his sentences, drawn from his memory and experience. James traces consciousness with words, dutifully registering its halts, reveries and deceptions. He begins Chapter IVX, “Florida,” in The American Scene (1906) with a passage recapitulating the very process of Jamesian composition:

“It is the penalty of the state of receiving too many impressions of too many things that when the question arises of giving some account of these a small sharp anguish attends the act of selection and the necessity of omission. They have so hung together, have so almost equally contributed, for the fond critic, to the total image, the chapter of experience, whatever such may have been, that to detach and reject is like mutilation or falsification; the history of any given impression residing often largely in others that have led to it or accompanied it.”

This sounds like his brother Williams’ notion of the “stream of consciousness,” with Henry rowing against the current. Of course, “quintessentially Jamesian” is a tricky matter, as James was not a three-string banjo player but an orchestra. His work after about 1897, including The American Scene, is composed in his famous “later” manner but he was perfectly capable of writing straightforward passages that hum with consciousness. Consider the sentence I judge the saddest in literature, the concluding paragraph of Washington Square (1880):

“Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were.”

Not a word beyond the ken of a bright eight-year-old. “Morsel” – from the French marceau, “a small bite” – with its customary food association, is perfect, an unhappy irony compounded by “fancy-work.” Catherine Sloper has resigned herself to a life of merest sustenance. The dying fall of “as it were” is heartbreaking.

Readers vary in their understanding of “Jamesian,” as they should. Like Shakespeare, James is a continent and a lifetime devoted to its exploration could easily overlook a canyon or arroyo. Thom Gunn used the word as the title of a rhyming eight-word couplet in The Man with Night Sweats (1992):

“Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed.”

The real irony is that I almost omitted the sentence Nige admires. I had already cited the pertinent portion of the notebook entry, devoted to trees and the American city, but couldn’t resist the sound:

“I recall a little those vibrating chords.”

And they echoed in my mind with words from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861):

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

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