Saturday, April 20, 2013

`Even Before Mysteries Abysmal'

A colleague I hardly know confessed her bafflement at this week’s events in Boston. Anger she understands, as well as confusion and unhappiness, she said, “But why do they have to take it out on other people?” I had no answer as she shifted to another level of abstraction, at once more personal and general. “I’ve given up. I surrender. I want to be left alone,” she said, laughing as she chronicled the reasons for her unhappiness, some of which I had already surmised. Perhaps because the night before I had read her incisive essay on The Princess Casamassima, I thought of Louise Bogan and her early poem, “Portrait” (Body of This Death, 1923): 

“She has no need to fear the fall
Of harvest from the laddered reach
Of orchards, nor the tide gone ebbing
      From the steep beach. 

“Nor hold to pain’s effrontery
Her body's bulwark, stern and savage,
Nor be a glass, where to forsee
      Another’s ravage. 

“What she has gathered, and what lost,
She will not find to lose again.
She is possessed by time, who once
      Was loved by men.” 

I take the woman in the poem to be dead or to have entered some death-like realm in life. She is “possessed by time,” beyond “pain’s effrontery.” In his preface to Volume 5 of the New York Edition, The Princess Casamassima, Henry James describes the title character (Christina Light) as “world-weary – that was another of her notes; and the extravagance of her attitude in these new relations would have its root and its apparent logic in her need to feel freshly about something or other – it might scarce matter what.” In the final sentence of the preface, James fashions a brave artistic credo: 

“What it all came back to was, no doubt, something like this wisdom – that if you haven’t, for fiction, the root of the matter in you, haven’t the sense of life and the penetrating imagination, you are a fool in the very presence of the revealed and assured; but that if you are so armed you are not really helpless, not without your resource, even before mysteries abysmal.”

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