Friday, April 19, 2013

`That Complication of Discipline and Passion We Call Art'

Monday evening I reread Henry James’ account of his visit to Boston after twenty years away from his native land, Chapter VII of The American Scene (1907), which begins: 

“It sometimes uncomfortably happens for a writer, consulting his remembrance, that he remembers too much and finds himself knowing his subject too well; which is but the case of the bottle too full for the wine to start. There has to be room for the air to circulate between one’s impressions, between the parts of one’s knowledge, since it is the air, or call it the intervals on the sea of one's ignorance, of one's indifference, that sets these floating fragments into motion.” 

The day’s events returned me also to The Princess Casamassima, published in 1886, the same year as The Bostonians. I’ll live again with that novel for several days but I also looked up the novelist Wright Morris’ chapter on James, “Use of the Past,” in The Territory Ahead (1958): 

“His subject, no matter what the object, was consciousness. We may reasonably wonder, on the evidence, if human sensibility ever reached such a pitch of awareness as in the mind of James. It is here we find the root of his style—parenthesis. The mind of James, opening like a flower at the virus of suggestion, gives off and receives a series of vibrations that find their resolution in parenthesis. Nothing is closed. Closure means a loss of consciousness. One thing always leads to another, that in turn to another, and this play of nuances, like ripples lapping on a pond, is the dramatis personae of James, the novelist. His subject was his own ceaselessly expanding consciousness.” 

This seems to me a shrewd insight into James and his evolving prose style. Some readers, including his brother William, find James’ later manner impossibly dense and mannered. A sympathetic reader will find it a strategy appropriate to his subject. The later prose is an articulate stammer, endlessly refining consciousness into words. Morris’ understanding of the parenthesis (literal and otherwise) as a feature of James’ style, a linking of form and content, reminded me of Herbert Morris’ poem about the novelist, “House of Words” (What Was Lost, 2000), a 657-line dramatic monologue set in 1906. James examines proofs of his portrait taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn, the American photographer whose ghostly pictures illustrate the New York Edition. James’ mood ten years before his death is sadly resigned, autumnal, almost self-pitying, though he continues to write. The novelist recalls his meeting with Coburn and says he: 

“…spoke of the vagaries of photographic
portraiture, as he sees them, and to which
the gentleman has not, to hear him tell it,
accustomed himself, wholly made his peace with,
followed by the man’s pained, detailed recital
(admirably restrained, almost reluctant),
albeit cogent, moving, of dilemmas
in willing mere mechanical devices,
lens, timer, shutter, dimmest `apparatus’
(quiescent, mindless until now, awaiting
someone—oneself—to rouse them into life),
to reproduce, as best they can, that vision
one possesses as much as is possessed by—
one’s version of the world, one thinks to call it--,
the problem, too, with words, if I may say so,
dilemmas, in all truth, with which I am not,
nor ever have been, a fine point made finer,

In “Fifty-ninth Street” (Peru, 1983), Morris writes: 

“Somewhere, evenings, not far from Fifty-ninth Street,
slowly setting those traps in which the novel
later would find itself for all time snared,
James was advancing on that complication
of discipline and passion we call art,
advancing on the strangeness of the park
which, in the dark, is one’s own strangeness, too,
that wilderness of motives, anguish, vision,
false starts, wrong turns, that dream of the uncleared,
those boundaries of the unnamed, unexplored…”


Gary Baldridge said...

You have helped me finally understand how to read Henry James. So many times I had put down his works in frustration and had taken solace in his brother William's reactions. Many thanks!

George said...

John Lukacs quotes someone's crack about Henry James: James I, James II, and the Old Pretender. I find James II very readable, but have bogged down in The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl.

Morris does make a fine case for James, and I did after reading it pick up The American Scene and make it as far as Newport.

Denkof Zwemmer said...

James’ later prose style may be a “strategy appropriate to his subject.” It certainly isn’t inappropriate. But subject matter aside, I find it just wonderful to read. It can be enjoyed just for itself, the intertwining motifs, the asides, the dense, pointed intricacy. It is as breathtaking to read a complex passage in The Golden Bowl as it is to listen to a Bach fugue.