Monday, August 05, 2013

`The Dim Wilderness of Theory'

“The first artists, in any line, are doubtless not those whose general ideas about their art are most often on their lips—those who most abound in precept, apology, and formula, and can best tell us the reasons and the philosophy of things.” 

That’s Henry James writing about Guy de Maupassant in Partial Portraits (1894). You can already see where he’s going. In the vernacular, we might distill James’ thesis as: Shut up and write. Is anything so tiresome as a writer indulging publically in literary self-analysis, always a species of showmanship and narcissism? We recognize the “first artists,” James says, by “their energetic practice, the constancy with which they apply their principles, and the serenity with which they leave us to hunt for their secret in the illustration, the concrete example.” In other words, don’t tell me; show me. James, of course, was the exception who proved the rule – a great critic and an even greater writer of fiction. But genius is always the exception. 

In a junior high school literature textbook I read “The Necklace” (the warhorse Nabokov makes fun of in Ada) and liked it, the way a child likes the efficient cleverness of a spring-driven windup toy, and the way I still like O. Henry’s and Kipling’s stories – pure narrative pleasure. I found a paperback anthology of Maupassant’s stories edited and introduced by Francis Steegmuller (where would my education be without the paperback revolution?). I remember reading “Boule de Suif” and thinking it was pretty hot stuff. Here are some of James’ apercus inspired by his reading of Maupassant: 

“…there is many a creator of living figures whose friends, however full of faith in his inspiration, will do well to pray for him when he sallies forth into the dim wilderness of theory.” 

“…the philosopher in his composition is perceptibly inferior to the story-teller.” 

“…as a commentator, M. de Maupassant is slightly common, while as an artist he is wonderfully rare.” 

“Nothing can exceed the masculine firmness, the quiet force of his own style, in which every phrase is a close sequence, every epithet a paying piece, and the ground is completely cleared of the vague, the ready-made and the second-best. Less than anyone to-day does he beat the air; more than any one does he hit out from the shoulder.” 

Maupassant was born on this date, Aug. 5, in 1850, and died in 1893 of syphilis after three botched suicide attempts, age forty-two. He spent the last eighteen months of his life in an insane asylum.

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