Secular Right | Reality & Reason

May/09

30

Henry James, fellow skeptic

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I confess that Henry James usually drives me up the wall, for the usual reasons.  Give me the passion and directness of Edith Wharton or Trollope over James’s cloying mannerisms any day.  These are undoubtedly my failings, not his, for which I take full responsibility.  And I may have to reconsider my impatience with his prose, given his clear-eyed refusal to sound an alarum over the diminution of Christian zeal in Europe: 

[James]  has no religious faith. Not a word of piety can be found in his letters. He visits not one of the great cathedrals to pray. Christmas, as several letters show, is like any other day. “As to Christianity in its old applications being exhausted,” he writes, “civilization, good & bad alike, seems to be certainly leaving it pretty well out of account.”

(From Alexander Theroux’s Wall Street Journal review of James’s letters.)

James’s  indifference to religion makes this book, which argues for overtones of Catholicism in James’s works, an even more preposterous example of the compulsion among some believers to find confirmation of their own faith where none exist.

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3 comments

  • Ploni · May 31, 2009 at 12:03 am

    Sheesh, isn’t there anything on this site that a secular right-winger like me can agree with? “Cloying mannerisms”?! Henry James was great. To the very limited extent that profane art, and writing in particular, can be a replacement for the sacred, James is it. It’s no accident that the devoutly Catholic author Flannery O’Connor cited James as one of her favorite writers (she also named Conrad, another secular modernist). She said that while reading James she felt that she was slowly being transformed.

    Readers who are “impatien[t] with his prose” – and you do have a point, of course – should be advised that some of his stories are even real page-turners, once you get used to the winding sentences. Two good places to start: The Turn of the Screw and “The Beast in the Jungle.” The former is a suspenseful ghost story and the latter is actually a classically structured detective story. Both are infinitely deeper as well – TTotS is about knowledge and skepticism, among other things – but they both can be enjoyed completely at the superficial level. If you can’t stay awake reading these, then yeah, forget about Henry James.

    Regarding James’ account, quoted above, of civilization carrying on without “Christianity in its old applications” and his “refusal to sound an alarum,” keep in mind that according to the article, he wrote that in 1872 at the age of 29. That was years before Nietzsche did “sound an alarum,” quite loudly and clearly. (Nietzsche’s alarm has yet to be heard at Secular Right, but that’s another story.) It would be interesting to know whether or not James’ views on the subject changed as he got older and encountered other views such as Nietzsche’s and Oscar Wilde’s.

    Another point of interest to right-wingers: James understood the enormous cultural damage caused by mass immigration, though I don’t know whether he ever sounded an alarm. He saw the New York City that he loved (depicted in “Washington Square,” for instance) invaded and supplanted by foreigners. He did not “celebrate diversity” – not in the least.

  • Heather Mac Donald · May 31, 2009 at 7:11 am

    Well, as I say, too many people whose opinions I respect think that James is the consummate writer for me not to suspect my own reactions. Ditto regarding Wagner. Still, I take comfort in Max Beerbohm’s brilliant satire. http://books.google.com/books?id=oYmYPzdZCv8C&pg=RA1-PA588&lpg=RA1-PA588&dq=the+mote+henry+james&source=bl&ots=Sn-W_anxpV&sig=MrAq8FAxIQtxY9rmhWbyoZutfa8&hl=en&ei=Np0iSq6DNNqntgehuoy3Bg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1

    I would offer Washington Square as a best-case argument for James over Turn of the Screw or Beast in the Jungle. As a proponent of the Enlightenment, I think there is something almost aesthetically irresponsible, if I may say so, to have left the fundamental matter of what exactly is going on in Screw undecidable. There is no indication that James knew himself. Don’t get us all worked up with fear and foreboding and then just punt.

  • Ploni · June 1, 2009 at 1:05 am

    @Heather Mac Donald
    I’m also a big fan of “Washington Square,” but I read somewhere that James himself wasn’t all that happy with it. I could see where it might be considered a little sentimental or melodramatic: almost a “woman’s story.” But I liked it a lot.

    I couldn’t disagree more strongly with your comments on the ambiguity of TTotS. First of all, I don’t see what its undecidability has to do with the Enlightenment. If the reality of the ghosts in TTotS is undecidable then the undecidability is epistemological, not ontological. In other words, the ghosts’ existence is undecidable by the reader because of his imperfect knowledge obtained from an unreliable narrator, etc. There is nothing that contradicts either the Enlightenment metaphysical faith in an objective reality or the Enlightenment faith that objective reality is often (but not infallibly) knowable. In TTotS and throughout his work, James is interested in those cases where knowledge is problematic.

    Second, as you probably know better than I, various critics have argued all three possible positions: (1) the ghosts were real, (2) the ghosts were not real, and (3) the ambiguity remains unresolved. I’m less certain than you are that (3) is the correct reading: I lean towards it too, but I think one could argue for (1) as well. In any case, if (3) is correct, then I see TTotS as all the more aesthetically brilliant for its balanced construction of that unresolvable ambiguity. If (3) is correct, then James must have known exactly what he was doing: he didn’t “just punt.” It’s inconceivable that he could have balanced the ambiguity that delicately throughout the story by accident.

    More on topic, perhaps: I’ve read only one discussion of interpretation (3), by the comp-lit guy Meir Sternberg in his The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. (Incidentally, that’s the best book of general literary biblical criticism I’ve read.) Sternberg is a scholar of Henry James as well as of the Bible, and in TPoBN he draws on TTotS to help illustrate the effect of the unresolved ambiguity which he finds in close readings of various biblical narratives, for instance in the story of King David and Uriah the Hittite (did Uriah know of the adultery?). When the author leaves the ambiguity unresolvable, as in the stories of David and Uriah and TTotS, then the two contradictory possibilities exist together in tension. The reader is constantly switching back and forth between the hypotheses, trying to fit each new fact into both models. Aesthetic dynamite!

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