|. . . Henry Adams|
|. . . 1999-07-15|
Oh great (by way of Robot Wisdom). I just recently got over the appearance about five years ago of a "historical novel but it's really the truth, it's just that I don't want to be bothered with proving any of my ridiculous delusions" dedicated to the theory that Henry Adams killed his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, during her oh-so-convenient suicidal depression. And now there's another one, this time dedicated to the theory that Charlotte Brontë was a criminal mastermind who successfully poisoned Emily Brontë, Anne Brontë, and Branwell Brontë, only to be poisoned in turn by her new husband.
Probably because Charlotte Brontë revealed herself in her writing (unlike Emily Brontë) with a singularly honest viciousness (unlike Anne Brontë), she's often been targeted by simpleminded vulgarizers. In Hollywood's Devotion, Charlotte the flighty fluffy flirt (!) was contrasted unfavorably to the Sensible Sister, Emily (!), played sensibly well by Ida Lupino. In her group biography of the Brontë family, Juliet Barker almost managed to obscure the wonderful thoroughness of her research by the equally wonderful anti-Charlotte chip on her shoulder, going so far as to bury pro-Charlotte evidence in the footnotes.
Was Charlotte Brontë a nice person? She'd be the first to describe in exacting detail why she wasn't. On the other hand, it's hard to find any contemporary reactions worse than bemused acknowledgment that she was too hard on others and still harder on herself.
I don't know who makes a sillier murderer, Charlotte Brontë, whose most unlikable trait was her stranglehold on moral superiority, or husband Whatsisname, whose only noticeable humor was phlegm. I do know that the silliest aspect of the whole business is the BBC reporter's swallowing this Yorkshire pudding whole. Let it be a warning to all of us: self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, at least when combined with self-expression.
|. . . 2000-02-23|
Start to Shine for Thirty-Nine
"It was time to go. The three friends had begun life together; and the last of the three had no motive, -- no attraction -- to carry it on after the others had gone. Education had ended for all three, and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed. Perhaps some day -- say 1938, their centenary, -- they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder."
|. . . 2000-03-09|
Everything I need to know about American politics I learned from Henry Adams.
His History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison diagrams the first of our country's Jimmy-Carter-to-Ronald-Reagan drunken staggers with "How Things Don't Work" clarity. His novels, Education, and letters provide a lifetime's course on the place of the intellectual in American government (somewhere behind the croquet mallets in the back of the garage).
And so, in big election years, I turn to Henry Adams for guidance:
"Everything here creaks and groans like a heavy old Dutch man-of-war in bad weather. Congress is floundering over necessary business and inventing all kinds of excuses for steering nowhere. The single great and controlling political fact is our national prosperity which is stupendous, and covers all waste of force....
I have noticed a general law that our entire political system breaks down in the winter before a general election. The moment a course is adopted, the terrors begin and the votes fall off. The politicians are fleas; they jump just because they are made that way....
The Democrats are clutching frantically for an issue. The Republicans are crawling on all fours for votes. [For Year 2000 conditions, reverse the parties.] The Germans rule the Republicans; the Irish rule the Democrats; and money is the ruler of us all. I see no public measure to care about. There is no real difference of opinion. But they have to talk."
|. . . 2000-03-27|
Continuing his series of commentaries on Election Year '00, here's Henry Adams with some thoughts about the Microsoft antitrust trial:
"The merits or demerits of the particular interest, -- what Roosevelt calls the good and bad trusts, -- concern particular districts or individuals; but this personal question surrenders the principle; nor can I see, as our society has now fixed itself, any loop-hole of escape. The suggestion that these great corporate organisms, which now perform all the vital functions of our social life, should behave themselves decently, gives away our contention that they have no right to exist. Nor am I prepared to admit that more decency can be attained through a legislature made up of similar people exercising similar illegal powers.
"As long as these people subject me, as person and property, to the arbitrary brutalities of the Custom House Jews in order to make money for private individuals in business, I shall be perfectly willing -- nay! I shall be singularly pleased,-- to see you Spokaners skinned by Jim Hill. None of you dare touch the essential facts. The whole fabric of our society will go to wreck if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions. From top to bottom the whole system is a fraud,-- all of us know it, laborers and capitalists alike,-- and all of us are consenting parties to it.
"All we can hope to do is to teach men manners in wielding power, and I'll bet you ten to one, on the Day of Judgment, that we shall fail."
(Like most turn-of-the-last-century well-to-do non-Jewish Anglo-American intellectuals, Adams uses "Jew" as the catch-all term for anything that he doesn't like about big business, small business, middle European immigrants, bad taste, or urban life. I've never seen him use it to refer to religious practice.)
|. . . 2000-04-02|
"The gentleman reader cannot fairly be expected to work up a professional interest in a woman who picked up threads and ate them." -- newspaper review of The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes ColemanWell, that's obviously changed. The Shutter of Snow must be the twentieth-or-so "woman goes crazy but eventually gets out of the institution" novel I've read. Which is the kind of number I'd a priori only expect from plotlines like "boy gets girl" or "detective solves mystery."
Let's take it for granted that insanity is interesting. Why the gender gap, then? Why the Padded Ceiling?
One obvious reason is that well-educated women are (still) more likely to be institutionalized than well-educated men. As the old formula goes, women are institutionalized, poor men are jailed, and the rest of us pretty much do what we want.
Another (not necessarily unrelated) reason is that story-consumers and story-makers prefer that protagonists who show weakness be female. And going crazy and recovering are both pretty obvious signs of weakness. When I was trying to write fiction about loonies I've known, most of whom have been male, I felt immense internal pressure to turn them into female characters instead. (Like, try imagining Repulsion with a male protagonist. No, I mean it: try. It's good for you.) The standard storylines tell us that women go into institutions because they go crazy and men go into institutions because they're rebels. Women get better and men keep insisting they were right. (Sylvia Plath vs. Ezra Pound; The Shutter of Snow vs. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest....) Men-going-under stories tend to be about addiction rather than madness: appetite, not fragility.
But there's another reason for the twentieth century having produced so many of these stories: the number of untold and unrecoverable stories left over from the nineteenth.
"My mom says that when she was growing up in New Zealand in the Fifties, there were three career options for women: emigrate, become an airline stewardess, or go crazy." -- Juliet ClarkTake out emigration and airlines, and you're left with the options for the nineteenth-century Anglo-American upper class. In feminist-backlash post-abolitionist late-1800s America, good girls had achieved Stendhal's proto-feminist dream: women were being educated but only so that they might be fitter companions to educated men. In the post-feminist era, it wouldn't be tasteful to try to be anything else. A nice New England woman in politics? Laughable. In literature? In art? Etc.
"Any woman learning Greek must buy fashionable dresses." -- Henry Adams regarding his wife, Clover Hooper AdamsThe Civil War, with its bandage-making and fund-raising, was the high water mark of usefulness for the Adams/James generation of American women. Afterwards, if you were lucky, you could have children till you died in childbirth. If you weren't lucky, you either (like Alice James) shrunk into a mockingly dense point of invalidism or you found yourself over an abyss.
"We are working very hard, but it is all for ourselves." -- Clover Hooper AdamsAn abyss-swimming man might clutch for a job; a woman could only be headed for the bin. And in the nineteenth century they tended not to come back out.
"I shall proclaim that any one who spends her life as an appendage to five cushions and three shawls is justified in committing the sloppiest kind of suicide at a moment's notice." -- Alice JamesAs a girl, Clover Hooper swapped dark comparisons of the hospitals that swallowed up her female relatives and friends:
"I wish it might have been Worcester instead of Somerville which is such a smelly hideous place."As an adult, after almost a year of depression, she poisoned herself with her own photo-developing chemicals rather than face institutionalization.
"Ellen I'm not real -- Oh make me real -- you are all of you real!" -- Clover Hooper Adams to her sister, a few months before her death
|A hundred years' worth of vanished victims seems to call for at least fifty years' worth of survivor testimony: It is possible to come out of the bin; it is possible to describe it....
Of course, the downside of so much survivor testimony is that the survivors are likely to get fetishized. And then a demand naturally develops, and the supply of survivors has to be periodically replenished....
|. . . 2000-04-30|
In (guarded) praise of irony
A couple months back, a reviewer of that Dave Eggers book wrote something about how she'd never seen such emotional material treated ironically.
That's very sad (sad ha-ha, not sad strange), because the only possible excuse for irony is emotion, and too much of it. "The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel"; and irony's all that's been left to the softhearted analytical human being since Socrates at the latest. That's why stupid irony is exactly the same thing as unfeeling irony.
I regretfully admit that there's plenty of stupid irony around these days, probably because irony is the easiest thing to fake, its "Oh, I didn't really mean that" an easy refuge for the cowardly fool.
But beware, brother, beware: to don a suit of armor when you're just planning to wash dishes or go shopping is to invite great expense. If not injury. If not both (e.g., "Seinfeld"). Use only as a last resort; believe me, you'll get to the last resort soon enough.
I also admit that at first (or at disgusted and exhausted) glance, irony seems utterly antithetical to art ("art" being best described as "No, I meant to do that").
The trick is to stand firmly behind your transparently hollow words and (except of course when evading legal action) cheerfully admit to fully believing each and every empty idiocy you've recorded.
If you can call that a trick.
For those who have been made self-conscious of hubris in the mere act of expression, irony is pert near unavoidable. Thus, most of the women writers on my shelves are masters of the form in all its moods, from Behn and Austen through Bowles and Barnes to Russ and Fowler, criminy, Brontë & Brontë & Brontë & Olive Moore & Patricia Highsmith & Flannery O'Connor & Edith Wharton, it gets kind of creepy, doesn't it? Thus also the tactic's popularity with such resigned-to-failure types as Stendhal and Flaubert, Romantic rapscallions like Byron and Pushkin, and most sane twenty-somethings.
Here, for example, we actually witness the most beautiful of Nature's tender miracles, the birth of an ironist:
"It is wonderful -- stupendous to consider, how a man who in his own mind is cool, witty, unaffected and high-toned, will disgust and mortify himself by every word he utters or act he does, when he steps out of his skin defenses." -- Henry Adams, age 25So don't let anyone tell you that irony isn't hip anymore. It's as hip as it ever was.
|. . . 2000-07-03|
And as still more encouragement to the Future Scholars of America: There's something left undone about this compare-and-contrast of Thelonious Monk and Henry Adams (for instance, comparisons and contrasts), but it's nice to see some acknowledgment of the place of ironic distance in the "popular arts" and in instrumental music....
|. . . 2000-08-29|
"a specialized shop, department of a store, etc., usu. catering to fashionable clients"
Pamphleteer Juliet Clark writes:
Re the Salon.com Guide to Feeling Hip Because You've Heard of John Updike:And David Auerbach weighs in more fatalistically:
I'd like to point out that Eggers misspelled "aficionado," and the copyeditor didn't catch it.
I think your copyediting/programming analogy is apt in a lot of ways. In fact the whole Salon Guide reminds me to a painful degree of startup culture: young people who won't be young much longer demanding to be taken seriously for not being serious; seeking the Big Time while clinging to a fantasy of countercultural identity; using strained irony, self-created urgency, and an excess of spin to mask a fundamental laziness.
All I can suggest is that you sell your author copy and use the money to buy a good book. Wouldn't that be, like, "ironic"?
I do think that the Salon guide fills a void. We currently have no one to tell us which of the many, many idiomatically similar novels are the real thing and which are the product of overheated middle-class ramblings. The academics can't be bothered with it, since they're too busy keeping their own little flame alive. People like Lewis Lapham hate it all, and people like Michiko Kakutani are either indiscriminate (if you agree with them more often than not) or too harsh (vice versa), and they lack consensus-building skills. The remainder of the book-reviewing populace don't have enough credibility to be reliable. So I think contemporary mainstream book reviews, if there's a strong enough drive to hold people's interest, will go the way of movie reviews and devolve into capsule reviews, top ten lists, and "personality-based" reviewers. I don't think I can blame anyone for this process; it just happens when the collective standards of the producers and the consumers are low enough that the work being produced becomes undifferentiated.Oh, I don't really blame the Salon editors; I imagine it's pretty hard to resist the temptation to milk the cash cow when it's looking up at you with those big brown eyes. I just wish I hadn't seen the result. And I probably wouldn't have if the usual uncentrifugeable muddle of curiosity, vanity, and sense of responsibility hadn't talked me into becoming a contributor.... Being a critic, of course, although I blame myself, I attack them.
Consequently, tho, Carol Emshwiller will certainly be ignored, and even someone like Disch, who has needed to work his material into ostensible potboilers for the last 20 years. There is a need for something of a unified conception, and Carol Emshwiller may as well be Les Blank for all they care. (Which might make Michael Brodsky Kenneth Anger.) There definitely is a "celebration of shared limited knowledge", but who were the Salon editors to deny those who looked towards them for guidance?
If Auerbach's right about the editors' ambitions, the match was doomed a priori, since I'm even less of a consensus-builder than Michiko Kakutani. (Case in point: For the last twenty years every single time I've tried to read the NYTBR I've ended up throwing it across the room, and so I didn't even recognize her name.) When it comes to art, I don't see that consensus is necessary, or even desirable. That's probably what attracts me to the subject: I wouldn't be so exclusively an aesthete if I were a more enthusiastic politician.
One clarification / pettifoggery as regards "personality-based" reviewing: It's true that I believe a critic can only speak as an individual, and that criticism is most useful when individual works receive close attention as individual works. That means that I consider generalities issued from a presumed position of consensus to be bad criticism. It doesn't mean that I consider class-clown-ism a guarantee of good criticism. In my Salon.com tantrum I emphasized voice because voice was being emphasized by the book's publicity and reviews, but what really set me off was the 400-page-long lack of new insight into individual works: a generic free-weekly voice was just the means to that dead end.
In my own practice I use an overtly performative voice only because I have to. When I attempt a detached tone, I become too stumble-footedly self-conscious to move; when I do the jutht a darn-fool duck shtick, life seems better. That's a personality flaw, not a deliberate choice. Behind the Dionysian mask, I'm ogling those Apollonians plenty: I empathize with Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism but I'm in awe of Eric Rohmer's; Lester Bangs is a role model but I'd be so much more uncomplicatedly proud of something like Stephen Ratcliffe's Campion; my favorite Joycean is eyes-on-the-page Fritz Senn; my favorite historian is no-see-um Henry Adams; I loathe the bluster of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia....
What matters is whether you communicate anything of what you see. If you don't have to keep twitching and waving and yelling "Hi, Mom!" while you do it, all the better.
|. . . 2000-10-09|
Juliet Clark forwards a familiar analysis from "The Problem of Living In New York," by Junius Henri Browne, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November, 1882:
Why is it, may naturally be asked, that people should continually pour into New York when there is not room enough for half of those already here? Why should they persistently seek to live in a city where, with hosts on hosts of houses, there are no homes save for the prosperous? There is abundant space in most of the towns a hundred miles distant. Why do not people swell the census there instead of crowding into an overcrowded capital where the chances of success, of competence even, are ten thousand to one against them? They come in such numbers because so many have come before them, because New York is the commercial center of the republic, because it is immensely rich and strong, because, in short, it does not need or want them....Oh, what a difference 22 years make! Henry Adams, from a 1904 letter:
Thousands and thousands of men who have no regular employment, and no special prospects, who are materially and mentally out at elbows, whose whole life has been a spiritual tragedy, could not be persuaded to-day to leave the city where they have been so constantly baffled and tormented, where they have suffered so intensely, were they assured of a regular and respectable livelihood in some quiet town of the interior. Myriads of inmates of the squalid, distressing tenement-houses, in which morality is as impossible as happiness, would not give them up, despite their horrors, for clean, orderly, wholesome habitations in the suburbs, could they be transported there and back free of charge. They are in some unaccountable way terribly in love with their own wretchedness.
The American, like the Russian, has undertaken too much. He does more than anyone else ever did, but he does not keep up with the machine. New York promises to become a first-class tragedy. Life there is a tour-de-force. Rents are fantastic, prices are absurd, conditions are chaotic, but the trouble has hardly begun.
|. . . 2000-10-17|
Everything Is True; Nothing Is Permitted
I first encountered the attempt to pit the dim light of quantum mechanics against the deepest fogs of cognitive neuroscience in a paper sponsored by the Vatican and authored by soul-searcher Sir John C. Eccles. What mostly struck me was the incongruous disproportion between the two-thousand-years-tall edifice of Catholic theology and the subparticular results on which Sir John had wasted such strenuous ingenuity. It all seemed as fascinating, hilarious, and sad as a Buster Keaton routine.
I was reminded of Sir John when I read Henry Adams's 1882 response to William James on receipt of some early essays on religious psychology and societal evolution:
As I understand your Faith, your x, your reaction of the individual on the cosmos, it is the old question of Free Will over again. You choose to assume that the will is free. Good! Reason proves that the Will cannot be free. Equally good! Free or not, the mere fact that a doubt can exist, proves that x must be a very microscopic quantity. If the orthodox are grateful to you for such gifts, the world has indeed changed, and we have much to thank God for, if there is a God, that he should have left us unable to decide whether our thoughts, if we have thoughts, are our own or his'n.
Although your gift to the church seems to me a pretty darned mean one, I admire very much your manner of giving it, which magnifies the crumb into at least forty loaves and fishes. My wife is quite converted by it. She enjoyed the paper extremely. Since she read it she has talked of giving five dollars to Russell Sturgis's church for napkins. As the impression fades, she says less of the napkins.
With hero worship, I have little patience. In history heroes have neutralized each other, and the result is no more than would have been reached without them. Indeed in military heroes I suspect that the ultimate result has been retardation. Nevertheless you could doubtless at any time stop the entire progress of human thought by killing a few score of men. So far I am with you. A few hundred men represent the entire intellectual activity of the whole thirteen hundred million. What then? They drag us up the cork-screw stair of thought, but they can no more get their brains to run out of their especial convolutions than a railway train (with a free will of half an inch on three thousand miles) can run free up Mount Shasta. Not one of them has ever got so far as to tell us a single vital fact worth knowing. We can't even prove that we are.
Alas, James seems to have chosen not to pursue the correspondence at that time, although thirty years later he wrote, "I ask you whether an old man soon about to meet his Maker can hope to save himself from the consequences of his life by pointing to the wit and learning he has shown in treating a tragic subject."
|. . . 2000-12-10|
Speaking of pointless sentimentality -- man! I wish we could somehow ship the recent political news over to Henry Adams. Openly partisan intervention by the Supreme Court is, I think, more than even he could have hoped for at this point, and these two months might afford him keener amusement than any others in American history.
|. . . 2001-04-26|
Smile, Darn Ya, Smile
If I were wildly amusing myself by travel, I should feel horribly selfish and heartless, but the single merit of travel is that it offers a variety of ways of boring oneself, whereas at home one is reduced to boring one's friends. I can at a pinch endure my own sufferings, but I cannot bear inflicting them on others. The English, when bored, kill something. I always feel as if I, too, were putting up a grouse or a pheasant when I stalk a friend to inflict my dreariness on him.
|. . . 2001-08-09|
What it corresponds to
Some writers are recognizable in their correspondence and some aren't. (Recognizable to readers, that is; their recognizability as the animals previously encountered by fleshy intimates is an unrelated matter.)
Those writers whose letters cozily nestle alongside their oeuvre -- Henry Adams, Raymond Chandler, Samuel R. Delany, among many others -- rely on a "micro" verbal impulse as well as a "macro"-building one: an impulse to respond to the world and its inhabitants by producing paragraphs, whether those paragraphs are meant to fit into a larger structure or not. Their books may seem colder or crueler or wiser than their letters, but the material comes from the same source. (And, not all that paradoxically, their letters may sometimes seem a bit impersonal: the sausage meat grinds on in a steady stream, regardless who gets the individual link....)
Whereas Dashiell Hammett's letters, like James Joyce's, are purely practical objects (even when their practical purpose is to give their recipients a sense of personal connection), springing from completely different impulses than the writer's book-objects, constructed along completely different lines, and not of much interest except to the addressed or the biographer. For the enthusiastic reader? Well, from one letter where Hammett uses full-out "Hammett style" to describe a day of Army life, I learned that lapidary prose can be a very dull thing outside a structural context; e.g., you can't polish dust. That's about it.
Having now trudged through a Alaskan-sized mud stretch of these letters, I feel the need to revisit some flashier gewgaws, such as those of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. And, look, since they're out of print anyway, how about I pass a few past you as well?
|. . . 2001-09-28|
Henry Adams responds to yesterday's buried-in-FDR's-clenched-jaws pipe dream, via his 1870 essay, "The New York Gold Conspiracy":
"Nevertheless, sooner or later the last traces of the disturbing influence of war... will disappear in America, as they have sooner or later disappeared in every other country which has passed through the same evils.... Yet though the regular process of development may be depended upon, in its ordinary and established course, to purge American society of the worst agents of an exceptionally corrupt time, the history of the Erie corporation offers one point in regard to which modern society everywhere is directly interested. For the first time since the creation of these enormous corporate bodies, one of them has shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Erie -- swaying power such as has never in the world's history been trusted in the hands of private citizens, controlled by single men like Vanderbilt, or by combinations of men like Fisk, Gould, and Lane, after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption -- will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society no authority exists capable of effective resistance. The national government, in order to deal with the corporations, must assume powers refused to it by its fundamental law, -- and even then is exposed to the chance of forming an absolute central government which sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is struggling to escape, and thus destroy the limits of its power only in order to make corruption omnipotent. Nor is this danger confined to America alone. The corporation is in its nature a threat against the popular institutions spreading so rapidly over the whole world. Wherever a popular and limited government exists this difficulty will be found in its path; and unless some satisfactory solution of the problem can be reached, popular institutions may yet find their existence endangered."
+ + +Speaking of Henry Adams, please welcome the latest addition to the Bellona Times Repress. By way of introduction:
The book variously titled in its two small self-published editions Tahiti, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, or Memoirs of Arii Taimai was a collaboration between the American historian Henry Adams and two Queens of Tahiti: Arii Taimai (positioned as the first-person narrator of the work) and her daughter, Marau Taaroa.
After his wife's suicide in December 1885, Adams lost himself in the massive job of finishing his history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. After it was done, he came close to losing himself in nothing at all.
In 1890, he set out with a friend, the fashionable painter John La Farge, for an indefinite voyage into the Pacific. His purported list of goals included tracking down and sampling the legendary durian fruit, following his friend Clarence King's example and falling madly in lust with exotic nekkid native girls, and attaining Enlightenment.
Predictably, all these pseudo-hopes were frustrated: the durian was a "shameful disgrace to humanity" (although the mango and mangosteen comforted), and intellectual bemusement ran stronger than either bodily or spiritual lust. But the unspoken purpose -- to somehow re-learn survival -- was gained: Adams started the trip in an almost catatonic depression and ended it sparkling with bitches and moans in high pissant form.
During the travellers' five months in Tahiti, Adams grew bored with passive tourism:
Lovely as it is, it gets on my nerves at last -- this eternal charm of middle-aged melancholy. If I could only paint it, or express it in poetry or prose, or do anything with it, or even shake it out of its exasperating repose, the feeling would be a pleasant one, and I should fall in love with the very wrinkles of my venerable and spiritual Taïtian grandmother; but when one has nothing else to look at, one rebels at being forever smiled upon by a grandmother whose complexion is absolutely divine, and whose attitude indicates the highest breeding, while she suggests no end of charm of conversation, yet refuses to do anything but smile in a sort of sad way that may mean much or mean nothing. Either she or I come near to being a fool.After searching the coral reef for confirmation or refutation of Darwin, he became close friends with the family of "the last Queen of Tahiti," Marau Taaroa:
... she is greatly interested in Taïti history, poetry, legends and traditions, and as for ghost-stories, she tells them by the hour with evident belief.... She always seems to me to be quite capable of doing anything strange, out of abstraction; as she might mistake me for her small child, and sling me on her arm without noticing the difference, such as it is, in size.... and especially attached to Arii Tamai, described in an early letter as "the hereditary chiefess of the Tevas, the grandest dame in Tahiti, the widow of Salmon, the London Jew." (The psychologically speculative might wonder whether Adams was attracted by the contrast between her warm-heartedness and the frankly cold aggression of his own family of faded nation-rulers.) On May 10, 1891, he wrote:
By way of excitement or something to talk about, I some time ago told old Marau that she ought to write memoirs, and if she would narrate her life to me, I would take notes and write it out, chapter by chapter. To our surprise, she took up the idea seriously, and we are to begin work today, assisted by the old chiefess mother, who will have to start us from Captain Cook's time.And a week later:
Luckily I am rather amused and occupied. My "Memoirs of Marau, Queen of Tahiti" give me a sort of excuse for doing nothing. Whenever Marau comes to town, I get from her a lot of notes, which I understand very little, and she not much; then I write them out; then find they are all wrong; then dispute with her till she becomes energetic and goes as far as the next room to ask her mother. The dear old lady has been quite unwell. The other evening I was taken in to see her, and found her sitting on her mat on an inner verandah. When I sat down beside her, she drew me to her and kissed me so affectionately that the tears stood in my eyes.... La Farge is not in love with her as I am; he takes more to Marau and the girls; but I think the Hinarii is worth them all.At the beginning of June:
Marau is to go on with her memoirs, and send them to Washington. So she says, with her ferocious air of determination, half Tahitian and half Hebrew; and if she keeps her word, I shall have a little occupation which will amuse you too, for I have begged her to put in all the scandal she can, and the devil knows that she can put in plenty.And on leaving Tahiti a few days later:
... we had a gay breakfast; but I cared much less for the gaiety than I did for the parting with the dear old lady, who kissed me on both cheeks -- after all, she is barely seventy, va! -- and made us a little speech, with such dignity and feeling, that though it was in native, and I did not understand a word of it, I quite broke down. I shall never see her again, but I have learned from her what the archaic woman was. If Marau only completes the memoirs, you will see; and I left Marau dead bent on doing it.The work did continue after Adams's return to America -- part of a letter from December 1892 survives in which Adams presses Marau at scholarly length on dozens of points of genealogy and geography -- finally achieving what would be its final form in a privately printed edition of 1901.
It's a decidedly odd form, certainly not the personal memoirs originally described: Marau shows up not at all, and the supposed narrator has turned into Arii Tamai. The mix of scholarly history, ethnographic reportage, and primary source material hasn't been worked into a organic voice or structure.
The book wouldn't make a good introduction to Henry Adams, then. But as the first history of Tahiti, written with the full support of the family at the center of the island's annexation as a French colony, and as an attempt to give full attention to both sides of the confrontation between "civilized" and "primitive" cultures, it deserves wider access than it's attained to date.
|. . . 2002-03-17|
Instructions to a Painter, second
Henry Adams to Mabel Hooper, 21 June 1895:
|Your pictures adorn my wall, so that I look them all over every morning while I meditate on getting up. Don't be disturbed if you occasionally feel a disgust for paint and drawing. You would feel the same for the limitations of sculpture or architecture, or poetry or prose, if you tried as hard to express anything in them. There is nothing new to say -- at least in our formulas. Everything has been said many -- many -- many times. The pleasure is in saying it over to ourselves, in a whisper, so that nobody will hear, and so that neither vanity nor money can get in so much as a lisp. I admit that this unfits one for one's time and life, but one must make some sort of running arrangement on every railroad and even in every school; and if you are to stop five minutes for refreshments in the Art Station, you must have those five minutes clear, as much as though you were a Botticelli. I should say the same of Religion, or Poetry, or any other imaginative and emotional expression.|
|. . . 2002-04-11|
Failing towards Freedom : Henry Adams, 1
That the effort to make History a Science may fail, is possible, and perhaps probable; but that it should cease, unless for reasons that would cause all science to cease, is not within the range of experience. Historians will not, and even if they would they cannot, abandon the attempt. Science itself would admit its own failure, if it admitted that man, the most important of all its subjects, could not be brought within its range.
- Henry Adams to the American Historical Association, 12 December 1894
History saw few lessons in the past that would be useful in the future; but one, at least, it did see. The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance. During a million or two of years, every generation in turn had toiled with endless agony to attain and apply power, all the while betraying the deepest alarm and horror at the power they created.... the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.
... Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions, and instead of Kant's famous four antinomies, the new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law.
- The Education of Henry Adams, 1905
Social studies are an excellent idea; social sciences less so.
The problem springs (and I mean springs) from the confusion of description and prescription, the impulse to apply "knowledge" lickety-split to "practice," a confusion and impulse so built into human nature that only us kinda screwed-up people even perceive it, much less perceive it as a problem. If we try to study "how unhappiness develops," financial pressure will quickly switch us to the more profitable question of "how to prevent unhappiness": psychology turns into therapy, philosophy turns into self-help, sociology turns into genocide, and economics into utter insanity; pro-republic Machiavelli barely advanced into a science of politics before his research became funded and repurposed by Medici Technologies. Sure, everyone wants to be an authority, and that's harmless enough; the trouble is that people expect authorities to give orders.
Luckily if unprofitably, virtually all attempts at formalizing a "humanity" into a "scientific discipline" crumble -- such a relief after straining to hold it together! -- unless one assumes a static monoculture. Historical narratives demonstrably overlap without strictly determining each other, and therefore what's defined as history depends on the observer's chosen focus. Predictive history is impossible because both the facts and their interpretive framework are in the future. Even within a monoculture, even for a single interpeter and for a safely past-and-gone event, newly discovered facts (as Adams often mentions) can completely overturn an interpretation. As a result, the new and glorious science can only be defended by outrageously know-nothing rhetoric -- which hardly makes it a safer foundation for action.
History can only react. It doesn't tell us what to do; it only tells us "I told you so," and that's precisely its value. We need it not because we need prescience but because we need narratives. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fewer and dumber ways of interpreting the present.
|. . . 2002-05-19|
The Blue Party Candidate
Midway through my much-aided private college education, the Reagan administration started making Academe a gated community. The results were apparent by the time I graduated, but I always figured, well, at least the state university systems are available.
Talking to younger folks, though, I've hit plenty of anecdotal evidence that even state universities are now available only to those lower-class compeers who are willing to assume crippling -- I mean, legs-chainsawed-off crippling -- debt while simultaneously working like a dog and trying to study full-time. And reports like "Losing Ground" and "Unequal Opportunity" provide the stats: college has become an impossible choice for many Americans, no matter how many sacrifices they're willing to make.
But a good deal of the resulting journalistic attention has been focused not on the destruction of upward mobility, but on scolding those middle and upper-middle class parents who aren't sufficiently greasing their childrens' way.
Meanwhile, even purely vocational-training jobs like computer programming now require a college degree from applicants.
Obviously it's a lot easier to freeze the upper class if the lower class is kept in its place as well. This complete blocking-off of upward mobility helps explain how the complete blocking-off of downward mobility -- which has puzzled me on and off over the years -- has been made possible. You know how it used to be that fortunes and incomes could (given enough tenacity) be lost? But after decades of Golden Parachutes, the subtleties of an Old Boys Club aren't needed: a rich guy can be openly incompetent for years, or even openly criminal, losing vast amounts of money for stockholders and ruining thousands of lives, and still sit on top of the world, dumping.
I can't tell you how depressing all this is. So I can only hope you share my depression without need of description or explanation.
I've never -- not even during my own upwardly-mobile scramble -- felt so trench-stuck in class warfare.
Or class massacre, I guess, 'cause it's not like there's been much fuss being made.
It would be nice to think this state of affairs can't last. But it can, for generations. Henry Adams, who had no trouble predicting the rule of "wealth individualised," couldn't help but assume a socialist backlash would follow. Instead, it sometimes seems to me that we've just been living for decades, barely, off the ever-more-rolled-back leavings of the New Deal and G.I. Bill.
Hell, I'd even consider joining MENSA if they were working to give their poorer brethren and sistren a chance at a better life. But nah, I just checked, and they're still glued to their fucking quizzes.
OK, sorry about the dyspepsia. I'll go back to sticking my head in the sand looking for diamond digestifs tomorrow.
|. . . 2003-03-07|
Sheepskins & Skin-the-Goat
One of the nice things about not dying young is instead of regretting all the things you never accomplished, you get to see other people accomplish them. Like, you can imagine my relief that Patricia Highsmith's reputation has advanced to the point that a critical biography is being written without me having to lift a finger. And the nicest thing about weblog memes (jargon for "dogpile on the topic") is that it takes less time for someone else to say what you're trying to figure out how to say.
Thus I've stayed on the sidelines of the world-wide town-gown rumble long enough that notorious gown-wearer Alex Golub beat me to the punch, and punched way better than I would've. (Besides being lazy, I'm a feeb.) What follows is merely supplemental:
I know of people who treat academia as a day job (the way I treat software engineering, say), but I haven't met many. Most of the academics and ex-academics I've befriended come in one of the following easily distinguished forms:
Both have the best of motivations (love) and both seem admirable characters.
Both also seem intelligent enough to realize that equally admirable characters can have very different experiences and suffer very different outcomes.
What's struck me most forcefully in my limited sample set is the overwhelming extent to which one's status as sheep or goat seems to have been determined by a single factor: the relationship with one's doctoral advisor.
That's not so much the case in the day-job world. A beginning software engineer may have a bad manager first time out and soldier badly on. But even aside from disillusionment with the Community of Learning, the power of the advisor is so absolute, and modifying a post-graduate study program is so difficult, and the amount of debt thrown down the school's maw (in the present USA, at any rate) is so horrifying, that a callous, narrow-minded, self-serving, deceptive, or simply incompetent advisor can do decades of damage to a life with astonishing ease.
For me, it's never been an issue. I'm with Harvard apostate Henry Adams: tying the collaborative role of teacher to the punitive role of judge drops us into a pit of corruption; associating the sacrifice of youth and money (nowadays more money than the youth is ever likely to see again) with bell curve competition elbows our brightest ideals into a drainage ditch. Undisciplined and openly hostile toward authority, I barely achieved a B. A. -- and that only for purposes of class mobility. I live for scholarship, but much of the research I've depended on and virtually all of the learning and teaching I've done were free of institutional ties. When I wish I could make a living by scholarship, it's like wishing I had fifty million dollars, or wishing I was ruled by the just. In short, I'm no academic.
But I depend on the academies for their libraries (and now, surprisingly enough, for my paycheck) and to supply my academic friends with worthwhile happy lives. So I wish the academies well. And in that spirit I offer the following advice:
WATCH OUT FOR ADVISORS.
|. . . 2003-09-29|
|Cardinal Richelieu, instead of being an innovative modernizer of France's military system... in fact failed to initiate effective reforms in military administration, and owed what limited success he had in expanding and strengthening the French army to improvised expedients and the cultivation of the great nobles and existing clientage networks.... funded not by a streamlined fiscal system, but through high taxes and short-term borrowing managed by officials whose corruption was encouraged by the system. Most of the armies' successes, moreover, were the product of decentralization and delegation of authority to military commands and officials, and what limited attempts Richelieu made to concentrate power in his own hands or those of his own clients produced a backlash that threatened to destroy the monarchy a few years later.|
|- Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. LV, No. 4, Winter 2002|
James R. Smither review of
Richelieu's Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642 by David Parrott
But France made out OK for a couple years, so it's easy to see how the story of Richelieu's prowess spread. What was he going to do? Deny it?
|There are as many perspectives as there are human souls and once again I’m learning that no easy conclusions can be drawn, and that what was called History in school was worse than watered-down fairy tales.|
|- Gail Armstrong|
It's not precisely true that history's always written by the victor. Only losers write anything, much less history books. (Burning them's another matter.) But it's true enough that the notion of victors grounds the historical genre.
The historian's job is to build a coherent narrative from whatever source material's available, with memory of hearsay usually providing the initial plot outline. Narrative prefers willed action with willed effects. And so we tell about someone planning this and gaining that, and someone else making a mistake and losing. And the winners (if any) tend to be the protagonists, unless we're playing weepy reactionary, in which case it's going to be awfully hard to avoid bathos.
When sources abound, our fiction becomes untenable, no matter how much the active parties might've clung to their own fictions for the sake of career and sanity. To write coherent post-literate pre-library-burning history is to ascribe motives glibly in the text and dispute or overturn them in the footnotes. (Which is why footnotes are often where the most interesting writing is.)
[That same narratological impulse has kept torture multiculturally acceptable for millenia. Torture produces a known story, and therefore it produces a coherent story, thus re-affirming the value of torture. (Those of us raised to abhor torture should bear in mind that we rely on grossly inaccurate eyewitness accounts for similar reasons.) It's no surprise that the Bush administration, with its faith in the confidently stated lie and in Matthew 25:29-30, should be the first American administration in some time to suggest bringing torture back into the legal system. Footnotes to be shredded before publication.]
When they link local weather conditions to a monarch's virtue, classic European and Chinese histories seem quaint to (most) contemporary humanities students, who know that weather is actually caused by butterfly wings. Could be, though, we maintain some quaint assumptions of our own....
Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I read a book (this was before I kept a journal about anything other than my sex life, so I don't have the title at hand) that brought two bits of research together. The first polled military scholars to determine who were the greatest military leaders in history and what determined that category; it turned out to be something like winning six major battles. The second collected a database of major battles and relevant commanders and calculated, based purely on chance, what the likely distribution of wins would be. The most likely number of winners of six battles was identical with the number of most-agreed-upon major military leaders.
Although the coincidence is merely suggestive, I've found the suggestion clarifying when brought to bear on questions like how did Grant turn from a drunken loser to a drunken winner (producing a narrative of growing wisdom and maturity) and then (as President) back to a drunken loser again (producing very confused narrators)?
Almost a century before that book's publication, confused Grant-watcher Henry Adams bid farewell to history when, after decades of mulling the elaborately unreliable allegiances of English-American diplomacy during the American Civil War, he found by reading memoirs and diaries that they'd been generated semi-randomly by the combination of an aging pathological liar, an airhead who took orders from his morning Bible reading, and a self-confessed bungler who hadn't thought through the consequences of his actions:
|All the world had been at cross-purposes, had misunderstood themselves and the situation, had followed wrong paths, drawn wrong conclusions, and had known none of the facts. One would have done better to draw no conclusions at all. One's diplomatic education was a long mistake.
His whole theory of conspiracy,— of policy,— of logic and connection in the affairs of man, resolved itself into "[a mistake of] incredible grossness."
All this was indifferent. Granting, in spite of evidence, that Gladstone had no set plan of breaking up the Union; that he was party to no conspiracy; that he saw none of the results of his acts which were clear to everyone else; granting in short what the English themselves seemed at last to conclude:— that Gladstone was not quite sane; that Russell was verging on senility; and that Palmerston had lost his nerve.... How should it have affected one's future opinions and acts?
Politics cannot stop to study psychology. Its methods are rough; its judgments are rougher still.... The problem would have been the same; the answer equally obscure.
|- The Education of Henry Adams|
Even in the presumable limit condition of fiction labeled as such, on the presumable author's own authority, we often find confusion, second-guessing, or admission of surprise ("I meant to make God the hero, but Satan kept taking over"). How much more murkiness might be expected from a Real Life Adventure with the cross-purposed interference of multiply improvising and scatterbrained plotters?
Does this mean history has nothing to teach us?
Even to this non-historian, it seems very insistently to teach lessons of (in no particular order) tolerance, skepticism, humor, and panic.
Those were never very popular lessons, however, and, except for the last, they're less popular now than ever.
|. . . 2003-10-23|
Francis Joins a Feral Herd
Does it seem to you that there's been a distinct lowering of tone round here lately?
Well, it's not going to get any better for a sentence or two, as one of my favorite readers, Lawrence La Riviere White, encounters one of my favorite writers, Henry Adams:
I have been reading Education for about a year now as my bathroom book (a format that certainly effects one's interpretation). One quick thought on the foibles of academic literary criticism. I am now in the chapter on the Dynamic Theory of History & finding it the least interesting part of the whole thing. I agree w/your assessment of the main lesson of the book, something like the life-long development of a comportment toward one's ignorance. I think it relates to what Adorno and/or Benjamin might have (it's a memory fragment I have yet to patch) called "hopeful pessimism": despite the truth snapping you in the face (or worse, in the case of Benjamin) at every turn, keep trying. Adam's point seems to have occurred as well to Emerson: "The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness."It's true: Adams's weakest point was misunderstanding science as requiring some "rule" or "law" of history. I can forgive it because it sets up the heartbreaking conclusion of The Education and because an intelligent person's foibles can be instructive in themselves.
But as I read the dynamic theory chapter, I think of the thousands of students preparing for PhD exams who made a precis of that chapter's argument their main notes for the book. Because it's the one thing he spelled out. & professional academic lit-crit has to go w/what's spelled out. When you have so many books to account for, you have to fall back on shorthands.
It's harder to forgive the later writers (also often a little wobbly on science) who build on such weak points. The weight of the work is in passing insight and self-limiting aphorism while what gets cited is the grandly gassy theory, with Adams as with Nietzsche -- and, come to think of it, as with many poets and novelists foolish enough to wax pundit once or twice in their lives. (One word for Joyceans: "epiphany." He didn't even publish that one himself.)
Similar inclinations are shown by anthropologists of my own (that is, popular) culture. How many more university-funded volumes will be devoted to The Matrix than to Pirates of the Caribbean just because The Matrix speaks in familiar soundbites? Madonna strapping herself into a whalebone corset has less to do with either sexuality or transgression than with Madonna's none-too-revolutionary preconception of what her public thinks of sexuality and transgression, and in that, she's thesis-friendly. As I've demonstrated here many times, it's easier to launch a discourse on preconceptions than on the needle-pointed hæcceities of object, person, and experience.
I've sometimes expressed surprise at so much attention being devoted to that which needs neither elucidation nor perpetuation. But it makes evolutionary sense that monkeys should prefer low-hanging fruit and that we don't feel compelled to scrape our evolutionarily-valuable groins up the tree to the hard-to-reach stuff.
To switch totem species, having been trained by stick and low-hanging carrot-fruit to publicly confirm, as quickly and directly as possible, the learning of a lesson, why should the student turn against that training and insist on a slow, indirect, and uncertain route?
Some mules are just born bad, I reckon.
|. . . 2003-11-02|
"peculiarly dull reading; yet, for some, the most interesting history there is, 114, 116"
It's a wonderful thing how our solitary pleasures and interests, left long unspoken for fear of boring our friends, offer through the web the solace of community. When I see in my stats searches such as today's "propaganda of durian fruit," "rose caylor," and "symptoms bipolar elvis presley," all the effort seems worthwhile.
Myself, I had no idea that any other folks sought out eccentric indexes. My own most recent catch, Sketches for the North American Review by Henry Adams as edited by Edward Chalfant (Archon Books, 1986), attracted my attention by the three line entry:
This turned out to be a model specimen, exhibiting such markings as the unpredictable alphabetization:
(Meaning "History, a survey of,
ancient India," under "A" for "ancient"
rather than "I" for "India.")
And the redundant citation:
The discomfiting conjunction:
And the footnote irruptus:
And the covert thesis, here represented by the two-thirds of a column devoted to extracting every term of praise or demur from Adams's book reviews. (I can't help but anticipate the index of "Cinematic virtues" in the Collected Criticism of Peter Travers.)
Indeed, the whole sequence, from:
is worth the connoisseur's while.
|. . . 2003-11-26|
In 1870, the political career of Henry Adams detoured into academia.
Characteristically, he made himself at home on his new perch by sawing at the limb. Having become a Harvard professor and the editor of a leading scholarly journal, for his first major article in that journal, he ransacked his distinguished grandfather's diaries and printed, with acidulous glee, the most embarrassing notes he could find from John Quincy Adams's two years at Harvard College:
However that may be, the syllogists all got together this evening and drank till not one of them could stand straight, or was sensible of what he did. A little after 9 they sallied out, and for a quarter of an hour made such a noise as might be heard at a mile distant. The tutors went out and after a short time persuaded them to disperse. Mr. —— had two squares of his windows broke.... Borland, it seems, was the most active of them all; he collared Mr. —— and threw an handful of gravel in his face, and was rather disrespectful to Mr. ——.This excerpt may help to explain the hostility:
Here are a few additional Harvard memories which escaped publication in 1872:May 3d, 1786We had after Prayers a Class meeting, about making a present to our Tutor. It is customary at the end of the freshman year to make a present to the Tutor of the Class: but it has been delay'd by ours to the present Time, and many would still delay it, and lay it wholly aside. The Custom, I think is a bad, one, because, it creates partialities in a Tutor, because it increases the distinction between the wealthy, and the poor Scholars, because it makes the Tutor in some measure dependent upon his Class, and because to many that Subscribe it is a considerable expence, but the Salaries of the Tutors, being so low, and it having been for many years an universal custom, I am sorry to see our Class so behind hand, and several, who could well afford it, and have really subscribed, meanly endeavouring, to put off the matter from Quarter to Quarter, till they leave College.
August 17th, 1786Drank tea with Mead in his Chamber which is contiguous to mine. The Club are quite in a Dilemma, how to do since the boys are sent off. They are unwilling to send Freshmen, and think it beneath their dignity to go themselves for what they want. At about 10 o'clock this evening, Stratten, a crazy fellow came, and knock'd at my door; just as I was going to bed; I opened it, and he ask'd me for some water; I told him I had none, and shut the door upon him: "Damn you, says he, do you refuse a man a little water." After thumping two or three minutes at the door, he went away, knock'd at all the doors in the entry; ran up and down stairs, came again, to my door and stamp'd at it, and finally ran to the window in the entry, push'd it up, and leapt immediately out of it. I instantly got out of my bed, went to my window, and saw him lying on the ground. After 3 or 4 minutes he began to groan "Oh! I've broke my leg." Charles had not gone to bed; I desired him to go and call up Dr. Jennison; who immediately came out. The fellow complain'd in the most doleful manner. However, after examining his leg, (for he was not at all hurt any where else) the Doctor said, there might be a bone crack'd but that none was displaced. It was with a great deal of difficulty that we were able to get Stratten, into one of the lower Rooms which is empty. He persisted for two hours in attempting to walk, for in addition to his State of mind, he was then as drunk as a beast.
May 30th, 1787Election day. About two thirds of the Students went to Boston. Those of us who remain'd pass'd the day, in amusement; I was at Cranch's chamber the whole day. The Sophimore Class with their civil Officers at the head march'd in procession to the Hall, and as soon as they came in a pistol was fir'd by their governor. The same ceremony was repeated after commons were over. In the evening they were at Thomas's chamber, much intoxicated and very noisy. Dr. Jennison paid them a visit at nine o'clock, and sent them all to their chambers.
The younger Adams claimed that his goal was to help the reader "obtain a correct idea of the gradual steps by which the standard of high education in America has been slowly raised," and I suppose I must have something similar in mind.
|. . . 2004-10-02|
It's a foundational narrative fallacy: If I know only a few things about a situation, and those imperfectly, I'll assume they're essential and sufficient. We know that Sappho was a woman, and so a few pullquotes from an unknowable context epitomize the feminine voice. We know that Shakespeare's sonnets mention a dark lady and a sexy young man, and so this tragic triangle molded his (or the Earl of Oxford's) career. We know a monster and we know the name Frankenstein, and so the monster's named Frankenstein.
Critic prepares a psychoanalytic reading for the MLA
We know the following about Lewis Carroll:
From this, we realized he was an emotionally arrested pedophile whose heart snapped after his obsession with Alice Liddel was discovered by her appalled parents.
However, from this we were supposed to have realized that Lewis Carroll was a very nice man who would never think about anything as scandalous as sex.
What we didn't know (via The Little Professor) is that he also liked spending time with, writing flirtatious letters to, and photographing teenage girls, young women, and mature women, and that he was as likely to worry husbands, brothers, and employers as parents. The reputation-driven repression of his executors was taken for Lewis Carroll's own perversity-driven repression.
Lewis Carroll's "little girls" might then be along the blurry lines of Henry Adams's "nieces," a social category encompassing non-relatives, adult women, and even some men. And his biographies would then be along the lines of a reticence farce like Charley's Aunt or La Cage aux Folles— or, with corpse as lead dummy, maybe more like The Wrong Box or The Trouble with Harry.
In a recent issue of the TLS there's a decent article that excoriates those (and another TLS writer in particular) who would claim that Dodgson was only tangentially interested in young women. Somewhat orthogonal to your argument (more a question of degree than one of polar opposites), but worth a look.
|. . . 2005-12-24|
It was exactly as if she had been there by the operation of my intelligence, or even by that — in a still happier way — of my feeling. My excitement, as I have called it, on seeing her, was assuredly emotion. Yet what was this feeling, really?
The Sacred Fount made Henry James's friends fear for his sanity. (Henry Adams offered the cheery consolation that "most of the rest of us" would be institutionalized with him.) James himself seemed taken aback by the tumorous growth of the novel. It remained his most extreme experiment: a postmodernist parody of a country house mystery avant la lettre; a mad (social) scientist in a meet-cute(-and-go-nowhere) romantic thriller; a locked room containing the foully-played corpse of realism. (Possibly a suicidal frame-up.)
And it's my sentimental favorite. But I've never tried to work out a way to write about it. The Sacred Fount scares off analysis by example. Some critics express bafflement or disgust; others take short simple pleasure in their manifest superiority to James's first-person.
So I doff my Santa cap to Michael Wood for "The Museum of What Happens", a compact essay which takes the risk of taking the book's problems seriously, starting with the infamous unreliability of its narrator.
Peli tweaks my bruised conscience:
"**postmodernist** parody of a..." - You feeling ok? Never thought I'll see the day and so on.
I'm sorry we both saw it and so on. The adjective was laziness pure and simple; a cynical carnival barker move. And you can see by the comments the entry's drawn at the Valve just how successful a carnival barker I'd be.
Dr. Lukin diagnoses the lack of response:
I think it's that one doesn't fuck w/Shaviro or be a party to a fucking w/Shaviro. He'll cut off yer feet, like Coppola did to Fred Astaire. Or, I dunno, christen you "Kal-El."
|. . . 2006-02-25|
Early Darwinian historians simply swapped Nature's will in for God's: Nature evolved homo sapiens, and then Nature evolved late nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans, and now it's just a matter of mopping up the kitchen.
Brooks Adams knew better. Biological evolution describes a process, not a project; by analogy, any rules governing human culture would continue to grind through the Gilded Age. Anyone who thought they'd reached the end of history hadn't understood history.
Relinquishing the throne of creation freed Adams to found a different lineage of errors.
Take, for example, his assumption that biology and culture conserve a constant quantifiable "energy" which is divvied out across each generation. Or his asides about a force of history which can no more be argued with than gravitational acceleration. In both cases, he seems to misunderstand evolution as (singular) survival of the (winner-take-all) fittest under a (singular) law rather than as an intention-free account of species diversification. He mistakes Darwin for Newton.
He's hardly alone. Because technology depends on reliably replicable results, non-scientists tend to picture science as a matter of finding trustworthy laws and formulas. But that doesn't cover even all laboratory sciences: Medical and psychological journals describe barely distinguishable correlations rather than universally valid laws, and the pressures of research funding encourage flexibility in what's considered significant. In the twentieth century, physics itself became probabilistic.
Most drastically, the characterization doesn't cover historical science. Historical sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology study contingencies, not eternal verities. What makes them scientific are the materiality of their problems, their evidence, and their suggested explanations.
Darwin's problem was the appearance of new species over time. His solution was divergent descent driven by material means.
What's the historian's problem? It doesn't seem to be divergence. Like later scientizing historians, Adams rummaged through the polymorphic transtemporal promiscuity of human culture and found cycles. But evolution isn't cyclical.
Biologists in the tradition of Darwin should not speak of the coming into effect of selection if:
1. Already disappeared characters suddenly re-appear in subsequent generations (= false negative selection).
2. Characters which seem to have been positively “selected” during ontogeny never re-appear in subsequent generations (= false positive selection).
Usually, genes, genomes, characters, individuals, populations, and species never do come back once they have been negatively selected, and that is eliminated by Darwinian selection. This is the very simple, but fundamental essence of Darwin’s idea of “natural selection” which, in that respect, was a clearly materialist one....
The situation in operant learning – and, by the way, also in conceptual change in science and culture – is even more revealing. Cases 1 and 2 are in this view not rare exceptional cases, but rather they constitute more or less the rule.
And the problem's certainly not species. Although biological taxonomy may be fuzzy in spots, it's brick solid compared to what we grasp and mold from the blooming buzzing muck of human chronicles. So far as history is conceived as anything but a chronological collation of citations from unreliable sources, history is nothing but variations on observer bias, and misanthopic pessimism isn't enough to correct our myopia.
After only 110 years, Adams's biases seem sharp, and his (to him) clean abstractions seem (to us) to morph and merge. His towering account is stabilized by the shiftiness of its foundations. Even the line between "civilization" and "barbarism" is blurred by his fascination with torture.
Living where and when he did, Adams restricts the purview of his general law of "civilizations" to Western Europe and, occasionally, their colonies. The barbaric Crusaders contacted the Saracens at the peak of their civilization — but what laws governed that civilization? China, Japan, Persia — they were out there, we suppose; unchanging, decadent....
Living where and when he did, Adams's idea of "economy" focused on the movement of precious metals. But the "money" of contemporary wealth is as imaginary, as reliant on the power of orthodoxy and law, as any kingship or priesthood: a shared nightmare from which we're afraid to wake up.
Living where and when he did, Adams pictured religion and finance as opposite extremes. Protestantism had won because conscience is cheaper than icons. Taking what would seem — and would continue to seem, among the elite, for some decades — the natural next step, Henry Adams pointed out that "Atheism is still cheaper than reformed religion."
But then again Henry also pointed out that the leaders of the Catholic church appear to have accumulated more wealth than Luther, Calvin, and Fox. And then again, Brooks represents the Anglican capitalists who consolidated lands and lowered the value of productive labor as more economically evolved than the Puritan farmers who were thereby forced into exile. And then again, as the economic power of those exiles grew...?
Well, living where and when we do, none of it makes sense. If capitalism and religious faith were ever in conflict, they made up by the time of the Spanish Civil War. For those of us who've survived into the 21st century, it's hard to picture them as anything but allies. The age of expensive miracles isn't past. It's just that the expensive miracle cures consist of selfish murdering assholes getting to feel good about themselves. Taking the long view, though, is that really so novel?
And then there are his easy personifications of "race" and "breed". In their rush to scientize, even skeptics like Brooks and Henry Adams stayed blind to the flaws of these selectively weighted non-random outliers-scrubbed sample sets. They knew many more WASP millionaires than they knew Jewish bankers — Jay Gould was as American as apples with razor blades. But that hardly registered, they'd known so few Jews who weren't bankers.
Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if they had. Young Louis Zukofsky's stubborn refusal of either "all you Jews" or "unlike most Jews" gambits rolled off Adams fan Ezra Pound with as little effect as every other non-artifactual experience. I'm-rubber-you're-glue is a hard game to lose.
* * *
The reader may wonder why I feel compelled to exhume and whump the peaceful corpse of Brooks Adams.
The point isn't he was an idiot. While he was alive he was smarter than me, possibly even as smart as you.
But now that he's dead, we have a bit of an edge. And I think this is a fairly common pattern.
Adams couldn't escape his time and place. That's not a mistake we've grown out of.
misanthopic trees never bloom
|. . . 2006-02-26|
But simply because it is possible to model a process in Darwinian or quasi-Darwinian terms does not necessarily imply that it is useful to do so. Darwin himself invoked natural selection to explain the existence of adaptation in nature – a phenomenon which cries out for scientific explanation and was conspicuously lacking one until Darwin’s own theory. But in many of the recent attempts to discern Darwinian processes at work in other domains, for example, in the realm of human culture, there is no comparable phenomenon which clearly requires, but totally lacks, a proper causal explanation.
We feel as though we ought to be able to tell the "story" of anything that changes over time — like America, or the vertebrates. But the things about which we can tell stories must either possess individuality, or they must be prepared to have individuality and all it entails — like ontogeny and closure — imposed upon them by the force of narrative.
That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.
Given how blatantly history and culture don't map the concerns of evolutionary biology, what attracts humanists to the rhetoric of evolutionary biology?
Darwinian evolution proposed to solve an otherwise unexplained mystery. In contrast, human history has too many explanations.
Somehow, though, on close inspection, they always seem to dissolve into a mist of unknowables, tautologies, unlikelihoods, and impossibilities.
Miasma in, miasma out. History amalgamates human actions into a reasonable narrative; human actions aren't rational. We intuit causality and teleology from our own experience of agency. But, fast talker though it is, human agency never quite finishes explaining things. Its story doesn't hang together.
In response, we might cook the books: haute cuisine chefs such as Objectivists and behaviorists eviscerate, blanch, bone, shred, filter, and pipe experience into occasional lever pushes by a mascaraed Gary Cooper.
Or we might find some supplemental force to fill the gaps of decision: gods, God, demons, spells, universal dialectic, conflicting drives, false consciousness, interfering modules, the selfish genes of our extinct ancestors.... But in describing them as "forces", we've only shifted the burden of teleological paradox on to where we hope it can't be questioned further, like a subpoenaed CEO's The Girl.
The principled skeptical historian, like the English professor who's sick of literature, would like to sweep the tainted debris of personality out of sight. "Evolution" appeals as a magically unliftable materialist carpet. But its magic material is Emperor's New Cloth. The explanations offered by evolutionary biologists are usually presented as not-disproven; the explanations offered by historians usually aren't presented in disprovable terms. The carpet can't be lifted because there's nothing there. Nothing except that same irritating multiplying dust-bunny.
Satisfaction will not be received. The scratch is just the itch's way of making another itch.
... what startles me in these paragraphs is the self-satisfied assumption of the finality of my conclusions. I posit, as a fact not to be controverted, that our universe is an expression of an universal law, which the nineteenth century had discovered and could formulate.
During the past thirty years I have given this subject my best attention, and now I am so far from assenting to this proposition that my mind tends in the opposite direction. Each day I live I am less able to withstand the suspicion that the universe, far from being an expression of law originating in a single primary cause, is a chaos which admits of reaching no equilibrium, and with which man is doomed eternally and hopelessly to contend.- "Preface to New Edition" of
The Emancipation of Massachussetts: The Dream and the Reality
by Brooks Adams (1919)
We (or our claustrophobia-enducing tiny little comment box) seem to have finally driven this dedicated reader round the bend:
This is fine and good mindwork. Excellent. It seems important for reasons I can't get my fingers on to recognize everything Darwinian movement happens to is already there. The growth medium having its own day in court, sort of thing.
And speaking of our comment box and evolution, today marks this primitive email-based response system's first instance of bot spam:
[Link removed] would any guy here do anything sexual with a girl in front of your friend Like your best friend? I don't know if I can do anything like that.
That evolution happens to stuff, that what is evolving is stuff that's been here since either:
a. an origin only describable by dogmatic mumbo-jumbo and requiring blind faith e.g. bigbang superstring fries-with-that; or,
b. It's always been here. If it's always been here, the room for conjecture as to further and as-yet unobserved attributes is very great.
Come to think of it, the whole idea that each society consists of a certain mass of energy seems awfully Herbert Spencer-ish, and I'd bet the ranch that is where he got it. It takes some doing now, really, to grasp just how gigantic a figure Spencer was at the time.
Oddly, though, Spencer doesn't really show up in the Adams material I've read. (Henry Adams mentions him once in a late letter as an English affliction to match the German Kant and French Comte.) For whatever guesses are worth, I'd guess that the two brothers thought of him more as symptom of the times than as personal inspiration -- which, of course, doesn't rule out unacknowledged influence....
|. . . 2006-09-30|
In January, 1870, John Ruskin began Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, issued near-monthly through early 1878 and more spasmodically between 1880 and 1884.
Tastes have changed in 130 years, but the book remains weak, and weakens as it goes. The first and last frontispieces illustrate the progess from Giotto to ick.
Between them, we're whiplashed between fulmination and namby-pamby; we plod through dull fiction, eccentric introductions to geology and entomology, a few close moralizing readings of paintings, histories, and saints' tales, bad-tempered quarrels with the well-meaning and mostly good-natured, daydream descriptions of imaginary coinage, comment-larded translations of Plato's Laws and the Bible....
The arguments I found most cogent thin with repetition; pages dissolve into a welter of cross-references: "Let her read the account of our modern pastoral music, at page 90 of my fifth Letter,— of modern Venetian 'Barcarolle,' page 245 of Letter 19, and 257 of Letter 20..." And, as Ruskin himself points out, they only restated more bluntly what he'd written prettily before.
It doesn't even excerpt easily: Ruskin was a manic monologist, not an aphorist.
The serial started forcefully enough, engaging a still-live issue: the moral and ecological costs of capitalism. And suspensefully enough while I waited for the author to reveal his plan.
Post-revelation, the grounds of suspense changed. Now I wondered how long it would take for his plan to fall apart, and how completely it would fail before he admitted defeat.
And then, a while later, how long it would take for him to become certifiable, and how that would show up in the "letters"....
Oh, I've encountered successful works shaped by and incorporating their artists' mental collapse. Not here. Here I was drawn on by pure, if sympathetic, morbidness.
It's not my favorite way to read a writer; it's not how writers prefer to be read. But after finishing the book, curious, I found that even its greatest champion, Tim Holt, reads it that way. He says that's why he likes it most.
That's the best Ruskin's biographer can fish from the man's life work.
From political prophet and model prose stylist to human interest story — the degradation's ours as much as Ruskin's.
All these decades I'd hosted Whistler's version of the story: a victory of wit and art over the opressive Establishment.
But Whistler wasn't the only presumptious upstart in the case. Ruskin had climbed far in life, it's true; so far that, without realizing it, thrashing in the upper foliage, he'd left behind anything which could support his weight.
In context, Ruskin's insult was a singular throwaway in an ever less coherent and ever more discountable flood of attacks on enemies much more Established than either disputant. Whistler was flogging a lame horse. The target of his suit would collapse into complete delirium long before the trial took place.
This revision teaches a lesson worth learning. (Although I needed it more at eighteen.) Our license to rave isn't a sign of fear or respect, but of our fecklessness. Milords, miladies, & Most Reverend and Right Honourable Archbishops needn't soil their gloves chastising the fool. Sooner or later, some other thin-skinned desparate clown will do the job for them, unpaid.
Unseated at the foot of the table, splattered with drumstick grease, wine dregs, and worse.
And Ruskin's yen for the early Renaissance, his execrations of usury, his frantic vehemence, and the sad curve of his career all forced thoughts of Ezra Pound. (Some people even compare Fors Clavigera with the Cantos, although Pound's post-1930 prose seems a much closer match.)
Both were convinced they stood on unassailable dignity even when hopping, frothing, screaming mad. They were both very fond of the word "Master". And they shared an abusive pedagogy: Disgusted Ruskin describes himself hammering a nail into our thick skulls; disgusted Pound describes slamming a dick into the passive vulva of London.
A dirty job that somebody's gotta do: Carpentry or rape?
Pound wants credit for suffering through a purported source of pleasure.
And one difference between Ruskin's and Pound's late madworks is who they're aimed at and how: discursive prose for the working class vs. high art for the perceptive elite.
Both men were pushed off the path of pure aesthetism by the same conviction: Great art can only be created by a great culture, and so a great society must be remade.
But Pound circles the argument around again to shape and keep a cozy bed. How does one set about creating a great society? Why, by making great art, of course.
Fors wasn't written as literature or criticism; it documents an attempt to achieve more than words alone achieved, and to actualize fantasy by less comfortable means than continued fantasizing.
Ruskin's choice was Quixotic, literally. With Quixotic results.
But Quixote was at least a principled man.
And, in the end, restricting himself to purely verbal labor protected Pound neither from guilt nor retribution.
Best not even go there.
And so another American I think of's Henry Adams.
Ruskin was a conservative Christian communist; Adams a "conservative Christian anarchist".
The adjective falls oddly against those nouns.
Ruskin and Adams opposed it to a just-as-obsolete usage of "liberal": "rule by free-market capitalism."
Outside of academia, it's been obsolete a long while. By Ruskin's time, all major Anglo-American political parties accepted capitalism as a given, and the only economic dispute between "conservative" and "liberal" was, and remains, whether government should provide welfare exclusively to the wealthy or to others as well.
Although I haven't filled in the spreadsheet, Ruskin directed perhaps his most sustained and violent abuse against church leaders.
Adams didn't, being more interested in politicians than in evangelicals, and there being, back then, a difference.
Pound, of course, was a pagan.
Yet Ruskin, the only fanatic gospel reader of the three, was the only one not to fall into the idiot trap of anti-Semitism. Deluded, he was at least able to clearly see the capitalists two feet in front of him and what churches they attended.
"Anarchist" if you can't.
Despair drives us mad; hope flies there. When Adams referred to himself and his friends as instutionalizable, the joke had teeth. He was careful to restrict his ravings to private letters.
And he proposed no plan but to watch.
Set up an inner nation to survive the crash. Bit by bit, donated acre by unmortgaged acre, volunteer serf by volunteer baron, neo-Medieval economy, religion, culture, and technology would re-establish themselves in England's green and pleasant land.
The scheme anticipates Hari Seldon, but its goal anticipates the post-apocalyptic pastoral. Over and over, we've imagined the development of low-tech pseudo-feudalism after the big blow-up. Ruskin just wanted to have it ready to pivot into place early on.
The land which turns swords into ploughshares is always beaten by the land which turns swords into money.
What Ruskin could build was ridiculously trivial next to his dreams. But he built its trivia soundly, and trivially it still stands.
In the long disastrous history of attempts to make over society, Ruskin's fiasco counts as success. He managed to erect a molehill instead of a bomb crater.
Geography's not the issue. The conflict's between purity and productization.
The Tutor graciously acknowledges the razor-bladed apple on his desk.
|. . . 2008-01-13|
SPOILER WARNING, but I felt Barbellion finished the Journal properly. (And capped it with the best hiatus announcement in proto-blogging history.) Exclamations and expletives aside, odds are high that "Self-disgust" will be my last thought as well. Although of course one tries to avoid directly addressing a topic that forces polite bystanders to dredge up ineffective protests: it's dull and egocentric and even deadlier to conversation than say dreams or SAT scores or incomes.
The need to not quite express oneself leads I guess to writing — but that hardly settles how much is not quite enough. Witness the "careers" of Barbellion or Henry Adams or Jean Eustache or so many others.... Three days ago for example I finished Dickinson's Misery despite the title. (Its true name is Dickinson's Genre. Virginia Walker Jackson justifies "Misery" as a generic metonym, like "Stars" or "Trillion Year" on a book about science fiction , but "Arch Playfulness" marks the same genre just as well, so tush.) While its argumentation may be knotty, it's not the usual loopy; anyway, the real joy's in the archival contextualizations and complications which re-establish Dickinson as unknowable: an Open and therefore Shut Case.
Yesterday for another example I finished an iffy novel by B. S. Johnson, an experiment marred by sloppy procedure, a eulogy uninterested in its subject, instead that imitable B. S. Johnson self-loathing, very understandable too, or "surprisingly accessible" as the critics say, it's the Malcolm Lowry problem, ha, he follows on Joyce and Beckett, but without the grasping or the distancing, we're flipping pages in his head, a fine fat one, still no room to breathe, we know how that ends.
Back to me though, about eighteen years ago for example I emerged upon a new plateau of despair and not long after began to write and then to publish. The triggers are clear enough; the motives are questionable. Just a week ago for example while I was in a frenzy of fatuous blundering the question arose. I have two pat answers and this being a social occasion I deployed the social one: I write to meet people. Now clearly that's false: I wrote before I met people, I write without meeting people, if these are advertisements for myself then they're the sort of ads that never mention what the product does. No, the primary motive must be my other pat answer, to get verbal structures "out of my head." But as I commented to Mr. Waggish ten days ago "out" is a vague word, and what I mean by the pat answer I used I guess is that meeting people is the only reward I receive from writing, which in turn determines the particular type of "out" I'm in: commercial writing pays too little, an academic position would make me go Stanford, and the thrill of seeing my name in print lasts thirty seconds to be followed by years of sore regret over my inability to edit the bylined piece, the unnecessary expense for readers who won't like it, and the unlikelihood of it ever reaching readers who will. Not that I don't suffer sore regret after meeting people but, you know, it's by far the best of the lot.
In conclusion then, The Unfortunates is another, Dickinson's Misery is good, Barbellion is better, and give me a call.
Call?! I'll see you and raise you!
next time I'm in California, I will.
Holy crap, it works!
|. . . 2010-01-03|
Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron, 8 March 1914:
I've read Henry James’s last bundle of memories which have reduced me to dreary pulp. Why did we live? Was that all? Why was I not born in central Africa and died young. Poor Henry James thinks it all real, I believe, and actually still lives in that dreamy, stuffy Newport and Cambridge, with papa James and Charles Norton — and me! Yet, why!
Henry James to Henry Adams, 21 March 1914:
I have your melancholy outpouring of the 7th, & I know not how better to acknowledge it than by the full recognition of its unmitigated blackness. Of course we are lone survivors, of course the past that was our lives is at the bottom of an abyss — if the abyss has any bottom; of course too there’s no use talking unless one particularly wants to. But the purpose, almost, of my printed divagations was to show you that one can, strange to say, still want to — or at least can behave as if one did. Behold me therefore so behaving — & apparently capable of continuing to do so. I still find my consciousness interesting — under cultivation of the interest. Cultivate it with me, dear Henry — that’s what I hoped to make you do; to cultivate yours for all that it has in common with mine. Why mine yields an interest I don’t know that I can tell you, but I don’t challenge or quarrel with it — I encourage it with a ghastly grin. You see I still, in presence of life (or of what you deny to be such,) have reactions — as many as possible — & the book I sent you is a proof of them. It’s, I suppose, because I am that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions — appearances, memories, many things go on playing upon it with consequences that I note & ‘enjoy’ (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing — & I do. I believe I shall do yet again — it is still an act of life. But you perform them still yourself — & I don’t know what keeps me from calling your letter a charming one! There we are, and it’s a blessing that you understand— I admit indeed alone— Your all-faithful Henry James
|. . . 2010-01-13|
Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James by J. Hillis Miller
Working at the top of his game, Miller explicates "beautifully," to use the Master's own term for such blends of caution and engagement. (Which is to say "carefully," if, unlike the Master, one prefers ambiguity to vagueness.) I happily recommend Miller's celebration to any non-Jamesians in the mood to understand what they're missing and to any Jamesians in the mood for intelligent companionship.
Even in our contested territory, Miller behaves with probity. When Martha Nussbaum delineates the ideal James reader (and by extension the ideal to which all citizens should aspire), she seems unaware how neatly her terms fit Fanny Assingham and The Sacred Fount's Nameless One. Miller meets both head-on:
We are not all that much better off than Maggie or than the narrator-participant of The Sacred Fount, except that we are permitted by the narrative voice to juxtapose several different perspectives. We have several different acts of reading the signs elaborately presented to us, most notably Fanny's and Maggie's. The Sacred Fount, however, focuses primarily on what is problematic and dismayingly unverifiable about the passive/active event of reading signs, making a global interpretation of a presented social scene, and then establishing a law of interpersonal exchange on that basis. The Golden Bowl focuses more on the way a reading of social signs can be performatively felicitous if others can be got to believe it or to act as if they believe it.
The book achieves its goals — and cannot step outside them without rupturing genre boundaries. Miller must leave one strand dangling:
When her husband asks what will be his punishment, Fanny answers, somewhat contradictorily: "Nothing — you're not worthy of any. One's punishment is in what one feels, and what will make ours effective is that we shall feel." ... If we are unimaginative readers, we can escape responsibility, but only by being grossly irresponsible. Either way we have had it, in a painful double bind that might lead one to conclude it would be better not to read The Golden Bowl at all.
I believe that conclusion should be taken seriously. For one thing, it reflects social reality: most people have not read The Golden Bowl at all. Even literate English-speakers of James's own time tended to leave James's novels unread; some did so with great vehemence. Is there anything to be said for someone (not our dear selves, I hasten to add) who refuses to become "the thoughtful reader of The Golden Bowl. I mean the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it, that is, as a particularly exigent and responsible part of 'the conduct of life'"?
Testimony isn't lacking should the unthoughtful reader seek it. James is dithering; James is timid; James would rather risk incoherence than risk coming to the point. James is a grotesquely pompous peeping-tom, unwilling to assume the responsibility of physical contact and unable to stop nosing around others' sex lives. James is an un-American sissy.
(That last would be Theodore Roosevelt's critique, and yes, I find it offensive. But given his offensive starting point, I can't argue with it any more than I can with the tastes of a later Roosevelt. Henry James and the Roosevelts aimed at different lives and different afterlives. They also serve who don't just stand and wait.)
Having admitted the possibility of refusal, let's tot up the benefits accruing to our own more enlightened status. We can begin with James himself; although he lacked Harlan Ellison reflexes, occasionally an attack did sting him into the indignity of self-defense. I've already had the pleasure of transcribing two examples; here's a very brief third, to his brother:
I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won't — you seem to me so constitutionally unable to ‘enjoy’ it, and so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it, and to the conditions out of which, as mine, it has inevitably sprung.... And yet I can read you with rapture —
Written to three very different skeptics, they all follow the same course: James points to his absolute certainty that he, Henry James, experiences life in a certain way and had no choice but to write what he wrote, that the only way for him to not do these things would be to not be Henry James, but that, as Henry James, he's not restricted to a diet of Henry James but delights even in the work of naysayers. Henry James was often sad and often disappointed, but Henry-James-ism was enough to provide inexhaustible and inextinguishable comfort:
If one acts from desire quite as one would from belief, it signifies little what name one gives to one's motive. By which term action I mean action of the mind, mean that I can encourage my consciousness to acquire that interest, to live in that elasticity and that affluence, which affect me as symptomatic and auspicious. I can't do less if I desire, but I shouldn't be able to do more if I believed. Just so I shouldn't be able to do more than cultivate belief; and it is exactly to cultivation that I subject my hopeful sense of the auspicious; with such success — or at least with such intensity — as to give me the splendid illusion of doing something myself for my prospect, or at all events for my own possibility, of immortality.
Which is to say that your objections would vanish if you could become "that queer monster," Henry James.
Well! This is an admirably modest argument which establishes an enviable position. But it has one flaw: most of us will not become Henry James. And that may be just as well. A world full of Henry Jameses, or even a summer house full of Henry Jameses, sounds a bit stifling. As Paul Kerschen once said, you need at least one dangerously naive young lady as leaven.
Henry James himself, of course, had no choice but to speak exclusively for himself; he was too polite to subpoena character witnesses. The curious thing is that Miller's defense also occasionally relies on muddling just who's doing what: "the reader who sees reading literature as James in the preface sees writing it" will surely be disappointed by her royalty statements.
We'll encounter this muddle again, but for now let us instead assume that reading Henry James will not make us Henry James. How else might we be influenced?
We cannot successfully "be one of the people on whom nothing is lost" because there will always be something going on outside our focal range, and a good thing too. Instead, James suggests trying to be such a person; that is, attempting to lose nothing of our particular small slice of existence. As role models, Henry James's late protagonists do almost nothing but look at and think about occasions which have been carefully selected and arranged for their benefit. As role players who are reading Henry James, we will look at and think about James's pages, carefully selected and arranged for our benefit. Monkey see, monkey sit.
And so to the extent that an ethics is directly derivable from Henry James, it happens to be the ethics of academic criticism and academic philosophy. His novels lend the characteristic activity of scholarship the glamor of narrative. But when his reader is "put on trial," it's merely play. The ethical difficulties of fiction are to the ethical difficulties of life as Tabasco sauce is to firefighting.
Let's look up from our book and imagine a common everyday example of inaction like ignoring a crying child. We may be exhausted, resentful, and drunk. We may be an Objectivist who knows that indulging our sentimentality would bring disaster upon the adult-to-be — and perhaps the world! We may be a devout Christian who believes it up to the Lord to decide the little angel's fate. We may be a novelist, finishing our thousand words for the day. Or we may be a critical pedagogue intent on settling questions like "Did Maggie do right? Did she act justly? Was her perjury an efficacious speech act? Was it 'felicitous'?"
Should one consider "conduct" not merely a matter of interpretive protocols but also a matter of how one behaves, one should go on to consider that the loudest champion of James's late work was Ezra Pound.
Josh Lukin writes:
"the indignity of self-defense" -- you mean, writing stuff like "Limited Inc a b c"? Derrida certainly had "Harlan Ellison reflexes," thanks no doubt to a similar background . . .
The translator must've left out the part about breaking Searle's kneecaps.
To misquote a prof of aesthetics, "Beware of ethicists, they always want to bend at the knee."
Wendy Walker writes:
I have always remembered the injunction "Try to be...." as "A writer is someone upon whom nothing is wasted." Either James wrote that somewhere else, or I have amended it in my very creative memory. I do remember his saying this in conjunction to the relation of a a scene from his childhood-- He was playing with a little girl who was a friend and her father came to get her and tell her it was time to go. She started to fuss and cry, because she wanted to keep on playing with little Henry. Her father admonished her strictly, "Lizzie (or whatever her name was), don't make a scene!" James dates his understanding of what "a scene" is from that moment.
The importance of this in the context of your essay rests upon the nuance of the word "lost"-- "wasted" implies recycling, whereas "lost" does not, and I do wonder if James didn't mean "lost" in the sense of "wasted" rather than in the sense in which you interpret it. It is one thing to use a book or experience to become a "better person" but quite another to use it to make another book. I have always assumed that he meant the latter.
Although my prose hopelessly obscures the point, I agree with you as to James's intent: he explicitly addressed the novice writer rather than the general public. My quarrel is not with James's words but with Nussbaum's and Miller's interpretations, which erase any such distinction.
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.