Saturday, July 2, 2016


Finished re-reading The Ambassadors, a novel that makes me reflect on much while reading it. Began it while at the beach in Maryland in early June, and my reading of it meandered through the month. As I came to its conclusion, I found myself going back in time to the era of my first big acquaintance with Henry James—in grad school in the early ‘90s—and the way his fine distinctions made the air I breathed much finer. James brings out all one’s most perspicacious reflections on others; one begins to sense all those unuttered things he’s so fond of conjuring, with the result that people’s complexity of action and speech and motive becomes sustaining, substantive, as it so rarely is in the terms—the news as essentially tabloid gossip and armchair analysis—by which the intellect of our day is guided. What reading James’s bio, by Kaplan, in the spring added to my view is the degree to which such things were already true in James’s day. His refined style was too much even then.

The point being that all aspects of humanity seem only too happy with the flattening of affect, of interior, of depth below the surface. One lives in a world where statement must be as bald and wrung of nuance as possible. The nuance, such as it is, aims always for the most pointed knee-jerk—or tear-jerk—reaction. It’s a blandly cynical view of human motivation that tries mostly for hysterical effect. Disaster, outrage, derisive actions, such are the usual events. But it’s not simply a case of the rhetorical aim of such “coverage,” there’s a flattening within the whole realm of art effects as well, something that has become even more prevalent for me to the extent that I avoid “deeper” films that I once sought out. The fabric of cinema no longer stretches as far as it once did, for me. The tendency to take one’s contemporary products as indicative of “the times” rules out other identifications, perhaps. Once upon a time—young—I was happy to seek out what was further removed. Now, not so much effort.

But on that score, my regular viewing of theater—in CT and, to some extent, in NYC—alters my sense of the present, the here and now. Theater contains a sense of what audiences are and can be expected to be that I don’t seek in cinema or televised spectacles. And moving back from the latter—in all its works—opens up again the world of readings as experienced, for me, primarily in the years in Philly—1980-83—and grad school, 1989-94, and fitfully here and there while teaching, which, as I’ve remarked before, requires a different kind of reading. The immersible kind of reading took place in the years indicated, and even earlier, in high school as well, when I sought out all those things not on the school curriculum. My undergrad years—1985-89—were very profitable for reading and writing, so much so that it would be good to return to that degree of clarity not only about what I should say, in writing, but what I should read, and why. James at least returns me to my love of the complex thought tellingly expressed. There aren’t many places one finds it so well done and reading him opens up the prospect of immersing myself in some of his critical writing as well.

The point here, I suppose, is how reading develops the mind and I always feel mine increased via his writing, but I haven’t yet gotten to the things this recent reading has directed my mind toward. I feel that I want to put the thoughts into yet another “Midlife Crisis Lit” post on the blog—to join Herzog and Steppenwolf. The Ambassadors, in presenting Strether as the onlooking but central consciousness, traffics in the wealth of association that the middle-aged, or upper-middle-aged, hero brings to bear upon what he sees and, as it were, experiences vicariously. Need it be so? Perhaps not, or not for all. But reason not the need. James sets up a situation in which the need is as it is, the implicit acceptance of implicit tendency. And “tendency” is exactly what James is best at delineating.

We see, gradually, how all his characters swim in the same substance—his prose, certainly—and that substance conditions what they glean. They are capable of perceptions and that requires a vigilance to what others say and do and, importantly, how they appear. It’s a world where one must take note. What I took note of this time through was the extent to which James sketches out the position of one who is not disposed to do more living but looks to see what living has thus far shown him. The position of “taking stock” from here on out may be premature, but one senses that it means more by coming from a position of some renouncement. For me, playing some tapes from the mid-late 1980s as I read the book’s final section and wrote this, I look back on a long history of renouncement, of preemption, and that fact adds to my delight in how James creates that kind of fully conscious but detached position. It may be simply the position of the supreme novelist, but I can’t lay claim to that, as James can, but, for me, I see in this 6th decade of life, it may be the position of the supreme critic.

The critic, in this sense, is the one who must see without doing, who must say without bias to promote a benefit, who must determine the worth of things on some reasonable, personal, but shifting scale. A critic, I realize now, may be all I ever had convincing hope to be.

Speaking of critics, here's Irving Howe on James: "And then, the style points to a certain musing: the mulling over of a mature intelligence, extremely worldly yet disenchanted with worldliness, holding these two attitudes in balance, looking upon human affairs from a notable distance, as if preparing for an exit from all the troubles these entail." And I was going to call this post "Musing," initially.

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