15 April 2010

Literature & Moral Philosophy—Henry James

Well, I’ve gone and missed a writer that I really wanted to post on. William Wordsworth’s birthday was last Wednesday, and aside from the fact that last week was far too busy to do anything remotely appropriate for him, Wordsworth Day coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation on the Church’s calendar. The latter was not only easier but more important to post on.

Today, I shall attempt to post on a writer about whom I actually know very little—Henry James (1843-1916). I have not actually read any of James’s fiction through, with the exception of his ‘ghost story’, The Turn of the Screw, but I have encountered his name in a couple of interesting places, and that is what decided me on doing this post. So, first, here is a somewhat edited version of the quite lengthy article on James in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed.:

James, Henry, [Jr.] (1843-1916) American novelist, short-story writer, and critic. A major figure in the history of the novel, James is celebrated as a master craftsman who brought great art and fine perception to bear in the development of his abiding themes: the relationship between innocence and experience, especially as exemplified by the differences between the exuberant but uncultured Americans and the highly cultivated Europeans whose civilization was on the decline; the dilemma of the artist in an alien society; and the achievement of self-knowledge. . . .

James came froma distinguished family: his grandfather was one of the first millionaires in America; his father, Henry James, Sr. a noted philosopher and theologian who became a Swedenborgian . . . ; his brother, the eminent and original psychologist William James. Thus, the novelist grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged his becoming what he thought all novelists should be: ‘one on whom nothing is lost’.

James entered Harvard Law School in 1862 but withdrew at the end of a year, determined instead to write. In 1864 his first story, ‘A Tragedy of Error’, appeared in the North American Review. He soon caught the attention of William Dean Howells who, as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, helped and encouraged him; in 1871 his first novel, Watch and Ward, was published serially in the Atlantic. . . . In 1869 he made his first independent trip to Europe as an adult (the James children had attended several European schools). This trip marked the beginning of Henry James’s fascination with the theme of the American in Europe. During his second trip (1872-74), he wrote his best story to date: ‘A Madonna of the Future’, the story of an artist who never manages to paint the perfect madonna. In 1875, after much thought, he decided to make his home abroad. He went first to Paris—where he knew Maupassant, Flaubert, and Turgenev [1]—and in 1876 he settled in England. The 1870s saw the first real blossoming of James’s talent. . . . The major theme throughout his work—the confrontation of European and American civilizations—is posed unambiguously at this stage: Christopher Newman in The American is a naïve innocent as he comes into contact with the sophisticated and evil DeBellegardes. In his later work, James was to see his theme in a more complex light: the innocently unaware may themselves be the cause of evil in others.

. . . The climax of this period is The Portrait of a Lady, considered by many to be not only James’s finest but also one of the finest novels in English. . . .

In The Tragic Muse (1890), the intricate prose subsequently associated with James made its first impact. An interesting study of an actress, it preludes James’s excursion into playwriting in the 1890s. The plays were all more or less unsuccessful, but the effect of them on his fiction was marked and decisive. His stories and novels of the 1890s show a radical concern with experiment, maturing his characteristic late style of involved sentences in which every thought and image is qualified, each sentence in itself presented as a work of art. . . .

Soon after the turn of the century, James entered into his last and most fruitful period, publishing in rapid succession three long and complex novels, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. Difficult as many have found them, they mark the pinnacle of James’s art. . . .

In 1904 James visited the US and toured the country, producing on his return to England a travel book, The American Scene (1907). The major effort of these years, however, went into the task of writing the critical prefaces and, where needed, the revisions for the reissue of his works in the New York edition (1907-9), a venture that ultimately ran to twenty-six volumes. The prefaces, important comments on his work and craft, were later republished as The Art of the Novel (1934; ed. R.P. Blackmur). . . . Two novels were left incomplete at his death, in 1916, The Sense of the Past and The Ivory Tower, both published in 1917. James became a British subject in 1915, as a measure of support for the British cause in World War I. More than a half century later, in 1976, he was one of a handful of Americans to be immortalized in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. James’s letters [2] were edited and published (3 vols, 1974-80) by his biographer, Leon Edel. [3]

The sole work of James’s that I have actually read, The Turn of the Screw, is purportedly a ghost story about a governess of two orphans at a country manor who believes the children are being haunted by the ghosts of their previous governess and their uncle’s valet, a pair of libertine lovers believed to have been a negative influence on the children. Despite the governess’s efforts to ‘save’ them, the novel ends with the little girl in a delirium and her older brother dead.

Not long ago, I saw the 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents, co-written by William Archibald, Truman Capote, and John Mortimer. Suffice to say, I was quite disturbed by much of the strongly implied subtext in the film and, my curiosity aroused, acquired the Norton Critical Edition of the book. Although I don’t know whether some of the more disturbing parts of the adaptation were at all in line with James’s own intentions, some of the essays in the book convinced me that they need not be in order for an astonishingly amount of the story to be persuasively psychologised. In particular, Harold Goddard’s essay, ‘A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw’, has made up my mind that the ‘ghosts’ of the story exist entirely in the mind of the governess. [4] According to Goddard, G.K. Chesterton, assuming that they were real and that the story was therefore ‘one of almost unmitigated horror’, had doubts ‘as to whether the thing ought ever to have been published’ (one wonders what GKC would have said of H.P. Lovecraft!). [5] But if it really is ‘all in her head’, the tale is no less haunting for that.

My first acquaintance with James, however, came much less directly, when in college I read Edith Wyschogrod’s fascinating Saints & Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy. The synopsis on the back cover actually refers tantalisingly to ‘the hagiographic fiction of Henry James’, and we find out within that it appears ‘straightforwardly to endorse altruism’. [6] James’s novel, The Wings of a Dove, a product of ‘his last and most fruitful period’, [7] is a major focus of Chapter 2 of Wyschogrod’s book, ‘Saintly Influence’. In this chapter, Wyschogrod writes, the novel ‘is treated as hagiographic fiction that illustrates the influence of altruistic action on moral self-interpretation and practice’, [8] and she notes later that it ‘lends itself to hagiographic recasting . . . [which] brings out interactions of saint and cynic as well as relationships of the text to its addressees. James’s work has the additional advantage of depicting the efficacy of exemplary action even after the death of its altruistic protagonist.’ [9] Wyschogrod then offers a ‘hagiographic skeletalization’ of the novel:

Kate is a young Englishwoman without fortune. Lest she be compelled to live in the style of her semidestitute father and sister, she prefers to accept the charity of an overbearing aunt. She has fallen in love with Densher, an English journalist who, like herself, also lacks means. The two are secretly engaged but choose not to marry against the wishes of Kate’s wealthy aunt, who prefers a more advantageous marriage. By secrecy and delay, Kate plans to bring the aunt round so that if Kate and Densher are careful they may ‘do all’: both marry and acquire wealth. Millie is a young American woman in possession of a vast fortune who has met Densher in New York, comes to London, and falls in love with him. In love also with life, Millie learns she will die of an unspecified malady. Outwardly calm and accepting, inwardly ‘she is like a creature dragged shrieking to the guillotine.’ Kate, who guesses her despair, prevents Densher from letting Millie know she and Densher are engaged. Instead, Kate urges Densher to toy with Millie’s affections in order later to inherit her fortune. Densher pities Millie, but ‘makes up’ to her. Lord Mark, a penniless peer and Kate’s former suitor, opens Millie’s eyes to this situation, but Millie stubbornly clings to her passion. The girl dies leaving Densher her fortune. Now Densher is able to measure the depth of Millie’s devotion. He agrees to marry Kate on condition that they renounce the money or, if Kate should reject these terms, that he himself renounce Millie’s wealth and make over the money to Kate. Kate refuses to marry on Densher’s condition. What is more, her ties to her old suitor, Lord Mark, have not been cleanly severed, suggesting possible further treachery, perhaps marriage to Lord Mark, thereby breaking faith with both Millie and Densher. Kate sees that Millie’s memory is now Densher’s love. The dove ‘stretched out her wings’ to cover them so that they shall never be as they were. [10]

Thus, of course, Millie is the ‘saint’, who transforms Densher ‘by an appeal neither to rational norms nor to a taken-for-granted moral ethos’, but by what Wyschogrod calls ‘saintly influence’. [11] She notes:

Densher’s transfiguration occurs when the interplay of cynical reason and saintly generosity becomes transparent. Self-sacrifice (and, in many traditional hagiographies, self-mortification) is a mode in which the hagiographic optative regularly expresses itself. Millie bequeaths not only her fortune but, on Kate’s interpretation, her life as well: ‘She gave up her life that you might understand her,’ Kate tells Densher. [12]

Wyschogrod, ‘leaning on an analogy of Wittgenstein’s’, suggests that ‘seeing the meaning of saintly work is less like grasping an argument and more like understanding a musical theme.’ [13] Of course, the analogy breaks down. Wyschogrod notes that ‘in the case of moral acts, appreciation need neither prompt nor reinforce moral action. In hagiographic discourse immoral acts are all the more striking not when moral insight is absent but when it is present but fails to generate moral actions.’ [14] This is what is so astonishing about Kate, who understands the significance of what Millie has done sooner that Densher does.

While Wyschogrod insists that she is not arguing ‘that the gift of great wealth to secure the private happiness of a few is equivalent to the self-sacrificial altruism stipulated earlier as a requirement of sainthood’ (one wonders what St Basil, or, more to the point, Fr Paul Schroeder, would say about Millie’s actions!), I think she is correct when she claims, ‘What hagiographic skeletalization highlights is the mechanism of saintly action and the strategies for uncovering it.’ [15] This is what I find so interesting about Wyschogrod’s work.

The other use of Henry James that interests me is also a philosophical study: Martha Nussbaum’s daunting Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy & Literature. Although I’ve read very little of this book as of yet, it is clearly shot through with Henry James. Two chapters feature references to James’s works in the titles—‘Chapter 4: Flawed Crystals: James’s The Golden Bowl & Literature as Moral Philosophy’ and ‘Chapter 7: The Princess Casamassima & the Political Imagination’, and references to James take up almost an entire column in the index. Only a few pages in, Nussbaum refers to some of James’s ‘prefaces’ (referred to in the Benét’s entry above) where the author describes a writer’s ‘selection of appropriate terms and sentences, using two metaphors’—‘of plant growth’ and of ‘some creatures of the air, perhaps birds, perhaps angels’. I won’t go into the details of explaining the metaphors, but suffice to say, according to Nussbaum:

These two metaphors point to two claims about the writer’s art that seem worth investigating. To investigate and defend them is a central purpose of these essays. The first is the claim that there is, with respect to any text carefully written and fully imagined, an organic connection between its form and its content. . . . [16]

The second claim is that certain truths about human life can only be fittingly and accurately stated in the language and forms characteristic of the narrative artist. . . . [17]

Both claims are of course highly relevant to my own interests in both moral theology and in literature. They deserve a post of their own. But it is interesting to see for now that Nussbaum finds them in Henry James.

In conclusion, one wonders where Wyschogrod’s and Nussbaum’s readings would fit onto the trajectory described by Horace Gregory over fifty years ago, when he said that ‘James had gone through three separate stages of interpretation: first, as a psychological novelist, then, as a critic of society, and, third, as a moralist, scrupulous in his attention to Christian ethics.’ [18]

[1] Of Turgenev, James writes, ‘There is perhaps no novelist of alien race who more naturally than Ivan Turgénieff inherits a niche in a Library for English readers [referring to the Library of the World’s Best Literature, ed. Charles Dudley Warner (NY: International Society, 1897)]’ (Henry James, ‘Ivan Turgénieff (1818-1883)’, Russian Literature & Modern English Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Donald Davie (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1965), p. 47).

[2] After completing the first volume of James’s Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves, ‘I’m afraid he was a dreadful Prig, but he is by no means a bore and has lots of interesting things to say about books’ (They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 1914-1963, ed. Walter Hooper [NY: Macmillan, 1979], p. 524).

[3] Katherine Baker Siepmann, ed., Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (NY: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 494-6.

[4] Harold C. Goddard, ‘A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw’, The Turn of the Screw (A Norton Critical Edition), by Henry James, ed. Robert Kimbrough (NY: Norton, 1966), pp. 181-209.

[5] Ibid., p. 185.

[6] Edith Wyschogrod, Saints & Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1990), p. 219.

[7] Ibid., p. 495.

[8] Ibid., p. 33.

[9] Ibid., p. 43.

[10] Ibid., pp. 43-4.

[11] Ibid., p. 44.

[12] Ibid., p. 46.

[13] Ibid., p. 47.

[14] Ibid., p. 48.

[15] Ibid., p. 48.

[16] Martha C. Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy & Literature (NY: Oxford U, 1992), p. 4.

[17] Ibid., p. 5.

[18] Horace Gregory, ‘Mutations of Belief in the Contemporary Novel’, Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature, ed. Stanley Romaine Hopper (NY: Harper, 1957), p. 42.


Elijahmaria said...

Dear Aaron,

You've taken me back years to the day when my undergraduate advisor, upon hearing that I was heading for graduate school, looked me straight in the eyes and said "Don't do it. You will fail miserably." I asked her way, and she said "You are too Catholic!" I had not practiced my faith for years, so I did not take her warning seriously at all.

Years later, when confronted by the American pragmatists, William and Henry James, Charles S. Peirce, John Dewey and on to Richard Rorty, I was repelled by all of them, finding the Marxists that I had been following for years to be far more honest about the fabric of motivation.

Finally, years later I gave it all up, yielded to a woman who knew me better than I knew myself and became a practicing Catholic, relegating all of my scholarly aspirations to the dust bin of personal history. There's much more to it than that of course.

I was wondering why you are not in seminary?


aaronandbrighid said...

I'm not in seminary because, while I wanted to do graduate study in theology, at the time that I was ready to start none of the Orthodox seminaries would have been a good fit for me. So I went to Greece and started working on postgraduate studies in moral theology, in which I am currently supposed to be revising my thesis.

Elijahmaria said...

Well you are either taking the long way around or God has other plans for you.

Did you see JohnS. has an article on Greek translations of the Greek liturgy?...Fits right into the question we mused on the other day.

As you said, no hard and fast answer at the moment, though I expect there should not be one in the interests of both liturgical potency and the actualization of human understanding, but an interesting muse nonetheless.


aaronandbrighid said...

It is quite possible I'm taking the long way around.

I still need to look up that post by John.