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rick green 8th Oct 2004 7:57

Henry James
I've been planning to review The Sacred Fount and The Ambassadors, two books by Henry James that I recently read. This advance post will hopefully prod me into getting it done. So watch this space.

Oryx 12th Feb 2005 22:26

Recently binging on James myself, I'm watching this space. :D

rick green 13th Feb 2005 4:51

I needed that little ribbing, Oryx. Perhaps I won't bore you with the thesis on that I had in mind (H.J. as a closet pragmatist). The fact is that I don't have a clear enough understanding of Pragmatism versus other modes of philosophical enquiry to make it work. So I'll leave brother William out of it for now, and try to limit myself to what I've read of Henry. That includes a few of the shorter novels (The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller, etc.) as well as the titles mentioned above. Give me a couple of days & let's see what I can come up with to kick off a discussion.

Oryx 14th Feb 2005 20:46

Oh, go ahead; bore me with your theory. I have a vague recollection of Pragmatism from a first year philiosphy survey course I took.

Something like: the truth of an idea is irrrelevant; it is the outcome or consequence of thought which matters. Something like that?


Jerkass 14th Feb 2005 22:01


Originally Posted by Oryx
Oh, go ahead; bore me with your theory.

How fitting to see such a lovely sentiment on Valentine's Day.

My wife already has said roughly the same thing to me a dozen times today.

rick green 15th Feb 2005 5:40


Originally Posted by Oryx
Oh, go ahead; bore me with your theory. I have a vague recollection of Pragmatism from a first year philosophy survey course I took.

Something like: the truth of an idea is irrelevant; it is the outcome or consequence of thought which matters. Something like that?


Yeah... something like that. Like I said, I'm no expert. The main thing I recall from my reading of W. James's Pragmatism is the comparison of idealism & empiricism. This is idealism in the platonic sense. Truth is somehow outside of experience, abstract or a priori. Pragmatism opposes this view and holds that experience must be taken into account when reckoning with truth. A very simple idea, but historically, often overlooked. Consider theology, ideology, or any dogma you like. The "truths" of the catechism or of class war & the dictatorship of the proletariat are formulated a priori of anyone's personal experience. Pragmatism argues that truth must correspond to experience, therefore, it is always being worked out as we live & grow & change our point of view. Pragmatism is a nice, short book that treats these ideas with more grace than I ever could. I really should look at it again before putting my foot in my mouth this way.
Anyway, In both The Sacred Fount & The Ambassadors, later novels by H. James, The character through which the reader experiences the story is trying to work out the truth of a given situation. In fact, interpretation of experience forms the central drama of both books. The same could be said of the shorter works Daisy Miller & The Beast in The Jungle. For me, the great appeal of Henry James is the highly sophisticated discernment with which he endows his characters. In both The Sacred Fount & The Ambassadors there is very little action at all. But H. J. supplies such an abundance of psychology and astute observation that I hardly feel the absence. What plot there is concerns one character's unfolding understanding of the people and events, by no means extraordinary, with which he is concerned. Each chapter contains a minor epiphany, and a minor adjustment of the interpreter's conception of the truth of the matter.

Whew. So I'm sure you're plenty bored already. I'll just leave it at that for now. I've got to read The Turn of the Screw--the last piece left in my little volume of James' "short novels". From what I've heard through the grapevine, it should dovetail nicely with some of the ideas I've tried to express here. Unfortunately, the other works are no longer fresh in my mind.

Some questions I have are:
1. Do any of the characters in James's works arrive at a final or total truth? Or does lived experience always retain an element of inexplicable mystery?
2. If truth is discovered, be it partial or complete, does it engender happiness? If not, then does truth have some other virtue to recommend it, or is it better left alone?

All of this is just to say that I think H. James tackled serious philosophical questions in his fiction. Every human artifact is more food for thought than we could ever digest. The difference between "high" art & "low" in my opinion, is that in the former, the artist grapples with questions of ultimate importance. The latter, as pretty as it may appear, never rises above the merely aesthetic. Henry James is an important artist for me, not because of his style (convoluted if precise) or his plotting (understated would be, well, an understatement) but because of his conscious consideration of existential questions. In the best of James' works, serious philosophical enquiry lives and breathes in the characters he creates.

HP 10th Oct 2005 17:52

Re: Henry James
Have just finished my first Henry James - The Turn of the Screw. If I appear to have come to such a renowned literary figure rather late in life, it's only because I was all too aware of his reputation for excessive wordiness and what I was led to believe was a very ornate, yet excessively languid approach to storytelling. Anyway, this James-virgin-no-more is very happy to report back that she was very pleasantly surprised. Not for nothing has he earned his status in the world of high literature.

The Turn of the Screw certainly had me turning the pages alright, so much so, that given time to rest up for my next onslaught, I'll certainly tackle him again - and something lengthier next time. TotS is a delightfully slim novella, a mere 110 pages (and very little pages they are in the Penguin Classics edition I borrowed from the library - quite, quite bijou!). I won't go into the plot - am sure most Palimpsters are all too familiar with it as it is - but I will say how much I thoroughly enjoyed the super-charged atmosmosphere James creates in this shiversome little tale. And just as effective was the manner in which he leaves so much open for the reader to decide. Almost all the characters - no, strike the 'almost' - ALL the characters were written in such a way, you could spend hours debating what made them tick. The most intriguing one of the motley bunch, to my mind, being the protagonist, the new school governess herself who acts as narrator for the main thread of the story. Her motives were decidely questionable, I decided. While on the face of things, she was set up as the force for sanity and goodness, I found her peculiarly off-centre in some of her actions and motivations. Not sure I'd want her let loose with my little darlings, that's for sure. Like I say, intriguing stuff.

Overall I was longing to give this wonderful little gem the full five stars, but one thing let it down and was a source of irritation, albeit it an infrequent one. While James's style IS highly ornate, mostly I thoroughly enjoyed the rather tortuous process of having to unpick many of his sentences to derive their true and full meaning. His is a singularly complicated but fascinatingly effective method of writing, each sentence being interrupted by a ridiculous series of sub clauses so they end up a little like one of those russian doll sets: clauses within clauses within phrases, within sentences. Phew! But on some occasions this process is taken so far that HJ gets his literary knickers in a complete pickle, the meaning lost in a spaghetti of convolution. Even Edith Wharton (more of her later) who was a close friend and confidante of James, and a writer of immense standing and ability in her own right, said he was sometimes just damn unintelligible. Apparently, in his later years, James took to using the services of a stenographer which (allegedly) appeared to alter his style. I wouldn't know whether he used one for Turn of the Screw or not and if this may or may not have had any bearing on matters. All I do know is that apart from this carp - a legitimate one, think since intelligibility is something I take as a given when reading respected scribes - I enjoyed Mr James's overwrought but highly evocative storytelling enormously.

Just to give you a flavour of the HJ brand of knicker-twisting in all its glory, try these two examples out for size:


The homage of which they were so lavish succeeded, in truth, for my nerves, quite as well as if I never appeared to myself, as I may say, literally to catch them at a purpose in it.
and just in case you still know which way is up, here's the extraodinary sentence that includes the book's title:


I could only get on at all by taking 'nature' into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.
Er ... come again, flower?

John Self 10th Oct 2005 19:31

Re: Henry James

The homage of which they were so lavish succeeded, in truth, for my nerves, quite as well as if I never appeared to myself, as I may say, literally to catch them at a purpose in it.
Can someone unpack this sentence for me? What the hell is he on about?

rick green 10th Oct 2005 20:01

Re: Henry James
Lol :) I'm at a loss. In my experience with James, context is the only help one has in getting out of such a jam.

HP 10th Oct 2005 20:15

Re: Henry James
I'm afraid I tried reading that one every which way, including putting the emphasis on different words, buggering around with the punctuation in case there'd been a typo, and even removing the odd word here and there, yet even with the benefit of what came before and after it made absolutely no sense at all.

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