Thread: Henry James
View Single Post
Old 15th Feb 2005, 5:40   #6
rick green
could do better
rick green's Avatar
Join Date: 4 Sep 2003
Location: houston, tx, usa
Posts: 1,494

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.
now watch me work
rick green is offline   Reply With Quote