Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Varieties of Avoiding Experience

On the subway the other day, I happened to be sitting next to a man who was reading, of all things, an essay about Henry James. Moreover, the angle was such that I could easily read over his shoulder. The essay was not, as I was sort of vaguely hoping because hey, wouldn't that be neat, from a book about Henry James. Instead it came from a collection of essays called Ground Zero by a writer named Andrew Holleran. The basic argument of the essay about Henry James was that he was not an active homosexual, even if he had homosexual inclinations. This may be a somewhat outdated argument, but the part of the essay that interested me the most was only partially related to the argument, anyway. There was a very nice quotation from William James, which, regrettably, I don't remember well enough to find on the web. I can paraphrase it, though - the basic point was that William felt his brother intentionally avoided half of human experience (and we can all guess which half) precisely because of his extremely deep sensitivity to experience.

I read that and felt a deep sense of resonance - it's a story that appeals a lot to me, the overly-sensitive person who is detached precisely because she or he feels more deeply than everyone, whose distance is properly understood as caution. Now, many Henry James stories end up being about detachment and distance. There's "The Beast in the Jungle," with John Marcher, "the man to whom nothing on earth was to have happened," The Aspern Papers and its narrator who winds up giving up the great scholarly ambition of his life out of fear of an (admittedly extremely unattractive) woman, the end of The Ambassadors and Strether's ultimate return to America in the conviction that "to be right" he must not, "out of the whole affair, . . . have got anything for" himself. And, of course, we, the somewhat educated readers of these tales, see the common theme and James's own life as reflections of each other; it's hard to imagine that a securely partnered James would write the same fictions that the real James did. That's not to say that these stories really reflect the story that we like to tell about James - his characters don't necessarily seem to be detached out of caution in the same way that we say James was. Nonetheless, whatever the in-story reasons for their detachment, the ultimate reason for their detachment seems to be a response to their creator's own detachment. James gave himself to his art, the story goes, for whatever reasons, but that art is consequently precisely the art a guy who gave himself to his art would write. Art and life intertwine - James wrote the kind of stories that he wrote as an expression of the kind of person that he was.

And yet, along with this story, there's another one. Because there's another member of James's family who has written some deeply resonant words, and that's James's beloved cousin, Minnie Temple. Minnie was, famously, the basis for a number of James's most famous female characters, including The Portrait of a Lady's Isabel Archer and The Wings of the Dove's suggestively initialed Milly Theale. James quoted a couple of her letters in one of his autobiographies, Notes of a Son and Brother, which were quoted in turn in my Norton Anthology edition of The Wings of the Dove. James himself introduces the letters by writing "that she might well have found the mystifications of life, had she been appointed to enjoy more of them, much in excess of its contentments. It easily comes up for us over the relics of those we have seen beaten, this sense that it was not for nothing they missed the ampler experience, but in no case that I have known has it come up for me so much." He goes on to quote the letters precisely with the intention of proving his cousin's fundamental unsuitedness for life.

Minnie wrote to James, apparently, to express some of her unpleasant feelings about her sister's marriage. Marriage seemed like a huge step to her, one that one ought not to take unless certain that the circumstances were precisely perfect. The key part of her key letter explains: "We must be true to ourselves, mustn't we? though all the rest of humanity be of a contrary opinion, or else throw discredit upon the wisdom of God, who made us as we are and not like the next person. Do you remember my old hobby of 'the remote possibility of the best thing' being better than a clear certainty of the second best? Well, I believe it more than ever, every day I live. Indeed, I don't believe anything else - but is not that everything?"

Minnie's story, then, is another resonant story of distance. Minnie did not live a deeply connected life because she died, of course, but James mentions his feeling that she had to die, would have been stymied by life if she had lived, precisely because she was holding out for "the remote possibility of the best thing." These words certainly remind me of the Isabel Archer who turns down Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton, never even gets started with Ralph Touchett, and "often wondered, indeed, whether she ever had been, or ever could be, intimate with any one. She had an ideal of friendship, as well as of several other sentiments, and it did not seem to her in this case—it had not seemed to her in other cases—that the actual completely expressed it. But she often reminded herself that there were essential reasons why one’s ideal could not become concrete. It was a thing to believe in, not to see—a matter of faith, not of experience. Experience, however might supply us with very creditable imitations of it, and the part of wisdom was to make the best of these." Isabel, Daisy, Milly, these female characters of James's - perhaps they differ from his detached male characters in their greater longing for connection and their seeming capacity for it - but, they end up much like the male characters end up - ultimately detached, not in a solid connection.

So we have two stories, two models inspiring James to write about the kinds of characters he did - his own model, and the model of his beloved cousin. It can justifiably be argued that his male characters and his female characters were different - that he was his own favored archetype for the former and Minnie the archetype only for the latter. And yet, the common thread of detachment - such a draw for this reader, at least - that thread weaves its way through both kinds of characters. Ultimately, then, did James see something of his cousin in himself, something of him in her? Was James's particular interest in his cousin stimulated by an emotional as well as a blood kinship? How can we connect these two stories, these two very different motivations for one theme that passes throughout all of James's work?

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