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Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Mary McCarthy
All rights reserved.
"He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it."
T. S. Eliot writing of Henry James in The Little Review of August, 1918. I offer it to you as a motto or, rather, counter-motto for the reflections that follow, which will take exception, not to the truth of Eliot's pronouncement (he was right about James), but to the set of lofty assumptions calmly towering behind it.
The young Eliot's epigram summed up with cutting brevity a creed that for modernists appeared beyond dispute. Implicit in it is the snubbing notion, radical at the time but by now canon doctrine, of the novel as a fine art and of the novelist as an intelligence superior to mere intellect. In this patronizing view, the intellect's crude apparatus was capable only of formulating concepts, which then underwent the process of diffusion, so that by dint of repetition they fell within anybody's reach. The final, cruel fate of an idea was to turn into an idée reçue. The power of the novelist insofar as he was a supreme intelligence was to free himself from the work-load of commentary and simply, awesomely, to show: his creation was beyond paraphrase or reduction. As pure work of art, it stood beautifully apart, impervious to the dry rot affecting the brain's constructions and to the welter of factuality.
Thus the separation was perceived as twofold. The reform program for the novel—soon to be promulgated in a position-paper like Jacob's Room (1922)—aimed at correcting not only the errors of the old practitioners, who were prone to philosophize in their works, but also the Victorian "slice of life" theory still admitted by Matthew Arnold and later, permissive notions of the novel as a "spongy tract" (Forster) or large loose bag into which anything would fit. Obviously novels of the old, discredited schools—the historical novel, the novel of adventure, the soap-box or pulpit novel—continued and continue to be written despite the lesson of the Master. Indeed they make up a majority, now as before, but having no recognized aesthetic willing to claim them, they tend to be treated by our critical authorities as marginal—examples of backwardness if they come from the East (Solzhenitsyn) or of deliberate archaizing if they come from the West (say, Iris Murdoch). The pure novel, the quintessential novel, does not acknowledge any family relation with these distant branches. It is a formal, priestly exercise whose first great celebrant was James. The fact that there are no Jamesian novels being produced any more—if there ever were, apart from the Master's own—does not alter the perspective. The Jamesian model remains a standard, an archetype, against which contemporary impurities and laxities are measured.
The importance of James lies not so much in his achievements as in the queerness of them. He did not broaden a way for his successors but closed nearly every exit as with hermetic sealing tape. It is undeniable that this American author, almost single-handed, invented a peculiar new kind of fiction, more refined, more stately, than anything known before, purged, to the limit of possibility, of the gross traditional elements of suspense, physical action, inventory, description of places and persons, apostrophe, moral teaching. When you think of James in the light of his predecessors, you are suddenly conscious of what is not there: battles, riots, tempests, sunrises, the sewers of Paris, crime, hunger, the plague, the scaffold, the clergy, but also minute particulars such as you find in Jane Austen—poor Miss Bates's twice-baked apples, Mr. Collins' "Collins," the comedy of the infinitely small. It cannot have been simply a class limitation or a limitation of experience that intimidated his pen. It was a resolve, very American, to scrape his sacred texts clean of the material factor. And it was no small task he laid on himself, since his novels, even more than most maybe, dealt with material concerns—property and money—and unrolled almost exclusively in the realm of the social, mundane by definition. Nevertheless, he succeeded, this American prodigy. He etherealized the novel beyond its wildest dreams and perhaps etherized it as well.
To take a pleasant example, he managed in The Spoils of Poynton to relate a story of a contest for possession of some furniture in immense detail without ever indicating except in the vaguest way what the desirable stuff was. We gather that quite a lot is French—Louis Quinze and Louis Seize are mentioned once each ("the sweetest Louis Seize")—but we also hear of Venetian velvet and of "a great Italian cabinet" in the red room, though with no specifics of place, period, inlays, embossment, and of a little Spanish ivory crucifix. When you think of what Balzac would have made of the opportunity ...! Actually The Spoils of Poynton is a Balzacian drama done with the merest hints of props and stage setting. James's strategy was to abstract the general noun, furniture, from the particulars of the individual pieces, also referred to as "things." He gives us a universal which we can upholster according to our own taste and antiquarian knowledge. In short, he gives us an Idea. The Spoils of Poynton is not a novel about material tables and chairs; it is a novel about the possession and enjoyment of an immaterial Idea, which could be any old furniture, all old furniture, beautiful, ugly, or neither—it makes no difference, except that if it is ugly the struggle over it will be more ironic. James, however, is not an ironist; no Puritan can be. And the fact that with this novel we can supply "real" tables and chairs from our own imagination makes The Spoils of Poynton, to my mind, more true to our common experience, hence more classic, than most of his fictions.
But that, for the moment, is beside the point. What I should like to bring out now is another peculiarity: that though James's people endlessly discuss and analyze, they never discuss the subjects that people in society usually do. Above all, politics. It is not true that well-bred people avoid talk of politics. They cannot stay away from it. Outrage over public events that menace, or threaten to menace, their property and privilege has devolved on them by birthright (though it can also be acquired), and they cannot help sharing it when more than two meet, even in the presence of outsiders, which in fact seems to act as a stimulant. This has surely been so from earliest times, and James's time was no exception, as we know from other sources. But from his fictions (forgetting The Princess Casamassima, where he mildly ventured into the arena), you could never guess that whispers—or shouts—ever burst out over the tea table regarding the need for a firm hand, for making an example of the ringleaders, what are things coming to, and so on. Dickens' Mr. Bounderby, although no gentleman, put the position in a nutshell with "The turtle soup and the gold spoon," his own blunt résumé of the trade unionist's unmistakable goals. As James's people are constantly telling each other how intelligent they are, more subtlety than this might be expected of them, but we can only hope it. What were Adam Verver's views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labor? We do not know. It is almost as if James wanted to protect his cherished creations from our knowledge of the banalities they would utter if he once let us overhear them speak freely.
Or let us try art. These people are traveled and worldly and often in a state of rapture over the museums and galleries they visit, the noble façades of mansions and dear quaint crockets of cathedrals. Yet they rarely come away from a morning of sightseeing with as much as a half-formed thought. They never dispute about what they have looked at, prefer one artist to another, hazard generalizations. In real life, they would certainly have had their ideas about the revolutions that were occurring in painting and sculpture. In Paris, if only out of curiosity, they would have rushed to see the Salon des Indépendants. Wild horses could not have kept them away. A bold pair, armed with a letter from Lady Sackville or Isabella Stewart Gardner, might have penetrated Rodin's studio. His bronze statue of Balzac in a dressing-gown, shown at the Salon des Beaux Arts, would already have led the travelers to take sides, some finding it disgusting and incomprehensible while others were calling it a "break-through." What would they have made of the nude Victor Hugo in plaster in the Luxembourg Garden? Or "The Kiss" ("Rather too suggestive"?) in marble? Unfailingly one would have heard judgments as to what was permissible and impermissible in art.
James himself, however unversed in politics he might have been, had no deficiency of art-appreciation. He wrote well and copiously about painting, sculpture, and architecture. But not in his novels. There all is allusion and murmurous, indistinct evocation of objects and vistas, in comparison with which Whistler's "Nocturne" is a sharp-edge photograph.
In the novels, a taboo is operating—a taboo that enjoins him, like Psyche in the myth or Pandora or Mother Eve, to steer clear of forbidden areas on pain of losing his god-sent gift. The areas on which neither he nor his characters may touch are defined by the proximity of thought to their surface—thought visible, almost palpable, in nuggets or globules readily picked up by the vulgar. Art in other hands might have been such an area, but James took the risk—after all, it was his own great interest—and he actually dared make it the ruling passion of several of his figures, at the price, however, of treating it always by indirection, as a motive but never as a topic in itself. If you think of Proust, you will see the difference.
With religion and philosophy, though, James is as circumspect as he is with politics. As son and brother, he must often have heard these subjects earnestly discussed, which perhaps accounts for his dislike of ideas in general. Or was this only a sense, which grew on him as he sought to find his own way, that he must not trespass on father's and brother's hunting preserve? In any case, with the exception of The Bostonians—a middle-period extravagant comedy, which he came almost to disavow, full of cranks, cults, emancipated women, do-gooders, religious charlatanry—neither he nor his characters has a word to say on these matters, nor—it should go without saying—on science. With so much of the stuff of ordinary social intercourse ruled out, the Jamesian people by and large are reduced to a single theme: each other. As beings not given to long silences, who are virtually never seen reading, not even a guidebook, that is what they are condemned to. Whenever a pair or a trio draws apart from the rest, it is to discuss and analyze and exclaim over an absent one—Milly or Maggie or Isabel. Yet here too there is a curious shortage of ideas of the kind you or I might formulate in discussing a friend. In their place are hints, soft wonderings, head-shakings, sentences hanging in the air; communication takes place between slow implication and swift inference: "Oh! Oh! Oh!" The word "Wonderful!" returns over and over as the best that can be said by way of a summing-up.
As James aged, his reticence or the reticence he imposed on his surrogates grew more "wonderful" indeed. With The Wings of the Dove, we arrive at a heroine of whom we know only three things: that she is rich, red-haired, and sick. She is clearly meant to be admirable, as we infer from the gasps and cries of the satellite figures around her—"Isn't she superb?," "Everything about you is a beauty," "beautiful," "a dove," "Oh you exquisite thing!" But vulgar particulars are never supplied. As James himself observed in his Preface, "... I go but a little way with the direct—that is with the straight exhibition of Milly; it resorts to relief, this process, whenever it can, to some kinder, some merciful indirection: all as if to approach her circuitously, deal with her at second hand, as an unspotted princess is ever dealt with...." And he continues: "All of which proceeds, obviously, from her painter's tenderness of imagination about her, which reduces him to watching her, as it were, through the successive windows of other people's interest in her."
It is an extension of the method, of course, that worked so successfully in The Spoils of Poynton. There the "treasures" had only to be called by that name two or three times, the astonished words "rare," "precious," "splendid," to drop one by one from soft young lips, to convince the reader that "the nice old things" were worth squabbling over at least to those engaged in the squabble. But the moral splendor of a human being needs more demonstration than the museum quality of mobile property, at any rate in a novel. One can decide that the fuss being made about furniture is ridiculous or justified or a little of both, and, as I have been saying, it does not greatly matter which. It is unnecessary to fully sympathize with Mrs. Gereth's emotions to be amused by the lengths to which she will go in single combat, and in fact one senses James's own moral reserve on her subject. But the fuss made over Milly Theale makes one irritably ask why, what is so admirable about her that cannot be named, unless it is just her bank balance? Similar doubts may be felt about the Ververs, father and daughter, in The Golden Bowl.
Their creator's reluctance to furnish them with identifiable traits that might let us "place" them in real life has curious consequences for the principals of the late novels. These figures, one realizes, must be accepted on faith, as ectoplasms emanating from an entranced author at his desk, in short as ghostly abstractions, pale ideas, which explains, when you come to think of it, the fever of discussion they excite in the other characters. Those by comparison are solid. They have bodies and brains, however employed. Motives are allotted to them, such as plain curiosity (the Assinghams, Henrietta Stackpole) or money greed or sexual hunger (both seem to be working, though sometimes at crosspurposes, in Kate Croy, Morton Densher, Charlotte Stant), motives that give them a foot in the actual world. And if, despite their concerted effort of analysis, the principals they keep wondering over evade definition, if, unlike furniture, they cannot be established as universals standing for a whole class of singulars, Milly and Maggie and Chad remain nonetheless ideas of a sort. That is, ideas, expelled by a majestic butler at the front door, return by another entrance and stand waiting pathetically to be dressed in words.
Before leaving James, hoist—if I am right—by his own petard, I want to ask whether his exclusion of ideas in the sense of mental concepts was connected or not with the exclusion of common factuality. The two are not necessarily related. Consider Thomas Love Peacock. There the ordinary stuff of life is swept away to make room for abstract speculation. That, and just that, is the joke. It tickles our funny-bone to meet the denizens of Nightmare Abbey—young Scythrop, the heir of the house, and Flosky, who has named his eldest son Emanuel after Kant, and Listless, up from London, complaining that Dante is growing fashionable. Each has his own bats in the belfry; there is a bad smell of midnight oil in the derelict medieval structure, where practical affairs are neglected for the necromancy of "synthetical reasoning." In hearty, plain-man style (which is partly a simulation), Peacock treats the brain's sickly products as the end-result of the general disease of modishness for which the remedy would be prolonged exposure to common, garden reality.
Excerpted from Ideas and the Novel by Mary McCarthy. Copyright © 1980 Mary McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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