“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, February 28, 2004


Edith Wharton was twenty five when she and her husband dined out for the first time with Henry James. Wharton recalled her idea of impressing James: “to put on my newest Doucet dress and look my prettiest.” For a lot of critics, this says it all: Wharton is James in a Doucet dress. Wharton herself, who started in the decade after meeting James, was immediately dubbed as his imitator, which must have justly irritated her. Besides which, in the time she was closest to him, around 1905 to 1910, she was not at all an admirer of what she considered the balderdash indirections of his late style.

LI is not at all an admirer of Edith Wharton. Or even, I should say, a detractor. There are certain American writers to whom I feel I owe a debt of reading. Willa Cather, John O’Hara, and Edith Wharton are among my ghostly creditors – even though the debt they would have paid back poses a very Derridian question – is there a debt of reading that is paid by reading? But I will hold off on that for another day. My debt to Wharton has now been at least partially paid. I’ve read The Reef . I say partial payment because I have an idea that this novel is not, like The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, Wharton’s most characteristic piece. Those who know Wharton best, at least, make that claim.

According to Millicent Bell’s tremendously intelligent essay tracing the influences, such as they were, of James upon Wharton, The Reef was the novel in which Wharton finally got it – that is, got what she could get from James, apart from the theme of international rich folk. In Bell’s nice phrase, Wharton replaces the “chaotic compound of points of view” characteristic of her earlier work with “the elaborate working out on all sides of a central situation.” Which means that she carefully plots her incidences and the way they are articulated according to some strong anchoring p.o.v. – the perspectives, in fact, of two characters, George Darrow and Anna Leath. Bell compares the construction, here, to the Golden Bowl: “in neither novel is there a crowd of minor characters to give a sense of social density, a Balzacian perspective of milieu such as James had once aimed for.” But The Reef, according to Bell, was as far as Wharton would take her late Jamesianism. In the novels that came after, she “returned to a form that was more natural to her.” The lesson in perspective, which is the lesson of the master, can now be used to advance Wharton’s own sense of the more crowded, more Balzacian world, as you can use a flashlight to advance in a dark cave.

Perhaps this is why I found The Reef so compulsively readable – I’m a sucker for the late James. I am using Bell’s essay as my critical anchor instead of Anita Brookner’s intro to the Penguin I’m reading, because Brookner’s essay is so ineffably stupid. It is the worst of introductory essays – it is not only stupid in itself, but an invitation to stupidity on the part of the reader. Brookner’s idea is that the modern reader will simply be irritated by Anna Leath’s scruples, since the modern reader has long ago cut all the Gordian knots of sexual ethics. This is not only incredibly smug, with the small world smugness of the upper class British liberal, it isn’t even likely. In 2004, it is very likely that a woman who discovers that the man she is about to marry has slept with the woman her stepson is about to marry would tend towards a lot of mental casuistry. It is as if Brookner prefaced an edition of Oedipus Rex by remarking that, nowadays, Oedipus would simply have been cured by a therapist, or a bracing spell on an electroshock bed. Such thinning down of the text, such formal stupidity, clears the ground for Brookner to give us her soap opera-ish perspective on the book – we don’t like Anna Leath for being a worrier, or George Darrow for being controlling, or Sophy Viner for being a whiner – and hey, who should play them in the Masterpiece Theater version?

However, I have come to praise Edith Wharton, not to bury Anita Brookner. Or rather, to point out a certain thrilling Nietzschian thread in the book.

The drama of the last part of The Reef is all in the way in which Anna Leath alternately accepts and rejects her belief that George Darrow was involved in some kind of intrigue with her daughter’s governess (and fiancé of her stepson), Sophie Viner . The movement between acceptance and recoil is not just about the sexual core of Darrow’s relationship with Viner, but it hangs within the deeper current of her gradually gathering perception that she could only truly know the meaning of that relationship by having led a different kind of life, one in which both the abject and sublime nuances of sex and feeling were available to her as experiences, rather than as the mere content of the rules of social decorum. Ironically, Darrow offers her the chance to have just that experience, and in offering her that chance, illuminates just the poverty of her experience up to this moment. She realizes, through Darrow, how solitary she has really been – even though she has been married, and had a child. As Anna conceives it, her solitude consists in an abnormal chastity of experience. She feels a cumulative want of contact. As she gains a deeper sense of the fact that Darrow’s offer comes only with her acknowledgment, for good and bad, of Darrow’s own sexual experience, she conceives her choice as one that thrusts its options upon her as between pardoning Darrow and remaining loyal to her own total past.

To make this point, Wharton uses a really interesting reference to classical culture.

Here is Anna, confronting George in Paris:

“For she was aware, in her own bosom, of sensations so separate from her romantic thoughts of him that she saw her body and soul divided against themselves. She recalled having read somewhere that in ancient Rome the slaves were not allowed to wear a distinctive dress lest they should recognize each other and learn their numbers and their power. So, in herself, she discerned for the first time instincts and desires, which, mute and unmarked, had gone to and fro in the dim passages of her mind, and now hailed each other with a cry of mutiny.”

Wharton reinforces this metaphor a few pages on, after Anna is embraced by George:

“He came nearer, and looked at her, and she went to him. All
her fears seemed to fall from her as he held her. It was a
different feeling from any she had known before: confused
and turbid, as if secret shames and rancours stirred in it,
yet richer, deeper, more enslaving.”

Wharton does some interesting things with Anna, who starts out as a rather insipid widow in a French chateau. The dialectically resplendent image of slaves dressed as freeman whose freedom would depend on recognizing each other as slaves corresponds to Anna’s odd liberation. It is a liberation into a world that isn’t free, a world in which the slaves wear slave costumes and signal to each other with abandon. And it is also a world in which feeling slips away from confidence in feeling. That’s an interior shift that Anna cannot, in the end, quite endure. We wondered, reading these paragraphs, if Wharton had ever read Melville; and in particular, Benito Cereno.

It is always good to keep in mind that Nietzsche, who wrote about slaves, never met any. But any American writer who wanted to could meet them, at least before the Civil War, and could meet ex slaves after the Civil War. For an American, there was no distance between the slave and master relationship and his own history. Slavery was in our blood, and the blood of slaves was in our money. And let's not forget either -- as I did, the first time I wrote this paragraph -- that the American writer could have even been a slave.

Anna’s classical metaphor echoes a bit earlier in the book, too. The book begins with the long episode of George Darrow’s trip to Paris with Sophy Viner. He knows Viner, only vaguely, from the house of a (from all accounts) rather bohemian hostess, for whom she worked as a factotum. Sophy Viner is pretty; she is tough; she wants to be an actress, a desire that in itself marks her, in Darrow’s mind, as “artistic” – i.e. loose. But it is Darrow who seduces her, who holds her in Paris longer than she can even afford to stay there; it is Darrow who takes her to plays. One of the plays is Oedipe. Viner’s reaction to it is premonitory of the role that she will play in Anna and Darrow’s narrative. Darrow is bored with the piece. The couple go out to walk in the intermission, and he expresses his boredom. Sophy, however, can’t believe he isn’t enthralled, and gives him her reason for being enthralled:

“As if the gods were there all the while, just behind them, pulling the strings?" Her hands
were pressed against the railing, her face shining and
darkening under the wing-beats of successive impressions.

Darrow smiled in enjoyment of her pleasure. After all, he
had felt all that, long ago; perhaps it was his own fault,
rather than that of the actors, that the poetry of the play
seemed to have evaporated...But no, he had been right in
judging the performance to be dull and stale: it was simply
his companion's inexperience, her lack of occasions to
compare and estimate, that made her think it brilliant.

"I was afraid you were bored and wanted to come away."

"BORED?" She made a little aggrieved grimace. "You mean
you thought me too ignorant and stupid to appreciate it?"

"No; not that." The hand nearest him still lay on the
railing of the balcony, and he covered it for a moment with
his. As he did so he saw the colour rise and tremble in her

"Tell me just what you think," he said, bending his head a
little, and only half-aware of his words.

She did not turn her face to his, but began to talk rapidly,
trying to convey something of what she felt. But she was
evidently unused to analyzing her aesthetic emotions, and
the tumultuous rush of the drama seemed to have left her in
a state of panting wonder, as though it had been a storm or
some other natural cataclysm. She had no literary or
historic associations to which to attach her impressions:
her education had evidently not comprised a course in Greek
literature. But she felt what would probably have been
unperceived by many a young lady who had taken a first in
classics: the ineluctable fatality of the tale, the dread
sway in it of the same mysterious "luck" which pulled the
threads of her own small destiny. It was not literature to
her, it was fact: as actual, as near by, as what was
happening to her at the moment and what the next hour held
in store.

We love the way Wharton has set this up. We love the way she comes at us with this pre-emptive notion of luck, since of course her whole plot turns upon a piece of bad luck, a coincidence. And we love the way that destiny, in a slave society, becomes luck, in a free one. And how the atavistic yearning for the rituals of the slave society colonizes our passions, exists in the perpetual underground of the unconscious.

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