Thursday, October 21, 2021

Henry James reviews Charles Dickens


Dickens has receded, for me, as a writer. When I was a teen, I loved Dickens. I felt that Dickens and Shakespeare were the kings. Now I don't. That doesn't mean that Dickens isn't the king, for who am I to give out the crowns? The change is in me.
That change in the novel was forecast by Henry James' review of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. The review is a too little noticed manifesto for what I'd call modernism. It is the young Henry James here - striking a note of condemnation that sounds eerily like Wyndham Lewis in the 1920s.
"Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call discutable. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it-of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison. I do not say it was necessarily the worse for that; it would take much more courage than I possess to intimate that the form of the novel, as Dickens and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness. It was, however, naif (if I may help myself out with another French word)... -- Henry James, The art of fiction.
To me, the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend could be put up against Dickens great first chapters -- that of Bleak House, of David Copperfield, and of Great Expectations. Of these, OMF is most like Bleak House in its blending together of nature -- in the case of Bleak House, London fog; in the case of OMF, the Thames River -- and the polis. The London fog in which the bodies of the dispossessed rather bob, and become alternately trackless and to be tracked -- become, that is, objects upon which there is an interest in tracking -- makes of the first chapter of Bleak House something on the order of the musical overture to an opera, rehearsing a set of motifs that will assume greater import later, as these motifs structure the dramatic situation of the songs. That sense of tracking and tracklessness, and the implication of texture in which the trace is supported, or erased, is even more marked in OMF. The first chapter begins on the Thames, with some unnamed thing, which by numerous hints assumes, eventually, a form of some horror to the reader, is being towed behind a boat that is powered by a girl. The unexpected conjunction of the girl, the boat, and her scavenger father gives us, who have read Dickens before, the idea that sentiment, here, will be wound by Dickens art of exaggeration, juxtaposition, and comparison into the sort of grotesque that makes Dickens novels, sometimes, seem to lurch, rather than to progress.
This was not Henry James's view. review of the book in the Nation (21 December 1865) is a startling shot across the bows, from its first condemnatory sentence to its last. James does not chose, at this point, to clutter his judgement with the tone of retraction and balance that becomes, later, his signature style. In this review, James' sentences are definitely more in the way of bullets or cannon balls, those most unretractable of the things, which one might shoot across the bow of a boat carrying illicit merchandise. This is not the tone in his latter essays and fictions, which sometimes seem composed of the murmurs of a foggy judge on a winter night in the uncertain light of a dying fire. Here's how the review pops off -- really, in the manner of some punk on the streets of Boston bringing the sauce:
"Our Mutual Friend is, to our perception, the poorest of Mr. Dickens's works. And it is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion."
After such a death sentence, James reads out a bill of particulars that alternates between the insinuation of senility and the insinuation of pandering. This is from the second graf:
"To say that the conduct of the story, with all its complications, betrays a long-practised hand, is to pay no compliment worthy the author. If this were, indeed, a compliment, we should be inclined to carry it further, and congratulate him on his success in what we should call the manufacture of fiction; for in so doing we should express a feeling that has attended us throughout the book. Seldom, we reflected, had we read a book so intensely written, so little seen, known, or felt."
There is one aspect of OMF that seems, in particular, to have stirred up the acids in James' soul -- it is the treatment of Miss Jenny Wren. Here's James' inimitable prosecutory description:
"What do we get in return for accepting Miss Jenny Wren as a possible person? This young lady is the type of a certain class of characters of which Mr. Dickens has made a speciality, and with which he has been accustomed to draw alternate smiles and tears, according as he pressed one spring or another. But this is very cheap merriment and very cheap pathos. Miss Jenny Wren is a poor little dwarf, afflicted, as she constantly reiterates, with a "bad back" and "queer legs," who makes dolls' dresses, and is for ever pricking at those with whom she converses, in the air, with her needle, and assuring them that she knows their "tricks and their manners." Like all Mr. Dickens's pathetic characters, she is a little monster; she is deformed, unhealthy, unnatural; she belongs to the troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children who have carried on the sentimental business in all Mr. Dickens's novels; the little Nells, the Smikes, the Paul Dombeys."
This is the most striking passage in James' review, at least if we read it in the light of James' future work. Interestingly, when James came to write a novel on the scale of one of Dickens -- namely, Portrait of a Lady, in 1881 -- he chooses, in Ralph Touchwood, the benefactor of Isabella Archer in the novel, to present us with just such an unhealthy and deformed creature, all the way down to the queer legs. In fact, James chooses to carry out all the sentimental business quite as much as Dickens, but with a more decorous train of precocities. LI can't, at the moment, recall a definite Jamesian hunchbacks, but the mysteriously sick abound -- the supreme instance being Milly Theale, in Wings of the Dove. In the preface to that novel, written in 1902, James might almost have been thinking of his review of OMF almost forty years before, speaking of the crystal of inspiration in these terms:
"It [the idea of the story] was formed, I judged, to make the wary adventurer walk round and round it--it had in fact a charm that invited and mystified alike that attention; not being somehow what one thought of as a "frank" subject, after the fashion of some, with its elements well in view and its whole character in its face. It stood there with secrets and compartments, with possible treacheries and traps; it might have a great deal to give, but would probably ask for equal services in return, and would collect this debt to the last shilling. It involved, to begin with, the placing in the strongest light a person infirm and ill--a case sure to prove difficult and to require (vi) much handling; though giving perhaps, with other matters, one of those chances for good taste, possibly even for the play of the very best in the world, that are not only always to be invoked and cultivated, but that are absolutely to be jumped at from the moment they make a sign."
I like to think of James starting out like this, and ending up telling tales to Ezra Pound - or so Pound claimed.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Survival and skin

 


1

I’m not sure of this, but I think it was the seventies in which the word “survivor” became a special part of the American lingo to describe the victims of horrific childhood abuse – or the rock and roll singer's experience of a particularly strenuous global tour. Gloria Gayner's glorious anthem burned the word into our consciousnesses - that is, those of us dancing at The Florentine in 1979. Since then, the word is everywhere, and it is softly lit with connotations of being, somehow, admirable.

Survivor was a term of art for Elias Canetti, too: Crowds and Power is, among other things, about victims who went under and those who survived. In the background was the monde concentrationaire, and in the foreground was Canetti’s readings from anthropology and history. His chapter on the survivor begins: “The moment of survival is the moment of power. Horror at the sight of death turns into satisfaction that it is someone else who is dead. The dead man lies on the ground while the survivor stands.”

The term, with its “sur-“ prefix (which it shares with surrealism) points to a puzzling, even illogical level of duplication. Logically, realism should stand for what is real, just as being living – vivant – should stand for being alive. But both reality and living, which present themselves as natural givens, share a certain secret – they are fabricated as well.

One of the most famous and fabulous of survivors is Gulliver, the man of common sense whose English prudence and sense of entitlement is cast into a world – a rather Irish world – where prudence and sense of entitlement are a doubtful guide to monstrosity and disfiguration. Doubtful, but in the end triumphant. It is in this register – the register of the vicar explaining how to grow orchids in the garden – that Gulliver explains how he managed to sail away from the island of his beloved, super rational Houyhnhnms – horses – who banished him as a Yahoo – the human beings of the island, who shit and fucked and babbled. The explanation comes into one of those neatly tucked in paragraphs, something out of the abundant literature of the voyage in Swift’s day, that contains an amazing amount of shock:

“I returned home, and consulting with the sorrel nag, we went into a copse at some distance, where I with my knife, and he with a sharp flint, fastened very artificially after their manner, to a wooden handle, cut down several oak wattles, about the thickness of a walking-staff, and some larger pieces. But I shall not trouble the reader with a particular description of my own mechanics; let it suffice to say, that in six weeks time with the help of the sorrel nag, who performed the parts that required most labour, I finished a sort of Indian canoe, but much larger, covering it with the skins of Yahoos, well stitched together with hempen threads of my own making. My sail was likewise composed of the skins of the same animal; but I made use of the youngest I could get, the older being too tough and thick; and I likewise provided myself with four paddles. I laid in a stock of boiled flesh, of rabbits and fowls, and took with me two vessels, one filled with milk and the other with water.  

This is survival at its very nadir. Orwell, in his famous essay on Swift, makes several points against Swift’s reactionary politics that prove, at least to me, how English Orwell is – it never seems to occur to him that Swift was very conscious of the colonial status of Ireland, and that the writing, here, is all the more English for including the ultimate shock that the English, when all is said and done, will use the skin of the colonized any way they want to. Orwell’s blindness, here, is all the more interesting in that he intellectually knew, from his own experience, what the English colonial mindset was really about.

2.

 

Skin, human skin, is distinguished from hide, which is bovine skin, once it has been stripped off the bovine, and before it has been processed by the tanner. That human skin could also be processed by the tanner has been noticed in the great popular mind, but when the word “hide” is substituted for skin, we know we are in the realm of jokes, those products of anxiety. Human skin, in the anglosphere, is bounded in by its color – the poles being black and white – and associated with the great polarities: the sacred and the abject, the beautiful and the aged, the healthy and the sick. Our pocket mythology is full of skin.

For skin to become hide, it must be flayed – stripped from the body. The knife must come out. To flay, in the dreamlife of English, is to do something powerful and unclean.  We dream of connections between ourselves and the beast, and we found our socius on the denial of that connection, which is as much at the root of our living together as any social contract. What, after all, is the social contract written on but skin? The cleverest of all images of the social contract – the philosophical parable about how it undermines itself – was written by Balzac: Le peau de chagrin. Here’s a contract that shrinks every time it is used. Here’s a capsule allegory of the history of every constitutional republic.

 

Swift was a churchman, and a great reader and giver of sermons. So it would surprise me if he was not acquainted with Hugh Latimer’s sermons. And, in particular, the third sermon to King Edward VI, given on March 22, 1549. A crucial seedtime for the installation of Protestantism, and the undermining of Catholicism in the Kingdom.   The sermon is an interesting religio-political document. The theme is gainsaying, that is, contradicting  the false concord that can result from an enforced but wicked orthodoxy. Latimer, here, is a pioneer of what Walter Bagehot, in the 19th century, called "conservative innovation - the matching of new institutions with old ones,"  although Bagehot’s Victorianism was illmatched, affectively, with Latimer’s sense of prophecy. Latimer’s point is that the Lord sends the preacher for a “first visitation” to warn a wicked people – and if they do not heed, the Lord makes a second visitation through epidemic, war, revolution, the throwing down of cities and riot in the countryside.  Speaking before the king, he had to thread a very narrow eye: that in which the past Christian order, under the devil’s rule by the Pope, was still, somehow, continuous with the new Christian order, in which the devil’s rule was overthrown. The King’s right to his throne, after all, was founded on a family continuity that traversed the wicked time. As a popular preacher, he had to speak bluntly, but as the first visitation to the King, he had to speak trickily.  In other words, he had recourse to parables. This is one of them:

“Cambyses was a great emperor, such another as our master is. He had many lord-deputies, lord-presidents, and lieutenants under him. It is a great while ago since I read the history. It chanced he had under him, in one of his dominions, a briber, a gift-taker, a gratifier of rich men; he followed gifts as fast as he that followed the pudding, a hand-maker in his office to make his son a great man, as the old saying is: Happy is the child whose father goeth to the devil. The cry of the poor widow came to the emperors ear, and caused him to flay the judge quick, and laid his skin in the chair of judgment, that all judges that should give judgment afterwards should sit in the same skin. Surely it was a goodly sign, a goodly monument, the sign of the judges skin. I pray God we may once see the skin in England.”

The judge’s skin is a shocking image. Latimer, it should be said, paid with his own skin for his views, being burned as a heretic in front of Balliol College in Oxford. He could not bend to the new twist in English policy when Queen Mary, after Edward, tried to promote a top-down return to Catholicism. Latimer could not as a prophet countenance the return to the hand-makers, the sellers of indulgences, the encumbrances to God’s grace.

However: – the religious message – the message in a sermon – was, as well, a political one that reached beyond its ecclesiastical argument. The cry of the poor widow is not to be prayed away or prayed under in any churchly order. It is to be paid for, eventually. And the payment – in human skin – is set up for a reminder to the judge. What a reminder, though! There is a mercilessness in this goodly sign that makes me wonder how far to follow justice – and, in Swift’s terms, how far to follow reason. For both require orders, and the social order is rooted in terror. If that is the way things have to go, I am not sure if I’m not on the outlaw’s side. This happens: I sometimes watch movies where I can see the murderer’s point of view very well. As well, I suspect that the law will strangle the poor widow in the end, or at least sit on her child for his lack of the right skin color and apply restraints to him until he dies, and then call it a day.

I’m reminded of a song by Otis Taylor, the House of the Crosses:

I went down

To the house of the crosses

 I saw my momma

Fall on her knees

Well she told me

This man's your father

 He killed two people

And he raped me

 She took her trumpet

She held it in her hand

She yelled out: "He's a evil man"

There’s a rational philosophy of Justice, which we hunger and thirst for; and then there is this dark, this obscure point, where no resolution is possible. We are up against it, here.  This, too, is the sign of the skin.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwbRNOI1ZDU

 

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