Wednesday, March 25, 2015

rather too fond of superfine discriminations - James says what kind of writer he is

I fancied he was rather too fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle intentions in the shallow felicities of chance.

Strangely that is not a description of Henry James but rather a description in “The Madonna of the Future” (1873) of an American painter in Florence, an anti-Jamesian character, a figure James (but not his narrator) finds horrifying.

The painter has for years been working on a single masterpiece, a Madonna that will rival Raphael’s Madonna in the chair.  Most Florentines who know the painter express doubts that there is any painting at all, but he insists that he is working:

“If you but knew the rapture of observation!  I gather with every glance some hint for light, for color or relief!  When I get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of my Madonna.  O, I’m not idle!”

A friend of the painter brings up Balzac’s great novella The Unknown Masterpiece (1832), in which a painter devotes his life to perfecting a single painting only to discover that a pure devotion to form inevitably leads to abstraction – well, that is how I interpret the story, although that is not what Balzac, one of literature’s greatest hacks, and I mean greatest in every good sense, was thinking. 

“There are many people who doubt whether there is any picture to be seen.  I fancy, myself, that if one were to get into his studio, one would find something very like the picture in that tale of Balzac’s,- a mere mass of incoherent scratches and daubs, a jumble of dead paint!”

We can guess where this ends:

“I never began!  I waited and waited to be worthier to begin, and wasted my life in preparation.”

At this point James had been a professional writer for a decade – at this point he was a successful professional, one of the finer hacks of American magazine writing.  It is as if James is warning himself about what would happen if he stopped writing so much – perhaps he would be likely to stop writing at all, paralyzed by perfection.  Or, perhaps, there is no risk at all that James would stop, and he is just mocking the ultra-Romantic inspirationists he has met.  He is telling them to do what he does, to write, and if it’s not good write some more.  Just keep writing.  James himself rewrites this story a number of times.

There really is some good stuff in this story mocking the painters Romanticism.  I do not know what James knew, so perhaps it is an unintended irony that the painter is completely wrong about how Raphael worked, that rather than being the Keats of the 16th century he ran a large and efficient workshop. 

“Think of his [Raphael] seeing that spotless image, not for a moment for a day, in a happy dream, as a restless fever-fit, not as a poet in a five minutes’ frenzy, time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza, but for days together, while the slow labor of the brush went on, while the foul vapors of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now!”

Completely wrong.  And I see that James makes sure the painter does not understand Keats either.

I would like to call “The Madonna of the Future,” James’s twentieth story, his first masterpiece,  except that I have not read eleven of the earlier stories, nor an 1871 novel, so how would I know?  But that’s what I would bet, that this is the first really good one.


  1. I will commit a heresy here by saying that what makes a story "good" can be largely attributed to reader-response. Objective standards put aside, the subjective standards often carry the day. And the "better" the reader, then the "better" the "good" assessment. How is that for being anti-theory and anti-aesthetics. Yeah, I'm in that kind of mood today.

  2. "I waited and waited to be worthier to begin, and wasted my life in preparation."

    This turns out to be the theme of The Ambassadors, too. You should really read that one.

  3. Not a heresy, merely an error. True in a trivial sense. How these theoretical statements about aesthetics are anti-theory or anti-aesthetics is a mystery,

    The Ambassadors is 30 years later. Impressive to carry the theme around for so long. I know it from some "tales" from the same period - "The Beast in the Jungle," right? I haven't read it for a long time.

    1. Alas, I should not read and write when taking certain meds. Forgive my incoherent nonsense. I had meant to Swift but became a Yahoo. Sorry. No more comments coming from sick bay.

    2. Forgiven, always forgiven. We are all Yahoos.

  4. Yes, I thought "The Beast in the Jungle" had a similar theme--of waiting for something and eventually realizing or fearing that one had missed it. In fact, the "Beast" came to mind before the Ambassadors.

  5. I think "The Middle Years" (1893) is another example, one more specifically about art. I am semi-remembering stories I read 25 years ago.

  6. These Jamesian matters don't seem so clear to me, and even less easy to clarify. Nonetheless, we work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

  7. I am fairly certain that no one has ever claimed that the 1871 novel (Watch and Ward) is a masterpiece. It's bizarre and mildly entertaining, but to say the plot – a middle-aged bachelor decides, as a lark, to adopt a twelve-year-old girl & later to marry her – has not aged well is an understatement. James was right to exclude it from the New York Edition.

  8. By coincidence the next Balzac work I read will be "The Unknown Masterpiece", I like your description of Balzac as a great hack writer, even his most formula works have great things in them.

  9. "don't seem clear to me" - as much as any writer, James seems to have made that his art: a refusal to be clear. Ambiguity as the highest artistic value.

    Dan - thanks for the note on Watch and Ward. As I suspected.

    mel, I see you are up to Balzac #52 - very good. Balzac is the transcendent hack writer - hasty, sloppy, formulaic, and then the opposite, often in the same story.