Thursday, February 25, 2016

Henry James uses metaphors

This will be something of a What Maisie Knew note dump.  I have said what I have to say and now just have questions.  The big one is how James uses metaphors.  I don’t understand it yet.  I ended my run on The Portrait of a Lady with the same question.

It’s the central question of style, which is the same as saying it is central to how the artist sees the world, “sees” being itself a metaphor.  For some writers – Saul Bellow – the metaphor is strongly visual, sensual.  To see the one thing – to see it in my imagination – he says, imagine this other thing.  Right, now you’ve got it.  Metaphor is a form of precision.

Gustave Flaubert’s metaphors are prosaic, useful but plain, but they are used to create an elaborate pattern of reference that is a thing of beauty, a glimpse of the reality behind reality.

Then there are writers in the plain style who think metaphors are dishonest, just rhetoric.  Sometimes they are right.  Say what it is, not what it is like.

Then there is James, who uses five hundred words to avoid the word “fat.”  Or uses a series of metaphors as a substitute for setting, movement and dialogue – for the usual components of a scene.  For characterization, too.  Maisie’s mother didn’t wear but “carried” clothes – she “carried them as a train carries passengers” (Preface)  That is not meant to be something I see, is it, but rather a description of the mother’s attitude, of her cool.  Or of her promiscuity.  Honestly not sure which.

Sometimes the metaphorical language feels like it must be visual, even if I have trouble seeing it.  Maisie’s mother’s “huge painted eyes… were like Japanese lanterns swung under festive arches”  (Ch. 25).  A “huge frosted cake” is “a wonderful delectable mountain with geological strata of jam” (Ch. 12).  For me, the vividness of the metaphor overwhelms what it describes.  I enjoy the grotesqueness James creates, but I think I need to learn to work my way back into the book.

I noticed one deliberate pattern.  In Chapter 4, I find “a lady with eyebrows arched like skipping-ropes and thick black stitching, like ruled ‘lines,’ on beautiful white gloves,” two reasonably visual similes that are both plausibly the perceptions of a child.  They are within her imaginative and linguistic world.  Eighty pages later the gloves return as “a pearl-grey glove ornamented with the thick black lines that, at her mother’s, always used to strike her as connected with the way the bestitched fists of the long ladies carried, with the elbows well out, their umbrellas upside down” (Ch. 15).  Then a few pages later ,the eyebrows from up above.

Vladimir Nabokov would omit “at her mother’s,” the direct reminder of the earlier scene.  That’s my job, to work that out, not his.  But I wonder what would happen if I followed James’s hint and rubbed these two scenes together.

I could then follow the umbrella theme, which is there, really, I think.  I began my posts on What Maisie Knew with an elbow metaphor, one I did not understand, from fourteen chapters after this one.  Hmm.

The only way to see how this all fits together, to figure out what kind of argument James is making with his language, is to reread the novel.  Maybe it doesn’t.  One time through What Maisie Knew, through Henry James, how would I know.


  1. I will quibble by suggesting that his uses of metaphor and simile are distinctions worth noting, especially as similes offer explicit comparisons but metaphors offer implicit comparisons, so we are left with the distinctions between obvious similes (universals and objective) and obscure metaphors (personal and subjective). Does that make any sense?

  2. I typically use metaphor to mean "metaphorical language," similes then being a subset of metaphor.

    Or maybe you mean something else. The difference between "the cake is like a mountain" and "the cake is a mountain" does not look like a difference between the objective and the subjective.

    An example would help.

  3. I offered my quibble as a testable thesis; I would go through James, categorize and separate metaphors and similes, and see if the universal-and-objective v. the personal-and-subjective holds water. I have no examples to offer here and now. If I get around to reading James, I will put my thesis to the test. In the meantime, I think all tropes run the risk of being intensely personal-and-subjective, and perhaps James takes that risk to the limit. Again, that is an off-the-cuff thesis. I think it is sometimes worthwhile to take only one aspect of an author's works and examine that under a microscope to see what is discoverable. One that comes to mind from my own experience is looking for every allusion (direct or indirect) to Biblical number-symbols in Flannery O'Connor; it might not lead to anything really useful, but the exercise itself becomes a learning experience. But I've babbled on quite long enough. -30-

  4. I don't think the objective / subjective or universal / personal distinction will survive the test in this case. It doesn't work with the examples I have quoted over the last few days.

    Do you have another writer in mind where this division works?

    1. I have no example off the top of my head, and there is very little still lodged within the Swiss cheese interior of my head, so I will have to beg for more time to consider the problem/thesis; somewhere in my mind, I'm inclined to point to Blake and Yeats, but no specific examples support my thesis. Perhaps someday, if time and energies permit, I will try to test my thesis via Blake (more likely because I am more familiar with him) and/or Yeats (less likely because he is so damned difficult and idiosyncratic); but -- with respect to the latter -- consider the difference between "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and "The Second Coming." Well, I'll get back to you someday on all of this. I'm giving myself a headache! I apologize for the Swiss-cheese digression.

  5. The words I use about the James style to myself are evasive and (non-pejoratively) sadistic -- I see him using tools like metaphor not just to describe or evoke but to avoid -- and avoid what, avoid us, as if we're dangerous to him, as if we need to be approached carefully or else we might find out too much -- and this seems to be one with the absent or abusive parent figure in his work -- (since you've been mentioning them) -- one who doesn't tell the child everything, one -- like the employer in Screw -- who chooses you for a special duty (reading), and then conceals themselves in a way that may or may not be sinister. He's the only person I can think of who writes as if the author and the reader are able to do harm to one another. The man treats facts like explosives.

  6. I think the "fat" riddle was the point where I saw that Maisie was a continuation of "The Figure in the Carpet." More sneakily, without writing and reading as the subject of the novel.

    That's also the first point where I thought "You gotta be kidding" - because the passage is sadistic, yes, exactly. Playful (he is kidding, partly), but sadistic.

    I have so much trouble with James, this stage of James, knowing when I am looking at the right thing, which seems to be what the novel is about. What Tom Knew.

    1. I've read just enough of him to wonder if "what is the novel about?" is always what the novel is about. (I know I've used "sadism" to refer to him before. I repeat myself. But it's the one thing I have to say.) There's a phrase in The Sacred Fount that I think of -- "the intellectual mastery of things unamenable, that joy of determining, almost of creating results, which I have already mentioned as an exhilaration ..."


      I laid my hand on his arm and held him a moment with a grip that betrayed, I daresay, the effort in me to keep my thoughts together and lose not a thread. It betrayed at once, doubtless, the danger of that failure and the sharp foretaste of success. I remember that with it, absolutely, I struck myself as knowing again the joy of the intellectual mastery of things unamenable, that joy of determining, almost of creating results, which I have already mentioned as an exhilaration attached to some of my plunges of insight. "It would take long to tell you what I mean."

      The tone of it made him fairly watch me as I had been watching him. "Well, haven't we got the whole night?"

      "Oh, it would take more than the whole night—even if we had it!"

      "By which you suggest that we haven't it?"

      "No—we haven't it. I want to get away."

      "To go to bed? I thought you were so keen."

      "I am keen. Keen is no word for it. I don't want to go to bed. I want to get away."

      "To leave the house—in the middle of the night?"

      "Yes—absurd as it may seem. You excite me too much. You don't know what you do to me."

      He continued to look at me; then he gave a laugh which was not the contradiction, but quite the attestation, of the effect produced on him by my grip. If I had wanted to hold him I held him. It only came to me even that I held him too much. I felt this in fact with the next thing he said. "If you're too excited, then, to be coherent now, will you tell me to-morrow?"

      I took time myself now to relight. Ridiculous as it may sound, I had my nerves to steady; which is a proof, surely, that for real excitement there are no such adventures as intellectual ones. "Oh, to-morrow I shall be off in space!"

      "Certainly we shall neither of us be here. But can't we arrange, say, to meet in town, or even to go up together in such conditions as will enable us to talk?"

      I patted his arm again. "Thank you for your patience. It's really good of you. Who knows if I shall be alive to-morrow? We are meeting. We do talk."


  7. Is it possible that James thinks that language can be misleading and that, therefore, to make a simple concrete statement about something would be deceptive.

    Consequently, the best way to be clear about something, to present an accurate picture of something, would be to circle around the subject, to present it by a 360 degree description rather than from just one point only.

    1. Fred, for a second I thought you were writing about Samuel Beckett; now there is a connection that must surprise you and others.

    2. R.T.,

      You are right: that connection did surprise me. James may take his time, but he eventually gets where he's headed, while Beckett also gets where he's going but that is nowhere.

      I think James is worth the time spent reading him, but I haven't read anything by Beckett since I left grad school.

  8. Good lord, that quotation. My resistance to the "queering of James" continues to crumble. To collapse.

    Fred, plausible. I have become a believer in the stages of James, the Early-Middle-Late business, and your idea fits. Earlier, James did not have this mistrust of language but it grew on him to the point where in "The Figure in the Carpet" he is openly writing about it.

    Tim, I don't think you have surprised anyone who has read Beckett!

  9. I think it's useful to separate the idea of James' ornate style from the idea of opacity. Not that Tom has been conflating those ideas, but many readers do. In Umbagollah's example, the dense paragraphs are far less opaque than is the dialogue, though there it's one of Jame's characters--rather than James--who isn't saying what he means to say.

    I like what Fred says about James circling around his subjects slowly, describing as he goes. I always feel that James is being as precise as he can, not necessarily hiding anything or hiding from anyone (except for when he is, of course). But it's a question--at least I think in general in this middle period of his--of style rather than psychology. He's testing ideas of language, of narrative. In his later works (The Ambassadors, for example), his prose is much more straightforward, far less decorated throughout, but his psychology is more complex.

    So I don't know. Surely he was a man who wanted simultaneously to confess and to hide, to accuse and to comfort, etc, but I think a lot of it (the levels of "difficulty" in James) really comes down to working out of artistic/craft principles, ideas of novelistic technique. If James realized that language was an inadequate tool for directly and accurately describing experience or abstractions or even simple objects, it would've been natural for him to play around with that inadequacy, to see how far he could push things. maybe.

  10. Yes, you see what I am looking for - James's metaphysics of style. The argument he is making by means of style. Like I have done with Flaubert, and could do with a few other writers of comparable quality. Not with James, though, not yet.

  11. I think the visual metaphors in Maisie, and in the string of work seen through the eyes of children that follows, there is more at work than usual with James. How a world beyond the intellectual or emotional grasp of a child is conveyed. The problem for me then becomes in dividing the metaphors that clearly spring from the child's perception and those that are the perspective of James himself sneaking into the narrative. Dual purposes? Or the same through differentiated lenses? That's what trips me up with Maisie...

  12. We read the novel quite differently. The big difference seems to be how we divided up the narrative voice between "James" and Maisie. I gave way more of the language to "James."

    I am not at all sure that was a good idea. In fact I had serious doubts, especially as I got closer to the end of the novel.

    I will leave a comment on your post saying more or less the same thing.

    There are subsequent child's-level James tales? I did not know that. Very interesting.

    1. I said "eyes of children" with a vague recollection of having once known more about that. So I went and looked it up just to make sure. If you have the Edel bio handy, flip open to page 480 under the heading "The Little Girls." In chronological order (which I had wrong) - The Other House, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw and The Awkward Age.

    2. Oh, sure, "The Turn of the Screw"! The others I have not read, yet.