Wednesday, September 7, 2016

I am under no obligation, thank heaven, to be definite about the business - "The Coxon Fund" is indefinite

Good-bye, dear Gertrude!  Shall I see you at Lady Bonar’s tonight?  She has discovered a wonderful new genius.  He does… nothing at all, I believe.  That is a great comfort, is it not?  (ellipsis in original)

That is not Henry James but rather the blithering Lady Markby in Act II of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1985), ably summarizing James’s “The Coxon Fund” (1894).  Wilde and James were addressing the same type, the genius who performs at parties, who does nothing but talk, if that.  Geniuses like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or the old George Meredith, or the young Oscar Wilde.

I am never sure what is meant when reading about the great talkers of the past.  Something more than a raconteur, a great talk-show guest, but what?  Frank Saltram, the genius of “The Coxon Fund,” makes regular performances in the Mulville’s drawing-room:

I used to call it the music-room, for we had anticipated Bayreuth.  The very gates of the kingdom of light seemed to open and the horizon of thought to flash with the beauty of a sunrise at sea.  (Ch. IV)

His talk is like the music of Richard Wagner.  This is not helpful.  But it is clearly meant to be something well beyond story-telling or wit.  When Saltram is described more directly, as part of a scene, the narrator reverts to music.

I had of course a perfect consciousness that something great was going on: it was a little like having been etherized to hear Herr Joachim play.  The old music was in the air; I felt the strong pulse of thought, the sink and swell, the flight, the poise, the plunge…  (Ch. IX)

The narrator, and other characters, think – assume – that Saltram’s wisdom should be encased in a book, or many books, but “[t]he editors and the publishers were the last people to take this remarkable thinker at the valuation that has now pretty well come to be established” (IV, a strange way of putting it).  The plot of the story, the title, is about the attempt to give Saltram a kind of MacArthur fellowship, a genius grant.  Who gets the money; without the money can this character marry that; etc.

Saltram is not reliable, an alcoholic and perhaps worse, although whatever might be worse is kept as vague as Saltram’s talent.  He is estranged from his awful wife.  He fathered children out of wedlock.  “’I don’t want to know the worst,’” the narrator declares near the end of the story, and he never does, or never tells me.  Or perhaps he does tell me in Chapter XI, when the narrator accidentally (?) encounters Saltram in a park.

After I had sat by him a few minutes I passed my arm over his soft shoulder (wherever you touched him you found equally little firmness) and said in a tone of which the suppliance fell oddly on my own ear: “Come back to town with me, old friend – come back and spend the evening.”  I wanted to hold him; I wanted to keep him… 

It is – it continues along the same lines – the most openly, uncoded, homosexual passage I have ever seen, or at least recognized, in James.

The narrator is incapable of describing Saltram’s talent, and openly refuses to discuss Saltram’s behavior:

These are dead aches now, and I am under no obligation, thank heaven, to be definite about the business.  There are things which if I had to tell them – well, I wouldn’t have told my story.  (V)

Up to this point, I had been frustrated and mystified by James’s indefiniteness.  Sensing that frustration, apparently, James at this point directly tells me that “The Coxon Fund” is about indefiniteness.


  1. Thoughtful post. What a contrast with Zadie Smith's narrative voice and approach, that you commented on over at my place yesterday. Give me indefiniteness every time, especially HJ's. That coded homoerotic passage was well spotted. It seems to me that there are many male friendships & discipleships across the novels and stories that resemble some of Wilde's, i.e. that could be seen in a similar light. all those tales about older, wiser writers and artists who are idolised by younger men; wives often become restless (The Author of Beltraffio, in which the author has roused the suspicions and fears over his pernicious influence over their son: what is it that he's done? Surely more than just his 'aestheticism'...) Must reread these stories you're writing about: I interrupted my sequence of posts a year or so back to turn to other things, so it's maybe time to return to the old boy.

  2. Ah, no, in my case I will take definiteness every time, all else equal. See all posts about Flaubert, etc. See Pale Fire. James is doing what he can within the narrow limits of his art. James can't show what he means be the descriptions of Saltram or The Lion, so he doesn't, and makes a conceptual virtue of it.

    Anyone following the homoerotic theme should be sure to include "The Lesson the Master" and "The Death of the Lion," where the erotic theme is of high importance, but it is entirely heterosexual. Even here, the passage looks to me like a deliberate introduction of not ambiguity but confusion, like in "The Figure in the Carpet." A question that is meant to be unanswerable.

  3. I suspect that what the great talkers did was work the room. It wasn't so much what they said, as how they interacted with their audience.

    All this vague homoeroticism! I'm reading Marlowe's "Edward II" now, and it's a relief that he's so direct. When Edward "frolics with his minion," at least you know what's going on. Here's to definiteness!

  4. The passage is really something else. Saltram is displaying his phallus, in the form of "a stout gold-headed staff," when the narrator cruises him in the park. James really dares his Yellow Book reader to miss the implication. "At about 1.30 he was sublime."

    You're right, it can't be what was said, but the illusion of what was said. In the descriptions of Meredith the Sage, Meredith sits and talks, and everyone around him absorbs his wisdom. That is something other than working the room, but then why is everyone so vague about the content? Wilde was a master of working the room, but he was a wit, not a sage, which might make a difference.