Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The expensive vagueness of The Wings of the Dove - It almost destroyed me, thinking it all out

So it’s not just me.  I’m glad to know that.  Here is William James writing to his brother in 1902:

I have read The Wings of the Dove (for which all thanks!) but what shall I say of a book constructed on a method which so belies everything that I acknowledge as law?  You’ve reversed every traditional canon of story-telling (especially the fundamental one of telling the story, which you carefully avoid) and have created a new genre littéraire which I can’t help thinking perverse, but in which you nevertheless succeed, for I read with interest to the end (many pages, and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean)…  At any rate it is your own…

My premise is that William James has first, the intelligence of William James, and second, at this point almost forty years of experience reading the complete works of Henry James, so if he had this kind of trouble, I should not be surprised at my own.

I have the advantage of having read a century’s worth of subsequent novels that avoid their stories even more ruthlessly than those of James – am I ever used to that – but the writers I think of as the most Jamesian don’t write sentences like those.  Saul Bellow or Alan Hollinghurst or Hotel du Lac, those are examples I have in mind.  The sentences do not make me swear on the name of Dickens.  Maybe you know some more cryptic examples.

This is William Dean Howells, also smart and used to James, in “Mr. James’s Later Work” (1903), which he partly writes as a dialogue with “a weary woman” – she is speaking:

’There they are,’ as he keeps making his people say in all his late books, when they are not calling one another dear lady, and dear man, and prodigious and magnificent, and of a vagueness or a richness, or a sympathy, or an opacity.  No, he is of a tremendosity, but he worries me to death; he kills me; he really gives me a headache.  He fascinates me, but I have no patience with him.”

I took the liberty of adding italics to the words that are directly borrowed from James.  I think some of the others are jokes.  “Tremendosity” is definitely a joke; “opacity” is not in The Wings of the Dove, at least; as for “vagueness,” this is practically a description of the novel:

an impenetrable ring fence, within which there reigned a kind of expensive vagueness made up of smiles and silences and beautiful fictions and priceless arrangements, all strained to breaking  (9.4)

I had wondered if some of the adjectives that James’s characters fling at each other – “wonderful” – were perhaps examples of current slang, something he heard at dinner parties, but I guess not, or at least they were not at the parties Howells attended.  They are mostly signals that I am in James-world, which is not exactly like this one ever was.  The weary woman again:

“We could not bear to lose a word; every word – and there were a good many! – seemed to tell.  If you took one away you seemed to miss something important.  It almost destroyed me, thinking it all out.  I went round days, with my hand to my forehead; and I don’t believe I understand it perfectly yet.  Do you?”

No.  I have two other differences from Howells’s magnificent invention.  First, when I left all the words in I still thought I was missing something important, and second, it turns out I have endless patience with James, so I will bang on about him until I run out of babble.  I didn’t take a fifth as many notes as I did with The Ambassadors, so I won’t go on as long as that.


  1. I like the "fatal and inevitable" suggestion in that letter.

  2. And William isn't sure - "I don't know whether it's fatal and inevitable." Henry replies it is, "inevitable for me."

    So true.

  3. I have a sympathy with Henry's inevitable way--with the idea that some ways are inevitable. (And also with William, shaking his head in several different kinds of astonishment.)

  4. Yes, they're both right.

    It is interesting to read Henry James's laments that he has - that he knows he has - killed his income from serialization with his new style. (And he was right, he had). But what choice does he have, he says, this is the right way to write this novel.

  5. Woolf on HJ: There they stand, the many books, products of “an inexhaustible sensibility,” all with the final seal upon them of artistic form, which, as it imposes its stamp, sets apart the object thus consecrated and makes it no longer part of ourselves. In this impersonality the maker himself desired to share —“to take it,” as he said, “wholly, exclusively with the pen (the style, the genius) and absolutely not at all with the person,” to be “the mask without the face,” the alien in our midst, the worker who when his work is done turns even from that and reserves his confidence for the solitary hour, like that at midnight when, alone on the threshold of creation, Henry James speaks aloud to himself “and the prospect clears and flushes, and my poor blest old genius pats me so admirably and lovingly on the back that I turn, I screw round, and bend my lips to passionately, in my gratitude, kiss its hands.” So that is why, perhaps, as life swings and clangs, booms and reverberates, we have the sense of an altar of service, of sacrifice, to which, as we pass out, we bend the knee.

  6. Oh, sure, I'm trying to crank out another Henry James post and you give me that.

  7. I've always thought William came off rather badly in relation to Henry. Before I became interested in him for his own sake, read some of his books and a biography of him, William was only known to me obliquely, through biographies of Henry like Edel's and Novick's, and he comes across carping, bullying, compensating, and ungenerous... Imagine, as you put it, "forty years of experience reading the complete works of Henry James," and then still objecting to having to read a sentence twice to understand it! Personally, this is one of the prominent reasons that I cherish Henry James; not despite the aggravations of his sentences, but because of them.

    Also sometimes (have you found this to be the case?) to understand a James sentence it's more useful to back up a few paragraphs and read very fast than to zoom into it and analyze slowly clause by clause. The thread only makes sense in the tapestry.

  8. Wow, I have not read nearly that much about any of these people. The William James book that came out the same year as Wings, The Varieties of Religious Experience is closer to what I might call a "model of clarity," so a clash of purpose seems logical here. What are you trying to do, Henry?

    William probably, generally, had not had to read his brother's sentences twice. Even I had not, before The Ambassadors.

    When I am having the greatest trouble with a sentence in Wings, aside from the dialogue, it is because of the pronouns, and sometimes I do have to go back a paragraph to find them.

    A few paragraphs, though! I fear I would still miss that antecedent. It is generally an abstraction of some kind, often a gerund phrase.

    "It but forward the bold idea that he could really be misled..." (5.3) Wait, what "it." "It"'s right there, the end of previous sentence: "her presumptuous little hint to him that she was as good as himself." All of that gets immediately compressed into "It." But I have to go back and look at it again to, I don't know, fix the concept more firmly. If I went back several paragraphs and zoomed I would just lose it again.

  9. Also Woolf - I picked up her Writer's Diary to browse for something different and happened across her entry right upon finishing The Wings of the Dove: "his manipulation becomes so elaborate towards the end that instead of feeling the artist you merely feel the man who is posing the subject," and perhaps best, "This, you seem to hear him saying, is the way to do it. . . . Never do the thing, and it will be all the more impressive."

  10. "Never do the thing" - that is hilarious.

    The next tie I read the book and write about it - this is a hypothetical - I will keep track of all the places where James simply does the thing, where he tells the story, for example by having people talk directly about the plot. It will not be that long of a list of passages.