Monday, May 8, 2017

The supersubtleties and arch-refinements of The Wings of the Dove - parts doubtless magnified and parts certainly vague

In his 1909 Preface to Wings of the Dove, Henry James writes:

But my use of windows and balconies is doubtless at best an extravagance by itself, and as to what there may be to note, of this and that supersubtleties, other arch-refinements, of tact and taste, of design and instinct, in “The Wings of the Dove,” I become conscious of overstepping my space without having brought the full quantity to light.

So, first, there is apparently a “windows and balconies” theme that I completely missed, and that even now, looking for balconies in an electronic text, I do not understand at all, and second, “supersubtleties” and “arch-refinements”!  Is Henry James, in the end, just an elaborate parody of Henry James?  Is that not the fate we all will suffer?

I would not have minded if James had worked his way through the balcony thing for me, at least.

There is a point where Milly Theale is new to London high society and does not really understand it, even though she is told she has conquered it: “the girl read into it [her being told etc.] more of an approach to a meaning” (5.4).  How I identified with Milly at that moment.

Just as an example, in 5.3 Milly is at the doctor’s office, she and James both carefully avoiding any discussion of anything related to the practice of medicine.  Diagnosed with an unspecified mortal illness, she instead fears the pity of the doctor (of everyone):

… and when pity held up its tell-tale face like a head on a pike, in a French revolution, bobbing before a window, what was the inference but that the patient was bad?  He might say what he would now – she would always have seen the head at the window; and in fact from this moment she only wanted him to say what he would.

Again, the immediate subject is Milly’s imminent death, but the graphic intrusion of a victim of the guillotine is a shock.  Where did that come from?  The antecedent of the image appears again at the end of the novel, as Martin Densher worries about the dying Milly:

Milly had held with passion to her dream of a future, and she was separated from it, not shrieking indeed, but grimly, awfully silent, as one might imagine some noble young victim of the scaffold, in the French Revolution, separated at the prison-door from some object clutched for resistance.  (10.1)

What Milly thinks has been a complete mystery for almost a hundred pages at this point.  The correspondence of imagery is due to coincidence, or telepathy, or some discussion Martin and Milly had that James does not report, plus, obviously, the conscious art of Henry James.  Otherwise, Densher’s specificity about the French Revolution is entirely arbitrary.  I still don’t understand the supersubtlety of this one, what line is created by the two points, but there it is.

Rather easier to grasp is the language surrounding Aunt Maud’s furniture.  She had already been described by Kate Croy, Densher’s girlfriend, as “prodigious,” looming – “in the thick foglike air of her arranged existence, there were parts doubtless magnified and parts certainly vague” (1.2).  This is exactly what Densher finds when he meets Aunt Maud, who is the great obstacle to his marriage with Kate and something of a villain in the novel.  He (Densher, and also James) spends a page describing her furniture:

It was the language of the house itself that spoke to him, writing out for him [Densher thinks in terms of texts], with surpassing breadth and freedom, the associations and conceptions, the ideals and possibilities of the mistress.  Never, he flattered himself, had he seen anything so gregariously ugly – operatively, ominously so cruel.  (2.2)

He calls the pieces of furniture “heavy horrors” and lists their materials without naming a single piece:

They constituted an order and they abounded in rare material – precious woods, metals, stuffs, stones. He had never dreamed of anything so fringed and scalloped, so buttoned and corded, drawn everywhere so tight, and curled everywhere so thick.  He had never dreamed of so much gilt and glass, so much satin and plush, so much rosewood and marble and malachite. But it was, above all, the solid forms, the wasted finish, the misguided cost, the general attestation of morality and money, a good conscience and a big balance.  These things finally represented for him a portentous negation of his own world of thought…

This passage is one of the comic high points of the novel.  It is both packed with detail and yet describes nothing specific.  It ends in another of the novel’s abysses.

There is just no way to sort through all this on one reading.  I’ll repeat this exercise in incomprehension later this summer, with The Golden Bowl.

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