Sunday, July 16, 2017

the convenience of any artless theory - The Golden Bowl's discriminations against the obvious

I’m working backwards.  Volume One of The Golden Bowl is “The Prince,” ending with a thirty-page book club discussion.  Then comes “The Princess,” full of Maggie Verver’s intense, interior perceptions, ethical doubts, intuitive leaps, all of that late James stuff.  It is focused and exhausting, but at least I think I know what I am reading.  The first section, even setting the book club aside, moves around.  The point of view can be anywhere; years pass between sections; characters marry; children are born – well, one vague child.

James is teaching me, in the first volume, how to read the second.  But I am still not sure how to read the first.

Full of discriminations against the obvious, she had yet to accept a flagrant appearance and to make the best of misleading signs.  (1.2)

That is an early description of the Jamesian Mrs. Assingham, and looks like some kind of instruction, but whether I am supposed to do it or its opposite I am not sure.  I’ll pull another of these:

This error would be his not availing himself to the utmost of the convenience of any artless theory of his constitution, or of Charlotte’s, that might prevail there.  (3.6)

Do I really know what this means, even in context?  No.  But I am pretty sure that the Prince is giving up too quickly.  “That artless theories could and did prevail was a fact he had ended by accepting, under copious evidence, as definite and ultimate…” – this sounds like, in Jamesian aesthetics, an error on top of an error.

Maybe these quotes are just gibberish.  Sometimes I wonder.  “Miss Verver had told him he spoke English too well – it was his only fault, and he hadn’t been able to speak worse even to oblige her” (1.1)

But then there are the first couple of pages of the novel, in which the Prince goes for a walk in London, which he loves, a piece of flaneurish writing that I wish had gone on for thirty pages.  He is girl-watching:

…  when one of his arrests had proceeded from possibilities in faces shaded, as they passed him on the pavement, by huge beribboned hats, or more delicately tinted still under the tense silk of parasols held at perverse angles in waiting victorias.  (1.1)

The Prince is all jittery because he has just become engaged and is having doubts.  His restlessness launches the novel.

Like Maggie, he thinks, and speaks, in metaphors:

‘I’m like a chicken, at best, chopped up and smothered in sauce; cooked down as a crème de volaille, with half the parts left out.  (1.1)

Delicious.  He imagines that his wife is made of diamonds:

‘One would have been scratched by diamonds – doubtless the neatest way if one was to be scratched at all – but one would have been more or less reduced to a hash.’ (2.1)

He reads Poe(!), specifically

the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who, drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole – or was it the South? – than any one had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain if light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the colour of milk or of snow.  There were moments when he felt his own boat move upon some such mystery.  (1.1)

Someday I will read The Golden Bowl novel again.  I prepare for that day by assembling a cabinet of the book’s curiosities.


  1. What does he mean by "neatest" in "doubtless the neatest way if one was to be scratched at all"? (Asking for a friend who wants to be scratched neatly.)

  2. Most precise? Most exquisite? Most keen? Who knows? I have been surprised at the slanginess of James's dialogue. I wish I knew what he was inventing and what he had overheard.

  3. Borges once documented how during the first half of the 20th Century the Argentinian elites were faced with a vexing problem: the number of nouveau riche people was increasing fast and money was no longer an effective way to discriminate against their inferiors.

    So they came up with the following scheme, certain common words would be replaced by shibboleths, and thus, whenever a nouveau riche tried to mingle with the aristocracy their manner of speech would expose them. Some examples: red was replaced with scarlet (rojo/colorado), good or nice were replaced with regal (bueno/regio) and proper or right with neat or polished (correcto/pulido). The regal usage became common with the passage of time, and, to this day you can hear Argentinian people say "regio".

  4. Ah. That is entirely plausible. I assume James is overhearing much of this at the dinner parties he so loved, or that I read somewhere that he loved, or that I imagine that he loved.