A Case Against the Master
Henry James and his Cult. By Maxwell Geismar. (Chatto and Windus, 30s.)
CASTING a cold eye over Jamesian criticism of recent years Mr. Geismar comes to a grim con- clusion: 'it appears that justice can be overdone.' And--you can hear the sleeves being rolled up— Mr. Geismar sets out to right that wrong by embarking oh a long book which underdoes justice with a rigorous and programmatic thoroughness. For Mr. Geismar is not going to have any of that nonsense about James being a great writer—no not he. You can't fool Mr. Geismar. 'No, Henry James could never possibly be called a great writer; he was only .the great magician that he so revealingly called himself, and one who contrived an endless series of puzzles to fill up the empty box of his art, and his life.' So there.
What is Mr. Geismar's case against James? Mainly, that he is not Dreiser. He did not accurately analyse or diagnose the socio- economic character of his times. Although there is a great deal of money and a large number of millionaires in his novels, he never really under- stood the epoch of finance capitalism. True enough (and I agree that it is absurd to try and turn James into a social realist), but not neces- sarily damning unless Dreiser is to be our sole test for the novel. But worse, says Geismar, James exemplified the whole ethos of great wealth and new leisure which Veblen was at the same time mordantly exposing. He was a snob (that's scarcely news), he was a reactionary, he lived in some vague ideal semi-feudal fantasy world, he despised the mob, he feared democracy, he was anti-Semitic, etc. etc.
All partially true and to that extent certainly regrettable. But the sad fact is that great creative imagination can co-exist with undesirable prejudices which do not necessarily impair the products of that imagination. I would have thought this was something of a truism. More- over James himself came to be deeply suspicious of the society which Geismar thinks he so uncritically idealised. He saw how much well- mannered conduct was motivated by sheer money or a manipulative power-play. Geismar can see this in the later novels but seems to think that James himself was unaware of it. Which is push- ing the case for the prosecution a little far. But Geismar explains all this by applying some interesting, if rather crude, psychological explana- tions to James's whole career. Roughly this is Geismar's Henry James. As a child he suffered feelings of inferiority and exclusion. Alienated and 'orphaned,' he constructed a complete fan- tasy world for himself based on a royal heritage of European art and society, which had nothing to do with contemporary Europe and everything to do with his compensatory dream of a superior world of which he was an all-powerful initiate. It was an art-world and of necessity it debarred the intrusion of brute fact. • However, James was basically afraid of failure and rejection by the country of his adoption. As
his work was appreciated less and less by English audiences—and his drama hooted off the stage— he ceased to idealise society and came to feel it as a nightmare. Either way, says Geismar, his vision of society was a dream, never related to any reality. So we find characters in his .late fiction who waver between the assured stance of the omnipotent cultural superman and the shivering unease of the alien intruder-impostor.
There is certainly something in this. But there is more. James was deeply afraid of all sex and passion, seeing it always as destructive, never as nourishing. Early in life, for whatever traumatic reasons, James's psychic economy had put a preventive block on all powerful passions in him- self and never afterwards could he confront them directly. Hence all those alienated children in his work who are victimised by the adult world and yet (compensatory fantasy again) somehow spiritually superior to it. For the adult world meant sex and passion—and for James that meant an area of unnameable fear. However, the alienated child is still very much a peeper, a spy, as curious as horrified over what goes on in the parental bedroom. Hence all those non-partici- pating voyeurs and observers who endlessly watch and talk endlessly about 'knowing' some- thing which they somehow can never bring them- selves to name. And—compensation again—the voyeur ultimately becomes a sort of master of all he surveys. The fear and flight are transformed into triumph by virtue of his superior insight.
Once again this is interesting and not to be easily dismissed. But allow Geismar his rather heavily unsympathetic version of James the man —does that necessarily invalidate his work? After all, as Lawrence said, the artist gets rid of all his diseases in his art. Such is the curious alchemy of art that often some private agony or neurosis or psychological distortion can generate a vision, a fictional world, a dream if you like, which illuminates large areas of experience for other people more fortunate, or perhaps simply more normal, in the equilibrium of their health. James did not analyse the economic drift of society, nor did he plunge into the thick of the social fray and shout out the sexual score, the anatomical facts of life. And this is the sort of fiction which Geismar prefers—implicitly insists upon. He gives himself away by often making comments on James's novels which start: 'In a more realistic chronicle. . . ,' Isabel Archer would have left Osmond, Densher could have loved both Milly and Kate, Strether might well have married Mme de Vionnet, and we would all have been saved a great deal of pondering and pausing and renunciation.
But this is nothing to the point. By the same token Hamlet would have killed his uncle straight off and had done with it. End of play. End of art, too—except for Geismar's favourites like Dreiser. James preferred to work by tentative indirection: and no matter what the psychologi-
cal motivation for his admittedly extreme wari- ness in approaching human realities, James simply does enrich and enhance our sense of life's complexities, the fears and failings we are prey to, the compassion we had better show. Artists can, as Emily Dickinson said, 'by indirections find directions out.' Geismar says no: but the loss is his if he finds nothing relevant to human experience in James.
However, I agree with two of Geismar's best points. We are often aware that James seems to be manipulating his characters in accordance with a predetermined plot-line: that marvellous Tolstoyan freedom of movement is absent in- deed. Also we often feel that although all the characters seem to be hovering around some dark secret about life, it is often a secret that James has buried in his plot and not some deep unsus- pected truth from the hidden depths of the hUman heart. In fact it is possible to concede Geismar many of his points. James is not a great writer about the whole of life, but cannot one be glad of his partial illuminations? To return to the idea of justice. Geismar has done more than justice to James's shortcomings, and no justice at all to his achievements. His tone is throughout truculent, dismissive, pseudo-toughminded and brusque (he starts most sentences with 'Well,': none 01 your damned . indirect beating-about-the-bush here!). This book—all 444 pages of it—is a loot labour of hate. And hate seldom produces truly valuable criticism. 1 was reminded of The Bacchae where Pentheus is brutally confident that he is tying up and overpowering Dionysus once and for all; but in fact he spends his hostile energies on a bull while the real god sits nearby, smiling and untouched. Now Geismar is not, perhaps, Pentheus, and James is certainly not Dionysus(!).
But the master does remain untied. Wher Geismar comes out with brisk verdicts like: 'The Ambassadors is perhaps the silliest nove ever to be taken seriously in world literature,' wt realise that though he has said some telling ant shrewd things about James's faults, he is fatally oblivious to the real power of James's best art Geismar may well be right when he maintain, that the Jamesian cult grew up in the Forties anc Fifties in an America which had wealth anc leisure, but which was anxious and neurotic anc had turned away from the ugly realities it cold( not cope with. Perhaps a lot of people like Jame: for the wrong reasons. But that simply isn't thi whole story. And Geismar says it is. He is righ in insisting that there have been too man] exaggerated, ill-proportioned, wrongly-perspec tived books on James—and his own work fairly deserves the place it will duly take among then) TONY TANNI:11