Monday, June 16, 2008

Henry James's "A Portrait of a Lady"

What a beautiful, large book. It gives the impression of saying very complex things very simply, without simplifying the complexities. It describes moral qualities without reducing them into abstract principles. It strives for aesthetic perfection at the same time as it exposes the evils in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection. I am reminded of James Wood's The New Republic review of Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. According to Woods, Hollinghurst finally offers an easier choice than James, a choice of the moral way and the immoral way to pursue beauty. James's moral vision is harder. There is no moral way in pursuing beauty. Virtue is grim, harsh, ugly. We choose between beauty and it.

*

[Madam Merle:] "When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our 'self'? Where does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us--and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self--for other people--is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps--these things are all expressive."

. . . [Isabel:] "I don't agree with you. I think just the other war. I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; evrything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid they should!"

"You dress very well," Madam Merle lightly interposed.

"Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my choice that I wear them; they're imposed upon me by society."

"Should you prefer to go without them?" Madam Merle enquired in a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.

*

"Well," said Henrietta, "you think you can lead a romantic life, that you can live by pleasing yourself and pleasing others. You'll find you're mistaken. Whatever life you lead you must put your soul in it--to make any sort of success of it; and from the moment you do that it ceases to be romance, I assure you: it becomes grim reality!"

*

. . . under the guise of caring only for intrinsic values Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his ye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose--pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived to much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world's curiosity, and then declining to satisfy it.

*

Her [Isabel's] notion of the aristocratic life was simply the union of great knowledge with great liberty; the knowledge would give one a sense of duty and the liberty a sense of enjoyment. But for Osmond it was altogether a thing of forms, a conscious calculated attitude.

*

The Countess [Gemini] seemed to her to have no soul; she was like a bright rare shell, with a polished surface and a remarkably pink lip, in whch something would rattle when you shook it. This rattle was apparently the Countess's spiritual principle, a little loose nut that tumbled about inside of her.

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