Sunday, December 21, 2008

Leon Edel's Biography of Henry James: "The Untried Years"

This first part of a four-volume biography quotes James in its epigraph:

To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same--since it was by these things they themselves lived.

"The varying intensity of the same" is the particularly Jamesian note, I think, both in the focus on intensity, and the focusing, of the observing eye, on "the varying . . . same." 

Edel writes with much sympathetic quickness of Henry James, Sr.'s rebellion against his Presbyterian father, and his discovery of the Swedenborgian God. His portrait of Henry Jr.'s mother, Mary Walsh, is less persuasive. He sees her as the Queen of the household, the power on whom Henry Sr. depended, but I don't see why such dependence should lead to a dissolution of masculine vitality, a dissolution so marked that Henry Jr. writes it up as a Vampire theme in his stories. Dependence, and thus, security, could have led to inspiration and action. There is something more here than meets the eye.

Given the same name as his father, Henry Jr. fought to achieve an individual identity. This fight was complicated by the fact that he was the second born. Edel is very good at laying bare Henry's fierce sense of rivalry with his older brother, William, who is in everything a step ahead of him. That rivalry is a key to interpreting James's nightmare about Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre. 

In the nightmare, James was at first defending himself against the attempt of someone to break into his room. Suddenly the tables were turned, and James forced the door open in a blaze of aggression, and the nightmare retreated in terror before him. James wrote,

The lightning that revealed the retreat, revealed also the wondrous place and, by the same amazing play, my young imaginative life in it of long before, the sense of which, deep within me, had kept it whole, preserved it to this thrilling use; for what in the world were the deep embrasures and the so polished floor but those of the Galerie d'Apollon of my childhood? The "scene of something" I had vaguely then felt it? Well I might, since it was to be the scene of that immense hallucination.

The nightmare was turned into a triumph, as the appalling presence--the father, the older brother--was put to flight, appalled by James. Edel links Apollon suggestively with Napoleon (whom James admired) and Appalling, words that share similar syllables and sounds, in order to describe the equation in James's mind: Art and Love, Power and Glory, Fear and Terror.


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