Monday, February 16, 2009

Leon Edel's "Henry James: The Treacherous Years"

Volume Four is such a gripping installment of this biography that on reaching the last page I wanted to read it all over again. It begins with James's horrific failure at the theater, when he was booed off-stage for his play, Guy Domville. He became depressed, confused and self-doubting. Aging did not help; neither did the rise of young Turks in literature and criticism, as the age of Victoria came to a close.

Edel explained, quite persuasively, that James re-lived childhood hurts in his writing of this period, in an attempt to heal his psychic wounds. Between 1895 and 1900, James wrote a series of stories about female children and adolescents.

Taking them in their sequence as he wrote them, we begin in the cradle with Effie, who is murdered at four (The Other House, 1896); she is resurrected at five (What Maisie Knew, 1897) and we leave her at seven or eight, or perhaps a bit older. Flora is eight ("The Turn of the Screw," 1898) and the one little boy in the series, Miles, is ten. . . . Then we arrive at adolescence: the adolescence of an unnamed girl in a branch post office ("In the Cage," 1898). Little Aggie, in the next novel, is sixteen, and Nanda Brookenham eighteen when the story begins (The Awkward Age, 1899).

. . . There has been a revisiting of earliest childhood following the recoil from the horror of public rejection and the destruction of self-esteem. . . . In resuming the disguise of a female chid, the protective disguise of his early years, James performed imaginative self-therapy. The record of these stories can be seen as the unconscious revisiting of perceptions and feelings, to minister to adult hurts. As his old feelings and imaginings had defended his childish self long ago against the brutal world, they now served as aid against the new brutalities.

Edel also points out that whereas the little girls usually endure and survive, the one little boy, Miles, dies when he tries to assert his masculinity in the world. James's sense of his masculinity seemed fraught with insecurities.

After completing this series of writing, James took off for Italy. There he met Hendrik Christian Andersen, an ambitious young American sculptor, and fell in love with him. Andersen stayed three days with Henry in his house at Rye, and they met thereafter about five more times. James's letters to Andersen were full of physical, tactile language. Edel is cautious in interpreting this language. While he acknowledges that the letters speak for "a certain physical intimacy in their meetings, they can be seen also as forms of endearment in one who was overtly affectionate in public." He concludes finally that we don't know if the two men shared any physical intimacy, but the character of Henry's feelings is clear.

When Hendrik's older brother died, Henry wrote to him:

The sense that I can't help you, see you, talk to you, touch you, hold you close and long, or do anything to make you rest on me, and feel my participation--this torments me, dearest boy, makes me ache for you, and for myself; makes me gnash my teeth and groan at the bitterness of things. . . . I wish I could go to Rome and put my hands on you (oh, how lovingly I should lay them!) but that, alas, is odiously impossible. . . . I am in town for a few weeks but I return to Rye April 1st, and sooner or later to have you there and do for you, to out my arms round you and make you lean on me as on a brother and a lover, and keep you on and on, slowly comforted or at least relieved of the first bitterness of pain--this I try to imagine as thinkable, attainable, not wholly out of the question. There I am, at any rate, and there is my house and my garden and my table and my studio--such as it is--and your room, and your welcome, and your place everywhere--and I press them upon you, oh so earnestly, dearest boy, if isolation and grief and the worries you are overdone with become intolerable to you. . . . I will nurse you through your dark passage. . . . I embrace you with almost a passion of pity.

Hendrik must be extraordinarily obtuse if he could not see the nature of the feelings Henry expressed in his letter. Though Edel looks steadily at Henry's relationship with the young sculptor, I am surprised that this discovery did not lead Edel to review, if not revise, his study of Henry's life. Surely this homosexual feeling could not have come from nowhere? In his account, Edel emphasizes how Henry saw his younger self in Hendrik, whose name so uncannily resembled his. The inference is that his homosexual feeling was, at least in part, a love of self. I have heard stories of men discovering late in their lives feelings for other men. Did they repress those feelings in the past, or did they develop them later? It's an intriguing question that needs asking.

The effect of his new feelings on Henry was tremendous. Though the longing was agonizing, it was also energizing. It gave Henry a new motivation for life and art. The palace of art was insufficient; human desire must have its place. Falling in love enabled Henry to imagine love in his great late novels. Isabel Archer, who aims to cultivate the beautiful, gives way to Kate Croy, who risks all for the sake of love.

Edel rescues Henry from the charge of being sexually timid in his stories by highlighting what Henry wrote perceptively in essays about the inclusion of sex in fiction. In his essay on Matilde Serao, a Neapolitan novelist, James wrote:

Love, at Naples and in Rome, as Madame Serao exhibits it, is simply unaccompanied with any interplay of our usual conditions--with affection, with duration, with circumstances or consequence, with friends, enemies, husbands, wives, children, parents, interests, occupations, the manifestations of tastes. Who are these people, we presently ask ourselves, who love indeed with fury--though for the most part with astonishing brevity--but who are so without any suggested situation in life that they can only strike us as loving for nothing and in the void, to no gain of experience and no effect of a felt medium or a breathed air?

And he concludes his essay on D'Annunzio with a striking image to characterise the novels that fill their emptiness with sex:

Shut out from the rest of life, shut out from all fruition and assimilation, it has no more dignity than--to use a homely image--the boots and shoes that we see, in the corridors of promiscuous hotels, standing, often in double pairs, at the doors of rooms. Detached and unassociated these clusters of objects present, however obtruded, no importance. What the participants do with their agitation, in short, or even what it does with them, that is the stuff of poetry, and it is never really interesting save when something finely contributive in themselves makes it so.

In brief, sex in poetry is never interesting for itself, but for the expousal of values. Sex, in poetry, cannot be but means.

6 comments:

Eshuneutics said...

A well honed piece of writing. It's almost Jamesian. The final sentences are very interesting. It sort of rhymes with much gay sex poetry...it becomes a DIY guide as to what might be stuck where without any quality of emotion/value. I have to agree with you. If I received a letter like HJ's to his sculpture (interesting metaphorical object of affection) then I wouldn't have much doubt as to the nature of that expression. So, where is the root, so to speak?

Jee Leong Koh said...

Falling in love with a painter just does not have the same ring to it, does it? Oh, the dream of grandeur!

Eshuneutics said...

Ha :-) Just seen that I wrote "sculpture" for sculptor. Mind you, I think that any lover would have been material in James' hands...okay as long as you allowed him to shape. I see that he quarelled with his sculptor-beloved when he formalised his own world dreams. I've hunted down a photo of Andersen too, just to see what kind of beauty attracted HJ. I know, I shall be into gossip next! I think I could settle for a painter...a poet would be nicer...HJs need not apply.

Jee Leong Koh said...

It's impossible to be a lover and a poet: the shrine has only room for one god, the faith is monotheistic, a man cannot serve two masters, etc. But I guess I am in the business of making the impossible happen. Isn't that the business of love? Isn't that the business of poetry?

Andersen looks handsome, doesn't he? He is too well-covered in the book's photo to show off his magnificent Nordic physique. You are turning into quite a quidnunc. Delicious.

Eshuneutics said...

Soon, I shall be twitter-ing like a social sparrow ;-0

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