Review: The Ambassadors

Review: The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.

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Review: The Western Canon

Review: The Western Canon

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the AgesThe Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

As far as I know, Harold Bloom is the last major proponent of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm of higher education. This makes him something of an apocalyptic prophet. With great solemnity, he predicted (this was in 1994) that the Western world was about to enter into a new cultural era, a new Theocratic Age, wherein dogmatism would drive out aesthetic criteria from literature departments. These new dogmatists Bloom dubs the School of Resentment—a catch-all term that includes Marxist, Feminist, and post-structuralist literary critics. All of these approaches, says Bloom, seek to replace an aesthetic motive for a social or political one, and thus miss the point of literature.

Bloom sets out to defend his familiar Western Canon, and does so by analyzing twenty-six writers to see what makes them canonical. Why do we keep reading Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, and Tolstoy? The answer, Bloom finds, is because these works are strange: “One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.” Canonical works are those that are always beyond us somehow, those that are too rich, deep, and original to fully absorb.

How do artists achieve this exquisite strangeness? Bloom’s answer is that authors creatively misread the works of their predecessors to clear a creative space for themselves. This is Bloom’s famous anxiety of influence. Every writer feels anxiety about what they owe to their predecessors, so they attempt to find a weakness or a shortcoming—a place where there is still room for originality. But almost no author is original enough to outperform every one of their literary forebears. In Bloom’s opinion, there have only been two writers who have done so: Dante and Shakespeare. (I would add a few others to the list, personally.)

While Dante is given his due, Shakespeare is the real center of this book. Bloom is obsessed with Shakespeare: he worships him. For Bloom, Shakespeare invented the modern human. By this he means (I think) that Shakespeare’s characters redefined what we think of as personality and the self. Every writer since Shakespeare has so deeply internalized Shakespeare’s version of human nature that we can’t portray people in any other light. Shakespeare’s mind was too vast, acute, and convincing for us to get beyond it. Thus all writers after Shakespeare are forced to misread and misunderstand him in order to find a space for creativity.

Since Bloom thinks Shakespeare is so inescapably central, he discusses Shakespeare in every chapter—even the chapters on writers who predated Shakespeare: Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Montaigne. But Shakespeare is not the only writer whose influence Bloom discusses. Bloom’s whole model of literary originality consists of reading and misreading, influence and anxiety, so he is constantly comparing and contrasting writers. One of his favorite activities is to trace out literary ancestries, saying which writer descended from which.

It is hard for me to know what to make of all this. I find Bloom’s model of the anxiety of influence really compelling. But it is clearly the theory of an avid reader, not a writer. As is obvious on every page, Bloom is obsessed with reading; so it’s natural for him to reduce the writing process to reading and misreading. Bloom’s approach also leads to a rather inordinate amount of name-dropping. He mentions scores of poets, playwrights, and novelists on every page, often in long lists, and sometimes this seems to be for purposes of intimidation rather than illumination. What is more, Bloom’s approach requires a great deal of comparing and contrasting between different authors, which can make it seem as though he is more interested in connections between authors rather than authors themselves.

Bloom’s writing style, while appealing, can also be off-putting. There is something incantatory about it. He repeats similar observations, drops the same names, inserts the same quotations, and asserts the same points in different contexts and to slightly different purposes. His mind seems always to be swirling and buzzing rather than traveling in a straight line. He also has the bad habit of arguing from authority rather than with reasons. His treatment of the so-called School of Resentment is dismissive at best. He does not address their arguments, but rather talks of them as lost souls, blinded by worldly things. Another fault is that he makes assertions about authors that are not properly substantiated. The most noticeable of these was his claim that all of Freud’s theories are contained in Shakespeare—something he says repeatedly, but never adequately demonstrates.

I found Bloom to be consistently good in his criticism, but not great. There are many excellent and thought-provoking observations about writers and books here. But all too often Bloom’s criticism consists of little more than repeatedly insisting that this author is one of the best. His belief is that aesthetic appreciation can’t be taught; thus if you are not so endowed, you simply have to trust Bloom that certain writers are better than others. To be fair I think it’s impossible to “prove” that Shakespeare is better than Dan Brown. Nevertheless, Bloom’s attitude of authority can be seriously disagreeable. To question the motivation of your opponents (which he does) and to position yourself as an oracle and a prophet (which he also does) are not healthy attitudes for an intellectual.

Despite all of these misgivings, however, I still largely agree with Bloom’s judgments. In my experience the writers in Bloom’s canon are in a league of their own for the depth of literary pleasure they can provide. And although I am not so convinced of the autonomy of the aesthetic, I also think that aesthetic criteria are ultimately the most important in literary judgments.

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