Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Portrait of a Lady"

Though I have both a BA and an MA in English, I've never read anything by Henry James! (I've tried desultorily a couple of times over the years, but have never gotten very far. Too staid and seemingly colorless, I'd thought.)

But a review in the 9/3 New Yorker of a book about James's "Portrait of a Lady" made me want to give it/James another go.

Of one character, Osmond, the reviewer Anthony Lane writes: "That is what monsters do, especially the polite and patient ones: they harvest souls. Hand them a human in full bloom, and what they give back to you, after a few seasons, is a pressed flower."

Lane ends with:

...Are we all so mercenary, cutting and trimming people, whether unwittingly or by design, to fit the pattern of our own desires? Such are the politics of personhood. There is always the option to remain alone: "A woman ought to be able to make up her life in singleness," Isabel reflects, and that assurance stares ahead to what we, though not James, would hail as the feminist cause, requiring no male prop. At the same time, any retreat into the solo self, for either sex, must be shaded with a special dread: "the isolation and loneliness of pride had for her mind the horror of a desert place," we learn of Isabel, in words that seem to herald the parched cries of "The Waste Land," and the truest hell is to wind up like Osmond, immured in the plush safety of his own home and the fortress of his own brain. And so the book traffics back and forth, with sublime indecision, between the need to stand firm, in Emersonian majesty, and the yearning to break one's pose and join the more crowded landscape of mankind. "That account of the limits of self-sufficiency is what, above all, makes 'The Portrait of a Lady' stand as a great American novel," [author] Michael Gorra declares...

...We are wonder what Henry James would make of our current state. To him, one imagines it would rise up like a bad dream; he would see an archipelago of solitudes, feverishly interlinked, with bridges collapsing as fast as we can build them. He is our foremost explorer of the private life, and of what it costs to preserve...


Seriously, the above is what I've been personally contemplating for the past few months. Well, actually for most of my life, but I just realized fairly recently what exactly the issue was that I had been contemplating! I keep searching for some "Emersonian majesty," being too stubborn to recognize the (to me unpleasant) FACT that such a thing doesn't exist, that life is not a Journey to the Sublime that you reach by following a certain path (a path I always felt I hadn't discovered yet, so "try a new one!"), but rather an ongoing hodge-podge, "the more crowded landscape of mankind." Maybe I'm mature enough (i.e., "beaten up enough psychologically by reality") to finally appreciate James and his theme of "the limits of self-sufficiency."

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