Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Sacred James

 I'm reading Henry James's bizarre last unfinished novel, The Sense of the Past, which I guess he started around the time of The Sacred Fount and just after Turn of the Screw.  Anyhow, the way it treats its central character's relation to a cousin whose intelligence waxes and wanes during a single conversation reminds me of The Sacred Fount, which treats intelligence and insight as a kind of fluid quantity that flows back and forth between characters.  That's what literally happens in each chapter, as characters go from complete imbecility to supersubtle analysts, back to imbecility: with the observing narrator also needing to worry about his own susceptibility to this coming and going of accurate insight in himself.

And it occurred to me today (maybe this is a brief waxing of insight) that James is explicitly parodying what happens in all his novels, parodying the way Isabel or Strether or Milly Theale or Maggie Verver go from being less intelligent and insightful than those around them to being far more so.  It's as though James thought to give this another, how shall I say?... turn of the screw, in order to see what would happen if the dynamic would shift back and forth.

Why would he do this?  Well, partly for fun, mainly for fun, but partly as an experiment in style, since it's style alone that can suggest insight that then becomes so fine that (as Eliot says) no idea can violate it, at which point it becomes obtuseness, an obtuseness so intense that it can't help becoming self-aware and turning into insight again, in an incessant dialectic that can go nowhere except into the subtlety of its own endlessly elaborating, endlessly self-modifying sentences.