The long shadow of Henry James
When I was in grad school working on a dissertation on Hegel, my director warned me that “Hegel is easy to get into, very hard to escape.” He should know. He’s still inside Hegel. However, I escaped Hegel. The one I cannot escape is Henry James, and I’m not even sure I want to. Of course, leaving the “large, loose, baggy monsters” (Edmund Wilson’s words, as I recall) of the later novels aside is relatively easy, but the Master seems to keep showing up this summer, shadowing me in most everything I have been reading.
It started with Rebecca Goldstein, she of the recent thinking person’s best-seller (i.e., not on the Amazon top-ten lists), Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God. That book didn’t talk about Henry James at all, I believe, but treated the reader to an extraordinary comic character with remarkable affinities to Harold Bloom, both the physical attributes of large size and rumpled clothing, and the encyclopedic mind whose total recall makes it difficult at times to distinguish brilliant insights from plain old showing off. That led me back to Goldstein’s first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, where she combines comedy and Bildungsroman. The young female protagonist throws over mind for body, in the shape of a brilliant Princeton mathematician who rapidly proves that his mind is much more important to him than his (or her) body. Interwoven with the wit and the philosophy in both novels (Goldstein is a MacArthur fellow and author of a fine book on Spinoza) is a hankering over the traces of her Jewish heritage, seen at its best in a poignant meeting with an old Jewish couple in a secret corner of modern-day Budapest towards the end of The Mind-Body Problem.
So far, no Henry James. And then came Goldstein’s The Dark Sister, where Henry (and William) is much in evidence. This tells the story of two sisters, Hedda and Stella. Hedda is large and ungainly and lives a mostly eremitical existence in a tower, writing a novel about William James, supposedly in the style of his brother Henry. In the novel, William is engaged with another couple of sisters who in some ways mirror and in others contrast the Hedda/Stella couple. Goldstein, who is petite and attractive, shares Hedda’s obsession with William, as she informs the reader in a postscript, but also loves Henry. However, her passion for Henry is “focused entirely on his writing,” while that for William “is a thing far more personal.” Well, of course it would be. Henry, “the prissy virgin who wrote like an angel,” is all mind, while William is distinctly three-dimensional. Hedda is mind wanting to be body, Stella is body wanting to be mind, and Goldstein continues her explorations into how to balance the two. That, of course, requires William and Henry both. William is present as the object of Hedda’s novel. Henry is there in the Goldstein book but more evident in the way she plays with autobiographical traces in all her books. As Henry writes in his New York preface to The Ambassadors, “Art deals with what we see” and “plucks its material… in the garden of life,” but the process of art resides in “the literal squeezing-out of value,” where finding the story about which we want to write gives way to the much more difficult task of what to do with it.
Goldstein’s efforts to do precisely this deserve a larger audience.