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The Glorious Fourth

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A few years ago, I reread a lot of Henry James’s novels–I’m a big James fan, and I still think The Princess Cassamassima is the best tourist-at-the-revolution portrait I’ve seen yet–and I got a little shock in the middle of The Bostonians. 

For those of you who haven’t read James–and that seems to be mostly everybody lately–The Bostonians is the story of the rivalry of two people for the love and loyalty of a very beautiful young girl.  The rivalry has as much to do with the rivals’ philosophies of life as it does with ordinary sexual love.  One of the rivals is a down-at-heels Southern aristocrat with very traditional ideas about the relationships between men and women and the position of women in society.  The other is a high-born Boston woman and ardent suffragist whose bookish, pinched and censorious nature make her a bad political campaigner.  She hopes to turn the young woman into a fiery and effective crusader for women’s rights.

James being James, the Southerner, and the primeval urges for sex and procreation, win in the end, but the scene that always sticks in my mind is of the little band of women’s rights activists spending the Fourth of July at a house on Cape Cod, where they parade with candles and sparklers to celebrate “the Glorious Fourth.”    They’re absolutely ecstatic.  They love everything about the Fourth.  They think it’s the most important day in human history.   And they show no signs of the niggling, pinched, resentful anti-Americanism that characteried a lot of later American radicals.

I trust James for observations like this.   He’s good at them, and he had absolutely no patience with the kind of preening self-satisfied distaste for one’s own society that he found running rampant in radical circles in England, for instance, at the time. 

I find all this interesting, because it means that there are no necessary connections between the two branches of thought–that there is no reason why, if you’re the kind of person who wants significant chane, you must also feel that your own society is so thoroughly and irretrievably corrupt that it must be either worthless, or at least worth less than that of anybody else’s society anywhere.

Never mind.  I really love Henry James.  I think it was The Portrait of a Lady that gave me my first glimpse of what I would later feel to be the best way to live, and that in spite of the fact that Isabel Archer largely makes a mess of it.  Well, no, actually not.  Maybe the thing is that she makes a success of it in spite of having made a choice so catastrophically wrong it should have destroyed her.

I also think it’s interesting that James should have been the person to have focussed so much attention on the tourist-at-the-revoution business, and to have had so little sympathy for people who rejected and denigrated their American (or British, when it came to that) heritage. 

He lived most of his adult life outside the United States, largely because he was uncomfortable here.  He came from what Jonathan Franzen would later call “the high art tradition” with a vengeance.   He was the distinguished son of a distinguished and highly intellectual  Boston family.  He knew his bluestocking feminists at first hand.  He was homosexual at a time when there was not much room for it in New England.  He was naturally and by conviction an elitist in both the good and the bad sense, and this was a country that had just defeated its only even close to aristocratic tradition.  

Still, I’ll take James over any of the other nineteenth century novelists writing in  English.  I think he’s better than Dickens or  Trollopse and certainly better than Hawthorne or Melville, even the Melville of Moby Dick. 

There’s very little overarching philosophy in  James and a lot of careful attention to the details of everyday social ritual, or the lack of it.   His people, and especially his women, are among the most highly realized characters in all of prose fiction. 

He can be difficult to read, and he was not terribly commercially successful when he was alive.  He was one of those writers whom later writers needed to love or hate.  Edith Wharton made him not only her mentor (which he was, for a time), but her ideal.  Hemingway defined  his entire career in opposition to everything he thought James stood for.

I have a tendency to think of “American Literature” in the New England  Renaissance mode, as that body of work that includes both Hawthorne and Melville but also Whitman, literature about plain people in a plain country.   Even the New York of Bartleby the Scrivener–another of my favorite American stories, come to think of it, and the only Melville I think is nearly as good as even mediocre James–but even the New York in that story is a place with not very many people in it and not very much else, either. 

I know I’m not making much sense here.  I’m trying to describe something that is literally visual in my head, rather than verbal, and I don’t seem to be very good at it.  But it’s there in Emily  Dickinson, too, and in Winesburg, Ohio, and in Hemingway’s early stories about Michigan.  

And it’s even there in F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was consciously trying to write about the intricate web of social interactions, but who produced mostly stories about people behaving archly in a largely uninhabited landscape.  

James does something different, and so does his protegee, Edith Wharton. 

If you’ve got access to interlibrary loan or the kind of library that carries esoteric and not very popular books, try getting hold of an essay by George Steiner called “Archives of Eden.”  It’s a very long esay.  It could h ave been pulished on its own as a small paperback without too many complaints.  It’s basically an argument that says that America can never have truly great art because truly great art cannot be produced in a democratic society.   Truly great art, Steiner says, requires elitism to exist at all.

Well, James seems to have managed.  And although he was uncomfortable living in democracy, he had neither hatred nor disdain for it. 

And I’ve got no idea what that’s supposed to mean.

Back to hardwiring and moral codes–especially since Lymaree seems to have misunderstood me–tomorrow.

Let me just note that I have NEVER said that human beings were hardwired for any particular moral code or moral precepts.

I have said instead that:

1) human beings are hardwired for a lot of things, including the ability to think in moral categories and the drive to do so (just as we’re hardwire to be able to form languages and then to do it) AND

2) that by looking into all the things we are hardwired for, it is possible to apply our capacity to formulate moral codes to discover (in our hardwiring about things OTHER THAN moral codes, in our hardwired emotional and behavioral responses to certain stimuli) what those moral codes should be  AND

3) that there’s nothing odd about this.   We’re hardwired for curiosity about the world.  We’re hardwired to be capable of logical thought (if we weren’t, we couldn’t think that wasy).  Put these things together, and we discover lots of things about the world, and eventually invent the sciences.  But the fact that we’re not already hardwired to k now that the earth goes around the sun instead of vice versa doesn’t mean that when we discover that, it’s just a “social construct” that’s all about cultural influences.

4) the facts of morality are out there for us to find–but they’re out there, they’re not something we make up

5) we aren’t hardwired with the facts of morality any more than we’re hardwired to speak French rather than German,  BUT

6) we ARE  hardwired to need to find this information, and to invent it if we can’t find it, and to go looking for it until we come up with something that at least seeems to work.

And, like I said, I’ll get back to that later.

I have to cook.

Written by janeh

July 4th, 2009 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Glorious Fourth'

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  1. Ah, the anti-Americanism of American intellectuals. James was born too soon. The trend really begins in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, and locks in with the October Revolution. First we disappointed our intellectuals by not being exceptional enough, and then they had a new (largely imaginary) standard by which to judge the world. But by 1900 James is resident in Britain, possibly a little out of touch with recent American developments.

    Of James’ close contemporaries, only Mark Twain was able to turn that sharply in his old age–not chronicling intellectual anti-Americanism, but helping to found it. Some of Twain’s writing on the Moro Insurrection shares the bad logic of some of the Vietnam protest writing sixty years later–for example the ascribing to the national enemy of implausible and in fact mythical virtues. Like later intellectuals faced with famines and show trials, it’a a position which can only be maintained by not looking at the facts too closely–the more surprising in Twain, who like James was once an acute observer.

    It’s not a new thing. Plato and maybe Tacitus were bitten by the same bug. But I have no idea why America has such a virulent case of it.

    robert_piepenbrink

    4 Jul 09 at 4:14 pm

  2. I’ve been in Australia so long that I’ve almost forgotten that 4 July has any special signiuficance.

    On the subject of hard wiring, I’d like to remind people that evolution requires some variation. If everyone has identical wiring, it can’t evolve.

    jd

    4 Jul 09 at 4:45 pm

  3. You’re making a big jump. If we are hardwired both to think in moral categories and to (if young and male) exhibit risk-taking and violent behaviour, there’s nothing to say that we have to logically pick one particular moral code to deal with any social problems relating to the typical behaviour of young males. Whether we dismiss it as ‘boys will be boys’, try to suppress it altogether, try to suppress it altogether, try to divert it into more productive directions (encourage a warrior ethos – but one directed mostly at defense or aggression? What about glorifying sports? Or explorers? Is there a handy frontier that needs to be settled??…each choice is dependent not only on reason, but on the situation of the society in question, and on, well, its moral code … what kinds of violence or energetic physical activities does it consider morally appropriate? It’s all circular, or like those nested Russian dolls. I don’t see a point at which you can say – OK, we know young men tend to be more active and aggressive, and logically the most morally appropriate way to use this to make a stable society is to XXXX. If you go outside the little lump of what you suspect or know is hardwired, you can come up with a moral code easily – the whole thing is kind of like the desire for ‘fairness’ that CS Lewis thought was innate and a sign of the existence of God. But the minute you start deciding on what sort of moral laws you are going to derive from your observations of hardwired behaviour, you are using a moral code – before you’ve derived it from your observations.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Henry James; he always struck me as being pompous and tedious. I think I tried ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and couldn’t get into it.

    I’m almost finished the Windschuttle book – he’s got a few comments on the side like Steiner’s, about people who think you can’t do great art unless you belong to an aristocratic society, or one with an elite. It’s like the prof back in my undergrad day who said none of us would ever excel at academia because we didn’t kill ourselves in despair over the attempt. I don’t, myself, think that you need to be seriously depressed or to produce things that only an elite can appreciate to be creative – and if you do, some things aren’t worth the price.

    Cheryl

    4 Jul 09 at 6:30 pm

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