Friday, December 16, 2011

About abandoning an exemplary model

He tackled no group of appearances,
no presented face of the social or-
ganism (conspicuity thus attending
to it), but to make something of it.
To name it simply and not in some
degree tackle it would have semed 
to him an act reflecting on his gen-
eral course the deepest dishonour.
Therefore it was that, as the moral
of these many remarks, I "named" un-
der his contagion, when I was really
most conscious of not being held to
it; and therefore it was, above all,
that for all the effect of represen-
tation I was to achieve, I might 
have let the occasion pass. A 'fan-
cy' indication would have served my
turn - except that I should so have
failed perhaps of a pretext for my
present insistence.

I have cited Henry James' prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels as one's book of the year in its present publication. (The picture I selected to accompany that announcement is one of the more apposite to its case that I've ever found). These are not prefaces collected for re-publication; they are prefaces written late in life for the purpose of reconstructing what was in his mind as he wrote those works, from Roderick Hudson in 1875, forward. Here, he is recalling having alluded to a literal place in that early novel - Northampton, Massachusetts - and he is confiding how, at the time, he was so impressed by Balzac, that he was troubled by the exercise of such a gesture of naming, without remaining creatively in "the shadow" of an exemplary model. "The critical question swarms," he says, in these retrospective hours.

Taken together, through the many works which they address, there is very little of this swarm which does not emerge in these prefaces, which is why the book must be thought to be one of the greatest confessions of an artist, ever assembled. That said, if anyone can recall to me a subsequent occasion, when an artist has openly reflected on whether it impeaches his honour, to depart from a model he admires, I would be surprised to see it. And yet I think this impression must invade many a creative consciousness, as it certainly does in blogging - a form in which Balzac's tenacity for descriptive detail in writing of Saumur or Limoges (as James recalls) would be impracticable. Not that description, itself, is not reconstituted in the blogging form.

Because blogging is or becomes to the blogger, a creative form, a maturing consciousness of its limits is constantly at war with the underlying impulses of expression. This is simply a touchstone of what form, is. It isn't that James is good for bloggers to read; he's good for anyone to read, who is conscious of negotiating with form in everyday life. But if the question of honour may be called something else - as James persistently shows that it needs to be - it is whether the expression adopted fails the pretext of a present insistence. 

This is the north star of what honour is, in the created thing. It's the astrophysical body James could not ignore because it is more than his screen, it is his light. These prefaces are profoundly intimate. He is a passionate companion, of nothing other than the passion anyone may feel, to align his form to his pretexts. As gorgeously as I've seen it done, he threatens contagion for belief that it matters.

What precious school is this?

Henry James
The Art of the Novel
op. cit.

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