Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A New Eye on the Old Pretender

Henry James, alias the Master, alias the Old Pretender

Several people had told me, and on the basis of personal experience, that modern cataract surgery can seem nearly miraculous in its results, but as they say—Seeing is believing!  My right eye now sees objects with a sharpness of definition and colors with a vivacity of gradations that over the years I had quite honestly forgotten.  Dining among many vases of bright Easter flowers was a thrilling experience.  This leaves my left eye (formerly regarded as the “good” one) to remind me of the general effect of viewing the world through dirty dishwater, but it too will be taken care of eventually when, in the horrible word of the ophthalmologist, its own cataract is ripe.  

            I had been in various modes of denial, one of which was the pseudo-conviction that it was as a matter of rational choice that I was doing less and less recreational reading.  Now I knew better.  I began celebrating my revision as soon as possible with some Henry James short stories.  James always requires a certain attentiveness of reading, and since few of his short stories are actually all that short, he requires some ocular stamina too.

            I read three of the stories from his earliest period, from the first of the five volumes of James’s Complete Stories in the Library of America.  The three were “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” “A Most Extraordinary Case,” and “The Last of the Valerii.”  I picked them at random, though with an eye to their relative brevity.  I had never read any of them before, and indeed could not recall so much as having encountered the titles of the first and the third of them.

            Those two surprised me when they turned out to be what I would have to call “horror stories”.  Most people probably know “The Turn of the Screw” and perhaps also “The Jolly Corner”, but James was toying with the supernatural and the uncanny right from the start. The seemingly innocently named  “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” deals with a dark side of life in pre-revolutionary New England, and would not be out of place in the Tales from the Crypt Annual, should there be one.   It has at least a textile link to The Scarlet Letter.  James was an admirer of Hawthorne, and wrote a fine monograph about him in the English Men of Letters series.

            It is “The Last of the Valerii,” however, that made the greatest impression on me.  This story is so very—well, so very Jamesian.  In the first place you don’t know who the narrator is, only that you are probably going to be on his side even though he sort of gets on your nerves.  He is an American in Europe—in this instance, in Rome—implicitly middle-aged and presumably a man whose leisurely and amateur artistic pursuits are enabled by unspecified wealth.  He is the god-father and implicitly (but only implicitly) the guardian of a beautiful young American girl named Martha, who falls in love with and marries a young Italian aristocrat, the Conte Valerio.  So you have various motifs of the “American theme” as James will develop them in his masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady.

            Count Valerio is a pretty boy with some of the necessary accoutrements of good breeding, and he is in possession of the requisite picturesque, decaying family villa.  But he is not the brightest taper in the candelabra, and his ethical foundation seems to consist of little more than a family tradition of perfunctory and unenthusiastic Catholicism.  The narrator is pretty uneasy about him right from the start, and with pretty good reason, as it turns out.  For when an exercise of amateur archaeology turns up an ancient statue of Juno buried in the south forty, the Count seems to lose all interest in his beautiful American bride in his rapid descent into iconophilia.  
Juno Sospita (Vatican Museum)

            James is playing off the Pygmalion theme.  His treatment of it is not quite so kinky as that of Jean de Meun in the Roman de la Rose, but its tenor is (perhaps strangely) of a similar moral drift.  There is nothing positive or uplifting in the Count’s behavior.  On the contrary it is sinister and benighted.  I had not thought of James as a medieval Christian writer before, but very much like Jean de Meun in the thirteenth century he is clearly alluding to an Ovidian subject matter to make an indictment of pagan idolatry.  By the end of the story one grasps the point adumbrated by the odd Latin plural of James’s title.
Third-degree iconophilia: Pygmalion, in the Valencia MS of the Roman de la Rose

            “The Last of the Valerii” has a happy ending—that is, if you are on the American side.  For me, with my new right eye, it was also a happy new beginning.

 Jacobus Sospes (bust by F. D. Wood, Boston Public Library)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter 2014

"The Lord is risen indeed!"  by Piero della Francesca