Propriety and property, position and possession: the late James, James of The Golden Bowl, evolved an entire style to brace these against one another, to give each its due and record the toll each takes on the other. That novel, with its Italian prince, its London imperium, is an intimate epic, concerned to be, as epics can be, both the justification for and cautionary tale against an Imperial civilization, what Eliot, praising Virgil, would call a mature civilization, imposing its will on the provinces and peoples of the new territory. The clash is not between America and Europe, but between two tendencies inherent in the European ideal as it sets forth to establish a reign of civilization in the United States; the two tendencies do not compete against one another, as balances, but they are caught up as mutual concomitants, both expressions of the whole that cannot be held. The valuation of property, of objects, of others as belonging or not belonging, represents a threat—but that threat is itself inseparable from the metaphors of value upon which the civilization depends, exerting itself, at what, for James, are its finest moments, in an attempt, even if futile, at establishing, recognizing, or redeeming true, inherent, or depreciated value of entities both physical and spiritual, psychological and social; and the same metaphors of value (for James value is a matter of metaphor before metaphysics), sprung from and returning to, metaphors of possession and exchange, yield also rules of propriety, propriety which may be either the means of maintaining a harsh and cruel system of exploitation, manipulation, and, what is the keynote of late James, possession of one person by another—especially persons who are newly subject to the empire’s sway—but also being the only guard against the system of exploitation and manipulation, an achievement safeguarding restraint, morals at one with drawing-room mores. At the same time, from another perspective, or at another level, the urge for possession, for identifying who can possess what and whom, and who does possess what—an urge that can lend itself to metaphors of justice (who is owed what) as well as brutal material accumulation—both derives from and leads to the jostling for position, and respect for position, and the furor for correctly ‘placing’ oneself on the psycho-social geography of London, of the World, which can both harm by excluding, and by containing (the novel is claustrophobic, as the four characters both possess and place one another relentlessly), but which can also preserve and, most powerfully, justly register the consequences of a life’s actions and scope. Re-reading the novel, it becomes clearer not only that James is a supreme novelist of the geographical imagination ( not only in terms of a crude system of Innocence and Experience, but in the local and specific geography of London), but also that his late abstract style, with all of its circumlocutions and metaphors, is cultivated for doing justice simultaneously to the transactions of manners and materials, to claims and exchanges of property and claims and rituals of propriety, —or rather to showing how these happen all at once.
The Golden Bowl is a record of the relentless transactions between persons, and of persons, transactions of feelings, symbols, judgments, values, some material and others immaterial; it is the most painful of late James, though late James is always about these things—and essentially about the relentless desire to possess the life of another, and to know the worth of what is possessed—and the pain is without abatement, felt even when the characters are most pleased, since even at these occasions, we are reminded, by the fantastic juggle of figures, how precarious the pleasure is, and the toll it extracts, psychologically and even socially; to enter into these exchanges and transactions is isolating in the extreme, nowhere there being any guarantee for debt and credit, or for value itself, beyond oneself. Contrast this with the isolation of Eliot’s Middemarch, not to prove the greater of power of one, but to see the difference in the experience of isolation.