37. (Henry James)

His sentences are moved to excess with a wariness of waste. The inheritance of scrupulous, new-world economizing is carried over, by an instinct that lived on the nerves, to react against authors whose imaginations abnegate their responsibilities for accounting. Authors ought, the years of reviews, letters, and personal achievements suppose, to know where to draw the circle of attention, should discern where the relations between words, acts, and deeds become indiscernible; where they cannot be properly measured, assessed, or, that touchstone of James’ thought, ‘placed.’ It wasn’t the fact of sprawl that brought him to mild distress, but the sense that sprawl had come about by a novelist’s ignorance of the great threat, waste itself, and ignorance of the novelist’s duty, guarding against it: the preservation of value, or the redemption of what would erstwhile be accounted lost, in life, in conduct, in fleeting consciousness.

He enunciates the fear most precisely in the Prefaces, the impassioned charge of thought leaping forth between two statements, one a comment on the exemplar of the early James, the other a culminating rumination on the achievement of the late style:

From the “Preface” to The Portrait of a LadyStrangely fertilising, in the long run, does a wasted effort of attention often prove. It all depends on how the attention has been cheated, has been squandered. There are high-handed insolent frauds, and there are insidious sneaking ones. And there is, I fear, even on the most designing artist’s part, always witless enough good faith, always anxious enough desire, to fail to guard him against their deceits.

And from the “Preface” to The Golden BowlAll of which amounts doubtless but to saying that as the whole conduct of life consists of things done, which do other things in their turn, just so our behaviour and its fruits are essentially one and continuous and persistent and unquenchable, so the act has its way of abiding and showing and testifying, and so, among our innumerable acts, are no arbitrary, no senseless separations. The more we are capable of acting the less gropingly we plead such differences; whereby, with any capability, we recognise betimes that to ‘put’ things is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them. Our expression of them, and the terms on which we understand that, belong as nearly to our conduct and our life as every other feature of our freedom; these things yield in fact some of its most exquisite material to the religion of doing. More than that, our literary deeds enjoy this marked advantage over many of our acts, that, though they go forth into the world and stray even in the desert, they don’t to the same extent lose themselves; their attachment and reference to us, however strained, need n’t necessarily lapse – while of the tie that binds us to them we may make almost anything we like. We are condemned, in other words, whether we will or no, to abandon and outlive, to forget and disown and hand over to desolation, many vital or social performances – if only because the traces, records, connexions, the very memorials we would fain preserve, are practically impossible to rescue for that purpose from the general mixture. We give them up even when we would n’t – it is not a question of choice. Not so on the other hand our really ‘done’ things of this superior and more appreciable order – which leave us indeed all licence of disconnexion and disavowal, but positively impose on us no such necessity. Our relation to them is essentially traceable, and in that fact abides, we feel, the incomparable luxury of the artist.

The latter is James’ apologia. There is more of it, and to bend it away from its context—though not entirely tearing it out—is to do it some harm, but not grievous injury.

James, the author famous for censuring as ineffectual and damaging those intrusions by Victorian authors into the narrative of their own making (even novices to James catch him out intruding; their glee at his supposed hypocrisy is unfounded, and they’d do better to rethink what the stricture may have meant in the first place), affirms, as no Victorian novelist, not even Eliot, the inherent ethical foundation of art: to ‘put’  (to attend, to imagine, to narrate) something, in fiction or not, is to do something; to do something entails consequences and responsibilities; art, though it may be disowned or disavowed, owns moreover an advantage over so many of life’s vital performances…that it is not doomed to be disconnected from ourselves; that it can be bound to the artist, can remain with him, as other equivalent acts of attention, imagination, recollection, and ordering cannot. Life overflows with such acts; too many are wasted, not because they do nothing to change the world in which others live, but because—and here James looks in the opposite direction from Eliot in the “Finale” of Middlemarch—they are lost from the self without which their identity, and their meaning, and so their value, is impossible. The acts cease as acts, becoming a part of the more general unnameable flux (and so James rejects also pantheism, Wordsworth’s attempt at consolation); in that flux, all things are equivalent because inseparable, but also cannot be said to be anything distinct, cannot be measured, picked out, or judged at all; they are wasted because they have lost their identities, their defining features or essences.

Art holds out an alternative to the barrenness: whether or not the author is remembered or even thought of, the act of the work remains distinct, a sustaining and enduring record of a whole class of actions (of the mind, of language, of judgment) that are otherwise dissolved. But the consequence, or concomitant, of art’s standing is that within a work, the attention ought not to be squandered; hence the comment on Portrait, which wisely accepts that waste cannot be approximated too soon (if ever), but which fears waste nonetheless, since the waste of attention in a work of art results in more than a failure of aesthetic sensibility, but a foregone opportunity.

James is the last of the nineteenth-century British authors whose work can be conceived of as—whatever else it might be—a sustained reckoning with waste, searching out its conditions, limits, and sources. Chief among his predecessors: Wordsworth, Tennyson, and George Eliot; perhaps Rossetti and Hopkins, but as religious poets, they stand at a peculiar angle.

James, however, marks a movement in a new direction from these authors, and this because he drew on a resource of the language as they did not, and as they could not. In James’ work, the word “waste” bears unusual and sustained weight. For James, and for the late James of The Golden Bowl especially, the word “waste” becomes what Empson would characterize as a complex word, a compacted dogma capable of directing the opinions of those who would use it; the risk of being used by it, with all of its implied beliefs and suggestions of theory, is inherent to the word.

The word possessed, by 1904, a noble heritage, endowed with the Shakespearean lustre, in Richard’s “I wasted time and now time doth waste me” and in the Sonnet’s, “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” it carried too the sublimity of landscape, with Swinburne notable among James’ immediate forebears casting the word as a net to catch the Whisterlian monotony of his seas, always physical and metaphysical at once. The wreckage of Old Testament destruction was in Swinburne’s verse, and in Christina Rossetti’s too, though she mined the word for what it offered as a measure of her soul’s failures and losses. All of this in the word as James took it up. But more too.

The word is not absent in Wordsworth, Tennyson and Eliot, but it is not queried or quarried by them as it is by James in The Golden Bowl, and perhaps the reason that James sought and found power in the word itself, as these other authors did not, is that when he came to use it, it had gained new traction as an antonym to that great watch-word of modernity, efficiency.

Jennifer Karns Alexander in The Mantra of Efficiency: Something happened to the idea of efficiency between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Efficiency had been a philosophical concept describing agents and causes of change, yet it dropped out of sight in the eighteenth century, only to resurface in the nineteenth in a different form, as a technical measurement of the performance of machines. It moved into economics and then, early in the twentieth century, into more common use, as an efficiency craze swept through Europe and the United States.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the leading figures in the early management studies which gave new prominence to efficiency, the term and the concept; his “Shop Management” paper, published widely in 1911, was first delivered in 1903, the year before the publication of James’ novel.

Most famously, the great contemporary of James, admirer of the Old Master, Joseph Conrad, had registered the irresistible and terrible force of the word in Heart of Darkness, where Marlow says, having witnessed the tragic waste of life in the Belgian Congo: “What saves us [the British] is efficiency–the devotion to efficiency.”

Because of the rapid rise of the antonym, “waste” took on not only a new, sharper edge, but also extended its domain of connotation: the world of economic production, material extraction, hoarding, could be put more readily into the word, which in turn might open up a vista into the vertiginous process of assessing and affirming true value, of determining what and who have been used.

In an earlier post, I wrote that James, in The Golden Bowl discovers a metaphorical register—abstract, seemingly nebulous and detached from material and even exigent immaterial concerns of life, but in fact capable of addressing several levels of life and experience at once, so that the characters are always possibly eyeing each other up as goods to be bartered, as treasures to be mined, as possessions to be treasured, as ethical entities of inherent moral standing, as extensions of codes that are either or both crassly exploitative and/or abstractly civilized…

William Empson complains in a letter that in The Golden Bowl James couldn’t set matters right in his own mind: Henry James I think was a morally very confused man, and anyhow it seems impossible to deny that his attitude to sexual passion was confused. Even though his mind insisted (as the article rightly showed) on building up a sickeningly horrible case against both father and daughter Verver, still he was telling himself he was doing what his father would have wanted, that is, showing how the good cool rich Americans can subdue the savagery of the wicked Europeans. Towards the end of the book, far too much cuddling of dear old Verver by the author is going on for me to believe that James ever admitted to himself what a loathsome picture he was presenting to the outside world. (to Essays in Criticism, January 1955).

Empson’s remark has always seemed to me peculiar; he of course reacts against cruelty in the characters’ treatments of one another, but he seems unable to grasp James’ basic method, the establishment and sustained performance of a language in which he can simultaneously recognize that the dreadful interconnection of civilization and barbarism–which is neither so pat a view as to dismiss civilization as stained and of no use, nor to deny barbarism on the grounds of civilization’s accomplishments. All of James’ talk of value, or rather all of the novel’s metaphors of value, and it blushes with shades of value that others could not imagine, totter in either direction, so it can be difficult to know whether the characters are sizing one another up for a meal during which they will glut on one another, or whether they are sizing one another up for a meal to celebrate and admire what is good and true in one another; the characters themselves don’t know all of the time, and can’t know. The order of civilization in James’ world is such that both possibilities are in play; the cannibal dresses in couture. But the couture is not all frills; the refinement of values is a genuine and honorable achievement, even if the refinement is such that its many fine laced edges can cut like blades if those who wear them are insufficiently conscious, conscientious and upright.

Odd that Empson didn’t feel the delicate and dangerous balance of James’ position—it bears comparison with Marvell’s in the Horatian Ode, and depends upon wit, “a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.”

“Waste,” I’m circuitously suggesting, is a lynch-pin of James’ peculiar dialect in the novel, a word that orients with flexibility towards either the direction of intrinsic, ethical values, or else towards economic, exploitative, instrumental values.

There are not so many instances of the word that they cannot be cataloged–with a brief comment after some:

It was this, precisely, that had set the Prince to think. The things, or many of them, that had made Mr. Verver what he was seemed practically to bring a charge of waste against the other things that, with the other people known to the young man, had failed of such a result. “Why, his ‘form,'” he had returned, “might have made one doubt.”

[“Waste” as counterpart to Bildung: Mr. Verver’s formation, his self-project and self-definition, as being so distinguished in being so scrupulously, thoroughly complete; but it i the things that did not waste him; not Mr. Verver who did not waste the “things” and “things” holds the physical and material and metaphysical and circumstantial, so that it is both his wealth that has made Mr. Verver but also the circumstances and qualities of his character who have seen themselves happily flourish in his daily existence; his ‘form’ is the form of manners and bearing, but it recalls too the form of the novel. In this passage, James acknowledges Mr. Verver as himself a work of art, the art of a person developed by circumstances (not the myth of a self-made man), but also as being at the mercy of material transactions; an irony since Amerigo will be at the mercy of the Ververs, but a good irony in so far as the work of art is always at the mercy of such transactions, which is not to say that it cannot be good.]

There are two parts of me”—yes, he had been moved to go on. “One is made up of the history, the doings, the marriages, the crimes, the follies, the boundless betises of other people—especially of their infamous waste of money that might have come to me.

[Waste as material, as crass]

It wasn’t—as I should suppose you must have seen—what you call your unknown quantity, your particular self. It was the generations behind you, the follies and the crimes, the plunder and the waste—the wicked Pope, the monster most of all, whom so many of the volumes in your family library are all about.

[Maggie’s assessment of the same; the waste of stuff–but also the waste of nobility, of civilized inheritance that depends upon the stuff.]

But what seems the matter with me is that I can’t sail alone; my ship must be one of a pair, must have, in the waste of waters, a—what do you call it?—a consort.

[The Prince to Mrs. Assingham. The innocuous, Swinburne sense of the word; but the waste of waters is tainted somewhat because waters are not so rare as to be wasted in the economic sense, so a light mockery of what waste means elsewhere; and also the image of sailing upon waste, not only of waters, but of lives]

They wouldn’t lavish on them all their little fortune of curiosity and alarm; certainly they wouldn’t spend their cherished savings so early in the day. He liked Charlotte, moreover, who was a smooth and compact inmate, and whom he felt as, with her instincts that made against waste, much more of his own sort than his wife.

[The Prince thinking of Charlotte. Both are hard up for cash and savings, so they economize with the same spirit as they shop for an engagement present; but, in a manner characteristic of James, the word overlooks, on the perch of the clause, no prepositional phrase to block the view, out on a vista of possibilities…they have instincts against the waste of themselves, which is economic and so determines their courses of marriage, but also against the waste of their shared past, which they conserve and feed off for as long as they are able; and also against the waste of the future, readying them to preserve their value by becoming sacrifices for others (sacrifice is the loss that counters waste), and even for each other.]

The essential pulse of the flame, the very action of the cerebral temperature, brought to the highest point, yet extraordinarily contained—these facts themselves were the immensity of the result; they were one with perfection of machinery, they had constituted the kind of acquisitive power engendered and applied, the necessary triumph of all operations. A dim explanation of phenomena once vivid must at all events for the moment suffice us; it being obviously no account of the matter to throw on our friend’s amiability alone the weight of the demonstration of his economic history. Amiability, of a truth, is an aid to success; it has even been known to be the principle of large accumulations; but the link, for the mind, is none the less fatally missing between proof, on such a scale, of continuity, if of nothing more insolent, in one field, and accessibility to distraction in every other. Variety of imagination—what is that but fatal, in the world of affairs, unless so disciplined as not to be distinguished from monotony? Mr. Verver then, for a fresh, full period, a period betraying, extraordinarily, no wasted year, had been inscrutably monotonous behind an iridescent cloud.

[The old trope: the waste of time. But here in a metaphor that merges Bildung with manufacturing, the economic engine of an acquisitive mind with the self-cultivation of a self-civilizing soul.]

“Well,” said Maggie, “I can do that. Isn’t it always a misfortune to be—when you’re so fine—so wasted? And yet,” she went on, “not to wail about it, not to look even as if you knew it?”

[Maggie and Adam Verver discuss Charlotte’s never having married; “wasted” as synonymous here with “not yet cultivated,” the sense of “wasteland” that is not inherently infertile but has not yet been brought under the sway of the powerful; but the word is odd, its passive form recalling “ruined,” suggesting perhaps that Charlotte has been ruined by time, that it is too late for her (though we know it’s not), or that she has been wasted by a missed opportunity: the statement depends upon her capacity to be wasted. Since she had no money, it is not money that is gone; instead, it is something of that intrinsic, true, inner self, that source of inherent value, that is summoned in James; but the matter of waste and marriage cannot but be economic and in some degree mercenary at the same time.]

Mr. Verver seemed at first to face this as a large question, and then, after a little, solicited by another view, to let the appeal drop. “Well, she mustn’t be wasted. We won’t at least have waste.

[Mr. Verver responds to Maggie; he speaks as a devotee of industrial efficiency: “We won’t at least have waste…in my factories.” And here, her having been wasted in Maggie’s purer, refined, almost spiritual (Emersonian?) sense comes to feel, in the phrase “she mustn’t be wasted,” entirely undone: she mustn’t be wasted as a resource or opportunity mustn’t be wasted. She is to be used, even used up, in someone else’s project instead. He doesn’t mean harm by the statement, but Mr. Verver’s words show the potential for the language to move the characters in wildly uneven, and ethically disastrous, directions.]

“Ah, but you DON’T mind. You don’t have to. You don’t have to, I mean, as I have. It’s the last folly ever to care, in an anxious way, the least particle more than one is absolutely forced. If I were you,” she went on—”if I had in my life, for happiness and power and peace, even a small fraction of what you have, it would take a great deal to make me waste my worry. I don’t know,” she said, “what in the world—that didn’t touch my luck—I should trouble my head about.”

[Charlotte to Mr. Verver, as the discuss what effect the news of their engagement will have on Maggie and the Prince. The word is a joke here, in her mouth and mind, but the joke depends on the common assumption that there is nothing in life—no quality of character or personality even—that cannot be wasted and accounted for; everything is scarce, everything might be put to better use.]

That artless theories could and did prevail was a fact he had ended by accepting, under copious evidence, as definite and ultimate; and it consorted with common prudence, with the simplest economy of life, not to be wasteful of any odd gleaning.

[From the perspective of the Prince; again, the James method of applying waste to no object in particular…anything in the universe might be wasted, material or im-, and among these varieties of waste, some might depend upon economic transactions, and all might be reduced to the value of economics transactions].

“I always pay for it, sooner or later, my sociable, my damnable, my unnecessary interest. Nothing of course would suit me but that it should fix itself also on Charlotte—Charlotte who was hovering there on the edge of our lives, when not beautifully, and a trifle mysteriously, flitting across them, and who was a piece of waste and a piece of threatened failure, just as, for any possible good to the WORLD, Mr. Verver and Maggie were.


[Mrs. Assignham reflects–she is brutal to call Charlotte a “piece of waste,” but she calls Adam and Maggie Verver the same; the ficelle, she is also the Great Arranger, akin to the novelist who redeems lives by arranging them in new relation; the waste of these lives is made good by his art…but she is not a novelist, despite the resemblance; and the effort at redeeming the waste of others, of interfering on behalf of “interest” (another word I’ll say something of), serves more contentious ends.]

She had herself now, for weeks and weeks, and all unwinkingly, traced the extension of this pious effort; but her perfect success in giving no sign—she did herself THAT credit—would have been an achievement quite wasted if Mrs. Verver should make with him those mistakes of proportion, one set of them too abruptly, too incoherently designed to correct another set, that she had made with his daughter.

He should have no doubt of it whatever: she knew and her broken bowl was proof that she knew-yet the least part of her desire was to make him waste words.


 Marvellous the manner in which, under such imaginations, Maggie thus circled and lingered—quite as if she were, materially, following her unseen, counting every step she helplessly wasted, noting every hindrance that brought her to a pause.

[Charlotte is the one helplessly wasting her steps, trapped as she is in the marriage and in the love of father and daughter; being used by Mr. Verver she wastes her movements, her actions; the waste remains, even grows, despite—because?—his desire to prevent the further waste of her unmarried life.]

“Father, father—Charlotte’s great!”

It was not till after he had begun to smoke that he looked at her. “Charlotte’s great.”

They could close upon it—such a basis as they might immediately feel it make; and so they stood together over it, quite gratefully, each recording to the other’s eyes that it was firm under their feet. They had even thus a renewed wait, as for proof of it; much as if he were letting her see, while the minutes lapsed for their concealed companions, that this was finally just why—but just WHY! “You see,” he presently added, “how right I was. Right, I mean, to do it for you.”

“Ah, rather!” she murmured with her smile. And then, as to be herself ideally right: “I don’t see what you would have done without her.”

“The point was,” he returned quietly, “that I didn’t see what you were to do. Yet it was a risk.”

“It was a risk,” said Maggie—”but I believed in it. At least for myself!” she smiled.

“Well NOW,” he smoked, “we see.”

“We see.”

“I know her better.”

“You know her best.”

“Oh, but naturally!” On which, as the warranted truth of it hung in the air—the truth warranted, as who should say, exactly by the present opportunity to pronounce, this opportunity created and accepted—she found herself lost, though with a finer thrill than she had perhaps yet known, in the vision of all he might mean. The sense of it in her rose higher, rose with each moment that he invited her thus to see him linger; and when, after a little more, he had said, smoking again and looking up, with head thrown back and hands spread on the balcony rail, at the grey, gaunt front of the house, “She’s beautiful, beautiful!” her sensibility reported to her the shade of a new note. It was all she might have wished, for it was, with a kind of speaking competence, the note of possession and control; and yet it conveyed to her as nothing till now had done the reality of their parting. They were parting, in the light of it, absolutely on Charlotte’s VALUE—the value that was filling the room out of which they had stepped as if to give it play, and with which the Prince, on his side, was perhaps making larger acquaintance. If Maggie had desired, at so late an hour, some last conclusive comfortable category to place him in for dismissal, she might have found it here in its all coming back to his ability to rest upon high values. Somehow, when all was said, and with the memory of her gifts, her variety, her power, so much remained of Charlotte’s! What else had she herself meant three minutes before by speaking of her as great? Great for the world that was before her—that he proposed she should be: she was not to be wasted in the application of his plan. Maggie held to this then—that she wasn’t to be wasted. To let his daughter know it he had sought this brief privacy. What a blessing, accordingly, that she could speak her joy in it! His face, meanwhile, at all events, was turned to her, and as she met his eyes again her joy went straight. “It’s success, father.”

[The word thunders twice at the terrible climax of the novel, their love for one another, their admiration of Charlotte, their assessment of her value, their conception of how her value is to be realized and preserved, reducing her to a non-person, to a cog in the efficient plan of another; the problem is not that they see her as an instrument; they do not; they see her as an object, and he language of inherent value by which they measure her is aligned, in their minds, with their rationality of exploitation and acquisition.

The word “wasted,” and the notion that a person can be “wasted” is not doomed or implicitly denounced or marred beyond hope; instead the word remains essential if we are to describe what has happened; we need only to reclaim the word from the improper use, while recognizing that it contains within itself the potential to be an instrument of such awful abuse of another. The word is not on the wrong; it’s a ground on which right and wrong will be adjudicated.]

The commentary adds little to the examples; the word twitches in so many directions–sometimes by the Jamesian method of refusing to specify its object, sometimes by bringing it helplessly near to the dominance of economic rationale, and other times by dramatizing its terrible mis-use.

I do not need or want to press the point with this word much further. But I will add by gesturing towards another complex word that gains new life in proximity with waste, and that is, as I’ve already mentioned, “interest.” We heard Mrs. Assignham denounce her “damnable, unnecessary interest.” “Interest” is one of the great cant words of our century, and the two centuries before us. It carries the crude material sense, which Byron (“have spent my life, both interest and principal”) and Tennyson (“the far-off interest of tears”) both play off, while admitting a nobler sense of impelled attention;but, in the common tongue, the word is hopelessly vague, so that impelled attention is not even the fully-considered sense when someone in an essay or review says of a work that it is “interesting.” It’s a source of comedy, since “interesting” can be a term of disdain, disgust, rejection, fascination, or non-committal evasion.

The word appears with somewhat gross frequency in James’ works, around 122 times in The Golden Bowl. In proximity to “waste,” as it is in that novel, it is especially freighted with a connotation of value that is both monetary (interest rate) and other (an intuitive suggestion that there is more of something to be had, and more worth having).



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