165. (Henry James)

The post below I now see is muddled. Please see post 167 for a clearer statement.

I detect in Nelson Goodman’s response to the question of ‘what good philosophy does’ an affinity with Henry James. The question, said Goodman, takes things from the wrong side. Rather than suppose that philosophy ought to do the world good, he thought we should proceed from the idea that the world is good for philosophy. It is a somewhat shocking thought, and it suggests that we often ask the wrong question for a range of activities that are sometimes scoffed at for not serving the world; especially activities in the service of understanding, justice, and beauty (the true, the good, the beautiful, as the old trinity has it).

The case of justice is the most illuminating because least contentious: a just state of affairs seems inherently good, and a just state of fairs reflects a certain ordering of the world’s affairs. But when the criteria of justice are extended beyond fairness, to include rightness or harmony, or some other, we begin to see that it shares in much that we might think of as properties of understanding or beauty. And we can think too of instances where a zeal for justice feels excessive, seems not to serve the world as we think it should.

Saying that the world is good for understanding, justice, and beauty does not reject the significance of politics, change, commerce, sustenance, life; it represents what these might foster. The implication behind what Goodman says is that things like philosophy, or art, or pure abstract math, or history, or paleontology, or architecture are in the service of the world in so far as they realize the world’s value. “The world is good for them” means that they are good for the world, in so far as they grant the world’s messy business of consuming, exchanging and producing, criteria by which value might be realized.

Goodman’s point is neither anti-democratic, nor Platonist, nor ascetic. It suggests what democracy ought to promote, with inclusion and equality. It requires no notion of Platonic ideals or God-given mandates; instead, understanding, justice, and beauty, and the entire cluster of related categories, emerge out of practices of living, as anyone spending time trying to coordinate and communicate with young children soon realizes. They are also exemplified and captured in many human practices; a work of art may, for instance, serve all three. (It’s worth emphasizing that saying the world is good for beauty or justice does not mean that, say, a work of art can redeem life’s atrocities by understanding them in a beautiful form; they remain atrocious). The sense of them belongs to the “second nature” of humans; aspiring for them is an instinct that can be trained variously, articulated variously.

Finally, they demand a recalibration of involvement with, rather than detachment from, the world’s essential and inessential affairs; what is more, they require a constant balancing act among themselves, asking how the world can be good for all at once, or even more than one, without slighting the others.
That balancing act is the impulse and subject of a great deal of literature; Henry James is no exception. But what struck me as distinctly Jamesian in the quotation by Goodman was its audacious and exorbitant reversal of poles, so that the current of thought and impression was directed away from the whole world and towards one point in it (philosophy). Philosophy, in Goodman’s articulation, becomes the grateful beneficiary of all that exists; a passive and hungry vessel for the world’s stuff and impressions, a means of absorbing and refining the world into something better, essentially valuable, in the process of understanding it represents. Philosophy becomes akin to the James heroine (or hero—though heroine is more likely), whose highest function is to appreciate, to recognize what is valuable and beautiful, to criticize and discern, and in so doing to fulfill the promise of the world.

Behind Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady lies both the Emersonian self, a center and periphery of all it absorbs, and also the narrator in the Hawthorne story “Sights from a Steeple,” surveying the scenes to all sides, transfiguring the life of the town by the imagination into something beautifully, newly understood. As is well-known, James’ novel offers a rebuke to the extremes championed by Emerson and hinted-at in Hawthorne’s story (more fully realized elsewhere in Hawthorne). On another axis, the novel offers the American aristocrat as both most naively, directly open to all of experience, and also most vulnerable to it; she is opposed to the experience and cynicism of the European aristocrat; both are opposed to the surging forces of utilitarianism and consumerism, which has no standards beyond utility and capitalist, self-perpetuating growth, which all must serve.

The concerns of the novel are cultural and historical, but beneath them is James’ sense, which I imagine would be shared by a great many other artists and authors, though not explored by them as thoroughly as by James, that the world is good for something that is often dismissed as doing the world no utilitarian good, and that a life can be aimed at appreciating, and understanding, the world, as well as by transforming it. In Portrait of a Lady, that is the assumption from which the novel proceeds; the circumstances of it are the contrasting modes of European and American experience, the experience of being displaced, and the threat of (to James) crass materialism; but the ambition of the novel, the dilemma it will explore, concerns a conflict inherent to that assumption: whether a consciousness of the world, and an accompanying self-consciousness, can step forth bravely and actively in search of experiences to which it will be chiefly and willfully receptive; whether it risks, in so doing, in becoming not only passive but compromised, even reified; whether it risks not only isolation but selfishness, even exploitation; whether such actively pursued receptivity can maintain itself without corruption, or with any success at recognizing what is good.

One heroine behind Isabel Archer, as many would suspect, is Henry James’ sister Alice, to whom Henry was closer than to any other sibling (a cousin, I think, is also mentioned by critics and biographers as an inspiration for the character). Jean Strouse’s excellent biography of Alice portrays the upbringing she shared with her brother—one in which experience was valued as an end in itself. It is not the sensitively felt vision of receptivity we find in James’ novels, but a seed from which the prehensile tendrils of the novels grew. In the case of Alice, the receptivity to experience with both mandated and limited by medical woes, neurological, psychological, mysterious; she could not take much of the world, but all she could do was to take it, to absorb it. The diary is the fleeting record we have of her absorption. Her position is extreme even for a woman of her time, owing to her nervous fits and recoveries. But she was brilliant—the diary is brilliant, her sense of the world was brilliant, and her sense of herself and her limitations was brilliant, with the painful glare that such accompanies luminescence. In the early 1870s, she accompanied Henry on a trip to England and then the continent, precariously maintaining the prospect of seeing and knowing it against the threat of illness and collapse. What if she had been in good health but without close kin, and brought out of her American surroundings to experience Europe with a physical luster and capacity to match the intellectual and emotional? She might have been Isabel Archer.

When Henry James refers, as he often does, to that mysterious entity “life,” sought after by Isabel and other heroines, he refers to something that Alice did not have within grasp–access to a place in the world affording the independence to let everything experienced and known be good for understanding, beauty, justice. By available accounts, Alice felt it was good for all of these, and could receive it on these terms; but her reception of it was compromised, constrained, and too often passive. “Life” in the broad and hazy Jamesian sense refers to a more active receptivity; to a habit and pattern of existence shaped by the sense that the world is good for these. For Henry, such a habit and pattern of existence resulted in the novelist’s art; for Alice, there is no saying where it would have led, and Isabel suggests how the pursuit of it might go horribly wrong–though admirably so, given the alternative of not attempting it at all. Whether or not Isabel suffers from an egoistical hubris, a willingness, in the name of pleasure, to cross boundaries that she should recognize, does not entail that the boundaries most commonly, conventionally acknowledged are the right ones either. It is her fortune and glory to be able to break through them in pursuit of a range of receptivity that is not–on this she is clear–the same as experience, but that represents the fullest perception of its goodness.

Addendum: writing the above, I adroitly and unintentionally avoided some obvious points, which should be said, and here rather than in another post. The central dilemma Isabel faces is what to do with the experience that money opens for her. She is a perfect receptor of what is beautiful and fine in the world–in realizing it through her own experience, the world’s value is concurrently, as it were, realized: it is made good for something. But perfect though she is, James knows that her experience is limited without liberty, and he is not delusional enough to pretend that money is not freedom. What to make of, how to receive and realize, the experience that freedom affords becomes her dilemma. On the one hand, the novel is a conventional marriage plot, so that marriage must be the plot she takes to realizing it. On the other hand, what she receives and realizes–the depth of understanding and beauty (and justice?) that the world is good for in her experience of it, these remain hazily defined. Maybe, for James, maybe for all, they could not be known beforehand. At any rate, her dilemma is in deciding how to know what path into experience to pursue; though she is capable of receiving the world, in seeing it as good for something (beauty, understanding), she is not sure of how to get to that vantage onto it; is her sense of pleasure to be trusted? something more conventional instead? How is the world to be good to her and she to the world, so that the goodness of the world emerges in her experience of it…in her “life”?


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