James appeals to the concept of life with the most brazenly airy of gestures, and his novels are also open to the charge of being much ado about nothing, since so little seems to happen. In an earlier post, I suggested that The Turn of the Screw though not the greatest of James’ novels, is nonetheless the paradigmatic instance of his art: he is always, I suggested, writing ghost stories. More broadly, he is always writing fantasy stories, where the presence of ghosts can be appreciated as the presence of supernatural powers that seem to run through the world; the mystery of fantasy, its enduring appeal, is how the supernatural sources of magical power relate to the real powers of natural life, if they do, or whether, and how much, they effect consequences in the natural realm of all. The questions, in other words, of what it means to act supernaturally, to act with the supernatural, or for the supernatural to act, are at the heart of great fantasy writing.
They are also at the heart of James, with the obvious caveat that James is not writing fantasy at all: that in James, though, there are whole ranges of natural, even everyday, human actions that are apprehended if they are supernatural. When William Empson complains that James is ethically confused, Empson’s own (I take it) confusion can be appreciated as a sense that the grounds of ethics in human action—with its attendant notions of responsibility, motive, intent, and practical judgment, and with its dependent conceptions of feeling, place, and temporality—are attenuated in Henry James by the sublimation (in the chemical, not Freudian sense) of action into an ethereal possibility, talked around, talked through even, but not susceptible to accounting by our ordinary linguistic practices. Human action is the ghost in James’ narratives, where we are often left wondering just what is happening, or has happened, or is being worried might happen.
In The Turn of the Screw, the novel’s effect is to materialize the immaterial potential of action, and memory of past actions, now lost to knowledge, as specters. In The Ambassadors, the novel turns the ghost of action to comedic effect: the major question that dominates the first portion of the novel, before we meet Chad Newsome, is just what sorts of things Chad is supposed to have been doing in Paris, and why they are so unsavory. James’ imagination grasps, and helps us to grasp, that the nature of doings is inseparable from their being done with, and in the vicinity of others, who might or might not do other things, and that the nature of speaking about those doing is necessarily circumscribed by considerations of taboo, scrupulous uncertainty, embarrassment, shame, and social tact; the novel gives grounds for talking around what exactly Chad might have been doing, but it nonetheless reads initially as a work of fantastical detection where Maria Gostrey is a wizard-Holmes in possession of facts and clues that cannot be perceived by others, on account not only of her superior powers of detection but in their residing in the codes of civilized distinctions that are the source and object of her power. Life, in James, should be taken to mean action; and civilization is appreciated as a field that proliferates not just the possible meanings of action, but the possibilities of what actions are in themselves; in Europe, there are more ways of acting because there are more accounts of action, and some of those ways of acting must be accounted of doing things like enjoying, finding pleasure, indulging, in ways that cannot be discounted as nefarious or corrupt, as the American utilitarian-puritan sense of action would have it. Some of us nowadays might scratch our heads and wonder how outdated an opposition this is from America on the one hand to Europe on the other, except that we find versions of it in essays about the shorter European work week, quality of living, and socially beneficial policies, which James knew well are all rooted in deep traditions, deeper than any of the twentieth century wars, despite the policies and institutions supporting them having emerged from the ruins of the wars. James, of course, knew also that the cost of such distinctions could be a refusal to perceive the brutal violence of some actions, and the barbarism that civilization contained within itself—but that is not the focus of The Ambassadors as much as it is of The Golden Bowl and even What Maisie Knew.
I should, on principle at least, quote something, though the effect is achieved on spans that are measured only in entire chapters and sections as well as in local felicities of phrasing:
The young man was his first specimen; the specimen had profoundly perplexed him; at present however there was light. It was by little Bilham’s amazing serenity that he had at first been affected, but he had inevitably, in his circumspection, felt it as the trail of the serpent, the corruption, as he might conveniently have said, of Europe; whereas the promptness with which it came up for Miss Gostrey but as a special little form of the oldest thing they knew justified it at once to his own vision as well. He wanted to be able to like his specimen with a clear good conscience, and this fully permitted it. What had muddled him was precisely the small artist-man’s way—it was so complete—of being more American than anybody. But it now for the time put Strether vastly at his ease to have this view of a new way.
The amiable youth then looked out, as it had first struck Strether, at a world in respect to which he hadn’t a prejudice. The one our friend most instantly missed was the usual one in favour of an occupation accepted. Little Bilham had an occupation, but it was only an occupation declined; and it was by his general exemption from alarm, anxiety or remorse on this score that the impression of serenity was made. He had come out to Paris to paint—to fathom, that is, at large, that mystery; but study had been fatal to him so far as anything could be fatal, and his productive power faltered in proportion as his knowledge grew. Strether had gathered from him that at the moment of his finding him in Chad’s rooms he hadn’t saved from his shipwreck a scrap of anything but his beautiful intelligence and his confirmed habit of Paris.
It’s not, as the students often think is the case with poetry, a hunt for meaning, but instead becomes what they, and we, do not often expect to be the case for novels, a hunt for doings. He is a specimen—of what, and why do specimens matter, except that they are formed for, as Darwinians and the 19th c. naturalists who were not Darwinians (Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, for instance) would agree, doing some things in order to do others. And so the passage turns on the question of what Bilham does, and why he is so serene in doing it; he is apparently marvelously efficient as a creature, with his serenity flicking behind him like a propelling tail, a sign of corruption as Strether thinks a snake’s tail must be. But the lesson of Europe is that those formed for action in one environment, under one set of pressures, may find themselves better suited for more subtle actions in another; and so it with Bilham, drawn to Paris to paint, but discovering there a way of being, a “habit” that is defined, characteristically by James, by the place that is Paris; his actions are conformed to the Parisian environment, and the perfection of the conformity is evidenced by his serenity; James, who ceaselessly “places” and has his characters wonders over place, gives an especially clear of how place determines performance. His lack of prejudice, his naïve amenability to the possible conditions before him, makes Bilham distinctly American; but his refusal of an occupation sets him apart. “Occupation” is the American economic sense of what it is to do that in turn determines what one is, at all; Strether is a name on the green cover first and foremost, and that journal, the Review, is precariously perched as commodity (it does not include stories about art and aesthetics), doing just enough to maintain Strether as an American person, in the thinnest sense of personhood, in the most meagre occupational role. Bilham has no occupation, at least in the American sense, and Strether is learning to see—the novel is a mid-life Bildungsroman, of which there must be more, but of which I can think of none—what it might be to have a life and to act without that dull economic mooring. What the economic casing also contains, and what James does value, is a refusal to yield the thought of purpose, even if the thought has become reified and distorted—and this James himself affirms, since the purpose of the artist cannot be only to know the world, but also to make something of it, which is what Bilham has sacrificed along with his serenity. The world of Europe is too much for him to make something of; the knowledge of that world exceeded his powers of productivity. Another way of putting that matter might be to say that knowing sufficiently what life in Europe might be, and what actions life in Europe represents, Bilham is unable himself to represent action in the activity of art. Habit is all that remains of Bilham in the place of his occupation—perhaps destined to fail because not a vocation—and Strether apprehends here that habit is action reduced to its most meagre state. Bilham is both exalted for his serene adaptation to Paris, but also pitied for his tranquillized diminution.