- Art Against Equality
Some live in luxury, others in squalor. Whether or not this distribution is justified because of the art and high culture such disparity produces is the central question of Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima. The question was common in the late nineteenth century. It appears in some of the most popular novels of the period, such as Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Marcella, and also in the work of philosophers, such as Henry Sidgwick. 1 Sidgwick opines that it is “possible that in the future we may carry on artistic and aesthetic development successfully on the basis of public and collective effort . . . but until we are convinced that this is likely—and I am not yet convinced—I think we should not hamper the progress of this priceless element of human life by any censure or discouragement of luxurious living.” 2 The debate has largely disappeared from contemporary discussions of distribution. Such discussions focus on welfare or egalitarianism. It is taken to be patently obvious that welfare trumps aesthetics. Peter Singer, for example, vilifies the failure to relieve world famine by noting the millions spent on the Sydney Opera House. 3 So, if prosperity for all and art are both desirable, but cannot both be had, one must choose. The Princess Casamassima ends in suicide because of the difficulty of making that choice.
In an interesting, but I think wrong, reading Martha Nussbaum interprets The Princess Casamassima differently. On her view, the novel shows that quick violent revolutionary change will not do, because of the threat that it represents to art and culture. So, a slow change toward egalitarianism is recommended rather than a violent culture-destroying one; that is what Hyacinth Robinson learns and that is why he cannot keep his promise to the revolutionaries. 4 I want to argue several things [End Page 108] against Nussbaum’s interpretation of the novel. First, Nussbaum thinks that “we can count on Hyacinth Robinson . . . as a fine moral touchstone and guide” (“PR,” p. 199). Hyacinth is, for Nussbaum, a model of the finely aware moral individual. On my view, however, he is not someone to emulate. Second, Nussbaum concludes that the political import of the novel is a liberal one, since the novel favors slow, nonviolent change, and has a non-aristocratic vision of human potential given the right material conditions (“PR,” p. 205). This reading dismisses the central social tragedy of the novel which hinges on the ideas that society must choose between high culture and egalitarianism, and that there is a natural elite of those capable of understanding and producing high culture. Finally, I shall argue that the finely aware morality Nussbaum (and perhaps James) thinks is exemplified by Jamesian literary characters such as Hyacinth Robinson is a morality of passivity and inaction, and again not a morality that it is desirable for us to emulate. Hilary Putnam has criticized Nussbaum’s moral vision as one that allows its agents to do anything. 5 My worry is that it is a morality that leaves its practitioners doing nothing at all. It might be fine and interesting for a character in a novel to be a passive fine perceiver, but it is unfine for an actual person.
Henry James tells us in his preface to The Princess Casamassima that for a character to be interesting, it is essential that he be bewildered. At the same time the character cannot be too stupid, or we lose interest. 6 The same sentiment is echoed in the preface to Roderick Hudson. There James tells us that the central consciousness of the drama must be “bedimmed and befooled and bewildered, anxious, restless, fallible, and yet [endowed] with such intelligence that the appearances reflected in it . . . should become by that fact intelligible” (AN, p. 16). Hyacinth is certainly bewildered. But what may make for an interesting character in a literary tale may not be a character whom we should emulate in moral matters. Hyacinth’s fine awareness is the vehicle for interesting bewilderment, not a moral ideal.
Early in the novel, the father figure in Hyacinth’s life, Mr. Vetch, describes Hyacinth’s character. He is, Vetch says...