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The Thematics of Interpretation: James's Artist Tales by Hana Wirth-Nesher, Tel Aviv University and Lafayette College James's literary stature has never been as easy a matter to determine as that of Tolstoy or Balzac, and discussions of his fiction inevitably focus on the connection between aesthetics and morality. Some critics have judged his writing to be overly refined and precious and his subjects to be indifferent to the major concerns of man. For them James is an aesthete, and his works are doomed to be minor. For others, James is a moralist, taking a firm stand against aestheticism in his novels and exploring complex human issues without the didacticism of his predecessors. Indeed, response to James's work becomes a kind of cultural barometer. This controversy about James's reputation and how it reflects our sensibilities is sharply evident in a significant critical reversal by Philip Rahv. In 1943 he wrote, "This tension between the impulse to plunge into 'experience' and the impulse to renounce it is the chief source of the internal yet astonishingly abundant Jamesian emotion" ("Attitudes to Henry James" 223). He added that his contradictions constitute his greatness. In an article in 1972, however , Rahv denied that James is a major writer on an international scale, and he said that many readers are "put off by the tension in him between the impulse to consent to experience and the impulse to withdraw from it" ("The Henry James Cult" 20). His renunciations, he decided, are "cerebrally calculated and too contrived to carry conviction ," while he lapses into "obsessive refinement , a veritable delirium of refinement ." What has happened? Writing during the height of the Vietnam War, Rahv concluded that James was hopelessly dated, that his views about Old World corruption and New World innocence made Rahv cringe. "This idea strikes us today as preposterous—a transient historical fantasy generated by an exaggerated sense of national security and a buoyant self-interpretive grandiosity from which at this late date one recoils with bewilderment." What is bewildering is that Rahv, writing at a time when America was discovering the evil within, could read James so literally, could condemn James for ever having thought America innocent. In the aftermath of that painful discovery for America, we can look at James afresh and realize that he conveyed in his novels what it has taken America, at least according to Rahv, a long time to discover: namely, that frequently acting means inflicting pain, that involvement entails corruption, that evil is not partisan, but the product of history, from the personal to the global scale. That James's commitment to form and to the theme of art was not contrary to moral concerns was best expressed by R. P. Blackmur in 1943: "James made of the theme of the artist a focus for the ultimate theme of human integrity, how it is conceived , how it is destroyed, and how, ideally, it may be regained" (191). Indeed, Lionel Trilling claimed that James's "imagination of disaster" was what "cut James off from his contemporaries and it is what recommends him to us now" (57). Echoing Blackmur, he concludes: "James even goes so far as to imply that the man of art may be close to the secret center of things when the man of action is quite apart from it" (76). James's emphasis on art, then, would not make him an "aesthete," but a writer engaged in the central problem of man. The difficulty critics encounter in trying to determine where James stands occurs because the controversy about him is the very stuff of the novels. James continually sets up, or has his characters set up, seemingly ideal forms of life or of love, only later to undercut those ideals or to demonstrate their danger. Yet he does not allow for an escape from establishing the patterns. In a James novel, man, by possessing an imagination , is fated to use it, to fantasize and to act upon those fantasies, to fight chaos with order and then to fall victim to that very order. Beneath much of James's fiction runs the dictum of Freud—that great Volume V 117 The Henry James...


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pp. 117-127
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