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Donald Callen STORIES OF SUBLIMELY GOOD CHARACTER In aesthetic experience the limits of the imagination frequently appear to be found in that region of feeling or quality known as the sublime. In this article, I want to approach our sense of the sublime by taking up a puzzle about what makes for a good story. The puzzle arises in Aristotle's requirement that the protagonist of a tragic drama not be too good (Poetics, 1452b). On the face of it there are at least a couple of reasons suggested in the Poetics for this condition. Aristotle writes first that the tragic fall of such a character would be hateful. To be sure—but this is an odd reason in a way, since while it may seem unfair that a virtuous person should suffer, the gods may be like that and the sobering tale may be worth telling, speaking to our hope and despair of justice. Second, for Aristotle, the "tragic" fall of a good person is neither fear-inspiring nor piteous. Perhaps because such unhappiness is hateful, it is not readily countenanced. Or perhaps, inasmuch as (for Aristotle) art is imitation and we enjoy the likeness it presents to us, the virtuous person may not be enough like us to capture our imagination. Not being especially good ourselves, we cannot readily have sympathy for or understand such a person. However we interpret his reasoning here, while Aristotle is concerned principally with tragedy—and that construed with action rather than character as primary—his remarks raise a problem thatcan be generalized. Can literature give us convincing characters who are sublimely good? And if so, how can it give us a good story if such persons exceed our imagination's capacity to follow or feel their motives and fates? Rather than with the Poetics, I should like to take as my point of departure Henry James's treatment of this issue in his tale "The Story In It"1 and his Critical Prefaces.2 Granting that there may be many miles 40 Donald Callen41 separating Aristotle's and James's ideas of a truly good person, James addresses our problem explicitly, and, having in view the capacities of the novel, in the end parts company with Aristotle. The tale tells of a triangle, Mrs. Dyott, a widow; Colonel Voyt, who leaves his wife and children in London on weekends to pursue his "relation" to Mrs. Dyott; and Maud Blessingbourne. Maud, also a widow, loves Colonel Voyt as well, but secretly, she mistakenly believes. In a quiet way, Maud is a truly good person, James would have us believe. Thus the reason for her secret love. Voyt and Dyott find this "goodness" hard to take and snicker behind Maud's back at her passionless, private love. One afternoon the issue comes into the open by way of a debate between Maud and the Colonel over the merits of the French romances she has been reading lately. The Colonel evinces surprise that Maud should take to works of such passion. Actually, Maud finds them to be quite tame. Not that she believes they lack feeling altogether. Indeed, by contrast with English fiction, she thinks that with them one can get hold of more "life," more of "the real thing." (James tells us elsewhere that by "the real thing" he means the dangers, perhaps "common and covert" that "can be but inwardly . . . dealt with, which involve the sharpest hazards to life and honour and the highest instant decisions and intrepidities of action."3 Also, "the real thing" connotes life rather than art.4) Glossing "life" in terms of the dynamics of passion rather than sensibility, Voyt agrees: the French do what they feel, "and they feel more things than we . . . when it comes to any account of a relation between a man and a woman."5 Nevertheless, Maud finds the French romances repetitious and, particularly, has yet to find in them the representation of a truly good woman. They are tame then in not being very imaginative when it comes to representing virtuous sensibility. Voyt finds this disingenuous , and accuses her of trying to find life, specifically her life, in novels. It isn't the...


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