Destiny as a Sentence by Henry James
it's the magnitude that distracts us, the regal aura of achievement, the
impression of premises met and overcome. No wonder. The New York Editions
of his collected works would command three mantelpieces at least. They
make an altar of sorts: library shelves in every major university bow
beneath them. No one could blame us for granting them supremacy, as well
as firmness of belief.
And so, trusting in the great man's standing, we book a first-class passage. Experienced travelers will advise us to pack a map and update our passports before embarking upon a sentence by Henry James. Confronting a capital, we should think in terms of an excursion to come and get something on our stomachs and perhaps use the bathroom before departing. Or like Theseus, we would do well to tether ourselves by a thread, that is, if we ever mean to be extricated and find our way back to the world again.
The tendency is to equate Henry James's style with lavish expenditure, which is in keeping with the richly appointed drawing rooms and ritual teas his characters indulge in. Conventional wisdom tells us to ease deeply into a sentence by Henry James as we would into a piece of upholstered furniture; we should ready ourselves for a protracted, and definitely edifying, stay. It is this reputation as much as anything else that long ago won James the label of "Master." Literary criticism sets him at the head of a long table sumptuously laid, where, by dint of custom and our host's stature, we imagine him carving and distributing rich conceptions for our delectation and amazement. Thus we confront the writer as impresario, orchestrating understandings in a smooth continuum from the insight out.
This is essentially the James whom scholars trust in, defer to, and extol. But how many have come away from James's table with their plates empty because they could not effectively follow the proceedings? His heavily advertised luxuries notwithstanding, the James those would-be readers know remains stingy when it comes to giving the gist. No one in the canon apportions his findings more cautiously or lets drip so little unconditioned giving from his fist. Henry James is at once relentless and diffident. His sentences recoil from certitude as their creator would from today's New York subway, not to mention abjuring the crassness and savagery it contains.
To demonstrate, we might risk a few of his tricky, niggling interiors. Beware: the oxygen is soon exhausted at the higher elevation his characters ordinarily expound from; you can't find anyplace in James, not a servants' quarters, a kitchen, or a cemetery, that will provide a refuge from vocabulary and infectious subordination.
Approaching under advisement, we may consider this sentence from the opening paragraph of "The Turn of the Screw." "The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion-an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shocked him." I say "consider this sentence" somewhat ironically, for it could be said that the sentence is bent on considering itself before readers ever subject it to analysis. As so many Jamesian sentences do, this one eddies around the very impediments it puts up against its own advancement. Mention Henry James to most people familiar with his prose, and they will envision someone stiffly held in evening clothes, hardly able to bend over to retrieve a fallen fork. In light of sentences like this one, though, I imagine a suppler fellow, a contortionist in fact, continually risking good sense and his own back.
At the point where our exemplary sentence appears, we find ourselves on the verge of a ghost story-admittedly, James's verges often must be measured in acres-and we are forewarned by references to apparitions, shock, and dread. Nevertheless, the experience of the sentence is less ominous than lulling. By the time we reach "the terror of it," the cumbrous progress toward the pronoun makes it difficult to discern its reference at all. The appearance of the antecedent is about as ambiguous as that of the ghost lurking several pages ahead. In this one sentence, James expends eighty-one words to ornament the mist. He lets us pull over temporarily--James gives us a semicolon as a kind of rest area just off the highway, where we can collect ourselves, check our itinerary, and stretch our legs--but the fog does not lift. The remainder of the trip is no more forgiving, what with an initial negation ("not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again") and a brief chronological detour ("before she had succeeded in doing so") yet to be negotiated. In short-a humble phrase, one by all accounts foreign to this author-James's style is overqualified for the job of just delivering the mail.
Later in the tale we find another representative Jamesian sentence taking its long way around what complainants say is a barn without a door. "We met, after I had brought home little Miles, more intimately than ever on the ground of my stupefaction, my general emotion: so monstrous was I then ready to pronounce it that such a child as had now been revealed to me should be under an interdict." The colon after "emotion" seems perfectly suited to what becomes a task of extrusion, an effort of clause after hard-earned clause. It is typical of James, this scrabbling for purchase on the sheer slope of meaning; in truth, "the ground of my stupefaction" is not a promising place to lay in a foundation or stake a claim. All of James's celebrated wrestling with the ineffable seldom concludes with anything better than a truce. Despite the long miles he crosses to bear little Miles home, our speaker is able to proclaim not an epiphany but the injunction against it. With the possible exception of Samuel Beckett, whose own prose features sentences that stretch out their demises the way cigars left to burn extend their ash, no writer is so willing as James to hazard his own failure-to wear it openly and still never wear it out.
Admittedly, we would never expect to find Beckett's spectral rat men scrounging anywhere near the estates of James's titled gentry, but they do share an inability to leave off. Not even Joseph Cornell accrued grafts and details more assiduously than James's American dockets; he pocketed no more crap than Beckett's Krapp keeps in his head. You would never confuse the two, but aren't Strether Lambert and Molloy comparably addicted to incidentals, asides, and addenda? They may move through very different fields of inquiry, but they both emerge unkempt and covered with burrs. Remember the blood Hamm thinks is dripping inside his head in Endgame? Ignore for a moment the ruined digs and blasted circumstances of Beckett's character, and you may recognize something akin to the unremitting trickle of consciousness common to so many of the flounced and vested inhabitants of Henry James. Despite their obvious differences, Beckett's and James's characters alike display a penchant for complication and an absolute inability to hold their peace.
"Master" implies authority, but James takes great pains to point out that this is precisely the attribute his investigations lack. His sentences bustle with obligations and afterthoughts, enough to bloat better than a hundred stories and a score of novels. The paradox is that, no matter how extensive a given Jamesian sentence's intentions may reach, their author forever finds himself "under an interdict." James operates according to a "you-can't-get-there-from-here" aesthetic. Accordingly, integrity takes the form of a refusal to have done with it, to find it satisfactory. Renowned for their psychological amplitude, his tales consist of sentences that recognize every mental state but reconciliation.
Here is the sentence that immediately succeeds the announcement of the homecoming above: "I was a little late on the scene of his arrival, and I felt, as he stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had from the first moment seen his little sister." Leave aside for the moment that rarely can any James narrator be said to have seen anything "on the instant," a impromptu, unpremeditated instant being as alien to such a person as spontaneity would be to a clockwork. Leave aside for the moment that this analytical interlude, as well as plenty of sentences before and after, arises not between psycholinguists or conference panelists debating Piaget but between the hired help. What is most striking is that James is basically incapable of traveling light. The man worries everything, and the result is like watching a surgeon cutting himself on his own instruments; to be even less charitable, it is like watching someone pushing a marble along the carpet with his nose. Make the marble in that simile a pearl, and the value of the exertion may increase, but so does the exasperation.
Actually, James's obsessives do not chafe by themselves in an isolated corner of the canon. They dither and revise in solid company. Surely we'll also find Hamlet there, and his nemesis, too. Hamlet is the model of introspection and deferral, no doubt, but in regard to dilation on the stage, Claudius, for all his activism, comes off just as tortuously:
That we would do
We should do when we could, for this "would" changes,
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents.
As king, Claudius is nothing if not politic, and that goes for both his backstage machinations and his ongoing justifications for them.
Then there is Eliot's Prufrock, who, when he references his debt to Shakespeare, practices the circumlocutions he preaches:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-
Almost, at times, the Fool.
What a labored attempt this is to edge near the precipice of full disclosure. In these nine lines, Prufrock stumbles over twenty marks of punctuation before the climactic petering out of self-regard. "Delayed gratification" is a common enough phrase, but we are talking about characters for whom there has never been any other kind.
If "gratification" is ever applicable in James's case. James is refined, without question, but his is also arguably the most apologetic, groping prose around, filled as it is with sentences that fidget and fuss in their evening clothes. There are so many hinges and fittings carpentered into his arguments, so many disclaimers, hedges, and attenuations to contend with, that the result, often as not, is an elegant ruin. What a lot of syntactical window-shopping goes on in these sentences. What a cargo of approximations freights the eminent Henry James, who cannot seem to shirk or abbreviate anything.
Watching one of his statements unfold, like watching a nervous trucker trying to parallel park a semi, can be twitchy, mystifying business indeed. Witness yet another bumpy avowal from "Turn of the Screw": "It wasn't so much yet that I was more nervous than I could bear to be as that I was remarkably afraid of becoming so; for the truth I had now to turn over was simply and clearly the truth that I could arrive at no account whatever of the visitor with whom I had been so inexplicably and yet, as it seemed to me, so intimately concerned." It is one more contraption destined to set off grammar checker--the computer can't abide all that worming through the works. It is one more of James's tenured sentences-one more sentence relegated to the author's extended care facility, one more sentence without parole. It recalls a Christmas bill, to which congressmen attach amendment after amendment until the thing becomes too unwieldy to pass. "It wasn't so much yet that," it begins, squeezing out an absence of credentials. James often relies on this method, whereby he sets what he means to convey in relief against the background of what he does not or cannot say. Wyeth never planted a girl in so vast a field of wheat as the abyss of the inscrutable in which James plunges his frail declaration.
One wonders whether being handed a menu of entrees the establishment does not serve whets the appetite or sends the hungry patron to another restaurant. In any event, our speaker is finally ready to present the authentic bill of fare. "For the truth I had now to turn over was simply and clearly . . . ." And isn't revelation-the arrival of what is true and simple and clear--worth the wait? But the truth is that "I could arrive at no account whatever of the visitor with whom I had been so inexplicably and yet, as it seemed to me, so intimately concerned." And we conclude in a cultivated shambles, where intimacy does little to solve the inexplicable. As for that courtly "as it seemed to me," this is one of James's signature hiccups. "It is perhaps nearer the truth to say." "As it were." "If I might rightly assess it as such." They are pre-emptive strikes against being held responsible, codicils to the will. Taken together, such phrases constitute a groveler's thesaurus. Do not begrudge me my splendidly rendered but meager apprehensions, they imply. Rather, you needn't begrudge me because I am already and constantly on record for begrudging myself. James beats the reader to the reconnoitering, then to the recoil.
William Faulkner famously promoted his desire "to say it all . . . between one Cap and one period. . . . to put everything into one sentence-not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present, second by second." Henry James appears to share in this desire, ceding a sentence its proclivities and dilations, letting its consciousness stretch out like time itself. Like Faulkner, he would define "the whole past on which [the sentence] depends" as not only the familial and social legacy behind its utterance but also the history of the linguistic and intellectual deliberations that went into its construction. But even this burden doesn't account for the tentativeness of its course. More to the point, perhaps, is the conclusion of Donald Barthelme's story "Sentence." ("Conclusion" is too exalted a term, in that the 2500-word spill merely peters out without earning a period.) "Sentence" begins by noting its own incentive: "Or a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom-if not the bottom of this page then of some other page-where it can rest, or stop for a moment to think about the questions raised by its own (temporary) existence . . . ." Any sentiment left out too long will eventually curdle. This one, too, inevitably comes to grief: "a disappointment, to be sure, but it reminds us that the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones." Surfing a long sentence can be a heady, splendid ride, but in these cases the enterprise is doomed. Either it will dash itself against a period like a boulder or tear its hull against elliptical shoals.
After undertaking a sentence by Henry James, it is necessary to convalesce. A strict diet of unmodified subjects and exercise predicated by straightforward action verbs is indicated. Stick to a starker economy for a while, whose trappings are spartan and intelligence severe. What's called for is an uncompromising prose, perhaps something in the nature of Hammett's patter. Practice fast rejoinders that crack off cleanly. Swear off appurtenances and spendthrift attachments. Eschew the marbled argument and the larded rationale, which, we ruefully remember, clogged the heart of Henry Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle" and left at least a dozen other James protagonists gasping for air. Avoid semicolons as you would saturated fats. Restore yourself by banging out a set of subject-verb-object sentences every morning before a sensible breakfast. Strive, in short, for the ripped figure and the leaner look.
Cold turkey is the best way to go. There is something to be said for a clean break, which is that something can be said, immediately after which the trick is to push away from the table. And who knows? When James himself finally met his death sentence-"So here it is at last, the distinguished thing"-instead of acknowledging the "occasion" as "an appearance, of a dreadful kind," he might very well have been hailing the humble, unprecedented satisfaction of a full stop.