In Praise of Vagueness

Richard Poirier

  • Henry James and the Art of Non-Fiction by Tony Tanner
    Georgia, 92 pp, £20.50, May 1995, ISBN 0 8203 1689 X

From the beginning of his distinguished career, with his influential The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature, on to the more recent Adultery and the Novel and his fluently recondite Venice Desired, on the literary figurations of that city since the 18th century, Tony Tanner has shown a rare degree of excitement and curiosity about the workings of literary style, the way words come to life in response to the performative presence within them of a novelist or a poet.

This new book, made up of his three Averett Lectures at Southern Georgia University in 1993, is a celebration of the stylistic elaborations in Henry James’s travel writings, literary criticism and autobiographical works, most of which belong to his later or, as it is often called, major phase that includes, more famously, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. Tanner takes evident delight in the task at hand and exploits it with an often brilliant mischievousness. This allows him to show that readers of James will be abundantly rewarded once they forgo much of what they already have, including the conventional expectation that the reason to read great literature is to find things that are transportable, things they can carry away with them. Not a chance. At the beginning of the last of the three lectures, he points out how precious little his interpretations have yielded by way of those facts and specifics usually to be expected, especially from non-fictional prose: ‘I have so far offered you a James whose travel writing deliberately disdains information, and whose literary criticism flauntingly eschews consistent method or theory. Finally, I want to celebrate James as a writer of autobiography that will have nothing to do with chronology or conventional sequence.’

Tanner’s enthusiasm presupposes that the style of a literary work can create a sustained interest primarily in itself. This makes him something of a rarity among academic literary critics of this or any other time. Literature in English began to be accredited as a course of study in English and American universities only in the early decades of this century, and since that time readers have been enjoined to treat literary style not as something to be read for the fun of it but as something to be decoded, even if you might take pleasure in it outside the classroom or the literary journals. How else could English departments make ‘contributions to knowledge’, the prerequisite for their ability to compete for prestige and funding with departments of philosophy or history or the natural sciences? What keeps a classroom hour going when all there is in front of a teacher is a poem and some students, what keeps the literary quarterlies humming, is the flat-minded and professionally opportunistic conviction that the style of a given work must be holding an encapsulated secret, and that the secret calls for a professional locksmith. Style must finally be about something else, and this requires us to look behind it for big meanings and big truths.

I italicise the word ‘about’ not only for emphasis, but because I want it to carry some of the implications it takes in Principles of Psychology, the massive first book by Henry’s brother William, regarded by R.W.B. Lewis and others as one of the singular achievements in American writing of the 19th century. Principles never systematically or for long directly addresses the issues of language and style. When it does do so, however, it is with an urgency of feeling that links William with Henry in the conviction that, as William bluntly puts it, ‘language works against our perception of the truth.’ He means language as it is conventionally or habitually structured. It might be assumed that anyone convinced of this would be disposed to admire writings displaying an evident desire to use language in unfamiliar, unpredictable arrangements. Gertrude Stein, who shows a notorious determination to do so, was one of William’s favoured students when she was at Harvard and he was a dominant figure in its philosophy department; and she always spoke of him admiringly. All the while, William was aggressively censorious about his brother’s stylistic innovations, particularly during the period when he was writing much of the prose featured by Tanner.

This stand-off between the two brothers becomes even more anomalous once we take a closer look at the moment in Principles already alluded to. There, in the chapter called ‘The Stream of Thought’, William complains about our tendency to focus in any sentence on words that are taken to be the most referential, be it to important topics or to familiar things. ‘So inveterate has our habit become,’ he writes, ‘of recognising the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.’ And then, in what could serve as a close to passionate justification for Henry’s efforts to find alternative structures, he describes as repressive, even murderous, our habitual ways of using words. ‘All dumb or anonymous psychic states have, owing to this error, been coolly suppressed; or, if recognised at all, have been named after the substantive perception they led up to, as thoughts “about” this object or “about” that, the stolid word about engulfing all their delicate idiosyncrasies in its monotonous sound.’

The relation between Henry and William doesn’t enter into Tony Tanner’s considerations, neither does the likely relation between Henry’s style and William’s formulations of pragmatism. There are no compelling reasons why he should bother with these things. But one of the permanently valuable achievements of his book is that Tanner’s close interpretations of style are such as to encourage speculations that to a remarkable degree Henry’s writing, particularly in the later works, is an enactment in language, call it a poetic enactment, of the pragmatism propounded somewhat later in William’s 1907 Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. He means ‘old’ in philosophic thinking, not, as I do, that pragmatist thinking is as old as poetry, at least as old as Shakespeare’s poetry, which evinces a desire to create realities then and there, on the spot. Nietzsche, an intense reader of Emerson, more or less proposes this connection between poetry and pragmatism, but it was left to Richard Rorty to argue for it in a passionate and sustained manner, as he does in essays printed in these pages in 1986 and, somewhat revised, in his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.

The style of Pragmatism is in itself sufficiently poetic to have made many professional philosophers at the time suspicious and dismissive of the book. Its arguments depend very often on dramatic posturing, and advance by means of evolving figurative patterns rather than by any rigorous self-questioning. In idealising the pragmatist individual, for example, William likes to evoke the kinetic energy of the body, with words like ‘turn’ or ‘set at work’ or ‘actions’, that sound like casual evocations of his outdoorsy athleticism. On inspection, they refer metaphorically to wholly sedentary activities at the desk or in the mind. When, for instance, he says that a pragmatist is one who ‘turns away from pretended absolutes’, away from ‘power-bringing words’and ‘solving names’inherited from earlier writing, he means that if operative concepts of reality are ever to be changed, then somewhere along the line it will be necessary to ‘turn’ – that is, in the quite ancient lingo of poetry, ‘to trope’ – the words that have previously described those concepts. To put it in Henry’s terms, one mustn’t get stuck with what, in The American Scene, he calls an ‘excess of specificity’, a slavishness to the ‘scene’ as it is already assumed to exist.

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