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.

Tanner highlights still other passages in Henry for which equivalents can be found in William’s prose. In English Hours, Henry exults in the evidence that so little remains of the town of Dunwich that it is ‘not even the ghost of its dead self’.Why this fascination with ghosts? Because ghosts, it would seem, prove his contention that ‘there is a presence in what is missing.’ The existence of a ghost cannot be proved since it would then cease to be one; it would emerge as a real presence. Ghost stories have the built-in advantage, from the point of view of a writer like James, of remaining beyond the reach of any presumably full or final interpretation, which is one reason he chose to write a number of them. One can find equivalents to all this in William’s Principles. He there focuses more directly than Henry on the ghostly elements, as they might be called, that inhabit the structures of our sentences. He notes that some parts of speech are ‘impalpable to direct examination’, that ‘large tracts of human speech are nothing but signs of direction’, that ‘they are not to be glimpsed except in flight’, and warns that ‘if we try to hold fast the feeling of direction, the full presence comes and the feeling of direction is lost.’

These compassionate-sounding observations attest to beliefs everywhere manifest in brother Henry’s later style, including a belief affirmed by William that ‘namelessness is compatible with existence.’ If it is ‘nameless’, how does language represent it? By phrasings that are calculatingly elusive and by making one’s language evasive of any final interpretation or factual approximation. ‘The feeling of an absence is toto caelo other than the absence of feeling’ – this remark of William’s came immediately to mind when I read, in the first of these lectures, Tanner’s estimable description of some of Henry’s stylistic practices: ‘Absence rather than presence; shadow rather than substance; broken eloquence esteemed more than confidently replete utterance – these are central preferences for James.’

There is, besides, a predilection shared by both brothers with earlier American writers, like Emerson and Thoreau, and later ones, like Frost and Stevens, for what each of them at some point gets to call ‘vagueness’. So that even while admitting in an essay on Flaubert that the novelist no less than the painter is to a degree committed to a rendering of things as they are, Henry goes on to say that there is an obligation to ‘something else, beneath and behind, that belongs to the realms of vagueness and uncertainty’. These, as Tanner points out, are ‘the realms with which Henry’s work will unerringly concern itself’, and to which, I might add, William declared an equal allegiance. Early on, in Principles, he announces that ‘it is in short the reinstatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention.’

Once these close approximations between Henry and William are recognised – their resentment of the structures normally given to language and their intensely expressed opinion that these need to be loosened and reformed – it’s all the more startling to come upon the dismissive, supercilious gusto that William is able to bring to his criticism of Henry’s writing, especially of what he calls ‘your third manner’. He has in mind the style of many of the works especially commended by Tanner, like The American Scene, the autobiographical writings and James’s Prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels, which R.P. Blackmur in 1934 called, as I would now, ‘the most sustained and I think eloquent and original piece of literary criticism in existence’. What makes the strictures in William’s letters to Henry even more peculiar is that in the process he can’t help revealing an admiration, however suppressed, for what Henry is doing. He is quite capable of describing the ‘third manner’ with an accuracy that is a match for Tanner’s. I must quote at length one such passage since there is no good way to abridge it, and no one should want to abridge it anyway. It is from a letter written in the spring of 1907.

Dearest H ... I’ve been so overwhelmed with work, and the mountain of the Unread has piled up so, that only in these days ... have I been able to settle down to your American Scene, which in its peculiar way seems to me supremely great. You know how opposed your whole ‘third manner’ of execution is to the literary ideals which animate my crude and Orson-like breast, mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object, made (like the ‘ghost’ at the Polytechnic) wholly out of implacable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space. But you do it, that’s the queerness! And the complication of innuendo and associative reference on the enormous scale to which you give way to it does so build out the matter for the reader that the result is to solidify, by the mere bulk of the process, the like perception from which he has to start. As air, by dint of its volume, will weigh like a corporeal body; so his own poor little initial perception, swathed in this gigantic envelopment of suggestive atmosphere, grows like a germ into something vastly bigger and more substantial. But it’s the rummest method for one to employ systematically as you do nowadays; and you employ it at your peril. In this crowded and hurried reading age, pages that require such close attention remain unread and neglected. You can’t skip a word if you are to get the effect, and 19 out of 20 worthy readers grow intolerant. The method seems perverse: ‘Say it out, for God’s sake,’ they cry, ‘and have done with it.’ And so I say now, give us one thing in your older directer manner, just to show that, in spite of your paradoxical success in this unheard-of method, you can still write according to accepted canons. Give us that interlude; then continue like the ‘curiosity of literature’ which you have become. For gleams and innuendoes and felicitous verbal insinuations you are unapproachable, but the core of literature is solid. Give it to us once again! The bare perfume of things will not support existence, and the effect of solidarity you reach is but perfume and simulacrum.

What is to be made of this? On the one hand, William concedes that in his ‘third manner’ Henry brilliantly accomplishes with language what he sets out to do with it. And if Principles of Psychology along with Pragmatism are to be believed, that’s just about what William himself wants to see happening. On the other hand, he asks Henry to desist, lest he go unread or is read merely as ‘ “the curiosity of literature” you have become’. As from one of America’s greatest philosophers – Tanner chooses to call him ‘America’s greatest psychologist’ – this is a way of saying that Henry somehow hasn’t any right to display in his work a power of individuality that might alienate him from a popular audience, since as a novelist he can be no more than a public entertainer or a moralist. How dare this younger brother, so often patronised by the far more worldly, robust (and married) older one, come forward at this late date as if he were already one of Harold Bloom’s ‘strong poets’. Bloom’s idea of the ‘strong poet’ is adapted by Rorty in his revisionist definitions of pragmatism, and designates a writer who, as Bloom puts it, ‘will not tolerate words that intervene between him and the Word, or precursors standing between him and the Muse’. This requires a style of defiant originality which may easily be taken as eccentric, a style defiantly of one’s own invention. The emergence of such a style in Henry’s writing obviously proved intolerable to a brother heretofore secure in his sense of priority. To help meet this threat he summons not only his sarcasms but the predictable opinion of these ‘19 out of 20 worthy readers’. On their, and not only on his own, behalf, he pleads that Henry grant ‘at least an interlude’ in which ‘you give us one thing in your older directer manner’ – this to a writer already 64 years old! Please assure us, he is saying, that, at last, you do not intend to be taken seriously.

The assumptions of superiority in this letter, apparently boisterous but on closer reading insecure, can be interpreted in the context of an 1898 lecture called ‘Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results’, in which William proposes that ‘philosophers’, obviously meaning himself, ‘are after all like poets’. Why? Because ‘they are pathfinders’, a metaphor he immediately extends with the claim that ‘they are, if I may use a simile, so many spots, or blazes, – blazes made by the axe of the human intellect on the trees of the otherwise trackless forest of human experience. They give you somewhere to go from.’ Philosophers and poets are in themselves signs, and they also make signs; they create verbal entitlement for the rest of us. Clearly he is talking only about writing, and yet he wants to make it sound, as he usually does, as if the activity of the writer is among the most physically strenuous, he-man and even dangerous of pursuits. Axe at the ready, philosopher-poet William is Natty Bumpo. At least he is not at all like brother Henry, as described by William in a letter from London to his wife Alice in 1889:

Henry is nice and simple and amiable as he can be. He has covered himself, like some marine crustacean, with all sorts of material growths, rich seaweeds and rigid barnacles and things, and lives hidden in the midst of his strange heavy alien manners and customs; but these are all but ‘protective resemblances,’ under which the same dear old good, innocent, and at the bottom very powerless-feeling Henry remains, caring for little but his writing, and full of dutifulness and affection for all gentle things.

It can be said in extenuation that this manages to be comically outrageous, and was intended no doubt to amuse his wife, left at home. Besides, it is accepted that expressions of sibling rivalry often combine, as this does, considerable abuse with tenderness. However, it’s also worth noting that William, not for the first or last time, insists on associating Henry and ‘his writing’ – novels and novelistic prose – with inertia and powerlessness, with self-sequestration and a near-paralytic curtailment of manly activity. And this, as it happens, is exactly the dreaded fate that, earlier in life, feeling close to a total nervous collapse, William had imagined as a likely end for himself.

Indeed his assessments of Henry’s ‘third manner’ are of a piece with a long-held fear of any involvement in the arts that doesn’t issue quite directly into what he insistently calls ‘action’. With some degree of self-mockery and self-protection, he says at one point that this ‘action’ can be ‘the least thing in the world, speaking genially to one’s grandmother ... if nothing more heroic offers’. But we’re left again to conclude that he simply wants to avoid the admission that the only ‘action’ that can properly be said to occur as a result of writing or of reading, which is his business in life as well as Henry’s, is in the head or at the desk. It is surely William’s convoluted and neurotic association of immobility with any prolonged, intensive dedication to artistic products or to the study of them that so frequently makes him incapable of admitting to the seriousness with which Henry’s work asks to be taken. When he does find novelists to admire, like Stevenson or Tolstoy, the admiration he expresses isn’t for their actual writing, for what they can do with words. It’s for their representations of physical adventurousness in the world, their healthy-minded attitudes, or, as he says in commending Dante and Wordsworth, for their ‘tonic and consoling power’. Early on, in Principles, he engages in a bizarre diatribe against ‘the habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going ... even the habit of excessive indulgence in music’, aside from composing it. And the reason? Because, he alleges, these habits inevitably produce that ‘contemptible type of human character ... who spends his life in a weltering sea’ (Henry, one recalls, is compared to a ‘marine crustacean’) ‘of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly deed’. It is here that he oilers the one remedy I’ve mentioned – speaking ‘genially to one’s grandmother, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car’.

The stubbornly held view, among those who care to have one, is that of the two genius brothers, Henry is singularly the wimp. This has already had a decisive correction in Ross Pos nock’s The Trail of Curiosity, the most penetrating study yet written of Henry and William. And the idea of a ‘powerless-feeling Henry’ is implicitly challenged, too, by Tanner’s exacting analyses, which should persuade anyone that his ‘third manner’ constitutes in itself a ‘manly concrete deed’, a deed, one might say, of imperial proportions. The later style is a concerted effort at imaginative capture. Its aim is nothing less than the liberation of persons, places and things from their fixed associations, so that they may discover new accommodations within the realms of his sentences and paragraphs, while retaining traces of their origins in life.

Any style pretending to such authority of appropriation inevitably meets the incomprehension if not the resistant indifference of the ‘19 out of 20 worthy readers’ conjured up by William. For writers of great ambition, this problem of audience didn’t begin with Henry James, nor did it end with him. There cannot be any such thing as progress in these matters. Writers of the distant past knew as well as he did the difficulty of finding an audience, and, long before T.S. Eliot, they took it as a veritable sign of their cultural and historical significance if they had proportionately more difficulty of this sort than their contemporaries. In the 1815 ‘Supplement to the Preface’, to go back only that far, Wordsworth remarks that his task as a writer isn’t only to ‘clear’ but also to ‘shape’ his own road, and grandly asks a double question: first ‘What is all this but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the poet?’ And, second: ‘Is it to be supposed that the reader can make progress of this kind, like an Indian prince or general – stretched on his palanquin, and borne by his slaves?’ The answer to the first question is so obviously yes that he need answer only the second: ‘No; he is invigorated and inspirited by his leader, in order that he may exert himself; for he cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be carried like a dead weight.’

The authorial belligerence in these sentences clearly asks to be taken as charming, and this in itself is some indication that Wordsworth knows that he is in fact communicating with a receptive band of readers, however small. The tone, no less than the substance of his remarks, is a recognition that no matter how heroic sounding and solitary certain great poets and novelists pretend to be, they are all, and always, flirting with readers, even if the readers are mostly in their own heads. In the very act of writing they imagine readers who will be offended or startled and others who are willing to join in, so to speak, anxious to encourage the writing on its way, even to nudge it in certain directions. Any reader needs inducements, however, and any writer learns to provide them. We have just heard Wordsworth promise that his readers will be ‘invigorated and inspirited’ by their ‘leader’; James is always talking abut the need for ‘suspense’ or the right proportions of ‘bewilderment’ or the novel’s ‘special obligation to be amusing’. ‘All art is expression,’ he says in the Preface to The Ambassadors, ‘and is thereby vividness.’ To lure readers into unfamiliar territory, the writer must somehow, somewhere, concede that the pleasurably familiar has an enduring claim on our sentiments. Without such authorial concessions, how could the inducements, the lures, be expected to work at all?

More acutely even than Wordsworth, James recognises the ever increasing difficulty in modern times of at once sharing in a common language with readers while undertaking in the same breath radically to transform it. If, in such a situation, all a writer can count on to begin with is one out of 20 readers, how is he to sustain the interest and support, over the long haul, even of this exceptional and solitary worthy? The answer is that no writer can ever be sure just how to do it. In his own criticism James bequeaths a record unsurpassed in the history of literature of a great artist meditating on this dilemma. I have in mind two essays in which, though he is talking about other writers, he seems as surely to be talking about himself. The first is an essay on Flaubert published in 1902, when the major phase was reaching its full splendour; the second is a Preface to The Tempest, published in 1907, when his own work as a writer had been more or less completed.

Flaubert, he says, believed

that beauty comes with expression, that expression is creation, that it makes the reality, and only in the degree in which it is, exquisitely, expression; and that we move in literature through a world of different values and relations, a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by it, and in which the image is thus superior to the thing itself.

He finds in this aspect of Flaubert, as Tanner observes, a ‘magic ... that is inestimably precious’. It’s as if James, in his fervour, is saying something equivalent about his own stylistic ventures. But a little further on in the same paragraph, he concludes that ‘with all respect to Flaubert’, style ‘never totally beguiles; since even when we are so queerly constituted as to be ninety-nine parts literary, we are still a hundredth part something else.’ And he then adds: ‘This hundredth part may, once we possess the book – or the book possesses us – make us imperfect as readers, and yet without it should we want or get the book at all?’

Tanner greatly appreciates this passage, which gives us reason to wish that his quotation of it hadn’t stopped short of that last sentence. It’s a sentence in need of exactly his kind of interpretative generosity. The more one looks into it the more puzzling it becomes. The preceding sentence poses no problem. It says that in even the most aesthetically yielding reader there is a holding back at some point. A ‘hundredth part’ of oneself forestalls any total surrender to the beguilements of another’s style, and remains committed to something else, to ‘clumsy life’ as James calls it in his Preface to The Spoils of poynton. Only in the next sentence do confusions intrude. Here the intervention of the ‘hundredth part’ seems to occur not before but only after we have been beguiled: ‘once we possess the book – or the book possesses us’. Presumably it’s only at this point that we become ‘imperfect as readers’, since we’d managed earlier (hadn’t we?) to let ourselves be fully possessed and possessing. But the confusion of sequence is compounded when he goes on to say that this imperfection was nonetheless responsible for our earlier desire ‘to want or get the book at all’, meaning, I take it, in the first place, before we got into the possession game.

The objections I’m raising are inevitably called for by the wording, assuming, of course, that the wording is meant all along to be clear and logical. So the question then becomes whether or not this assumption really ought to be brought to bear on James’s writing. Isn’t his style purposely designed to defeat clarity and logic, at least of the commonsensical kind I’ve been evoking? That seems to me his intention, and he achieves it by being even more slippery, vaguer and elusive than I’ve so far been able to show. Consider, for example, the words in the offending sentence that imply some degree of orderly development in the experience it describes. They turn out to be utterly unsuited to the task. ‘Once we possess’ doesn’t, for instance, necessarily refer to some point after we’ve got into the reading; it can refer to a time before we start, perhaps when we are only anticipating the imaginative adventure ahead of us. And the vapid phrase, ‘at all’ (‘Should we want or get the book at all?’), instead of pointing to a time before we owned the book, could just as well refer to a time after we’ve read it and are cherishing the memory of how it ‘got’ to us. When does reading begin, when does it end?

The analysis can go on interminably, wearing us down, opening up prospects of tiresome circularity. It’s as if we are only proving how fully we’ve become what he wants us to become, ‘imperfectreaders’ whose resistant ‘hundredth part’ keeps us from giving into his beguilements, even though we’ve already done so in our obsessions with his words. At that point it’s time to admit that the passage has accomplished just what he intended it to accomplish. He wants us to concede that the process by which the workings of style can take possession of us, or we of it, does not have any particular order or logic. So that the word ‘possess’ gets to suggest the kind of madness evoked in his story of 1893, ‘The Middle Years’, where the dying novelist Dencombe exultantly declares: ‘We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’

These matters are eloquently brought into play in James’s Preface to The Tempest, unaccountably ignored by nearly all his interpreters, even by Tanner who, with this book, joins the very best of them. James writes of Shakespeare as if he were proud to be an enlistee in the ranks, doing what he can to help out in an enterprise whose dimensions absolutely amaze him, reduce him, as he says, to ‘strained and aching wonder’. Surrender and obedience are responses that in this case are more suitable, he argues, than the ‘interpretive heat’ or ‘interpretive zeal’ of those who want to dig up the meaning, like so much plunder, so as to carry it elsewhere. His ‘merely baffled and exasperated view of one of the supreme works of all literature’ is, he contends, ‘no unworthy tribute’ to it, especially when compared to the large body of commentary on the play that ‘abounds much rather in affirmed conclusions, complacencies of conviction, full apprehensions of the meaning and triumphant pointings of the moral’.

As he continues, it becomes poignantly evident that he finds in Shakespeare’s last play the very qualities he hopes, this late in his career, might one day be discovered by a critic of his own work. He speaks, meanwhile, of ‘The Poet’s high testimony to this independent, absolute value of Style, and to its need thoroughly to project and seat itself.’ A bit earlier he had insisted that in Shakespeare ‘the phrase, the cluster and order of terms, is the object and the sense’, which may be taken to mean that whatever the realities or truths created by style, these compete with and aren’t simply to be measured by any reality or truth prior to it. ‘It is,’ he goes on, ‘by his expression of it exactly as the expression stands that the particular thing is created as interesting, as beautiful, as strange, droll or terrible.’

Nevertheless, as James likes to remind himself, and us, any writer, even of Shakespeare’s unparalleled genius, who works ‘predominantly in the terms of expression, all in the terms of the artist’s specific vision and genius’, is in an immensely precarious position. He is forever in danger of becoming ultimately incomprehensible. Imaginative vision for a writer can only and always be an effort to arrive at one, to create it in words, and it is thanks to these words that readers may expect to share in the wonder and excitement of the effort. But the quest, the effort, the sharing depend on an implicit agreement among all participants that a good part of the pleasure depends on keeping a delicate, forever varying balance between sense and indecipher-ability, with each allowed to tease the other into and out of assertions of predominance.

Mostly on this score, James is willing, for a moment directly, to claim some place on the stage with Shakespeare:

One can speak of these matters, but from the impression determined by one’s own inevitable standpoint; again and again, al any rate, such a masterpiece puts before me the very act of the momentous conjunction taking place for the poet, at a given hour, between his charged inspiration and his clarified experience; or, as I should perhaps better express it, between his human curiosity and his aesthetic passion. Then, if he happens to have been all his career, with his equipment for it, more or less the victim and the slave of the former, he yields, by way of a change, to the impulse of allowing the latter, for a magnificent moment, the upper hand.

His glorification of Shakespeare seems to me a wholly deserved glorification of himself, and it is appropriate, too, that in this process he resorts to a descriptive terminology that William should have found irresistible: ‘Such a quest of imaginative experience, we can only feel, has itself constituted one of the greatest observed adventures of mankind.’