Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Quotes: The Vagrant Mood (1952) by W. Somerset Maugham


Augustus, though indulgent, did not spare reproof when he thought it was good for me. One Tuesday morning, when I had been spending the week-end with him, the post brought me a letter which he must have written soon after my departure. 'My dear Wilie,' it ran. 'Yesterday when we came in from our walk you said you were thirsty and asked for a 'drink'. I have never heard you vulgar before. A gentleman does not ask for a 'drink', he asks for 'something to drink'. Yours affectionately. Augustus.'
Dear Augustus! I'm afraid that if he were alive now he would find the whole English-speaking world as vulgar as he found me then.
On another occasion when I told him I had been somewhere by bus, he said stiffly: 'I prefer to call the conveyance to which you refer an omnibus', and when I protested that if he wanted a cab he didn't ask for a cabriolet, 'Only because people are so uneducated today they wouldn't understand,' he retorted.

I was accustomed to family prayers and I noticed that some of the prayers Augustus read sounded strangely in my ears. Then I discovered that he had neatly inked out many lines in the Prayer Book he read from. I asked him why.
'I've crossed out all the passages in glorification of God,' he said. 'God is certainly a gentleman, and no gentleman cares to be praised to his face. It is tactless, impertinent and vulgar. I think all that fulsome adulation must be highly offensive to him.'
At the time this notion seemed odd to me and even comic, but since I have come to think that there was some sense in it.


[“Reflections on a Certain Book”]

All I venture to claim is that I know from experience something of the process of creation and as a writer of fiction can look upon the question of beauty, which is of course the subject matter of aesthetics, with impartiality. Fiction is an art, but an imperfect one. The great novels of the world may deal with all the passions to which man is subject, discover the depths of his variable and disconsolate soul, analyse human relations, describe the civilisation or create immortal characters; it is only by a misuse of the word that beauty can be ascribed to them. We writers of fiction must leave beauty to the poets.

He was not what was called in the eighteenth century a man of feeling. Twice he thought seriously of marrying, but he took so long to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the step he had in mind that in the interval one of the young women he had his eye on married somebody else and the other left Königsberg before he reached a decision. I think this argues that he was not in love, for when you are, even if you are a philosopher, you have no difficulty in finding very good reasons for doing what your inclinations prompt. His two married sisters lived in Königsberg. Kant never spoke to them for twenty-five years. The reason he gave for this was that he had nothing to say to them. This seems sensible enough, and though we may deplore his lack of heart, when we remember how often our pusillanimity has led us to rack our brains in the effort to make a conversation with persons with whom we have nothing in common but a tie of blood, we cannot but admire his strength of mind.

Now, the ideas of a philosopher are largely conditioned by his personal characteristics, and, as one might have expected, Kant's approach to the problems of aesthetics is rigidly intellectual. His aim is to prove that the delight we take in beauty is one of mere reflection. It is interesting to see how he sets about doing this. He starts by making a distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful. The pleasure which the beautiful occasions is independent of all interest. The agreeable is what the senses find pleasing in sensation. The agreeable arouses inclination, and inclination is bound up with desire, and so with interest. A trivial illustration may make Kant's point clear: when I look at the Doric temples at Paestum the pleasure they afford me is quite obviously independent of all interest and so I may safely call them beautiful; but when I look at a ripe peach the pleasure it causes me is not disinterested, for it excites in me a desire to eat it and therefore I am bound to call it no more than agreeable. The senses of man differ and what causes me pleasure may leave you indifferent. Each of us may judge the agreeable according to his own taste and there is no disputing that. The satisfaction it gives is mere enjoyment, and so, states Kant, has no worth. That is a hard saying, which, I think, can only be explained by his conviction that the faculties of the mind alone have real value. But now, since beauty has no connection with sensation (which is bound up with interest) colour, charm and emotion, which are mere matters of sensation and so only cause enjoyment, have nothing to do with it. This of course is rather startling, but why Kant makes a statement at first sight so outrageous is plain. Since the senses of men differ, if the beautiful depends on the senses your judgement and mine are as good as that of anybody else, and aesthetics will not exist. If a judgement of taste, or what, I think, we would now more conveniently call appreciation of the beautiful, is to have any validity it must depend not on anything so capricious as feeling, but on a mental process. When you come to consider an object with a view to deciding its aesthetic value, you must discard everything, its colour, such charm as it has, the emotions it excites in you, and attend only to its form; and if then you become aware of a harmony between your imagination and your understanding (both faculties of the mind) you will receive a sensation of pleasure and be justified in calling the object beautiful.

Kant then claimed that when you have decided that an object is beautiful by the process I have just described, you can not only impute the pleasure (a feeling) you experience to everyone else, but also suppose that your pleasure (a feeling, I repeat) is universally communicable.This seems very strange. I should have thought the peculiarity of feeling is that it is not communicable. If I am looking at Giorgione's 'Virgin Enthroned' at Castel Franco, I can, if I have any gift of expression, tell you what I feel about it, but I cannot make you feel my feeling. I can tell you I am in love; I can even describe the feelings that my love excites in me; but I cannot communicate my love, a feeling, to you. If I could you would be in love with the object of my affections, and that might be highly embarrassing to me. Our feelings are surely conditioned by our dispositions. So much is this so that I do not think it an exaggeration to say that no two persons see exactly the same picture or read exactly the same poem. I can only suppose that Kant came by this notion of the universal communicability of feeling owing to his conviction that feeling was negligible except in so far as by means of the imagination and the understanding it gave rise to ideas; and since the ideas by the nature of our cognitive faculties are universally communicable, the feeling that occasioned them must be so too. He was not, as I ventured at the beginning of this essay to point out, a man who felt with intensity. That may, perhaps, be the reason why he insisted that the appreciation of beauty is merely contemplative.

But contemplation is a passive state. It does not suggest the thrill, the excitement, the breathlessness, the agitation with which the sight of a beautiful picture, the reading of a beautiful poem, must affect a person of aesthetic sensibility. It may well describe his reaction to the agreeable, but surely not to the beautiful.

It is obvious that the artist, be he poet, painter or composer, makes a communication, but from this the writers of aesthetics infer that this is his intention. There I think they are mistaken. They have not sufficiently examined the process of creation. I don't believe the artist who sets to work to create a work of art has any such purpose as they ascribe to him. If he has he is a didactic or a propagandist, and as such not an artist. I know what happens to a writer of fiction. An idea comes to him, he knows not whence, and so he gives it the rather grand name of inspiration. It is as slight a thing as the tiny foreign body that finds its way into the oyster's shell and so creates the disturbance that will result in the creation of a pearl. For some reason the idea excites him, his imagination goes to work, out of his unconscious arise thoughts and feelings, characters crowd upon him and events suggest themselves that will express them, for character is expressed by action, not by description, till at length he is possessed of a shapeless mass of material. This sometimes, but not always, falls into a pattern that enables him to see a path, as it were, which he can follow through the jungle of this confused medley of feelings and ideas till he is so obsessed by the muddle of it that to liberate his soul from a burden that has grown intolerable he is constrained to put it all down on paper. Having done this he regains his freedom. What communication the reader gets from it is not his affair.

So it is, I surmise, with the landscape painter, the young Monet for instance or Pisarro; he cannot tell you why some scene, the bend of a river, say, or a road under the snow, bordered by leafless trees, gives him a peculiar thrill so that the creative instinct is stirred in him and he has the feeling that here is something that he can deal with, and because nature has made him a painter he is able to transmute his emotion into an arrangement of colour and form that does not satisfy his sensibility, for I think it doubtful whether the artist, whatever art he practises, ever achieves the full result he saw in his mind's eye, yet always the urge of creation which is at once his delight and his torment. But I do not believe it has ever entered his head that he was making a communication to the persons who afterwards see his picture.

So it is, I submit, with the poet and the composer of music, and if I have spoken of painting rather than of poetry or music it is, frankly, because it is not so difficult to deal with. A picture can be seen at once. Not that I mean a glance will give you all that it has to give. That you can get, if you get it at all, only by giving it your continued and renewed attention. Poetry deals with words and words have overwhelming associations, associations different in different countries and in different cultures. Words affect by their meaning as well as by their sound, and so are addressed to the mind as well as to the sensibility. The only meaning of a picture is the aesthetic delight it gives you. In any case I would not venture to speak of music; the peculiar gift which enables someone to invent it is to me the most mysterious of the processes which produce a work of art. One is taken aback at first to find that Kant placed music (along with cooking) among the inferior arts because, though perhaps the highest among the arts which are valued for their agreeableness, it merely plays with sensation. It was natural that he should do this since he estimated the worth of the arts by the culture they supply to the mind.

The intellectual attitude towards aesthetic appreciation is that of pretty well all the writers on aesthetics. This is perhaps inevitable, for they are compelled to reason about what has little or nothing to do with reason, but almost only with feeling. It was certainly the attitude of Roger Fry. [...] He claimed that a work of art should be conceived in response to a free aesthetic impulse and so condemned the patron unless he allowed the artist to go his own way regardless of the patron's wishes. He had little patience with portraiture because, according to him, people have their portraits painted for social prestige or for purposes of publicity. He regarded the painters who accept such commissions as useless, probably mischievous, parasites upon society. He divided works of art into two distinct classes - 'one in which for some reason the artist can express his genuine aesthetic impulse, the other in which the artist uses his technical skill to gratify a public incapable of responding to aesthetic appeal.' This seems very high handed. Because the Pharaohs had colossal statues made of themselves presumably with the same intention as Mussolini and Hitler had when they plastered walls with portraits of themselves, namely to impress themselves on the imagination of their subjects, there are Bellini's Doge, Titian's 'Man with a glove', Velasquez' Pope Innocent, to prove that a portrait can be a work of art and a thing of beauty. We can only suppose that they satisfied their patrons. It is unlikely that had Philip IV been displeased with the portraits Velasquez painted of him, he would have sat to him so often.

The flaw in Roger Fry's argument lies in the presumption that the motives which have led the artist to create a work of art are any business of the critic's or of the layman's. [...] It is news to me that the artist who knows his business is hampered by the limitations that are imposed upon him. When the donor of an altarpiece wanted portraits of himself and his wife kneeling at the foot of the Cross with Christ crucified, perhaps for publicity or for social prestige, but perhaps also because his piety was sincere, in either case the painter had no difficulty in complying with his patron's wish. I cannot believe that it ever entered his head that he looked upon this as an infringement of his aesthetic freedom: on the contrary I am more inclined to believe that the difficulty he was asked to cope with excited and inspired him. Every art has its limitations and the better the artist the more comfortably does he exercise his creative instincts within them.

A generation or two ago a claim was made that painting was an esoteric business that only painters could adequately appreciate since they alone knew its technique. This claim, [...] was launched in England, I believe, by Whistler. He asserted that the layman was by his nature a Philistine, and his duty was to accept what the artist oracularly told him. His only function was to buy the painter's picture in order to provide him with bread and butter, but his appreciation was as impertinent as his censure. That was a farrago of nonsense. There is nothing mystical about technique; it is merely the name given to the processes by means of which the artist achieves the effects he aims at. Every art has its technique. It has nothing to do with the layman. He is only concerned with the result. When you look at a picture, if you are of a curious turn of mind it may interest you to examine the way in which the painter has achieved integration through relations of colour, line, light and space; but that is not the aesthetic communication which it has to give you. You do not look at a picture only with your eyes, you look at it with your experience of life, your instinctive likes and dislikes, your habits and feelings, your associations, in fact with the whole of your personality. And the richer your personality the richer is the communication the picture has to give you. The notion, foolish to my mind, that painting is a mystery accessible only to the initiated, is flattering to the painters. It has lead them to be scornful of the writers on art who see in pictures what from their professional standpoint is of no interest. I think they are wrong. Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa' is not a picture that everyone can care for now, but we know the communication it had to make to Walter Pater; it was not a purely aesthetic communication, but it is surely not the least of this particular picture's merits that it had it to make to a man of peculiar sensibility.

Degas: L'Absinthe,
Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France.

There is a painting by Degas in the Louvre which is popularly known as L'Absinthe, but in fact represents an engraver well-known in his day and an actress called Ellen Andre. There is no reason to suppose that they were more disreputable than other persons of their calling. They are seated side by side at a marble-topped table in a shabby bistro. The surroundings are sordid and vulgar. A glass of absinthe stands before the actress. Their dress is slovenly and you can almost smell the stench of their unwashed bodies and grubby clothes. They are slumped down on the banquette in an alcoholic stupor. Their faces are heavy and sullen. There is an air of apathetic hopelessness in their listless attitude and you would that they were dully resigned to sink deeper and deeper in shameless degradation. It is not a pretty picture, nor a pleasing one, and yet it is surely one of the great pictures of the world. It offers the authentic thrill of beauty. Of course I can see how admirable the composition is, how pleasing the colour and how solid the drawing, but to me there is much more in it than that. As I stand before it, my sensibilities quickened, at the back of my mind, somewhere between the conscious and the subconscious, I become aware of Verlaine’s poems, and of Rimbaud’s, of Manette Salomon, of the quais along the Seine with their second-hand bookstalls, of the Boulevard St. Michel and the cafés and bistros in old mean streets. I daresay that from the standpoint of aesthetic appreciation, which should be occupied only with aesthetic values, this is reprehensible. Why should I care? My delight in the picture is enormously increased. Is it possible that a picture which gives one so much can have been painted, as the distinguished critic, Camille Mauclair, says it was, because Degas was fascinated by the paradoxical perspective of the marble-topped tables in the foreground?

But now I must break off to make a confession to the reader. I have glibly used the word 'Beauty' as though I knew just what it meant. I'm not at all sure that I do. It obviously means something, but exactly what? When we say that something is beautiful can we really say why we say it? Do we mean anything more than that it happens to give us a peculiar feeling? [...] Kant has given several definitions of it, but they all tend to substantiate his claim that the pleasure which beauty affords us is a pleasure of reflection. For all I have been able to discover to the contrary he seems to have believed that beauty was immutable, a belief I think, generally shared by the writers on aesthetics. Keats expressed the same idea in the first line of 'Endymion': 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.' By this he may have meant one of two things: one, that so long as an object retains its beauty it is a pleasure; but that is what I believe philosophers call an analytical proposition, and tells us nothing that we didn't know before, since the characteristic of beauty is that it affords pleasure. Keats was too intelligent to make a statement so trite and I can only think he meant that a thing of beauty is a joy for ever because it retains its beauty for ever. And there he was wrong. For beauty is as transitory as all other things in the world. [...] Beauty depends on the climate of sensibility and this changes with the passing years. A different generation has different needs and demands a different satisfaction. We grow tired of something we know too well and ask for something new. The eighteenth century saw nothing in the paintings of the Italian primitives but the fumblings of immature, unskilful artists. Were those pictures beautiful then? No. It is we who have given them their beauty and it is likely enough that the qualities we find in them are not the qualities which appealed to the lovers of art, long since dead, who saw them when they were first painted. [...] Beauty in fact is only that which produces the specific pleasure which leads us to describe an object as beautiful during a certain period of the world's history, and it does so because it responds to certain needs of the period. It would be foolish to suppose that our opinions are any more definitive than those of our fathers, and we may be pretty sure that our descendants will look upon them with the same perplexity as we look upon Sir Joshua's high praise of Pellegrino Tibaldi and Hazlitt's passionate admiration for Guido Reni.

I have suggested that there is between the creation of beauty and the appreciation of it a disjunction which no bridge can span, and from what I have said the reader will have gathered that I think the appreciation is enhanced by, if not actually dependent upon, the culture of the individual. That is what the connoisseurs of art and the lovers of beauty claim, and they claim also that the gift of aesthetic appreciation is a rare one. [...] Is the farmer conscious of the beauty of the landscape in the sight of which he earns his daily bread? I should say not; and that is natural, for the appreciation of beauty, it is agreed, must not be affected by practical considerations, and he is concerned to plough a field or to dig a ditch. The appreciation of the beauty of nature is a recent acquisition of the human race. It was created by the painters and writers of the Romantic Era. It needs leisure and sophistication. In order to appreciate it, then, not only disinterestedness is needed, but culture and a susceptibility to ideas. Unwelcome as the idea may be, I don't see how one can escape admitting that beauty is accessible but to the chosen few.

But to admit this excites in me a feeling of deep discomfort. More than twenty-five years ago I bought an abstract picture by Ferdinand Leger. It was an arrangement of squares, oblongs and spheres in black, white, grey and red, and for some reason he had called it 'Les Toits de Paris.' I did not think it beautiful, but I found it ingenious and decorative. I had a cook then, a bad-tempered and quarrelsome woman, who would stand looking at this picture for quite long periods in a state of something that looked very like rapture. [...] It seemed to me that she was receiving as genuine an aesthetic emotion as I flattered myself I received from El Greco's 'Crucifixion' in the Louvre. I am led by this (a single instance, of course) to suggest that it is a very narrow point of view which claims that the specific pleasure of artistic appreciation can only be felt by the privileged few. It may well be that the pleasure is subtler, richer and more discriminating in someone whose personality is cultivated, whose experience is wide, but why should we suppose that someone else, less fortunately circumstanced, cannot feel a pleasure as intense and as fruitful? The object that in the latter gives rise to the pleasure may be what the aesthete considers no great shakes. Does that matter? [...] Kant put the matter succinctly when he said that beauty does not reside in the object. It is the name we give to the specific pleasure which the object gives us. Pleasure is a feeling I can see no reason why there should not be as many people capable of enjoying the specific pleasure of beauty as there are who are capable of feeling grief and joy, love, tenderness and compassion. I am inclined to say that Tolstoi was right when he said that real beauty is accessible to everyone if you leave out the word 'real'. There is no such thing as real beauty. Beauty is what gives you and me and everyone else that sense of exultation and liberation which I have already spoken of. But in discourse it is more convenient to use the word as if it were a material entity, like a chair or a table, existing in its own right, independent of the observer, and that I shall continue to do.

Pleasure has always had a bad name. Philosophers and moralists have been unwilling to own that it is good and only to be eschewed when its consequences are harmful. Plato, as we know, condemned art unless it led to right action. Christianity with its contempt of the body and its obsession with sin viewed pleasure with apprehension and its pursuit unworthy of a human being with an immortal soul. I suppose that the disapproval with which pleasure is regarded arises from the fact that when people think of it, it is in connection with the pleasures of the body. That is not fair. There are spiritual pleasures as well as physical pleasures, and if we must allow that sexual intercourse, as St. Augustine (who knew something about it) declared, is the greatest of physical pleasures, we may admit that aesthetic appreciation is the greatest of spiritual pleasures.

Kant says that the artist produces a work of art with no other purpose than to make it beautiful. I do not believe that is so; I believe that the artist produces a work of art to exercise his creative faculty, and whether what he creates is beautiful is a fortuitous result in which he may well be uninterested. [...] It may be that beauty, like happiness and originality, is more likely to be obtained when it is not deliberately attempted.

Jeremy Bentham startled the world many years ago by stating in effect that if the amount of pleasure obtained from each be equal there is nothing to choose between poetry and push-pin. Since few people now know what push-pin is, I may explain that it is a child's game in which one player tries to push his pin across that of another player, and if he succeeds and then is able by pressing down on the two pins with the ball of his thumb to lift them off the table he wins possession of his opponent's pin. [...] The indignant retort to Bentham's statement was that spiritual pleasures are obviously higher than physical pleasures. But who say so? Those who prefer spiritual pleasures. They are in a miserable minority, as they acknowledge when they declare that the gift of aesthetic appreciation is a very rare one. The vast majority of men are, as we know, both by necessity and choice preoccupied with material considerations. Their pleasures are material. They look askance at those who spent their lives in the pursuit of art. That is why they have attached a depreciatory sense to the word aesthete, which means merely one who has a special appreciation of beauty. How are we going to show that they are wrong? How are we going to show that there is something to choose between poetry and push-pin? I surmise that Bentham chose push-pin for its pleasant alliteration with poetry. Let us speak of lawn tennis. It is a popular game which many of us can play with pleasure. It needs skill and judgement, a good eye and a cool head. If I get the same amount of pleasure out of playing it as you get by looking at Titian's 'Entombment of Christ' in the Louvre, by listening to Beethoven's 'Eroica' or by reading Eliot's 'Ash Wednesday', how are you going to prove that your pleasure is better and more refined than mine? Only, I should say, by manifesting that this gift you have of aesthetic appreciation has a moral effect on your character.

In one place Kant makes the significant remark that 'connoisseurs in taste, not only often, but generally are given up to idle, capricious and mischievous passions' and that 'they could perhaps make less claims than the others to any superiority of attachment to moral principles.' This was doubtless true then: it is true now. Human nature changes little. No one can have lived much in the society of those whom Kant calls connoisseurs of taste, and whom we may more conveniently call aesthetes, without noticing how seldom it is that you find in them the modesty, the tolerance, the loving-kindness and liberality, in short the goodness with which you might have expected their addiction to spiritual pleasures to inform them. If the delight in aesthetic appreciation is no more than opium of the intelligentsia it is no more than, as Kant says, a mischievous distraction. If it is more it should enable its possessor to acquire virtue. Kant finely says that beauty is the symbol of morality. Unless the love of beauty ennobles the character, and that is the only purposiveness of beauty that seems, as far as I can see, important enough to give it value, then I can't see how we can escape from Bentham's affirmation that if the amount of pleasure obtained from each be equal there is nothing to choose between poetry and push-pin.


["The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story"]

When, after a hard day's work, you are spending the evening alone and you look at your bookshelves for something to read, do you take down War and Peace, L'Education Sentimentale, Middlemarch or Du Cote de chez Swann? If you do I admire you. Or if, wishing to keep up with modern fiction, you take up a novel the publisher has sent you, a harrowing story of displaced persons in Central Europe, or one that a review has induced you to buy, a ruthless picture of the lives of poor white trash in Louisiana, you have my hearty approval. But this is not the sort of person I am. For one thing, I have read all the great novels three or four times already and they have nothing more to tell me; for another, when I look at the four hundred and fifty closely printed pages which according to the jacket are going to lay bare to me the secrets of a woman's soul or wring my withers with the horrors of life in the slums of Glasgow (all the characters speaking broad Scots), my heart sinks; and I choose a detective story.

In fact, in The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, the detective, pins the murder of Archer on Brigid O'Shaughnessy by pointing out to her that she is the only person who could have committed it, whereupon she loses her presence of mind and admits it. If she hadn't done this, but had coolly answered 'Prove it', he would have been nonplussed; and in any case had she got Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner's astute lawyer, to defend her, no jury would have convicted her on the flimsy evidence which was all that Sam Spade had to produce.


[“After Reading Burke”]

It is not often that you come across a man the features of whose personality are so incompatible as was the case with Burke. He was upright and abject, straightforward and shifty, disinterested and corrupt. How is one to reconcile characteristics so discordant? I don't know.

In his study he was no longer the reckless punter, the shameless sponge, the unscrupulous place-hunter (not for himself, but for others), the dishonest advocate who attacked measures introduced to correct scandalous abuses because his pocket would be affected by their passage. In his study he was the high-minded man whom his friends loved and honoured for his nobility of spirit, his greatness and his magnanimity. In his study he was the honest man he was assured he was. Then, but only then, you can say of Burke: Le style c'est l'homme meme.



Beauty is a grave word. It is a word of high import. It is used lightly now - of the weather, of a smile, of a frock or the fit of a shoe, of a bracelet, of a garden, of a syllogism; beautiful serves as a synonym for good or pretty or pleasing or nice or engaging or interesting. But beauty is none of these. It is much more. It is very rare. It is a force. It is an enravishment. It is not a figure of speech when people say it takes their breath away; in certain cases it may give you the same suffocating shock as when you dive into ice-cold water. And after that first shock your heart throbs like a prisoner's when the jail gate clangs behind him and he breathes again the clean air of freedom. The impact of beauty is to make you feel greater than you are, so that for a moment you seem to walk on air; and the exhilaration and the release are such that nothing in the world matters anymore. You are wrenched out of yourself into a world of pure spirit. It is like falling in love. It is falling in love. It is an ecstasy matching the ecstasy of the mystics. When I think of the works of art that have filled me with this intense emotion I think of the first glance at the Taj Mahal, the St. Maurice of El Greco, seen again after long years, the Adam with his outstretched arm in the Sistine Chapel, Night and Day and the brooding figure of Giuliano on tombs of the Medici and Titian's Entombment of Christ. Such an emotion I, for my part, have never received from the highly competent, well-painted, well-drawn, dignified, thoughtful canvases which Zurbaran painted for the altars of churches and the sacristies of convents. They have great qualities, but they appeal to the mind, to the intelligent appreciation, rather than to the heart and nerves which are thrilled and shattered by the rapture of pure beauty.


[“Some Novelists I Have Known”]

Henry James's fictions are like the cobwebs which a spider may spin in the attic of some old house, intricate, delicate and even beautiful, but which at any moments the housemaid's broom with brutal common sense may sweep away.

If in these pages I have made Henry James, I hope not unkindly, a trifle absurd it is because that is what I found him. I think he took himself a good deal too seriously. We look askance at a man who keeps on telling you he is a gentleman; I think it would have been more becoming in Henry James if he had not insisted so often on his being an artist. It is better to leave others to say that.

At the end of the second act [of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde] she gathered her ermine cloak around her shoulders and, turning to her companion, said: 'Let's go. There's not enough action in this play.' Of course she was right, but perhaps that wasn't quite the point.

In the last twenty-five years I have had a lot people staying with me, and sometimes I am tempted to write an essay on guests. There are the guests who never shut a door after them and never turn out the light when they leave their room. There are the guests who throw themselves on their bed in muddy boots to have a nap after lunch, so that the counterpane has to be cleaned on their departure. There are the guests who smoke in bed and burn holes in your sheets. There are the guests who are on a regime and have to have special food cooked for them and there are the guests who wait till their glass is filled with a vintage claret and then say: 'I won't have any, thank you.' There are the guests who never put back a book in the place from which they took it and there are the guests who take away a volume from a set and never return it. There are the guests who borrow money from you when they are leaving and do not pay it back. There are the guests who can never be alone for a minute and there are the guests who are seized with a desire to talk the moment they see you glancing at a paper. There are the guests who, wherever they are, want to be somewhere else and there are the guests who want to be doing something from the time they get up in the morning till the time they go to bed at night. There are the guests who treat you as though they were gauleiters in a conquered province. There are the guests who bring three weeks laundry with them to have washed at your expense and there are the guests who send their clothes to the cleaners and leave you to pay the bill. There are the guests who take all they can get and offer nothing in return.

There are also the guests who are happy just to be with you, who seek to please, who have resources of their own, who amuse you, whose conversation is delightful, whose interests are varied, who exhilarate and excite you, who in short give you far more than you can ever hope to give them and whose visits are only too brief. Such a guest was H. G.

I think this is why his [H. G. Well’s] novels are less satisfactory than one would have liked them to be. The people he puts before you are not individuals, but lively and talkative marionettes whose function it is to express the ideas he was out to attack or defend. They do not develop according to their dispositions, but change for the purposes of the theme. It is as though a tadpole did not become a frog, but a squirrel - because you had a cage that you wanted to pop him into.

Arnold was afflicted with a very bad stammer; it was painful to watch the struggle he sometimes had to get the words out. It was torture to him. Few realised the exhaustion it caused him to speak. What to most men is as easy as breathing was to him a constant strain. It tore his nerves to pieces. Few knew the humiliations it exposed him to, the ridicule it excited in many, the impatience it aroused, the awkwardness of feeling that it made people find him tiresome, the minor exasperation of thinking of a good, amusing or apt remark and not venturing to say it in case the stammer ruined it. Few knew the distressing sense it gave rise to of a bar to complete contact with other men. It may be that except for the stammer which forced him to introspection Arnold would never have become a writer. But I think it is no small proof of his strong and sane character that notwithstanding this impediment he was able to retain his splendid balance and regard the normal life of man from a normal point of view.

But that Arnold should have spent the last of his energy and determination on the description of an hotel seems to me to have symbolic significance. For I feel that he was never quite at home in the world. It was to him perhaps a sumptuous hotel, with marble bathrooms and a perfect cuisine, in which he was a transient guest. I feel that he was, here among men, impressed, delighted, but a little afraid of doing the wrong thing and never entirely at his ease. Just as his little apartment in the rue de Calais years before had suggested to me a part played carefully, but from the outside, I feel that to him life was a role that he played conscientiously, and with ability, but into the skin of which he never quite got.
I remember that once, beating his knee with his clenched fist to force the words from his writhing lips, he said: 'I am a nice man.' He was.

In one of his aphorisms Pearsall Smith said: 'Hearts that are delicate and kind and tongues that are neither - these make the finest company in the world.' I do not know whether Elizabeth's heart, except where dogs were concerned, was delicate and kind, but her tongue was neither and she was very good company. She regarded her fellow-creatures with a robust common sense which some thought verged on the cynical.

Reggie Turner was on the whole the most amusing man I have known. [...] He was by way of being a novelist, but somehow, when he took up his pen his gaiety, his extravagant invention, his lightness deserted him, and his novels were dull. They were unsuccessful. He said of them: 'With most novelists it's their first edition that is valuable, but with mine it's the second. It doesn't exist.'

He was one of the few of Oscar Wilde's friends who remained faithful to him after his disgrace. Reggie was in Paris when Wilde, living in a cheap, dingy hotel on the left bank of the Seine, was dying. Reggie went to see him every day. One morning he found him distraught. He asked him what was the matter. 'I had a terrible dream last night,' said Oscar, 'I dreamt I was supping with the dead.' 'Well,' said Reggie, 'I am sure you were the life and soul of the party, Oscar.' Wilde burst into a roar of laughter and regained his spirits. It was not only witty, but kind.

'And what do you think of Edgar Wallace?'
'Who is Edgar Wallace?', she replied.
'Do you never read thrillers', I asked.
Never has a monosyllable contained more frigid displeasure, more shocked disapproval nor more wounded surprise. I will not say she blenched, for she was a woman of the world and she knew instinctively how to deal with a solecism, but her eyes wandered away and a little forced smile slightly curled her lips. The moment was embarrassing for both of us. Her manner was that of a woman to whom a man has made proposals offensive to her modesty, but which her good breeding tells her it will be more dignified to ignore than to make a scene about.
'I'm afraid it's getting very late,' said Mrs. Wharton.
I knew that my audience was at an end. I never saw her again. She was an admirable creature, but not my cup of tea.

But the chief reason why I have never become easily familiar with the men of letters I propose to write about is owing to some fault in my own character. I am either too self-centred, or too diffident, or too reserved, or too shy to be able to be on confidential terms with anyone I know at all well, and when on occasion a friend in trouble has opened his heart to me I have been too embarrassed to be of much help to him. Most people like to talk about themselves and when they tell me things I should have thought they would prefer to keep to themselves I am abashed. I prefer to guess at the secrets of their hearts. It is not in me to take people at their face value and I am not easily impressed. I have no power of veneration. It is more in my humour to be amused by people than to respect them.

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