August 2012

Josh Zajdman

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

The Sacred Fount

Recently, I was at an American Literature conference presenting on a post-war author. Immediately after my presentation, I sat in on a panel with a title something like "The Master and Consciousness." I expected weightiness. One doesn't usually tread into Jamesian waters, especially those of the late phase where he earned the sobriquet, without it. I expected substantive discussion. These were academics speaking on a notoriously difficult and endlessly fascinating writer. Regardless of how much had been written or discussed, there had to be more worth mining. Right? Instead, I returned to my hotel room ninety minutes later, with my teeth set, and a pounding behind the eyes. The amount of facile thinking and assumptive reasoning left me gasping for mental breath. If a Geiger counter had been nearby, I would have surely been quarantined for the amount of intellectual bullshit and posturing I had been exposed to.

Theirs was a Henry James I was unfamiliar with. A man who was simultaneously "gay," "grievously, if not mysteriously, injured in his groin region and unable to perform sexually," "rendered impotent due to several severe and sustained instances of sexual trauma," and "overall, just not a sexual person." This is a pet peeve of mine. I'm aggravated by this empty, base speculation always hanging around discussions of James. It's terrible when it's present in academic discussions, embarrassing even, but worse if it trickles down to readers just interested in James. It completely distorts perception of the work. Who cares what turned him on or if he even got turned on? How does that make Isabel Archer any less fascinating, Christina Light's transition into the Princess Casamassima less interesting and ambitious, or Olive Chancellor's politics less compelling? Oh, right. It doesn't. Regardless of what he had, whether it worked, and what he was into, the Henry James these academics spoke about was only secondarily an author and primarily a poorly coded DSM entry. That's a big mistake when considering the writing of a man who adhered to his views on literature with more piety than a wagon full of fundamentalists. Of course, James came from one of the most complex, dynamic and accomplished families seen by the standards of the nineteenth or any century, really. But, there are facts to support this. We don't assume he had a complex relationship with William and Alice was frequently in bed. We know this to be true. In the absence of fact, it's the work that matters.

If scholars, or just readers, are so emphatic about whatever sexual hang-ups, if any, that James had, how could they possibly be proper critics of the work? I was trying to figure out if that type of analysis was recourse for people who found the work too challenging. I didn't have to think too long. Shortly after, I began to see red. The most egregious claim concerned The Turn of the Screw. In their reading, the world's greatest ghost story was really about James being relegated to the role of author and storyteller, which were, in turn, read as feminine occupations, due to his inability to "screw." Have you got that? Instead of reading slowly, or even rereading if necessary, it was easier to impose an entire structure of muddy and self-serving thinking over the story. In short, James's excellence and incredible focus on structure and form was really a result of redirecting sexual energy. The rage and bafflement I experienced gave me an ax to grind, and motivated me to pick James's The Sacred Fount for this entry of The Forgotten Twentieth Century. Both the work and the unrelenting focus on his sexuality are products of that period and worth a closer look.

The early twentieth century is most famous for the inclusion of James's late phase, but just as 1900 ticked by, The Sacred Fount was published, preceding the three great and more famous tomes. Here's the controversy. As wonderful as The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl are, truly epic works of literature indeed, The Sacred Fount is a more interesting and challenging novel. Formally, it does more as well. It's not only expertly constructed but belies a willingness to experiment and a consciousness of construction that James would eventually reach the zenith of, albeit more conventionally, with The Golden Bowl. He certainly felt that way, but back to The Sacred Fount. It's easily James's most divisive and controversial work. Quite famously, Rebecca West referred to the novel as something that "worries one like a rat nibbling at a wainscot" and describes its plot as that where

a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason, in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows. 

Though the snark is terrific, I'd venture to say she missed the boat. Yes, it's a challenging, elliptical and even baffling novel. However, the wonder of it lies in the sure handedness that James carries it off with. The narrator's inquiries, thoughts, more developed theories, and even base suspicions are tightly illustrated and taken as far as they can possibly go. The mind will bend to the point of breaking, but then the narrator simply ushers the reader toward another avenue of thought. Yes, the outpouring of analysis is staggering, but as a text, it's really a feat of economy. In the New Directions edition, counting both Edel's introduction and R.P. Blackmur's fascinating afterward, the book clocks in at a brief 226 pages. On the surface, the novel itself covers only a weekend at a country house. As its grounds are canvassed, the close, patient reader sees the exhaustive mental calisthenics of the faceless, nameless narrator and the exposure of the hearts and minds of those around him. One finishes the book with the satisfying exhaustion achieved after a bout of physical activity. Also, a slight feeling of being soiled. Rarely can a book be found that gives a greater feeling of voyeurism. The eyes of the astoundingly perceptive narrator all but physically strip people. However, one increasingly wonders whether this is what he actually sees or what he thinks he is seeing, or can even convince himself of. The exposure of those around him comes with a caveat as pointed out by Leon Edel, everyone's favorite Jamesian. In his introduction, Edel writes of the very particular job faced by the reader.

The reader is left do decide whether he is listening to a tale told by a brilliant and poetic mind, capable of extraordinary improvisation and induction, pouncing upon the merest shred of fancy to weave an ever more elaborate hypothesis, or quite simply someone suffering from an abnormally active fantasy and an unhealthy capacity for believing his imaginings to be the truth. We might add, also, an individual who seems to reveal touches of paranoia.

Now, here's a fun thought I had while reading it. While writing the novel, James was already viewed as a colossal literary talent, but a mystifying one. What if the book serves as a bit of a tease for all those people who tried to figure him out, or decades later, pigeonhole him (sexually or otherwise)? Maybe, I sure hope not, but maybe I am teeing off into the same assumptive sand trap. It just doesn't seem all that impossible that brutally intelligent James, always appreciative of attention, would delight in writing something that everyone would find impenetrable. Even his close friend and former editor William Dean Howells famously wrote of having "mastered the secret," only to follow such news with "for the present I am not going to divulge it." Yeah, okay, W.D.

In an aggravated tone, Edel points out the response of some other contemporary critics. They did what critics do -- they maligned what they didn't understand. For one, The Sacred Fount was "as brilliantly stupid a piece of work as Mr. James has ever done." For another, it was "morbid analysis of thought and phrase and look and gesture, and then analysis of the analysis." Perhaps its best to give James, well the narrator, the last word. Near the end of the novel, the narrator having reached his own limit opines,

Then there we are again at our mystery! I don't think you know... it was my person, really, that gave its charm to my theory; I think it was much more my theory that gave its charm to my person. My person, I flatter myself, has remained through these few hours -- hours of tension, but of a tension, you see, purely intellectual -- as good as ever; so that if we're not, even in our anomalous situation, in danger from any such source, it's simply that my theory is dead and that the blight of the rest is involved.

The mystery-cum-plot: the narrator spends the novel searching for signs of depletion among guests giving from their sacred fount for the betterment of others. To determine who is depleting to the advantage of others is satisfying for the narrator, for it illuminates their relationship. There's the CliffsNotes version. But the satisfaction, obviously, comes from immersing yourself fully into the narrator's mental state wavering frequently and sometimes cruelly from clarity to muddiness. Eventually, he even doubts himself and his need to know becomes more prevalent than any sort of mental gain. After all, the narrator's intrusiveness is as pervasive as his intellect.

After spending the novel collecting details so as to build a "house of cards" to best display his findings, the narrator, fleet of mind but only to a certain point, finally goes off the deep end as a "wind" settles over the country house. One can only catch quick glimmers of his carefully acquired details as they blow around a salon during a quiet, intense conversation the reader has long awaited. Suddenly, we are left wondering if we saw correctly, if we followed the narrator too closely or maybe even missed things along the way. All one can do is dip back into The Sacred Fount. And slowly.  Like any water, it's cold at first but you'll get used to it. And a promise: it's not a book you'll soon forget.