Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Henry James

Walking with your eyes open

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I walked a great deal for exercise, for amusement, for acquisition, and above all I always walked home at the evening’s end, when the evening had been spent elsewhere, as happened more often than not; and as to do this was to receive many impressions, so the impressions worked and sought an issue…One walked of course with one’s eyes greatly open, and I hasten to declare that such a practice, carried on for a long time and over a considerable space, positively provokes, all round, a mystic solicitation, the urgent appeal, on the part of everything, to be interpreted and, so far as may be, reproduced. “Subjects” and situations, character and history, the tragedy and comedy of life, are things of which the common air, in such conditions, seems pungently to taste…Possible stories, presentable figures, rise from the thick jungle as the observer moves, fluttering up like startled game, and before he knows it indeed he has fairly to guard himself against the brush of importunate wings.

Henry James, The Art of the Novel

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August 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

Reorganizing the peace

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In his book Experiment in Autobiography, which he wrote when he was in his sixties, the novelist H.G. Wells defined what he saw as his great task ahead: “To get the primaries of life under control and to concentrate the largest possible proportion of my energy upon the particular system of effort that has established itself for me as my distinctive business in the world.” He explained:

I do not now in the least desire to live longer unless I can go on with what I consider to be my proper business…And that is where I am troubled now. I find myself less able to get on with my work than ever before. Perhaps the years have something to do with that, and it may be that a progressive broadening and deepening of my conception of what my work should be, makes it less easy than it was; but the main cause is certainly the invasion of my time and thought by matters that are either quite secondary to my real business or have no justifiable connection with it. Subordinate and everyday things, it seems to me in this present mood, surround me in an ever-growing jungle. My hours are choked with them; my thoughts are tattered by them. All my life I have been pushing aside intrusive tendrils, shirking discursive consequences, bilking unhelpful obligations, but I am more aware of them now and less hopeful about them than I have ever been. I have a sense of crisis; that the time has come to reorganize my peace, if the ten or fifteen years ahead, which at the utmost I may hope to work in now, are to be saved from being altogether overgrown.

As it turns out, Wells was exactly right, and he lived for another fourteen years. And his notion of rethinking one’s life by “reorganizing the peace” has preoccupied me for a long time, too, although it wasn’t until I read this passage that I was able to put it into words. Wells associated such problems with the lives of creative professionals, whom he compares to “early amphibians” trying to leave the water for the first time, but these days, they seem to affect just about everyone. What troubled Wells was the way in which the work of artists and writers, which is usually done in solitude, invariably involves its practitioners in entanglements that take them further away from whatever they wanted to do in the first place. To some extent, that’s true of all pursuits—success in any field means that you spend less time on the fundamentals than you did when you started—but it’s especially hard on the creative side, since its rewards and punishments are so unpredictable. Money, if it comes at all, arrives at unreliable intervals, and much of your energy is devoted to dealing with problems that can’t be anticipated in advance. It’s exhausting and faintly comic, as Wells beautifully phrased it:

Imperfection and incompleteness are the certain lot of all creative workers. We all compromise. We all fall short. The life story to be told of any creative worker is therefore by its very nature, by its diversions of purpose and its qualified success, by its grotesque transitions from sublimation to base necessity and its pervasive stress towards flight, a comedy.

But the artists were just ahead of the curve, and these “grotesque transitions” are now part of all our lives. Instead of depending on the simple sources of gratification—family, work, religion—that served human beings for so long, we’re tied up in complicated networks that offer more problematic forms of support. A few days ago, the social psychologist Jane Adams published an article in the New York Times about the epidemic of “perfectionism” in college students, as young people make unreasonable demands on themselves to satisfy the expectations of social media:

As college students are returning to school after their winter breaks, many parents are concerned about the state of their mental health. The parents worry about the pressure their kids are putting on themselves. Thinking that others in their social network expect a lot of them is even more important to young adults than the expectations of parents and professors…Parents in my practice say they’re noticing how often their kids come away from Facebook and Instagram feeling depressed, ashamed and anxious, and how vulnerable they are to criticism and judgment, even from strangers, on their social media feeds.

And this simply places more of us in the predicament that Wells identified in artists, whose happiness was tied up with the fickle responses of tastemakers, gatekeepers, and the anonymous public. The need to deal with such factors, which were impossible to anticipate from one day to the next, was the source of many of the “entanglements” that he saw as interfering with his work. And the only difference these days is that everyone’s a critic, and we’re all selling ourselves.

But the solution remains the same. Wells spoke fondly of his vision of what he called the Great Good Place, borrowing a phrase from his friend Henry James:

I require a pleasant well-lit writing room in good air and a comfortable bedroom to sleep in—and, if the mood takes me, to write in—both free from distracting noises and indeed all unexpected disturbances. There should be a secretary or at least a typist within call and out of earshot, and, within reach, an abundant library and the rest of the world all hung accessibly on to that secretary’s telephone. (But it would have to be a one-way telephone, so that when we wanted news we could ask for it, and when we were not in a state to receive and digest news, we should not have it forced upon us.)

This desire for a “one-way telephone” makes me wonder how Wells would view our online lives, which over the last decade have evolved to a point where the flow of energy seems to pass both ways. Wells, of course, was most famous for his science fiction, in which he foresaw such future innovations as space travel and nuclear weapons, but this might be his most prescient observation of all: “We are therefore, now and for the next few hundred years at least, strangers and invaders of the life of every day. We are all essentially lonely. In our nerves, in our bones. We are too preoccupied and too experimental to give ourselves freely and honestly to other people, and in the end other people fail to give themselves fully to us.”

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2018 at 8:45 am

The imagination of form

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In his new book The Shadow in The Garden, James Atlas—the acclaimed author of biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow—quotes Leon Edel, the legendary biographer of Henry James: “A writer of lives is allowed the imagination of form but not of fact.” The line appears in the introductory “manifesto” to Edel’s Principia Biographica, in which he also states:

In a sense all lives are clutter composed as the poet said of “the butt-ends of my days and ways.” If biography reproduces this it reproduces habitual disorder. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear among the far louder noises of experience like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.” If we apply these words to biography we can see that a writer of lives must extract individuals from their chaos yet create an illusion that they are in the midst of life—in the way that a painter arrives at an approximation of a familiar visage on a canvas. The biographer who is unable to do this creates a waxworks, a dummy, a papier-mâché, and often a caricature.

And he concludes with a daunting challenge to biographers of all kinds: “The biographer truly succeeds if a distinct literary form can be found for the particular life.”

For the last two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, as I try to put together a literary biography that cuts between the stories of four complicated major figures and the important people in their lives, along with a huge amount of cultural background about the history of science fiction. The arrangement is basically chronological, but within that framework, there’s room for an infinite number of permutations. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to move between the four major players, who had periods of intense collaboration in which their careers overlapped, but also spent decades in different parts of the country. Knowing where to put the transitions has been the most obvious structural challenge that Astounding has presented, but even within each section, there are countless problems to solve. For the sake of clarity, I’ve often had to arrange the material according to theme, without doing violence to the timeline, which is a tricky balancing act in itself. To engage the reader, I’ll often start a chapter with a striking incident, then backtrack, which requires a certain finesse. And this doesn’t even get at the bane of the biographer’s existence, which is how to decide what to include or exclude. Atlas’s description of himself while writing his biography of Schwartz sounds a lot like I feel right now:

I was drowning in documentation. Manuscripts, clippings, transcriptions of interviews, and Xeroxed articles lay strewn about the floor. I crawled around amid the notecards laid out as if for some immense game of solitaire until I developed rug burns on my knees…My original fear that I wouldn’t have enough documentation soon gave way to despair about how I would get it all in.

So what exactly do biographers do? The secret, I think, is to realize that concerns about form aren’t just a courtesy to the reader, to whom structure provides a conceptual scaffolding, but to the author. When you hit on the right shape, it turns into a machine for making choices, just as the internal logic of the narrative does for a novelist. Writing of Edel’s distinction between “form” and “fact,” Atlas writes:

The “fact” part I got (though I would come to question the whole notion that there was such a thing as fact). It had never occurred to me that the “form” could be so elastic—that, in effect, you could construct a biography however you liked. Richard Holmes had a useful term form this method: “nonfiction storytelling,” biography that has “a protagonist, a time-sequence, a plot, and a dramatic pattern of human cause and effect.” Nonfiction storytelling: that’s what I was after.

You could argue that a person’s life doesn’t naturally fall into such neat stages, any more than our everyday existence follows the conventions of a plot, and that it’s just a short step from this approach to the clumsy shoehorning of true events into a stock screenplay formula that we see in so many biopics. But some kind of storytelling is required to convey information in a way that the reader can understand and absorb, and it’s no more artificial than the “convention” that books should consist of signatures of folded paper sewn together into a binding. Structure is a delivery system for facts and ideas, just as the physical book delivers the text to our eyes and brain, and any artifice that it imposes seems trivial compared to the costs of doing without it altogether.

The best way for a biographer to figure this out, of course, is to learn from the works of others. Writing of his experience in reading Edel’s biography of Henry James, Atlas captures the way in which even small choices can take on an outsized significance when you’re working in the same genre as a master: “I also liked the way Edel broke up the chapters into manageable size, then broke them up into still smaller bits separated by roman numerals; it didn’t make you feel, as so many biographies did, that you were traversing an arid desert of type. The narrative was well paced; clearly a lot of thought had gone into the beginnings and endings of sections.” Atlas also benefited from a piece of valuable advice from the critic Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, who told him: “Omission, generalization, intensification: that’s your clue.” But like any extended work of art, a biography ultimately reflects the personality of its creator, which can’t be hidden, although it also shouldn’t go out of its way to draw attention to itself. As Edel writes:

A biographer who works as an artist becomes the biography. An “impersonal” biography is tasteless and without character, force, or authority. “The thing that is necessarily overlooked,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the presence of the determining personality.” Why “necessarily?” A good and useful life must be fashioned by a “determining personality.” The biographer unable to select and arrange significant detail is like a painter who smudges his canvas.

This is sound, sensible advice—maybe a little too sound and sensible. When you’re dealing with what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “small infinity” of materials at hand, it can be hard to keep it in mind. But I take comfort in the fact that Edel ends his manifesto, not with an Olympian detachment, but with a line from Virginia Woolf that sums up the whole messy business: “Yes, writing lives is the devil!”

Written by nevalalee

October 13, 2017 at 8:58 am

A public animal

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The real problem of writing by dictation [is] I’m finding it extraordinarily difficult to sound like myself. It’s paralyzing to have to formulate each sentence out loud. It’s so public and official. How do you brood your way into a sentence that you have to spell out for someone else, perhaps literally spell half the words? What are those lines of Emily Dickinson’s—”How dreary to be somebody / How public like a frog?” I don’t particularly think of a frog as a public animal, but imagine being a poet with impaired vision and having to dictate those lines. You say, “How public like a frog,” and the secretary stops and says, “What was that you just said? ‘So public like a fog?'” And you say, “No, not fog. Frog.” “Oh,” her voice sinks. “Public like a—frog. F-r-o-g?”…I guess I could have tried to write one word on a page, ten words on a page. I always wanted to write by hand, the way Edith Wharton did, sitting in bed with stacks of paper and tossing the written pages onto the floor for a secretary to pick up and type while she went down to lunch with Henry James

It’s a serious and complicated matter. It’s hard enough to be the controlled person that I am—so much controlled, I mean, by logic and reason—without in addition having the free flow of feeling and idea impeded by the cold presence of another person. I once had an exchange with Robert Lowell—it was about the student uprisings at Columbia—and in it he called me a “housekeeping goddess of reason.” He had a point there…Who knows—at this stage of my life, perhaps if I were alone at my typewriter, my fingers would flit over the keys in some vagrant fashion and I would write all sorts of unexpected things, unreasonable things, things that defy logic…Dictating is the dullest possible occasion for the triumph of the superego.

Diana Trilling, in an interview with Stephen Koch

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October 1, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” [Henry] James speaks of the “immense sensibility…that takes to itself the faintest hints of life…and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” He celebrates the novelist’s intuitive faculty “to guess the unseen from the seen,” but the word guess may be inadequate, for it is a power, I think, generated by the very discipline to which the writer is committed. The discipline itself is empowering, so that a sentence spun from the imagination confers on the writer a degree of perception or acuity or heightened awareness that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact does not.

E.L. Doctorow, Creationists

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June 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Bob Hope rule

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A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.

—Attributed to Bob Hope

These days, there seem to be two categories of professionals in whom we expect to see intuitive thinking at work. One is the poet, whom we like to imagine as a creature of inspiration, to the point where we might even be a little disappointed to discover how much the finished product depends on craft, logic, and revision. The other, surprisingly, is the physicist or mathematician, who used to be regarded as a figure of pure reason, but whom we’ve started to romanticize as someone whose flashes of insight are supported by hard work after the fact. John Maynard Keynes set the tone seventy years ago in a lecture on Isaac Newton:

It was his intuition which was preeminently extraordinary—”so happy in his conjectures,” said [Augustus] de Morgan, “as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving.” The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards—they were not the instrument of discovery.

And if we’re comfortable with attributing such methods to poets and physicists, it’s because they seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Poets get to use intuition because they can’t possibly do any harm with it, while scientists can talk about their intuitive leaps because we trust that they’ll back it up later. Science and mathematics are structured in such a way that practitioners have to present their results in a certain form if they want to be published, and as long as they show their work, it doesn’t matter in which order it came. Consequently, we aren’t likely to think twice when Carl Gauss says: “I have had my results for a long time: but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.”

Imagine a social scientist making the same statement, however, and it feels vastly more problematic. Between poetry and physics, there’s an uncharted region of psychology, sociology, economics, history, and biography in which the admitted use of intuition would raise troubling questions. The reasoning, it seems, is that these disciplines are already filled with uncertainties, and intuition only muddies the waters. It’s easier to twist the facts to suit the theory in the “soft” sciences than it is in physics or math, so even if researchers happen to derive valid results from a lucky hunch, they can’t very well admit to this if they want to be taken seriously. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves writes that he couldn’t have arrived at his conclusions—which, to be fair, are often pretty questionable—if he hadn’t known the answers beforehand “by poetic intuition,” and he adds perceptively:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

That’s true of most academic fields. The dirty secret, of course, is that it’s impossible to work on any major project for an extended period without intuition coming into play, and before publication, the scholar has to diligently scrub the result of all traces of intuitive thinking, like a murderer wiping down the scene of a crime.

Occasionally, you’ll see scholars acknowledge the role of intuition, particularly when it comes to structuring an argument. In an interview with The Paris Review, Leon Edel says of his famous biography of Henry James:

In the first volume I’d intuitively planted all my themes in the first four chapters; like Chekhov, I placed my pistols in the first act, knowing the audience would expect me to produce them in the third. Having James’s last dictation about Napoleon, I planted the Napoleonic theme, then the “museum world” theme, the relationship with his brother, and so on, and my structure took its form from my themes. Expediency, you see, made me artful.

That last sentence is one of the best things ever written about craft. But what Edel doesn’t mention, or leaves implicit, is the fact that these intuitive decisions about structure inevitably influence matters of emphasis, presentation, and interpretation, and even the research that the writer conducts along the way. Many works of reputable scholarship secretly follow the process that the cartographer Arthur H. Robinson said of his most famous map: “I decided to go about it backwards. I started with a kind of artistic approach. I visualized the best-looking shapes and sizes. I worked with the variables until it got to the point where, if I changed one of them, it didn’t get any better. Then I figured out the mathematical formula to produce that effect.”

But it’s hard for social scientists, or biographers, to admit to this. In the end, Bob Hope’s quip about the bank is equally true of intuition in academia: you’re allowed to use it, as long as you can prove that you don’t need it. It’s an acceptable part of the oral tradition in disciplines in which it doesn’t seem necessary, while the ones that truly depend on it do their best to hush it up. To some extent, these are valid correctives: emphasizing intuition in the hard sciences rightly reminds us that science is something more than data collection, while deemphasizing it in the social sciences sounds a useful note of caution in fields that run the risk of falling back on untested assumptions. But it’s misleading to pretend that it doesn’t enter into the process at all, even if, ideally, you should be able to remove it and have the entire structure still stand. (As Alan Turing once put it: “The exercise of ingenuity in mathematics consists in aiding the intuition through suitable arrangements of propositions, and perhaps geometrical figures or drawings. It is intended that when these are really well arranged the validity of the intuitive steps which are required cannot seriously be doubted.” And you could say precisely the same thing of history and biography.) The educational psychologist Ference Marton refers to intuition in Nobel laureates as providing “a sense of direction,” and that may be its most indispensable role in all forms of scholarship. Choosing any avenue of exploration over another often comes down to a hunch, and it’s possible that this intuition occurs so early on that it becomes invisible—those who lack it are weeded out of the field altogether. Like any powerful tool, it has to be handled with caution. But we still need it, even if we sometimes have to act as if we don’t.

Quote of the Day

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Michael Lewis

When B.F. Skinner discovered as a young man that he would never write the great American novel, he felt a despair that he claimed nearly drove him into psychotherapy. The legendary psychologist George Miller claimed that he gave up his literary ambition for psychology because he had nothing to write about. Who knows what mixed feelings William James experienced when he read his brother Henry’s first novel? “It would be interesting to ask how many psychologists come up short next to great writers who happen to be near them,” one prominent American psychologist has said. “It may be the fundamental driver.”

Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2017 at 7:30 am

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