James’s method as finally developed is to chronicle from a single viewpoint the entire web of motivations, calculations, hesitations or intimations that accompany the unfolding of any human interaction, bringing to bear on them the closest logical analysis. It is a method which is oppressive until it becomes addictive, until we are drawn so deep into the jungle that we are prepared to wonder at every leaf on every tree along with its proud proprietor. The imperturbably eloquent prose gently leads us through many twists and turns, down many a long dark corridor of consciousness, but once its tone of quiet excitement is caught we do not lose it again. Like his contemporary Sherlock Holmes, James convinces us that no detail is to be thought of as uninteresting, that even the tiniest clue may wonderfully convey us to the heart of the maze.
In his last major novel, The Golden Bowl, James gives us access to the workings of two consciousnesses representing both sides of what, despite the bizarre aspects of the plot, is a fairly common situation. On the one side is Prince Amerigo, who takes life easily, finding that fortune plays into his hands, that people comply with his wishes, and who does not scruple to take advantage of whatever opportunities or facilities contribute to his ease. His marriage to Maggie Verver is a godsend, bringing wealth as well as domestic contentments. On the other side, in the second part of the work, is the situation of the wife who wakes up to the fact that her husband and her father’s wife are on terms so close as to constitute a threat to both marriages. The interaction of exploitative and exploitable personalities is a theme in The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, and The Wings of the Dove, but one never handled as completely, as subtly as here. What makes for completeness above all is the reaction of the victim in The Golden Bowl, her determined and righteous turning of the tables, which so succeeds that the Prince and Charlotte in turn become victims: hers is the strength of virtue, theirs the weakness of conscious guilt. What makes for subtlety is the rigorous code of civilized behaviour imposed on all four characters. Though their external attitudes, at a certain stage in the plot, amount to no more than a polite fiction, played out in the looming shadow of the unspoken, still appearances must be kept up, under pain of surrendering civilized order to the wreckage that awaits its breakdown. The situation is so arranged that the last painful ounce of interest can be squeezed out of the theme and the drama of mutual manipulation followed through all its changes of mood and perspective. Some will complain that the treatment of the subject is inadequate since it abstracts from all the dark forces which are never translated into terms of rational motivation in such battles. Still I would think that if James is true to the surface play of conscious awareness he cannot but make us feel the presence, too, of its fathomless sources.
In the reproduction of the Prince’s consciousness we have an instance of how fidelity to the surface creates the impression of depth. From the start we are aware of a loose harmonious quality in his sense of life, a Latin responsiveness:
The young man’s movements, however, betrayed no consistency of attention ― not even, for that matter, when one of his arrests had proceeded from possibilities in faces shaded, as they passed him on the pavement, by huge beribboned hats, or more delicately tinted still under the tense silk of parasols held at perverse angles in waiting victorias.
Throughout the novel the external scene is introduced only as framed and coloured by consciousness, and its recurring details ― spacious town and country houses, hansoms and victorias, parasols and objets d’art, serene landscapes ― correspond to great spaces or stifling enclosures in the mind or have some other subtle symbolic import. The possibilities which draw, or in this case fail to draw, the preoccupied young man, are suggested in the rather seductive terminology of this sentence: ‘shades’, ‘delicately tinted’, ‘tense silk’, ‘parasols held at perverse angles’, ‘waiting victorias’. In another place the Prince admires the beauty of an amoral arrangement, and James makes us so feel the charm of it that his character's lack of a moral sense is glossed over by the rich music of his aesthetic awareness:
... things that melted together almost indistinguishably to feed his sense of beauty. If the outlook was in every way spacious ― and the towers of three cathedrals, in different counties, as had been pointed out to him, gleamed discernibly, like dim silver, in the rich sameness of tone ― didn’t he somehow the more feel it so because, precisely, Lady Castledean had kept over a man of her own, and that this offered a certain sweet intelligibility as the note of the day? (264)
James, in his later prose, cushions every sentence handsomely with clauses, adverbs, adjectives, turns of phrase serving to body forth the glowing fulness of the consciousness expressed ― thus ‘as had been pointed out to him’ integrates the geographical detail just given into the medium of the Prince’s conscious reflection; the interrogative form reflects the dawning in his mind of a new shade of realization; ‘offered’ refers to the aspect of the fact perceived that encroaches most immediately on consciousness ― ‘made’ or ‘gave’ or ‘presented’ would not quite catch its intimate pleasing effect; ‘a certain sweet intelligibility’ is a vague abstract phrase which insinuates very exactly the quality of the pleasure given.
If James can enter so entirely into the music of a frivolous consciousness, it may be for the reason that his style itself could easily lend itself to insincerity, could become a parade of surface felicities failing of real contact with any deeper truth. If he so often entrusts his story to an unreliable narrator it may well have been from an awareness of the ambiguity of his own fluency, from a sense that the specious element he could so easily slip into would do as the inner voice of one of his characters' falseness, leaving unflawed his own authorial integrity. Thus the authorial falseness of the opening of The Portrait of a Lady:
There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not ― some people of course never do ―, the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. (Penguin edition, 5)
betrayed in the patronizing chattiness of ‘some people of course never do’ and in the gushing adjectives, is transferred to a fictional consciousness in the comparable tourist musings of Strether in The Ambassadors:
he saw himself partaking, at the close of the day, with the enhancements of a coarse white cloth and a sanded floor, of something fried and felicitous, washed down with authentic wine. (Penguin edition, 343)
All the appeal of the picture is retained but something of the complacency with which Strether licks his lips over it is also suggested. James is so conscious, his sense of complications so incompatible with straightforward description or statements, that when he attempts to be straightforward he rings false, for we sense that he is giving only a judicious selection from the whole truth, that both his subject and his readers are being officiously manipulated. This, to me, is the effect of such blunt statements as: ‘Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast’ (43). The first sentence here is a pastiche of Jane Austen, the second of Balzac ― just as the opening paragraph of the novel is a pastiche of Dickens and of the language of the guidebook. James found his true voice only when he ventured to transcribe the fulness of his consciousness, meting it out among his characters. He reached sincerity not by paring away the excess of hollow verbosity, but by filling out the hollow places with a wealth of refining and complicating inflections, with that cushioning already remarked on. That process is carried to its rarest pitch in The Golden Bowl, of which James writes:
Their chronicle strikes me as quite of the stuff to keep us from forgetting that absolutely no refinement of ingenuity or of precaution need be dreamed of as wasted in that most exquisite of all good causes the appeal to variety, the appeal to incalculability, the appeal to a high refinement and a handsome wholeness of effect. (9)
James arrives at moral truth only through an endlessly complicated dialectic of consciousness. In The Golden Bowl the consciousness of Maggie Verver establishes its authority over that of the Prince and Charlotte; moral awareness proves its superiority over the aesthetic approach to life, passes its judgement, stern, searching, unanswerable, on the culpable nonchalance of the latter. But however pure the moral principles on which action is based, it will always attach to itself elements of the political power struggle, given the tangled condition of human affairs. So the dialectic within Maggie’s righteous consciousness itself, the Machiavellian thickening of her motivation, the multitude of other voices, worldly, scheming or ruthless, which blend with the single one reminding her of the duties of her role, and lastly the ever-shifting perspective created by the changing balance of power between the protagonists, are so many factors promoting a richer approximation to the truth of the matter. Thus the simple situation which was the point of departure, the original grain of sand (for with James this hackneyed metaphor never fails to suggest itself) is developed, by thorough reflection on all its aspects, to a pearl-like pitch of fine-grained concentration. His intelligence is so flourishing, in the later works, and so articulate, that nothing of convention or abstraction remains to clutter vision.
It may be, of course, that his luminous perceptions, his telling notations, enjoy complete validity only within the fictional world to which they belong, and remain tangential to real life. But then one is liable to capture more insight by spreading one's nets obliquely, by following whatever fascinates one, however rarefied and peripheral it may seem, until it yields up the element of depth in it that caused the fascination. When philosophers and theologians take a direct approach, raising straight away the great abstract questions of meaning, they end up not even seeing what they propose to so authoritatively explain. But still, the objection might be pursued, how, if the world that fascinated him is itself so unreal, so exclusively peopled by the idle rich moving in their urbane and opulent settings, can his meditation take us anywhere near reality? I would concede that James is afloat in a very frail boat and that the Wildean duchesses who pass in and out of his pages are unpromising models for complete portrayal of human nature. But it is precisely James’s personal moral tremor that lends the picture its depth. A Wilde might blithely chatter through a painted hell, but James is able to sound this superficial world in the medium of his own graver, mournful consciousness, checking the overtones of its talk in the great, silent chambers of his brooding reflection, so that his painting of the scene reveals a mysterious play of moral light and shade of which most of his characters may remain largely unaware. It would have been a waste to spend a lifetime of such sustained speculation on the trivia of manners and behaviour, if it were not that time and again these slight details, as the anxious Jamesian conscience plays over them, throw up vertiginous glimpses of a lurking abyss. If James surpasses his environment by the tenacity of his moral concern, he also develops its achievements in aesthetic refinement to a new pitch, so much so that his own works can now be seen as the finest product of that time.
But what is the vision this enriching, enlivening play of awareness attains? Perhaps a summary could be ventured only in the form of some such dim, muted realization as the Prince expresses toward the end of the novel: ‘Everything’s terrible, cara – in the heart of man’ (534). As the cracks appear in the idyllic arrangements of the Ververs’ double marriage what crowds in on Maggie’s consciousness for the first time is exactly the presence of flaws in the heart itself, a gap between the innocent appearances and the more tortuous undercurrents experience brings to light and teaches one to deal with. Beneath all the worries and calculations which fill her mind in the second part of the novel, behind each move in the battle of wits on which she’s launched, a battle whose weapons are the frailest ― silences, subtle and ambiguous communications by looks, gestures, a minimum of the most necessary verbal comment and a lot of serviceable or uneasy small talk, timely advances to or withdrawals from intimacy, sincere or insincere reassurances, or the refusal thereof ―, behind even her wish to spare her father pain and her determination to keep her husband, lies a new awareness of what life itself is like. It is not just that, like Isabel Archer, she has grown out of romantic complacency ― though here again, as in the earlier novel, James portrays the betrayal of romantic illusion as happening where it can be most sharply perceived, in the intimate recesses of the relationship founded on it. But the insight that breaks on Maggie Verver has a deeper thrust, the shock of realism it injects causes a more extensive fermentation, sets off a more complex series of reverberations in her mind. She finds herself thrust into a position of responsibility for the threatened order, forced to man single-handed the dykes against chaos:
Spacious and splendid, like a stage again awaiting a drama, it was a scene she might people, by the press of her spring, either with serenities and dignities and decencies, or with terrors and shames and ruins, things as ugly as those formless fragments of her golden bowl she was trying so hard to pick up. (458)
Their disillusion lights up not only her past mistakes but the entire reach of her present situation, all of whose participants are sensed almost as dangling between heaven and hell, as depending on her intervention for their escape. A single wrong step would suffice to shatter the fragile relationships, already seriously compromised, on which their lives are structured:
If she were but different – oh, ever so different! – all this high decorum would hang by a hair. There reigned for her, absolutely, during these vertiginous moments, that fascination of the monstrous, that temptation of the horribly possible... (456)
But she takes her cue from the elements of order still intact in her situation, builds sedulously on the stance of dignity demanded of her, and succeeds in subjecting the destructive instincts to the precepts of patience and discretion. This attitude wins her husband over, converts him out of his uncommittedness, and exposes in contrast the rather teutonic moral insensitivity of her step-mother, who insists on putting a bold face on her behaviour. James calls in a priest to subtly underline the point:
She [Charlotte] had to confirm, day after day, the rightness of her cause and the justice and felicity of her exemption ― so that wouldn’t there have been, fairly, in any explicit concern of Father Mitchell’s, depths of practical derision of her success? (502)
Maggie rises to her role so successfully that in the end even Charlotte is induced to play her part, by offering to remove herself along with Mr. Verver to the United States.
There may be implausible or thin spots in this sequence of events, but his heroine’s situation is a vehicle which allows James to work out fully and suggestively many of his besetting preoccupations. If the average Jamesian situation is distinguished by its grotesque cast, its rarefied unlikelihood, that may be the mark of a curious twist in the author’s own relation to the world of which he was so impassioned an observer. First there is the sense of being ‘in the cage’, observing a scene in which one cannot participate, cut off by a gulf of sheer inhibition, and yet appropriating that observed world and thinking one's way into it by a power of absorption and intuition that causes life to move more busily inside the cage than it does outside it. The cage never appears in James as an existentialist sense of alienation or as narcissism: he is too robust and simple and too fascinated with the world outside ever to get stuck in that rut. Instead it is dramatized anew in each of his stories, either as the effect of oppressive circumstances or of a moral weakness. As Maggie conceals her sense of something amiss and her plan of campaign from her husband, she sets up a barrier between them. Similar distances are established by her silence to her father and Charlotte. But this movement of withdrawal is accompanied by a quickening of sensibility and insight. Familiar habits take on a new, conscious feel, because of the clarity of intention and policy qualifying her actions. Her secret plan effects a change in her relationships which causes all her encounters to be charged with a new wealth of strategic or diplomatic significance. The barrier is most profoundly between her inner awareness and the role she has embarked on:
It was this very sense of the stage and the footlights that kept her up, made her rise higher: just as it was the sense of action that logically involved some platform. (322 )
In fact, the enjoyment of the intrigue, the guesswork, the observed significant changes of attitude, the moments of truth, the new plans, and in general the political fascination with which every incident in the second half of the novel is fraught, seems quite to dilute the pathos that should attach to such a situation. Pity and terror are almost submerged as we are swept along on the tide of our author’s intellectual excitement. Perhaps his intelligence is the cage and his imprisonment in it a source more of delight than regret. Whether we should regret it for him is even doubtful, given the infectious purr of contentment that sounds through all his smoothly rolling paragraphs.
His concern for total transparency, for an all round view of his subject in the medium of a perfect form, is mirrored in the care Maggie applies to shaping her own circumstances by an effort of creative attention. The least slip can cause her brittle situation to collapse into smithereens. Much of the same anxious care must have presided over the composition itself of The Golden Bowl, so that Maggie’s triumph, the triumph of civilized order, mirrors James’s success in moving skilfully across his chosen tightrope. The weight of moral responsibility that is brought to bear on the tiniest gestures of his heroine reflects the immense seriousness for James of keeping every element in the right place. If his obsession with form is the converse of an uneasy awareness that the rich, subtle fabric of social refinement is thinning under the pressure of a new permissive and vulgar ethos, his heroine’s scruples similarly represent a firm stand for the principle of moral coherence without which society disintegrates into an arena of unbridled rapacious individualism. Charlotte is significantly compared to a wild animal on the loose:
The splendid shining supple creature was out of the cage, was at large; and the question now almost grotesquely rose of whether she mightn’t by some art, just where she was and before she could go further, be hemmed in and secured. (460)
James, too, feels it is his mission as an artist to hem in and secure the savage forces that threaten the unstable equilibrium of civilized living. This response is wiser I think than the alienation cultivated by modern thinkers, from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard on, or than the doctrinaire Christian reaction of ‘pereat mundus’, or the Marxist reaction of ‘pereat capitalismu’. James is not or waiting for any eschatological boat. He can view the decline of civilization only as an absolute tragedy. His stylistic effort can then, without undue implausibility, be seen as informed by the same ‘infinite sense of intention’ that lies behind Maggie’s manoeuvres (305).
Perhaps it is a matter for rejoicing that the influence of the Jamesian corpus is more extended today than ever before. Its fragrance is the recall, amid our fragmentation, of the ideal of classical wholeness in life as in art. His prose style is the very voice of that ideal. It falls as a gauze veil over all the refined consciousnesses it serves to exhibit and thus distances and objectifies them for the reader at the same time as it espouses and reflects their intimate rhythm. This is not the dramatic immediacy of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, for James’s style maintains the presidency of the observing authorial consciousness over the consciousnesses it analyzes. The conscientious passivity and neutrality of this presiding awareness express, more than anything else, a tone of Olympian humour. Some regard the eminent author as the merest wind-bag, as one who sublimated his unfulfilment in a grandiose but hollow magniloquence, and his later work as the danse macabre of an exhausted orator with the ghosts of his former competence. Such a judgement is understandable from one’s own impressions, on a first approach, of cloudy masses of circumlocution, great aerial reaches of empty and impenetrable analysis, the serried formation of a tortuous and top-heavy rhetoric ― quite as if having come to view a solid landscape the reader were to find his feet and eyes astray a thousand yards above terra firma. Yet as, after further frequentation, this impression undergoes a gradual change, as the authority of the late Jamesian voice establishes itself, and from its murky verbiage a music begins to proceed, as assured in its charm as it is evocative in its harmonies, how can one not be convinced that, despite its twists and turns, its coy advances and withdrawals, its indeterminate and ambiguous expressions, complications so arbitrary and so indulgently obscure, this intimate and expansive murmur constitutes the exact and transparent representation, in their undiluted strangeness, of the vibrations of a mind more than ever alive with insight? Our author is not after all smitten with some Chestertonian frenzy, attaching his billowy sails, in baroque imbalance, to some insubstantial skiff. Whatever his adjectival efflorescence may own to a resurgence of latent Irishry, it cannot be accused of exceeding the measure, for it is in exact correspondence to the greater complexity, the more totally reflected quality of his final vision. His striving after perfection of form, his refusal to dabble in what cannot be ordered in conscious vision, his high Victorian dread of calling a spade a spade, his desire to retreat from the meaningless and corrupting dispersion of brute fact into an interior realm of clear vision, of a continual creative seeing, might indeed be judged ridiculous if its fruits were not before us. But once we have visited his fictional palaces, admiring their serene arrangement of our experience, their sovereign elevation of its elements to a new power of integration, a new richness of harmony, while we may still not be able to define clearly the sense or estimate the utility of such a process of aesthetic transformation ― is it to be called transcendence? ― we cannot in any case but be glad that James followed his bent faithfully to the end.