December 12, 2021

1. Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov said, “If there’s a gun hanging on the wall at the start of a story, it should go off by the end of the story.” In other words, every detail of a story should tell, every detail should signify, every part should contribute to the whole.

In the last issue, I discussed a movie called Blue is the Warmest Color. At the start of Blue, there are two classroom scenes. The first talks about love at first sight, the long look that indicates attraction (this topic comes up when the class is discussing La Vie de Marianne, a novel by Marivaux). The second classroom scene talks about Antigone ceasing to be a child, refusing to be a child, and achieving maturity, agency, decision. Both these discussions connect to the story, but I couldn’t make the connection on my first viewing. I would need a second viewing, or a critical essay, or both.

Would a more savvy movie-watcher make such connections on a first viewing? Do we need to make such connections to appreciate a movie? Even if we don’t make such connections consciously, are we making them unconsciously?

2. “The Lesson of the Master”

I read a novella by Henry James called “The Lesson of the Master.” I chose this story because, while reading a biography of William James, I came across William’s comment on this story, in a letter to Henry: “I think it exquisite all through — the most finished and mature execution of anything yet.” William is my guide to Henry’s works.

“The Lesson of the Master” is about a young writer, Paul Overt, who has a growing reputation, as Henry James himself did when he wrote the story. Paul meets an older writer, Henry St. George, a “master” who’s more established than Paul. But Henry has sold out to the marketplace, and no longer produces first-rate work. Henry tells Paul to stay true to his highest goals, not to sell out as he has done; Henry advises Paul not to marry and have a family, as he has done, but to dedicate himself entirely to producing great literature. So “the lesson of the master” seems to be, Don’t do as I’ve done.

Paul reminds me of James himself, as other James protagonists remind me of James himself; Paul is a typical James male. Paul falls in love with a young woman, Marian Fancourt, who has recently returned from India, where she lived with her soldier father. Marian is a typical James female protagonist — noble, high-minded, candid. “She gave such an impression of the clear and the noble combined with the easy and the natural.... She suggested no sort of sisterhood with the ‘fast’ girl.... no cheap coquetry.”1A

Since Paul is a typical James male, and Marian a typical James female, one might suppose that the story is a bit dull, especially for one who has met these characters in other James stories. But it’s not dull, it’s impressive, even moving, since James describes the young writer’s literary aspirations, and Marian’s purity, with such eloquence. One does wonder, however, if the story has broad appeal, and one isn’t surprised that the Atlantic lost interest in publishing James; James writes for a literary audience, not a broad audience.

[Spoiler warning: if you’re thinking of reading the novella, you may want to stop here.]

Like most James males, Paul flees from his beloved, perhaps influenced by Henry’s warnings about marriage. But Paul doesn’t forget Marian. After completing a book while staying on the north shore of Lake Geneva, Paul returns to London and goes straight to Marian’s. There he’s shocked and angered to learn that Henry’s wife has died, and Henry is marrying Marian! This is the sort of plot twist that we often find at the end of a James story; James’ dexterity in handling plot gave his work a broader appeal than it would otherwise have had.

Paul wonders if Henry has played a trick on him, if Henry viewed him as a rival for Marian’s affections, if Henry was trying to get rid of him by warning him about the dangers of marriage. At the end of the story, the reader is faced with a choice: “Was Henry St. George, the Master of the tale, genuinely concerned with ‘saving’ and converting Paul Overt, the budding genius, for the glory of England and literature, or was he simply manipulating him for his own ends and steering him away from Marian Fancourt... so that he could marry her himself when the time came?”1

I’m a fan of literary criticism, so I always read critical essays after finishing a story. There seem to be few essays on this story, but I found one good one, and one is all I need. It’s by a scholar named Adeline Tintner, who has written about other James stories. Tintner points out that the master’s name, Henry St. George, fairly screams to be interpreted symbolically, St. George being the patron saint of England.2

In “The Lesson of the Master,” James takes his stock characters, and relates them to the legend of St. George. Such legends were popular in James’ day, and James’ friend Edward Burne-Jones made a series of paintings about the St. George legend.

St. George and the dragon, Edward Burne-Jones

The legend of St. George is found in a collection of “saint stories” called Golden Legend, which was originally written in Latin around 1250 AD, then printed in English by William Caxton in 1483, then reprinted by William Morris in 1892, with help from Burne-Jones.

Golden Legend, wood engraving
designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones
printed by Kelmscott Press, 1892

Golden Legend is one of the fundamental works of medieval civilization. James seems to have read the Caxton version of the St. George story; “The Lesson of the Master” uses phrases from the Caxton version.

Tintner points out that, in writing his stories, James often used other literary works as a template; “Master Eustace,” for example, draws on Hamlet, and The Princess Casamassima draws on Keats’ poetry. And James often underlines the connection by mentioning, in his own story, the story to which it’s connected; in “The Lesson of the Master,” the legend of St. George and the dragon is explicitly mentioned.

If the master, in James’ story, represents St. George, who represents the dragon? The dragon is Mrs. St. George, a worldly woman who dominates her husband, then conveniently dies so Henry can tie the knot with Marian. Dragons breathe fire, as all the world knows; accordingly, Mrs. St. George burns one of her husband’s books.

As the color blue pops up repeatedly in Blue is the Warmest Color, so the color red pops up repeatedly in James’ novella, which might be called “Red is the Dragon’s Color.” Tintner speaks of “Mrs. St. George, who burns his book, whose spirit presides over the smoking room, who represents the devil and the idols of the market, whose color is red, whose soul is worldly, who loves celebrities and the show of society.” Mrs. St. George wears a “crimson dress,” and walks with Paul around the park, a “red wall” on their left. Mrs. St. George has built a windowless cage for her husband to write in, and has outfitted the cage with a “band of crimson cloth” that stretches from the entrance to the writing desk.3

If the story ended here, if the story ended with Henry marrying the angelic Marian, and Paul sad, lonely, and angry, it might seem that the bachelor life wasn’t the good life, and that Paul regretted his decision to flee Marian. But the story doesn’t end here, there’s a final scene, a scene that justifies Paul’s (and James’) renunciation of marriage. In this final scene, “[Marian] was in white, there were gold figures on her dress and her hair was a casque of gold. [Paul] saw in a single moment that she was happy, happy with an aggressive splendor.”

Marian appears worldly, focused on material things; her color is gold. Her literary interests make her even more dangerous for a writer than Mrs. St. George. As Henry says, “They think they understand, they think they sympathize. Then it is that they are most dangerous.” Henry, committed to Marian, abandons writing altogether.

The story ends by saying that Paul was right to dedicate himself to literature, and Henry was right to advise Paul not to marry. James justifies his bachelor life. “St. George was essentially right... Nature dedicated [Paul] to intellectual, not to personal passion.”

James has written a story that works on two levels, realistic and symbolic. “The Lesson of the Master” can be enjoyed with or without its symbolism.

3. Abortion Rights & Gun Rights

On the religious/moral aspect of abortion, I agree with the average Democrat that the right to life isn’t absolute, and a woman’s right to choose deserves respect; on the other hand, I realize that opponents of abortion are sincere in their religious/moral view. With respect to politics, abortion seems to be a liability for Republicans, since religious faith seems to be declining, and the number of people who regard life as sacred seems to be declining. As a practical matter, I don’t think it’s desirable for women to be traveling to another state for an abortion, and I don’t think it’s desirable for the number of unwanted babies to increase. So on religious/moral grounds and practical grounds, I agree with the average Democrat, the average blue-state resident, and I think that Roe v. Wade makes sense.

As a constitutional matter, however, I think that Roe v. Wade is flawed. There’s no right to privacy in the 14th Amendment, or anywhere else in the Constitution. The Supreme Court wandered away from the text of the Constitution, much as the Catholic Church wandered away from the text of the Bible. The Supreme Court invented a right to privacy, and stuck it into the Constitution because they wanted it there, much as the Catholic Church invented purgatory, and stuck it in Christianity.

The phrase “right to privacy” is so general as to be meaningless. It allows justices to do what they want, and to invent new rights, then cover their actions with a constitutional fig-leaf. It justifies judicial activism, thereby encroaching on the power of legislatures, and encroaching on the power of states.

If you believe there should be a right to privacy in the Constitution, you should try to amend the Constitution. Or you should argue that we can’t manage society according to a document that’s more than 200 years old, and therefore we should have a new Constitution. But it’s inherently difficult to manage society according to any document, new or old; there will always be a tendency for those who have power to do what they want, and to interpret the document in accordance with their own opinions. It’s inherently difficult to control human behavior with a document, even a document as hallowed as the Constitution or the Bible.

Liberals feel that SupremeCourt rulings like Roe are wonderful because they save them the trouble of amending the Constitution. A creative Supreme Court can govern society, can enact a liberal wish-list into law. This politicizes the Supreme Court, and turns SupremeCourt confirmations into political struggles as intense as Presidential elections.

I sympathize with the argument that Roe should be overturned because it’s bad law, because it’s not grounded in the Constitution, and because it strengthens federal power at the expense of state power. The Constitution gives states a large degree of autonomy. If we respect state power, we bring government closer to the average citizen, and induce the average citizen to be active and involved. Furthermore, if we respect state power, we end up with 50 experiments in managing health-care, maintaining roads, etc.; we can learn from the successful experiments.

As for gun rights, here again I agree with the average Democrat on the practical question; I believe that gun ownership should be restricted. As far as politics is concerned, it’s difficult to say whether the gun issue helps Democrats or Republicans; the number of hunters/gun-owners seems to be holding steady.

As for the constitutional issue, Democrats can argue that those who wrote the 2nd Amendment weren’t thinking of today’s automatic weapons when they spoke of “arms.” Democrats can argue that hunters don’t need automatic weapons that hold 50 bullets.

But Republicans can argue that the 2nd Amendment wasn’t written to protect hunting, the 2nd Amendment speaks of “the security of a free state,” and “a well regulated militia.” Democrats could respond, “We no longer have citizen-soldiers who train with their own weapons. Our security no longer depends on citizens owning guns.” Republicans could respond, “If you believe the 2nd Amendment is obsolete, you should amend the Constitution. You shouldn’t ask the Supreme Court to declare the 2nd Amendment obsolete. The Supreme Court should only interpret law, not make it. You shouldn’t turn the Supreme Court into a super-legislature, an un-elected legislature. The very people who claim to be the defenders of voting rights want the Supreme Court to be an un-elected legislature.”

As a constitutional matter, I think gun rights are a murky question, and all we can hope to do is muddle through.

4. Cottom on Scams

I recently read an essay in the New York Times about scams and swindles. The author, Tressie McMillan Cottom, is on the far left of the political spectrum. This is an issue that interests both right and left, though right and left view it somewhat differently.

Cottom makes some of the same arguments that I made in earlier issues, some of the same arguments that Dickens made when he visited the U.S. in 1842. Cottom writes, “Scams are opportunistic interactions that prey on people’s greed or compassion.... Scams weaken our trust in social institutions.... Every scam plants a small seed of social distrust.... Scams are about norms and not about legality. Scams are not necessarily illegal.”

Cottom is critical of Dr. Oz (Mehmet Oz), who’s running for the Senate as a Republican. Cottom writes, “The stigma usually associated with being involved in scams seems to be waning.... Being associated with shady vitamin supplements or questionable network marketing schemes doesn’t preclude running for office.... We have accepted scams as institutions.” It seems that Oz uses his celebrity to promote questionable medicine, and he gives a platform to anti-vaxers like Robert Kennedy.

On the other hand, Oz is a respected heart surgeon, and a professor at Columbia medical school. He founded an IntegrativeMedicine center at Columbia. I’ve argued that we should be receptive to Alternative Medicine, also known as Integrative Medicine. In a recent issue, I wrote about how Ross Douthat’s experience with chronic illness made him skeptical of Establishment Medicine, and receptive to Alternative Medicine. So I have mixed feelings about Dr. Oz.

Cottom writes, “I do not have any bad debts (anymore — my 20s were fraught).” Cottom complains about a new rule that would “allow debt collection agencies to contact debtors on social media and by text message.” It could be argued, however, that an unpaid debt is a swindle. If you borrow money without intending to repay it in full, without making your best effort to repay it, aren’t you swindling the lender? If you loaned your own money and it wasn’t repaid, wouldn’t you feel that you were being swindled, and wouldn’t you feel that contacting the debtor through Facebook was legitimate? When Democrats talk about forgiving student loans, they’re providing a justification for non-payment of debts, for swindling the government.

Cottom points out that Senator Kyrsten Sinema has received donations from members of “the Direct Selling Association, a trade group that promotes multi-level marketing.” Among the donors to Sinema are Amway, Mary Kay, and Herbalife. Such companies should probably be viewed as scams, scams that ensnare millions of people, though the activities of such companies may be legal. Such companies turn social connections into business connections; as Cottom puts it, we “commodify all social ties.”

Cottom speaks of, “one of the most blatantly fraudulent for-profit school apparatuses that I have ever seen: Trump University, which National Review called a ‘de jure’ scam.” Shortly before Trump left office, he pardoned people who had committed various swindles, including Medicare swindles. Trump wasn’t outraged by swindlers, he was a swindler himself.

One could even argue that a casino is a kind of swindle, and we shouldn’t have a casino-owner, like Trump, as President.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1A. In 1895, the Emmet sisters (Rosina and Ellen) stayed with William James and his family. William wrote to Henry, “They are the most wholesome, innocent, free-hearted and generous girls.” William’s description reminds me of Henry’s female protagonists, such as Marian. Is this personality-type the ideal of the James family? Or is it the ideal of American Protestants in general? back
1. “Iconic Analogy in ‘The Lesson of the Master’: Henry James’ Legend of Saint George and the Dragon,” by Adeline R. Tintner, The Journal of Narrative Technique, May 1975, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 116-127, back
2. What does the name “Paul Overt” signify? Overt is from the French ouvert, open. Tintner speaks of, “Paul Overt, who is ‘overt,’ ‘open’ to being saved or not, as only he may decide, for the literary glory of England.” I think we should view the name “Overt” more broadly, view it as a general openness of character. back
3. Doubtless it’s easier to notice symbols like the saint and the dragon if you read the story twice. According to Tintner, “James frequently stated, either through fictive characters or through his own letters and critical writings, that he expected his reader to give his prose a second reading.” James said that he wanted “analytic appreciation.” As I said in an earlier issue, James creates structure by careful selection, unlike a “saturation novelist,” who pours out his soul, his thoughts, his experiences. Perhaps a saturation novelist doesn’t need to be read twice. back