January 8, 2022

1. Ezra Pound and Henry James

In a recent issue, I noted that James Joyce was a HenryJames fan. Ezra Pound was also a HenryJames fan. Like Henry James, Ezra Pound left the U.S., and tried to make his way as a man-of-letters in Europe (Joyce was also an expat; he left Ireland and spent most of his life in Italy and France).

Pound met Henry James several times in London around 1912, when Pound was 27, and James was about 70. At first, they glared at each other; perhaps James was put off by Pound’s bohemian appearance (Pound was known to wear an earring, green pants, a purple hat, a hand-painted tie, etc.). Later Pound reported that “he had met James again and liked him ‘still more on further acquaintance.’ He reported yet another meeting, when he lunched with a group that included James, whom he found ‘quite delightful.’ Six years later he said of James: ‘The man had this curious power of founding affection in those who had scarcely seen him.’”

“He talked exactly as he wrote,” Pound said of James. “It is with his own so beautiful talk, his ability to hear his own voice in the rounded paragraph, that he is aptest to charm one.” In his poetry, Pound alluded to James and his works. “In the Cantos Pound is referring to James when he says ‘the old voice lifts itself / Weaving an endless sentence.’”

Pound complained that James was under-appreciated in the U.S. “[Pound] writes to his mother in 1915, ‘If your unfortunate continent had only familiarized itself more fully with his excellent works it would be a far pleasanter, a far more possible habitat.’” In 1918, Pound wrote a 40-page piece on James for the Little Review. “As preparation for his essay, he went through, from first to last, all the volumes of the Macmillan edition of James, a prodigious task.” In his essay, Pound makes some criticisms of James, but on the whole, “James emerges from the essay a literary giant. What author could ask for more unstinted praise than being designated ‘the greatest writer of our time and of our own particular language’?”

Pound felt that James was at least as good a writer as Proust; Pound said that Proust is “the nearest the French can get to Henry James.” James’ interest in structure/form appealed to Pound. “Pound’s concern with craftsmanship, his insistence that the literary artist bring an abundance of conscious techniques to the act of composition, is reflected in the relatively large amount of space he gives in his essay to James’ notes for The Ivory Tower. The interest in form that these notes reveal makes James, according to Pound, unique among novelists who have written in English.”

Pound admired James’ criticism as well as his fiction. Pound “included James on his list of recommended writers in ABC of Reading, saying that James’ prefaces are ‘the one extant great treatise on novel writing in English.’”

2. “A London Life”

I read a novella by Henry James called “A London Life.” It’s not one of his most popular works, perhaps because the plot is rather dark. It’s the classic HenryJames plot: Americans in Europe. A young American woman, Selina Berrington, is married to an Englishman, has two children, and divides her time between a country house and a city house. Her younger sister, Laura Wing, is visiting for an extended period, and tries to rescue her sister from marital shipwreck and messy divorce.

[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading the story, you may want to stop here.]

As the story proceeds, Laura begins spending time with a young man named Mr. Wendover. But when she’s ready to get married, he’s not ready, and when he’s ready to get married, she’s not ready, so in classic HenryJames fashion, they don’t marry.

James thought highly enough of the story to include it in the New York Edition of his works (it’s in Volume 10 of 26). He grouped “A London Life” with “The Spoils of Poynton” and “The Chaperon,” and in the Preface to the volume, he said that all three stories feature young women who exemplify “the free spirit.” These young women have a “moral and aesthetic conscience [that] obeys commands unheard by others, whose vision of an uncorrupted social order is both isolating and exhilarating.”1 These young women have a “high lucidity... acuteness and intensity, reflection and passion.”2

And what exactly are the commands heard by Laura Wing’s “moral and aesthetic conscience”? The short answer is, She disapproves of Selina’s headlong pursuit of pleasure. Leon Edel and other critics have argued that Laura is an “unbending Puritan” who feels “righteous indignation at the sexual weaknesses of others”; Laura is “bristling with righteousness.”3 These critics insist that James is not on Laura’s side, he’s on Selina’s side; James is “indulgent” toward Selina’s adulteries; James is saying that “social indiscretions are sometimes committed without consequences.”4

A critic named Heath Moon says that this reading is “totally misguided.” Moon points to James’ preface to Volume 10, in which he calls Selina “the wicked woman of my story,” and speaks of her “perversity.” According to Moon, James had a “strongly conservative social ideology.” James was troubled by the decline of the British aristocracy, a decline that resulted (in part) from adultery, divorce, and public scandal. The scandals of the aristocracy were being printed by the new gossip magazines, and eagerly read by millions of readers. After leaving England for Italy in December 1886, James wrote to Charles Eliot Norton,

The subject of the moment, as I came away, was the hideous Campbell divorce case, which will besmirch exceedingly the already very damaged prestige of the English upper class. The condition of that body seems to me to be in many ways very much the same rotten and collapsible one as that of the French aristocracy before the revolution — minus cleverness and conversation; or perhaps it’s more like the heavy, congested and depraved Roman world upon which the barbarians came down.5

James is fighting for civilization. He’s troubled by adultery because it leads to divorce and scandal, it threatens civilization. In the second paragraph of the story, we find tradition being undermined by hedonism.

Our attention is drawn at the start [Moon writes] to Laura’s concern for the fate of the estate, a property under a dark sentence even while outwardly emanating serenity and security.... “In the park [James writes], half-way, suddenly, Laura stopped, with a pain — a moral pang — that almost took away her breath; she looked at the misty glades and the dear old beeches (so familiar they were now and loved as much as if she owned them); they seemed in their unlighted December bareness conscious of all the trouble.”6

James speaks of the park, with its “air of happy submission to immemorial law.” If only the Berringtons, who own the park, were happily submitting to immemorial law! Laura’s walk through the park brings her to a “dower house,” that is, a house for widows. Like the park, the house (known as “Plash”) is redolent of culture and tradition, and thus clashes with the hedonism and scandal of the Berringtons.

The room had its bright, durable, sociable air, the air that Laura Wing liked in so many English things — that of being meant for daily life, for long periods, for uses of high decency. But more than ever today was it incongruous that such an habitation, with its chintzes and its British poets, its well-worn carpets and domestic art — the whole aspect so unmeretricious and sincere — should have to do with lives that were not right.

When Laura goes to the Berringtons’ city house, she’s again struck by the contrast between the “peace and decorum” of the house and the “contentious and impure” spirit of its owners. When Lionel Berrington (Selina’s husband) indicates to Laura that he’s planning to terminate his marriage, Laura explodes:

“I don’t think you care any more for your home than Selina does. And it’s so sacred and so beautiful, God forgive you! You are all blind and senseless and heartless and I don’t know what poison is in your veins. There is a curse on you and there will be a judgment!” the girl went on, glowing like a young prophetess.

The British aristocracy was indeed on the brink. “A London Life” was published in 1888, and by the 1920s, the British aristocracy was in retreat, and old estates were being subdivided and sold off. One might say that James foresaw the fall of the aristocracy, while Proust, 28 years younger than James, lived long enough to see this fall and describe it. The aristocracy fell throughout the Western world at about the same time.

In this story, as in other stories, James shows his grasp of frevel. When Selina slips off to Paris for a few days of dissipation, James says that this excursion

had the mark of Selina’s complete, irremediable frivolity — the worst accusation (Laura tried to cling to that opinion) that she laid herself open to. Of course frivolity that was never ashamed of itself was like a neglected cold — you could die of it morally as well as of anything else. Laura knew this and it was why she was inexpressibly vexed with her sister.

Like the common cold, frivolity/frevel seems trivial, yet it can grow into something serious. One can die of it, as Daisy Miller does.

If the meaning of the story is plain, Moon asks, and if it’s reinforced by the author’s notebooks, letters, and preface, how could Edel and other critics misconstrue the story? How could they think that James was on Selina’s side, that James was condemning Laura? Moon says that these critics didn’t share James’ respect for tradition. They weren’t on intimate terms with the aristocracy, as James was, and they didn’t see the positive aspects of the aristocracy. They couldn’t relate to James’ love of tradition — old houses, old parks, etc.

Without any internal or external evidence [Moon writes], critics have assumed that Laura reacts because of righteous indignation at the sexual weaknesses of others. On the contrary, she is not a Puritan and her reaction is not “moral” in the sense of a disapproval based on prescriptive metaphysical beliefs. Instead, what commands her loyalty is a historically circumscribed institution rich in aesthetic associations.... For [Laura] divorce is wicked not because it violates general principles of sexual purity, but because it violates the heritage of a social class.... Hers is not a moralist’s but a Tory’s fanaticism.

The quarrel between Edel and Moon might be compared to the quarrel between Socrates and the Sophists, or the quarrel between Strauss and Nietzsche. Edel’s view implies that morality is absolute, universal, timeless, while Moon’s view implies that morality is relative. Edel, Socrates, and Strauss would say that adultery is either eternally and absolutely right, or eternally and absolutely wrong, while Moon, the Sophists, and Nietzsche would say that adultery is wrong in some situations but not all, morality depends on time and place, James’ condemnation of adultery applies only to a particular society. Moon argues that James is defending a specific cultural tradition, not (as Edel thinks) mocking a moral absolute.

Many of the other James stories that I’ve discussed are based on a literary template, that is, their theme is taken from another literary work. “A London Life,” on the other hand, is based on current events, on highly-publicized divorce trials, such as the Dilke trial and the Campbell trial. “There are curious similarities,” Moon writes, “between Lord and Lady Campbell and the Berringtons. In both cases an injured husband initiates divorce proceedings, followed by the wife’s counter suit, in spite of the chivalric custom according to which the husband allows the wife to file so that her reputation will endure minimal smudging.” Since Selina has several lovers, Lionel’s suit is called “Berrington vs. Berrington and Others,” as the real-life suit was called “Campbell vs. Campbell and Others.”

Laura is a “free spirit,” as James says, not a person with “an inflexible conception of what is good and right,” as Edel says. Laura has her own views about the good and the beautiful, she’s not an unthinking adherent of Puritan morality. Heath Moon has rescued “A London Life” from a mis-reading. This story should occupy a more prominent position in James’ oeuvre.

3. A Bergson Podcast

About three years ago, I wrote a short piece on Bergson. I’d like to expand those remarks, in light of a podcast that I listened to recently.

Henri Bergson was a popular and influential philosopher from around 1890 to 1930; his lectures and writings had broad appeal. In 1927, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was from a distinguished Jewish family, but he admired Catholicism, and thought seriously of converting to Catholicism. He married Proust’s cousin, and Proust was the best man at his wedding.

Bergson championed intuition over logic, free will over determinism, and evolution-by-vital-impulse over evolution-by-random-mutation. William James met Bergson, and was much impressed with him. “I have the strongest suspicions,” James wrote, “that the tendency which [Bergson] has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy.” Like James, Bergson was receptive to the occult, and like James, Bergson served as President of the Society for Psychical Research.

Bergson seems to agree with one of my main ideas, the idea of life- and death-instincts (I got this idea from Freud); Bergson believed in “two tendencies of life (degradation towards inert matter and mechanism, and continual creation of new forms).”7

My theory of history uses the life- and death-instincts to explain renaissance and decadence, and to predict future renaissances and decadences. My theory says that instincts change over time; my theory stresses the importance of time. So when I heard that Bergson viewed time as an “ontological force, a force of being,”8 I felt that I had something in common with Bergson.

The podcast says (8:12) that Bergson belongs to the New Spiritualists, who argued that even matter had some sort of spirit/consciousness/agency; this view is sometimes called “Pan-Psychism.” Here again Bergson’s philosophy overlaps with mine; I’ve often argued that everything, even matter, has a kind of life/consciousness.

The podcast says (39:37) that, after World War I, Bergson was criticized for being too nationalistic, for beating the drums of war in 1914. This criticism was made by, among others, Julien Benda, author of The Treason of the Intellectuals (1927). I have some sympathy for Benda’s position, I realize that the costs of World War I, for France, far outweighed the benefits. On the other hand, I have some sympathy for Bergson’s position since I myself supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; it’s difficult to see the futility of a war at its outset. Nations go to war, not as a result of a cost-benefit analysis, but as a result of anger and hatred, and when the war ends, they often find that the costs far outweighed the benefits.

Benda’s opposition to Bergson did not begin with World War I. Wikipedia says, “[Benda] disagreed strongly with Henri Bergson, the leading light of French philosophy of his day, and launched an attack on him in 1911, when Bergson's reputation was at its height.” Did Benda criticize Bergson for drifting away from reason and logic? According to the podcast (40:13), Benda “argues that there’s a direct line between the supposed irrationalism of Bergson’s philosophy and the nationalism in 1914.”

Critics of the non-rational worldview, the occult worldview, argue that the non-rational worldview leads to nationalism, authoritarianism, etc. Defenders of the non-rational worldview, like myself, point out that authoritarians like Plato and Marx are often champions of reason. Jung exemplifies the non-rational worldview, but he has no particular politics. Nietzsche exemplifies right-wing politics, but he has no interest in the occult, and he mocks Schopenhauer for his interest in the occult.

The podcast says (39:12) that Bergson is generally optimistic — another similarity to my philosophy. In an earlier issue, I described how Jacques Maritain and his wife

made a pact to commit suicide together if they could not discover some deeper meaning to life within a year. They were spared from following through on this because... they attended the lectures of Henri Bergson.... Bergson’s critique of scientism dissolved their intellectual despair.

After World War II, optimism was out of fashion, and Bergson’s optimism contributed to the decline of his reputation. Existentialism, with its despairing tone, caught the mood of the time better than Bergson.

The podcast says (15:15) that Bertrand Russell was a sharp critic of Bergson. Russell said that Bergson made “no arguments for his views, he just thinks that they’re appealing.” Doubtless Russell respected rational, logical arguments — the sort of arguments that you don’t find in Montaigne, Thoreau, Nietzsche, etc. Russell’s approach not only throws Bergson out of the philosophical pantheon, it throws out most of the philosophers who deserve to be there. In my view, to be criticized by Russell is a badge of honor for a philosopher.

The podcast says (44:56), “Bergson had a great respect for novelists because he thought that novelists, unlike scientists, could actually deal with the details of human experience, and actually show the singular quality and character of human experience.” Here again Bergson’s approach is similar to mine. One might say that philosophy has a poetic aspect and a mathematical aspect; William James, Bergson, and I deal with the poetic side, while Bertrand Russell and most academics favor the mathematical side.

The podcast says (46:27) that T. S. Eliot was a fan of Bergson, then became a critic of Bergson. The same could be said of Eliot’s friend Wyndham Lewis; five years ago, I noted that Lewis became “savagely critical” of Bergson, though he was initially a Bergson fan. Lewis’ opposition to Bergson probably inspired Lewis to write Time and Western Man.

The podcast says that a good place to begin with Bergson is his 1907 book Creative Evolution.

Bergson apparently believed that “clock time” draws a sharp distinction between past, present, and future, but we experience time differently, we experience time as “duration,” our experience of time mixes past, present, and future.9

In the late 1800s, the idea of time seemed to be “in the air” — Darwin’s theory emphasized time, Proust deals with time and memory, etc. So when the podcast says “Bergson influenced Proust,” and “Bergson influenced Virginia Woolf,” I wonder if writers like Proust and Woolf were really influenced by Bergson, or if they were influenced by an idea that was “in the air.”

4. Films

A. Knives Out (2019) is entertaining but empty; it’s devoid of both ideas and feelings. It’s a mystery with an intricate plot; it reminds one of an AgathaChristie mystery. As with many Hollywood films, the rich are evil, the poor virtuous. To give the movie an extra dose of political correctness, the heroine is the daughter of an illegal immigrant.

B. Wolf Hall (2015) is a 6-hour BBC series about Henry VIII and his court. I found it rather dismal and depressing, but excellent as history; I give it low marks for entertainment, high marks for education. It’s based on the novels of Hilary Mantel.

C. The Great Rupert (1950) is a good example of an old Hollywood movie, with a Christmas theme and a happy ending. It has some clever lines, and it’s easy to enjoy, despite its crazy plot.

D. Dangal (2016) was made in India. It tells the true story of an Indian wrestler who trains his two daughters to wrestle, hoping they can win the gold medal that he was never able to win. Dangal was popular in India and China. It’s entertaining, but it falls short of being a first-rate movie because of some heavy nationalism and feminism; the makers of the film sacrifice taste for popularity. What begins as an authentic story ends as a “feel good” story. Nonetheless, if you want a good wrestling movie, this might be the best choice. Click here to stream Dangal on Netflix.

The Phogat sisters who are featured in Dangal both won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games — Geeta in 2010, Babita in 2014. In 2021, their cousin, Ritika, committed suicide after losing a wrestling match.

India’s ruling party, the BJP, has tried to benefit from the glory of the Phogats. Babita and her father joined the BJP, and “heaped praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” Babita ran for office.

The BJP plays hardball with minorities — Muslims, Christians, etc. The BJP’s policies were criticized by Aamir Khan, the star of Dangal and India’s biggest movie star. Khan is Muslim, his full name is Mohammed Aamir Hussain Khan. Khan’s remarks about BJP policies prompted some conservative Hindus to boycott Dangal. These conservatives said that criticism of BJP policies was “anti-national,” “anti-India.” Modi describes BJP victories as victories for India.

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. “James’s ‘A London Life’ and the Campbell Divorce Scandal,” by Heath Moon, American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Autumn, 1980, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 246-258, jstor.org/stable/27745952 back
2. James’ preface to Vol. 10, p. xv back
3. I’m quoting Heath Moon. The last phrase (“bristling with righteousness”) is from James himself, but Moon insists that this is Selina’s view, not James’. back
4. I’m quoting Heath Moon, who’s quoting Edel back
5. Quoted in Moon

Heath Moon was a teacher at two private schools in the LosAngeles area, Pilgrim School and Harvard-Westlake. This is an unusual background for someone who publishes scholarly articles; perhaps Moon’s unusual background is related to his heterodox theories.

Moon died in early 2021, at about age 79. He published at least four articles on Henry James, including

For more about Heath Moon, click here or here.

Two useful resources for readers of James are

  • The Cambridge Companion to Henry James edited by Jonathan Freedman (1998)
  • The Cambridge Edition of the Complete Fiction of Henry James (in 34 volumes)
6. Moon says that Laura has become the protector of the estate, an estate that’s neglected, even undermined, by its owners. Thus, Laura is the “thematic cousin” (Moon argues) of three other James characters who become protectors of an estate that doesn’t belong to them: Clement Searle (The Passionate Pilgrim), Hyacinth Robinson (The Princess Casamassima), and the Bly governess (The Turn of the Screw).

One could add another name to this list: Henry James. One could argue that James himself is protecting an estate, a tradition, a culture that doesn’t belong to him, namely, English civilization. Like the four characters he created, James is an “appreciative outsider who must salvage and preserve the ‘property’ of spoiled or abdicated insiders.” back

7. Wikipedia back
8. Podcast, 17:00 back
9. Did Bergson believe that the future exists already, that some sort of fate controls the future, that dreams/intuitions can anticipate the future?

The podcast mentions an English philosopher named McTaggart (J. Ellis McTaggart) who wrote an essay called “The Unreality of Time” (1908). McTaggart was an atheist, but he believed in immortality (life after death) and reincarnation. While his conclusions were mystical, his method was rational.

According to Wikipedia, “McTaggart concluded the world was composed of nothing but souls, each soul related to one or more of the others by love. He argued against belief in God since he denied the absolute any single personality.... His philosophy, however, was fundamentally optimistic. McTaggart believed each of the souls (which are identified with human beings) to be immortal and defended the idea of reincarnation. McTaggart held the view that all selves are unoriginated and indestructible.” Many of McTaggart’s books are commentaries on Hegel. back