Gotham Diary:
September 2017 (I)

5, 6, 7 and 8 September

Tuesday 5th

Just now, I’ve been reading the opening paragraphs of Now, Voyager, the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty that was adapted for the classic Bette Davis film. Prouty wrote Stella Dallas, too, and Stanley Cavell, in Cities of Words, claims that these novels are better than their current oblivion suggests. The opening of Now, Voyager is certainly more sophisticated than its author’s name suggests. Indeed, I had to make myself stop reading. It does not promise to be a great novel by any means, but it clicks along smoothly. It begins at Gibraltar, not in the Vale mansion (and not in Rio, either), and Charlotte is on a terrace, surrounded by beautiful views (including “the proverbial flower-filled urn with hanging vines”), dressed in one of Renée Beauchamp’s outfits, waiting for her new friend to return from sending a cable. It is a much more inviting start than the one offered by the movie.

Earlier, I was looking at Castle Nowhere, a story by Constance Fenimore Woolson. The dialogue, between a white man and a spirit, was not so promising. The prose was somewhat starchy, in the earnest American way that Henry James learned very early to parody, thus distancing himself at the level of the sentence from his native countrymen. Woolson wrote six novels and four collections of stories, plus a great deal of travel writing, journalism, and verse, before defenestrating herself at Venice in early 1894. At the time, some of Woolson’s friends thought that James could have saved her. They thought that he had “led her on,” raising hopes of marriage and companionship that in fact — in the actual history of his friendship with Woolson — had she entertained them, would have been groundless. In The Master, Colm Tóibín presents Woolson as James’s best reader, treasured by him as such. Theirs was a friendship of writers. But few of the men and women in their world could have understood such a thing, and James was uncomfortably aware of being in the position of a cad.

I am asking myself, of course, if I ought to read on. Prouty comes with a high recommendation: Cavell’s is exactly the sort of tip that I pocket carefully. About Woolson’s work, however, neither James nor Tóibín has anything to say. James does not appear to have been Woolson’s best reader, and Tóibín doesn’t even provide titles. In a very quiet way, The Master refutes the prejudice, generally shared by American men at the time of James’s youth, that only women wrote “stories,” by showing that only James wrote stories worth reading — worth reading, that is, a century later. Like every successful novelist, Woolson wrote for her contemporaries. Like many great writers, James has had a posthumous readership educated for him. In recent decades, his sexuality — a same-sex preference that in the opinion of Tóibín and others remained virginal, but that earlier men of letters felt would tarnish his luster if disclosed — has had the unexpected effect of normalizing him, of saving him from the condescension now heaped on dead straight white males. He remains challenging to read; today’s readers are even less likely, without some training and much conscious effort, to find him congenial than Woolson’s readers did. But he is read, and read, I think, with pleasure.

If James is great because he is read, it does not follow that he is read because he is great. Nobody is, outside of school. Henry James may be “great” because he wrote complex studies of the American character as it was revealed against European backgrounds. He may be “great” because of his highly sophisticated grasp of the issues of good and evil. But he is read, if you ask me, because his stories are scary. They are charged with ineffable menace; the invisibility of wickedness in James is what saves him from melodrama. So does his hard-headedness about romance, which never triumphs, in his books, over the power of money, comfort, and propriety. The horror of losing self-respect to disgrace is vastly closer to the general reader’s everyday concerns than the threat of brigands or vampires, and James’s great trick is presenting that horror with all the relish and excitement of tall, gothic tales. Nothing, really, is as thrilling in all literature as the cat-and-mouse game played by Princess Maggie and her step-mother at the end of The Golden Bowl. Learning how to hear James describe it — accepting that his immense obliquity is simply the most powerful way of dramatizing it — is unquestionably worth the effort.

One does not expect such payoffs from Prouty or Woolson.


Wednesday 6th

The strangest thing about Henry James’s second-most-famous ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” is its title. For years, I assumed that this referred to an inglenook by a fire in an old English inn, wherein some venerable sportsman told tales to any who would listen. (In those days, I couldn’t be bothered with mere stories. I must have novels.) In fact, it refers to the intersection of Fifth Avenue and some sidestreet between Washington Square and Fourteenth Street, specifically to a large house there, wherein the protagonist of the story was born and grew up. In his early twenties, this fellow, Spencer Brydon, departed for Europe, where he has remained for thirty-odd years, sustained by the rents of his family’s Manhattan properties. Now he has returned. It would be vulgar to put too much effort into determining why he has returned, but it will suffice to say that he is supervising the renovation of a parcel not far from the “jolly corner” and the erection there of an “apartment house” (author’s quotes) that will make him really rich.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, jolly about the large house on the corner, especially once we learn that Brydon believes that it is haunted by his alter ego, the man that he would have become had he remained in New York. This is an intriguing fancy, and, again, we mustn’t put too much weight on it. By that I mean, we mustn’t ask what sort of man would entertain such an idea? The point is that Henry James is entertaining it, and that he manages to be entertaining about it. Brydon is presented, to be brisk about it, as a version of Chad Newsome, the supposedly wastrel heir in The Ambassadors who turns out to be far more polished (if no less depraved) than his family back in Massachusetts fears. Brydon is a sportsman who has hunted big game and visited the tombs of the Pharaohs. He has enjoyed and suited himself in a world that does not frown on pleasure. Now fifty-six, he is perhaps too creaky in the joints for the joys of his youth.

“The Jolly Corner” appeared in 1908, inspired by James’s visit to the United States five years earlier, after an absence (punctuated by a return occasioned by his father’s death) about as long as Brydon’s. Brydon is, as one can well imagine, astonished by the transformation that New York has undergone since 1870, an era of, among other things, massively increased urban densities. The city has spread upwards as much as outwards; it is no longer a town, as even many of the most charming neighborhoods of London’s West End are still towns.

He had been twenty-three on leaving New York — he was fifty-six today: unless indeed he were to reckon as he had sometimes, since his repatriation, found himself feeling; in which case he would have lived longer than is often allotted to man. it would have taken a century, he repeatedly said to himself, and said also to Alice Staverton, it would have taken a longer absence and a more averted mind than those even of which he had been guilty, to pile up the differences, the newnesses, the queernesses, above all the bignesses, for the better or the worse, that at present assault his vision wherever he looked.

In the heart of the story, Brydon stalks his alter ego in the deserted house in the middle of the night — and is stalked by him. If I understood James’s art better than I do — and I’m not sure that I want any such thing, lest it break the spell — I could explain how James invests his fairly incredible fantasy with horripilating detail and how he makes these details pay. There is a protracted confrontation with a closed door — surely Brydon had left it open — that precipitates the climax. Then there is the alter ego himself, standing, assuming that Brydon is not dreaming or dead, at the base of the stairs. None of this is what makes “The Jolly Corner” interesting to me. I’m interested in James’s grasp of the alter ego, and the problem that it poses for Brydon. In the very first line of the story, Brydon complains that everyone in New York wants to know what he thinks of the place; he senses, rightly, that he’s being invited to speculate on the life that he would have lived had he not fled to Europe. It seems to be generally assumed that this life would have been a life of accomplishment rather than idleness; had he stayed, Brydon would have shouldered the wheel of progress and become a billionaire. This is America’s view of itself: it inspires prosperity.

James isn’t having it. His view of Brydon’s alter ego is of a stunted, damaged knave. For want of big game and pyramids, not to mention the effortful refinement of European pleasure, Brydon might very well have taken to cards and drink and worse. In an unforgettable image, one of the hands covering the face of the alter ego, when it finally stands before Brydon, is missing two fingers, as if they had been shot off: Brydon’s prey would have been his own self. It is obvious to me that Europe saved Brydon’s life, and made it as well, so that he will be free, if he so chooses, to remain in New York without being destroyed by it. He will also be free either to tear down the house at the jolly corner and to build another apartment house or to re-occupy it. The alter ego has been exorcised. Its very confinement to the empty house represents the emptiness of the life that Brydon left behind. As I’ve suggested, this is an idea that James takes up at much greater length, and without the apparatus of midnight stalks, in The Ambassadors. Paris does not make Newsome a better man, perhaps, but it certainly makes him a more civilized, sociable, and thereby worthwhile man.

What interests me even more about “The Jolly Corner” is the economy with which James captures, in the one sentence that I have quoted, and for all time, the extraordinary disorientation that Americans who lived through the transformation of urban life after the Civil War did not feel, precisely because they were living through it. It is this disorientation, I maintain, that we must all learn to register, now that the nature of change has become so much less palpable than it was for two centuries. We will continue to build big things, but not so many of them; most of our efforts will be on the microscopic level of smartphones and DNA manipulations. The current of everyday change has slowed down, and, I suspect, it will continue to slow down further. Now we can acknowledge the violence and the disruption with which that current, running so much faster, altered human society since the revolutions of the Eighteenth Century. We can begin to take stock of how very many developments we have not quite kept up

Thursday 7th

My personal interest in immigration issues is not very great. Emigration is my thing. I wish that I could just go live in Amsterdam without any fuss, not because I identify as Nederlander (I don’t), but because I simply like it there, grey skies and damp and all. I feel terribly sorry for British men and women who have settled throughout the EU — they’ve been living my dream, and theirs may well come to an end with Brexit.

Now, as for my political interest in immigration, my objective is, like any sensible person’s, a rational, consensus-backed program that encourages the inflow of future citizens, no matter what their skills or background (so long as it isn’t violently criminal). This objective is not worth talking about, because, as everyone can see, there is no consensus in the offing, not remotely. So I sit the matter out. This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not paying attention. On the contrary, because I’m not emotionally invested in the arguing, I can see things a little more clearly.

Here’s one thing that I see, and I’ll pass it on for what it’s worth. It’s probably nothing new, but it’s easier to see now that the Democratic Party has all but dropped out of the political equation. We hear that the Republican Party is divided on the immigration issue between nativists — a bloc almost as old as the United States itself — and “business interests.” Nativists want to restrict immigration to a trickle. “Business interests” are said to rely on immigrants, especially seasonal migrants, for cheap labor, much of which, it is pointed out, is not competitive, because Americans won’t take the jobs. Agriculture is the key sector in this argument, with the advocates of open immigration warning that, given a shortage of migrant workers, agribusiness may arrange for prison populations to be put to work in the fields, a disgusting revival of slavery. You’ll note that these advocates are not harmonizing with “business interests,” but instead diametrically opposing them.

You’ll also notice, if you listen, that there is no actual “business interest” policy, no single position to counter that of the nativists. And you’ll also see that these “business interests” have, in the past, shuffled their immigration concerns off to Democratic Party proxies, thus sparing the need for a stated “business interest” policy. In fact, different businesses have different objectives, and there is no positive point around which coherence might develop. By this I mean that, having argued for unfettered access to cheap labor, “business interests” have nothing more to say on the matter. They have no position, for example, on the welfare of immigrants — whether, that is, and to what extent it ought to be extended to them.

As I considered this, I saw something behind it, which explains the absence of a clear “business interests” position on immigration even better than the diversity of actual business interests. Business divides laws into two groups. Laws that involve property rights and laws that are enforced, in effect, by accountants are tremendously important to business, and such laws are comprehensive to the point of unintelligible detail. Every contingency is provided for. Other laws, in contrast, are of little or no interest, so long as they are ineffective. We may gather laws in the latter class under the rubric “regulation.” Regulation, very simply, purports to restrict business to a certain degree of operation within and impact upon society at large. Business dislikes restrictions. More precisely, the men and women who run any particular business dislike the regulatory constraints that pertain to them, but are indifferent to constraints that don’t. This makes perfect sense. The tricky part, as I see it, is that business has learned to count on ineffective regulation in general. In particular, a business will resist regulation by society. But in general, it shrugs: have as much regulation as you like, the more the better, because the more there is of it, the less effective it will be. It doesn’t really matter which policy is chosen, so long as it cannot really be implemented. This is why “business interests” have been happy to leave pro-immigration advocacy to the Democrats. There was no need, so long as the Democrats were players, for “business interests” to invest in any specific immigration policy, or to risk awkward confrontations with nativists. “Business interests” could reap the rewards of Democratic Party fecklessness and Capitol Hill gridlock.

Now what?

My purpose here is to sharpen the point that “business interests” ought to have no role in political discourse. The men and women who run businesses are, of course, citizens like everybody else, and are no less entitled to be heard. But: no more, either. When “business interests” have a say in public affairs, then these men and women are able to make use of business resources to wield undue influence in political campaigns of every kind, whether electoral or legislative (ie, lobbying), and, even worse, to corrupt regulation by means of regulatory capture, promising docile regulators lucrative futures within the business fold.

That rich citizens can sway elections by opening up their pocketbooks is a serious political headache without an easy solution, but removing “business interests” from the political scene requires nothing more than the revocation of a Supreme Court opinion that is not, in fact, an opinion at all. Without this support, businesses would no longer have the standing of natural persons, and therefore no standing to participate in politics. The polarity of regulatory capture might even be reversed.

Given the pro-immigration stance of “business interests,” some liberals might feel that this is not the time to be barring them from political action. That would be — and I say this as a committed liberal — a typically liberal mistake.


Friday 8th

In law school, the property-law professor started off the semester by comparing the feudal tenures that were still part of the syllabus in those days — is it possible that they still are? — to “Chinese music,” which, according to him, was comprised of tones whose differences were too subtle for Western ears to distinguish. Having listened to a fair amount of actual Chinese music, ranging from xiqu (“Chinese opera”) to erhu solos, I wondered where he got this idea. The Fu Manchu Book of Chinese Inscrutabilities seemed a likely source. (He was wrong about the tenures, too.) Nevertheless, “Chinese music” came forcibly to mind as I reached the final pages of Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words.

I felt as if I had endured an endurance test. Whether I had passed the test, I couldn’t say. I had certainly learned a lot, but I couldn’t be more specific than that. I wished that I were younger, so that I could comfortably imagine re-reading the book, with greater comprehension, in twenty or thirty years. The persistent problem, as I’ve already written, wasn’t that I couldn’t understand what Cavell was saying. I couldn’t understand why he was saying it. I could not trace his thinking from one sentence to the next. But I began the book expecting that I wouldn’t make it through, that it would be too tedious to keep at. It wasn’t ever tedious. It was like driving along a leafy avenue on a sunny day. I came to relish not always knowing what was going on. And I could feel myself growing, vaguely, somewhere.

So much for that. It turns out that Cities of Words was not the book about “comedies of remarriage” that I was looking for. Cavell’s The Pursuit of Happiness is. When I have read that, sometime soon I think, I’ll get out the yardstick.


The Master is billed as a novel, so it’s entirely possible that Colm Tóibín made this up:

There began then a conspiracy between them, a drama in which each knew the roles and the lines and the movements. Henry learned to walk slowly, never to run, to smile but never to laugh, to stand up hesitantly and awkwardly and to sit down with relief. He learned not to eat heartily or drink his fill. (151)

This comes from Chapter 7, which concerns the James’s brothers’ various responses to the Civil War. William, the eldest, buried himself in medical school. The two younger brothers, Wilky and Bob, fought, and Wilky was severely wounded. For a while, Henry was without an excuse, and the conspiracy that Tóibín postulates was a tacit agreement between Henry and his mother to create the impression of back ailment serious enough to keep Henry out of uniform. Eventually, Henry’s father took him to a back specialist in Boston, and Tóibín tells us that James exacted his revenge for the doctor’s brusque diagnosis of perfect health by using him as a model for Dr Sloper, in Washington Square. What Tóibín doesn’t tell us is that James ever resumed eating heartily, if indeed he had ever done such a thing. He never went to war.

I remember reading this passage the first time, and feeling sorry for James. The second time, last week, I felt only envy. How I wish that I had been capable of acting the invalid. My restlessness always gave me away. Sick people, in case you haven’t noticed (I hadn’t), are not twitchy in the way of boys under confinement. They are wan and enervated and reluctant to move. My career as an academic malingerer came to an end the day I spent the afternoon, while my mother was out shopping, rearranging all the furniture in my room.

I had to wait for age to take care of things. I must say that it has done a pretty good job.

Bon week-end à tous!