Sunday, September 11, 2016

"The Real Thing" (1892)

This story finds Henry James once again worrying ideas about reality and artifice in art. The unnamed first-person narrator is a portrait artist, as opposed to landscape. That's what one of his friends does, and because the divisions are all so clear and neat, one day the landscape artist sends along a curious pair of models to the portrait artist (having no need for them in his landscape work, you see). As it turns out, they are impoverished aristocracy—even the word "model" is beneath them. What strange world is this? Still, James appears to have his hands on something here. Not surprisingly, the aristocracy wins his grudging respect, even when they are in such arrears. Or perhaps because of it. Like Jesus and the Doobie Brothers, nobility is just all right with James. But he's also at pains to draw a line between professionals and amateurs. No matter what their origins, class, or taste, the models are to be pitied as amateurs—not "the real thing." The couple, of course, believe they are exactly that, as aristocracy. The narrator even believes it to an extent. But he has such better luck producing authentic work with models from the lower classes. Somehow he can't make it with this couple. "She was always a lady certainly," he writes of attempting to work with the woman, "and into the bargain always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing. There were moments when I was oppressed by the security of her confidence that she was the real thing. All her dealings with me and all her husband's were an implication that this was lucky for me." Which might be another way of saying, "The rich are different from you and me." I like to think the attitude was on the wane in Fitzgerald's time, but it's probably stronger than ever in our own, and certainly Henry James wasn't about to give it up in his time. But here he is nonetheless, grappling with what is real and what is not, with what looks like it should be yet somehow isn't, and vice versa. It doesn't surprise me that the aristocracy appears to have a bedrock of personal power that is mystifyingly empty when examined closely, but that's probably just because the world has moved along an inch or two. Nowadays it's engineers we believe can accomplish anything, fix anything, make anything do anything. We are bitterly disappointed when they can't (see the internet) but paradoxically that only seems to strengthen our faith. My point is that an engineer living the bum's life might be closer to our picture of what James means by "the real thing" here. He's taking on, even addled by his adoration of aristocracy, some of the most baffling mysteries of our lives, judging and assessing the appearance and character of others. In the end, our narrator the portrait artist is reduced to copying out points such as the cut of Major Monarch's trousers, or that "mathematically neat" trim of the back of Mrs. Monarch's hair. Yes, that's their name—Monarch. They aren't butterflies.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 26 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. I'd say empty class-based personal confidence is still ar, more prominent than the populist facade of democracy might suggest. Trump. Even much of the media and academic elites certainty that the positions they hold are legitimately meritocratic. The blithe confidence has an appealing aura-- the real thing-- when it isn't the vehicle for some idiocy, which is too often the case and probably always has been.