Sunday, October 09, 2016

"The Figure in the Carpet" (1896)

Here's a funny story about art and criticism. I like the stories from this period, when Henry James was thinking very hard about the place and meaning of art. An example of his most exalted form of art goes floating by here, the portrait painter, but this is actually about a great novelist, which makes it more interesting. It's about a great novelist and one of his admirers, a newspaper book reviewer, who is also our narrator. After accidentally insulting the narrator for a review he wrote of his book, the novelist confides that no one has yet ever caught his most profound theme, which exists across his body of work like a figure woven into a Persian rug, hence title. The narrator, so great is his regard for the novelist, takes that as a personal challenge. He studies very hard, and he discusses the problem with a friend, who becomes equally obsessed. While traveling in India the friend hits upon it. He telegraphs the narrator: "Eureka. Immense." The novelist meets with him, hears him out, embraces him. At last someone understands him. Then things happen, one thing and another, and the narrator never learns the secret. And now people are dead, so he never is going to learn it. The only one who knows, the widow of the friend, refuses to tell him. There's a certain finality of interpretation here that surprises me coming from James. This is after The Turn of the Screw so it's not like he didn't appreciate ambiguity and multiplicities of interpretation. But everyone in this story is after the one true thing. I almost want to take it as satire—it certainly has comic elements. But I also suspect this is some kind of shriek of frustration on some level. Most regard for James came after his death so he didn't see much of it, and was denied a certain level of gratification. Reading him more thoroughly, I've seen some severe ups and downs. The high points are still taught in college classes, and the low points are often strange and interesting pratfalls. What's good is really good, and can be tremendously subtle. The Turn of the Screw is as good an example as any. That narrative is so mysterious in its intentions, tones, textures, and details that it almost seems there must be a greater pattern just back of it, almost discernible but not quite, that could potentially open all his work wide—the figure in the carpet, so to speak. The story is also interesting in regard to the critical enterprise. James clearly seems to respect it and see its validity. He's frustrated with it like we all are—critics get so many things so wrong so often. I know I do. But I think he understood too, if sadly, that it's got to be done.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 37 pages

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

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