Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tumbleweeds/beyond everything

So, the sad truth is that I have started a Tumblr. It was time for me to understand Tumblr a little better.

The differences between a blog and a Tumblr, apart from the social/sharing dimension of Tumblr, are subtle, but generally speaking Tumblrs seem to me to be very much about content over personality, and personalities on Tumblr are very self-consciously performed. All of Tumblr is in drag. This is, of course, appealing.

Meanwhile I've been blogging very rarely here, perhaps because I'm still wandering in the wilderness when it comes to the piece I'm working on at the moment, which is and is not about the writings of Stephen Crane.

The Tumblr is a good place to put orts and fragments, and that's where I've recently deposited a few instances of a phrase that strikes me as epitomizing Henry James's style: "beyond everything." He certainly uses the phrase a lot, although, as a quick Google Books ngrams search suggests, James was writing rather at the peak of "beyond everything" (but then again, how much of the GB corpus is simply saturated with James?—And who or what among us is not, rightly, saturated with James?).

Mark Seltzer's Bodies and Machines (1992) is pretty unmistakably a book about literary naturalism, but Seltzer continually has to talk about "naturalism and realism," or at times use one or the other word to refer to both categories. That's fair: nobody quite knows the difference between naturalism and realism, although we're all prepared to say that The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Portrait of a Lady are "realism" and McTeague and Sister Carrie are naturalism, and feel like we know what we mean when we make the distinction. One of the few people to offer a really definitive statement on the matter was Frank Norris, who wrote of naturalism in "Zola as a Romantic Writer" (1886),
This is not romanticism—this drama of the people, working itself out in blood and ordure. It is not realism. It is a school by itself, unique, somber, powerful beyond words.
But what is this distinction exactly, that separates naturalism from both romanticism and realism? When you're reduced to calling a literary genre (made of words, after all) powerful beyond words, you know something is up; we're asked to believe that this is a form of representation that can rise up and shed its status as representation. Instead of words we have "working out" in "blood and ordure." (One thinks of the "lines" on the battlefield in Stephen Crane's fiction, which perform the reverse action—blood and ordure continually admitting themselves to be "words, words, words," as in Michael Fried's classic reading.) For Norris, however, naturalism is not even really about words anymore; it's just beyond—"beyond everything." There's a reason Mark Seltzer's book about naturalism ("and realism") has an entire chapter on Henry James.

To be "beyond everything" is to be at the limit, outside. James is a great user of the unqualified "everything," "everything" as an answer or as a landing place, not "everything else" or "everything I can think of" but the totality, the absolute kitchen-sink inclusion of all that is or can be. "Everything" is so inclusive as to lack meaning; this ambiguity is, as it were, everything to The Wings of the Dove (1902), for example, as we see in an exchange between Kate Croy and Merton Densher (about what a horrible person Kate's father is):

[MD:] "It's so vague that what am I to think but that you may very well be mistaken? What has he done, if no one can name it?"

[KC:] "He has done everything."

"Oh—everything! Everything's nothing."

It's therefore a kind of cop-out to call anything "beyond everything," and yet at times necessary to mark the place where representation fails and we are forced, like Frank Norris, to helplessly and oxymoronically declare ourselves simply beyond.

Nymphs and nuns were certainly separate types, but Mr. Verver, when he really amused himself, let consistency go. The play of vision was at all events so rooted in him that he could receive impressions of sense even while positively thinking. He was positively thinking while Maggie stood there, and it led for him to yet another question—which in its turn led to others still. "Do you regard the condition of hers then that you spoke of a minute ago?"

"The condition—?"

"Why that of having loved so intensely that she's, as you say, 'beyond everything'?"

Maggie had scarcely to reflect—her answer was so prompt. "Oh, no. She's beyond nothing. For she has nothing."

"I see. You must have had things to be beyond them. It's a kind of law of perspective."

Maggie didn't know about the law, but she continued definite. "She's not, for example, beyond help."

"Oh, well then, she shall have all we can give her. I'll write to her," he said, with pleasure."

"Angel!" she answered as she gaily and tenderly looked at him.

True as this might be, however, there was one thing more—he was an angel with a human curiosity. "Has she told you she likes me much?"

"Certainly she has told me—but I won't pamper you. Let it be enough for you it has always been one of my reasons for liking her."

"Then she's indeed not beyond everything," Mr. Verver more or less humorously observed.

—Henry James, The Golden Bowl (1904)

And perhaps the thing that makes us want to distinguish between realism and naturalism is that realism (James) will ask us to meditate on what it could mean to be "beyond everything," and naturalism (Norris) will ask us to imagine for a moment that we are "beyond everything." Naturalism doesn't have that recourse to urbanity and humor that pulls us back and makes us question the very idea of "beyond everything." Here's The Golden Bowl again:

"My idea is this, that when you only love a little you're naturally not jealous—or are only jealous also a little, so that it doesn't matter. But when you love in a deeper and intenser way, then you are, in the same proportion, jealous; your jealousy has intensity and, no doubt, ferocity. When, however, you love in the most abysmal and unutterable way of all—why then you're beyond everything, and nothing can pull you down."

Mr. Verver listened as if he had nothing, on these high lines, to oppose. "And that's the way you love?"

For a minute she failed to speak, but at last she answered: "It wasn't to talk about that. I do feel, however, beyond everything—and as a consequence of that, I daresay," she added with a turn to gaiety, "seem often not to know quite where I am."

"For a minute," Maggie is herself "beyond everything," or at least (as Norris might say) "beyond words"; "she failed to speak." But just as humor rescues Mr. Verver and relieves him of contemplating "beyond everything" in the previous selection, Maggie is able to pull back from the beyond "beyond everything," and can move back into speech "with a turn to gaiety." A certain segment of discourse, the one corresponding to the "beyond everything," is proscribed: "It wasn't to talk about that." But gaiety lets us go.

Nothing doing in naturalism, however: we will embrace oxymoron (words that are powerful beyond words) before we will back off of the "beyond." Naturalism needs something to be "beyond," and it is precisely the realist project of representation that it aims to take as the limit it wishes to overstep.

Even reading short fragments of James makes you start using the word "simply" with unusual frequency as well.

Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.

James, Henry. The Golden Bowl. Ed. Virginia Llewellyn Smith. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print. The World’s Classics.

———. The Wings of the Dove. Novels, 1901-1902. New York: Library of America : Distributed to the tradein the United States by Penguin Putnam, 2006. Print. The Library of America 162.

Norris, Frank. "Zola as a Romantic Writer." Novels and Essays. Ed. Donald Pizer. New York, N.Y: Library of America ; distributed by Viking Press, 1986. Print. Library of America 33.

Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

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