David Gelernter’s Ideas

This interview with David Gelernter over at The Atlantic is pure fun. Been listening to Schubert sonatas since I read it. His comments on Henry James’s The Ambassadors were especially worth a look:

The Ambassadors is Henry James’s finest novel, and ranks alongside Emma as one of the two finest in English.  Everyone notices the symmetry of the two-section, twelve-chapter plan.  51cMeu1iNLL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_

But critics don’t seem to notice the center of the symmetry.

The Ambassadors is about Paris. Paris is unusual in having an exact psychological and approximate physical center—Notre Dame and the parvis out front, where there’s a milestone embedded in the pavement from which distances throughout France are measured.

The church itself stands towards the middle of the island in the middle of the river in the middle of the city.  And James has arranged for Notre Dame, the center of Paris, to be the exact center of his book about Paris too.It is the center of the episode on which the plot hinges.

Strether, the hero, comes to the church on the first page of the first chapter of part II. He enters a mere respectful outsider, an admirer but no intimate of the church, the city or the heroine. Inside he sees (without recognizing) Marie de Vionnet in the distance, from the back.  She is lost in meditation or prayer. Moreover “there are no altars for him” in the great Catholic church—either because he is a New England puritan or just a New England skeptic.  But he leaves with Mme. de Vionnet on a new basis of close friendship.  And now there is an altar for him in Paris. She is the altar.

Although the story ends in a kind if disillusionment, Strether is transformed by his religious experience.  The Ambassadors remains the perfect study of the woman-worship that is so important to James; that appears at the center of each of his last two novels also.

And it’s important in earlier James too, perhaps most strikingly in The Awkward Age—an underrated, first-order masterpiece with a wholly-undeserved reputation for difficulty.  It includes James’s most dazzling, most breathtakingly beautiful set pieces—the subtle, wordy, moody, moving conversations among a small unchanging group on which he thrives.  It is about the worship of a woman that outlives her death to be handed on like a precious sacred vessel, frail yet almost intact, to her granddaughter.  This act of handing-on is the novel—as critics can’t seem to see.

It’s impossible not to wonder where this theme has gone.  Have men stopped worshipping women?

Hardly.

During feminism’s heyday feminist leaders made clear that they didn’t choose to be worshiped. But it was never up to them. Such emotions are part of a man’s life, not a woman’s.

If we take (say) the novels of Roth and of Coetzee as representing the last several generations of great novels in English, the one instance of woman-worship that comes to mind in all their novels is startling: the magistrate’s love for the unnamed barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians. He loves her not for her perfection but exactly for her imposed imperfection, for the wounds and the suffering visited on her by the secret police.

(The lack of interest in woman-worship as a central theme seems to hold for such relatively young novelists as Sean O’Reilly, Patrick Flanery, Anthony Schneider, Robert Seethaler and Jenny Erpenbeck too.) We seem to have lost something essential, a matter of life and death.

These are great observations, but I think maybe Gelernter doesn’t read Mark Helprin novels. Or listen to Anais Mitchell. Or  La Dispute. Or even Weezer. Still, I wouldn’t mind a bit if The Atlantic were to give him a monthly column to discuss whatever was on his mind. This can’t be said enough:

Beauty is objective.

Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

Good ol’ Wrath Of Gnon has a whole series of posts based on this idea:

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Or, as he put it the other day: “‘Beauty is not subjective’, and it has always been an ideal, subjective to effort and sacrifice: not an egalitarian right.”

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