ONE DAY, while Madeline and I were strolling arm in arm through Central Park, that island of greenery in New York’s urban environment, playing the part of a couple from the nineteenth century, I found myself thinking about realism, not from a reader’s or critic’s point of view but from a writer’s point of view; that is, as a set of aspirations and techniques employed by writers—or other artists, for that matter—rather than as a result of those aspirations and techniques. During the ensuing days and weeks, I found myself wondering more and more about the aspirations of writers—particularly Henry James—who use the techniques of realism to create the illusion of reality as a cloak for a romance.
THE CENTRAL PARK SETTING suggested that a revealing comparison might be made between the aspirations of such writers and the aspirations of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the landscape. Parts of the park announce themselves as urban and planned, but other sections—in particular “The Ramble”—seem to have been left in a natural state, as bits of wilderness in the heart of the city. The truth is that all of Central Park is an artificial environment, with false hills, false lakes, and imported trees. It is a distillation of nature—naturalistic, but not natural.
In parts of the park, I think I can detect the designers’ desire to create a work that would inspire the awe and wonder and joy that nature inspires, and to achieve that effect in a more compact and richer way than nature herself ordinarily does. To bring a taste of the sublime to the urban stroller on a rushed lunch break requires a landscape more than real, enriched by concentration, like a sauce made by reduction.
Olmsted envisioned the Ramble as a romantic “wild garden.” After the terrain was cleared of undesirable stone and plant life, and after its swampy wetlands were filled, a forest of richly varied trees, shrubs, and flowers was planted. A stream was created and made to wind through the landscape, forming pools and splashing down rocky slopes before emptying into the Lake. Charming paths, rustic bridges, a mysterious cave, an ancient-looking stone arch, and exotic birds . . . provided additional fairy-tale touches.
Richard J. Berenson and Raymond Carroll, The Complete Illustrated Map and Guidebook to Central Park (Sterling, 2008)
In the case of our Park it must be remembered that for the site on which it was decided to plant it, nature had hardly expended the slightest effort. . . . A more unpromising locality was never given to any Adam to make an Eden of, and few persons who have not watched the progress of the Park from its commencement can fully understand that its present condition is almost entirely an artificial product. Nature having done almost nothing, art had to do all. And yet art . . . has been able to produce a result, which, on the whole, so closely resembles nature, that it is no wonder if the superficial observer does not clearly see how vast is the amount of work that had to be performed before the Park could reach its present perfection. Nowhere in the Park, as it seems to us, has the result achieved been more worthy of the money, labor, and thought expended to produce it, than in the Ramble. Here at least we may be thankful that the Commissioners have not been content with merely “letting alone.” For the Ramble is, in almost every square foot of it, a purely artificial piece of landscape gardening. Yet the art of concealing art was hardly ever better illustrated.
Clarence Cook, A Description of the New York Central Park (New York: F. J Huntington and Co., 1869)
HENRY JAMES explained his view of the difference between realism and romance in his preface to the New York Edition of The American in 1907. There he said that romance deals with
experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it and, if we wish so to put the matter, drag upon it.
In a lighthearted image, he likens the effect of romance to the lifting power of a lighter-than-air balloon:
The balloon of experience is in fact of course tied to the earth, and under that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or less commodious car of the imagination; but it is by the rope we know where we are, and from the moment that cable is cut we are at large and unrelated: we only swing apart from the globe—though remaining as exhilarated, naturally, as we like, especially when all goes well.
Then he turns to the art of the romancer:
The art of the romancer is, “for the fun of it,” insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him.
However, he goes on to contradict himself somewhat, because he says that for the reader of a romance there remains
. . . our general sense of the way things happen—it abides with us indefeasibly, as readers of fiction, from the moment we demand that our fiction shall be intelligible; and there is our particular sense of the way they don’t happen, which is liable to wake up unless reflection and criticism, in us, have been skillfully and successfully drugged. There are drugs enough, clearly—it is all a question of applying them with tact; in which case the way things don’t happen may be artfully made to pass for the way things do.
He seems to say that the reader, even if skillfully and successfully drugged, must be allowed enough contact with the reassuring earthly sense of the way things happen to keep the fiction intelligible.
I THINK that many artists—including writers who are romancers—are tempted to show the audience—or at least that part of the audience that is worthy of the favor—how the trick is done, how the art is made, how the cable has been cut so tactfully and insidiously that the cutting has gone unnoticed. Why do I think that? Because in the company of some writers, after a few drinks, I have heard them discourse on the power of that temptation and describe with glee specific times when they have given in to it. Having thus been alerted to the phenomenon, I have become quite good at spotting it in print. For example, while I was rereading James’s The Bostonians, this passage brought me up short:
Basil Ransome lived in New York, rather far to the eastward, and in the upper reaches of the town; he occupied two small shabby rooms in a somewhat decayed mansion which stood next to the corner of the Second Avenue. The corner itself was formed by a considerable grocer’s shop. . . . The house had a red, rusty face, and faded green shutters, of which the slats were limp and at variance with each other. . . . The two sides of the shop were protected by an immense penthouse shed, which projected over a greasy pavement and was supported by wooden posts fixed in the curbstone. Beneath it, on the dislocated flags, barrels and baskets were freely and picturesquely grouped; an open cellarway yawned beneath the feet of those who might pause to gaze too fondly on the savory wares displayed in the window; a strong odor of smoked fish, combined with a fragrance of molasses, hung about the spot; the pavement, toward the gutters, was fringed with dirty panniers, heaped with potatoes, carrots, and onions . . .
The passage struck me so forcibly because it was the first time in my rereading that I had encountered James using techniques of realism so directly. I hadn’t found much of this kind of realistic precision elsewhere in his work, but this passage has the vividness and accuracy of a photograph.
Let me quote further, because I soon found James giving the game away, winking at the reader, and displaying the rope that holds the balloon:
I mention it not on account of any particular influence it may have had on the life or the thought of Basil Ransome, but for old acquaintance sake and that of local color; besides which, a figure is nothing without a setting, and our young man came and went every day, with rather an indifferent, unperceiving step, it is true, among the objects I have briefly designated.
James has, for reasons of his own, chosen to tell us that what we have read about the decayed mansion on Second Avenue and the grocer’s shop on the corner next to it isn’t part of the romance at all. It’s there to satisfy what he referred to as “our general sense of the way things happen.” The shop is one of the spots where the rope of the balloon of romance was tethered to the earth before the rope was cut . . . and here he is at least momentarily tying it back to its mooring there . . . just to show us that he can.
WHAT MIGHT Basil Ransome’s New York have looked like? Well, it would have looked something like what we see in the images of New York in the Nineteenth Century that follow.
These images do not float free. They are solidly tied to the earth, and the rope that ties them is short and sturdy. You would have to work hard to cut these images free. They do not show disconnected and uncontrolled experiences: they depict experiences that are entirely controlled by our sense of the way things happen. Or do they? We’ll return to that question a little later.
WHEN I THINK of realism in literature, I think of Balzac, of course. One mark of Balzac’s realism—one that I think of as an essential element of realism—is an interest in the broadest possible range of the real world out there, including its people, their occupations, their lives, their travails, their burdens, and their stories. In this, in his range, Balzac is unequaled.
In contrast, James’s world, the world of James’s work, is almost laughably narrow. Ignoring for a moment Basil Ransome’s neighborhood, it is a moneyed world, peopled largely by snobs who disdain anyone whom they consider vulgar. They seem almost to have a fear of vulgarity, as if it might be catching.
James knew himself as a romancer, but he also knew that he owed a large debt to Balzac because it was from Balzac’s work that he learned the techniques of realism, the techniques that James used to lend verisimilitude to his romances.
Balzac, in contrast, had a real desire to document the life of his times, the way things happened, as well as to tell romances about the way things didn’t happen. Balzac was not “a documentarian,” as the sneering writer of an introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of one of James’s novels called him, though he was adept at the techniques of documentary.
James makes a reference to Balzac in the scene in The Princess Casamassima in which Hyacinth calls on Lady Aurora, at her invitation, to choose some books to borrow.James writes that
There were certain members of an intensely modern school, advanced and scientific realists, of whom Hyacinth had heard and on whom he had long desired to put his hand; but, evidently, none of them had ever stumbled into Lady Aurora’s candid collection, though she did possess a couple of Balzac’s novels, which, by ill-luck, happened to be just those that Hyacinth had read more than once.
Is James saying here, “I’m no Balzac, and I neither pretend to be nor desire to be”? Maybe. Let’s come back to that question.
NOW I want to make a distinction between art and documentary, between an artist and a documentarian.
For a definition of art, I’ll turn to Flaubert, who is, of course, widely regarded as a realist of the first order (though as we shall see shortly he ought to be regarded as a romancer who employed techniques of realism). Writing to Louise Colet on August 26, 1853, Flaubert said:
I am devoured now by a need for metamorphoses. I would like to write everything I see, not just as it is, but transfigured. An exact account of the most magnificent real fact would be impossible for me. I would still need to embroider it.
In The Perpetual Orgy, his wonderful book about Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Mario Vargas Llosa pointed out that that remark sums up the relation between fiction and reality in what he called “novelistic creation”:
the point of departure is real reality (“everything I see”), life in the broadest sense . . . but this material is never narrated “exactly”; it is always “transfigured,” “embroidered.” The novelist adds something to the reality that he has turned into work material, and this added element constitutes the originality of his work, that which gives autonomy to the fictional reality, that which distinguishes it from the real. [translated by Helen Lane]
To put that in James’s terms, returning to his floating balloon, the added element is what lifts the work above vulgar reality, things as they happen, and takes it into the realm of romance, things as they don’t happen.
So, I take the aspiration of the documentarian to be: to present or to communicate in some form things as they happen, or as they happened. And, in contrast, I take the aspiration of the artist to be: to transform things as they happen or happened into things as they don’t happen or didn’t happen.
Why does a documentarian attempt to record and present things as they are or as they were? One motive is preservation, obviously, and another, probably just as obviously, is propagation, publication in the sense of bringing to an audience something that the documentarian has observed or discovered, as we do when we take snapshots on our vacations and force our friends to look at them.
The photographer of this souvenir view of the Avenue de l’Opéra had those motives, I think.
The Neurdein brothers began their photographic career in 1863 in Paris, at 8 rue des Filles du Calvaire. . . . In 1868 we find [them] at 28 Boulevard Sevastopol. This is the beginning of the prosperity of the Neurdein House, whose production is such that they are obliged to hire photographers who harvest images for them in France, and soon the whole world. Production is eminently for commercial purposes. The tourist finds, in all the resorts or remarkable sites, small notebooks containing a dozen or fifteen photographs in miniature format representing the main views of which he wants to keep the memory.
The camera was made of black plastic, the kind called Bakelite. . . . When one held the camera with the viewfinder to one’s eye, the forefinger of one’s right hand fell quite naturally on the shutter button, and the middle finger fell quite naturally over the right half of the lens. I loved that camera. I carried it with me everywhere. . . . But as much as the camera pleased me it intimidated me. A statement in the instruction booklet said, “Snapshots will capture your memories forever,” and I understood at once that the snapshots I was likely to take would capture forever memories of my childish ineptitude as a photographer, the evidence of my awkwardness and uncertainty. Clearly, the wise thing to do would be to avoid using film until I had acquired some poise, if only enough so that I wouldn’t take pictures I would really regret, so I put the film in the back of my sock drawer to save until I felt confident enough to use it.
Peter Leroy, “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” in Little Follies
Why does an artist transform things from the way they are or were to some form in which they are not or were not? One motive is to have an effect on the world, to make it a little less the property of everyone else and a little more the property of the artist. Another is to play god a little bit, to make a world more in the artist’s image than this one is. And another is to beguile an audience, to enjoy a host’s pleasure at giving them an entertainment, a ride in one’s balloon.
In painting this view of the Avenue de l’Opéra, Camille Pissarro had those motives, I think.
Was Balzac a documentarian? No. He was an artist who used the techniques of documentary in the service of romance. When he was assiduously preserving the manners and mores and methods and madness of France, of Paris and the provinces, he was documenting a France that Balzac the artist had already transformed, had already lifted a certain distance above the France of Things as They Happened—though it was anchored securely there, and then he tethered his romances to that other France, Balzac’s France.
Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited.
Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974)
No art without transformation.
Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph
THERE IS, as I suggested earlier, an impulse, a tendency, or a desire on the part of most artists—I’m tempted to say all artists—to pause in the work of being artful and say, “Look: this is what I’m really up to. I’m going to give you one quick look behind the scenes, let you see the way the props are made, sit down with you for a moment over a congenial glass and confess to you what it is that I want to achieve, and then I’m going to send you back to your seat and return to drugging you and deluding you.”
Often, the urge to confess—or to show off—becomes so overwhelming that the artist gives in to it because it arises from a desire to tell or show the reader or audience where the artist’s balloon is tethered, as we saw James doing when he inserted his documentary description of the grocer’s shop into Basil Ransome’s New York.
Here is Marcel Proust, in Frederick A. Blossom’s translation, giving in to the impulse in the section of The Past Recaptured called “Charlus During the War.” First he introduces—with a wealth of documentary detail—some characters we haven’t met before:
One of Françoise’s nephews, who was killed at Berry-au-Bac, was the nephew also of those millionaire cousins of Françoise, former café owners who had made their fortune and retired a long time before. The nephew, also a café proprietor, but in a small way and with limited means, had been drafted at the age of twenty-five and had left his young wife alone to run the little bar which he expected to come back to in a few months. But he was killed. . . . The millionaire cousins, who were no relation to the young widow, left the country place to which they had retired ten years before and went to work again in the café business, but refused to accept a sou for their labor; at six o’clock every morning, the millionaire wife, a real lady, and her young lady daughter were dressed and ready to help their niece-in-law and cousin-by-marriage. And for more than three years, they had been rinsing glasses in this way and serving drinks from early morning till half-past nine at night, without a single day of rest.
And now he beckons to us and takes us to a place where the rope from his enormous balloon is tied to a stake driven right into the earth:
In this book of mine, in which there is not one fact that is not imaginary, nor any real person concealed under a false name, where everything has been invented by me to meet the needs of my story, I ought to say in praise of my country that, at any rate, these millionaire relatives of Françoise, who gave up their retired life in order to help their niece when she was left without support, are people who really are alive and, convinced that their modesty will not take offence because they will never read this book, it gives me a childlike pleasure and deep emotion to record here their real name, Larivière.
Well, do you believe him? I certainly don’t believe him when he says that in In Search of Lost Time there is not one fact that is not imaginary. I don’t believe that he intends me to believe him, either. I do believe that he wants me to understand that he has labored to make the people, the places, and the institutions in his story meet the needs of his story, and in doing so has brought them a long way from their real origins. And I do believe that to make his point he has inserted here, as little altered as he could make them, these real Larivières, to show me or to remind me that there is a difference between them and Françoise or Charlus, between people who live in the world and characters who live in a romance.
I had found myself awakened by a desire, the way I might have been awakened by the sun. . . . I wanted to learn to paint—really wanted to learn to paint. . . . I’d been sold on the idea by the matchbook advertisements distributed by the Past Masters Correspondence School, an outfit that offered instruction in everything from plumbing to poetry, all in the privacy of your own home, through lessons devised by professionals recently retired from the discipline of your choice. These lessons were very popular at the time. Smoking was also popular at the time, and the Past Masters used matchbooks to recruit their students. . . . The one for the taxidermy course showed a cartoon raccoon over the challenge “Stuff Me!” The one for plumbing showed a dripping faucet over “Stop Me!” The one that got me, the one for the art course, showed the profile of an attractive young woman over the challenge “Draw Me!”
Peter Leroy, At Home with the Glynns
NOW let’s take a look at Henry James succumbing again to the impulse to reveal the anchor for the tether on his balloon and this time also revealing his motive in launching that balloon.
In The American, originally published in 1877, Christopher Newman, the millionaire American of the title, falls in love with Claire de Cintré, but her family opposes their marriage. Her mother and elder brother conspire to destroy Newman’s chances by making the marriage an issue of her loyalty to her family and to the family’s illustrious lineage. Claire steps aside from the conflict by entering a convent. Newman is dumbfounded and heartsick.
This passage occurs in Chapter 24:
Sunday was as yet two days off; but meanwhile, to beguile his impatience, Newman took his way to the Avenue de Messine and got what comfort he could in staring at the blank outer wall of Madame de Cintré’s present residence [the convent]. The street in question, as some travelers will remember, adjoins the Parc Monceau, which is one of the prettiest corners of Paris. The quarter has an air of modern opulence and convenience which . . . suggested a convent with the modern improvements—an asylum in which privacy, though unbroken, might be not quite identical with privation, and meditation, though monotonous, might be of a cheerful cast. And yet he knew the case was otherwise; only at present it was not a reality to him. It was too strange and too mocking to be real; it was like a page torn out of a romance, with no context in his own experience.
I’m going to return to that final sentence in a moment, but I’d like to consider another sentence first:
The street in question, as some travelers will remember, adjoins the Parc Monceau, which is one of the prettiest corners of Paris.
If we may believe Joris-Karl Huysmans, who used an abundance of documentary detail in his fiction, the convent did exist at number 23 Avenue de Messine. Here is his summary of its history from De Tout, published in 1902:
Le dernier Carmel de Paris est enfin situé au no. 23 de L’avenue de Messine; il est la seule maison de cette avenue, bordée de constructions de luxe, qui soit propre; il apparaît recueilli et charmant, dans sa petite robe gothique, au milieu de tous ces hôtels qui s’alignent, prétentieux et rigides, neufs et bêtes. Ce Carmel qui touche presque au parc Monceau, a derrière lui un grand jardin dont les murailles s’aperçoivent . . . dans le square de Messine.
Here is my translation of the passage, which I ask you to read in a forgiving frame of mind:
The most recent Carmelite convent in Paris is situated at Number 23, Avenue de Messine; bordered by deluxe structures, it is the only house that seems appropriate to that avenue; it appears composed and charming, in its modest Gothic raiment, in the midst of all these pretentious and stiff, new and beastly mansions that are lined up beside it. This convent, which nearly adjoins the Parc Monceau, has behind it a large garden whose walls are visible . . . from Messine Square.
I think that we can believe Huysmans on the subject of the convent, because the Société historique et archéologique des VIIIe et XVIIe arrondissements de Paris reported in its Bulletin of 1905 that “M. Le Senne nous a retracé l’existence effacée et si courte du Carmel de l’Avenue de Messine, auquel Huysmans dans son livre «De Tout» a consacré des pages à la fois si mystiques et si réalistes.” That is, “M. Le Senne outlined for us the brief and obscure life of the Carmelite convent on the Avenue de Messine, to which Huysmans in his book De Tout devoted several pages that were simultaneously very mystical and very realistic.” (The modest Gothic convent building was, apparently, replaced in 1907 by a private mansion designed by the art nouveau architect Jules Lavirotte. Its size and the richness of its sinuous decorations would not, I imagine, have pleased Huysmans.)
There stands poor Christopher Newman, staring at the blank wall of the convent, very near the Parc Monceau, but as far as we can tell from James’s text, Newman doesn’t even know that the park is there. He is not a well-traveled man; he is certainly not among those travelers who would know that a short walk along the Avenue de Messine would lead to the Parc Monceau, “one of the prettiest corners of Paris.” Had he known so, he might have walked there and sought some solace in the beauties of the park, but I doubt that he would have; he wouldn’t have left the convent and the bleak comfort that staring at its wall offered him.
What sort of place is this Parc Monceau? Why does James include it in the setting for Newman’s visit to the convent? Here is a description from the “Monuments in Paris” website:
It is a park of shady walks, of leafy bowers, of ponds, of imitation natural springs . . . Even the famous pond surrounded by a semi-circular colonnade of fluted Corinthian columns, partly broken, partly missing, is so overgrown with vines that it looks as though it had been standing there for ages. In contrast to the splendid formal gardens one sees in Paris, there is absolutely no order in the Parc Monceau: the trees are allowed to grow naturally—and by that I don’t mean unattended—the walks curve around in the most unexpected manner, and all over the park the lawn areas seem to be littered with remnants of broken Roman columns, archways, parts of ancient ruins, forgotten statuary, and what not. And yet, all this seeming naturalness is not the naturalness of neglect . . . but the studied arrangement of care and good taste.
This is a fantastical place. It is a romance of a park. But it is useless to Newman. For whom, then, does James mention the park? Well, for you and for me and for himself, so that we might be reminded that we are co-conspirators in a romance and that we are allowing ourselves to be beguiled by the romancer. He includes it to say to the careful reader, the fully engaged reader, something like the last line in the website description, but applied to the story that we are reading: “This seeming naturalness is not the naturalness of neglect but the studied arrangement of care and good taste.”
I PROMISED that I would return to the final sentence in the passage that has poor Newman standing in front of the convent, and I also promised that I would return to those images of New York at the turn of the twentieth century and the question of whether they, in the terms that James used to describe realism, depict experiences that are entirely controlled by our sense of the way things happen.
The final sentence about Newman’s perception of the convent that Claire de Cintré has entered was this:
It was too strange and too mocking to be real; it was like a page torn out of a romance, with no context in his own experience.
A romancer is always in danger of letting his romance get away from him. Beguiled by his own subtle drugs, he may let the rope loose, and not quite realize what he’s done until he finds himself and his romance headed for cloud cuckoo land, leaving the readers behind, with no context in their own experience that will make the romance a reality for them.
The corrective impulse is toward verisimilitude, and the techniques for achieving it are those of documentary, the methods of the documentarian. That brings me to photography, because it brought James to photography.
From 1907 to 1909, Charles Scribner’s Sons republished nearly all of James’s novels in the so-called New York Edition. For that edition, James made a selection from his entire oeuvre, made revisions to the texts, and wrote prefaces to the novels. He also commissioned a highly respected photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, to take photographs to be used as frontispieces to the several volumes in the edition.
Claude Rivet had told them of the projected edition de luxe of one of the writers of our day—the rarest of the novelists—who, long neglected by the multitudinous vulgar and dearly prized by the attentive (need I mention Philip Vincent?) had had the happy fortune of seeing, late in life, the dawn and then the full light of a higher criticism—an estimate in which, on the part of the public, there was something really of expiation. The edition in question, planned by a publisher of taste, was practically an act of high reparation; the wood-cuts with which it was to be enriched were the homage of English art to one of the most independent representatives of English letters.
The unnamed narrator in Henry James’s “The Real Thing”
Now why would James want to add photographs as frontispieces to the New York Edition of his novels? Before I answer that question, I’d like to consider the work of Bertram W. Beath.
Bertram W. Beath is a highly respected food critic and somewhat-less-highly-respected photographer who uses the techniques of realism in the service of romance. He sometimes signs his work “B. W. Beath” and sometimes “BWB.” Here is a quick introduction to his work from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia in which one sometimes also finds techniques of realism used in the service of romance:
Some of Beath’s photographs have been characterized as one-frame cinematic productions. Beath distinguishes between unstaged “documentary” pictures, like his “Bronx River,” and “cinematographic” pictures, like his “Those Who Wait,” produced using a combination of actors, sets, and special effects . . .
Below are examples of Beath’s documentary photographs (“Track 3” and “Bronx River”) and cinematographic photographs (“Those Who Wait” and “Hay Bales”). Making the documentary photographs was largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but making the cinematographic photographs required much more effort. “Those Who Wait,” for example, required continual cellphone contact with the actors posing on the footbridge, who had to adjust their poses in response to Beath’s oral instructions. The composition in “Hay Bales” was the result of hours of manipulation of the bales by farm machinery hired for the occasion. After each “draft” of the composition, all the machinery had to be driven from the field, out of sight, so that Beath could judge the effect of the arrangement of the bales, and then the machinery had to be brought back to adjust the arrangement until Beath was satisfied.
Beath’s cinematographic photograph “Taking Their Ease” is reproduced below this paragraph. Its obvious allusions to Georges Seurat’s “Un Dimanche Après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte” and Claude Monet’s “Le Parc Monceau” are the result of painstaking calculation, color-conscious costuming, and precise manipulation of the actors. Days of preparation and advance planning were followed by hours of placing and posing the actors on the day of shooting. Many, many preliminary “draft” photographs preceded this final version. A staff of more than fifty is invisible beyond the edges of the image.
In an interview from 1998 quoted on the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Beath said this about the relationship between his cinematographic work and the kind of street photography that we saw in the images of New York made in James’s era:
From my earliest attempts at restaurant criticism I saw and understood the element of theater in dining, but my understanding that there could be an element of theater in photography came only after quite a long time and quite a large number of photographs. I had been focused on recording something. Increasingly, I began to focus on making something. The documentary motive never completely disappeared, but the motive to transform what I had formerly intended only to document began to dominate. I think I am heading now toward a balance of the two, a balance that is reaching its apotheosis in my series Water.
The result, the seeming naturalness of Beath’s cinematographic photographs, is not really the naturalness of documentary photography, but the studied arrangement of elements in the artist’s projected world, as we will hear Henry James say shortly.
MADELINE AND I didn’t get around to seeing The Museum of Modern Art’s blockbuster exhibit of B. W. Beath’s enormous cinematographic photographs until nearly the end of its run, but when we did see it, it gave me the theme and title for this essay.
I don’t want you to think that I was just standing there looking at Beath’s “Taking Their Ease,” say, and the whole thing came to me in a flash. No. It simmered for some time, and didn’t reach its full flavor until a Sunday several weeks after the exhibit had closed, the day when, as I mentioned at the start of this essay, Madeline and I were strolling through Central Park. We stopped at the Tavern on the Green to have a pastis at the outdoor bar. As we were leaving, Madeline detoured to the ladies’ room. Passing through the little crowd of people outside the restaurant waiting for taxis and shuttle buses, I heard someone ask, “Did you see the B. W. Beath photographs at MoMA?”
I looked in the direction of what I’d heard, and I saw a young man and a young woman conversing. The man had asked the question, and the woman answered it.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I did.”
“What did you think of them?” asked the man. “I’m curious.”
“Well, technically, I thought they were brilliant.”
“In what sense?”
“Very well focused. Sharp. Highly detailed. Technically advanced.”
“And the content?”
“Banal. Totally banal. But that’s why they capture modern life so brilliantly. Because modern life is totally banal. They are really slices of modern life.”
“Really,” he said, with a note of surprise in his voice.
“And the patience!” she said. “He must sit for hours and hours, just waiting for the right moment. Or maybe it’s luck. No, it’s patience, not luck. He’s like a nature photographer, but he’s observing people. People in their habitat.”
Slowly, gently, the man said, “It’s artifice.”
“Artifice?” she asked.
“Those photographs are staged. He sets them up as if he were making a movie.”
“Staged? You mean they’re fakes?”
“For each photograph, he assembles a cast, a crew, he sets the stage, manipulates the actors—”
I didn’t have a smartphone at the time, nobody did, but I always carried my camera with me. I always had it in my pocket. Because I realized what an opportunity Chance had given me, I had already taken it from my pocket and turned it on, so I was ready. It was at that moment that I took their picture.
Immediately after I took the picture, the young woman said, with a distant, disturbed, disappointed look in her eyes:
“But they seem so realistic.”
“Well, Cindy Sherman does the same sort of thing.”
“But she winks at you a little bit when she does it. You can tell what she’s up to. You’re in on the joke. But this B. W. Beath—I feel cheated now. I feel duped.”
“Don’t take it too hard.”
“He set me up to believe what I was seeing, to accept it for what it seemed to be: real life. But it wasn’t. It was something else. It was—”
At that point, I couldn’t help myself.
“It was romance,” I said.
The man turned toward me and said, “What?”
I said, “Sorry. I couldn’t help overhearing. You were talking about B. W. Beath. I think he uses the techniques of realism in the service of romance.”
“Who the hell asked you?” said the young woman.
At that point I made a conciliatory gesture, Madeline arrived, and we retreated into the park.
THE YOUNG WOMAN’S REACTION is poignant testimony to the fact that too great a degree of verisimilitude, too thoroughgoing an application of the techniques of realism, may do a disservice to a romance. It may beguile the readers so completely that they forget that the romance is a romance, and that is not quite what the romancer wants, I think.
I think that the romancer wants the relationship with the reader or other audience to remain cooperative; he does not want to dupe the reader or viewer entirely; he wants to solicit and earn the willing suspension of disbelief, but not to hoodwink the reader into unquestioning acceptance.
James for his part seems to have worried that the effect of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photographic illustrations might be to create too great a degree of verisimilitude. In fact, he seems to have begun worrying about that possibility almost from the moment he commissioned the photographs.
He imposed stringent limits on them to ensure that they did not lean too far in inspiring a belief that the novel that followed the frontispiece presented things as they happened. According to remarks that Coburn made years later, after the New York Edition had been published with the photographs,
James did not want the kind of realistic description that [photographer J. J.] Pennell offered. Instead of actual places and objects James required types and archetypes. The illustrator had to recognize in nature and society what already existed in the author’s mind and make an ideal representation of it.
J. J. Pennell made an exhaustive documentary photographic record of Junction City, Kansas, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. (See James R. Shortridge’s Our Town on the Plains: J. J. Pennell’s Photographs of Junction City, Kansas, 1893-1922, published by the University Press of Kansas in 2000.)
After the commitment had been made and the photographs were set to appear as frontispiece illustrations, James wrote about his concerns, at length, in the preface to the first volume. Among many other things, he had this to say:
Nothing . . . could more have amused the author than the opportunity of a hunt for a series of reproducible subjects . . . small pictures of our “set” stage with the actors left out; and what was above all interesting was that they were first to be constituted.
So James and Coburn set out wandering the streets of London and Paris and Venice in search of suitable subjects for these frontispieces. Below are six of them.
“The Curiosity Shop” especially interests me, and it seems to have been the one that most interested James, too, for he singled it out as an example of a successful search. In the preface, he wrote:
On the question, for instance, of the proper preliminary compliment to the first volume of “The Golden Bowl” we easily felt that nothing would so serve as a view of the small shop in which the Bowl is first encountered.
The problem thus was thrilling, for though the small shop was but a shop of the mind, of the author’s projected world, . . . our need . . . prescribed a concrete, independent, vivid instance, the instance that should oblige us by the marvel of an accidental rightness. . . . It would have to be in the first place what London and chance and an extreme improbability should have made it, and then it would have to let us truthfully read into it the Prince’s and Charlotte’s and the Princess’s visits.
This must have been a remarkable ramble. Here we have James—who acknowledges that the shop he conjured for The Golden Bowl had risen up and away from experience to become a shop of the mind, lifted from the real world and lofted into the author’s projected world, a romance of a shop in a romance of a tale—setting out with Coburn in tow to find a real shop that could play the part of the imaginary one.
It was Quixotic behavior. No, it was beyond Quixotic. It was as if Don Quixote had himself written the romances that so beguiled him and then set off to live what he came to believe was the reality of them. Its contemporary equivalent would be B. W. Beath’s beginning to believe that all of his “cinematographic” photographs were “documentary” photographs and then beginning to reminisce about the great good fortune that had allowed him to come upon such telling moments in the random chaos of everyday life.
Obviously, we can tell from the picture of the curiosity shop that appeared as the frontispiece that James and Coburn did find a shop that could play the part. Where did they find it? James refused to say. All he said in the preface was this:
It of course on these terms long evaded us, but . . . as London ends by giving one absolutely everything one asks, so it awaited us somewhere. It awaited us in fact—but I check myself; nothing, I find now, would induce me to say where.
Well, of course not.
Saying where the shop could be found would have done what James had worried that a photograph might do. It would have driven a stake in the ground at a specific spot in London and tethered The Golden Bowl tightly to it. Employing the techniques of realism with such a heavy hand, encumbering the story with such a palpable reference to the world of things as they happen, would have been using realism to fetter the balloon of romance so snugly that it could never rise and drift, and that no artful romancer would allow himself to do.
I am indebted to Professor Francisco Collado-Rodríguez of the University of Zaragoza for inviting me to deliver to his graduate students in American literature a lecture on realism in the work of Henry James. Without that invitation, I doubt that I would have been thinking about realism and Henry James when Madeline and I were strolling through Central Park.
I am also indebted to Elizabeth Nagengast and Dossie McCraw, the actors who played the young couple discussing the work of B. W. Beath.
Our father made paintings. He was Andrew Glynn, the painter. We were still only girls when we began referring to him as “our father, Andrew Glynn, the painter.”
Not long after we began referring to him as “our father, Andrew Glynn, the painter,” we began asking him what it was like to be Andrew Glynn the painter, and not long after we began asking him that we began asking him what it was like to make paintings.
Our questions progressed from “What are you doing?” to “How do you do it?” and eventually arrived at “Why do you do it?” Underlying that question, from two little girls of twelve, were, our father decided, some very deep questions about art and the making of art. He answered us with the seriousness that he thought we deserved, sometimes very seriously indeed, and sometimes not very seriously at all.
We wrote every answer in a little book, taking turns. He had given us the book. He had told us to write his answers in it.
His first answer was, “It fills a void.”
“Oh,” we said, or at least one of us said, while the other wrote it in the little book.
“It doesn’t fill the void,” he said, “but it does fill a void, some small part of the void.”
The house that we lived in when we began asking our father, Andrew Glynn, the painter, about his art, had been the carriage house for a mansion, a place of local renown, which had burned to the ground.
Our father’s studio filled half of the ground floor of the house. The family living space occupied the other half. The bedrooms were on the second floor. We shared one.
Behind the house was a walled garden where, in good weather, we sunned ourselves while our mother sat in the shade of an old arbor, writing advertising jingles.
THIS AREA INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK
About the Artists
Margot and Martha Glynn create photographs and mixed media artworks that combine images and text.
By reiterative abstraction of both content and container, they often create several similar yet unique works, upon which thoughts that have apparently just been developed are manifested: notes are made and then crossed out again, “mistakes” are repeated. From an early age, the Glynns have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of the human condition. With influences as diverse as Nietzsche, Roy Lichtenstein, and of course their father, Andrew Glynn, the painter, Margot and Martha generate insights from both explicit and implicit meanings. At times, the internal dynamic of the negative space in their work threatens to penetrate the inherent overspecificity of the content. What starts out as hope soon becomes corrupted into a cacophony of lust, leaving only a sense of dread and the possibility of a new reality.
Margot and Martha Glynn currently live and work in New York.
(From the catalog accompanying the exhibition “Little Lessons in Art” at the Serena Traulings Gallery)
“Rule Six: There is no Rule Six!”
Fourth Bruce in the philosophy department at the University of Walamaloo in Monty Python’s “The Bruces Sketch”
The Work in Progress
The Glynns’ works are often about contact with architecture and basic living elements. Energy (heat, light, water), space and landscape are examined in less obvious ways and sometimes developed in absurd ways. By manipulating the viewer to create confusion, the Glynns create intense personal moments by means of rules and omissions, acceptance and refusal, luring the viewer round and round in circles.
In a search for new methods to “read the city” and “read the self” the Glynns’ focus on the idea of “public space” contrasted with “private space” and more specifically on spaces where anyone can do anything at any given moment and spaces where one cannot: the non-private space versus the private space, the non-privately-owned space versus the intimately guarded space, space that is economically uninteresting versus space that is owned.
The Glynns’ mixed media artworks do not reference recognizable form. The results are deconstructed to the extent that meaning is shifted and possible interpretation becomes multifaceted.
Long Island Culture Today
The Glynns’ works are on the one hand touchingly beautiful, on the other hand painfully attractive. Again and again, the artists leave us orphaned with a mix of conflicting feelings and thoughts. As temporal derivatives become reconfigured through frantic and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a clue to the darkness of our world.
The Cassandra Chronicles
On April 16, 2018, The Babbington Press published Eric Kraft’s new novel, Albertine’s Overcoat.
Albertine’s Overcoat is the eleventh novel in Kraft’s voluminous work of fiction, The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy.
Albertine’s Overcoat is, among many other things, an exploration of a notion that may underlie every memoir and drive every memoirist: the idea that a life, like a work of art, is incomplete without an audience.
One evening, during the long years when I was struggling to get my topical autobiography underway, I attended a workshop at the Babbington Center for Adult Education. The workshop was led by my longtime friend Peter Leroy, whom I’d known since high school. The essential point of the workshop, as I understood it, was that assuming a persona, writing as someone other than oneself, could be a liberating technique, a strategy not only for getting the writing started but also for getting it done better than one might do it if one did it as oneself.
I would have understood the point of the workshop every bit as well without Peter’s making it specific to me, which he did, by using my name in an example of the kinds of alternative selves one might invent, making the entire workshop a presentation of the kinds of alternative selves that I might invent, as if he were introducing me to my “others.”
The workshop was in two parts. At the close of the first part, we participants left with an assignment: we were to adapt a brief story that he gave us, creating a version of it as it might be told by one of our “others.” As I said, my others had been given to me in advance, as part of Peter’s presentation. I felt that this limited me in a way that the other workshop participants were not being limited, and I resented that. I was determined not to let my resentment show, however, so as I shuffled from the room with the others, I turned to Peter, waved good-bye, and called out a hearty “Thank you! See you next week!”
I worked on the assignment throughout the intervening week, fuming as I did so. I felt that Peter was toying with the people who were submitting themselves to his tutelage, following his instructions. We were being molded.
I was diligent, though. I always have been. Tell me what is required of me, and I get to work at once to meet the requirement or complete the assignment. I always meet the deadline, and I usually beat it. I beat this one. After four days, I had completed the task: I’d written a version of the story that he had read to us at the close of the first workshop session. I wrote my version as someone else, as “an other.” I wrote it as “Mort Drakes.”
Here is what Mort Drakes wrote.
It was a winter night, if I remember correctly. It must have been a weekend night, because my parents were out, and they didn’t ordinarily leave the house on weekday nights. I was sitting with some friends in the basement of the suburban house where I lived. My father had made several halfhearted stabs at “finishing” this basement, but it had never quite become a rec room, family room, or bar. It was just a basement room, but it was a good place for a bunch of high school kids to hang out and chat, tell tales, and insult one another. As far as we were concerned, finishing wasn’t required.
Who was there? Raskol, Spike, Marvin, Matthew, Patti, Margot, Martha, Peter, and me. The others had known one another for years. I was the new kid. I’d been in Babbington less than a year. I was already in love with Margot and Martha, and in the throes of a sweet agony of decision, assuming, as I did then, that I might have one or the other, but not both.
Sometimes, I have to admit, the history that the others shared made me feel that I would always be an outsider, but more often I just enjoyed listening to their stories and memories. They had had interesting childhoods in the backwater of Babbington.
As the best discussions do, this one rambled like a walk along unmarked trails, but after a while Matthew, who had always had a tendency to want to set an agenda, suggested that each of us should tell what one wish we would want granted if we could have any wish granted.
Raskol wanted money; Spike wanted money too; Marvin wanted the Nobel prize in Physics; Patti wanted a singing career; and so on, with everyone taking a turn. I was the last to speak. I said that I would wish for world peace. No one believed me.
“All right, all right,” I said, shrugging. “If you want the truth I’ll give you the truth.” Then, as if reluctantly, apparently hesitantly, I said, “I wish I lived in West Hargrove, in a house along the river, one of the houses where it seems to me rich people live. I wish that one night while I was asleep in my bed, my dog would tug at the covers and bark, waking me and alerting me to a fire. Roused from my sleep, I would wake my parents and then call the fire department. In horror, we would stand outside and watch while flames consumed the house and all our possessions despite the combined efforts of the Babbington and Hargrove volunteer hose companies.
“Time would pass. Eventually, my parents would collect the insurance money, but that would not be enough to pay for a house as grand as the one that had been destroyed. My parents and I and my faithful dog would move into a small house in a less-than-prosperous part of Babbington—this house.
“More time would pass, and one night—tonight, actually—I would be sitting here in this basement telling you the story I’ve just told you. That’s my wish.”
The rest of them looked at one another, and then at me, waiting for the punch line.
“Okay,” said Spike at last. “I’ll bite. What good would all that possibly do for you?”
With another shrug, I said, “Well, I’d have a dog. I’ve always wanted a dog.”
WHEN I READ what I’d written, I found so many things wrong with it that I knew I wouldn’t bring it to the next meeting of the workshop. For one thing, I didn’t like or respect Mort Drakes. He was annoying, and he was lying. He didn’t want a dog. He wasn’t a “dog person.” What he really wanted was a life of wealth and privilege. It was right there in the story. It was obvious. He hadn’t tried to hide it. His not attempting to hide the lie showed his contempt for everyone who would read his story: not merely his “friends” in the unfinished basement, but everyone else who would read this piece of rubbish.
“To hell with you, Mort Drakes,” I said to myself.
I tried retelling the story as each of the other “others” Peter had suggested, each of whom bore a name that was an anagram of mine: Dram Stoker, Mark Strode, Drake Storm, Mr. Ad Stoker, Mr. Ado Treks, and Rod Strek, M.A.
I didn’t get along with any of them.
By that I mean not only that I wasn’t compatible with any of them but also that I didn’t make any progress with any of them.
I was annoyed, not only with Peter, but with myself. I was annoyed with him for assigning me a task that hadn’t done me any good (as far as I could see at the time), and I was annoyed with myself for not having found some way to turn the assignment to my advantage.
I began toying with other anagrams for my name, in the hope that Peter might have overlooked the one other who might be of some real use to me. I wasn’t having much luck until the thought came to me that I could be conducting this exercise as any of the others whose names Peter had found. I could be doing it as Mort Drakes. If he were my other, he would have to recognize his shortcomings. Humbled, he would respond to a poster advertising a workshop in creating a more competent other. He might be doing now what I was doing now. Among the anagrammatic names that he found would be an interesting and promising one: Mark Dorset.
In that roundabout way, I discovered that my most useful “other” might be “me.”
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Je me suis reconnu poète. Ce n’est pas du tout ma faute. C’est faux de dire : je pense : on devrait dire : On me pense. . . . Je est un autre. Tant pis pour le bois qui se trouve violon.
Arthur Rimbaud, Lettre à Georges Izambard, 13 mai 1871
The man who trips would be the last to laugh at his own fall, unless he happened to be a philosopher, one who had acquired by habit a power of rapid self-division and thus of assisting as a disinterested spectator at the phenomena of his own ego. But such cases are rare.
Charles Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter”
The I in any sort of autobiography, whether ten-volume memoir or barside anecdote, is any man’s chief and continuing work of fiction.
Quincy, in Vance Bourjailly’s Confessions of a Spent Youth
WHENEVER ANYONE TEACHES skills that he or she has acquired “the hard way,” I seem to hear a confessional note. It’s as if an old illusionist, a sleight-of-hand artist, a pickpocket, a thief, a master cracker of safes, or an old seducer, sensing that the light is growing dim, decides to tell all, so that the tricks of the trade will be appreciated at last, once and for all, forever.
Well—I may have some tricks that I can pass along to you, but I can’t guarantee that they will work—for you. I can only tell you what has worked for me—and that’s what I’m going to do.
IF YOU WANT to write your memoirs the way I am writing mine, you must have some stories that you want to tell. I hope that you will want to tell them honestly—but artfully. You ought not to feel that you have to stick too closely to the facts, but what you say should seem plausible within its own context. You should use your memories, but you should make them new, review them, revisit them, rethink them, revise them, and revivify them, working on them enough so that you’re forced to find the essence of them. You should weave a light elastic web of contextual links that suspends your stories in thin air but anchors them to reality. You should roam the whole range of your thoughts and emotions, from the ridiculous to the sublime. You should regard yourself with irony, but you must not become a slave to irony. You should remind yourself, over and over as you work, that a serious thought need not wear a serious face, nor a joke require a wink and a nudge. You must not be afraid of sentiment, but you must not wallow in it or lure the reader into wallowing in it. You must learn to live in the past for long periods of the present. You must be exacting in your craftsmanship. You must be prepared to get lost in the work and to enjoy wandering there. You should probably follow the advice given on the packages of powerful medications: do not operate heavy machinery while wandering in the work. Because you’ll have your past in your mind all the time, even when you think you’re not at work, it’s best to leave the driving to someone else.
To accomplish all of that, I suggest that you create someone who will do the job better than you could do it yourself.
Here’s the idea:
In Midnight Oil, V. S. Pritchett wrote: “A writer is, at the very least, two persons. He is the prosing man at his desk and a sort of valet who dogs him and does the living. There is a time when he is all valet looking for a master, i.e., the writer he is hopefully pursuing.”
I think that every writer achieves this separation to some degree, creating an alter ego who does the writing, and I think that those who do it most successfully find that the writing self leads them to discoveries they would not have made on their own.
In the course of this workshop I’ll put you through some exercises that may reveal restrictions you’re putting on your writing self and help you liberate your writing self and send that self off to new adventures and discoveries.
Why should you do what I’m suggesting? Why create another self to do your writing when you already have a perfectly good self who does the living?
Here’s my answer to that question: another self is a means to a better understanding of the truth, the essence, the heart of what you have to say and to a more honest and complete expression of it. Let me explain why “you” are probably avoiding that honesty and completeness, perhaps without even being aware that you are.
You may be censoring yourself for reasons of self-image, self-protection, self-promotion, greed, generosity, ambition, pleasure, taste, the pursuit of “a higher truth,” compassion, tact, fear, or—well, you get the idea.
Here’s William Butler Yeats on the subject of the author and the author’s other, in “A General Introduction for My Work”; he says, “A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria. Dante and Milton had mythologies, Shakespeare the characters of English history or romance; even when the poet seems most himself, when he is Raleigh and gives potentates the lie, or Shelley ‘a nerve o’er which do creep the else unfelt oppressions of this earth,’ or Byron when ‘the soul wears out the breast’ as ‘the sword outwears its sheath,’ he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete. . . . He is part of his own phantasmagoria.”
Here’s Marcel Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve, as translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner: “Sainte-Beuve’s great work does not go very deep. The celebrated method which, according to Paul Bourget and so many others, made him the peerless master of nineteenth-century criticism, this system which consists of not separating the man and his work . . . ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us: that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. Nothing can exempt us from this pilgrimage of the heart.”
Now I want to tell you a story. It’s not mine. It’s “The Private Life,” by Henry James. I’m going to give you a condensed version, but I hope you’ll read it in full. You’ll find it on the sepia-tinted handout.
As is often the case in James’s stories about writers, the story is told by an unnamed narrator who observes an exalted master from a position lower on the ladder of literary success.
In this case, the narrator is among a group of Londoners vacationing in Switzerland, after having endured what the narrator calls “the modern indignity of travel—the promiscuities and vulgarities, the station and the hotel, the gregarious patience, the struggle for a scrappy attention, the reduction to a numbered state.”
They are staying at a “balconied inn . . . on the very neck of the sweetest pass in the Oberland . . . for a week.”
They are Lord and Lady Mellifont, Clarence (Clare) Vawdrey, whom the narrator calls “the greatest (in the opinion of many) of our literary glories,” and Blanche Adney, whom the narrator calls “the greatest (in the opinion of all) of our theatrical.”
Of Clare Vawdrey, the narrator says: “He never talked about himself; . . . He differed from other people, but never from himself . . . and he struck me as having neither moods nor sensibilities nor preferences. . . . I never found him anything but loud and liberal and cheerful, and I never heard him utter a paradox or express a shade or play with an idea.”
Of Blanche Adney, the narrator says that she “had settled it for [Clare Vawdrey] that he was going to write her a play and that the heroine, should he but do his duty, would be the part for which she had immemorially longed.”
At dinner Blanche Adney asks Vawdrey “if he really didn’t see by this time his third act.”
Vawdrey tells her that he wrote a splendid passage before dinner.
“Before dinner?” the narrator says. “Why, cher grand maître, before dinner you were holding us all spell-bound on the terrace.”
Vawdrey looks at the narrator hard, and says, “Oh, it was before that.”
“Before that you were playing billiards with me,” says Lord Mellifont.
“Then it must have been yesterday,” says Vawdrey.
“You told me this morning you did nothing yesterday,” Adney objects.
Vawdrey is rattled. “I don’t think I really know when I do things,” he says, and then he admits, “I’m afraid there is no manuscript.”
“Then you’ve not written anything?” asks the narrator.
“I’ll write it tomorrow,” Vawdrey claims.
“Ah, you trifle with us,” the narrator says.
At that, Vawdrey seems to think better of what he’s said. “If there is anything you’ll find it on my table,” he claims.
The narrator goes up to Vawdrey’s room and opens the door. He finds the room dark and is about to strike a match when he realizes to his surprise that a figure is seated at a table near one of the windows.
He retreats with a sense of intrusion; but as he does so he realizes that the figure at the desk is Vawdrey. He calls out: “Hullo, is that you, Vawdrey?”
The figure doesn’t turn to look at the narrator, nor does he answer the narrator, but the narrator is convinced that he recognizes Clare Vawdrey, whom he left a moment ago, downstairs, in conversation with Blanch Adney.
The next evening, the narrator describes to Blanche what he saw. “It looked like the author of Vawdrey’s admirable works. It looked infinitely more like him than our friend does himself,” he says.
“Do you mean it was somebody he gets to do them?”
“Yes, while he dines out and disappoints you.”
“Disappoints me?” she murmurs.
“Disappoints every one who looks in him for the genius that created the pages they adore,” says the narrator.
The following evening, Vawdrey does read a scene to Blanche, and the narrator later asks her, “Is the scene very fine?”
“Magnificent,” she says, “and he reads beautifully.”
“Almost as well as the other one writes!” says the narrator.
Let me give you one more example, a truly amazing one: Fernando Pessoa, who surely must hold the world’s record in the art of making others. He had eighty, more or less, depending on who’s counting and how fully we require an other to be developed as an individual in order to count as an other. We’re not talking about mere pseudonyms, remember. Pessoa called his others “heteronyms,” to underline the distinction, and he gave each of them a unique physical appearance, biography, literary outlook, and writing style. Here’s Pessoa describing the sudden appearance of the first few of these heteronyms, and their work: “Suddenly, . . . a new individual burst impetuously onto the scene. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without hesitation or correction, there appeared the ‘Triumphal Ode’ by Alvaro de Campos—the ode of that name and the man with the name he now has. I created . . . an inexistent coterie. I sorted out the influences and the relationships, listened, inside myself, to the debates and the difference in criteria, and in all of this, it seemed to me that I, the creator of it all, had the lesser presence. It seemed that it all happened independently of me. And it seems to me so still.”
Now let’s consider what might go into the making of an other. We’ll consider a hypothetical case, the case of Mark Dorset.
For very many years Mark had wanted to write a topical autobiography, to record his life and thoughts in a catalog. He never seemed to be able to find the time. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he would never write that book. Since he knew that he would never write that book, he decided instead to find someone else to write it. The book would not be a topical autobiography. It would be a novel in the form of a topical autobiography.
Mark was astonished that it had taken him so long to realize that he needed someone else to write what he wanted to write, but once the decision had been made, he thought that he could see the many ways in which his self had been standing in the way of what he wanted to do. There were all the motives of self-aggrandizement, of course, and then there all the motives of self-defense. He had needed someone else all along.
I’m going to take you along the path that Mark traveled.
Let’s begin by examining the state of mind that impelled Mark to the discovery that he needed an other. It was characterized by a more or less constant state of annoyance that arose from his not doing the writing that he wanted to do, not making the work that he wanted to make. Then came the understanding that the excuses he gave—not enough time, too many other demands, the need to make money—were false. Well, not entirely false, of course. He really didn’t have enough time, there were too many demands on his time and energy, and he did need to make money, but he could have found some time, at least a little time, when he could have done a little bit each day and he could have squeezed what he wanted to do in among the things that he had to do without making it impossible to do them all.
The real reason was that he didn’t think he was going to do a good job. Let’s put that more strongly: he was afraid of doing a bad job.
So. Once he had made the decision to turn the writing over to an other, all he had to do was find someone who could, and would, do the work—and do it well.
He generated some anagrams of his name. An anagram makes an excellent pseudonym, an excellent name for an other, an excellent name for a heteronym, because it allows you to demonstrate, should you ever choose to do so, that the other is you. This is what Mark got as anagrams for “Mark Dorset,” or at least what seemed useful in what he got:
Mr. Ad Stoker
Mr. Ado Treks
Rod Strek, M.A.
How would these people be different from Mark?
Dram Stoker might be a descendent of the author of Dracula, a moody fellow, dressed in black, subject to persecution paranoia. Why would he choose to tell Mark’s story?
Mort Drakes. His full name is Morton. He wants people to call him Mort, but most of them call him Morty. He’s a back-slapper, a salesman of some kind, secretly sick of his work. Why would he choose to tell Mark’s story?
Mark Strode might be a private eye. He might have decided to investigate Mark just to display his skill, to show how much he could uncover about even a run-of-the mill person.
Drake Storm might be an actor, or an actor-slash-waiter.
Mr. Ad Stoker might be an undertaker or a pawnbroker.
Rod Strek, M.A., would, of course, be the chair of the highly regarded MFA program at Southwest Midwest University.
These potential others began to interest Mark. He thought that he would set them a trial of some kind, an audition, to see who would get the job.
Now I’m going to put you to work, following Mark’s path. Begin by considering this: Who else might tell your story?
Make a list. List some real people. Create some people. Try some anagrams. List a couple of characters from whatever you’re currently working on.
Now choose the four or five potential others who interest you most.
Now jot some notes about each of those potential others as if the notes were written by each of them, in their individual voices. You might consider these notes toward a topical autobiography. Or—if you prefer, jot some notes about yourself as if the notes were written by each of the others. You might consider these notes toward a topical biography.
Now you’re going to write a little story as one of those others.
I’m going to give you a version of the story, and I want you to write anther version that is specific to the other you choose, reflecting the other’s unique biography, literary outlook, and writing style
I’ve adapted the story from Harry Zohn’s translation of a story told by Walter Benjamin in his essay “Franz Kafka.” Here’s the story:
In a village tavern, so the story goes, the members of an informal tertullia were sitting together one autumn evening. They were all local people, with the exception of one person no one knew, a very poor, ragged man who was squatting in a dark corner at the back of the room. All sorts of things were discussed, and then it was suggested that everyone should tell what wish he would make if one were granted him. One man wanted money; another wished for a son-in-law; a third dreamed of a new carpenter’s bench; and so everyone spoke in turn. After they had finished, only the beggar in his dark corner was left. Reluctantly and hesitantly he answered the question.
“I wish I were a powerful king reigning over a big country. Then, some night while I was asleep in my palace, an enemy would invade my country, and by dawn his horsemen would penetrate to my castle and meet with no resistance. Roused from my sleep, I wouldn’t have time even to dress and I would have to flee in my shirt. Rushing over hill and dale and through forests day and night, I would finally arrive safely right here at the bench in this corner. This is my wish.”
The others exchanged uncomprehending glances.
“And what good would this wish have done you?” someone asked.
“I’d have a shirt,” was the answer.
Okay. You’re on your own. Go to it. We’ll look at your stories next time.
A note on the text: This is a transcription of a recording of the first meeting of a course in memoir-writing that Peter Leroy taught at the BCAE (Babbington Center for Adult Education).
And out of what sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds, As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming With the metaphysical changes that occur, Merely in living as and where we live.
Wallace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal”
so many selves(so many fiends and gods
each greedier than every)is a man
(so easily one in another hides;
yet man can,being all,escape from none)
. . .
—how should a fool that calls him ‘I’ presume
to comprehend not numerable whom?
e. e. cummings
The problem of other minds is the problem of how to justify the almost universal belief that others have minds very like our own.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition)
Last name: Drakes
This unusual and interesting name has two possible origins, the first and most generally applicable being from the Old English . . . byname or nickname “Draca,” meaning “dragon” or “snake.” . . . The derivation for all these forms is from the Latin “draco,” snake, or monster. . . . The name may also be from the Middle English “drake” male of the duck. The final “s” on the name indicates the patronymic, i.e. “son of Drake.” One Awdry Drakes was christened on August 15th 1563 at St. Vedast Foster Lane and St. Michael le Querne, London.
The Internet Surname Database
Illustration credit: The image on page 1 of this issue first appeared on the cover of the September 1937 issue of Modern Mechanix Hobbies and Inventions.
The Private Life
by Henry James
We talked of London, face to face with a great bristling, primeval glacier. The hour and the scene were one of those impressions which make up a little, in Switzerland, for the modern indignity of travel — the promiscuities and vulgarities, the station and the hotel, the gregarious patience, the struggle for a scrappy attention, the reduction to a numbered state. The high valley was pink with the mountain rose, the cool air as fresh as if the world were young. There was a faint flush of afternoon on undiminished snows, and the fraternizing tinkle of the unseen cattle came to us with a cropped and sun-warmed odour. The balconied inn stood on the very neck of the sweetest pass in the Oberland, and for a week we had had company and weather. This was felt to be great luck, for one would have made up for the other had either been bad.
The weather certainly would have made up for the company; but it was not subjected to this tax, for we had by a happy chance the fleur des pois: Lord and Lady Mellifont, Clare Vawdrey, the greatest (in the opinion of many) of our literary glories, and Blanche Adney, the greatest (in the opinion of all) of our theatrical. I mention these first, because they were just the people whom in London, at that time, people tried to “get.” People endeavoured to “book” them six weeks ahead, yet on this occasion we had come in for them, we had all come in for each other, without the least wire-pulling. A turn of the game had pitched us together, the last of August, and we recognized our luck by remaining so, under protection of the barometer. When the golden days were over — that would come soon enough — we should wind down opposite sides of the pass and disappear over the crest of surrounding heights. We were of the same general communion, we participated in the same miscellaneous publicity. We met, in London, with irregular frequency; we were more or less governed by the laws and the language, the traditions and the shibboleths of the same dense social state. I think all of us, even the ladies, “did” something, though we pretended we didn’t when it was mentioned. Such things are not mentioned indeed in London, but it was our innocent pleasure to be different here. There had to be some way to show the difference, inasmuch as we were under the impression that this was our annual holiday. We felt at any rate that the conditions were more human than in London, or that at least we ourselves were. We were frank about this, we talked about it: it was what we were talking about as we looked at the flushing glacier, just as someone called attention to the prolonged absence of Lord Mellifont and Mrs Adney. We were seated on the terrace of the inn, where there were benches and little tables, and those of us who were most bent on proving that we had returned to nature were, in the queer Germanic fashion, having coffee before meat.
The remark about the absence of our two companions was not taken up, not even by Lady Mellifont, not even by little Adney, the fond composer; for it had been dropped only in the briefest intermission of Clare Vawdrey’s talk. (This celebrity was “Clarence” only on the title-page.) It was just that revelation of our being after all human that was his theme. He asked the company whether, candidly, every one hadn’t been tempted to say to every one else: “I had no idea you were really so nice.” I had had, for my part, an idea that he was, and even a good deal nicer, but that was too complicated to go into then; besides it is exactly my story. There was a general understanding among us that when Vawdrey talked we should be silent, and not, oddly enough, because he at all expected it. He didn’t, for of all abundant talkers he was the most unconscious, the least greedy and professional. It was rather the religion of the host, of the hostess, that prevailed among us: it was their own idea, but they always looked for a listening circle when the great novelist dined with them. On the occasion I allude to there was probably no one present with whom, in London, he had not dined, and we felt the force of this habit. He had dined even with me; and on the evening of that dinner, as on this Alpine afternoon, I had been at no pains to hold my tongue, absorbed as I inveterately was in a study of the question which always rose before me, to such a height, in his fair, square, strong stature.
This question was all the more tormenting that he never suspected himself (I am sure) of imposing it, any more than he had ever observed that every day of his life every one listened to him at dinner. He used to be called “subjective” in the weekly papers, but in society no distinguished man could have been less so. He never talked about himself; and this was a topic on which, though it would have been tremendously worthy of him, he apparently never even reflected. He had his hours and his habits, his tailor and his hatter, his hygiene and his particular wine, but all these things together never made up an attitude. Yet they constituted the only attitude he ever adopted, and it was easy for him to refer to our being “nicer” abroad than at home. He was exempt from variations, and not a shade either less or more nice in one place than in another. He differed from other people, but never from himself (save in the extraordinary sense which I will presently explain), and struck me as having neither moods nor sensibilities nor preferences. He might have been always in the same company, so far as he recognized any influence from age or condition or sex: he addressed himself to women exactly as he addressed himself to men, and gossiped with all men alike, talking no better to clever folk than to dull. I used to feel a despair at his way of liking one subject — so far as I could tell — precisely as much as another: there were some I hated so myself. I never found him anything but loud and cheerful and copious, and I never heard him utter a paradox or express a shade or play with an idea. That fancy about our being “human” was, in his conversation, quite an exceptional flight. His opinions were sound and second-rate, and of his perceptions it was too mystifying to think. I envied him his magnificent health.
Vawdrey had marched, with his even pace and his perfectly good conscience, into the flat country of anecdote, where stories are visible from afar like windmills and signposts; but I observed after a little that Lady Mellifont’s attention wandered. I happened to be sitting next her. I noticed that her eyes rambled a little anxiously over the lower slopes of the mountains. At last, after looking at her watch, she said to me: “Do you know where they went?”
“Do you mean Mrs. Adney and Lord Mellifont?”
“Lord Mellifont and Mrs. Adney.” Her ladyship’s speech seemed — unconsciously indeed — to correct me, but it didn’t occur to me that this was because she was jealous. I imputed to her no such vulgar sentiment: in the first place, because I liked her, and in the second because it would always occur to one quickly that it was right, in any connection, to put Lord Mellifont first. He was first — extraordinarily first. I don’t say greatest or wisest or most renowned, but essentially at the top of the list and the head of the table. That is a position by itself, and his wife was naturally accustomed to see him in it. My phrase had sounded as if Mrs Adney had taken him; but it was not possible for him to be taken — he only took. No one, in the nature of things, could know this better than Lady Mellifont. I had originally been rather afraid of her, thinking her, with her stiff silences and the extreme blackness of almost everything that made up her person, somewhat hard, even a little saturnine. Her paleness seemed slightly grey, and her glossy black hair metallic, like the brooches and bands and combs with which it was inveterately adorned. She was in perpetual mourning, and wore numberless ornaments of jet and onyx, a thousand clicking chains and bugles and beads. I had heard Mrs Adney call her the queen of night, and the term was descriptive if you understood that the night was cloudy. She had a secret, and if you didn’t find it out as you knew her better you at least perceived that she was gentle and unaffected and limited, and also rather submissively sad. She was like a woman with a painless malady. I told her that I had merely seen her husband and his companion stroll down the glen together about an hour before, and suggested that Mr Adney would perhaps know something of their intentions.
Vincent Adney, who, though he was fifty years old, looked like a good little boy on whom it had been impressed that children should not talk before company, acquitted himself with remarkable simplicity and taste of the position of husband of a great exponent of comedy. When all was said about her making it easy for him, one couldn’t help admiring the charmed affection with which he took everything for granted. It is difficult for a husband who is not on the stage, or at least in the theatre, to be graceful about a wife who is; but Adney was more than graceful — he was exquisite, he was inspired. He set his beloved to music; and you remember how genuine his music could be — the only English compositions I ever saw a foreigner take an interest in. His wife was in them, somewhere, always; they were like a free, rich translation of the impression she produced. She seemed, as one listened, to pass laughing, with loosened hair, across the scene. He had been only a little fiddler at her theatre, always in his place during the acts; but she had made him something rare and misunderstood. Their superiority had become a kind of partnership, and their happiness was a part of the happiness of their friends. Adney’s one discomfort was that he couldn’t write a play for his wife, and the only way he meddled with her affairs was by asking impossible people if they couldn’t.
Lady Mellifont, after looking across at him a moment, remarked to me that she would rather not put any question to him. She added the next minute: “I had rather people shouldn’t see I’m nervous.”
“Are you nervous?”
“I always become so if my husband is away from me for any time.”
“Do you imagine something has happened to him?”
“Yes, always. Of course I’m used to it.”
“Do you mean his tumbling over precipices — that sort of thing?”
“I don’t know exactly what it is: it’s the general sense that he’ll never come back.”
She said so much and kept back so much that the only way to treat the condition she referred to seemed the jocular. “Surely he’ll never forsake you!” I laughed.
She looked at the ground a moment. “Oh, at bottom I’m easy.”
“Nothing can ever happen to a man so accomplished, so infallible, so armed at all points,” I went on, encouragingly.
“Oh, you don’t know how he’s armed!” she exclaimed, with such an odd quaver that I could account for it only by her being nervous. This idea was confirmed by her moving just afterwards, changing her seat rather pointlessly, not as if to cut our conversation short, but because she was in a fidget. I couldn’t know what was the matter with her, but I was presently relieved to see Mrs Adney come toward us. She had in her hand a big bunch of wild flowers, but she was not closely attended by Lord Mellifont. I quickly saw, however, that she had no disaster to announce; yet as I knew there was a question Lady Mellifont would like to hear answered, but did not wish to ask, I expressed to her immediately the hope that his lordship had not remained in a crevasse.
“Oh, no; he left me but three minutes ago. He has gone into the house.” Blanche Adney rested her eyes on mine an instant — a mode of intercourse to which no man, for himself, could ever object. The interest, on this occasion, was quickened by the particular thing the eyes happened to say. What they usually said was only: “Oh, yes, I’m charming, I know, but don’t make a fuss about it. I only want a new part — I do, I do!” At present they added, dimly, surreptitiously, and of course sweetly — for that was the way they did everything: “It’s all right, but something did happen. Perhaps I’ll tell you later.” She turned to Lady Mellifont, and the transition to simple gaiety suggested her mastery of her profession. “I’ve brought him safe. We had a charming walk.”
“I’m so very glad,” returned Lady Mellifont, with her faint smile; continuing vaguely, as she got up: “He must have gone to dress for dinner. Isn’t it rather near?” She moved away, to the hotel, in her leave-taking, simplifying fashion, and the rest of us, at the mention of dinner, looked at each other’s watches, as if to shift the responsibility of such grossness. The head-waiter, essentially, like all head-waiters, a man of the world, allowed us hours and places of our own, so that in the evening, apart under the lamp, we formed a compact, an indulged little circle. But it was only the Mellifonts who “dressed” and as to whom it was recognized that they naturally would dress: she in exactly the same manner as on any other evening of her ceremonious existence (she was not a woman whose habits could take account of anything so mutable as fitness); and he, on the other hand, with remarkable adjustment and suitability. He was almost as much a man of the world as the head-waiter, and spoke almost as many languages; but he abstained from courting a comparison of dress-coats and white waistcoats, analyzing the occasion in a much finer way — into black velvet and blue velvet and brown velvet, for instance, into delicate harmonies of necktie and subtle informalities of shirt. He had a costume for every function and a moral for every costume; and his functions and costumes and morals were ever a part of the amusement of life — a part at any rate of its beauty and romance — for an immense circle of spectators. For his particular friends indeed these things were more than an amusement; they were a topic, a social support and of course, in addition, a subject of perpetual suspense. If his wife had not been present before dinner they were what the rest of us probably would have been putting our heads together about.
Clare Vawdrey had a fund of anecdote on the whole question: he had known Lord Mellifont almost from the beginning. It was a peculiarity of this nobleman that there could be no conversation about him that didn’t instantly take the form of anecdote, and a still further distinction that there could apparently be no anecdote that was not on the whole to his honour. If he had come into a room at any moment, people might have said frankly: “Of course we were telling stories about you!” As consciences go, in London, the general conscience would have been good. Moreover it would have been impossible to imagine his taking such a tribute otherwise than amiably, for he was always as unperturbed as an actor with the right cue. He had never in his life needed the prompter — his very embarrassments had been rehearsed. For myself, when he was talked about I always had an odd impression that we were speaking of the dead — it was with that peculiar accumulation of relish. His reputation was a kind of gilded obelisk, as if he had been buried beneath it; the body of legend and reminiscence of which he was to be the subject had crystallized in advance.
This ambiguity sprang, I suppose, from the fact that the mere sound of his name and air of his person, the general expectation he created, were, somehow, too exalted to be verified. The experience of his urbanity always came later; the prefigurement, the legend paled before the reality. I remember that on the evening I refer to the reality was particularly operative. The handsomest man of his period could never have looked better, and he sat among us like a bland conductor controlling by an harmonious play of arm an orchestra still a little rough. He directed the conversation by gestures as irresistible as they were vague; one felt as if without him it wouldn’t have had anything to call a tone. This was essentially what he contributed to any occasion — what he contributed above all to English public life. He pervaded it, he coloured it, he embellished it, and without him it would scarcely have had a vocabulary. Certainly it would not have had a style; for a style was what it had in having Lord Mellifont. He was a style. I was freshly struck with it as, in the salle à manger of the little Swiss inn, we resigned ourselves to inevitable veal. Confronted with his form (I must parenthesize that it was not confronted much), Clare Vawdrey’s talk suggested the reporter contrasted with the bard. It was interesting to watch the stock of characters from which, of an evening, so much would be expected. There was however no concussion — it was all muffled and minimized in Lord Mellifont’s tact. It was rudimentary with him to find the solution of such a problem in playing the host, assuming responsibilities which carried with them their sacrifice. He had indeed never been a guest in his life; he was the host, the patron, the moderator at every board. If there was a defect in his manner (and I suggest it under my breath), it was that he had a little more art than any conjunction — even the most complicated — could possibly require. At any rate one made one’s reflections in noticing how the accomplished peer handled the situation and how the sturdy man of letters was unconscious that the situation (and least of all he himself as part of it), was handled. Lord Mellifont poured forth treasures of tact, and Clare Vawdrey never dreamed he was doing it. Vawdrey had no suspicion of any such precaution even when Blanche Adney asked him if he saw yet their third act — an inquiry into which she introduced a subtlety of her own. She had a theory that he was to write her a play and that the heroine, if he would only do his duty, would be the part for which she had immemorially longed. She was forty years old (this could be no secret to those who had admired her from the first), and she could now reach out her hand and touch her uttermost goal. This gave a kind of tragic passion — perfect actress of comedy as she was — to her desire not to miss the great thing. The years had passed, and still she had missed it; none of the things she had done was the thing she had dreamed of, so that at present there was no more time to lose. This was the canker in the rose, the ache beneath the smile. It made her touching — made her sadness even sweeter than her laughter. She had done the old English and the new French, and had charmed her generation; but she was haunted by the vision of a bigger chance, of something truer to the conditions that lay near her. She was tired of Sheridan and she hated Bowdler; she called for a canvas of a finer grain. The worst of it, to my sense, was that she would never extract her modern comedy from the great mature novelist, who was as incapable of producing it as he was of threading a needle. She coddled him, she talked to him, she made love to him, as she frankly proclaimed; but she dwelt in illusions — she would have to live and die with Bowdler.
It is difficult to be cursory over this charming woman, who was beautiful without beauty and complete with a dozen deficiencies. The perspective of the stage made her over, and in society she was like the model off the pedestal. She was the picture walking about, which to the artless social mind was a perpetual surprise — a miracle. People thought she told them the secrets of the pictorial nature, in return for which they gave her relaxation and tea. She told them nothing and she drank the tea; but they had, all the same, the best of the bargain. Vawdrey was really at work on a play; but if he had begun it because he liked her I think he let it drag for the same reason. He secretly felt the atrocious difficulty — knew that from his hand the finished piece would have received no active life. At the same time nothing could be more agreeable than to have such a question open with Blanche Adney, and from time to time he put something very good into the play. If he deceived Mrs Adney it was only because in her despair she was determined to be deceived. To her question about their third act he replied that, before dinner, he had written a magnificent passage.
“Before dinner?” I said. “Why, cher maître, before dinner you were holding us all spellbound on the terrace.”
My words were a joke, because I thought his had been; but for the first time that I could remember I perceived a certain confusion in his face. He looked at me hard, throwing back his head quickly, the least bit like a horse who has been pulled up short. “Oh, it was before that,” he replied, naturally enough.
“Before that you were playing billiards with me,” Lord Mellifont intimated.
“Then it must have been yesterday,” said Vawdrey.
But he was in a tight place. “You told me this morning you did nothing yesterday,” the actress objected.
“I don’t think I really know when I do things.” Vawdrey looked vaguely, without helping himself, at a dish that was offered him.
“It’s enough if we know,” smiled Lord Mellifont.
“I don’t believe you’ve written a line,” said Blanche Adney.
“I think I could repeat you the scene.” Vawdrey helped himself to haricots verts.
“Oh, do — oh, do!” two or three of us cried.
“After dinner, in the salon; it will be an immense régal,” Lord Mellifont declared.
“I’m not sure, but I’ll try,” Vawdrey went on.
“Oh, you lovely man!” exclaimed the actress, who was practising Americanisms, being resigned even to an American comedy.
“But there must be this condition,” said Vawdrey: “you must make your husband play.”
“Play while you’re reading? Never!”
“I’ve too much vanity,” said Adney.
Lord Mellifont distinguished him. “You must give us the overture, before the curtain rises. That’s a peculiarly delightful moment.”
“I sha’n’t read — I shall just speak,” said Vawdrey.
“Better still, let me go and get your manuscript,” the actress suggested.
Vawdrey replied that the manuscript didn’t matter; but an hour later, in the salon, we wished he might have had it. We sat expectant, still under the spell of Adney’s violin. His wife, in the foreground, on an ottoman, was all impatience and profile, and Lord Mellifont, in the chair — it was always the chair, Lord Mellifont’s — made our grateful little group feel like a social science congress or a distribution of prizes. Suddenly, instead of beginning, our tame lion began to roar out of tune — he had clean forgotten every word. He was very sorry, but the lines absolutely wouldn’t come to him; he was utterly ashamed, but his memory was a blank. He didn’t look in the least ashamed — Vawdrey had never looked ashamed in his life; he was only imperturbably and merrily natural. He protested that he had never expected to make such a fool of himself, but we felt that this wouldn’t prevent the incident from taking its place among his jolliest reminiscences. It was only we who were humiliated, as if he had played us a premeditated trick. This was an occasion, if ever, for Lord Mellifont’s tact, which descended on us all like balm: he told us, in his charming artistic way, his way of bridging over arid intervals (he had a débit — there was nothing to approach it in England — like the actors of the Comédie Française), of his own collapse on a momentous occasion, the delivery of an address to a mighty multitude, when, finding he had forgotten his memoranda, he fumbled, on the terrible platform, the cynosure of every eye, fumbled vainly in irreproachable pockets for indispensable notes. But the point of his story was finer than that of Vawdrey’s pleasantry; for he sketched with a few light gestures the brilliancy of a performance which had risen superior to embarrassment, had resolved itself, we were left to divine, into an effort recognised at the moment as not absolutely a blot on what the public was so good as to call his reputation.
“Play up — play up!” cried Blanche Adney, tapping her husband and remembering how, on the stage, a contretemps is always drowned in music. Adney threw himself upon his fiddle, and I said to Clare Vawdrey that his mistake could easily be corrected by his sending for the manuscript. If he would tell me where it was I would immediately fetch it from his room. To this he replied: “My dear fellow, I’m afraid there is no manuscript.”
“Then you’ve not written anything?”
“I’ll write it to-morrow.”
“Ah, you trifle with us,” I said, in much mystification.
Vawdrey hesitated an instant. “If there is anything, you’ll find it on my table.”
At this moment one of the others spoke to him, and Lady Mellifont remarked audibly, as if to correct gently our want of consideration, that Mr Adney was playing something very beautiful. I had noticed before that she appeared extremely fond of music; she always listened to it in a hushed transport. Vawdrey’s attention was drawn away, but it didn’t seem to me that the words he had just dropped constituted a definite permission to go to his room. Moreover I wanted to speak to Blanche Adney; I had something to ask her. I had to await my chance, however, as we remained silent awhile for her husband, after which the conversation became general. It was our habit to go to bed early, but there was still a little of the evening left. Before it quite waned I found an opportunity to tell the actress that Vawdrey had given me leave to put my hand on his manuscript. She adjured me, by all I held sacred, to bring it immediately, to give it to her; and her insistence was proof against my suggestion that it would now be too late for him to begin to read: besides which the charm was broken — the others wouldn’t care. It was not too late for her to begin; therefore I was to possess myself, without more delay, of the precious pages. I told her she should be obeyed in a moment, but I wanted her first to satisfy my just curiosity. What had happened before dinner, while she was on the hills with Lord Mellifont?
“How do you know anything happened?”
“I saw it in your face when you came back.”
“And they call me an actress!” cried Mrs Adney.
“What do they call me?” I inquired.
“You’re a searcher of hearts — that frivolous thing — an observer.”
“I wish you’d let an observer write you a play!” I broke out.
“People don’t care for what you write: you’d break my run of luck.”
“Well, I see plays all round me,” I declared; “the air is full of them to-night.”
“The air? Thank you for nothing! I only wish my table-drawers were.”
“Did he make love to you on the glacier?” I went on.
She stared; then broke into the graduated ecstasy of her laugh. “Lord Mellifont, poor dear? What a funny place! It would indeed be the place for our love!”
“Did he fall into a crevasse?” I continued.
Blanche Adney looked at me again as she had done for an instant when she came up, before dinner, with her hands full of flowers. “I don’t know into what he fell. I’ll tell you to-morrow.”
“He did come down, then?”
“Perhaps he went up,” she laughed. “It’s really strange.”
“All the more reason you should tell me to-night.”
“I must think it over; I must puzzle it out.”
“Oh, if you want conundrums I’ll throw in another,” I said. “What’s the matter with the master?”
“The master of what?”
“Of every form of dissimulation. Vawdrey hasn’t written a line.”
“Go and get his papers and we’ll see.”
“I don’t like to expose him,” I said.
“Why not, if I expose Lord Mellifont?”
“Oh, I’d do anything for that,” I conceded. “But why should Vawdrey have made a false statement? It’s very curious.”
“It’s very curious,” Blanche Adney repeated, with a musing air and her eyes on Lord Mellifont. Then, rousing herself, she added: “Go and look in his room.”
“In Lord Mellifont’s?”
She turned to me quickly. “That would be a way!”
“A way to what?”
“To find out — to find out!” She spoke gaily and excitedly, but suddenly checked herself. “We’re talking nonsense,” she said.
“We’re mixing things up, but I’m struck with your idea. Get Lady Mellifont to let you.”
“Oh, she has looked!” Mrs Adney murmured, with the oddest dramatic expression. Then, after a movement of her beautiful uplifted hand, as if to brush away a fantastic vision, she exclaimed imperiously: “Bring me the scene — bring me the scene!”
“I go for it,” I answered; “but don’t tell me I can’t write a play.”
She left me, but my errand was arrested by the approach of a lady who had produced a birthday-book — we had been threatened with it for several evenings — and who did me the honour to solicit my autograph. She had been asking the others, and she couldn’t decently leave me out. I could usually remember my name, but it always took me some time to recall my date, and even when I had done so I was never very sure. I hesitated between two days and I remarked to my petitioner that I would sign on both if it would give her any satisfaction. She said that surely I had been born only once; and I replied of course that on the day I made her acquaintance I had been born again. I mention the feeble joke only to show that, with the obligatory inspection of the other autographs, we gave some minutes to this transaction. The lady departed with her book, and then I became aware that the company had dispersed. I was alone in the little salon that had been appropriated to our use. My first impression was one of disappointment: if Vawdrey had gone to bed I didn’t wish to disturb him. While I hesitated, however, I recognised that Vawdrey had not gone to bed. A window was open, and the sound of voices outside came in to me: Blanche was on the terrace with her dramatist, and they were talking about the stars. I went to the window for a glimpse — the Alpine night was splendid. My friends had stepped out together; the actress had picked up a cloak; she looked as I had seen her look in the wing of the theatre. They were silent awhile, and I heard the roar of a neighbouring torrent. I turned back into the room, and its quiet lamplight gave me an idea. Our companions had dispersed — it was late for a pastoral country — and we three should have the place to ourselves. Clare Vawdrey had written his scene — it was magnificent; and his reading it to us there, at such an hour, would be an episode intensely memorable. I would bring down his manuscript and meet the two with it as they came in.
I quitted the salon for this purpose; I had been in Vawdrey’s room and knew it was on the second floor, the last in a long corridor. A minute later my hand was on the knob of his door, which I naturally pushed open without knocking. It was equally natural that in the absence of its occupant the room should be dark; the more so as, the end of the corridor being at that hour unlighted, the obscurity was not immediately diminished by the opening of the door. I was only aware at first that I had made no mistake and that, the window-curtains not being drawn, I was confronted with a couple of vague starlighted apertures. Their aid, however, was not sufficient to enable me to find what I had come for, and my hand, in my pocket, was already on the little box of matches that I always carried for cigarettes. Suddenly I withdrew it with a start, uttering an ejaculation, an apology. I had entered the wrong room; a glance prolonged for three seconds showed me a figure seated at a table near one of the windows — a figure I had at first taken for a travelling-rug thrown over a chair. I retreated, with a sense of intrusion; but as I did so I became aware, more rapidly than it takes me to express it, in the first place that this was Vawdrey’s room and in the second that, most singularly, Vawdrey himself sat before me. Checking myself on the threshold I had a momentary feeling of bewilderment, but before I knew it I had exclaimed: “Hullo! is that you, Vawdrey?”
He neither turned nor answered me, but my question received an immediate and practical reply in the opening of a door on the other side of the passage. A servant, with a candle, had come out of the opposite room, and in this flitting illumination I definitely recognised the man whom, an instant before, I had to the best of my belief left below in conversation with Mrs Adney. His back was half turned to me, and he bent over the table in the attitude of writing, but I was conscious that I was in no sort of error about his identity. “I beg your pardon — I thought you were downstairs,” I said; and as the personage gave no sign of hearing me I added: “If you’re busy I won’t disturb you.” I backed out, closing the door — I had been in the place, I suppose, less than a minute. I had a sense of mystification, which however deepened infinitely the next instant. I stood there with my hand still on the knob of the door, overtaken by the oddest impression of my life. Vawdrey was at his table, writing, and it was a very natural place for him to be; but why was he writing in the dark and why hadn’t he answered me? I waited a few seconds for the sound of some movement, to see if he wouldn’t rouse himself from his abstraction — a fit conceivable in a great writer — and call out: ‘Oh, my dear fellow, is it you?’ But I heard only the stillness, I felt only the starlighted dusk of the room, with the unexpected presence it enclosed. I turned away, slowly retracing my steps, and came confusedly downstairs. The lamp was still burning in the salon, but the room was empty. I passed round to the door of the hotel and stepped out. Empty too was the terrace. Blanche Adney and the gentleman with her had apparently come in. I hung about five minutes; then I went to bed.
I slept badly, for I was agitated. On looking back at these queer occurrences (you will see presently that they were queer), I perhaps suppose myself more agitated than I was; for great anomalies are never so great at first as after we have reflected upon them. It takes us some time to exhaust explanations. I was vaguely nervous — I had been sharply startled; but there was nothing I could not clear up by asking Blanche Adney, the first thing in the morning, who had been with her on the terrace. Oddly enough, however, when the morning dawned — it dawned admirably — I felt less desire to satisfy myself on this point than to escape, to brush away the shadow of my stupefaction. I saw the day would be splendid, and the fancy took me to spend it, as I had spent happy days of youth, in a lonely mountain ramble. I dressed early, partook of conventional coffee, put a big roll into one pocket and a small flask into the other, and, with a stout stick in my hand, went forth into the high places. My story is not closely concerned with the charming hours I passed there — hours of the kind that make intense memories. If I roamed away half of them on the shoulders of the hills, I lay on the sloping grass for the other half and, with my cap pulled over my eyes (save a peep for immensities of view), listened, in the bright stillness, to the mountain bee and felt most things sink and dwindle. Clare Vawdrey grew small, Blanche Adney grew dim, Lord Mellifont grew old, and before the day was over I forgot that I had ever been puzzled. When in the late afternoon I made my way down to the inn there was nothing I wanted so much to find out as whether dinner would not soon be ready. To-night I dressed, in a manner, and by the time I was presentable they were all at table.
In their company again my little problem came back to me, so that I was curious to see if Vawdrey wouldn’t look at me the least bit queerly. But he didn’t look at me at all; which gave me a chance both to be patient and to wonder why I should hesitate to ask him my question across the table. I did hesitate, and with the consciousness of doing so came back a little of the agitation I had left behind me, or below me, during the day. I wasn’t ashamed of my scruple, however: it was only a fine discretion. What I vaguely felt was that a public inquiry wouldn’t have been fair. Lord Mellifont was there, of course, to mitigate with his perfect manner all consequences; but I think it was present to me that with these particular elements his lordship would not be at home. The moment we got up, therefore, I approached Mrs Adney, asking her whether, as the evening was lovely, she wouldn’t take a turn with me outside.
“You’ve walked a hundred miles; had you not better be quiet?” she replied.
“I’d walk a hundred miles more to get you to tell me something.”
She looked at me an instant, with a little of the queerness that I had sought, but had not found, in Clare Vawdrey’s eyes. “Do you mean what became of Lord Mellifont?”
“Of Lord Mellifont?” With my new speculation I had lost that thread.
“Where’s your memory, foolish man? We talked of it last evening.”
“Ah, yes!” I cried, recalling; “we shall have lots to discuss.” I drew her out to the terrace, and before we had gone three steps I said to her: “Who was with you here last night?”
“Last night?” she repeated, as wide of the mark as I had been.
“At ten o’clock — just after our company broke up. You came out here with a gentleman; you talked about the stars.”
She stared a moment; then she gave her laugh. “Are you jealous of dear Vawdrey?”
“Then it was he?”
“Certainly it was.”
“And how long did he stay?”
“You have it badly. He stayed about a quarter of an hour — perhaps rather more. We walked some distance; he talked about his play. There you have it all; that is the only witchcraft I have used.”
“And what did Vawdrey do afterwards?”
“I haven’t the least idea. I left him and went to bed.”
“At what time did you go to bed?”
“At what time did you? I happen to remember that I parted from Mr Vawdrey at ten twenty-five,” said Mrs Adney. “I came back into the salon to pick up a book, and I noticed the clock.”
“In other words you and Vawdrey distinctly lingered here from about five minutes past ten till the hour you mention?”
“I don’t know how distinct we were, but we were very jolly. O`u voulez-vous en venir?” Blanche Adney asked.
“Simply to this, dear lady: that at the time your companion was occupied in the manner you describe, he was also engaged in literary composition in his own room.”
She stopped short at this, and her eyes had an expression in the darkness. She wanted to know if I challenged her veracity; and I replied that, on the contrary, I backed it up — it made the case so interesting. She returned that this would only be if she should back up mine; which, however, I had no difficulty in persuading her to do, after I had related to her circumstantially the incident of my quest of the manuscript — the manuscript which, at the time, for a reason I could now understand, appeared to have passed so completely out of her own head.
“His talk made me forget it — I forgot I sent you for it. He made up for his fiasco in the salon: he declaimed me the scene,” said my companion. She had dropped on a bench to listen to me and, as we sat there, had briefly cross-examined me. Then she broke out into fresh laughter “Oh, the eccentricities of genius!”
“They seem greater even than I supposed.”
“Oh, the mysteries of greatness!”
“You ought to know all about them, but they take me by surprise.”
“Are you absolutely certain it was Mr Vawdrey?” my companion asked.
“If it wasn’t he, who in the world was it? That a strange gentleman, looking exactly like him, should be sitting in his room at that hour of the night and writing at his table in the dark,” I insisted, “would be practically as wonderful as my own contention.”
“Yes, why in the dark?” mused Mrs Adney.
“Cats can see in the dark,” I said.
She smiled at me dimly. “Did it look like a cat?”
“No, dear lady, but I’ll tell you what it did look like — it looked like the author of Vawdrey’s admirable works. It looked infinitely more like him than our friend does himself,” I declared.
“Do you mean it was somebody he gets to do them?”
“Yes, while he dines out and disappoints you.”
“Disappoints me?” murmured Mrs Adney artlessly.
“Disappoints me — disappoints every one who looks in him for the genius that created the pages they adore. Where is it in his talk?”
“Ah, last night he was splendid,” said the actress.
“He’s always splendid, as your morning bath is splendid, or a sirloin of beef, or the railway service to Brighton. But he’s never rare.”
“I see what you mean.”
“That’s what makes you such a comfort to talk to. I’ve often wondered — now I know. There are two of them.”
“What a delightful idea!”
“One goes out, the other stays at home. One is the genius, the other’s the bourgeois, and it’s only the bourgeois whom we personally know. He talks, he circulates, he’s awfully popular, he flirts with you—-“
“Whereas it’s the genius you are privileged to see!” Mrs Adney broke in. “I’m much obliged to you for the distinction.”
I laid my hand on her arm. “See him yourself. Try it, test it, go to his room.”
“Go to his room? It wouldn’t be proper!” she exclaimed, in the tone of her best comedy.
“Anything is proper in such an inquiry. If you see him, it settles it.”
“How charming — to settle it!” She thought a moment, then she sprang up. “Do you mean now?”
“Whenever you like.”
“But suppose I should find the wrong one?” said Blanche Adney, with an exquisite effect.
“The wrong one? Which one do you call the right?”
“The wrong one for a lady to go and see. Suppose I shouldn’t find — the genius?”
“Oh, I’ll look after the other,” I replied. Then, as I had happened to glance about me, I added: “Take care — here comes Lord Mellifont.”
“I wish you’d look after him,” my interlocutress murmured.
“What’s the matter with him?”
“That’s just what I was going to tell you.”
“Tell me now; he’s not coming.”
Blanche Adney looked a moment. Lord Mellifont, who appeared to have emerged from the hotel to smoke a meditative cigar, had paused, at a distance from us, and stood admiring the wonders of the prospect, discernible even in the dusk. We strolled slowly in another direction, and she presently said: “My idea is almost as droll as yours.”
“I don’t call mine droll: it’s beautiful.”
“There’s nothing so beautiful as the droll,” Mrs Adney declared.
“You take a professional view. But I’m all ears.” My curiosity was indeed alive again.
“Well then, my dear friend, if Clare Vawdrey is double (and I’m bound to say I think that the more of him the better), his lordship there has the opposite complaint: he isn’t even whole.”
We stopped once more, simultaneously. “I don’t understand.”
“No more do I. But I have a fancy that if there are two of Mr Vawdrey, there isn’t so much as one, all told, of Lord Mellifont.”
I considered a moment, then I laughed out. “I think I see what you mean!”
“That’s what makes you a comfort. Did you ever see him alone?”
I tried to remember. “Oh, yes; he has been to see me.”
“Ah, then he wasn’t alone.”
“And I’ve been to see him, in his study.”
“Did he know you were there?”
“Naturally — I was announced.”
Blanche Adney glanced at me like a lovely conspirator. “You mustn’t be announced!” With this she walked on.
I rejoined her, breathless. “Do you mean one must come upon him when he doesn’t know it?”
“You must take him unawares. You must go to his room — that’s what you must do.”
If I was elated by the way our mystery opened out, I was also, pardonably, a little confused. “When I know he’s not there?”
“When you know he is.”
“And what shall I see?”
“You won’t see anything!” Mrs Adney cried as we turned round.
We had reached the end of the terrace, and our movement brought us face to face with Lord Mellifont, who, resuming his walk, had now, without indiscretion, overtaken us. The sight of him at that moment was illuminating, and it kindled a great backward train, connecting itself with one’s general impression of the personage. As he stood there smiling at us and waving a practised hand into the transparent night (he introduced the view as if it had been a candidate and ‘supported’ the very Alps), as he rose before us in the delicate fragrance of his cigar and all his other delicacies and fragrances, with more perfections, somehow, heaped upon his handsome head than one had ever seen accumulated before, he struck me as so essentially, so conspicuously and uniformly the public character that I read in a flash the answer to Blanche Adney’s riddle. He was all public and had no corresponding private life, just as Clare Vawdrey was all private and had no corresponding public one. I had heard only half my companion’s story, yet as we joined Lord Mellifont (he had followed us — he liked Mrs Adney; but it was always to be conceived of him that he accepted society rather than sought it), as we participated for half an hour in the distributed wealth of his conversation, I felt with unabashed duplicity that we had, as it were, found him out. I was even more deeply diverted by that whisk of the curtain to which the actress had just treated me than I had been by my own discovery; and if I was not ashamed of my share of her secret any more than of having divided my own with her (though my own was, of the two mysteries, the more glorious for the personage involved), this was because there was no cruelty in my advantage, but on the contrary an extreme tenderness and a positive compassion. Oh, he was safe with me, and I felt moreover rich and enlightened, as if I had suddenly put the universe into my pocket. I had learned what an affair of the spot and the moment a great appearance may be. It would doubtless be too much to say that I had always suspected the possibility, in the background of his lordship’s being, of some such beautiful instance; but it is at least a fact that, patronising as it sounds, I had been conscious of a certain reserve of indulgence for him. I had secretly pitied him for the perfection of his performance, had wondered what blank face such a mask had to cover, what was left to him for the immitigable hours in which a man sits down with himself, or, more serious still, with that intenser self, his lawful wife. How was he at home and what did he do when he was alone? There was something in Lady Mellifont that gave a point to these researches — something that suggested that even to her he was still the public character and that she was haunted by similar questionings. She had never cleared them up: that was her eternal trouble. We therefore knew more than she did, Blanche Adney and I; but we wouldn’t tell her for the world, nor would she probably thank us for doing so. She preferred the relative grandeur of uncertainty. She was not at home with him, so she couldn’t say; and with her he was not alone, so he couldn’t show her. He represented to his wife and he was a hero to his servants, and what one wanted to arrive at was what really became of him when no eye could see. He rested, presumably; but what form of rest could repair such a plenitude of presence? Lady Mellifont was too proud to pry, and as she had never looked through a keyhole she remained dignified and unassuaged.
It may have been a fancy of mine that Blanche Adney drew out our companion, or it may be that the practical irony of our relation to him at such a moment made me see him more vividly: at any rate he never had struck me as so dissimilar from what he would have been if we had not offered him a reflection of his image. We were only a concourse of two, but he had never been more public. His perfect manner had never been more perfect, his remarkable tact had never been more remarkable. I had a tacit sense that it would all be in the morning papers, with a leader, and also a secretly exhilarating one that I knew something that wouldn’t be, that never could be, though any enterprising journal would give one a fortune for it. I must add, however, that in spite of my enjoyment — it was almost sensual, like that of a consummate dish — I was eager to be alone again with Mrs Adney, who owed me an anecdote. It proved impossible, that evening, for some of the others came out to see what we found so absorbing; and then Lord Mellifont bespoke a little music from the fiddler, who produced his violin and played to us divinely, on our platform of echoes, face to face with the ghosts of the mountains. Before the concert was over I missed our actress and, glancing into the window of the salon, saw that she was established with Vawdrey, who was reading to her from a manuscript. The great scene had apparently been achieved and was doubtless the more interesting to Blanche from the new lights she had gathered about its author. I judged it discreet not to disturb them, and I went to bed without seeing her again. I looked out for her betimes the next morning and, as the promise of the day was fair, proposed to her that we should take to the hills, reminding her of the high obligation she had incurred. She recognised the obligation and gratified me with her company; but before we had strolled ten yards up the pass she broke out with intensity: “My dear friend, you’ve no idea how it works in me! I can think of nothing else.”
“Than your theory about Lord Mellifont?”
“Oh, bother Lord Mellifont! I allude to yours about Mr Vawdrey, who is much the more interesting person of the two. I’m fascinated by that vision of his — what-do-you-call-it?”
“His alternative identity?”
“His other self: that’s easier to say.”
“You accept it, then, you adopt it?”
“Adopt it? I rejoice in it! It became tremendously vivid to me last evening.”
“While he read to you there?”
“Yes, as I listened to him, watched him. It simplified everything, explained everything.”
“That’s indeed the blessing of it. Is the scene very fine?”
“Magnificent, and he reads beautifully.”
“Almost as well as the other one writes!” I laughed.
This made my companion stop a moment, laying her hand on my arm. “You utter my very impression. I felt that he was reading me the work of another man.”
“What a service to the other man!”
“Such a totally different person,” said Mrs Adney. We talked of this difference as we went on, and of what a wealth it constituted, what a resource for life, such a duplication of character.
“It ought to make him live twice as long as other people,” I observed.
“Ought to make which of them?”
“Well, both; for after all they’re members of a firm, and one of them couldn’t carry on the business without the other. Moreover mere survival would be dreadful for either.”
Blanche Adney was silent a little; then she exclaimed: “I don’t know — I wish he would survive!”
“May I, on my side, inquire which?”
“If you can’t guess I won’t tell you.”
“I know the heart of woman. You always prefer the other.”
She halted again, looking round her. “Off here, away from my husband, I can tell you. I’m in love with him!”
“Unhappy woman, he has no passions,” I answered.
“That’s exactly why I adore him. Doesn’t a woman with my history know that the passions of others are insupportable? An actress, poor thing, can’t care for any love that’s not all on her side; she can’t afford to be repaid. My marriage proves that: marriage is ruinous. Do you know what was in my mind last night, all the while Mr Vawdrey was reading me those beautiful speeches? An insane desire to see the author.” And dramatically, as if to hide her shame, Blanche Adney passed on.
“We’ll manage that,” I returned. “I want another glimpse of him myself. But meanwhile please remember that I’ve been waiting more than forty-eight hours for the evidence that supports your sketch, intensely suggestive and plausible, of Lord Mellifont’s private life.”
“Oh, Lord Mellifont doesn’t interest me.”
“He did yesterday,” I said.
“Yes, but that was before I fell in love. You blotted him out with your story.”
“You’ll make me sorry I told it. Come,” I pleaded, “if you don’t let me know how your idea came into your head I shall imagine you simply made it up.”
“Let me recollect then, while we wander in this grassy valley.”
We stood at the entrance of a charming crooked gorge, a portion of whose level floor formed the bed of a stream that was smooth with swiftness. We turned into it, and the soft walk beside the clear torrent drew us on and on; till suddenly, as we continued and I waited for my companion to remember, a bend of the valley showed us Lady Mellifont coming toward us. She was alone, under the canopy of her parasol, drawing her sable train over the turf; and in this form, on the devious ways, she was a sufficiently rare apparition. She usually took a footman, who marched behind her on the highroads and whose livery was strange to the mountaineers. She blushed on seeing us, as if she ought somehow to justify herself; she laughed vaguely and said she had come out for a little early stroll. We stood together a moment, exchanging platitudes, and then she remarked that she had thought she might find her husband.
“Is he in this quarter?” I inquired.
“I supposed he would be. He came out an hour ago to sketch.”
“Have you been looking for him?” Mrs Adney asked.
“A little; not very much,” said Lady Mellifont.
Each of the women rested her eyes with some intensity, as it seemed to me, on the eyes of the other.
“We’ll look for him for you, if you like,” said Mrs Adney.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. I thought I’d join him.”
“He won’t make his sketch if you don’t,” my companion hinted.
“Perhaps he will if you do,” said Lady Mellifont.
“Oh, I dare say he’ll turn up,” I interposed.
“He certainly will if he knows we’re here!” Blanche Adney retorted.
“Will you wait while we search?” I asked of Lady Mellifont.
She repeated that it was of no consequence; upon which Mrs Adney went on: “We’ll go into the matter for our own pleasure.”
“I wish you a pleasant expedition,” said her ladyship, and was turning away when I sought to know if we should inform her husband that she had followed him. She hesitated a moment; then she jerked out oddly: “I think you had better not.” With this she took leave of us, floating a little stiffly down the gorge.
My companion and I watched her retreat, then we exchanged a stare, while a light ghost of a laugh rippled from the actress’s lips. “She might be walking in the shrubberies at Mellifont!”
“She suspects it, you know,” I replied.
“And she doesn’t want him to know it. There won’t be any sketch.”
“Unless we overtake him,” I subjoined. “In that case we shall find him producing one, in the most graceful attitude, and the queer thing is that it will be brilliant.”
“Let us leave him alone — he’ll have to come home without it.”
“He’d rather never come home. Oh, he’ll find a public!”
“Perhaps he’ll do it for the cows,” Blanche Adney suggested; and as I was on the point of rebuking her profanity she went on: “That’s simply what I happened to discover.”
“What are you speaking of?”
“The incident of day before yesterday.”
“Ah, let’s have it at last!”
“That’s all it was — that I was like Lady Mellifont: I couldn’t find him.”
“Did you lose him?”
“He lost me — that appears to be the way of it. He thought I was gone.”
“But you did find him, since you came home with him.”
“It was he who found me. That again is what must happen. He’s there from the moment he knows somebody else is.”
“I understand his intermissions,” I said after a short reflection, “but I don’t quite seize the law that governs them.”
“Oh, it’s a fine shade, but I caught it at that moment. I had started to come home. I was tired, and I had insisted on his not coming back with me. We had found some rare flowers — those I brought home — and it was he who had discovered almost all of them. It amused him very much, and I knew he wanted to get more; but I was weary and I quitted him. He let me go — where else would have been his tact? — and I was too stupid then to have guessed that from the moment I was not there no flower would be gathered. I started homeward, but at the end of three minutes I found I had brought away his penknife — he had lent it to me to trim a branch — and I knew he would need it. I turned back a few steps, to call him, but before I spoke I looked about for him. You can’t understand what happened then without having the place before you.”
“You must take me there,” I said.
“We may see the wonder here. The place was simply one that offered no chance for concealment — a great gradual hillside, without obstructions or trees. There were some rocks below me, behind which I myself had disappeared, but from which on coming back I immediately emerged again.”
“Then he must have seen you.”
“He was too utterly gone, for some reason best known to himself. It was probably some moment of fatigue — he’s getting on, you know, so that, with the sense of returning solitude, the reaction had been proportionately great, the extinction proportionately complete. At any rate the stage was as bare as your hand.”
“Could he have been somewhere else?”
“He couldn’t have been, in the time, anywhere but where I had left him. Yet the place was utterly empty — as empty as this stretch of valley before us. He had vanished — he had ceased to be. But as soon as my voice rang out (I uttered his name), he rose before me like the rising sun.”
“And where did the sun rise?”
“Just where it ought to — just where he would have been and where I should have seen him had he been like other people.”
I had listened with the deepest interest, but it was my duty to think of objections. “How long a time elapsed between the moment you perceived his absence and the moment you called?”
“Oh, only an instant. I don’t pretend it was long.”
“Long enough for you to be sure?” I said.
“Sure he wasn’t there?”
“Yes, and that you were not mistaken, not the victim of some hocus-pocus of your eyesight.”
“I may have been mistaken, but I don’t believe it. At any rate, that’s just why I want you to look in his room.”
I thought a moment. “How can I, when even his wife doesn’t dare to?”
“She wants to; propose it to her. It wouldn’t take much to make her. She does suspect.”
I thought another moment. “Did he seem to know?”
“That I had missed him? So it struck me, but he thought he had been quick enough.”
“Did you speak of his disappearance?”
“Heaven forbid! It seemed to me too strange.”
“Quite right. And how did he look?”
Trying to think it out again and reconstitute her miracle, Blanche Adney gazed abstractedly up the valley. Suddenly she exclaimed: “Just as he looks now!” and I saw Lord Mellifont stand before us with his sketch-block. I perceived, as we met him, that he looked neither suspicious nor blank: he looked simply, as he did always, everywhere, the principal feature of the scene. Naturally he had no sketch to show us, but nothing could better have rounded off our actual conception of him than the way he fell into position as we approached. He had been selecting his point of view; he took possession of it with a flourish of the pencil. He leaned against a rock; his beautiful little box of water-colours reposed on a natural table beside him, a ledge of the bank which showed how inveterately nature ministered to his convenience. He painted while he talked and he talked while he painted; and if the painting was as miscellaneous as the talk, the talk would equally have graced an album. We waited while the exhibition went on, and it seemed indeed as if the conscious profiles of the peaks were interested in his success. They grew as black as silhouettes in paper, sharp against a livid sky from which, however, there would be nothing to fear till Lord Mellifont’s sketch should be finished. Blanche Adney communed with me dumbly, and I could read the language of her eyes: ‘Oh, if we could only do it as well as that! He fills the stage in a way that beats us.’ We could no more have left him than we could have quitted the theatre till the play was over; but in due time we turned round with him and strolled back to the inn, before the door of which his lordship, glancing again at his picture, tore the fresh leaf from the block and presented it with a few happy words to Mrs Adney. Then he went into the house; and a moment later, looking up from where we stood, we saw him, above, at the window of his sitting-room (he had the best apartments), watching the signs of the weather.
“He’ll have to rest after this,” Blanche said, dropping her eyes on her water-colour.
“Indeed he will!” I raised mine to the window: Lord Mellifont had vanished. “He’s already reabsorbed.”
“Reabsorbed?” I could see the actress was now thinking of something else.
“Into the immensity of things. He has lapsed again; there’s an entr’acte.”
“It ought to be long.” Mrs Adney looked up and down the terrace, and at that moment the head-waiter appeared in the doorway. Suddenly she turned to this functionary with the question: “Have you seen Mr Vawdrey lately?”
The man immediately approached. “He left the house five minutes ago — for a walk, I think. He went down the pass; he had a book.”
I was watching the ominous clouds. “He had better have had an umbrella.”
The waiter smiled. “I recommended him to take one.”
“Thank you,” said Mrs Adney; and the Oberkellner withdrew. Then she went on, abruptly: “Will you do me a favour?”
“Yes, if you’ll do me one. Let me see if your picture is signed.”
She glanced at the sketch before giving it to me. “For a wonder it isn’t.”
“It ought to be, for full value. May I keep it awhile?”
“Yes, if you’ll do what I ask. Take an umbrella and go after Mr Vawdrey.”
“To bring him to Mrs Adney?”
“To keep him out — as long as you can.”
“I’ll keep him as long as the rain holds off.”
“Oh, never mind the rain!” my companion exclaimed.
“Would you have us drenched?”
“Without remorse.” Then with a strange light in her eyes she added: “I’m going to try.”
“To see the real one. Oh, if I can get at him!” she broke out with passion.
“Try, try!” I replied. “I’ll keep our friend all day.”
“If I can get at the one who does it” — and she paused, with shining eyes — “if I can have it out with him I shall get my part!”
“I’ll keep Vawdrey for ever!” I called after her as she passed quickly into the house.
Her audacity was communicative, and I stood there in a glow of excitement. I looked at Lord Mellifont’s water-colour and I looked at the gathering storm; I turned my eyes again to his lordship’s windows and then I bent them on my watch. Vawdrey had so little the start of me that I should have time to overtake him — time even if I should take five minutes to go up to Lord Mellifont’s sitting-room (where we had all been hospitably received), and say to him, as a messenger, that Mrs Adney begged he would bestow upon his sketch the high consecration of his signature. As I again considered this work of art I perceived there was something it certainly did lack: what else then but so noble an autograph? It was my duty to supply the deficiency without delay, and in accordance with this conviction I instantly re-entered the hotel. I went up to Lord Mellifont’s apartments; I reached the door of his salon. Here, however, I was met by a difficulty of which my extravagance had not taken account. If I were to knock I should spoil everything; yet was I prepared to dispense with this ceremony? I asked myself the question, and it embarrassed me; I turned my little picture round and round, but it didn’t give me the answer I wanted. I wanted it to say: “Open the door gently, gently, without a sound, yet very quickly: then you will see what you will see.” I had gone so far as to lay my hand upon the knob when I became aware (having my wits so about me), that exactly in the manner I was thinking of — gently, gently, without a sound — another door had moved, on the opposite side of the hall. At the same instant I found myself smiling rather constrainedly upon Lady Mellifont, who, on seeing me, had checked herself on the threshold of her room. For a moment, as she stood there, we exchanged two or three ideas that were the more singular for being unspoken. We had caught each other hovering, and we understood each other; but as I stepped over to her (so that we were separated from the sitting-room by the width of the hall), her lips formed the almost soundless entreaty: “Don’t!” I could see in her conscious eyes everything that the word expressed — the confession of her own curiosity and the dread of the consequences of mine. “Don’t!” she repeated, as I stood before her. From the moment my experiment could strike her as an act of violence I was ready to renounce it; yet I thought I detected in her frightened face a still deeper betrayal — a possibility of disappointment if I should give way. It was as if she had said: “I’ll let you do it if you’ll take the responsibility. Yes, with some one else I’d surprise him. But it would never do for him to think it was I.”
“We soon found Lord Mellifont,” I observed, in allusion to our encounter with her an hour before, “and he was so good as to give this lovely sketch to Mrs Adney, who has asked me to come up and beg him to put in the omitted signature.”
Lady Mellifont took the drawing from me, and I could guess the struggle that went on in her while she looked at it. She was silent for some time; then I felt that all her delicacies and dignities, all her old timidities and pieties were fighting against her opportunity. She turned away from me and, with the drawing, went back to her room. She was absent for a couple of minutes, and when she reappeared I could see that she had vanquished her temptation; that even, with a kind of resurgent horror, she had shrunk from it. She had deposited the sketch in the room. “If you will kindly leave the picture with me, I will see that Mrs Adney’s request is attended to,” she said, with great courtesy and sweetness, but in a manner that put an end to our colloquy.
I assented, with a somewhat artificial enthusiasm perhaps, and then, to ease off our separation, remarked that we were going to have a change of weather.
“In that case we shall go — we shall go immediately,” said Lady Mellifont. I was amused at the eagerness with which she made this declaration: it appeared to represent a coveted flight into safety, an escape with her threatened secret. I was the more surprised therefore when, as I was turning away, she put out her hand to take mine. She had the pretext of bidding me farewell, but as I shook hands with her on this supposition I felt that what the movement really conveyed was: ‘I thank you for the help you would have given me, but it’s better as it is. If I should know, who would help me then?’ As I went to my room to get my umbrella I said to myself: ‘She’s sure, but she won’t put it to the proof.’
A quarter of an hour later I had overtaken Clare Vawdrey in the pass, and shortly after this we found ourselves looking for refuge. The storm had not only completely gathered, but it had broken at the last with extraordinary rapidity. We scrambled up a hillside to an empty cabin, a rough structure that was hardly more than a shed for the protection of cattle. It was a tolerable shelter however, and it had fissures through which we could watch the splendid spectacle of the tempest. This entertainment lasted an hour — an hour that has remained with me as full of odd disparities. While the lightning played with the thunder and the rain gushed in on our umbrellas, I said to myself that Clare Vawdrey was disappointing. I don’t know exactly what I should have predicated of a great author exposed to the fury of the elements, I can’t say what particular Manfred attitude I should have expected my companion to assume, but it seemed to me somehow that I shouldn’t have looked to him to regale me in such a situation with stories (which I had already heard), about the celebrated Lady Ringrose. Her ladyship formed the subject of Vawdrey’s conversation during this prodigious scene, though before it was quite over he had launched out on Mr Chafer, the scarcely less notorious reviewer. It broke my heart to hear a man like Vawdrey talk of reviewers. The lightning projected a hard clearness upon the truth, familiar to me for years, to which the last day or two had added transcendent support — the irritating certitude that for personal relations this admirable genius thought his second-best good enough. It was, no doubt, as society was made, but there was a contempt in the distinction which could not fail to be galling to an admirer. The world was vulgar and stupid, and the real man would have been a fool to come out for it when he could gossip and dine by deputy. None the less my heart sank as I felt my companion practice this economy. I don’t know exactly what I wanted; I suppose I wanted him to make an exception for me. I almost believed he would, if he had known how I worshipped his talent. But I had never been able to translate this to him, and his application of his principle was relentless. At any rate I was more than ever sure that at such an hour his chair at home was not empty: there was the Manfred attitude, there were the responsive flashes. I could only envy Mrs Adney her presumable enjoyment of them.
The weather drew off at last, and the rain abated sufficiently to allow us to emerge from our asylum and make our way back to the inn, where we found on our arrival that our prolonged absence had produced some agitation. It was judged apparently that the fury of the elements might have placed us in a predicament. Several of our friends were at the door, and they seemed a little disconcerted when it was perceived that we were only drenched. Clare Vawdrey, for some reason, was wetter than I, and he took his course to his room. Blanche Adney was among the persons collected to look out for us, but as Vawdrey came toward her she shrank from him, without a greeting; with a movement that I observed as almost one of estrangement she turned her back on him and went quickly into the salon. Wet as I was I went in after her; on which she immediately flung round and faced me. The first thing I saw was that she had never been so beautiful. There was a light of inspiration in her face, and she broke out to me in the quickest whisper, which was at the same time the loudest cry, I have ever heard: “I’ve got my part!”
“You went to his room — I was right?”
“Right?” Blanche Adney repeated. “Ah, my dear fellow!” she murmured.
“He was there — you saw him?”
“He saw me. It was the hour of my life!”
“It must have been the hour of his, if you were half as lovely as you are at this moment.”
“He’s splendid,” she pursued, as if she didn’t hear me. “He is the one who does it!” I listened, immensely impressed, and she added: “We understood each other.”
“By flashes of lightning?”
“Oh, I didn’t see the lightning then!”
“How long were you there?” I asked with admiration.
“Long enough to tell him I adore him.”
“Ah, that’s what I’ve never been able to tell him!” I exclaimed ruefully.
“I shall have my part — I shall have my part!” she continued, with triumphant indifference; and she flung round the room with the joy of a girl, only checking herself to say: “Go and change your clothes.”
“You shall have Lord Mellifont’s signature,” I said.
“Oh, bother Lord Mellifont’s signature! He’s far nicer than Mr Vawdrey,” she went on irrelevantly.
“Lord Mellifont?” I pretended to inquire.
“Confound Lord Mellifont!” And Blanche Adney, in her elation, brushed by me, whisking again through the open door. Just outside of it she came upon her husband; whereupon, with a charming cry of “We’re talking of you, my love!” she threw herself upon him and kissed him.
I went to my room and changed my clothes, but I remained there till the evening. The violence of the storm had passed over us, but the rain had settled down to a drizzle. On descending to dinner I found that the change in the weather had already broken up our party. The Mellifonts had departed in a carriage and four, they had been followed by others, and several vehicles had been bespoken for the morning. Blanche Adney’s was one of them, and on the pretext that she had preparations to make she quitted us directly after dinner. Clare Vawdrey asked me what was the matter with her — she suddenly appeared to dislike him. I forget what answer I gave, but I did my best to comfort him by driving away with him the next day. Mrs Adney had vanished when we came down; but they made up their quarrel in London, for he finished his play, which she produced. I must add that she is still, nevertheless, in want of the great part. I have a beautiful one in my head, but she doesn’t come to see me to stir me up about it. Lady Mellifont always drops me a kind word when we meet, but that doesn’t console me.
This text of a work by Henry James (1843-1916) was prepared from an XHTML edition of the work by Adrian Dover, Birmingham UK, and is copyright 2009 Adrian Dover. It is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence. The text is that of the first UK book edition (now in the public domain): The private life ; The wheel of time ; [etc.] / by Henry James. London : Osgood, McIlvaine, 1893.
WHEN I WAS twenty-four or twenty-five, I spent a weekend on the Concord and Merrimack rivers. Inspired by A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau’s account of the two weeks that he and his brother, John, spent traveling in their homemade boat, “in form like a fisherman’s dory,” from Concord, Massachusetts, to Concord, New Hampshire, and back, my friend Peter Leroy and I spent a weekend paddling a canoe from Concord, Massachusetts to Newburyport, Massachusetts. What do I remember of that trip now, more than forty-five years later?
I REMEMBER that, from the start, I intended to turn the trip into an article, “A Weekend on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” and submit it to Time Travels, a glossy magazine devoted to contemporary accounts of vacation trips undertaken in deliberate emulation of notable journeys of the past. At the time, Peter considered himself a budding photographer with a good eye, so we decided that he would take photographs throughout our trip, and the photographs would illustrate the article. We expected the people at Time Travels to take the article as soon as they saw it. Of course we expected that. Why wouldn’t we? We were young. We were bold. Well, Peter was bold—and I thought that I was bold, too.
I remember the pleasure of preparing for the trip, poring over maps, finding a canoe that someone was willing to let us use, and, especially, buying our provisions at an enormous store that catered to campers, hikers, climbers, and other outdoor adventurers. I had a great time choosing freeze-dried food there. When I was done, I had every meal and snack planned to the last bite.
“What’s all this?” Peter asked when he saw the stuff.
“These are our meals,” I said, “freeze-dried and sealed in plastic. In these packets we’ve got all of a meal’s nutrition and flavor, but none of the weight of the water. All we have to do at meal time is add water, heat, and eat—and—” I added, producing the collapsible bucket I’d bought—“we’ll scoop the water from the river with this nifty gadget.”
“Impressive,” he said. “There wasn’t anything like this this back when I took my trip to the source of the Bolotomy River. I’ve probably told you about—”
“Many times,” I said.
“I told you about the food I packed?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes.”
“Oh. Well. Hey—wait a minute—”
“Didn’t the Thoreau brothers live off the land, eating low-hanging fruit and roasting squirrels?”
“Times have changed,” I said.
“Of course, but what would Thoreau—”
“We’re emulating the Thoreau brothers’ trip, not duplicating it,” I reminded him.
I remember that the first day took us through pretty meadowland. The paddling was easy and the sun was shining. I enjoyed it. I also remember, though, that after a while I discovered that I could anticipate our arrival at a highway bridge not only because I could hear the traffic, but because I could smell it. That annoyed me. It hadn’t happened to Thoreau.
When the first day’s paddling was over and we pulled the canoe onto a bank below what looked like farmland, I dipped the bucket into the river and harvested a bucket of muck.
“Hmm,” I said, looking into the bucket.
“It’s just muddy, I think,” said Peter. “We could strain it through some cloth.”
“What cloth?” I asked.
“Your shirt?” he suggested.
“Why not your shirt?” I asked.
“After straining it, we should boil it,” he said, without making any movement that suggested that he was willing to put his shirt to use as a strainer. “Or we could go to somebody’s house and ask for some water—cool, clear water.”
I remember our going to the back door of a house to ask for water. I was so full of myself and our expedition that I expected our appearance at their door to startle them. I thought it would be an unusual occurrence in their dull lives, something they’d turn into an anecdote to tell their neighbors when they got together at one of the dinners they gave one another in an endless cycle of tedium. I thought they might ask to take our picture. You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, that they behaved as if canoeists pulled up at their back door daily. When I said, dramatically, “My friend and I are paddling to the sea,” the woman said, wearily, “You want water, right?”
I remember a muskrat, at dusk, swimming across a dark backwater, such a sleek creature, swimming with such effortless movement, that it barely rippled the water. Peter spotted it, but he didn’t manage to capture its picture in the failing light. All the next day I thought about how ill-suited I was for plying the waters of the river, compared to that muskrat, but then Peter called out, “Someone back there is thinking about writingabout paddling rather than paddling!”
I answered, “Guilty,” and I felt doubly guilty because I had caught myself, mentally, intending to use the phrase “plying the waters of the river” when I wrote about the muskrat. I gave myself a mental smack on the side of the head and bent to my clumsy paddling.
I remember a young man, with his girlfriend at his side, fishing at a place in one of the mill towns where a broken sewer pipe spilled raw sewage into the river. I could see how thick the fish were where the discharge reached the water. The young man and his girlfriend were lighthearted, amorous, and very successful at fishing. “Hey,” I called to them, “doesn’t it bother you to be fishing in a sewer?”
The young man glared at me. His girlfriend gaped at the fish in the water, wide-eyed.
“Is this a sewer?” she cried.
The young man shook his fist at us. We paddled on.
I remember realizing, gradually, that the older houses along the banks faced the river but the newer houses faced away from the river. When I realized that fact, and realized what it said about the change in attitude toward the river, the change in respect for the river, a kind of hopelessness fell over me, and the rest of the voyage was tainted by the feeling that our species was deliberately denying its rightful relationship to nature, and denying itself the salutary benefits of that rightful relationship to nature.
I remember that I couldn’t stop talking about it.
I remember Peter’s saying, “Right. Right. I agree with you. But enough already. Write it down. Take notes. You should get that into the article.”
“I know,” I said. “I should.” But even then I knew that if I put that in, then the article that I’d intended to be a celebration would become a lamentation, and the writing of it would become a duty, and drudgery.
Nonetheless, I sent a query letter to Time Travels. I received a reply within a couple of weeks. The response was positive, but it actually kept me from writing the article because the article I described in my proposal wasn’t the article I knew I should write. It described the trip we’d taken but only the beautiful half of what we’d seen, and the photographs that I included with my summary showed only that half. In the Time Travels article there would be no broken pipe spewing sewage into the Merrimack.
I never did send anything to Time Travels. In the year or so after the trip I tried to write something that would include the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, but I never succeeded. I put my notes away. Some day, I told myself, I would use them to write an entry for my topical autobiography if I could decide what topic they might illustrate.
I read my account of the weekend and the article that never was to Margot and Martha. When I’d finished—when I’d read through “Some day, I told myself, I would use them to write an entry for my topical autobiography if I could decide what topic they might illustrate”—they exchanged a look and huddled briefly in whispered consultation.
After a couple of minutes they looked at me. They pursed their lips. They frowned.
Finally, Martha said, “That’s not quite the way it was.”
“It’s not the way we remember it,” said Margot.
“It’s not?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.
“It’s okay as far as it goes—” said Martha.
“—but something is missing,” said Margot.
They were right, and I knew it. Something was missing because I hadn’t wanted to include it. Had I hoped that they wouldn’t notice? Or had I counted on them to notice?
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Okay. Give me a day.”
What was missing was any mention of the sentence in the letter from Time Travels that said, “Although we welcome submissions from unknowns, we must remind you of something that you no doubt already realize from reading the magazine: our standards are extremely high, and even seasoned professional writers and world-renowned photographers find them difficult to meet.”
During the day that I’d asked Margot and Martha to give me, I revised this chapter to include that discouraging sentence.
As I said above, I never wrote the article. For years, I’ve been telling myself that I avoided writing it in order to save Peter the pain and embarrassment of being told that he’d failed to meet the standards that even world-renowned photographers often failed to meet.
[Our boat] had been loaded the evening before at our door, half a mile from the river, with potatoes and melons from a patch which we had cultivated, and a few utensils.
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Saturday”
Some young men who were lounging upon a bridge in Chelmsford . . . leaned impudently over the rails to pry into our concerns, but we caught the eye of the most forward, and looked at him till he was visibly discomfited.
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Sunday”
Unfortunately, many things have been omitted which should have been recorded in our journal, for though we made it a rule to set down all our experiences therein, yet such a resolution is very hard to keep, for the important experience rarely allows us to remember such obligations, and so indifferent things get recorded, while that is frequently neglected. It is not easy to write in a journal what interests us at any time, because to write it is not what interests us.
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Thursday”
Having eaten our supper of hot cocoa and bread and watermelon, we soon grew weary of conversing, and writing in our journals, and, putting out the lantern which hung from the tentpole, fell asleep.
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Thursday”
An island always pleases my imagination, even the smallest, as a small continent and integral portion of the globe. I have a fancy for building my hut on one. Even a bare, grassy isle, which I can see entirely over at a glance, has some undefined and mysterious charm for me.
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Wednesday”
The carcasses of some poor squirrels, however, the same that frisked so merrily in the morning, which we had skinned and emboweled for our dinner, we abandoned in disgust, with tardy humanity, as too wretched a resource for any but starving men. . . . With a sudden impulse we threw them away, and washed our hands, and boiled some rice for our dinner.
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Tuesday”
Perhaps at midnight one was awakened by a cricket shrilly singing on his shoulder, or by a hunting spider in his eye. . . . It was pleasant to lie with our heads so low in the grass, and hear what a tinkling ever-busy laboratory it was. A thousand little artisans beat on their anvils all night long.
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Monday”
FOR A WHILE, I was determined to become a tycoon. I was twelve. I remember climbing onto a stool at the counter at Porky White’s clam bar and announcing my intention: “I’m going into the squirrel lamp business.”
“Hmm,” said Porky in a way that I found hard to interpret.
“Squirrel lamps are very popular,” I said, quoting from the booklet that I’d ordered from an ad in Impractical Craftsman. “They suit any decor, and they sell like hotcakes.”
“Shhh!” said Porky suddenly.
“What?” I said.
I listened. Porky let a long minute pass.
“What do you hear?” he asked.
“People talking, people eating.”
“And what don’t you hear?”
“What don’t I hear?”
“I’ll tell you what you don’t hear. You don’t hear anybody saying, ‘Gee, I wish I had a squirrel lamp. My life would be complete if only I had a squirrel lamp.’”
“Okay. I see what you mean. But it’s not surprising. They’re not here to shop for home decor items. They’re here to eat.”
“You’ve got a point. Let’s test the home decor market in the laboratory of imaginary solutions. Let’s say you’re out peddling squirrel lamps door to door. You stop at a modest house—”
“No,” I interrupted. “Not a modest house. A large house in the village.”
“Of course. The better part of town. Where the money is. Okay. You walk up the steps onto the porch of the imposing home of Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags, and you ring the bell. Mrs. Moneybags herself answers the door. Go to it.”
“Would you like to buy a squirrel lamp?” I asked hopefully.
“A squirrel lamp?” asked Porky in the role of Mrs. Moneybags. “What on earth is a squirrel lamp?”
“It’s a lamp made out of a stuffed squirrel,” I said enthusiastically.
“That sounds gruesome,” she said, cringing.
“Actually, they’re really cute,” I said. “I should have brought a picture with me—”
“Where do you get these squirrels that you turn into lamps?”
“Oh, just about anywhere. Squirrels are all over the place.”
“And do they just willingly come up to you and ask to be made into lamps?”
I chuckled. “No, of course not. I have to catch them and—”
Mrs. Moneybags stared at me.
“—and—?” she asked sternly.
“Young man, are you are suggesting that I become an accomplice to the abduction and murder of a squirrel?”
“No, no, no. I—ah—I don’t—I—I make my lamps out of squirrels that I find already—ah—deceased. A lot of them get hit by cars.”
Mrs. Moneybags closed her eyes and shook her head slowly, as if in pain.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m envisioning a lamp made from a squirrel that met its end beneath the wheel of a car. I’m envisioning the lamp on the piano in the drawing room. I’m beginning to feel ill—”
“Okay. Okay. I get it. I give up.”
“No, no, young man! Don’t give up! Turn away from squirrel lamps, yes, but try something else. Squirrel lamps are not your destiny—but something else is—and you are right to seek it! Continue the quest! Excelsior!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.”
I got off the stool and started to go. After a couple of steps I stopped and turned back toward Porky.
“Thanks,” I said.
“No charge,” he said.
My hopes for several other potential businesses—raising giant frogs, metalizing baby shoes, growing mushrooms in the cellar— withered under the Porky-Moneybags interrogation, so I abandoned the idea of becoming a tycoon, but that left me feeling like a nobody. I had imagined myself as “Peter Leroy, Boy Tycoon,” and, more importantly, I had imagined other people regarding me, admiringly, as “Peter Leroy, Boy Tycoon,” and that had felt good, quite good. Now I was back to just plain “Peter Leroy,, boy of little consequence” and that felt awful. I needed to do something that would show that I was somebody, in the sense of being somebody who is somehow distinguished from everybody else, and when I was honest with myself I admitted that I wanted something that I could do without working too hard at it, so I set out to become an artist.
Without consulting anyone at all this time, I ordered a device that was supposed to enable me to draw without experience, talent, or effort, and I spent some time fooling around with the gadget, but I couldn’t make the damn thing work the way the advertisement had promised it would work. It was, basically, a camera lucida. Light from the subject of a drawing-to-be struck a half-silvered mirror mounted at a forty-five-degree angle in the eyepiece, traveled through a small lens, and then struck the paper where the drawing would be made. The process was meant to create the illusion that an image of the subject was already on the paper, so that all the talentless and inexperienced artist had to do was follow the outlines of that image with his pencil, effortlessly.
I expended a great deal of effort before I could even perceive an image above the paper where I intended to make my drawing, only to find that when I brought my pencil into play, the pencil blocked precisely the part of the image that I wanted to draw. At this point, I have to credit my young self with the virtue of persistence, because I did go on trying to master the thing, but practice did not make perfect. The damned pencil remained in the way, and the drawings I made were gross distortions of the drawings I wanted to make. I was always poking my pencil at an unattainable image.
I turned to tracing to improve the inadequate drawings I made. Tracing paper had always been my friend. I laid a sheet of the paper over a drawing and traced it, trying to improve it as I went along. The result was a drawing that was different from the first, but not what I considered better than the first. I traced the tracing, again trying to improve it as I traced it. This continued. With each retracing of a tracing the result was a drawing further removed from the original. That phenomenon surprised me at the time, but it shouldn’t have; both of my grandfathers had explained to me the dangers of cumulative error in carpentry. I should have recognized it.
The distorted tracings stimulated my twelve-year-old imagination, and the degree of stimulation increased as the degree of distortion increased. These drawings offered more room for my mind to wander than my life and my world offered. They gave me an impression of another place—a place that I might discover by making it. Using my experience with paint-by-numbers sets, I began painting the distorted tracings.
As I worked, I came to think of the images I was making as real pictures of an imaginary place—specifically, Murky Bay, the town on the mainland separated by treacherous tidal waters from Kittiwake Island, where Larry Peters and his family lived in the adventure books that I read and reread at that time.
I understood full well that I was making that imaginary place by transforming images of my home town, but I had only a hazy understanding that I was also transforming the way I perceived my home town, my world, my self, and everything else.
No art without transformation.
Notes on the Cinematograph
Faites un dessin, recommencez-le, calquez-le; recommencez-le, et calquez-le encore.
IT IS WINTER in Maine. Matthew Barber and Effie Parker are outdoors, on the patio behind their house, at night. The night is clear, and on clear nights their nighttime ritual is to spend some time outside, lying side-by-side on chaises longues—wearing wool underwear, two layers of socks, expedition-weight microfleece shirts and pants, goose down vests and overalls, quilted jackets, boots, balaclavas, hats, hoods, glove liners, and mittens—looking at the night sky and allowing the magnificent vastness of the universe to diminish the day’s difficulties and disappointments. Tonight, though, lowering clouds hide the stars, and the universe isn’t having its usual salutary effect. A long silence passes. At last Effie speaks.
“When I was a girl,” she says, wistfully, “I thought that the world would grow up as I grew up—that people would get better—that they’d mature as I matured—”
Matthew waits for her to finish. Time passes. She doesn’t say anything more, so he extends her thought for her.
“—they’d become better people—”
“—better, yes, better—kinder, wiser—”
“—and it hasn’t happened.”
“It hasn’t happened,” she says.
“It’s a great disappointment,” he says.
“A bitter disappointment,” she says.
“You expected people to become good.”
“At least better.”
“At least more reasonable.”
“Benevolent, generous, honorable, just—”
“—and even honest?”
“Yes,” she says, shaking her head at her folly.
“You expected the Yahoos to turn into Houyhnhnms.”
“That’s it. You’ve got it. That’s what I expected. A world of Houyhnhnms.”
Another silence passes. After a minute or two, Effie laughs a bitter little laugh and says, “You know what?”
“What?” asks Matthew.
“I’m going to make a confession.”
“I don’t like them.”
“You mean Yahoos”
“That’s right. My generosity of spirit does not extend to Yahoos.”
He chuckles. Then he says, “Well, I’ll confess that I can’t stand them!”
They turn toward each other. They regard each other with astonishment. They’ve kept this from each other for years.
“They disgust me!” she nearly shouts.
“Me, too!” says Matthew.
“I tried,” says Effie, shaking her head. “You know I tried.”
“I do. I know that. I know you tried.”
“I really did. I tried to feel compassion for even the crudest and most vicious of people, but—” She doesn’t finish. She shakes her head again. She’s on the verge of tears.
“We’ve been trying to love all of our fellow creatures,” he says, “even the ones that in our heart of hearts we completely despise!”
Effie bursts out laughing. Again, it’s bitter laughter, but it is laughter. “What a pair of fools we’ve been!”
Matthew tries to join her in her laughing, but he can’t quite manage it.
“Can we go inside now?” he asks. “I’m freezing.”
“And I could use a drink,” says Effie.
INSIDE, Matthew pours a tumbler of scotch for each of them and begins building a fire.
“They’re greedy,” says Effie, “and I prefer generous people. I like the ones who say, ‘After you,’ not the ones who say, ‘Me first.’”
“Or, ‘Get outta my way!’” says Matthew.
“And they’re full of hate,” says Effie.
“There’s no love in their hearts,” says Matthew. “There’s hate in their hearts.”
“Well—they love to hate,” says Effie.
They take a swallow. Matthew’s eyes light up.
“I’ve got one,” he says. “They’re ignorant.”
“Not only ignorant, but willfully ignorant,” says Effie.
“They’re proud of being ignorant!”
“My turn,” says Effie.
“Let’s hear it,” says Matthew.
“They’re slovenly. They live messy lives—and they like it that way!”
“They are as happy as pigs in shit.”
A little quiet chuckling.
“Your turn,” says Effie.
“They’re provincial,” says Matthew without hesitation. “Narrow-minded, hidebound, parochial—”
“That’s the word.”
“They’re headstrong, impulsive, unthinking—”
“They’re stupid, too,” she says.
“Thick as a brick.”
“Rude, crude, boorish—”
“—vulgar, brutish and bestial!”
“The Yahoos are vicious people! The Houyhnhnms are virtuous people!”
“Well, to be strictly correct, I think you’d have to say ‘people who behave like Houyhnhnms,’ since the Houyhnhnms are, if I remember correctly, not people but horses.”
She punches him, playfully.
“I think I also have to point out that, exemplary as the Houyhnhnms were, they were not perfect.”
“They were rigidly tribal.”
“Yeah, well, I’m certainly not perfect then, because when it comes to the people I want to spend the rest of my time with I prefer the knowledgeable to the ignorant, the flexible to the stubborn, the thoughtful to the thoughtless, the cultured to the crude, the—the—”
“—the generous to the greedy—the cosmopolitan to the provincial—”
“—the rational to the irrational—”
“—the honest to the dishonest—”
“—the literate to the illiterate—”
“—the friendly to the hostile—”
They’re really laughing now, laughing like a couple of drunks. (Actually, at this point, they are a couple of drunks.) They pause. They seem to have run out of virtues and vices.
“That felt good,” Effie says.
“Yes, it did,” says Matthew, “but—”
“I know what you’re going to say, ‘What are we going to do now?’”
“Does this call for another inch of scotch?”
“I’ll have half an inch.”
“I’ll have an inch.”
“Are we giving up all hope of living in a better world?” he asks.
“No,” she says. “I have a plan—”
“Okay. Lay it on me, baby.”
“We’re going to avoid Yahoos.”
“Can that be done?”
“Not entirely, I’m sorry to say, but to the extent that it can be done, we will do it. We’re going to live the Houyhnhnm way, and we’re going to embrace everyone else who lives the Houyhnhnm way—all races, creeds, colors, and classes, as long as they live the Houyhnhnm way. We’re going to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, or as much of the negative as we can eliminate, and that’s it, that’s my plan.”
“We’re going to live the Houyhnhnm way,” he says, trying the phrase, trying the idea.
“You’ve got it. Run with the Houyhnhnms and shun the Yahoos.”
“—and boycott liars and haters and cheaters and money-grabbers and pussy-grabbers and anti-vaxers. I get it—but will, thereby, the winter of our discontent be made glorious summer, and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house be buried in the deep bosom of the ocean?”
“Maybe. I hope so. We’ll see.”
He whinnies softly, nuzzles her, and says, “‘The Houyhnhnm Way’ is fun to say.”
“As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is, to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it. . . . Friendship and benevolence are the two principal virtues among the Houyhnhnms; and these not confined to particular objects, but universal to the whole race; for a stranger from the remotest part is equally treated with the nearest neighbour, and wherever he goes, looks upon himself as at home. They preserve decency and civility in the highest degrees, but are altogether ignorant of ceremony. . . . Instead of proposals for conquering that magnanimous nation, I rather wish they were in a capacity, or disposition, to send a sufficient number of their inhabitants for civilizing [us], by teaching us the first principles of honour, justice, truth, temperance, public spirit, fortitude, chastity, friendship, benevolence, and fidelity.” . . .
“My Houyhnhnm master . . . had heard, indeed, some curious Houyhnhnms observe, that in most [Yahoo] herds there was a sort of ruling Yahoo (as among us there is generally some leading or principal stag in a park), who was always more deformed in body, and mischievous in disposition, than any of the rest; that this leader had usually a favourite as like himself as he could get, whose employment was to lick his master’s feet and posteriors, and drive the female Yahoos to his kennel; for which he was now and then rewarded with a piece of ass’s flesh. . . . By what I could discover, the Yahoos appear to be the most unteachable of all animals. . . . Yet I am of opinion, this defect arises chiefly from a perverse, restive disposition; for they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but of a cowardly spirit, and, by consequence, insolent, abject, and cruel. It is observed, that the red haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest.” . . .
“My design was, if possible, to discover some small island uninhabited, yet sufficient, by my labour, to furnish me with the necessaries of life, . . . so horrible was the idea I conceived of returning to live in the society, and under the government of Yahoos. For in such a solitude as I desired, I could at least enjoy my own thoughts, and reflect with delight on the virtues of those inimitable Houyhnhnms, without an opportunity of degenerating into the vices and corruptions of my own species.”
Gulliver, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
pity this busy monster, manunkind,
e. e. cummings
I think I could turn and live with animals
The Designated Diner
Roberto’s Enoteca e Griglia
Bertram W. Beath
BEFORE I TOOK the first sip of my martini, I said to the beautiful Miranda, “I had an encounter this morning that—”
She put her finger to her lips and inclined her head almost imperceptibly toward the table at my right. I understood. I listened.
A sad young man was saying to the young woman seated across from him, “I’m not really a sad-young-man type, but something terrible has happened to me: I’ve stopped believing in my work, and I’ve stopped believing in myself. My work seems worthless, and I seem worthless.”
“Ooh,” said the young woman. “This is just like that line in a Randy Newman song: ‘I know what’s goin’ on here—y’all have lost faith in yourself.’”
“Ah—well—yeah,” said the young man. “Right. Okay. That’s what’s happened.”
I glanced sidelong in the direction of the young man. Because he was sitting in the seat corresponding to Miranda’s and the young woman was sitting in the seat corresponding to mine, he and I were nearly facing each other. He raised his head and glanced at me at the moment when I glanced at him. Our eyes locked for an instant, then he put his head down and glared at the menu.
“I’ve been there,” said the young woman, looking at her menu, not at the young man. “I lost faith in myself. I lost faith in my work. I felt desperate, probably the way you’re feeling now—but even when I was in despair, I recognized the power that turns quarries into pyramids.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the young man, in a way that made me think that he didn’t understand that she was trying to help him.
“I’m talking about what Samuel Johnson called ‘the resistless power of persistence,’” she said.
I glanced at Miranda. She raised an eyebrow, and she smiled a little smile that I knew meant, “I like this woman.”
Looking at his menu, not at the young woman, the young man said, “If I persist, if I go back to work, I might fail.”
Looking at her menu, not at the young man, the young woman said, “Not in my eyes.”
The young man looked up from his menu, stared at the young woman for a moment, then glanced at Miranda and me. Caught! We pretended total absorption in our menus, but we knew we’d been caught.
“Is the draft too much for you?” he asked the young woman.
“Draft?” she said. “I don’t feel it. I’m fine.”
“It’s too much for me,” he said. He rose, accosted a passing waiter, and arranged for their removal to the opposite side of the room, away from the draft, Miranda, and me.
Before they left the table beside ours, he gave me another glance. In his eyes I saw a shock of recognition, the same shock of recognition that he must have seen in mine. He had seen what I had seen. He knew what I felt. He knew me. He knew me better than I had known myself a few minutes earlier, before I’d overheard what he’d said. He didn’t like me any more than I liked him. He turned away. I turned away.
When the young man and young woman were far enough away from us not to hear us, Miranda said, “It’s a great thing to have someone who believes in you and your work.”
I looked at her. I looked at my menu. Looking at my menu, not at her, I said, “Yes, and it’s an even greater thing to have someone who wants to hear it or see it or read it. That makes all the difference. It can give you the will to go on.”
We ordered. We were served. We began eating. A silence had fallen over us, but Miranda broke it. “This chicken is just wonderful,” she said.
I leaned across the table and whispered, “These might be the best crab cakes I have ever eaten.”
“Really?” she said.
“They are certainly among the top five,” I said. “Well, the top ten.”
At that moment, one of the astonishing coincidences that people deride as beyond belief occurred, and from speakers in the ceiling Billie Holiday began singing “Laughing at Life.”
She put her hand on mine and said, “Stop there, while I can still be happy for you. I want to make a toast.”
“Yes.” She raised her glass. I raised mine. “To laughing at life,” she said. “Whatever it brings us, we’ll laugh at it, now and when we’re old; and when our last hour comes we’ll meet it with detachment and amusement, and at the end we’ll be able to say that when we might have wept, we laughed.”