Quote of the Day

The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton fear of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words. …

We should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this as its grand Niagara — yet what a blessing that we didn’t know. It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours in the most horrible, retroactive way.

-Henry James, 1914


The following is a passage G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, about an encounter between himself, Henry James and Hillaire Belloc. Note especially the last quoted paragraph:

…Mr. Henry James heard of our arrival in Rye and proceeded (after exactly the correct interval) to pay his call in state.

Needless to say, it was a very stately call of state; and James seemed to fill worthily the formal frock-coat of those far-off days. As no man is so dreadfully well-dressed as a well-dressed American, so no man is so terribly well-mannered as a well-mannered American. He brought his brother William with him, the famous American philosopher; and though William James was breezier than his brother when you knew him, there was something finally ceremonial about this idea of the whole family on the march. We talked about the best literature of the day; James a little tactfully, myself a little nervously. I found he was more strict than I had imagined about the rules of artistic arrangement; he deplored rather than depreciated Bernard Shaw, because plays like Getting Married were practically formless. He said something complimentary about something of mine; but represented himself as respectfully wondering how I wrote all I did. I suspected him of meaning why rather than how. We then proceeded to consider gravely the work of Hugh Walpole, with many delicate degrees of appreciation and doubt; when I heard from the front-garden a loud bellowing noise resembling that of an impatient foghorn. I knew, however, that it was not a fog-horn; because it was roaring out, “Gilbert! Gilbert!” and was like only one voice in the world; as rousing as that recalled in one of its former phrases, of those who

Heard Ney shouting to the guns to unlimber
And hold the Beresina Bridge at night.

I knew it was Belloc, probably shouting for bacon and beer; but even I had no notion of the form or guise under which he would present himself.

I had every reason to believe that he was a hundred miles away in France. And so, apparently, he had been; walking with a friend of his in the Foreign Office, a co-religionist of one of the old Catholic families; and by some miscalculation they had found themselves in the middle of their travels entirely without money. Belloc is legitimately proud of having on occasion lived, and being able to live, the life of the poor. One of the Ballades of the Eye-Witness, which was never published, described tramping abroad in this fashion:

To sleep and smell the incense of the tar,
To wake and watch Italian dawns aglow
And underneath the branch a single star,
Good Lord, how little wealthy people know.

In this spirit they started to get home practically without money. Their clothes collapsed and they managed to get into some workmen’s slops. They had no razors and could not afford a shave. They must have saved their last penny to recross the sea; and then they started walking from Dover to Rye; where they knew their nearest friend for the moment resided. They arrived, roaring for food and drink and derisively accusing each other of having secretly washed, in violation of an implied contract between tramps.

In this fashion they burst in upon the balanced tea-cup and tentative sentence of Mr. Henry James.

Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He had left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the traditions of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-panelled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.

8 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. So who are James’ “two infamous autocrats”? Kaiser Wilhelm and Emperor Whatsisname of Austria-Hungary? Or the Kaiser and Tsar Nicholas? I could see blaming either pair, but it makes a difference whether James blames two autocrats on one side of the conflict or one on each side.

  2. Ugh, that first (part -mind you, “PART”- of a) sentance in the post reminds me of why I could never stomach Henry James.

  3. Dr. Weevil, it really doesn’t matter which two autocrats James blamed. It doesn’t matter because, irrespective of which two autocracts James chose to blame for it, what we see here is the destruction of his utopian fantasies. James was not alone in this, as WWI blasted away the progressive delusions of many a late nineteenth / early twentieth century optimist. (BTW, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary was the, by then, ancient Franz Joseph.)

  4. I disagree entirely with Scotus. The problem with the elite response to World War I, of which this James passage is a remarkably early example, is that they drew the wrong conclusions. Yes, it was wrong to think that war was obsolete. But, really, most people knew better. All Europe had been arming for a generation. The mistake, the disastrous mistake, was to think, as James did, that the tremendous progress of the liberal world order was a mirage, or a fraud. It wasn’t. Immense strides in freedom and prosperity had been made. They were real. The attempts to replace the supposedly “discredited” doctrines of democracy, liberalism and capitalism, were what gave us several more decades of catastrophe. It did not have to happen. The intellectuals got it wrong, and made things much, much worse than they had to be. Incidentally, the two “autocrats” whom James decries — Franz Joseph and Nicholas II — were utterly benign and inoffensive compared to what came afterwards. But he could not have known that.

  5. James does point us toward the solipsism and despair of modernism. Nonetheless, after spending most of his life in England, he became a citizen out of anger that America hadn’t come to England’s side. I don’t know enough to argue this well, but my impression was that this was because of his deep respect for that Anglosphere culture in which he lived. (And all his books point to a sturdy American sense of morality challenged by the old and corrupt European vision.)

    Anyway, I think people like James did feel something was lost because, frankly, they’d lost somehow the passionate life force that so motivated earlier generations with purpose.

    (Not that this adds much to the discussion about WWI, just threw it in.)

  6. Ginny, having only read two of his novels (Portrait of a Lady; The Princess Casamassima) andone novella (The Beast in the Jungle) and no secondary literature, I have a feel for what James was all about. It does not surprise me that he settled in England, for example. But his assessment of the pre-Great War world, even confronted with the disaster of a European War beginning, was too cynical and despairing. He was a realist about human nature, based on his fiction. He should have know better.

  7. I suspect, however, that seeing yourself not as actor but always as voyeur, as someone highly conscious but not engaged, not responsible, not, well, a participant in life is not just true of his characters but of him. And, in a sense, we are back to autonomy.

    These sad, childless, solipsistic characters Henry Adams, Henry James, T.S. Eliot I think really saw life as over, as dead. But, then, Eliot found religion.

    Of course, you are right; they were wrong in rejecting a civilization that we have come to prize because we see how close we are to the barbarians. But think of what they were having to assimilate: that whole group of materialist beliefs that took over thought at the turn of the century and threw all the old assumptions and beliefs into question.

    (By the way, in my youth I loved James passionately and read most of him, but haven’t read more than the ones I teach lately – pretty much the ones you list. I am struck sometimes by those years – of Antonioni, Pinter, Henry James. How jaded we felt! How dense we were. But I do remember that I wrote a paper in my sophomore year of college that argued that Isabel’s choice of Osmond was quite sensible and that Ralph was the villain of the piece. I think now that I wasn’t as crazy as I thought myself – and my teachers thought me – at that time. Playing with other’s lives and observing them is not all that good a thing. Of course, I was projecting one of my numerous lousy relationshps on the book. Still, such disengagement, such purely intellectual interest in ideas that affected others became a twentieth century temptation – one academics still suffer from.

  8. Lex, you say you entirely diagree with me, but, really, I think we agree. Of course, it was a mistake, to say the least, for the elites to give up on democracy, liberalism, and captialism. The problem was that before WWI, these things had, for the elites, become idols. The elites believed that they would, almost with historical inevitability, achieve Heaven on earth. This was the utopian fantasy blasted away in Flanders Fields. Such utopian fantasies are not the product of realism about human nature, which, I thinks sees democracy, liberalism, and captialism as the best ways to deal with a very fallen world, a world that will remain so until the parousia. Perhaps this passage is out of character for James, but, if it is, it still very accurately reflects the idolotry of many other elites, exposed and torn to shreads. The elites became very like Othello in that, having become convinced what they worshiped was not perfect, they resolved to destroy the former object of their idolotry, and there were many Iagos to egg them on.

    BTW, Franz Joseph and Nicholas were certainly benigh and inoffensive when compared to Hitler and Stalin. The problem is that neither allowed any movement toward democracy, liberalism, and captialism, thereby plunging the world into cataclysm. It is indeed strange that many of the elites blamed democracy, liberalism, and captialism for WWI and the Great Depression. That was rather like blaming lean chicken for your heart attack when all you’ve eaten is greasy corned beef.

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