AL&P: The Art of The Beast

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#old-blog #philosophy

I will admit, this post is coming out of order of the assignment of the readings. The reason why is, even after attending (and even participating!) in the discussion of the first bit of John J. Stuhr’s book Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy wihout reading it. <gasp> I didn’t get the book until after the class was over. Ordering books online has its price. In any case, I’m going to talk a bit about Henry James The Art of Fiction and The Beast in the Jungle, probably with more after the discussion in class. First, in reaction of James essay on the “Art of Fiction,” I find myself drawn to like the work, but to not have found much edifying about it. James style is so fluid and he has such rich diction that I find myself carried off in the litany of the work, without thinking too hard on the content…which contrasts interestingly with his premise that one cannot separate the ’story’ from the ‘non-story’ in a novel. To an extent this is true, there can be no novel without story, the very definition of a novel seems to preclude it; though, as in most art, the forms are somewhat fluid in scope. Perhaps more tellingly, James dialetical fluency, and his apparent humility to Mr. Besant, throughout the piece seem to ring of a story (albeit with a single character and a fairly mundane plot) despite the guise of an essay. One could perhaps argue, as James himself alludes to, that this “Art of Fiction” extends to a certain “Art of Art,” or to appropriate a more appropriate phrase, the “Craft of Art.” It seems to me James is simultaneously chastising Mr. Besant for his lack of vision and praising his vision on the subject of the “modern English novel.” James both adores Besant’s premise and trivializes his particulars: “Mr. Besant has set an excellent example in saying what he thinks, for his part, about the way in which fiction should be written, …” p.3888 “I should find it difficult to dissent from any of of [Mr. Besant’s] recommendations. At the same time, I should find it difficult positively to assent to them, …” p.396 Though, in as much as James agrees with Besant, story is the key facet around which the novel hangs; I would ask, how far does story go? I cannot but wonder if story is, in some more postmodern sense (which I am almost sure James did not intend), story comes as one of the general laws of the novel, to be learned by writers as a part of the Craft, not an expression of their mastery of it. “There are only two kinds of stories: ‘A man went on a jouney’ and ‘A stranger came to town.’” Perhaps I’ll get some more insight after the discussion. Moving on the the most literary piece we’ve yet read in our Literature and Philosophy class, The Beast in the Jungle. Again, I have to say the diction and style swept me into the piece more than I would have expected at the outset, but perhaps my thinking is somewhat aligned with the Cicero-like length of James intimations. (As evidenced herein somewhat.) James can’t say a lot with a little, it seems, but he certainly says a great deal, with much aesthetic as well as ‘deeper’ merit. In all, the story, while interesting, stuck me as bland, but the execution left me intrigued at the front, engrossed through the middle, and at an agony of anticlimax at the finale, but what an agony! I found myself detaching from the story, stepping back, as I feel James guides the reader to do (perhaps to lessen the anti-cathartic denumount); the ending left me unsatisfied, though precisely unsatisfied in the way the protagonist was (although, graciously, less intensely). To step back, still further, from the content of the piece (if only for a moment), I feel it is important to note its length; it is not quite a novella, nor is it by any means a ’short’ story, it is (to use an expression that seems to suit it) a “long story.” In something of this length, I feel it becomes difficult for the author to find enough to say (though, with James it seems this would never be the case) or, if the scope is large, that the author must not say nearly enough, and the emotional impact is diluted or undeveloped, leading to, as James seems fond of calling things, a “stale” work. It takes a certain craft to condense a story so compactly as a short story (or even a short short story) must be, but it also takes craft (perhaps more) to expand (legitimately) a story to the length of a “long story,” craft which I think James, in both The Art of Fiction and The Beast in the Jungle exemplifies, demonstrates, and explains (if only in part).

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