As a critic, Milan Kundera is a master of the “little scenario,” the terse thought experiment that explains on a grand scale. In this passage, he illustrates very briefly how one’s experience of art is conditioned by historical consciousness:
“Let us imagine a contemporary composer writing a sonata that in its form, its harmonies, its melodies resembles Beethoven’s. Let’s even imagine that this sonata is so masterfully made that, if it had actually been by Beethoven, it would count among his greatest works. And yet, no matter how magnificent, signed by a contemporary composer, it would be laughable. At best its author would be applauded as a virtuoso of pastiche.”
Notice what Kundera is not criticizing: he is not saying the sonata’s lack of originality—a mere technicality—is the thing that would make its author ridiculous. He stipulates that the artistry is “masterful.” Kundera‘s real argument is that art, good or bad, is only authentic to its time. It is embedded in history. A literary masterpiece produced in, say, 1904, might therefore project only a parallax view of its greatness today.
And so I come to The Golden Bowl, which was published in 1904, by Henry James. Some (but not all) critics call it James’s greatest novel. Set in rural England, it is a finely drawn portrait of two marriages: that of an American millionaire’s daughter to a bankrupt but charming Italian prince, and that of the millionaire himself to a penniless American girl who happens to be the Prince’s ex-lover and his daughter’s longtime friend.
Yes, there is trouble on the horizon. But it never builds to a thunderclap. The story’s tension develops through the characters‘ extended, internal ruminations or artful parlor talk.
But first: Why did reading The Golden Bowl put me in mind of Kundera and his “Beethoven” scenario? Because, as I invested the 20-odd hours it took to read James, I had two recurrent thoughts: (1) that I was beholding a masterpiece of psychological realism, and (2) that I was bored to desperation by it. And so I asked myself, in the spirit of Kundera, Would I stick with a contemporary author venturing the same project, in the same “ingenius” register James used? Or would I send it cartwheeling across the room, a ridiculous pastiche?
I stuck with James, mostly because I wanted to see, as I always do with novels, how much the characters were like myself, whether their lives offered any instruction for my own.
And so I felt my way through the cobweb whisps of James’s plot, ever hoping they might thicken into a cord, or even a thread. Maggie, the heroine, and her father, Adam Verver, spend hours in dialogue, examining and impugning their own motives for acts of even the slightest moral significance. Is it wrong, they wonder, to invite Maggie’s friend Charlotte for an “improving” stay? After all, “being improved” by Charlotte’s wit and charm would be a form of using and objectifying her. Such airy concerns are further rarified as supporting characters take them up into calculations about whether to intervene in the main characters’ lives. Helping a friend find bliss can shade imperceptibly into meddling. Anyone seeking to make a romantic match, we are reminded, feels a heavy burden of responsibility if the result is misery.
As Chopin tinkles away in the background of The Golden Bowl’s endless longeur, James does manage to build to a solid point. Maggie’s husband, the poor Prince Amerigo, and her friend Charlotte (who “improved” Maggie’s father Adam by marrying him) have an affair. On the surface, the adulterers exhibit all the marks of conventional moral corruption. Amerigo, who intimated before his marriage that he would need another woman to be his guide, seems to be reverting to type as the Italian philanderer. He should have never been trusted. Charlotte married for money, not love, and now her passions are betraying her. Another typical story, but one I will come back to in a moment.
The basic “argument” put forth in The Golden Bowl is that we can only achieve imperfect knowledge of other people’s states of mind, and that this primary difficulty is compounded by its recurring secondarily in others’ relationships (If I can’t know what Maggie is up to despite a wealth of information about her, I can even less know what Maggie and Adam—mysteries to each other—are up to together.) Logicians and mathematicians even have a name for this mode of stacking calulations up inside one another: recursivity. In math, recursive expressions work because they are precise; in psychology, however, they are foggy. Our mental approximations of facts about others, recurring in ever more complex scenarios, render our understanding of the social world—of our fellow humans, even intimates—radically untrustworthy.
As Maggie and her father tried to reason through the delicate skein of their routine daily conduct, a rather whopping moral fact escaped their notice. They had both bought and paid for their spouses and then relegated them to a secondary tier of intimacy. After their marriages, Maggie and Adam went right back to their mutual solipsism. Amerigo and Charlotte, meanwhile, were left alone together to go to parties and that sort of thing. And their creeping, mutual discovery, as this sad connubial story played out, was that they were being fucked with, and on a fundamental level.
Were they wrong to fall into each other’s arms? I suppose they were, but the greater betrayal of human dignity belonged to Maggie and her father. For all their apparent moral seriousness, they were blindly corrupted by power. Their money gave them the power to treat others as less than human, and so they did it. Amerigo and Charlotte, for their part, were rebelling against a clear outrage on their dignity. So was their adultery a “typical” story? Not in the usual sense. But I think it was highly typical in showing there is only so much fucking about that alienated humans will take. Kant and Hegel said plainly what James illustrates gauzily in The Golden Bowl: People demand to be recognized as ends, not means, and any moral system that misses this point misses the whole point.