VI. Toward an Aestheticism of Form

As we move toward the end of the nineteenth century, things get simpler in some ways. There’s less emphasis on subjectivity, and on how the subjective perspective colors our perception (even though subjectivism is, arguably, getting even more entrenched, or deeper). Instead, we now observe the primacy of simple forms.


A good example of it might be Johannes Brahms’s Intermezzi Op. 117, no. 1:

The opening theme is disarmingly simple. Brahms called the whole set of these Intermezzi “a lullaby to my sorrows,” and that’s just what the opening theme sounds like—a lullaby. In fact, it’s not quite so simple, as I discovered when I decided to try to play it the summer of last year. Almost every other note in the initial sequence is a chord, and when you have to sustain the legato tone throughout all the chord shifts it gets a lot trickier. Nonetheless, the initial impression this theme makes on a listener is, I think, still valid: despite all the technical complications, it’s meant to sound simple & easy. After the initial statement of the theme there’s a kind of drastic slowdown (ritardando), as if we were approaching the limit velocity of light in relativity physics (where mass becomes almost infinite). Then a development section, a lot of it seemingly minor-key and in the lower registers (a kind of dark rumbling), which often curiously doesn’t appear to really go anywhere, followed by a return to the main theme, now elaborated just slightly, and then gradual movement toward a very quiet close. So it really is, despite a few complications, pretty simple after all. Yet the few complications—plus many we can barely detect but which are nonetheless very much there—give the piece a richness which is a hallmark of late Brahms pieces. I remember last fall, when I was in Beijing teaching the fall semester, hearing the tune over and over in my mind. It has, undeniably, that kind of haunting quality. Once you’ve heard it and become captivated by the tune, you want to play it over and over again, in order to catch every inflection, every nuance. And gradually the whole seems to take on a kind of symbolic value. It’s easy to see how Brahms might’ve come to think of it as having, for him, a kind of existential significance, a consolation or compensation for many things that had gone wrong in his personal circumstances. Likewise the development section can also take on a kind of extra-musical significance. The seemingly aimless, meandering quality of the movement, its appearing not to really go anywhere, might come to symbolize passages in our lives where, in retrospect, we seem to have been wandering, not getting anywhere, lost. Then the sudden, abrupt return to the main theme could almost figure as a kind of reawakening, a return to earlier aspiration. These are just some of the possible ways the piece seems to possess an extra-musical value—hence my attempt to tease them out. What they show, I suggest, is that a relatively simple form can easily take on, through just a few complications or development of some kind, a sort of symbolic value.

Brahms, Intermezzo Op. 117, no. 1. Wilhelm Kempff, piano

We see something of the same sort at work in Henry James’s last finished novel, The Golden Bowl. Before we look at the text itself, I want to call your attention to one of the wonderful frontispieces for the New York Edition of the novel, entitled “Portland Place”:

There’s a story to tell about these frontispieces. Apparently James hated the typical style of illustration, which usually involved a very literal depiction of selected episodes from a novel by some very second-rate painters. But for the New York Edition, Scribner’s managed to persuade him to consent to frontispieces for each volume, and James came up with the innovative idea of photographs that would be suggestive rather than literally representative. These were provided by a young American art photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, who had impressed James during his American visit in 1905. Of all Coburn’s frontispieces for the New York Edition, “Portland Place” is I think one of the very best. Simple and striking, it can have—especially if you’re lucky enough to see it in a large-scale print—a stunning effect on the viewer. The solitary, dark form of a receding two-wheeler carriage that occupies the center of the photograph is almost a silhouette. And the luminous haze that lights it up from behind only serves to intensify that effect. Here we have the kind of fog or mist Whistler and Wilde talked about, into which building facades seem to dissolve. Yet the fog or mist isn’t the primary impression this frontispiece conveys. Instead, we get just enough architectural detail of the buildings on either side of the street for them to loom as massive presences. Relatively simple forms, you might say—and for precisely that reason, all the more imposing. In fact, all the essential motifs of the photograph come across as simple but monumental: the two-wheeler carriage, the looming façades on either side, the street itself. And because of the way the street recedes from our view, everything appears to converge dramatically in the very center of the photograph, a center we can’t quite make out because of the luminous mist. So here we have simple forms and a sense of primary movement. But because of the way the movement is embodied by a receding two-wheeler reduced almost to a silhouette against the luminous mist, the image takes on a kind of symbolic value. The distance toward which it recedes is an unknown place. And the grandeur of the street enhances the significance of the movement, which takes on the character of something more than a mere mundane carriage-ride, hints at possibly a more important kind of journey. At the same time, maybe because the principal forms are all so simple, the few bits of visual detail we get stand out all the more: the isolated pedestrian or carriage, the architectural specificity of a façade, the long horsewhip beside the driver. These are the kinds of things we might notice if we were in the carriage, the sort of fleeting impressions you get in driving past a particular spot or place. In that sense, they have very much a phenomenal, experiential quality. And it makes sense that they’re precisely what stand out against the few simple forms that occupy most of the space. Because these are what figure most strongly from a subjective perspective.

From our brief survey of the Brahms piece and the Coburn frontispiece we’ve gleaned a number of points that will prove useful when we look at The Golden Bowl. I list these here:

I want to comment on each of these briefly before we discuss The Golden Bowl itself:

1. reliance on simple archetypal forms, take burden off author to create meaning

By the end of the nineteenth century, there’s a sense that a lot of the big cultural moves have already been made. A kind of creative fatigue seems to set in: why bother to create new forms when there are already so many out there? As a result, there’s a temptation to use those forms that already exist: they can do the work as well as any others. Above all, there’s a tacit agreement that what we really want these forms to do is just to hold the insights we hope to convey. But for that, any receptacle that organizes material for listeners, viewers or readers around some sort of structure should be more or less adequate. Against a subjectivist background into which all material tends to dissolve, any kind of formal structure becomes meaningful.

2. tendency of these forms/motifs to acquire symbolic value

Even ordinary objects we use can easily come to have symbolic value for us through association or memory. But if that’s the case, how much more true for cultural forms or motifs. James himself was well aware of this: elsewhere he talks about the “accumulations of expression” that cluster around an old English country house. The point is, associations accumulate. And once that accumulation has reached a certain point, objects or motifs become meaningful independently of any particular association. Given the extreme extent of late 19th century subjectivism, there’s a tendency for experiences to disappear because they’re constantly being replaced by new experiences. This is where forms are useful: they offer something to which we can connect these experiences.

3. once burden is off creation of form, possible to concentrate on inflection

This is where late 19th century art really has a chance to excel. It’s like theme and variations: once you decide just to adopt a fairly simple form or theme, it becomes possible to weave a virtually unlimited number of variations around it. This is also where subjectivism pays off. If late 19th century art couldn’t avoid internalization of the objective, it could at least make a virtue of necessity. What subjectivism does is to make possible an almost endless number of nuances. Because these are all contained within an individual subjectivity, it’s possible to pass from one to another almost effortlessly—just as Chopin does in a minor/major shift, or Whistler a color transition. Since it’s all internal, there isn’t the same pressure to objectify it just to convey it to someone else. At the same time, associations or nuances accumulate. Adoption of a simple form makes it possible to stack these (so to speak) one on top of another. So we get a new level of complexity we couldn’t otherwise hope to achieve.

4. phenomenal detail, impressions

If late 19th century art is deeply grounded in a subjective perspective, phenomenal or experiential detail and impressions become all the more natural. Simply put, everything else gets reduced to the experiential level, because we find it difficult to accept anything else as real. And our low tolerance for anything else is precisely the result of our extreme subjectivism. Years ago I remember comparing the description Henry James gives of the Paris Notre Dame cathedral in The Tragic Muse to his later one in The Ambassadors. I was amazed by the difference: so much less detail in The Ambassadors, but so much more expressive. And that’s because in the later novel he no longer worried about giving an overall picture of the cathedral. Instead, he concentrates on Strether’s impressions, and the “air of the long aisles and the brightness of the many altars” says all he needs to say.

5. indeterminacy

Given the late 19th century reliance on already-existing forms, it isn’t surprising to see the art repeatedly falling into indeterminacy. By that I mean the kind of drift or meandering we find in the development section of the 1st intermezzo of Brahms’s Op. 117. Simply put, the kind of development we saw in Beethoven or Hegel was very, very difficult. It involved the gradual but relentless unfolding of a process where every moment had to carry the feeling of necessity. I suspect that at the end of the century things just break down. People can no longer sustain the kind of pressure necessary to bring that sort of development about. For that, you have to believe thinking = being or subjective = objective, which since the time of Kierkegaard is no longer possible. Without it, however, it becomes difficult to believe in development. Because development is conceptually tied to necessity, and necessity is what no longer seems evident once we get into extreme subjectivism. As a result, development in Brahms isn’t what it was in Beethoven: the relentless movement toward an envisioned goal. Instead, for Brahms it’s simply an activity.

6. resolution

If late 19th century subjectivism opened up the dangers of indeterminacy, it also made apparent the need to resolve. Indeterminacy can’t go on forever because of the inherent potential for serious formal breakdown. The kind of development we find in late Brahms is development only if it comes to an end, only if something gives it coherence and closure. Otherwise, as a story without an end, it becomes less and less a story and more and more the progressive unraveling of one. But finding a way to end a story isn’t easy. For Op. 117 no. 1 Brahms opted to end by a reprise of the opening theme. For a novel like The Golden Bowl this kind of solution isn’t quite possible. Instead, the novel has to find a way to end that will feel like a genuine ending, a way that offers real closure. Formally speaking, that means the problem to which the novel gives rise has to be resolved. Given the extreme subjectivism of late 19th century art, however, this isn’t easy because there’s nothing inherent within the subjective perspective to make resolution feel necessary. On the contrary: the tendency of subjectivism (like that of mood shifts) is to go on indefinitely. Hence the need for the novel to have a larger overall form.

One easy way to describe the larger form of The Golden Bowl would be to see it as having essentially a “V” shape. It starts off with the Prince’s marriage to Maggie Verver, followed by her father’s marriage to Charlotte Stant, the Prince’s former lover. Right away, the potential for breakdown of the marriages is apparent, and a lot of the 1st half of the novel follows the two pairs as they gradually slip downward into chaos, culminating in the open infidelity of the Prince and Charlotte. The 2nd half of the novel is all about the steep, difficult climb back to order, as Maggie (once she’s discovered her husband’s unfaithfulness) works to restore the two marriages. So here we have a simple, archetypal form (descent into chaos, restoration of order) which gives structure to the entire novel. James scholarship has, I think, sometimes lost sight of this simple structure in its sympathy for the Prince and Charlotte. But when a structure this simple gives shape to the entire novel on such a massive scale, the implied significance of that structure is undeniable. From a subjective perspective, it’s possible to read what happens in all kinds of ways. But at the end of the day what ultimately gives a shape to the entire narrative is perhaps what matters most, since it’s within this larger structure that all the moment-by-moment subjective possibilities have to be contained.

Right away, James makes it clear he intends to exploit the symbolic value of archetypal forms or motifs in his novel. If from a plot standpoint the novel has the simple shape of a “V,” notice how it’s equally simple in terms of perspective: vol. I = The Prince, vol. II = The Princess. The opening passage takes us straight into the Prince’s perspective:

The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the Modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber. Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognized in the present London more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge, or even, on a fine afternoon in May, at Hyde Park Corner. It was not indeed to either of those places that these grounds of his predilection, after all sufficiently vague, had, at the moment we are concerned with him, guided his steps; he had strayed simply enough into Bond Street, where his imagination, working at comparatively short range, caused him now and then to stop before a window in which objects massive and lumpish, in silver and gold, in the forms to which precious stones contribute, or in leather, steel, brass, applied to a hundred uses and abuses, were as tumbled together as if, in the insolence of the Empire, they had been the loot of far-off victories. (I, 3)

Here, we might say, the Imperium is the simple, larger archetypal motif with symbolic value—it covers both London and Rome and everything in either of these places. It covers both London and Rome because both of these cities are all about conquest—as is the Prince himself, on a smaller scale (conquest of a marriage partner). So subjective and objective correspond exactly in this case, which is another reason why it’s so easy for the Imperium to take on a larger symbolic value. But James doesn’t let it rest there. He has the Prince wandering specifically into Bond Street, known for its jewellers’ shops—a hint perhaps of the wealth the Prince has figuratively conquered by managing to get engaged to marry the daughter of an American millionaire.

A bit later in the novel, we get treated to another instance of a motif with symbolic value, this time one that takes us even deeper into the Prince’s subjective perspective:

He remembered to have read as a boy a wonderful tale by Allan Poe, his prospective wife’s countryman—which was a thing to show, by the way, what imagination Americans could have: the story of the ship-wrecked Gordon Pym, who, drifting in a small boat further towards the North Pole—or was it the South?—than anyone had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the colour of milk or of snow. There were moments when he felt his own boat move upon some such mystery. The state of mind of his new friends, including Mrs. Assingham herself, had resemblances to a great white curtain. He had never known curtains but as purple even to blackness—but as producing where they hung a darkness intended and ominous. When they were so disposed as to shelter surprises the surprises were apt to be shocks. (I, 22-23)

Here it’s no doubt significant that the Prince can’t remember whether Pym was drifting toward the North or South Pole (the South, actually)—an index of his disoriented state of mind. But the visual and/or sensual detail in this passage is even richer than in the opening of the novel: the “thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, yet of the colour of milk or snow.” It makes sense that as James gets us deeper into the Prince’s subjectivity he should intensify the sensual aspect of the motif. In fact, the operative principle might be: the most material, objective aspect = most expressive of a subjective state. And that precisely because the most material, objective aspect we can think of in a late 19th century work like this one is always very much contained within a larger framework of subjectivity.

But perhaps the best, most extreme example of the kind of thing I’m describing is one that appears close to the end of vol. I:

And so for a minute they stood together as strongly held and as closely confronted as any hour of their easier past even had seen them. They were silent at first, only facing and faced, only grasping and grasped, only meeting and met. “It’s sacred,” he said at last.

“It’s sacred,” she breathed back to him. They vowed it, gave it out and took it in, drawn, by their intensity, more closely together. Then of a sudden, through this tightened circle, as at the issue of a narrow strait into the sea beyond, everything broke up, broke down, gave way, melted and mingled. Their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response their pressure; with a violence that had sighed itself the next moment to the longest and deepest of stillnesses they passionately sealed their pledge. (I, 312)

So Charlotte and the Prince, having come to the moment when they can’t see any viable alternative, decide to resume their affair. And perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the passage is the way it mixes physical, sensual detail with motifs of purely symbolic value. Significantly, the remark that they stood “as strongly held and as closely confronted as any hour of their easier past even had seen them” is both physical and something more. Likewise, when they’re described as “only facing and faced, only grasping and grasped, only meeting and met,” it’s not clear who’s doing what—nor is it meant to be. The physical ambiguity points to a reciprocity, a dissolving of barriers. But if the movement through “this tightened circle, as at the issue of a narrow strait into the sea beyond” is purely figurative, the sequel (“everything broke up, broke down, gave way, melted and mingled”) is not only figurative but sensory, experiential— it seems meant to convey, simultaneously, the sensations they actually feel. And certainly the sequel to that is even more purely physical. But the whole passage is also of immense significance for the larger structure of the novel, as the moment of total breakdown of everything the marriages are supposed to represent.

I want to say just a brief word about indeterminacy in The Golden Bowl, before passing on to the conclusion. In recent years it’s struck me that some of the finest moments in the novel are precisely those where it’s unclear whether the movement of the work can go on: when Adam Verver begins to hesitate, at Brighton, about whether to make his proposal to Charlotte as the two of them walk along the embankment by the ocean, or when Maggie, deep in vol. II, begins to wonder about whether she’s ever going to manage to restore either her own marriage or her father’s. I’ve said that this kind of indeterminacy is essentially overdetermined by the subjectivism of late 19th century art. But it remains a testament to the quality of James’s art that these episodes or passages in which that indeterminacy plays itself out should be among those most sensitively and most subtly rendered in the entire novel.

The conclusion of the whole work revolves around a passage very little noticed, close to the end of the novel. Adam and Charlotte Verver come to say goodbye to Maggie and the Prince, just before leaving for America. And in their last meeting, father and daughter are for just a moment briefly together:

… and then felt the slow surge of a vision that at the end of another minute or two had floated her across the room to where her father stood looking at a picture, an early Florentine sacred subject, that he had given her on her marriage. He might have been in silence taking his last leave of it; it was a work for which she knew he entertained an unqualified esteem. The tenderness represented for her by his sacrifice of such a treasure had become to her sense a part of the whole infusion, of the immortal expression; the beauty of his sentiment looked out at her always, from the beauty of the rest, as if the frame made positively a window for his spiritual face: she might have said to herself at this moment that in leaving the thing behind him, held as in her clasping arms, he was doing the most possible toward leaving her a part of his palpable self….

“It’s all right, eh?”

“Oh my dear—rather!”

He had applied the question to the great fact of the picture, as she had spoken for the picture in reply, but it was as if their words for an instant afterwards symbolised another truth, so that they looked about at everything else to give them this extension. She had passed her arm into his, and the other objects in the room, the other pictures, the sofas, the chairs, the tables, the cabinets, the “important” pieces, supreme in their way, stood out, round them, consciously, for recognition and applause…. The two noble persons seated in conversation and at tea fell thus into the splendid effect and the general harmony: Mrs. Verver and the Prince fairly “placed” themselves, however unwittingly, as high expressions of the kind of human furniture required aesthetically by such a scene. The fusion of their presence with the decorative elements, their contribution to the triumph of selection, was complete and admirable; though to a lingering view, a view more penetrating than the occasion really demanded, they also might have figured as concrete attestations of a rare power of purchase. There was much indeed in the tone in which Adam Verver spoke again, and who shall say where his thought stopped? “Le compte y est. You’ve got some good things.” (II, 359-60)

If the scene toward the end of vol. I where the Prince and Charlotte embrace marked a fusion of the figurative with the physical, the present scene, in a very different way, does the same: the picture Maggie looks at might very well be an image of the Christ, the vera icon or true image, but in this rendition it passes seamlessly into that of Adam Verver. Not, however, his physical but his spiritual face, the face of the giver who’s had to sacrifice his affection for his daughter to the higher goal of preserving the two marriages. And it’s perhaps equally fitting that the last word, practically, should be expressed by a simple French phrase: “Le compte y est.” It’s what a shopkeeper says when the cost or balance of a bill is fully paid. “The sum is right,” we might say. Within the extreme subjectivist framework, it’s this sort of simple phrase or motif that’s ultimately the most expressive.