Henry James is My Ambien

By Julianne Dalcanton | July 19, 2008 1:12 pm

The standard lore is that most scientists are essentially self-aware robots, thinking their rigid rightleft brain thoughts from morning to night, taking short breaks to practice mentally rotating 3-D objects. In reality, most of the scientists I know also have a long suit in one or more of the arts as well. Many are excellent musicians, artists, or writers. Even more are voracious readers, or at least, as voracious as their schedule allows.

With all the parenting and sciencing going on, the only time I really have to read is right before bed. This window allows me a bit of peace and quiet, while simultaneously serving to divert my rather obsessive brain from the pressing issues which dominate the rest of my waking thoughts. Finding the right book, however, is a problem. Non-fiction tends to work well, but fiction is a bit trickier, as if the book is too compelling, I run the risk of staying up till 3am.

Over the past decade, I’ve been on a steady diet of victorian literature (Trollop, Hardy, etc). I’ve read and enjoyed Henry James, but man alive, the latest of his is killing me. As I now learn, late-period James is a very different animal than early-period James. I’m reading “The Wings of the Dove”, and find that, in spite of being a native speaker of english and well-read in James’ contemporaries, I simply cannot understand what he writes some fraction of the time.

For example, dust off your sentence diagramming skills and see what you can make of this, which starts and ends well, but in the middle veers off into I know not where:

The difficulty with Densher was that he looked vague without looking weak — idle without looking empty. It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, of his straight hair and his well-shaped head, never, the latter, neatly smooth, and apt, into the bargain, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands, place him for unconscionable periods in communion with the ceiling, the treetops, the sky.

It’s actually perfect pre-bed reading, as after about 4 pages I’m exhausted. However, at 545 pages, I may not get to read another book before Christmas.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Words
  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    James dictated much of his later work. According to Edel, he would pace the floor, composing these sentences in his head, then declaim them to his poor amanuensis. Imagining this actually helps. Intonation is all important. Here, those three overburdened commas (,never, the latter,) seem to be the problem–but only because you are apt to focus too closely on them and miss the rhetorical opposition in that long relative clause. Hearing it in your head, or reading it out–can be like suddenly seeing a figure in an optical illusion. Cross out the prepositional phrase modifying “his long legs” and it pops out at you. It was his long legs, … (but) of his head–never.”

    Read aloud with that emphasis, it untangles itself.

    It’s quite reassuring to know that scientists read fiction.

  • http://neuraltransmissions.wordpress.com Neural T

    The difficulty with Densher was that he looked vague without looking weak. [He looked] idle without looking empty. [This look] was the accident…of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, [and] of his straight hair and his well-shaped head. [His head was] never neatly smooth, and [it was] [“apt, in certain situations”], to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands, place him for unconscionable periods in communion with the ceiling, the treetops, the sky.

    I think here, “apt, into the bargain” means something like “apt to enter an agreement,” or simply “apt to do,”

    Also, “at the time of quite other calls upon it” means “when certain situations called for it”

  • Eric

    When I first read the title, I was thinking of William James, rather than Henry, and was prepared for quite a different post.
    That sentence is a bit difficult to parse, though a lot of it seems to be owing to the surfeit of appositives that seems to have been all the rage a couple centuries ago. To my mind, it would be helped quite a bit by replacing a few of those commas with semicolons; but then, I have rather a crush on the semicolon, and am therefore not completely unbiased in that opinion.
    What tripped me up the most, I think, was “never, the latter, neatly smooth”. I couldn’t figure out what was meant to be conveyed by the statement that his head was never smooth, so I assumed that “the latter” was really referring to his hair; but that made the last bit sound like a description of his hair standinng on end (though supported by his hands), which makes even less sense than the statement about his head not being smooth.
    I suppose that perhaps “the latter” is meant to refer to the combination of hair and head. Maybe the lack of a comma between them is supposed to indicate that they are to be taken as a single object? Do we interpret a hole in a sea of commas as an anti-comma?

  • Eric

    @Neural T:
    “Into the bargain” means “in addition”, “on top of all that”, etc. Think “not only will you get all this for one low, low price, we’ll throw in this other thing absolutely free!”

  • Rachel

    I can imagine that paragraph being dictated — and it does help — but it still seems like the “reading the transcription over with an eye/ear to what the reader reads” step was missed.

  • onymous

    Aww, I love late-period Henry James! He can be a little unnecessarily verbose at times though.

    For a lighter read, David Lodge’s Author, Author is a fun novel about James.

  • http://catownersregrets.blogspot.com serial catowner

    Ha ha, this is absolute child’s play compared with Paradise Lost. One of Milton’s sentences could swallow a half dozen of James, garnished lightly with a little Durrel. Milton is where you go, when you’re through playing James.

  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    Don’t miss the humor and irony in those long syntactical knots James ties: pure play!

  • Grandma Ann

    Ha-ha! You are an astronomer who reads Henry James to unwind after a long day and I am a musician who listens to Feynman lectures for the same reason. Puts me to sleep nicely.

  • WC

    Should there be commas around “never”? (for emphasis?) That part is the puzzling one.

    his straight hair and his forehead,never, the latter neatly smooth and apt, into the bargain,..
    or

    his straight hair and his forehead,never the latter neatly smooth and apt, into the bargain,..

    translation

    Densher was a man who managed to look idle without looking empty, because he was in the habit of sitting in a armchair with his legs stretched out and his forehead wrinked most of the time. It helped that he had long legs that lend themselves to stretching and a smooth forehead that wrinkled without looking ugly

    I have to ask, was Densher a scientist?

  • Gest

    Not exactly the seventh grade reading level of most major news publications. What a shame most people are ‘forced’ to read works like this for small period of time in their life.

    Some would argue only certain minds can handle such prose. Perhaps a little regular practice for some would go a long way…

    I agree; good to see any -ologist reading advanced literature.

  • http://noblecarrots.blogspot.com/ CatfishMaw

    One of my closest friends and I could ostensibly be described as one artist and one scientist, but to do so would be insulting to both of us. We can discuss, in-depth, everything from the effects of various drugs on the body to Chaucer’s use of obscenities.

    Why should science and literature be opposites? It’s been said that the greatest musicians are those proficient at mathematics.

  • Thomas Larsson

    “The standard lore is that most scientists are essentially self-aware robots, thinking their rigid right brain thoughts from morning to night,”

    Uhm… I thought it was the left half that was logical and rigid, whereas the right side of the brain is artistic and intuitive. But then again, it is probably just my rigid left brain that is nit-picking.

  • John R Ramsden

    Not sure if it’s the same for everyone, but I find that reading a lot of prose in a certain style tends to influence my writing style, such as it is, in the same way at least for a while, which can be a problem if the style is somewhat rambling and discursive.

    See what I mean? Having read a single sentence by Henry James, I’ve gone and written one with four commas!

    Seriously, although I’ve never read any Henry James, I’d probably prefer M R James, undoubtedly the best ghost story writer ever. Stephen King is a big fan apparently, although understandably (with a view to mass appeal) he hasn’t always followed James’s dictum “Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it”.

  • I feel different…

    I’m interested in the IQ results of all of the blogging people here?

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    WC wrote:

    Should there be commas around “never”? (for emphasis?) That part is the puzzling one.

    Well, I might have put a colon in front of it, like this:

    It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, of his straight hair and his well-shaped head: never, the latter, neatly smooth, and apt, into the bargain, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands…

    I agree with Eric. As long as one knows standard British phrases like “apt, into the bargain” (which means “tending, furthermore”), there’s only one really tricky question about this sentence. And that’s this: does “the latter” refer to his hair, his head, or both?

    Clearly his hair is what’s never neatly smooth. Just as clearly, it’s his head that’s apt to throw itself suddenly back, supported by his uplifted hands and interlocked hands. So, the sentence only makes sense if we take “the latter” to refer first to his hair but then, later, when we get to the pronoun “it”, his head. This is indeed slippery, and personally I’d say it’s bad English.

    So, let’s correct it while maintaining a suitably Jamesian style:

    The difficulty with Densher was that he looked vague without looking weak — idle without looking empty. It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, of his straight hair and his well-shaped head, never, the second, neatly smooth, and apt, the third, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands, place him for unconscionable periods in communion with the ceiling, the treetops, the sky.

  • Michaela

    All the grammar (which plenty of other, more qualified people, have clarified here) aside, though… isn’t it a fantastic sentence? “His head would throw itself back and force him to forget about everything else, gaze at the sky and just be alive for a little while.” The personification of his head, giving it its own intentions, is wonderful.

  • estraven

    I spend a lot of time reading and rereading – maybe that’s why, despite english not being my native language, I found the sentence tricky but not impossible.
    I do admit, however, that I have never finished Tristram Shandy because I can’t understand it. Maybe I should give up and buy a translation.

    Yes, I think many scientist have a side interest. Especially once their kids sleep through the night.

  • quasar

    The LEFT brain–the logical side of the brain–dominates the thinking of most scientists, not the RIGHT brain–the intuitive side of the brain–as you indicate. If a scientist is artistic, that just shows that he has integrated his intuitive right brain with his logical left brain.

  • hmmmm

    Seems to me like the guy was just writing crap and hoping people would try to read more meaning into it.

    Yeah, go ahead and condescend me.

  • Allen

    I have to say that sometimes it’s not the long, confusing sentences that do you in, but a long, increasingly abstract and surreal storyline. Case in point: William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”. It was offered to me as a challenge by my high school English teacher, and it was one of the oddest, most depressing books I’ve read. It has one chapter which consists of one sentence that actually made me stop reading for a week, because I got really upset with it.

    The chapter goes: “My mother is a fish.”

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/ Ben

    Late-period Henry James is notoriously syntactically difficult. Famous examples include the first several paragraphs of The Ambassadors , which I think is my favorite novel of James’s (I have not read Wings of the Dove).

    The syntactical complexity, I think, is not an accident. James was always concerned with subtle or implied, unspoken details of the relations between his characters, and in the late novels this is taken to an extreme. For example, much of the main plotline of The Ambassadors consists of Strether, the main character, attempting to discreetly divine the nature of the relationship between Chad (the prodigal son abroad) and Mrs. de Vionnet. This is not only the question of whether they are having an affair, but the degree to which she has influenced his manner or thinking – the usual Jamesian collision of European manners and putatively naive Americans, only with more twists in the late period works.

    The roundabout syntax and thicket of words that the reader must part reflect the indirect and uncertain psychological dance that the main characters are engaged in, where they spend the entire novel, essentially, trying to divine what the other characters are thinking and the influences on their thought.

    A completely different example of difficult-to-untangle sentences is the run-on historical narration of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, which is sometimes almost as difficult to parse. But there, rather than the subtleties of grammatical correctness and psychological insight, the syntax serves to reinforce the headlong dash of the characters to their historically pre-ordained fates.

  • http://www.booberfish.com/blog/ GP

    On first read, I didn’t get it. On a second, slower, read, I thought the part beginning “and apt” was a reference back to the legs, and promptly pictured the guy doing spontaneous cartwheels (his legs supported by outstretched arms) in the middle of other business. Though clearly wrong on the third reading, I prefer the second.

  • Spiv

    Grandma Ann on Jul 19th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Ha-ha! You are an astronomer who reads Henry James to unwind after a long day and I am a musician who listens to Feynman lectures for the same reason. Puts me to sleep nicely.

    Heh, I’m all mashed up between the gears. I’m either a scientist who paints and draws at the end of the day to unwind, or an artist who reads through the the latest in regenerative engine cooling systems before turning in for the night.

    I actually hold a BFA in sudtio art (drawing/printmaking).

    Alas, it’s good to hear so many people are not nearly as two dimensional as they are made out to be.

  • The Almighty Bob

    16. John Baez: “the latter” refers to his hair AND his head; the opposed former would be his legs.
    It’s the commas again. “,)

  • Ken C.

    “The LEFT brain–the logical side of the brain–dominates the thinking of most scientists, not the RIGHT brain–the intuitive side of the brain–as you indicate.”

    Yes, it is the left brain that is brutally logical, utterly uncreative, without imagination, nothing but the remorseless, relentless grinding of rational gears. You know, like science. Whereas, the right brain is all intuition, creativity, warm gooey feelings, sunshine and lollipops, pixie dust and moonbeams, roses and rainbows. Like art.

    “I agree; good to see any -ologist reading advanced literature.”

    What is “advanced” mean here, anyway?

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    The Almighty Bob wrote:

    “the latter” refers to his hair AND his head; the opposed former would be his legs.

    Hmm. James wrote:

    It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, of his straight hair and his well-shaped head: never, the latter, neatly smooth, and apt, into the bargain, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands…

    If “latter” means hair AND head, it seems weird to say “never, the latter, neatly smooth”. I understand the idea of someone’s hair never being neatly smooth, but not their head. So here I think “latter” refers to head, but not hair. On the other hand, surely “it” refers to head, but not hair. But the grammar suggests that “it” refers to “the latter”.

    I’m probably being too pedantic: I know what James means; I just think he’s saying it ungrammatically.

  • Kristin

    I found this post during an attempt to determine whether I’d find Wings of the Dove a fun read. Portrait of a Lady is one of my favorite books, but I’ve always been a bit intimidated by late James.

    Your post helped me to decide to jump right in. I love that sentence! I find it incredibly witty — I actually laughed out loud! The humor, for me, lies in the phrase ” . . . at the time of quite other calls upon it . . . .”

    James could have just said that Densher was a pretentious jerk, but instead he lets us discover for ourselves exactly what kind of pretentious jerk he is. He does this in one sentence, or, more particularly, by way of an offhand clause buried in the middle of a sentence. It’s dry humor at its driest.

    I haven’t read the book yet, and thus my interpretation of Densher here is based only on this one sentence. I realize I may be totally wrong, but it’s a first impression based on an incredibly vivid description. There are clues in this very sentence that my first impression of Densher might be wrong — his messy hair leads me to think that he’s only selfish, not pretentious, by taking all the time in the world to contemplate the sky while other people are impatiently tapping their toes. And even though he’s selfish and possibly pretentious, he sounds quite sexy — that sort of langor drives some women mad.

    The point is that we could have endless debates about the kind of guy Densher is from this one-sentence description of a single gesture. That’s what I call good writing — I’d almost call it economical!

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