Apr 11th 2015

Impossible Dreams: Henry James and Philip Roth

by David W. Galenson

Dr. David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). David W. Galenson, picture aboce. Derek Walcott, picture in the text.

At the age of 50, Henry James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his story "The Middle Years." Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe receives in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years. As he reviews it, he realizes that it is "extraordinarily good," but he fears that this will not be perceived by others. The book was a culmination, "somehow a result beyond his conscious intention: as if he had planted his genius, had trusted his method, and they had grown up and flowered." With this recognition, however, came the painful realization of how slowly his skill had grown: "His development had been abnormally slow, almost grotesquely gradual...[H]e had for long periods only groped his way. It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art."

2015-04-09-1428609131-7875631-jsmithgalenson456C3471.JPG
Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent (1913).
Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

Dencombe - like James - is thoroughly experimental: "a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a final form for himself." He was a late bloomer, who "had ripened too late and was so clumsily constituted that he had had to teach himself by mistakes." Tantalized by the false hope that he might overcome his illness, Dencombe wishes for a reprieve, the opportunity to work in a "splendid 'last manner,' the very citadel...of his reputation, the stronghold into which his real treasure would be gathered."

As Dencombe dies, however, he accepts the inevitability of incompleteness and uncertainty: "We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." The persistence of a young admirer finally prompts Dencombe grudgingly to acknowledge that "We've done something or other." James thus allowed his fictional self to concede that artistic achievement can be real even if it falls short of perfection.

2015-04-09-1428609544-1126123-Phillip_Roth__1973.jpg
Philip Roth in 1973. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

At 46, Philip Roth published The Ghost Writer, which parallels "The Middle Years" in presenting a portrait of a great fictional experimental writer by a real one. Roth has consistently argued that literature should not teach lessons; he begins his novels without plans or outlines; discovers his themes in the act of writing; and vehemently rejects the idea that creation is epiphany (he once declared that "Writing isn't hard work, it's a nightmare...There's a tremendous uncertainty that's built into the profession.").

Roth is a quintessential example of an experimental innovator whose contribution is embodied in an excellent body of work rather than in any individual masterpiece. In 2006, when the New York Times asked several hundred editors, critics, and writers to name the single best work of American fiction published in the past 25 years, Roth's American Pastoral placed fifth, behind novels by Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, John Updike, and Cormac McCarthy. Yet no less than six other novels by Roth also received votes, prompting A.O. Scott to observe that if the poll had asked for the best writer of fiction in the past 25 years, Roth would have won. American Pastoral was written when Roth was 64; the other six of his novels that received votes spanned 18 years, from ages 53 to 71. Considering the results, Claudia Pierpont observed that "Not since Henry James, it seems to me, has an American novelist worked at such a sustained pitch of concentration and achievement, book after book after book."

In The Ghost Writer, the reclusive, elderly E.J. Lonoff described his enterprise bleakly to a young admirer: "I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again...And I ask myself, Why is there no way but this to fill my hours?" When his assistant finds among his papers 27 drafts of a single short story, his reaction is, "To get it wrong, so many times." Beside his writing desk, Lonoff has pinned up an index card with three typed sentences: "We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Roth explained that Lonoff lived in "isolation, loneliness, solitude - all the writer's occupational hazards...He maintains a sense of artistic purity - but at tremendous expense." Henry James had been an example of artistic integrity for Roth early in his career, and James' fictional version of the doubting writer in old age remained a model for him when he created his own fictional doubting writer. In the end, however, it seems that the examples of James and Dencombe were not enough to sustain Roth, who found the anxiety of writing such a burden that he experienced enormous relief when he announced his decision to retire as a novelist.



To follow what's new on Facts & Arts, please click here.

For links to Amazon for David Galenson's books, please click picture below.



     

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."