The Lesson of the Master

There was a period in my life—to purloin a famous Jamesian title, “The Middle Years”—when I used to say, with as much ferocity as I could muster, “I hate Henry James and I wish he was dead.”

I was not to have my disgruntled way. The dislike did not last and turned once again to adoration, ecstasy, and awe; and no one is more alive than Henry James, or more likely to sustain literary immortality. He is among the angels, as he meant to be.

But in earlier days I felt I had been betrayed by Henry James. I was like the youthful writer in “The Lesson of the Master” who believed in the Master’s call to live immaculately, unspoiled by what we mean when we say “life”—relationship, family mess, distraction, exhaustion, anxiety, above all disappointment. Here is the Master, St. George, speaking to his young disciple, Paul Overt:

One has no business to have any children,” St. George placidly declared. “I mean, of course, if one wants to do anything good.”

But aren’t they an inspiration—an incentive?”

An incentive to damnation, artistically speaking.”

And later Paul inquires:

Is it deceptive that I find you living with every appearance of domestic felicity—blest with a devoted, accomplished wife, with children whose acquaintance I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making, but who must be delightful young people, from what I know of their parents?”

St. George smiled as for the candour of his question. “It’s all excellent, my dear fellow—heaven forbid I should deny it…. I’ve got a loaf on the shelf; I’ve got everything in fact but the great thing.”

And the great thing?” Paul kept echoing.

The sense of having done the best—the sense which is the real life of the artist and the absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t—and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of.”

Paul pursues the matter:

Then what did you mean… by saying that children are a curse?”

My dear youth, on what basis are we talking?” and St. George dropped upon the sofa at a short distance from him…. “On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable—isn’t it so? Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes.”

You think, then, the artist shouldn’t marry?”

He does so at his peril—he does so at his cost.”

Yet the Master who declares all this is himself profoundly, inextricably, married; and when his wife dies, he hastens to marry again, choosing Life over Art. Very properly James sees marriage as symbol and summary of the passion for ordinary human entanglement, as experience of the most commonplace, most fated …

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