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Cracking ‘The Golden Bowl’

In response to:

Return to 'The Golden Bowl' from the January 19, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

I found Gore Vidal’s reflections on The Golden Bowl [NYR, January 19] extraordinarily suggestive and stimulating. However I think he is wrong to imply that The Portrait of a Lady is in the same “supra-realist” class as The Golden Bowl, and to be distinguished in the same way from James’s earlier realistic studies of English and American manners. The Portrait is schematic, sets out to delineate the high fine truth about the nature and destiny of the heroine. But The Golden Bowl totally, and no doubt deliberately, reverses that intention and method.

We know nothing on earth,” observes the Colonel in The Golden Bowl. It is the clue to James’s new method, “the soldier’s watchword at night.” The conventional novel depended on our “not knowing” in life, its function being to supply the omniscience that life denies. James has now found how to turn into art the fact that in life we never find anything out. Gore Vidal emphasizes the importance of knowing for the characters in The Golden Bowl, and the uses they make of knowing. But the art of the book does something radically different both with knowing in the plot, and with knowledge as the novel’s aim.

In the section on The Golden Bowl in The Characters of Love I suggested that for art’s sake in the novel James equates love with the abnegation of knowledge, the readiness not to know. Maggie and her father have “so shuffled away every link between consequence and cause that the intention remained, like some famous poetic line in a dead language, subject to varieties of interpretation.” Utter contrast with The Portrait, which is a triumph of theoretical knowledge, of the assertion and analysis of “consequence and cause.” For this reason it is a triumph not only of artifice but of artificiality, far less “solid” than The Golden Bowl, less densely convincing at the human level.

In his last and most mature fiction James demonstrates his most subtle use in art of his own innocence and “outsideness,” his own confinement in the cage of speculation. A striking feature of The Portrait is its lack of intimacy, a lack which shows how insecure is James’s own inner knowledge of its characters, whereas he is deeply and wonderfully intimate with all four characters in The Golden Bowl. He would never have written there, as he does in The Portrait, that “the reader has a right to a nearer and clearer view.” In his last completed novel James’s art came finally to terms with its own innocence, consummating the idea that love—love of art, love of life, love of persons—in the end meant intimacy without knowledge, a taking on trust.

John Bayley

St. Catherine’s College

Oxford, England

Gore Vidal replies:

I did not “imply” that The Portrait of a Lady was in the same “supra-realist” class as The Golden Bowl. I did not compare them. I did note that, with Portrait, James broke with his own earlier work, and made something altogether new for him and for the novel—“a triumph,” as Professor Bayley puts it (but I don’t), “of artifice and artificiality.” But none of this is relevant to my subject which was, What is The Golden Bowl about?

As I am blessedly bookless by the sea, I cannot cite. Also, I have not read Professor Bayley’s The Characters of Love. But I confess that the title makes me uneasy. Back in the Forties, critics and writers went in for Love in a very big way, not to mention caritas and agape. With what result, thirty years later? Loveless, busy boula-boula Yale.

Although Professor Bayley’s reading of The Golden Bowl is characteristically elegant and eloquent (not to mention evangelical), it is wrong. Yes, there is love present in the characters and their situation; but no Love. Henry’s brother William once mused that the ultimate sanction for our civil order, including the graces and amenities of social life, is “force”—the fist, the sword, the gun, and, of course, gold. Brother Henry’s work concurs. Example: what happens (or, as a nervous academic would put it, “happens”) in The Golden Bowl? A father and a daughter have a fortune—that is, they have force. A young couple have beauty and each other but no money; plainly, they are less forceful than the other pair. Then the father buys half the couple for his daughter; with her blessing, he buys the other half for himself. Although the buyers appear to be, as it were (oh, dear), in the saddle, there is a secret force as great or greater than money—knowledge. Unknown to the buyers, the bought couple secretly continue their affair; and so force subtly shifts to them. But the daughter, Maggie, finds out. Once she is in the know, power is hers for good. She shatters the couple. She vanquishes the man, Amerigo, by letting him know that not only is he bought but she knows all. She destroys the woman, Charlotte, by not letting her ever know just who has done what to her. The commanding image in the final pages is Charlotte being led away forever from all that she loves, “a silken cord” about her neck which Old Adam masterfully tugs this way and that. Schadenfreude is all—for Maggie if not for her inventor, James, as opposed to her pro-creator, Old Adam.

To say that in this book there is a consummation of the idea “that love—love of art, love of life, love of persons—in the end meant intimacy without knowledge, a taking on trust” is to miss by a mile not only what is there on the page, but James’s irony as well. Who, after all, is ignorant at the end? Only the victim, Charlotte. The other victim, Amerigo, knows all; and accepts fatalistically his servitude. Who then are left? Father and daughter. But, as I demonstrated, Old Adam so worked it out that when Maggie signals him (or does he signal her first? This is the marvelous ambiguity of the book), he exerts total force, removing Charlotte from the scene in order that Maggie—not Love—may triumph. It is Old Adam’s triumph, as Fanny Assingham forces Maggie to acknowledge.

I am touched that Professor Bayley should want James’s career to end on a lovely high visse d’arte, visse d’amore note. But The Golden Bowl is neither Tosca nor a prothalamion. It is a story radiant with the art of a master fulfilled; and dark with the profound knowledge of how force is motor to all our lives. It is no accident that in Henry James’s final delirium he thought that he was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Carlsbad, California

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