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In a 1996 letter Guy Davenport offered me the following fact, following it with a snippet of on-the-fly fiction:
In my previous post, mentioning Jack Green’s Fire the Bastards!–a screed on the inadequacies of book reviewing brought into being by the publication (and popular critical dismissal) of William Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions–I quoted Green’s kiss-off to the glossy magazines that didn’t review the book: “They were busy measuring Henry James’s fingernails.”
It’s a nice image, one that shorthands the kind of dilettantism that would value the least dead trace of a canonical writer over the most lively evidence of a new genius. “Fingernails” is also a nice allusive choice–itself shorthand for Green’s knowledge of literary modernism, recalling as it does Joyce’s lines for Stephen Dedalus, which rework Flaubert, on the nature of the literary artist. Stephen says an artist is “like the God of the creation,” remaining “within or behind of beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, paring his fingernails.”
James, of course, is an easy target for such comma-clausal-comedy. Consider the following from his preface–one of eighteen written for “The New York Edition” of his works–to The Portrait of a Lady:
Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I see that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of a “plot,” nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy, of a set of relations, or in any one of those situations that, by a logic of their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement, into a march or a rush, a patter of quick steps but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements of a “subject,” certainly of a setting, were to need to be superadded.
How funny, one might think to think, such syntax. We laugh, though, Nietzsche writes somewhere, at those things that, being true, would otherwise kill us. The laughably (by our diminished standards of acceptable vocabulary and syntax) baroque teasing out of thought, above, could well be funny to a contemporary sensibility, one that couldn’t abide the idea that there’s any difference between “added” and “superadded.” Such a reader would, to use a technical term, have seen his sensibilities, ah, in the American demotic, superbadded.
More from Wyatt Mason:
Amount by which the total wealth of all American households declined last year:
A study concluded that commercial fish stocks may be gone by 2050 as a result of overfishing, pollution, and global climate change.
“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”