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A meaning made of trees

eclipse, oil on linen, 12″ x 18″

One of the first shows I visited when I was in New York City last week was a meaning made of trees, a collection of new work form Ron Milewicz. It’s outstanding. Milewicz continues to explore the pictorial possibilities of his new location in the Hudson Valley. I had an illuminating conversation with him about the work.

1. The little catalog available at the show, first of all, how was it done? I’ve tried that for solo shows in the past and have not been happy with the results, but your images were accurate and well printed. Who did these for you? Second, the catalog was from your previous show? If so, there’s a real consistency in quality and approach between those paintings and the ones on view now. You have found a groove and are working it, and you have clearly defined personal “rules” you follow in these Arcadian views. Did this style come to you all at once, full blown, or in stages? 

The catalogue is from my Axis Mundi show in 2020. It was printed by an online company called Uprinting. I had the paintings photographed professionally. I designed the catalog myself on my Mac using Pages, and then a graphic designer familiar with Uprinting design programs made the layout that was sent to the printer.

That was two shows ago—I had another show since at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, New York, in 2021.

I do not have “rules” but I do have a consistent approach to the landscapes that has developed over the past several years. For a period of about two years, I was only making on site graphite drawings. These tonal works are very much a direct response to the experience of the landscape I am working from—its atmosphere, light, spaces, and forms as well as its stillness and calm. The drawings were a very intuitive reaction to the environment, and they came relatively quickly. I then started to make oil paintings in the studio from the drawings. It took a longer time to understand how the drawings might be reinterpreted as paintings, in terms of materials, touch, color and scale.

2. Your career is interesting: you’ve gone from excellent urban landscapes to these visionary woodland scenes, both periods just as well done, but with a completely different sense of purpose, at least for the viewer. The urban landscapes fit within a much broader practice for contemporary artists; many more people are working in that vein these days. What you are doing with the trees reminds me of Burchfield and Nick Blosser, a Tennessee artist who has almost disappeared from view on the Web. Do you see these as two distinct phases or is there a continuity between the city and the country work for you? 

They are two phases as they are derived from distinct locales and from the very different circumstances of my life outside of the studio, which inevitably changed my priorities in the studio. There is continuity in the sense that I am painting the world around me in both instances, although the conditions of those worlds are very different from each other. There’s also consistency in my concern for light, stillness and formal rigor.

3. I think of Burchfield in particular: the disjunction between his dark, almost monochrome American Scene pictures and the nearly psychedelic visions of his last period where he seemed to be attempting to convey the totality of nature in each painting. The divide between those two periods was radical, more radical than the shift in your work, but there’s no way for me to see how you get from the urban landscapes to the woodland visions, step by step. The move to Hudson Valley obviously triggered something, but the question is: what internally changed in how you see and paint as a result of this move? Did you grow up immersed in nature and then left it behind for years working in New York? 

I have lived in New York City my entire life. The move to the Hudson Valley was motivated by a yearning for silence, both an external silence and a corresponding internal silence. In that sense there already was a change happening before I moved upstate that anticipated the transformation of my work by my new surroundings. It was a transformation I actively sought even though I did not know the exact character the transformation would take. Immersing myself in nature fulfilled my desire for solitude, and I think it was this fulfillment, along with the influence of a new physical environment itself, of course, that changed the work.

4. My favorites are Eclipse, Pink Pond, Afternoon, At the Edge of the Woods, and Snow Squall, but all of the paintings are impressive. Eclipse is superb. That little black dot just where it belongs. You are obviously focused on trying to convey the nature of trees, but trees in these paintings offer a framework, a skeleton for the entire image which seems to me just as much about how light inhabits space, how it seems to use objects to reveal itself as much as it discloses visible objects. The way you capture a certain quality of light is masterful. Does that come easily or take time? How much are you focused on conveying ambient light in each painting? (One surprise in the Walton Ford show at Gagosian was how much he is concerned with light and the way it colors the animals he’s painting: it’s partly what makes his best work so striking. Everything in the image reveals the light source.)

Light is very much a primary concern in these paintings. I would say that the light comes more easily in the drawings than in the paintings, both because I am in nature when I draw and because of the complications introduced by color into the paintings. The light I am after is a light that simultaneously belongs to this world and doesn’t. The dialogue between the trees and other forms depicted in the image and the light is critical, as I see the material and the immaterial as interdependent.

 5. I’m especially interested in your handling of paint. It’s almost as if you are rubbing the paint on in thin layers, always keeping the tooth of the canvas visible in the marks. The paint looks dry, almost like charcoal or pastel. The edges are never clearly distinct and sometimes are impossible to locate up close. How do you work toward a final image? Are you constantly moving back to look at the image from a distance to see if it comes together and the forms are clearly visible despite the way you eschew tight detail? 

I build the images very slowly with thin layers of paint. I apply the paint without adding any medium so it does almost become as if dry pigment has been rubbed into the surface. I want the light to come up from the white of the ground and for color to be the consequence of the optical mixing of these layers—a kind of dry glazing. I would like for there to be a mutability of color so it seems to change as you look, making it almost impossible to say what single color you are seeing or where one color ends and another begins. I would like to reduce the presence of the mark so it might feel as if the paintings had painted themselves. I am concerned with the big rhythmic movements of mass and light and want detail to find an essential place in the development of these rhythms. I do look at the painting from varying distances as I work and enjoy the abstraction up close and its cohesion into form and space from further back. I am not as worried about the forms being clearly visible as much as them being too visible and not holding their proper place.

6. With quotes from Northrup Frye and Max Picard in the catalog, you are clearly concerned with more than descriptive realism. Was this quasi-spiritual approach to the natural world, the visible world, implicit somehow in the work you did before the tree paintings? Am I correct that you are trying to convey what isn’t visible, a kind of numinous life inherent in the natural world, Emersonian or Buddhist, for that matter, that becomes obscured by the daily grind of individual survival? Thoreau would have spent time appreciating your paintings, I think: is it your intent to awaken that kind of “transcendentalist” appreciation in the viewer? Burchfield had that same quality: the sense that you both try to convey the inner life of the natural world where it connects with something timeless and more mysterious than familiar natural phenomena.

Mere descriptive realism is one of my greatest fears in life. Unless you have that magnificent and rare ability to go through the visible world and past it, such as in a still life by Juan Sanchez Cotan, an overly wrought painting can easily become deadening.  

In all my work I have tried to convey, though not in any self-conscious way, what is invisible in the world through what is visible. Perhaps that possibility is more easily identified in nature. It is hard to spend a sustained time in the natural world without having the sense that there is more present than what we can only see.  Without becoming didactic, I do hope that a viewer of my paintings has an awareness at some level of the unseen forces at work in nature, either as respite or as menace, or as both simultaneously. I can see that there might be connections here to certain aspects of Buddhist or Transcendentalist thought and I am gratified that they struck you as such.

7. My apologies for such long questions. What is your life like in the Hudson Valley? Are you part of a community of artists or do you work mostly on your own? It’s been a trend for a number of years now: artists moving away from the economics of New York City toward a location both affordable and more beautiful. 

My life upstate is mostly solitary which I feel is necessary for the work. Though I pretty much work on my own, there is a strong community of artists in the area with whom I do have regular contact.

8. How long do you typically work on a canvas? Do you work on only one at a time or alternate among several?

I typically work on a canvas on and off for months, sometimes for years, putting it aside at times until it becomes clear to me what needs to be done. I will occasionally work directly from an isolated weather event such as a snow storm, in which case the painting may be completed in one or two sessions. I work on several canvases at a time, but which “several” is constantly changing.

9. Are your sketches done in situ and then used as sources back in the studio? Do you ever take photographs to assist in the work?

The drawings are always completed on site. I do not think of them as sketches or as preparatory works even though they may consciously be intended to be the basis for future paintings. The paintings are typically made from the drawings. I do not use photographs, as the paintings rely on the memory of an actual experience of nature.

10. Many of the woodland paintings are dominated by one tone, sometimes two: rose, blue, gray, yellow, yellow and blue, orange, green. Does that take discipline or is it just intuitive? I’m constantly fighting the desire to use more color than I need to, and always finding that the more that color is withheld a bit, the easier it is to unify a more powerful image. The one or two dominant colors in your scenes offer the key to the mood and the “world” you convey. 

One, but not the only reason, that I paint from drawings rather than directly is to free myself both from literal color and from the ubiquity of green in the summer landscape of upstate New York. I am not much interested in discerning unending nuances of green in a plein-air painting. The color is restrained to privilege other pictorial issues and to achieve the sense of the calm that draws me to the landscape. This is more important to me than accurately documenting factual color. There is an intuitive response to the experienced color and mood of the landscape I am depicting. I hope an authenticity remains despite the liberties I take with perceived color in the interests of creating a coherent image. The further development of color relationships is one that moves forward both by disciplined analysis and by occasional intuitive decisions. This is one of the reasons it is sometimes important for me to put a painting aside for a while – to allow time for the necessary color to reveal itself.

11. Have you always worked on such a small scale? Have you tried much larger versions for this series and if so, what were the results? If not, do you think you may try larger scenes in the future? 

I have worked much larger at times in the past—some of the earlier cityscapes are as big as twelve feet across and some of my still lifes are six or seven feet in dimension. I have not tried much larger versions of the rural landscapes other than a recent horizontal painting that was six feet wide but only a foot high. The landscapes seem to be getting smaller rather than larger and I do not anticipate that they will get any larger in the foreseeable future. I like containing a limitless space in a very intimate and modestly sized rectangle.

12. Are you working on anything or thinking about anything beyond the trees? 

I have recently started working on some still lifes. I am curious to see where they will go or how they may ultimately come to influence the landscapes.

Ron’s show at Elizabeth Harris will be on view until May 28.

The humming air

It’s There in The Humming Air, Bill Santelli, acrylic on canvas

On a quick visit to Bill Santelli’s studio last week, I saw a recent painting that knocked me out. In my Instagram post about it, I touched on some of the things that really work and give it a sense of natural depth, as if I’m seeing an actual scene in nature, with a slightly altered mind, as it were. There’s a shape that reminds me of a sunflower and the tendrils of paint reminding me of sprouts—I called them fractal rivulets in the post. The presence of white space, and the shape it assumes throughout the image, has a very kinetic unity and tension. I love the relief of white space in any abstract—and the shape the total white space assumes, sort of rearing up in the center of the painting—the way it sets off highly saturated color and offers a respite, a bit of emptiness that plays off the intensity of what’s going on around it. It really works here. The diagonal lines, in sets of three, on a bias, rather than a balanced grid, also contribute to the sense of energy and movement and surprise.

Bill: It’s called It’s There In the Humming Air. I think I did talk to you about this. I was going to do this other painting, and it’s the first time I’ve painted over something. Underneath it was a painting of the bones of a church I took a picture of in Washington DC. It was like a Jehovah’s Witness or something, not a cathedral, a glow coming out of the windows as we drove by. It was a blurred shot I took as we drove by. The painting never got going. Then you and Bill and I were at Bill’s house and we were talking about painting over stuff and I said I had this painting and I was going to paint over it. There was an outline of the church, so that’s why there’s the slant.

That has a lot to do with it: the asymmetry of the three lines and three here, so that it brings your eye up to the upper right corner. And it has a lot of white in it. This has a lot of white compared to what you usually do.

B: That’s a good remark, that’s what I was feeling. I got over here and there wasn’t much of the underpainting of that church and there’s still an outline here of a window and I was thinking this needs something different and didn’t want to keep going with the red and the yellow, so I went with white.

 It looks so much like enamel, not acrylic. Like the Alkyd paintings of the color field painters.

B: Some of these acrylics are glossier when they dry. We’ve had this conversation ongoing, the whole idea of hard-edged painting, getting rid of the personal connotation in the title. I was saying last time we talked I’ve been thinking of this other series of hard-edged painting with no subject, just color.

Just improvisation. And that’s what I do with the taffy. I’m not trying to say anything. I’m just getting it to work formally and by the time I’m done, this is a field with the sun over it or it has some other resonance. I don’t start out trying to express anything definite.

B: It’s so interesting, I’ve been watching videos of Bryce Marden, one is an interview at the Tate Gallery and another is a lecture he gave in conjunction with the show. He’s articulate. He was talking about numbers and the importance of the numbers, and rules, and how he approaches painting. I’ve been marveling at the surface of his work. He said it’s a process of mixing turpineol, the oil paint and beeswax. The paintings never really dry. He goes back over the surfaces to level them off with palette knives or whatever.

Passive transformation

A screenshot from the online tour of Manifest’s Painted exhibition.

While the Painted exhibition was still running at Manifest Gallery, in Cincinnati, late last year, I participated in a Zoom conference with around a dozen artists whose work was chosen for Painted and the gallery’s other concurrent exhibitions. It was fun and humbling, because some of the other artists were conversationally eloquent about their work and art in general, while I felt bashful and halting by comparison. After more than a decade of writing about visual art, you would think I’d have been an open spigot of confident opinions, but that isn’t how it felt. Adam Mysock, Education and Studio Program Manager at Manifest, moderated the conversation. Of course, some of it was inevitably about what the artists were trying to achieve in their work. What they intended for their work to do for a viewer. How the work was the outcome of purposeful intent and had designs on a viewer’s perceptions, ideas, emotions, and so on. Later in the online conference, Mysock asked a question that got crickets from the participants: “So is it possible to imagine an entirely passive way of painting?” I thought at the time it was a question worthy of the sort of strenuous meditation a Zen adept brings to a koan and was especially pertinent to anyone who works with photo-realistic methods as I usually do. I couldn’t think quickly enough on my feet, partly because it’s subtle and complicated and a little paradoxical. The question has continued to haunt me and only recently have I realized I should have at least said that whole issue is central to what I’ve always sought to do in representational work.

Most people, including painters, think of style—the signature of the painter’s heart in every detail of the finished work—as the essence of the work’s originality and value. So the way in which an artist distorts, shapes, censors, simplifies, or translates what he or she sees into a unified image establishes the value of that particular painter’s work. This would appear to be an entirely active process: the outcome of complex, continuous choices as the picture is being painted. At some point, Fairfield Porter said something that probably wouldn’t be repeated by most painters now, but it’s a simple way to imagine what even photographically accurate painting actually does: to depict the world, just as it is, while making it a little more beautiful. It sounds like a recipe for the equivalent of sentimentality: trying to make the world more beautiful than nature did. But that isn’t what he meant. I think he was talking about how the process of transforming natural vision into a painted image mysteriously reveals the beauty that’s there but unrecognized in what a person looks at but doesn’t really see every day. How that transformation occurs is the essential mystery of the whole pursuit. Porter simplified what he saw, reducing a wealth of detail to one or two strokes of paint in some cases, made countless choices to eliminate aspects of what he saw and alter a color here or there, or everywhere, for that matter, to harmonize it with others on the canvas. He made active choices that had some conscious or subconscious end in mind, his goal or purpose, even if that purpose was merely to complete the work in a way that enabled every little part to be indispensable to the work’s visual unity. It would seem to be an intensely active, not passive, process.

But he was hoping that his work would do nothing more than capture “the light in the room” just as it was, the moment in time and place, even if much of what the light revealed to his observant eye gets lost in its resolution into paint. His painting of tennis players has that quality of being exactly how the court looked just as one of the players served the ball, the bright mid-day light intensifying the whites and flesh tones, deepening the darks of the shadows behind them, even though most detail was erased in the way he applied his paint. There’s no purpose here other than to convey the entire experience of that moment, and he succeeds in such a way that you can smell the air and feel the warmth of the sun on the backs of the players. In that sense, what he’s doing is utterly passive, honoring a simple, trivial moment in all its vitality and beauty and order. His paintings are an homage to this sort of mindfulness and humble appreciation of the mostly unregarded glory of ordinary life, from hour to hour—as were the paintings of Vermeer and Chardin and most of the Impressionists and the perceptual painters now. And most landscape painting in general. In other words, he worked as part of a long tradition very much still alive now.

For the record, over the past year, I’ve become interested in art that does just the opposite. Russian Orthodox icons, paintings in the Byzantine style, with forms flattened and abstracted, altering form and color and volume of what’s depicted to suit the needs of the painting itself and the stylistic strictures observed by an Eastern Orthodox painter. Superficially, but in a powerful way, many of these paintings look very 20th century, which says a lot about how modernism reached back into other cultural traditions and older practices. One Serbian painting of St. Gabriel called “The White Angel” is as geometric as Piero’s work, but even less three-dimensional. When I came across it, it brought to mind multiple paintings from the last century: Chagall’s images of himself and his wife, Modigliani’s figures, Cezanne’s portraits of his wife, and especially Gorky’s painting of himself and his mother. In all of these cases, there’s a similar flattening of perspective, abstracting natural forms into what might be dismissed as “decorative” patterns, and a concern to create a sense of altered reality by ignoring how things naturally look. But in the deepest sense, at least in the Serbian painting, there’s a passivity, an obedience—but not to appearances. The painter has an active purpose, but it actually represents a surrender to the truth the artist is attempting to depict. I think this devotion to making visible what would otherwise be invisible—without a painting to reveal it—rests at the heart of most modernist painting. It had this in common with devotional painting from centuries before: but with modernism the revelation was of something awaiting discovery and indeterminate, until it found itself crystallized as a painting. Braque’s mysterious gueridons seem to be a unique embodiment of something impossible to describe, but gravely, assiduously accurate in every detail, every color, every line and texture. Those still life tables weren’t painted to convey theories or beliefs or a faith in anything but the revelatory process of painting itself: so they were intensely active in almost every sense except for this aura of mystery. It found its own way into the work. Braque couldn’t develop a repeatable, reliable way to evoke it. In his notebooks, he called it “transformation.” It had to happen while he was intent on the mundane, technical rigors of applying paint to canvas. So the world of the finished work and what it does for the viewer remains, in a way, essentially passive: all of Braque’s active, creative choices were voluntary and conscious and purposeful, in the sense that craftsmanship is purposeful, but the outcome, the finished work has this magic that manifests itself through Braque’s effort, even though he was in a sense a passive channel for it. This is the paradox. He couldn’t guarantee he would arrive at that beautiful mystery in the finished piece, but that’s what he was struggling to achieve. He could actively control all the methods he used, but he couldn’t control whether they would summon that imaginative or spiritual recognition in the viewer.

All painting has this quality: it’s the outcome of active choices and purposes, but when it’s perfectly realized and works as a painting, what makes it unique and personal and individual is mostly the indirect outcome of an artist’s intent. You can’t consciously create your own style. It realizes itself through all the thousands of choices an artist instinctively makes as he or she learns to finish one painting after another, through trial and error. If a painting is a repeatable result of determinable techniques, it would be utterly impersonal. Conceptual art, during the brief interest it generated, was an attempt to turn art into a codified process: a set of instructions which anyone could follow to create it. In retrospect, it’s lifeless.

To a non-practitioner, photo-realism must seem like something close to this mechanical, repeatable process. With this genre, there’s an additional, even more humble attempt to efface the artist, eliminate self-assertion and stylization, as Susan Sontag would put it, in favor of surrendering completely to what’s being depicted. Yet, when I’m engaged in it, it actually becomes demandingly creative, uncertain, in the sense that nothing is easy, nothing is precisely repeatable, even in what might seem an almost mechanical process, and nothing in the act of painting could be codified into an utterly passive method where the artist just does what any other artist could do. Though I work from a photograph, I create a map of flat, interlocking areas of color and then work detail into them, in the way of traditional oil painting, but I’m using the photograph as a source, rather than painting directly from life. A lot of conscious, voluntary choices go into the lighting for the photograph—mostly a window in my kitchen—and the wrapping of the candy, which I sometimes retry a dozen times before the twists in the waxed paper result in a simple enough flare of curved surfaces on each side of the taffy. Yet all those choices are merely formal and have no motive other than to give the image unity and impact, where lines flow into other lines in a certain way, colors harmonize, light doesn’t get entirely lost in the shadows and so on. I have no “deeper” intent to express anything with a couple chunks of candy other than capture the way they look. The painting means nothing, in the sense that it’s not rationally designed to signify anything other than itself. It’s an entirely passive sense of purpose, with a lot of conscious, active little decisions in the weeks I spend working on the painting. In the end I have an image unified around three hazy globes of soft color, rising up from the bottom of the canvas, stacked like a snowman’s anatomy or a totem pole or a cairn. The patterns in the colored sweet remind me of color field painting from more than half a century ago, but that memory color field’s exuberant serenity of color and pattern is wrapped with waxed paper, held at arm’s length, in a sort of ironic way.

This passivity, though, the desire to just show exactly how a couple pieces of taffy look in a certain light, ends up—especially in the enlarged versions I paint of the images—reminding me of many other things, states of mind, landscapes, figures, stories, situations, none of which were at all part of my purpose in making the painting. So the painting doesn’t mean these things. It participates in them somehow, shares some kind of perceptual structure with the other experiences it evokes for me. I don’t alter the image in any significant way—other than maybe to eliminate a confusing bubble-like void here and there between the waxed paper and the surface of the candy. I try to convey the craggy bulk of this solidified lump of sugar, probably the least meaningful object one can imagine ever painting, in all its valleys and hills, just as it is, because of the way I can use it to put color at the heart of an image unified by the simplicity of its being nothing but two objects and their reflection beneath them. This kind of surrender to what I see unlocks for me all this resonance—the scale and the amount of time invested in the process transforming what was there for anyone to see, with the right kind of attention, when the candy was sitting next to my sink on the granite countertop under the kitchen window. I, for one, wouldn’t have though that two actual chunks of taffy looked like a sunny day over a green field, as they do in the painting I did of them a couple months ago. So, in a sense, yes, one can imagine an almost entirely passive kind of painting, but its paradoxically this state of mindful attention and submissive craft transforms the act of seeing into something unexpectedly resonant.

Guiseppe Celi

Giuseppe Celi, Still Life and Things, 2005
oil on plywood, 32×32 cm

David Baird

Head with Fabric, David Baird, Birmingham, Alabama Oil on canvas, 2020

David Baird had three paintings in Manifest’s Painted exhibit to kick off their 18th season in Cincinatti. This one, Head with Fabric, has many of the fine qualities of his painting, Red Nude, that just took First Prize at the Salmagundi Club’s New York Figurative Show. His handling of paint in the way he renders a figure reminds me a bit of Degas, which is high praise: the soft glow and gradual transitions among tones without being obsessive about detail while conveying the living quality of flesh–his figures breath. You feel you can take their temperature. But what makes his paintings so astonishing is the variation in level of verisimilitude, moving from persuasive illusions to flat patterns and roughly unfinished portions of canvas without destroying the overall feel of space and depth. Diarmuid Kelley has been doing this, to a lesser degree, for a while now, but without creating as much interesting tension between the finished/unfinished, illusionistic/flat areas of his canvases. It’s something Baird has in common with other painters who have connections with the Jerusalem Studio School. Some of Baird’s still life objects work both as fuzzy abstract areas of tone and as soft but utterly convincing visions of objects in three-dimensional space. The color is usually a range of rich, gorgeous earth tones worthy of Braque. It’s hard to figure out precisely how he does it. That usually wins my highest respect, when the technique seems utterly impossible to reverse-engineer.


Painted panoramic

An online view of Manifest’s Painted exhibition last fall.

I’m way late posting this screen shot from last fall’s Painted show at Manifest in Cincinnati. The online portal allowed a viewer to click and scroll through every gallery at Manifest, all of the shows mounted there, with the ability to swivel 360-degrees, Google-maps style. You could use your touch screen or track pad or mouse to look in any direction from any station in the sequence of click-to spots that walked you through the show. Every gallery and museum should do this, at least the ones not dependent on admission fees for survival. I clicked on the info icon and up popped the image of the painting with all the identifying data. Very cool and it helped make up for the inability to attend.

Bradley Butler was made for these times

Where Did It Go?, Bradley Butler, 8″ x 10″, acrylic on panel

Bradley Butler’s recent solo exhibition at Williams-Insalaco Gallery 34 at Finger Lakes Community College was a quiet thrill. The work is quietly evocative, simple, deeply felt and as ontologically disorienting as a Beckett play. He took his title from Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s groundbreaking album: I just wasn’t made for these times. Many of his titles were equally candid in their unknowing vulnerability: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Here and I Want to Believe in Something. His dark, mysterious landscapes—Turner meets Giorgione meets David Smith’s Hong Kong paintings—evoke a multitude of perceptions that hover just below the reach of the intellect. They are extremely simple in their execution. He uses black, white, thalo ted and thalo treen, and his brushwork remains mostly uniform across the canvas. He reduces his methods to the fewest possible choices and still comes up with a broad array of images that seem to straddle the border between one’s inner life and a twilight world of mountainous space, all of them looking consistently primordial. He seems not to want to assume to know more about existence than what prevailed before the first few words of the Book of Genesis. The way he gets so much variation out of such a paucity of tools reminds me of a guitar lesson I had in my teens when my instructor told me to riff for five minutes, without repeating myself, against a minor seventh blues chord progression by using only three notes. There were, to say the least, a lot of long, expressive pauses. Butler, in his relatively small canvases, creates a sense of vast reaches of an undiscovered world. It beckons and invites you to venture past a corner that juts into view, but also makes you hesitate, unsure what you are going to find. I posted one of his paintings on Instagram and simply quoted a passage from Lao Tzu as commentary:

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.”

I disagree with Butler’s show title though. His work seems perfectly attuned to his times, being an example of an honest uncertainty and humility that would go a long way to being an antidote to the cloud of knowingness that cloaks how people communicate now. Anyone interested in seeing Butler’s work can find him most days doing a remarkable job of showing excellent art at his gallery, Main Street Arts in Clifton Springs, where a fascinating national juried show of small workswill be up until the Dec. 23rd.

Scott Noel

Scott Noel, Still Life with Pennies and Shell, 30″ x 24″ 2021

From Matt Klos at Exeter Gallery (241 S. Exeter St., Baltimore MD) a solo exhibition, “Still Life”, of Scott Noel’s recent paintings running through the end of the month. His remarks about color are on point. Noel’s paintings have a colorist’s skill with tone and hue. Once you recognize that little red action figure in the center of Still Life with Pennies and Shell, above, all the other colors in the painting are anchored and vivified by it:

Scott Noel has lived, painted, and taught in Philadelphia for most of his professional life. He has inspired generations of painters through his teaching at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) since 1996. His subjects range broadly from figure, cityscape, domestic scenes and gardens near his home in Manayunk, studio interiors, and still life. His painting methods harken to traditional methods of American painting related to artists such as Thomas Eakins, Edwin Dickinson, and Charles Hawthorne although he creates color spaces that register as something contemporary, and perhaps, even indicative of an upbringing in the 60’s in Charlotte, NC.

This exhibition features ten oil on linen paintings, eight painted within the last year. Noel’s painting practice is unrelenting, and his output is abundant. His method of working “allover” in long, sometimes eight-hour sessions, is necessary since he’ll often scrape away his initial marks to serve as a platform for subsequent moves. In this way he keeps the image fresh and walks the line between delicate descriptions and unresolve. His mastery of painting is apparent yet there is nothing insincere or aloof about his work. He is seeking to understand what lays before him and seems to approach his latest works with a touch of naivety and all the joy he finds in his craft.

Scott Noel’s exhibition at Exeter is his first exhibition in Baltimore and coincides with his solo exhibition at Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, Current Events, Provisional Painting. He was born in Charlotte, NC in 1955, educated at Washington University, St. Louis. Noel has written catalogue essays about forbears and peers that include Lennart Anderson, Larry Day and Ben Kamihira. His work is in numerous collections including The Woodmere Museum, Lasalle College Art Museum, The Pennsylvania Convention Center, and Drs. Don and Allison Innes.


Folly and wisdom in The Ambassadors

Chad, making his debut in the novel, coming into the balcony at the theater occupied by Strether. Illustration by Leslie Saalburg.

It might be fun and profitable for someone—if college students still read Henry James—to translate his late novels into English. I read The Ambassadors in graduate school, as required, and absorbed little of it. It was a compulsory title. The problem was that I wasn’t prepared to pay enough attention to actually locate subjects and verbs. It’s often a challenge in The Ambassadors. Over the past several years, as I’ve attempted to read or reread all of James’s novels, I’ve struggled to find the right adjectives to describe this late prose style: elliptical, disembodied, ethereal, circuitous, evasive, a sort of private murmur of abstracted assertions that seem to exhale the aura of his protagonist’s awareness rather than simply tell the reader what in the world is going on. Henry was offended when his brother, William, reacted to The Golden Bowl, the novel James published directly after The Ambassadors, by saying he admired its brilliancy but would have preferred an “absolute straightness of style” rather than “the method of interminable elaboration of suggestive reference.” William was being tactful: his observation more or less sums up how annoying these novels can be. And yet they are addictive once you succumb to the challenge of deciphering the prose. They tease you into submission. It can be amusingly, ridiculously frustrating to fish in the dark lake of this prose for what a given sentence signifies, especially when—fish in creel —you realize you could have netted one just as nourishing from inside an easily plumbed aquarium of the sort built by the earlier Henry James himself.

Lambert Strether is the central “ambassador” in the book. He has been sent to Europe by Mrs. Newsome to retrieve her son, Chad. She owns and runs a lucrative industry in Woollett, Massachusetts, and she wants him to lead it into the future. Ostensibly, Chad has been seduced by an immoral woman, maybe even a woman “of the streets.” Fears about this mysterious woman’s antecedents are groundless. She’s an aristocrat. Chad has been transformed into a genteel, poised, Parisian courtier by his association with Madame de Vionnet and her daughter, Jeanne. He has become a bit like Swann, from Remembrance of Things Past, twenty years ahead of Swann’s emergence in Proust’s novel. Strether must convince Chad to come home because his mother wants him, effectively, to run the company with a focus on the new world of advertising—a force that, it’s surprising to learn from this novel published at the turn of the 20th century, was already fueling commerce.

From the moment he arrives in Europe, Strether falls in love with his surroundings, and finds himself—in his own version of a mid-life crisis, in his fifties—falling, not for the first woman he meets (who falls in love with him, as it happens) but for Europe and, especially Paris itself. When he meets his quarry, Chad Newsome, he recognizes that Chad has matured and come into focus as an accomplished social creature in ways Strether never would have guessed were possible from his acquaintance with the boy while he was growing up. Strether’s imagination opens to Paris, the magnificence and subtle elegance of the shops and houses, the left and right banks of the Seine, the Faubourg St. Germaine, the parks and the museums, the restaurants, the hotels, and the everyday sounds that rise from the streets. The world has been renewed before his eyes. His impulse is to wander and absorb everything he sees, smells, hears and touches. He’s reborn. Through this febrile, almost manic hunger for the city and the region, he’s only half-aware of how the seemingly innocent seductions of a beautiful place color his perception of the relationship between Chad and this lovely, charismatic and slightly older woman. Marie de Vionnet is a countess, highly intelligent, sensitive, humble, the model of noblesse oblige. All of Strether’s actions arise from his desperate faith that her relationship with Chad is virtuous, chaste, a model of Platonic devotion and friendship. She is married but estranged from her husband and Chad’s family suspects adultery, hence the need for Strether to bring the son home. Yet, from the beginning, Strether is charmed by both Chad and the countess and immediately begins to resist his mission, the call of Woollett. His motives for temporizing are a complex mix of selfishness and generosity—he wants to dwell in Paris as long as possible to absorb its glory. This requires Chad to be morally pure. If Chad’s love for this woman and her daughter were base, it would break the spell of Paris itself, destroy the aura of nobility. It would be the serpent and apple in this garden. The garden itself would cease to charm. This would obligate him to bring Chad home by any means possible, ending the entire European idyll. His actions throughout most of the book are based on Strether’s desire for this new, improved Chad to have grown from the soil of Europe, a man adroit, connected, moral, a paradigm of human flourishing, as a result of his role as protégé, confidant, and companion to Madame de Vionnet. What Strether discovers is that as dazzled as he is by the possibilities of becoming Europeanized, following in Chad’s footsteps, he is too old to take advantage of all this himself. It’s too late for him to grasp the possibilities he has missed, so his effort to save this ostensibly courtly love between Chad and Marie intensify into a new, selfless mission.

Everything sensible for both Strether and Chad depends on their obeying Mrs. Newsome’s wishes, because she has promised to marry Strether if and when he returns with her son, who will inherit the company if he comes home to marry his intended bride, Mamie Pocock, a comically inappropriate woman for the new Chad. Strether has let life slip through his fingers and survives on a small income he receives from Mrs. Newsome in the role of editor for a small quarterly she publishes. At one point, it’s clear he’s ashamed of his comparative poverty and his social standing back in Woollett. The little journal he edits isn’t literary, but prints essays on science, philosophy and other subjects. It’s respectable, interesting in its own way, but obscure. She has offered Strether a path toward wealth and all its privilege, insofar as Massachusetts can confer it. If Strether stands up for Chad and the glories of Paris (glories filtered and fed to the reader through Strether’s heightened consciousness) against Mrs. Newsome, then he will forfeit his future. He has everything to lose by guarding Chad from Mrs. Newsome. But the virtue of this sacrifice accomplishes nothing if Chad’s liaison with Marie itself isn’t virtuous. Knowing James, it’s not that hard to discern what will happen, but what’s remarkable is how he seduces the reader as deftly as Paris seduces Strether. Your hope for Chad, for Madame de Vionnet, for Strether himself, and for Maria Gostrey, his guide through Europe and the woman who falls for him, keeps flickering until the last words of the book.

Much is at stake. Pathos lingers everywhere. How to tell good from evil? Wholesome intimacy and rank duplicity bear all the same earmarks, the whispered asides, the lingering glances, the silent smiles across a room: there’s more than enough suspense in all of this to make the novel gripping. For many characters, bliss and fulfillment hang in the balance against ruin and shame. Yet, instead of telling a straightforward story, James seeks to convey the unstable, dark glass of Strether’s consciousness itself, the stream of impressions, questionable insights, suppositions, hesitations, second-guesses, joys, sorrows, regrets, the parade of ghostly hints that pass through his awareness. It isn’t a Joycean stream, but unmediated nonetheless, with severe limits. Those limits are the universal boundaries of human knowledge and certainty, and the way in which thought, reasoning, moral choice, are all riding on a wave of untrustworthy feeling and emotion. James works that dynamic: he tempts you with veiled language, draws you in, and then keeps you hooked by withholding rather than delivering what you need to know until you’re nearly done. You aren’t allowed to know anything Strether doesn’t know, and there’s a submerged iceberg of information he can’t access.

This murkiness, this uncertainty, and, in essence, this moral dread, Strether’s horror of making the wrong choice—as well as the integrity that makes the wrong choice a horror to begin with—are conveyed in this oblique prose that makes nearly everything that happens in the book an occasion for confusion and only tentative understanding. (Hence that urge to translate back into actual, familiar English, nearly everything in this milestone of English literature.)

Here’s an example of one of the clearer, though still verbose passages, one of the turning points in the story. Strether has been waiting to meet Chad when Maria Gostrey takes him to the theater. During the performance, a man steps into their balcony and waits patiently, silently for a chance to talk. It’s Chad, but Strether doesn’t realize it and doesn’t recognize him because Chad has been transformed. When Chad’s identity is revealed, his metamorphosis stuns Strether so deeply and immediately that it colors everything else he thinks and does in Paris. It convinces him that Madame de Vionnet has magically turned this unrefined young American into someone who could pass for a prince. This impression disarms him so thoroughly that he can never bring himself to side with Mrs. Newsome’s wish to bring Chad home. Here, at length, is how James describes the moment in what is a comparatively clear, direct passage in comparison with others in the book that might as well have been delivered in Navajo:

Our friend was to go over it afterwards again and again—he was going over it much of the time that they were together, and they were together constantly for three or four days: the note had been so strongly struck during that first half-hour that everything happening since was comparatively a minor development. The fact was that his perception of the young man’s identity—so absolutely checked for a minute—had been quite one of the sensations that count in life; he certainly had never known one that had acted, as he might have said, with more of a crowded rush. And the rush though both vague and multitudinous, had lasted a long time, protected, as it were, yet at the same time aggravated, by the circumstance of its coinciding with a stretch of decorous silence. They couldn’t talk without disturbing the spectators in the part of the balcony just below them; and it, for that matter, came to Strether—being a thing of the sort that did come to him—that these were the accidents of a high civilization; the imposed tribute to propriety, the frequent exposure to conditions, usually brilliant, in which relief has to await its time. Relief was never quite near at hand for kings, queens, comedians and other such people, and though you might be yourself not exactly one of those, you could yet, in leading the life of high pressure, guess a little how they sometimes felt. It was truly the life of high pressure that Strether had seemed to feel himself lead while he sat there, close to Chad, during the long tension of the act. He was in presence of a fact that occupied his whole mind, that occupied for the half-hour his senses themselves all together; but he couldn’t without inconvenience show anything—which moreover might count really as luck. What he might have shown, had he shown at all, was exactly the kind of emotion—the emotion of bewilderment—that he had proposed to himself from the first, whatever should occur, to show least. The phenomenon that had suddenly sat down there with him was a phenomenon of change so complete that his imagination, which had worked so beforehand, felt itself, in the connexion, without margin or allowance. It had faced every contingency but that Chad should not be Chad, and this was what it now had to face with a mere strained smile and an uncomfortable flush.[1]

“Comedians” is a brilliant touch, completely unpredictable and outside the sort of box James usually creates. So is the phrase: “imposed tribute to propriety.” Still, here would be my loose translation from Late Henry James into common English, or at least into a more familiar and contemporary syntax and wording. I’ve eliminated nearly a hundred words, including all of the ones that contribute almost nothing but the sound of precise but empty qualifications while they create the refined rhythm of idle, patrician patois: “quite”, “as he might have said”, “the note had been so strongly struck” (“note” is an almost obsessively used word, a kind of verbal tic for James, in the sense of “tone” or “key”, as in music, and the word “high” recurs constantly, as another verbal tic and often empty adjective) “as it were”, “for that matter”, “being a thing of the sort that did come to him” and so on:

Strether felt instinctively how this moment would become the foundation of his stay in Paris. The sense of discomfiting recognition, when he understood he was looking at Chad without being able to recognize him, would reverberate throughout his sojourn in Europe. He felt already how it would set the tone for everything he was yet to think and feel with regard to his mission. Sitting there, stunned that Chad seemed to have become a charming young nobleman, Mrs. Newsome’s ambassador found himself completely disarmed. The rush of this recognition was one of those moments if life that counted, as he later put it. The moment’s impact had to do not only with the way Chad bore himself, the clothes he wore, his posture, his mature and poised demeanor, his utterly cool and almost carefree patience—the gentility of his ability to wait on them, his sprezzatura—but also the fact that they were all courteously waiting to speak, so as not to disturb those in the seats beneath them. None of this would have been innate to the Chad he recalled from Woollett. Kings, queens, comedians, no less, had little relief from the pressures of life, but this new Parisian Chad bore the pressure of the moment with such aplomb that he was magnificently at ease. The pressure, for Strether, on the other hand was overwhelming. They all waited through the performance, for half an hour. That half-hour was an awkward blessing. Strether was able to compose himself. If they hadn’t been forced into silence, Strether’s bewilderment might have completely destroyed any hope he had of impressing Chad with whatever borrowed authority he carried with him from Mrs. Newsome. He had imagined every possibility other than this fact: Chad was no longer Chad. The charm of the new Chad overwhelmed him and colored every other impression he was to receive during his stay. For half an hour, he found himself blushing and straining to smile. All of his resolve was undone. Yet somehow by the end of their long wait, he had regained his composure.

I don’t think much is lost in translation here. I violated the limits of the point of view once near the end, that’s all. There’s only one great argument for wording this novel in the more difficult Late Henry James. Critics have defended the obscurity of the prose as a way of conveying the flux and complexity of Strether’s consciousness itself, the currents and undertows and eddies in its stream. James was trying to do something radical, a precursor to the bolder experiments of Joyce and Woolf to follow. The story is told in limited third person. We have one window through which to see and hear what’s happening: Strether’s unreliable awareness of everything in and around him. Here we are told not only about what Strether sees and hears, but about the state of his awareness itself—and the difficulty of the prose is showing that state rather than telling us about it. We eavesdrop on Strether’s consciousness, and James makes it as difficult for us to see and hear clearly what’s happening as it is for Strether to discern the truth in his perceptions. We are spies, as Strether is himself a spy, an agent, sent into Europe from America. We struggle, as he does, to decipher what’s happening. We are interlopers, outsiders, and we remain uninitiated into the quiet or unspoken semiotics of this social order. The prose reflects and intensifies all of this.

But it’s doing more. Instinctively, I think James wanted his prose to sound almost rarified into unintelligibility. He wanted the reader to feel socially at a disadvantage, as Strether himself feels. I imagine the reader as someone alone at a table in an expensive restaurant, seated beside the characters in this book as they talk in terms familiar to the members of the beau monde but nearly impenetrable to anyone who comes in off the street and overhears them. Or, imagine a married couple on a loveseat at a party, foreheads a foot apart, smiling, exchanging nearly inaudible asides—using a shorthand language they’ve grown into over the years—about the party. They know exactly what they’re saying, because they are so intimate, but the eavesdropper—James’s reader—has to decrypt what he hears. For the onlooker, there is not only the mystery of what’s being communicated but a sense of envy for how easily the insiders understand one another. This envy is part of what James undoubtedly intended to instill in the reader—the sense of always being out of step and a little dense, always on the outside peering in a little enviously at the peerage. The narrator and the characters are knowing, quick, winking with an implicit mutual understanding and you, the commoner, the—ahem—American, are trying desperately to keep up, rereading again and again, rewinding and playing, rewinding and playing until . . . okay, I think I get it.

The reader’s fluctuating bewilderment bonds with Strether’s. You are both immersed in mystery, struggling for clarity and feeling intensely excluded, socially crippled, essentially ignorant. You are both living at the edge of where everything is happening, tolerated, invited, but not included. As Rebekah Scott sums it up in an essay published online earlier this year:

The necessary absorption, engrossment and bewilderment experienced by James’s reader in trying to decipher his text reflects that of his characters, as they struggle to manoeuvre through their circumstances, equipped only with the acuity with which they can perceive, realize, and convert meditation into self-assisting action.

And they do all of this without any certainty about the knowledge or the outcome of actions based on it. This cloud of unknowing, for narrator and reader, serves as the essential medium from which James conjures his final stories. This is the primal scene for James: the outsider, the interloper, the latecomer, the observer in a world full of people so immersed in a member’s-only private language that they don’t have to explain anything to one another. They get the joke, and you don’t. It’s annoying because James, in his narrative voice, sounds like the insider, the one who holds the key to the code and keeps taunting us with his ability to remain vague and indirect, promising us the possibility of clarity but always withholding it just enough to keep us uncertain about what’s what. The reader, along with Strether, fears being made a fool. Two people, heads together, smiling and whispering: from our distance, they could be declaring their love or plotting a crime, or doing both at once, as Strether fears Chad and Marie are doing. Intimacy has the look of lies, as well as love. At the end of the novel’s eleventh book, James writes:

That was what, in his vain vigil, he oftenest reverted to: intimacy, at such a point, was like that—and what in the world else would one have wished it to be like? It was all very well for him to feel the pity of its being so much like lying . . .

Observing the intimacy of others, you are excluded. The experience of exclusion—of not knowing what’s actually passing between Strether and Marie, and of being merely a tolerated guest of Paris—underlies all the action, all the thinking, in the novel. Exclusivity guards the privilege of belonging: whether it’s membership in a marriage, a love affair, a country-club, a political party, an economic class, a conspiracy or a faith. The famous, crucial scene in Gloriani’s garden reveals to Strether the abundance and complexity of a life fully lived, but how rare the invitation into that sanctum. Once inside the garden, he recognizes that he has failed to live, along with an awareness that it’s too late to succeed in a pursuit of personal fulfillment he’s only now discovered he has failed to seize. He has come across the Atlantic to gaze into this glittering, exhilarating cage of social and sexual power, sophistication, wealth and freedom, and all he can do is to advise someone younger, Little Bilham, to live his own life as intensely as possible while he still has time. Carpe diem. Whether or not he’s simply been dazzled by Babylon’s lovely surface, unaware of the rot within, is the matter that hangs in the balance. It’s clear Strether doesn’t believe he’s been fooled by the lovely, inviting surface of a corrupt city, because he doesn’t want that to be the case. Here is where Madame de Vionnet, the countess in question, makes her debut, at this moment of Strether’s psychological surrender to a desolate awareness of his personal failure in life. She appears, charms him, and begins the process of winning him, enlisting him into her desperate hope to keep Chad for herself. Her refinement conquers him, as well as her achievement as Chad’s finishing school, and then her pathos as a woman appealing to him for mercy. She finds him at his most lucid, but therefore most emotionally weak, because his moment of clarity reveals his failure as a person, and swept into the current of her power and charm, he becomes her agent rather than Mrs. Newsome’s. The first blow of seeing that Chad was no longer Chad is followed by this second, the beauty of her behavior, and his ability to believe in Mrs. Newsome’s mission dies under the force of this one-two punch.

At this point and then through most of the rest of the book, the reader is just as morally disoriented as Strether, and anyone who sticks with the prose has begun to slow down, parse each difficult sentence, tease out what it actually denotes and then step back from the jigsaw puzzle of sentences to recognize what a paragraph actually depicts. By tossing away a deadline for finishing the book, the way Strether ignores and then abandons any sense of a deadline in getting Chad home, you succumb to the obscurity, plumb it and fish out what’s comprehensible.  The game becomes enjoyable. You feel as if you have been initiated into the exclusive club and now other readers are the neophytes, the pledges, hoping to get in. Your envy turns to a nasty kind of pride and you keep reading, feeling more and more accomplished as you go. You have accepted the terms of the class structure created by nothing more than the quality of the prose and you have found a way to work your way up into the exclusive salon, the Faubourg of readers.

Meanwhile, more and more identified with Strether’s struggle, you eagerly want everything he wants; you want to believe in the virtue of the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet. At first you accept Little Bilham’s assessment that Chad must be in love with Jeanne, the daughter, since Marie is married and off limits. Then when Chad becomes instrumental in Jeanne’s engagement to a suitor, you and Strether tell yourselves than this was the heart of his allegiance with the mother, simply a noble attempt to help her find a partner for her beautiful, but shy and socially isolated daughter. You want to believe you’re reading a Jane Austen novel where people pair up, after many mistakes, with the man or woman most suitable. Strether will return Maria Gostrey’s love. Chad will resist the call of money and power and somehow devote himself to Madame de Vionnet, who desperately thinks of Chad now as the embodiment of her entire life. Little Bilham will somehow take Strether’s hilarious counsel to chase Mamie Pocock, in order to foil the Woollett plan to have her marry Chad. The book is nearly done. Then Strether decides to take a day off and wander around the countryside and—in an improbable, novelistic coincidence—comes upon Chad and Madame de Vionnet in a boat, flustered at being seen, drawn into spending a few hours with Strether in order to keep up appearances and yet, through their behavior, betraying the fact that they have spent the previous night secretly together. Everything begins to crumble. Finally, Chad returns from a trip to London as an evangelist for advertising, how it “has presented itself scientifically as a great new force” that will reveal a new world of commerce, and is, in fact, a world of its own. It’s nightmarish, almost claustrophobic. Strether brings up the subject of Marie. The awful horror and absurdity of Chad’s remarks at this moment have devastating power only because the reader has spent more than three hundred pages surrendering to Strether’s vision and his romantic illusions. You realize you and Strether have been played. Here, abruptly, Strether and the reader recognize that the prince is actually a frog. He has become thoroughly French in the most despicable way possible.

“Of course I really never forget, night or day, what I owe her. I owe her everything. I give you my word of honor . . . that I’m not a bit tired of her.” . . . He spoke of being “tired” of her almost as he might have spoken of being tired of roast mutton for dinner.

With all the clothes they had to leave behind in the country, to keep up the appearance of a day trip, it’s clear he isn’t tired of her. Chad has used everyone around him, has transformed himself at their expense, and now is ready to ditch them all and return home to claim all the bounty that will simply be handed over to him. He’s as evil, in his own way, as anyone can be in Henry James. All is lost, for Strether, for Madame de Vionnet, for (as it turns out) Maria Gostrey, and for the reader. Chad’s choices will destroy people around him, and yet he’s full of plans, ready for the future, absolutely stoked about advertising, so at least there’s that. He’s a man who will get things done. Yet Strether’s quest was all for nothing, because Chad isn’t Chad. Only this time, it’s the reverse of what that sentence meant in the theater when Strether met him. This is a novel obsessed with ethics and morality and the fine distinctions they require, and by the end it feels also almost as dark as King Lear.

E.M Forster’s very funny trashing of the late Henry James misses all of this. Many readers share his displeasure with James, the way in which the structure of the book demands characters who obey it and don’t exceed the outlines of the story James devises. He uses characters as puppets. Forster is funny and deadly in his brief skewering of James in Aspects of the Novel. He shrugs off the obscurity of the prose as if to boast that it didn’t make him pause at all—no need to rewind to hear that dialog again for me, folks—but he classifies James as an aesthete who sacrificed flesh and blood, the actual mess of common human life, on the altar of perfectly imagined form. The book is an hourglass where Strether and Chad change places, starting on one side of the helix and ending up on the other, crossing paths in the middle. Though he doesn’t point it out, Chad and Marie also obey a different hourglass, he lusting for her European sophistication and she falling for his American innocence, all of which leads to a reversal where he becomes the cynical and sophisticated manipulator and she the helpless romantic in his hands:

A pattern must emerge, and anything that emerged from the pattern must be pruned as wanton distraction. Who so wanton as human beings? Put Tom Jones or Emma or even Mr. Causaubon into a Henry James book, and the book will burn to ashes, whereas we could put them into one another’s books and only cause local inflammation.

He gives you a moment to laugh with pleasure and then continues:

Only a Henry James character will suit, and though they are not dead—certain selected recesses of experience he explores very well—they are gutted of the common stuff that fills characters in other books, and ourselves. This castrating is not in the interests of the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no philosophy in the novels, no religions (except the occasional touch of superstition), no prophecy, no benefit for the superhuman at all. It is for the sake of a particular aesthetic effect which is certainly gained, but at this heavy price.

Forster steps aside and quotes H.G. Wells to deliver the coup de grace:

The thing his novel is about is always there. It is like a church lit but with no congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg shell, a piece of string . . .

Forster sums it up:

Maimed creatures alone can breathe in Henry James’s pages—maimed yet specialized. They remind one of the exquisite deformities who haunted Egyptian art in the reign of Akhenaton—huge heads and tiny legs, but nevertheless charming. In the following reign they disappear.

It’s all hilarious, especially the dead kitten, and true to the experience of reading much of the late prose, and quite a persuasive take-down. Yet the nay-sayers remain blind to the evil that prevails or merely threatens to, how the duplicity of evil surrounds the occasions of adultery in the last three great novels, and how that adultery ruins—or, in the case of The Golden Bowl, his Winter’s Tale or The Tempest, is helpless to ruin—the lives of those around it because of the Christ-like sacrifice and selflessness of the betrayed wife, Maggie. His arrow is aesthetic perfection. His target is the reality of evil. Adultery is the other primal scene for James. The fact that James reduces his drama to a handful of characters is hardly a critique. It takes only three characters to create a timeless, profound story: a man, a woman, and a snake. James wanted to be a playwright, and the room on a stage admits a fraction of the characters in a novel from, say, Tolstoy or Proust. A short list of characters is hardly a flaw for Salinger or Beckett or Kafka. Forster apparently wants all novelists to be, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, foxes rather than hedgehogs. What Forster misses, maybe because Strether doesn’t seem to quite comprehend it himself (a feature consistent with the point of view and with that unified aesthetic effect Forster mentions), is the tragic power of a James novel. Portrait of a Lady is, as Anthony Lane put it when he revisited the novel in The New Yorker a decade ago, a horror story. So is The Ambassadors.

The horror isn’t in the revelation of evil alone. It’s in the dread that precedes it, the fog of duplicity, the fog of words and glances and smiles, the medium of the novel itself, that makes it possible. James went back again and again to the plight of the American in Europe. He lived it. One can imagine his being invited to dinner three hundred nights out of the year and yet every invitation represents, not a welcome into the European extended family, the gracious Habsburg hospitality, but an offer to be the night’s entertainment. Much of his life was probably spent this way, knowing how he was secretly held at arm’s length, even seated in a neighboring chair at a party in London or Paris. One would invite James into the fold for a few hours, the way one might hire Mackelmore or Taylor Swift to sing at your daughter’s wedding. The American in Europe is always an outsider. In an essay published in The Nation in 1878, “Americans Abroad”, James sums it up:

Americans in Europe are outsiders; that is the great point, and the point thrown into relief by all the zealous efforts to controvert it. As a people we are out of European society; the fact seems to us incontestable, be it regrettable or not. We are not only out of the European circle politically and geographically; we are out of it socially, and for excellent reasons. We are the only great people of the civilized world that is a pure democracy, and we are the only great people that is exclusively commercial. Add the remoteness represented by these facts to our great and painful geographical remoteness, and it will be easy to see why to be known in Europe as an American is to enjoy an imperfect reciprocity. (The Nation 27, October, 1878, pp 208-9)

That sardonic “imperfect reciprocity” is perfect, pure James, in its of tact and understatement. Please keep those dinner party reservations coming, Countess. It’s the fulcrum of the worldview that prevails in so much of his fiction. The American struggles to find a safe path through Europe and mostly fails and the failure can be horrifying, the lack of reciprocity deadly. Ironically, Chad actually enacts a sort of unwitting revenge for this imbalance—using Europe the way Europe mostly uses Americans in a James novel—and in his betrayal of Marie, he offers a mordant opportunity to smile for a reader so inclined. Chad uses Madame de Vionnet, not the other way around. But Strether’s defeat is total, and in it, James depicts how a good man, assiduously trying to do the right thing, can be used by the people around him and then discarded—just as Chad uses and discards Marie. Europe seduces Strether and compels him to sacrifice his own future for the sake of a few more weeks of Chad’s sexual pleasure and Madame de Vionnet’s romantic fantasy. It chews Strether up and then leaves him on the pavement, without income, without the wherewithal to see where his own interests lie with Maria Gostrey, dazed and confused and with nowhere to go. Europe ruins him in the process of reshaping Chad into a heartless, manipulative captain of industry, a model of American success, a kind of metastasized version of the stereotypical American Europe might befriend but never embrace. Forster could only wish he might have achieved such a dark, unsparing vision of human helplessness and hinted at it only in the echoes of the Marabar caves, but Forster’s wheelhouse was social comedy. James can be very amusing while he breaks your heart, but his amusements are a side dish. William James was a professional philosopher. Henry James is closer to Socrates. Though he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it, as Eliot put it, The Ambassadors has a philosophic, Socratic gravity: human knowledge is insufficient, misleading, evanescent and flawed. In the end, we know nothing. What are we to do? Alone, we are helpless to help ourselves, and those who survive, who succeed, will use us and then leave us behind. We can only hope to share Strether’s apparently cheerful stoicism, in the face of all this, at the end of the book—he may have been a fool, but he’s been ennobled by his sacrifice and his ability to be cheerful is the fruit of genuine, belated wisdom.

[1] Henry James, The Ambassadors, Norton Critical Edition, 1964, pp. 89-90.


Life Studies

Night Walker, Jim Mott

It’s the last week to see Jim Mott’s excellent work from a unique project, Life Studies, a modification of his usual itinerant mode, where he travels to a city like Ferguson, Missouri and paints scenes from the life of his participating host, as a gift in exchange for lodging. In this case, he has painted multiple scenes that mattered to a woman who lives here in Rochester.  About “Night Walker”, he says:

One of the paintings in my current show at the Yards – done after exploring Ridgeway Avenue at night a couple of weeks ago. This is in the area of Sacred Heart Cathedral – where my project collaborator, Sonja Rosario, was baptized and where one of Rochester’s 50+ fatal shootings of 2021 occurred earlier this year.

At THE YARDS – Jim Mott’s 2021 NYSCA project exhibit runs through Nov 28, Saturdays 10-1 and by appointment. Jim will give a talk about his practice on Nov. 20 from 5-7 pm. “Featuring the results of my 2021 NYSCA Grant project, Life Studies is a collection of paintings and stories based on collaborative sketch outings with Sonja Rosario Belliard, a creative individual and young mother from northwest Rochester. The images and words represent places of significance to her life.”