Henry James and al-Qaeda

I have recently been simultaneously reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and re-reading parts of Life at the Bottom: the Worldview that Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. The contrast would seem to be complete, but it is in fact considerably more interesting than that. The subtlety and depth of James’ descriptive power is quite wondrous and genuinely intellectually gratifying, particularly living in a society that in general by no means prizes delicacy. However, I find the cumulative effect somewhat troubling, perhaps because it reminds me very much of “The Seducer’s Diary” from Enten-Eller (Either/Or) by Søren Kierkegaard, which is just as elaborate and sophisticated in style. “The Seducer’s Diary” was apparently a great success in the genre of littérature amoureuse when it appeared separately in France, which has sown a certain degree of ineradicable contempt on my part for French literary taste, because “The Seducer’s Diary” loses all meaning outside of its context, which by contrasting it with other literary fragments concerned with the life of a simple and moral Protestant vicar gradually shows us the shallow, aesthete amorality at the heart of the seducer’s sophistication.

To get back to the point, a whiff of the seducer also lingers in the work of Henry James. Although the value of the cultivated, idle lives he describes is constantly brought into question, their inevitability never is, and so an implicit acceptance of their way of living reigns. Jamesian characters only get to make choices within very circumscribed limits: they can choose whom to marry but not whether to marry. I can’t see his attitude as being that of a true critique because the good and virtuous characters take the social obligations and choices available to them just as seriously as the villainous and the fatuous. The result is a looming fatalism that compacts and lightens everything. This of course has a lot to do with the particular social situation of the quasi-aristocratic American expatriates that populate the book. They all have money and so belong to the leisured class, but being Americans are without aristocratic title, and living abroad a severe cultural disorientation and subsequent identity crisis engulfs them. They are, in short, without work or title or social norms to define them and guide them. As the seducer Gilbert Osmond puts it:

“I sometimes think we’ve got into a rather bad way, living off here among things and people not our own, without responsibilities or attachments, with nothing to hold us together or keep us up; marrying foreigners, forming artificial tastes, playing tricks with our natural mission” (Ch. XXIV).

The quiet despair of boredom, entrapment and weightlessness seeps more and more deeply into the description of the characters’ psychology. And here is where the comparison with the description of the underclass becomes capital. Granted, James’ characters come from the upper-class, but there are some striking parallels with the welfare dependents that Dalrymple describes (and, I might add, that Dalrymple’s style, while just as good as James’, is its opposite, perhaps morally as well: grave, direct, of consummate clarity). For example:

“In the welfare state, mere survival is not the achievement that it is, say, in the cities of Africa, and therefore it cannot confer the self-respect that is the precondition of self-improvement…The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food…has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.”

There are of course some rather vast differences between the two situations, but it is interesting to note that in both cases it is an excess of money, among the modern underclass as well as among the wealthy scions, without adequate commensurate reserves of discipline, of ambition, of self-control or of stabilizing social relationships which creates a disaster of adrift futility. Perhaps it is time that it be admitted that Western society as a whole is the modern aristocracy of the world. Some would take this to be just as inherently pejorative a judgment as calling it a fascist society, but I don’t mean it in that way, nor do I wish to imply either that the many hard-working folk in Western society have not earned what they have or that such benefits are denied to ambitious non-Westerners. I don’t believe either of those things to be true. What I do mean is that, much like in the aristocracy and moneyed classes of old, there is no absolute need to do virtually anything to carry on in relative comfort. Simply by being alive, at least since the advent of the welfare state, one is entitled to a degree of security and luxury which in certain respects would be denied even to the aristocrats of 100 years ago.

To simplify the issue, I ask that one put aside the question of whether generosity or denial on these terms is inherently better, and simply consider what is sustainable. Much as the Soviet Union inarguably banrupted itslef paying worker pensions it couldn’t afford, no matter how one feels about how much the pensioners deserved what they were getting, so I cannot help but concur with Dalrymple in feeling that any society that emphatically makes no moral discrimination in its uncritical generosity is inherently self-destructive insofar as it encourages the growth of what he calls “social pathology.” In short, this is no mere existential crisis, and for a more dramatic example consider that in Saudi Arabia, from whence of course 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers originated, more than 90% of workers in the private sector are foreigners (non-Saudi) and unemployment among those aged 20-24 is almost 30%. Once again, a nation practically drowning in money, money its citizens receive simply for occupying a certain piece of land, and one in which rather considerable numbers have the luxury (or the curse) of not having to work but rather remain in a state of frustrated dependence on their parents and family. As a “high-ranking” Saudi government official puts it:

“The hijackers were a direct product of our social failures–a generation with no sense of what work entails, raised in a system that operated as a welfare state. We allowed them to grow up in a pampered emptiness, until they turned to bin Laden extremists in an effort to find themselves.”

Oh, for the days of mere seducers!

p.s. I don’t understand why James doesn’t acknowledge Flaubert among the antecedents to his project of doing justice to a representative type of the young women who are “the frail vessels…[of] the treasure of human affection,” as Madame Bovary seems pretty obviously the most tremendous previous effort in this vein. Perhaps he wanted to blot out Emma Bovary and replace her with a heroine who evokes grandeur rather than mere pity. In any event, the world seems to have taken to Madame Bovary more on the whole, perhaps because James, in his effort to make his heroine grand, had to not only make her but repeatedly emphasize the fact of her being exceptional, a necessity at odds with the goal of rendering her representative, and Flaubert’s portrayal of the bourgeois tragedy of a fundamentally ordinary, typical woman is more in keeping with the spirit of the age and the nature of the project.

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