October 10, 2021

1. William James and Posture

William James argued that emotions are physical states that trigger mental states. Physiological arousal is primary. We don’t cry because we’re sad, we’re sad because we’re crying. We don’t run because we’re afraid, we’re afraid because we’re running. This is called the James-Lange theory of emotion, since it was developed independently by James and by Danish psychologist Carl Lange.

This theory implies that we can get our emotions on track by undertaking certain actions or postures. “Don’t wait until you feel better to go the gym; go to the gym and you will feel better.”1 Richardson writes,

Samuel Johnson once noted that he could be sunk in a mire of lethargy and immobility so deep he could stare for hours at the village clock and not know the time of day. He was unable to think his way out of this condition, but sometimes if he just heaved himself out of his chair, the mere physical movement was enough to get him started. Act first; the emotion will follow. In the beginning was the deed.

James lists the actions that will raise your spirits: “Smooth the brow, brighten the eye, contract the dorsal rather than the ventral aspect of the frame, and speak in a major key, pass the genial compliment, and your heart must be frigid indeed if it do not gradually thaw!”2

In earlier issues, I’ve discussed the importance of posture — sitting with your back straight, walking erect, etc. When Jordan Peterson wrote a book called 12 Rules for Life, rule #1 was “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Every teacher of meditation begins by saying “Sit erect, keep your back straight.” Is this what James means when he says, “Contract the dorsal rather than the ventral aspect of the frame”? The Alexander Technique emphasizes posture. Was James familiar with this technique? Were the developers of this technique familiar with James’ work?

An article in the Wall Street Journal says that James was aware of yoga, and felt it was a method for increasing energy and strengthening will. The article says that James’ remarks on smoothing your brow and contracting your dorsal “could be the cues for the basic sun salutation,” a common yoga routine.

Instead of letting your low spirits immobilize your body, use your body to raise your spirits. “We don’t laugh,” James wrote, “because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.... Actions do not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”

2. “The Aspern Papers”

“The Aspern Papers” (1888) is one of Henry James’ most highly-regarded novellas. Set in Venice, it describes an American scholar’s effort to obtain letters written by an American poet, Jeffrey Aspern. The letters are in the possession of Juliana Bordereau, an elderly woman who, many years ago, had a liaison with Aspern.

[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading “The Aspern Papers,” you may want to skip the rest of this section.]

“The Aspern Papers” reminds me of James’ “Madonna of the Future,” which I discussed in a recent issue. Both novellas are set in Italy, both have suspense, both deal with cultural matters (“Madonna” with art, “Aspern” with literature). “Madonna of the Future” was influenced by multiple literary works — a Browning poem, a Balzac story, a Musset play. Likewise, “The Aspern Papers” echoes Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades,” Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman,” and perhaps Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.”

Since I’m a big fan of “Queen of Spades,” I enjoyed tracing the links between it and “Aspern.” In both stories, an elderly woman has something that a young man longs for. In both stories, the young man spends much time trying to penetrate the old woman’s quarters. In both stories, the young man looks up at the old woman’s windows from outside, while she watches him through the same windows; when he finally enters her inner sanctum, the old woman dies. In both stories, the old woman lives with a young female companion, a submissive woman, a woman whom the young man ingratiates himself with, a woman whom the old woman would like to marry to the young man. In both stories, the young man is focused on obtaining the “treasure” from the old woman; the young man is obsessed, ruthless, heartless, he doesn’t care if the old woman dies, and he doesn’t have any interest in the young woman. In both stories, if the young man had married the young woman, he probably would have obtained the treasure.3

We don’t know for certain that James read “Queen of Spades,” but I think he probably did (in a French translation). We do know that James was a friend of the Russian novelist Turgenev, and we know that Turgenev was a kind of apostle of Russian literature, so Turgenev could have described Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” to James.4

While there are numerous parallels between “Aspern” and “Queen of Spades,” there’s only one parallel between “Aspern” and Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman,” but it’s a significant one. In “Aspern,” the narrator encounters the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, which is outside the Church of John & Paul (the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, known in Venetian as San Zanipolo).

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrocchio
photo by Didier Descouens

The reader familiar with Pushkin [writes a Pushkin critic] will be astounded at this moment by the similarity between this scene... and that between Yevgeny and the statue of Peter in The Bronze Horseman. It is all there: the mental confusion, physical wandering, a sudden stop, self-awareness and recognition of a large building... a huge bronze equestrian statue towering aloft, indifferent to the petty egoist and his tiny troubles below.5

Statue of Peter the Great, Saint Petersburg
photo by Andrew Shiva

Leon Edel, perhaps the preeminent HenryJames scholar, says that “The Aspern Papers” is “the most brilliant of Henry’s tales,” and Edel says that “the most exquisite” passage in “Aspern” is the encounter with the statue. Should we give credit to Pushkin for inspiring this passage? Or should we give credit to James for appreciating the Pushkin passage, and for being able to utilize it? As Emerson said, “Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it.” Next to the originator of a good passage is the first utilizer of it. James was a good utilizer of world literature; Briggs calls James “a supreme eclectic, an assimilator of the best available.” James’ father called him “a devourer of libraries.”

Was there an affinity between Pushkin and James? The American critic Edmund Wilson said that Pushkin and James both had a combination of “hard realism with formal harmony,” and both had a “classical equanimity.”6

* * * * *

As a youngster, James read a good deal of Poe. In his autobiography, James said that he shared his fondness for Poe with his brother William. As one critic put it,

An “enthusiasm for Poe” had been passed from brother to brother... with the siblings taking turns mounting on “little platforms” to declaim such Poe classics as “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”7

Scholars have argued that Poe influenced Henry James. “Aspern” has several things in common with Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” In both stories, “the narrator never reveals his name... nor his age or place of birth or residence.”8 In both stories, the old person has some sort of cover or veil or film over his eye.

In Poe, especially in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” James found the prototype of an obsessive narrator, oscillating between exhibitionism and shame, maniacal reporting and self-deception.9

But James’ narrator has a more calm, mature tone.

In reinventing the Poe narrator, James considerably toned down the frantic, oral quality, the theatricality of the original (which had made it ideal for reading aloud), endowing it with a more controlled, subdued tone.

When I discussed James’ “Daisy Miller,” I said that the protagonist (Winterbourne) may have caused Daisy’s death through some sort of negative energy, through his Evil Eye. The same could be said of the protagonist of “Aspern”; he seems to cause the death, will the death, of the old woman (Juliana).10

I said that Daisy’s own frevel, her own recklessness, may have contributed to her death. Likewise, the “Aspern” protagonist may be a freveler, and that may contribute to his failure. In the beginning of “Aspern,” the protagonist says he will “make love” to Juliana’s niece (Tita), but at the end he says that remark was “a joke without consequences.” Was he recklessly playing with Tita’s feelings — was he freveling?

One could argue that the entire effort to obtain Aspern’s letters was frevel. The protagonist ends by cursing “the extravagant curiosity” that had motivated him. “We had more than enough material without [the letters], and my predicament was the just punishment of that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop.” Was this Daisy’s mistake, too? Can we define frevel as “not knowing when to stop”?11 Should we credit James with a deep understanding of frevel?

When I discussed “Daisy Miller,” I said that the solitary, stiff Winterbourne resembled James himself. The protagonist of “Aspern” also reminds one of James. When Tita asks him, “Shall you study — shall you read and write — when you go up to your rooms?” he responds, “I don’t do that at night, at this season. The lamplight brings in the [insects].”
Tita asks, “And in winter do you work at night?”
“I read a good deal, but I don’t often write.”12

“Aspern” seems to give us a glimpse of James’ own life. Many James stories seem to have this autobiographical element, seem to have a male protagonist who reminds one of James himself. If the “Aspern” protagonist causes Juliana’s death by his ruthlessness, is James expressing his own ruthlessness, his own dark side, his own capacity for injuring others?

Like other James stories, “Aspern” depicts a man who chooses not to marry, who runs from women. Does this reflect James’ own attitude toward women?

Like other James stories, “Aspern” was revised for the “New York Edition” of James’ works. These revisions underline the heartlessness of the “Aspern” narrator, underline the narrator’s loss of “human decency,” and perhaps his loss of an emotional link to Tita.13 In the original version, the narrator thinks that Juliana “would die next week, she would die tomorrow — then I could seize her papers.” In the NewYork version, Juliana “would die next week, she would die tomorrow — then I could pounce on her possessions and ransack her drawers.”

In the original version, “Aspern” ends with the narrator saying that a portrait of Aspern “hangs above my writing table. When I look at it my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable.” In the NewYork version, the last sentence subtly suggests that the narrator has lost more than the letters: “When I look at it I can scarcely bear my loss — I mean of the precious papers.” This revision, Booth says, “beautifully reminds us of what the narrator has really lost.”

As the narrator reminds us of other James males, so Tita reminds us of other James females. As I noted elsewhere, James’ females are “gravely sweet,” they have moral beauty. After Tita’s hints about marriage are rebuffed, she’s disappointed but not angry.

She stood in the middle of the room with a face of mildness bent upon me, and her look of forgiveness, of absolution, made her angelic. It beautified her.... She smiled strangely, with an infinite gentleness.... She had the force of soul [to] smile at me in her humiliation.

One critic, Mildred Hartsock, said that Tita is the real hero of “Aspern,” and her quest for emotional satisfaction is the real subject of the story: “The heart of the matter is not the papers but the tragedy of a woman. [Tita] is a pathetic spinster whose pathos becomes true tragedy as she sees what her choice must be — and makes it with dignity.”14

* * * * *

Twain said that a fiction-writer often starts with facts:

If you attempt to create a wholly imagined incident, adventure or situation, you will go astray and the artificiality will be detectable, but if you found on fact in your personal experience, it is an acorn, a root, and every created adornment that grows out of it, and spreads its foliage and blossoms to the sun will seem reality, not invention.

All of the James stories that I’ve discussed, including “Aspern,” start from fact, start from something that James saw or heard about. As there are several literary sources for “Aspern,” so there are several facts behind “Aspern.” One of these facts is that Henry met a Countess Gamba, who had a family connection to a mistress of Byron’s (Teresa Guiccioli). The Gambas had numerous letters that Byron had written to Teresa, and they had burned one that they deemed particularly obscene. The Gambas refused to show anyone their “literary hoard.”15

Another fact behind “Aspern” is that an elderly lady named Mary Jane (“Claire”) Clairmont lived for many years in Florence, and possessed “certain Shelley and Byron papers.” She had been a mistress of Byron. A Shelley fanatic named Silsbee tried to obtain Claire’s papers, and even rented a room in Claire’s house. Like Juliana in “Aspern,” Claire lived with her niece. When Claire died, Silsbee spoke to the niece about the precious papers. The niece said he could have the papers if he married her. He didn’t accept the bargain, he abandoned his quest for the papers.

James was fascinated by this story, partly because Claire had been living in his own time, and he had often walked past her house. Claire represented for James the “visitable past” — around her hovered the glory of the great poets of the past, yet she was a living person whom you could visit. She was both the past and the present, she was the “visitable past.” In “Aspern,” the protagonist feels that he’s in the presence of the past — he’s in proximity to Juliana, who was in proximity to the great Jeffrey Aspern.

In addition to the “Gamba fact” and the “Clairmont fact,” there’s a third fact behind “Aspern”: James’ own relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson. Woolson was a writer, and the great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper. Woolson had a strong attachment to James, and probably hoped they would get married. While James was writing “Aspern,” he was sharing a house with Woolson near Florence. He was friendly to Woolson — as the “Aspern” narrator is to Tita — but he wouldn’t go further, and this was probably disappointing to Woolson. Perhaps James asked himself, like the “Aspern” narrator, Did I mislead her? Should I have married her? Woolson died at age 53, six years after “Aspern” was published; she fell from her Venetian apartment; her death was almost certainly a suicide.16

One could ask, “Since the plot of ‘Aspern’ is drawn from these three ‘facts’ — Gamba, Clairmont, and Woolson — was Pushkin really an important influence on ‘Aspern’?” Briggs argues that the two most dramatic episodes in “Aspern” are

  1. the nocturnal encounter with the old woman that ends in her death
  2. the encounter with the statue
Briggs says that these two episodes “owe nothing whatever to the source material, real life, anecdotal or biographical. They seem, both of them, very close to Pushkin.”

James works within a realistic tradition. He wrote, “the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.”17 The novelist aims at truth, just as the philosopher, the historian, and the scientist aim at truth. The narrator of “Aspern” tells Juliana, “The great philosophers and poets of the past.... often lay bare the truth.” Juliana says, “The truth is God’s, it isn’t man’s; we had better leave it alone.” The narrator responds,

We are terribly in the dark, I know... but if we give up trying what becomes of all the fine things? What becomes of the work I just mentioned, that of the great philosophers and poets? It is all vain words if there is nothing to measure it by.

This kind of philosophical reflection is rare in James; I think it would be difficult to find a deeper philosophical reflection than this one in all of his work.

Some critics say that James doesn’t depict life as a whole. Gide said, “the skillfully made network spun out by [James’] intelligence captivates only the intelligence.... All the weight of the flesh is absent, and all the shaggy, tangled undergrowth, all the wild darkness.” But we’ve seen a “subterranean evil” in the protagonists of “Daisy Miller” and “Aspern.” James indicates evil, but doesn’t wallow in it, as modern writers often do. And he balances evil with moral beauty. As for frevel, what could be darker, shaggier, more irrational than that? And what writer in the English language has depicted frevel more skillfully than James?

Some readers say that James is too subtle, too obscure, they wish he would speak more plainly. Booth says that readers dismiss James for his “obscurities,” or idolize him for his “subtle ambiguities.” Booth says, “both positions are wholly safe, backed by troops in rank on rank, with traditions of honorable battle going back many decades.” If James is sometimes obscure, isn’t this also true of life itself?

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. This is a quote from Robert Richardson, not from James. See Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 31. back
2. From James’ Psychology: Briefer Course (link), quoted in Richardson’s biography of James, Ch. 37 back
3. I believe that the Queen of Spades appears at the end of Pushkin’s story because the old woman is annoyed that the young man (Hermann) has ignored the young woman. When the old woman appears to Hermann as a ghost, she says, “I forgive you my death, on condition that you marry my ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna.” Since Hermann ignores this condition, the old woman doesn’t forgive him, the old woman becomes the Vengeful Dead. She gets her revenge by preventing Hermann from winning the final card game.

I discussed “Queen of Spades” in 2010. At that time, I didn’t notice the Freemason symbolism in the story, especially the importance of the numbers 3 and 7. Pushkin himself was a Mason. back

4. Briggs speaks of “Turgenev whose self-imposed task it was to spread the good name of his literary compatriots abroad.”
Anthony Briggs, “Alexander Pushkin: A Possible Influence on Henry James,” Forum for Modern Language Studies, Volume VIII (1), Jan 1, 1972 back
5. ibid back
6. Quoted in Briggs

I recently discovered that Joyce was a fan of Henry James. Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellman, says that, when Joyce was about 22, James “continued to interest him.” Joyce called James, “that nice old Henry James,” he said that James’ “Madonna of the Future” was “very pleasant writing,” he said that James’ review of Baudelaire was “damn funny,” and he liked the depiction of Isabel Archer in James’ Portrait of a Lady.(Ellman, Ch. 11, p. 193) back

7. Leonardo Buonomo, “Echoes of the Heart: Henry James’s Evocation of Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Aspern Papers,’” mdpi.com/2076-0787/10/1/55

Buonomo puts “enthusiasm for Poe” in quotation marks because James had written, “enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Later James showed more respect for Poe. “Calling him ‘a man of genius,’ whose ‘intelligence was frequently great,’ James had singled out for praise Poe’s early perceptive assessment of Hawthorne’s worth.” It’s not uncommon for a writer to be both positive and negative about another writer. Tolstoy, for example, said both positive and negative things about Dickens. back

8. ibid back
9. Buonomo, quoting William Veeder

It has been argued that Poe and James subscribed to the same theory of fiction. “Allen Tate noted that Poe’s ‘insistence upon unity of effect, from first word to last, in the famous review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales’ anticipated ‘the high claims of James in his essay The Art of Fiction.’”

It has also been argued that the “Aspern” narrator has the “exaggerated male fear of women” that we find in some Poe stories. back

10. Buonomo: “Even though he never contemplates doing Juliana any bodily harm — should she refuse to part with the papers — the military metaphors that come so easily to his mind betray a barely-suppressed hostility towards her, as do the many instances in which he foreshadows — and perhaps secretly wishes for — her death.” back
11. In an earlier issue, I discussed Philippe Petit, who became famous for walking on a tight-rope stretched between Manhattan’s Twin Towers. “[Petit] said it was easy being on the wire, and he felt happy there. Finally he decided to get off; he said he didn’t want to tempt fate, didn’t want to annoy the gods that are in the buildings, in the wire, in everything.... Petit was successful because he wasn’t a freveler, he knew when to stop.” back
12. Like Trollope, Schopenhauer, and many other writers, James probably did most of his writing in the morning. Here’s a description of Schopenhauer’s day: “He rose every morning at seven and had a bath but no breakfast. He drank a cup of strong coffee before sitting down at his desk and writing until noon. At noon he ceased work for the day.” back
13. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, pp. 354-364, excerpted in the Norton Critical Edition of Tales of Henry James.

Borrowing a phrase from Wallace Stevens, Booth says that the “Aspern” narrator is “the lunatic of one idea,” he has an idée fixe. Thus, he resembles one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, his obsession is a tragic flaw. In an earlier issue, I quoted A. C. Bradley, who said that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes have “a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction... a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind. This, it would seem, is, for Shakespeare, the fundamental tragic trait.... It is a fatal gift, but it carries with it a touch of greatness.”

This one-sidedness might seem permanent, unalterable, but Hartsock suggests that it can be altered, overcome. “The evil in the [“Aspern”] narrator,” Hartsock writes, “is the evil that Lambert Strether [a character in James’ Ambassadors] is finally able to excise: the failure to be fully conscious.” back

14. Mildred Hartsock, “Unweeded Garden: A View of The Aspern Papers,” Studies in Short Fiction, V, 1967, pp. 60-68, included in the Norton Critical Edition of Tales of Henry James. back
15. Surely James understood the feelings of the scholar who wanted the precious papers. But he also understood the feelings of the writer who burned his papers to keep them from the prying eyes of the scholar. James himself guarded his privacy and burned his letters. back
16. See Edel’s 5-volume biography of James, Vol. 3, Book 4, “The Aspern Papers”

Doubtless Woolson read “The Aspern Papers.” Did she feel that Tita was based on herself? (The name “Tita” comes from a character in Woolson’s novel Anne.) Did she feel that the relationship between herself and James was echoed in the relationship between the “Aspern” narrator and Tita? As for James, when he heard about Woolson’s death, did he feel that he should have done more to satisfy her emotional needs? back

17. “The Art of Fiction,” which is excerpted in the Norton Critical Edition of Tales of Henry James back