Sunday, 24 September 2017

Boon (1915)



1: James

Boon is known today, if it is known at all, as the book that broke the friendship between Wells and Henry James. You can see the whole length of its title on the first-edition dust jacket cover, at the head of this post. You can also see that it was published as by ‘Reginald Bliss’, Wells supposedly contributing only an introduction. In fact Wells wrote the whole lot. His authorship was, I think, pretty much an open secret at the time. James certainly knew.

Which fact caused the old man genuine pain, because the novel contains a sustained and wittily heartless attack upon him. Not to put too fine a point on it, Wells shreds James in this novel, notwithstanding that the two of them had been good friends for two decades, and actual neighbours for much of that time. Gloves are off, though, in this book. Reading James, says Wells, is like watching ‘a leviathan retrieving pebbles’; James himself (not, of course, a slim man) is: ‘a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.’ Miaow. The typical Jamesian novel is:
like a church lit but without a 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 bit of string ... [Boon, 4.3]
There's much more in this vein. Just to be sure his target wouldn't miss this attack, Wells left a copy of the novel at James's London club for him to pick up when he was next in town: an act either of deliberate malice, of remarkable thoughtlessness, or perhaps of something else.

At any event, James was deeply hurt, and wrote Wells a letter full of dignified woundedness: ‘Boon has naturally not filled me with fond elation. It is difficult of course for a writer to put himself fully in the place of another writer who finds him extraordinarily futile … the falling away of this is like the collapse of a bridge which made communication possible.’ Wells replied in jocular mode: the novel was ‘just a waste-paper basket. Some of it was written before I left my house at Sandgate [in 1909], and it was while I was turning over some old papers that I came upon it, found it expressive and went on with it.’ James, unimpressed, wrote back, framing what has become one of his most famous aesthetic assertions:
Your comparison of the novel to a waste paper basket strikes me as the reverse of felicitous, for what one throws into that receptacle is exactly what one doesn’t commit to publicity and make the affirmation of one’s contemporaries by … It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.
Wells’s reply to this was chillier: ‘when you say “it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” I can only read sense into it by assuming that you are using “art” for every conscious human activity. I use the word for a conscious attainment that is technical and special.’ And that marked the end of the correspondence, and of the James-Wells friendship.

Biographically speaking, there are various readings of what was going on here, some of which I'll come back to below. And the falling out has, I think, a greater than personal significance as symptomatic of two models of what ‘the Novel’ ought to be, battle-lines drawn over the very meaning of Literature in the Modern Age. Simon James's Maps of Utopia includes a good assessment of this, which I'm not inhibited from quoting at length:
Darko Suvin declares the contest [between Wells and James] ‘a draw’, but in subsequent versions of specifically literary history, James had tended to have the ascendancy (aided, in no small part, by Wells’s undeniable personal insensitivity). Even Time Magazine, when putting Wells on its cover in 1926, titled the text that followed ‘All Brains, Little Heart’, ruling that ‘in Boon, his wicked attack on Henry James, he may have been assaulting in James what was missing in himself: infinite care and moral responsibility’. James was a theorist crucial both to the New Criticism in the United States and to F R Leavis and Scrutiny in the United Kingdom (indeed, Mark Schorer’s famous New Critical deprecation of Tono-Bungay is strongly reminiscent of James’s misgivings over Balzac’s over-‘inclusiveness’). As university departments of English Literature began to be founded in the 1920s and 30s, James’s concern with significant form and moral seriousness exerted a profound influence over the formation of the academic canons of judgement and value, to the detriment of the side of the argument that Wells, still alive was happy to continue, in the Autobiography and elsewhere. In the 1920s Wells wrote a caption for a National Gallery Portrait postcard of James which in draft form reminded that ‘he ventured upon the stage and was routed by the gallery’; Wells own copy of this note contains the handwritten addition, ‘Keep this, to recall the crime.’ As late as 1943, in answer to a letter from Herbert Read, Wells asserted that, ‘believe me, Henry James deserved it.’ [Simon James, Maps of Utopia: H. G. Wells, Modernity and the End of Culture (OUP 2012), 28-29]
Deserved it, did he? Well: I'll come back to that. So ingrained has this tacit narrative of Modernism become, it remains, even today, quite a radical thing to counter it, as when Roger Luckhurst makes the case that, whatever the Academy says, Wells in fact ‘won’ this war. We touch on a most important fault-line in what the novel ought to be.


2. Mallock

That said, I want to turn for a moment away from the scandal the book was going to cause, and look back to the work that directly inspired it. Because if it's hard for a modern reader to get a handle on Boon, that's in part because it is an explicit re-jigging, or a modern version, of a book that was very famous and is now entirely forgotten: William Mallock's The New Republic (1877). Wells is perfectly up front about this. His alter-ego, Boon, organises a ‘conference’, or literary party in a villa by the sea, inspired by Mallock's book, which itself concerns a literary party in a villa by the sea:
“Now picture to yourself the immediate setting of my conference. Just hand me that book ...”

It was Mallock’s New Republic. He took it, turned a page or so, stuck a finger in it, and resumed ... “It’s an astonishing thing. Do you know the date of the New Republic? The book’s nearly forty years old! And since that time there’s been nothing like a systematic stocktaking of the English-speaking mind. And I propose a Summer Congress, which is to go into the state of the republic of letters thoroughly. It isn’t perhaps quite Gosse’s style, but he has to be there—in a way he’s the official British man of letters—but we shall do what we can for him, we shall make him show a strong disposition towards protective ironies and confess himself not a little bothered at being dragged into the horrid business. And I think we must have George Moore, who has played uncle to so many movements and been so uniformly disappointed in his nephews.”
I'll come back to Moore in a bit. Various other names are mentioned, and a venue for the congress is located and rented:
THIS CLASSICAL VILLA
with magnificent gardens in the Victorian-Italian
style reaching down to the sea, and replete with
Latin and Greek inscriptions, a garden study,
literary associations, fully matured Oxford allusions,
and a great number of conveniently arranged bedrooms,
to be
LET OR SOLD.
Apply to the owner,
Mr. W. H. MALLOCK,
original author of
“The New Republic.”
Key within.
Very intertextual: this novel actually rents the space of another novel in which to erect its text. Soon the party is joined by ‘emissaries of Lord Northcliffe and Mr. Hearst, by Mr. Henry James, rather led into it by a distinguished hostess, by Mr. W. B. Yeats, late but keen.’ From here we're into Chapter 4, ‘Of Art, Of Literature, Of Mr Henry James’, which contains several merciless pastiches of the echt Jamesian manner:
Meanwhile Mr. James, being anxious not merely to state but also to ignore, laboured through the long cadences of his companion as an indefatigable steam-tug might labour endlessly against a rolling sea, elaborating his own particular point about the proposed conference.

“Owing it as we do,” he said, “very, very largely to our friend Gosse, to that peculiar, that honest but restless and, as it were, at times almost malignantly ambitious organizing energy of our friend, I cannot altogether—altogether, even if in any case I should have taken so extreme, so devastatingly isolating a step as, to put it violently, stand out; yet I must confess to a considerable anxiety, a kind of distress, an apprehension, the terror, so to speak, of the kerbstone, at all this stream of intellectual trafficking, of going to and fro, in a superb and towering manner enough no doubt, but still essentially going to and fro rather than in any of the completed senses of the word getting there, that does so largely constitute the aggregations and activities we are invited to traverse. My poor head, such as it is and as much as it can and upon such legs—save the mark!—as it can claim, must, I suppose, play its inconsiderable part among the wheels and the rearings and the toots and the whistles and all this uproar, this—Mm, Mm!—let us say, this infernal uproar, of the occasion; and if at times one has one’s doubts before plunging in, whether after all, after the plunging and the dodging and the close shaves and narrow squeaks, one does begin to feel that one is getting through, whether after all one will get through, and whether indeed there is any getting through, whether, to deepen and enlarge and display one’s doubt quite openly, there is in truth any sort of ostensible and recognizable other side attainable and definable at all, whether to put this thing with a lucidity that verges on the brutal, whether our amiable and in most respects our adorable Gosse isn’t indeed preparing here and now, not the gathering together of a conference but the assembling, the meet, so to speak, of a wild-goose chase of an entirely desperate and hopeless description.” [Boon, 4.2]
... as well as the cruelly witty description of James as the hippo trying to pick up a pea, quoted earlier in this blogpost.

The book does other things than just attack James, of course: it rattles through the wider literary scene, with little puffs and barbs for and against Shaw, Conrad, Rebecca West, American literature, journalist E B Osborn and various others. Schopenhauer gets quoted at some length, as does Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the latter's proto-Nazi Aryan theorising being, I'm pleased to say, solidly mocked (‘it isn’t any sort of truth, it is just a loud lie’ [7:2]). There are some interesting metafictional touches: ‘“All through this book, Boon,” [Wilkins] began. “What book?” asked Dodd. “This one we are in. All through this book you keep on at the idea of the Mind of the Race....”’ [7:1]. Still, I have to say: having read the whole, it's the Jamesian parody that really sticks with you.

The book ends with two excerpts, supposedly from Boon's oeuvre. One is ‘The Wild Asses of the Devil’, in which an author extremely like Wells befriends an old tramp, who turns out to be an actual devil, charged with tending the asses of Hell, who has been sent into the world to retrieve them when they happened to escape. The asses transmogrified into human form, and, unable to discern them amongst the rest of humanity, the devil has given up. Wells rouses him to go out and give it another go, since these asses ‘will do no end of mischief’, but the tale ends inconclusively. Finally there's the story of ‘The Last Trump’, in which the titular magical trumpet is found in a junk shop in Caledonian market and blown by old Briggs to see what would happen. What happens is that the world ends, God and his angels descend; but only a few people even notice, and these witnesses are easily dismissed, ridiculed and explained away: ‘Men will go on in their own ways,’ Wells concludes, ‘though one rose from the dead to tell them that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, though the Kingdom itself and all its glory became visible, blinding their eyes.’ That's the end of Boon.


3. A Queer Story

In one sense Boon represents Wells trying another strategy for putting over his standard agenda: the future of the race, the world state and so on. Lots of this is about helping the Mind of the Race refine itself and facilitate the coming World State. He'd done all this before as Utopian fiction, as SFnal extrapolation, as preachy interjections into his straight fiction and of course as non-fiction. Here he sees if the material goes over as satiric comedy. It has to be said: it doesn't, really.

I think that in part that's because there's too great a mismatch between advocacy and satire. The latter. destructively, attacks specific targets; the former needs to make a positive, constructive case for its imagined future, often in general terms. And though some of the figures targeted in this book figure as examples of what needs to be swept out of the way before the new future can be instantiated, Henry James really doesn't. In what ways exactly, we wonder, does it impede the development of the Mind of the Race if Jamesian prose is a little on the prolix side? The answer, of course, is: it has no bearing at all. Which in turn makes us wonder why Wells gives over so much of Boon to roasting his old friend.

Earlier I quoted the elderly Wells looking back: ‘believe me, Henry James deserved it’. But in what way did he deserve it? In his account of the affair, Anthony West sides, as we might expect, with his father: James had ‘patronised’ Wells ‘relentlessly’ and ‘in the most offensive possible way’; ‘the older man had written to my father too many times to shower him with oily praise as a preliminary to telling him that his latest book had proved, yet again, that he didn't begin to know what he was doing’. West thinks a letter from James dismissing The Passionate Friends (‘I find myself absolutely unable [to consider it] in any aesthetic or literary relation at all’), and an article James published in the Times Literary Supplement criticising various younger writers, including Wells, were the final straws. ‘The more my father thought of them, the more intolerable James's papal pretensions seemed to him. The old fat cat could not rest content with his absolute freedom to do his own precious thing—he had to foreclose on all other forms of the novel.’ [West, 43-44] According to West, Wells was not only entitled to kick back, doing so was profoundly therapeutic for him: ‘my father felt that a great load had been lifted from his spirit. His block had been blown away, like a cork from a champagne bottle, and a new novel—Mr Britling Sees It Through—was soon absorbing his energies.’

It may be there's some truth in this, partisan though it obviously is. It would certainly explain why the attack on James occupies so disproportionate an amount of Boon as a whole. But there's a tone in West's account of James (‘the old fat cat’) that chimes with Wells's own mockery, and reminds us, or ought to, how easily straight men can slip into unconsidered homophobia.

In Boon, George Boon, is planning ‘rather in the manner of Henry James’ a book to be called The Spoils of Mr. Blandish, in which a Henry-James-alike has no adventures but instead visits places ‘consciously taking delicate impressions’ of them ‘upon the refined wax of his being’ [4:4]. The stress is on the passivity as well as the feline decadence and triviality of James's work—on, not to be too over-obvious, the ways in which it is coded as feminine. The novel is illustrated throughout with Wells's ‘picshuas’, and here's the one of Mr Blandish, which is to say, of James himself. Remember that James was by 1915 an elderly and corpulent man, selfconscious about his physical appearance, very sensitive to slight both in terms of his own hyper-refined sensibility and also as a closeted gay man in a homophobic world. And here's Wells's pained-looking, feminine-lipped, pig-trottered, mincing fatty:



Wells had known James intimately for many years. It's inconceivable he didn't know about James's sexual orientation. And whilst Wells devoted much of his energy, and indeed his life, to the project of making the world a sexually freer and less repressed place, he is oddly silent on the topic of homosexuality in his writing. It simply doesn't come up in books like A Modern Utopia; none of the novels contain obviously gay characters, he doesn't address the topic in his journalism.

My sense is that Wells's view of sex was more than usually egoist. He was a highly sexed individual who projected his own sense of erotic energy outwards, and rationalised it to himself via a basically procreative metanarrative: we must breed the best to enhance the race and so on. This really leaves no room in his model for gay desire. Now, it is true that he had many gay friends (James among them), and there's nothing in his writing we can read as assertively homophobic; but that's not to say that he was entirely comfortable with homosexuality as such. So, for instance, he often teased his friend A L Rowse about his gayness (with a nice cattiness, Rowse wrote a marginalium in a biography of Wells he owned, recently sold at auction: ‘He was kind enough to send me his books inscribed. I sold them’).  The question is how far Boon's mockery of James is just a rather cruel wittiness, and how far it is the expression of a buried sexual hostility.

I'm conscious that this may look like me straining at a reading. Boon certainly might stand, as it was taken by many of its first readers, merely as a jeu d'espirit, a puckish satire of contemporary mores. If it has lost much of its sting, that's because its targets are no longer current (James, ironically enough, aside). But I don't think that's the whole picture here.

In part I think this because of how much Boon owes to its template, Mallock's New Republic. To make the point, I'll have to trespass on your patience, dear reader, and say a little more about the old novel by Mallock upon which Wells erected his new one.

The New Republic has various targets (a main one is Benjamin Jowett who, as Mallock saw it, was dangerously trivialising Christianity by meddling with a kind of ecumenicism). But one of its barbs hit home in unexpected ways, and that was its attack on Walter Pater, ‘Mr Rose’ in the book, for being what everybody knew him to be: gay. In Mallock's account Mr Rose is a poseur, an effeminate aesthete whose adoration for Greek literature and culture is a figleaf for his homosexual appetites. Here's a sample:



All those handsome couples! Xάρις (‘grace’) is used, I'd say, in the sense that Plato specifies, as that mutual, reciprocal gratification that can only occur between lovers who are equal—as, Plato argues, men and men may be, but as men and women can never be, because, Plato argues, women are by nature inferior. It is, in other words, code, much as talking about ‘Greek love’ is code (the other bit of Greek quoted is Thetis to her son Achilles in Iliad 1:417, ‘but now you are doomed to a quick death, weighted with sorrows above all men’: ah, Achilles, beautiful, physical, doomed! Just like Gaveston). There's plenty more like this in the book, too. It torpedoed Pater's real-life reputation: put paid, for instance, to his hopes of winning the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. Indeed, Linda Dowling notes that the appearance of Mr Rose came to dominate the way the New Republic as a whole was read:
Mallock’s portrait of Mr Rose was to have several unintended consequence of the greatest significance for late-Victorian culture, not the least of which would be its contribution to the constitution of homosexuality as a positive social identity in Oxford and beyond. For with the reductio ad absurdum embodied in his portrait of Mr Rose Mallock would implicitly accept the basic premise from which Pater has begun, “that male love has the capacity to initiate powerful cultural change”—and the very brilliance of his satire would unwittingly serve to drive the premise home. [Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Cornell University Press, 2014), 89]
Rehabilitating homosexuality was certainly not Mallock's intention, of course. My point, though, is to suggest that Wells's Boon picks up this tonal agenda of pansy-mocking.

So for instance, Reginald Bliss, going through Boon's remains, is disappointed to find only the odds-and-ends that constitute the book we are reading. The only thing not in fragmentary form, we're told, is ‘a series of sketches of Lord Rosebery, for the most part in a toga and a wreath, engaged in a lettered retirement at his villa at Epsom, and labelled “Patrician Dignity, the Last Phase”—sketches I suppress as of no present interest.’ [Boon, 1:2]  Rosebery, the former Prime Minister, crops up several times in the book, actually. And why Rosebery? Conceivably because of the rumours that Rosebery was gay (toga, wreath, decadent ‘last phase’: you get the drill.) Supression-worthy, you see.

[A sidebar: was Rosebery gay? McKinstry's Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil (2006) goes to great and indeed one might say doth-protest-too-much lengths to insist on Rosebury's ‘robust heterosexuality’. I don't know if I'm persuaded. The Marquis of Queensbury—he of Oscar Wilde trial infamy—pursued Rosebery all the way to Germany with the intention of horsewhipping him for sleeping with his (Queensbury's) son. Edmund Backhouse and George Ives claimed to have had sex with Rosebery, and many, from contemporaries such as Frank Harris to modern-day writers like Neil McKenna, have believed them. Of course it's not a question we can answer with any certainty, and also, of course, it's liable to strike us as an irrelevance (so he was gay? so what?), except insofar as a figure like Rosebery can figure, in a homophobic society where gay people live closeted lives, as a rebus of insinuation.]

I'm wondering, in other words, whether James occupies a place in Boon akin to the place Pater occupies in New Republic, and that this gives Wells's novel a, to modern sensibilities, deplorable homophobic flavour.

Consider, for instance, ‘The Wild Asses of the Devil’. What's going on in this strange little fable? Ass means donkey, and also means stupid person, and the ostensible moral of the story is that Hell has unleashed not malign focused wickedness but a kind of plague of idiocy upon our world. Fair enough. But ass also means arse (it's a mistake to think the former uniquely US and the latter uniquely UK usage: as the dictionary makes clear, ‘contrary to the widespread belief of [ass] being a euphemism [for arse], it arose as a pronunciation spelling still used in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc. that shows the loss of -r- before s increasingly common in all words since the 18th century in both England and its colonies.’) The devil Wells's narrator encounters has been working in our world as a stoker: that is, a seaman. Asked why he hasn't tracked any of the wild asses down, he complains that they look just like regular people; and this leads into the following little exchange:
“So far as I can see,” he said, “they might all be Wild Asses. I tried it once——-”

“Tried what?”

“The formula. You know.”

“Yes?”

“On a man named Sir Edward Carson.”

“Well?”

“Ugh!” said the devil.

“Punishment?”

“Don’t speak of it. He was just a professional lawyer-politician ... How was I to know? ...” [Boon, 8:5]
To be clear, the notion here is: a sailor has approached Sir Edward Carson and propositioned him as a closet ‘wild ass’, and in outraged reply Carson has used his legal and political powers to punish the sailor severely. Carson, of course, was the barrister who acted in the first trial, and therefore the downfall, of Oscar Wilde. Look again at the title of this odd little story. Does it need spelling out? Wilde. Arses. Nor do I think the jocular tone of all this defangs its homophobic bite. A certain proportion of the population, though they look just like ‘ordinary’ human beings, are actually manifestations of a demonic, hellish, impulse, at once bestial and rather absurd? As allegories go it's not subtle. I'm reminded of the unpleasant rhyme Algernon Swinburne (himself hardly a sexually conventional individual) wrote on the death of Wilde:
When Oscar went to join his God
Not earth to earth, but sod to sod ...
It was for sinners such as this
Hell was created bottomless.
What's so dislikable about this sort of thing is its smugness: the self-satisfaction of cleverness framing a sneer. We're being invited to snigger, as, I suspect, we are with the otherwise hard-to-square reference to Carson in Wells's novel.

It takes us back to the central chapters of the novel, with their portrait of James. What is it that Wells finds so ludicrous and unusual about James, that he also finds threatening enough to merit so elaborate and public a rebuke? Don't forget: ‘believe me, Henry James deserved it.’

James joins the party and contributes to the discussion, but is evidently out of place. He falls in with the Irish novelist, George Moore, and the two of them go off together. Was George Moore gay? He boasted elaborately of his sexual conquests of women, but the rumours, and indeed modern scholarship, suggest the answer: is the Pope Catholic? Moore's biographer Adrian Frazier concludes [in George Moore 1852-1933 (Yale University Press 2000)] that he was ‘a homosexual man who loved to make love to women’, something which didn't of course preclude him from making love to lots of men too.

Anyway, in Boon Moore and James hit it off (they weren't even acquaintances in real life). Here they are, walking across the garden together, talking simultaneously, James prolixing on about the symposium, Moore describing an attractively grubby little urchin he had spotted in France:
At that moment Mr. George Moore was saying: “Little exquisite shoulders without a touch of colour and with just that suggestion of rare old ivory in an old shop window in some out-of-the-way corner of Paris that only the most patent abstinence from baths and the brutality of soaping——”

Each gentleman stopped simultaneously.

Ahead the path led between box-hedges to a wall, and above the wall was a pine-tree, and the Editor of the New Age was reascending the pine-tree in a laborious and resolute manner, gripping with some difficulty in his hand a large and very formidable lump of unpleasantness....

With a common impulse the two gentlemen turned back towards the house. Mr. James was the first to break the momentary silence. “And so, my dear Moore, and so—to put it shortly—without any sort of positive engagement or entanglement or pledge or pressure—I came. And at the proper time and again with an entirely individual detachment and as little implication as possible I shall go....” [Boon, 4:2. Ellipses all in original]
You came did you, Henry? And without any sort of marriage-like entanglement, pledge, or pressure too! Very good. The editor of the New Age was Alfred Orage; your guess is as good as mine as to the identity of the lump of unpleasantness. Wells adds in a picshua of the odd couple, subtitled: ‘Mr. James converses with Mr. George Moore upon matters of vital importance to both of them.’



On the one hand, the fact that ‘matter of vital importance to both of them’ is never explicitly spelled out in Boon is part of the satire on the nebulous emptiness of the Jamesian manner. But on the other hand, it could be a matter the obliquity of which is determined not by literary affectation but by the hefty structures of social disapproval and judicial punishment, the same ones that were brought to bear in the ruining of Oscar Wilde.

I don't want to be too heavy-handed, here. And I'm certainly not suggesting Boon is an example of out-and-out queer-bashing. But I do find myself wondering if there is a sniggering, hetero-boys-altogether web of rather sneering insinuation running through the whole exercise. Art is delight, but Wells thinks it needs to be more than delightful: it needs, in some sense, to be productive. James thinks the delight is an end in itself, and indeed that it upends the conventional wisdom about the priority of the lived and the aesthetic: ‘it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance’. Maybe they're not just arguing about art—or perhaps it would be better to say, maybe they're arguing about a wider remit of delight than just the textual. For Wells sex is a pleasure but also a productive engagement with the world, filling it up with new life (with, in point of fact, the eugenically best new life, all the better to bring about the World State). He certainly fathered a good brood of kids himself. Who knows how James personally experienced sex, though his writing certainly has eloquent things to say about physical desire, and more to the point precisely about such desire as a end in itself, not as the means to a further, worldly end.

Putting it like that will perhaps bring to mind the big debates in Queer Theory from the 1980s to the present. So, for example, a book like Lee Edelman's influential No Future (Duke University Press 2004) is a boldly polemical attempt to reclaim ethical as well as aesthetic value in the very specifically childless pleasures of non-future-oriented fucking. Read through this kind of a lens, Wells's stiff reply—‘when you say “it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” I can only read sense into it by assuming that you are using “art” for every conscious human activity. I use the word for a conscious attainment that is technical and special’—looks just dense, or perhaps actively disingenuous. Of course James is talking about more than just the technical business of constructing a novel when he insists that art makes life. Presumably Wells knew it, too; he'd certainly had enough conversations with James over the years about art, life and everything else. Of course for James aesthetic pleasure is a much wider category than just books and paintings; and of course he thnks aesthetic beauty and aesthetic delight inform life—manners, sex, everything—in the fullest sense.

The best case I can make, then, is that Wells here articulates a sort of refined homophobia in Boon: not crude revulsion at gay sex as such, so much as a notionally more considered judgement that gay sex is a dead-end, a no-future childless abdication of collection racial responsibility.

At any rate, I think it's in this light that Wells's mockery of the Jamesian aesthetic is best read: not that it is prolixly vapid, or empty, but rather that it is a sort of symbolic repudiation of fertility, a tacit celebration of Edelman's ‘No Future’. That's why it gets described as an ‘Altar of the Dead’ [4.3], as ‘an elaborate, copious emptiness’, a ‘desert’ populated by ‘eviscerated people’. It's death in the long-term sense that interested Wells, but which didn't interest James in the least. And, as the chapter ends Wells comes up with an image that makes me think of strenuous and perfectly unfecund, unproductive sexual activity:
His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God Himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness. [Boon, 4.3]
To come. There we are again. And all for nothing!

Still, there's part of me that wants to read all this as not amounting to straightforward homophobia. Conceivably Wells, who knew James as well as anybody, was talking not about (what we would nowadays call) gay art, or a gay asethetic, but was just talking about James. As Colm Tóibín says, there is something a little tragic about James's life, the case of ‘a gay man whose sexuality has left him frozen in the world. It is, in all its implications, a desolate and disturbing story’. And Tóibín quotes James's biographer, Leon Edel: ‘no passion had ever touched him for this was what passion meant. He had seen outside of his life, not learned it from within.’ Wells is sort-of saying the same thing. He's just saying it with a grin on his face. I suppose it's the grin that is the problem.

2 comments:

  1. In one of the biographies (Sherborne?) I came across the story that when Jane was typing up Boon she repeatedly tried to persuade Wells not to publish it. In other words, there was an awareness of the hurt it would cause. But I suspect that Wells was really fired up by the two-part TLS article, which really was an unprovoked attack on Wells as a writer from someone who, before this, Wells had considered a close friend and even possible collaborator. But here was James saying Wells was not an author of note, that he was a journalist not an artist, and (perhaps worst of all) linking Wells with Arnold Bennett as a has-been. I suspect that James's homosexuality was the means of attack, but it wasn't the cause of it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Updike made your conclusion rather homophobically explicit in his New Yorker review of Hollinghurst's "The Spell":

    “Boredom swoops in without heterosexual clutter to obstruct its advent...nothing is at stake but self-gratification...Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family."

    - matthew davis

    ReplyDelete