Monday, September 17, 2007

back from maine

I haven't been keeping up my whiggery in recent weeks. Part of the reason can be seen in this photo of Monhegan Island, of the coast of Maine. There is a little fishing village / artists' colony, but most of the island is protected by a conservation easement, and outside the village, aside from hiking trails, there are only the farms abandoned decades ago, gone back to spruce and pine, with their bleak views of the sea. This is New England; it is not wildernes, but an inhabited place that constantly reminds one of the sea-going past. My blog began as a commentary on current affairs from the perspective of the past, but I think the past -- or at least what continues, what has been saved from he wreckage of time (in Henry James's phrase) -- has a better claim to attention.

So I look at this image and think of the work that I have been doing recently, the biographies of Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Two more different men can hardly be imagined, and yet their lifelong friendship was founded on what they shared. A common admiration for the art of life, for instance, which for both of them was to be seen and learned in Europe. This art rested on the freedom that a few people had gained as the profit of centuries of injustice. They each knew that bleak truth, and each in his own way pursued the ideal of harmonizing justice and beauty, America and Europe; of creating a democratic civilization.

Each thought of his own career as a performance, and tried to make it not only beautiful but sublime (strange words to use about a lawyer, I know). Holmes and James were both poets, each in his own way; performing their own works. Fine art is the strategy of the powerless, and neither of them had much power in the material sense. Each lectured on the duties of the powerful, the self-restraint that alone provides a hope for a moral civilization. Hard to talk about any of this today, at least in the English-speaking world.
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