Friday, November 30, 2007

"barbarians at the gates"

While we are talking about movies, "Barbarians at the Gates"is a movie from Quebec that I will enroll in the Whig canon; the title is particularly evocative these days. (The "barbarians" in this case are Americans.) The barbarian oligarchs and television evangelists who seized control of the Republican Party and, briefly, all three branches of the federal government, have an uncomfortable similarity to the Saudi and Wahabbi families in the Arabian peninsula (see the fine book by John R. Bradley, available at who are systematically dismantling the ancient and largely peaceful civilizations that have fallen under their rule. Just now we are watching the relentless polarization of the Middle East by allied gangs of barbarians, ours among them. A "peace" process that excludes rival gangs of Iranian tyrants and their allies in Gaza and Lebanon, and is evidently aimed at destroying them, is likely to lead to further destruction of ancient civilizations on the battleground, as rival mobs engage. Poor old Henry James condemned the barbarian of his day, the emperor of Germany, who plunged Europe into war and treated whole nations as mere means to an end. But James was optimistic, and in the long run - although it has been a very long run indeed - I think he was right to be hopeful. Civilization is sturdy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

"the band's visit"

Talking about Henry James at a bookstore gathering last night (the admirable Norwich Bookstore) turned my thoughts again to James's Whig sensibility, and the ways in which it may have survived. If you haven't seen the film "Ratatouille" that I mentioned in an earlier post, you should. James would like the images of Paris as the city of light; perhaps would also enjoy seeing his sensibility rendered in that most American and democratic of media, the animated film. But do also see "The Band's Visit," which sends an Egyptian band wandering in an Israeli desert, and summons with true Jamesian humor and skepticism the sensual encounter of new and old cultures. Mass market entertainment is no better than it ever was, in the days of penny newspapers and serial novels, but every now and then a film (or a television series) self-consciously carries forward what once were only literary and theatrical traditions.

Friday, November 16, 2007

the mature master

I have been a bit distracted by the imminent publication of my book, Henry James: The Mature Master, (which is on sale now, but the formal "publication date" is November 20). A reporter asked me, in the course of an interview, what I thought was Henry James's relevance to a reader today. I am afraid I was not prepared for the obvious question. Why read the biography of a rather conservative gentleman who died almost a century ago and who was loyal to values that today seem quaint? I mumbled something about the disastrous twentieth century and the possible interest of the civilization that preceded it and was largely destroyed. I suppose I should have added that James was a conscience Whig, at least in principle (the party having wrecked itself as a political force by trying to avoid the issue of slavery). That is to say, he wanted to carry European language and culture, the art of living, into the democratic American age that he thought morally superior. This seems to me an admirable purpose, and I would like to do my bit, my iota of assistance. I see that I am no better at expressing the thought here than I was in the interview; but let it stand.