Saturday, July 19, 2008

Henry James is My Ambien

Henry James is My Ambien: As I now learn, late-period James is a very different animal than early-period James. I’m reading “The Wings of the Dove”, and find that, in spite of being a native speaker of english and well-read in James’ contemporaries, I simply cannot understand what he writes some fraction of the time [...] dust off your sentence diagramming skills and see what you can make of this, which starts and ends well, but in the middle veers off into I know not where:

The difficulty with Densher was that he looked vague without looking weak — idle without looking empty. It was the accident, possibly, of his long legs, which were apt to stretch themselves, of his straight hair and his well-shaped head, never, the latter, neatly smooth, and apt, into the bargain, at the time of quite other calls upon it, to throw itself suddenly back and, supported behind by his uplifted arms and interlocked hands, place him for unconscionable periods in communion with the ceiling, the treetops, the sky.
(Via Cosmic Variance.)

Maybe being a non-native speaker gives me an advantage, since I've spent a lot more time figuring out English (and French) literary and philosophical writing. That James paragraph is a breeze compared with some Proustian appositive marathons. Here's the core of the longer sentence with brackets marking where various qualifiers (nonrestrictive relatives, adjectival and adverbial phrases) are elided to avoid overflowing the reader's short-term memory:

It was the accident [...] of his long legs [...], of his straight hair and his well-shaped head [...] apt [...] to throw itself suddenly back and [...] place him for unconscionable periods in communion with the ceiling, the treetops, the sky.

Not so hard, right? Of course, it removes much of the wonderful life in the original, which had me see Densher sitting over there, outside in this perfectly cool Palo Alto early afternoon, maybe engaged and maybe not in the question I would have asked him.

Without wanting to be critical of Julianne, whose posts I really enjoy, I was at first surprised at her claimed confusion with that sentence, but then I remembered the total lack of elementary linguistic education in schools here and in Europe. In middle school back in Portugal, I suffered through the torture of an absurd application of Latin grammar to the analysis of Portuguese sentence structures (No, being a Romance language is not enough to make classical Latin grammar a good fit). The whole thing seemed totally illogical to me, and I barely passed the class. It wasn't until later in college, when through a friend I saw the first examples of modern formal syntax, that I had a huge "ahah" moment that I still feel vividly more than 30 years later. It's a shame that the main scientific discoveries of the last 100 years of linguistics, which are so useful in helping us figure out how language works, continue to be ignored or misrepresented in our educational systems.


Vaguery said...

Gerald Stanley Lee is a favorite author of mine, who somewhat overlaps James, and whose prose is either (a) "like a crackpot who doesn't know how to punctuate" [says my wife], or (b) like a poet or a preacher, meant to be read aloud [me].

I wonder sometimes if this is a kind of dialect. We're used to academic prose, and advertising prose, and spoken prose, and even "standard nonfiction" or "standard science fiction" prose styles. I wonder if Lee, let alone James, was far enough from what people can hear these days to have been speaking a different dialect.

Fernando Pereira said...

I don't know if "what people can hear" plays much of a role in this. Written language is not subject to the same short term memory constraints as spoken language. Complex clause structures that would be very confusing in speech are fine in written text because the reader can backtrack -- if they have the patience. However, I agree that current writing styles and conventions do not favor syntactic complexity of the kind that James or Proust used freely, so lack of exposure may well be a factor.