The Sacred Fount

I’ve long had an aversion to the prose of Henry James. (How I prefer his brother, “the adorable William James,” as Whitehead calls him). There is just something so smug about Henry James’ prose, creepy and self-congratulatory and fussy and self-important and filled with hideous phrases like “in fine,” and “I daresay,” and “she hung fire.”
I often think of Henry James as the polar opposite of Proust (who is my favorite author of all time). James is all about the subtle folds and crevices of consciousness, where Proust is about those aspects of our emotional life where consciousness fails to reach (like “involuntary memory”). James fetishizes a narrow, instrumental “intelligence”; Proust is all about the limitations and failures, and ultimately the irrelevance, of such an intelligence. James’ characters are always calculating, always jousting for advantage, always manipulating one another, while Proust tracks the movements of passion, for good and for ill, in generosity and in cruelty, that are beyond calculation. James and Proust are both snobs; but where James takes his snobbery complacently for granted, Proust subjects it to lacerating self-analysis. And so on.
But Nightspore has been after me for ages to read James’ little-known novel The Sacred Fount, and his recent post quoting Rebecca West’s hilarious description of the novel (she writes that James “records how a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people that it is among sparrows”) finally persuaded me to do so.
Well, I have to admit that The Sacred Fount really is quite something. It’s James’ parody (intentional or not, I’m not quite sure) and reductio ad absurdum of his entire aesthetic and method. Significantly, the novel features James’ only first-person narrator; and this very Jamesian narrator spends the entire novel discerning subtleties that simply aren’t there, ‘reading’ his fellows entirely incorrectly, congratulating himself for his own mistaken insights, and constructing a “theory” of human behavior that finally collapses into a black hole of irrelevance and inaccuracy (or collapses like a house of cards, to use one of the novel’s own metaphors). The ultra-subtle discernment of James’ prose turns out to be nothing but projection and interpretive paranoia; the novel’s seeming exploration of intersubjectivity is unmasked as a wishful solipsistic fantasy. Thus, the narrator goes to great lengths to describe to the reader his silent unspoken sympathy and commiseration with a ravaged woman, filled with desperation, at the end of her rope, her life blasted by passion, on the verge of total breakdown, courageously and beyond her own strength struggling to hold herself together only a few moments longer… only it turns out the woman is none of these things, but rather just a witty and skittish flirt.
What’s more, you can’t even say the narrator learns anything at the end, when the full extent of his folly is revealed to him. He sort of shrugs it off, admitting a kind of defeat, but with his faith in his own intelligence and discernment largely unshaken.
The entire content of the novel, including everything that makes any of the characters potentially interesting, is withdrawn at the end, leaving nothing but a void. The Sacred Fount is so wonderfully crazy and pointless a book, so extreme an exercise in style (albeit one that makes me cringe) devoid of any meaningful content, so dazzling a display of writing without any reason to write, an act of pure expression without anything whatsoever to express, that it won me over in spite of myself.

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