Attempts on Her Life: Truth and Self in "Portrait of a Lady"

Well obviously the apartment would be beautifully furnished. Obviously it would have high ceilings and tall windows and date in all probability from the end of the nineteenth century when the rise in speculative building coincided with the aspirations of the liberal bourgeoisie to create monumental architectural schemes such as I’m thinking particularly now I’m thinking of the Viennese Ringstrasse which made such an impression on the young Adolf Hitler as he stood one morning before the Opera.
–Or one of the great Parisian boulevards.
–Or one of the great, exactly, Parisian boulevards.

–from Martin Crimp’s Complete Plays: Volume 2, page 209-212, “Attempts on her Life.”

I read this play while staying in my friend’s apartment in a suburb in Paris. The other book I was reading at the time was Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, another attempt of sorts on a lady’s life. It felt highly appropriate to be reading Henry James during a two-week poor man’s jaunt through England and Paris. The boulevards were definitely good representations of “the aspirations of the liberal bourgeoisie to create monumental architectural schemes;” “total Illuminati,” Corey mused while contemplating them. They made me think of imperial imagery and the cult of the Roman Emperor, like we learned in my freshman year humanities class, in which dead emperors were made into gods and his cult was spread through coinage, architecture and fashion. There seems to be a lot of dangerous implications when you try to definine something absolutely.

This is the first Henry James novel I’ve ever read, other than his short stories in college and The Turn of the Screw in high school for AP English. I read David Lodge’s novel Author, Author, an Amadeus-like story of James’ failure at the theatre and his friendship with an author who was super famous at the time, but whom nobody remembers now (have *you* read George du Maurier?). His books always lined my mom’s bookshelves at home, nestled in between Dickens and Vanity Fair. “Henry James is so subtle,” my mom once told me (I don’t know in what context, maybe we’d just finished watching Wings of the Dove or something). “You’ll read a whole page, and then look up, and be like, I know that something really, really important just took place… butwhat?” That’s as good of a summary of Henry James’ style as I’ve ever heard. I mean, it says a lot that the key scene in this novel consists of Isabel sitting motionless in a chair (how did they turn this into a movie, again?).

Despite this initial fear that this novel was going to leave me feeling like I was an absolute idiot, in the end I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this novel. Maybe my brain has just gotten really big over the past year (ha, ha, ha!) but I honestly didn’t find it that hard (I can haas literary smarts?). I definitely didn’t have the same reaction as my housemate, who read the first page of Wings of the Dove and threw it across the room shouting “WHAT THE BLEEP?!” (Oh, biology majors.) I got really into the characters in Portrait of a Lady; I finished each chapter with a feeling of eager anticipation, like I was waiting for the next episode of a TV series. I would update the ever indifferent Corey on their conversations and decisions: “Oh oh, it looks like Isabel is going to accept Gilbert Osmond’s marriage proposal. It’s all downhill from here.” “Henrietta the journalist really represents modern America! While Caspar Goodwood is a total embodiment of penetrative capitalism!”

This was an interesting book to read while traveling as a tourist. Isabel wanders through London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, looking at old ruins and art, attempting to “collect” experiences like those little barbed seeds that cling to your clothes when you pass through a tall field. (Collecting is a big motif in this novel; much is made of Gilbert Osmond’s art collection and his desire to keep Isabel and his daughter shut up in his nasty claustrophobic old house like expensive portraits.) There’s a lot of annoying stupid rich Americans and Brits in this novel, traveling for no point or purpose, living off their inheiritances. Isabel is smart enough to see through the emptiness, commenting with typical astuteness that “doing all the vain things one likes is often very tiresome.” (309) Why yes Isabel, it is very tiresome indeeed! She goes on to ponder:

The desire for unlimited expansion had been succeeded in her soul by the sense that life was vacant without some private duty that might gather one’s energies to a point. She had told Ralph she had ‘seen life’ in a year or two and that she was already tired, not of the act of living, but that of observing. What had become of all her ardours, her aspirations, her theories, her high estimate of her independence and her incipient conviction that she should never marry?

This is my favorite quality of Isabel’s: her introspection, her ability to ask those kinds of questions. When asked by the odious Madame Merle to define her idea of success, Isabel’s response is “to see some dream of one’s youth come true.” (206) I like how Isabel philosophizes and reflects on her actions, and I’m sure it’s this quality of hers that has captivated readers and literary critics for over a hundred years now.

Another thing I want to mention is the exchange Isabel has with Madame Merle in one particular section, as it sets up two different concepts of the ever popular topic in modernism, the Question of the Self. As Madame Merle puts it:

“When you’ve lived as long as I you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we’re all each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our ‘self’? Were does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us–and then it flows back again… One’s self–for other people–is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garment, the books one reads, the company one keeps–these things are all expressive.” (207)

In contrast, Isabel replies, “I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me.” (208) And thus we have two opposite viewpoints of how the self is constructed that are set up very intriguingly. A footnote from this page helpfully quotes a passage from Henry James’ brother William, the famous psychologist, who writes that “properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” Whoa! How do you express yourself truely, if there are so many “selfs” for you to express? Are you doomed to forever be divided into American Doll Possee fragments, or will you ever add up to a complete and wholly integrated person? And, more intriguingly, what does this imply about the problem of understanding–not just understanding yourself or other people, but understanding and interpreting ART (which can be understood as the expression of a self). AAAAAAAAAA! Now do you see why this novel isn’t the typical Victorian-Realist marriage plot?!

Because this novel is so INTENSELY focused on the thoughts and meditations of the main female character (The Portrait of a Lady is an extremely appropriate title), I think the whole novel can be understood as an attempt to deal with the problem of the self: how to form it, understand it, and then communicate that self effectively with others. There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of experience in this book, and I think that relates back to this idea of how do you go about constituting the self, which I see as Isabel’s main struggle throughout the book. I remember reading in Derrida’s The Truth of Painting, way back in junior the year, something about how the frame of a painting doesn’t just close off the artwork, but also opens it up, because we’re forced to view the artowrk in whatever context in which it’s been presented, which in turn prevents our understanding of the artwork from ever being complete. I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly, but the basic gist is that the supposedly firm lines that “close” a portrait are ultimately misleading. This is what makes Gilbert Osmond such a creepazoid, he tries to define and trap Isabel in this aesthetic wifey little role (it goes deeper than that–doesn’t it always in Henry James?–but again, that’s the gist of it).

The last thing I want to touch base on is how Henry James is definitely not the author you’d read if you wanted to get an idea of how most people (that is, the working class as opposed to the rich and upper middle) were living–the coal miners, the tramps, the dishwashers, George Orwell’s peeps, basically. Henry James’ characters are such spoiled brats–I mean, these people really don’t do anything. They just travel around Europe, looking at old ruins and collect art, in an attempt to–what? Better themselves? Improve their souls? One of the commendable aspects of Portrait of a Lady is that there are characters like Isabel and her dying cousin Ralph who actually ask themselves the essential question of what is the freaking point.

But typing up this blog entry has been a bit of a surreal experience, because I’m also simultaneously Skype chatting with someone from the microfinance office where I’ll be interning this fall (yay multitasking!), in an attempt to sort out my living situation there (it looks like I’ll be staying with the family of someone who works in the office, which is super bien). In the Egyptian section of the British Museum, there was this little information card talking about the lives of the farmers and workers who worked on the land and were sometimes employed on state construction projects (if my computer wasn’t retarded, I’d upload the photo). To quote from the plaque: “They were not wealthy enough to be buried in decorated tombs. They were illiterate, and so their names and experiences are almost entirely lost, as in many societies. The study of human remains in poor cementeries is the only way of learning of the short lives of most ancient Egyptians.”

It’s weird to me, reading these Victorian novels of marriage and intrigue and travel through Europe, and think about all the short, illiterate lives that are being ignored, that have been lost to time. I think it’s incredibly stupid and ignorant to criticize books for what they’re not about, and that’s definitely not what I’m doing. I just wanted to comment that it was just an interesting experience, to wander through these boulevards in Paris built by kings and dictators, to go home to my friend’s apartment and read about characters doing the same thing, and now, I’m trying to sort out an internship where I’ll be working with people whose lives definitely do not revolve around questions like “should I go to the British Museum today or the National Gallery?”, or, “how is an art work simultaneously ‘closed’ by the artist for a deliberate aesthetic effect, yet opened up to interpretation by the audience?”, or, “when we say we ‘like’ a painting, or a book, what does that mean? Does it mean that there was a certain ‘truth’ shining through the painting or the words on the page that somehow got through to us? And if so, how? How do you reveal the truth of a work of art, if the artwork itself is concerned with showing how it is difficult and even dangerous to try to limit things to a single mesage or meaning?” And so on and so forth. Yeah.

To close, here is another portrait of a lady, from the website I’ll soon be working for.

Are you looking at her? Or is she looking at you?

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1 Comment

Filed under art, experience, Henry James, truth

One response to “Attempts on Her Life: Truth and Self in "Portrait of a Lady"

  1. Orange, Squashed By Dirty Boot

    y'all should share this with more people than little ole me.

    This book was always my housemate Tanya's favorite.

    I watched the opening scene of Portrait of a Lady online. That Nicole Kidman sure knows how to blink while sitting perfectly still.

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