The Turned Back of Henry James(1954)
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In Henry James’s most characteristic works the detached observer is both a technical device and a point of view towards life. Impressions of exterior reality are fused through a center of consciousness, as through Coleridge’s ‘secondary Imagination’, to emerge more vitalized and unified than the ‘fixed and dead’ elements of real life. This ‘lesson of the Master’ became more pervasive as James neared the end of his career: the much-disputed later style, for example, is the necessary medium of a highly individualized, subjective consciousness. If the critic prefers the separateness of the fixed and dead elements, as the naturalist does, or sees them through his own awareness of spiritual unity, as Van Wyck Brooks does, he is perhaps justified in saying that in direct ratio to James’s withdrawal from life, he declined as an artist. But if the critic believes that James’s later works are his best, he is committed to the view that James’s art improved as he became more of a detached consciousness. Most readers, convinced that art depends on life, are reluctant to concede that alienation can be a cause of artistic greatness. We are not, however, bound to either sympathetic acceptance or hostile rejection of James’s aloofness from life. Several compromise interpretations are possible.
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