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Unconsciously Pragmatizing: Henry James's 'The Beast in the Jungle'

The short story

The pragmatistic spirit of Henry James?s short story "The Beast in the Jungle" leaps out at the reader who has some acquaintance with the work of Henry?s brother, the philosopher William James. Henry's character's bring William's philosophy to life, and William's philosophy provides a perspective from which to reflect on the the meaning of the character's lives.
The relationship between literature and philosophy has always been prickly. Plato speaks in the {Republic}about the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Dramatic poets would be denied entrance to his utopia unless they renounced their craft (595a-602b). Plato is not entirely deaf to the muse, however; he speaks of poetic inspiration as a kind of divine madness in the {Phaedrus} (244-5), and admits in the {Laws} that poets intuitively understand things of great importance (628a).
The belief that all learning is recollection (anamnesis), presented in the {Meno}, under lays Plato's mistrust of poetry. Like the servant boy who proves the Pythagorean theorem without the benefit of mathematics when prompted by the right method, real knowledge is discovered by virtue of our participation in the ideal (99d). We can not learn the truth unless we already know it on some level. Sense impressions can stimulate the effort required for thinking, but the knowledge we acquire already exists a priori, and is accessed through reason. The idealist position is that knowledge is not made, it is remembered.
The poet, rather than seeking the truth, creates a mimesis, an imperfect copy of the idealized form which is truth itself. "The tragic poet," Plato says, "is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the truth" (Plato, {Republic} 597e). Poets, like artists, create illusions, and, as such, are potential enemies of truth and virtue. Homer, according to Plato, may have transmitted great truths about the gods, but he also portrayed them as jealous, vengeful, lustful and dishonest, qualities which reason tells us could not inhere in a god. These human attributes create a veil of illusion that obscures the truth. Since the defeat of illusion requires sustained moral effort, poetry only adds to great effort required to break free of the chains that imprison us. Plato?s complaint about poets was based on a mistrust born of respect for the power of poetry to influence the human spirit.
Pragmatism rejected Platonic idealism which dominated philosophical thought for millenniums. It was a nineteenth century attempt to answer questions of meaning introduced by Darwin's theory of evolution, scientific materialism, the new fields of psychology, anthropology and archeology, and the new understanding of the historicity of sacred texts. The radically changing world of the nineteenth century required a new philosophy. But Pragmatism did not spring up ex nihilo; it is an heir to empiricism which preferences experience over fixed principles and a priori reasoning. Pragmatists recognized the fluid nature of reality and the necessity for knowledge to apprehend and influence experience. "The pragmatist," said William James, "turns away from abstractions and insufficiency, from bad a priori reasons, closed systems, absolutes and origins and toward the facts, adequacy and action. He rejects dogma and the pretence of finality in truth" (W. James, {Pragmatism} 45).
Whether idealists like Plato, or empiricists like William James, the philosopher's job is to seek the truth. They must employ language with precision and transparency in order to make the subject of their investigation clear, whereas poets intentionally employ language with multiple meanings and opacity in order to evoke their subject in the imagination of the reader.
It would be inaccurate, as well as inconsistent with the Henry James's aesthetic of fiction, to say that he consciously wrote "The Beast in the Jungle" as a translation of philosophy into fiction. There is no doubt, however, that he closely followed his brother William's work. After reading Pragmatism he wrote to William several months later:
[q]Why the devil I didn't write to you after reading your Pragmatism -- how I kept from it -- I can't now explain save by the very fact of the spell itself (of interest & enthrallment) that the book cast upon me [?] I was lost in the wonder of the extent to which all my life I have (like M. Jourdain) unconsciously pragmatised. You are immensely & universally right. (H. James qtd. in Hocks: 23)[/q]Inaccurate, because this letter was written in 1907, and Henry wrote "The Beast in the Jungle" in 1903. Inconsistent, because a pragmatist would not create a work of art to conform to a philosophy; to do so would sacrifice the integrity of the writer/observer and the characters by predetermining the outcome. The word ?unconsciously? in the phrase ?unconsciously pragmatised? is particularly interesting because it describes the kind of intuitive knowledge attributed to the poet by Plato.
Henry was very conscious, however, of the art and craft of writing fiction. He attacked formulaic literary criticism of his day, believing that it was a mistake to attempt to determine beforehand what sort of novel a good novel should be. He believed that to apply theory a priori is unhealthy to art, which must be free to reproduce life exactly as the artist experiences it: unlimited, constantly changing, and never complete (H. James, "The Art of Fiction" 5). As a writer James is clearly a realist, albeit a refined one. In his words:
[q]Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention. (H. James, Fiction 8)[/q] Yet Henry recognizes that his work is informed to some extent by theory. He states in "The Art of Fiction" that until recently the English novel had no sense of having a theory, a ?consciousness of itself behind it -- of it being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison" (1). He goes on to say that art is delightful and theory interesting and he doubts that any good work of fiction can succeed without both. Art, however, does not conform to the theory; the theory does not take precedence. Henry takes exception to contemporary literary critics who call for precision and exactness in language in accordance with the laws of harmony, perspective and proportion. The artist?s words are not exact, he says, but rather suggestive, beautiful, and vague. The meaning of the words is wholly in the meaning one attaches to them.
It is clear to us in retrospect that Henry's distrust of the imposition of meaning a priori: his rejection of abstractions and the pretense of finality in truth, his sense of the open ended quality of life and experience, his respect for the plurality of consciousness, all accord with the philosophical stance that William would publish four years later in {Pragmatism}.
In "The Beast in the Jungle," the protagonist or anti-hero consistently makes choices that are antithetical to pragmatic values. In the story's preface Henry describes the story of John Marcher's non-life as a "great negative adventure." John Marcher is a man with an idea -- the idea that he is destined for an encounter with something extraordinary. He does not know what form it will take, but whatever it is will be so overwhelming that it will either change everything or destroy him. Nothing that he might do with his life can be more than marking time, waiting for what he calls the beast, to spring. This belief that he possesses, which he calls the real truth about himself, actually comes to possess him.
As an idealist, reality counts to Marcher only to the degree that it validates his preconception that he has been set apart for an extraordinary fate. Ordinary human experience will not satisfy. The woman with whom he shares his secret, and to some extent his life, May Bartram, insightfully asks him if what is waiting for is love. Marcher dismisses and diminishes that possibility by casually admitting that what is in store for him may be no more than that ( 40). May does not bring up the subject again. He is too blinded by his obsession to realize that May grows to love him, and that love is the extraordinary/ordinary event that would have changed everything.
The entire history of their relationship is enacted in miniature in the first chapter of the story at Weatherend mansion. Marcher and May have a chance meeting, and Marcher is vaguely aware that he knows her from somewhere but can not place where. He also senses that May knows but won't tell without his "putting out his hand for it" (34). When they have the opportunity to talk, it is clear that May is paying more attention to him than he is to her; she remembers the details of the encounter while he remembers almost nothing. Marcher continues to think throughout their entire relationship that May knows something more about him than he does about himself. The relationship continues to be one-sided to the end, he wants to be known but doesn't care to, or is unable to know her. They delay from minute to minute joining the others on the tour because they are both afraid of admitting that their encounter has been a failure. Similarly, the couple put off joining each other in marriage for the rest of their life, holding themselves aloof, unwilling to risk, yet afraid to admit failure, waiting for the beast to spring.
Marcher's thought or obsession exists in his mind a priori, because it has no correspondence with reality; he never tests it, and it never changes. The idea that destroys him is the antithesis of a true idea according to William James. "The truth of an idea," he states, "is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events" (W. James, {Pragmatism} 196).
Henry James conveys the idea that William James explains -- that truth happens (or in this case does not happen) -- in the language of a poet. The verbs that James uses in "The Beast in the Jungle" to describe movement convey the couple's inertia. May "drifts" toward John (34). Later, John feels, regarding their relationship, that they are no longer "hovering" about the headwaters of their stream, but were "afloat" in the current (42). Marcher merely "circles" about the idea "at a distance." May "hovers" before him, and "glides" toward him (58), movements more applicable to a ghost than a woman. Movement is frequently expressed in the passive voice. Marcher; for example, recalls that he "had been conveyed" by friends to Weatherend (33).
Henry's imagery is as quiet as October light and as staggering as the pounce of a beast. Like all images, they convey different meaning to different readers. The seasonal imagery contrasts natural growth and change with the unnatural and unchanging law that rules Marcher's life. The names Marcher and May have been recognized by readers as seasonal references. Gargano finds it significant that the two months are separated by the month of April. April is the month in which Marcher realizes that May's flame has gone out (14). So much is expressed in the atmosphere of an afternoon:
[q]Then it was that, one afternoon, while the spring of the year was young and new she met all in her own way his frankest betrayal of these alarms. He had gone in late to see her, but evening hadn't settled and she was presented to him in that long fresh light of waning April days which affects us often with a sadness sharper than the grayest hours of autumn. The week had been warm, the spring was supposed to have begun early, and May Bartram sat, for the first time in the year, without a fire. (54)[/q]
In addition to the seasonal images which serve to place their story in time, there are various images of burial throughout the story which imply the end of time. The first reference to death occurs when Marcher thinks about their past connections as "small possible germs, but too deeply buried -- too deeply (didn't it seem?) to sprout after so many years" (36). James's use of the word 'possible', and the reflection "(didn't it seem?)" suggest an openness to growth. This is shortly followed by the hopeful image of "buried treasure" in reference to May's knowledge of his secret. But the fruition or discovery never comes, instead, their life becomes a slow march toward death. Marchers epiphany occurs at May's grave, the secret is buried with her, and he, too late, becomes aware of his own inability to love; the beast springs, and he falls face down on her grave.
William James describes the nature of consciousness in {The Principles of Psychology}. He explains that each thought coheres with other thoughts within each individual mind, and each mind keeps its thoughts to itself. That is, no person has been proven to be able to see or read another mind. Consciousness thus is totally insulated and pluralistic (W. James, {Psychology} 226). Henry James's use of the third person unreliable point of view, the same that he uses in "The Turn of the Screw," allows the reader to be privy to events only from Marcher's perspective. This limited point of view, without intrusion of the authorial voice, was pioneered by Henry, and is an artistic expression of William's description of consciousness.
Because of the radically pluralistic quality of existence and the absolute insulation of each individual mind, communication is our only hope for knowing. But, Marcher and May don't ever really communicate; their conversations are shallow and banal or vague and incomplete. May's initial lack of knowledge, and later, her inability to speak her mind is interpreted by Marcher as some kind of feminine wisdom, inscrutable and sphinx like. But in the end, the knowledge she holds is worthless because she does not share it. After her death Marcher stares at her tomb until the two words of her name become two eyes that don't know him. Ironically, in life, his eyes were the uncomprehending ones.
James's narrative style is rather elliptical, like an internal dialogue with the qualifications, hesitations, backtracking and distractions that are characteristic of our internal ruminations. It is easy to get lost in his long sentences with multiple subjects. Henry is considered a forerunner of the stream of consciousness technique, a phrase that his brother William is credited with coining. It seems to the individual that thought is continuous and unbroken; if there are gaps the mind is not aware of them, and so consciousness seems to flow. "Let us call it," James wrote, "the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life." (W. James, {Psychology }239)
Because thought is always in motion, our state of mind is always new; theoretically we never think or sense the same thing the same way. William here resonates to Heraclitus who said we can never step in the same stream twice. Incidentally, Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Ionian philosopher, is seen as the father of the empirical tradition. This sense of always becoming is also characteristic of Henry's novels, both in the sense that he continued to experiment with style throughout his career, and in the sense that when we come to the end many of Henry James's novels we can imagine the characters continuing their lives and we wonder what will come next (Conrad 1).
This sense of ongoing potential is just what we do not sense in conclusion to The Beast. When Marcher at last knows the real truth, he believes that it "had been appointed and done." The truth, Marcher reflects, truth hadn't come to him:
[q]on the wings of experience; it had brushed him, jostled him, upset him, with the disrespect of chance, the insolence of accident. Now that the illumination had begun, however, it blazed to the zenith, and what he presently stood there gazing at was the sounded void of his life. (70)[/q]Marcher sees the slab of marble tombstone as the last page in the book of his life. Henry's message, according to Millicent Bell, is a refutation of idealist intransigence. To selfishly love and hoard our essence is in itself an act in the sense that not to choose is still to choose, and we will come nevertheless to the last page of our story (12). Bell perceives Henry's image of the page as an encouragement to writers to continue to write the stories of human experience. In a related response to Henry's life and work Joseph Conrad wrote in 1905 that there is no hint in James of giving up or completion. (Henry had suffered a great setback, prior to his successful mature style, when he tried unsuccessfully to transpose his literary vision to the idiom of theatre. In retrospect, it seems strange that he would have thought that his particular style could be reduced to dialogue, but sometimes we don't know ourselves as well as others do, in any event it was an experiment.) Conrad was inspired by Henry's continual growth as a writer, "It is impossible," he said, "to think of Mr. Henry James becoming 'complete' otherwise than by the brutality of our common fate whose finality is meaningless -- in the sense its logic being of a material order, the logic of a falling stone" (Conrad 1).
Conrad believed that the writer has a particular moral vocation that he compared to rescue work carried out in the darkness. The reader needs to be taken out of the darkness of his own life and into the light of "imperishable consciousness." The phrase "imperishable consciousness" does not sound at all Jamesian, and of course Conrad did not have to share James's philosophy to appreciate his work. But in the next sentence Conrad qualifies himself saying that consciousness is only enduring within a finite life, only imperishable against the short-lived work of our hands. Conrad recognizes James's unique brand of refined realism that is expressed in his characters which are "subtle and perceptive, possessed of a fine conscience, introspective, and at times desperate in their isolation, [?] yet true and heroic" (3).
Henry's possession of a fine conscience, an introspective nature, his self appointed role as the observer contrasts with William's outgoing, manly, action oriented temperament. It seems that William never understood Henry's art as well as Henry understood William's philosophy. William wrote to his brother:
[q]Your methods and my ideals seem the reverse, the one of the other ? and yet I have to admit your extreme success in this book. But why won't you, just to please your brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in that action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style? (qtd. in Hock: 20) [/q]It is somewhat distressing that William, who was so tolerant of individual differences, seemed unable to accept that Henry's character's psychological commentaries and indecisiveness were expressions of Henry's temperament. William actually did know this; although he seemed blind to it in his brother's case. In fact, he argued that our claim of objectivity in preferring a particular philosophical perspective is in reality our preference for the philosopher's personality or temperament (W. James, {Pragmatism} 19).
William's difficulty comprehending Henry's work notwithstanding, I am optimistic about the potential for a fresh approach to reading philosophy and literature. I am not referring to the critical application of theories and vocabularies derived from philosophy to literature: deconstructionist, feminist, postmodern, existential, etc. I have in mind an approach that allows readers to make space for friendly encounters between poetry and philosophy. Such and approach to reading particular authors in conjunction with particular philosophers may provide the reader opportunities to see both in a different light.
Pragmatism, as a method which attacks system, jargon, and the interference of wordy theories as obstacles to the direct apprehension of truth could offer guidance here. This preference for a more fluid and open approach to philosophy and poetry, not limited to specific vocabularies or theories, has been suggested by the contemporary pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty refers to major philosophers as strong poets (6). He suggests that philosophy and literature should never have been separate disciplines, or disciplines per se. He puts it this way:
[q]There is an intellectual tradition running from Plato to Derrida that you can study in order to contribute it. But I think there are other intellectual traditions running from Sophocles to Stevens that you can also study and to which you can contribute. The idea of either of them as a discipline seems to me misleading. Its more like a conversation you are joining than like a set of practices to which you are conforming. (6 )[/q]
For those of us interested in interdisciplinary study, this seems like a good time to call a halt to the ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature and allow readers to engage in any process or method which frees them to create new insights about expressing the meaning of human experience.

Works Cited

Bell, Millicent. ?The Inaccessible Future: 'The Beast in the
Jungle',? in {Meaning in Henry James }(Harvard University Press,
1991); excerpted and reprinted in {Short Stories for Students},
Vol. 6, ed. Tim Akers (Detroit: Gale, 1999), pp. 10-12.

Conrad, Joseph. ?Henry James ? An Appreciation ? 1905,? in {Notes on
Life and Letters}. 1921. 21 Apr. 2003

Hocks, Richard A. {Henry James and Pragmatistic Thought: A Study in
the Relationship Between the Philosophy of William James and the
Literary Art of Henry James}. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1974.

James, Henry. ?The Art of Fiction.? {Longman?s Magazine} 4 (1884). 27
March 2003

---. {"The Beast in the Jungle" and Other Stories}. New York: Dover
Publications, 1993.

James, William. {Prgamatism: And four essays from The Meaning of
Truth}. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

---. {The Principles of Psychology}. Dover Publications, 1950.

Lindholdt, Paul J. ?Pragmatism and the ?Beast in the Jungle'.? (1988)
{Studies in Short Fiction} 25 (1988): 275-84.

Plato. {Dialogues}. New York: Random House, 1937.

---. {Republic}. New York: Viking Press, 1948.

Posnock, Ross. {The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James,
and the Challenge Of Modernity}. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1991.

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