Retarded Evolution

‘You don’t know what it is to have been loved and broken with. You haven’t been broken with, because in your relation what can there have been worth speaking of to break?’ (553) – Henry James, The Golden Bowl

IMG_2150When I searched the library stacks for The Golden Bowl there were several volumes on the shelf. I always look for the physically smaller book as I have to carry it around. But I want to want to hold it as well. I was strongly put off by the cover of one of the copies, which met the correct proportions, but as it was an ugly shiny movie poster of a cover, it bothered me on many levels. However, it had a forward by Gore Vidal – too long to read at that moment…so I reluctantly checked the copy out.

Their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response and their pressure; with a violence that had sighed itself the next moment to the longest and deepest of stillnesses they passionately sealed their pledge (259).

If you are familiar with the story, or have been the unfortunate viewer of the film whose equally hideous poster picture adorned my book, then you know two things:
1) It’s a Henry James novel, therefore the extremely vivid and passionate passage above…isn’t going to end well.
2) It’s a Henry James novel, so the extremely vivid and passionate passage above is an anomaly of straightforward desire meets straightforward action – a rare thing in James’ worlds.

After all, ‘Does one ever put into words anything so fatuously rash?’ (221), not in a James novel they don’t, that’s for damn sure. But what he does put into words is the excruciating process of self and socially induced censorship. The ocean of difference between what one thinks or feels and what one says or shows is displayed by James in naked detail – and it is painful. After one particularly long heartfelt speech James drops in this sentence: Some such words as those were what didn’t ring out…”  Ha! Oh Dear man, no! – God forbid one says what they want or mean! Truly, I had an epiphany, perhaps a rather obvious one, but still I was powerfully struck by the thought – what a different world it would be if people could actually communicate honestly with one another…a completely different order.

‘No – nothing is incredible to me of people immensely in love’ (204).

James gives glimpse of love’s ability to pierce the inner worlds. But love is never Love when it can’t conquer social mores or social climbing – never mind the emotional retardation required to meet those conquering heroes of the modern age – conventions and ambition. The father and daughter Verver’s marry for convention’s sake to the lover’s Charlotte and Amerigo, who each marry a Verver (respectively) for ambition- the results are predictably depressing.

‘They believe in themselves. They take it for what it is. And that,’ she said, ‘saves them’ (299).

So says the delightful Mrs. Assingham to her husband, the Colonel, who represent the only open and true relationship of the entire story. They joyfully and hilariously speculate about the inner, hidden, smothered lives of the Ververs, The Prince, and Charlotte. And they are not wrong – to believe in oneself is a sadly rare but beautiful thing – and when two people believe in each other – ah! that’s the very thing.

He had noticed it before: it was the English, the American sign that duplicity, like ‘love’, had to be joked about. It couldn’t be ‘gone into’ (51).

We are taught right from the start what not to say. We have no educational or cultural methods by which to be honest, respectfully, with one another. We are so molded to suppress what we say and how we act that a certain numbness creeps in and for many people the ability to really feel, or know what one feels is lost altogether. Feelings are suspect, troublesome, weak and ‘womanly’. And yet, in the end, to feel is all that matters, it is all the experience this life can really offer us.

As with Charlotte, just before, she was embarrassed by the difference between what she took in and what she could say, what she felt and what she could show (228).

The Golden Bowl goes very deep into the mental processes that result in warped and smothered emotional lives. So deep, sometimes the reader feels lost in the labyrinth of a character’s mind. But the result is a true and tortured account of the energy it requires to try to figure out other people’s motives and intentions when nobody can, or will,  simply state what they are. The intensity of the examination is consuming. The novel is subtle and ambiguous – for the majority of it I just wanted someone to like, someone to root for, but James never offers up a hero – all are duped- mostly by themselves.

The shiny smarmy Hollywood cover of my book started to make a sort of sense – I couldn’t stand to touch it, I want nothing to do with it! The ending, which I have seen outlined by some as a declaration of love, was for me anything but. It was a confirmation of the shallowness of a life lived for the sake of keeping up appearances, it was the effectiveness of a person’s ability to construct emotional blinders – to purchase, with one’s soul, a deal with society while losing the possibility of an authentic life. It was an ending that deflates one’s heart – see? it seems to say – nobody cares about you, Heart.


* title from pg. 520 of Penguin Books edition – “What retarded evolution, she asked herself in these hours, mightn’t poor Charlotte all unwittingly have precipitated?




2 responses to “Retarded Evolution

  1. We write books about it. We write lyrics about it. We constanbtly talk about it.

    Occasionally, someone rises up to proclaim their avoidance of the topic out of some perception that it’s an overstated or even insicere one but the fact that people still come back to engage thoughts and feelings of love is an indication of just how imporant it really is to our lives.

    We need it.

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