Posts Tagged 'henry james'

Phase transitions.

Part III of The Immigration Heresies.

This was written sometime in mid-2016, then shelved. I’m publishing it now as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

It often helps me get started when I have someone else’s ideas to bounce off. By luck, this morning I plucked at random a book off my shelf that touches on a theme I’ve been struggling to define.

lionel trilling the liberal imagination

It was Lionel Trilling’s collection The Liberal Imagination. In an essay from 1947 entitled “Manners, Morals, and the Novel”, Trilling wonders why American novelists seem to “have a kind of resistance to looking closely at society” – by which he means the existence of social classes. He writes:

Consider that Henry James is, among a large part of our reading public, still held to be at fault for noticing society as much as he did. Consider the conversation that has, for some interesting reason, become a part of our literary folklore. Scott Fitzgerald said to Ernest Hemingway, “The very rich are different from us.” Hemingway replied, “Yes, they have more money.” I have seen the exchange quoted many times and always with the intention of suggesting that Fitzgerald was infatuated by wealth and had received a salutary rebuke from his democratic friend. But the truth is that after a certain point quantity of money does indeed change into quality of personality: in an important sense the very rich are different from us. So are the very powerful, the very gifted, the very poor. Fitzgerald was right…

Earlier American writers, says Trilling, had proposed explanations for this blind spot in the national literary imagination:

There is a famous page in James’s life of Hawthorne in which James enumerates the things which are lacking to give the American novel the thick social texture of the English novel – no state; barely a specific national name; no sovereign; no court; no aristocracy…

In consequence, these writers argued, American culture offered

no sufficiency of means for the display of a variety of manners, no opportunity for the novelist to do his job of searching out reality, not enough complication of appearance to make the job interesting. Another great American novelist of very different temperament had said much the same thing some decades before: James Fenimore Cooper found that American manners were too simple and dull to nourish the novelist.

Trilling observes however that

life in America has increasingly thickened since [Henry James’s time]. It has not, to be sure, thickened so much as to permit our undergraduates to understand the characters of Balzac, to understand, that is, life in a crowded country where the competitive pressures are great, forcing intense passions to express themselves fiercely and yet within the limitations set by a strong and complicated tradition of manners. Still, life here has become more complex and more pressing.

Seventy years on, America has become much more crowded, its competitive pressures greater, its social rules more complex, in a way that, if Trilling was right, should have led to an improvement in the quality of American literature. But would anyone say the American novel circa 2017 is in better shape than it was in Trilling’s time? I doubt it. But perhaps that’s because Americans’ creative energies have shifted to other media, with movies and TV shows jostling for room at the pinnacle of the culture where novels once lorded it alone.

***

But what interests me is the phase transition alluded to by Fitzgerald in his comment about the rich, and by Trilling when he contrasts the easy manners of 19th century New England with those in “a crowded country where the competitive pressures are great”, like France or England.

In chemistry, matter undergoes a phase transition when heat is added – ice turns to water, water turns to water vapour – and that just about exhausts my knowledge of chemistry. In the social realm, phase transitions are fuzzier and harder to define, but no less real and important.

If Fitzgerald was correct that the rich really are different from us, the phase transition might occur at the point one has accumulated enough wealth to no longer have to worry about money. This gives one a certain immunity to caring what the rest of us think. Society might still condemn your nonconforming behaviour, but there’s no risk of it getting you fired.

There must be a corresponding phase transition at the bottom of the economic scale, between those with barely anything – who are desperate to preserve what little they have – and those with nothing – who have no further reason to give a damn.

Another obvious social phase transition occurs when population is added. When two individuals are brought together, social interactions that were previously nonexistent suddenly become possible. When a third person is added, the possibility of allegiances is introduced – two of the three might team up against the third. Another phase transition occurs when the group grows large enough that comfortable face-to-face conversation is no longer possible, and it splits into subgroups.

At this point we’re moving beyond the size of a family unit or social gathering and into the realm of what we would call society. The next major limit is marked by Dunbar’s number, with a phase transition occurring when the population grows beyond the number of personal relationships that the human brain is capable of managing – 150 or so, according to Robin Dunbar.

To elaborate on my highly scientific analogy, just as the boiling and freezing point of water vary according to atmospheric pressure, social phase transitions are sensitive to other pressures besides simple population growth. For instance, the Malthusian limit – the point at which a society outstrips its available food supply – varies depending on location, climate, and level of technology. Given enough agricultural, transportational, and organizational know-how to keep its population fed, a society can go on cramming in people, probably not forever, but at least until some as-yet unencountered phase transition is reached – like the “behavioural sink” brought on by overcrowding that doomed the colonies in the NIMH mouse utopia experiments.

***

Imagine a newly-arrived immigrant family in a small town in the Canadian prairies circa 1910. Wishing to preserve their ancestral customs, whatever those customs might be – Ukrainian, German, Chinese, it doesn’t matter – they reach out to nearby families of the same background with whom they can gather on traditional holidays to chat in their native language, sing their native songs, share their native recipes. But those other families live a long, rattling buggy-ride away. Between holidays our newcomers eagerly scan the international news for rare mentions of their homeland. They wait weeks for replies to their letters home. Once in a while a parcel arrives with precious canned goods unavailable in Canada, wrapped in a weeks-old newspaper. They nurture a slim hope of someday saving enough to make a trip to their home country, knowing that in all likelihood they’ll never see it again.

At work, by necessity, they speak only English. Their children attend school and make friends with Canadian-born kids who are at best politely bemused by the newcomers’ quaint customs. Within a year or two the children, now speaking unaccented English, are mildly embarrassed by their parents’ devotion to the old ways. The children switch easily between English at school and their ancestral language at home, but as they reach adulthood and move out, marry native English-speakers, see their parents less often, their sense of ethnic identity fades. The next generation picks up from its grandparents only a few proverbial expressions and snippets of nursery songs.

Contrast a Chinese immigrant family arriving in Vancouver in the 2010s. They arrive in a metropolis where roughly a third of the population is ethnically Chinese. Very likely they settle in a neighbourhood where Chinese are an outright majority, where their children attend schools surrounded by fellow Chinese-speakers. The community supports multiple Chinese-language newspapers and radio stations. The more popular Chinese movies are playing at the local multiplex. Chinese TV shows can be streamed online. Not only canned goods but fresh fruits and vegetables from back home are available in most grocery stores. And if in spite of all this the new arrivals get homesick, for a few thousand dollars the whole family can take a week’s vacation in China.

Supporters of mass immigration point out that at various times in Canada’s history, the percentage of foreign-born residents has been as high or higher than it is at present. Those earlier immigrants integrated quickly enough, so why shouldn’t these?

foreign born canada 1871-2011

Source: Statistics Canada, 150 years of immigration in Canada.

But they’re overlooking the phase transition that separates a small, spread-out population from a large, densely-concentrated one. A minority of a hundred thousand people can support economic activities like newspapers, radio stations, and specialty grocery stores that a minority of a hundred can’t.

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

And that’s not to mention changes in trade, travel, and technology that together have reduced the pressure to integrate.

I’m not overly gloomy on Canada’s prospects in the era of mass immigration. After all, I elected to leave my small city on the prairies and relocate to hyperdiverse Vancouver, and I like it here. But it’s a matter of taste. Native-born Canadians are as entitled as newcomers to be partial to the way of life they grew up with, and it’s not crazy of them to notice that that way of life is being displaced at an ever-increasing rate.

M.

PS. I previously used the above graphs in a post this summer about high housing prices in Vancouver.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added book cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

A discerning elimination.

the novels of dashiell hammett

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

rex stout the league of frightened men

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

nicholson baker the mezzanine

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length.

Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.

M.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker