The currents of life
I am on the 6th floor of the library at school -- shoes off, feet up on another chair -- reading a long Henry James story, "The Beast in the Jungle." James is circling around and around his characters, piling subclauses on clauses , making allusions and asides, but doing it with such delicacy and restraint that I nearly stand to applaud. He never comes out and says about a character, "Marcher had no capacity for life," but approaches it from above or behind or from the side, and then always at a slant. Eight or nine years ago, whe I first tried to read James, I couldn't stand him and nearly threw the book against the wall. I wanted bare bones and despair and back to the wall -- Hemingway and Jack London and Nietzsche. But maybe because I'm older, or perhaps because life doesn't seem as simple as it used to, the others strike me as gifted posers who must pound their chests for the audience, while James, this strangely anachronistic modern from Victorian London, speaks to the marrow of my being.
I pause often to savor the story, daydream about meeting James in London in 1900, and catch myself gazing at a woman who is studying across the room from me. Her head is leaning on her hand, and while she reads she absently twists a strand of hair around a finger. I watch her for several minutes and then go back to the story.
May Bartram loves John Marcher but never says so. And John Marcher, though devoted to May, rules out the possibility of love and blinds himself to his one opportunity for salvation from an arid life. By the middle of the story I am imploring Marcher: "Tell her that you love her! Ask her to marry you!" But he refuses to see the obvious; he stumbles past chance after chance, and I begin to groan.
About two thirds of the way through -- the characters are much older now -- May gets sick. When Marcher goes to her they talk about their "friendship," about Marcher's special destiny (he thinks a kind of beast in the jungle of life is waiting to pounce on him), and May all but tells him that is only hope in life is to love and marry her. He cannot see the truth.
I pause again. The scarcely discernable currents of life -- the unspoken fears, the yearnings and hopes, the subtle shadings of buried sexuality, the bread and butter of James' writing -- are in the library now. I look at the woman studying and wonder about all the things she has ever felt in life but has never spoken of, and I am awe of the mysteries, the things we don't know about each other.
My gaze wanders to the window, and in the distance, beyond the water, just past the edge of South Boston, a great silver plane is rising from Logan Airport. If there are even 100 people on board, each with 10,000 secrets, then there are one million mute and amazed moments of life on that plane.A thousand whispers at night, ten thousand silent pauses between friends, scores of midnight phone calls that were never made, a hundred thousands glances that were unmet; a head shifting on a pillow, a restless hand on a table -- the million unconnected, lonely and voiceless moments are in my thoughts, yet still elude me.
I start to go back to the story, but for a few seconds, for a last glimpse, I follow the plane. It is only a tiny speck over the water now, growing smaller and more distant. It is heading east, I think, bound for London, with its million ineffable currents of life.
But when I do go back to the story, time has run out on Marcher: May has died. In the final scene at May's grave, the beast Marcher has been waiting for finally leaps: he realizes that "he had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened."
From more than a thousand miles away, over a span of eighty years, the humanity of Henry James is in the room with me. Outside the window, the plane has disappeared; the woman across the room has gone as well (I didn't hear her go). I put the book away and walk to the window. Six floors below, on the pavement near the library, there is a sea of people walking singly and in small groups. They are smaller than toy soldiers at this distance. But then I walk toward the elevator. I will go down and join them. What Marcher failed to realize (the common humanity of all people), need to apply to me. I will join the sea of people and affirm my humanity. That is the point of James, and the gift of being alive.