"Rickard A. Parker" wrote:
> Carrol Cox wrote:
> > I think "great mind" is a phrase that does not indicate anything of
> > interest to discuss. Why do you think we should think about it?
> Well then, how about fine minds?
> [Henry] James's critical genius comes out most tellingly in his
> mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape
> which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a
> mind so fine that no idea could violate it
I think that this is not one of the happier moments in TSE's critical
works. One can twist it around to get something useful on the texts, but
as it is worded it's pretty pointless. I believe I am not the first to
wonder what in the deuce it means for an "idea" (whatever he means by
that) "violating" a mind. Does "fine" mean merely "good," "nice," or
does it have the sense it bears in "fine bits of silicon"? A closely
textured mind? But what could that mean. Is it merely a fancy way of
saying that James's novels were not crudely didactic?
But let's look a little closer at the source from which you pulled this
quote. In the November 6, 1986 issue of the NYRB Gore Vidal, reviewing
Henry James: Literary Criticism French Writers, Other European Writers,
The Prefaces to the New York Edition. Library of America, had written as
*****The Library of America has seen fit to publish in one volume all of
James's book reviews on American and English writers, as well as a
number of other meditations on literature. To read the book straight
through (1413 pages of highly uneven book-chat) is to get to know Henry
James in a way that no biographer, not even the estimable Leon Edel, the
present editor, can ever capture. Here one can study the evolution of
James's taste and, yes (pace, T.S. Eliot), mind. Incidentally, I have
never quite understood Eliot's wisecrack that James had a mind so fine
that no idea could violate it. In James one is always aware of a highly
subtle intelligence with all its (changing) biases and viewpoints as it
considers everything from communism to D.H. Lawrence. I, on the other
hand, have never detected much in the way of "ideas," as opposed to
moods or prejudices, in Eliot's curious neurotic commentaries. But then,
Eliot ended a mere Christian; James ended an artist.****
Then in the Dec. 18 issue, Elinor Cook wrote (letters): "T.S. Eliot's
supposed wisecrack about Henry James is actually a compliment ("Lessons
of the Master," NYR, Nov. 6). Context herewith: I think Mr. Vidal might
enjoy it. And she quotes the passage from Eliot. Gore responds:
****Although, like the late Lord Mountbatten, I have never been wrong,
my memory is no longer infallible, to put it mildly. I am in Cook's debt
not only for quoting Eliot in full but for omitting, out of tact, the
occasion for his remarks: a review of that all-time neo-conservative
black hole, Henry Adams.****
I don't think Cook has the better of the exchange. However Eliot
intended it, the comment was simply absurd. Eliot's critical pieces have
become, for me, interesting mostly as they throw light on his poetry.
Otherwise, Gore's "curious neurotic commentaries" seems not inadequate.
I personally am enthralled by _What Maisie Knew_, _The Awkward Age_,
_The Sacred Fount_, to name only the ones that I have had occasion to
reread recently, and _Confidence_ is a really delightful piece of fluff.
James's novels, like Eliot's poems, are of great interest, but I still
think estimating "minds" is a sort of empty parlor game.