Tuesday, April 4, 2017

He gurgled his joy - the immense hedonist in The Ambassadors

Martha Nussbaum argues that the perceptive, particularizing Lambert Strether represents the Aristotelean ethical position and the absent but omnipresent Mrs. Newsome the Kantian position.  In the long, complex, over my head introductory material, Nussbaum also argues against Utilitarian ethics. 

Her specific argument is, setting aside the merits of a given philosopher, that the novel - not just this novel, but the novel as such, as a form – is especially good at working through the kinds of ethical problems that Aristotle’s system is also good at.  Some high proportion of our daily decisions are probably well covered by a pretty basic Utilitarianism, but they hardly make for good fiction.  Chocolate-covered cake donut or plain?  Or maybe I need Kant to help me resist the temptation.  I face this problem often, daily, but as drama it is a little thin.

Although Nussbaum does not really mention it, the Utilitarian position has a representative in The Ambassadors in the great minor character Jim Pocock.  Around the middle, just as Strether was pretty close to resigning his ambassadorship, I began to wonder how James planned to fill so many more pages with this handful of characters.  At just that point, the arrival of new characters was announced, just what the novel needed, including the daughter of Mrs. Newsome, her representative in the flesh, but even more cold and inflexible, completely incapable of adjusting her sense of correctness to her perception.  “The effect she produced of representing her mother had been produced – and that was just the immense, the uncanny part of it – without her having so much as mentioned that lady” (10.3).

But her husband, Jim, that’s who I want here.  Early in the novel, Strether has picked up, along with “wonderful,” the word “immense” – see just above – which is used less flexibly and appears to be some kind of slang.  But it sticks to Jim:

“You see Jim’s really immense…  Jim’s intensely cynical…  He’s awful.”  (9.1)

That’s Strether, thinking aloud.  Jim is only cynical from Strether’s Aristotelian perspective.  In fact, he is a hedonist, a simple-minded Utilitarian, maximizing his pleasure:

He gurgled his joy as they rolled through the happy streets; he declared that his trip was a regular windfall, and that he wasn't there, he was eager to remark, to hang back from anything: he didn't know quite what Sally had come for, but he had come for a good time. (8.2)

And he assumes that Strether and other Americans in Paris are as decadent and ready to party as he is.  He enacts a parody of Strether’s response to Paris, as he

drank in the sparkling Paris noon and carried his eyes from one side of their vista to the other.  “Why I want to come right out and live here myself.  And I want to live while I am here too.”

I could almost detect Strether’s anxiety – is Jim suggesting Strether take him to a brothel? – but Jim’s first “disencumbered and irresponsible” suggestion is that he and Strether, in a cab together, “take a further turn round before going to the hotel.”  Oh, yes, that kind of good time.

In a further irony, there is a hint, at the end of his novel, that his wife, the rigid Kantian Sarah, has taken up with another American.

I meant to use this post as a note dump, a scrapbook of favorite bits of The Ambassadors I Had not yet mentioned, but it turned out to be more of a good time to write about immense Jim.

Let’s see, in a few weeks, optimistically, if The Wings of the Dove is half as much fun.


  1. I'm so glad you're going almost directly into Wings of the Dove (which I finished reading again a few weeks ago), especially right after The Ambassadors.

    I advise you to think about sex--specifically, how it manifests itself in Wings, another novel that features in Merton Densher a distinctly heteronormative male (so rare in James), this time as a co-protagonist (unlike the distinctly secondary Chad). Furthermore, contemplate the potentially unspeakable nature of Kate's father's indiscretions, because it's the sort of thing I think you'll want to write about.

  2. I think it will be more than a two novel break between Wings and Golden Bowl though.

    Thanks for the pointers.

  3. How far along in The Wings of the Dove are you? That'll probably be my next James, but I see from the receipt that I bought my copy almost four years ago now so it's not quite done marinating yet. Almost, though.

    I remember very little about the "immense Jim" character even though I remember having loved The Ambassadors when I did remember its various characters. That alone virtually assures me of a worthwhile reread at some point, no? Cheers!

  4. Jim may be mentioned more than he appears, less a character than a running joke.

    I have read six of ten chapters - the first six - of Wings, and my momentum right now is powerful.

    Wings has much less chatter than Ambassadors. The Late Style is further latened.