Sunday, July 31, 2011

all was because of your noblesse

Going from Le Morte d'Arthur to The Spoils of Poynton (Henry James) with my brain still on the subject of knights and knightly codes, and tragic deaths, and so on, and noble Launcelot not killing the man who was gripping his thighs, etcetera, I decided that the exquisite fineness of feeling suffered by James' Fleda Vetch, was in fact chivalry, a compelling chivalry from which her personality, her very Self, could not be separated -- and the problems she faced were not due to the chivalry per se, but to the reluctance of the world to recognise that chivalry for what it was, and reward it.

Which it cannot be commanded to do, except by James himself, and there is the stumbling block, he has a stake in the maintenance of the world's indifference to chivalry. Freda is chivalrous and other characters are not, and a lot of the tension in his story can be located at that crux. On one hand he sympathises with her, on the other hand he sabotages her. Why sabotage? So that he can go on acting like an author. Without the crux there would be no Spoils of Poynton. Fie on you, Henry James, you two-faced gentleman. But without the Spoils of Poynton there would be no Freda Vetch.

When, in chapter sixteen, she refuses to take advantage of her superiority over a rival -- a superiority she has come by honestly, not conniving for it, not plotting for it, but just naturally happening to have it -- she is in the same situation as Sir Launcelot in the Morte when that man grips his thighs. The man has committed a murder, Launcelot has been cast in the role of a judge, and justice could be very easy. All he has to do is administer a coup de grâce with his sword and everything will be over in two minutes. Instead he tells the man to get up and fight him. It is not enough for the man to act like a criminal, he, Launcelot, must act like a worthy knight, and therefore no coup de grâce. He can't kill a man who refuses to act like his equal. No, replies the man. I will not fight you. I'm going to stay down by your legs, where it's safe. "Now will I proffer thee fair," says Launcelot, "I will unarm me unto my shirt, and I will have nothing upon me but my shirt, and my sword and my hand." And Fleda Vetch unarms herself too, she will not take advantage of her advantage, but she tries to be fair.

Her rival is not so scrupulous, and Freda loses the thing she thought she had. Other characters are defeated with her; it would have been better for almost everybody if she had been less chivalrous. Be ruthless, the others might have said to her. For our sakes, be ruthless! But what she needs in her life is not ruthlessness, but a sword and a horse and the incredibly delicate organisation of a Round Table, which can only be maintained in a book with a rigid repetitive structure, and over whose dissolution King Arthur wept, and the knights said to Sir Launcelot as he was leaving Arthur's court forever: "we all understand in this realm will be no quiet but ever strife and debate, now the fellowship of the Round Table is broken; for by the noble fellowship of the Round Table was King Arthur upborne, and by their noblesse the king and all his realm was in quiet and rest, and a great part, they said, all was because of your noblesse." And Freda Vetch might sigh and say, I wish mine was this welcome.


  1. The loss of noblesse = the key to all our current troubles (maybe).

  2. I don't know, but according to Malory it went away irrevocably somewhere around the 6th century or so, when the Round Table fell apart. His Arthur weeps and says that he would rather lose his queen than his Table, because he can always dig up a spare woman, but where is he going to find another set of knights like that? Impossible! Never again! Now have I lost my joy, he says. Then there is smiting and leeches. And James, several centuries on, seems to think that it only exists in rare and isolated cases, and that it hinders and disables the people who possess it. (Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady is another one, I think.) It makes them vulnerable. It's the opposite of a useful evolutionary development. They'd have a better time if they'd grown beaks or fangs instead.

    So it is always in danger, wherever it exists, like a rare tiger, always delicate, always ready to disintegrate -- even when it's being upheld by the best knights in the kingdom -- and I don't think I've ever read a writer who thought that it was really popular now (whenever Now is for them), but they always look back to a previous time, when it was a bit more rampant and easier to spot -- and then the writers in that previous time look back to another previous time, and so on.

  3. "it would have been better for almost everybody if she had been less chivalrous". Almost everybody? Who are the exceptions. Is this the old "ends justifies the means" conundrum? If so, it's almost the fundamental problem of life isn't it? At what point do you let go of moral/ethical values. That's what Cormac McCarthy confronts in The road and the whole good guys/bad guys theme running through it. OK I've probably strayed far from your original point but ...

  4. 'Almost,' because the rival benefits, and so does the rival's mother. Break it down and it goes like this:

    The Rival
    The Rival's Mother (a second-tier character)
    (Possibly the rest of the rival's family, existing off in the distance somewhere)

    Does not benefit:
    Freda's friend
    Freda's friend's son

    It's the "end justifies the means" conundrum made Jamesianly complicated by this feeling of chivalry (or fairness, or whatever you want to call it) that he gives her. If she does the unfair thing (and it is a minor unfair thing, so minor that it would take a scrupulous or thoughtful person even to see it) then her friend, who has taken Freda into her house, been kind to her, etc, etc, will secure the one thing in life that she really wants. (However, does this mean that if Freda goes through with it, then she is consenting to become her friend's tool? And does she want to be anybody's tool? Is she becoming unfree? Not that she would be bound to the friend, but would it be an act of -- what can you call it? -- moral unfreedom? This isn't explicitly stated, but the reader can deduce it) The unfair thing is also the thing that Freda really wants. And the reader has been taught to regard Freda as a person who deserves to have some sunshine in her life, whereas the rival is someone the reader is not supposed to like. She is coarse, Freda is sensitive, she is grasping, Freda is giving, she is well-off, Freda is poor. It's a delicate set-up but incredibly loaded. The fair thing is, again, very minor, and no one except Freda would have missed it if it hadn't been done, but the consequences make all of the 'good' people of the novel unhappy. They'll probably be unhappy about it for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile the rival will float on, totally happy and blithe. It's more delicate than The Road, because "the wrong thing" is so small, and the trap the author has locked her in is an emotional and social trap, not the life or death problems of cannibals and starvation. (Fiercer, too. Closer to Anita Brookner's idea of fierceness -- the good suffer, the bad are rich and fat, and goodness itself, if you gave it a little twist and looked at it from a different angle, would be indistinguishable from stupidity.)

  5. ('Fiercer' because McCarthy's father at least gets to look like a self-sacrificing hero, his son will think back on him with tears in his eyes, and the reader will say, "That good, strong man, he suffered for his son." And the son is being taken care of. But no one is going to congratulate Freda, and the reader will probably sit there saying, "Gees, OK, she's sensitive and kind, but wow she's exasperating, what a dummy, and the friend's son, I want to wring his neck, and I don't know if I liked the friend either, what a weird chick she was.")

  6. Thanks for all this ... you have explained it wonderfully and it sounds like just the sort of book I like to read though whether I would have got out of it the finer nuances I have is arguable! Would they see Freda as a bit of a martyr? Or, simply a dummy? (PS I'm glad you haven't given away what this minor thing is so I may read it one day!)

  7. I think it's possible to see Freda as a bit of a martyr because the fair thing that she does is so self-sabotaging that anyone could look at it and say, "Well, she prefers to be unsuccessful and pitiful and pitied, and that's a bit pathetic." I don't see it like that, because I think she's maintaining her self-respect for herself, even though she knows that none of the other characters will understand.

    In Malory's kingdom you have knights doing the chivalrous thing and other knights and citizens showing them respect and honour because they are upholding the rules by which the kingdom is governed. Freda is like a kingdom in herself. She upholds the rules by which she is governed.

    If I had to compare her action to the action of any other character in any other book then I'd pick Camus' Arab-killer, who acts for himself, and takes the consequences. This is sort of what my mind was dwelling on when I was writing about her being "morally unfree." Freda has made herself poorer and less socially and financially fortunate, but she has also made herself freer -- although you could argue that James (with his massive fragile and tough spiderweb of a plot) is telling us that no one can ever be free: life is unfreedom. Still, this gesture at freedom is somehow necessary.

    (James's books are such great thrillers that I'd hate to have someone give away the twists.)

  8. I suppose it only hinders and disables those who possess it when very few possess it - if everyone did, it would be a different matter. Although there might be unforeseen consequences - in the same way that the advice to people who want to lose weight that I read recently - always be the last person to start eating - could backfire if everyone followed it.

  9. I think a lot of people criticized for being martyrs are like this - following, in a sense, their own moral code. So what some see as being martyrish they see as doing the right thing, or, at least, the right thing by themselves. They do what they can live (or die) with. I suppose Meursault could be seen in the same light. Your notion of being morally unfree is complicated and I'm not quite sure I've fully taken it in.

  10. ZMKC -- that magical place where everyone possess it is part of Malory's vision, and it's the key to the Round Table's success. The knights are not only chivalrous people, they also live in a place where chivalry is recognised, and this recognition -- the fact that members of the Table are respected and honoured -- draws more and more people toward the behaviour itself. (I'm thinking of the eager young men who keep turning up, asking if they can be part of Arthur's court -- the one called Beaumains consenting to work in the kitchens for a year if only the king will knight him at the end of it.) The disintegration of the Table is a disaster in Malory's eyes, but, yes, I wonder what the "unforeseen consequences" would have been if that state of affairs had gone on and on and everybody continued to be chivalrous (or if such a thing sprang up now) and the Table went on being successful, and all of the dishonourable knights were constantly being defeated by either Sir Launcelot or Sir Tristram, those twin weedwhackers of the knightly world, and on and on -- what else could happen, besides a final explosion that destroyed it all? Everyday consequences, little annoying chivalrous things, everybody holding the door open for everybody else and no one ever making it into the building; I don't know. And then the door gets grubby and the cleaners complain: "People won't take their hands off it!"

    WG -- "Morally unfree" was a bad phrase. I was just trying to get at the idea of a freedom that doesn't depend on pressures from the outside -- it doesn't make you free as in rich, or free as in free from other peoples' bad opinion of you, or free as in loosed from a dungeon -- but free as in, "I have acted according to my view of myself, and how I should behave, and never mind the consequences in the wider world, and if I went against this idea of myself because I thought I would acquire money or respect then I might have done right by the world, but I would feel that I had chained myself up inside, and forced myself to behave in an unnatural way." So, yes, "doing the right thing by themselves."

  11. Oh good ... it's something to aspire to in a way but then would it work en masse? Now that's a question that I think I'm too lazy to try to answer ... but you, over there in the American desert, just might!

  12. It's never been tried en masse, so who knows? There's the obvious worry -- that people would take it as an invitation to get up to all variety of wacky hijinks, burning down houses and sawing pomeranians in half "because I felt like it." In Malory's ideal world everybody would a) want to do the noble thing as a matter of course, at all times, and, b) they'd know what the noble thing was, in every situation, and c) whatever noble action they took would make society better and more triumphant and never interfere with a noble action performed by anyone else. But even Arthur's knights can't make it work. Sir Kay's teasing lapses into bullying, and Sir Tristram falls in love with other men's wives, and the Round Table collapses from within after a knight starts spreading rumours about Launcelot and Guinevere. He repents after half the cast is dead, but it's what you might call a tad late by then: just a tad.

    The way that society steams ahead is so dependent on feelings being quashed, or changed, and violent actions not being taken (even if they seem to answer some inner need) that if everybody actually did what seemed true to themselves (and how would they measure that anyway? is this all just sophistry?) that things would not be able to continue as they are, and then what would take the place of those things?

  13. ... although it hits me that another way to look at Meursault and Freda might be this: they are not alike, because Freda is acting out of habit, fairness is a habit with her, and she trundles along over the tracks of this habit like a tram, even when the tracks are going nowhere useful. She's not thinking, she's just trundling. Meanwhile Meursault is breaking out of habit, he's superseding all of his past actions and habits; he's pointing out that they are obsolete, and even the action that has superseded them means nothing more than they did.