First Things readers ought to know about Azure, a smart, English language quarterly published in Israel. David Novak is a regular in its pages, along with Meir Soloveitchik and other fine writers. The journal has a First Thingsy feel, and I recommend a subscription.
In any event, I mention Azure because I have an longish essay in the current issue. In “Henry James’s Critique of the Beautiful Life,” I offer a close reading of the late novels of Henry James, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, arguing that James composed these famous novels as artful portrayals of the life-giving, beautifying power of moral truth. They are literary expressions of John Paul II’s account of moral truth in Veritatis Splendor.
I’ll admit, some find The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl tough sledding. James writes in an indirect, allusive, almost impenetrable style. But I’m convinced that these novels say something important. To live well—to live “beautifully”—does not involve overthrowing bourgeois morality, as our Bohemian age imagines. On the contrary, moral limitations give life its diamond cut sparkle.
Here’s how I put what I take to be the main thrust of the novels:
The prose—extraordinarily dense, at times seemingly opaque—evokes one of the most contemporary dimensions of today’s political imagination: the dream of existential freedom, the belief that man can cultivate a sense of identity independently of outside determination and influence. In both works, the characters are attracted to an image of life in which they may feel and act as they please, unhindered by social conventions and other pressing moral demands. Yet into these finely wrought fictional worlds of relaxed boundaries James injects a moment of reactionary resistance. At crucial moments in both novels, the inflexible reality of moral truth overcomes fantasies of limitless possibility. The result is certainly not political in the ordinary sense of the term: The narratives remain scrupulously limited to the jewel-box parlor rooms of James’s imagination. Nonetheless, a careful, contemplative reading reveals a profound political dimension. The lure of unfettered inner freedom and the hard-edged, constraining force of moral truth depicted by James can help today’s readers see the clash of dreams that make the “culture wars” of contemporary political life so explosive and intractable.
You’ll need a subscription to read the whole essay. I hope you’ll sign up.
This fine Israeli journal is well worth the price of admission.
Update: Azure has made the article available for free online.