Monday, August 1, 2011

"The populous limbo of the vulgarities"

Susan Goodman, in Humanities, on Henry James and The Atlantic:
Looking at Atlantic reviews, or the international focus of Henry James’s serialized novels in the 1870s, a reader might be struck by the range of offerings about other cultures, which James and his friend and editor saw as contributing to larger discussions about American identity. This is perhaps most evident in James’s travel writing for the Atlantic. "Why is it,” he asks in “Recent Florence” (May 1878),
that in Italy we see a charm in things which in other countries we should consign to the populous limbo of the vulgarities? If, in the city of New York, a great museum of the arts were to be provided, by way of decoration, with a species of veranda inclosed on one side by a series of small-paned casements, draped in dirty linen, and … the place being surmounted by a thinly-painted wooden roof, strongly suggestive of summer heat, of winter cold, of frequent leakage, those amateurs who had had the advantage of foreign travel would be at small pains to conceal their contempt.
The answer for James lay not in the veranda itself, or indeed in what was visible, but in “the historical process that lies behind it,” in the accretion over time of the manners, values, rituals, and thinking that make one country this and not another. Culture for James came best into relief through comparison, with Europe and America providing the other’s measure. His own “dépaysement”—as the French call a queasiness of soul in a strange place—both fed his art and formed its basis. It seems fitting that a magazine that began by defining itself in comparison and opposition to English counterparts should nevertheless count James among its most loyal contributors.
(It is a grandly Jamesian turn of phrase, though perhaps more closely associated with his later self.) PS  I do not know why dépaysement hasn't joined the routinely-trotted-out list of "untranslatable" words like Schadenfreude or litost.

Addendum "Populous limbo of the vulgarities" is an interesting example of ambiguity-through-possible-hypallage.

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