Infinitely fine

In 1910, Henry James published an essay titled “Is There Life After Death?”

Probably not, is the answer he starts with. For one thing, a lot of people don’t even seem to care whether they have immortal souls. “How can there be a personal and a differentiated life ‘after,’ ” he sniffs, “for those for whom there has been so little of one before?” The consciousnesses of people who don’t care about their souls are almost certainly too boring to need to be preserved. In James’s opinion, in fact, it’s not clear why such people exist even once, unless they do so for the same purpose “slugs and jellyfish” do, to provide “amusement” and to represent “wealth and variety” for others in the universe who are more spiritually inclined.

This is divinely snobbish, but as a logical argument, hard to take very seriously. James goes on, however, to raise a more substantive objection to the afterlife: materialism. Science teaches that “we are abjectly and inveterately shut up in our material organs,” he writes, and most people’s experience confirms this. As we get older, we become more and more aware of the limits and compromises that our bodies inflict on our minds, and in the end, we are forced to acknowledge that “even at our highest flights of personality,” we are “the very stuff of the abject actual.” Our hopes and passions turn out to be “but flowers sprouting in that eminently and infinitely diggable soil.” Perhaps the most dismaying confirmation comes when we observe that people “die piecemeal.” After a certain age, most of us become aware of the encroachment of partial death even in ourselves. And if it’s possible for our personality to decline “by inches”—in my own case, the ability to recall people’s names is fast becoming a lost cause—it’s hard to sustain a belief that the mind is ineffable, and hard to resist the conclusion that mind is just an effect produced by “the poor palpable, ponderable, probeable, laboratory-brain.”

Then there’s the paucity of ghosts. This sounds pretty eccentric, as arguments against the afterlife go, but hey, we’re talking about Henry James. What he cares about is personality, and what is a ghost but the essence of the personal? In his nonfiction, it turns out, James doesn’t believe in ghosts, however persuasively he may have written about them in his fiction. (He admits he finds mediums and trances interesting, but only as evidence of the personalities of the mediums.) In James’s opinion, no one has ever come back from death for a visit. Which to James’s mind, more or less proves that no one continues to exist as an individual person after death. Because: No one came back? Really? No one? Could the afterlife be so overwhelmingly interesting that absolutely no one who gets there is willing to spare a moment to check in on the people they used to care so much about? If another world does exist, could the border between it and our world be so impenetrable that none of the greatest and bravest souls who ever lived can figure out a way to cross it, even briefly? And even if we the living are relatively speaking very boring, and even if the obstacles to returning are very high, isn’t a universal failure to come back just incredibly rude?

We think of the particular cases of those who could have been backed, as we call it, not to fail, on occasion, of somehow reaching us. We recall the forces of passion, of reason, of personality, that lived in them, and what such forces had made them, to our sight, capable of; and then we say, conclusively, “Talk of triumphant identity if they, wanting to triumph, haven’t done it!”

If you’re dead to the appeal of society to that extent, then, in Henry James’s opinion, you must really be dead.

In the second part of his essay, however, James changes his mind. He writes that the change began for him with a suspicion that he wasn’t quite sure about the afterlife, after all. He felt he needed to investigate by “trying to take the measure of my consciousness”—only to discover that it wasn’t at all clear that consciousness could be measured, that it had a beginning or an end. Mind seemed to him to be at least as large as the world that contained it, any angle of which it could observe and reflect, at will. “The more and the more one asked of it,” James writes, “the more and the more it appeared to give.” It seemed capable of giving more, in fact, than James thought he could come to the end of in the course of even the longest lifetime. His work as a novelist, in particular, brought this home to him:

. . . it is above all as an artist that I appreciate this beautiful and enjoyable independence of thought and more especially this assault of the boundlessly multiplied personal relation (my own), which carries me beyond even any “profoundest” observation of this world whatever, and any mortal adventure, and refers me to realizations I am condemned as yet but to dream of.

If consciousness is infinite, how can it come to an end? Once we’ve been given a taste of eternity, to yank it away would be, James writes, “a practical joke of the lowest description.” Fate couldn’t possibly be so “vulgar.”

I wish it were true that the universe couldn’t possibly be vulgar, but I’m not sure. I have to admit, however, that writing has sometimes brought me to a similar sense of consciousness as limitless. Writing about life is a strange activity. You take a portion of life that you have lived, and you spend a second portion remembering and re-experiencing the first, in order to create a representation and share it. Life goes on while you are doing the re-experiencing; life runs away, in fact. And the ratio of the second portion to the first, it soon becomes clear, may be any number. To write my first novel, I drew on a year of my life; the writing itself took more than five years. There are hours that it would be easy for me to spend months writing about. It has often happened that I’ve spent a day writing in my journal about the day before. Mathematically, this incommensurability is suggestive. Any set that can be put into one-to-one correspondence with one of its subsets can be shown to be infinite. As a corollary, therefore, since you can spend as much of your life as you want thinking about as brief a stretch of it as you’re interested in, life must be infinite. It can always be described more thoughtfully, more carefully. There is no limit to how much attention you can pay. Which doesn’t mean, mathematically speaking, alas, that it doesn’t or can’t have a beginning and an end. The moments in a life could be like the points in a line segment, which begins at A and ends at B but can be subdivided to any fineness.

It’s suggestive, too, though in a darker way, that the practice of writing, once capable of convincing James that the soul was eternal, looks likely to become an activity that very few humans will still do at any length, a decade or so from now, thanks to the advent of generative artificial intelligence.


[A story. Also available as an issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

I was walking through the library, naked as usual, and as always, of two minds, intention and sensibility. Plot and character. Dianoia and noos. But for some reason this time, as I was turning myself through the revolving door, and saw you coming toward me—coming in as I was going out—I wasn’t able to look away and pretend not to see that you saw me, and I knew that you saw me. And I thought, as I struggled to find my underwear, since that’s the piece of clothing to put on first—where had I put it?—I thought, Why do I do this? Why have I done this all my life, knowing, as I do, as a matter of intention and as a matter of sensibility, what I am doing, what will result from my intentions, what the impression on my sensibility will be. Knowing, that is, that I will shame myself, and apprehending, in anticipation, the flush and panic of shame. One is always both the person who decided to walk through the library unclothed (but when did I decide it?—it must have been so long ago) and also the person who is now naked, exposed.

If I find a book of mine in the library, on the open shelves, where the books are for general circulation, and I sign it, without telling anyone, how long will it take before my signature means something, means enough for someone to call it to the attention of a librarian, and enough for the librarian to remove the book from the open shelves to the archive—from general circulation to special collection? And do I want that? Isn’t it better for a book to have no value as a material object, and for my having written something in one copy of it, if I do decide to do that, to be an accident, a secret? A petty vandalism? An almost private defacement? More people might see the book, and the mark that I have made in the book, if I don’t tell, if I’m not caught, if the book isn’t removed. Even a book on the open shelves is so rarely opened by a reader nowadays. A book needs all the chances it can get.

The young people have a new magazine, and not long ago, I went and visited their office, which looks like a schoolroom. One of the young editors there was saying, in a pretending-to-be-annoyed way, that she had started receiving messages from a famous older editor who had been canceled, and I thought about telling her that I had kissed him once and that it hadn’t been so bad. But had I really kissed him, or did I just want to boast that I had? That’s the third kind of mind: pretending. An older writer arrived just then, to address the young editors of the new magazine, among whom I was camouflaging myself, and as we listened to her, I remembered how years ago, when I had been as young as the editors around me and she had been at the height of her powers, she had singled out one or two of my friends to sleep with but not me, and now she was a sage, with an editor at her right hand and a publicist at her left, and I was still in the audience, still hoping to be seen without being seen for what I am.

Life and unhappy novels

[An issue of my newsletter Leaflet]

“In spring everything becomes drowsy. The cat forgets to chase the mouse, and men forget that they have debts.” —Sōseki, The Three-Cornered World

I’ve been interested in Sōseki since reading, a few years ago, a Penguin translation of his 1914 novel Kokoro. Something about its plainspoken, depressive, somewhat crypto-gay view of the world spoke to me. A month and a half ago, I read his 1915 novel Grass on the Wayside, his only novel drawn directly from his life. It’s about a man in early middle age who has returned to his wife and children in Japan after a long sojourn abroad. The bonds between him and his young family seem damaged, and both he and they seem ambivalent, even reluctant, about letting the bonds heal. The bickering between him and his wife is fierce. He’s having trouble finding his way back into his professional life—money is a problem. And then his former adoptive father shows up, saying he wants to adopt him again. It’s a confusing request. The older man may only be asking for a handout, now that the protagonist has secured a place for himself in the world, however tenuous.

Their relationship is a little hard to explain, I think even to Japanese readers. Like Sōseki himself, the protagonist of Grass on the Wayside was given up for adoption by his natural parents at a very young age, for reasons unclear, and the placement was in many ways an unhappy one. “He did not mind so much being owned physically,” Sōseki writes, of the protagonist’s feelings about his adoptive parents, “but even his childish heart grew fearful at the thought of becoming emotionally enslaved to them.” The placement hadn’t lasted. After his adoptive father left to live with a new girlfriend, the child was returned to his biological parents, who took him back only grudgingly. It’s understandable that the novel’s protagonist wishes for the dispiriting, humiliating story to stay in the past. He owes nothing to the man, everyone around him repeats. To protect his finances, to keep his emotional balance, he really has no choice but to turn the man away. The problem is, some of the most vivid memories of his childhood are associated with this adoptive father.

The two of them often went out boating, accompanied by a boatman dressed in the traditional straw skirt. When they were some distance from the land the boatman would cast his net, and Kenzo [the protagonist] would watch the gray mullet with their silver scales dancing frantically as they were brought to the surface. Sometimes the boatman would take them three or four miles out and catch gilthead. On such occasions the boat rocked so much that Kenzo could hardly keep awake. He enjoyed himself most when a swellfish was caught. As it puffed up in anger Kenzo would tap it with a chopstick as though it were a drum.

If the protagonist has any pleasant childhood memories associated with his biological father, in the novel they go unmentioned. Turning his adoptive father away, therefore, is an act of mourning, made more bitter and more complex by a perceived social obligation to deny that there is anything to mourn.

The character takes out some of his bitterness on his very young daughters, whose appearance he disparages. “One ugly child after another, and to what end?” he complains. The outburst seemed a little shocking to me, in such an openly autobiographical novel—didn’t Sōseki worry about what his actual daughters would think?—and last month I read John Nathan’s 2018 biography of Sōseki, in part because I wanted to know more about the relationship here between fiction and reality. It seems that Sōseki struggled with mental illness all his life and went through periods of believing that those closest to him were persecuting him. Several of his children were to recall him as irritable, unpredictable, and violent. Though Nathan’s inclination as a biographer seems to be to honor his subject, he seems thrown by the cruelty that Sōseki showed his family. In letters to his wife, for example, he reprimanded her harshly for what he perceived as her baldness and bad teeth. Perhaps the best that can be said is that Sōseki did not leave much of his own moral ugliness out of the portrait that he drew of himself in Grass on the Wayside, in which the husband is decidedly not more sympathetic than the wife (confusingly, Sōseki did omit from his novel the paranoid delusions that he experienced, which might have extenuated the moral ugliness), and that it and Kokoro still feel to me like groundbreaking, moving works, despite my knowing more about his personal shortcomings.

“There is not a single Western dish, with perhaps the possible exception of salad and radishes, which could be said to have an attractive color. What the nutritional value is I am unable to say, but from the artistic point of view, their food is extremely uncivilized.” —Sōseki, Three-Cornered World

There is more pathos, though again much sorrow, in the episode in Sōseki’s life just prior to the unwanted return of his foster father. In 1900, after Sōseki had become a successful professor of English literature, popular with students despite his rigorous demands on them, his employer, the Japanese government, ordered him to study English-language pedagogy for two years in London. Perhaps sensing that he lacked the psychosocial wherewithal to thrive on his own abroad, Sōseki tried to get out of it, but the ministry of education only relented to the extent of allowing him to study literature rather than language pedagogy. “The two years I spent in London were the most miserable time of my life,” he later wrote. “Among the English gentlemen, like a stray dog mixing with a pack of wolves, I eked out a pathetic existence.” He contacted and studied with several English dons but did not make a meaningful connection with any of them. His stipend from the Japanese government was inadequate, and in search of quiet, clean lodgings, he moved many times. He socialized little. Perhaps in an attempt to justify his isolation, he complained repeatedly in his diary that his command of English language and literature was better than that of native English speakers around him. “I mostly stay alone and lose myself in my reading,” he wrote to his wife. He bought four hundred volumes of English literature, including Spenser, Burney, Austen, Meredith, and James, and read incessantly, almost self-punitively, as if trying to cram into himself a knowledge of all English literature in just two years. Two landladies of his told a visiting Japanese colleague that he “stayed in his room for days on end, weeping in the darkness,” Nathan writes. Reports reached the Japanese ministry of education that he had gone insane.

Upon his return to Japan, Sōseki was so unwell, psychologically, that his wife took the children and moved in with her parents for two months, for safety. This was the period fictionalized in Grass on the Wayside. Despite his illness, he was able to keep up a public front, and he taught Johnson, George Eliot, and Shakespeare to great acclaim at a higher school and then at Tokyo Imperial University. But what was he looking forward to? It must have seemed to him that he was condemned to spending the rest of his life teaching and studying the literature of a country where he had been deeply unhappy. But then, in late 1904, inspired by Laurence Sterne, he began a satirical novel told from the point of view of a cat (which, full disclosure, I haven’t read yet). It was a hit. Two more novels quickly followed, and in 1907, Japan’s largest-circulation newspaper offered to pay him a monthly salary to print his future novels in serial format. He left the academy and spent the rest of his life not studying English literature but remaking Japan’s.

A panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend

This Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I’ll be moderating “Occupy and Resist,” a panel about politics and literature, featuring the writers Sayed Kashua (author of Native), Imbolo Mbue (author of Behold the Dreamers), and Magdaléna Platzová (author of The Attempt). Please come! It will take place at noon on Sunday, September 18, in the Borough Hall Media Room, 209 Joralemon St., Brooklyn.