- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Henry James on Art, Life, Writing, Criticism, and More.

 

Happy birthday, Henry James! Here are some quotes from his writing:

 

“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

 

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

 

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”

 

“”In art, economy is always beauty.”

 

“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?…What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t…be without the memory of that illusion…Live, live!”

 

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

 

“The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.”

 

“The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life.”

 

“The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant—no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes.”

 

“Life being all inclusion and confusion, and art being all discrimination and selection, the latter, in search of the hard latent value with which it alone is concerned, sniffs round the mass as instinctively and unerringly as a dog suspicious of some buried bone.”

 

“We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art…what we are talking about—and the only way to know is to have lived and loved and cursed and floundered and enjoyed and suffered. I think I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth—I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.”

 

“I still, in presence of life…have reactions—as many as possible…It’s, I suppose, because I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions—appearances, memories, many things, go on playing upon it with consequences that I note and “enjoy” (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing—and I do. I believe I shall do yet again—it is still an act of life.”

 

“No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong.”

 

“The effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement. The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities, that it also has color and form and character, has often in fact a broad and rich comicality.”

 

“What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”

 

“Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”

 

“To criticize is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relation with the criticized thing and to make it one’s own.”

 

“The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions… In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torchbearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother…Just in proportion as he is sentient and restless, just in proportion as he reacts and reciprocates and penetrates, is the critic a valuable instrument.”

 

“The effect, if not the prime office, of criticism is to make our absorption and our enjoyment of the things that feed the mind as aware of itself as possible, since that awareness quickens the mental demand, which thus in turn wanders further and further for pasture. This action on the part of the mind practically amounts to a reaching out for the reasons of its interest, as only by its ascertaining them can the interest grow more various. This is the very education of our imaginative life.”

 

“The practice of ‘reviewing’…in general has nothing in common with the art of criticism.”

 

“However incumbent it may be on most of us to do our duty, there is, in spite of a thousand narrow dogmatisms, nothing in the world that anyone is under the least obligation to like—not even (one braces one’s self to risk the declaration) a particular kind of writing.”

 

“The only success worth one’s powder was success in the line of one’s idiosyncrasy. Consistency was in itself distinction, and what was talent but the art of being completely whatever it was that one happened to be?”

 

“The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.”

 

“The terrible fluidity of self-revelation.”

 

“We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar.”

 

“The ever importunate murmur, ‘Dramatize it, dramatize it!'”

 

“There’s no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding.”

 

“For myself I live, live intensely, and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it be, is in my own kind of expression of that.”

 

“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out—you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.”

 

“Don’t mind anything anyone tells you about anyone else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself.”

 

“Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all.”

 

“Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.”

 

“Deep experience is never peaceful.”

 

“The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!'”

 

“To see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang the beautiful incentive, and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the danger intensified. The difficulty most worth tackling can only be for him, in these conditions, the greatest the case permits of.”

 

“We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple—to let it alone. We may believe that of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can make nothing at all, and the event may perfectly justify our belief; but the failure will have been a failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded. If we pretend to respect the artist at all we must allow him his freedom of choice, in the face, in particular cases, of innumerable presumptions that the choice will not fructify. Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions, and some of the most interesting experiments of which it is capable are hidden in the bosom of common things.”

 

“If the artist is necessarily sensitive, does that sensitiveness form in its essence a state constantly liable to shade off into the morbid? Does this liability, moreover, increase in proportion as the effort is great and the ambition intense?”

 

“However incumbent it may be on most of us to do our duty, there is, in spite of a thousand narrow dogmatisms, nothing in the world that anyone is under the least obligation to like—not even (one braces one’s self to risk the declaration) a particular kind of writing.”

 

“To take what there is, and use it, without waiting forever in vain for the preconceived—to dig deep into the actual and get something out of that—this doubtless is the right way to live.”

 

“[A] tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it.”

 

“There are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.”

 

“Cats and monkeys—monkeys and cats—all human life is there!”

 

“In the long run an opinion often borrows credit from the forbearance of its patrons.”

 

“The face of nature and civilization in this our country is to a certain point a very sufficient literary field. But it will yield its secrets only to a really grasping imagination… To write well and worthily of American things one need even more than elsewhere to be a master.”

 

“It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.”

 

“It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to undervalue them.”

 

“I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.”

 

“There are two kinds of taste in the appreciation of imaginative literature: the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition.”

 

“I’m glad you like adverbs—I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.”

 

“I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most loveable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one’s own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had them.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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