Monday, July 25, 2005


The following is an imaginary exchange between Caroline, a young, French-educated American woman; Del, her intended; and Henry James, the American novelist and brother to William James, psychologist, as written by Gore Vidal. This conversation would be taking place very near to 1900, and I think it's a informative piece of writing, specially when I think of how print media are in decline at this present time almost exactly 100 years later.

[Open quote] [Caroline:] "I've thought of one difference. At least between American men and women. Mr. James called the United States 'the newspapered democracy.'"

"Mr. Jefferson said that if he had to choose between a government without a press and a press without a government, he would choose a press without a—"

"How stupid he must have been!" But when Caroline saw Del's hurt expression—plainly, he had identified himself with the sage of Monticello—she modified: "I mean, he was not stupid. He just thought that the people he was talking to were stupid. After all, they were journalists, weren't they? I mean if they weren't journalists of some sort, how would we know what he said—or might have said, or didn't say? Anyway, back to men and women. We women are criticized, quite rightly, for thinking and, worse, talking about marriage and children and the ordinary people we have to deal with every day and the lives we have to make for our husbands or families or whatever, and this means that as we get older, we get duller and duller because we have, at the end, nothing left but ourselves to think about and talk about and so we become perfect—if we're not already to begin with—bores," Caroline concluded in triumph.

Del looked at her, quite bewildered. "So if you are—like that, then men are . . . what?"

"Different. Boring in a different way. Because of the newspapers. Don't you see?"

"You mean men read them and women don't?"

"Exactly. Most of the men we know, that is, read them, and most of the women we know don't. At least, not the news—what a funny word!—of politics or wars. So when men talk to one another for hours about what they have all read that morning about China and Cuba and . . . Tierra del Fuego, about politics and money, we are left out because we haven't read those particular bits of news."

"But you could, so easily, read them . . ."

"But we don't want to. We have our boredom and you have yours.

But yours is truly sinister. Blaise says that practically nothing Mr. Hearst prints is ever true, including the story about how the Spaniards blew up the Maine. But you men who read the Journal, or something like it, will act as if what you read is true or, worse, as if, true or not, it was all that really mattered. So we are excluded, entirely. Because we know that none of it matters—to us."

"Well, I agree newspapers are not always true, but if . . . foolish men think they are true—or perhaps true—then it does matter to everyone because that is how governments are run, in response to the news."

"Then worse luck for foolish men—and women, too."

Del laughed at last. "So what would you do if you could alter things?"

"Read the Morning Journal. " Caroline was prompt. "Every word."

"And believe it?"

"Of course not. But at least I could talk to men about Tierra del Fuego and the Balance of Power."

"I prefer to talk about the theater in Paris . . . and marriage." Del's lower larger face reddened; the small forehead remained pale ivory.

"You'll be the woman? I'll be the man?" Caroline smiled. "No. That's not allowed. Because we are divided at birth by those terrible newspapers that tell you what to think and us what to wear and when to wear it. We cannot, ever, truly meet."

"But you can. There is, after all, the high middle ground," said Henry James, who had been listening, the ruins of an elaborate pudding before him.

"Where—what is that?" Caroline turned her full gaze on that great head with the gleaming all-intelligent eyes. "Why that is art, dear Miss Sanford. It is a kind of Heaven open to us all, and not just Jim Bludso and his creator."

"But art is not for everyone, Mr. James." Del was respectful.

"Then there is something not unlike it, if more rare, yet a higher stage, a meeting ground for all true—hearts."

On the word "hearts," Caroline felt a sudden premonitory chill. Did he mean the specific mysterious five or did he mean just what he said? Apparently, he meant just that, because when she asked what this higher stage was, Henry James said, simply, for him: "Dare one say that human intercourse which transcends politics and war and, yes, even love itself? I mean, of course, friendship. There—you have it." [Close quote]

"When they asked George Washington for his ID, he just took out a quarter." —Steven Wright [You almost have to know who Steve is and how he delivers his non sequiturs in order to get the full flavor of this joke.]

No comments: