Recently read Henry James’s short story The Lesson of The Master. Underlying theme being whether an artist can pursue perfection alongside a ‘normal’ family life. Let’s dwell on that after introducing the story.
The story revolves around three simple and fictional literary characters – Mr. St. George (an old and celebrated author, being the master here), Paul Overt (a young novelist, admires St. George but can see through his failings, despite the glamour around him), and Ms. Fancourt (an ardent reader of both, both are in awe of her beauty and, she is very young). I would not dwell into the plot as it is irrelevant, both for the purpose of this post and probably, the story itself. There are just three events that defines the author’s purpose – one, when St. George gives Mr. Overt a short speech regarding his own failure as an artist and the spark of that possibility he could see in Overt. Relying on this, Overt travels to Switzerland, stays there for two years to finish his next book. Second, when Mrs. St. George dies, Mr. George writes Overt a letter expressing great remorse and loss, very inconsistent with his last speech. Third, when, on his return, Overt finds out that St. George and Ms. Fancourt are getting married, he starts doubting the validity of master’s lesson as well as the possibility of the whole thing being a plot to dupe him. However, the story ends with St. George sticking to his speech and Overt sticking to his resolve to achieve perfection, at least for the time being.
In that great speech, St. George declares that an artist’s purpose is to draw “from his intellectual instrument the finest music the nature has hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t – and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of“. Elsewhere he says “The artist has to do only with that (gold) – he knows nothing of any baser metal“. When Overt questions him further, specially as to why he had said that children were a curse, St. George rambles, “On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable – isn’t it so? Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes“.
Overt wanting to leave no doubt as to his perception asks him directly, if he thought artists should not marry; and St. George says they would do so at their own peril. Overt : Not even when his wife is in sympathy with his work? St. George : She never is, she can’t be! Women haven’t a conception of such things. Later during the conversation, Overt: Are there no women who really understand – who can take part in a sacrifice? St. George : How can they take part? They themselves are the sacrifice.
Mostly, one would tend to agree. It’s no new theme in literature. Man’s business is art, creativity and women’s primary business is men. This is no male chauvinist pig speaking. Shaw in his play Man and Supermanhas dealt with this (and many other themes) in good humour and style. Someone as free and individualistic a women as Ayn Rand believed that women’s primary business was a man. A women’s conception of heroism is always through a man. But then, are not these two contradictory – that man is hindered in his artistic pursuit by marriage and that women need men for fulfilment of their own artistic hunger. I do not have an answer, I can only say that the problem lies in looking for the right pair, and that remains the most difficult pursuit amongst daily chores.
However, I personally believe that a man’s primary business of being an artist can only be fulfilled if a corresponding need for a man-hero exists among women. For, to insist artists to stay away from propagation of race is to want to lower our genetic pool to non-existence.
But even to the possibility of a perfectly understanding, compatible, and artistic lady being a non-interfering wife for the artist is given a jolt by this very valid argument by Henry James :
Overt asks what if she has ‘a passion for the real thing, for good work – for everything you and I care for most‘. St. George laughs and replies, “‘You and I’ is charming, my dear fellow! She has it indeed, but she would have a still greater passion for her children – and very proper too. She would insist on everything’s being made comfortable, advantageous, propitious for them. That isn’t the artist’s business“. To this, I don’t think there is an answer. Moderation, probably seeps in the best of women after marriage and moderation is no virtue for an artist. At one place, James’s fictional master says, “He (artist) must be able to be poor“. I guess, he should be able to moderate selectively too. I don’t know if that is possible, but that seems to be the only possibility. Doesn’t it?