The Point of View, by Henry James


From Louis Leverett in Boston to Harvard Tremont in Paris

November 1880.

The scales have turned, my sympathetic Harvard, and the beam that has lifted you up has dropped me again on this terribly hard spot. I’m extremely sorry to have missed you in London, but I received your little note and took due heed of your injunction to let you know how I got on. I don’t get on at all, my dear Harvard — I’m consumed with the love of the further shore. I’ve been so long away that I’ve dropped out of my place in this little Boston world and the shallow tides of New England life have closed over it. I’m a stranger here and find it hard to believe I ever was a native. It’s very hard, very cold, very vacant. I think of your warm rich Paris; I think of the Boulevard Saint–Michel on the mild spring evenings; I see the little corner by the window (of the Café de la Jeunesse) where I used to sit: the doors are open, the soft deep breath of the great city comes in. The sense is of a supreme splendour and an incomparable arrangement, yet there’s a kind of tone, of body, in the radiance; the mighty murmur of the ripest civilisation in the world comes in; the dear old peuple de Paris, the most interesting people in the world, pass by. I’ve a little book in my pocket; it’s exquisitely printed, a modern Elzevir. It consists of a lyric cry from the heart of young France and is full of the sentiment of form. There’s no form here, dear Harvard; I had no idea how little form there is. I don’t know what I shall do; I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned; I feel as if I were sitting in the centre of a mighty “reflector.” A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick hard light.

I’ve not got back my rooms in West Cedar Street; they’re occupied by a mesmeric healer. I’m staying at an hotel and it’s all very dreadful. Nothing for one’s self, nothing for one’s preferences and habits. No one to receive you when you arrive; you push in through a crowd, you edge up to a counter, you write your name in a horrible book where every one may come and stare at it and finger it. A man behind the counter stares at you in silence; his stare seems to say “What the devil do you want?” But after this stare he never looks at you again. He tosses down a key at you; he presses a bell; a savage Irishman arrives. “Take him away,” he seems to say to the Irishman; but it’s all done in silence; there’s no answer to your own wild wail —“What’s to be done with me, please?” “Wait and you’ll see” the awful silence seems to say. There’s a great crowd round you, but there’s also a great stillness; every now and then you hear some one expectorate. There are a thousand people in this huge and hideous structure; they feed together in a big white-walled room. It’s lighted by a thousand gas-jets and heated by cast-iron screens which vomit forth torrents of scorching air. The temperature’s terrible; the atmosphere’s more so; the furious light and heat seem to intensify the dreadful definiteness. When things are so ugly they shouldn’t be so definite, and they’re terribly ugly here. There’s no mystery in the corners, there’s no light and shade in the types. The people are haggard and joyless; they look as if they had no passions, no tastes, no senses. They sit feeding in silence under the dry hard light; occasionally I hear the high firm note of a child. The servants are black and familiar; their faces shine as they shuffle about; there are blue tones in their dark masks. They’ve no manners; they address but don’t answer you; they plant themselves at your elbow (it rubs their clothes as you eat) and watch you as if your proceedings were strange. They deluge you with iced water; it’s the only thing they’ll bring you; if you look round to summon them they’ve gone for more. If you read the newspaper — which I don’t, gracious heaven, I can’t! — they hang over your shoulder and peruse it also. I always fold it up and present it to them; the newspapers here are indeed for an African taste.

Then there are long corridors defended by gusts of hot air; down the middle swoops a pale little girl on parlour skates. “Get out of my way!” she shrieks as she passes; she has ribbons in her hair and frills on her dress; she makes the tour of the immense hotel. I think of Puck, who put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes, and wonder what he said as he flitted by. A black waiter marches past me bearing a tray that he thrusts into my spine as he goes. It’s laden with large white jugs; they tinkle as he moves, and I recognise the unconsoling fluid. We’re dying of iced water, of hot air, of flaring gas. I sit in my room thinking of these things — this room of mine which is a chamber of pain. The walls are white and bare, they shine in the rays of a horrible chandelier of imitation bronze which depends from the middle of the ceiling. It flings a patch of shadow on a small table covered with white marble, of which the genial surface supports at the present moment the sheet of paper I thus employ for you; and when I go to bed (I like to read in bed, Harvard) it becomes an object of mockery and torment. It dangles at inaccessible heights; it stares me in the face; it flings the light on the covers of my book but not upon the page — the little French Elzevir I love so well. I rise and put out the gas — when my room becomes even lighter than before. Then a crude illumination from the hall, from the neighbouring room, pours through the glass openings that surmount the two doors of my apartment. It covers my bed, where I toss and groan; it beats in through my closed lids; it’s accompanied by the most vulgar, though the most human, sounds. I spring up to call for some help, some remedy; but there’s no bell and I feel desolate and weak. There’s only a strange orifice in the wall, through which the traveller in distress may transmit his appeal. I fill it with incoherent sounds, and sounds more incoherent yet come back to me. I gather at last their meaning; they appear to constitute an awful inquiry. A hollow impersonal voice wishes to know what I want, and the very question paralyses me. I want everything — yet I want nothing, nothing this hard impersonality can give! I want my little corner of Paris; I want the rich, the deep, the dark Old World; I want to be out of this horrible place. Yet I can’t confide all this to that mechanical tube; it would be of no use; a barbarous laugh would come up from the office. Fancy appealing in these sacred, these intimate moments to an “office”; fancy calling out into indifferent space for a candle, for a curtain! I pay incalculable sums in this dreadful house, and yet haven’t a creature to assist me. I fling myself back on my couch and for a long time afterwards the orifice in the wall emits strange murmurs and rumblings. It seems unsatisfied and indignant and is evidently scolding me for my vagueness. My vagueness indeed, dear Harvard! I loathe their horrible arrangements — isn’t that definite enough?

You asked me to tell you whom I see and what I think of my friends. I haven’t very many; I don’t feel at all en rapport. The people are very good, very serious, very devoted to their work; but there’s a terrible absence of variety of type. Every one’s Mr. Jones, Mr. Brown, and every one looks like Mr. Jones and Mr. Brown. They’re thin, they’re diluted in the great tepid bath of Democracy! They lack completeness of identity; they’re quite without modelling. No, they’re not beautiful, my poor Harvard; it must be whispered that they’re not beautiful. You may say that they’re as beautiful as the French, as the Germans; but I can’t agree with you there. The French, the Germans, have the greatest beauty of all, the beauty of their ugliness — the beauty of the strange, the grotesque. These people are not even ugly — they’re only plain. Many of the girls are pretty, but to be only pretty is (to my sense) to be plain. Yet I’ve had some talk. I’ve seen a young woman. She was on the steamer, and I afterwards saw her in New York — a mere maiden thing, yet a peculiar type, a real personality: a great deal of modelling, a great deal of colour, and withal something elusive and ambiguous. She was not, however, of this country; she was a compound of far-off things. But she was looking for something here — like me. We found each other, and for a moment that was enough. I’ve lost her now; I’m sorry, because she liked to listen to me. She has passed away; I shall not see her again. She liked to listen to me; she almost understood.

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