QOTD (2011-12-16)

Henry James wrote “The Author of Beltraffio,” about an “aesthetic” writer and his wife and child, after Edmund Gosse told him about the strange and rather ambivalent relationship Gosse’s friend J.A. Symonds had with his (Symonds’) wife. James only ever met Symonds once, briefly (though after Symonds’ death James regretted never having got to know him); what is incredible is that, only on Gosse’s hearsay, James constructed this knowing portrait of Symonds’ intellect and work:

On that high head of the passion for form—the attempt at perfection, the quest for which was to his mind the real search for the holy grail—he said the most interesting, the most inspiring things. He mixed with them a thousand illustrations from his own life, from other lives he had known, from history and fiction, and above all from the annals of the time that was dear to him beyond all periods, the Italian cinquecento. It came to me thus that in his books he had uttered but half his thought, and that what he had kept back—from motives I deplored when I made them out later—was the finer, and braver part. It was his fate to make a great many still more ‘prepared’ people than me not inconsiderably wince; but there was no grain of bravado in his ripest things (I’ve always maintained it, though often contradicted), and at bottom the poor fellow, disinterested to his finger-tips and regarding imperfection not only as an aesthetic but quite also as a social crime, had an extreme dread of scandal. There are critics who regret that having gone so far he didn’t go further; but I regret nothing—putting aside two or three of the motives I just mentioned—since he arrived at a noble rarity and I don’t see how you can go beyond that.

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