Part 5 - Human Passivity

A second critical difference that sheds light on the divergent universes of Henry James and Ayn Rand is how they conceived human action.

Henry James made his most famous statement about life and human action in The Ambassadors:

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? . . . I haven’t done so enough before—and now I’m too old; too old at any rate for what I see. . . . What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. . . . Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t be, like me, without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it; I don’t quite know which. Of course at present I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. . . . Do what you like so long as you don’t make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!

In The Ambassadors, (1903), James told the story of Lambert Strether. Strether undertook a trip to Paris to bring Chad Newsome home to Boston to resume his successful career in advertising. Ironically, under the influence of impeccable European manners, Strether exhorted Newsome to abandon his career and stay in Europe. Throughout the novel, James explicitly stated his disdain for the active life. For example, early in the novel, Maria Gostrey, a guide to all things European, and Lambert Strether, the weary American in need of Europeanization, discuss the successful American lawyer Mr. Waymarsh:

“Waymarsh stupid?”

“Compared with you.”

Strether had still his eyes on the jeweller’s front, and he waited a moment to answer. “He’s a success of a kind that I haven’t approached.”

“Do you mean he has made money?”

“He makes it—to my belief. And I,” said Strether, “though with a back quite as bent, have never made anything. I’m a perfectly equipped failure.”


He feared an instant she’d ask him if he meant he was poor; and he was glad she didn’t, for he really didn’t know to what the truth on this unpleasant point mightn’t have prompted her. She only, however, confirmed his assertion. “Thank goodness you’re a failure—it’s why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you—look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour?”

James elaborated on the proper way to live throughout The Ambassadors. For starters, the proper person needed to abandon logic and morals. In the following conversation, Strether discussed again with Maria Gostrey what was wrong with the typical American woman. The problem, as James saw it, was that this kind of woman was her own person. She thought before she acted. She was purposeful and expected to get what she wanted. She acted rather than allowed herself to be acted upon:

“That’s just her difficulty—that she doesn’t admit surprises. It’s a fact that, I think, describes and represents her; and it falls in with what I tell you—that she’s all, as I’ve called it, fine cold thought. She had, to her own mind, worked the whole thing out in advance, and worked it out for me as well as for herself. Whenever she has done that, you see, there’s no room left; no margin, as it were, for any alteration. She’s filled as full, packed as tight, as she’ll hold and if you wish to get anything more or different either out or in—"

“You’ve got to make over altogether the woman herself?
What it comes to,” said Strether, “is that you’ve got morally and intellectually to get rid of her.”

This moral and intellectual good riddance of America was exactly what Strether, to his delight, found he had done: ‘‘ ‘It’s magnificent!’ he then rather oddly exclaimed.” Strether now exalted a life of random impulse and beautiful scenery. It was a passive life, one in which individuals at best adapted to circumstances as they arose, without a plan, without a beginning, middle, or end. In the following passage, Strether famously took a random walk in the French countryside looking for a particular shade of green that he once saw in a painting.

He had taken the train a few days after this from a station—as well as to a station—selected almost at random; such days, whatever should happen, were numbered, and he had gone forth under the impulse—artless enough, no doubt—to give the whole of one of them to that French ruralism, with its cool special green, into which he had hitherto looked only through the little oblong window of the picture-frame. It had been as yet for the most part but a land of fancy for him—the background of fiction, the medium of art, the nursery of letters’ practically as distant as Greece, put practically also well-nigh as consecrated. Romance could weave itself, for Strether’s sense, out of elements mild enough; and even after what he had, as he felt, lately “been through,” he could thrill a little at the chance of seeing something somewhere that would remind him of a certain small Lambinet that had charmed him, long years before, at a Boston dealer’s and that he had quite absurdly never forgotten.

It was meant to be sublime, but Objectivists at least will find it troubling. Strether had no intention of doing anything with this experience. He did not, for example, plan to paint the landscape, or build a house on the landscape, or even write the landscape into a novel.

He observed in respect to his train almost no condition save that it should stop a few times after getting out of the banlieue; he threw himself on the general amiability of the day for the hint of where to alight. His theory of his excursion was that he could alight anywhere—not nearer Paris than an hour’s run—on catching a suggestion of the particular note required. It made its sign, the suggestion—weather, air, light, colour and his mood all favouring—at the end of some eighty minutes; . . . The oblong gilt frame disposed its enclosing lines; the poplars and willows, the reeds and river—a river of which de didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, the name—fell into a composition, full of felicity, within them; the sky was silver and turquoise and varnish; the village on the left was white and the church on the right was grey; it was all there, in short—it was what he wanted: it was Tremont Street, it was France, it was Lambinet.

Insofar as he deigned to want anything, Strether wanted to blend into the landscape. He wanted to become part of the scenery:

For this had been all day at bottom the spell of the picture—that it was essentially more than anything else a scene and a stage, that the very air of the play was in the rustle of the willows and the tone of the sky. The play and the characters had, without his knowing it till now, peopled all his space for him, and it seemed somehow quite happy that they should offer themselves, in the conditions so supplied, with a kind of inevitability. It was as if the conditions made them not only inevitable, but so much more nearly natural and right as that they were at least easier, pleasanter, to put up with.

The good life, for James, was a series of picturesque tableaux in which one gained psychological insight. There were people like Waymarsh who thought and reasoned and acted, but James clearly saw those people as missing real life. Rather than applaud them for their accomplishments, he laughed them off as spoilers of the fun. Life was not reason and action, it was one long psychoanalysis. It was ironic. Human action was limited to making a good show. You changed your clothes, you changed the scenery. You placed yourself here and there. You smiled. You raised an eyebrow. But nothing ever really happened. Maybe, at the urging of a seductive, parasitical woman, you decided to dash your brilliant and lucrative career and support her impeccable lifestyle with your savings. Maybe your fortune was stolen by a manipulative pair of hangers-on with perfect manners. You never dreamed of noticing, never dreamed of spoiling the fun.

Marilyn Moore

About The Author:

Marilyn Moore joins The Atlas Society after a number of years teaching literature and writing at the college level. She has a PhD in English literature, and she considers Ayn Rand a great American writer, comparing Rand’s novels to those of Henry James and Theodore Dreiser. As contributing editor, Marilyn is looking forward to keeping you in the loop on Ayn Rand-related news and events.

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