Martha Nussbaum argues that the perceptive, particularizing Lambert Strether represents the Aristotelean ethical position and the absent but omnipresent Mrs. Newsome the Kantian position. In the long, complex, over my head introductory material, Nussbaum also argues against Utilitarian ethics.
Her specific argument is, setting aside the merits of a given philosopher, that the novel - not just this novel, but the novel as such, as a form – is especially good at working through the kinds of ethical problems that Aristotle’s system is also good at. Some high proportion of our daily decisions are probably well covered by a pretty basic Utilitarianism, but they hardly make for good fiction. Chocolate-covered cake donut or plain? Or maybe I need Kant to help me resist the temptation. I face this problem often, daily, but as drama it is a little thin.
Although Nussbaum does not really mention it, the Utilitarian position has a representative in The Ambassadors in the great minor character Jim Pocock. Around the middle, just as Strether was pretty close to resigning his ambassadorship, I began to wonder how James planned to fill so many more pages with this handful of characters. At just that point, the arrival of new characters was announced, just what the novel needed, including the daughter of Mrs. Newsome, her representative in the flesh, but even more cold and inflexible, completely incapable of adjusting her sense of correctness to her perception. “The effect she produced of representing her mother had been produced – and that was just the immense, the uncanny part of it – without her having so much as mentioned that lady” (10.3).
But her husband, Jim, that’s who I want here. Early in the novel, Strether has picked up, along with “wonderful,” the word “immense” – see just above – which is used less flexibly and appears to be some kind of slang. But it sticks to Jim:
“You see Jim’s really immense… Jim’s intensely cynical… He’s awful.” (9.1)
That’s Strether, thinking aloud. Jim is only cynical from Strether’s Aristotelian perspective. In fact, he is a hedonist, a simple-minded Utilitarian, maximizing his pleasure:
He gurgled his joy as they rolled through the happy streets; he declared that his trip was a regular windfall, and that he wasn't there, he was eager to remark, to hang back from anything: he didn't know quite what Sally had come for, but he had come for a good time. (8.2)
And he assumes that Strether and other Americans in Paris are as decadent and ready to party as he is. He enacts a parody of Strether’s response to Paris, as he
drank in the sparkling Paris noon and carried his eyes from one side of their vista to the other. “Why I want to come right out and live here myself. And I want to live while I am here too.”
I could almost detect Strether’s anxiety – is Jim suggesting Strether take him to a brothel? – but Jim’s first “disencumbered and irresponsible” suggestion is that he and Strether, in a cab together, “take a further turn round before going to the hotel.” Oh, yes, that kind of good time.
In a further irony, there is a hint, at the end of his novel, that his wife, the rigid Kantian Sarah, has taken up with another American.
I meant to use this post as a note dump, a scrapbook of favorite bits of The Ambassadors I Had not yet mentioned, but it turned out to be more of a good time to write about immense Jim.
Let’s see, in a few weeks, optimistically, if The Wings of the Dove is half as much fun.