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Saturday, November 23, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle 4 (On Fate and Making Mistakes)

“It isn't that it's all a mistake?" Marcher asked May. Some mistakes can be corrected quickly and simply: oops. Hit the delete key. Get on with life. Other mistakes can be corrected but take a lot of time and effort to fix. Agamemnon made this kind of mistake in The Iliad when he got Achilles mad. It was a whole lot easier to take away Achilles’ girl-prize than to get him fighting again. Some mistakes are so big and so bad that things can never be put back right again. If life is a game then Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia was a game-breaking mistake. It cost him his life. By Chapter 4 of Beast in the Jungle John Marcher is well on his way to making the same game-breaking mistake. It will cost him his life too; only in a different kind of way and with a different kind of woman.
May Bartram isn’t Clytemnestra. May isn’t a killer; she’s a refined and elegant lady. But like Clytemnestra, May is a strong-willed woman. Once May makes her mind up to do something she’s going to see it through. John Marcher is no Agamemnon either. It’s hard to imagine Marcher fathering a child, much less commanding an army. Agamemnon may have been a boorish and shallow man but we have to give him his due: once he decided to do something, he did it; right or wrong, he took action. Aristotle may have counseled that Agamemnon took too much action. He should have spent less time doing and more time thinking. Then he wouldn’t have gotten into so many jams. But Aristotle may very well have advised Marcher to do just the opposite. For Aristotle man is more than just a brain on a stick. He’s made for a purpose. And John Marcher would have done well to ask: what is my purpose? What am I here for? He doesn’t seem to know. All he knows is there’s a beast out there, somewhere, waiting to devour me. Aristotle might have said: very well. It’s a reasonable thing to take precautions against being devoured. It’s quite a different thing to spend your whole life hiding in the weeds. You have to get in the game Marcher.
That’s why Marcher’s question to May is a very important one: “It isn't that it's all a mistake?" Marcher wants to know if there’s a beast out there who will devour him; kind of like a child asking his mother if there’s a monster in the closet. May doesn’t lie to him. There really is a beast out there. “A mistake?" she pityingly echoed… “Oh no,” she declared; “it’s nothing of that sort. You’ve been right.” He must have thought, aha, now I understand. I knew it. But he doesn’t really understand her. There really is a beast out there and it really will devour you. It will devour us. However, it won’t do any good to hide in the weeds. The beast will devour us anyway. Call it what you will, time, life, fate, it doesn’t much matter what you call it. In the end the beast will get you. It gets all of us eventually. Hiding in the weeds won’t help. Time will find us out wherever we are. Our bodies will age and our minds will fade. Life will slowly drain away, day by day, gradually taking away our freedom to choose. Fate will find us out; even in the weeds, even behind shut doors. Of course Marcher isn’t ready to hear any of this because he doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to face life on his own terms. It will never happen. He asks: “I haven't waited but to see the door shut in my face?” She tries to reassure him “…Whatever the reality, it IS a reality. The door isn't shut. The door's open," said May Bartram.” This is reality: as long as we’re alive the door’s open to new paths. But we have to choose our own path. And sometimes we’ll make mistakes along the way. John Marcher doesn’t want to risk it. His big mistake is being afraid he’ll make a mistake. Shutting the door doesn’t help; Marcher has only locked himself in with the beast. That mistake becomes his fate.


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