For many readers, “stupidity” in Henry James signifies mental slowness, poor taste, or even moral delinquency. However, James also conceived of stupidity as a positive virtue because it promises to deliver the individual from the “ordeal of consciousness” associated with intelligence and its exercise. At its heart, Jamesian intelligence is characterized by “appreciation,” or the ability to “get most” out of a situation or person; consequently, stupidity offers an alternative dynamic that suspends interest in order to protect persons and things from knowledge, exploitation, or use. The moral purity of stupidity explains why, in the later works, James values the sexually innocent and the willfully naive, providing a key to solving some of his more puzzling love plots; aesthetically, it accounts for his fascination with symbols and inanimate objects, rendered beautiful by their inscrutability or lack of perceptiveness. Consequently, we may understand the opacity of the later style as embodying stupidity in verbal form while also stupefying readers into the idealistic condition of disinterestedness. However, as a principle of either ethics or art, stupidity remains limited by its incompatibility with adult knowledge and location in nonnarratable forms.
Henry James and Stupidity
matthew sussman received his PhD from Harvard University in 2013 and is now lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is currently completing two book manuscripts: one on virtues of style in nineteenth-century literature, moral philosophy, and criticism and the other on stupidity in the works of Henry James.
Matthew Sussman; Henry James and Stupidity. Novel 1 May 2015; 48 (1): 45–62. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2860325
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