Saturday, July 08, 2006

Good-natured feather-head

Summer is a good time to catch up on one's reading. I started The Europeans by Henry James ages ago (half started books lie all over the house - oh, for time to stop so I could read them all!!) and am just now getting back into it. It is a short book with a simple story. Two Europeans come to America to reunite with the family that they have never known. Their American mother ran off to Europe and made a poor marriage that her American family disapproved of.

Eugenia and Felix are the essence of Europe and their puritanical American relations have differing reactions to them. More than anything, they are shocked, surprised and bemused by the Europeans' manners and conversation. The book is an interesting look at some distinct cultural differences between America and Europe, some of which are still with us today.

The largest difference? Americans are disciplined, dour and self-punishing where Europeans are carefree, bright and light-hearted. European Felix and his American cousin Gertrude discuss this at length:

The Europeans
Written by Henry James
First published in 1878

'You might tell me a great many things, if you only would. You have seen people like yourself - people who are bright and gay and fond of amusement. We are not fond of amusement.'

'Yes,' said Felix, 'I confess that rather strikes me. You don't seem to me to get all the pleasure out of life that you might. You don't seem to me to enjoy...do you mind my saying this?' he asked, pausing.

'Please go on,' said the girl earnestly.

'You seem to me, very well placed, for enjoying. You have money and liberty and what is called in Europe a "position." But you take a painful view of life as one may say.'

'One ought to think it bright and charming and delightful, eh?' asked Gertrude.


* * * *

'What ought one to do?' she continued. 'To give parties, to go to the theatre, to read novels, to keep late hours?' (ed: HELLS YEAH!!)

'I don't think it's what one does or one doesn't do that promotes enjoyment,' her companion answered. 'It is a general way of looking at life.'

'They look at it as a discipline - that is what they do here. I have often been told that.'

'Well, that's very good. But there is another way,' added Felix smiling: 'to look at it as an opportunity.'

* * * *

'He is an artist - my cousin is an artist.' said Gertrude; and she offered this information to everyone who would receive it. She offered it to hersef, as it were, by way of admonition and reminder; she repeated to herself at odd moments, in lonely places, that Felix was invested with this sacred character.

Gertrude had never seen an artist before; she had only read about such people. They seemed to her a romantic and mysterious class, whose life was made up of those agreeable accidents that never happened to other persons. And it merely quicked her meditations on this point that Felix should declare, as he repeatedly did, that he was really not an artist.

'I have never gone into the thing seriously,' he said. 'I have never studied; I have had no training. I do a little of everything, I do nothing well. I am only an amateur.'

* * * *

'You have a great deal of talent,' said Gertrude.

'No-no,' the young man rejoined, in a tone of cheerful impartiality, 'I have not a great deal of talent. It is nothing at all remarkable. I assure you I should know if it were. I shall always be obscure. The world will never hear of me.' Gerturde looked at him with a strange feeling. She was thinking of the great world which he knew and which she did not, and how full of brilliant talents it must be, since it could afford to make light of his abilites.

'You needn't in general attach much importance to anything I tell you,' he pursued; 'but you may believe me when I say this - that I am little better than a good natured feather-head'

'A feather-head?' she repeated.

'I am a species of Bohemian.'

''A Bohemian?' Gertrude had never heard this term before, save as a geographical denomination; and she quite failed to understand the figurative meaning which her companion appeared to attach to it. But it gave her pleasure.

- Excerpt from The Europeans by Henry James

Being a 3rd generation American of European descent, I can easily say that there is still plenty of good-natured feather-head left over in me from my European ancestors. Granted, the Swiss are not very feather-headed as a general rule, nor are the Germans, but somehow, somewhere, I got me some feather-head and it makes reality so darn dull.

2 comments:

casey said...

Thanks for making me think of Paula Poundstone right off the bat. That's something I haven't done in years.

Why do some crappy "comediannes" such as Rosie O'Donnell succeed where others, like Poundstone, are consigned to obscurity?

Eva the Deadbeat said...

nuthin like some poundstone first thing in the AM, eh?! yeah, i always felt like she got a bad wrap, probably something to do with those weird child endangerment charges or something? but you can still hear her on that weekend NPR show, "wait, wait, don't tell me," which i freely admit to listening to, nerd that i am!