In Henry James’s short story “The Middle Years,” an ailing writer is troubled by the conviction that only now, after many books, has he begun to find his true voice. All the work he’s done so far has been nothing more than a sort of apprenticeship, in preparation for the truly great work that he’ll be able to do if only he is granted more time.
In the story’s last pages, the writer comes to accept the fact that he’s dying. He won’t get more time. The magnificent works that he might have written will never be written. What he has done already is all he’ll ever do.
The story isn’t depressing, because in his last days, the writer meets an admirer, a young doctor who has read all of his books with an intelligent appreciation. The young man’s devotion, a devotion that verges on the idolatrous, helps the writer understand that his life hasn’t been in vain. “The thing is to touch someone, to make someone care,” the writer says to his admirer. “You happen to be crazy, of course, but that doesn’t affect the general law.”
Near the end of the story, the writer sums up what he’s learned:
“A second chance! That’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
The entire passage has become well known, the last phrase especially so: “the madness of art.”
The phrase has been taken to be a summation of everything that’s glorious about the artist’s life. Why did James Joyce labor for seventeen years over Finnegans Wake, a novel so idiosyncratic in its language that no one can fully decode it? What compelled Honoré de Balzac to spend fifteen hours at his writing desk, day after day, year after year, and to believe in his vision so completely that he would sometimes leave social gatherings with the explanation that “I must rejoin the real world”? How did Emily Dickinson find the inner strength to go on writing her fiercely distinctive poetry despite the absence of any recognition or encouragement? All of them were in the grip of the madness of art. If you Google the phrase, you will find tens if not hundreds of commentators who take it to be the very definition of the creative impulse.
I think, though, that if we take another look at the passage, we’ll find that for James, or at any rate for his hero, Dencombe, it had the opposite meaning.
The first part of the passage seems clear enough. “A second chance! That’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” We get just one chance, and the chance we get is the opportunity to “work in the dark,” with no assurance as to the value of our work. And this very lack of assurance, this doubt, is one of the things that spur us on. (If an artist could ever be sure that she’d gotten it exactly right, she might not feel the need to keep going.)
Then, finally: “The rest is the madness of art.”
WE’RE IN the habit of reading the passage as if Dencombe had ended with “This is the madness of art”—as if he were grandly encapsulating everything he’d just said. But he didn’t. The rest is the madness of art. The artist’s calling is to do what one can, to give what one has; the artist’s calling is to explore one’s doubt, one’s task, one’s passion. And the madness of art? The madness of art is everything else.
If James had been a folksy Yiddish writer, he might have called it the mishegoss of art. It wouldn’t have been as elegant, but it would have been more precise.
If people have been getting the meaning of the phrase wrong, does it matter?
Well, it might matter to you if you’re an artist, and especially if you’re a young artist.
If you’re a young artist, it might help to be reminded that alongside all the nobility and beauty of your calling, there’s a certain amount of frustration, a certain amount of mishegoss, that you’ll never be able to avoid. The fear that you’re not gifted enough; the fear that you don’t know enough; the fear that you haven’t come into your own yet; the fear that you’ve already peaked; the fear that someone else’s talent or success renders your efforts pointless—it’s all just the mishegoss of art. These distractions are just the badlands you need to cross while you do your work.
And the dream of reaching a stage where worries of this kind will cease to bother you—that’s just a distraction too. That, too, is the mishegoss of art. You’ll never get past the badlands. Only a saint can rid himself of distractions like envy and insecurity, and saints, as a rule, make lousy artists.
It might also help, if you’re a young artist, to be reminded that art and madness aren’t the same thing.
THE USUAL interpretation of the phrase “the madness of art” conjures up an attractive cliché: the writer as a creature possessed, spilling out words in a divine frenzy. This isn’t the normal experience of the practicing fiction writer, the writer who’s found a way to keep going over the long haul, and it isn’t the idea of the artist that James had in mind.
Let’s listen again to Dencombe: “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” I love the fact that he uses the word “passion” and the word “task” in the same sentence—the one so exalted, the other so commonplace. More than this, I love that he equates them. Our passion is our task. To follow the calling of art, to keep faith with it, to continue with your daily labors despite the frustrations, the distractions, and the other varieties of madness that will inevitably beset you—all this requires passion, but it also requires something else, something more down-to-earth. Call it steeliness. Call it persistence. Call it tenacity. Call it resilience. Call it devotion.
Whatever you decide to call it, the ability to consecrate yourself to the daily task of art isn’t rooted in madness. As James knew, as Dencombe knew, it’s rooted in sanity. The “Middle Years” is a story about the passionate sanity of the artist. It’s a story about the sanity of art.
Brian Morton directs the MFA fiction program at Sarah Lawrence College. His novels include Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You.