Absence as Metaphor in Henry James's "The Author of `Beltraffio'"

By Treitel, Ilona | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Absence as Metaphor in Henry James's "The Author of `Beltraffio'"


Treitel, Ilona, Studies in Short Fiction


The diseased artist is a common literary character. He is also a controversial one. While illness has been recognized, as one of the prime stimulants of creativity,(1) "the myth of the sick artist has also been dismissed as a fabrication created by the artist himself for his own benefit, as it were.(2) To some extent, such contradictory judgements can be traced to Freud and Nietzsche. Freud speculated that the artist's creative activity may be a possible cure for his illness.(3) Before him, Nietzsche went even further in his pronouncement that the artist's disease is a precondition for his ability to create. Nevertheless, Nietzsche not only considered the creative process itself a fundamentally healthy one, but defined its very goal as health.(4) The contradiction inherent in these claims highlights the problematic nature of the relationship between art and disease that is embodied in the figure of the sick artist. For even if health should be the ultimate and ideal aim of a creative process that originates in illness, that process, as well as the created work itself, may become contaminated by the illness that set creativity in motion in the first place. Even worse, the "sick" work of art may further contaminate those exposed to it.

The problem of such contagion and its moral implications is a significant issue in Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, which also touches upon the contradictions associated with the diseased artist. On the one hand, Sontag notes, illness has been perceived as a metaphor for sensitivity, spiritual refinement and creativity (36, 37, 39).(5) On the other hand, however, disease has been employed in literature as a metaphor for psychological disintegration and moral depravity (Sontag 18, 29).

The complex relations between disease and art are conspicuous in many of Henry James's works. "The Middle Years," "The Death of the Lion" and "The Next Time"--which focus on the diseased artist himself--are just three of the artist tales that explore the significance of illness perceived as a metaphor for art. In each of the three stories, the artist is the victim of a disease that sets him apart from most ordinary human beings and a creative force that brings forth largely unrecognized works. Yet, for a short while, he seems to recover. His illness in remission, he reaches out toward human contact, and his work appears to be on the verge of acclaim. However, both recovery and success are short-lived. The latent or almost cured illness breaks out anew and becomes fatal. Indeed, eventually both the pursuit and the achievement of social and artistic approbation appear to accelerate the death of the artist and, thus, of his creative power as well. And whatever renown his works may have gained, only their titles remain in James's texts: the works themselves are conspicuously absent.

Such is also the case in "The Author of `Beltraffio'" (1884). Preceding the majority of Henry James's works treating art and artists by several years,(6) this tale, nonetheless, reflects, just as they do, James's conception of the predicaments confronting the creative artist. These predicaments relate, for instance, to "artistic integrity" and the sacrifices involved in the artist's search for perfection, his fear of losing his creativity (Segal 206), his experience of the conflict between the demands of "art" and "life" and his relationship with critics and public, among whom, James writes with reference to "The Death of a Lion," "a person knowing and loving the thing itself, the work, is simply never to be found" (Notebooks 86). Indeed, as Ora Segal points out, to a certain extent, "The Author of `Beltraffio,'" like most of James's "tales of a literary life," can be read as dramatizing "his own problems and his own situation" (Segal 109). In addition to the similarities in theme, it is worth noting that in this comparatively early tale, Henry James employs technical devices quite like those we find in his other artist tales. …

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