Henry James’ “The Last of the Valerii”: Breaking the Spell of Religion?

Henry James has an intriguing, but not widely known, tale of a person coming under the spell of a religious mania. James titled it:

The Last of the Valerii

The short story is set in Rome, and the narrator is the godfather of an American woman married to an Italian Count. The couple lives in a villa, and while the godfather is staying with them, it enters the woman’s head—her name is Martha—to dig up the yard in search of ancient gods and goddesses: 

It was a help to ungrudging feelings that the Count, yielding to his wife’s urgency, had undertaken a series of systematic excavations. To excavate is an expensive luxury, and neither Marco nor his latter forefathers had possessed the means for a disinterested pursuit of archaeology. But his young wife had persuaded herself that the much-trodden soil of the Villa was as full of buried treasures as a bride-cake of plums, and that it would be a pretty compliment to the ancient house which had accepted her as mistress to devote a portion of her dowry to bringing its mouldy honours to the light. . . . The Count had been not only indifferent but even unfriendly to the scheme, and had more than once arrested his wife’s complacent allusions to it by an unaccustomed acerbity of tone. “Let them lie, the poor disinherited gods, the Minerva, the Apollo, the Ceres you are so sure of finding,” he said, “and don’t break their rest. What do you want of them? We can’t worship them. Would you put them on pedestals to stare and mock at them? If you can’t believe in them, don’t disturb them. Peace be with them!” I remember being a good deal impressed by a confession drawn from him by his wife’s playfully declaring, in answer to some remonstrances in this strain, that he was really and truly superstitious. “Yes, by Bacchus, I am superstitious!” he cried. “Too much so, perhaps! But I’m an old Italian, and you must take me as you find me. There have been things seen and done here which leave strange influences behind! They don’t touch you, doubtless, who come of another race. But me they touch often, in the whisper of the leaves and the odour of the mouldy soil and the blank eyes of the old statues. I can’t bear to look the statues in the face. I seem to see other strange eyes in the empty sockets, and I hardly know what they say to me. I call the poor old statues ghosts. In conscience, we have enough on the place already, lurking and peering in every shady nook. Don’t dig up any more, or I won’t answer for my wits!”

The above paragraph is especially intriguing to me, for it reveals a key assumption that we tend to make about religion, especially if we have internalized multiculturalism, and that is this:

  • Religions are hermetically sealed and opaque to outsiders because they are organic and situated phenomena. They are not, in other words, available to deconstruction by Enlightenment cultural “imperialists” applying to them “universal human reason.” Instead, religions are possessed of their own evolved inner logic. They belong to the lands and peoples that they flourish among, and skepticism and critical thinking, applied to them from the outside, do them a gross injustice.  As the Count says to his wife: “They [the Roman gods] don’t touch you, doubtless, who come of another race. But me they touch often, in the whisper of the leaves and the odour of the mouldy soil and the blank eyes of the old statues.” In the Count’s statement is the expression of a 19th century anti-Enlightenment claim that contemporary versions of multiculturalism and religious mystification also make, which is this: you don’t understand, and you can’t understand, the logic of a religion or culture that is not your own. Put another way, the Count is taking for granted that anti-Enlightenment intellectuals like Giambattista Vico and Edmund Burke are right: religion is situated in blood, geography, and history, and cannot properly be assessed for value by detached and acidic rational analysis. In the Count’s voice, we are obviously not hearing either Locke or Voltaire.

And so, with the Count’s religious mystifications in place, and his future religious enthusiasms nicely foreshadowed, Henry James commences with his story’s soil digging, both psychological and literal—and lo!—the excavators discover an exquisitely preserved Juno! The marble statue, taller than the average woman, is hoisted from the earth and set on a mound of rocks where it is presented to the Count’s wife:

Martha, however, seemed slowly to measure out Juno’s infinite stateliness. She gazed a long time, silently, leaning against her husband, and then stepped, half timidly, down upon the stones which formed a rough base for the figure. She laid her two rosy, ungloved hands upon the stony fingers of the goddess, and remained for some moments pressing them in her warm grasp and fixing her living eyes upon the sightless brow. When she turned round, her eyes were bright with the tear which deep admiration sometimes calls forth and which, in this case, her husband was too much absorbed to notice. He had apparently given orders that the workmen should be treated to a cask of wine, in honour of their discovery. It was now brought and opened on the spot, and the little expert, having drawn the first glass, stepped forward, hat in hand, and obsequiously presented it to the Countess. She only moistened her lips with it and passed it to her husband. He raised it mechanically to his own; then suddenly he stopped, held it a moment aloft, and poured it out slowly and solemnly at the feet of the Juno.

“Why, it’s a libation!” I cried. He made no answer, and walked slowly away.

I observe a couple of things from the above passage:

  • First, I notice that a beautiful aesthetic object, like the Juno sculpture, takes on the power of an ontological mystery (a mystery of being) that seizes imaginations. While all human beings, and the universe around us, are, if we are paying attention, ontological mysteries—and a source of wonder—sometimes an aesthetic object, especially an old one, can awaken this sense most vividly. Catch, for example, how Martha, the Count’s wife, feels the need to make contact with the statue, and to touch her warm fingers to the cold fingers of Juno, as if touching a mirror. This is a pagan version of Michelangelo’s Adam reaching for the mirroring finger of God.
  • I also notice that, in the presence of beauty, there seems to be an instinctual impulse to externalize emotions before it, offering gifts (in this case, the Count pours before it a libation). The Three Wise Men also felt the need to lay something before the feet of the infant Jesus. And people who do street art often put out a hat or box for offerings. It seems that when we encounter something that evokes beauty for us, we want to reciprocate somehow, to communicate our heartfelt gratitude—to give over to beauty ourselves.
  • Third, I notice the gravity and presence of silence and stillness in the scene. When we are in the presence of others, we tend to encounter them in speech and gesture. But what happens when we encounter an object of powerful beauty that neither speaks nor moves? In these cases, we come under its spell and become projective. It’s meaning, being opaque to us, is felt as depth and mystery, like gazing into the silent night sky. And, at another level, what we are really encountering is the dizzying inner height, Sartre’s nausea at looking down and in: the depth and mystery of ourselves, our power and freedom, our consciousness. And if we are not up for seeing ourselves as this powerful, we at least perceive the inner power of the artist (or the divinity or muse behind the artist).

In any case, the revelation of the Juno from the bowels of the earth has awakened the Count’s religious and provincial instincts, and the narrator now finds him in the garden contemplating a bust of Hermes:

One evening, when I had taken leave of my god-daughter and given her, in a silent kiss, my rather ineffectual blessing, I came out and found the Count sitting in the garden in the mild starlight, and staring at a mouldy Hermes, planted in a clump of oleander.

I sat down by him and informed him in definite terms that his conduct required an explanation. He half turned his head, and his dark pupil gleamed an instant.

“I understand,” he said; “you think me crazy!” And he tapped his forehead.

“No, not crazy, but unhappy. And if unhappiness runs its course too freely, of course, it’s a great strain upon the mind.”

He was silent awhile, and then – “I am not unhappy!” he cried, abruptly. “I am tremendously happy. You wouldn’t believe the satisfaction I take in sitting here and staring at that old weather-worn Hermes. Formerly I used to be afraid of him; his frown used to remind me of a bushy-browed old priest who taught me Latin and looked at me terribly over the book when I stumbled in my Virgil. But now it seems to me the friendliest, jolliest thing in the world, and suggests the most delightful images. He stood pouting his great lips in some old Roman’s garden two thousand years ago. He saw the sandalled feet treading the alleys, and the rose-crowned heads bending over the wine; he knew the old feasts and the old worship, the old believers and the old gods. As I sit here he speaks to me, in his own dumb way, and describes it all! No, no, my friend, I am the happiest of men!”

The Count, coming under the spell of nostalgia in the reading of the face of Hermes, is akin to the first Protestants, coming under the spell of the New Testament, imagining themselves in direct contact with, and recovering, a pristine past: the religion of the apostles. Nationalist movements also get their energy from nostalgia, imagining that they are resurrecting noble dead and channeling founding fathers. This is the mystification of an ancient object’s presence: its purity, its authenticity. And the Count has caught this very seductive wonder bug, which, to the rationalist outsider, is delusion:

Decidedly, the Count was unsound, and I had no heart, for some days, to go back to the Villa. How should I treat him, what stand should I take, what course did Martha’s happiness and dignity demand? I wandered about Rome, turning over these questions, and one afternoon found myself in the Pantheon. A light spring shower had begun to fall, and I hurried for refuge into the big rotunda which its Christian altars have but half converted into a church. No Roman monument retains a deeper impress of ancient life, or has more of the form of the antique faiths whose temples were nobler than their gods. The huge dusky dome seems to the spiritual ear to hold a vague reverberation of pagan worship, as a shell picked up on the beach holds the rumour of the sea. Three or four persons were scattered before the various altars; another stood near the centre, beneath the aperture in the dome. As I drew near I perceived this was the Count. He was planted with his hands behind him, looking up first at the heavy rain-clouds, as they crossed the great bull’s-eye, and then down at the besprinkled circle on the pavement.

The Count’s Pantheon meditations, being interrupted by the sudden presence of his wife’s godfather, leads him into a justification of his curious behavior:

“This is the best place in Rome,” he murmured. “It’s worth fifty St Peter’s. But do you know I never came here till the other day? I left it to the forestieri. They go about with their red books and their opera-glasses, and read about this and that, and think they know it. Ah! you must feel it – feel the beauty and fitness of that great open skylight. Now, only the wind and the rain, the sun and the cold, come down; but of old – of old” – and he touched my arm and gave me a strange smile – “the pagan gods and goddesses used to descend through it and take their places at their altars. What a procession, when the eyes of faith could see it! Those are the things they have given us instead!” And he gave a pitiful shrug. “I should like to pull down their pictures, overturn their candlesticks, and poison their holy-water!”

“My dear Count,” I said gently, “you should tolerate people’s honest beliefs. Would you renew the Inquisition, and in the interest of Jupiter and Mercury?”

“People wouldn’t tolerate my belief, if they guessed it!” he cried. “There’s been a great talk about the pagan persecutions; but the Christians persecuted as well, and the old gods were worshipped in caves and woods as well as the new. And none the worse for that! It was in caves and woods and streams, in earth and air and water, they dwelt. And there – and here, too, in spite of all your Christian lustrations – a son of old Italy may find them still!”

What I find intriguing in the above passage is the Count’s obsession with authenticity and presence: of coming into contact with what are the real and ultimate sources of things. The Count wants to recover first causes, and so the dome of St. Peter’s becomes a mere imitation of Rome’s earlier house for divinity: the Pantheon. Catholicism for the Count (as for Protestants) is insufficiently (or inauthentically) in contact with the past. The complaint of pagan and Reformationist is the same: Catholicism corrupts the ancient sources (whether of Pantheon or Paul). And outdoing even the Protestant Christians, the Count sets his religion even deeper into history—into prehistory—tracing it to nature:  “It was in caves and woods and streams, in earth and air and water, they [the gods] dwelt.”

This attempt by the Count to reach, as it were, elemental beginnings—the Source of Ground and the Source of Light—is vividly captured later in the story when he is spied, by his wife’s godfather, flat on his face before the Juno, which is illuminated by the single eye of the moon. In the below passage, by the way, notice what an exquisite writer Henry James is, using the moon as a moving spotlight:

The beautiful image stood bathed in the cold radiance, shining with a purity that made her convincingly divine. If by day her rich paleness suggested faded gold, she now had a complexion like silver slightly dimmed. The effect was almost terrible; beauty so expressive could hardly be inanimate. This was my foremost observation – I leave you to fancy whether my next was less interesting. At some distance from the foot of the statue, just out of the light, I perceived a figure lying flat on the pavement, prostrate apparently with devotion. I can hardly tell you how it completed the impressiveness of the scene. It marked the shining image as a goddess indeed, and seemed to throw a sort of conscious pride into her stony mask. Of course, in this recumbent worshipper I immediately recognised the Count, and while I lingered there, as if to help me to read the full meaning of his attitude, the moonlight travelled forward and covered his breast and face. Then I saw that his eyes were closed, and that he was either asleep or swooning.

As one can imagine, the Count’s compulsive and secretive worship of Juno puts a strain on his marriage, and Martha suspects infidelity. But the godfather disabuses her of that notion:

“What I have to tell you is very strange,” I said to the Countess, “very improbable, very incredible. But perhaps you will not find it so bad as you feared. There is a woman in the case! Your enemy is the Juno. The Count – how shall I say it? – the Count takes her au sérieux.” She was silent; but after a moment she touched my arm with her hand, and I knew she meant that I had spoken her own belief. “You admired his antique simplicity: you see how far it goes! He has reverted to the faith of his fathers. Dormant for so many centuries, that imperious image has silently evoked it.”

Martha agrees with her godfather, and has a solution: she will join her husband in paganism:

“I suppose you will be terribly shocked,” she answered, “if I say that he is welcome to any faith, if he will only share it with me. I will believe in Jupiter, if he’ll bid me! My sorrow is not for that: let my husband be himself! My sorrow is for the gulf of silence and indifference that has opened itself between us. His Juno is the reality; I am the fiction!”

But Martha’s godfather, an astute perceiver of human nature, makes a very, very keen observation. The Count, he tells Martha, is only half converted. He has gone over to Juno on the ancient shore, but has left his wife on the modern shore because he is torn between the living and the ancient dead. Martha, being a woman who is alive—and so, possessing the greater mystery—will be victorious and draw him back to the modern and living world if she but holds firm. If she converts, she will lose him to religious mania completely, but by not converting she is the live bait that will draw him back from antiquated paganism and into her arms. Here’s how the godfather puts it:

“The poor fellow has but half succumbed; the other half protests. The modern man is shut out in the darkness with his irreproachable wife. How can he have failed to feel – vaguely and grossly, if it must have been, but in every throb of his heart – that you are a more perfect experiment of nature, a riper fruit of time, than those primitive persons for whom Juno was a terror and Venus a model? He pays you the compliment of believing you an unconvertible modern. He has crossed the Acheron, but he has left you behind, as a pledge to the present. We will bring him back to redeem it. The old ancestral ghosts ought to be propitiated when a pretty creature like you has sacrificed the best elements of her life. He has proved himself one of the Valerii; we shall see to it that he is the last . . .”

The Count’s optimism, however, is challenged when he visits the Juno with Martha and finds something horrifying: 

Before the statue stood a roughly extemporised altar, composed of a shapeless fragment of antique marble, engraved with an illegible Greek inscription. We seemed really to stand in a pagan temple, and as we gazed at the serene divinity I think we each of us felt for a moment the breath of superstition. It ought to have been quickened, I suppose, but it was rudely arrested, by our observing a curious glitter on the face of the low altar. A second glance showed us it was blood!

My companion looked at me in pale horror, and turned away with a cry. A swarm of hideous conjectures pressed into my mind, and for a moment I was sickened. But at last I remembered that there is blood and blood, and that in the best time the ancient Romans offered no human victims.

“Be sure it’s very innocent,” I said; “a lamb, a kid, or a sucking calf!” But it was enough for her nerves and her conscience that it was a crimson trickle, and she returned to the house in immense agitation.

But Martha’s godfather does not see blood sacrifice as a sign that the Count is forever lost to pre-modern superstition. Rather, he sees it as the peak of his fever, and that now he is on the other side of recovery:  

The blood-drops on the altar, I mused, were the last instalment of his debt and the end of his delusion. They had been a happy necessity, for he was after all too generous a creature not to hate himself for having shed them, not to abhor so cruelly insistent an idol. He had wandered away to recover himself in solitude, and he would come back to us with a repentant heart and an inquiring mind!

The godfather’s Enlightenment optimism that so religious a man must surely, sooner or later, come to his senses, and recover in solitude his skeptical and “inquiring mind” continues, in the story, to be challenged, for there is no sign of abatement in the Count’s religious enthusiasm. Martha, however, has a more practical plan for breaking her husband’s spell: to end the compulsive response, she will remove the stimulus. In the Count’s absence, she orders the grounds keepers to rebury the Juno, then waits at home with her godfather to face the music: 

The Countess had not yet seen her husband, who had again apparently betaken himself to communion with the great god Pan. I was of course unwilling to leave her to encounter alone the results of her momentous deed. She wandered into the drawing-room and pretended to occupy herself with a bit of embroidery, but in reality she was bravely composing herself for an ‘explanation’. I took up a book, but it held my attention as feebly. As the evening wore away I heard a movement on the threshold and saw the Count lifting the tapestried curtain which masked the door, and looking silently at his wife. His eyes were brilliant, but not angry. He had missed the Juno – and drawn a long breath! The Countess kept her eyes fixed on her work, and drew her silken threads like an image of domestic tranquillity. The image seemed to fascinate him; he came in slowly, almost on tiptoe, walked to the chimney-piece, and stood there awhile, giving her, askance, an immense deal of attention. What had passed, what was passing, in his mind, I leave to your own apprehension. My god-daughter’s hand trembled as it rose and fell, and the colour came into her cheek. At last she raised her eyes and sustained the gaze in which all his returning faith seemed concentrated. He hesitated a moment, as if her very forgiveness kept the gulf open between them, and then he strode forward, fell on his two knees, and buried his head in her lap. I departed as the Count had come in, on tiptoe.

And with this paragraph, Henry James ends his story. It is a near perfect ending. Notice that the last scene contains no dialogue—not one bit. Martha’s instincts are to meet her husband’s astonishment by simply being silent—like any great mystery—and not even returning his gaze. And the Count now perceives who Martha is. In other words, on stepping into the room, the Count has discovered his own wife’s ontological beauty—the beauty of her being—radiant before him. He realizes his own blindness, that he had his object of affection—his Juno—all along, and that it had always been Martha. His conversion to her as his newly recovered object of affection is now met with a returning gaze, and this elicits in him a feeling of gratitude. His spell is broken. She, the triumphant goddess, has exercised her feminine power and forgiven him. The Count goes to his knees and buries his head in her lap. Martha is now Penelope and Odysseus has come home.

Who says the old stories can ever really be transcended?

File:Francesco Primaticcio 002.jpg

Odysseus and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio (1563). Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Henry James’ “The Last of the Valerii”: Breaking the Spell of Religion?

  1. Pingback: The Ground Zero Mosque: Jason Rosenhouse on Muslim American Collective Guilt for 9-11 « Prometheus Unbound

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