“I have everything to unlearn”: Henry James, cultural studies and mass culture by Donata Meneghelli
What constitutes a political interpretation of a literary work? My question could also be formulated in more radical terms: does there exist an interpretation of literary works that is not political? Some have answered no. It is that which Fredric Jameson suggests when he postulates a “political unconscious” of texts.1 Or, additionally, that to which Jacques Rancière alludes when he maintains that literature, or at least what we have defined as such for little more than two centuries, “est indissolublement une science de la société et la création d’une mythologie nouvelle.” And it is due to this very dual nature that we can postulate “l’identité d’une poétique et d’une politique”.2 In any case, whatever a political interpretation is – a strongly historicized reading of texts, a rigorous sociology of literature, a vision of literature as a place of categorical instability, therefore as a structural place of transgression and upheaval of laws, a willingness to intercept the symptoms which bring the political unconscious to the surface, or perhaps all these things together – there are authors and works that more than others seem to resist similar interpretations, authors and works tenaciously capable of evading the political, pace Jameson or Rancière. The works of Henry James certainly belong to this group: or at least this is how they have been handed down to us by a long and glorious critical tradition. This is the tradition that James himself helped establish, which “new criticism”, structuralism, narratology, and the theory of literature have reinforced and which – above all in Europe – appears as still hegemonic, that resists with astonishing obstinacy the shakes produced by post-structuralism, feminism, or queer 1 2
F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, London, Methuen, 1981. J. Rancière, Politique de la littérature, Paris, Galilée, 2007, p. 11 et p. 29
theory, with their attempts at bringing questions such as race, gender, sexuality, and power to the center of the agenda. Even a rapid perusal of The Henry James Review from the past twenty years perfectly illustrates the pressure these theoretical perspectives have exerted on Henry James’s work, yet they have succeeded (above all, I repeat, in Europe) in only partially shifting or de-centering the image of The Master. This interpretation of James is constructed upon a few cornerstones worthy of brief mention as they will serve us later on.3 To begin, James is the writer who played, in the Anglophone domain, a role similar to that which Bourdieu attributes to Flaubert: he who more than anyone contributed to determining and sanctioning the autonomization of the literary field,4 who claimed that autonomy with ever greater force in terms of ethical liberty and aesthetic intangibility (starting at least from the essay The Art of Fiction, 1884), outlining – against particularly strong moral conditioning such as that from the Anglo-American culture – a “society of artists” that responded to its own codes and rules. Furthermore, according to this interpretation, James is – by unanimous consensus – a central forefather of the revolution that later on Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner would bring to completion. He is the writer who liquidated the Victorian novel, who drafted the death notice of the omniscient narrator with his dowry of comments, maxims, moral intentions and intimate conversations with the reader,5 who brought the characters’ mind to the foreground as the fundamental (if not only) material of the narrative, to the detriment of action and plot in the classical sense. And he is also the writer who embodies the novel’s values as form: an artifact constructed with full awareness of means and technical devices, founded upon symmetries and proportions of geometric exactness. As he writes in one of the prefaces to the New York Edition: “Any muddled-headed designer can beg the question of perspective, but 3
It is important to highlight that this interpretation of James’ mainly focuses on the middle-later period of his production (I will return to this later in this essay). 4 P. Bourdieu, Les Règles de l’art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire, Paris, Seuil, 1992, p. 85. It should be stressed, however, that according to Bourdieu the movement towards artistic autonomy dates back at least to the early 1830s. 5 I am especially thinking of such English authors as Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and George Eliot. However, for an overview of the complexity of Victorian novel, see: P. Brantinger and W. Thesing (eds.), A Companion to the Victorian Novel, Malden, Mass., Blackwell, 2002.
science is required for making it rule the scene”.6 A few years earlier, in one of his most famous essays, speaking not by chance of Flaubert and, through Flaubert, also speaking of himself, James had been even more categorical: [Flaubert] regarded the work of art as existing but by its expression […]. He held style to be accordingly an indefeasible part of it […]. His own sense of all this […] was […] that expression is creation, that it makes the reality […]; and that we move in literature through a world of different values and relations, a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is 7 saved by it, and in which the image is thus always superior to the thing itself.
But there’s more. On the one hand, James is the elitist and aloof writer par excellence, the esoteric chronicler of the old titled or the new moneyed aristocracy, whose characters move in a universe both homogeneous and rarefied, populated by villas, balls, grand hotels and art collections, and have nothing better to do than to observe and analyze each other in a massacre game as cruel as it is futile. And it is he who for all his life continued to write for readers very similar to those characters: “the Dark prince of the American leisure class”, as Maxwell Geismar defined him half a century ago.8 On the other hand – in a vision that has assumed the unshakeable character of the commonplace – he is the writer of absence, of the void; the author of masterly written stories that deliberately talk of nothing, or that talk only of themselves, that is of literature, of writing, closed in an auto-referential and autotelic dimension from which there is no salvation. This interpretation has not spared a series of brief texts, most written between 1888 and the first years of the twentieth century, that come together around a common motif, one of the motifs that surface most often in the notebooks or in the prefaces to the New York Edition and that correspond to the great thematic nuclei of the Jamesian imaginary: the “tales of the literary life”. And it’s no wonder. They are in fact texts that speak of writing and of reading, that stage 6
H. James, preface to The Spoils of Poynton, in Id., Literary Criticism, ed. L. Edel, New York, The Library of America, 1984, vol. II, p. 1154. 7 H. James, Gustave Flaubert (1902), in Id., Literary Criticism op. cit., vol. II, p. 334 e p. 340. 8 M. Geismar, Henry James and the Jacobites, Boston, Houghton, Mifflin, 1963, p. 410.
imaginary authors and literary texts, the poetic that inspires them, the effects that they produce on their readers: in which the narration – many have written – becomes reflection on its own internal expressive modality, or rather meta-novel.9 Texts, in other words, that explicitly thematize themselves, bringing to light the underside of the design, the springs and gears of the textual machine, the dynamic of its production and its reception, and that therefore have been considered a sort of hyperbolic version of James. As I said earlier, the image of James described up to this point has remained hegemonic (and all things considered, compact) for much time. The only quake that was truly able to crack it, if not deconstruct it, came from a set of critical perspectives that – despite their diversity – we can ascribe to the mold of cultural studies.10 As Jan Baetens recently synthesized with great clarity, […] le changement majeur introduit par les études culturelles a été de passer de la notion d’objet (comme forme statique et close) à celle de pratique culturelle (représentative de ce qui s’appelle alors une «forme de vie»). […] ce que font les études culturelles, c’est de proposer de leurs objets, qu’ils soient textuels ou iconiques, une lecture qui s’efforce d’en afficher les usages sociaux, tout comme les enjeux et implications politiques. Voir comment fonctionnent les objets, et pourquoi ils produisent les effets qui sont les leurs, s’interroger aussi sur les visées de sa propre recherche et de ses effets escomptés dans le champ social, telles sont les questions qui se substituent à la seule interrogation sur les propriétés formelles ou sémantiques des objets en question – même si, il importe de le répéter, 11 la description des objets n’est nullement abandonnée. 9
Cf. C. Pagetti and M.L. Bignami, La coscienza narrativa tra vecchio e nuovo secolo, in G. Cianci (ed.), Modernismo/Modernismi, Milano, Principato, 1991, p. 68. 10 Within this theoretical perspective, the most recent contribution is the beautiful book by A. Tucker, The Illustration of the Master, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2010. But see also: J. Friedman, Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990, and some of the essays included in D. McWhirter (ed.), Henry James’s New York Edition. The Construction of Authorship, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995. However, research on Henry James and mass culture had already begun in the 1980’s. See especially: M. Jakobsen, Henry James and the Mass Market, University, University of Alabama Press, 1983; Anne T. Margolis, Henry James and the Problem of Audience. An International Act, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1985; M. Anesko, “Friction with the Market”: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship, New York, Oxford University Press, 1986. 11 J. Baetens, Une défense «culturelle» des études littéraires, Dossier, LHT, n. 8, May 16, 2011, URL : http://www.fabula.org/lht/8/index.php?id=218.
The implications of this shifting, for the study of Henry James, are paramount. The first implication is that of contextualizing and historicizing him not in terms of the traditional literary history (movements, schools, transformations in forms...), nor even in the deterministic terms of the old (or sometimes also new) Marxist criticism, but in dynamic terms, lowering him into the conflicts and imbalances that lacerate the cultural field and his own position as an author writing within that field, exposed to all the tensions that pass through it. The last decades of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century are in fact a crucial moment, in which literature’s status undergoes epochal transformations. Symbolic goods begin to be ever more subject to the laws of the capitalistic production of commodities. Popular culture transforms into mass culture, while the literary circuit witnesses a general process of democratization, which implies the amplification of the reading public and the exploitation of this public by multiple apparatuses of the cultural industry. Literature undergoes a process of progressive professionalization, giving place to a new class of writers, journalists, editors, illustrators, and literary agents.12 The presence and power of the printed press grow exponentially; newspapers and magazines become a fundamental support to the circulation and fruition of the literary text. Due to this centrality of the press and to continued technical innovations, the image acquires a penetrating force without precedents, threatening the supremacy of writing and of textuality, reconfiguring the power relationships between the various media. Literature transforms ever more into a commodity, into a reified object, that is bought and sold, that can produce (or not produce) money, whose “value” becomes a market value, that is measured in terms of profit. It is important to underline that this set of transformations – as Fredric Jameson lucidly noted – are contemporary to the “structural breakdown of the older realisms” from which the experiences of the avant-garde spring forth: from that collapse, in other words, 12
On the rise of the literary agent, see J.L.W. West III, American Authors and the Literary Marketplace, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988, and J.B. Thompson, The Merchants of Culture, Cambridge, UK, Polity Press, 2010 (second edition)
emerges not modernism alone, but rather two literary and cultural structures, dialectically interrelated and necessarily presupposing each other for any adequate analysis: those now find themselves positioned in the distinct and generally incompatible spaces of the institutions of high literature and what the Frankfurt School conveniently termed the “culture industry”, that is, the apparatuses for the production of “popular” or mass culture. That this last is a new term may be dramatically demonstrated by the situation of Balzac, a writer, if one likes, of “bestsellers”, but for whom this designation is anachronistic insofar as no contradiction is yet felt in his time between the production of best sellers and the production of what will later come to be thought of as “high” 13 literature.
I propose reading the “tales of the literary life” in light of this fracture, of this dual structure, that is “en passant de l’objet littéraire à l’étude du sens de cet objet dans la société”, to again use the words of Baetens.14 This means then, before all else, to subject these stories to a process of re-thematization, if not of counter-thematization. More than reflecting upon their own internal dynamics, more then displaying en abyme their own functioning, those stories stage, with innumerous variants, the dramatic clash between the institution of literature (as it was emerging at least beginning with Romanticism) and the rising cultural industry in all of its manifestations, the strategies with which “high” literature negotiates its own survival and claims its own autonomy not only from confrontations with popular culture but also from confrontations with a bourgeoisie that at the end of the nineteenth century had abdicated every progressive vocation. They enact, in other words, the text as a social product, the multiple implications of that contradiction which, according to Jameson, Balzac does not yet perceive and that instead James, half a century later, felt with great urgency.15 In this sense, they 13
F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act op. cit., pp. 207-208 J. Baetens, Une défense «culturelle» des études littéraires op. cit. 15 We might ask when the split between the two fields of cultural production actually begins. According to Jameson, it is a phenomenon characterizing late modernity (starting at the end of the nineteenth century), but such a claim could be questioned, saying that it only sharpens in the last decades of the nineteenth century. However, in my opinion it is true that for Balzac – at the same time the author of the first roman feuilleton of French literature (La Vieille Fille, 1836) and the founder of the modern realist novel, he who claimed for the novel the dignity of an histoire de mœurs – it was still possible to write across the two fields. 14
constitute a perfect example of the joining of a mythology and a science of society of which Rancière speaks. James is a writer that experienced first hand this epochal phase: a novelist, but also a critic, a reviewer, simultaneously protagonist of and witness to the literary scene of his era. And if he is certainly the high priest of form, the “difficult”, opaque, and for some even unreadable (I will return to this a little later) writer, he is also – at the same time – he who exploited expedients and topoi of the melodramatic imagination,16 who accepted publishing in magazines and in installments, who came to terms with the illustration of his texts, who did not hesitate seeking new editorial markets (popular low-cost periodicals), who practiced journalism, who discussed in hundreds of letters not only the intellectual profile but also the number of his own readers, who repeatedly brought the forms of the rising mass culture into his texts through citation, contamination, reuse, and ironic reversal (one thinks only of In the Cage, to name but one example). Even more than the literary text, it is the figure of the author that these stories describe (I will also come back to this). And it is not by chance, in relation to the contradiction of which Jameson speaks, that the majority of the “tales of the literary life” present phenomena of splitting, that is they are constructed upon a chiastic structure, upon a series of oppositions on the level of characters, thematic articulations and plot (but also of metaphoric webs and different linguistic registers): on the one hand, work and biography, life and writing, being and appearing, private and public, journalism and literature; on the other, the novelist and the critic, the author and the reader, the novelist and the biographer, the critic and the journalist, the man of letters and the painter, the great writer and the popular (that is also always a female) writer. A split that testifies to James’s ambivalence, to his self divided when faced with the context in which he operates and the general conditions of literature in the passage between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is as if, in that grand comedy, he wanted to interpret all the parts, and that he was aware of what Umberto Eco would have written many years later in Apocalittici e integrati : 16
On James and melodrama, the reference study is still P. Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, James, Melodramma, and the Mode of Excess, New Haven-London, Yale University Press, 1976. But see also: D. Izzo, «I Giornali»: Henry James e l’esperienza della modernità, introduction to H. James, I Giornali, Macerata, Liberilibri, 1990, pp. vii-xxxviii.
[…] il sistema di condizionamenti detto industria culturale non presenta la comoda possibilità di due livelli indipendenti, l’uno quello della comunicazione di massa, l’altro quello della elaborazione aristocratica, che la precede senza esserne condizionata. Il sistema dell’industria culturale pone una 17 rete di condizionamenti reciproci, tale che anche la nozione di cultura tout court ne viene coinvolta.
Let us begin then to observe these stories more closely. In Greville Fane, for example, the eponymous character is a celebrated female writer of very popular novels that “could invent stories by the yard , but […] couldn’t write a page of English”. Passion in high life was the general formula of this work, for her imagination was at home only in the most exalted circles. She adored, in truth, the aristocracy, and they constituted for her the romance of the world or, more to the point, the prime material of fiction. Their beauty and luxury, their loves and revenges, their temptations and surrenders, their immoralities and diamonds were as familiar to her as the blots on her writing-table. She was not a belated producer of the old fashionable novel, she had a cleverness and a modernness of her own, she had freshened up the fly-blown tinsel. She turned out plots by the hundred and—so far as her flying quill could convey her—was perpetually going abroad. Her types, her illustrations, her tone were nothing if not cosmopolitan. She recognized nothing less provincial than European society, and her fine folk knew each other and made love to each other from Doncaster to Bucharest. She had an idea that she resembled Balzac, and her favorite historical 18 characters were Lucien de Rubempré and the Vidame de Pamiers.
Anyone who is a bit familiar with James’s work cannot help but note also that his characters are “nothing if not cosmopolitan” (he is known as the inventor of the “international theme”), and it would not be difficult to interpret the entire passage as something halfway between self-parody and the projection of a desire, above all when, a few lines later, we read: “She never recognized the «torment of the form»; the furthest she went was to introduce into one of her books […] a young poet who was always talking about it”.19 In the “tales of the literary life”, of what do the 17
U. Eco, Apocalittici e integrati: comunicazioni di massa e teorie della cultura di massa, Milano, Bompiani, 1964, p. 102. H. James, Greville Fane, in Id., The Complete Tales of Henry James, ed. L. Edel, London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962-64, vol. VIII, pp. 436-437. 19 Ibidem, p. 438. 18
characters speak from morning until night, if not in fact of form? Here the ambivalence is brazen: James exposes to ridicule his own obsessions and his own high-brow position. The axis of the story, nevertheless, is formed by the relationship between Greville Fane and the narrator, who is a critic and a novelist, and who defines himself as “a failure […] admirably absolute”.20 Of all the thematic oppositions in the “tales of the literary life”, none is as central and recurrent as that of “success” and “failure”. It is an opposition James continually brings back into the game, problematizing each of its terms, to which are attributed shifting, unstable meanings. And this opposition intertwines with and superimposes upon another, the opposition between the aesthetic and the economic values of literature, two logics (and ways of production and of circulation) – as Bourdieu explained – that characterize the field of cultural production: one founded on the “dénégation de l’ «économie» (du «commercial»)” and on the claim of pure art’s anti-economic value, the other founded on immediate profit, that reduces literature to a commodity.21 In another story, The Next Time, we are faced with three characters: a sophisticated and fussy critic, that is also the narrator, and a couple similar to that which we have previously seen: a female writer of “fashionable novels”, Jane Highmore, and a writer that instead produces “high” literature, Ray Limbert. Only that here, the chiasmus is given, as James would say, another turn of the screw. The refined writer, that at a certain point gets married and finds himself with a family to support, wants to become a popular writer at all costs, desiring to intercept the tastes and expectations of the wider public. “What is «success» anyhow?” – Limbert asks during a conversation with the narrator. When a book’s right, it’s right – shame to it surely if it isn’t. When it sells it sells – it brings money like potatoes or beer. […] Success be hanged! – I want to sell. It’s a question of life and death. I must study the way. I’ve studied too much the other way […]. I must cultivate the market – it’s a science like another. […] I haven’t been popular – I must be popular. It’s another art – or perhaps it isn’t an art at 22 all; one must find out what it is. […] They all do it; it’s only a question of how. 20
Ibidem. P. Bourdieu, Les Règles de l’art op. cit., p. 202. 22 H. James, The Next Time, in Id., The Complete Tales of Henry James, cit., vol. IX, p. 208 21
And he adds, quoting a commonplace platitude, one of the stereotypical phrases of the bestselling female writer: “Of course I’ve everything to unlearn; but what is life, as Jane Highmore says, but a lesson?”23 Unfortunately, however (or luckily?), Limbert will never be able to (un)learn the “lesson”; he will never manage to master the “science” of the market. He will continue trying until the very end, delusion after delusion, continuing to write – almost despite himself – always and only masterpieces. On the opposite end, Jane Highmore, for once in her life, would like to experience the luxury of not selling, of tasting that particular type of “distinction” (in Bourdieu’s sense): and to achieve this result, she turns to the narrator, sure that a review by him will be enough to block the selling of any book. She yearned to be, like Limbert, but of course only once, an exquisite failure. There was something a failure was, a failure in the market, that a success somehow wasn't. A success was as prosaic as a good dinner: there was nothing more to be said about it than that you had had it. Who but vulgar people, in such a case, made gloating remarks about the courses? It was often by such vulgar people that a success was attested. It made if you came to look at it nothing but money; that is it made 24 so much that any other result showed small in comparison.
Naturally, Jane Highmore is also unable to invert destiny’s march, to produce a flop, that is to position herself differently in the field of cultural production: her books obstinately persist in offering a wide public a perfectly clear mirror in which they can see and recognize themselves. It was not that when she tried to be what she called subtle […] her fond consumers, bless them, didn't suspect the trick nor show what they thought of it: they straightway rose on the contrary to the morsel she had hoped to hold too high, and, making but a big, cheerful bite of it, wagged their great collective tail artlessly for more.25
Ibidem. My emphasis. Ibidem, p. 186. 25 Ibidem, p. 187. 24
In this story, Bourdieu’s two logics present themselves at the same time as irreconcilable and confused, reciprocally compromised, to again take up Eco’s suggestions, despite the fact that the narrator (if not James) tries hard to keep them rigidly separate. Limbert’s gesture, moreover, is full of ambiguity: what would those novels look like that the (fictional) author would like to be popular but that instead continue unfailingly to address the “happy few”? What would have produced a similar negotiation? We will never know, because we can never read them. Instead, we have in our hands James’s stories, that show us another aspect of his ambivalence, and that allow us to reinterpret even his stylistic strategies from a political viewpoint. Commenting upon the same passage by Jameson that we also have cited, that is the observation that modernism emerges simultaneously to mass culture, Terry Eagleton adds a decisive gloss: This is a fact about its [modernism’s] internal form, not simply about its external history. Modernism is among other things a strategy whereby the work of art resists commodification, holds out by the skin of its teeth against those social forces which would degrade it to an exchangeable object. To this extent, modernist works are in contradiction with their own material status, self-divided phenomena which deny in their discursive form their own shabby economic reality. To fend off such reduction to commodity status, the modernist work brackets off the referent or real historical world, thickens its texture and deranges its form to forestall instant consumability, and draws its own language protectively around it […].26
James anticipates this fundamental gesture, and this paradox, of modernism. There is no doubt, in fact, that Eagleton’s words describe with extraordinary exactness that which was called his “later manner” or “major phase”, the very style that characterizes James’s mature production: a narration (and a construction of texts) ever more indirect and abstract; a style that starting from the last years of the 1800’s becomes ever more complex, made of extremely long periods in
T. Eagleton, Against the Grain, London, Verso, 1986, p. 140. However, it should be stressed that more and more specialists of modernism refuse the split between art and commodification, arguing for ”the embeddedness of modernism in popular culture”. J.A. Suárez, Pop Modernism. Noise and Reinvention of the Everyday, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2007, p. 2.
which the main sentence is broken into pieces, but also amplified, by an infinite series of subordinates that should specify the meaning but that in reality disperse it. James progressively invents a syntax, almost a language of his own, made up of interminable nets of allusions and cross-references (one thinks only of the role assumed in his writing by the third person neutral pronoun “it” in a deictic or anaphoric function, or the noun “thing”): a language that approaches its object not to name it but to each time displace it a bit further. This intrinsically connects to an entire epistemology of the novel (the elaboration of this style goes hand in hand with the practice and theory of point of view), and also of the world: for the subject that observes it and is immersed in it (that observes it while it is immersed in it), reality is elusive, opaque, fragmentary, and threatening; every cognitive certainty is collapsed, knowledge has become something perpetually at stake for narrators, characters, and readers. But in James’s stylistic strategies, there is also the willingness or the irresistible temptation to construct literary texts that escape the logic of consumption, that is the law of substitution, of continuous replacement, of seriality; the circle of goods-money and money-goods as described by Marx. James’s brother William (one of the most skeptical and at the same time most acute readers of his texts) had understood it perfectly, as this exhilarating letter written in 1907 demonstrates: You know how opposed your whole “third manner” of execution is to the literary ideals which animate my crude and Orson-like breast, mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception (Heaven help if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object, made […] wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space. But you do it, that’s the queerness! […] But it’s the rummest method […] and you employ it at your peril. In this crowded and hurried reading age, pages that require such close attention remain unread and neglected. You can’t skip a word if you are to get the effect, and 19 out of 20 worthy readers grow intolerant. The method seems perverse: “Say it out, for God’s sake”, they cry, “and have done with it”.27
Typescript of a letter by William James, May 4, 1907, unknown manuscript. Barrett Collection, University of Virginia.
In capitalistic society, a book that is sold, says the fictional writer Ray Limbert, becomes similar to beer or potatoes: an object that is exchanged for money in order to purchase other goods, a product that the consumption should exhaust rapidly in order that another may be purchased, and so on endlessly. Instead, the literary text as experience and not as product28 is inexhaustible and imperishable, interpretations are never able to reach its center: we can open it and reread it an infinite number of times and yet it will never be the same, because it is made of sand, as Borges says with a splendid metaphor. With an only apparent paradox, the privileged support of this sandy quality is the book as a lasting, almost sacred, object, that allows for a slow, concentrated, and above all repeatable reading, in contrast to the journalistic medium, that is instead heterogeneous and ephemeral.29 We could see in another of the “tales of the literary life”, perhaps the most famous, The Figure in the Carpet, an ambiguous and parodied image of the operation accomplished, according to Eagleton, by modernism (and by James). In this story, the writer Hugh Vereker declares to have deposited a secret in his work (“an idea”, “an exquisite scheme”, “an intention”, “a buried treasure”) that no reader has ever been able to discover nor even perceive: “It’s stuck into every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoes”, declares the writer to the narrator (who is, obviously a critic).
My distinction draws on the one between meaning as an object and meaning as an event for the reader to experience which has been proposed by Wolfgang Iser. Cf. W. Iser, The Act of Reading, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978 (see especially chapter one). 29 For the antagonism between book publication and periodical publication, see James’s letters to William Dean Howells starting from the late 1880s (especially after the great flops of The Bostonians and The Tragic Muse). Additionally, many reviewers of James’s novels highlight the incompatibility between James’s style and the quick pace of reading in the late modernity. See, for example, the following review of The Wings of the Dove: “This is, we repeat, an extraordinarily interesting performance, but it is not an easy book to read. It will not do for short railway journeys or for drowsy hammocks, or even to amuse sporting men and the active Young Person. The dense, fine quality of its pages – and there are 576 – will always presuppose a certain effort of attention on the part of the reader; who must, indeed, be prepared to forgo many of his customary titillations and bribes”. R. Gard (ed.), Henry James. The Critical Heritage, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1968, p. 319.
It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s naturally the thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me […] even as the thing for the critic to find.30
Now, if even the critics, that on various occasions James defined as “more developed readers”, are unable to discover the secret, imagine the bewilderment of less developed readers! Moreover, Vereker adds, still speaking to the narrator, with a beautiful example of that instability of the success-failure opposition to which we have earlier referred: “It’s quite with you rising young men […] that I feel most what a failure I am!”.31 A failure? It depends on the point of view, because in reality the work, with the author’s complicity, strenuously defends its secret; it lives by that secret. The secret – the figure in the carpet – is certainly a void, an absence. No one, throughout the entire story, is ever able to name it; and when one of the characters, Corvick, discovers it, he sends the others a telegram that sounds almost grotesque in its banality: “Eureka. Immense”, and upon which the narrator comments with these disarming words: “He doesn’t say what it is”.32 But that secret is, at the same time, what renders Vereker’s work incorruptible and above all – literally – priceless, refractory to any market logic.33 Indeed in the story, its price is life itself: knowing the secret has a fatal effect, as all the characters that are able to possess it (Vereker himself, obviously, and then Corvick and his wife, Gwendolen) end up, one after another, dead. In this sinister characteristic, in this mortal contagion that emanates from Vereker's secret, we could see evidence of a risk that – according to Eagleton – undermines the modernist project. It is the risk of another form of reification, that of transforming the text into fetish: pure and inviolable but in the end almost inert,
H. James, The Figure in the Carpet, in Id., The Complete Tales of Henry James op. cit., vol. IX, p. 284 e p. 282. Ibidem, p. 281 32 Ibidem, p. 296. 33 Unless we decide to take literally Pontalis’ ironic and paradoxical hypothesis, according to which burying a secret in a literary text might be a marketing strategy to increase sales. If this is true, watch the critic! Cf. J.B. Pontalis, Le lecteur et son auteur: à propos de deux récits de Henry James, in Id., Après Freud, Paris, Gallimard, 1993, pp. 336-355. 31
an object of veneration, even of sacrifice, but in which every trace of its social existence becomes cancelled or removed. Before concluding, it is necessary to linger upon one final aspect. My reading originated from a shift of the theoretic frame, but also from a suggestion by James himself: that of considering the “tales of the literary life” as a unitary corpus, of comprehending them in the etymological sense, that is of “grasping them together”, underlining at the same time that they are texts centered more on the figure of the author than on literary works. James himself presents them as such in the preface to the XV volume of the New York Edition: These pieces have this in common that they deal all with the literary life, gathering their motive, in each case, from some noted adventure, some felt embarrassment, some extreme predicament, of the artist enamoured of perfection, ridden by his idea or paying for his sincerity.34
Analyzing them in this perspective, another ambivalence emerges behind them. On the one hand, if we read them with the background of letters, notebooks, and other private materials, the “tales of the literary life” appear undoubtedly autobiographical, texts that draw upon, with sometimes minimal reworking, situations and experiences that belong to Henry James’s own life.35 On the other hand, if we turn our attention to his notebook but from a genetic viewpoint, that is focusing on his preparatory notes and first drafts, we realize that behind each of his fictional authors is a real author, or at times numerous real authors: famous names (Daudet, Browning, Trollope, Coleridge), or names today almost forgotten (Ouida, Mary Elisabeth Braddon), of whom James takes note and begins to develop with some anecdote.36 Identifying the real figure that constitutes the palimpsest of every single story, nevertheless, has only 34
H. James, preface to The Lesson of the Master, The Death of the Lion…, in Id., Literary criticism op. cit., vol. II, p. 1228. It is revealing that many “tales of the literary life” were written after the closing of James’s (first) disastrous experience as a dramatist: at the beginning of 1895, his play Guy Domville had been violently booed the night of its première. On James’s experience in the theatre, see: L. Edel, The Life of Henry James, 2 voll., Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977, and F. Kaplan, Henry James. The Imagination of Genius, New York, William Morrow, 1992. 36 Cf. The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, eds. L. Edel and L.H. Powers, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987. 35
relative importance: the significant fact is that there is, at the origin, a real figure, an author of James’s generation or of the generation before (with Coleridge as the only exception). They are not romans à clef that invite us to play the game of who is who. On the contrary, from a certain point of view James’s goal seems in fact the opposite: a dispersion of the empiric subject, of the individual destiny (even of his own), and the creation of a phantom or a myth tied to a historic destiny. The ambivalence we have pointed out, then, is for once only apparent. That which James brings to life in the “tales of the literary life” is a sort of multiple otherbiography in which he stages the figure (and the condition) of the “great writer” in late modernity: his precarious and ambiguous status, his irreducibility, his anachronistic alterity, the fascination and the horror which ties him to demoniac doubles (the popular writer and/or the female writer, mass culture, the image); his ambiguous strategies of resistance, instances of giving in, negotiations in the face of the literature’s economic value and the repressed class relationships that are at the base of the production of symbolic capital.37 In this sense, they certainly constitute the tribute offered to a species on its way to extinction. But – in their returning obsessively to what Roland Barthes has defined “l’écrivain moins son œuvre”38 – the “tales of the literary life” testify to and at the same time question another decisive transformation, the last, in terms of chronology, that the nineteenth century produces. The writer himself – his image (in a literal and metaphoric sense), his private life, his daily habits – becomes a commodity, that is traded and sold on the market of symbolic goods by way of the press, that is by way of mass media. James always theorized not only an opposition but a competition, an antagonism between writing and life, between work and author: “the books are jealous”, he declares in a letter regarding Stevenson’s biography published in 1901, and they lose their supremacy when compared to the “complete exhibition of the man and the life”.39 This antagonism has often been 37
For repressed class relationships, see especially H. James, The Great Good Place, in Id., The Complete Tales of Henry James op. cit., vol. XI, pp. 13-42, which is, in this perspective, really en exemplary story. 38 Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Paris, Seuil, 1975, p. 77. 39 H. James, Letters, ed. L. Edel, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1974-1984, vol. IV, p. 213.
interpreted in Proustian terms, along the lines of the theories elaborated by Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve and then in À la recherche du temps perdu. In effect, the parallels are undeniable and astonishing.40 But to that reading, another can be intertwined. The “tales of the literary life” are full of writers that everyone seeks, that everyone wants to know, see, touch, possess, without ever reading a single line of their books; writers persecuted by ravenous journalists hunting for interviews, revelations, fetish objects like desks, pens, slippers, photographs, and portraits. So speaks the journalist that pursues Neil Paraday in The Death of the Lion: I was shown into the drawing-room, but there must be more to see – his study, his literary sanctum, the little things he has about, or other domestic objects or features. He wouldn’t be lying down on his study-table? There’s a great interest always felt in the scene of an author’s labour. Sometimes we are favoured with very delightful peeps.41
But none of these stories investigates the process of the author’s own commodification with as much mastery as does a novella from 1903, emblematically titled The Papers, which is also constructed upon a multiple chiastic structure. In this work, the system of the cultural industry radicalizes the antagonism between author and work until reversing or canceling it completely: not only does the author come into the limelight to the detriment of his books, not only does everyone by this time desire to appear publicly, that is to become a commodity, but there is no longer even the need of any work to “make” an author, as there is no longer the need of any event to make news. The newspapers are able “to float an object not intrinsically buoyant”, to serve an omelet “without even the breakage of the egg or two that might have been expected to be the price”.42 40
On such parallels, see the outstanding analysis by M. Lavagetto, Quel Marcel! Frammenti dalla biografia di Proust, Torino, Einaudi, 2011 (the chapter ”La biografia disorientata”). 41 H. James, The Death of the Lion, in Id., The Complete Tales of Henry James op. cit., vol. IX, pp. 90-91. 42 H. James, The Papers, in Id., The Complete Tales of Henry James op. cit., vol. XII, p. 19 e p. 53. The figure of James himself has undergone a kind of posthumous commodification in the early 2000s, as testified by such biographical novels or fictionalized biographies as: E. Tennant, Felony: The Private History of “The Aspern Papers”, London, Jonathan Cape, 2002;
One can certainly say it is a prophetic story, written by a seer. Regarding the intervention of Zola in the Dreyfus affair, Bourdieu rightly spoke of the “invention de l’intellectuel” as the moment in which the literary writer “takes the floor” as such in the public and political space.43 Anticipating the society of the spectacle, if not yet the hegemony of television, of that invention, of that birth, James’s story shows us the degraded reversal, the dark, unspeakable, or perhaps only parodic side.
C. Tóibín, The Master, London, Picador, 2004; D. Lodge, Author, Author, New York, Viking Penguin, 2004. On the contemporary commodification of James, see Jim Collins, Bring on the Books for Everybody, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2010. 43 Cf. P. Bourdieu, Les Règles de l’art op. cit., p. 185.
Published on Nov 5, 2012