Saturday, September 18, 2010

THE AMBASSADORS by Henry James

Henry James's late style pulls an exact reversal on the rhetoric of Realism. Where realistic writers of his day focused on creating a believable representation of the material world outside the text (contra Derrida, il existe), James takes great metaphorical pains to render emotions, ideas and psychological states physically palpable. At the same time, the material world his characters inhabit slips into relative ineffability. Consider, for example, how Lewis Lambert Strether's nominal progenitor, Honore 'pseudo-de' Balzac, would have handled the Jamesianly delicate matter of the product manufactured in the Newsome family factories. James pointedly refuses to name the vulgar item. Balzac would've brazenly named it, minutely described it, and included a capsule history of its various methods of manufacture. Zola would've given us a guided tour of the Woollett factory and a glimpse at the degraded lives of its exploited workers. Dreiser would've blathered on for unreadable pages about the product and its production. For James, by this late date in his career, the object at the base of the book's fortune becomes a mini-McGuffin. He tantalizes his readers for a few pages early in the book, repeats the performance near its end, but permanently withholds the fundamental realist act of naming the object, specifying it. The "product of Woollett" is a deliberately empty sign, a signifier without a signified, and it cannot be coincidental that this null signifier 'represents' a commercial product. Strether's refusal of signification is a Jamesian judgment on the null products of capitalism, a judgment delivered--and James surely intends this irony--from the Olympian heights of Mount Capital, where Strether lives comfortably off the proceeds from the product he cannot name. The emptiness of this sign also indicts every one of James's carefully chosen words with a similar emptiness. In other words, this passage is a site for deconstructing the Jamesian text. But that's no big deal. Late James is full of such places. Indeed, the late style might be said to be built around a series of "subjects for silence."

The phrase "a subject for silence" appears in book one, chapter two of The Ambassadors, immediately after a passage in which the uncharacteristically gossipy narrator has been anything but silent on the subject of Waymarsh's unspeakable wife. (A character who might have been central to this novel, had it been written by Edith Wharton.) Tellingly, the narrator leaves Strether's own 'subject for silence' much more vague. This 'subject' seems not to be the deaths of Strether's wife and son, for that subject enters his consciousness on more than one occasion over the novel's course. No, Strether's unspeakable thing is something else, something much more deeply repressed, some truly unmentionable (and thus unmentioned) subject that functions as the figure in The Ambassadors' carpet. And as in that great short story, the authorial suppression of the signified opens a gap into which interpreters can foolishly rush, dragging their fashionable hermeneutics behind them. Out of these strategic Jamesian nothingnesses might be magically fashioned (in roughly chronological order): an exquisitely Aesthetic James, a New Critically paradoxical James, a dialectically Marxist James, a Deconstructively aporistic James, a closeted and coded Gay James, and last but surely not least, a flamboyantly Queer Henry. All of these interpretations have something valuable to offer. James's works are large enough to contain these multitudes. But before applying any of them to the blanks in James's texts, we should ask a Sontagian question: does this interpretation do anything more than reductively allegorize a deliberately complex text? And a more difficult question: What would a truly non-reductive interpretation of James look like? (My hunch: It would look like James's text, leaving us back where we began. All interpretation is reduction. So let's get to work on that 'erotics of art.')


Something interestingly opposite to these empty signifiers occurs in book two when Strether sits in the Tuileries Garden and gazes toward the Louvre:

The palace was gone, Strether remembered the palace; and when he gazed into the irremediable void of its site the historic sense in him might have been freely at play--the play under which in Paris indeed it so often winces like a touched nerve.

The old Tuileries Palace, left a gutted shell after the suppression of the Commune and finally demolished by a republican government's desire to erase the monarchist/imperial past, is a signified without a signifier, a meaning without a word. The meanings the palace connotes are brought to Strether's mind not by the building's presence but by its absence. Is James here giving the reader a direction for reading The Ambassadors? Pay attention to the blanks in this text, he seems to say, read the silences.


In book three, James writes the reader into his text in the guise of a Strether "at sea" in Miss Barrace's conversation:

...but he was in fact so often at sea that his sense of the range of reference was merely general and that he on several occasions guessed and interpreted only to doubt. He wondered what they meant, but there were things he scarce thought they could be supposed to mean, and 'Oh no - not that!' was at the end of most of his ventures.

This passage foregrounds the hermeneutic difficulty of the book and demonstrates that James knows exactly what he's doing, that the difficulty of the late work (and The Ambassadors is probably the least difficult of the late books) is entirely deliberate. My supposition is that James developed the late style by retreating inward in the face of commercial failure and by exaggerating those aspects of his style that critics most often derided. It's as though he's flinging this style in the faces of his critics, saying, "So you think I'm a mandarin? Well I'll show you a mandarin..." While I admire this stance and respect the late style, I find it exceptionally difficult to love. Oscar Wilde famously remarked that "Henry James writes fiction as though it were a painful duty," and Wilde was speaking before the late works appeared in all their obscure, convoluted glory. For me, too much of The Ambassadors feels like a painful duty. Late James is more pleasant to write about than to read.


So I'll write about one more passage that knocks me out. Sarah Pocock's parting shot to Strether at the end of book ten is likened to a phallic arrow penetrating the feminized/Europeanized man:

...the manner of her break, the sharp shaft of her rejoinder, had an intensity by which Strether was at first kept in arrest. She had let fly at him as from a stretched cord, and it took him a minute to recover from the sense of being pierced.

Note that James, like a good Symbolist, suppresses the literal name of the figured object (that refusal to name, yet again!), allowing "sharp shaft," "let fly," "stretched cord" and "pierced" to add up to "arrow" in the reader's mind. It's an image of great, self-deconstructing complexity--and not only in the gender reversal. The echt-American Mrs. Pocock is, at her most typically and unforgivingly American moment, implicitly figured as Diana the Huntress, a European goddess. Thus do the Old World roots of the New World confound any attempts at strict demarcation. (An alternative reading of the image might see Sarah Pocock figured as an American Indian warrior shooting her arrow, a reading that collapses the civilization/savagery dichotomy so important to early American literature. This line of thought also reminds me of early (Euro-)American painter Benjamin West's legendary remark upon first encountering the Apollo Belvedere: "How like a young Mohawk brave!" The Atlantic is a highly porous border.)


To end with a brief digression on The Naughty Names of Henry James. I'm hardly the first to wonder what the hell was going on in Henry's noggin when he created character names like Barrace (bare ass), Pocock (enough said), and that piece de resistance of naughty naming, The Golden Bowl's Fanny Assingham, a triple entendre surely signifying a butt bigger than Battersea. What's up with this? Is the repressed sexual content of the novels expressing itself in the arbitrary names of secondary characters? This censored sexuality does expresses itself similarly elsewhere in the text: during Strether's first meeting with Chad, he's impressed by the heir's "massive young manhood," a double entendre guaranteed to induce giggles.

3 comments:

ankit said...

Many thanks for this post. I just read this tremendous novel and could find nary an intelligent discussion about it online.

I think symbolism/allegory is not always a good way to dissect great novels. It is genuinely reductive as you admit and while I also see the truth in 'the interpretation seeming like a Henry James text itself', I believe side-steeping James's labyrinth syntactical flights of fancy, we might yet be able to arrive at a successful distillation of the novel without resorting to allegory or symbolism.

The 'a subject for silence' that you so beautifully delineate, is afterall materially referred to by James in the concluding chapters of his novel. I am of course referring to the central conflict of the novel.

For the first 9/10's, James just absolutely mired us in a densely tangled web of allusions and perceptions and assumptions and evasions so much so that reader is asked to participate in the central conflict of the novel without quite definitely knowing what it is. This is masterfully brought about by James.

In the concluding chapters, the top does slow down enough for us to finally make the figurines drawn on it that were but a blur before and they do eventually ground the novel in reality (though somewhat anti-climatically and ultimately reductively), before that, the reader gets the impression that this elaborately intricate construction is all a game of misdirection played amongst its characters and James playing with us.

The concluding revelations do somewhat flip the novel on its head and ask us to again parse through the tangle before to see what hints were dropped and to reevaluate all that Strehther and by extension the reader had supposed.

James also with a few short strokes subtly and ruthlessly strikes down a creation he had expended so many energies in deifying through much of the novel - Chad.

Mcguire Lawrence said...

"where Strether lives comfortably off the proceeds from the product he cannot name."

no evidence for this in the novel, we don't know the source of Strether's money, we know he has little, compared to others, but apparently enough to work only as an editor of an obscure literary reveiw and to be able to travel and live. He of course stands to gain the wealth generated by the unnamed object if he marries Mrs. Newsome. Thanks for your post and the comment that followed, both more intelligent than most i've read about the book. for me, the 'missing text', is that James never confronts his character from the other side of the sexual spectrum, morally speaking. Strether is never confronted with how he USED Maria Gostry emotionally, he is never confronted with why in the world Chad having sex with the Countess should count as such a big deal for him, something he cant even see nor later apparently forgive, that is, his selfishness and priggishness are never confronted, though with MRS POCOCK his seemingly lack of moral sense is confronted. this leads me to say that JAMES himself did not even SEE Strether as being a puritan prig, nor as a selfish user of women.....what does that say about James himself?

BRIAN OARD said...

Right. You caught me in a bit of interpretive overreach on the matter of Strether's income. I suppose I assumed that Strether received some salary from the review funded by Chad's mum, but I don't think James ever states, or even hints, at this. (The post is a few years old, and it's been a while since my reading of The Ambassadors.)