Partial Portraits of James the Traveller

Cornelius CROWLEY

Résumé : L’objet de l’article est d’offrir une perspective moins frontale sur l’œuvre de James, en partant des écrits suscités par sa pratique du voyage. Ainsi peut-on aborder l’œuvre de biais, par ces écrits saisonniers que sont les notes appelées par le voyage, le lieu visité. Ainsi émerge la relation au monde, au temps et aux lieux, qui est au fondement de l’œuvre de James. L’expérience du monde est une affaire de circonstances. Et l’art une affaire d’ajustement à cette modalité aussi occasionnelle qu’indépassable de la vie.

Abstract: The aim of the article is to offer a less solemn and less frontal perspective on the Jamesian opus by way of his travel writing, a practice inevitably seasonal and occasional: the jottings of a tourist or traveller. There emerges a renewed sense of the Jamesian relation to the world, to time and to place, in terms of the responsiveness to things seen. Experience is an affair of circumstance and chance, art an adjustment to and an honouring in words of the occasionality of life, travel in time.



1Partial Portraits is the title of a book published by Henry James in 1888, bringing together essays on his peers in the art of fiction. “Partial,” because for James all portraits, in painting or writing, are undertaken from a specific angle or point of view. “Partial” also, because the portrayal can only achieve its degree of completion by way of what it chooses to leave out, through the operation which he repeatedly refers to as the necessary “foreshortening,” raccourci, in the representation of what is there to be taken in, from a particular angle and moment in time.1 Raccourci can in turn be retranslated as “short-cut,” thus taking us back to travel and to travel writing.

2The traveller who writes is not a native of the place visited. The claim to be counted as a contributor to the genre is conditional on the absence of familiarity with or rootedness in the place depicted. As a corollary, the sketch thus written is not primarily intended for those native to the place. Henry James displays the credentials of a travel writer of the epoch of liberal intercontinental exploration, writing for a largely anglophone and in the beginning an American readership of things seen in continental Europe and in Great Britain, though not in Ireland. And if he also writes as a travel writer in his native place, this is due to the still to be explored immensity of America and, much later, is an effect of his European “expatriation,” the existential and enabling condition of estrangement that is crucial to his way of seeing and taking things in. Of Ralph Touchett, the narrator of The Portrait of a Lady indicates that “He wintered abroad, as the phrase is; basked in the sun, stopped at home when the wind blew, went to bed when it rained, and once or twice, when it had snowed overnight, almost never got up again” (1995 45). The indications are consistent with the nineteenth century possibilities of curative travelling, south to the winter sun, upwards to the alpine sanatorium. The sentence that follows takes us inwards, sketching the dispositions of this invalid traveller, suggesting what he draws on to survive the ordeal of estrangement and thus bear things as they fall out: “A secret hoard of indifference—like a thick cake a fond old nurse might have slipped into his first school outfit—came to his aid and helped to reconcile him to sacrifice.” The viator is here kitted out with a curiously Dickinsonian viaticum, a frugal treasure of “indifference” or lack.

3My intention is to offer a series of “partial,” facetted notations of James as traveller and writer. We could also add: of James the reader or, in the most elementary sense, James as a human alive, travelling, writing, reading, till the death. This will not produce any overview of James the traveller. What is evident today, when we dip into the textual immensity of the Jamesian oeuvre, is the extent to which the qualification James the Master is a misnomer. The opus is a formidable and open-ended non-totality, its incompletion determining the ongoing and reiterated partiality of our responses.

The “Sublimely Ridiculous”

4In November 1872, James published his essay “A European Summer: From Chambéry to Milan.” He is unimpressed by Chambéry, which “as a town, however, affords little premonition of Italy (2016 102). He notes the engineering exploits, the compression of time and space, anticipates the “mysterious delights in entering Italy whizzing through an eight-mile tunnel” (101). He is equally unimpressed by Milan, a city not “distinctly Italian,” stating that “[t]he long Austrian occupation, perhaps, did something to Germanize its physiognomy.” James here remains predictable in his Keatsian aspiration to the “warm south”; consistent also in the resistance to the Germanic world he would keep to the end, to the years of the Great War. So far, nothing to contradict the expectations of a polite anglophone readership. There follows a shift to another plane of vision and response in writing, an exhilaration stemming from the observer’s engagement with the relics of S. Charles Borromeo in the Cathedral:

This holy man lies at his eternal rest in a small but gorgeous sepulchral chapel, beneath the pavement of the church, before the high altar; and for the modest sum of five francs, you may have his shrivelled mortality unveiled, and gaze at it in all the dreadful double scepticism of a Protestant and a tourist. The Catholic Church, I believe, has some doctrine that its ends justify at need any means whatsoever; a fortiori, therefore, nothing it does can be ridiculous. The performance in question, of which the good San Carlo fit les frais, as the French say, was impressive, certainly, but as great grotesqueness is impressive. […] [T]o form an idea of the étalage, you must imagine that a jeweller, for reasons of his own, has struck an unnatural partnership with an undertaker. The black, mummified corpse of the saint is stretched out in a glass coffin, clad in his mouldering canonicals, mitred, crosiered, and gloved, and glittering with votive jewels. It is an extraordinary mixture of death and life; the desiccated clay, the ashen rags, the hideous little black mask and skull, and the living, glowing, twinkling splendor of diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. Whatever may be the better opinion as to whether the Church is in a decline, I cannot help thinking that she will make a tolerable figure in the world so long as she retains this capital of bric-a-brac, scintillating throughout Christendom at effectively scattered points. You see, I am forced to agree after all, in spite of the sliding shutter and the profane exhibitory arts of the sacristan, that the majesty of the Church saves the situation, or made it, at least, sublimely ridiculous (110-111).

5Point of view is reflexive, the illumination operates both inward and outward. James begins by acknowledging the partiality of his stance: the “double scepticism of a Protestant and tourist.” From Christopher Newman and Henrietta Stackpole to Waymarsh in The Ambassadors, there are numerous variations on the persona of the Protestant tourist abroad. Here, in representing his own stance as an American tourist, James adds an additional turn of the screw. The result is a condition of outer and inner, subjective and civilizational, undecidability, evident in the qualification of the relation between the tourist and the spectacle: a “grotesqueness” “impressive,” a situation “sublimely ridiculous,” an effect of the “unnatural partnership” between jeweller and undertaker. At this point, the normative position of Protestant scepticism is irreversibly unmoored, as it will be for Lambert Strether. For the young Henry James, the exposure of an American Protestant consciousness to European spectacle is in no sense a source of regret at having hitherto “missed out” on opportunities and spectacles. The décalage is productive of insight and exhilaration. James the tourist acknowledges the capacity of the Church to elaborate a remarkable show, devised from “an extraordinary mixture of death and life.” While he is charmed beyond the posture of Protestant scepticism, this does not involve the espousal of an antimodernist Catholicism, in the Italy of the 1870s. The posture is infinitely beyond the stance of any “double scepticism” or any regressive dogmatism: it is the concomitant of a delectation in the various spectacles of the world which, like the more local and frivolous illusions of the Parisian stage, are the fabrications concocted in the interests of a work of civilizational management, which James takes in with a coldly lucid anthropological eye, acknowledging that an institution such as the Catholic Church has no choice, if it is to maintain the display and the conviction thus generated, but to carry on with its spectacular tricks. A Jamesian perspectivism, far beyond the stability of any progressive, rationalist disdain, might be Nietzschean. Both writers had longings for the “warm south.” But the perspectivism and partiality of James are more modular and more dancing in their inward and outward, all-directional playfulneess, in a manner that is productive of joy at the spectacle of the world. The Milan Cathedral station in James’s travel is indicative of a vein which takes the reader well beyond the tones of any American or English Gothic, in its exploration of the traveller’s exposure and response to the Catholic world. To qualify such a vein, we might call it a delectation in the world, as orchestrated through a camp aesthetic, as delineated by Patrick Mauriès (2012), where the sublime and the ridiculous are not mutually exclusive, in contrast to the more exclusive tenor of a European symbolist tradition, of which James was a contemporary, but not a votary.

The Exposure of the Expatriate

The observations of the “cultivated American” bear chiefly, I think, upon the great topic of national idiosyncrasies. He is apt to have a keener sense of them than Europeans; it matters more to his imagination that this neighbor is English, French, or German. He often seems to me to be a creature wandering aloof, but half naturalised himself. His neighbors are outlined, defined, imprisoned, if you will, by their respective national moulds, pleasing or otherwise; but his own type has not hardened yet into the Old-World bronze. Superficially, no people carry more signs and tokens of what they are than Americans. I recognize them as they advance by the whole length of the promenade. The signs, however, are still all of the negative kind, and seem to assure you, first of all, that the individual belongs to a country in which the social atmosphere, like the material, is extremely thin (2016 163).

6What is revealed of the European scene is here an effect of the dispositions of the observer. And taking stock of the three European types mentioned here, we can easily anticipate the criss-crossing of inter-national but intra-European “observations”: the English observations of the German and the French type, their French and German complements. There is little to suggest that the conflicting observations of neighbors and rivals, “outlined, defined, imprisoned […] by their respective national moulds,” will lead inwards to any moment of self-scrutiny: the observations will be confirmational of what is already prejudicially known. A change does occur, when the “cultivated American,” whom James foregrounds through the quotation marks, is the observer of these “Old-World bronze” types. What is it that James is suggesting, in speaking of “a creature wandering aloof, but half naturalized himself”? His account of “Homburg Reformed,” dated July 28, 1873, anticipates the argument later formulated in his essay on Hawthorne (1879), where the earlier writer is for James the epitome of American absences. A “creature wandering aloof” is ungrounded, as devoid of attachments as a boat adrift, or the balloon of romance described in the New York Edition preface to The American, antithesis to the rounded thickness of the novel’s representational order.

7Here as elsewhere, the thickness of the European order of types, “outlined, defined, imprisoned, if you will,” is both celebrated and kept at a distance. While “if you will” reads as a rhetorical apology, James is proudly claiming an American entitlement to expose the overwrought completion of the European civilization of interconnected national orders, a civilization calling out for the intervention of the “cultivated American,” who alone can inject some air, offering a receptive vacancy on which to project a truer representation of the European order, which the criss-crossing of inter-national typing has reduced to a malevolent and sterile rivalry. In Europe generally, and specifically here in Homburg, American “thinness” can be a prerequisite for the unreserved reception of the European scene, as it is dressed out in the “respective national moulds.” While the relation between the American observer and the European scene ought to be mutually beneficial, it is probably only the “cultivated American,” through the capacity to reflect on the lack that is his cultural birthright, who will have the guile and the candor needed to represent the splendour of the European scene: there are few examples where the admission of a lack, such as the expatriate American is forced to make, will fail to arouse an antithetical conviction of blessedness in those whose presumption of heritage spares them the sense of being decked out with “signs […] all of the negative kind.”

8The capacity to see, prerogative of this “cultivated American,” is exercised contrastively, in relation to the American and the European scenes. This is the case in the continental diagnosis offered in the essay on Hawthorne and, much later, in The American Scene. It is also in evidence in James’s observation of American resorts, in the vision of Lake George in 1870 and its comparison to Lake Como, leading to the following judgement, after the depiction of “a little promontory of planks on posts, in the nature of a steamboat-pier”: “This brave little attempt at civilization looks as transient and accidental as the furniture of a dream.” (19)

9And precisely because the Jamesian interrogation of the European or American conditions is through the portrayal of specific places, in the period between 1870 and the Great War, it is not possible to generalise or to fetishize the essentialized “thinness” and “vacancy” of the “cultivated American.” The only lesson to be drawn is that the travel and the writing are works in progress, that the experience is now, and it is always subject to revision in the light of ordeals still to come. The underequipped, less burdened, American braves the elements and courts exposure, as in the determination of Lambert Strether to go out late, without the protection of an overcoat, his late venturing out marking the passage from Woollett, Massachusetts, to Europe. Dan Katz, in his inquiry into an American modernist “expatriate scene,” of which James is the tutelary figure, quotes a letter to his brother William, from 1888, in which he declares: “I aspire to write in such a way that it wd. be impossible to say whether I am, at a given moment, an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America” (22).2 This would appear a rare occasion when James seems lacking in guile, maybe through deference to the judgement of his brother William. His observations of Europe and of America from the 1870s are unquestionably those of “a cultivated American,” who has no choice but to tutor his civilizational thinness, his peculiar inheritance. Dan Katz points out that “inheriting ‘clearly’ or ‘plainly’ […] is not something often witnessed in James” (23). Indeed, in the case of Henry James, the inheritance of an absence of “birthright” is a predicament which leaves the observer at home neither in his place of birth nor in those places where he chooses to live out his original expatriation.

10This could amount to a less strident version of the Beckettian condition of existential expulsion, or to a less melodramatic version of Heidegger’s plight of thrownness.3 The Jamesian expatriate, cast out into the world that is to compensate for a primary plasticity that has “not hardened yet into primary type” might be a figure for the condition of the intercontinental migrants of our time, cast out to travel in our common world, the cosmopolitan community of shared planetary destiny. I admit that might is here somewhat stretched, perhaps no more than a feeble pointing to the generality of travel as our anthropological and political condition, from the beginning, “out of Africa,” as now and for the future. A condition common therefore to the discretionary cosmopolitan travel and to the forced migration of our epoch; to the discretionary cosmopolitan travel of an earlier, Jamesian, epoch of liberal modernity and to its objectively or socially correlative current of forced (mostly westward) migration? Might may here be no more than an admission of our political failure and bankruptcy; a plea in mitigation, by way of one’s sense of bewilderment, to adopt another Jamesian trope. But perhaps there might be a politics still to be invented by way of the Jamesian modality of travel in time, an accepted submission to the law of impermanence and unending mutual revision that is by no means a consolidation of narcissistic sovereignty, bien au contraire: an exposure rather to the asymmetry of all shared, common destiny, such as binds Lambert Strether to Little Bilham, whose ordeal of consciousness and of living is yet to come. Or then again might could be a pointing to a politics “from James” as a road not taken, for which it is now too late.

The End of Travel, the Consummation of Art?

11Writing to Grace Norton from his house in Rye, on the eve of “crossing to the Continent” in 1907 (1920 66-70), Henry James assumes the persona of a stay-at-home reader of books. He is apprehensive at the prospect of finding himself “plunged into the strain of the rankest and most promiscuous actuality as soon as, crossing to the Continent, I direct myself to the shrines of a superior antiquity.” The “travel-impulse,” which, he says, “I’ve had almost no opportunity in my life really to gratify,” is now “extinct as from inanition (and personal antiquity!).” He adds that “above all, more and more, the only way I care to travel is by reading.”4

12James cannot here be taken at his word. To suggest that he had had “almost no opportunity” to “gratify” the travel impulse does not square with the evidence of his peregrinations, as documented in the letters, or with the omnipresence of the tropes of travel in the writing. Even the primordial trope of “relations,” I would contend, is a subliminal trope of travel. James remains a “travel writer,” even when he no longer intends to go abroad to visit the “shrines of a superior antiquity.” To suggest that by 1907 “the only way I care to travel is by reading,” or indeed by writing, would also be misleading, insofar as the reading and writing are the continuation of the travelling, which is itself, in the Jamesian anthropology, to be regarded as the modality of living, the “passionate pilgrim”5 an emblematic Jamesian figure, the partially secularised version of the religious peregrinus, who in turn is the ritualised accomplishment of an anthropological destiny of movement and migration, by land and by sea. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” James famously wrote to H.G. Wells in 1915 (Horne 555). The art is an accommodation with the burden of living, its travail and its travel.

Occasions of Seeing in “Real Time”

13The contingency of Jamesian observation is indicated in the titles of his travel writings: “Venice: An Early Impression,” “The Autumn in Florence,” “Italy Revisited,” “The Autumn in Florence,” “A European Summer,” “The After-Season at Rome,” “Homburg Reformed,” “London in the Dead Season.” It is alert to changes in the politics of the place observed: Homburg after the unification of Germany, the Italian cities after reunification. What is seen and taken in is conditional on the seasons and on the time of day, on whether it is the first or the reiterated encounter between the observer and the particular place. The force of the vision is thus the product of a specific “occasionality.” Not the relation between fortuna and virtu, as in Machiavelli’s comprehension of the conditionality of a political coup. Not the conditionality of the sinner’s succumbing to various occasions of sin, which the discourses of a Catholic disciplinary control enumerated in lurid detail. An occasionality of seeing that involves a more intimate ordeal, whose exemplary accomplishment is the adventure of Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, for whom, from disembarkation in Chester to the return to Woollett, vision is an affair of timing (late or early in the day), of the “dead season” in Paris in the emptiness of August, when the vision of Chad and Mme de Vionnet together in a boat on the Seine in late evening, their relation both occluded and exposed by the painterly impressionist parasol, is a revelation en temps réel. The inflection operated by James on the Roman Catholic scheme of occasionality is both slight and momentous: Paris no longer the occasion of sin for wayward English and American tourists (though the novel fully confronts the puritan anxiety of exposure to the elation of the senses); Paris here the occasion of seeing and of taking in what one sees, prelude to a revision of the observer’s sense of self. Submission to the occasional implies the provisional acceptance of what is observed, which thus calls for a further, later revision. And this implies that the end to the Jamesian reiteration of these acts of passing vision can only be the interruption of death or the interruption of consciousness. (And also means that the Jamesian corpus is a sedimentation of contingent, occasional “truths,” rather than truth; of partial, angled representations rather than anything that can lay claim to the status of monumentality and permanence.) Reading James by way of the occasional genre of travel writing invites us to abandon any marmoreal conception of the corpus.

14Lambert Strether’s journey to Europe is undertaken decades after an earlier voyage as a much younger man. For the reader, he can be comprehended as an avatar of those other figures of the American traveller: Christopher Newman, who transmutes into the somewhat older Rowland Mallet, and, last in this Jamesian line, John Marcher, the unrequited universal marcher, arpenteur, his destiny indicative of an “économie générale,” of travel without end as the condition on earth, of which the more banal activity of tourism is the distractive économie restreinte.” The admonition found in “the second chapter of Book Fifth” of The Ambassadors, as foregrounded by James in the preface, to the effect that “the remarks to which he thus gives utterance contain the essence of ‘The Ambassadors’”: “‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?’” (1984b 1304), is consistent with Marcher’s unrequited waiting, since the law of Jamesian travail and travel is the deferral of revelation in real time, experience being subject to a law of disclosure whereby what is given is not the last word, not the Hegelian moment of absolute truth.6

15Temps réel, we would argue, is the time of seeing, of travel and travail, the time of living, if one is not to retreat into the refuge of judgemental irony, knowing retrospection. James is thus the exemplar of a minor mode of literary modernism, which does not stem from Gustave Flaubert, a very different type of “travel writer.” Here is what James wrote of Flaubert in 1874:

We may frankly say that it (La Tentation de Saint Antoine) strikes us as a ponderous failure; but it is an interesting failure as well, and it suggests a number of profitable reflections.

In so far as these concern M. Gustave Flaubert himself, they are decidedly melancholy. Many American readers probably have followed his career and will readily recall it as an extraordinary example of a writer outliving his genius […]. Lying there before us so unmistakably still-born, they are a capital refutation of the very dogma in defence of which they appeared. The fatal charmlessness of each and all of them is an eloquent plea for the ideal (1984b 289-290).

16To draw on a term from our contemporary colloquial French, the judgement is spectacularly violent, given James’s admiration for a French formal seriousness (compared to the English nonchalance) in the art of fiction. It is however consistent with his mistrust of irony. If Flaubert the writer has “outlived” his genius, then his art of fiction, which is to engage with “the real” by way of the imperative modality of seeing and knowing, has been traded in for something else, the effect of which is not a representation of life as it is, “en temps réel,” but the depiction rather, from a knowing retrospection, of life as it was “always already” fated to end up. The result, in James’s view, is not an artwork that is the elaboration of what is implicit in the donnée of the real, but an artwork “unmistakeably still-born.” In the case of Flaubert, James suggests, the art of fiction is not commensurate with the fate of living: the artist has drawn down the shutters and become resigned to the perspective of ironic commentary après coup. The reservations concerning Flaubert’s art of fiction are reservations about a Flaubertian irony, through which the possible fruits, benefits, the disclosures of the journey, can in advance be discounted, by way of a speculative venture where the experience can, through the anticipation of its meagre future value, be sold short.

17Through the severity of his judgement of a writer who has “outlived” his genius, James is pointing to a very different aesthetic, one profoundly “anti-symbolist,” insofar as it involves a wager on the experience to be explored: not an art of negation, an entirely different adventure of travel. The difference has been tested and proven, by way of the implications of the tense structure, in a passage from L’Éducation sentimentale which has taken on an emblematic status as archetypal instance of the French passé simple.7 As orchestrated by Flaubert, the depiction implies that the experience in the real time of travel is left outside the frame, hors champ, pretext for an alchemical refinement of a residue of meaning, to be appreciated long after the event. And this in turn means that the perspective on the present can be veiled in a haughty melancholy, antithetical to the Jamesian imperative of seeing and showing in real time, without irony or guile. The result is that Flaubert gives the reader neither the record of travel nor the ordeal of living, only the after-effect of having lived and of having been disillusioned. This is entirely different from the confrontation with destiny of the Jamesian traveller,8 Isabel Archer or Lambert Strether: a confrontation with “the real” as the modality of the protagonist’s “fate,” lived out in the time of the narrative unfolding.

18This exposes the reader to an entirely different mode of partial portrayal than in the case of Flaubertian irony, the latter a superb example of après coup knowingness, which inevitably excludes any disclosure of the experience as it was experienced, before its accommodation within a scheme of meaning. In other words, irony is the trope of “always already,” of the knowing stance out of which Heidegger can decipher the deployment of the metaphysical scheme of truth, as it was or is or always will be, “always already”: immer schon; the temporal perspective of unsurprise, evoked by the narrator in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Sérotonine,9 where the mode of travel and the art of the novel are Flaubertian and entirely alien to the Jamesian art of fiction. The point of view of Houellebecq’s traveller is exclusive, a revelation only of the pre-emption by the narrator of any engagement with experience in real time. The disclosure is only that of the misogynist equivalence between virtually all the women encountered by the traveller-narrator. Yvetot vaut donc Constantinople, as Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet,10 and the narrator always already knows that his observations in the 13e arrondissement in Paris will scarcely differ from those in Niort or in Normandy, or in the hotels of the south of Spain. Such a perspective is exhaustive in its knowingness. It can be neither partial nor locally attuned. The revisable knowledge accessible to the Jamesian traveller is a different work in progress, in travel as in travail.11

The Rite of Spring

The smile of Rome, as I have called it, and its intense suggestiveness to those who are willing to ramble irresponsibly and take things as they come, is ushered in with the first breath of spring, and it grows and grows with the advancing season, till it wraps the whole place in its tenfold charm. As the process goes on, you can do few better things than go often to the Villa Borghese, and sit on the grass (on a stout bit of drapery) and watch its exquisite stages. It is a more magical spring than ours, even when ours has left off its damnable faces, and begun. Nature surrenders itself to it with a frankness which outstrips your most unutterable longings, and leaves you, as I say, nothing to do but to lay your head among the anemones at the base of a high-stemmed pine and gaze up crestward and skyward along its slanting silvery column (2016 150-151).

19No irony in the moment as evoked here: a fusion between the natural and the civilisational, between the Jamesian observer and the scene visible from the peculiar perspective of one lying on the grass, “head along the anemones at the base of a high-stemmed pine,” gazing up “crestward and skyward.” “The smile of Rome” is a feature of the city’s personification and seasonal reanimation; not however an effect of anthropomorphism, more an affair of the polytheistic (Ovidean) metamorphosis of place through “the first breath of spring.” Again, this vein of Jamesian modernism is not Flaubertian and ironic. It is more in key with a later and quite different writer, D.H. Lawrence, like James a traveller in Italy, like James a writer who sought to attune his perception to the “spirit of place,”12 thus attenuating the dualist confrontation between nature and culture or between the knowing consciousness and the world to be explored. For James, this requires passivity rather than agency, and the effects in the writing are evident in the capacity to draw on a series of terms which tentatively renegotiate, trespass, the polarities and frontiers which confine and distinguish the alien and the homely, the familiar and the unknown: the Jamesian operators of trespass are the terms resonance, reverberation, bristle, and, most importantly, the anti-foundational term relation.

20The Roman scene offers the point of view of the observer on the grass, gazing upwards. And what is witnessed, from this “first breath” and through “the advancing season,” is the surrender of “nature” to its “most unutterable longings.” It is not an episode in modernist disenchantment. The oncoming of a Roman spring is unquestionably ecstatic, far removed from any puritan New England reticence, as if already in May 1873 the young Henry James had assumed the persona of the tourist as traveller in real time, for whom the imperative to “Live, live” is not the call to an act of will, an invitation rather to adopt a disposition of gelassenheit,13 here suggested in the advice to “ramble irresponsibly,” though again we note the subtly different tenor of this Jamesian carelessness, drawing on a less melodramatic slant on the world, one which can possibly concord with an American transcendentalism. Which may explain why Americans were, in the lifetime of Henry James, the exemplary viewers of a European painting of passing impressions in time and, more generally, of the European scene, at a time when it was still possible to trust to the occasional reanimation of the civic through its reabsorption into the order of the natural. For today’s readers of James, latter-day observers of the places he once visited, the evocation of the coming of spring in 1873 is, literally, poignant, insofar as we now know, too late perhaps, that the reanimation of the civic and the human order through a natural “magic” which “wraps the whole place in its tenfold charm” is both necessary and, perhaps, now foreclosed. Which takes us back to our sense that the world of James, explored through his travels and explored in his art as an adventure of chances and occasions, is never the indifferent pretext for an enterprise of possession or an accomplishment of will. This may be the minor (and better) mode of an American moment in world history: the art of “hanging loose,” an American gelassenheit, a vein where James is in resonance with the anamorphic vision of sky seen through ceiling in the title of the John Adams opera,14 or the title of the 1967 Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, “The Look of Love,” audible as a variation on “the smile of spring,” through the syntax and the alliteration, a looseness often there as an undertow in the Jamesian sentence.

21Occasional magic is not a quality James reserves exclusively for the Roman spring. The long first paragraph in Chapter 2 of The Europeans (1878) begins with the evocation of the more sudden (and later) oncoming of the New England spring. “The next day was splendid, as Felix had prophesied; if the winter had suddenly leaped into spring, the spring had for the moment as quickly leaped into summer” (1983 888). If the New England phases are compressed, the writing is again attentive to the process of being in the world in time, subject to a condition where any human or any non-human living is dependent on the intricacy of the prior conditions woven into the fabric of a universe.

Dipping in, Venturing out

22In an essay on Emerson, published in 1887 and collected in Partial Portraits (1888), James begins his consideration of the correspondence between Carlyle and Emerson by stating: “In the deluge of ‘new books,’ in which so many of us at present are occupied in swimming for our lives, it is not often that there floats towards us a pair of volumes so well deserving to be arrested in their passage.” (1984a 884) The reader, in this case Henry James, dips into an ocean of print, stretching out his hand to latch onto the Emerson volume. Dipping in is the term frequently used in referring to the engagement with certain formidable texts: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake the exemplary instance, apprehended as something vast and unfathomable in its depth of possible meaning. In terms of the trope of a textual sea, does this mean that the text is a liquid expanse or, on the contrary, an island in the archipelago of books that are to resist the depths? In James’s art of fiction, the text is figured as a watertight vessel, assembled in such a way that there will be no leak or “hole.” For a writer far too habitually associated with the society of English great houses or Italian palaces, it is worth noting that this vessel is fitted out for a venturing out into an ocean. The testing of the depths is by way of a structure designed to hold up, against the abyss.

23If we are to adopt the venture of travel as the trope through which to encompass the Jamesian opus, it is to the preface to Roderick Hudson that we must look, to volume 1 of the 1907 New York Edition, in order to comprehend his perilous art, where sails are unfurled and the writer throws caution to the wind, trusting to the element which can sink him.

“Roderick Hudson” was my first attempt at a novel, a long fiction with a “complicated” subject, and I recall again the quite uplifted sense with which my idea, such as it was, permitted me at last to put quite out to sea. I had but hugged the shore on sundry previous small occasions; bumping about, to acquire skill, in the shallow waters and sandy coves of the “short story” and master as yet of no vessel constructed to carry a sail. The subject of “Roderick” figured to me vividly this employment of canvas, and I have not forgotten, even after long years, how the blue southern sea seemed to spread immediately before me and the breath of the spice-islands to be already in the breeze (1984b 1040).

24In all, the preface to Roderick Hudson offers six occurrences of the term “canvas.” The second is a reference to the task confronting “a young embroiderer of the canvas of life.” Subsequent references are to the painter in his studio. They take up the standard trope of pictorial representation, through which James frequently sought to formalise his art of the novel, through the exemplarity of the painter’s capacity to raise the representational figures from the flatness of the canvas. However the first occurrence of “canvas” in the preface to Roderick Hudson takes us out of the studio and into a more adventurous element: the open sea and the epoch of navigation by sail. The suggestion is that for the work of fiction to be as consummately adjusted to its motif as the representation which the painter has raised from the flat surface of the canvas, the writer must first throw caution to the wind, take leave of the “shallow waters and sandy coves” which had tolerated a skill in cabotage, a navigation where it was still possible to “hug” the shore.

25In the beginning, therefore, is the act of casting off, through which the Jamesian traveller artist abandons all security. The subsequent achievement is thus predicated on an act of daring, an empowering void. After which, there can be no turning back, so that the artist as homo viator, arpenteur, equipped with little more in the way of a viaticum than the piece of cake stored by Ralph Touchett, has to endure the travel and travail of a work in progress that will end in the contingent moment of certain death.

26The preface to Roderick Hudson thus suggests nothing in the order of a masterly Craft of Fiction, as anatomised by Percy Lubbock; more an adventure in the spirit of those conjured up by James’s friend R.L. Stevenson, or by Conrad. The precariousness of the venture is the starting point, the condition to be kept in mind by the reader if she or he is to appreciate that what reverberates through the structure of the text, like the wind in the canvas sails of the ship, is a force with which the writer has “composed” and played, certainly not a force that has been mastered.

Africa, Aldershot: Exploration and the Spectacle of Peace and War

27Dipping into the Jamesian textual sea, we come across the 1875 essay on The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1866 to his Death. Continued by a Narrative of his Last Moments and Sufferings. James presents the journals as “an enormous mass of raw material, which the author alone could have put into coherent and presentable form.” The publication is the achievement of Livingstone’s African servants, who preserved the original manuscript, in some cases no more than a “scrawling with extemporized ink on old scraps of English newspapers” (1984a 1141). As offered to the reader, the work “bears no small analogy to the pathless forest, intersected with large districts of “sponge,” through which Livingstone himself had often to pursue his own uncertain way.” Here the trope of textuality is the “pathless forest” rather than the fathomless sea: the actual jungle of east Africa and its great lakes (1143), a territory of material and moral entanglement, which James would much later evoke in order to figure the metropolitan peregrinations of John Marcher as he stalked a beast in his refined metropolitan jungle. James shared with Livingstone a puritan schooling in the allegorical progress of the pilgrim. “Bewilderment,” that of Lambert Strether in Paris or of Marcher in London, is an interiorized variation on the more primeval possibility of being lost in a forest or jungle. Which suggests that any modern “bewilderment” retains something of its earlier and more savage brush with the force of the uncanny. And this suggests that at a certain hour in the European moment of world history (now in the past), in the prose of Conrad but also that of Henry James, there is an intimation of the sacred and of its possible horror, that its ominous valency, written into the text, is still there in waiting for us as readers.

28James mentions Livingstone’s initial motivations, his “personal passion”: “One of my waking dreams is that the legendary tales about Moses coming up into inner Ethiopia with Merr, his foster-mother, and founding a city […] may have a substratum of fact” (1143). Livingstone had set off in search of “some monumental relics of Meroe.”15 In conclusion to his reading of the Journals, James celebrates the quality of “geographical constructiveness” demonstrated in the travels and the writings of Livingstone. We begin to grasp that “geographical constructiveness” can also qualify the labour of seeing and of responding, which for James was the concomitant of living, travelling, writing. All of which supposes a dependency on and an openness to time and to chance, to what they may still bring. That, for James, was the lesson to be taken from Flaubert and the novels of his French contemporaries. A farewell to irony, the preserved possibility of surprise.

29James draws a depth of suggestion from his reading of Livingstone. He conveys this to the reader: “the abominations of slavery in this and in other regions,” to which “Dr Livingstone alludes frequently and in terms of deep disgust” (1144); the sense of a desolation afflicting the enslaved population of the Manyuema country: “a strange disease which seemed to be literal broken-heartedness. They dropped and pined, but complained of nothing but a pain which they indicated by laying their hands on their hearts” (1145). Again one is tempted both to interiorise and to extend the range of the afflictions, catching in the passage an anticipation of the title of James’s much later metropolitan story, The Bench of Desolation,” at once different from and yet akin to the desolation touched upon here, as the twinned extremities of a common condition. And when James alludes to Livingstone’s reference to slavery as “the open sore of the land, crying aloud to heaven to be healed,” our reading of his 1875 account of the Journals bristles with the resonance of other texts in the Jamesian corpus, his accounts of family, of the divergence between his destiny and that of his younger brothers who went to war in America, its shadow thus present at the beginning and at the end of James’s career as writer and traveller, not warrior.

30The qualities he identifies as those of Dr. Livingstone can also be predicated of James the traveller: “his candor, his singleness of purpose and simplicity. The combination of these qualities, with his unshrinking pluck, his extraordinary endurance, his faculty of universal observation, and of what we may call geographical constructiveness, made him of all great travellers one of the very greatest.” The qualities enumerated sketch an additional, still partial, self-portrait of James, valid both for the James of 1875 and for the “late” James, never a master, of the period 1900-1916.

31One final dipping into the Jamesian opus, again from the 1870s: an essay entitled “The British Soldier,” published in 1878 for an American audience.16 James points to the visibility in continental Europe of military power on display.

The huge armaments of continental Europe are an oppressive and sinister spectacle, and I have rarely derived a high order of entertainment from the sight of even the largest masses of homesick conscripts. The chair à canon—the cannon-meat—as they aptly term it in French, has always seemed to me dumbly, appealingly, conscious of its destiny. I have seen it in course of preparation—seen it sealed and dressed and packed and labelled, as it were, for consumption. In that marvellous France, indeed, which bears all burdens lightly, and whose good spirits and absence of the tragic pose alone prevents us from calling her constantly heroic, the army scarcely seems to be the heavy charge that it must be in fact. The little red-legged soldiers, always present and always moving, are as thick as the field-flowers in an abundant harvest, and amid the general brightness and mobility of French life they strike one at times simply as cheerful tokens of the natural exuberance and fecundity (1999 3-4).

32This is the Henry James who had observed the Roman spring and Florence in autumn. The quality of attention is the same, before the theatre of possible war or the “spectacle” (to use James’s word) of natural growth. James translates and literalises what is habitually and horribly a cynical dead metaphor: chair à canon. He “goes behind” the visible effect, adopting the point of view of the conscript soldiers, restoring to them the consciousness which the frontal technocentric focus on the “huge armaments of continental Europe” deprives them of. What he epitomises here is the compressed temporality of “packing” and “labelling,” as it both separates and connects the initial “spectacle” to the final “consumption” of wartime carnage. The affinity between what is seen here and the observation of the Roman spring is uncanny, in the evocation of “The little red-legged soldiers […] as thick as the field-flowers in an abundant harvest.” Three possible affinities come to mind: to the field-flowers in the paintings of Pissarro, the poppies of the Somme in 1916. Or to Daisy Miller, James’s precociously doomed heroine, fictional contemporary of these “field-flowers” in uniform, whose possible destiny James fleshes out from his initial and charmed observation of the “spectacle.” Later in the essay, James describes the spectacle of British non-conscript military life in the garrison town of Aldershot. Once again, he liberates and discloses the truth of what in 1914 would achieve the currency of a dreadful truism: “the flower of Europe’s youth,” marching off la fleur au fusil.

There was a great deal of cavalry and artillery, and the dragoons, hussars and lancers, the beautiful horses, the capital riders, the wonderful wagons and guns, seemed even more theatrical than military. This came, in a great measure, from the freshness and tidiness of their accessories—the brightness and tightness of uniforms, the polish of boots and buckles, the newness of leather and paint. None of these things were the worse for wear; they had the bloom of peace still upon them. As I looked at the show, and then afterward, in charming company, went winding back to camp, passing detachments of the great cavalcade, returning also in narrow file, balancing on their handsome horses along the paths in the gorse-brightened heather, I allowed myself to wish that since, as matters stood, the British soldier was clearly such a fine fellow and a review at Aldershot was such a delightful entertainment, the bloom of peace might long remain (1999 13).

33Partial vision in time, choses vues,17 is limited and contingent. It is not however a perception of mere surface display. The observer sees in the immediate spectacle the omens of something else. Aldershot is described as offering “such a delightful entertainment,” the spectacle flashy as anything to be seen on the London stage. “Bloom of peace,” the Roman “smile of spring”: the effects are similar, the language a response to similar modes of conditional observation. “The smile of spring” is an affair of time and place, of the observer’s capacity to sense it in the air. The “bloom of peace” is equally conditional, dependent on the youth of the soldiers, their being in bloom, their regimentation for the eventuality of war, which James here infers as a modal possibility of the present scene, harbouring as he does the intimation that the possibility is already there in the spectacle: a pure future possibility, though not the effect of an eternal irony always already there from the beginning; there rather as an avoidable possibility in the here and now, in the occasional time of peace, in Aldershot and elsewhere.


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Notes

1 For the presentation of James’s notion of “foreshortening,” see R.P Blackmur’s introduction to The Art of the Novel (xix-xx). As an example of James’s use of the term in his later criticism, we can quote the following occurrence from the preface to The Wings of the Dove: The whole actual centre of the work, resting on a misplaced pivot and lodged in Book Fifth, pretends to a long reach, or at any rate to the larger foreshortening though bringing home to me, on reperusal, what I find striking, charming and curious, the author's instinct everywhere for the indirect presentation of his main image” (James, 1935 305).

2 The “Labour of Translation,” in the title of Katz’s book, points to the relation between “travel” and “travail” and “labour” that I wish to chart here.

3 Geworfenheit. For a presentation of Heidegger’s notion, often translated into English as “thrownness,” see Wheeler.

4 See Sheila Teahan’s article in this issue for further discussion of this letter (editor’s note).

5 “A Passionate Pilgrim” (1871), was thus commented on by James in his preface to the New York Edition: “‘A Passionate Pilgrim,’ written in the year 1870, the earliest date to which anything in the whole present series refers itself, strikes me to-day, and by the same token indescribably touches me, with the two compositions that follow it, as sops instinctively thrown to the international Cerberus formidably posted where I doubtless then didn’t quite make him out, yet from whose capacity to loom larger and larger with the years there must already have sprung some chilling portent.” (1984b, 1204)

6 See Blanchot for a reading of James in terms of the inconclusive wandering of writing. This perspective can be associated with that of Katz, op. cit., in terms of the reverberation of “travail” or “labour” in travel and in translation. To refer to a foreclosure of the Hegelian moment is both justifiable and unnecessary: too shrill, “over the top.” For it is precisely the foreclosure of such a useless expectation that is the opening to all the rest and to all this is. As such, the foreclosure is comic and liberating, as are all the stations in Strether’s non-Hegelian anti-ego trip to Paris. On this, see Derrida’s Glas, which I read as a travel guide to an order of impermanence and to the interminable conditionality of any living or any knowing, in words and in time.

7 Let me quote here Harald Weinrach on this question of the “passé simple” in Flaubert’s fiction: “Voici, à titre de comparaison, un extrait de l’Éducation sentimentale de Flaubert ; vers la fin du roman, au début de l’avant-dernier chapitre (III,6) il est dit de Frédéric Moreau : ‘Il voyagea. Il connut la mélancolie des paquebots, les froids réveils sous la tente, l’étourdissement des paysages et des ruines, l’amertume des sympathies interrompues. Il revint. Il fréquenta le monde, et il eut d’autres amours encore. Mais le souvenir continuel du premier les lui rendait insipides.’ Cinq Passés simples se succèdent, avant le premier Imparfait, que d’autres suivent dans le roman. On en comprendra mieux la fonction temporelle quand on saura que le romancier avec ces cinq Passés simples couvre une durée d’environ vingt ans.” (Weinrach 118-119)

8 In the reflection on James the traveller that is presented here, there is implicit reference to the author’s return to America, as charted and written out in The American Scene (1907). All Jamesian travellers, from Christopher Newman in The American to Lambert Strether and to John Marcher in “The Beast in the Jungle,” from Daisy Miller to Milly Theale (the gender demarcation is here inoperative) are foils for “Henry James the traveller.” This does not mean that the ultimate, possibly bitter, truth of the journey is what is written into The American Scene, where James drops the masks afforded through the artifice of fiction. The American Scene reads as a confrontation with and a deflection of the gothic spectacle of the estrangement of the native place. The text takes on the temptation of xenophobia, unleashed through the aural exposure of the homecoming traveller to the xenophonia of the voices heard in the streets of New York. My reading of the work is that the demon of xenophobia is overcome, through the casting off of the fetish of the native home, of any possibility of belatedly “being at home.” For my own (situated and partial) reading of The American Scene, see “The American Scene: Henry James et la joie de l’altération ultime.”

9 From Sérotonine: “le love at first sight n’est donc pas absolument un mythe ; mais c’est alors que l’homme, par un prodigieux mouvement mental d’anticipation, a d’ores et déjà imaginé l’ensemble des plaisirs que la femme pourrait au fil des années (et jusqu’à ce que la mort, comme on dit, les sépare) lui prodiguer, que l’homme a déjà (toujours déjà, comme l’aurait dit Heidegger en ses jours de bonne humeur) anticipé la fin glorieuse” (Houellebecq 72).

10 In 1853, this equivalence is a call to the subjective investment that is to animate all depiction or representation in art. James’s reservations about the later Flaubert suggest that in the capacity of subjective investment and animation, vitally alive in 1853, was subsequently “outlived,” with the result that an equivalence is now only the equation between the different experiences or occasions of emptiness, as is the case in Bouvard et Pécuchet.

11 The Jamesian law of the “return” on expenditure or outlay is an invalidation of the (over simplistic) model of cultural capitalisation, through an accumulation of objects or the visiting of sites worth seeing: what the Guide Michelin flags with the indication vaut le détour. If Jamesian value is predicated on the place and time specific quality of the truth to be gleaned, to be noted and “stored” in consciousness or in writing, what is gained through experience or through travel, is not a capital accumulation, certainly not for all time, with value and currency everywhere. Neither an erudite encumbrance nor a visionary elucidation of final meaning. To allude here to work in progress and to the erosion and depreciation of the return on any travel carried out, on any enterprise (that of Lambert Strether reporting back to Woollett on the return trip from Europe) is to suggest that for the reader there are affinities between Jamesian and Joycean travel, whether in Finnegans Wake or in Ulysses.

12 This passage, evoking the arrival of spring in Rome, can be read alongside Lawrence’s writing, in poetry and prose, in response to Italy and the “spirit of place.” See in particular the poem “Purple Anemones,” a reworking of the myth of Proserpine. For a recent excavation of a Proserpine vein, this time in the writing of Edith Wharton, see Dutoit.

13 See Heidegger. The word might also be translated as “releasement,” as is noted for instance in the Wikipedia entry on Heideggerian terminology.

14 “I was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky,” John Adams and June Jordan (libretto), 1995.

15 For a presentation of the British imperial exploration and mapping of an Orient, that included the valley of the Nile, an Orient initially seen and constructed through a biblical prism, see Foliard.

16 Thomas Constantinesco also discusses “The British Soldier” in his article collected in this issue (editor’s note).

17 Hugo, Victor. Choses Vues : Souvenirs, Journaux, Cahiers 1870-1885.


Pour citer ce document

Cornelius CROWLEY, «Partial Portraits of James the Traveller», Viatica [En ligne], n°HS3, mis à jour le : 17/02/2020, URL : http://revues-msh.uca.fr/viatica/index.php?id=1138.

Auteur

Quelques mots à propos de :  Cornelius CROWLEY

CREA (EA 370), Université Paris Nanterre