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(-: The Henry James E-Journal :-)Number 3
August 8, 2000
Ghosts at the Windows:
Shadow and Corona in _The Ambassadors_Richard D. Hathaway, State University of New York at New Paltz
Reproduced, with permission, and with a few words changed, from _The Henry James Review_ 18 (Winter, 1997) 81-96. Copyright 1997, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
(Note: Italics are indicated thus: _The Golden Bowl_. Accent marks have been removed from foreign words.)
Toward the end of _The Ambassadors_, accounting for his previous blindness to the commonplace truth about Chad and Marie's "attachment," Strether explains to Maria Gostrey: "`Of course I moved among miracles. It was all phantasmagoric'" (331). To "phantasmagoric" we might add "phantasmic," "ghostly." James calls Marie de Vionnet an "apparition" (323). The medium in which she floats is soft as a ghostly sigh, as soft and tantalizing as phosphorescence. Or, again, we might say it is like the light of Paris. In that light--"dear old light," says Miss Barrace--one sees "what things resemble" (126), but we are not sure we see what they are. One night Lambert Strether waits, alone, "at the witching hour," asleep to one reality, of essential concern to him, but awake to another: "the great flare of the lighted city" (281). He is under a spell, and for some time has been under a spell. "Ghosts" hover, metaphors of the doubleness in Strether's experience and in our experience of that experience: light-filled, wondrous, floating, yet dark and mysterious--dazzling.
Strether's awakening to his own inward Europe is what has thus set him afloat. At Gloriani's garden-party, Strether first confronts European possibility in all its richness and risk. The air swarms with phantasms, an "assault of images," a "sense of names in the air, of ghosts at the windows, of signs and tokens, a whole range of expression, all about him, too thick for prompt discrimination" (120). He gives himself up to the flood. With "frequent instinctive snatches at the growing rose of observation," he surrenders himself to the flow of "scent and colour," ready to "bury his nose even to wantonness" (262).
Ghosts, like coronas, come from the eclipse of light. A shadow produces a shadow, in reverse polarity--light out of darkness. With a blink of the camera eye, the polarity reverses again, to negative, and darkness comes out of light. The ghost, like the corona, is in the eye of the beholder, a blurring at the edge of definiteness and at the edge of perception, inherently unstable, ready to reverse itself or disappear at every blink of double consciousness.
Hard outlines and definiteness are the antithesis of the ghostly. In _The Ambassadors_, our first hint of perceptual blurring comes at the outset when Strether moves, almost as if in a dream, to rejoin Maria Gostrey in the hotel garden. His "sense of himself" becomes oddly "disconnected from the sense of his past" (20). He has all along had a "double consciousness" (18), but now it becomes double with a difference. The palpable starts to shade into the impalpable. As he walks across the "small smooth lawn" toward Maria, the hard edges of both selfhood and perception soften, blur, and flow, setting him afloat, disconnected--"launched" into "the watery English sunshine" (20). We too, as readers, caught up in Strether's consciousness, begin to float.
In the midst of this long, weltering paragraph, James takes us back five minutes. Strether, upstairs in his room, preparing for his tryst with Maria, makes "a sharper survey . . . than he had for a long time been moved to make" of the Actual, himself. Its solidity dissolves mysteriously into "elements of Appearance" in a "dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window" (20). Struck? With this eclipse of light we find ourselves struck with word after word. "Appearance," "window," and "dressing-glass" are words about light, but they have shadows, penumbras of carefully, even fastidiously, attenuated suggestion, suggestion that we are entering a world where objects, words, and perceptions vibrate in an elastic web. Ostensibly, "Appearance" here signifies the Actual, what is visible, solid, and inelastic: a closed, Woollett window. But capitalized by James it suggests the opposite: a window open to the illusory. The word becomes a looking glass, a perhaps Hawthornian mirror, dimming the apparent window but opening another, onto perilous seas of what (for Strether) moves, trembles, and melts, so that "what seem[s] all surface one moment seem[s] all depth the next" (64).
Now, as Maria Gostrey waits in the garden, drawing on her "singularly fresh soft and elastic light gloves," eyeing Strether, the gloves stretch in one's consciousness, all surface one moment, all depth the next, as a sign of the eternal female and of European flexibility, waiting to draw him in. In this scene, Maria is the self-assured, competent one. No wonder Strether, half-seriously, professes to be afraid of her. As she waits--waiting being what she does supremely well--she strokes her gloves smoother, professionally, appraisingly, giving him "the time he appreciated." Hesitating, he fumbles with his overcoat "to gain time"--in one of those marvelous, lingering, page-long Jamesian moments--as if rummaging in his subconscious "for something, possibly forgotten." The overcoat is actual, not even symbolic, but it is also one of those "elements of Appearance" that he has just brought under "a sharper survey," as if to find out what it is. He is experiencing, "so strangely," double consciousness; there is something there that he cannot put his fingers on, or in. He is clinging to the solid, to what he owns, stroking it, delaying his encounter with the shadows, just as a minute later he clings absurdly to his card, his own identity card, momentarily forgotten.
Well might he cling to it, for he is about to undergo a sea-change into someone else (cf. Stallman 53). Strether has "faced every contingency but that Chad should not _be_ Chad" (90), every contingency but that Strether should turn out not to be Strether. The Actual--himself--is in danger of being no longer there. Strether is stepping through the looking glass into a world where nothing adds up; everything multiplies and divides--images, meanings, truths, identities. The air in Chester is alive with doubleness, with double entendres. Maria's "expensive subdued suitability" is an essential aspect of her appeal, suggesting what can be counted on--"a perfect plain propriety" (20)--but also its shadow-opposite, her dangerous desirability. Her very substantialness suggests to Strether that the substantial is giving way beneath him and that he is falling. She "comfortably" says, "`I think . . . you trust me,'" and he replies, "`I think I do!-- but that's exactly what I'm afraid of. I shouldn't mind if I didn't. It's falling thus in twenty minutes so utterly into your hands. . . . nothing more extraordinary has ever happened to me.'" She says, alluringly, "`That means simply that you've recognized me--which is rather beautiful and rare'" (25). Like a sybil in a cave, a shadowy, glinting "pirate's cave" (80) as it turns out, she says, "`there's nothing I don't know'" (26). A page later she demands, "`_Will_ you give yourself up?'" and he replies, "`If I only could!'" She presses in: "`But you want to, at least?'" and he answers, "`Oh unspeakably!'" (27).
Of course, they are not talking love but only talking about Woollett's and Strether's inability to loosen up and enjoy, yet if these quotations seem, out of context, to come from a love scene, that is precisely what James intended: to suggest the dynamic interaction of image and shadow without "stating." Those who, like Arnold Bennett, thrust aside _The Ambassadors_ without finishing it, because of what Bennett called its "very considerable absence of passionate feeling" (206), are missing out on a pervasive undercurrent of sensuousness in this novel that is all the more effective for its being simultaneously suggested and withheld, after the fashion of Emily Dickinson's "goblin bee that will not state its sting."
James, as he tells Hugh Walpole, refuses to do anything "so foul and abject as to `state'" (_HJL_ 2: 254). For a man whose art took the form of dictating words to the sound of a clacking typewriter, James makes capital use of silences. One of the ways James keeps meanings dynamic is by creating shadows, resonances between the words--by "playing with the silence," to use his phrase from "The Altar of the Dead" (53). James's ambiguity and significant silences have always annoyed some readers, but, I would contend, he can fascinate us most when he does not "state." It is the same with metaphorical ghosts as with "real" ones: people recoil from them yet pursue them for the withheld knowledge they are presumed to have. In story after story (_The Turn of the Screw_, "The Figure in the Carpet," "The Aspern Papers," "The Altar of the Dead," "The Beast in the Jungle," _The Sacred Fount_) protagonists fixate upon "ghosts," upon knowledge withheld. James withholds things from us deliberately--from an occasional "ghostly" pronoun antecedent, to the tantalizingly absent boat scene that "should" have highlighted _The Bostonians_, to the question of what will happen to Strether, Chad, and Marie after the end of _The Ambassadors_.
This Jamesian habit of withholding meanings produces in some readers an anxiety, a desire to penetrate the veils. But the "signs and tokens" are "too thick," too profuse, for "prompt discrimination." Each light, each token, is associated with a shadow-opposite. Throughout _The Ambassadors_ these thematic oppositions or polarities thicken the air: the stated/the withheld, light/shadow, sound/silence, innocence/experience, America/Europe, nature/art, past/present, fullness/emptiness, substantialness/insubstantialness, floating/sinking, actuality/appearance, security/insecurity, identity/non-identity, presence/absence.
In the Gloriani garden scene, for example, we encounter several of these polarities, including the past/present one. The phrase "nursery of young priests" shows James's way of releasing energy by an association of opposites--in this case youthful innocence and, for Strether, forbidden fruit: Catholic tradition. Gloriani's genius and "deep human expertness," which flashes upon aging but still-innocent Strether in the present moment, has been wrought like iron, by struggle, through "time" and "consecration." Strether contrasts young Bilham's still-present chance to "live" with his own failure to have done so. In the present moment there is a flicker of sunlight, "scattered shade," Gloriani's dazzling smile, chapel bells, a background hum of talk, and a twitter of "bird-haunted trees." As we wait in the garden with Strether, we expect brilliant conversation from Madame de Vionnet and the other European sophisticates; what we are perhaps more conscious of in the event is a shadow-opposite that James dramatizes but does not state: silence, their almost ignoring him. The measure of Strether's American innocence against Gloriani's European experience is that Strether asks himself, after Gloriani "drop[s]" him, whether "he had passed," since "he had been tested" (119-21).
In a polarity, says Richard Hocks, opposites are "interpenetrating" rather than "juxtaposed" as in a dichotomy (12). (See endnote 1.) Polarities are dynamic. As Owen Barfield says, explicating Coleridge's principle of polarity, "Where logical opposites are contradictory, polar opposites are generative of each other--and together generative of new product" (36). (See endnote 2.) When the sun is covered by its polar opposition, darkness, a new product seems to be generated: ghostly rays of light shoot out across the darkness like a thin veil. Reading _The Ambassadors_ without smoked glasses, our eyes dazzle. The trees are "bird-haunted," our eyes assaulted by images. The opposites do not stand still; they are evanescing--endlessly complicating the work of those who think, with R. W. Stallman (42-43), that the critic's job is "to resolve ambiguities." My contention is that to read _The Ambassadors_ we must do as Strether did: we must float with, not fight, the flow; we must relax into the tensions of opposites. We must accept a multiplicity that cannot always be resolved into a simplicity. We have to go with the ghosts.
Woollett-mindedness cannot abide ghosts, and the essence of ghosts is polarity. Ghosts are impalpable or "thin," yet thronging and "thick"; they are usually absent, yet called "presences"; luminous, yet called "shadows"; knowing, yet withholding knowledge; lurking silently by windows, yet assaulting through them; evanescent, fleeting, yet quiescent and still; associated with fear and insecurity, but beyond time and change. They float, just beyond our ken.
Combined with the thick/thin polarity is the America/Europe polarity. The assaulting images in Gloriani's garden, like James's meanings, are too thin and too thick--too insubstantial to grasp and "too thick for prompt discrimination." America is solid; it is also thin. Europe is thick; it is also ectoplasmic. The mind of Strether's Woollett clings to the rock-solid, to what can be counted, counted on, and accounted for, but it is thin, rigid, conventionally moral, unimaginative. As Strether opens to the shadows and sees his Woollett certainties vaporize, he has to learn that the thickness, the density of Europe is in a different way also insubstantial. Strether has to learn what Maggie Verver learns: the force of evanescence; the evocativeness of what is withheld and thus communicated; the mind-filling penetration--the excitement and danger--of a rose, evanescing in the darkness and making "the whole air [its] medium" (_GB_ 24: 295).
"Thick," as applied to Europe, implies profusion, many-mindedness, moral flexibility, and sensitivity to suggestion, association, nuance. "All voices had grown thicker and meant more things; they crowded on [Strether] as he moved about" (281). "`The' thing was the thing that implied the greatest number of other things" (306). "The air quite thickened, at their [Chad and Marie's] approach, with further intimations" (307). James says in "The Art of Fiction," "I see dramas within dramas in that, and innumerable points of view" (402). For writers like Browning and James, truth becomes a drama with many voices. The "bright Babylons" of Paris or Rome, with their vivid present and their reverberant past, become the ideal settings in which to project--in what is called in _The Sacred Fount_ "a magnificent chiaroscuro of colour and shadow," "a bright confusion of many things" (222, 224)-- the Jamesian sense of the mystery, the miraculousness of life.
To live in "a bright confusion of many things" is to take risks. But to become a complete person one must become, as James says in _The Golden Bowl_, "filled to the brim with the wine of consciousness" (24: 329). If Strether is not to stagnate in the Woollett backwater, he must give himself up, float with the stream of "colour and shadow."
Critics of _The Ambassadors_, in contrast, have usually felt that James's imagery suggests the dangers to Strether of his floating. Reginald Abbott sees mermaids lurking to pull unsuspecting males out of boats (178). James Wise associates floating with being adrift, floundering, being shipwrecked (80-110). John Paterson speaks of "perilous flood" and "drowning in the dining rooms" (298, 301). Robert Garis says that Strether's mind ends up floating "at the mercy of its conflicts" (311). (See endnote 3.)
But water can hold us up as well as drown us. Floating suggests uncertainty and the possibility of intellectual and moral disaster, but also ease, security, savoir-faire, and mastery. At the end, Strether simply lets go of abstract "truth" and floats: "`I _have_ no ideas. I'm afraid of them. I've done with them'" (344). When, near the end of _The Golden Bowl_, Maggie Verver says to her father that she seems often "`not to know quite _where_ I am,'" James makes the very principle of her uncertainty into a source of her security:
"the suggestion as of a creature consciously floating and shining in a warm summer sea, some element of dazzling sapphire and silver, a creature cradled upon depths, buoyant among dangers, in which fear or folly or sinking otherwise than in play was impossible. . . ." (24: 263)
On the other hand, one does not simply arrive at security and stay there. James's images of the sea and of light can suggest not security but disorientation and misconception. When Strether defends himself against smugly moralistic Sarah Pocock by saying that "`an inexorable tide of light seems to have floated us into our perhaps still queerer knowledge'" (277), the "tide of light" flows not toward singleness and certainty but toward its shadow, toward breaking apart like a breaking wave, scattering. With the sly word "seems," the passage seems a Jamesian duplicity, even without the culminating irony of Strether's comeuppance for his Will to Believe in innocence. Strether's "knowledge" is not only queer but profoundly flawed by his assumption that what appears to be (the "virtuous attachment") is the actuality.
We might then ask the Woollett question: whether, behind such slippery surfaces, there is anything to hold on to, any "really" that can withstand Miss Barrace's ironic "Oh I like your Boston `reallys'!" (126). Ruth Yeazell says that we are in a world of "epistemological vertigo" in which "we are left to float in a world seemingly without solid fact" (71, 73). For Strether, what has seemed palpable dissolves, each solid thing that he reaches for becoming one of the Appearances. At the end, the novel leaves us, with Strether, asking whether what began as appearance is not the actuality after all. To call Chad's attachment "virtuous" is not so much a dissembling as a recognition that "a sufficiently ambiguous language ensures that no hasty judgments can in fact be made, that all possibilities of vision and feeling must remain open" (Yeazell 75).
The problem we face in James's slippery world is that Actual and Apparent are a polarity--opposites, yet unstable opposites. When we say "actual" we mean what is real, usually with the implication of palpability. When we say "apparent" we imply that the reality is different from what is on the surface. Yet, along with little Bilham, we can say of the "virtuous attachment," "`What more than a vain appearance does the wisest of us know? I commend you . . . the vain appearance'" (124). As Strether ultimately decides, the attachment is at least virtuous enough to commend it to Chad as preferable to the vain appearances of Woollett and advertising. Yet, how much do we actually know? Do we know, for example, whether little Bilham actually intended to lie when he spoke of the "virtuous attachment," or do we know "only what those words can be made to mean" (Yeazell 76)? For us, as for Strether, Actual and Apparent dissolve into each other--ghostly, as in the Chester hotel mirror.
James's trafficking with ghosts and mirrors, his way of turning solid things into smoke and light and then back again, fascinated and annoyed his brother William, who tried to dispel the ghosts and yet dallied with them. William objected to Henry's creating
"the illusion of a solid object, made (like the `ghost' at the Polytechnic) 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!. . . . For gleams and innuendoes and felicitous verbal insinuations you are unapproachable, but the _core_ of literature is solid. Give it to us _once_ again! The bare perfume of things will not support existence, and the effect of solidity you reach is but perfume and simulacrum." (2: 277-78)
William wanted a novel with "no twilight" and with "absolute straightness in the style" (Matthiessen 339-40). Henry wanted twilight, ambiguity, luminescence, the tug of polarity--ghosts, endlessly suggestive. To him, what William was advocating was "that two-and-two-make-four system on which all the awful truck that surrounds us is produced" (_HJL_ 2: 44).
It is not that Henry James disparages solidity. He wants to transform it by putting things in dynamic relationship, stressing them against all they suggest. The result is an effect of energy and reserved power, leisured loitering and flooded consciousness, constant motion and stillness--each pole reflecting its opposite dizzyingly, beyond the limits of imagination.Thus, a window in a Chester hotel room can be a mirror, drawing our eyes both outward and inward. A mirror can block the light and yet reflect it, sending us careening down the sacred river, Alph. James says of Strether's final drift toward conclusion, his world turned inside out and dazzlingly self-reflective, that there would be a "reckoning to come," that "one would float to it doubtless duly through these caverns of Kubla Khan" in "a sweetness of vain delay" (327). "Sweetness" and "vain delay" delicately float our minds outward to the plot of the entire book, which they suggest in miniature. From there we float back again, to the point where the words suggest only a minor eddy of anxiety: a polarity inside that larger one in which exotic Eastern pleasure domes reverberate with Western final judgment. In these resonating caverns, images bubble like the sea, which receives them inexhaustibly.
The pleasure dome, Paris, is also the city of the unstated sting. In it, identities, like Jamesian meanings, are veiled, dimmed, but new ones emerge from the obscuring-revealing mirrors between which absence and presence, identity and non-identity oscillate. Persons disappear, tantalizingly, and then reappear. Repeatedly, the people Strether wants most to see are out of town, and when he finds them they are not themselves. In the beginning, the long-awaited Chad steps through a door when least expected, and he has a surprising new identity. At the end, the mysterious woman Strether has pledged to find, but hasn't, materializes. She is, after all (or perhaps she is not), _La Belle Dame_ or _La Gioconda_ or Miss Jessel, rising mysteriously beside the waters, and with the unstated sting of ghostly knowledge, given and yet withheld.
One evening, in lamplight and shadows, Strether waits in Chad's apartment, unaware of the transformations in store for him. Out of stillness will come motion. Chad is absent. "Lemon-coloured" novels hang "as fresh as fruit on the tree" of the forbidden (63). Baptiste, "subtlest of servants," whose serpent-like function is to initiate the innocent, plucks them and pushes them for Strether's perusal "within the soft circle" of "the mellowest lamplight and the easiest chair": "the novel half-uncut, the novel lemon-coloured and tender, with the ivory knife athwart it like the dagger in a contadina's hair." Outside the window shines "the great flare of the lighted city, rising high, spending itself afar," extending the soft circle of enchantment outward, like a corona. The fullness, the light of Paris, is the more compelling because mediated through vagueness and shadows: "the vague vista of the successive rooms." Through the vista and the window throng the ghosts, as earlier through the dimmed window and its obscuring mirror in Chester, England. Now, in this Paris "witching hour," Strether "invoke[s], in Chad's absence, the spirit of the place" and is "in possession as he never yet had been" (281). As Strether invokes the presences, which are the more present by being dimly absent, is he in possession or is he possessed?
Part of what Strether is possessed by, of course, is Marie de Vionnet, who sums up in her person several of the more ghostly polarities. She is luminous and dwells in shadows. She is changeable almost to the point of evanescence, yet perfectly poised and still. She is "an obscure person, a muffled person one day, and a showy person, an uncovered person the next" (160). She talks to Strether with "no movement, in all her person, but the fine prompt play of her deep young face" (147). Praying in Notre Dame Cathedral, she has a "supreme stillness" (172), but when she emerges from the shadows she blossoms, as if a Rembrandt painting were in motion and were being transformed into one by Renoir. The light that emanates from her flickers, like the candle-filled chapel she has just come from. When she moves, one might say she "floats," as ghosts float.
The stillness of Marie de Vionnet is what fascinates Strether. From her, he learns the essence of what James intends to convey to us in his book: the extraordinary evocativeness of what is withheld and thus communicated. To hold still is to move, and be moved. Talking with Marie de Vionnet, Strether begins to move to the unheard music: "And what he didn't say--as well as what _she_ didn't. . . . It ended in fact by being quite beautiful between them, the number of things they had a manifest consciousness of not saying" (230). The intercourse between Strether and Marie is a minuet of shadows, a matter of not saying and not even thinking. In their final scene, Marie dangles before Strether the temptation of admitting what she has sensed: how much he cares for her. Offering Strether a cup that he can take by either of its two handles, she says, "`I happen to care what you think of me. And what you _might_,' she added. `What you perhaps even did.'" But at this moment, when professions of love, or perhaps tears, poise delicately on the brim of the full cup, Strether deliberately empties the cup, making the moment the more poignant, the more full: "`I didn't think anything. I never think a step further than I'm obliged to'" (323-24).
What is withheld gives not only speech but vision a new dimension. At Chad's party, in the city that runs "too much to mere eye" (126), Miss Barrace, the quintessential observer, looks around the room with her lorgnette. Doing so, she "saw in an instant all the absences that left them free" (262). James deliberately takes us out of the noise and lights and dazzle, into the shadows, here as elsewhere giving Strether distance enough for
"temporary surrenders to irony, to fancy, frequent instinctive snatches at the growing rose of observation, constantly stronger for him, as he felt, in scent and colour, and in which he could bury his nose even to wantonness." (262)
In this imaginary rose garden, Strether's sensorium is flooded "even to wantonness," but between nose and flower there has to be air to convey the perfume. By all the absences the imagination is set free.
The tension between sensation (light, movement, sound) and absence of sensation (darkness, stillness) produces a something beyond, which we might call imagination or transcendence. The "polar opposites are generative of each other--and together generative of new product." For example, Strether loiters one day in the "long dim nave" of Notre Dame Cathedral (171). His senses are tingling but his "moral" sense is entering into a sleep, a floating, that we might call an awakening. By doing nothing he is moving, beginning to perceive something beyond Woollett's worldly moralism. In the cathedral he sees how "the things of the world could fall into abeyance" for the "refugee" from the "hard outer light." Then the direction of the paragraph reverses: to stand still, to take refuge from the world, with its choices between moral polarities, is "cowardice"--"probably." But then another reversal in direction gives back what has just been taken away. This should not surprise us. As Ralf Norrman shows, such chiastic reversals are typical not only of James's sentences, paragraphs, and plots, but of his whole pattern of thinking. To Norrman, James's "antonyms are mutually interchangeable" and therefore a choice between them "does not matter," since "both are equally dislikeable" (160).
But I find a primarily positive effect, not that of self-annihilation but of engendering, in James's collisions of opposites. In the paragraph under discussion, as elsewhere, polarity produces ghosts, luminescence, in the mind of the reader. James, having suggested that in the cathedral one dodges, begs the question, sinks into "oblivions," concludes his paragraph by associating unworldliness with a positive image: a brightness, a unity, of multitudinous lights. "Justice was outside, in the hard light, and injustice too; but one was as absent as the other from the air of the long aisles and the brightness of the many altars" (171). In the dim cathedral the light is soft, an inner light. The interplay between brightness and dimness suggests a something beyond the polarity. The light in the darkness is like the light of a blind person, whose imagination and other senses supply what is missing. As James says in _The Golden Bowl_, "It was like hanging over a garden in the dark; nothing was to be made of the confusion of growing things, but one felt they were folded flowers and that their vague sweetness made the whole air their medium" (24: 295). Out of the stillness comes a sense of profusion. From emptiness can come fullness, from darkness light.
Strether's awakening to the mysterious polarities is therefore an awakening to the ghosts at the windows, the ghosts that are luminous and yet are called shadows. The windows are everywhere. In Gloriani's garden, in sunlight and "scattered shade," Strether's New England consciousness is assaulted, flooded, by these light-scattering, alien presences. This garden is an ambiguous garden, a supremely civilized one, "a chamber of state" in the middle of a city, not a place of innocence at all. Its glow is not from simplicity but from a complex doubleness: both from what is present and from what is past, only imagined or remembered. Time and tradition and ecstasy and dedication and suffering have all tempered the radiance. Gloriani's very name is a sunburst, not of morning but of late afternoon: he of the "medal-like Italian face, in which every line was an artist's own, in which time told only as tone and consecration." Strether responds, as to a touchstone, marked and moved deeply, to "the deep human expertness in Gloriani's charming smile--oh the terrible life behind it," which was "flashed upon him as a test of his stuff" (119-21). In the charming, terrible garden, amidst its thronging colors, lights, and shadows, its crowded present and its historic past, emerges Marie de Vionnet, like another Beatrice Rappaccini, the most beautiful and mysterious of its unfolding blossoms.
In the garden of Europe everything multiplies: images, words, events, people. As readers, we rub our eyes. We wonder if we can we be sure of what we are experiencing. The garden of watery English sunshine, at the outset of Strether's European adventure, deepens in its sensuous "references" until all Paris blossoms as a garden in Strether's consciousness, and in ours, for we are to be made willing participants, collaborators almost, in his enlargement of vision and his seduction, his "fall" from Puritan narrowness.
In our first view of Paris, Strether wanders by the river and past the tempting bookstalls into the garden of the Tuileries (58-59). Paris is fresh-sprinkled, cheerful, filled with morning sun, redolent of spring, yet brisk and bustling and ticking like a clock. James has presented to us the multiplicity of the city, but the city has one quality of The Garden: we can give ourselves up to it, with Strether, without fear. There is no day of reckoning. The "wonderful Paris spring" and "the prompt Paris morning" and the "sprinkled smell" are innocent and bright. The phrases bounce along--"bareheaded girls with the buckled strap of oblong boxes," "thrifty persons basking betimes," "blue-frocked brass-labelled officialism of humble rakers and scrapers"-- creating a mood of innocence and festival. Mingling resonantly, as at Gloriani's, are light and dark, present and past, innocence and experience, the city and the garden. The deep, black "references" of the "straight-pacing priest" are set against the "sharp ones of a white-gaitered red-legged soldier" (58-59). "References" denotes both the immediate sensory impressions--the sound of boots on cobblestones, the sway of priestly black against a grey background--and also things that are absent: "recalls of things imagined" (172). Dimly in the background, providing a musical undertow, is the "irremediable void" (59) of the remembered palace burned by the Communards in 1871. What _is_ drifts away like smoke, in the imagination of Strether, into what is not.
In this evocation of morning and Paris springtime, the undertow of the past, subtly preparing us for the afternoon and evening of Strether's awareness, lulls us, rather than suggesting the disaster ahead. We experience what Strether is experiencing, an enlargement of consciousness, and we become his doubles. We can "tilt back a straw-bottomed chair" with Confidence. We can let ourselves drift with Strether as he floats "unspent" up the Rue de Seine (59). Strether is letting himself go, becoming one of the images; and slowly, subtly, inexorably, we are being made complicit, are being drawn along with him.
"`I never think a step further than I'm obliged to'" seems to be Strether's motto. He is looking for an inner light, a level of thought and light that avoids "the hard outer light" of the practical world and is like darkness visible. In his passivity and leisurely procrastination that is yet a determined act of choice, he is merging into a background, as if he were to merge into a painting on the wall.
Later, at the turning point of the book, Strether is described as indeed "in the picture" (305), a particular picture, a remembered Lambinet landscape. He opens a window in his mind as if it were a picture frame, and there it is and there he is. He lets himself go, gives himself up completely to impulse--"artless enough, no doubt," artfully comments James (301)--the impulse of a journey through the French countryside "as securely as if to keep an appointment" (302) with the _image_ of the Lambinet. Sure enough, when he gets off the train, completely at random, the painting stored in the imagination has rematerialized, in "the poplars and willows, the reeds and river" (302). The painted landscape blossoms, Appearance becomes Actual, and Strether himself--finally succumbing to Maria's initial demand, "_Will_ you give yourself up?"--surrenders to the assaulting image. Instantly, he becomes part of the picture, diffused, atmospheric, as if resolved into light and projected in bits, in discrete flecks of color. Actual becomes Appearance. What is solid has become a ghost, yet palpable for all that. James's conceit is interesting: the more Strether gives himself to nature, the more he becomes locked in the frame of art; the more he gives in to impulse and romantic illusions, the more imminent is the shattering of his illusions.
What we see shifts, depending on which way we frame it, and that is much of what _The Ambassadors_ is about. Looked at one way, this garden of the French countryside is static, reassuring, solid as paint: "the sky was silver and turquoise and varnish" (302). But James nests multiple Appearances like Chinese boxes. Strether is in the frame of the novel. The Lambinet is outside that frame and also inside it, inside Strether's imagination. There, matter becomes energy; the Lambinet takes dominion everywhere, like Wallace Stevens's jar in Tennessee. It mirrors the sprawl of nature and by framing it turns the Actual into Appearance, into art. Within the frame of nature that becomes art and art that becomes nature, Strether loiters, both outside and inside the Lambinet, as if in a mesmerizing, comforting, bewildering labyrinth of mirrors. Caressed by the seductive images with their "subdued suitability," a shadow of himself, he drifts "comfortably" toward conclusion, where may (or may not) lurk "the thing itself," propagating images, ineluctably multiplying.
Now, in the lived-in Lambinet, in the inmost imaginary garden of Xanadu, at the moment when the natural and the artificial have most merged, around a bend in the river comes the boat bearing Chad and Marie, "caught." The parasol that Marie shifts momentarily, "as if to hide her face," is as filmy and yet solid as a few scattered flecks of paint--precisely the image, the highlight of color, the "pink point in the shining scene" (308), required to complete the perfect impression, to make nature most perfectly artistic. James's irony is perfect and complete. All is palpable. There is a real toad in the imaginary garden. Yet it evanesces, floats, and escapes. The glaring light upon the newly revealed Actual hides as much as it reveals. All is blended, compromised, in equivocations and silences.
We may think we now know the truth about Marie and Chad, but we don't; we know only the image, the surface appearance. We have never seen into their minds, their history, their hearts, as lovers of each other. Like Strether, we are excluded from what is most important about them. We are locked out of their frame of reference in which their own "references" resonate.
We now see that over this scene as over the entire book, created by the very radiance of it--and this is surely one of the most light-filled, radiant books in all literature--hang the shadows of knowing and yet not knowing. As light came out of darkness in Gloriani's garden and in Notre Dame Cathedral, now darkness comes out of light and holds it in ironic tension. We, like Strether, have learned some things about doubleness and darkness and about the limits of knowing: each frame, each perspective, each angle of vision leaves other perspectives out; each advance in knowledge creates a further darkness just beyond it.
Strether says his final good-bye to Marie de Vionnet in semi-darkness, in candlelight. She is like a ghost of the past, "dressed as for thunderous times . . . in simplest coolest white," reminiscent of Madame Roland "on the scaffold." As Marie moves "over her great room," she is literally and figuratively a double image, "with her image almost repeated in its polished floor." Her mirrored movement becomes one of the "deep references" of the priest and the soldier. History is the shadow of her shadow. Through the windows seems to come "the smell of revolution," "the smell of blood." The reverberations have deepened. They suggest not only richness and fullness--"a whole range of expression . . . too thick for prompt discrimination"--but also the shadows that the adventurer risks: devastation and emptiness, the potential anarchy of the flow-state, a breakdown of the psyche, a reign of terror. Strether is assaulted, ever so delicately, so richly, so quietly, by lights and shadows, by images and ghosts. The "gleam here and there, in the subdued light, of glass and gilt and parquet, with the quietness of her own note as the centre--these things were at first as delicate as if they had been ghostly . . . " (317).
Thus, inside of his knowledge of the limitation of knowledge, Strether has achieved something else: a sense of density and evanescence, of the rich tapestry of what is and what is not--or, we might say, of what is as fascinating, fearsome, and delicate as ghosts. In Europe, Strether has understood from the beginning that he is confronting "the vast bright Babylon" (64)--the dangerous, exotic multiplicity that has floated before the Puritan imagination for centuries. From the beginning Strether has associated Marie de Vionnet with it: "You might confess to her with confidence in Roumelian, and even Roumelian sins," and have "a moment of wondering . . . what sins might be especially Roumelian" (139). He knows that he is in mortal danger, but he is fascinated and does not run from the fire before he has experienced it fully. He discovers that Babylon, the richness, is also, strangely, the thinness. Because he does not run away too soon, he discovers at the center that this woman, Marie de Vionnet, who is so full, the flower of civilization, a ghost at the window, is "the finest and subtlest creature, the happiest apparition, it had been given him, in all his years, to meet"--and that simultaneously she is unfilled, no more than human, "a maidservant crying for her young man" (323).
At the end, Strether will wander forth from Europe, that paradise of phantasmagoric knowledge, marked in his own person by all the devastating and redeeming polarities; he will be full of experience and empty-handed, with all the world before him--free to choose, and nothing, it would seem, left to choose from. Yet, confronting this prospect, he is at peace with himself. He has learned to live with uncertainty.
But for us as readers, the limitations placed by James on our knowledge have often led to what Keats calls an irritable reaching for certainty. We call for more light, more light. James does not say, for example, what will happen to Chad and Marie after Strether leaves Europe, yet many critics profess to know what will happen to them. The positiveness of such claims to knowledge, the lack of allowance for ambiguity, is surprising; but taking away the Jamesian veils can be a pleasant diversion, as when Stallman demonstrates that the mysterious product of Woollett is no doubt clocks or watches. Says Stallman, "to resolve ambiguities is the critic's function" (42-43). Like Waymarsh diving into the jeweler's shop or like Strether fumbling with his overcoat in the Chester garden, we itch to have something definite, something we can put our hands on or into. Then, with the sense of mystery gone, we are left with the shabby actual; we are left like Waymarsh with time on our hands, sitting in a railway car at a forward angle through the "ordeal of Europe" (30), the ordeal of James.
Opting for definiteness, E. M. Forster writes, " . . . Chad will tire of the exquisite Frenchwoman, she is part of his fling; he will go back to his mother and make the little domestic article and marry Mamie" (158). In almost the same tone of voice, Sallie Sears echoes: Chad "emerges almost unscathed from his affair: he's off, apparently without remorse, to advertising, Woollett, and if not Mamie then some other sweet young thing at home" (170). Philip Weinstein foresees an even less moral future: "Chad's marvelous youth has been transformed into a vast arena for future infidelities and `affairs'" (159). Maxwell Geismar claims that Chad has already moved on, that he "abandons [Marie] without even a farewell recorded in the novel." Later in the paragraph, Geismar even gets it backwards about who is saying what in Strether and Chad's final meeting (288). Richard Hocks assumes that Chad's fascination with advertising constitutes a "decision to embrace" it (164). Peter Stowell modulates Strether's "You'll be a brute . . . if you ever forsake her" (335) into "Chad is not `refined', but is a `brute'" (220).
On the other hand, Laurence Holland considers Chad's future a matter of "patent uncertainty" (277). Dorothea Krook emphasizes that the Jamesian method is one of "ensuring that the ambiguity shall remain totally unresolved" (153)--although she applies this principle to Strether's perception of Chad, not to Chad's final attitude toward Marie. Similarly calling attention to James's pervasive ambiguity, Yeazell voices a warning that there is a "distance between a world of simple fact and the subtle realm which most Jamesian characters inhabit," a warning that in that realm "facts are never quite as simple--or even as knowable--as Bob Assingham or William James [or E. M. Forster, I would say] would contend" (91-92).
To be sure, the idea that Chad will return to Woollett can be inferred from the text, but we might ask if it is also denied by what floats above the text. If Chad's "development" is all surface without depth, if the ending is simply an ironic reversal of Strether's earlier perceptions about Chad, then Strether's voice should be there with the critics, roundly condemning Chad to the perdition of marriage and advertising. If Chad is a bounder he does not deserve Marie de Vionnet. If he is only a "cold young fornicator who is ready to move on," as Charles Samuels says (207), then Sarah Pocock is more than righteous, she is right. Few of us, I suspect, are ready for that surprising conclusion. Finally, if Strether is indeed clinging to a delusion--that Chad's fading love affair is worth salvaging--we will have to give up what is often taken to be the donnee of the novel, the assumption that Strether grows in moral awareness, and join Samuels in calling him a fool (202). These are matters of some moment, affecting our whole view of _The Ambassadors_.
At the end of this book James wants, I suggest, closure without finality.
"Agnes Whitney Cromwell, in talking with James about _The Ambassadors_, was asked whether she knew what had happened to Strether, Chad, or to Miss Gostrey after the book ended. When she answered in the negative, James admitted that he did not know either." (Ricks 11)
As James said in his notebooks, "The whole of anything is never told . . . " (18). If we can relax, with James, from our forward angle, restraining our Woollett-minded desire for definite knowledge, we can relish the ambiguity and not insist on having our Boston Reallys for breakfast the next morning. If Strether does not say that his labors over Chad have been wasted, that his audacious adjuration to Chad--to be good by continuing to be "bad"--has been a waste of breath, perhaps we can remain in suspense too. We can float with Strether a while longer, with the tide of disorienting light and accumulating shadows, can cultivate negative capability and not stretch our claims to certainty beyond the limits James sets. Floating, not swimming, is the way to savor this book. _The Ambassadors_ sustains a delicate balance between what might be or might not be. A crude and positive striking out for shore disturbs the float, the sense of the miraculous.
"It was all phantasmagoric," says Strether at the end. The words might be applied to _The Ambassadors_ itself. Its "solidity of specification" is beaten into an airy and delectable something by that "white-capped master-chef," James. All the absences leave us free. James gives and then takes away, takes away and then gives. Light and darkness, what is there and what is not, interacting dynamically in the imagination, result in what is beyond either--an evanescence, a halo, a mere perfume if you will, that makes the whole air its medium. It is a little like Shakespeare's evocation of the "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." The assertion is of an emptiness, but what we are conscious of is doubleness: a fullness and an emptiness, a movement and a stillness--the birds singing against the November sky. As we look through the mind's windows, into empty space, the shadows hover.
1. Hocks discusses, at length, in relation to _The Ambassadors_, only two of the particular polarities I mention, namely America/Europe and nature/art.
Stallman writes, "_The Ambassadors_ builds on contraries, contradictions, ambivalences arising from poles of opposition. Consequently, identities and scenes overlap, one image or vision impinging on another. Thus we are never in Paris but what simultaneously we are also in Woollett." But he calls this a "device of juxtaposition" (54), and his "poles of opposition" seem to lack either Hocks's "interpenetration" or the dynamic quality that I stress.
Light/darkness in _The Ambassadors_ has been little discussed at any length except by Schneider, who sees the light/darkness pair as a dichotomy, not a polarity, and associates darkness with evil: "But beneath the bright surface is _darkness_, the _abyss_, a moral _jungle_. . . . " He presses this so far as to say--of James's light, playful metaphor of nature as a "white-capped master-chef" (59)--that "The white cap conceals an unspeakable darkness of slavery and automatism" (178, 182).
2. Cf. Derrida: "The activity or productivity connoted by the _a_ of _differance_ refers to the generative movement in the play of differences" (_Positions_, 27). Readers may find this similar to the dynamic interplay of polarities and the "floating" for which I argue; but floating, with its suggestions of joyous freedom and outward-moving possibility, is the antithesis of Derrida's verbal ingenuities, in which concrete reference to anything real and recognizably living is replaced by a mirage-world of highly abstract words, turning in upon themselves endlessly, "ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the sense of the very thing they defer: the mirage of the thing itself" (_Of Grammatology_ 157).
3. Veeder, on the other hand, relates floating to Strether's "progress toward moral mobility" (119). Stallman writes, approvingly, "the river is the agent of life-the-unpredictable, that which upsets all theories about it" (47).
WORKS BY HENRY JAMES
_The Ambassadors_. 1903. Ed. S. P. Rosenbaum. New York: Norton, 1964.
"The Art of Fiction." 1884. _Partial Portraits_. Westport: Greenwood, 1970. 375-408.
"The Altar of the Dead." _The Novels and Tales of Henry James_. Vol. 17. New York: Scribner's, 1909. 3-58.
GB--_The Golden Bowl_. Vols. 23-24. _The Novels and Tales of Henry James_. New York: Scribner's, 1909.
HJL--_The Letters of Henry James_. 2 vols. Ed. Percy Lubbock. London: Macmillan, 1920.
_The Notebooks of Henry James_. 1947. Ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (1947).
_The Sacred Fount_. 1901. New York: Grove, 1953.
OTHER WORKS CITED
Abbott, Reginald. "The Incredible Floating Man: Henry James's Lambert Strether." _The Henry James Review_ 11 (1990): 176-88.
Barfield, Owen. _What Coleridge Thought_. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1971.
Bennett, Arnold. _The Journal of Arnold Bennett_. New York: Viking, 1932-1933.
Derrida, Jacques. _Of Grammatology_. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
---. _Positions_. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1972.
Forster, E. M. _Aspects of the Novel_. 1927. New York: Harcourt, 1956.
Garis, Robert E. "The Two Lambert Strethers: A New Reading of _The Ambassadors_." _Modern Fiction Studies_ 7 (1961): 305-16.
Geismar, Maxwell. _Henry James and the Jacobites_. Boston: Houghton, 1963.
Hocks, Richard A. _Henry James and Pragmatistic Thought: A Study in the Relationship between the Philosophy of William James and the Literary Art of Henry James_. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1974.
Holland, Laurence Bedwell. _The Expense of Vision: Essays on the Craft of Henry James_. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964.
James, William. _The Letters of William James_. 2 vols. Ed. Henry James. Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1920.
Krook, Dorothea. "_The Ambassadors_: Two Types of Ambiguity." _Neophilologus_ 74 (1990): 148-55.
Matthiessen, F. O. _The James Family: Including Selections from the Writings of Henry James Senior, William, Henry, & Alice James_. New York: Knopf, 1947.
Norrman, Ralf. _The Insecure World of Henry James's Fiction: Intensity and Ambiguity_. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.
Paterson, John. "The Language of `Adventure' in Henry James." _American Literature_ 32 (1960): 291-301.
Ricks, Beatrice. _Henry James: A Bibliography of Secondary Works_. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1975.
Samuels, Charles Thomas. _The Ambiguity of Henry James_. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1971.
Schneider, Daniel J. "The Ironic Imagery and Symbolism of James's _The Ambassadors_." _Criticism_ 9 (1967): 174-96.
Sears, Sallie. _The Negative Imagination: Form and Perspective in the Novels of Henry James_. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1968.
Stallman, R. W. "`The Sacred Rage': The Time-Theme in `The Ambassadors.'" _Modern Fiction Studies_ 3 (1957): 41-56.
Stowell, H. Peter. _Literary Impressionism, James and Chekhov_. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980.
Veeder, William. "Strether and the Transcendence of Language." _Modern Philology_ 69 (1971): 116-32.
Weinstein, Philip M. _Henry James and the Requirements of the Imagination_. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971.
Wise, James N. "The Floating World of Lambert Strether." _Arlington Quarterly_ 2 (1969): 80-110.
Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. _Language and Knowledge in the Late Novels of Henry James_. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
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