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Number 10
April 26, 2006

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Review of Acting Beautifully: Henry James and the Ethical Aesthetic
by Sigi Jöttkandt. SUNY Press, 2005. 177pp. + xvii. $55.00

Reviewed by Greg W. Zacharias
Creighton University; Executive Director, The Henry James Society

It is reasonable to generalize Henry James scholarship over the past fifty years, at least, as having taken place on two fields: the ethical (which James referred to as "morality") and the aesthetic. As a result, James tends to be read and taught primarily as either an ethical writer concerned with representing human situations or an aesthetic writer concerned with language as art. This is odd since James himself never claimed one field against the other for himself, but, occupying its border territory, crossed regularly between the aesthetic and the ethical.

The question of the relation and interplay of ethics to aesthetics was important in James's critical essays throughout his career and thus illustrates the centrality of the ethical aesthetic in his conception of fiction, at least. Representative is this passage on Flaubert and Madame Bovary from an early essay, "The Minor French Novelists," which he wrote while he lived in Paris in the mid-1870s:

Practically M. Flaubert is a potent moralist; whether, when he wrote his book, he was so theoretically is a matter best known to himself. Every out-and-out realist who provokes curious meditation may claim that he is a moralist, for that, after all, is the most that the moralists can do for us. They sow the seeds of virtue; they can hardly pretend to raise the crop. Excellence in this matter consists in the tale and the moral hanging well together, and this they are certainly more likely to do when there has been a definite intention--that intention of which artists who cultivate "art for art" are usually so extremely mistrustful; exhibiting thereby, surely, a most injurious disbelief in the illimitable alchemy of art. (p. 225 in "The Minor French Novelists." The Galaxy 212 [February 1876]: 219-34)

Acting Beautifully not only works to explain what James names in the passage above as the "alchemy" of Jamesian poetics, at least as far as the ethical aesthetic is concerned (which takes one quite far indeed); in addition, Acting Beautifully itself stages the relation of the aesthetic to the ethical through the discussion of key "events" in The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, and "The Altar of the Dead." Writes Jöttkandt, "Each of the three acts I outline has this one thing in common: they separately represent a singular expression of fidelity to the impossibility encountered in the realm of experience that fundamentally transforms not only the characters' own subjective constitutions but also that of the world in which they live. In every case, we will see how the James heroine explicitly calls on the aesthetic order to perform her act" (xii-xiii). Reading Jöttkandt's book is a powerful and even moving event in itself because it works in the same ethical-aesthetic borderland as the fiction it discusses.

Several concepts from Lacan and elsewhere, including "the Real," "passage à l'acte, desire and drive, and an understanding of ethics as it is detailed in Lacan's seminar on Ethics enable Jöttkandt to map and work in that ethical-aesthetic borderland. For "what James [. . .] contributes to the psychoanalytic discussion is to confirm the inseparability of aesthetics from Lacanian ethics" (xii). In this way, Jöttkandt can show via James the way "ethics intersects, cuts across [. . .] the registers of the Symbolic and the Real" (145).

Although each chapter attends to a different text and a different central problem, each develops points made earlier. Such a strategy produces a book that works cumulatively, adding to a reader's understanding of the ethical aesthetic chapter by chapter, page by page, sentence by sentence. The argument of the book is so coherent--though dense at points--that it reads as if it were a shorter essay. There are no apparent loose ends, no sprawling digressions. The argument itself is always clearly presented to offer a new way of thinking about James's fiction, at least: "As I have shown, aesthetic experience is nothing but an encounter with the limit of the Symbolic realm, the tuchè, an encounter with the Real which, as such, imposes an ethical demand on us. The ethics of our response lies in our infinitely creative, singular ways of maintaining fidelity to this impossibility at the heart of experience" (142).

The chapter on Isabel Archer, freedom, and The Portrait of a Lady introduces the aesthetic nature of the psychoanalytic narrative of ethical subjectivity, which is foundational to Acting Beautifully: "Through a transposition of the psychoanalytic terminology into the philosophical dialectic of freedom and determination, James's novel helps us to see what is really at stake in the psychoanalytic narrative of ethical subjectivity, namely, the radical philosophical, ethical, and political potential of transcendental freedom. But, significantly, what James additionally draws attention to in the psychoanalytic narrative is the peculiarly aesthetic nature of the psychoanalytical ethical act" (xiv).

The ethical act under consideration in The Portrait of a Lady is one of the most vexing in the novel: Isabel's decision to return to Osmond. Jöttkandt establishes the terms of her investigation of the act this way: "it is only by understanding her choice as intentionally empty--that is, made deliberately without reference to empirical considerations--that we can begin to approach the specifically ethical dimension of her act" (2). Such a strategy is typical of the way Jöttkandt finds a way to the borderland between ethics and aesthetics--the third way of understanding James that includes both in the ethical aesthetic. For Isabel, as Jöttkandt reads her, the problem is one of the consequences for choosing because "choice is the means by which Isabel believes she actualizes her freedom" (13). So then why does she choose Osmond? Because for Isabel Osmond "personifies the act of choice" (14). To Isabel his life is based in defining and knowing and choosing. And for Isabel, to remain free is to live a life in which she can continually choose. In addition, following Acting Beautifully's concentration on third ways, Osmond represents to Isabel a third way of male relationship: he combines the "demands of the sensuous impulse" of Goodwood and also Warburton's "claustrophobic constraints of preexisting social and moral systems" (19). He is a "fantasy of aesthetic reconciliation" (20). Yet the novel also offers itself as a Bildungsroman. Here too, in the terms of the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman, the ethical and the aesthetic are fundamental--even if they become in this novel fundamental to James's satire of the form's narrative logic. Crucial to both that satire and to the logic of the chapter overall is Jöttkandt's explanation of Isabel's decision to act "out of duty toward the moral law itself, which for Kant is the only way through which our transcendental freedom can be realized" (28). Such an act of duty, especially as it is carried out with knowledge of the choice that wasn't present to Isabel the first time she chose Osmond, a feature of "reflective (rather than determinant) judgment" (40), in turn, enacts the idea of the ethical community.

The second chapter, on Milly Theale and The Wings of the Dove, argues that "the earlier questions of freedom and determination become transposed into the linguistic and representational concerns that haunt the psychoanalytic discourse of hysteria. I suggest that by understanding Milly's illness as an hysterical episode, we are better placed to comprehend what I see as the specifically ethical dimension of her final, aesthetic death in Venice" (xv). "Both thematically and formally, The Wings of the Dove poses itself the question: What is the ethical response to the unrepresentable?" (45). This question is significant because "psychoanalysis poses itself the same question in treating the traumatic neuroses, namely, the relationship of language to the unspeakable trauma or, as Freud later revised his theory, the unspeakable desire (Wunsch) that resulted in the hysteria or obsessive compulsion" (45). This, in turn, becomes important as Jöttkandt investigates the possibility of Milly's illness being psychological--hysteria--rather than physiological. Seeing Milly's problem as hysteria foregrounds "the question of the limits of representation and its accompanying dilemma--the ethical approach to the unspeakable--since hysteria is itself a reaction to a certain deadlock or failure of representation" (48). For Milly, "hysteria itself constitutes an ethical stance with regard to the unrepresentable, with important implications for the way we understand Milly's final act and, ultimately, the ethical dimensions of this novel. [. . .] I suggest that beauty is nothing less than the paradigmatic case of hysteria--hysteria's Ur-narrative--enabling us to appreciate how a primordial aesthetic experience lies at the heart of the psychoanalytic 'ethics of desire'"(xv).

Jöttkandt locates third terms that are crucial in Wings as in the other James texts she discusses. In Wings, that third term constitutes a discursive space that enables ethical-aesthetic meaning: "If until now the action has been dominated by oppositional pairs engaged in what might be considered a Hegelian life-or-death power struggle [. . .], the addition of this third discursive space has the ability to change these relations" (61). Desire enables the location of that third space and enables one to "begin to understand the ethical dimension of The Wings of the Dove" (73).

Jöttkandt ventures at least two especially risky and rewarding insights in this chapter. The first has to do with what Milly sees when she looks at the Bronzino: not herself, but an allegorical relation to herself in which tears reveal her realization "of the absolute senselessness of comparing time with the end of time. [. . . ] Milly's discovery that the meaning of life is death turns all temporal hierarchies into bitter irony, since everyone, no matter how long they live, will eventually die" (64). The consequences that issue from Milly's reading of herself through the portrait are central to the chapter's investigation of how desire, naming, and "'the conspiracy of silence'" (69) work for Milly to ward off death. The second insight, as important to the success of the chapter and the book as the first, has to do with Jöttkandt's Freudian and Lacanian reading of the novel's Christian tropes, which, of course, changes fundamentally the meaning of Christianity in the novel and provides a way to explain Milly's sacrifice not as "the final collapse of a disappointed woman; by sacrificing herself, Milly acts in accordance with her desire. [. . .] By willing death, in this way, Milly in effect dies in order to 'keep dreaming,' to maintain the fantasy that has sustained her as a desiring subject, and which, in preserving an area of indeterminacy, prevents her from becoming wholly trapped by language" (85-86).

One of the most sensitively rendered sections of the book has to do with Kate Croy. Here's an excerpt from that section:

Like Milly's, Kate's desire is bound up with the word, or name, that bars access, we might as well now say, to jouissance. Her desire, like Milly's, is therefore also hysterical insofar as hysterical desire involves a defense against--and, as I suggested above, the defense of--the gap that prevents the totality from becoming whole. [. . .] Although most critics see her as cruelly and coldly calculating when she instructs Densher to pretend to love Milly, if we take literally what the novel tells us, there is no guarantee that Milly will die. In fact, unless Kate has better knowledge about Milly's condition even than Sir Luke Strett, by putting Densher into Milly's way, surely she is creating the only conditions under which, as far as she knows, Milly's life will be saved. (90-91)

In Kate, herself a kind of third-term or borderland character, duty and desire are not opposed. For in making a choice for duty--her family, she also makes a choice for desire--for that which was also her mother's desire: "Kate's desire is precisely for the thing that will give body to her mother's desire, the name that substitutes for it in the symbolic order. Kate's duty is thus identical to her desire: to rescue the name that substitutes for, and that (partially) fills, the gap in the field of representation. Kate's desire is, therefore, like Milly's, a hysterical desire" (96). However, Kate's ethical orientation, characterized by intensity of her pursuit of the object of her desire--in pursuit of her "name" she "gives it up" by submitting her reputation to Densher's sexual blackmail--is that of the drive. Milly's is of desire.

Jöttkandt's final chapter investigates "The Altar of the Dead" to show how "deconstruction itself epitomizes an aesthetic discourse. [. . .] at least as represented by De Man and his followers" (xvi). That discourse "represents a structure of deferral very like what I identified as Milly's hysterical/aesthetic solution. Such an identification then makes it possible to diagnose the deconstructive project as a hysterical discourse, designed to maintain a certain sustaining distance from what Lacan calls the Real--the unrepresentable excessive horror/enjoyment that underpins the symbolic order but for which deconstruction inevitably, for very specific structural reasons that I outline, must fail to possess a concept" (xvi). The question "Why should the question of the rites/rights of the dead carry such import to the extent that, at least since Hegel's Antigone, they have come to epitomize for us what is essential to ethics?" organizes the chapter (100).

The discussion of "The Altar of the Dead" depends in large part on understanding Stransom's altar as a representational system both simple (based on a one-to-one correspondence of signifier and signified) and also infinitely variable. "What is at stake in all of this [. . .] is quite simply the question of a limit, of the exception that creates the rule. [. . . ] The limit [. . .] is what makes it possible for us to transcend our merely phenomenal state, and enter, with Isabel Archer, a realm of transcendental freedom, to escape, with Milly Theale, the birdcage of language that otherwise threatens to fully entrap us. The limit [. . .] is nothing less than the condition of possibility of reason itself, enabling us to be freely acting, conscious beings" (107-08). The candles on Stransom's altar function for him as a simple "'counting machine'" (112), a metaphor for those whom he wishes to remember--one candle per person. On the other hand, the altar arrangement functions for the woman visitor as if it were a metonym--all the candles are for Hague. The importance of this difference is how the woman's reading "disrupts" Stransom's "fallacy of believing we can derive a vertical relation among contiguous elements in a binary system" (111). The altar, then, functions as zeugma, "both the (metonymical) rhetorical reading strategy of deconstruction, and the name of the irreducible (metonymical) 'event' that occurs when deconstructive or 'metonymical' readings and 'metaphorical' readings occur side by side" (112). What is significant in terms of what I have been calling the "borderland" argument that Jöttkandt develops throughout is that

the 'happening' of James's story takes place not at the level of the Symbolic but at the intersection of the Symbolic and the Real. [. . .] [It] is James (with Lacan) who shows us another way of conceptualizing the 'event' of the tale, such that, instead of condemning us to the endless, senseless repetition of language conceived as a strictly mechanical system of tropes, a different possibility is opened up, enabling us to conceptualize how such a system may after all transcend its limits, but without 'forgetting' the hard-won knowledge produced by deconstruction and reverting back to some externally imposed, mystified 'transcendental signfied'. [sic] (113-14)
And the way such a system, one that would open that "different possibility," could operate depends on theorizing language and action in terms of concepts borrowed from set theory, Kant, and Lacan, which in this portion of Acting Beautifully comprise the new terms, the borderland territory itself, where so much of this book lives and by which it is consistently distinguished. The result of this way of thinking about language and ethics and James's altar, in short, is that regardless of the limits of language,
the woman's resistance [to Stransom] embodies the ethical demand that insists on the removal of even that last limit [that ethics can be reduced to laws]; her resistance conveys the way ethics must always escape our attempts to pin it down, to consolidate it, such that, as we know from Kant, we will never cognize the totality of the meaning of our actions, that is, whether or not our act has been ethical. Nevertheless, as Isabel discovered, we must act anyway, we must make choices but, as James expresses so beautifully with this story, true fidelity means maintaining a resistance against ever thinking we can reach the 'ethical' as such, i.e., as a limit that must be defended at all costs. Something, James seems to be saying, always escapes our infinitude--namely, precisely our finitude. It is our finitude that demands we take every moment, every singular situation on a one-by-one basis for action. (124)

Jöttkandt opens her book by telling us that it is and is not about James: "It occurs to me that my title might seem a little misleading once one realizes that my subject implicitly deals at least as much with Lacan as it does with James" (xi). In the final part of the book, with the extrapolation of "some of the practical implications [. . .] exemplified by James's heroine in "The Altar of the Dead" (125), she begins to finish that plan, which does more than explicate or theorize James. Jöttkandt shows some consequences of her reading of James, which is especially significant in terms of Badiou's own rethinking of ethics, his own border territory, "'the rights of the Immortal, affirmed in their own right, or the rights of the Infinite, exercised over the contingency of suffering and death'" (127). Like the reading she carries out of "The Altar of the Dead," Jöttkandt's understanding of Badiou's ethics, like psychoanalysis, offers a way to find "truth" in the "event." Thus an important marker of the territory Acting Beautifully finds, makes, and maps: "Deconstruction is nothing other than the act of remaining faithful to the 'event' of psychoanalysis. It is a strict 'fidelity,' that is, an act of love toward psychoanalysis, as Derrida himself has suggested. [. . . ] Badiou tells us if we absolutize a truth we slip into evil. Deconstruction shows us how we can remain faithful to an event inasmuch as it escapes us, inasmuch as its 'truth' always remains in excess of the system that has created it. This, too, I think is the significance of the woman's return to the altar [. . .]" (130-131, 134). Sigi Jöttkandt's decision to close Acting Beautifully with a powerful reminder of James's own ethical and personal engagement during World War I and the last years of his life both ends the book fittingly and also reminds us of the ethical-aesthetic importance of James's work not only in his fiction, but in his day-to-day life, his letters and his non-fiction. The closing, attending so carefully, tenderly, and accessibly to the way "ethics intersects [. . .] the registers of the Symbolic and the Real" (145), raises the question of whether there has been a reader of James as sensitive and as intellectually engaged with both the nuances of James's aesthetic and the significance of his ethics as Jöttkandt.

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