Date of Degree
Henry James, psychoanalysis, affect theory, cognitive literary studies
Against a backdrop of increasingly hurried and digitized processing of text, my dissertation returns to the question of what it might mean to perform a close reading. To what, I ask, or to whom (or to where) is one “close”? What could reading have to do with proximity – spatial, temporal, or otherwise – and furthermore: how is this proximity experienced? As a means of addressing these questions I turn to Henry James, an author whose infamous ambiguity (like an elephant trying to pick up a pea, according to H. G. Wells) effectively rules out any reading that is not close. Drawing upon psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and neuroscience, I argue that the Jamesian aesthetic is one that invites, sometimes pleasurably, sometimes disquietingly, a shared history.
As an introduction to the themes of the dissertation, I examine Marguerite Duras’ 1964 Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, a novel that, when read closely enough, effectively deconstructs itself: the narrator is revealed to be a love interest of the protagonist; the plot, his telling of their relationship, is thereby a fantasy; the protagonist may not have even existed; and so on. And yet, despite the instability of the novel’s every aspect, critics have treated it as if nothing were amiss; as if, for instance, the events described by this exemplary unreliable narrator (who says explicitly that his account is “what [he has] been able to imagine”) had in fact taken place. In an extended reading of these readings, I argue that, despite (or perhaps because of) the novel’s systemic corruption, the critic’s performance becomes mimetic: a repetition, that is, of the narrator’s position, replete with his blind insistence, bizarre turns of phrase, and even habits of rhyming.
These then become the coordinates that guide my analysis of James. The study is organized around two broad gestures. In the first, which is devoted to two early works (“Daisy Miller” and The American), I examine how the situations established within the text are repeated in the act of reading it. In “Daisy Miller”, for example, the indeterminacy of the American Girl – whether, essentially, she is good or bad – by being left unresolved at the end of the novella, then becomes the indeterminacy of all American girls, as James records in his preface. Likewise, in The American (a draft of which I have attached), the central drama of the novel – cutting, turning away, refusing – is repeated by James himself in when he decides to revise it. In both cases, I argue, the repetition is the result of reading too close; the experience of “losing oneself” is attested to by a reader taking on the conflicts in the text.
In the second half, I turn to two later works, “The Real Right Thing” and The Ambassadors, for how James himself seems to invite this closeness. With “The Real Right Thing”, the subject of which (a young writer gets increasingly close to the ghost of the man whose biography he is assembling) is uncannily similar to my own, I explore the possibility that James had anticipated my very dissertation – and, furthermore, what such a proposal would mean for our relationship. The apparent absurdity of this line of thought carries over into my reading of The Ambassadors: I argue that by first establishing, then deconstructing, two foundational paradigms for “making sense” (family business and vision), James induces a kind of reverie – a state in which we hear, without needing to decipher, his sonorous voice.
Curley-Egan, James, "The Master's Voice: Close Readings of James" (2021). CUNY Academic Works.
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