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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

I. Ethics and Aesthetics

4. Bad Investments

Eric Savoy

Texte intégral

1Everybody knows that Henry James, like Balzac, was keenly interested in money, particularly in the nefarious entanglements that arise between those who have it and those who want it. Money is never merely money in James’s fiction: as the pre-requisite for any experience of self-realisation, it has both a pragmatic function in the matrix of emplotment and a sort of spiritual office. In order to be buoyant, a character needs a certain, emphatically non-metaphorical liquidity. As Ralph Touchett observes in The Portrait of a Lady, ”’I call people rich when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination.’” His father, a hard-headed banker from Vermont who knows money first-hand, shares neither his son’s spectatorial pleasure in the prospect of a rich Isabel Archer nor his idealised expectation of Isabel’s imaginative fulfillment, for he knows that she may well ”’fall a victim to the fortune-hunters’” (The Portrait of a Lady [1986] 236-37). Not surprisingly, James’s commentators have followed the elder Mr. Touchett’s line: ”’I don’t think I enter into your spirit,’” he responds, ”’It seems to me immoral’” (237). Early and late criticism has focused exclusively on the corrupting influence of American capital, whether it be the traditional moral and ethical implications of Jamesian realism (according to which money is the root of all evil), or more recent post-colonial critiques of American empire-building and acquisition. This is hardly a misguided project, but it confines itself to the conventional perspectives of the literary humanities, both textual and historical, that do not engage with explanatory paradigms or systems of thought beyond the frontier of the humanities. In the argument that follows, I shall attempt to outline another way of thinking about James’s economics—an approach that is not particularly attentive to moral or political agendas and that is not concerned with money as such. Under the auspices of new directions in comparative literature—directions that locate the specificity of the literary in relation to other disciplinary quests for meaning—I shall trace the confluence, or the congruity among, two very specific concepts of economy.

2The first is ’narrative economy,’ by which I mean the circulation, in narrative time and in the spatial emplotment of inter-subjective relations, of the complex, figurative signifier. My perspective on the return and repetition of the signifier—which is the prime ’currency’ of narrative—is deconstructive: far from binding the text into coherent unity, the signifier detaches itself from punctual meaning as it evolves in the escalating spirals of différence. In direct proportion to the collapse of the signifier’s grounding in the material reality of actual things, it loses all referential value in a process of hyper-inflation. It continues to circulate as a debased currency or as a form of waste paper, but it has lost the symbolic efficacy of language that constituted, for the New Criticism, its gold standard. The career of the free-floating and highly attenuated signifier is basic to James’s narrative economy, for it occasions the encounter with the Lacanian ’Real’—with trauma and nothingness—that is the salutary corrective to his characters’ bad investments. The other ’economy’ I take up is, predictably, economics itself—in particular, the system of finance and investment banking that depends upon derivatives, which are instruments whose values are derived from something else. Derivates can be used to mitigate the risk of loss arising from changes in the value of the underlying asset: this process, known as hedging, is the basis of trading, for example, in commodities like oil and agricultural products. Alternatively, derivatives can be used to acquire risk rather to hedge against it. Here, investors engage in derivative contracts to speculate on the value of the underlying asset, betting that it will rise in value. Both types of derivates, when bundled together and traded on an exchange, are known as futures. In recent years, the combination of excessive risk-taking, wild speculation leading to investment bubbles, and unregulated trading in derivatives has led to a severe contraction of the international economy. At issue for my immediate project is the meaningful connection between recent economic history, particularly the speculation in futures, and fictional narratives of high-risk investment in a model of ’futurity.’ Such fictions involve characters who live in the mode of expectancy; their narrative present is impoverished, if not vacant, for everything is sacrificed for the life to come. Always imminent yet endlessly deferred, this future time is anticipated as the arrival at a fully authentic subjectivity, a realization of a potential that must remain latent until that unveiling. My object of scrutiny is James’s 1903 tale, ”The Beast in the Jungle”: in what ways might James’s story of John Marcher’s wild speculation about futurity illuminate the predicament in which the global economy now finds itself? What they have in common, I suggest, are the consequences that arise from the failures of accounting.

3In his history of the Great Depression, John Kenneth Galbraith observes that ”the autumn of 1929 was, perhaps, the first occasion when men succeeded on a large scale in swindling themselves” (Galbraith quoted by Paumgarten 44). Galbraith’s point is easily transferred to the case history of John Marcher, who spends his life with the conviction that, sooner or later, in one way or another, something momentous is going to happen to him— something that will utterly transform his way of being in the world, and that will realise his potential, for good or for bad. ”’I don’t focus it. I can’t name it’” (”The Beast in the Jungle” 372), he explains to the companion of his watch, May Bartram. On the one hand, Marcher might be understood as following the advice of legendary investor, Warren Buffett, who counselled his followers to ” [p]ut your eggs in one basket, and then watch the basket.” On the other hand, Marcher’s speculative investment assumes a very high risk, for it concentrates all his resources, and to that extent, may be said to be leveraged—that is, under-written by borrowing from today in the hope of a magnificent return tomorrow. In order to revalue the striking modernity of ”The Beast in the Jungle,” it is worth exploring the possibility that a form of speculative ’leveraging’ might occur in forms of social behaviour other than the economic. As Buffett observes, in modernity, ” [d]ebt now became something to be refinanced rather than repaid.” For Marcher, it would appear, needs to continually ’re-finance’ his speculation.

4The underlying asset upon which Marcher bases it is his concept of his ’self’ as pure potentiality, the potentiality that Lacan locates in the unconscious: it is as nebulous, as unverifiable, as the future transformative event upon which he reckons enormous profit or loss. The opacity of the entire situation, particularly in terms of ’asset,’ compounds over time. Marcher’s ’derivative,’ then, in the sheer unaccountability of its basis, is uncannily similar to the protocols of contemporary finance, which are summed up by the concept of securitisation: this is the process by which loans—most notoriously, sub-prime mortgages given to risky borrowers in the United States—were bundled together and sold on to other institutions as packages of debt. As John Lanchester explains, ”these packages of debt were then sold on and resold in the form of horrendously complex and sophisticated financial instruments… so complicated that no one knows who owns what underlying debt, and furthermore, no one knows what the assets are worth” (”Cityphobia” 3). The point is that the ’derivation’ of dubious securities has been so multiplied and protracted that any concept of ’real’ value has gone out the window. Normally, ’value’ is determined by the market: derivatives are worth what somebody is willing to pay for them. But in recent months, because nobody is buying, nobody has a clue what they are worth, if anything. As a result of weak accounting practices, then, banks are reluctant to lend to each other, and the entire financial system has ground to a halt. Or, as Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve put it, there is a ”chaotic unwinding” of the financial system (Weissman).

5In order to embark upon speculation in futures, James’s narrative economy requires that Marcher post a paper instrument—a signifier—that can circulate in that economy in good faith as a security worthy of his psychic investment and our readerly engagement. In banking terms, this instrument can be understood only in a very limited fashion as collateral or as a promissory note, because it isn’t exactly a loan, nor are its terms subject to specification. It is however a binding contract with futurity itself, by the terms of which Marcher invests ’everything.’ Required to pony up what he cannot ’name’ or ’focus,’ Marcher’s ’terms’ are never not a figural derivative: ”something or other lay in wait for him, among the twists and turns of the months and the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle” (365). We can see immediately, in James’s figurative economy, what I have called the ’multiplication and protraction’ that has rendered illegible the underlying value of derivatives in contemporary finance. Marcher’s asset in literal terms is merely ’something or other,’ a nominally vacant this-or maybe-that, a grammatical place-holder, that is exchanged for a series of different rhetorical currencies. As a ”thing” that ”lay in wait for him,” the ”something or other” is converted to prosopopeia, but the whereabouts of this animate ”thing” is rebundled with metaphor, by which time—”the months and the years” ahead, or futurity itself—is imaged as a spatial maze of ”twists and turns.” Within this syntactic bundle is the delivery of a sharper, more gaugable prosopopeia, for the thing that ”lay in wait” is specified as ”a crouching beast in the jungle” (”The Beast in the Jungle” 365) of time and space—yet the specificity of this ultimate clarification is mitigated by its being only ”like” such a creature, whereby the certainty of overarching metaphor is undercut by the attentuations of simile. As Warren Buffet might say, this is a hell of a risky investment: for not only are there no eggs, there isn’t even a discernable basket.

6John Lanchester argues that, like other forms of cultural production, finance in the twentieth century, in its turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction, underwent successive modernist and postmodernist transformations. As a result of arcane mathematisation, the total market in derivatives around the world is counted in the hundreds of trillions of dollars, a purely notional amount that exceeds the total value of the world’s actual economic output by a factor of tenfold. ”It seems wholly contrary to common sense,” Lanchester writes, ”that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English” (”Melting into Air” 83). Late in the last century, it became virtually impossible for even the most sophisticated investor to assess the risks that lurk in derivatives. As a result of rampant bundling and re-selling, nobody knows who is at risk from the ’toxic debt’ at the heart of the system: Warren Buffet compared the new world of financial products (strange creatures such as credit-default swaps) to ”’weapons of mass destruction’—first, because they are lethal, and, second, because no one knows how to track them down” (Buffet quoted by Lanchester, ”Melting into Air” 83). Lanchester concludes that ”if the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anybody who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstruction. According to Jacques Derrida ” […] meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always ’deferred,’ moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings” (Lanchester ”Melting into Air” 84).

7It is precisely in relation to Lanchester’s broad cultural argument that I situate the prescient narrative economy of James’s ”The Beast in the Jungle,” written at the outset of modernity itself. From an economic point of view, James offers a cautionary tale about bad investments—both in the model of futurity that drives speculation, and in the specific rhetoric instruments upon which such speculation is based. There are two things to observe about the circulation of these toxic instruments. First, as I have partly demonstrated, the prosopoetic figure of ’the beast’ is generated by the text in order to suture the non-commensurability between words and things. Meaningless from the moment of its articulation, it is a figural derivative that brings nothing to presence in the present, apart from a determination to speculate on an equally implausible future value. Intended to manage risk, prosopopeia ends up magnifying it. As it circulates and recirculates in the narrative, it functions as a kind of junk bond, the rhetorical name of which is catachresis—that is, a figurative image for which there is no literal nor denotative referent. James offers an extreme case of the arbitrary signification that Paul de Man locates in catachresis, which, he claims, like prosopopeia is ”hallucinatory” (49). As symptom of obsessional disorder rather than merely as signifier, Marcher’s waste paper can be framed by the impasse, the undoing of the distinction between reference and signification, that de Man locates in the field of tropic derivatives: ”it is impossible to say whether prosopopeia is plausible because of the empirical existence of dreams and hallucinations or whether one believes that such a thing as dreams and hallucinations exists because language permits the figure of prosopopeia” (49-50).

8Secondly, the human drama that unfolds in ”The Beast in the Jungle” is made possible by a process that I would describe as prosopoetic contagion. John Marcher’s speculative investment in the futuristic ’beast’ is not his alone, but requires the psychic capital of his collaborator, May Bartram. Because the catachrestic ’beast’ is not subject to negotiation, James sets in motion a tightly interlaced imagistic economy of other, supporting signifiers—eyes, faces, hands and feet—that laminate the indescribable properties of the ’beast’ onto May. In life, May gazes at Marcher from an undisclosed knowledge of his fate, from across ”some mystic line that she had secretly drawn round her” (373), her eyes ”beautiful with a strange, cold light” (382); in death, ”the face of [her] tomb did become a face for him […] because her two names were like a pair of eyes that didn’t know him” (396). It would be absurdly reductive to suggest that May ’becomes’ the ’beast,’ yet it would seem that ”the deep disorder in her blood” (376) is to be understood as resulting from prosopoetic contagion, from the toxic shock of her own bad investment.

9Early in 2007, pundits issued dire warnings that the international economy had been infected by untraceable, bad assets and was on the verge of collapse. Interest rates began to rise in order to cool a vastly overheated economy. Ironically, it was already far too late to repair the overextended protocols of investment, let alone the pervasive and unregulated culture of pathological greed that subtended it. The culture was in the grip of the death drive. Midway through ”The Beast in the Jungle,” May Bartram has the cold comfort of advising John Marcher that whatever his investment had anticipated, its return had already been delivered. Incredulous, Marcher asks, ” [W]hat then has happened?” ”What was to,” is May’s enigmatic riposte (387). Like his repetitive compulsion, Marcher’s sense of time is circular and tautological: ”Since it was in Time that he was to have met his fate, so it was in Time that his fate was to have acted” (379). Under the auspices of James’s queer temporality, in which catachresis pays its dividends to an unmarked account in a Swiss bank, May as investment counsellor delivers the bad news: ”It has done its office. It has made you all its own […]. It’s past. It’s behind. […] Before… Before, you see, it was always to come. That kept it present” (389-91).

10It is entirely debatable whether John Marcher arrives at any corrective epiphany at the conclusion of ”The Beast in the Jungle.” To argue, as most critics have done and as the tale itself seems to suggest, that Marcher ought to have invested in May Bartram—to ’have loved her for herself’—invokes both a heterosexual economy and a normative model of ’futurity’ that the tale itself discounts as its very donnée. To explain this further would require a detour into another economic model—the psychoanalytic, both Freudian and Lacanian, in which the drives circulate around the impossible object in persistent unpleasure. In my forthcoming book, Conjugating the Subject: Henry James and Queer Formalism, I take up the psychoanalytic dimensions of John Marcher’s case to demonstrate the transformation of his symptom into sinthome, the process by which he coheres as subject by learning to enjoy his symptom. For the moment, I leave him with his bad investments— seeing in his speculations, and in James’s complex rhetorical derivatives, the image of what Lewis Lapham diagnoses as the absurdity of investors, the ”Wall Street achievetrons folding and refolding sets of imaginary numbers into paper hats and airplanes” (Lapham 11). Like every investor in the world, John Marcher ”had but one desire left—that he shouldn’t have been ’sold’” (”The Beast in the Jungle” 379).


Eric Savoy is associate professor of Comparative Literature at Université de Montréal. The 2009 President of the Henry James Society, he has published widely on Henry James and various issues related to queer theory. His book, Conjugating the Subject: Henry James and Queer Formalism will appear in 2011.


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