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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

II. French and Italian Hours

8. Figures of Fulfillment: James and “a Sense of Italy”

Jacek Gutorow

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1In his Images of Italy, one of the most beautiful books on Italian Wanderjahre, Pavel Muratov writes:

  • 1 All the quotes from Muratov are in my translation, as his book has not been translated into Englis (...)

The words traveling to Italy are tale-telling, as they grasp our experience and our life in the Italian element, the liberation of new spiritual forces, the birth of new faculties, as well as a lengthening of the scale of our desires. Occurring in time and space, this is also a journey through the depths of our being and a firing of a resplendent circle at the bottom of our soul (370).1

2Such words would be sympathetic to Henry James, who discovered in Italy not only an element novel and unknown to him—that of beauty and unraveled existence—but also a promise, and both traces and tropes of the metamorphosis taking place in the consciousness of the ”sentimental tourist” (as James called himself) and in the deepest being of his soul. Both Muratov and James found in Italy a separate space that was free of the ambient reality and existed in its own right. Muratov has a wonderful intuition of this in ”The Waters of Lethe,” the essay opening Images of Italy. Referring to a painting by Giovanni Bellini, the Russian writer recalls his own trips to Venice and outlines a vision of an experience on the verge of existential transgression. Going to Italy is for him a journey of forgetting, as if his existence was suddenly erased:

For us, people of the North, who enter Italy through the golden gates of Venice, the waters of the Venetian lagoon are in fact the waters of Lethe. When we stand in front of the paintings found in the churches of Venice, when we sail in a gondola or roam in the silent streets or through the tides of crowding tourists on St. Mark’s, we drink some gentle and sweet wine of forgetting (18).

3Thus, a journey to Italy resembles a rite of passage, a breakthrough to a new form of life. Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, such an aspect of ritual may be found in Henry James’s travel sketches, particularly in his Italian Hours, a collection of essays, notes, and diary-entries written between 1872 and 1909. The book is my point of departure and constitutes the most important frame of reference for those interested in James’s ‘Italy of the mind.’

4It should be noted first that it is the very moment of entering Italy that becomes ritualistic. In his early sketch ”From Chambéry to Milan,” James speaks of the ”mysterious delights in entering Italy by a whiz through an eight-mile tunnel, even as a bullet through the bore of a gun” (Italian Hours [1995] 77). What we have in other essays is an almost obsessional rhetoric of, first, anticipation, and then transgression, going-through. Descriptions are detailed, sometimes even hallucinatory, as in this fragment:

After leaving Modane you slide straight downhill into the Italy of your desire; from which point the road edges, after the grand manner, along those great precipices that stand shoulder to shoulder, in a prodigious perpendicular file, till they finally admit you to a distant glimpse of the ancient capital of Piedmont (100).

5Arhetoric of fulfillment may be detected a bit later—reaching Italy is like a certain experience coming to a close, which becomes a ‘past’ experience. However, James does not let his Italian impressions ossify into a snapshot memory. On the contrary, he stresses their fragile uniqueness immune to all attempts, on the part of reason, to keep, rationalise, and retain moments of fulfillment. The latter precedes acts of consciousness and cannot be frozen— while articulated, it becomes solid and loses its own character.

6One can say that Italy became for James a figure of fulfillment. It might be described as hypothetical and speculative—something separating life from the existential rhetoric that distorts it, be it a rhetoric of time or of space. Obviously enough, any figurative moment—and the idea of the figurative in general—is necessarily rhetorical. However, it may point to a sense of fulfillment as something present but potential. Figures defer fulfillment but at the same time reveal its possibility. The dimension achieved is that of present fulfillment or fulfilled presence. It is kept at bay, not articulated— but it is there, with no doubt.

7My contention is that James himself experienced such a presence during his Italian peregrinations. When we read subsequent sketches from Italian Hours, either chronologically or in the order suggested by the writer, we pass through stages of initiation into the nature of things. Italian landscapes, buildings, and paintings are viewed so intensely, so attentively, in so detailed a manner, that after a while they become transparent, as in Vladimir Nabokov’s Transparent Things, where trivial objects reveal their past and their uniqueness, as if they were endowed with subjectivity. In the eyes of the devoted observer—and James was definitely such an observer— the smallest items are vibrant with life. They do not add up but remain unique, one appearing after the other.

8What kind of experience was this? How did Italy differ from England and France, which were also important loci of perception for James, but remained sites of perception, and not of experience? Maybe we should speak here of genius loci? Would it be a genius understood as ‘absolute consciousness,’ elevated so high that it goes beyond itself in a sublime experience, or genius seen as an external agent, something alien to consciousness, a moment of resistance? Such questions guided me in my subsequent readings of Italian Hours.


9In James there are many spirits and their nature is quite problematic. Sometimes these are specters of places—reflections and recollections that haunt the tourist and take him out of the traditional topoi of time and space. Sometimes we can speak of the spirit which is collective, doubly so in the context of the Romantic idea of the Grand Tour. The Romantic tourist is in search of his transnational identity, and he tries to arrive at the universal mind of Europe that would crown his life with a kind of abstract fulfillment—a congregation of spirits from different places and epochs.

10The sketches gathered in Italian Hours, however, break the pattern of the Grand Tour, even if they do so discreetly and in a peripheral manner. With James structures of perception and cognition are anarchic and centrifugal— casual impressions are as important as essential recognitions, experiences are often so random and chaotic that they cannot be gathered into any logical exposition, and the conclusions arrived at are less significant than the premises that gave rise to them.

11The coordinates of the Jamesian map of Italy are movable. We know that James carefully traced the routes of his Italian trips. But in his notes he was not so provident. Many impressions are indeterminate, many descriptions vague and indefinite. Instead, they disseminate into a chaotic series of observations. They may be rendered in neat and beautiful passages— however, a sense of excess and overflowing wealth of reality is there.

12James’s anarchic sensibility may be seen at work in his treatment of space and time. Someone reading Italian Hours for the first time may have an impression that the writer follows both a very detailed itinerary and a well-planned calendar. A more attentive reading, however, reveals that Italy became for James a site and a place of puzzling spectrality, which does not let time and space consolidate into any whole. Images multiply and branch out in all directions so that no sense of the place is preserved. Moments are repeated, or ignored, or forgotten, or underrated, or overrated. Time does not flow but moves in jerks of anticipations and flashbacks. This is the essential paradox of James’s Italy: it is a promise of experiencing something infinitely different, but at the same time it does not let individual impressions add up in a synthesis that could be a formula of the experience. So instead of the genius or spirit hovering over the place we have specters haunting the writer, taking on various shapes and leading him to more and more places.

13Significantly, James often describes Italian towns and cities in terms of a labyrinth. Here is how he perceives Perugia:

The small, dusky, crooked place tries by a hundred prompt pretensions, immediate contortions, rich mantling flushes and other ingenuities, to waylay your attention and keep it at home; but your consciousness, alert and uneasy from the first moment, is all abroad even when your back is turned to the vast alternative or when fifty house-walls conceal it, and you are forever rushing up by-streets and peeping round corners in the hope of another glimpse or reach of it (Italian Hours [1995] 211).

14On the one hand, James’s Italy loses its coordinates and continuum, and becomes a tourist site, a paradise for nomads. On the other hand, we have the writer who opts for the Nietzschean unconditional affirmation of things-as-they-are, and manages to evade the constraints of time and space. As a matter of fact, we should use here the plural form and speak about Italian hours and spaces that overlap one another and do not cohere into any whole.

15That was also how time passed with James—not in a linear continuum but in parallel times. James’s Italy was not a one-time phenomenon. And just as one could apply the Deleuzian concept of rhizome to the writer’s perceptions of Italian spaces, so one could go to Bergson and Husserl to account for James’s perception of Italian times. James’s sentimental tourist is entangled in a web of crossing recollections and anticipations. This is particularly true of the past, which in James is rarely viewed as a chronological sequence of facts—its time is spectral, potential, parallel to the time measured by clocks. So, the Italian experience was for James not only a process of gathering impressions, but also an experience of the temporality of this process, which resulted first of all in making chronology problematic.

16Examples of this may be found in ”Roman Rides” (1873) and ”From a Roman Notebook,” a diary kept from December 1872 to May 1873:

This unbroken continuity of the impressions I have tried to indicate is an excellent example of the intellectual background of all enjoyment of Rome. It effectually prevents pleasure from becoming vulgar, for your sensation rarely begins and ends with itself; it reverberates—it recalls, commemorates, resuscitates something else (149).
The impression of Rome was repeatedly to renew itself… to overlay itself again and again with almost heavy thicknesses of experience, the last of which is, as I write, quite fresh to memory (194).

17Italy became for James an accumulation of different times—the time measured by clocks, the time of one’s own experiences, the time of memories, the time lost on the way.


18James’s encounters with Italian towns and cities, as recorded in his travel sketches, provide us with interesting cases of what Raymond Williams called ”structure of feeling” (Marxism 128). Descriptions of particular places are characterised by distinct rhetorical tendencies and climates. The differences are not big, but James definitely, if unconsciously, modified his rhetoric depending on the place depicted. Also, James’s Italian sketches cannot be considered apart from his biography. For example, the Venetian and Florentine essays are fully understandable only in the context of such biographical information as the history of his relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, or James’s fascination with such figures as Robert Browning or Richard Wagner. The biographical moment gives a specific flavour to ostensibly impersonal topographical moments; seeing is often tinged by a mood and pure perception turns out to be a foreshortening of perspective, and thus fiction.

19But existence is not a prism diffracting the light of perception. On the contrary, the genius of James consisted in his ability to abandon the role of the sentimental tourist and discover a point of view that would reveal the uniqueness and singularity of the scene. So if I use the phrase ”structure of feeling” in reference to Italian Hours, I do so to the effect that the moment of rhetorical consciousness exceeds the monologues of feeling. In other words, perception traces a trajectory that cannot be embraced by what Wittgenstein called ”logical space,” because it opens a possibility of going beyond life understood as rhetoric.

20This can be seen in the Venetian essays. James’s fascination with the city began during his first journey to Italy in 1869. It was not only a fascination with monuments and paintings. Rather, Venice became an almost perfect scene of perception. Its basic effect was due to a play of surfaces and reflections (the surface of the water, carnival masks, frescoes and canvas), which helped the writer understand the mechanics of sensibility. One’s sight stops on the surface and does not reach the depth; the city becomes a conglomerate of fragments and is devoid of history; seeing is limited to here and now. Chance is also an important factor: an aimless walk, a conversation with a gondolier, or some accidental encounters.

21One can notice James aiming at a sort of ’atemporal reductiveness,’ a tendency to see Venice as a set of suspended images that should be approached in purely aesthetic ways. James the sentimental tourist is decidedly after detached scenes and disconnected pictures, ignoring the city’s historical frames of reference. His interest in the Venetian painters is also there—James is interested mainly in impressionistic effects, even in the case of his favorite Tintoretto.

22James’s casual sightseeing and drifting through the city provided him with many such images. It is amazing, for instance, how often James depicted the classical ‘gondola scene,’ both in his novels and essays. Already in his 1872 ”early impression” he noted: ”Your brown-skinned, white-shirted gondolier, twisting himself in the light, seems to you, as you lie at contemplation beneath your awning, a perpetual symbol of Venetian ‘effect’” (52). In his second essay on Venice he wrote:

There is something strange and fascinating in this mysterious impersonality of the gondola [… ] From my windows on the Riva there was always the same silhouette–the long, black, slender skiff, lifting its head and throwing it back a little, moving yet seeming not to move […] Sometimes, as you see this movement in profile, in a gondola that passes you—see, as you recline on your own low cushions, the arching body of the gondolier lifted up against the sky—it has a kind of nobleness which suggests an image on a Greek frieze (18).

23In ”The Grand Canal” (1892), James presents a ”gondola piled with references” (35), and there is a splendid image of a solitary gondolier, a ”somewhat melancholy figure” who ”always has a little the look of an absent-minded nursery-maid pushing her small charges in a perambulator” (39). The gondola passages are symptomatic and provide us with a formula of the Jamesian Venice: detached but always in focus, haunting the writer with its unique character. James’s imaginary Venice floats through his texts with rare grace and precision. It marks the experience of fleeting time, so dear to the sentimental tourist.


24On 30 September 1869, James visited Rome for the first time. His first reaction was enthusiastic:

At last—for the time—I live! It beats everything: it leaves the Rome of your fancy—your education—nowhere. It makes Venice – Florence – Oxford – London – seem like little cities of pasteboard. I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment. In the course of four or five hours I traversed almost the whole of Rome […] Even if I should leave Rome tonight I should feel that I have caught the keynote of its operation on the senses
(quoted by Edel Henry James: A Life 102).

25This resembles James’s early impressions of Venice and Florence. The writer stressed that the first encounter with a new place was decisive and made it possible to grasp its essence: ”First impressions, memorable impressions, are generally irrecoverable; they often leave one the wiser, but they rarely return in the same form” (Italian Hours [1995] 132). James’s initial fascinations followed the same pattern and were mainly connected with the perception of discovering new spaces: new arrangements of streets and squares, new perspectives, different ways the light touches the walls and is absorbed by them. That was also how Rome affected James—singularly and totally.

26There were other impressions characteristic for the time and place James found himself in. The writer was hypnotised by Pope Pius IX and the surrounding crowd of cardinals and ambassadors. In a letter to Alice he would call the Pope ”the Grand Llama” and would express both respect and disgust. Rome was for James a site of struggles with his own religiosity, apparently absent but manifested in curious and sometimes tantalising forms. A few years later the writer would be stricken by a scene that was ostensibly insignificant, but in fact emblematic of James’s ”spectral Rome.” During the Roman carnival James found himself, quite accidentally, in the little church of St. Bonaventure on the Palatine hill and saw there a young, solitary priest kneeling in front of the altar and giving him ”a sidelong glance” as he entered. It is not unlikely that it was then that the writer came closest to the religious side of his personality; he would approach it in his best novels and stories.

27Later both the Pope and the young priest would seem to him nostalgic shades of the past. Unlike other Italian cities of the North, Rome was undergoing quick and radical changes. After the 1870 Risorgimento the Eternal City was becoming more and more secular. When James revisited it in 1873, the Pope was almost its prisoner. The next visits would witness the decline of the city. In 1907 James came to Rome by car and he saw a pseudo modern, vulgar metropolis: ”the abatements and changes and modernisms and vulgarities, the crowd and the struggle and the frustration […] are quite dreadful […] I quite revel in the thought that I shall never come to Italy at all again” (quoted by Edel Henry James: A Life 632).

28Thus, Rome became for James a figure of time as a constant flow of forgetting. The past haunted him and the present eluded his consciousness. The Roman Campagna brought not only a sense of nostalgia but something more: ”the light was full of that mellow purple glow, that tempered intensity, which haunts the after-visions of those who have known Rome like the memory of some supremely irresponsible pleasure” (Italian Hours [1995] 139). This is different from James’s impressions of Venice. The stress here is not on trivia and details that suddenly reveal their uniqueness, but on the time of perception. It is as if objects cast shadows and filled the writer with a sense of melancholia.

29It is perhaps not surprising that in his later essays on Rome James felt strong nostalgia for the Catholic city and the Pope (yet another affinity with Henry Adams). Unlike his brother William, for whom Rome was always a place of corruption and rotten religiosity, Henry had a taste for the city’s Baroque flavor, the sun setting behind the Piazza del Popolo, and afternoons spent by the graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant cemetery. The gradual modernisation of the city filled him with terror, as it marked a slow reorganisation of memory, both individual and collective. What was left were traces, drifting images, distorted after-visions of something that had never really existed.


30Italian Hours concludes with an excellent essay on Naples and Capri: ”The Saint’s Afternoon.” It is also James’s farewell to Italy—James’s visits to Naples were his last Italian trips. The Neapolitan impressions are sparing but there are no doubts that this is late James. The reader is struck by two keys: the key of serenity and balance, of finding a golden mean, and the key of fascination with the everyday giving way to a sense of liberation and joy. Naples, which was viewed by Americans as a dangerous and corrupt place, became for James an antidote for the melancholic moods brought to him by Florence and Rome.

31What is significant is that James could not put his Neapolitan experiences into rhetorical frames as he had done with Venice and Rome. Naples seemed too elemental and vehement, too unrestrained and uncontrollable to be mediated and articulated. But perhaps that was what James really wanted it to be: down-to-earth, physical, opaque, and immediate. What the writer discovered in Naples was a silent appeal to integrate one’s self and do so through liberating the repressed contents of one’s consciousness. After all, that was the fulfillment he was looking for, consisting of letting things appear and cohere. Like Venice, Naples flooded James with images and impressions. But now there was a sense of the physical aspect of the process—impressions got consolidated and integrated into the material substratum of his life.

32This had to do with James’s repressed sexuality as well. The Naples essay is permeated with, as the writer puts it, a ”sound and fury” of strongly physical impressions (315). Typically for James, allusions to his sexuality are scattered and take on a form of strangely convoluted, external phenomena, like the image of ”delightful amphibious American children, enameled by the sun of the Bay as for figures of miniature Tritons and Nereids on a Renaissance plaque” (316). One is struck by the sheer force with which James depicts bodies. A corresponding and a somewhat surprising sense of serenity is there as well, and the main impression we can draw from the essay is that of the artist trying desperately to integrate two extreme aspects of his self.

33Commenting on the Roman and Neapolitan stories of Matilde Serao, a then-famous Italian novelist, James used characteristic words. He would refer to her ”poetry of passione,” and then would write: ”a feeling revives at last, after a timed intermission, that we may not immediately be quite able, quite assured enough, to name, but which, gradually clearing up, soon defines itself almost as a yearning”—and we can guess that the yearning is connected with Serao’s ”evocation of the absolute ravage of Venus” (quoted by Auchard xxviii). Once and again, James would point to the need for integration and integrity, and ‘his’ Naples would provide him with the ultimate form of fulfillment.

34The Neapolitan experience was decisive. It resulted in a sense of completion. Not a synthesis, perhaps—James was too particular for that— but a heightening of one’s existence, an elevation of the spirit. ”The Saint’s Afternoon” ends with a fantastic note so characteristic for James—the note of near-accomplishment and a corresponding joy:

The charm was, as always in Italy, in the tone and the air and the happy hazard of things, which made any positive pretension or claimed importance a comparatively trifling question […] we practiced intimacy, in short, an intimacy so much greater than the mere accidental and ostensible: the difficulty for the right and grateful expression of which makes the old, the familiar tax on the luxury of loving Italy (320).


1 All the quotes from Muratov are in my translation, as his book has not been translated into English.


Jacek Gutorow is a poet, a literary critic and a translator. He has published five volumes of poetry, four books of critical essays (recently Luminous Traversing: Wallace Stevens and the American Sublime, 2007) and numerous translations of British and American poetry (Simon Armitage, Charles Tomlinson, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery). He won the 2004 Ludwik Fryde Award granted by the International Association of Literary Critics. His poems, essays and reviews have been reprinted in important anthologies and translated into several languages. Currently he is Assistant Professor at the University of Opole, Poland.