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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

I. Ethics and Aesthetics

2. From Romance to Redemption: James and the Ethics of Globalisation

Roxana Oltean

Texte intégral

  • 1 In this paper I use the the New York Edition version of the novels with the exception of The Ameri (...)

1James’s novels abound in memorable dictums about home and belonging, with both Europe and America re-appropriated as essential ways of being and of relating to the world. As Ralph puts it in The Portrait of a Lady: ”One doesn’t give up one’s country any more than one gives up one’s grandmother” (99).1 Christopher Newman’s American origin makes him, in the words of Mrs. Tristram, ”the great Western barbarian” (The American 546), while Strether’s Woolett makes an indelible mark on his identity: ” ’It sticks out of me, and you knew surely for yourself as soon as you looked at me’ [...] ’Well, the fact of where I come from’” (The Ambassadors [1987] 63). However, the undeniable mark of home can also be integrated into an openness towards the other that is part of the cosmopolitan encounter couched, I will argue, in inevitable ethical terms. For example, the manner in which Milly puts forth and meets, with her typically American wealth—expressed as the pearls—but also with the ”value of her life” and the ”candour of her smile,” the gaze of Kate and Densher can be read as a transatlantic encounter between American innocence/gullibility and European scheming, but also as an ethical encounter expressed in terms of Levinas’s revelation of the face of the other, who ”precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness” (Levinas 150). So too Milly reveals herself to Kate and Densher in full ”candour”:

Milly, from the other side, happened at the moment to notice them, and she sent across toward them in response all the candour of her smile, the lustre of her pearls, the value of her life, the essence of her wealth. It brought them together again with faces made fairly grave by the reality she put into their plan. Kate herself grew a little pale for it, and they had for a time only a silence
(The Wings of the Dove II 229).

  • 2 The term ’global ethics,’ also used in this paper, is associated with political science, with ethi (...)

2This paper proposes to analyse James’s contribution to discourses about cosmopolitanism, globalisation and ethics (all areas acknowledged by Jamesian critics) by arguing that the Jamesian imagination actually shifts from early romance plots involving America and Europe in a neo-colonial relationship to the later redemptive plots, in which America and Europe are re-appropriated as elements in what one might call a cosmopolitan ethics. In this sense, I propose the term ’ethics of globalisation’ to capture the rich node of meanings in which geography, globalisation and ethics intersect.2

  • 3 The emancipatory scenario of exploration in James’s earlier international tales is discussed in Ol (...)

3After a discussion of James’s early phase, what I aim to suggest is that, in his late writings, James developed a view in which an ethical standpoint is inseparable from a global outlook. The other of a Levinasian ethical approach is, in this sense, the other of a Jamesian cosmopolitan encounter. Thus while the early international writings seem to cast Europe as a place of regenerative renewal, corresponding to an emancipatory colonisation scenario,3 the later writings cast America, once again, as the site of—albeit belated—moral revelation.

  • 4 In light of the issues addressed in this paper, a brief reference to what has been called the “eth (...)
  • 5 Put otherwise, in Cosmopolitanism, but also in Ethics of Identity, Appiah suggests an approach tha (...)

4In addition to the Levinasian reading of self, other, and the world, my reading of the ethical dimension of Jamesian global encounters4 also draws upon post-Saidian visions of cosmopolitanism. Thus Appiah speaks of an outlook that is located in between imperialist appropriation and the claim for local unreadability, and James might have made a particularly telling example. In this sense, cosmopolitanism embodies an aspect of identity open to the other, as illustrated in Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, where travel and the description of otherness do not necessarily pertain to an orientalising gaze but rather to an ethical approach and respect for otherness.5

The Romance of Discovery

5Musing back on his early writings in the New York Edition prefaces, Henry James speaks with a certain nostalgia of his own early international scenarios, based on a polar opposition between two interdependent, allegorical entities, ”ingenuous young America” and ”dramatic” Europe:

It does thus in true come home to me that, combining and comparing in whatever proportions and by whatever lights, my ’America’ and its products would doubtless, as a theme, have betrayed gaps and infirmities enough without such a kicking-up of the dramatic dust (mainly in the foreground) as I could set my ’Europe’ in motion for; just as my Europe would probably have limped across our stage to no great effect of processional state without an ingenuous young America (constantly seen as ingenuous and young) to hold up its legendary train
(Preface to Vol. XIV vii).

6Moreover, this scenario belongs to a ’golden age’ where the two continents were kept in ideal isolation, making for a ’romance’ of exploration and discovery:

” [the] classic years of the great Americano-European legend; the years of limited communication, of monstrous and unattenuated contrast, of prodigious and unrecorded adventure. The comparatively brief but infinitely rich ’cycle’ of romance embedded in the earlier, the very early American reactions and returns (medieval in the sense of being, at most, of the mid-century), what does it resemble today but a gold-mine overgrown and smothered, dislocated, and no longer workable?
(Preface to vol. XI xvii).

7This early imaginative construction permeating the novels and stories that consecrated James’s international theme in the early phase is perhaps most concisely illustrated in the allegorical piece ”Benvolio” (1875). ”Benvolio,” in fact, could be read as a blueprint allegory of the early oppositional geography also developed in ”Daisy Miller,” The American, or The Portrait of a Lady, suggesting a world view that pertains, it is argued, to the romance of discovery. The term ’romance of discovery’ is thus used here to refer to neo-colonial patterns of appropriation in early novels of the international theme, based on the element of contrast between Europe and America, entities essentially unknowable to each other.

8While Tintner has pointed out that ”Benvolio” encodes James’s dilemma ”over whether to choose Europe or America as his permanent home” (Tintner Museum World 66-67), it can also be argued that the two feminine figures at the center of the story, the Countess and Scholastica, correspond to the two allegorical entities of James’s transatlantic imagination: the vibrant Countess is akin to young America, while the melancholy Scholastica is reminiscent of the Old World, a ”Europe” of the ”legendary train.”

9In this sense, the Countess is an image of New World energy, ”expressive,” ”fascinating,” and revealing a frontier of possibilities, as she represents ”a dozen different women”:

Few faces were more expressive, more fascinating. Hers was never the same for two days altogether; it reflected her momentary circumstances with extraordinary vividness, and in knowing her you had the advantage of knowing a dozen different women
(”Benvolio” 88).

10It is in this spirit that one might read the Watteau references associated with the Countess. While the relationship between James and Watteau is a complex one, as Tintner pointed out, it can be argued that, in ”Benvolio,” the reference to Watteau enhances the New World associations resonating in descriptions of the Countess, particularly with regard to Watteau’s visions of discovery and utopian bliss in paintings such as Pilgrimage to Cythera (see Figure 1). In this sense, the glimpse of the Countess’s ”joyous Watteau groups” encodes Benvolio’s romance of discovery associated with the Countess’s New World spirit: ”He saw them in envious fancy, studded 2. The Ethics of Globalization with joyous Watteau-groups, feasting and making music under the shade of ancestral beeches” (97).

Figure 1. Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1719).Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

11By contrast with the expansive Countess, the nun-like Scholastica, the other object of Benvolio’s interest, is a melancholy representation of the contemptus mundi tradition, inhabiting a space marked by old age, meditation and introspection: her house is ”an ancient grizzled, sad-faced structure, with grated windows on the ground floor; it looked like a convent or a prison” (”Benvolio” 96). In opposition with the atmosphere of the ”joyous Watteau-groups,” space around Scholastica is imbued by dimness and reaches back towards the past of old books: ”the light of the low western sun shining through the wet trees of the famous garden. Everything else was ancient and brown; the walls were covered with tiers upon tiers of books” (99).

12The ending of James’s allegory reconfirms the writer’s vision upon his own early international novels expressed in the above-cited Preface, that Europe and America make sense through the romance of discovery made possible by irresolvable opposition. After the Countess banishes her rival Scholastica to a New World space (the antipodes), hoping to win Benvolio’s undivided affection, the latter retreats to the world of meditation (the ”poetic brow”), exclaiming to the Countess that (much like Europe and America) the two women were significant only through their opposition:

’Can’t you imagine that I cared for you only by contrast? You took the trouble to kill the contrast, and with it you killed everything else. For a constancy I prefer this!’ And he tapped his poetic brow
(”Benvolio” 125).

  • 6 For further discussion of this see my Spaces of Utopia.

13The polarised view of the world illustrated in ”Benvolio” is played out more fully in the other novels of the early phase, also capitalising on the romance of discovery sustainable only in a world of oppositions. Part of the international legend, Europe is, as James would put it later in The Wings of the Dove, the ”great American sedative” (I 115), an answer to America’s problems, reversing the geography of colonisation; as Mrs. Touchett explains in The Portrait of a Lady: ” ’[the Americans] all regard Europe over there as a land of emigration, of rescue, a refuge from their superfluous population’” (Portait of a Lady [1995] 53-54). These oppositions entail a colonial scenario of appropriation in The American (1877), for example,6 where Europe is inscribed in a polarised view of the world and answers Christopher Newman’s conquistadorial impulse:

’I feel something under my ribs here,’ he added in a moment, ’that I can’t explain—a sort of a mighty hankering, a desire to stretch out and haul in’
(The American [1983] 545).

14What is striking in The American is the overlap between Europe’s Old World attributes—melancholy, old age, spaces imbued by the past, echoing the figure of Scholastica—and the frontier attributes with which it is invested. In this sense, one can speak of a conquest of Europe by the American, or the ”great Western Barbarian,” as Mrs. Tristram puts it to Christopher Newman, whose name is a transparent reference to Christopher Columbus (519):

’You are the great Western Barbarian, stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing a while at this poor effete Old World and then swooping down on it’ (546).

15In fact, it could be argued that The American clearly captures the sense of New World romances ringing with Watteau-like utopias staged in Europe, a space of discovery. The romance dimension of the novel is a frequent subject of critical attention, and it has been argued for example that The American stages a cultural collision between two romances, that of the Old World and that of the New (Lucking 94), the romance dimension also being inherent in the novel’s fascination for national typologies (Banta New Essays 9).

16Interestingly, Newman’s love for Madame de Cintré begins to flourish under the sign of a fête champêtre. Before announcing the ball in Newman’s honour, Mme de Bellegarde looks at her fan (a model?) depicting a fête champêtre that quite explicitly recalls the ”joyous” Watteau image associated with the Countess: the painting on the fan ”represented a fête champêtre—a lady with a guitar, singing, and a group of dancers round a garlanded Hermes” (The American [1983] 701).

17However, the New World romance that Newman was to have enacted in Europe, under the sign of a Watteau fête champêtre, is finally defeated by the ultimate incomprehensibility of Old and New World, which remain unreadable to each other, beyond the agonic colonial scripts of conquest and assimilation. In this sense, the fête champêtre is followed by another utopian space, only not of love but of lack of communication: the Carmelite monastery where Madame de Cintré retreats. Newman’s visit confirms the physical and figurative ”blank wall” that ultimately separates the two poles of the world:

On Sunday morning, at the hour which Mrs. Tristram had indicated, he rang at the gate in the blank wall. It instantly opened and admitted him into a clean, cold-looking court, from beyond which a dull, plain edifice looked down upon him (832).

18Attending the service, Newman becomes aware of the ”unintelligible drawl” that has replaced any notion of transatlantic dialogue, and responds with ”wrath” towards what he perceives to be the ”aids and abettors of Madame de Cintré’s desertion” from the fête champêtre:

That was the convent, the real convent, the place where she was. But he could see nothing; no light came through the crevices. He got up and approached the partition very gently, trying to look through. But behind it there was darkness, with nothing stirring. He went back to his place, and after that a priest and two altar boys came in and began to say mass. Newman watched their genuflections and gyrations with a grim, still enmity; they seemed aids and abettors of Madame de Cintré’s desertion; they were mouthing and droning out their triumph. The priest’s long, dismal intonings acted upon his nerves and deepened his wrath; there was something defiant in his unintelligible drawl; it seemed meant for Newman himself (832).

19Marked by the failure of the Americano-European legend, The American already adumbrates, in a sense, the melancholy of the waning world of romance and discovery. Ultimately, Europe proves ”defiant” in its unintelligibility, apparently directed at Newman himself, and the dream of communion results in a collapse of understanding, revealing the hostility of the other.

Transatlantic Misperceptions

  • 7 The international theme is notoriously absent from the middle phase. However, it is possible to di (...)

20While the early phase imagines a geography where Europe and America only make sense in a scenario of opposition, with the other as a repository of often frightening irreducible differences, James’s late phase nuances this scheme by introducing the possibility of transatlantic overlap and misperceptions of the earlier ”Americano-European legend.”7 This complex encounter might be interpreted through the prism of Levinas’s question relating self and other: ”But how can the same, produced as egoism, enter into relationship with an Other without immediately divesting it of its alterity? What is the nature of this relationship?” (Levinas 38). Imagining an alternative to the romance of discovery that actually divests otherness of alterity by subsuming its manifestations into a colonial script, James’s late novel The Ambassadors (1903) can be read as an intermediary model towards a fully-fledged global ethical encounter.

21In this sense, The Ambassadors reiterates the earlier colonial pattern, only under the sign of loss, errancy, and in a belated key. In opposition to Newman’s active assimilation of Paris, The Ambassadors is centered on Strether’s famous postponement, described as imbued with the ”sweetness of vain delay”:

[H]is final appreciation of what he had done—his appreciation on the spot— would provide it with its main sharpness. The spot so focussed upon was of course Woollett, and he was to see, at the best, what Woollett would be with everything there changed for him […] Well, the summer’s end would show; his suspense had meanwhile exactly the sweetness of vain delay
(The Ambassadors [1987] 489).

22Moreover, transatlantic space itself is altered, and no longer functions according to transatlantic oppositions. The image of Chad formed in Strether’s mind is inappropriate to the likable reality Strether finds in Paris, and the image of Chad as a ”brute” is in fact a ”violence” that Strether actually misses, as it would have simplified his reading:

[T]he turn taken by his affair on the whole was positively that if his nerves were on the stretch it was because he missed violence. When he asked himself if none would then, in connexion with it, ever come at all, he might almost have passed as wondering how to provoke it. It would be too absurd if such a vision as THAT should have to be invoked for relief; it was already marked enough as absurd that he should actually have begun with flutters and dignities on the score of a single accepted meal. What sort of a brute had he expected Chad to be, anyway? (183)

23Unlike the symmetric oppositions staged in The American and reflected in what could be termed the straight planes of allegory, corresponding to Euclidian geometry, Strether inhabits a space of curvatures, in which planes are not flat but curved. Images from across the Atlantic come modified and Strether has to account for the ”extravagant curve of the globe” in interpreting Mrs. Newsome’s messages, marked by a ”primal crudity” pertaining to the afore-mentioned ”violence” of transatlantic oppositions:

He could himself, comparatively recent as it was—it was truly but the fact of a few days since—focus his primal crudity; but he would on the approach of an observer, as if handling an illicit possession, have slipped the reminiscence out of sight. There were echoes of it still in Mrs. Newsome’s letters, and there were moments when these echoes made him exclaim on her want of tact. He blushed of course, at once, still more for the explanation than for the ground of it: it came to him in time to save his manners that she couldn’t at the best become tactful as quickly as he. Her tact had to reckon with the Atlantic Ocean, the General Post-Office and the extravagant curve of the globe (183).

  • 8 See Tintner Museum World, for example.

24The ”extravagant curve of the globe” suggests what one might call an international Riemannian geography that results in the distortion of information or, on the contrary, in efforts to recompose the message in the receiver’s mind, the latter having to allow for warped distance. The situation is strikingly similar with the effort of anamorphosis demanded by the painting The Ambassadors by Holbein the Younger, a possible source of inspiration for James’s title, of course (see Figure 2 and Figure 3).8

Figure 2. Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533) National Gallery, London

25Just as the viewer of Holbein’s painting has to recompose the death’s head from an angle, so Strether’s dialogue with Mrs. Newsome is fraught with transatlantic misperceptions which no longer allow straight-forward readings or symmetrical oppositions.

  • 9 The vast frontier of European space is a script still present especially in Waymarsh’s assimilatio (...)

26In this sense, The Ambassadors complicates the geometry and geography of conquest outlined in The American (and reiterated, to an extent, in Waymarsh’s appropriation of the European frontier).9 In keeping with warped visions of self and other, communication requires, as in Holbein’s anamorphosis, the effort of reinterpretation and the risk of misreading. Europe, and Paris in particular, imply an excess of impressions, as ”wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it”:

Many things came over him here, and one of them was that he should doubtless presently know whether he had been shallow or sharp. Another was that the balcony in question didn’t somehow show as a convenience easy to surrender. Poor Strether had at this very moment to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it. This perpetual reaction put a price, if one would, on pauses; but it piled up consequences till there was scarce room to pick one’s steps among them
(The Ambassadors [1987] 123).

Figure 3. The recomposed head of death from Hans Holbein the Younger’s
The Ambassadors

27Paris, in this sense, is over-signified, yielding surprising consequences and reactions. In Strether’s eyes, the temptation of Paris is that consequences and interpretations can hardly be contained: ”it piled up consequences till there was scarce any room to pick one’s way among them. What call had he, at such a juncture, for example, to like Chad’s house?” (123-24).

  • 10 Critics have pointed out the function of refigured transatlantic spaces. Méral, for example, speak (...)

28If, as argued earlier, the ’golden years of the Americano-European legend’ freeze the two poles of James’s world into a (failed) romance of discovery and love, in The Ambassadors the colonial pattern is present as a simulacrum, revealing senseless repetitions and its inherent belatedness.10 The distance separating the continents dramatises the mutual gaze that the two loci fix on each other, and transatlantic space, in fact, is as distorted as Holbein’s skull. Europe, in this sense, is the space of delay, a warped space of geography, no longer offering the consolations of a confrontational encounter. Both America and Europe, in fact, read and misread each other as modified by an extravagant curve of the globe, and appear distorted, only to come into focus in a Riemannian geography that accounts for extravagant curves, as with death’s head in Holbein’s The Ambassadors.

Cosmopolitan Ethics

29Transatlantic distortions pervade the two other novels of the major phase, The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). What this paper aims to emphasise, however, is the extent to which these two novels suggest a global ethic expressed as a cosmopolitan encounter that is necessarily paralleled, as in Appiah’s vision, by an ethical attitude towards the other. This ethical attitude is, as I shall try to show, readable through the prism of Levinas’s understanding of the ethical duty towards the other. In this sense, while The Wings of the Dove is marked by the melancholy of waning worlds, and while The Golden Bowl suggests a New America of love, both can be inscribed in a global ethic in which cosmopolitanism is an ethical stand towards the other and towards the world.

  • 11 This aspect is discussed more at length in my Eternal America, ch. 5.

30In The Wings of the Dove, Milly belongs to a long line of Americana figures,11 assimilated to ”the American mind as sitting there thrilled and dazzled” (I 277), while Europe seems to open up a frontier of vast geographies stimulating rather than quenching the explorer’s thirst, or ”the eagerness without point and the interest without pause”:

[T]he vagueness, the openness, the eagerness without point and the interest without pause—all part of the charm of her oddity as at first presented—had become more striking in proportion as they triumphed over movement and change (114-15).

31However, Europe fails to work for Milly as the ”great American sedative,” and functions instead as the background for ”American intensity.” Susan Stringham ponders on the effects of Europe on Milly:

It was not Milly’s unpacified state, in short, that now troubled her—though certainly, as Europe was the great American sedative, the failure was to some extent to be noted: it was the suspected presence of something behind the state—which, however, could scarcely have taken its place there since their departure. [...] The nearest approach to a personal anxiety indulged in as yet by the elder lady was on her taking occasion to wonder if what she had more than anything else got hold of mightn’t be one of the finer, one of the finest, one of the rarest—as she called it so that she might call it nothing worse—cases of American intensity (115).

32Moreover, Mrs. Stringham’s failure to completely understand Milly’s state is translated as being in presence of the ”muffled” and the ”intangible.” The earlier script dominated by the romance of discovery is superposed with misperceptions reminiscent of Strether’s melancholy space of Europe as ”vain delay”:

She had just had a moment of alarm—asked herself if her young friend were merely going to treat her to some complicated drama of nerves. At the end of a week, however, with their further progress, her young friend had effectively answered the question and given her the impression, indistinct indeed as yet, of something that had a reality compared with which the nervous explanation would have been coarse. Mrs. Stringham found herself from that hour, in other words, in presence of an explanation that remained a muffled and intangible form, but that assuredly, should it take on sharpness, would explain everything and more than everything, would become instantly the light in which Milly was to be read (115-16).

33The ’light’ in which one might read Milly’s experience in Europe is, in this sense, not only from the perspective of the encounter with otherness staged in a romance of discovery, as in The American, or of the space of transatlantic misperception and postponement, as in The Ambassadors, but also as an encounter with the world and the worldly. Thus when Susan Stringham contemplates Mrs. Lowder’s life, she is not simply ”carried away” by the thrill of the ”spectacle,” but is also confronted with ”the world” which Puritan America has insulated itself from:

They had plenty, on these lines, the two elder women, to give and to take, and it was even not quite clear to the pilgrim from Boston that what she should mainly have arranged for in London was not a series of thrills for herself. She had a bad conscience, indeed almost a sense of immorality, in having to recognise that she was, as she said, carried away […]; and the principle of her uneasiness was that Mrs. Lowder’s life bristled for her with elements that she was really having to look at for the first time. They represented, she believed, the world, the world that, as a consequence of the cold shoulder turned to it by the Pilgrim Fathers, had never yet boldly crossed to Boston—it would surely have sunk the stoutest Cunarder—and she couldn’t pretend that she faced the prospect simply because Milly had had a caprice. She was in the act herself of having one, directed precisely to their present spectacle (I 170).

34Ruled by the principle of economy and indexing the colonial world of raw material, as denoted by Mrs. Lowder’s presence as ”The Britannia of the Marketplace” (I 30), the city of London occasions Milly’s encounter with the specter of the world(ly). Aware that Milly’s social success in London is partly due to European curiosity for American exoticity, Mrs. Stringham watches uneasily the arena where Milly is ”caressingly martyred:”

[B]ut it brought them back to the fact of her success; and it was at that comparatively gross circumstance, now so fully placed before them, that Milly’s anxious companion sat and looked—looked very much as some spectator in an old-time circus might have watched the oddity of a Christian maiden, in the arena, mildly, caressingly, martyred. It was the nosing and fumbling not of lions and tigers but of domestic animals let loose as for the joke. Even the joke made Mrs. Stringham uneasy, and her mute communion with Densher, to which we have alluded, was more and more determined by it (II 42).

35The potentially tragic encounter encounter between the self and the world is explored by Levinas in his Totality and Infinity:

The world, foreign and hostile, should, in good logic, alter the I. But the true and primordial relation between them, and that in which the I is revealed precisely as preeminently the same, is produced as a soujourn [séjour] in the world. The way of the I against the ”other” of the world consists in sojourning, in identifying oneself by existing here at home with oneself [chez soi]
(Levinas 37).

  • 12 King, for example, analyzes the instances of martyrdom and sacrifice in the novel.

36Returning to James, it might be argued that Milly ends up embodying a strikingly similar ”true and primordial relationship” between self and world. A scapegoat12 figure martyred by the worldly that America had shunned beginning with the Pilgrim fathers, a motor of action for the mechanism set into motion by Kate’s plan, Milly is largely unaltered by the world.

  • 13 See Freedman (1990), for example.

37In a Venetian interior as the one painted by Sargent (see Figure 4), the Palazzo Barbaro, she is ”at home,” chez soi in Levinas’s sense. While it has been argued that Milly belongs to a long line of Jamesian collector figures,13 the Palazzo Barbaro is a home in the Levinasian sense. Described by Milly as her ”shell,” the Palazzo denotes Milly’s capacity to ”sojourn” in a ”foreign and hostile world.” In a conversation with Lord Mark, Milly describes the Venetian interior as a ”gilded shell” suggesting both her life and her death:

Figure 4. John Singer Sargent, An Interior in Venice (1898).
Royal Academy of Arts, London

’This is more, as you say there, my form.’
’Oho, oho!’—he laughed again as if to humour her. ’Can’t you then buy
it—for a price? Depend upon it they’ll treat for money. That is for money enough.’
’I’ve exactly,’ she said, ’been wondering if they won’t. I think I shall try. But if I get it I shall cling to it.’ They were talking sincerely. ’It will be my life—paid for as that. It will become my great gilded shell; so that those who wish to find me must come and hunt me up.’
’Ah then you WILL be alive,’ said Lord Mark.
’Well, not quite extinct perhaps, but shrunken, wasted, wizened; rattling about here like the dried kernel of a nut’ (II 151).

38A space of sojourning in which the self, ”shrunken, wasted, wizened” is able to live ultimately unaltered by the world, or, as Levinas puts it, ”preeminently the same,” the ”gilded shell” also allows Milly to engage in a ”primordial relation” to the world (Levinas 37).

39Moreover, Milly is not only ”at home” in a world which does not alter her, as in Levinas’s primordial encounter, but she is also able to ultimately redeem the heavy materiality of the ”world.” Continuing the play of absence and presence suggested by the image of the shrunken yet unaltered self in the gilded shell, Milly is indirectly present at the end of the novel through the letter from the solicitors in New York and the sum of money left for Densher. Discussing the sum of money, Kate and Densher are aware of the change operated by Milly’s absence, imagined as the wings of a dove:

’I never was in love with her,’ said Densher.
She took it, but after a little she met it. ’I believe that now—for the time she lived. I believe it at least for the time you were there. But your change came—as it might well—the day you last saw her; she died for you then that you might understand her. From that hour you DID.’ With which Kate slowly rose. ’And I do now. She did it FOR us.’ Densher rose to face her, and she went on with her thought. ’I used to call her, in my stupidity—for want of anything better—a dove. Well she stretched out her wings, and it was to THAT they reached. They cover us.’
’They cover us,’ Densher said (II 403-04).

40The ethical relationship embodied by Milly and her way of being ”at home” holds regenerative potential for the Old World protagonists, including Densher (who feels ”forgiven, dedicated, blessed”) and Mrs. Lowder, who had denoted, in Susan Stringham’s eyes, the very essence of the ”world,” and who now stands ”at the door” of the scene of redemption:

The essence was that something had happened to him too beautiful and too sacred to describe. He had been, to his recovered sense, forgiven, dedicated, blessed; but this he couldn’t coherently express. It would have required an explanation—fatal to Mrs. Lowder’s faith in him—of the nature of Milly’s wrong. So, as to the wonderful scene, they just stood at the door. They had the sense of the presence within—they felt the charged stillness; after which, their association deepened by it, they turned together away (343).

41An even more powerful scenario of redemption at a global dimension is acted out in James’s highly cosmopolitan novel The Golden Bowl. The last scene of the novel, arguably a scene both of love and of capitulation, sketches a possible type of global ethics in which otherness is comprehended, as the Prince’s embrace ”encloses” Maggie, but also an essential movement of separation and uncommunicability, expressed through Maggie’s ”buried” eyes:

He tried, too clearly, to please her—to meet her in her own way; but with the result only that, close to her, her face kept before him, his hands holding her shoulders, his whole act enclosing her, he presently echoed: ”’See”? I see nothing but you.’ And the truth of it had, with this force, after a moment, so strangely lighted his eyes that, as for pity and dread of them, she buried her own in his breast
(The Golden Bowl II 369).

  • 14 Tambling shows how Maggie seeks to craft her marriage in the image of a “purer America” (Tambling (...)
  • 15 See Rowe, O’Hara.

42While the story of marital reconciliation is replete with geopolitical overtones and American reappropriations14 and while the novel fascinates readers in the context of today’s new world order,15 it can also be argued that James’s allegory of globalisation and story of love suggests an exemplary ethical encounter with the other in Levinas’s terms.

43The very indirectness of the crisis in The Golden Bowl seems to illustrate the ethical relationship to otherness and, more particularly, its inevitable correlation with the issue of cosmopolitanism, especially in the evolution from the colonial pattern of appropriation established at the beginning of the novel. At the start, the Prince is quite clearly a collectable in the Ververs’ museum, described as a tent ”suggesting that of Alexander furnished with the spoils of Darius” (I 19). In the same logic, when Maggie averts her doubts regarding the Prince’s infidelity by reading about his family at the British Museum, she contemplates the ”associations” she had ”secured” for herself, her son and her father:

[S]he had felt more at her ease than for months and months before; she didn’t know why, but her time at the Museum, oddly, had done it; it was as if she hadn’t come into so many noble and beautiful associations, nor secured them also for her boy, secured them even for her father, only to see them turn to vanity and doubt […].’I believed in him again as much as ever’ (II 155).

44The crisis produced by the revelation occasioned by the golden bowl illustrates a departure from this pattern, a departure embraced with the curiosity of viewing a pagoda in the garden:

This situation had been occupying for months and months the very centre of the garden of her life, but it had reared itself there like some strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful beautiful but outlandish pagoda, a structure plated with hard bright porcelain, coloured and figured and adorned at the overhanging eaves with silver bells that tinkled ever so charmingly when stirred by chance airs (II 5).

45In this vein, the pagoda revealed to Maggie in her garden of the mind is not only a symbol of a half-glimpsed truth—the revelation that something is wrong in the comfortable arrangement through which the Prince and Charlotte manage social relations for the whole family. The pagoda implies a break in the utopian father-daughter relationship Maggie had continued after her marriage:

The pagoda in her blooming garden figured the arrangement—how otherwise was it to be named?—by which, so strikingly, she had been able to marry without breaking, as she liked to put it, with her past. She had surrendered herself to her husband without the shadow of a reserve or a condition and yet hadn’t all the while given up her father by the least little inch. She had compassed the high felicity of seeing the two men beautifully take to each other, and nothing in her marriage had marked it as more happy than this fact of its having practically given the elder, the lonelier, a new friend (II 5).

46The father-daughter relationship, in fact, is inscribed in a space of innocence—even childishness—inevitably associated with their blindness towards the implications of the family arrangement and with their American lineage—”children of good children:”

They knew, it might have appeared in these lights, absolutely nothing on earth worth speaking of—whether beautifully or cynically; and they would perhaps sometimes be a little less trying if they would only once for all peacefully admit that knowledge wasn’t one of their needs and that they were in fact constitutionally inaccessible to it. They were good children, bless their hearts, and the children of good children; so that verily the Principino himself, as less consistently of that descent, might figure to the fancy as the ripest genius of the trio (I 333-34).

47In this sense, by shedding new light on this innocent—even ”grotesque” (I 335)—view of the world, the pagoda can also signify the glimpse of the worldly that Maggie has to look at for the first time, perhaps not unlike Susan Stringham and Milly. Prompting an awareness of the ”darkening shadow of a false position,” Maggie contemplates having ”taken a cold” without having actually having fallen in the water of full awareness of infidelity:

Moving for the first time in her life as in the darkening shadow of a false position, she reflected that she should either not have ceased to be right— that is to be confident—or have recognised that she was wrong; though she tried to deal with herself for a space only as a silken-coated spaniel who has scrambled out of a pond and who rattles the water from his ears. […] She hadn’t, so to speak, fallen in; she had had no accident nor got wet; this at any rate was her pretension until after she began a little to wonder if she mightn’t, with or without exposure, have taken cold (II 6-7).

48One of the landmarks of the ethical movements in the novel is that the crisis—like the pagoda and the world—is approached with a curiosity that might illustrate Levinas’s exemplary unintrusive relationship to otherness, in which the self deals with otherness without attempting to alter it. Maggie walks around the glimpsed crisis at the center of the garden of her mind, and becomes dimly conscious of the difficulty of grasping the situation, ”never quite making out as yet where she might have entered had she wished”:

She had walked round and round it—that was what she felt; she had carried on her existence in the space left her for circulation, a space that sometimes seemed ample and sometimes narrow: looking up all the while at the fair structure that spread itself so amply and rose so high, but never quite making out as yet where she might have entered had she wished. She hadn’t wished till now—such was the odd case; and what was doubtless equally odd besides was that though her raised eyes seemed to distinguish places that must serve from within, and especially far aloft, as apertures and outlooks, no door appeared to give access from her convenient garden level (II 3-4).

49Denoting the worldly that Maggie is confronting for the first time, the pagoda reveals itself gently, yet firmly, as ”foreign,” resorting again to Levinas’s vision of the possibly tragic encounter between self and otherness. ”Impenetrable” and ”inscrutable,” the pagoda is akin to an exotic object that not only continues the marked imperial chain of imagery in the novel by being compared with a mosque as well but also encodes, mutely, the possibility of violence and the image of the sacrifice of the I in the world. Much as Milly is ”caressingly martyred” (The Wings of the Dove II 42) at the hands of the worldly in London, so Maggie feels like an ”interloper” who might pay with her own life if found ”unprecedently near” the odd mental construction:

The great decorated surface had remained consistently impenetrable and inscrutable. At present however, to her considering mind, it was as if she had ceased merely to circle and to scan the elevation, ceased so vaguely, so quite helplessly to stare and wonder: she had caught herself distinctly in the act of pausing, then in that of lingering, and finally in that of stepping unprecedentedly near. The thing might have been, by the distance at which it kept her, a Mahometan mosque, with which no base heretic could take a liberty; there so hung about it the vision of one’s putting off one’s shoes to enter and even verily of one’s paying with one’s life if found there as an interloper
(The Golden Bowl II 4).

50In the series of scenes through which the crisis is resolved, the hostility of the world is also related, to the ultimate unknowability of the face of the other, when, according to Levinas, the other reveals himself ”in his alterity” (Levinas 150). The situation of the four characters at Fawns is eloquent of the difficulty of relating to the face of the other:

[T]he facts of the situation were upright for her round the green cloth and the silver flambeaux; the fact of her father’s wife’s lover facing his mistress; the fact of her father sitting, all unsounded and unblinking, between them
(II 232).

51The scene of four characters facing each other blankly is transmuted, however, from a domestic masquerade into a veritable encounter with alterity—this time, a blank face of the other. Pervaded by the melancholy of a baroque season at Fawns, the hitherto colonial scenario of appropriation changes into a cosmopolitan openness to otherness for Maggie.

52The cue to this ethical approach to otherness and to the world, that is, the cue to the capacity of the self to sojourn in the world and to embrace the alterity of the other lies in the scene of the pagoda, when Maggie finds a way of relating to the unprecedented situation represented by the pagoda by waiting and by producing, by her mere presence and touch, a recognition of her consciousness, as indicated by the ”sound sufficiently suggesting that her approach had been noted”:

She hadn’t certainly arrived at the conception of paying with her life for anything she might do; but it was nevertheless quite as if she had sounded with a tap or two one of the rare porcelain plates. She had knocked in short— though she could scarce have said whether for admission or for what; she had applied her hand to a cool smooth spot and had waited to see what would happen. Something HAD happened; it was as if a sound, at her touch, after a little, had come back to her from within; a sound sufficiently suggesting that her approach had been noted (II 4).

53The last scene in the novel, invoked earlier, rehearses the scene of the characters facing each other at a card game, no longer blankly, but involved in a profoundly ethical encounter with otherness. In fact, the last scene bears a striking resemblance to Levinas’s ”face to face” encounter, in which, in the epiphany of the face of the other, proximity and distance are both felt: ”The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness” (Levinas 150).

54The scene between Maggie and the Prince can be interpreted as a repetition with a difference of the world closing in earlier on the Prince and Charlotte. They had made up a ”tightened circle” based on an intense relationship of reflection between self and other: ”their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response their pressure” (The Golden Bowl I 312). The scene between the Prince and Maggie, however, is built on an ethical act where the Prince’s capitulation is met by Maggie’s acknowledgement of the alterity of the other, rather than its assimilation or reflection. To the Prince’s ”See? I see nothing but you,” Maggie acknowledges alterity, as in Levinas’s ethical model, not as a shock negating the I, but with gentleness: ”for pity and dread of [his eyes], she buried her own in his breast” (II 369).

55Returning to the transatlantic allegory staged in The Golden Bowl and doubling the realist plot of adultery and reconciliation, James stages a progression from a neo-colonial appropriation of Europe as a collectable in an American inventory, to an encounter with otherness as a blank, to a final ethical encounter based on recognition of the ultimate unknowability of the other.

Redemptive America

56By way of a conclusion, one might make brief mention of the overtly redemptive role America plays in what Haviland calls James’s fourth phase of revisionism (Haviland 214). Re-staging an ethical encounter on a global level, the redemptive potential of the American presence appears, to lesser or greater degrees, in the late tales of New York, for example in the figure of the melancholy absentee in ”The Jolly Corner,” the vision of Old New York in ”Crapy Cornelia” or more amply in ”The Round of Visits,” where the New World experience oscillates for Mark Monteith between a vision of a nightmarish place of miscomprehension and a capacity to empathise with Phil Bloodgood, who had swindled him out of his money. An even richer vision of the role of America in a global ethic is displayed in The Ivory Tower, left unfinished, and intended as a story of dispossession and forgiveness: as James indicated in his Notebooks, ”I want Gray absolutely to inherit the money, to have it, to have had it, and to let it go” (The Ivory Tower 295).

57An appropriate coda is provided, however, by James’s The Sense of the Past, a fantasy of time-travel begun in 1900, abandoned as James commenced work on The Ambassadors and interestingly taken up again in 1914, at the beginning of the World War I ”with such a tremendous lot of possibilities in it that I positively quake in dread of the muchness with which they threaten me” (The Sense of the Past 295). A ”ghost hit” (Henry James: Letters IV 158), James’s fantasy provides an interesting counterpoint to the allegory in ”Benvolio,” the first text discussed in this paper. Like Benvolio, the hero of the story, Ralph Pendrel, is torn between two women and their two worlds: Aurora, the spirit of America, of the future and, like the Countess, a figure of energy, and Nan, a character from the European past and, akin to Sholastica, a melancholy presence. Tempted by a trip into the past and to Europe, Ralph Pendrel ultimately yearns for his America of the future and tells Nan about the wonders of the world represented by Aurora:

[H]e now, at last now, opening up, opening out, everything that he has had before to keep back, tells her such things about those fruitions of the Future which have constituted his state, tells her of how poor a world she is stuck fast in compared with all the wonders and the splendors that he is straining back to, and of which he now sees only the ripeness, richness, attraction and civilization, the virtual perfection without a flaw
(The Sense of the Past 337).

58No longer valuable only for its opposition to Europe, the New World spirit in James’s last allegory and in the late Jamesian imagination returns and explicitly fulfills the redemptive potential of Milly’s and Maggie’s America, rehearsing the ethical scenario of James’s global ”hits.”


1 In this paper I use the the New York Edition version of the novels with the exception of The American, where the revisions substantially alter the early transatlantic representation that is instrumental to the argument of this paper.

2 The term ’global ethics,’ also used in this paper, is associated with political science, with ethical, global movements that attempt to deal with the moral questions arising from globalisation—for example, the UNESCO Global Ethics Observatory, or The Global Ethic Foundation, and the Declaration toward a Global Ethic issued by the Parliament of the World’s Regions. James’s late novels, I would argue, adumbrate these contemporary issues in a remarkable way.

3 The emancipatory scenario of exploration in James’s earlier international tales is discussed in Oltean, Spaces of Utopia, ch. 4 and 5.

4 In light of the issues addressed in this paper, a brief reference to what has been called the “ethical turn” of criticism is also in order. While there is increasing talk of an “ethical turn” in the contemporary American novel in the wake of 9/11, the return of ethical criticism reaches even further back. Thus in Deconstruction and the Ethical Turn, Peter Baker points to the “ethical turn” of deconstructive criticism, matching the “linguistic turn.” While arguing that “it seems crucial […] to acknowledge that both Derrida and Foucault follow Nietzsche in rejecting the possibility of a normative ethics based on a universal human subject […] we must also note, however, that Derrida’s critique of the self-presence of the self is related to questions of power and violence, and Foucault’s view of power relations undermines the self-consistency of the self” (Baker 2-3). After striking out the Enlightenment image of man as the basis of a description of who we are and of what is, the question to be addressed is thus how to re-imagine intersubjective relations: “One could say that, for each, alterity emerges as the sign of intersubjective relations and the ethical subject of discourse as its necessary corollary” (Baker 3). Stressing that “ethical criticism implies a transactive theory of reading where texts shape reader, and reader shapes text” (Schwarz 6), and also addressing the ethical turn of criticism and philosophy, Schwarz boldly states that “we are in the midst of a humanistic revival or at least a neohumanist burst of energy” (Schwarz 3). Henry James himself has almost always been part of a compulsory corpus dealing with ethical approaches to literature and is often placed, for example, in an “Anglo-American humanistic tradition— stretching from Matthew Arnold and Henry James to J. Hillis Miller and Raymond Williams” (Schwarz 4).

5 Put otherwise, in Cosmopolitanism, but also in Ethics of Identity, Appiah suggests an approach that departs from what Venn would characterize as Occidentalism.

6 For further discussion of this see my Spaces of Utopia.

7 The international theme is notoriously absent from the middle phase. However, it is possible to discern traces of this in the multiple valences of Mr. Longdon’s innocence as an ’oncle d’Amerique’ in The Awkward Age (1899), in the colonial fables staged by Maisie as “untutored and unclaimed subject” engaged in a play of knowledge and innocence in What Maisie Knew (1897) or the kitsch Arcadias of The Turn of the Screw (1898), all suggesting, in addition, an adumbration of the veritable Lolita complex that Nabokov was to develop fully-fledged.

8 See Tintner Museum World, for example.

9 The vast frontier of European space is a script still present especially in Waymarsh’s assimilation of European space. Thus the Catholic Church is, for Waymarsh ”the enemy, the monster of bulging eyes and far-reaching quivering groping tentacles,” while society is ”the multiplication of shibboleths, exactly the discrimination of types and tones, exactly the wicked old rows of Chester, rank with feudalism; exactly in short Europe” (The American [1983] 82).

10 Critics have pointed out the function of refigured transatlantic spaces. Méral, for example, speaks a ”transatlanticised” Paris (Méral 243). However, what I am focusing on is the extent to which The Ambassadors implies a model from an early colonial script to a late ethical encounter with otherness.

11 This aspect is discussed more at length in my Eternal America, ch. 5.

12 King, for example, analyzes the instances of martyrdom and sacrifice in the novel.

13 See Freedman (1990), for example.

14 Tambling shows how Maggie seeks to craft her marriage in the image of a “purer America” (Tambling 181); Anderson argues that Maggie’s office is to “consummate a wedding between America and Europe” (Anderson 739), while Burrows argues that Maggie, akin to a settler, uses the projection of innocence to achieve her purpose. Also see Eternal America, ch. 6.

15 See Rowe, O’Hara.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1. Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera (1719).Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin
Fichier image/jpeg, 43k
Légende Figure 2. Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533) National Gallery, London
Fichier image/jpeg, 83k
Légende Figure 3. The recomposed head of death from Hans Holbein the Younger’sThe Ambassadors
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Légende Figure 4. John Singer Sargent, An Interior in Venice (1898).Royal Academy of Arts, London
Fichier image/jpeg, 34k


Roxana Oltean is Associate Professor at the English Department in the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Bucharest, and holds a PhD in Philology. She has published articles in international journals of American literature and culture, including The Henry James Review, and two books on transatlantic and global imagology in the works of Henry James. She teaches courses in American utopian models, in Transatlantic Relations and in nineteenth-century American literature and culture.


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