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Ré-inventer le réel

Thomas Dutoit
Trevor Harris

Reference in The Wings of the Dove: Literature as speech act

J. Hillis Miller

Texte intégral

1To what reality does The Wings of the Dove refer? All language has an ineluctable referential function. It refers to something that the activity of referring makes us presume to be real, extralinguistic. It ought to be possible to identify in a given case how that referential function works. The reader should be able to discover what substantial, non-linguistic entities a given piece of language names, describes, or refers to, as a roadsign indicates something that really exists but just happens to be at a distance, over there.

2It may be easier to answer this apparently straightforward question by focusing on a specific passage in The Wings of the Dove, a synecdochic piece of its language, part standing for whole, a snippet of the entire texture. Take the opening sentence:

  • 1 Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, reprint of New York Edition of 1907-9 (Fairfield: New Jersey: A (...)

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.1

3What can one say about the referent of this citation? What reality does it name?

4The sentence opens the novel: "She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in...." This is the first thing the reader encounters of the novel proper, after the title page and other front matter. In the edition I am using, the front matter includes the first page of all that tells the reader this is "Volume XIX" of the "Scribner Reprint Edition" of the "New York Edition" of "The Novels and Tales of Henry James". Then comes the preface, and then pages that say "The Wings of the Dove/ Volume I" and "Book First". All this preliminary matter tells the adept reader she is about to read a work of fiction, though it is always possible that it might be a real report disguised as a novel. The possibilities of deception with written or printed language are limitless. Such language does not answer our interrogation: "Are you a real report or a work of fiction?" They just go on imperturbably saying what they say. This is what Plato, or rather Socrates, in Plato's Phædrus, objected to about written language in general. The reader has to take it on faith that pieces of language say the truth in those places where they label themselves: "I am a novel," or "I am a biography". These labels are not cognitively verifiable. They are examples of that species of speech act called an attestation: "Believe me. I swear to you that I am really a novel". Without the external signs that this is a novel no way, it seems, would exist to distinguish the language of The Wings of the Dove's first sentence from language that is verifiably referential. By "verifiably referential" I mean apparently identifiable as true or false by its correspondence or lack of correspondence to some extralinguistic reality. Examples of the latter would be history, biography, or the testimony of a witness in the witness box giving a deposition on oath. The Greeks called the latter a "diegesis," meaning "statement": "She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in", with an implicit addendum: "I swear to you this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I saw it with my own eyes". This "implicit addendum" makes the act of bearing witness to that degree a speech act, not a straightforward constative statement. The witness may be lying or may be honestly mistaken. She may have thought she saw something that was not there. "No one bears witness for the witness [Niemand/zeugt für den/Zeugen]," as Paul Celan says, in an aphorism to which Jacques Derrida has given extensive commentary in his seminars on witnessing. The witness is the sole authority for a given particular act of witnessing. This is why the jury in a murder trial must decide unanimously, "beyond reasonable doubt". All the evidence, however empirical, is in the end just credible or not credible, never definitive proof, however contrary to commonsense assumptions this distressing fact may be.

  • 2 For the connection of literature with democracy and for the idea that literature is not an intrinsi (...)

5A novel is like a statement, legal deposition, or diegesis. No identifiable marks distinguish for certain a fictional statement from a real one. This makes lies possible, as well as perjury, irony, jokes, wordplay, and other features of everyday spoken as well as written language. It also makes literature possible, as a specific, historically situated, institution or cultural form in the West. Literature as we think of it today did not always exist, even in the Occident. It arose more or less in the Renaissance. Greek tragedy is not literature, or it becomes literature only in modern times. Other cultures do not have literature in quite the sense we mean that word. Literature could cease to exist for us. That would not be the end of the civilized world, though it would change things quite a bit. It may even be that literature is in the process of ceasing to exist, of being replaced by other cultural forms. Literature as we know it is, as Derrida has argued, inextricably associated with democracy, that is, with freedom of speech, the freedom to say or write anything and everything (never completely obtained, of course). It is also concomitant with industrialization prior to the electronic revolution, with the age, now coming to an end, of the printed book, and with Cartesian and post-Cartesian conceptions of selfhood, along with associated notions of representation and of "reality". All these are intertwined and mutually self-sustaining factors. Literature as a distinctive way to use language arises not from any special way of speaking or writing but from the possibility of taking any piece of language whatsoever as fictional or, on the other hand, as possibly truth-telling, as referential in the ordinary sense2. No internal way exists to distinguish a fictitious telephone book from a real one. The two would look exactly the same. The difference would be revealed only when someone started dialing the numbers in the fictitious book. The numbers, needless to say, would not work. They would reach no one or at best a series of wrong numbers.

6In a similar fashion, no way exists to tell for sure, from purely internal evidence, that The Wings of the Dove is not a historical narration disguised as a novel. This may be exemplified by the sentence: "She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in ...." Only when the reader tries to verify its truth or falsity by reference to the real world does she discover that Kate Croy, her father, and all the other characters in the book, may, at least so it seems, be encountered only in the pages of The Wings of the Dove, nowhere else. Nevertheless, the language of that first sentence does not differ from language that might have been used if Kate Croy were a real, historical personage. And who knows? We may just have failed so far to find the "original" of Kate Croy and of that shabby apartment in "Chirk Street".

7This is so counter-intuitive, even so scandalous, that it is instinctively resisted. Immense efforts are made, by scholars as well as by ordinary readers, to suppress this self-evident fact and to find referents for a novel's language. After all, such readers assert, many verifiably real places are named in this novel: Chelsea, Lancaster Gate, Kensington Gardens, the Brompton Oratory, Venice, and so on. The novel, it may be, accurately represents the mores and behavior of British and American middle and upper class people of the time. The first sentence is followed by a circumstantial description of Kate's father's dreary quarters in what James calls "Chirk Street," though no Chirk Street exists in London, not at least as listed now in the authoritative street guide, London A to Ζ: "changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once — she had tried it — the sense of the slippery and of the sticky" (1: 3), and so on for another page, including a description of the view from the balcony of "the vulgar little street" that so matches "the vulgar little room". This accumulation of detail makes it sound like the narrator is describing a real room, or, to put this another way, it seems as if James has the narrator describe a real room that he, James that is, has really seen. This would allow a reader to measure the novel by its truth-telling. Were rooms in rented quarters in the part of London James has in mind really like this at the time the novel is supposed to have taken place?

8This piling up of detail, even thematically irrelevant detail, creates what Roland Barthes (1968) called "l'effet du réel". This superabundance, even if it has no thematic or symbolic function, operates, as Barthes said, to tell the reader she is reading a "realistic novel," a novel, that is, that undertakes to obey certain conventions of verisimilitude, just as certain other conventions in other works alert an adept reader that she is reading a work of science fiction or a romance.

9James, moreover, obeys another convention of the genre "realistic novel" when he has the vulgar little room looking out on its vulgar little street stand metonymically for the failure and dishonour of Kate's father's life: "she tasted the faint flat emanation of things, the failure of fortune and of honour" (1: 4). In realistic novels things metonymically stand for and give the reader indirect access to the interior lives of those who live surrounded by those things. Other examples later in the novel are the correspondence between Kate's Aunt Lowder and her expensive home in Lancaster Gate (Densher "takes in the message of her massive florid furniture, the immense expression of her signs and symbols... so almost abnormally affirmative, so aggressively erect, were the huge heavy objects that syllabled his hostess's story" [1: 76]), Milly's personality as expressed in the grand palazzo she rents in Venice, and Kate's failure to be at all like her sister's dreary house in Chelsea, whereas Densher, so he thinks to himself, would be more likely to feel at home there, while it fits Kate's sister well enough. This echo of person and milieu is an extremely powerful convention in realistic fiction, but it would be dangerous to follow it in real life, to believe it is always "true". A person may or may not correspond to her surroundings.

10To shift to another register of reference, The Wings of the Dove appears, in addition, so scholars have told us, to reflect Henry James's feelings about his cousin Minny Temple, who died of tuberculousis at a young age, just as Milly Theale dies in the novel of some unnamed malady (not tuberculosis; the reader is told Milly's lungs are sound). This may or may not be true, but most readers grasp at it as an explanation and thereby may feel, with a great sense of relief, that it is unnecessary to read the novel except according to that key, that is, that it is unnecessary, really, to read the novel at all.

11Surely, the reader feels, it is legitimate to measure the novel by its relation to these indubitable realities, either social realities of the times and places represented in the novel, or realities, truths, about the author's life. Identifications of social or biographical references make up two main penchants, along with formalistic analysis as a third penchant, not just of James criticism but of literary studies generally as they have been and are institutionalized in Europe and America. So-called "cultural studies" are just the latest versions of these first two penchants. The real nature of literature is so threatening, it may be, that both ordinary readers and specialists in literary studies, for the most part, do everything they can to avoid confronting this reality. How can language be made to hang in an apparent void like that? Does it refer to nothing at all? One thing seems to be sure, however: Kate Croy and her father can be met nowhere but in the pages of The Wings of the Dove. The novel, to alter Marianne Moore's formulation, can be described as real gardens with imaginary toads in them. The opening words of the novel, "She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in... ," refer to nothing but to a virtual reality that they both invent and discover, according to a double law I shall identify. I shall also identify the meaning that must be given in this context to the phrase "virtual reality". That's a promise.

12The first sentence, in its invocation of Kate Croy in a particular situation at a particular moment of her life, establishes a contract. It makes the reader an implicit promise. Whatever follows in all the hundreds of pages that make up the novel will in one way or another be consistent with this first sentence, will be continuous with it, will conform to its law. This by no means prescribes some strict law of conformity. Laws of genre are established in order to be broken. Every new work to some degree breaks generic laws or establishes a new genre and new modes of consistency of which it may be the only example. All sorts of hiatuses and anacolutha, or failures in following, are possible. The adept reader will expect them. They will be defined as hiatuses or anacolutha, however, by their relation to this first sentence.

13The first sentence of this or of any novel is truly inaugural. It is a special kind of performative speech act. It is as though James had waved a magic wand and said, "Let there be Kate Croy waiting in exasperation for her father in his shabby quarters". This speech act is also an implicit promise. It is a pledge to tell the rest of Kate's story and a guarantee that the rest will in one way or another fit with this first sentence. The reader knows that much will follow these words. The reader also knows that she has been plunged in medias res and that what she needs to know of what has preceded will probably be revealed in good time. The first sentence exposes a little of the novel's virtual reality, as it unfolds word by word, but it also leaves many unanswered questions. "She waited, Kate Croy...." "She?" Who is she? Then she is named: "Kate Croy". But who is Kate Croy? We then learn that her father is living and that he is late for an appointment with her, to her great irritation. We also learn that she is in a room with a mantel and with a looking glass over the mantel, but where and when we are is not yet revealed. Nevertheless, the reader assumes that whatever comes after will follow from this first sentence. The first sentence establishes rules and laws for this virtual reality. It is an inaugural first step from which the whole novel grows, just as all United States history follows from the Declaration of Independence. The first sentence of The Wings of the Dove functions as a qualified declaration of independence from historical reality. It promises that the text will look like a real account but be a fictional one, an imaginary telephone book. Since Kate Croy and all the other characters are imaginary, not real, the first sentence initiates a virtual reality into which all the realistic details, with all their verifiable verisimilitude, are transposed, translated, displaced, by which they are borrowed, given a new existence within the words of the novel. To what, then, do those words now refer?


14A surprising and to some degree scandalous answer to this question is suggested by what James says in the preface to another novel, The Golden Bowl, and by what he says in the preface to The Wings of the Dove itself. In the preface to The Golden Bowl, in a brilliant and difficult passage on which I have commented elsewhere (1987), James asserts that re-reading his novel is like matching the words of the novel against an ideal novel to which the words more or less accurately correspond. The ideal novel, something that exists independently of the actual words on the page, is spoken of as the "clear matter" of the tale. In this strange locution the word "matter" names a peculiar form of nonmaterial materiality. It also names "matter" in the sense one speaks of "the heart of the matter," that is, the essential subject matter. In this case the word "matter" names the total circumstances of some event, as James in this preface calls his narrator the "historian of the matter". "Matter" also, more broadly, names the stuff of a multitude of possible stories, as scholars speak of "the matter of Arthur" or "the matter of Troy". These phrases label the whole cycle of Arthurian or Trojan legends. These "matters" make possible innumerable stories but exist independently of them all and do not rely on any particular ones for their existence, as anyone knows who has tried to untangle the tangle of Arthurian legends and poems from medieval times down to Malory or Tennyson.

15That "clear matter," in the case of The Golden Bowl, is, says James, in one of his characteristically extravagant metaphors (or rather catachreses, since the figure does not substitute for any literal way to say it; James gives alternative formulations, but they are figures of speech too), like a shining trackless field of snow. The words of the novel are one set of tracks through that field. James expresses his satisfaction on rereading The Golden Bowl by asserting that he finds he would take the same track through the snowfield today. He expresses his dissatisfaction at reading his earlier work by saying he would now take a different path through the snow. His present footsteps sometimes match and sometimes fail to match his old footsteps, but the snowfield that is the matter of a given work exceeds them both and would have gone on existing as a possibility of being turned into words even if he had never written a word of the novel, or of the preface. The latter registers not only an act of re-reading but an act of revisiting the clear matter of the tale, that is, the field of snow. Here is the way James puts this:

To re-read in their order my final things, all of comparatively recent date, has been to become aware of my putting the process through, for the latter end of my series (as well as, throughout, for most of its later constituents) quite in the same terms as the apparent and actual, the contemporary terms; to become aware in other words that the march of my present attention coincides sufficiently with the march of my original expression; that my apprehension fits, more concretely stated, without an effort or struggle, certainly without bewilderment or anguish, into the innumerable places prepared for it. As the historian of the matter sees and speaks, so my intelligence of it, as a reader, meets him halfway, passive, receptive, appreciative, often even grateful; unconscious, quite blissfully, of any bar to intercourse, any disparity of sense between us. Into his very footsteps the responsive, the imaginative steps of the docile reader that I consentingly become for him all comfortably sink; his vision, superimposed on my own as an image in cut paper is applied to a sharp shadow on a wall, matches, at every point, without excess or deficiency. This truth throws into relief for me the very different dance that the taking in hand of my earlier productions was to lead me; the quite other kind of consciousness proceeding from that return. Nothing in my whole renewal of attention to these things, to almost any instance of my work previous to some dozen years ago, was more evident than that no such active, appreciative process could take place on the mere palpable lines of expression — thanks to the so frequent lapse of harmony between my present mode of motion and that to which the existing footprints were due. It was, all sensibly, as if the clear matter being still there, even as a shining expanse of snow spread over a plain, my exploring tread, for application to it, had quite unlearned the old pace and found itself naturally falling into another, which might sometimes indeed more or less agree with the old tracks, but might most often, or very nearly, break the surface in other places. What was thus predominantly interesting to note, at all events, was the high spontaneity of these deviations and differences, which became thus things not of choice, but of immediate and perfect necessity: the necessity to the end of dealing with the quantities in question at all. (James, 1904, xiii-xiv)

16What is extraordinary about this testimony, and radically contrary to commonsense assumptions, is the way it presupposes that the "matters" of James's various works exist outside not only the words of the novels but also outside James's creating or concocting consciousness. James measures the actual words on the page by their degree of fit to his present apprehension of the matter of the novel. He speaks as though that matter did not depend on his consciousness or on his words for its existence. The "historian of the matter," that is the narrator of this or that novel, does not invent that matter. He simply "puts the process through" in one way or another, that is, tells it as well as he can. He makes one set of tracks among innumerable possible tracks across the trackless snow. James now as re-reader of his own work measures that work not against his own ideal of satisfactory form but against his new apprehension of a "matter" that has ge ne on having a separate existence not only independent of the words on the page but also independent of James's thinking of it or not. He stresses the spontaneity and necessity of his present apprehension of the matter. It is not a matter of free invention, but a revelation dictated to him by the matter itself. The snow shines and glistens with the force of an illumination, an exposing, a showing forth, an uncovering. It is "clear" in the sense of "transparent," open to comprehension. The clear matter is still there and would still be there even if every copy of The Golden Bowl were destroyed and even if James's consciousness were to vanish, as indeed it now has, definitively. The novel invents the story not in the modern sense of making it up but in the older sense of "inventio" as discovery of something hitherto hidden that has nevertheless always been there, waiting to be brought out into the light, though only the words of The Golden Bowl can give the reader access to it. It is to this separately existing matter that the words of the novel refer. The novel makes transferred use of all the words that apparently refer to historically real places and things in order to refer by catechresis to features of the clear matter of the story. I say "catachresis" because that word names a "forced and abusive transfer" of words naming real entities to make them name more occult entities that have no proper names of their own and therefore can be named only in this indirect way. The way this works is expressed allegorically by James as the relation between the tracks in snow and the shining expanse of trackless snow that was there before anyone walked across it. What actually gets written is always a figurative substitute for what can never be expressed or referred to directly, but only in figures like that of the snowfield or like that of the novel itself as a vast integument of invented words bringing into existence personages or consciousnesses in interaction.


  • 3 James says exactly the same thing of the Preface itself in its last two sentences. He uses again th (...)

17James claims this paradigm is applicable to all his works. Is there any evidence that it is exemplified in a specific way by The Wings of the Dove? The preface to Wings precedes that to The Golden Bowl and was presumably written earlier. It contains one curious feature that confirms in anticipation the strange doctrine of reference in the preface to The Golden Bowl. The Wings of the Dove, James says in its preface, is, like so many of his works, at once too long and too short. It is too long because the whole first half exceeds its predetermined bounds and leaves James not enough space for the second half.3 At the same time the second half is just too short to be able to represent adequately what it has to say.

18Earlier in the preface his failure to say all he had intended to say and the independent existence of the clear matter of the tale to which this failure, strangely enough, testifies, is expressed in one of James's characteristically extravagant, extended, and exfoliating figures. e begins by defining the separate sections or "books" of his novel, each usually commanded by a single center of consciousness represented in indirect discourse by the narrator, as, he hopes, "sufficiently solid blocks of wrought material, squared to the sharp edge, as to have weight and mass and carrying power" (xii). The novel, this architectural figure implies, is constructed of self-enclosed units with spaces between that are then set side by side to make a structure. The spaces between might be identified as the gaps created when James shifts abruptly from one reflecting plate or center of consciousness, represented in the narrator's inveterate indirect discourse, to another one. An example is the shift from Kate's consciousness to Densher's across the blank page between the end of Book First and the beginning of Book Second. At the end of Book First the reader is still placed within Kate's mind. In the opening pages of Book Second the reader gradually enters into Densher's mind, from which perspective Kate's mind, so recently presented with intimacy and interiority, is now to a considerable degree alien and other, secret. Much more remains to be said of this law of rotation, but that must be deferred for now. What architectural fabric the novel's building blocks construct the further development of the figure makes explicit. It is a bridge. This structure carries the reader from here to there over a stream.

19It is a bridge, however, of an extremely odd sort. The plan was one thing, namely an intention to represent fully and adequately the subject or "matter". What James actually succeeded in writing is quite another thing. What he sees on re-reading the novel is not a solid narrative texture or architecture but a torn fabric full of gaps, hiatuses, absences, emptinesses, places where what should have been represented is not represented or only represented inadequately, though it remains there, waiting to be said. James measures his failure by the still almost palpable presence of all in the matter that did not get said. His account is punctuated by the "alas" of regret and compunction:

to retrace the way at present is, alas, more than anything else, but to mark the gaps and the lapses, to miss, one by one, the intentions that, with the best will in the world, were not to fructify. I have just said that the process of the general attempt is described from the moment the "blocks" are numbered, and that would be a true enough picture of my plan. Yet one's plan, alas, is one thing and one's result another; so that I am perhaps nearer the point in saying that this last strikes me at present as most characterised by the happy features that were, under my first and most blest illusion, to have contributed to it. I meet them all, as I renew acquaintance, I mourn for them all as I remount the stream, the absent values, the palpable voids, the missing links, the mocking shadows, that reflect, taken together, the early bloom of one's good faith, (xiii)

20What is most strange about this failed effort of representation is that it works. A bridge gets built and bears weight after all. James enunciates, on the basis of this act of re-reading, an unforeseen law (unforeseen by me at least) whereby the failure in representation is the prerequisite of its success. This is "the 'law' of the degree in which the artist's energy fairly depends on his fallibility" (xiii). The au thor must be the "dupe" of "his prime object," or "illusion," the object of his "good faith," that is, his beguiled confidence in the possibility of adequately rendering or bringing to light what I have been calling the "matter" of the story. This belief in an illusion is necessary if he is to be "at all measurably a master, that of his actual substitute for it" (xiii). The actual novel is not the initially intended work, the ideal representation of the matter (that remains an impalpable illusion, like a ghost in broad daylight), but a relatively poor substitute for it.

21The odd thing, however, is that the substitute is usable. It bears weight. The reader can get from here to there across it. It is as though the bridge builder had put down solid piers to hold up his bridge, but had then built the actual bridge in another place, where it hangs in the air, without solid foundations or abutments. Nevertheless this foundationless bridge serves its purpose. This happens "by the oddest chance in the world" (xiii). It is an odd chance because there is no way to predict it, and it seems entirely implausible. Nevertheless, there it is:

He places, after an earnest survey, the piers of his bridge — he has at least sounded deep enough, heaven knows, for their brave position; yet the bridge spans the stream, after the fact, in apparently complete independence of these properties, the principal grace of the original design. They were an illusion, for their necessary hour; but the span itself, whether of a single arch or of many, seems by the oddest chance in the world to be a reality; since, actually, the rueful builder, passing under it [this continues the figure of retrospective rereading and remembering as "remounting the stream"; now the stream is spanned by the bridge that James imagines himself beneath (JHM)], sees figures and hears sounds above; he makes out, with his heart in his throat, that it bears and is positively being 'used.'" (xiii-xiv, James's italics)

22The ideal novel that James never wrote exists, even though it never achieved the material existence of words on the page. It would be a mistake to say that ideal novel existed in Henry James's mind, ready to be copied from there. As anyone knows who has done any writing, whether of fiction or of non-fictional prose, such as I am writing now, you do not really know what you are going to write until you write it. It is as though it is waiting there somewhere to be written down. As you write, the words seem to be dictated to you by a voice that is not your own and that comes from somewhere else. The words are a gift, like these words right here that I am now writing. At least that is my experience of invention. I hereby bear witness to that experience. In addition, however, I can also bear witness to the way the critical essay that actually gets written about one of James's great novels bears the same relation to the ideal essay the critic (I at least) has in mind as James's novel has to the ideal novel that he never succeeded in writing. So much that what the critic glimpses in the act of reading never makes it into the essay he or she ultimately writes. There are so many gaps, omissions, and mocking shadows. The critic's only comfort is that he or she is at least no worse off than James himself in this respect, though also under the same kind of implacable obligation and as little capable of fulfilling that obligation. It may be, however, that for the critic, too, his or her failure is the condition of whatever virtues the essay or chapter that does get written may ultimately have. It too may bear weight though lacking the solid foundations the critic originally as dupe of his or her own illusions, analogous to those of the author, imagined for it. It bears weight just because of those misplaced foundations that never get registered in the words of the final essay. The critic's energy too, it may be, depends on her fallibility.

  • 4 See Husserl's The Origin of Geometry (Leavey, ed., 1989) and Derrida's commentary (Derrida, trans. (...)

23Just as the ideal triangle, in Husserl's geometry, does not depend for its existence on any actual triangles inscribed on paper,4 so the matter of The Wings of the Dove does not depend on the actual novel James wrote. That novel is a replacement, one might even say an allegory, for the novel that did not get written, that could not, it may be, possibly be written. Just as the triangle does not depend on any triangles drawn on paper, so the matter of The Wings of the Dove would exist even if every copy of the novel were destroyed. Those parts that were left out continue to exist, in their unattainable secrecy, like Milly's were left out continue to exist, in their unattainable secrecy, like Milly's letter that no one reads. I call what does get written down a "virtual reality" in a double sense. It is virtual in the way a fictional telephone book is like a real one. The novel mimes the way real people in the real, material, and social world exist. At the same time the novel is a virtual reality in the sense that it is a replacement or substitute for the true reality to which it refers, the shining matter of the story that James had the illusory good faith to believe he could represent directly. The novel is virtual in relation to that reality.

24For James himself, however, as the preface testifies, the linguistic recording of Kate at this moment is to be measured against his ideal conception of her as a feature of his invention (in both senses of the word, as a making up and as a discovery) of the whole matter of the novel. It is to that matter that the first sentence of The Wing's of the Dove (and all the other sentences too) refers. This is an exceedingly peculiar kind of referent. It is neither exterior nor interior, neither objective nor subjective, neither material nor textual, neither real nor imaginary. It hovers somewhere between all these oppositions, in an impossible combination. This impossibility is not so much an undecidable either/or as the neither/nor of the neutral, the "ne-uter," according to the etymological source of the word "neutral". Whichever choice you make in each set of pairings, in a gesture of refraining refusing the other, makes the twin you have refrained from seem more likely. Nevertheless, this referent indubitably exists. The Wings of the Dove refers to this strange realm indirectly, however, as a substitute for the perfect rendering or act of reference that never gets written and that can never be written, even though "the artist's energy," his power to write what he does write, namely the substitute, "fairly depends on his fallibility," that is, on his inability to represent his ideal vision, leaving voids and missing links and mocking shadows. This relation of substitution and replacement is mimed, emblematized, or allegorized not only in the relation of Kate's mirrored reflection to Kate herself but also in what that mirroring emblematizes, namely the relation between Kate and the narrator's registering of her in the narrative language. That in turn emblematizes the relation of the whole novel to its referent, the ideal existence of the novel's matter.

25So much for The Wings of the Dove's first sentence. I claim through my investigation of it to have shown how apparently cognitive assertions in a work of fiction ("She waited, Kate Croy..."), assertions that have none of the distinguishing marks of felicitous speech act as J.L. Austin (1962) has attempted to identify them, nevertheless are in a peculiar, complex, and anomalous way performative utterances. Each works as an "Open Sesame!" to give the reader access to an ideal world by way of a virtual reality that is its indirect replacement. This world can, for the reader at least, be reached in no other way. The world seems to be created by the words of the novel and therefore to be James's invention. After we have entered it, however, this virtual reality seems to refer or correspond at a distance to a realm that has always been there already, waiting to be revealed, dis-covered, uncovered, by the novelist's words. Within that virtual reality the reader, after the first sentence, can now dwell through all the time it takes to read to the end of the novel's last page and last sentence, Kate Croy's "We shall never be again as we were!" (2: 405). Beyond that last word the rest is silence, though the reader, after she has finished the novel, has the feeling that the realm it uncovered is always waiting there to be reentered through a new act of reading.


Works cited

Austin, J.L., 1962. How to do things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Barthes, Roland, 1968. "L'Effet de réel." In Communications 11.

Derrida, Jacques, 1992. Acts of Literature. Ed., Derek Attridge. London: Routledge.

—— 1993. Passions. Paris: Galilée.

—— trans [1962], 1974. L'Origine de la géométrie. 2e édition. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

James, Henry, 1904. The Golden Bowl.

Leavey, John P., trans, 1989. Husserl's Origin of Geometry. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Miller, J., Hillis, 1987. The Ethics of Reading. New York: Columbia University Press.

Proust, Marcel, 1987-1989. A la recherche du temps perdu. Ed., Jean-Yves Tadié. Paris: Gallimard.


1 Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, reprint of New York Edition of 1907-9 (Fairfield: New Jersey: Augustus M. Kelley, 1976), 1:3, henceforth identified by volume and page number. The Wings of the Dove makes up volumes 19 and 20 of this edition, but they are identified on the title pages as volumes 1 and 2 of the novel proper, and I shall use the latter designations.

2 For the connection of literature with democracy and for the idea that literature is not an intrinsic feature of language but a way of taking any piece of language whatsoever, see Jacques Derrida in Acts of Literature, Passions and elsewhere.

3 James says exactly the same thing of the Preface itself in its last two sentences. He uses again the figure of a bringing to light of something hidden. It takes him so long to confess to the crime that he commits it again in the act of confessing it: "I become conscious of overstepping my space without having brought the full quantity to fight. The failure leaves me with a burden of residuary comment of which I yet boldly hope elsewhere to discharge myself" (xxii-iii). The preface, like the novel, is a "failure" because not all of it gets said. There is not space enough. The sentences just quoted have the structure of the deferred promise. I have not done it yet and I cannot do it now, but I promise to do it at some point in the future. It is an obligation, a "burden," something important that might he said, something that hovers somewhere as the possibility of being said, of being brought into the open, hut that has not yet been said. James, however, never anywhere, so far as I know, discharged himself of the heavy burden of this particular responsibility. He went to his grave keeping the secret of what more he might have said about the "supersubtleties" and "arch-refinements, of tact and taste, of design and instinct, in 'The Wings of the Dove'" (xxii).

4 See Husserl's The Origin of Geometry (Leavey, ed., 1989) and Derrida's commentary (Derrida, trans. [1962], 1974).


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