A friendly debate this afternoon about late Henry James and consciousness: what late Henry James does to, makes of, or conjures of consciousness (each verb representing a distinct position that a critic might take) is one of the intractable problems of literary criticism; it’s a wonder of his work that he can create characters as vividly as he does (whether they seem like vivid people or like vivid fictions, they live) in the fashion he does. I don’t know where I stand on the matter of consciousness in the late James. Is he trying to represent the characters of his consciousnesses, and to draw attention to and register–even dramatize–the inadequacy of representation? Is he trying to translate one account of consciousness into another, distinctly Jamesian account of consciousness (that is, could we imagine the late James re-writing the novels of George Eliot?)? Neither question is right; much here depends on the terms of the questions, and on the answers to which the grammar of the questions leads. My interlocuitor was patient with me as I beat around the various possibilities; the trouble (for me) is that James is so super-subtle that a super-subtle critical eloquence is required to match his creative. My sense leaving the conversation, however, was that consciousness for James might be considered something of a critical (and creative?) MacGuffin–the irrelevant object that critics pursue (and that, in a sense, James’ novels pursue) as they go about doing their more interesting business.
It is probably better for me to distance myself from the word “consciousness” entirely since I find myself stupefied by the word, its mystery, its depths and surfaces. I feel safer saying something smaller, something about how a particular piston of the James-machine works, what end it achieves–of saying that James is profoundly preoccupied by what it means to be aware of others and aware of oneself, and to be aware of the awareness of others; that his late style is an attempt at finding a prose style that can adequately account for a character’s awareness of others and oneself–and, what especially distinguishes the late James, that can adequately fit a narrator’s awareness of a character’s awareness. Perhaps this is just another way of saying “consciousness” but for me at least it orients the discussion more clearly than “consciousness” does; it emphasizes what it means to be conscious of, and to be conscious of another person’s being conscious of other people.
It also opens up another possibility. In the conversation this afternoon, my interlocuitor objected to my asserting that late James was a psychological novelist. She provided lots of reasons, most convincing, as to why the designation doesn’t work. For one thing, it sends critics off in search of so many psychological dimensions and attributes that aren’t there in late James. I countered by asking whether he is a sociological novelist, but the line of thought wasn’t pursued. Mulling things over, it seems a fine line to take–and it helps reorient the conversation by dislodging the late James from the realm of the private, inner, and inward, where he tends to fall. But what does sociological in this case mean? How might it be of help?
It’s a question I’ve run up against a lot in the past year when a dissertation adviser–whose advice, since my time as an undergraduate, when he advised me on a thesis has been unfailingly true and right, but which requires months or years of mental digestion, reading, and attempts at writing before the nutrients are made available. It was this adviser who, a year ago, told me that I shouldn’t ‘psychologize’ the experience of endurance–that I should approach it from a sociological perspective. Now, I am still not sure quite what he meant by this, but I am at least less in the dark as to how sociological theory can help literary criticism, largely because I’ve made some efforts at getting my head around that theory–it had often seemed to me a way of categorizing and renaming ordinary and obvious phenomena, or else of providing apparatuses too general to be of help in analyzing particular works, but I just hadn’t been reading the right stuff, or at least hadn’t been reading it correctly.
Recently, Randall Collins (Interaction Ritual Theory) and Michael Mann (historical sociology) have been helpful in opening doors; but it’s Collins’ chief intellectual predecessor, Erving Goffman, who I think offers a way to provide a sociological account of James’ characters. I knew Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and I knew that as great a critic as Christopher Ricks had profitably mined Goffman in Keats and Embarrassment; but until recently, even Goffman’s work didn’t click with me as offering a way of getting a better understanding of works of literature.
Something fell into place in reading the classic essay, “On Face-Work.” Perhaps it was because this essay made clear to me how it was that Goffman’s theory not only accommodates but accounts for private, inner experiences, such as emotions, in sociological, and public, terms. Taking a step back for a moment, the essay is an analysis of “Face-work,” the ritual interactions wherein individuals maintain “face”–“the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.” Human interactions are not only conditioned by the desire to maintain face, and to gain face, but they are constructed around these goals. The essay leads to a massive claim: “If persons have a universal human nature, they themselves are not to be looked to for an explanation of it. One must look rather to the fact that societies everywhere, if they are to be societies, must mobilize their members as self-regulating participants in social encounters. One way of mobilizing the individual for this purpose is through ritual; he is taught to be perceptive, to have feelings attached to self and a self expressed through face, to have tact and a certain amount of poise…Universal human nature is not a very human thing. By acquiring it, the person becomes a kind of construct, built up not from inner psychic propensities but from moral rules that are impressed upon him from without.” Finally, the “self,” for Goffman, becomes both “an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking” and “a kind of player in a ritual game who copes honorably or dishonorable, diplomatically or undiplomatically, with the judgmental contingencies of the situation.”
Tact, poise, the self as a player in a ritual game, diplomacy…these words lend themselves to the late James beautifully. A critical truism, an obvious starting point for any discussion of the late James, is that words are passed around like counters, with arbitrary values and little inherent significance, among players on the boards of his social dramas–lacking generosity, some critics suggest that this reflects the vapidly rarefied social world in which he invested too much of himself, for which he cared too deeply. But the game played at these upper echelons of mannered life are variations of those played at all levels; they are rituals for maintaining face. The rituals proceed according to foreign rules, some of which might in fact be more intricate than the rules of rituals as played by normal mortals; there certainly seem to be more opportunities for losing face, for having one’s poise threatened, than in most varieties of face-work rituals. Or it might simply be that the rules that interested James have more ambiguity, require greater discernment–especially since so few of his characters actually labor; they can devote all of their energies to face-work. What happens when a novelist attempts to do justice to the experience of living up to the constant demands of face-work? About the rituals that maintain “self,” that stress poise, that require diplomacy, that function according to codes of honor and dignity, where a loss is a loss of face, a victory a gain of face? That novelist very well might–given the talents and disposition–write like the late James. His characters. as my interlocuitor stressed, live always in the present; their affects are the affects of social missteps, of ambitions gone awry; their feelings are profound, and moving, but they are feelings that that charge, and are charged by, face-work. James is not the only novelist to write about face-work; all novelists writing about society must do so. Austen does; Eliot does; Dickens does; but none of these novelists–not even Austen, whose concerns are really with the civilization of the gentry, rather than with the rituals that uphold it (she is a macrosociologist, who necessarily must explain herself in terms of the micro; James is a microsociologist, whose work builds up to the macro)–focus as relentlessly upon face-work as does the late James. The only way to do it justice is to register and dramatize, as he does, all of the considerations, the hopes, the desires, the fears, that go into it; his profound exploration of the inner is a byproduct of the face-preoccupation. Character in late James, is like the self in Goffman, both ” an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events” and also “a kind of player in a ritual game.” The characters of late James are not to be looked to for explanations of themselves; they are mobilized in rituals; they come alive as humans because James does not insist on making them seem like very human things in the ways that most other realists (if he is to be counted among them at all) do, but but they do so because James builds them up from moral rules (rules of face-work, of ritual interaction) that are imposed upon them from without; what we read is the record of how they register and respond to these rules, of how they are playing the game of face-work, move by move.