Mimesis in America: Notes on Henry James

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533)

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533)

In an essay on Madame Bovary, mid-twentieth century German philologist Erich Auerbach imagines the perfect depiction of reality to be one in which “the ordering of the psychological situation does not, to be sure, derive its standards from without, but from the material of the situation itself.”  What marks the difference between Flaubert and James, then, is the question of who does the ordering.

If we are to invoke the notion of literary realism as genre, its fulfillment would be (as per Auerbach) in the novel’s recognition that the narrative event interprets itself better than any outside opinion might.  This is achievable only by the author’s absolute absorption in the objects of his or her examination; the divestiture of oneself so as to make room for the material to self-express with the writer as its medium.  If this is accomplished, the story’s network of objects—facial characteristics, clothing, food items, elements of setting such as James’s ormolu, mirrors, and “gilt-tipped palings”—will speak their own significant interrelatedness with enough energy to render the material world as a complete and impermeable, total picture.  The movements of this totality would be history itself, the only active agent in the circumstantial meetings and divergences which comprise the lifetimes of characters.  To Auerbach, the realist novel has the character hopelessly caught in that total picture, that island, suffering dumbly under its oppressive limitations because it is invisible from within.  This is the weight of “the nothing.”

Perhaps, then, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Balzac’s Eugène Rastignac and Stendhal’s Julien Sorel—Auerbach’s list of fictional prisoners trapped within the ever-sharpening contours of the 19th century realist picture—simply await the steamship that will draw each away from his or her respective island so as to bring its dimensions into view.  The Jamesian protagonist is always an ambassador of some sort and is therefore granted as alien a view of the situation left behind.  If Auerbach identifies the plight of the realistic character as the inability to see the mechanisms of one’s conditions and the task of the writer as the ordering of meanings which the conditions themselves express, James takes the latter responsibility and offers it to the character.  He grants his players the authorial power to see their conditions and thus to see the book itself.  The American abroad is thereby optimistically situated as realism’s redemption—the messenger who comes with tidings from God.  And it is God’s vision, Auerbach believes, that the realist novel wants: when the author is able to sufficiently renounce the fervor of opinion the perfect expression can be achieved “which at once entirely comprehends the momentary subject and impartially judges it, comes of itself.” And further, “subjects are seen as God sees them, in their true essence.”  This manner of unselfish observation is precisely the office which James has assigned to Lambert Strether, protagonist of The Ambassadors.  Strether’s mission is to recognize himself in a world with no outside—the total picture that is repressive Woolett, Massachusetts—and then, paradoxically, to leave.  The hermetic cell that entraps Auerbach’s grieving antiheros thus collapses into a reflective stone; surfaces multiply, each echoing a palpable bit of information that originates elsewhere.  Where is the truth born?  It is the pursuit of an answer to this that propels James’s characters endlessly forward, toward the scene just out the door that  makes itself known by flashes, whiffs, and faint scratchings; “things visible through the gaps.”


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