Saturday, April 30, 2005

"The plastic substance, imposed by tradition"

I'm currently working on finishing up Henry James' Wings of the Dove, and I came across this passage that, quite frankly, I find highly interesting in the way it precursors a good bit of post-structuralist literary theory by a solid fifty-plus years. I can just smell Foucault in the background, and I can't help but think this is the ideal kind of thing to save in case I ever need a good example for a paper on these themes, which I suspect I will at some point.

That was the story—that she was always, for her beneficient dragon under arms; living up, every hour, but especially at festal hours, to the 'value' Mrs Lowdner had attached to her. High and fixed, this estimate ruled, on each occasion, at Lancaster Gate, the social scene; so that our young man now recognized in it something like the artistic idea, the plastic substance, imposed by tradition, by genius, by criticism, in respect to a given character, on a distinguished actress. As such a person was to dress the part, to walk, to look, to speak, in every way to express, the part, so all this was what Kate was to do for the character she had undertaken, under her aunt's roof, to represent. it was made up, the character, of definite elements and touches—things all perfectly ponderable to criticism; and the way for her to meet criticism was evidently at the start to be sure her make-up was exact and that she looked at least no worse than usual. Aunt Maud's appreciation of that tonight was indeed managerial, and Kate's own contribution fairly that of the faultless soldier on parade. Densher saw himself for the moment as in his purchased stall at the play; the watchful manager was in the depts of a box and the poor actress in the glare of the footlights. But she passed, the poor actress—he could see how she always passed; her wig, her taint, her jewels, every mark of her expression impeccable, and her entrance accordingly greeted witht he proper round of applause. Such impressions as we thus note for Densher come and go, it must be granted, in very much less time than notation demands; but we may none the less make the point that there was, still further, time among them for him to feel almost too scared to take part in the ovation. He truck himself as having lost, for the minute, his presence of mind—so that, at any rate, he only stared in silence at the older woman's technical challenge and at the younger one's disciplined face. It was as if the drama—it thus came to him, for the fact of a drama there was no blinking—was between them, them quite preponderantly; with Merton Densher relegated to mere spectatorship, a paying place in front, and one of the most expensive. This was why his appreciation had turned for the instant of fear—had just turned, as we have said, to sickness; and in spite of the fact that the disciplined face did offer him over the footlights, as he believed, the small gleam, fine, faint, but exquisite, of a special intelligence. So might a practised performer, even when raked by double-barreled glasses, seem to be all in her part and yet convey a sign to the person in the house she loved best.
Holy crap. You get all that? It's impressive how James positions Kate's character in her social context purely in relation to having to live under the constant gaze of her Aunt as the "theatre manager." James credits Kate in that she "passed," but I'm not sure that's entirely a complement. It's made quite clear that she lives her life not only in the "'value' that Mrs Lowdner had attached to her," but now she is also under the gaze and scrutiny of Densher, for whom she must play a separate role (that of lover) at the same time. Kate's challenge is to merge both roles into one performance, and the fact that she is so highly successful at it is one of the primary points that shows that, while James may predict postmodernist theory in this passage, he is—at heart—a true modernist. If this were a postmodern novel, she would fracture in the attempt to contain dual roles simultaneously—hey, it drives Holden Caulfield into an asylum—to two different observers at the same time. For the modernist James, however, to do so is possible. She's just that extraordinary. The theatre aspect serves to further reinforce the notion that Kate can only play the role society has established for her and that she cannot deviate—due to constant surveillance—lest she lose everything she is working for. Yet, she does get to be offstage at times (such as when she's out with Densher without her Aunt's knowledge), but she must constantly fear discovery (i.e., Milly in the art gallery), as Foucault explains is the method of control outside of survellance in his coneptual "Carcerial" in society in general. This fear of discovery keeps her behavior and interaction with Densher within at the very least allowable, though not ideal, bounds.

There, that should be enough to remind me why I am intrigued in that passage. There is certainly much more to dig out, and there are counter-arguments to be made, but this will serve as a start. Thank you for bearing with me.


At August 14, 2005 at 1:26 AM, Blogger lrtq63qhfh said...

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