restricted access "Miracles Are Expensive": The Complicated Metaphors of Subjectivity in The Sacred Fount
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“Miracles Are Expensive”:
The Complicated Metaphors of Subjectivity in The Sacred Fount

One of the most enigmatic—and frankly, least pleasurable—of James’s novels, The Sacred Fount (1901), has recently come under a good deal of critical scrutiny. In “The Multiple Canons of Henry James,” Richard Hocks argues that the novel now occupies the central position once held by texts such as The Ambassadors or Wings of the Dove. Not only does the novel offer an almost exaggerated version of James’s narrative technique, but unlike his usual center-of-consciousness method, The Sacred Fount is written in the first person, with a narrative voice critics have long recognized as curiously like James’s own. 1

But the centrality of the novel is not limited to its foregrounding of James’s narrative method. As Hocks notes, the novel lends itself to postmodern and post-Freudian analyses (161)—in part because it plays with a philosophy of subjectivity that also echoes through major novels such as The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, albeit in a highly exaggerated manner. The novel examines the risks inherent in human relations, with the narrator proposing that especially love, but in practice nearly any form of intimacy, may expose one to the possibility of having one’s “sacred fount” drained in the encounter, with the fount standing in for whatever quality makes an individual unique: energy, youth, intelligence—in short, subjectivity itself. Leon Edel’s important introduction to the novel labels the theory as essentially one of vampirism, and critics following Edel have seen only the threat implied by the vampire metaphor.

Yet the notion of “vampirism” is a critical overlay, not a metaphor James himself uses. James’s metaphors in The Sacred Fount are far richer and more complex than critics have generally recognized. In fairness to Edel, the narrator seems bent on [End Page 51] an exclusively negative reading of the events he believes he has witnessed, but his metaphors offer more interesting interpretations that he himself refuses to explore. And as Jean Blackall has conclusively proven in regard to this novel, James’s metaphors are never accidental. The inability of the narrator to push his own ideas to their logical conclusion need not prevent us from doing so—and thus from seeing clearly the philosophy of subjectivity emerging from those metaphors.

The heart of James’s project depends upon an almost romantic idealization of the autonomous subject—the moral actant in a universe poised to render moral decisions irrelevant through the over-determined exchanges of the marketplace. His novels, where they do not celebrate the existence of such a self, offer an elegy on its demise. Yet in The Sacred Fount James’s metaphoric explorations call into question the very self his project otherwise extols. The novel explores the varied ways in which one subjectivity may impinge upon another, especially in terms of victimization and sacrifice—using metaphors derived from the marketplace itself. The novel thus anticipates postmodern images of the self, particularly as expressed in the ideas of René Girard, while at the same time suggesting in provocative ways the inadequacy of the Girardian model. And in examining James’s metaphorical explorations of self here, we may equally begin to understand something of the transition James makes toward reconsidering the connected self in more positive terms in the major novels.

A Liquid Asset: The Narrator’s Metaphors of Subjectivity

Critics have agreed on little about this novel except that the narrator’s mind holds its key. 2 As Sara Chapman puts it, “There is no factual centre here, no subject, apart from what the narrator records of his own perceptions and memory” (119). Yet, generally, critics have dismissed the narrator’s observations as products of his “deluded” state (Hallab 29). Blackall describes the narrator as “too subtle to interpret accurately the social scene which he witnesses and too proud to admit his perplexities” (11). Also assuming the narrator’s unreliability, Adeline Tintner has recently argued that the narrator is “on a wild goose chase” because he has erroneously assumed the couples to be heterosexual (225). Instead, Tintner suggests that Mrs. Briss’s affair is with May Server...