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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 197-206

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The Postal Unconscious

Mark Seltzer, Cornell University

The link between literature and letters could not be more explicit: the novel originates as private letters made public, or, more exactly, as love letters designed, or designated, for interception. It is not merely that intimate secrets went to print (which is to say that intimacy and secrecy--and this is their open secret--circulated from the start as public discourse). Nor is it merely that the two primary forms of narrative fiction, the epistolary novel and the detective story, both depend on the post--delivered, deferred, and (of course) purloined. In these pages I want to reconsider, albeit very briefly, this radical entanglement of literature and letters, the novel's "postal unconscious," 1 as a way of resituating the matter of "material James."

To speak of postally sponsored love is to speak of media logics of intimacy and subjectivity: in effect, the technical protocols of interiority. Hence it may be necessary to indicate here that I have in mind something different from situating the man of letters historically. The site-specificity of writing and writers--the large metaphorics of "situating the subject" or "subject-position," for example--is of course by now something of a commonplace. But so too is the anxiety that attends the dubious topography of situating. This amounts to the internally conflicted notion that in order to make sense of persons or texts it is necessary to "situate them historically," but that situating persons or texts in effect evacuates them. That is, the person or text, formed, as it were, from the outside in (the large metaphors here are "produced" or "determined"), becomes nothing more than an effect of that situation.

Something like this double logic, and the anxiety that underwrites it, has characterized a range of James studies over the past decade or so. Thus, in short span in a recent "summary" entry on James, one reads that James was "enshrined as a high priest of formalism and genteel aesthete"; that "there is an undeniable and significant measure of truth in the official portrait"; that this significantly true official image is not true in that it "lacks even a suggestion [. . .] of James's profoundly historical imagination"; that, finally, James's "commitment" is to the "noncognitive flux of experience. James is immediately assaulted by flux [. . .]" [End Page 197] (Posnock). Noncognitive flux is noise (as the repetition flux flux perhaps already indicates). The white noise that runs through this contradictory series of statements is familiar enough (and these contradictions are analyzed in some detail in my Henry James and the Art of Power). It goes, tacitly, something like this: To the extent that James's immersion in history is his representation (or "imagination") of history, the act of representation opens up an internal and critical and self-conscious distance, such that engagement with the historical becomes the measure of exactly the opposite, an exemption from the historical. James, the "profoundly historical" novelist is, on this view, exactly the same as James "the high priest" of formalism and aestheticism. Moreover, if modernity is imagined as a condition that "assaults" or shocks or invades the subject, this simply holds intact the essential pre-modernity of the subject, or interminably mourns its loss. And it is not hard to see that the mourning of the loss of the Subject is the vocation of a post-modern criticism and an idea of Art, that has, therefore, never been modern. If noise is in fact the condition, parried or promoted, of modernist writing, then the communicative conditions of modernity must be taken up along a different route, for instance, the manner in which writing goes postal around 1900.

IMAGE LINK= Consider then this recent advertisement (fig. 1): what amounts to a promotion of new media technologies as a means of eliminating English literature. The "terrible loss" for English literature here is, as Bernhard Siegert incisively traces, nothing less than the loss of English literature, which is also the loss of romantic love (200-02). What makes it possible to mistake letters for love...


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