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  • The Figure of Consciousness: William James, Henry James, and Edith Wharton
  • Kristin Boudreau
Jill M. Kress . The Figure of Consciousness: William James, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. New York: Routledge, 2002. 268 pp. $80.00 (cloth).

"[T]he experiments with language that scientists, philosophers and novelists perform repeatedly reinvent consciousness," writes Jill M. Kress, "as if to suggest that keeping human subjectivity autonomous, coherent and credible amounts to building, dismantling and recreating, compulsively, those figures that bring it into being" (25). So begins this superb inquiry into the shared commitment (and, at times, aversion) to metaphorical thought that runs through scientific and literary [End Page 304] texts devoted to explorations of consciousness. Kress begins with the nineteenth-century scientists Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, George Henry Lewes, and Herbert Spencer to demonstrate not only that metaphorical language proliferates as these writers seek to explore, define, and describe consciousness but also that all of them remained nervous about their reliance on metaphors for their scientific undertakings. Unable to understand or describe consciousness without resorting to metaphorical language, they nevertheless felt "a deep ambivalence regarding the multiplying tendency of words" (xi) and, worse, "uncertain[ty] about whether they [were] naming an entity or explicitly creating it" with their figurative language (xii).

William James inherited this difficulty, Kress suggests. The man who gave us the term "stream of consciousness" proposed a host of other tropes for mental activity and was equally uncomfortable settling on a term to denote what he called "all states of consciousness" (32). He finally came to doubt the objective reality of consciousness altogether, Kress argues, dismissing the picture of "thought, flowing as a life within us" (with its echoes of the "stream of consciousness") as a "pretty piece of ingenuity." As Kress reads this passage, James seems to have "wondered whether his 'ingenious' theory could be no more than a carefully contrived sham" (54).

Were nineteenth-century novelists less troubled by this concern for authenticity, this doubt whether language captures a reality or merely invents it? Like the scientists, Kress's novelists, Henry James and Edith Wharton, move obsessively from metaphor to metaphor, figuring a different kind of consciousness with each trope. Henry James's "contradictory metaphors" for consciousness both "contain" and "spread" (68) in The Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel's mind "reels with images" (81). In The Golden Bowl, the novelist's figure for consciousness echoes his brother's trope of the goldfish bowl to describe idealism—a figure that, for the novelist, represents both "the perfect container" and "the impossibility of containment" in a world where thoughts are accessible to others (120). Though we might suspect that the novelist was less anxious than William about the veracity of his figures, Kress contends that Henry, like William, "desperately tr[ied] to maintain" the delusional "idea of the autonomous individual" (124).

As did Edith Wharton. Like the other writers considered in this study, Wharton moved freely between metaphors for consciousness. She often favored the figure of the house and its contents (and its doors, often open, sometimes closed) to depict the mind at work. Kress maintains that Wharton, who "proudly identifie[d] herself with philosophers and scientific writers" (136), shared their ambivalence about the capacity of language to "define, or perhaps confine, the self in its interior realm" (133). Was Wharton, like these others, groping for an adequate figure of consciousness. To be sure, Wharton vacillated between formulations of identity. While her writings "contain repeated, paradoxical attempts to endorse an authentic self, which might transcend social configurations," Wharton's fiction also "reveals the impossibility of separating the self from its cultural furnishings" (132). As Kress argues, Lily Bart "is most herself with an audience, through the vehicle of performance" (151). Convincing as the [End Page 305] reader finds these episodes of a socially constructed consciousness, Wharton cannot resist repeated and contradictory references to "a 'real self,' an entity that appears to exist without reference or attachment to anything social" (135). Whereas Kress argues superbly that the other players in her study suffered intense linguistic uncertainty, Wharton's ambivalence seems less a failure of language to describe private consciousness than a failure to imagine such a...


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