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Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 62.3 (2006) 45-62

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James's Birdcage/Hitchcock's Birds

Michigan State University
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried, in my way, to be free.
—Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen's 1969 signature lyric posits a conundrum about freedom: I have tried to be free in my vocalizations, sings the Keatsian bird/drunk, but my freedom to sing has coincided with linearity, restriction, conformity. In this chestnut of poetic complaint, form and the constrictions of the poetic instrument ("wire" referring to guitar strings) contend with spontaneity in the reproduction of the poet's song and soul, his "freedom." Cohen's "I have tried" and "in my way" notwithstanding (those clichés of contemporary victimization), his image of a bird on a wire symptomatizes what I want to define as a particular circumstance of the condition of modernity. I will characterize this circumstance as a dually complicit and conflicted relation between the simulativeness and the putative freedom of the subject, in the vein of the more the subject is redoubled, the more mobile it becomes. This relation rests upon an ambiguation of the ideology underlying what Herb Schneidau has definitively explored in Sacred Discontent as the alienation of the modern Western subject—a double alienation in that it compounds the alienation of the subject in culture and inevitably represents it as the alienation of culture from nature, or the inviolate gap of the real existing between the social and the imaginary broached by modern self-consciousness (1–49).

In drawing out this relation, I will be moving between two figures and two works, Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock; In the Cage, James's deeply weird, voyeuristic novella of 1898 and The Birds, Hitchcock's [End Page 45] 1963 epic of avian mayhem and the second of the trilogy of films—sandwiched between Psycho and Marnie—devoted to possessive mothers, bad daughters, and generally possessed adults. Why James and Hitchcock? For starters, it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart, at least in profile. Both are portly modernists, bookends to an epoch, at least in the case of James on the front end if we follow Hugh Kenner's characterization of him in The Pound Era as the era's absent father, encountering the young Ezra and Dorothy in London while on a walk with his niece "toward the evening of a gone world," a meeting that Kenner characterizes as follows:

"Mr. Pound! . . . " in the searching voice, torch for unimagined labyrinths; and on, to the effect of presenting his niece Margaret; whereafter Mr. Pound presented Mr. James to his wife Dorothy; and the painter's eye of Dorothy Pound, née Shakespear, "took in," as James would have phrased it, Henry James. "A fairly portly figure."

Fifty years later, under an Italian sky, the red waistcoat seemed half chimerical—"that may be imagination!"—but let us posit it; Gautier wore such a garment to the Hernani première, that formal declaration (1830) of art's antipathy to the impercipient, and James would have buttoned it for this outing with didactic deliberation.


For Kenner, whose treatise on the era as book is modeled on Ulysses, thus the implicit comparison between the didactic, "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" of the novel's introit and the didactic, portentous Henry James shepherding in modernity and seeing out the nineteenth century, James's "unimagined labyrinths" conspire with "art's antipathy to the impercipient" to produce a body of work that combines obsessive reflexivity and compulsive attention to detail. We might also say the same of Hitchcock films from, roughly, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1939 version) on, in proximate relation to the latter epoch of cinematic modernity as James stands in relation to the earlier epoch of literary modernity. More pointedly, James and Hitchcock reflect in unprecedented ways on the relation I have just introduced: detail and labyrinth, both signature elements of their collective opus, or a specificity...


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