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  • Bodies That Don’t Matter: The Queering of “Henry James”
  • Lynda Zwinger (bio)

One always knows enough in order to occupy the minutes during which one exposes oneself in the position of the one who knows.

—Jacques Lacan, translated in Felman, “Psychoanalysis and Education”


My title is a narrative. While it announces in a constative way that the essay wants to engage certain trends in James criticism as well as certain salutary new modalities in cultural studies, there is a story standing behind, or somewhere around, the title, which is to say that the title is a narrative for reasons not entirely sufficient to the black marks on the page. I toyed for a while with changing the first verb from “don’t” to “aren’t,” and I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have, as I take my argument to be that it is what is, precisely, not there that makes for the presence of sexuality, of narrative, and of sexuality and narrative.

In the discussion below, my specimen texts are: Henry James’s tale “The Pupil,” “Henry James” the literary/cultural text, and a quite usefully awful 1991 buddy flick, The Last Boy Scout (dir. Tony Scott). I am [End Page 657] motivated by a very queer circumstance—l’m not sure it’s right to call it a coincidence. In each of these texts readerly certitude about what is there is conditioned by a confident statement of what is not. 1) Henry James was queer (but had no sex); 2) The Last Boy Scout’s buddies talk queer (but have no sex—with each other anyway); and 3) Henry James’s story is queer (but has no sex—but it does have the sexuality Henry James’s sex would have had had he had any.)

The Tutor Text

I didn’t describe to you the purpose of it . . . I described to you . . . the effect of it—which is a very different thing.

—Henry James, The Sacred Fount


Most often read as a story focusing on the pedagogical relationship therein depicted (the crucial questions in this reading usually being who is responsible for the death of the boy pupil and in what register the problem of that death is staged—moral, ethical, sexual), the germ of “The Pupil,” as Henry James narrates it in the preface to the 1908 edition, is a traveling companion’s happening “to speak to me of a wonderful American family, an odd, adventurous, extravagant band.” James speaks not only of the small boy and his “subject[ed],” “beguiled,” “unremunerated, yet after all richly repaid” tutor, but insistently and passionately of the family Moreen:

we referred ourselves, with our highest complacency, to the classic years of the great Americano-European legend; the years of limited communication, of monstrous and unattenuated contrast, of prodigious and unrecorded adventure . . . . The most extraordinary things appear to have happened, during that golden age, in the “old” countries—in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe—to the candid children of the West, things admirable incongruous and incredible, but no story of all the list was to find its just interpreter, and nothing is now more probable than that every key to interpretation has been lost. . . . The Moreens were of the family then of the great unstudied precursors—poor and shabby members, no doubt; dim and superseded types.

(xvii) 1 [End Page 658]

James’s invocation of the public space—the space of monstrous and extraordinary learning international intercourse as the school of hard knocks—prefaces a story which may seem at first or second glance to be one mired in the private parts. Even money, the most promiscuously public of all private affairs, pretends to be simply a private, personal, familial interest. Take, for instance, the first encounter Pemberton—the beguiled and yet richly repaid—has with the family; his initiatory skirmish, that is, with Mrs. Moreen: “The poor young man hesitated and procrastinated: it cost him such an effort to broach the subject of terms, to speak of money to a person who spoke only of feelings and, as it were, of the aristocracy” (167). Pemberton is refined enough to know that money is...

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