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Reviewed by:
  • Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James
  • Rob Davidson
J. Hillis Miller. Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James. New York: Fordham UP, 2005. xiii + 350 pp.

In Literature as Conduct, J. Hillis Miller uses speech act theory as a vehicle for reading a range of James's most important texts. Beginning with a comparatively short treatment of "The Aspern Papers," Miller launches into extended analyses of The Portrait of a Lady, The Awkward Age, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and the unfinished posthumous novel The Sense of the Past. For readers less familiar with speech act theory, Miller quickly sketches out some essential features in his introduction: the practice has its roots in J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words (1962) and, later, the work of Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and others. Miller's strategy is to examine the performative speech act, "an utterance that does not name something but makes something happen," as it functions in James's fiction. Miller is not a speech act theorist per se; his focus, as he puts it, is on "the permeable frontier—the overlapping, intersection, collision, or confrontation—between speech act theory and literary works, specifically works by Henry James" (4).

Readers unfamiliar with speech act theory need not fear this text; Miller's lucid explanations make the theoretical dimensions of the text accessible to any critical reader. To be sure, persons familiar with speech act theory and the work of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida will draw deeper from the well, but there is water here for everyone. Frankly, this reader often forgot that he was reading a book situated in speech act theory and simply lost himself in Miller's penetrating, subtle readings of James. That is, the scope of this book is wider than its professed theoretical lens. Speech act theory becomes the vehicle for one of the best, most thoughtful readings of James's work in recent years. [End Page 654]

Miller's chapter on The Portrait of a Lady is a case in point. Miller centers his fifty-page discussion around Caspar Goodwood's kiss of Isabel Archer at the end of the novel. (Yes, a wordless gesture like a kiss can function as a perfomative speech act.) Miller begins with a simple enough question: What is a kiss? Miller's exploration of this question is fascinating; he moves quickly from Kierkegaard to Freud, from Ulysses to The Simpsons. And, of course, Miller eventually lands on Derrida's Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Throughout this long introductory passage, Miller's prose is energetic, illuminating, and playful. After relating an anecdote about a dying Kant requesting a kiss on the lips from a young disciple, Miller quips: "If it is hard (for me) to think of kissing Freud, it is even harder to think of kissing or being kissed by Immanuel Kant" (39). In an age when many scholarly books are increasingly burdened by narrowly-defined rhetoric that appeals to increasingly smaller audiences, it is refreshing to read a work of literary analysis that is itself entertaining, witty, and playful. Miller is having fun, pure and simple.

Eventually, Miller circles around to asking the question that every reader of The Portrait has struggled with: why does Isabel refuse Goodwood and return to Rome and her awful husband? Miller essentially throws up his hands and admits he can't answer the question. But the occasion becomes an object lesson in how to read and respond responsibly to a text:

Several incompatible answers to this question are suggested by the text. After many readings and re-readings, I still do not see how one can with certainty decide among them. The reader should face that fact squarely. . . . By calling the reading situation "undecidable" I do not mean you can say anything you like about Isabel's motives, make any decision you like in presenting a reading. I mean that the text is overdetermined. It offers determinable explanations that are incompatible.


Miller proceeds to catalog what he considers to be the three most plausible possibilities. This part of Miller's chapter is wonderful; in offering a...


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pp. 654-656
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