Forms of Initiation: “The Tree of Knowledge”
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Forms of Initiation:
“The Tree of Knowledge”

Ignorance is the mother of vice and sin; knowledge, if imparted properly, carefully and earnestly, can never be mischief.

—Max Nordau, “The Tree of Knowledge” (1896)

An 1894 New Review symposium entitled “The Tree of Knowledge” addressed the sexual enlightenment of children.1 The respondents, who included Thomas Hardy, Max Nordau, Walter Besant, Mona Caird, and Blanche Crackenthorp, produced some memorable lines (Besant: “If man ceases to believe in woman, and woman in man, there is nothing left at all, not even the Christ” [677]; Hardy: “it has never struck me that the spider is inevitably male and the fly unvariably female” [681]) but (with the possible exception of Hardy) little in the way of interesting thought or writing. There would be much to say about the appearance of such a symposium, the arguments made for and against sex education, and the panic occasioned by childhood sexuality for progressive and reactionary contributors alike. Leaving aside such questions, however, what are we to make of the publication, six years later, of a Henry James story with the same title? Whether or not James read this text, his tale of 1900 strikes one as a characteristically oblique response to its concerns. Just how oblique (and the links it makes [obliquely] visible between sexual initiation and aesthetic form) is the subject I hope to address.

Among the many things not taken for granted by the story (as it is by most respondents to the New Review—and, typically, by current discussions of sex education [or simply education] for children) is the initiation itself: that it occurs, and (if it occurs) that its occurrence can be located in time, can itself be “known.” This is a recurrent topos in James’s writing: the more a text can be said to revolve around the fact of initiation, the more its initiation tends to recede from view. Such would, for instance, be one way to characterize what is missed by the long history of readings of “The Turn of the Screw”: to read in the tale a contest with eschatological stakes between governess and ghosts presumes, perhaps above all, a narrative of a fall (a dominant term—by no accident at all—in the critical history).2 Recent rereadings of [End Page 118] that text questioning the function of the presumed innocence of the children—and the sexual pleasure of that presumption—also thereby question the necessity of understanding the text as a fall.3 Initiation—how, when, whether it occurs—is left as vague as the “things” Miles told to those he liked.

“The Tree of Knowledge”—the story of a small coterie of friends (wife, son, and close family friend, Peter Brench) surrounding the sculptor Morgan Mallow (or “the Master”) and the effort of each to dissimulate, for the sake of the others, his or her knowledge of how truly awful the Master’s sculpture really is—details a “fall” that is singularly difficult to locate. In the first place, the revelation of initiation is continually deferred as the initiation continually recedes; seeming to promise a “fall,” the story builds up to a series of revelations that each turns out not to be “it.” Early on, Brench tries to convince Lance (the Master’s son) not to go to Paris to study; worried that closer knowledge of art will lead Lance to guess the truth about his father’s aesthetic debility, Brench tries to convey his fear of a contaminating knowledge without specifying it. “Oh hang it,” he says, “don’t know” (CS 224). “Though the young man’s innocence,” Brench then concludes from the boy’s comments, “might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy . . . believed, in short, in the Master” (225). As the story unfolds, Brench can hardly be said to resist the “perverse” desire to give away the secret he nevertheless prides himself on keeping. When Lance returns from Paris to announce that he has guessed...