- Henry James and the Evolution of Consciousness: A Study of "The Ambassadors", and: Searching for the Figure in the Carpet in the Tales of Henry James: Reflections of an Ordinary Reader, and: Henry James: Selected Letters
Announced as a "literary breakthrough" in the Preface by Lyall H. Powers, this study of The Ambassadors by Courtney Johnson, Jr. focuses on the scientific basis for the shift from "ordinary" consciousness in Lambert Strether to a higher, "extraordinary" consciousness. To make his case, Johnson tries to demonstrate throughout the book that Strether does indeed move from one type of consciousness, the consciousness of everyday living, to another, more spiritual, "transcendental" consciousness. Johnson's scientific validation rests, first, on Henry James's late essay, "Is There Life After Death?," and on William James's studies of consciousness; second, on a paradigm shift represented by Einstein's critique of Newtonian physics; and third, on transcendental meditation as described in the Bhagavad-Gita and in contemporary studies by David Orme-Johnson.
There is no doubt that Courtney Johnson raises some provocative questions in this book about the scientific bases for shifts in consciousness and the relation of this science to the literary representation of consciousness. And certainly Johnson offers some thought-provoking readings of important scenes in The Ambassadors, particularly the Gloriani garden scene and the several "interview" scenes that follow between Strether and Madame de Vionnet. What disturbs me about Johnson's argument, however, is that the scientific aspect of the argument rests primarily on parallels and analogies, seldom on a direct confrontation between James's text and the various texts Johnson uses for scientific support. So, for instance, Henry James's characterization of Strether's consciousness parallels William James's view as presented in certain passages of Varieties of Religious Experience and A Will to Believe, yet there is no accounting made of the seemingly disparate use of terminology. Johnson wants to use the terms "higher," "transcendental," and "extra-ordinary" for Strether's movement to a different state of mind; however, in passages quoted from William James, the term "subliminal" is pervasive. Are we just to accept, as Johnson apparently does, the synonymy of "transcendental" and "subliminal"? Or, what in James's description of Strether's evolving consciousness permits the two terms to be appropriate, synonymous descriptors? Although Johnson goes on in the next chapter to illustrate how the image of "light" is used, particularly in the Gloriani episode, to signal illuminating consciousness, Johnson doesn't really tie that analysis to William James or to any other scientific perspective Henry James might have known. Instead, [End Page 617] in this chapter, Johnson brings in the paradigm shift from Newton to Einstein. And here no direct correspondence is offered, only an analogy: as light is the only constant in Einsteinian physics with time and space constantly changing, so, too, does the "light" of Strether's awareness become a constant in his changing environment. We are also, apparently, to equate developing "awareness" with the "extra-ordinary," "transcendental" consciousness of Johnson's argument.
Johnson is most persuasive when he introduces the Bhagavad-Gita and the contemporary twentieth-century studies of transcendental meditation into his argument. Here, too, parallels between the Gita and the novel are drawn without much close textual analysis. It also would have been immensely helpful had Johnson searched out the knowledge Henry James might have possibly had of this ancient text or of literary uses of it. Walt Whitman comes to mind immediately. The most satisfying textual analysis is that of the six meetings Strether has with Madame de Vionnet. Johnson parallels these "sessions" to the stages of the model of transcendence that come out of recent studies of consciousness. In my view, however, whether Strether's evolution is "transcendental...