- Thinking in Henry James, and: Henry James and the "Woman Business", and: Desire and Love in Henry James: A Study of the Late Novels, and: Eurydice Reclaimed: Language, Gender, and Voice in Henry James
Sharon Cameron's Thinking in Henry James is the most provocative and controversial of these four books, with Alfred Habegger's Henry James and the "Woman Business" a close second. David McWhirter's less daring but very intelligent and eminently readable book is, however, the most consistently useful and reliable. Lynda Boren attempts less successfully the kind of critical pyrotechnics at which Cameron and Habegger excel. Their deliberately shocking, at times outlandish claims will force Jamesians to rethink many established positions. But whether their arguments will permanently change critical opinion or simply cause a temporary sensation remains to be seen.
Cameron is well aware that the conception of "thinking" she attributes to James is "dizzying" and "bizarre." She claims that James's novels contradict the psychological notion of consciousness found in his prefaces, which portray it as "centered, subjective, internal, and unitary." According to Cameron, "in the novels consciousness is disengaged from the self. It is reconceived as extrinsic, made to take shape—indeed, to become social—as an intersubjective phenomenon." Trying to think of thinking in nonsubjective, nonpsychological terms is a difficult trick, but this paradoxical, impersonal reformulation of consciousness helps to explain some of the peculiarities of texts such as The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl where, Cameron argues, thought is dramatized as an activity "outside the self," in a realm "outside and between persons." Other critics (most notably Ruth Bernard Yeazell) have pointed out how thought in the late James sometimes seems to circulate ambiguously among characters, thereby blurring the boundaries between selves. Philip Sicker (whom Cameron oddly fails to mention) has also argued that a kind of almost telepathic interpenetration of minds frequently occurs in the late works. But Cameron's distinction is the rigor of her insistence on the paradox that James retains an emphasis on consciousness while freeing it from the inferiority of the self.
Pursuing the implications of this paradox results in shrewd, original, and extraordinarily complex close readings that defy summary. Sometimes Cameron's [End Page 539] need to maintain distinctions between concepts so similar that they would easily collapse into each other makes her reasoning seem super-subtle and laborious. The excitement of her challenge to conventional categories is often dulled by the tedium of byzantine argumentation. Readers of her book may find themselves alternating between exhilaration at discovering new ways to think about thought and frustration at the disproportion between the enormous concentration required to follow her most complex reasoning and the rewards for doing so. Some of her sentences are unnecessarily tortuous, and some of her more provocative claims are simply wrong. For example, no matter how "thinking" is redefined, it makes no sense to assert that "consciousness has nothing to do with what happens" in Portrait of a Lady, and the statement that "thinking cannot be thought of in the sense that it cannot be understood" is strange to find in a book which seeks to amplify and refine our understanding of thinking.
Habegger also desires to shock and provoke, but for political rather than epistemological reasons: "Because James's fiction embodies a covert act of force directed against women, we should not accept his mastery on the terms his texts tend to impose. We cannot read him well unless we resist his authority." That James is so purely and unproblematically sexist is not a claim all feminist critics would assent to, many of whom have found in his works an extraordinary sensitivity to the plight of nineteenth-century women and...