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  • Henry James's Subterranean Blues:A Rereading of The Princess Casamassima1

In The Princess Casamassima, Hyacinth Robinson is torn between the legacy of his dissipated English sire, Lord Frederick Purvis, and that of his murderous French mother, Florentine Vivier, who is the daughter of a revolutionary. This tension leads to a key dilemma of the novel: Will Hyacinth assassinate a scion of English society and set a revolution in motion, or will he side with the privileged class against the masses who would rip to shreds every vestige of cultural achievement? The social critical dimensions of the novel have elicited valuable commentary over the years, most notably from Lionel Trilling, Taylor Stoehr, Mark Seltzer, and John Carlos Rowe. While marveling at the ingenuity of their interpretations, I suspect they do not reach to the novel's depths. What is the raison d'être of The Princess Casamassima? Surely, it is not an exposition of the novelist's familiarity with international terrorism, derived from a careful study of Bakunin's and Nechayev's manual, The Revolutionary Catechism, as Trilling (71-72) and Stoehr (122-123) suggest. Seltzer's claim that James both upholds and deconstructs his authorial power to police the fictive world he has created in The Princess Casamassima (54-55) and Rowe's claim that the novelist exposes the "social contradictions of a hierarchical society" are far more suggestive [End Page 51] (156). Several things stand out in these accounts. The novel undeniably expresses a desire to subvert a repressive power of the highest order; in depicting this underlying aim, the novelist participates in the subversion of that authority even as he shores up its appearance of invulnerability. But must we assume that this fierce battle rages outside the consciousness of its author or his representative, when it can be seen as a conflict between thwarted impulses and the internal censors?: "With his mixed, divided nature, his conflicting sympathies, his eternal habit of swinging from one view to another, he regarded the prospect in different moods with different intensities" (6:263).

The protagonist's identificatory dilemma signals the instability of the regulatory norms governing class hierarchy and, I will argue, heterosexual hegemony. By assuming, even temporarily, the position of abjection, deformity, and femininity occupied by his French mother, Hyacinth embraces the threat of ostracism as well as the taboo of sexual difference she represents, and he challenges the Law of the Father whose surrogate he has sworn an oath to dispatch to the next world. The enumeration of unsanctioned activities by church or state may have the unintended effect of disseminating the very practices it is designed to constrain. As Judith Butler argues in Bodies That Matter, such prohibitions lend cultural intelligibility to heretofore unthinkable practices: "But what happens if the law that deploys the spectral figure of abject homosexuality as a threat becomes itself an inadvertent site of eroticization? If the taboo becomes eroticized precisely for the transgressive sites that it produces?" (97). Hyacinth's eagerness to follow in his mother's footsteps and "put his head in a noose" (6:51) instantiates the erotic possibilities of self-punishment, making him something of a kindred spirit to the late British M.P. Stephen Milligan, who preached family values one day and practiced autoerotic self-strangulation the next.2 Significantly, Hyacinth's abjection circulates among the denizens of the novel's fraternal underground as an erotic identity-sign. Hyacinth is a "rare muff" (6:46), a queer, unathletic, "pretty lad" (5:232), who offers himself, albeit unconsciously, to the "big chaps" (6:47) of his homosocial network: "This rare man he could go on his knees to without a sense of humiliation" (5:150). Consequently, the injunction against homosexuality facilitates the formation of a recognizable homosexual identity, which exists in opposition to culturally sanctioned codes of masculine behavior and desire. It is intelligible to the astonishing variety of persons who fancy Hyacinth and have a go at him: "'Yes, and you nipped him up!'" (6:229). [End Page 52]

While it may seem premature to characterize Hyacinth as a homosexual in 1885, before the Wilde trials inaugurated the homosexual persona, a variety of forces were...


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