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  • In Which Henry James Strikes Bedrock
  • Ralph M. Berry

In Stanley Cavell’s account of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, everything we know depends upon what Wittgenstein calls grammatical criteria. These criteria are what we go on when judging that something counts as an instance of our concept of a “chair,” “ardent love,” “headache,” etc. For the arts, Wittgenstein’s focus on criteria leads in two, apparently opposite, directions. First, by making the activity of judging constitutive for language and culture, Wittgenstein makes aesthetics (or what is traditionally called aesthetics) a model for all philosophical activity. Determining the basis on which a phenomenon will count as an instance of any concept turns out to involve capacities that formerly seemed relevant only in cases of aesthetic judgment.

But Wittgenstein’s focus on criteria also works against this centrality of aesthetics, for it makes an exceptional or limiting case of the art contemporary with Wittgenstein. According to Cavell, what modernist art reveals is that judging what counts as a novel, painting, sculpture, etc., is no longer determined by grammatical criteria, or none to which we have access as we do our criteria for “chair,” “ardent love,” “headache,” etc. This does not mean, or not quite, that nobody knows any longer what a novel is. It comes closer to meaning that the experience of modern art is of finding out what we know, what our criteria for sculptures, paintings, novels are. And it makes modernism the disclosure of a new artistic necessity: not merely to create a new work, but to create a new basis for work, a new medium for fiction. 1

In what follows my aim is to see how this necessity arises. My focus is on a particular period of Henry James’s career, roughly from his review of Eliot’s Middlemarch in 1873 to his essay on Maupassant in 1888, a [End Page 61] period that surrounds his now famous response to Walter Besant in “The Art of Fiction.” I do not insist that this moment in James’s career is a founding moment for modernist fiction. My only insistence is that, whatever conditions do give rise to modernism—either for a whole culture or for an individual—they look like this moment.


Near the end of “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James takes issue with Walter Besant (and the critic Andrew Lang) over the use of the word “story.” 2 His stated provocations are, first, that Besant (in his lecture) has distinguished between “a part of a novel which is the story and part of it which . . . is not” (“AF,” p. 178) and, second, that Besant and Lang (in his review of Besant’s lecture) have made “adventure” a defining feature of any story (p. 179). James’s procedure in the first case is to give examples of “the only [sense of ‘story’] that I see” in which it can be spoken of as different from the novel as a whole. His procedure in the second case is to give examples of what constitutes an adventure “for me” (or what “I should say” is an adventure) and to confess that he is “utterly at a loss to see why” the plot of his own novella “An International Episode” does not count as an adventure if the other examples cited by Lang and Besant do. James gives no reasons why anyone ought to use the words “story” and “adventure” as he does. If we see senses of “story” other than the ones that James sees, if the fact that he is “utterly at a loss” makes no impression on us, or if we just do not care what Henry James considers adventurous, nothing he says seems designed to change our minds. His whole case rests on nothing stronger than the likelihood that, in the circumstances he describes, we too will call or judge or find what he calls/judges/finds “a story,” “an adventure,” “exciting,” etc. If we don’t, of course, we just don’t, but the surprise is how often we do. 3

Contrary to what James maintains, the problem with Besant and Lang’s definition of “story” is not that it is “altogether arbitrary” (p. 179...

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pp. 61-76
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