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The Jamesian Revolution in The Princess Casamassima: A Lesson in Bookbinding by Mike Fischer, University of Michigan You are miserable isolated individuals. You are bankrupt. You have played out your role. Go where you belong, to the dustheap of history. —Leon Trotsky, speaking of anarchists during the October Revolution It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid, nice things, and stroke the heads of people who create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And you musn't stroke anyone's head—you might get your hand bitten off. —V. I. Lenin, on hearing a Beethoven sonata As the fourth book of The Princess Casamassima opens, Henry James's young protagonist Hyacinth Robinson is enjoying his brief Continental respite from the everyday London world in which he works as a bookbinder. Overwhelmed by the "wonderful precious things," "the fabric of beauty and power" (PC 339) that European society appears to offer him, Hyacinth admires the "so many proofs of a civilization that had no visible rough spots" (PC 336).1 Rough spots, however, there nevertheless are, and Hyacinth's troubled origins, impoverished upbringing and consequent involvement in anarchist politics make him acutely aware, as he states in his letter from Paris to the Princess Casamassima, of "the monopolies and rapacities of the past," which allow that civilization to enjoy its "lark" (PC 352). Consequently, his increasing unwillingness to confront this past and the implications of its blemishes adds a disturbing dimension to his vacationary impulse: as he revels in "the splendid accumulations of the happier few" (PC 352), Hyacinth "vacations" from his own heritage, abjuring the commitments and responsibilities that comprise his world. Though he eventually returns to London, Hyacinth's vacation from this world continues. As the novel moves towards its tragic conclusion, he closes his eyes on his once familiar terrain, rejecting the poor he encounters on one of his walks through the slums as "vermin" "saturated with alcohol and vice, brutal, bedraggled, [and] obscene" (PC 431). At the same time, his appreciation for the art objects that allow him to occlude this poverty grows more defiant: "I think there can't be too many pictures and statues and works of art ... the more the better, whether people are hungry or not," he boldly proclaims to Rosy Muniment. Hyacinth tacitly associates this (counter) revolution in his sympathies with his construction of an alternate self: "I say to myself a dozen times a day," 88 The Henry James Review he writes in his letter to the Princess, "that Hyacinth Robinson isn't in it" (PC 351). The obverse side of this statement, that Hyacinth is "out of it," effectively underscores his separation of the impressions he gathers during his vacation from the difficulties of his London life. Refusing to accept the realities of the class boundaries that inform his existence, Hyacinth moves and dreams in an imaginary landscape with little reference to that existence, disorienting himself to such an extent that he forfeits his faculty of judgment. Consequently, he loses the ability to recognize and challenge the strategies whereby "civilization" and its artifacts undercut and hide the class interests he ostensibly supports.2 The growing disjunction between Hyacinth and his background parallels the split Marx described in The German Ideology between a mystified conception of the absolute ego and the social relationships it elides (52). People who make this separation develop what Marx referred to as "false consciousness." They maintain their illusion of mastery "by imposing a definite form on every object of discourse and, as it were, giving permanent shape to flowing reality" (quoted in Kolakowski 175) while simultaneously denying their own implication in the processes and contexts they distance and objectify. Hyacinth's efforts to subsume the contradictions and conflicts of his London life within the comforting projection of a perfect (and permanent) harmony that art potentially offers is a telling instance of such an objectification, duplicating the division between intellectual and material activity, enjoyment and labor, and consumption and production that, Marx claimed, were some of its results (52). Hyacinth's new found appreciation for art, however, cannot of itself explain his increasing isolation, even if it does represent one of the clearest...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 87-104
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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