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Sexuality and the Aesthetic in The Golden Bowl Hugh Stevens, Trinity Hall, Cambridge "Is there a mode of civilized discourse which might at least partially dissipate our savage sexuality?" (Bersani 42) In the prefaces, James seems to waver between two notions of what would constitute the ' 'ideal' ' novel: the self-contained organic whole and the referential narrative. This hesitation between two different ideals leads him to a dilemma, for he discerns a disjunction between the aspiration of the novel to "beauty" and its obligation to "truth." In The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove, dramatic tension arises from this disjunction. The Golden Bowl is a narrative that seems to portray—in a parthenogenetic mise en abîme—itself being created. It begins by postulating the idea of the artwork as civilized form, and in a seemingly natural juxtaposition locates civilized form in the institution of marriage. The civilized discourse that is marriage is constituted in the repudiation of "our savage sexuality " (Bersani 42). Yet sexuality in the novel is that which cannot be figured, that which is always alluded to but rarely directly portrayed. The novel returns again and again to the question of the marriage, which survives through the renunciation of incest and the denial of adultery. Ubiquitous desire is replaced by an insistence that sexual desire can be channelled solely through the marital bond. Marriage then, like the poem in New Criticism, or the organic whole of the Romantics, is a form resolving all conflicts of its disparate parts. If deconstruction has taught us to mistrust such resolutions in literary criticism, we may be similarly suspicious of this aestheticization of the marriage bond. This teleological progression—a renunciation of polymorphous perversity for a socially sanctioned genital (hetero)sexuality—is of course the story told by two of the most eminent theorists of sexuality and civilization: Sigmund Freud and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Freud turned on its head the dominant nineteenth-century narrative of sexual development—in which the innocence of childhood yielded to the corrupting experience of sexual maturity, in which perversion, or sin, was the result of straying from the well-lit road that led to a monogamous, child-bearing union. In The Henry James Review 14 (1993): 55-71 © 1993 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 56 The Henry James Review Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), normal development is the path along which the polymorphously perverse child, passing through the vicissitudes of the Oedipus complex, acquires adult genital (hetero)sexuality. Similarly, Lévi-Strauss's work reverses the Christian narrative of an originary innocence (Eden) followed by a fall from grace: civilization becomes instead a state that follows the prohibition of savage incest. Both these narratives—Freud's tale of sexual development in the individual subject, and Lévi-Strauss's accountof the formation of civilization—suffer from an instability occasioned by the repression of an originary desire. (In "psychoanaytic jargon," as Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text, ' 'all repudiation is avowal' ' [30].) The continuance of incestuous desire is in fact measured by the strength of this desire's prohibition; the institution of psychoanalysis survives by satisfying a need that exists because so many individual subjects do not go through the ' 'normal' ' sexual development psychoanalytic literature describes. In Three Essays, Freud struggles with the term ' 'perversion,' ' wondering if it can be appropriate to describe conditions that appear so prevalent. The distinction between ' 'normal' ' and ' 'perverse' ' is one he has difficulty maintaining . The perversity of the child seems to persist into adult sexuality; it can be traced in the slips, the gaps in adult speech that point to unresolved childhood complexes.1 Similarly, in The Golden Bowl, hints of perversion are carried in parentheses. James's "point-of-view" method acts as a formalist counterpart to Freud's insistence that it is not so much an experience itself that matters but how that experience is worked through in fantasy. In The Golden Bowl, violent fantasy can accompany the most delicate of manners, and "sexuality" consists not so much in bodily contact as in the endless working out of scenarios, and of variations of scenarios. James has created sexuality as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 55-71
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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