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The Artist that Was Used Up: Henry James's "Private Life" Adam Bresnick, New York City Do you know why you like.....A B C (pupil can fill in the blanks at his own discretion).—Pound Brevet Brigadier-General John A. B. C. Smith was the man—was the man that was used up.—Poe In his allegories of artists and the work of art, Henry James raises unsettling questions about the status of the artistic subject and the ethical function of literature. Whereas James in his aesthetic theory would claim for literature a complete freedom by virtue of its disinterestedness, and, in good nineteenth-century form, would erect an inviolable artistic subject whose original model is the Kantian genius, the very process of artistic creation in these tales largely cancels the possibility of such a theoretical position.1 For if James's aesthetic theory depends on a notion of disinterest that in turn presupposes a coherent, singular artistic subject, the artists of James's aesthetic allegories find themselves fundamentally split by an imaginary identification with their artwork that problematizes the notion of "the real,' ' just as it throws a wrench into the ostensibly unproblematic ethical function of art. Somewhat schematically, we might say that James's aesthetic of the beautiful , predicated as it is on the practicability of an ideal aesthetic sublimation that would somehow empty the artwork of its pathos, finds itself powerfully challenged by the sublime affect inherent in artistic production. In this account, aesthetic affect, rather than being the logical upshot of the disinterested creation and consumption of artworks, is precisely that which preemptively wrecks the program of disinterest and consigns it to the list of elegant but superseded ideaUsms. ' 'It appears to me,' ' writes James, ' 'that no one can ever have made a seriously artistic The Henry James Review 14 (1993): 87-98 © 1993 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 88 The Henry James Review attempt without becoming conscious of an immense increase—a kind of revelation—of freedom' ' (AC 177).2 In James's tales of artists and the work of art, this freedom turns out to be much more total than one might expect, for it is a freedom that uncannily disseminates the subject and places it far beyond the confines of a normative ethics. As an example of this, I shall take James's 1892 tale "The Private Life," a highly amusing story that rather fantastically presents the artist as so riven by the contradictory demands of his profession and his quotidian life that he literally becomes two people, a kind of mto-Doppelgänger. Set in the Swiss Alps, "The Private Life' ' details the charged interactions of a small group of Englishmen who have gathered together for a late summer vacation, most prominent among whom are the writer Clare Vawdrey, the actress Blanche Adney, and Lord Mellifont, a nobleman renowned for his extraordinary charm and public grace who has convened the characters at his alpine villa when the tale opens. The events of the story are recounted by a meddlesome unnamed narrator who is an aspiring writer and who would like to ferret out some compositional secrets from the great writer in whose company he finds himself, perhaps in order to replace him at the apogee of novelistic creation. As we shall see, what the narrator finds out is that the uniqueness of Vawdrey's composition is less a matter of his literary skills per se than a matter of his physical make-up, for, in a tale that uncannily straddles the line between realism and fantastic allegory, Vawdrey is discovered to have two entirely disconnected bodies, one that participates in social activities in an entirely second-rate, prosaic style, and one that secretly composes highly refined works of fiction in a darkened room while the other body is out sociahzing. At the same time, Lord Mellifont, a nobleman famous for his fabulous conversational skills, a man whom the narrator describes as having "treasures of tact" (PL 200) and as personifying the very essence of English social grace, is revealed to have no private self whatsoever, for he literally vanishes when he is not consciously aware that he is the object...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 87-98
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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