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The Wings of the Dove: "Not Knowing, But Only Guessing" by Kumkum Sangari, Indraprastha College, Delhi ... the value I wished most to render and the effect I wished most to produce were precisely those of our not knowing, of society's not knowing , but only guessing and suspecting and trying to ignore, what "goes on" irreconcilably, subversively, beneath the vast smug surface. (Preface to The Princess Casamassima) How does the late Jamesian text "position" its reader and transform each critic writing on it into an individual and sensitive register "open" to the multiple possibilities inscribed in the narrative? The famous polysemy of the late Jamesian text is indeed crucial in situating the reader, as is frequently recognized in studies that locate the text-reader relation as a ludic transaction: the reader postulated by the text must in effect promise not to elicit any kind of self-confirmation from the text, whether cultural, moral, or epistemological. The readings that privilege form and celebrate the plurality of meaning in James's narratives are based on a notion of an auto-referential or self-reflexive literary text that anticipates the way it will be read and the interpretations it will generate. They opt for a "skepticism towards any reconstruction of the plane of reference" based on a neo-Jamesian identification of the "vulgar" with the "literal" and of the "criminal" with the univocal.1 In a curious circular fashion, the actual reading of the text becomes almost identical with the reader postulated by the text. Such readings illustrate the persuasive power of the late Jamesian text insofar as they come to occupy the collusive reader positions "formally" preferred by the text. Ultimately, however, the particular notions of polysemy, difficulty, and inaccessibility central to modernist narratives have to be unpacked not in the formal but in the cultural sphere. Epistemological difficulties are not universal—they have specifiable contours and historical locales. The cognitive relation that the late Jamesian text prefers and establishes is produced by and in turn produces a social relation. Both the potential of the textfor re-interpretation and the difficulty of fixing meaning need to be seen as part of a social transaction involving class, politics, and ideology. Neither the fecundity of the late Jamesian text nor the way in which it seeks to position the reader inrelaThe Henry James Review 13 (1992): 292-305 © 1992 by The Johns University Press The Wings of the Dove: Not Knowing 293 relation to itself is value free. Both are constrained by their specific ideological character, which underwrites the cognitive mode they try to establish. The generative matrix (textual, formal, and social) of the polysemy of the text, which both enables and encourages the production and/or proliferation of meaning, simultaneously determines the ideological limits of the plurality of the text. To say this is to frame both the late Jamesian text as a site for the production of meaning and the generative activity of the reader it implies, to argue that the text encodes the conditions of its re-interpretability, to claim that the sanction for a particular mode of plurality is to be found within the given historical moments of the text's production and consumption (which do not remain identical), and so to acknowledge the possibility of "openness" as a form of enclosure. In The Wings of the Dove the presence of two broadly different competing epistemologies, the "realist" and the "modernist," creates the generative matrix of the plurality of the text, which surfaces and flourishes within a conflictive historical moment and so offers a range of "interpretative temptations."2 The polysemy of the text is generated by the structures of surrogacy that unsettle conventions of character and morality only to replace them with other modes of authority, by the gathering intimacy of the narrator with Merton Densher, which signifies the emergence of a corporate consciousness, by the secrecy that underlies the weight given by characters and narrator to the unspoken and by the structure of the text to the unshown, and by the syntactical uncertainty that depends upon and "replays" the semantic difficulty so produced. The text is both intentional and performative. It is intentional because it is a mode...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 292-305
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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