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Sara Blair HENRY JAMES AND THE PARADOX OF LITERARY MASTERY Within the Anglo-American literary canon, Henry James holds sway as our most philosophical novelist, the writer whose fictions uniquely dramatize the moral status of interpretive acts. His own authoritative statements of literary doctrine have contributed largely to this image, which remains curiously resistant to changes of critical fashion . Formalist critics have championed James's insight into the entanglement of epistemological and ethical crises; poststructuralist readers have claimed James as a deconstructive angel, a writer who dramatizes the dangers of faith in an illusory ontological correspondence between subject or language and world. The Jamesian language of choice and money and love, spoken in all the extremes ofcommitment and betrayal, is even said to constitute a model for our own moral performances.1 Despite the variety of these readings ofJames's art and life, they tend to preserve the most enduring of his fictions, his master text—that of himself as literary Master, Master of the subtleties of consciousness and its moral dilemmas, Master ofthe indeterminacy ofmeaning, ofnaming, of signs. In general, James's Mastery is understood as his power to enable in his readers a higher "freedom" (that cardinal Jamesian virtue), and thereby to guarantee the " 'moral' reference" of his own productions.2 Yet the relation of freedom to Mastery engenders a distinct paradox of self-reference. IfJames's fiction alerts his readers to the modes of legitimation that are concealed within any rhetoric of Mastery, his writings on the nature of authorship invoke these legitimating practices Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 89-102 90Philosophy and Literature quite differendy. From beginning to end of his long authorial career, James undertook the resolution of a felt crisis of representation: an urgent need to authorize the images produced by the writing subject as true to life (or even to the absence of truth). Above all, his selfrepresentations are concerned with producing a convincing self-portrait of the author, a figure legitimated to speak for, to represent, his culture at large. They consequently tend to essentialize their own insights into the process of legitimation. If James acknowledges his implication in the politics of Mastery, he does so (at least in part) strategically, compelling us to privilege his attentiveness to the politics of authorship as a mode of transcending those politics altogether. Insofar asJames does compel, the dynamic of Mastery makes him free to trade, in the literary marketplace and beyond, on the very institutions ofempowerment (and particularly, as we shall see, on ideological distinctions between male and female, between marketplace and home) that his own fiction attempts to subvert.3 Herein lies the paradox ofJames's Mastery, which secures its " 'moral' reference" in a complex suppression of the nature of and resources for its own claims to authority. Finally, his Mastery initiates what we might call a vicious circle: the imaginative and ethical freedom it secures for reader and author alike depends on a form of regulation that undermines the very possibility of freedom. Yet this Jamesian circle might ultimately prove hermeneutic, insofar as it figures the paradoxical interplay of freedom and regulation that informs the literary culture of modernity. II Perhaps the most useful moment in which to locate the origins of Jamesian Mastery is the year of 1904, in which James returned, after an absence ofmore than twenty years, to his native land. It was to prove an eventful crossing, a movement symbolic ofJames's authorial project: that of occupying a place both within and beyond the boundaries of American culture from which to engage in privileged observation of its forms. His American venture produced two texts, both of which reflect this project. The first, The American Scene, records James's impressions of American life in the new century, trading on his authority as a "restored absentee" uniquely situated to observe its developing commercial culture.4 This ambitious text of cultural criticism would Sara Blair91 prepare the way forJames's most intensive work of self-representation: the New York edition of his fiction, a "handsome" and "definitive" republication, in twenty-four volumes, offiction scrupulously rewritten, collocated, and introduced, with "confidential" prefaces, byJames himself .5 For his elaborate architecture of the edition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 89-102
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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