This essay claims that the friction between sexual identity and desire in The Ambassadors is given shape by an evangelical language of election and abjection. My interpretation centers on Lambert Strether’s metaphor of the tin mold, an embodiment of a fatalistic sensibility that admits no surprises. This image responds to the ideological fallout from the Oscar Wilde trials, which popularized notions of fixed sexual identity in a way that also reconstituted queerness as merely a type. I argue that Strether’s experience, written into the temporal disjunctures of the late Jamesian sentence, orients his sexuality around a Calvinistic fulfilment of fate.
The affair—I mean the affair of life—couldn’t, no doubt, have been different for me; for it’s at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one’s consciousness is poured—so that one “takes” the form, as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it; one lives in fine as one can. Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t be, like me, without the memory of that illusion.
The metaphor of the tin mold, from Book 5 of The Ambassadors (1903), is the centerpiece of a famous monologue that Henry James calls the “germ” and the “essence” of his “best” novel (xxx, xxix, xxxi). In this uncharacteristically assured speech, Lambert Strether argues that his life is out of his control. On the face of it, his seems a fairly straightforward (if unsettling) worldview that can be summarized in the space of a few sentences. Strether attributes his social obligations, his lack of means, and his sense of inevitability to the idea of a pre-scripted fate, in which not even his thoughts are really his own. Though he might have the illusion of agency or free will, he knows his experiences are predetermined. It does not matter to him what his life might look like (whether it is “fluted and embossed” or “smooth and dreadfully plain”) because he believes he cannot do anything to alter its course. These statements are representative of the speech’s emphatic message, yet they do little justice to the extravagantly misplaced rhetoric of this otherwise reticent character. Strether’s belief is articulated through a frustratingly complex figurative language that obscures its own meaning through its very gesture toward expansive eloquence.
The hyperbolic moral of the tin mold, that all of life is futile, makes the image easy to bypass simply as a histrionic embellishment of the speech’s key theme—regret—and [End Page 1] its famous maxim, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” (153). While James’s preface implies that Strether’s cosmic fatalism is vital to The Ambassadors and to his broader novelistic enterprise, there is a tendency to minimize or dismiss the Calvinistic predeterminism of the metaphor in favor of the palpable enlightenment that attends the protagonist’s experiences in Paris. Critics who insist on Strether’s undeniable alteration in the novel observe it as a forward progression, a fundamental change expressible as a heartfelt conversion. Andrew Taylor has written that, even if Strether’s transformed vision is initially impeded by his persistent rationalizations, his “remarkable development” is nonetheless “confirmed in no uncertain terms” by the author (189). Similarly, Eric Haralson concludes his reading: “Strether’s newly felt internal difference means that he goes home ‘to a great difference’ in American culture” (133). These interpretations, though, neglect a vital irony of James’s narrative: that it is punctuated by an almost excessive number of “conversions,” each one described as a total revolution of identity and perspective. In the overdetermined narrative economy of The Ambassadors, the complete transformation of character becomes an entirely ordinary occurrence. While the tin mold’s fatalism seems incompatible with arguments that stress Strether’s genuine transformation, it is entirely fitting when his frequent revolutions of character are read skeptically. It is possible, in other words, that Strether is in on the irony of his profound change. The sentence that follows his metaphor, “Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t be, like me, without the memory of that illusion,” implies that he is in some way self-aware—that his willingness to be so altered constitutes a conscious denial that his freedom is an illusion. Nevertheless, unless he has a specific motive for articulating himself through this rhetoric of abjection, it is difficult to perceive it as anything but excessively dire.
Yet certain aspects of the intricate mold metaphor suggest Strether’s phrase, “the affair of life,” is a placeholder for a more specific kind of experience. The protagonist draws attention to the phenomenon as one that sets him apart from others but, simultaneously, as something identifiable by many. What begins as a sentence about his own peculiar feeling of existential futility—“for me”—ends as one about a social phenomenon experienced by no “one” in particular. Just as Strether’s use of “one” implies his sentiment is socially familiar, the metaphor itself privileges external recognizability, establishing “the affair of life” as internal experience made observable and tactile. This particular kind of “life,” whether it is “fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences” or “smooth and dreadfully plain,” turns the private “jelly” of consciousness into one of two publicly discernible surfaces. Strether’s apathy seems directed—quite literally—at what his life might look like.
In what follows, I read each of these surfaces—the plain and the ornate—as a culturally legible identity, both in The Ambassadors and in the fin-de-siècle context of its composition. Specifically, the prospect of being “dreadfully plain” evokes a sexualized object of the pejorative male gaze. But for James’s contemporary audience, it is possible that this misogynistic use of “plain” also carried a more scandalous association, one that complicates the recognizable narrative of sexual indeterminacy and queer recognition invoked by recent readings of his protagonist. Beginning with an exploration of how the surfaces of the mold resonate with the cultural fallout from the Oscar Wilde scandal, I trace a different kind of narrative—one that does not assert any real kind of progression or change on Strether’s part. I locate James’s novel at a particular transatlantic historical moment, during which sexual desire became [End Page 2] permanently embroiled in the same questions of fate and agency that characterize the affective organization of U.S. Protestant culture and modern life. In this formulation, the tin mold reflects the way that the structure of predeterminism gives shape to Strether’s sense of sexuality throughout the novel.
That the mold appears twice in The Ambassadors—once, in tin, as an image of profound hopelessness, and once, prior to this, as a more ambiguous signifier of eroticized banality—is vital to an understanding of the various and often conflicting religious discourses through which Strether’s experience is articulated. His approach to queer identity and desire, I argue, is given conviction and form by an evangelical mode of expression. This particular category of Protestantism offers a language of opportunity, as well as the paradox of an elected, predisposed self, underwritten by apathy but also by power and pride. Central to this discussion is the friction between the predeterminist momentum of the narrative content and that of the novel’s epiphany-driven psychological form: the “philosophy of cultural determinism” (Taylor 187) that orients Strether’s heteronormative expectations of marriage and that provides the character with the religious fervor of a moral motive, is at odds with the way his queerness is articulated through an equally powerful style reminiscent of religious revelation. Strether’s encounters with men are thus sublimated and obscured within the framework of Christian predeterminism. Typical features of late Jamesian style are particularly prominent here because they articulate ontological similarities between queer and religious experience. Through a reading of James’s future-anterior tense as a conjectural fantasy of Strether’s evangelically constituted queerness, I argue that homoerotic desire is only allowed to play out in the shifting temporality of the late-Jamesian sentence, in which unconscious urges are swiftly subsumed within Strether’s self-actualizing fate.
Plain James: Oscar Wilde and the Gay Gaze
James’s attempt to distance himself from Wilde at the time of his arrest has ironically provided critics with evidence of an immutable connection between the two men. Paula Smith has suggested that James’s correspondence displays his “ill-disguised fascination” (200) with the rapidly unfolding events, and, more recently, Michèle Mendelssohn has written that “James’s Janus-faced letters regarding the trials demonstrate the emotional ambivalence Wilde aroused in him” (208). In what he appears to have imagined as brief, almost throwaway, comments about a man whom he claimed to have found “never in the smallest degree interesting” (HJL 10), it is difficult to perceive James’s written reaction to the scandal as anything other than panicked. On 8 April 1895, only three days after Wilde was charged with “committing unnatural acts” (Horne 279), James wrote to his friend Edmund Gosse that the unfolding events had been “hideously, atrociously dramatic and really interesting—so far as one can say that of a thing of which the interest is qualified by such a sickening horribility. It is the squalid gratuitousness of it all—of the mere exposure—that blurs the spectacle” (HJL 9–10). More than simply prompting this rather innocuous account of sympathetic distress, what he called the “fall” of the “wretched O. W.” provoked in James an attention to the details of his own public life and work that might similarly expose him (10, 12). Specifically, James’s association with the sexologist John Addington Symonds is, Mendelssohn notes, raised repeatedly in his letters to Gosse [End Page 3] about Wilde. It has been suggested that James may have had in mind Symonds’s “high-minded polemics for homosexual love” (Horne 280) when he added the following note to the envelope flap of his letter to Gosse on 8 April 1895: “Quel Dommage—mais quel Bonheur—que J. A. S. ne soit plus de ce monde” [“What a shame—but what a relief—that J. A. S. should be no longer of this world!”] (HJL 10). In a reading of his letters to Gosse, Mendelssohn shows how “James is explicit about his need for protection and his wish to conceal details that might prove unduly revelatory” (209). That James recognized the potency of such details is epitomized in his description of Wilde’s experience as his “mere exposure”: a dramatic understatement that speaks to the unveiling of private life through what would otherwise seem inconsequential.
Perhaps precisely because Wilde’s rapid decline—from his decision to sue for libel to his arrest—was in his choice of “mere” words and in the associations they exposed, its legacy for James appears to have been chiefly lexical. Smith has argued that the writing of The Awkward Age (1899) was haunted by the indignity surrounding the Irish playwright. She writes that “James unconsciously reduplicates the language (his ‘small secret’ that dare not speak its name, ‘monstrous’ tenderness, ‘secret vice,’ etc.) that swirled around the Wilde scandal” (201). Wilde’s enduring presence in The Ambassadors, written after his death in 1900, is similarly embedded at a linguistic level, albeit in a way that seems to reflect more accurately—and less sensationally—the particular verbal detail that precipitated Wilde’s collapse. But what is most telling about James’s anxiety, about his fear of association with any one of a series of what would (or could have) become discernible markers of homosexuality, is that he employs the trial’s most decisive detail as part of Strether’s complex metaphor for the relationship between one’s identity and how one is publicly perceived. The protagonist’s famous speech in Book 5 of The Ambassadors is a revelatory moment at which his most concealed self—his sense of having a predetermined sexual identity—is articulated through apparently innocuous language—through, in fact, precisely the same word with which Wilde accidentally exposed himself: “plain.”
I am interested here in how the dreadful plainness of Strether’s tin mold is connected to the very moment at which sexual preference became discernible as an essential component of identity. During his initial libel trial against the Marquess of Queensberry, who had famously accused him of “posing as a somdomite [sic],” Wilde outed himself by applying “plain” in an unfamiliar context (Ellmann 424). Until the final minutes of the trial, the author had successfully rebuffed a torrent of questions and assumptions about his alleged affairs with young men, responding with characteristic witticisms that provoked fits of laugher in the court and encouraged the public’s belief in his insouciant innocence. Yet at the conclusion of his cross-examination, the prosecutor Edward Carson asked Wilde a particularly invasive question about his relationship with a sixteen-year-old hotel waiter named Grainger: “Did you ever kiss him?” (Hyde 196). In response, and in what H. Montgomery Hyde would call the “fatal moment” and the “climax” of the trial (219), Wilde inadvertently revealed himself: “Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it” (Ellmann 424). With this comedic but foolish attempt to charm the court, Wilde’s sexuality was made known through its overwrought denial: two statements of heteronormative male apathy (the claim that he did not kiss Grainger because “he was a … boy,” and his inclusion of the derogatory “plain” as part of this renunciation) constituted an unambiguous exposure of his sexual deviation. [End Page 4] Wilde was “on the verge of breaking down” (Hyde 219) as Carson repeatedly urged him to clarify that his reason for not kissing Grainger was the boy’s ugliness. Wilde could only respond by taking offense at the “insolent” question and declaring that he had misspoken (Ellmann 424). After several shorter questions, the trial concluded and, just weeks later, Queensberry sued Wilde on criminal charges of gross indecency.
As many commentators have observed, the trial had a profound effect on public perceptions of homosexuality. Notably, Alan Sinfield argues that “Wilde and his writings look queer because our stereotypical notion of male homosexuality derives from Wilde, and our ideas about him” (vii), suggesting our popular understanding of homosexual legibility takes his sassy dandyism as its model. Wilde’s quip about Grainger’s plainness marks the moment at which homosexuality was revealed to be more than an illicit act or a behavioral pathology. His allusion gestured toward an entire subculture—and a corresponding mode of perception—in which men (and not women) were unknowingly subjected to the judgements of a male gaze. It suggested, moreover, that homosexuality was legible in ways other than as a culturally deviant sex act. Where “sodomy” could previously exist as a punishable crime, a momentary lapse on the part of the individual, the figure of the “posing” sodomite (the term homosexual was not popularly used at the time of Queensberry’s accusation) represented a more total deviation from all prescribed notions of normativity. In The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault identifies this reclassification of same-sex desire as a totalizing phenomenon: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43). Homosexuality emerged, through this historical moment of unveiling, as a culturally pervasive and codified identity that had been, until then, largely obscured from the public. The widespread ideological response to this sudden visibility of a homosexual identity, which has had lasting consequences for contemporary theories of sexuality, was to polarize the relationship between homosexuality and heterosexuality and later, following the influential work of Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), to establish these as extremes on a series of evolving continuum models.
Popular dissemination of this paradigmatic theory of human sexuality began in 1897 when Havelock Ellis published the English version of Sexual Inversion. This led to the popularization of theories of sexual orientation that reconstituted aberrant sexual desire and behavior around the idea that sexual “inversion” was innate and fixed. John Addington Symonds, the gay (and closeted) sexologist who co-authored Sexual Inversion,1 “resist[ed] the medical insistence on sickness while at the same time articulating it to explain and defend his sense of same-sex desire as somehow at the very core of his being” (Kemp 49).2 In the era of taxonomic medicine, homosexuality was thus primarily expressed as a chronic disease, even to proponents of tolerance. This view coalesced around a new sexological discourse that reconstituted sodomy as identity rather than symptom or sin: one was inverted, rather than merely expressed inversion.3 Inversion is a term that, because it is linguistically antagonistic to the norm and because it presupposes a kind of anatomically permanent state, opens up a reading of identity and desire in James’s writing: not because his protagonist is necessarily an “invert” in a classifiable sense but because, in The Ambassadors, inversion is a restrictive concept that is both resisted and simultaneously exploited for its perpetual and oppositional structure. [End Page 5]
The concept of sexual inversion is literalized in Strether’s mold metaphor. In the manufacture of wax and metal, a mold is formed as a hollow mirror image of the final product. Because Strether’s jelly-like consciousness is formed in a mold, the mold itself can be read as an inversion of the shape his consciousness will come to assume. As a photograph stands in relation to its negative, Strether’s image suggests the jelly of his consciousness and the mold of his life must be symmetrically opposed. Thus while the mold ostensibly expresses Strether’s frustration with the predictability of his life, the figure is also affected by emerging notions of sexual dualism. Read as a metaphor for inversion, the image suggests an internal contradiction between an imagined blueprint for his “life” and the actual lived experience of his “consciousness,” or, in short, between expectancy and experience. Much as for Symonds, who “associate[d] his own homosexual desire with sickness, and the objects of his desire with health” (Kemp 50), there is a fundamental distinction made in James’s metaphor between the mold and what fills it: not, perhaps, representative of such arbitrary categories as heterosexuality and homosexuality but more likely indicative of Strether’s conflicted notions of identity and desire. And yet it is entirely possible to make just as much a case for the identical shapes of mold and jelly. Strether’s preordained “life” might be a spatial inversion of his experience, but it is equally a complementary container, a perfect fit, in which his consciousness will set and thus assume the same essential outline and limits. The tin mold, then, can be imagined in terms of both a mismatched and a congruent blueprint for Strether’s conscious experience. It is this strange doubling of compatibility and incompatibility against which my reading of Strether as a paradoxically reluctant and enthusiastic participant in his fiction of predeterminism takes shape.
While the inevitable trajectory of his life is Strether’s source of frustration, his situation also appears to give him some form of pleasure. He lives by the idea of a predetermined sexual identity that he cannot change but which does not necessarily conflict with his desires. Like John Marcher in James’s almost contemporaneous short story, “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903), Strether is gripped by a sense of election that consumes him with a perversely masochistic anxiety. For Marcher, an unknowable and unstoppable purpose is all he and May Bartram talk about for decades. Strether shares with Marcher the constant experience of a unique fatefulness that abounds as a thrill as much as a dread. As such, a double sense of abjection and superiority is evident in the language of Strether’s monologue, which, in its melodrama of insufferable difference (“[it] couldn’t, no doubt, have been different for me,” “don’t be, like me, without the memory of that illusion”) has also the ring of selflessly-selfish martyrdom to it. One could be forgiven, then, for reading Strether’s predicament as narcissistic, but this interpretation does not do justice to the way his fantasy of self-importance emerges from a deep and shameful frustration with his lack of choice in the matter.
As I have suggested, this predeterminist anxiety is formalized specifically through external surfaces. The “dreadfully plain” texture of the mold, which recalls Wilde’s infamous usage, evokes the identification of homosexuality as a type, and also as a façade. Rather than revealing anything about the nature of queer desire, Wilde’s unveiling focused public attention on the outward display of sexual deviance. Today, gay stereotypes still enact a performative dandyism that is almost universally legitimated as the epitome of queer culture. In this sense, Strether’s apathy toward departing [End Page 6] from texturally recognizable identities informs the erotics of The Ambassadors with a prescience of the modern gay man’s inability—or refusal—to shirk Wilde’s image.
Strether’s pleasurable submission to these legible forms is thus made contingent upon his assumption of predeterminist thought. In his metaphor, homoerotic angst is codified as identity crisis. The concept of the tin mold develops upon the narrator’s homoerotic description of Chad Newsome’s physical transformation, in Book 4, as having “been put into a firm mould and turned successfully out” (107). Strether’s usage in Book 5 depicts a more insidious kind of production, in which consciousness is both pre-scripted and turned inside out, but its association with the earlier episode highlights certain features of its composition. In the first passage, Strether becomes fascinated with Chad’s “smooth” (107) body—the word itself foreshadowing the erotic connotation of the “smooth and dreadfully plain” mold that must be filled—perhaps because this particular body represents a transgression of a banal fate. But such a reading neglects the possibility that Chad’s first appearance in the novel acts as the inspiration not just for the eroticism of the mold image but also for its futility:
Chad was brown and thick and strong; and of old Chad had been rough. Was all the difference therefore that he was actually smooth? … It was as if in short he had really, copious perhaps but shapeless, been put into a firm mould and turned successfully out. The phenomenon—Strether kept eyeing it as a phenomenon, an eminent case—was marked enough to be touched by the finger. He finally put his hand across the table and laid it on Chad’s arm.(107)
The “rough” edges of Chad’s previous appearance have been shorn away in favor of an immensely phallic tactility.4 He has been “turned successfully out,” as a product emerges from a factory, or as a gay man comes out of the closet—any distinction between the two scenarios has been effaced like the “shapeless” form of his younger self. Chad is both desirable and repulsively perfect. That which is so intensely attractive, because it is aesthetically pleasing, is also registered as manufactured and inauthentic: “at the same time that it had given him a form and a surface, almost a design, it had toned his voice, established his accent, encouraged his smile to more play and his other motions to less” (107). The language of arousal here is tempered—or, perhaps more accurately, elevated—by Strether’s envious, fetishistic irritation with the molded quality, the “design,” exhibited by Chad, which gives way to his frustrated employment of the same metaphor later in the novel. Chad’s emergence as a legible object of queer desire is, for Strether, also what makes him “dreadfully plain,” with an identity just as prescribed as that of any heteronormative life and with a charisma that is a mere imitation of the dandified homosexual stereotype inspired by Wilde.
While the sensuousness of Strether’s gaze attests to infatuation, his desire cannot be simply to possess or to become like Chad. As a polemical expression of apathy toward the assimilative structure of modern sexuality, Strether’s own use of the mold image articulates his desire to be something other than “brown and thick and strong”—something other than a gay man visibly familiar with the cultural expectations of homosexuals. The mass-produced quality of Chad’s appearance as a smooth young man recalls the Wilde trials, during which a “considerable” (Ellmann 423) number of largely indistinguishable bachelors emerged as witnesses. Chad is made in the mold [End Page 7] of just another of Wilde’s boyish marks. After Strether has reached across the table to lay a hand on the young man’s arm and implored him to return home to Woollett, James’s narrator makes a further remark that recalls Wilde: “Chad again fell back at this and, his hands pocketed, settled himself a little; in which posture he looked, though he rather anxiously smiled, only the more earnest” (107). The importance of being “earnest” is, for Chad, a matter of performative and persuasive texture. James writes Strether’s attraction to Chad in language that renders the young man merely another subject in a Wildean farce of social obligations. Though Chad is clearly not, in Strether’s eyes, “dreadfully plain,” he is nonetheless made “smooth” by the imitative texture of his performed sincerity. In Strether’s image of mass production, any difference between Wilde’s own ornate façade (with the “ornamental excrescences” of his decorative carnation and fashionable furs) and his charmingly vivacious (but “dreadfully plain”) young suitors is effaced by their shared derivativeness.5
Protestant Discourse and the Predestined Narrative
However convincing this reading, and however cognate queer crises have become with any reading of James’s late fiction, this particular unease about emerging homosexual identities is depicted in The Ambassadors as a much more existential anxiety than such interpretations would suggest. Even if Strether’s metaphor articulates a profound cultural panic about the advent of sexual orientation, it nevertheless seems to overreach in its fatalism. Much like his use of “plain,” his reference to the “great cook” is at once an example of banal, extraneous detail and a vaguely unsettling image of enigmatic power—one that casts the extended metaphor of the mold in terms of a religiously inflected relationality. Read simply as a whimsical aside, it speaks to an inconsequential interest in cooking that comically befits what little the reader knows of Strether’s attempts at social sophistication. Perhaps it is negligible that he interrupts himself at this vital juncture to acknowledge (in an act of attribution that is more baffling than enlightening) the source of a few otherwise unremarkable words: that “one ‘takes’ the form” is not his own phrase; that it has been borrowed from an esteemed writer—of cookery books. As an attempt to make himself appear cultured or well-read, then, the reference provides little more than a jarring moment of fastidious pretension. But regardless of whether this is merely an instance of misjudged name-dropping, the “great cook” takes on a greater importance in the metaphor by virtue of being effortlessly active (a cook cooks) in the same sentence as Strether is rendered an inert and passive substance. It is difficult, in other words, to dissociate the definitive aspects of the metaphor—the mold, the jelly, the pouring action—from the cook, however circumstantial their interaction may appear to be. Even if it is intended only to add a moment of bathos to the utter conviction of his powerful rhetorical flow, Strether’s acknowledgement of the “great cook” alters the dynamic of the whole image: it encourages the reader towards a more specific comparison, in which the protagonist aligns his experience with that of something as mundane as aspic jelly. At the same time, the analogy is complicated and made more disturbing by a lack of clarity as to the power structure of the relationship between molder and mold. This first interpretation is contingent upon reading “one ‘takes’ the form” as words spoken (in a context unfamiliar to anyone but Strether) by the “great cook.” Yet the phrase “as the great cook says” is more ambiguous than this. On the [End Page 8] one hand, it is an attribution; on the other, it refers to the experience of doing—of having to do—exactly as the great cook says. The sentence reads, then, as either an offhand reference or an invocation of submission to an organizing power—or both. The triviality of the remark about the “great cook” might suggest that Strether regards his experience of powerlessness as comically unexceptional. But it is through a reading of his self-effacement as just as much a religiously charged gesture of privilege that I would like to access his expression of a fixed and preordained sexual identity.
Strether’s felt lack of agency, as expressed by way of his metaphorical identification with a crafted container, is an experience reminiscent of Old Testament representations of the subject’s helpless but “chosen” relation to God. Embodied in his mold metaphor, Strether’s conception of life epitomizes a peculiar mixture of abjection and election that is often recognizable in Judeo-Christian representations of selfhood. The mold and its “great cook” recall, in this sense, a passage from Jeremiah, in which God relays to his prophet a clear message for the Israelites: “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? … Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in my hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6). Both the “great cook” of Strether’s image and Jeremiah’s temperamental deity are cast as molders of people figured as inanimate objects—and both Strether and Jeremiah are set apart by their awareness that this is all they are. In the story of Jeremiah, the analogy of God as potter is given to the prophet as a somewhat futile rhetorical device: it is used to threaten the people of Israel with destruction if they will not turn from their wicked ways, but, because their decision to ignore Jeremiah’s advice is foregone (God tells Jeremiah categorically that his people will not listen), so is their punishment. Jeremiah understands that the freedom to choose is an illusion. Thus the image establishes his difference, elevating him above his ignorant people on the basis of the privileged knowledge that he is not in control. Likewise, though Strether feels subject to a power that can literally make or break him, he both embraces and eschews such an erotic pivot between abjection and election.
By articulating his sexuality through this model of quasi-religious inevitability, Strether develops Wilde’s rhetorical technique. When asked to clarify the meaning of Lord Alfred Douglas’s phrase, “the Love that dare not speak its name,” Wilde’s list of historically celebrated relationships between men of disparate ages begins with the Old Testament: this socially unacceptable love is “such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan” (Ellmann 435). Here, Wilde is only able to speak the name of homosexual love by elevating it beyond the possibility of moral judgement. Because he paints himself as the modern equivalent of King David, Wilde’s suspicious activity with younger men is made temporarily respectable, even generating applause from the public. His reference intimates that whatever David and Jonathan got up to is no one’s business—but also suggests that the relationship should be left alone simply because it is so irrefutably high-brow. This esteemed pairing begins Wilde’s list of literary and philosophical figures chronologically, but it also establishes the Bible as the foremost in a series of unquestionable texts. “Good” literature is thus rendered a safe vehicle for taboo desires. In contrast, when questioned about the morality of a story from The Chameleon entitled “The Priest and the Acolyte,” Wilde rejects the idea of morality altogether, instead denying the text’s value on the basis that it is bad literature.6 In John Francis Bloxam’s story, which controversially describes a pederastic relationship between a priest and an altar [End Page 9] boy, a disturbing intimacy is sympathetically represented as a joyful transgression of religious asceticism. It is this overt antagonism of religion, articulated most blatantly in the final scene’s enactment of the Church of England’s sacrament as an eroticized double suicide, that Wilde must unequivocally dismiss as “disgusting” (Foldy 7) in order to protect himself. In this defense of the Bible as good literature and his rejection of anti-religious prose as bad literature, Judeo-Christian discourse serves as an effective closet for homoerotic expression—but only when the speaker draws himself self-righteously in line with the elect. In what amounts to a further imitation of Wilde, Strether seemingly must closet his sexual anxiety through the reification of incontestable Judeo-Christian principles.
If his mold metaphor merely expresses unease with the idea of sexual orientation, presenting it in the language of Judeo-Christian prophecy allows Strether to articulate more powerfully his double sense of being punished and praised. This is not an unusual mode of expression in Protestant culture. While the epistemology of the closet is often found to be built from bricks of religion, less popularly avowed is how Protestant Christianity’s profound discourse of pride and shame is so often articulated in queer culture.7 In a personal essay that compares the experience of coming out with the evangelical tradition of personal testimony, Michael Warner describes Protestantism’s unparalleled language of “elevation and abasement”:
Just as the intellectual culture of religion has an intensity that secular versions lack, so also Protestant culture has an intricate and expressive language of power and abjection that in secular life has to be supplied in relatively impoverished ways. The world has not the least phenomenon that cannot, in Christian culture, be invested both with world-historical power and with total abjection. You are a soldier of the Lord, born among angels, contemplated from the beginning of time and destined to live forever. But you are also the unregenerate shit of the world.(226)
Though (or, arguably, because) it is more reminiscent of an Old Testament perspective of God’s character, Strether’s metaphor neatly captures the same double dynamic of election and abjection that characterizes evangelical religion. His crisis of sexuality is formulated as an existential dilemma that, in the rhetoric of its frustration, demands the reader’s attention precisely because it borrows its “intricate and expressive language of power and abjection” from a Biblical source.
Strether’s anxiety about sexual identity speaks to a particular kind of evangelical expression: he is driven by a Calvinistic belief in a singular predetermined fate but is also open to the possibility of personal revelation; his willingness to submit is tempered by his continual desire to define and pursue his own passions. In the passage that precedes his speech to Little Bilham, Strether reorients his sense of personal narrative, of his destiny, around a passive surrender to sexual and spiritual excess:
This note indeed the next thing overflowed for Strether into a quiet stream of demonstration that as soon as he had let himself go he felt as the real relief. It had consciously gathered to a head, but the reservoir had filled sooner than he knew, and his companion’s touch was to make the waters spread. There were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at [End Page 10] all. If they didn’t come in time they were lost for ever. It was the general sense of them that had overwhelmed him with its long slow rush.(152)
James’s language is extraordinarily homoerotic. The speech is a “real relief” that comes only at “his companion’s touch”; it is simultaneously a release and a submission, an outflowing and an opening up. Here, upon “his companion’s touch,” the “reservoir”—both phallic and rectal—overflows, in a manner barely controlled by the loose grammatical logic of the first sentence, into a “quiet stream of demonstration,” a concentrated effort climaxing in the repetitive “come” that follows. The blatant sexuality of Strether’s emotional submission cannot be ignored—nor can the fact that it is a young man whose delicate verbal touch “make[s] the waters spread.” James’s use of free indirect style here dramatizes Strether’s feeling—that “there were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at all”—as objective fact, both reifying and parodying his belief that this is it, that failure to submit at this moment means he will miss the opportunity toward which the momentum of his life (however “dreadfully plain” it may turn out to be) has been building.
Yet the passage is just as obviously a scene of religious enthusiasm, in which a “quiet stream of demonstration” evokes the calm, measured intonation of a rhetorical display of sincerity, and in which “the waters spread” recalls the Great Flood as a signifier of judgment and renewal. “Come” in this passage takes on a more spiritual intonation, its repetition harking toward a worshipful chant uttered in the hope of a spiritual visitation. There is even, in Bilham’s “touch,” a figurative laying on of hands, precipitating an overwhelming sense of impending revelation or change.8 In Christian Biblical exegesis, touch speaks to transformation, healing, and divine intervention. The tactility of Jesus, in particular, is an essential way in which the power of God is materialized: in the moment of his touch, lepers are healed, sinners repent, and dead men rise. Touch, then, signifies God’s ability to alter personal history and change one’s fate, which is precisely the phenomenon that Strether appears to experience when he is stirred by an attractive young man.
Strether’s effective role as evangelist is reflected in his vocabulary: the protagonist repeatedly describes himself as a “pilgrim” who must “save” the “pagan” Chad from the “alien altars” of Paris (336, 51, 110, 323). As Kenneth Andersen notes, the language in the novel “literally abounds with religious words” (13)—words with a collective legacy specific to Christians who believe they have a part to play in salvation. Yet the prospect of “saving” Chad is, for Strether, complicated by a predeterminist worldview that recalls the strict Calvinism of his New England forebears. Evangelicalism’s effort to reconcile free will with this Calvinist doctrine of predeterminism plays out in the protagonist’s felt incapacity for any kind of independent action, let alone a moral intervention. That his use of “save” is, more often than not, punctuated by inverted commas suggests he might pronounce the word (at least internally) with a self-conscious sense of its irony: that Chad, or any of the other characters to whom this verb seems almost arbitrarily applied, does not really need saving; or that the concept of saving amounts to a dubious assertion of the individual’s ability to effect change. The act of saving, as part of this religious lexicon, is an intervention, representing either a rupture to a predisposed narrative or an inevitable materialization of that narrative—or, in a realization of the mold as simultaneously complementary and antagonistic, potentially both. Even with this ambiguity, the prospect of saving someone, [End Page 11] or of a person no longer needing saving, is applied in such a variety of contexts throughout the novel that it becomes difficult to maintain a single argument about whether Chad might need saving (or not saving) from the predestined narrative of his marriage to Mamie Pocock back in Woollett or from his outwardly recognizable (because manufactured) homosexual identity.
The religious allusiveness of Strether’s crisis is not only present here analogically and linguistically. While he portrays his sexual desire and frustration with (to use Warner’s phrase) both “world-historical power” and “total abjection,” Protestant theology and culture are also overt influences that affect the expression of and confusion around his identity. In the novel, Strether’s encounters with Little Bilham and Chad, both free-spirited young men, provoke in him a more tangible sense of his own socially restricted position—that he is a mere emissary who has a “life only for other people” (191). Consequently, queer readings of Strether, which have emerged as a dominant critical strategy in interpretations of James’s novel, tend to depict the character’s homoerotic tendencies (most evident when he is alone with either Bilham or Chad) as distinct from what he has left behind: the normative social order of New England. The binary structure of the novel supports this kind of teleological reading. Strether’s graduation from a repressed Woollett mentality to the secular republicanism of a Parisian sensibility, demarcated by the break between Volumes 1 and 2, represents a shift away from a “philosophy of cultural determinism” (Taylor 187) toward the queer possibility of his independent sexual agency. By now, such a reading of The Ambassadors as a progressive journey from Puritan morality to sexual enlightenment is fairly familiar to critics of James, but it bears repeating, if only to emphasize how the morally dualistic religious content of the narrative is at odds with the complex and less definable religiousness of James’s style. By explicating narrative and form separately, I delineate Strether’s peculiar double bind, epitomized by the mold: that his desire must be expressed in a religious form that denies it.
In such a teleological reading, Strether’s supposed development is rooted not only in freedom but also in the regret that accompanies the novel’s Parisian setting. It is in this same city that Wilde spent the final, destitute years of his life (using an assumed name) after serving his sentence. As if haunted by Wilde’s dejection, Strether, an aging and disillusioned man who is occasionally distracted by attractive young men, beholds in Paris—and especially in the homoerotic encounters that it offers—the promise of sexual liberty that comes too late to be appreciated. His mold metaphor forms part of a longer speech in which he bemoans the banality of his life and advises Little Bilham to “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” (153). By inviting Bilham to embrace the “illusion of freedom,” Strether encourages him to behave as if nothing, including his sexuality, is certain—though he later reneges on this advice and urges Bilham to marry (322). Strether’s feeling that his own fate is predestined also seems to respond to the arrangements he has made (or that have been made on his behalf) for his own marriage to his New England employer, Mrs. Newsome. This powerful woman thus represents for Strether a solution to another of his anxieties: “My absence of an assured future. The little I have to show toward the power to take care of myself” (361). Marriage, then, rectifies Strether’s uncertainty, signifying a dubious level of psychological security that surpasses the financial or the sexual.9
This notion of a prescribed, heteronormative future has recently featured in work on queer theory and psychoanalysis, but its connection to Protestant religion [End Page 12] has only been made implicitly. Lee Edelman names the pressure of heteronormativity “reproductive futurism,” an organizational language that finds its locus in the cathectic figure of “the Child.” This depository symbol of the next generation is, for Edelman, the single vital aspect of all politics: “the image of the Child … serves to regulate political discourse—to prescribe what will count as political discourse—by compelling such discourse to accede in advance to the reality of a collective future” (11). In these terms, heteronormativity is driven by an insistence upon deriving all meaning from a figurative and idealized future, one that is as inevitable and unquestionable as if fixed by a higher power. Legacy, genetic inheritance, and the ideal conditions by which they might be transmitted to the future “Child”—these are all concerns that motivate Strether’s heteronormative ambitions. Within such a religiously charged dichotomy of normativity and queerness, Chad represents a direct opposition to the puritanical futurity of his mother. When Strether encounters Chad for the first time since his childhood, the young bachelor’s lack of resemblance to Mrs. Newsome comes to represent a break from the heteronormative fate of his lineage: “It would have been hard for a young man’s face and air to disconnect themselves more completely than Chad’s at this juncture from any discerned, from any imaginable aspect of a New England female parent” (99). If Mrs. Newsome is for the novel a looming reminder of life’s linearity—especially in the sense that Strether expects to marry her as long as he is successful in returning her son—then Chad quickly becomes the site at which Strether’s queer desire comes into conflict with his sense of normative duty.
Though James’s protagonist appears to desire both the fantasy of futurity offered by a heterosexual lifestyle and the supposed liberation of acting on his homoerotic desire, neither releases him from the trap of the mold, in which sexual identity is prescribed and choice is foregone. However, the mold does not signify the inevitability of identity as a solely negative phenomenon: what has to be is equally what is meant to be; the language of abjection is the flipside of the language of election. Strether’s regret for the missed train (153) of “the youth he had long ago missed—a queer concrete presence” (354) is thus not only regret, because it also has the tactile texture of an almost-presence, of something just out of reach but all the more visible for being so. The stultifying and normalizing identity construct of Protestant predeterminism might bind Strether with its moral strictures and cultural expectations, but it also provides him with the capacity to act as if the world depended on it.
The Implausible Future in Jamesian Style
Critics of James’s late phase have recently begun to make direct connections between his style and his conceptualization of experience. Inevitably, as Kevin Ohi points out, this work has made “the question of sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, unavoidable for any serious consideration of James’s works” (2). In his reading of queer experience in late James, Ohi argues that, “if James suggests that the novel is a ‘direct’ representation of life, the directness does not consist in the conveying of content. In James’s theorization of the novel, it is thus ‘style’ that matters—as opposed to any ‘object’ of representation” (6). What Ohi observes as the queerness of James’s style not only suggests the erotics of his language but more broadly names the meandering, expansive, and perverse sensibility of his prose. Implicit in Ohi’s writing is the assumption that “queering” a text does not mean limiting it to a reading of [End Page 13] sexuality. Rather, accessing non-heteronormative representation facilitates a way of engaging with experience outside any given social norm; it provides an approach to experience, to use Sedgwick’s term, through nondualistic thought (1).
In my discussion of Strether’s “experience,” I am not referring to a specific moment or encounter but to how Strether is conscious, as well as how he produces connections and meanings. Rather than reading James’s narration in The Ambassadors as an objective and linear reportage of events, I interpret it as a representation of his protagonist’s experience, a constantly shifting assemblage of vitalities, associations, and profundities in which identity is entirely flexible. In “The Art of Fiction,” James defines experience not so much as a series of events, but as a continuous, interpretive state of aliveness:
Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative—much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius—it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.(TA 382)
James’s model of experience finds its “man of genius” in Strether, a character capable of maintaining both a sense of existential futility and a complete receptivity to possibility. The author’s style can thus accommodate the conflicting religious model through which Strether interprets his life: his experience “converts” what it registers into “revelations,” which are paradoxically shaped into anticipated phenomena. In his figurative language, James describes experience in terms that call to mind the internal conflict of Strether’s evangelical register: it is receptive and responsive to possibility, yet it reads this possibility in terms of what must be. Predeterminism is thus simply a framework of meaning through which Strether parses the pulses of his perceptions.
To understand how and why James’s future-anterior tense gives shape to Strether’s sexual experience through a Calvinistic mode of abjection and election, it is necessary to demonstrate the epistemological distance between author and protagonist. Such an approach to James’s narration seems unpopular, perhaps because it rests on a satirical interpretation of the excessive transformations undergone by Strether. Critical responses to The Ambassadors have tended to argue for the character’s remarkable transformation or to make strong claims to the effect that his exposure to newness and youth may have lasting consequences for his worldview. For example, Kate Stanley rests her argument on Strether’s newfound sensitivity and “absorption” (22) after his chance encounter with Chad and Marie de Vionnet—an unexpected interruption to his startlingly narcissistic impression of real people as players on a stage—in the French countryside. Yet, by arriving at this conclusion, Stanley does not fully consider the author’s place in a tradition of realist writers for whom the subtlety of irony is a core concern. My contention is not that Strether is never surprised or transformed but rather the contrary: for someone so plagued by feelings of inevitability, the unexpected plays such a constant part in Strether’s experience that it becomes entirely predictable.
There is a discernible difference, often overlooked, between how the narrator views Strether and how he views himself. James’s style of narration, as expressed in [End Page 14] his preface, consists of mediating Strether’s experience so closely that the reader is less likely to notice its disjunctures and absences, let alone to suppose that James’s narrator is a cynic. However, in his preface to the New York Edition of the novel, James outlines the sacrifices made at the expense of narrative closeness:
Strether, on the other hand, encaged and provided for as “The Ambassadors” encages and provides, has to keep in view proprieties much stiffer and more salutary than any our straight and credulous gape are likely to bring home to him, has exhibitional conditions to meet, in a word, that forbid the terrible fluidity of self-revelation.(AB xlii)
James’s emphasis on forbidding the “fluidity” of being surprised or transformed here once again recalls the mold, which insists instead on the “stiffer” erotics of homosexual identity—a sense of election that might give Strether an erection precisely because he is so powerless to stop it. Though his fluid consciousness should allow him to experience as shocks moments that might challenge his sense of self, the rigid tin mold that “encages and provides” him with his predestined and heteronormative identity means these revelations are absorbed instead—both as coincidences made typical of his abject position and, paradoxically, as the fulfilment of prophecy. Like any fixed religious or sexual identity, The Ambassadors “provides” its subject with a sense of self and a designated future that gives structure and purpose but that also prohibits him from being anything else. We are told that this substantive yet inhibitive prison is The Ambassadors itself: that the mold of the novel, which provides its protagonist with an identity but both shapes and traps him within it, is a restrictive force of which Strether, in articulating himself through the narrative’s fleeting but central metaphor of existential angst, seems well aware.10
My sense of Strether’s awareness does not, however, suppose this constitutes his extra-diegetic relationship with the text. In a reading of The Wings of the Dove (1902), David Kurnick suggests that the multiple protagonists of the novel are aware that they are players in a fiction and, as such, share a common metaphorical repertoire and grammatical syntax in their reported speech (216). In the claustrophobic interiority of The Ambassadors, with its single protagonist, such an interpretation is less feasible. Strether’s awareness of his limitations might invoke the possibility that he is beyond being just an unwitting character in a novel, but his vague allusions to a generalized self-consciousness suggest less about his extra-diegetic knowledge than they do about the extent to which he is consumed by the problem of his inevitable identity. James states that Strether is forbidden “self-revelation,” and yet the novel is saturated with the kind of profound moments that queer readings tend to register in terms of transformation: these present as the character’s projections into an imaginary future—as ironic departures from the present. In such situations, the commentary of the narrator might be interpreted as a free indirect depiction of Strether’s consciousness or a psychological projection. James’s protagonist is driven by a contradictory imperative: a denial of the self that, in its imagining of an overarching plan or meaning, involves assumptions about what one will do or is meant to do. Strether’s interest lies in the public face of his identity, in the “exhibitional conditions” that constitute cultural expectations. Rather startlingly, this would suggest that the collective “we” of the reader’s “straight and credulous gape” is privy to his private life even though he is not. [End Page 15]
Even while Strether experiences surprise almost as a new beginning or a renewed attentiveness to the present, James’s narration often suggests that nothing about his condition of feeling predestined is new or has actually changed. Indeed, a significant instance of this “rebirth” experience occurs in the novel’s opening pages, long before he expresses frustration at his own futility: “Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then” (5). In a grammatical maneuver not unusual for James’s late phase, this complicated sentence lends itself to temporal incoherence. Its logic is upended, privileging the definitive sense of “Nothing could have been odder” and “which was literally beginning there and then” at the expense of everything in between. The reader inevitably struggles to find purchase within the shifting temporal logic of exactly what is so odd that it cannot be outdone. That this moment occurs at the very start of the novel might suggest that the state of Strether’s consciousness has in fact changed “there and then” and that the advent of the narrative itself practically coincides with his sensation of rebirth—before he has even encountered the “queer concrete presence” (354) of Parisian culture. Yet, while the narrator appears to support the profundity of Strether’s sensation and its restructuring of everything that has not yet happened (and, I think, will not happen), the sensation itself is rooted firmly in the present, “at that moment.” Only in hindsight could Strether realistically know that his current sense “would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past”; in the present he instinctively feels that his experiences in Europe will constitute a new kind of consciousness. Strether’s sense of the present, while described as an important juncture, would be relatively inconsequential if he had not attributed to it the potential for shaping things to come.
When James’s narrator describes Strether’s sensations of surprise and anticipation as oddities, he singles out the character’s experience as a peculiar case. “Nothing could have been odder,” the reader is told, than Strether’s feeling that this present is somehow the most important present so far. There is an irony in how James conveys this fantasy of meaningfulness here. Indulging Strether momentarily in his illusion of the “terrible fluidity of self-revelation,” James’s narrator voices the protagonist’s ordinary experience as something extraordinary and life altering. The narrator continually goes as far as Strether without ever really pulling back to an objective distance. Considering how often the protagonist is struck by a profound feeling of unspecified significance, it seems that this sense of unparalleled oddness is entered into by a narrator who, presumably, knows that Strether will experience several further unparalleled profundities. If one reads The Ambassadors as a satire of hyperbolic, narcissistic fatalism, then the perceived peculiarity of Strether’s experience is precisely what makes him ordinary. He is thus not alone in framing surprise as a foreseen event nor in expressing it in unequivocally world-altering terms.
By lending his protagonist an experientially Calvinistic mode of perception, James fashions banal consciousness into an affectively heightened aliveness so attentive to narrative and meaning that the present is constantly deferred and missed. The novel’s stylistic portrayal of how this religious mode of perception affects the subject’s sense of temporal identity is reflected in the contemporaneous work of William James. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he describes religious conversion as an experience that has its roots in everyday life: [End Page 16]
What brings such changes about is the way in which emotional excitement alters. Things hot and vital to us to-day are cold to-morrow. It is as if seen from the hot parts of the field that the other parts appear to us, and from these hot parts personal desire and volition make their sallies. They are in short the centres of our dynamic energy, whereas the cold parts leave us indifferent and passive in proportion to their coldness.(195, emphasis mine)
For William James, everything is seen from “the hot parts of the field.” One can seem perpetually to inhabit the “hot and vital,” even when one is in the midst of the cold and banal.11 He suggests that the self is often perceived “as if” from, rather than actually from, moments of emotional excitement. The present, particularly if it is “cold” and uneventful, is thus not necessarily experienced as the present but might instead be imagined within a grander narrative, one structured by the “dynamic energy” of moments that are felt to be more important. In The Ambassadors, this privileging of “hot parts of the field” is enacted through temporal shifts at the level of sentence structure. Strether is often portrayed as perceiving himself from a distinct point of significance and clarity, even though he technically inhabits the present. There is, then, an oblique association to be made between Henry James’s formal predeterminism and William James’s suggestion that a religious temperament is really no different from the structuring capacity of universal experience.
In this formulation, the often incoherent temporality of James’s narration might be read as Strether’s understanding of the present “as if” from an imagined point of significance. When his experience, which makes up the narrative of The Ambassadors, is heralded by markers of a future in which the present will be made clear and meaningful, one has to wonder why Strether attributes such importance to these moments and why he seems so incapable of living in the present. Thus a careful observation of the narrative’s gaps, disjunctures, and emissions reveals trends in what is so “hot and vital” to Strether that he is unable to experience it as it happens. James’s narration of his protagonist reveals how Strether responds to and remembers with less immediacy the more affecting of his encounters. For example, in Book 3, when Strether first meets Chad at the theater and recognizes the way he has grown and changed, the ensuing conversation is shifted out of direct speech reported in the past tense. Instead of forming part of the fiction’s historically linear narrative, the dialogue is displaced and subjected to Strether’s own future recollection:
“Do I strike you as improved?” Strether was to recall that Chad had at this point enquired.
He was likewise to recall—and it had to count for some time as his greatest comfort—that it had been “given” him, as they said at Wool-lett, to reply with some presence of mind: “I haven’t the least idea.” He was really for a while to like thinking he had been positively hard. On the point of conceding that Chad had improved in appearance, but that to the question of appearance the remark must be confined, he checked even that compromise and left his reservation bare. Not only his moral, but also, as it were, his aesthetic sense had a little to pay for this, Chad being unmistakably—and wasn’t it a matter of the confounded grey hair again?—handsomer than he had ever promised.(104) [End Page 17]
Despite this repeated deferral of detail into the indefinite future (“Strether was to recall … ,” “He was likewise to recall … ,” and “He was really for a while to like thinking …”), the linearity of James’s narrative is not necessarily broken. Though it seems that Strether is not actively recalling but will later recall the conversation, it is also possible that the passage gives us his sense now of how he anticipates remembering this moment. In Strether’s imagining of how he will recollect his reunion with Chad, he ironically has “some presence of mind.” Critical to this particular imagining is that his fallacious ability to appreciate the present will be contemplated as something “given.” This evangelically inflected term (which, because it appears to have a prominent place in the Woollett vernacular, gestures toward a whole community of Strethers shaped by a language of willful passivity) suggests that the protagonist’s penchant for overdetermining the present is best expressed through a language that renders him an elect but powerless receptacle.
Strether’s initial meeting with Chad can thus be read as including in the protagonist’s present what Peter Rawlings calls a “conjecturable future” (274) rather than as James’s telling of what will actually happen, but this raises a further question. If this scene at the theater is cast in an imagined future, from when, exactly, does Strether recall—or, rather, imagine recalling—his abrupt meeting with Chad? The narrator tells us: “He was to know afterwards, in the watches of the night, that nothing would have been more open to him than after a minute or two to propose to Chad to seek with him the refuge of the lobby” (98). Strether of the conjectural future, then, unable to sleep, will remember being “positively hard” with Chad in spite of (or perhaps because of) his handsome appearance. The play on “hard” here is indicative of the irony of Strether’s imagined retrospective reticence, his emotional hardness, which both veils and reveals his sexual arousal. His appreciation of Chad’s grey hair is sublimated into an almost acceptable expression of homosexual attraction, with “confounded” suggesting his mild annoyance at becoming so “positively hard.” It is through this disorienting, prospective-retrospective present tense that Strether can most openly express his attraction. Likewise, he imagines he will recall making further comments about Chad’s physical appearance that pertain to a fond remembrance of childhood but are oddly emphasized and sensualized by being so memorable: “Yes—it was knickerbockers, I’m busybody enough to remember that; and that you had, for your age—I speak of the first far-away time—tremendously stout legs” (103). Because the meeting is thrown into hypothetical possibility, we are unable to rely upon Strether’s provision of narrative events. The fact of his unreliability seems relatively trivial, though, in light of what it tells us about the displacement of same-sex desire onto the idea of a prescribed experience that is “given” to him, and that he thus feels incapable of controlling.
The complexity of Strether’s experience, as it is written into the temporal and subjective dislocations of The Ambassadors, articulates the emerging phenomenon of sexual identity through evangelical Christianity’s epistemological paradox: it simultaneously conveys autonomy and futility, free will and predeterminism, the capacity for revelation and the smug, knowing nod of prophetic foreknowledge. The men that Strether wants to have but must surrender call attention to the strangely Calvinist paradigm of sexual orientation. But as well as rendering Strether an almost satirical subject, a reading of the way he parses his queer desire through a conflicted religious model also makes James’s protagonist, I think, more recognizable—as a voice of dissent [End Page 18] and as a queer individual uncomfortable with the prospect of having to enact a fixed identity. The language of evangelical religion enables Strether to eroticize the disjunctures in his uncertain sense of self. As Ohi observes, “For gay readers, The Ambassadors might be especially powerful because of the way the novel’s discontinuities of consciousness resonate with the experience of the closet, which makes such a discontinuity … the principle of one’s development” (166). Reading religion as something other than a stifling and pervasive cultural influence in the novel enables a finer attentiveness to the affective instability of experience. This optimistic lesson is most evident in the reflection that concludes the chapter in which Strether is reintroduced to Chad: “Not till, on the purple divan before the perfunctory bock, he had brought out the words themselves, was he sure, for that matter, that the present would be saved” (101). With this stylish collapse of the present into the future via the past tense, James captures the kind of profundity that characterizes and conjoins the queer and the spiritual. The ambiguities of the sentence, enigmatically held out of our reach as a knowledge only Strether knows, unfold themselves along the possibilities emerging from “present” and “saved”: Strether knows his present company—Chad—will be saved by his own intervention. He also knows that the present moment will be held onto, remembered, rediscovered later—and saved for him alone. And he knows that the indecipherably complex experience of the present can only be saved—redeemed—in hindsight. Perhaps, then, Strether is not a character shaped by regret but rather by the recognition that what is most pleasurable is always what one anticipates, misses, or must try to remember.
I’m grateful to Bridget Bennett and David Kurnick for their insight and guidance.
I’m grateful to Bridget Bennett and David Kurnick for their insight and guidance.
1. Kemp notes that, because Symonds died in 1893, his role was “effectively erased” from the book (49).
2. Symonds was also an inspiration for James’s short story, “The Author of Beltraffio” (1884).
3. Foucault writes of the emerging figure of the homosexual: “Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature” (43).
5. Wilde’s famous carnation was artificial and dyed. As an embellishment of his appearance but also an outward emblem of his character, the aestheticized nature of this particular ornamental excrescence is particularly striking as a metaphor for a sought after but unnatural beauty. In 1894, Robert Hitchens published a scandalous novel, popularly known to be based on Wilde, titled The Green Carnation.
6. Even before the trial, Wilde dismissed Bloxam’s story—not because of its scandalous content but because it lacked subtlety. Ellmann observes, “Wilde amused Ada Leverson by commenting only, ‘The story is, to my ears, too direct: there is no nuance: it profanes a little by revelation’” (404).
7. Catholicism, however, is known both for systemic sexual repression and for offering a rich aesthetic source for queer expression. Foucault’s chronology of the fundamental “techniques” that constitute sexual repression begins with the “penitential practices of medieval Christianity” (116). More recently, Hanson has argued that, as well as condemning homosexuality, Catholicism has provided a decadent language for the sexual expression of gay men. Similarly, Rambuss has claimed that Christianity is underwritten by a homoerotic language of devotion.
8. In a more literal reading of touch in The Ambassadors, Haralson argues that the queer resonances of the novel are found only in its gestures toward “episodes of visual admiration between men or by physical contacts—a pat on the arm or the knee—that might pass for fraternal, avuncular, or quasipaternal affection” (103).
9. Fiedler writes of Strether, “we are told he has been married before, has a son, but we do not believe it, scarcely remember it” (307). I would also argue that Strether’s future prospects of marriage have a relatively minimal presence in the narrative, even though marriage and family are apparently the key motivators of the plot. [End Page 19]
10. Though little has been written about predeterminism as an active psychology in The Ambassadors, a similar language has been adopted to address the author’s relationship to his text. Haralson describes James’s plans for Strether’s sexuality as if, by controlling the narrative too tightly, the author plays the part of God in forcing the protagonist off the beaten track: “As so often with James, it is not clear to what extent he acknowledged the homosexual implication of his germinal idea—or rather, his foregone conclusion—that Strether would ‘not in the least’ be tempted by the several women who are so ‘extraordinarily kind’ to him” (114, emphasis mine). He goes on to describe James’s “predetermined delimiting of character and plot” and the “foreclosure of Strether’s sex life” (115). Haralson repeatedly employs this discourse of predeterminism to describe James’s manipulation of Strether’s desire away from the norm, but the same discourse could describe the manipulation toward the norm that occurs at the level of the novel’s interfering New England characters. The protagonist is thus impelled in contradictory directions, both insistent and directed enough for him to describe them at the level of religious fundamentalism.
11. Stewart’s anthropological study, Ordinary Affects, depicts the production and organization of meaningful experience in a similar fashion. In her methodology, Stewart lays out the importance of writing what is essentially autobiography in the third person: “I call myself ‘she’ to mark the difference between this writerly identity and the kind of subject that arises as a daydream of simple presence. ‘She’ … asserts not a flat and finished truth but some possibilities (and threats) that have come into view in the effort to become attuned to what a particular scene might offer” (5). There is something to be said for an analogous effect of identity dissociation in the moments of The Ambassadors for which Strether does not seem to be fully present, or, indeed, himself.