This essay considers Zola’s treatise Le roman expérimental and, more broadly, French Naturalism as constitutive of the educative process and epistemological conditions of What Maisie Knew. Through an analysis of formal repetition in Maisie’s education, particularly her acquisition of the French language, I argue that James’s experiments with Naturalism in such novels as The Princess Casamassima and The Bostonians were far from being flirtations with a popular literary mode. Rather, Zolien scientism, with its emphasis on verifiability based on repetition, its tension between linear progress and circularity, and its conversion of observed external phenomena into knowledge, is incorporated into the formal strategies (and in doing so come to inform the epistemological determinants) of James’s late fiction.
In one of the better-known episodes from his 1913 autobiography, A Small Boy and Others (1913), Henry James recalls his father’s injunction:
It is quite for me as if the authors of our being and guardians of our youth had virtually said to us but one thing, directed our course but by one word, though constantly repeated: Convert, convert, convert!(174)
Side-stepping for a moment the tangled host of religious, financial, and epistemological connotations embedded in Henry James Sr.’s imperative, we might ask what a reiterable conversion would look like.1 How does the theology of the “one thing,” the “one word,” get thrice multiplied into the dynamic processes of conversion? Why, moreover, does this process of “constant” flux seem to be the province of childhood? While James Sr.’s crackpot conversions were hardly the stuff of art, the concept of conversion—that is to say, the re-working of raw material into another substance—resonates in his son’s aesthetic theories. In reading James’s recollections, one can’t help but recall the definition in “The Art of Fiction” (1884) of the genius who “converts the very pulses of the air into revelations” (172). Like the Jamesian germ, the concept of conversion speaks to a faith in metamorphosis, an investment in the artist’s capacity to traverse, translate, and transform. Yet while the germ is anchored in (to keep the language of translation) source and target—an anecdote that, when carefully nurtured, becomes a work of art—the movements of James’s unanchored conversion are more difficult to map. The “pulses of the air” are not quite anecdotes, and “revelations” aren’t necessarily novels. Rather, it would seem, conversion is privileged for the sake of conversion—a process that is, as Ross Posnock has claimed, “simultaneously autotelic, purposeless, and profitable” (43). The unique [End Page 53] trajectory of the germ stands in contrast to the notion of a polydirectional conversion based on the reiteration of change.
Repetition is characteristic of the style of late James, whose hermetic novels achieve the stature of allegory with their reverberations of weighty motifs, perfectly symmetrical character systems, and carefully modulated speech patterns. Yet, turning to an earlier stage in James’s career, we might consider the status of repetition in Naturalism. Critics have widely accepted, in great part due to Lyall Powers’s influential Henry James and the Naturalist Movement (1971), that James inflected such novels as The Bostonians (1886), The Princess Casamassima (1886), and The Tragic Muse (1890) with elements of French Naturalism, particularly through his narratives of determinism, circularity, and compulsion. Though Powers’s argument largely reposes on an analysis of the thematics of heredity and environment, he also hints toward the influence of French Naturalism on James’s later style, particularly in James’s call for artistic freedom in “The Art of Fiction.” Following Powers, I will focus on the connection between Naturalism and James’s stylistic innovations in his late period. Specifically, I will argue that the proto-modernist aesthetics of repetition have a “germ” in the reiterative mechanisms of Naturalist literature.
The relationship between Naturalism and various iterations of aesthetic experimentation (including the Symbolist movement, modernism, Surrealism, and Futurism) is well known (see Pizer). This genealogy, however, reads the development from Naturalism to experimentation in terms of reaction, thus preserving the discreteness of each mode. Yet we might also read the relationship between Naturalism and modernism dialectically. Sergio Perosa’s influential 1978 study, Henry James and the Experimental Novel, locates an affinity between James’s thematic experiments and the technical experiments of the nineties by positing—in emphatically Zolien terms—that James’s project is characterized by a “continuous and tireless search for the new” (3). I would like to trace a similar genealogy, but, unlike Perosa, I will suggest that James’s lineage is not constituted by a shift from experimental content to form. Rather, the compulsive repetition of the Zolien trial exposes a formal experimentation always-already active in the Naturalist project. In what follows, I will read this repetition first as it is articulated in Zola’s 1880 Naturalist manifesto Le Roman Expérimental and then as it manifests as a repetition of conversion, in James’s differently “experimental” novel What Maisie Knew (1897).2 I here take my cues from Jennifer Fleissner, who has brilliantly characterized Naturalism as a compulsive, but not conservative, mode animated by an “ongoing, nonlinear, repetitive motion” (Women 9). Like many commentators on Naturalism, Fleissner reads repetition both formally (in the stilted plots, narrative fixation on character, accumulated descriptions, compulsive reiteration) and thematically (the question of heredity, narratives of obsession, and biological and environmental determinism). Yet unlike such critics as Lee Clark Mitchell, who has aligned repetition with a lack of agency, a rejection of “our belief of human motivation and [erosion of] the more common humanizing assumptions associated with the construction of ‘meaning’” (128), Fleissner considers reiteration to be potentially productive, arguing that “Naturalism’s disturbing quality is not that it removes agency, plain and simple, but that it ties the agency we desire, that hope of mastery and completion to repetition and failure” (Women 50). Such failures, for Fleissner, reflect a turn in modernity’s conceptualization of history from linear genealogies to circular, extra-reproductive narratives. Fleissner’s portrait [End Page 54] of the mode reworks Naturalism’s reputation for regressive conservatism and instead fashions a birthplace of early-20th-century literary experiments.
By reading What Maisie Knew through Zola’s Roman Expérimental, I consider Maisie’s education as a series of repetitions that negotiate between the systematic and the compulsive, the productive and the sterile, progress and failure. I will give particular attention to linguistic and imagistic reiteration, especially during Maisie’s séjour in Boulogne. In doing so, I argue that the experimental subject must learn to mimic the language of the adult world before achieving independent subjectivity. Crucially, this method is not only an epistemological but also a social endeavor. Just as Zola’s desire to master scientific knowledge is channeled into a larger project of socialist idealism, so too do Maisie’s repetitions introduce her into a dynamic world where money, language, and sexuality are put into circulation. Yet despite this investment in a social system—and of the subject’s place within it—I will argue that the identity created by this epistemological process of constant repetition ultimately becomes unfixed. Posnock deploys Adorno’s concept of the “compulsion of identity” to illustrate how the reification of identity—and we might, in this respect, read the Naturalist or even theatrical “types” of adults who populate Maisie’s world as reified figures—is essential in unworking the Jamesian subject. By repeating certain words, by parroting unknown languages, and by compulsively re-producing the identities of the adults around her, Maisie ultimately forges her own dynamic subjectivity. She thus abandons rigid, typological models of identity and instead embraces an identity of flux: conversion, translation, the capacity to wonder, and the vicissitudes of doubt, become, I argue, the constitutive elements of Maisie’s education.
Beneath the architecture of Naturalistic Zolien heredity—that is to say, genetic repetition—are flawed forms of reproduction, imperfect reiterations, even stupidity: not quite a “grammar,” to use Michel Butor’s preferred appellation, but rather a stutter (1151). Zola might in effect be read as a novelist of repetition. It is not for nothing his fiction bristles with images of machines, featureless faces, and the endless flow of mass-produced commodities. This investment in re-utterance also operates at the level of narrative technique: Philippe Harmon, for example, has identified the Zolien “technique de la modulation et de la repetition” in character exposition, in which a thorough portrait of a character is drawn early in the novel and then cited throughout the rest of the narrative (164). Both formally and thematically, we see in Zola’s carefully arranged fiction a modulation of repeated strategies, elements, and motif—what James would come to characterize as a powerful, if significantly flawed, fictional system.
To fully understand James’s investment in this system, however, we should first treat the French Naturalist’s project on its own terms. In his theory of the novel, Zola draws from Claude Bernard to define the experimental method as “une coordination régulière et raisonnée des faits fournis par l’expérience” (“a regular and reasoned coordination of facts provided by the experiment”) (“Le roman” 1198). Exactly what imparts “regularity” and “coordination” to the experimental method (is it the scientist herself or the experiment that produces a legible pattern?) is unclear, as are the conditions of this experiment. In one particularly evocative passage, Zola claims that “le sentiment personnel de l’artiste reste soumis au contrôle de la vérité” (“the personal sentiment of the artist remains subject to the control of the truth”) (201), as though one of the “controls” in the experiment could be the truth itself—which would [End Page 55] make the experimenter’s task easy indeed! Putting the agency of the experimenter to the side, however, we might approach one of the more salient characteristics of Zola’s theory, that is, the repetition of causes that, when testing a successful hypothesis, are met with a uniform outcome:
Un expérimentateur n’a pas à conclure parce que, justement, l’expérience conclut pour lui. Cent fois, s’il le faut, il répétera l’expérience devant le public, il l’expliquera, mais il n’aura ni à s’indigner, ni à approuver personnellement: telle est la vérité, tel est le mécanisme des phénomènes.
(An experimenter need not conclude, precisely because the experiment concludes for him. A hundred times, if need be, he will repeat the experiment before an audience, he will explain it, but he will not show outrage nor approve it personally: such is truth, such is the mechanism of phenomena.)(1190)
Truth is but the product of the “mechanism of phenomena”—or perhaps the “mechanism of phenomena itself,” for Zola’s syntax allows for a certain ambiguity. Such faith in the machinery of progress is the ostensible foundation of Zola’s experimental method, which advances inexorably: “nous commençons à marcher en avant, rien de plus; et notre seule force véritable est dans la méthode” (“we begin to march forward, nothing more, and our only real strength is in the method”) (1195). The experimental method invests in forward movement, yet this movement is sustained by infinite iterability: the hundred-fold repetition of the mechanism, which only nature, and not the human, can bring to conclusion. Within the march to the “meilleur état social” are the cyclical movements of the trial—the rouages of progress. Zola does, after all, conceive of his subject matter as a circulus: “le circulus social est identique au circulus vital” (“the social circulus is identical to the vital circulus”) (1189). This double motion of circularity and linear development, a forward movement that is dependent on its repetition, both reflects an industrial imaginary and calls attention to the ways in which this imaginary may short circuit. Moreover, as James notes in his 1903 Atlantic Monthly essay “Emile Zola,” such progress depends on public repetition. Zola adopts a spectacular framework for his experiment, evoking perhaps the popular science demonstrations of the Universal Exposition. Such a framework detracts from Zola’s insistence on the impersonality of experimenter/performer but also accords a social function to truth. Truth, in this case, must not simply be produced by the mechanisms of science, but is only recognized and validated when performed “devant le public.”
Hence perhaps the performative structure of Le Roman Expérimental, which formally reproduces the processes of doubt, repetition, and validation ascribed to the experimental method. The repetitions of the treatise are due, in part, to the conditions of its publication: Le Roman Expérimental is not a cohesive treatise but rather a collection of seven studies, five of which originally appeared in Russian, in the Saint-Petersburg-based review, The Messenger of Europe. Zola published his treatise in France the following year, but as the preface makes clear, his claims remain touched by the experience of having been translated: [End Page 56]
Ma première idée était de les récrire, avant de les publier en France. Mais, en les relisant, j’ai compris que je devais les laisser avec leur négligences, avec le jet de leur style de géomètre, sous peine de les défigurer. Les voilà donc, tels qu’ils me sont revenus, encombrés de répétitions, lâchés souvent, ayant trop de simplicité dans l’allure et trop de sécheresse dans le raisonnement. Des doutes me prennent … car je suis plein de honte lorsque je pense à l’énorme tas de rhétorique romantique que j’ai déjà derrière moi.
(I first thought to re-write [the articles] before publishing them in France. But in rereading them, I understood that I should leave them as they were, with their oversights, with the blast of their geometer’s style, lest I disfigure them. Thus they are presented, just as they were returned to me, burdened with repetitions, often loose, too simple in aspect, and too dry in reasoning. I’m seized with doubt … for I’m deeply ashamed when I think of the enormous heap of romantic rhetoric already behind me.)(1773)
This stylistic disclaimer is more than a tongue-in-cheek jab at Romantic lyricism. By imbuing both scientific doubt and genius with the Romanticism he claims to loathe, by proclaiming his writing “lâché” and geometrical, Zola collapses the distinction between Romantic and realist (this is perhaps why, moreover, he elsewhere takes Balzac as his exemplar). Indeed, many of the qualities Zola describes are frankly Romantic, from the “doutes” that seize him to the similar abandonment to “fougue même de l’idée.” Equally Romantic is Zola’s conceptualization of translation, which, with its “négligences” and faults, seems akin with the German Romantic foreignizing aesthetic proposed by Friedrich Schleiermacher (see Schleiermacher 42). This insistence on décalage, on the estrangement of the reader, is compounded by the temporal gap between Zola’s act of writing and his re-reading. In effect, the articles are not only themselves “encombrés des répétitions” (1173) but are presented to the reader through the retrospective—that is to say, repetitive—vision of the author. Zola evokes the possibility of re-writing, which he (unlike James) dismisses, but the notion of the return remains: he is not a re-writer, perhaps, but he is certainly a re-reader, and one with a curious lack of agency at that: the articles, he claims, “me sont revenus.” Yet whence come these articles? The translator presumably, but Zola seems to imply they have a life of their own, an implication that is compounded by the anthropomorphization of the articles themselves, things with faces that can be “défigurer”—a curious word, which evokes the faceless crowds of Zola’s own novels (perhaps by way of Baudelaire).
As the preface of Le Roman Expérimental makes explicit, the treatise is hardly “une coordination régulière et raisonnée des faits” (1198). Zola revisits a limited set of propositions but in doing so formally calls attention to their reiterated status. By evoking the constant “je l’ai dit” and “je répète” and “je reprends,” Zola gives a gloss of credibility to the contradictions of his method yet doesn’t render them any clearer and indeed detracts from their originality. Consider, for example, a favorite reiteration of Zola’s: the relationship between the pourquoi and the comment. Zola repeatedly insists on the empiricism of the experimentalist, who has little concern for origins, truth, the pourquoi: “La science expérimentale ne doit pas s’inquiéter du pourquoi des choses; elle explique le comment, pas advantage” (“Experimental science need not worry itself about the why of things, it simply explains the how and nothing more”) [End Page 57] (1779). Yet later in the treatise, Zola will claim “Notre rôle d’être intelligent est là: pénétrer le pourquoi des choses” (“Here is our role as intelligent beings: to penetrate the why of things”) (1188). Such a slippage calls to the margin of error permitted in the seemingly rigid mode of Zolien repetition. By force of repeating his claims, Zola does not reinforce but rather undermines the unit of repetition: the fixity of reiteration paradoxically produces new if inconsistent possibilities.
Fleissner locates the crux of this paradox between repetition and change in the privileged place Zola accords to doubt. For Fleissner, the inflexibility of the Zolien experimenter’s methods are generated in order to regulate the experimenter’s constant doubt (Women 74). Zola writes that
Tout le raisonnement expérimental est basé sur le doute, car l’expérimentateur doit n’avoir aucune idée préconçue devant la nature et garder toujours sa liberté d’esprit. Il accepte simplement les phénomènes qui se produisent, lorsqu’ils sont prouvés.(Le Roman)
(All experimental reasoning is based in doubt, for the experimenter shouldn’t have a single preconceived idea before nature and should always retain his freedom of mind. He simply accepts the phenomena that are produced when they are provoked.)
Yet the empiricist’s acceptance that Zola endorses does not seem to relieve the compulsion to doubt: indeed, according to Fleissner, the experimentalist will return to his doubt, endlessly reproducing the conditions that establish a set of phenomena until the trial reaches not epistemic certainty but a unit of knowledge that will always be susceptible to revision. In this respect, doubt seems to be the underside of curiosity, for if curiosity, in Posnock’s sense, is a radical receptivity to the world, doubt condenses and focalizes this intense interest onto a delimited object. While the scope of the terrain and perhaps the character of vision differ, both produce new, if provisional, forms of knowledge. Embedded in Zolien naturalism, then, is a dynamic system that bypasses the static circularity of the empiricist’s obsessive repetition.
James revisited and responded to this Zolien circularity throughout his career. Over a period of roughly thirty years, James’s attitude toward Naturalism underwent a marked, if not ostensibly radical, transformation from the squeamish repulsion of his early reviews of the 1870s to the tempered admiration apparent in his 1903 Atlantic Monthly eulogy. James remains consistent throughout in one respect: his continued interest in the “system” of Naturalism, even as he deplores the lack of the human element—what he will alternately signal as taste, psychology, or subjective consequence—that that system made, according to James, impossible. I’d suggest, however, that James’s assessments of French Naturalism informed not just the subject matter of The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians, and The Tragic Muse but the formal experiments of the late period that systematically produce doubt: one recalls James’s characterization of the reader of The Golden Bowl as “systematically bewildered and bamboozled” (FW x). We might, in fact, think of many of the stylistic innovations of James’s late period as not dissimilar to those of the Naturalist: for example, platitudinous repetition, complex arrangement of character systems, and authorial effacement. James effectively takes the formal machinery of Naturalism, but, unlike the Zolien [End Page 58] project that claims to aim for an unadulterated (if unattainable) Vérité, James uses these strategies to produce epistemic uncertainty and systematic defamiliarization, particularly at the linguistic level. We could even consider the style of the late period as James’s formal response to his own critical views on French Naturalism. Like the French Naturalists, the late fiction presents a carefully ordered system; but, unlike the French, James preserves the messy, uncertain, and contradictory “subjective” element.
James wrote extensively on the French Realists and Naturalists, although as Dennis Tredy points out, with the deaths of Maupassant, Taine, Flaubert, Goncourt, and Daudet, Zola came to bear the “brunt of James’s critical pen” (par. 2). In May 1876, the New York Tribune ran his brief review of the sixth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series under the title “Letter from Paris: Son Excellence Eugène Rougon,” in which James admires what he clearly finds a clever novel but which, in what seems to be a spasm of Anglo-American prudery, he dismisses for its equation of “the real” with “the unclean” (FW 861). Two years later in May 1878, James adumbrates these misgivings. By this point L’Assommoir (which was greatly admired by James) had been published, perhaps pushing James to more completely justify his aversion to the “unclean[ly].” In his review of Une Page d’Amour in the Nation, May 30, 1878, James laments the novel as “disagreeable and dull” (862). This time it is not the subject matter that repulses James, for Zola profits from “innocence and purity” by taking “for his heroine a little girl of eleven years of age” (861) (it is tempting, of course, to see the germ of Maisie in this review). Rather, it is Zola’s clichéd treatment of the child that repulses James. Yet we also begin to see in this review James’s growing appreciation for the very treatment—the Zolien system—that produces these clichés: Zola “gives us the impression of extraordinary elaborateness and patience of arrangement” (862). James later admires the French novelist’s “remarkably complete and powerful method, an extremely solid literary instrument” (864). James takes a similarly ambivalent position in his review of Nana in the Parisian, February 26, 1880. Here, Zola’s novel is condemned in the same diction as both Une Page d’Amour and Eugène Rougon: James finds it both dull and unclean (“the book is inconceivably and inordinately dull” and full of “monstrous uncleanness” ). And much as in the previous review, this dullness and uncleanliness are both produced and mitigated by the power of Zola’s “system” (“A novelist with a system, a passionate conviction, a great plan … is not now to be easily found in England or the United States” ). Yet lest we write off James’s opinion as one might his earliest review—that is to say, the kneejerk reaction of a delicate and prudish critic—James makes explicit that Zola’s failings are not moral in the conventional sense. Indeed, James laments the “feminine,” virginal Anglo-American novel that glosses sexual truth to its readers: “Half of life is a sealed book to young unmarried ladies, and how can a novel be worth anything that deals only with half of life?” (869). Articulating his views from the Page d’Amour review in even stronger terms, James clearly deplores not the subject matter of Nana but rather the way in which that subject matter is treated: as second-hand cliché rather than as material converted into art. James nears his conclusion with: “Nana … never, to my sense, leaves for a moment the region of the conventional. The figure of the brutal fille, without a conscience or a soul, with nothing but devouring appetites and imprudences, has become the stalest of the stock properties of French fiction” (870). We can surmise from this that “taste,” the “whole human side of the business” that is found lacking in Nana, is therefore not simply located in the novel’s content but in [End Page 59] its execution (868). It is not surprising that James here more fully, even generously, engages with Zola: James himself was entering into what is widely recognized as his phase of Naturalist experimentation. In 1885–1886, he would write The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, followed by The Tragic Muse of 1890. In February 1884, shortly preceding these publications, James wrote of the French Naturalists to William Dean Howells: “there is nothing more interesting to me now than the effort and experiment of that little group” (HJL 28).
In 1903, six years after the publication of Maisie, James adds further texture to his evaluation of Zola in his eulogy to the recently deceased writer in the Atlantic Monthly. James’s increased critical charitableness, of course, has as much to do with circumstantial and political changes as it does with James’s own aesthetic development. Written in the year following Zola’s death, the article necessarily adopts an elegiac rather than critical tone. Moreover, James’s own approval of Zola’s defense of Alfred Dreyfus would perhaps incline him to paint a warm and even heroic portrait of the French novelist. But to discount James’s increased sympathy on these grounds would be to ignore how James’s project had itself changed by 1903. Of course, many of James’s reservations remain: he deplores the author’s lack of psychology, his rude representation of subjectivity, his inhuman and thus imperfect realism (this is the same criticism of Zola that James had made in his “Art of Fiction”), and a use of science that would seem to remove human and specifically authorial agency: “We do emphatically apply it. But Zola would apparently hold that it much more applies us” (FW 891). But we also see that, for James, this crudeness is precisely the crux of Zola’s art.
In effect, James’s admiration for the Naturalist system is articulated in different, and surprisingly cruder, terms than it was in previous reviews. While in the 1870s and ’80s, the Zolien “system” was to James an assembly line of common platitudes, his 1903 evaluation collapses the sterile mechanical imaginary of the earlier reviews with the revulsions and seductions of the wider movements of modernity: “How in the world is it made, this deplorable democratic malodorous Common, so strange and interesting?” James asks (894). We might, for a moment, pause on this word “strange.” For in James’s new and grotesque portrait of the Zolien system, Naturalism achieves a certain strangeness—and with it interest, depth, and aesthetic value. In his analysis of James’s engagement with Zola, Paolo Tortonese has argued, “C’est le strange qui nous fait passer du vulgaire à l’intéressant. C’est le strange qui permet au common de ne pas être irrémédiablement dull” (“It is the ‘strange’ which delivers us from the vulgar to the interesting. It is the strange which allows the common to not be irremediably ‘dull’”) (2). And indeed, we see again and again diction that signals not just James’s respect for a system governed by robust aesthetic convictions but also an admiration for Zolien crudeness: the words “strange,” “monstrous,” and “interesting” replace the “monstrousness” of the earlier reviews—which simply denoted revulsion at the subject matter of Naturalism—with a kind of reluctant delight in the peculiar, perhaps even with the uncanny. “Monstrous” here becomes an aesthetic rather than moral category.
Moreover, this strangeness is conceived in a particularly modern, and, more specifically, spectacular, register: early in the essay, James writes, “If it topples over, the system, by its own weight … that only makes the spectacle of its origin more attaching” (FW 876). He goes on to describe the Zolien project as [End Page 60]
the mouth of a cave with a signboard hung above, or better still perhaps like the big booth at a fair with the name of the show across the flapping canvas. One strange animal after another stepped forth into the light, each in its way, a monster, bristling and spotted, each with a curiosity of that “natural history” in the name of which we were addressed.
The scientific experiment of Zolien Naturalism here becomes as much a topsy-turvy fête as that represented in the Exposition in Maisie or James’s 1905 voyage that inspired The American Scene. Indeed, the James of that book is both horrified by the American spectacle of modernity and sees in it, in the words of Robert Pippin, “possibilities … never before possible in the history of the world” (44). We might discern a similar double movement of revulsion and potentiality in James’s mechanical imaginary in the 1903 review. The democratic carnival, “machine-minted” and a “mass of production” that it may be, leads, through the very virtue of its reiteration, to something new (FW 891). James makes evident that the strangeness—and indeed estrangement—of repetition is both the power and the great flaw of Zola’s project. Writing that “he never but once found himself obliged to quit, to our vision, his magnificent treadmill of the pigeonholed and documents—the region we may qualify as that of experience by imitation” (896), James imbues the mechanical reproduction of experience with the modern sublimity of the strange. Although James does not fully endorse this system (he still discounts “our finally fatal sense of the procédé”), he does grant this procédé greater power than it enjoyed in previous assessments. Cliché, reiterated processes, and pigeon holes: this defamiliarized assembly line of Zolien Naturalism ultimately for James becomes the birthplace of innovation. Admiring Zola’s representation of the miners in Germinal, James writes that the novel “established altogether a new measure and standard of handling, a new energy and veracity” (898). This novel energy will be precisely what shapes James’s late fiction, replacing the “experience by imitation” (896) with another new if not entirely non-imitative form of experience, one that allows the reiterations of the mechanical to produce not epistemic certainty but the aestheticization of reiterated doubt.
Doubt is an accurate word to describe the state of reading, or indeed being a character, in late James. It is thus, perhaps, significant that James’s notorious refusal to name, situate, or satisfy his reader’s desire for knowledge is contained by the formal perfection of symmetrical, compact, and carefully composed character systems (the trio of The Wings of the Dove for example, or the quartet of The Golden Bowl). What Maisie Knew achieves a similar geometrical precision. Ida and Beale are two units that divorce and remarry. Their new spouses respectively fall in love, prompting a neatly balanced unfolding of adulterous configurations. The regulated architecture of reciprocity spreads throughout the novel’s landscape, which is laden with figures of repetition, from the interest in visual reproduction, to the echoing of certain phrases and clichés, to the proliferation of mirrors: the novel begins, after all, with the “reverberation” (WMK 4) of public opinion surrounding the Faranges’ divorce. But rather than produce a clear result, as the repetition of the Zolien trial ought to, there is no clarification at all: indeed, this structure gives way (at least temporarily) to phantasmagoria. I say temporarily because this repetition of patterns serves an educational and thus a productive function in the novel. We should not discard this symmetry as either a contrived strategy in plotting nor a heady proliferation into a [End Page 61] carnivalesque hall of mirrors. To illustrate Maisie’s reiterative entry into knowledge, we might compare her to two other models of education: the formation of an earlier (and Naturalist) Jamesian protagonist, the young Hyacinth Robinson of The Princess Casamassima (1886), and that of the post-Maisie Maggie Verver of The Golden Bowl (1904).
The first three chapters of The Princess Casamassima could very well be called What Hyacinth Knew or, more precisely, What the Adults Knew about What Hyacinth Knew. Like Maisie, Hyacinth is first introduced as “the child,” an epithet that is then narrowed to “the boy,” until he is introduced, under his full name, three pages into the novel (61). Likewise, Maisie is introduced in the opening lines as “a child,” then becomes “the little girl,” and is only later given the name Maisie (the possibility is raised of “sending Maisie to a Home” : paradoxically, her proper name is only fixed within the parameters of abandonment). Like Maisie, Hyacinth’s imperfect knowledge coalesces around the results of a trial—indeed, you could say both Maisie’s and Hyacinth’s origins are literally put on trial. And also like Maisie, his desire “to know everything about everything” (78) is brought up short when he faces the imperfection of his knowledge—specifically, the trauma of sexual knowledge—through the French language.3
Of course, there is a crucial difference between the two characters: Hyacinth doesn’t serve as the narrative focalizer of The Princess Casamassima. Instead, the chore of exposition is dispensed with dry efficiency by the prison guard, Mrs. Bowerbank, and in less than a paragraph the reader is apprised of the mystery of Hyacinth’s origins (a mystery that will govern the rest of the novel). Besides the obvious narrative difference, that is to say, the clean ceding of backstory as opposed to the impressionistic lens of Maisie, The Princess Casamassima serves a useful case-study when putting James’s Naturalism and late fiction in dialogue. The young “center of consciousness” in each novel goes about the work of knowledge acquisition, yet their methods differ crucially. Hyacinth simply asks questions. His model of knowledge acquisition is less like that of a Naturalist subject than that of a Naturalist author: a journalistic method, founded on interrogation. We might recall that James sedulously researched contemporary politics, revolutionary groups, and working class argot in preparing the composition of The Princess Casamassima. In 1884, he visited Millbank prison to cull information for the opening scenes of the novel. In an oft-cited letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry he recounts the experience, claiming, “You see, I am quite the Naturalist” (HJL 61). But, as The Princess Casamassima proves, the research-method of the direct question is not only unsatisfactory but defined by epistemic asymmetry. Being led to the prison, Hyacinth assaults Miss Pynsent with a barrage of questions: “Why should we be kind, if she’s a bad woman?” (80); “What’s expiated?” (81); “Has she suffered very much?”; “Do you mean because we are good?”; “But is she dying?”; “Why should I save her if I don’t like her?”; “How can she like me so much if she doesn’t know me?” (82). Unlike Zola, Hyacinth wants to know both hows and whys—and quite a bit more. Yet his desire for knowledge is only met with the saccharine responses of Pinnie: painting a watered-down romance, she evades his inquiries and effectively contains them in the state of childish nonsense.
Maisie, however, does not employ the Naturalist author’s methodology in accumulating knowledge. Contra Hyacinth’s early mode of inquiry, “there were questions Maisie never asked” (WMK 55): the unspoken and, particularly, the unsolicited [End Page 62] are privileged by the fragile perspective of late James, a strategy that, apparently, is rewarded with knowledge: “Maisie never put a question about Mr. Perriam. … [B]y the end of the week she knew all she didn’t ask” (71). Hyacinth too, we should note, eventually comes into (imperfect) knowledge by relinquishing the model of the question: facing his mother with “intense absorption” (PC 87), he becomes one end of an “extraordinary, dumb exchange of meanings” (88). At the close of the Millbank passage we are told that “what thoughts were begotten at that moment in his wondering mind Miss Pynsent was destined to learn at another time” (88–89)—not unlike Mrs. Wix who “still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew” (WMK 265). James’s later novel allows this “room for wonder” by replacing direct inquiry with a model at once childish and Naturalist: repetition. Unlike the rigor of the scientific trial, such repetition is conceived as an ostensibly fruitless and imitative reflex.
We will see this Naturalist-inflected mode of questioning—and knowing when to withhold questions—develop in the works of the major phase. The drama of The Golden Bowl centers on the moral education (or, depending on your critical viewpoint, degradation) of Maggie Verver. But Maggie’s initiation into an adult world of lived experience (and with it sexuality, dissembling, and moral conflict) does not proceed, as one might expect, from a point of halcyon naïveté to infernal knowing. As Martha Nussbaum has noted, much of Maggie’s “machinery” strives to preserve the childish rigidity and perfect symmetry of her old moral world; moreover, her strategies both in extracting knowledge and protecting herself take morally dubious but ostensibly innocent (even childish) forms (44). This is not to say that Maggie’s epistemological and moral practices do not develop throughout the novel but rather that her education is more nuanced than an Edenic fall. In effect, Maggie’s entry into knowledge works within the (often reiterated) forms of her ignorance. Much like a number of others in late James, particularly Lambert Strether, Maggie, by force of inhabiting fragmented and often platitudinous language, achieves a sophisticated epistemological and moral position.
As Maggie tries to divine whether or not her stepmother and husband are lovers—and later, whether or not she is suspected of knowing of their relationship—she makes use of repetitive rhetorical patterning, especially the reiteration of clichés. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Book 6, chapter 6, when Maggie confronts Fanny with the ostensible desire to learn the truth of her husband’s relation to her stepmother: what she obfuscates is her deeper desire to protect herself from being suspected of knowing. We are told, “her safety, her escape from being herself suspected of suspicion, would proceed from this friend’s power to cover, to protect and, as might be, even showily to represent her—represent, that is, her relation to the form of the life they were all actually leading” (GB 401). To this end, Maggie, “fairly screaming” (405), overwhelms Fanny with the sort of questions the novel has, until this point, made unutterable: “what awfulness, in heaven’s name is there between them. What do you believe, what do you know?” (403). We see that Maggie, however, is playing a deep game: she not only refuses to respond to Fanny’s questions (and in so doing, avoids explicitly naming the act of adultery) but, perhaps even more cunningly, turns the center of questioning onto herself—the true subject of interest for Maggie in this exchange. Her inquisitions into the relations between Charlotte and the Prince are eclipsed by her inquisitions into the way she is perceived: “Have you ever thought of me … as really feeling as I do?” (405); “Now do you think I’m modest?” (408); [End Page 63] “You’ve only believed me contented because you believed me stupid?” (406); “I’ve affected you … as quiet and natural and easy?” Maggie is not looking, in this tortuous verbal game, for the words that Fanny thinks would satisfy her: “the wretches are in love?” (405). Rather, Maggie’s verbal maneuvers are deployed with the aim of producing her friend’s words of consolation: “You’ve never affected me … as anything but—in a way all your own—absolutely good and sweet and beautiful” (406). Maggie’s conversational contortions not only include the strategic placement of silences, oblique questioning, and linguistic detours, but she also produces her desired effect (that of young innocence) through simplistic, even recalcitrant, repetition. Take the following exchange between Maggie and Fanny:
… “I am mild. I can bear anything.”“Oh, ‘bear’!” Mrs. Assingham fluted.“For love,” said the Princess.Fanny hesitated. “Of your father?”“For love,” Maggie repeated.It kept her friend watching. “Of your husband?”“For love,” Maggie said again.(409)
In the novel, we have come to expect only idiocy in repetition, particularly through the comically elliptical exchanges of Fanny and Bob in Book 1. Like in previous chapters, the repetition of the word “love” initially hits a number of mechanical notes, especially when echoed by Fanny’s own verbal tick of affectionately referring to Maggie as “love.” But this repetition of what is elsewhere in the novel used as an empty commonplace here becomes a pliable tool in Maggie’s hands: “love” semantically serves an evasive function. Notice that, despite Maggie’s ostensibly explicit line of questioning, she manages to refuse answering any of Fanny’s inquiries and that the “love” to which she appeals is, in fact, simply a trapdoor through which Maggie may slip away from her friend’s direct solicitations. The repetitions that are elsewhere indicative of stupidity become, in Maggie’s theater of innocence, powerful means of linguistic manipulation.
We see a similarly productive use of common language in Maisie. Maisie is conceived of by James as a flawed translator (James writes of her in the preface that she has “many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them” [FW 1160], an observation that is instantiated in the stilted language she inhabits and performs throughout the novel). As though living in an echo-chamber, Maisie absorbs and repeats the language of adults around her, turning the novel’s discourse into a cloistered nursery in which the sing-songy rhymes encode the “unuttered and the unknown” (WMK 515). Certain catchwords are circulated. For example, favorite citations include “you brought us together,” “mixed up,” and, perhaps most significantly, “freedom,” but this circulation is limited to singerie. Even Mrs. Wix, herself a clichéd character, recognizes the inauthenticity of the citation, chastising Maisie with “Free? Are you imitating him?” (585).
This entry into language is perhaps most marked in the Boulogne passages, during which Maisie apes French with the same imperfect repetition with which she has echoed the adult language of Sir Claude and her parents. Maisie is concerned with small units of language, nouns snatched from her surroundings—or, more specifically, [End Page 64] the dinner table. Indeed, ingestion and regurgitation might be a profitable way of considering Maisie’s rote learning strategies. Of the sixteen French words in Maisie’s repertory (due to James’s use of free indirect discourse, any quantification of Maisie’s vocabulary will of course be imprecise; however, we might assume that the narrative interspersions of basic French constitute at least some of her French knowledge) more than half are related to cuisine: petits-verres, déjeuner, omelettes aux rognons, poulet sauté, menu, café complet, café au lait, tartines. This interest in le ventre de Boulogne is particularly surprising, given James’s own fussiness in representing ingestion—even in his French scenes, he is notoriously reluctant to display appetite.4 Maisie’s education reposes on mindless consumption, be it linguistic or bodily. The plage, for example, is simply “another of the places on her list and of the things of which she knew the French name” (204). French words are discrete units, bibelots to be plucked and carefully husbanded, perhaps gifted to Mrs. Wix or Susan, but never put into relation. Indeed, the few instances of full syntactical units in French are misunderstood by Maisie (with the notable exception of the train departure).
The scene of Maisie’s arrival in Boulogne exemplifies these instances of regurgitation. Here Maisie enters France, delighted, almost ecstatically open to a new world that, all the same, is governed by the airless principle of repetition. Maisie, we are told, was “‘abroad’ and she gave herself up to it” (559)—to be abroad, that is to say, to be in the wide unknown is conceived of as an explicit citation, and the spreading scene of freedom is literally circumscribed by quotation marks. This mode of repetition continues to structure Maisie’s perceptions, particularly those perceptions filtered through, or at least in relation to, the model of Sir Claude. When he discusses economic “affairs,” Maisie “replied to him in his own manner” (561). Later,
Maisie heard from [Mrs. Wix] in detail how little she could have achieved if Sir Claude hadn’t put it in her power. It was a phrase that in her room she repeated in connections indescribable: he had put it in her power to have “changes,” as she said, of this most intimate order, adapted to climates and occasions so various as to foreshadow in themselves the stages of a vast itinerary.(563)
Like the citation of “abroad,” this assertion of Maisie’s power—a power to change, moreover—is restricted by its mode of presentation: again, a quotation. If Maisie is capable of accessing a “vast itinerary,” this capacity can only be accessed through a pre-existing discourse.
Thus Boulogne, though containing “a multitude of affinities and messages” (559), is also a sort of phantasmagoria, bound up in both imagistic and linguistic duplication. Here, we seem to get the French version of Earl’s Court: Maisie encounters a “white and gold salon which Maisie thought the loveliest place she had ever seen except perhaps the apartment of the Countess” (564): the salon is not only a reflection of the Countess’s rooms but within it continues the mechanics of replication: there are “petits verres (Mrs. Wix had two of each!),” while Sir Claude, who is fluent in French, “imitate[s] the strange sounds emitted by the English folk at the hotel” and Maisie feels “as if her clothes had been somebody else’s” (564). Boulogne is a place of double vision, in which the linearity of narrative and character development is underwritten by the circularity of duplication. In this same chapter, the landscape [End Page 65] is twice referred to as a picture: first in relation to Maisie, whose “vocation was to see the world and to thrill with enjoyment of the picture” (559), and, again, as a vague tableau that could easily be an unenthusiastic description of a Renoir—“The place and the people were all a picture together, a picture that … shimmered, in a thousand tints, with the pretty organization of the plage” (560)—even the narrator seems to stutter here on the word “picture.” Though James conceives of Maisie’s French education through a pictorial register, the picture here hardly seems fertile. The beach passage, for all its summery prettiness, remains dull: from the vague and rather stilted evocations of “the place” and “the people” to the thousand shimmering tints, James flirts dangerously with platitude.
An even better word might be “cliché,” for there’s something of the snapshot in this description—and, of course, the choice of the word “picture” rather than “painting” or “drawing” leaves room for the mechanical photograph as well.5 In what is perhaps a moment of wry self-referentiality, James writes Maisie’s view on Paris: “isn’t that the real thing?” (560). We might, then, put these Boulogne pictures in relation to other imagistic forms of repetition in the novel, particularly those associated with Sir Claude (himself introduced as a photograph). Stuart Burrows argues that James’s representations of photography are symptomatic of a culture of uniformity, in which “the camera has transformed how the world looks, so that very different things … have come to look the same” (88). While we could push against some of this claim—particularly in light of James’s collaboration with Alvin Langdon Coburn on the New York Edition frontispieces—Burrows’s contextualization of James’s fiction within mass visual culture is largely convincing. Moreover, the threat of repetition is not only located in the uniformity the process produces but also the notion that the model upon which repetition is based is, itself, flawed. It quickly becomes clear that inarticulacy is not merely the province of childhood: the adults of What Maisie Knew never cease to find themselves at a loss for words. Mrs. Beale refers to the Earl’s Court Exhibition as a “thingumbob” (WMK 517), Ida insists she must go to “that new place” and when pressed as to where that place may be, she replies “Oh, ‘Chose,’ don’t you know?—where everyone goes” (546), and Sir Claude, speaking of Mrs. Wix, claims “when I say vicious I don’t mean a pun or a what-d’ye-call-’em” (629). Maisie’s original terms are useful but ultimately limited: just as “free” is simply a euphemism for something much more seedy, the language of the adult world is not only misleading but deficient.
In the train passage, this flawed language of adults (which is also the language of sexuality) imbricates with the French language. Yet this episode also represents a crucial stage in Maisie’s socialization, a moment where repetition gives way to conversion. The passage begins in a familiar mode of doubleness:
She showed their two armfuls [of luggage], smiling at him as he smiled at her, but so conscious of being more frightened than she had ever been in her life that she seemed to see her whiteness as in a glass. Then she knew that what she saw was Sir Claude’s whiteness: he was as frightened as herself.(636)
The dyads that thread throughout the novel are here manifested as a pair of suitcases, a doubleness that is followed by the nearly symmetrical syntax of the following line: [End Page 66] “smiling at him as he smiled at her.” Similarly, Maisie is constituted as a double subject, seeing her “whiteness as in a glass.” Yet this reflection, it becomes apparent, is not self-identical: indeed, the reflection is revealed to be Sir Claude’s. Maisie’s recognition of herself as constituted by another is of a piece with the “illumination” by which she realizes she “understood all their French … fell into it with an active perfection” (636). The bits of words that Maisie takes—or rather, “prend”—throughout the Boulogne episodes are here put into motion. Maisie’s repetitive education crystalizes in a verbal chain constituted around the word “prendre.” First the porter asks “Monsieur veut-il que je les prenne?,” a request that is then rehashed by Sir Claude as “Veux-tu bien qu’il en prenne?” until Maisie enters, for the first time, the French language with the imperfect echo: “Prenny, prenny. Oh prenny” (636). In doing so, Maisie repeats not only others, but herself in an active, if imperfect, entry into social relations.
Maisie’s utterance is both flawed and derivative, yet unlike the adults’ deficient language, it is not nonsensical. She makes herself understood: indeed, her desire is acknowledged by the porter with: “‘Ah, si mademoiselle le veut—.’ He waited there for the money” (636). Yet the capacity for her words to transform into actions is limited and the fairy-tale-like faith in repeating the magical word “prenny” ultimately fails. It is significant, then, that this interaction occurs in a moment of delayed compensation. In effect, the alchemy from words into action is characteristic of the moment of payment: the space where the symbolic promise of currency and the material consequence of acquisition intersect. Maisie misses the train in a moment of suspended payment, a deferred space between language and action. Maisie’s entry into the social is ultimately conceived as a failure: “she had had a real fright but had fallen back to earth” (637), yet rather than read this return as deflation, we might consider it a mere continuation of her “fall” into French. Indeed, it is only after hearing (in French) what she wants, that Maisie can understand (in English) “that she knew what she wanted. All her learning and learning had made her at last learn that” (645). Another way to put it is that what Maisie wants is not what she “veut.”
This willingness to experiment allows Maisie to exit the circularity of repetition. Though her “learning and learning” may be repeated, it serves to teach us that “she’s unique” (647), as Sir Claude avers. The adults of the novel remain “types,” reproducible iterations of a master-model. Like photographs, they remain in a state of flatness, display, and reiteration, “abusing” their “visibility” (400). Their functions, too, are symbolic, hence the interest in Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale as parental “representatives.” Maisie claims that Mrs. Beale “represents Papa” (619), a claim later corroborated with Mrs. Beale’s avowal, “We’re representative, you know, of Mr. Farange and his former wife” (648). This is not to say that Maisie has escaped from being defined in relation to her parents. She is presented to us as “a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed” (398), and her first words in the novel are almost literarily ventriloquized: “He said I was to tell you from him … that you’re a nasty, horrid pig!” (404). Yet unlike the static representative, the “porcelain cup” is an instrument, or indeed a “frail vessel” (FW 1083). It is significant that the second time Maisie finishes a chapter (and it’s curious that, while many chapters conclude with pithy, even theatrical, one-liners, Maisie utters very few of them), she confesses to like “being mixed” (WMK 516). Mixed, when employed by Mrs. Beale as “mixed up” (515), is an empty place-holder for a nastier word (sullied, stained, corrupted). Yet by repeating Mrs. Beale’s claim, Maisie reappropriates “mixed” and imbues the [End Page 67] term with what James calls in the preface “the muddled state … the very sharpest of realities” (FW 1164). Maisie’s mixedness constitutes a repetition but one that permits a conversion: Maisie has been able to mis-use and translate adult language. Such (mis)translations align with Posnock’s notion of Henry James’s heterogeneous self, one which “‘bristles’ with the mobility and impurity of internal difference” (58). Indeed, if we examine Maisie’s three chapter conclusions, we see that she goes from being a ventriloquized subject (chapter 1), to an agentive, unsettled mixture (chapter 17), to finally a place of non-identity (chapter 28): the seemingly cruel line she throws at Mrs. Wix, “oh, you’re nobody!” (WMK 226).
Yet this negation of identity, this “nobodyness” that exists in mixture, could be read as a condition for epistemic development. As John Carlos Rowe has pointed out, “Mrs. Wix comes to represent a whole range of other people” (153).6 Read on a political level, this mixture is akin to a process of education by democratization, in which, as Rowe argues, “a crucial part of Maisie’s education … is her encounter with the whole set of social ambiguities surrounding the classification of human beings.” The theatricalized proliferation of difference, from Maisie’s dark and unnamed first governess, to the Jewish “Oriental” Mr. Perriam, and of course the “brown” American Countess, seems to be the reverse side of James’s grotesque portrait of capitalistic sameness. James loads the concept of mixture with both aesthetic and ethical valences, transforming the stain (and in this respect the figuratively, if not literally, miscegenated Countess forms an interesting counterpoint to Maisie) into the openness of experimentation. Posnock, by way of Adorno’s negative dialectics, claims that such an openness disrupts “the compulsion to achieve identity not by rejecting identity but by the means of the energy stored up in that compulsion” (127). Like a germ, with “energy stored up,” though not (unlike the arboreal metaphors of Zola and James) with a fixed objective in sight, Maisie passes from reiteration to “non-identity,” a perpetual meditation that sublates the reified subject and imbues her with a childlike openness to conversion. Maisie paradoxically becomes “unique” by aligning herself with a “nobody” and, in doing so, breaks from the static repetition of the adults. The novel concludes with Sir Claude’s claim to have not given up Mrs. Beale, which is reiterated in the echo of each adult (Mrs. Wix, Mrs. Beale, and Sir Claude—who himself utters the phrase three times!): “He can’t” (WMK 648). This affirmation of love, when echoed as a negation, takes a defeated and even emasculating turn. Yet Maisie, who earlier was so quick to pick up the words of her elders, remains silent. Her last “echo” as it were, is a mechanically repeated “Good-bye” to Sir Claude (649).
Does this mean we should consider James of the nineties and, later, the major phase to be a Naturalist, that behind the altar of aestheticism always lurked the Zolien shadow of the mechanical? I do not believe so. But I do believe we should take James at face value when he says in “The Art of Fiction” that “Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints” (AC 165–66). This essay has traced some of the contiguities between Naturalism and aesthetic experiment that persisted throughout James’s career. James repurposed the systematic but also radically empiricist—to borrow from William James—methods of Zolien Naturalism in order to establish the epistemological determinants of his late fiction. Of course, these methods of repetition, compulsive reiteration, and reliance on phenomenological impressions lead in James to further obfuscation rather than a triumphant claim to Vérité. But this is [End Page 68] precisely how James changes the conditions of the Zolien system and, in doing so, both permits Maisie to escape from the reification of identity and fashions non-linear trajectories for moral and epistemic educative processes. Maisie closes the novel at the side of the marginal Mrs. Wix, “in mid-channel, surrounded by the quiet sea” (WMK 649). Looking back, but moving forward, the novel ends with a static moment that is, nevertheless, in movement. Maisie renounces, yet her return is never dramatized: she remains in flux, at sea—rather like Isabel Archer “en l’air” (CN 15). This co-existence of suspension and movement speaks both to a refusal to situate and an acknowledgement that this deracination is contingent on a certain immobility that may, for James, be constitutive of epistemic development.
1. There are a number of ways one might read James Sr.’s suggestion, of course: the linguistic repetition of the word “convert” may very well serve a simply emphatic effect (that is to say, this repeated injuction would follow the logic of St. Augustine’s response to multiple iterated calls that result in a single conversion). Given, however, the notorious instability of the James family’s childhood as well as James Sr.’s philosophical sympathies (particularly those with Emerson and Swedenborg), I choose to read this repetition as a call for several, rather than one sole, conversions.
2. Although beyond the scope of this paper, it may also be worth considering how Maisie’s education of conversion resonates with William James’s theories of religious conversion as a natural process.
3. In this respect, we can also compare the young Hyacinth and Maisie to Lambert Strether, whose discovery of Madame de Vionnet’s and Chad’s relationship is met with the former’s (strategically employed) deluge of French.