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  • Art and the Construction of Community in “The Death of the Lion”
  • Paul B. Armstrong

What are the uses of art in constructing community? And, conversely, what are the uses of community in construing art and constructing relations with authors and other readers? In “The Death of the Lion,” the author’s rapid rise to glory and equally sudden passing out of the limelight and into the grave leave the reader asking not only what care art deserves but also whether forms of social relation might be found that are reciprocal and mutually enhancing rather than conflictual, destructive, and violent. Contrary to widespread opinion, James does not view the private aesthetic realm as an authentic sphere of meaning and value which criticizes the fallen public world. 1 Similar battles for power, zero-sum games, and exclusionary structures occur in both domains. This replication of the communicative irrationalities of the public sphere in the realm of privacy does not mean, however, as some would have it, that art necessarily reinforces mechanisms of social control it only pretends to evade. 2 In “The Death of the Lion,” as in other of James’s ambiguous stories of authors and writing, the tale’s criticism of art’s misuses implies an alternative mode of caring for the aesthetic and of being with others nowhere dramatized in the text but enacted as a challenge to the reader through the mediation of its form of narration.

Because identity and social forms are contingent structures of difference rather than intrinsic givens, they are open to a variety of uses and ends that are not predetermined. The question of how a community cares for art matters to James among other reasons because the contingency of identity and social relations can lead to opposing results. The instability of a world of differences can be invigorating and transformative, or the oppositions that make meaning possible can become the instruments and the stakes in conflicts between rival wills to power. The mutability of social forms can allow emancipatory acts of self-creation [End Page 99] which fixed structures would prevent, but it can also inspire projects of personal apotheosis that use contingency as a tool to assert ascendancy. Fluid relations can make possible a playful reciprocity based on mutual recognition and engagement, or they can become a field of contest between opponents who would structure them for their own purposes. 3 “The Death of the Lion” portrays art and artists as objects of a battle for power between rivals for ascendancy and as instruments for instituting exclusionary structures of domination and control. This negative picture points the question of whether, in a thoroughly contingent world, art can be used socially as a mediator fostering mutual recognition and an emancipatory exchange of differences. The act of reading might be a place where that could start, but the dilemma for the reader is that such a beginning can be made only by reading against the narrator and becoming his rival in a struggle to control the meaning of his tale.

How the construction of the author may construct the community, and vice versa, is evident in how The Empire (a name that signals almost too loudly that issues of power and community-building are at stake) elevates Neil Paraday:

The big blundering newspaper had discovered him, and now he was proclaimed and anointed and crowned. His place was assigned him as publicly as if a fat usher with a wand had pointed to the topmost chair; he was to pass up and still up, higher and higher, between the watching faces and the envious sounds—away up to the dais and the throne. The article was “epoch-making,” a landmark in his life; he had taken rank at a bound, waked up a national glory. A national glory was needed, and it was an immense convenience he was there.


The functions of exclusion and regulation in establishing fields of difference are on display here. If socially defining distinctions depend on the institution of a negative (the identity of something defined by what it is not), then, as here, an act of exclusion can inscribe differences through negation by placing someone in a...

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pp. 99-108
Launched on MUSE
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