The Henry James Review 23.2 (2002) 176-195
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Henry James's Self-Reiterating Habit in "Is There a Life after Death?"
Renée Tursi, College of Charleston
But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.
—Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia: Urne-burial
By drawing a comparison between Henry James and the French writer Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, a 1907 Atlantic Monthly essay questioned whether "instead of being too much themselves," the two authors were rather "not sufficiently themselves" (Gill 466). Their keen eye for what differentiates them from others, the writer insisted, "cuts them off like a knife [. . .] from their kind" and hence "mutilates" them. For to be only that in which "one is different from others is to be less than one's self," he wrote, "and it is this curtailment of their universal nature which earns for both, sometimes, the epithet of 'inhuman.'" Marivaux's case aside, given James's famous disclosure in 1900 to his journalist-friend Morton Fullerton that the "essential loneliness of my life" constituted his "deepest" aspect—"deeper than my 'genius,' deeper than my 'discipline,' deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep countermining of art"—one imagines he could not have altogether dismissed such comments (HJL 4: 170). Contemporary critics, grasping at a Jamesian self once regarded mainly as a free-floating aesthete—thanks in good part to the novelist's own image of the imagination as the "commodious car" tethered loosely between the "balloon of experience" and "the earth" (AM xvii)—have struggled the author and his literary selfhoods to the ground. They're holding him down not in order to mend the rift the Atlantic writer identified (for it would appear that by now the idea of a "universal nature" has had its wings irrevocably clipped), but to prove how well James participates in a myriad of current cultural discourses. Critical studies of [End Page 176] the ways his work speaks in the vernacular of, say, sexuality or race or inter-textuality have in this way re-attached the writer to the world around (and previously beneath) him. 1
But the tremendous influence of psychology and philosophy on literary studieshas opened a different, perhaps even wider breach for the author and his works—onewithin the Jamesian self itself. Our post-modern suspicion of the external countenance veiling the internal human scene has engaged critics in their own "countermining" of his fiction with the hope of heading off a "real" Jamesian self (or selves) disconnected or hidden from its constructed performative face. Marcia Ian, for one, defines the "beast lurking in James's jungle" as "the self lurking suspiciously behind its 'own' representations" (135), a self that can represent itself without presenting itself. Sharon Cameron, on the other hand, locates a Jamesian self out and away from the self by turning psychology and epistemology inside out; she characterizes a Jamesian consciousness (the "site" of a sense of identity) as one that often transgresses the perimeter of self, thereby losing its centrality or subjectivity, and then reconfigures itself externally in powerful and multiple ways that determine (not reflect) meaning. Most radically, Ross Posnock finds no selfhood within or without, but only a hollow Jamesian hall of mirrors reflecting cultural and psychological "otherness" which "empties him of subjectivity" (182).
James offers some clues to the terms of his own idiom of selfhood by way of his identification with the British after decades of an expatriate "alienism" in England. On the cusp of the First World War, when threats of a German invasion loomed "inconceivably off across the blue channel" (HJL 4: 715), thoughts that one tradition might be so abruptly substituted for another struck him as "a crudely and clumsily improvised story" (CT 338). In light of the unthinkable "nearness of the horrors that are in perpetration" just beyond "the lovely rim" of the sea (HJL 4: 715), it seemed to him that,"we might all have resembled together a group of children at their nurse's knee disconcerted by some tale that it isn...