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The Henry James Review 23.2 (2002) 105-135

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"A sort of meaning":
Handling the Name and Figuring Genealogy in The Wings of the Dove

Jonathan Warren, York University

James's preface to The Golden Bowl closes with a formulation that describes the theoretical basis upon which Kate Croy, rejected by her obscurely sinister father, quickly comes to depend as she struggles to manufacture her own rescue in The Wings of the Dove. The preface concludes with an impassioned plea for the ethics of art:

we recognise betimes that to "put" things is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them. Our expression of them, and the terms on which we understand that, belong as nearly to our conduct and our life as every other feature of our freedom; these things yield in fact some of its most exquisite material to the religion of doing. (AN 347)

Here James rallies his adverbs to insist upon an equivalence between articulation and action, between language's declarative and performative aspects: to "put" is to do. Furthermore, James's axiomatic claim disturbs attempts to discover in it a conduit between the linguistic field and any "real" understood as not already circumscribed within language. Instead, as the fate of Kate Croy dramatizes, James insists that if "to put" is always "to do," then "to do" in literature is likewise always exclusively "to put," according to the laws of language. James's critical formula prohibits communication between language and any presumed outside. James's novel stages, in the story of Kate Croy, the impossibility of quests for any such metalinguistic egress. The deictic function of linguistic accounts of the "real" inexorably stakes an always prior claim that the real is that which is advanced, rhetorically, by language. The equivalence between putting and doing is functional for Kate Croy, who strives from the opening moments of The Wings [End Page 105] of the Dove to conceive precisely the right action to complete the grammatical model of her suspended, hanging, familial history and, by so doing/putting, to refigure her legacy and destiny which are prisoner to its sentence: "the whole history of their house had the effect of some fine florid voluminous phrase, say even a musical, that dropped first into words and notes without sense and then, hanging unfinished, into no words nor any notes at all" (2).

The sentence, James's figure for Kate's familial history, entraps her even as she yearns to take it in hand, to rescue it from dissolution, to finish it, and thereby to lose, efface, or sublate it by rewriting it as, for instance, something not incomplete. Her sentenced predicament is intractable in two ways. If the hanging sentence—by beginning in "fine florid voluminous" phrases, dropping into notes and trailing off into nothingness—represents a devolution, then Kate, as the final word of that genealogical phrase, hangs unresolved and senseless; Kate, then, must grapple impossibly with the suspended end of the sentence. As that end, that final dangling part, Kate would designate the site of irresolution, senselessness, and/or the insensate, all of which preclude the sort of active subjectivity that is the necessary precondition for decisive conduct. Instead of a character whose effectiveness is measured by its correlation to phenomenal action, Kate would be James's name for a very different and ironic kind of competence, the ability only to cite her incapacity to so act. Read this way, Kate is the metaphorical partner to the sentence's last terms, the spectral tenor evoked by words that propose "no words nor any notes at all." Such metaphorical duty deprives her of agency—of any agency other than service to such disabling metaphoricity. Though she is putatively animate, she is also, or therefore, from the first, stripped of a power she never had, just as words that stand for no words are marks with the peculiar capacity only to cite their inability to cite. To anticipate Milly Theale's later meaningful posture, Kate's face is inevitably turned...


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