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The Master Lesson: James Reading Shakespeare by Nina Schwartz, Southern Methodist University Oh yes, you are right in saying that in a manner he has got more out of me man I out of him—and yet you are wrong. I have got out of him that I know him as if I had made him—his nature, his culture, his race, his type, his moeurs, his mixture—whereas he knows (as a consequence of his own attitude) next to nothing about me. An individual so capable as I am of the uncanniest self-effacement in the active exercise of the passion of observation, always exposes himself a little to looking like a dupe—and he doesn't care a hang. (Henry to William James, 1892)1 If one wishes to deceive a man, what one presents to him is the painting of a veil, that is to say, something that incites him to ask what is behind it. (Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts 112) When Merton Densher asks Kate Croy exactly what her father did to have become so "impossible," he is making a request for information. Her response, however, provides a lesson in the power of uncertainty: "I don't know—and I don't want to. I only know that years and years ago—when I was about fifteen— something or other happened that made him impossible. I mean impossible for the world at large first, and then, little by little, for mother" (WD 56). To Kate's suggestion that he can find out for himself if he really wants to know, Densher replies tactfully, taking his cue from his friend, "I wouldn't find out for the world, and I'd rather lose my tongue than put a question" (WD 57). The young man's willingness to accept Lionel Croy's "impossibility" on such vague grounds as Kate can give him suggests his faith in her, but it also reveals his own social sophistication and moral refinement: he trusts the legitimacy of Croy's social condition, assumes a correspondence between that condition and the unknown truth, and refuses to engage in any ignoble search for gossipy details. But Densher's wish to know the truth, even if admirably sublimated here, suggests the generally ambiguous and disorienting effect of secrets in Henry James's fiction. On the one hand, we may often feel as intensely as James's characters do a desire simply to know the facts: to know, for example, what Mrs. Newsome's company manufactures, what Vereker's figure is, what Maisie knows, or what Lionel Croy did. At the same time, however, we may also feel embarrassed by this desire, fearing it to be a sign of vulgar literal-mindedness. Since most, though not all, of the secrets in James involve the violation of a social propriety (a petty crime, an illicit relationship, an embarrassing activity) to The Henry James Review 12 (1991): 69-83 ©1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 70 The Henry James Review require the specifics is to expose oneself as unaware of the general aesthetics of social order. To need to know the facts, that is, is to refuse the opportunity that a mystery offers, the chance to assert one's civil sophistication by analogically inferring its solution. Perhaps this and other opportunities account for much of secrecy's power in James. For while Kate appreciates Densher's delicacy, she nevertheless identifies her father's mysterious dishonor as a treasured possession: "Then she sounded for him, but more deeply than ever yet, her note of proud, still pessimism. 'How can such a thing as that not be the great thing in one's life? '" (WD 57). The effect of this on Densher is marked: he gives her "one of his long looks, and she took it to its deepest, its headiest dregs" (WD 57-58). In this passage, the exchange of the secret constitutes a kind of mutual seduction: Kate makes Densher the gift of (non) knowledge, of a literal absence, really, and to her he in tum reflects back her own appealing strangeness.2 Kate's attractiveness for Densher, that is, derives in great part from his awareness that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 69-83
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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