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LELAND S. PERSON Reading Sexuality: The Object Lesson of James's Master rHETHER they read "The Lesson of the Master" as a "story of rivalry" in which Henry St. George tricks the young Paul Overt into leaving London so that he, the Master, can secure Marian Fancourt for himself, or as a "story ofsalvation" in which the Master sacrificially marries Marian in order to save Paul for art's sake, critics usually view the story heterocentrically as representing the issue of whether marriage threatens male artistic integrity.1 Leon Edel, characterizing the Master's lesson, argues that the "artist must choose. He can either marry and cheapen his art—and be a success—or take a celibate course, and produce the masterpieces which the world will not understand and which alone justify dedication and self-denial" (347). James himself lends credence to this heterophobic view of the tale. In his notebook he records a conversation with the British journalist Theodore Child "about the effect of marriage on the artist." It "occurred to me," he writes, "that a very interesting situation would be that of an elder artist or writer, who has been ruined (in his own sight) by his marriage and its forcing him to produce promiscuously and cheaply—his position in regard to a younger confrere whom he sees on the brink ofthe same disaster and whom he endeavors to save, to rescue, by some act of bold interference —breaking off the marriage, annihilating the wife, making trouble between the parties" (Complete Notebooks 43-44). "The Lesson of the Master" does more than elaborate this pat moral lesson, however. In fact, emphasizing the heterocentric triangle involv- ?t??:??a Quarterly Volume 53, Number 4, Winter 1997 Copyright © 1997 by Arizona Board ofRegents ISSN 0004-1610 24Leland S. Person ing the two males' relationships to women (and art) obscures the intensity of the tale's most important relationship—that between Henry St. George and Paul Overt, the master and the disciple. Triangulating a false dichotomy between marriage and art by adding an intimate maleto -male relationship, James dramatizes—covertly, as it were—a third alternative: not celibacy, in Edel's term, but a transgressive homoeroticism with the power to sponsor a transgressive aestheticism.2 In this essay I would like to examine James's representation of gender and sexuality by reading "The Lesson of the Master" (1888) as an object lesson in homo-aestheticism, a vexed ideal of eroticized reading and writing between men—vexed because of James's own conflicts and confusion, what Fred Kaplan calls his "private ambivalences and disguises" (403) and because of a hostile judicial environment (exemplified by the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885).3 At its simplest, "The Lesson of the Master" divides desire along heterosexual and homosexual lines. Midway through the tale, as Paul Overt watches Henry St. George drive off with Marian Fancourt, he experiences an "indefinite envy" (NY 49)—a "feeling addressed alike, strangely enough, to each of the occupants of the hansom. How much he should like to rattle about London with such a girl! How much he should like to go and look at 'types' with St. George!" (NY 50). Divided desire in "The Lesson of the Master," however, gives way to a mediated homoeroticism, as both heterosexuality and heterotextuality screen desire between men. "Do you wish to pass exactly for what she represents you?" Paul Overt coyly asks St. George about the textualized and heterosexualized self-in-relation he becomes in Marian's appreciative discourse (NY 34). Passing for a masterful (heterosexual) man and writer through his evolving relationship with Marian, St. George encourages Paul's attention both aesthetically and sexually. At its emotional and emplotted center, "The Lesson of the Master" features an intimate subject -object relation between male writer and reader—a master-disciple relation that Michael Cooper has termed an "erotonomy," a male-male relationship featuring a "mutual desire of the participants for personal interaction with each other and a mutually accepted system for exchanging satisfactions" (66). And as I have argued in "James's HomoAesthetics ," these relationships (in "The Author of Beltraffio," "The Middle Years," and "The Death ofthe Lion") eroticize male homosocial intimacy through...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 23-37
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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