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KENNETH REINHARD The Jamesian Thing: The Wings of the Dove and the Ethics of Mourning In his 1958 introduction to The Wings ofthe Dove, R. R Blackmur describes his "first elated reading" of James' novel in language that fuses literary epiphany and sexual awakening. Blackmur recalls a "hot and muggy" day culminating in a "stifling midnight": "Long before the end I knew a master had laid hands on me. The beauty of the book bore me up; I was both cool and waking; excited and effortless; nothing was any longer worthwhile and everything had become necessary" (Studies 161). For Blackmur, a lifetime of reading James begins in this youthful experience of"appreciation never heightened" afterwards, not yet dulled by either the "over-interpretation" or the "stupefying idolatry " of the critical reader. Blackmur's rapture at being held in the grasp of a "master" is one of finding something ineffable yet hard and teal in the book, of"embracing] the shadow ofimagination as ifit were a solid thing" (162). The strange "thingliness" of James' imagination that Blackmur both possesses and is possessed by in this youthful memory, however, shelters within it a wish that reaches toward an earlier encounter with a "Jamesian thing"—not only in James' fiction, but in relation to his person: I can only wish again now, as I wished then, that I had taken a grasping, remembering look at James's living figure when he had been pointed out to me, a child of six, walking down my street at the time of his brother William's death. But I can remember nothing but my mother pointing. I can only say that Arizona Quarterly Volume 53, Number 4, Winter 1997 Copyright © 1997 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 1 16 Kenneth Reinhard he must have had a "port in air," a presence and a person, with a power within the presence and beyond the person, and must have been so whether visibly or not; for so he is within his books, and most of all, for me—a haunt and a presence—in The Wings of the Dove, or the spread ofthose wings. (162) Blackmur's account of his first reading of James constructs a primal scene for criticism, a fantasy of the pre-history of analytic reading in a moment of ecstatic presence, fullness, and reciprocity that divides the "nothing" of his prior life from the sublime "everything" that now opens up, which will require, however, the detours and mediation of criticism to regain. Whereas Blackmur felt as a youth that James had "laid hands" on him through The Wings of the Dove, he recalls here his regret at not having taken a "grasping, remembering" look at James' "living figure" as a younger, more impressionable, child. Rather than a memory of Henry James, Blackmur's recollection is the trace of a gesture : "I can remember nothing but my mother pointing." What slipped through the gtasping fingers ofremembrance is indicated, pointed to as hst, by the hand ofhis modier, and indeed the absent "presence" lost to memory is itself a figure of loss—Henry James in mourning. Blackmur's autobiographical "appreciation" is a critical act ofmourning , ofreaching out to an experience ofproximity that recedes from the very act ofcritical reflection. Within the memory of the originary reading , Blackmur finds indications of an earlier scene that he does not remember , an encounter with something before or beyond representation that is only indirectly accessed through the later memory, and that, while a "living figure," was never present to consciousness as such. For Blackmur, James' marked absence, like Wallace Steven's jar in Tennessee , must have had "a port in air": like nothing else, it inscribes a hole in the landscape, a gap that orders the wilderness ofrepresentation and memory rising around it. And while the indexical sign of Blackmur's missing vision of James is his mother's hand, the "power within the presence and beyond the person" is pointed to, and the missed encounter repeated, by The Wings of the Dove itself, where, according to Blackmut, James remains as "a haunt and a presence," a ghostly trace both absent and present, mourned and mourning.1 The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 115-146
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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