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  • Playing James
  • Rita Charon

Sitting in an East Village café, crowded the way I like it with NYU students and neighborhood regulars, I struggle with a paragraph from James's preface to volume 17. The loud voices of undergraduates at the neighboring table lead me to put on my earpods, and I choose, without a lot of deliberation, to listen to Freddy Kempf's recording of Bach's Partita #4. I had learned slowly and humbly to play this Partita some years ago to the point that I can play it recognizably, even at an embarrassing fraction of the speed and skill of Freddy Kempf.

As I listen, I am swept away by the complexity, the beauty, the wit, the surprise, the exact "rightness" of each note. I feel at once the pride of the Ouverture, the sorrow of the Allemande, the joy of the Aria, the stateliness of the Sarabande. My hands move as if on a keyboard. I anticipate that rest, this trill, the way the left hand announces here the shift of tempo or there of mode. I recall the difficulty of navigating particular measures, admiring Kempf's agility and style. I relive my teacher's happiness at my getting through a particularly challenging stretch of the Minuet.

Pianist Jeremy Denk wrote that the only way to understand Bach is to play him. My tribute to the composer is to learn to perform his composition. Like learning how to dance by standing on one's partner's shoes, the playing, however amateur, gives the acolyte a simulacrum of the act itself of creation. The differences among performances are vast, of course, according to the talent of each listening pianist and his or her own relationship with the work, but the action is the same: to repeat the embodied acts of the creator.

How do I play James? Pierre Menard's copying of Don Quixote notwithstanding, "the theme of a total identification with a given author" seems to both taunt and haunt literary criticism's efforts to inhabit works of literature in the way that a musician can inhabit a work of music (Borges 39). I am not alone among readers of this journal to have pilgrimaged to Rye, to the Cambridge Cemetery, to Cheyne Walk, to 27 Washington Place. We laugh at one another's propensities toward em dashes and parentheses in our own writing. But such efforts at approximations do not satisfy the urge to walk through the snowfield in the footsteps of the writer who walked through it before us. [End Page 204]

Through the productive crossings of phenomenological thought with today's cognitive science revolution and with surprising illustrations of aesthetic experiences that are emerging from second-generation cognitive literary studies, the study of literature—and James in particular—is suddenly, almost surfeitedly, enriched. Embodied phenomenology in tandem with post-modern/post-humanist literary thought provides multiocular views of the pillars of literary studies qua literary studies: time, space, genre, metaphor, mood, plot, and desire appear with fresh angles and depths and implications. We are treated to startling revelations about how emotion intersects with motor activity, how vision is founded on memory and anticipation, what transport metaphor enables, and what James is actually doing with Strether in Paris or Isabel in chapter 42.1 I don't mean to suggest that brain science is the key to aesthetic interpretations but rather to recognize that the reader, the author, and characters (even "thing" or "place" or non-human characters) have mortal bodies whose affordances enable and create their contact with the worlds inside and outside them. Corporeal/sensory/perceptional existence accounts for much of the lived experiences, including consciousness and emotions, that are, in fact, the stuff not only of dreams but of the state of being itself.

Contemplating James and emotion reminds me that the whole life-experience of reading James is intensely emotional. Here is where I want to end up in this essay—and I will write it so as to learn whether it might be at least a plausible idea: James's readers might not only undergo intense emotional experiences in reading his fiction as a result of his capacity to...