- Caught between American Melancholy and European Masochism:Notes on "Madame de Mauves"
When he could not exert himself to write, Henry James reflected on his work in terms of melancholy. "I have hours of unspeakable reaction against my smallness of production; my wretched habits of work—or of un-work; my levity, my vagueness of mind, my perpetual failure to focus my attention, to absorb myself," he wrote before his fortieth birthday, only to add: "I believe however that I have learned how to work and that it is in moments of forced idleness, almost alone, that these melancholy reflections seize me" (CN 232–33). Also, there is an instance in his preface to The Wings of the Dove when James describes his work in terms of mourning. He reports mourning the loss of details and relations that did not make it to the final versions of his works but remained confined to the planning stages: "I mourn for them all …, the absent values, the palpable voids, the missing links, the mocking shadows, that reflect, taken together, the early bloom of one's good faith" (AN 297).
Like Freud in his essay on mourning and melancholia, James relates melancholy to unproductive work and mourning to productive work; both James and Freud define work against and alongside loss and affect. It is only that James identifies loss as the loss of the stories he was initially intent on processing, while work is identified as one of narration. James identifies work as successful when story as a lost object, now spectral, is successfully incorporated in narration. It follows that James's storyteller resembles in fact a functional self that Freud associates with mourning, at a remove from the pathology implicit to melancholy. (James's coupling of narration and mourning accounts perhaps for his penchant for gossip and for the anecdotes he recorded copiously in his notebooks, openly claiming them as the origin, always spectral, of much of his narration. The same applies to his prefaces to the New York [End Page 270] Edition, where little stories are often recorded, distinctly insignificant in themselves, but significant insofar as they tie affect to themselves and thus secure it for processing. To James, stories were cathectic.)
The fact that James divides his authorial self between mourning and melancholy suggests that the seat of mourning in James's fiction is not the author so much as the focalizing consciousness. It is almost as if the focalizing consciousness emerged in James's fiction in order to accommodate the work of mourning: its principal function is to engage storytelling by mourning the absent values, the palpable voids, the missing links, the mocking shadows, that reflect, taken together, the early bloom of one's good narrative faith, with melancholy defining the terms of its deconstruction. Again, this dovetails with Freud's distinction between mourning and melancholia. According to Freud (205–06), mourners are so invested in processing the lost object that they perceive the world as impoverished. In melancholia, on the other hand, the self itself is so impoverished by a bad libidinal investment—a bad cathexis—that it can no longer be maintained. James anticipates Freud's position: while melancholy, as James reports it, admits no concept of the focalizing consciousness (just as the self is ceded in Freud's account of melancholia), mourning shows to be a perfect fit for the constitution of the focalizing consciousness—for the constitution of James's reflectors.
Mourning bears on James's treatment of the transatlantic theme insofar as the transatlantic theme entails the imaginary of the world. James's transatlantic theme reveals the Victorian world that he adopted to be one of loss and impoverishment. In transatlantic terms, the empire on which the sun never set was defined against and alongside America, in many ways the consummate colony it had lost, and the colony that persisted in British political consciousness as its inalienable spectral residue. Insofar as the Lockean maxim applies—"In the beginning, all the world was America"—the Victorian loss and impoverishment were absolute indeed. If the Victorian world was therefore structurally inflected in mourning, its transatlantic America in the nineteenth century was chiefly, and a...