Voyons, Voyons: Henry James and the Limits of Sympathy

by: Joe Hughes

There is a pattern in Henry James’s plots, especially those of the 1890s, which must have been a kind of formal, compositional game. These stories, which often begin in a state of profound banality and continue through brutally boring scenes, suddenly explode in an unpredictable event—a “turn of the screw,” a “twist of the knife” or what we might call, in the language of Greek tragedy, a catastrophe. This catastrophe redeems the earlier boredom and casts it in an entirely new and usually lurid light. The goal of the game, though, is to see how close to the end or edge of the story you can push the catastrophe. It happens in the last chapter of In the Cage (1898), in the last scene of What Maisie Knew (1897)), and in the last sentence of The Turn of The Screw (1898).

“The Pupil” (1891) is exemplary in this regard. The first sixty pages sketch the subtly sexualized relationship between Morgan Moreen, a precocious young boy with a weak heart, and Pemberton, his exploited tutor. In the final scene, almost out of nowhere, we witness an event which presents, simultaneously, the boy’s greatest hope (that he can live permanently with Pemberton) and his greatest fear (that his parents are social outcasts). The shock of this conjunction on the penultimate page of the story is too much for Morgan, and he instantly dies. “He couldn’t stand it with his weak organ,” Pemberton explains (and unintentionally puns), “the shock, the whole scene, the violent emotion.”

At the very least, this pattern, in its sustained delay of shock, suggests that the whole dialectic of shock and astonishment in 1964 which Andrew Marzoni outlined, is, in 1894, inverted. On the eve of modernism—thirty years after Baudelaire stopped walking Paris streets and twenty years before Benjamin turned to Baudelaire to articulate the specificity of urban modernity—Henry James systematically explored the vicissitudes of shock. Some of these explorations are gimmicky, in the sense that their end seems to be merely sensational, the production of a momentary surprise in the reader. But some of these experiments go much further and, I want to argue, call the central ethical claims of the Victorian novel into question.

Literary critics regularly note that James’s fiction of the 1890s circles around a kind of epistemological skepticism. James constantly explores the possibility that everything we think we know, both about what’s happening in the world and in other people’s minds, might be radically misguided. His characters seem to live between worlds, catching only fitful glimpses of passing lives, and their heroic acts of sympathy, the ethical act par excellence of the Victorian novel, seem to miss their mark. What is consistently less noted is that this epistemological skepticism calls into question some of the central legitimating claims of serious nineteenth century fiction. What I want to briefly argue here is that over the course of James’s experiments with shock at the level of plot he begins to sketch, perhaps accidentally, the way in which an epistemological skepticism necessarily gives way to an aesthetic and ethical skepticism. If it is the case that I cannot imagine the world of the other, the educative claims of the Victorian novel—to cultivate sympathy by training the imagination to expand its reach—are totally bankrupt. This risk is especially apparent in James’s novella In the Cage (1898).

The story centers on an unnamed London telegraphist who takes an interest in two customers, Captain Philip Everard (aka, “the Pink ‘Un”) and Lady Bradeen. Part of the telegraphist’s interest in these characters is that their lives seem to resemble the lives of characters in the novels she’s been reading. Everard and Lady Bradeen have secret affairs, they allude to European adventures, they have an absurd number of sobriquets, they write in secret codes, and they send one another melodramatic telegraphs which, despite the abbreviated and mechanical nature of the medium, feel like they have to be read in sighs—like this one from Lady Bradeen: “Everard, Hôtel Brighton, Paris. Only understand and believe.”

The story itself, however, is not about any of these adventures which only happen off-stage. In fact, because the telegraphist has such regular access to the sordid affairs of the late Victorian aristocracy, these adventures gradually become more or less uninteresting. One of the first things she learns, James tells us, is that “if you became a telegraphist you soon ceased to be astonished.” As a telegraphist, a “witness so exclusively a witness,” you develop a rich set of types and categories which allow you to classify, sort and thereby annul the shock of even the most perverse affairs. The story, rather, is about the movement of the telegraphist’s imagination and the way in which it constructs this world of types.

James describes this movement in detail. Being confined to her telegraphist’s office, she never sees the whole story. She lives in a “world of whiffs and glimpses” and of tangled “clues.” But across the “germs, possibilities and faint foreshadowings” of this fragmented world, her imagination constructs an entire non-fragmented world. In momentary flashes of wit, it connects disparate and seemingly unrelated events with “silver threads and moonbeams.” It cuts through the dross of everyday chatter and uncovers the truth hiding behind the situation, its “high reality.” Chapter I I, in particular, dramatizes this movement in a fascinating sequence of three distinct stages. First her imagination makes provisional inferences from expressive details. It then sketches an outline of a world on the basis of these inferences. Finally, the imagination goes “all the way.” It intuits the “high reality” of the situation, the hidden dramatic truth, and, on the basis of this truth, returns back to the tangled world of clues and reconstitutes the previously missing details (“Pearls and Spanish lace—she herself, with assurance, could see them, and the ‘full length’ too, and also the red velvet bows […]”).

If James is so concerned with this movement, it’s because this London telegraphist possesses one of the powers James valued most in an artist—“the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern,” as he described it in “The Art of Fiction.” It’s worth emphasizing that this ideal of the artist is not just some cool-sounding thing that artists say about the creative process which probably isn’t really true. James seems to be speaking from experience here. Not only does preface after preface begin with comments along the lines of “I distinctly remember the germ of this novel,” but James’s notebooks, in which you can
occasionally watch the creative process unfold, reveal that this is how he composed his major works. The idea for What Maisie Knew, for example, is first noted November 12, 1892. It is the barest outline of a story. Almost a year later a paragraph-length sketch appears in his notebooks. It isn’t until October 1895 that a sketch of the entire first half of the novel appears.

The London telegraphist, though, is a failed novelist. If she cannot be astonished, she can still be
shocked, and In the Cage is no different from James’s other stories of this period in that it delays this moment of shock right until the very end of the novella. Even though no precocious young boys die in this story, the shock at the end of In The Cage is arguably more devastating, because what James reveals is that the work of the imagination, its capacity to transcend the individual and relate ethically, or sympathetically, to another human is radically misguided. In the final pages of the story, James progressively destroys each aspect of the telegraphist’s imagined world, and we learn that she has totally misconstrued her relationship with every party involved in her drama. This is, you could say, what constitutes the difference between shock and astonishment. Whereas astonishment is the momentary surprise that a category does not explain a particular instance, shock is that moment at which one’s entire world dissolves. If this particular shock is so devastating, though, it’s because it represents the total failure of the novelist’s imagination.

There have been attempts to explain this away. We could argue, for example, that the failure of the telegraphist to trace the unseen from the seen is a consequence of her reading trashy ha’penny novels rather than good old hearty realist fiction. Or you could argue that she has made a category mistake and applied her imaginative leaps to real people rather than fictional people. But these corrections change neither the parameters nor the outcome of the problem. It’s not that good novels are going to allow us to produce an imaginative world which is indestructible, because what the telegraphist failed to imagine was just how sleazy the relationship between Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen really was. Her trashy novels were not trashy enough. This prompts us to go a little further. James is clear in his preface to the novella that he is interested in his London telegraphist as a “student of great cities.” Like Benjamin’s Baudelaire, her problem is how to deal with an urban modernity, and the kinds of shocks that need to be guarded against are those of modernity itself which may or may not appear in the guise of a shitty novel. What James represents here, then, can be read as a total critique of realist fiction. The telegraphist’s failure to know, from this point of view, anticipates the failure of the Victorian novel’s enterprise to cultivate the sympathetic imagination.