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Notes Towards Day 11: The Kiss!

Anne Dalke's picture

18 years before Klimt painted The Kiss (1908), Henry James wrote,

"He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free.... She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.


I. before we try to figure this out!...
some coursekeeping

aseidman is our notetaker

(we are missing some summaries...
get 'em up before break; also please
catch up on your commonplace postings...)

for Wednesday, read 3 modern meditations on HJ's modern applications:
Cynthia Ozick, “The Lesson of the Master," Art and Ardor (1982);
"What Henry James Knew" (1993) [username and password required]
Wai Chee Dimock, "Subjunctive Time: Henry James's Possible Wars." Narrative 17, 3 (October 2009): 242-254
--as models/inspiration for what you need to do

by 5 p.m this Friday: 4 pp. on-line reflection in
your blog about the relation of Henry James to....?

[thinking about the story from another p.o.v?
from James's Notebooks: "this whole matter of Mme Merle is..a very ticklish one--very delicate and difficult to handle. To make it natural that she should have brought about Isabel's marriage to her old lover...I honestly believe it rests upon nature"....(?)]

ALSO, PLEASE, before leaving for break:
post in the course forum a mid-term course evaluation:
"What's working? What isn't?"

II. Some on-line reflections:

fabelhaft: This surprised me, this bizarre one-sided friendship between Goodwood and Osmond.

aseidman: I'm actually very impressed with Henry James' apparent ability to write sympathetic and nuanced female characters....Isabel's confusion and frustratation makes me feel that I can relate to her very well.

jrlewis: Perhaps the greatest fault of the novel’s heroine is her penchant for a superficial reading of others.  She misunderstands the intentions of others.  The reader’s experience with the text parallels the protagonist’s story.  The style of writing that Henry James employs in the “Portrait of a Lady” prevents the reader from performing a superficial study of his text.  He is forcing his reader to take the time to make a complete study of the novel.  Without such work, the reader will misinterpret the text.

Mr. Enigma Henry James has once again foiled comprehension.  The ending to Portrait of a Lady left me...upset.  CLARITY, Mr. James, CLARITY.  Be the glass window of the house, not the paneling.  I hardly even care what happens to Isabel any more....

III. Today's "tool" ("shrimp fork"?
"butter boat"? "window cleaner"?):

J. Hillis Miller, "What is a Kiss? Isabel's Moments of Decision."
Critical Inquiry
31 (Spring 2005): 722-746:

In Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, almost the last thing that happens is Caspar Goodwood's kiss of Isabel....My goal is to account for Caspar's kiss....

...more than one kiss punctuates The Portrait of a Lady. They come at irregular intervals, marking decisive turns in the action. These are mostly kisses between women....All these kisses function as efficacious speech acts, or rather, as mute gestures that stand in place of speech acts.

A kiss may be an expression of mastery, not pure pleasure at all...

Derrida analyzes the kiss as an extreme form of touching, contact, the tactile....

Henry James, however, confirms Derrida's assertion that eyes too are an erogenous zone. Both know that a look exchanged between two people, where a mutual otherness is recognized or experienced...may function as like a touch or a kiss...a kind of ultimate mutual contact or confession....

All of The Portrait of a Lady, it might be said, has been written to make the decision Isabel makes, on the basis of the knowledge Caspar's kiss gives her, plausible and perspicuous. I do not know, even so, that Isabel's decision is all that easy to understand. Why does Caspar's kiss tell Isabel that she must return to her odious husband and to a miserably unhappy marriage?

The long notebook entry written when James was halfway through the writing of Portrait leaves...little doubt...: "the obvious criticism of course will be that it is not finished--that I have not seen the heroine to the end of her situation--that I have left her en l'air.--This is both true and false. The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together. What I have done has that is complete in itself..."

Her first refusal of Goodwood is elided in the novel. It is not narrated directly, nor is her actual acceptance of Osmond. It seems as if they were in some way impossible to represent. Her refusal of Warburton is ...once more not recorded overtly, except after the fact....In all these cases the moment of decision is skipped over. It is a blank place in the narration. This systematic nonpresentation of Isabel's crucial moments of decision...seems to me exceedingly peculiar....

....why, then, does Isabel go back to Osmond, now that...she "reads Osmond right"...? Several incompatible answers to this question are suggested by the not see how one can with certainty decide among them....

1. speech act theory: 
marriage vows are sacred; she is bound by language

2. gender theory:
fear of Caspar's masculine power;
an instinctive resistance to being possessed

3. cultural theory:
"You wanted to look at life for yourself--but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional."

Is her problem too deep a sense of duty....?
What possible good can there be in deciding to stick to a decision, commitment, or promise that turns out to have been made on the basis of a false interpretation, a bad reading, a  terrible epistemological error?

1. She honors the bad choice that has made her what she is...not returning to ...unused freedom...irresponsibility....she retains her integrity.

2. Sticking to her promise is...a way to avoid confronting the fact that selfhood is "wavering and diverse"...created anew from moment to moment by speech acts....The decision gives you a self.

3. Renunciation, for James, is, for some mysterious reason, the highest virtue....James has an aesthetic resistance to happy endings.

4. James is a sadist or Isabel a masochist.

The novel...leaves the reader unable to understand Isabel's decision and therefore pass judgment on her decision as good or bad...

The kiss, James says, gives Isabel knowledge.
It tells her that she must return to Osmond. ...however...the possible explanations..are contradictory and diverse. They do not make a coherent system....They constitute a genuinely undecidable reading situation, a nonsystematic system of incompatible possible readings....Why Isabel decides, just what knowledge she gets, remains a secret. The text does not provide a textual basis on which to form a judgment...

It is not an accident or an oversight that James...does not tell the reader....He cannot in principle...tell how a performative...leads to knowledge. The movement from the one to the other is in principle unknowable. The two are incommensurable. It is not a matter of causation... the moment of decision itself is unknowable...It is a blank place in the language....whereof one cannot speak one perhaps should remain silent...

The reader is...the last in the line of decision enjoined to..construct a bridge from the kiss to the knowledge. He or she must choose, however, in the face of the warning that..."nothing...ever happens in anything that precedes, follows, or exists elsewhere, but only as a random event...these events then have to be reintegrated in a historical and aesthetic system of recuperation.."

According to...pedagogical law...students "were not to make any statement that they could not support by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text"...this law perhaps cannot be obeyed except by silence....As soon as you say anything at all about a literary have...said something that is...unwarranted....the irresponsible and ultimately unjustifiable act of deciding to fill in the missing link with a certain reading is...a response to the demand the text makes.

The Portrait of a Lady ... teaches that ethical decisions...are never fully justifiable by rational explanations. They are leaps in the dark...reading or writing about a literary work is analogous...a performative intervention, not a cognitive, completely verifiable assertion...

Cf. Jonathan Haidt. “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.Psychological Review 108 (2001): 814-834.

Cf. also Campion's opening voice(s) over: "I love it. I love kissing."

III. Reading Notes from the final quadrant of the novel

cf. p. 54: "Of course the danger of a high spirit was the danger of inconsistency -- the danger of keeping up the flag after the place has surrendered; a sort of behaviour so crooked as to be almost a dishonour to the flag."

Ch 43, p. 366: "But love has nothing to do with good reasons...."  deeper meanings passed between them than they were conscious of at the moment."

Ch. 47, p. 400: "I can't publish my mistake. I don't think that's decent." I'd much rather die...One must accept one's deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can't change that way," Isabel repeated.

p. 401: "He comes and looks at one's daughter as if she were a suite of apartments; he tries the door-handles and looks out of the windows, raps on the walls and almost thinks he'll take the place. Will you be so good as to draw up a lease? Then, on the whole, he decides that the rooms are too small; he doesn't think he could live on a third floor; he must look out for a piano nobile. And he goes away after having got a month's lodging in the poor little apartment for nothing."

p. 404: Osmond had a great dislike to being counted on...

having accepted him...would have been an excellent thing, like living under some tall belfry which would strike all the hours and make a queer vibration in the upper talk with the great Goodwood...wasn't easy at first, you had to climb up an interminable steep staircase, up to the top of the tower; but when you got there you had a big view and felt a little fresh breeze.

Ch 48, p. 410: "I want to be alone....they're part of the comedy. You others are spectators....The tragedy then if you like. You're all looking at me; it makes me uncomfortable."

p 413: "She speaks for me, my wife; why shouldn't I speak for her? We're as united, you know, as the candlestick and the snuffers."

p. 414: if he judged her by the surface of things was bound to believe that she liked her life. She had never given him the faintest sign of discontent.

Ch. 49, p. 420, p. 423:  Isabel heard a cold, mocking voice proceed from she knew not where, in the dim void that surrounded her, and declare that this bright, strong, definite, worldly woman, this incarnation of the practical, the personal, the immediate, was a powerful agent in her destiny. She was nearer to her than Isabel had yet discovered, and her nearness was not the charming accident she had so long supposed....It had come over her like a high-surging wave that ... Madame Merle had married her.

p. 427: "Oh, I believe you'll make me cry still. I mean make me howl like a wolf....I was vile this morning; I was deviltry ... stupefied her....I was full of something've dried up my soul....I don't believe at all that it's an immortal principle. I believe it can perfectly be destroyed. That's what has happened to mine...and it's you I have to thank for it."

p. 428: He took up a small cup and held it in his hand....And Madame Merle kept her eye on her cup...."I've seen better what you have been to your wife than I ever saw what you were for me. Please be very careful of that precious object." "It already has a wee bit of a tiny crack," said Osmond dryly as he put it down....

Ch. 51, p. 438: "I take our marriage seriously...for me we're indissolubly united....It may be a disagreeable proximity; it's one, at any rate, of our own deliberate making....I think we should accept the consequences of our actions, and what I value most in life is the honour of a thing!"

p. 439: His last words ... constituted a kind of appeal; and...they represented something transcendent and absolute, like the sign of the cross or the flag of one's country. He spoke in the name of something sacred and precious--the observance of a magnificent form. They were as perfectly apart in feeling as two disillusioned lovers had ever been; but they had never yet separated in act. Isabel had not changed; her old passion for justice still abode within her; and now, in the very thick of her sense of her husband's blasphemous sophistry, it began to throb to a tune which for a moment promised him the victory. It came over her that in his wish to preserve appearances he was after all sincere, and that this, as far as it went, was a merit.

p. 443: "I've been so bored with your not knowing....Ca me depasse, if you don't mind my saying so, the things, all round you, that you've appeared to succeed in not knowing."

Ch. 52, p. 451: She saw, in the crude light of that revelation which had already become a part of experience and to which the very frailty of the vessel in which it had been offered her only gave an intrinsic price, the dry staring fact that she had been an applied handled hung-up tool, as senseless and convenient as mere shaped wood and iron.

Ch. 53, p. 457: Now that she was in the secret, now that she knew something that so much concerned her and the eclipse of which had made life resemble an attempt to play whist with an imperfect pack of cards, the truth of things, their mutual relations, their meaning, and for the most part their horror, rose before her with a kind of architectural vastness.

p. 458: To live only to suffer-only to feel the injury of life repeated and enlarged-it seemed to her she was too valuable, too capable, for that. Then she wondered if it were vain and stupid to think so well of herself. When had it even been a guarantee to be valuable? Wasn't all history full of the destruction of precious things? Wasn't it much more probable that if one were fine one would suffer?

Ch. 54, p. 464: ...she grew nervous and scared as scared as if the objects about her had begun to show for conscious things, watching her trouble with grotesque grimaces....She envied the security of valuable "pieces" which change by no hair's breadth, only grow in value, while their owners lose inch by inch youth, happiness, beauty....

p. 470: the only knowledge that was not pure anguish--the knowledge that they were looking at the truth together.

"You wanted to look at life for yourself--but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!"

Ch. 55, p. 480: "Why should you go back-why should you go through that ghastly form?"

....this was the hot wind of the desert, at the approach of which the others dropped dead, like mere sweet airs of the garden. It wrapped her about; it lifted her off her feet, while the very taste of it, as of something potent, acrid and strange, forced open her set teeth.

p. 481: "It would be an insult to you to assume that you care for the look of the thing, for what people will say, for the bottomless idiocy of the world. We've nothing to do with all that; we're quite out of it; we look at things as they are....We can do absolutely as we please; to whom under the sun do we owe anything? What is it that holds us, what is it that has the smallest right to interfere in such a question as this?....The world's all before us--and the world's very big"...."The world's very small," she said at random...The world, in truth, had never seemed so large; it seemed to open out, all round her, to take the form of a mighty sea, where she floated in fathomless waters....she felt herself sink and sink....This however, of course, was but a subjective fact, as the metaphysicians say; the confusion, the noise of waters, all the rest of it, were in her own swimming head.