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Notes Towards Day 8: Inserting Ourselves into a Tradition

Anne Dalke's picture


Chapters 1-14
"....she was an entertainment of a high order. 'A character like that ...  to see at play is ... finer than the finest work of art -- than a Greek bas-relief, than a great Titian, than a Gothic cathedral" (Ralph Touchett, Chapter 7, p. 63)

I. coursekeeping:
naming one another?
notetaking by fabelhaft
keep on reading, for Monday, to the 1/2-way point
(through Chapter 26) of Portrait ...
My "real thing": Tom Stoppard's 1982 play of the same title

See also Against a Trans Narrative (with scenes acted and...not acted?)
Reverberations from our conversation about "reality":
aseidman on Problematic Physical Realities: Something that Anne said in class on Monday bothered me ....  something like "So reality is what we colletively agree to believe." That makes "the real thing" pretty mutable and unreliable .... [big butt ->shapewear story] Is it a sin of omission for us to portray something that we're not, therefore warping the agreed upon reality? Or is the reality so easily changeable that if we agree upon something different at our next meeting, it's as if the first one never happened?

II. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is a
verbal addition to a very old visual tradition
(help me out here, kkazen...):

(to think about: what happens when the visual becomes verbal??)

To highlight just a few Italian predecessors....what do you see in this sequence?
how would you characterize the tradition into which James inserts himself?

Paolo Uccello, 1450s


Alessandro Botticelli, c.1470-1475

Lorenzo Costa, "... with a Lap-dog," c. 1500

Raphael, "...with a Unicorn," 1505-06

PierFrancesco Di Jacopo Foschi, 1530-35

Agnolo Bronzino, " Green," 1530-32

Agnolo Bronzino, "...with a Puppy," 1532

James, of course, did not have the last word; since he wrote,
others have painted, played with, even upended, the tradition

Jane Campion's 1996 film

(very much the costume drama, compared to other 20th century renditions....)

Macena Alberta Barton (1901–1986)

Dan Earle

II. two central scenes from Jane Campion's 1996 costume
drama will set the stage (a second time) for our entry into today's text:

the opening
From Jamie Barlowe, "Oh which [we] Looked Up at Her": Henry James's and Jane Campion's Portrait(s) of a Lady." He Said, She Says: An RSVP to the Male Text, ed. Mica Howe and Sarah Apple Aguiar (FDU Press, 2001):

Jane Campion's ... 1996 cinematic adaptation of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (1881) ... opens with voice(s)-over of women discussing what Campion has called the "mythology of love" .... The voice-over is followed by a series of black-and-white "portraits" which depict " a multicultural group of modern-day young women relaxing outdoors, candid, open, natural .... the "screen is black ...while we listen to the voices, and once the film adds the crucial dimension of the visual the women are silent" .... The portrait-sequence of young women has been labeled as "ambiguous" ... this scene "immediately destabiliz[es] one's expectation of effortless transport into the world of 19th century fiction ... this seemingly bland sequence can be only disquieting" ... "What is the relation of these women to James's heroine, Isabel Archer?"

.... In Campion's films the hypothetical female spectator is closely aligned with a feminist spectator ... Campion's opening voice(s)-over and portrait-sequence function as her artistic and political acknowledgment of the complex relationships between the contemporary women in the opening sequence and Isabel Archer, between the actual historically and culturally situated female viewer in the film's audiences and the hypothetical female spectator that her film constructs, between herself as an end-of the-twentieth-century feminist filmmakers and the nineteenth-century male author Henry James, and between the opening and closing scenes of her film and those of James's novel .... Put more simply, Campion's opening sequence teaches female spectators how to view her feminist alternative film ....
Campion complicates the (often assumed) fixed position of the female viewer by giving us multiple voices and perspectives, as well as multiple portraits of women who might occupy complex, gendered subject-positions informed by race, class, nationality, and sexual preference .... the opening voice(s)-over ... function ... more as individualized descriptions spoken sequentially than as an interactive discussion or dialogue.

Taken as a whole, the comments can be said to articulate ... "the erotics of being kissed," as well as offering more encompassing, highly romanticized statements about fated love-partners and self-mirroring, hardly differing from nineteenth-century romanticized visions of love. As Campion has said, "I think that the romantic impulse is in all of us and sometimes we live it for a short time, but it's not a sensible way of living...."

[keep this in mind: is this the "magnificent lesson" of The Portrait of a Lady?]

the dream sequence

... the anachronistic travel sequence in the middle of the film is an apt description for the film in its entirety: "We are made aware ... that we are seeing not a woman, but a portrait. Campion has made Isabel a portrait in flesh but not a naturalized portrait. The effect is to make female sexuality something ruptured, disjointed, but also something dynamic and open to change ...."


Campion's ending is far more ambiguous [than James's] ... it has been reported ...that Campion "views [James's novel] as a fairy tale with Osmond representing the underworld into which Madame Merle leads Isabel, who escapes in the end."  Given the opening voice-over and portraits, however, the ending seems to confirm the trap constructed by romanticized notions of love, duty, marriage, and honor that Isabel cannot escape. Even her earlier independence is predetermined ... as part of the grid of the symbolic order -- and certainly Isabel's desire remains a part of those constructions.

There is nothing in the film narrative, nor in the opening sequences, to suggest that Isabel Archer escapes from the portrait James drew of her. Campion's film ... never loses sight of ... the power of [19th century male] portraits [of women] and the ways in which we all remain implicated in them .... Campion attempts to complicate the portrait of Isabel Archer ... through the eyes and ears of endlessly self-reflexive, intelligent female spectators who watch ... "holding in mind ... what it means to observe a woman in film."
Anne's reading notes from the first quarter of the novel:
33: "But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was  strange, unseen place on the other side--a place which became to the child's imagination, according to its different moods, a reign of delight or of terror.... She had never opened the bolted door nor removed the green paper..from its sidelights; she had never assured herself that the vulgar street lay beyond."

"Isabel ... tried to fix her mind. It had lately occurred to her that her mind was a good deal of a vagabond, and she had spent much ingenuity in training it to a military step and teaching it to advance, to halt, to retreat, to perform even more complicated manoeuvres, at the word of command. Just now she had given it marching orders and it had been trudging over the sandy plains of a history of German Thought. Suddenly she became aware of a step very different from her own intellectual pace."

39: "Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; when the door was not open it jumped out of the window. She was not accustomed indeed to keep it behind bolts; and at important moments, when she would have been thankful to make use of her judgement alone, she paid the penalty of having given undue encouragement to the faculty of seeing without judging."

53: " seemed to her often that her mind moved more quickly than [others'], and this encouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded with superiority. It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage .... she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself .... one should try to be one's own best friend and to give one's self, in this manner, distinguished company."
"She had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong. She had resented so strongly ... her mere errors of feeling ... that the chance of inflicting a sensible injury upon another person ... caused her at moments to hold her breath. That always struck her as the worst thing that could happen to her."

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."

"Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic ... she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader's part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant."

58: "'... they're not nice to them in the novels.' 'I don't know about the novels .... I believe the novels have a great deal of ability, but I don't suppose they're very accurate.'"

59: "I don't like to have everything settled beforehand," said the girl. "I like more unexpectedness."

60-61: "I keep a band of music in my ante-room .... It has orders to play without stopping .... It keeps the sounds of the world from reaching the private apartments, and it makes the world think that dancing's going on within".... Isabel often found herself irritated by this perpetual fiddling; she would have liked to pass through the ante-room ... and enter the private apartments .... It was but half-hospitality to let her remain outside ....

63: "He surveyed the edifice from the outside and admired it greatly; he looked in at the windows and received an impression of proportions equally fair. But he felt that he saw it only by glimpses and that he had not yet stood under the roof. The door was fastened, and though he had keys in his pocket he had a conviction that none of them would fit."

67: "I always want to know the things one shouldn't do." "So as to do them?" asked her aunt. "So as to choose," said Isabel.
79: "... she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint ...she she struck him as not all in the large type, the type of horrid 'headings,' that he had expected."

86: "She walks in without knocking at the door."

There is a repeated trope of people like houses, shut up, inaccessible.
Cf. James's description, in the preface to the novel:

"The House of Fiction has in short not one window, but a million ... every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size ... are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass ... a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may NOT open; "fortunately" by reason, precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human scene, is the "choice of subject"; the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the "literary form"; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher -- without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist .... of what he has BEEN conscious ... shall express to you at once his boundless freedom and his "moral" reference.

spookily like Peter Quint @ the window...?