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ALICE IN BED - Fiction? Wishful Thinking? Why are the blanks filled in?

In class this past week, Professor Dalke informed us that Henry James Sr. Had given Alice James permission to kill herself. The transcript she provided us of the conversation consisted of a very few words. The (presumably fictional) transcript of the conversation provided to us by Sontag was a great deal more satisfying, and it leaves me, of course, to wonder whether or not there was more to Henry James Sr's permission slip than I was originally led to believe.

I did some outside research on the incident. and came up with a very interesting result. My research resulted in a total blank. I could find almost nothing which provided any more detail about Alice James' conversation with her father about suicide. Mind you, I did only a brief foray onto the internet, and I am sure that with more time and more determination, I could locate a few accounts in the library, yet I would think that something as unexpected and frankly bizarre to me as permission for suicide would be more widely reproduced. The lack of immediately available information on that conversation makes me wonder if perhaps it really was so unsatisfying that the public would rather accept Sontag's fictional transcript than explore the actual conversation much further.

While I was writing this, I was also attempting to get the actual play from atop the high shelf on which my much taller roommate had decided to put it in when she was tidying up. Now that I've actually got it in my head, let's look at a couple of lines. On page 22, in the middle of scene 3, Alice's father says to her, "Why do you ask me. Could I stop you if you've really set your mind to it. Your willful mind (I confess that I am not yet prepared to tell you why there is a distinct and obviously intentional use of incorrect punctuation here. We'll save that for class time. Hopefully I'll have it sorted it out by then.) This statement of Henry James Sr's is very, very different from an actual agreement or gift of permission. Instead, he says here that he would have no choice but to allow because she controls her own decisions. In fact, he puts off telling her that he would allow her to kill herself for almost the entire scene, even taking on the persona of her mother, however briefly, to have the opportunity to refuse. It appears that, at least in Susan Sontag's opinion, Henry James Sr. was unable to tell his daughter that she coudl nto kill herself because of the fact that he knew that he had raised her to think a certain way, and that thinking in that certain way would not permit him to give her any sort of definite guidelines. Was he boxed in, in this situation, by his own teachings?


ALICE JAMES' DIARY - You have to lie int he bed you made, Alice.

Now, I have no intention of trying to sound like Freud in this update, but Alice seems to have...I won't say "penis envy," but at least a tendency to use very masculine, sexual ways of describing her world.

For example, she refers to herself on page 36 as a "flaccid virgin." I'm sure we've all seen the word "flaccid" used before, and not usually in reference to female anatomy. She also loves to use the word "ejaculation" when talking about someone or other's inappropriate outburst. Why these very sexual, typically masculine word choices?

Alice James seems to have a lot of self loathing, criticising everyone but herself, and yet saving her best and most biting critiques for people who resemble herself the most. I'm unwilling to believe that Alice doesn't recognize the fact that she's calling the kettle fact, I think it's very likely that she's doing it on purpose. sparing herself the pains of actual self-critique but putting all of her anger at herself into this critiques of others. If that's the case, how does the masculinity fit in? Is she perhaps painting her stories and her "characters" with these masculine words in order to highlight the negativity of masculinity? Or is it the exact opposite? Does she see herself (remember, she claims to be a virgin) as particularly masculine, and thus is she really using it as a way of bashing herself?

I don't have an answer to this last question, yet. Stay tuned.


THE TURN OF THE SCREW - Conversations about Being Crazy

I finished The Turn of the Screw in a single reading, and, frustrated with the ending, went off to dinner with my roommate. When she asked me what I'd beien doing shut in my room for three hours, I told her I'd been reading the aformentiond story, at which point she got very excited, and said it was one of her all time favorites. "Why?" I asked. "The ending unsatisfying, so pointless. It made the whole story seem...frankly a little stupid."

Clearly, she had to correct my ideas. During the long conversation that followed, we decided that the two of us agreed that the governness/narrator had, in fact, been mad, and that her madness was the thing that created all of the delectable confusion in the story. The problem that I had, however, was that her madness seemed almost ridiculously overdone. The governess was SO unreliable a narrator, that one could, at the end of the story, not believe anything she had said, anything she had seen, or credit the fact that any of the other characters had engaged her in any of the conversations she'd reported. For example, if Quint and Jessel were never real ghosts, why did Mrs. Grose supposedly support her story so until the very end, and even then essentially confirm her fears? Was Mrs. Grose's dialogue really a figment of the Governness' imagination as well? If so, can we really, as readers, accept the existence of any of the characters in the stor? Could the entire thing have been made up, fabricated by a damaged mind?

It seemed to me that a narrator who, at the end, could not in ANY WAY be credited was a little too much. Henry James seems to have taken unreliability in a narrator and maxed it out to it's full potential, something I'm not incredibly fond of.

My roommate said, "Well, I've seen this story done on stage...and it's an excellent play."

THAT, I think, really does make sense. If this play were to be put on stage, the audience would be able to see and judge for themselves the emotional reactions of the characters, would be able to judge if someone seemed not to be doing what the narrator claimed they were doing. According to my roommate, this is how the play was staged, and it was very effective. Perhaps the short story was simply the wrong genre for The Turn of the Screw.


THE REAL THING - Problematic Physical Realities

Something that Anne said in class on Monday bothered me. While paraphrasing our classrom discussion, she said something like "So reality is what we colletively agree to believe." That makes "the real thing" pretty mutable and unreliable.

In my family, we have very big butts. (This is relevant, I promise.) The other day, as I was walking out of the house in a new dress to go to a party, my mother looked me over and said, "you really ought to put one some of this new shapewear I have." Apparently "shapewear" is something you wear under your clothes to help smooth out the lumps and tighten the curves, to make you look like you're a size or three smaller.

I told her I wasn't gonna wear it, because I'd rather look a little lumpy than not look like me. (I really did say that, cheesy as it may sound.) We argued about it, and, to make a long story short, I ended up wearing the butt-cincher thing in order to make "better first impressions" as mom put it.

Here's the thing, though. According to our idea that reality is what is agreed upon, every person who saw me at that party agreed, and therefore accepted as reality, the fact that I was two sizes smaller than I really am. If I go back to a party with those people, not wearing that underpiece, is it now reality that I'm larger? If so, did I lie to them before, when I made them believe that, in reality, I was smaller?

If this kind of thing only applied to instances of weight perception, I'd probably be willing to let it slide. That's not the case. When identity can become a case of mutable reality, as it is in "The Real Thing" the stakes get a little higher. 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?


Portrait of a Lady - A Sympathetic Portrait

Although it may have been the subject of some heated disagreement in our recent class discussions, I'm actually very impressed with Henry James' apparent ability to write sympathetic and nuanced female characters.

Isabel's often irritating indecision, and her lack of readily comprehensible motives is something that we may not enjoy finding within ourselves, but that I think each and every one of us has at some time embodied. It's very easy to endow a characer with a concrete, solid motive, or a single goal which takes them from one end of the plot to the other. Isabel's changing motivations and her own apparent lack of understanding of what it is she's really looking for is tremendously human, and, I think, very readable. Take, for example, her turning down of two (apparently) perfectly good suitors. Lord Warburton is kind, romantic, attentive, wealthy, active, and has all sorts of other qualities which would make him an appealing romantic interest. Goodwood, despite his unfortunate nomenclature, is powerful, impressive, smitten, and makes an excellent byronic sort of hero. Isabel's rejection of both of them seems to speak to a greater issue that both men and woman often face in day to day life, but which is rarely addressed so effectively in literature; the complete lack of sense that love makes. Sometimes there's no reason whatsoever to not fall in love with someone, and yet you still have no interest in them. Not all women choose the first romantic hero that comes along, and when they don't, they often no reason for it other than that it just doesn't feel right. Isabel's confusion and frustratation makes me feel that I can relate to her very well. I may, in fact, just be reading a bit too much into her character, as we self-centered readers are prone to do, and yet characters to whom one can relate are are things to which authors often aspire.

William James' Habits - I'm Not Sure How I Feel About Them


(I apologize for the bold font. Serendip appears to be having a bit of trouble, and everything I type comes out in bold, no matter what buttons I press. I will try to edit this later, to make it easier to read.)


Habits are complicated.

I have spent the last several years trying to convince myself that becoming a creature of habit is a positive thing.

In class, we spent a great deal of time talking about negative habits, and habits that need to be broken. We also talked about how to create new positive habits, and how difficult it is, or how much time it takes. My question for the class is, what if you want to break a positive habit?

That of course begs the question, why would I want to break a positive habit in the first place?

Here’s an example. What if you’ve lived with someone for a very long time, whether it be a significant other who you’re romantically involved with, or a best friend who has also been your roommate…or even a parent who, for some reason or another, you’ve lost. You’ve developed all these habits around living with them, so that the two of you do things at different times, or at the same time, in order to work well with each other’s schedules and preferences. After that person leaves for whatever reason, thinking about them hurts, and there’s no reason to be so habitual anymore…but you’re still doing it, because it’s a habit that you can’t break, and every time you do it, you have to think of the person who left.

This actually does not come from personal experience. I spent some time last night trying to think of ways in which a good habit might be a bad thing, and I think that’s a good case of it. Is it easier to break a bad habit, or a good habit, or is there a difference?

Hypocrisy - Admit it, Will, You're a Fraud

I am not impressed with William James.

This won't come as a shock to you, after some of the commentary that I've made in class. This week, I was particularly unimpressed with his haughtiness when it comes to the education system.

I didn't come to school to make money, exactly, but I do recognize that one of the purposes of a college education is to be able to function in the real world. You cannot, I believe, make something new in the world if you don't at least have the ability to reference something old. You can write a book that no one else has written before, but only if you know where books come from, how they are created, and have an extensive knowledge of exactly what has gone before. Innovation can't really occur without a sense of the old, tried-and-true method.

Also, we communicate with each other for the sake of conveying meaning, and being understood. We need basic principles upon which we can all relate, and there needs to be a universal base of mandatory knowledge. I'm not saying we should all conform, I'm saying that we should stop pretending that each one of us should strive to be perfectly unique in every way. I have an uncle who did that. He's 49, has been unemployed his entire life, and has no close personal family or friends. He's decided that his originality, and need to go his own way without any other influences was more important than being a part of the world. If that's what you want...that's what you want. It is not what I want.


William James - the Man (or the Monster)

In our last class, we considered William James the man, and how it is that he might have come by his...special set of beliefs. One thing that we skirted briefly around was how James' educational history might have affected his opinions about the educational system, as explored in Ph.D. Octopus. At first I was ready to argue that his having gone from institution to institution would naturally have convinced him that one did not need what was considered a formal education in order to be intelligent and productive, simply because he'd never been priviledged to have such a thing. On the other hand, however, James experienced a great many different educational institutions, and was in a position to compare and contrast them, for what that's worth. Perhaps he really was in a good position to evaluate the pros and cons, since he'd experienced a wide variety of presumably somewhat different systems.

I was struck by the idea that William James did not really fit into what was considered to be essential psychology, and so he turned to philosophy. Isn't that a bit like the way he rejected the educational system? He didn't fit into a formal education, and so he denounced it and professed no use for it. Perhaps there will be more on this anon.

I really enjoyed Profesor Vallabha's lecture today. (I apologize if I have spelled his name wrong.) Both his thoughts and the individual experiences with James articulated today by my classmates really brought him into slightly better focus for me.

 James, and Reconciliation

What Professor Dalke said about my objections to James was very true. I prefer facts, I prefer certainty, I prefer a person to have a belief and to stand by that belief...not because "they can" but because there are data points to back up their acknowledgment that their belief is the true one.

I do see that James is encouraging us to accept individual, subjective truths for ourselves, based on what is practical and valuable for our own purposes and in our own lives. The place where James and I lose touch with one another is when he starts to try to articulate the idea that we are able to choose for ourselves, based on what we prefer to believe. I take umbrage at the idea that we can accept a belief as true, and that we should be allowed to accept a belief as true, simply because it is what is best for us. There are such things as concrete truths. There are things that happen in life, and things that exist in life that do not improve our lives or effectively fit into them, and not accepting them as legitimate truths does not solve any problems.

Weezie, in a prevoius class, mentioned that perhaps it is harder to be a pessimist than an optimist, and with that I disagree, but that's really a digression for perhaps another post.

Back to the subject at home (I seem to have pulled a William James with my little tangent, there,)

The key, perhaps, to coming to terms with James is perhaps Professor Vallabha's idea that James speaks a great deal in abstract terms. Justice, Truth, even Belief are not conrete terms, and trying to make something concrete out of them, as I have tried to do, is a foolish venture.

That said, I still object to "The Will to Believe," but I recognize that my own subjective truths may not apply to least not enough for me to effectively and correctly say that James' work is "wrong."

The light as I have seen it

Oh dear, what a dilemna.

I delighted in Professor Grobstein's lecture today. His clarification of what the poorly chosen Jamesian terms actually meant was excellent, and now I feel that I better understand what James meant to say. I am no longer slogging through the mire of his ineffectual enunciation of such things as truth, belief, etcetera.

Unfortunately...I think I like him even less, being unable to give him any further of the benefit of the doubt. We have now established that James really did not believe in such things as objective truths...which is, pardon me, a bunch of nonsense. There's no need for me to re-iterate my opinions about subjective versus objective truths, so let's move on.

More encouraging was our discussion of what "belief" really meant to James. If, as Professor Grobstein said, belief is something that we accept to govern our actions, and yet know to not be truly justifiable, then I think we are giving people a little more conscious positive agency. We choose to believe, even though we know that perhaps there's no reason for it. We don't choose to believe becuase our beliefs naturally come true. Perhaps I'm nearing a better understanding of this Jamesian stuff.

Gertrude Stein - an experiment


I would be interested to see what would happen if our class wrote down a series of words and phrases which we found beautiful, and which appealed to us, in no particular order. We would then pass that list of words and phrases on to another class, claiming that it is a piece of literature by Gertrude Stein, and ask them to interpret it. he results might be quite amusing.

I understand that my views might be unsophisticated, but I really find nothing of merit in Gertrude Stein's writing. It's like she slapped a bunch of words down on the page inwhatever order they came to her, and frankly, I could do that. My roommate's barely literate ex boyfriend could do that. It's not praiseworthy.

What is praiseworthy (or laughable...or perhaps both!) is our ability to reinterpret her random words into something that we find beautiful, or that we connect with. The real work done, in Gertrude Stein's case, is in the mind of the reader...should we be giving her the credit?




Anne Dalke's picture

"How to Recognize a Poem When You See One"

In an (infamous!) essay called "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One," Stanley Fish conducted an exercise much like the Steinian one you propose above. At the end of a class on literary theory, he left on the board @ a list of linguists:
Ohman (?)

He then told the next class, coming in, that what they were looking @ was  "a religious poem of the kind they had been studying," and asked them to interpret it (which they did so w/ no trouble at'all; see the link above for the amazing details). Fish's argument here--classic in reader response theory--is that there is no such thing as a text before we interpret it, since what the text means-and-does is itself the product of interpretation. There is no "text," in other words, without a reader, a decoder of what it's doing, and how it's doing it (think: tree falling in the forest....) For my own take on this, see Where Words Arise...

Paul Grobstein's picture

On "the light as I have seen it"

Thanks for the conversation on this, both in class and after.  Yep, James (in my view of him at least) "really did not believe in such things as objective truths."  For more on my own wrestling with this issue, see The "objectivity"/"subjectivity" spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too: "No, one cannot be 'objective' in absolute terms, but one can indeed (and I think should) aspire to being less 'subjective'."  James would I think have agreed that there is important value in "shared subjectivities." 

There is, in my mind at least (and I suspect in James'), an important link between that "bunch of nonsense"  and the "more encouraging" discussion of "belief."  It is precisely because of the disbelief in "objective truths" that there is a meaningful opening for "conscious positive agency," for choosing to act in particular ways "even though we know that perhaps there's no reason for it."  If our task in life was to discover and act out of "objective truth," our beliefs at any given time would either be right or wrong, and the best we could hope for is to correct the wrong ones.  If we stop thinking in terms of objective truth, we can "create opportunities that weren't there before and provide the grist for meaning that had yet to occur to us" (Evolution/Science: inverting the relationship between randomness and meaning).  

Maybe we're both getting closer to "a better understanding of this Jamesian stuff"?  Want to help me think more about "what is involved in going from consciousness of the "pit of insecurity" to affirming that as a empowering way of being as opposed to feeling it to be something needing correction"?  See  Following a conversation on James

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