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The only explicit reference to Orpheus in ˜˜The Aspern Papers,™™
however, alludes to a component of the myth di¬erent from the one
Holland emphasizes:
Half the women of his time, to speak liberally, had ¬‚ung themselves at his head,
and out of this pernicious fashion many complications, some of them grave,
had not failed to arise. He was not a woman™s poet, as I had said to Mrs Prest, in
the modern phase of his reputation; but the situation had been di¬erent when
the man™s own voice was mingled with his song. That voice, by every testimony,
was one of the sweetest ever heard. ˜˜Orpheus and the Maenads!™™ was the
exclamation that rose to my lips when I ¬rst turned over his correspondence.
Almost all the Maenads were unreasonable and many of them insupportable; it
struck me in short that he was kinder, more considerate than, in his place (if I
could imagine myself in such a place!) I should have been. (CT, ©, p. ·)
In both components of the myth, that is, both the backward-glance-of-
Orpheus component and the Orpheus-and-the-Maenads component,
the power of desire causes the death of its object. Whereas Orpheus™s
desirous gaze ultimately sends Eurydice back to Hell, it is the awesomely
powerful desire of the Maenads which leads them to dismember Or-
pheus. In the myth of the Maenads, the object of the gaze is male and
the gazers, also auditors, are female and powerful. Aspern as Orpheus is
±
Henry James, mastery, and the life of art
thus the victim of the wild passion that he arouses in his female admirers
but cannot control.³· Furthermore, the heterosexual pairing of female
subject and male object aligns the narrator himself with the crazed fans
of the ˜˜woman™s poet.™™ The narrator is at once feminized and also
profoundly dangerous: a kind of male hysteric who constantly verges on
doing violence, if not directly to the body of the poet he worships, then
to that poet™s relics.
The narrator defends his idol against the charge of being a
˜˜woman™s poet™™ to save the master from the linked threats of popular-
ization and feminization, but he is also trying to protect himself from
contamination by this double threat. Actually, it is a triple threat; the
myth of the Maenads has variants which further complicate the mean-
ing of the gendered and sexual relation between the bachelor narrator
and the male object of his desire and identi¬cation, of his literary and
erotic passion. One variant takes the Maenads™ frenzy as induced by
their jealousy over Orpheus™s supposed preference for men over
women, not simply by the beauty of his music. The Orpheus on whom
the ˜˜woman™s poet™™ of ˜˜The Aspern Papers™™ is modeled may not have
been a consummate ladies™ man but rather a practitioner of Greek
love. The legacy of the ¬ctional Aspern thus derives additionally from
a di¬erent model of the master poet, an historical rather than mythic
Don Juan, who is invested with some of the same sexual ambiguities as
Orpheus: Byron.
It is well known from James™s New York Edition Preface that the
˜˜germ™™ of ˜˜The Aspern Papers™™ was an anecdote about an ˜˜ardent
Shelleyite™™ who took lodgings with the elderly Mary Jane Clairmont “
the one-time mistress of Byron, mother of his daughter Allegra and
half-sister of Mary Godwin “ and her ˜˜younger female relative™™ in order
to gain access to some ˜˜Shelley documents™™ (LC, pp. ±±·µ“). In one of
his notebooks, James identi¬es the source of the anecdote, Eugene
Lee-Hamilton, and its real-life hero, ˜˜Captain Edward Silsbee “ the
Boston art-critic and Shelley-worshipper,™™ and speci¬es further that the
˜˜interesting papers™™ were ˜˜letters of Shelley™s and Byron™s.™™³⁸ In the
Preface, James describes his attempts to obscure his ¬ction™s reliance on
the notorious historical past:
Delicacy had demanded, I felt, that my appropriation of the Florentine legend
should purge it, ¬rst of all, of references too obvious; so that, to begin with, I
shifted the scene of the adventure . . . It was a question, in ¬ne, of covering one™s
tracks . . . I felt I couldn™t cover mine more than in postulating a comparative
American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont. (LC, p. ±±·)
± Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
The demands of ˜˜delicacy™™ notwithstanding, here and in the story itself
James stresses the Byron connection: ˜˜Juliana, as I saw her, was think-
able only in Byronic and more or less immediately post-Byronic Italy™™
(LC, p. ±±·).
The Byronic overtones are palpable throughout ˜˜Aspern™™: in its
fascination with the ˜˜man of ±°™™; in its naming of ˜˜Juliana™™ which
echoes the Julia of ˜˜Don Juan™™; and above all in the narrator™s stated
intention of defending Aspern against ˜˜an impression about ±µ that
he had ˜treated her badly™™™ (CT, ©, p. ·).³⁹ This bad behavior is left
unspeci¬ed “ it is arguably the very secret of the man, the primary object
of the narrator™s epistemological quest. When James wrote ˜˜Aspern™™ in
±· it was common knowledge, or at least a commonly known allega-
tion thanks to Harriet Beecher Stowe™s sensational and iconoclastic Lady
Byron Vindicated (±·°), that the real-life Byron had engaged in adulterous
incest with his half-sister.⁴° Interestingly, in his ±· review of the
˜˜Memoir of the Rev. Francis Hodgson, B. D., with Numerous Letters
from Lord Byron and Others,™™ James declines to name Byron™s ˜˜unfor-
giveable sin,™™ insisting instead upon an epistemological blank: ˜˜Even if
the inference we speak of were valid, it would be very pro¬tless to
inquire further as regards Byron™s unforgiveable sin; we are convinced
that, if it were ascertained, it would be, to ingenuous minds, a great
disappointment™™ (LC±, p. ±). James™s jaded prediction that this sin
would disappoint ˜˜ingenuous minds™™ partakes of the same cynicism that
he earlier attributes to Byron, a ˜˜cynicism . . . half natural and half
a¬ected™™ (LC±, p. ±·). When he predicts disappointment, James as-
sumes the ultimate aesthetic pose: he leaves Byron™s sin unspeci¬ed not
because he dares not speak its name, but because it is entirely too boring
to bother. James™s reluctance to specify the sexual misdeeds of Byron,
like the narrator™s vagueness about the ˜˜shabby behaviour™™ (CT, ©,
p. ·) of his Byronic hero, unites the di¬erent sexual transgressions of
heterosexual adultery, heterosexual incest, and homosexuality under
the sign of the blank, possibly even placing all sexuality under the aegis
of the unspeakable or the unknowable.
The epistemological blank of the sexual in ˜˜The Aspern Papers™™ is
connected to the problem of knowing and representing the past, and
particularly of knowing and representing another man™s sexual past. In
this nouvelle, ˜˜having a history™™ means having a sexual history that will
be problematic for future men to know and to represent. The distance
between Aspern™s sexual past and the narrator™s present interest in it
resembles the con¬guration of James™s un¬nished novel, The Sense of the
±µ
Henry James, mastery, and the life of art
Past, which he began in ±. In this novel, the frame of a portrait
separates ˜˜the man of ±°™™ “ James™s label of choice for the Byronic
man of action “ from ˜˜the man of ±±°,™™ but this frame also provides a
point of connection, or rather transubstantiation, between them. By
comparison, the narrator of ˜˜Aspern™™ imagines himself as communing
with Aspern when he gazes at his miniature portrait of him, but it is this
very picture which, in the story™s closing frame, reminds him of his
˜˜intolerable™™ loss (CT, ©, p. ), his unbridgeable separation from the
master. While it is less rigidly symmetrical than The Sense of the Past,
˜˜Aspern™™ shares with this later ¬ction the unmerged, parallel activity of
two di¬erent plots, past and present, that center on two di¬erent men.
Thus, the present plot in which the narrator™s attempts to use Miss Tina
to advance his goals frames the historically distanced plot in which
Aspern uses Juliana for his own aesthetic ends. The present plot,
moreover, is deployed speci¬cally to e¬ect a point of contact with the
past, to e¬ect a connection with the man of the past.
The double plot of ˜˜Aspern™™ thus resembles the classic double plot-
ting of detective ¬ction in the way that the story of the crime and the
story of its detection are simultaneously reconstructed by the detective
himself as the ¬rst-person narrator.⁴¹ ˜˜Aspern™™ also resembles classic
detective ¬ction in the way that the detective comes increasingly to
resemble the criminal. The detective has to think like the criminal, to
follow ¬guratively and sometimes literally in the criminal™s footsteps,
even to become a criminal in order to ˜˜get™™ his man. Aspern as criminal
and the bachelor narrator as detective are thus united by the desire of
the man who comes after his predecessor in order to ˜˜get™™ him, even if,
or perhaps especially if, it means becoming him.⁴² The narrator of
˜˜Aspern™™ thereby frames himself in more ways than one. His vicarious
interest allies him with a man who is under suspicion of sexual indiscre-
tions, crimes of the heart if not actual crimes, and his ¬rst-person
narration of the story becomes the focus of our interest, the ineluctable
subject of our interpretation. The very title, ˜˜The Aspern Papers,™™
evokes this self-re¬‚exive doubling: are the ˜˜papers™™ Aspern™s love let-
ters, or are they the pages that we read when we read the document
supposedly generated by the narrator as a record of his own exploits?
The possibility lurks in the narrative that those other papers do not exist
at all, since the narrator and therefore we, as readers, never actually
˜˜see™™ them. All we have is the narrator™s belief that they exist. If the
pages we read are the papers themselves, then the distinction between
˜˜the story of one™s hero™™ and ˜˜the story of one™s story™™ (LC, p. ±°)
± Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
becomes murky indeed, resulting in what might well be called the
˜˜darkest abyss of romance.™™
A similar self-re¬‚exive ambiguity undercuts ˜˜The Figure in the Car-
pet.™™ It is possible that the secret of the Master is that there is no secret.
The secret is never disclosed to the narrator and the dangers of naming
it are made clear to us from the fatalities su¬ered by the readers in the
text.⁴³ The ¬rst-person narration of this story also provides a self-
re¬‚exive frame “ the ˜˜¬gure™™ may be the narrator™s own desire to ¬gure
out the mystery. This frame is literalized in the structure of the story
which opens and closes with vignettes of homosocial competition and
communion between men, intimate and rivalrous partnerships that
refract the narrator™s own desire to penetrate the Master™s mystery. The
story begins with the narrator™s competitive self-de¬nition in relation to
the intellectual and ¬nancial attainments of another critic:
I had done a few things and earned a few pence “ I had perhaps even had time
to begin to think I was ¬ner than was perceived by the patronising; but when I
take the little measure of my course (a ¬dgety habit, for it™s none of the longest
yet) I count my real start from the evening George Corvick, breathless and
worried, came in to ask me a service. He had done more things than I, and
earned more pence, though there were chances for cleverness I thought he
sometimes missed. (CT, ©, p. ·)
The story ends with the narrator™s description of his relation to Drayton
Deane, the critic who marries Gwendolen after Corvick™s untimely
death:
So abrupt an experience of her want of trust had an agitating e¬ect on him, but
I saw that immediate shock throb away little by little and then gather again into
waves of wonder and curiosity “ waves that promised, I could perfectly judge,
to break in the end with the fury of my own highest tides. I may say that to-day
[sic] as victims of unappeased desire there isn™t a pin to choose between us. The
poor man™s state is almost my consolation; there are indeed moments when I
feel it to be almost my revenge. (CT, ©, p. ±µ)
Although Deane has enjoyed marital ˜˜possession™™ of Gwendolen, the
narrator reveals to him that he has missed out on a more profound
union with the Master, thus transforming Deane into another ˜˜victim of
unappeased desire.™™ The narrator™s proof that Drayton has missed his
true ˜˜chance at cleverness™™ is his continued ˜˜want of voice, want of
form™™ (CT, ©, p. ±). Although the narrator believes that the widow is
˜˜bravely dowered™™ by her ¬rst husband with the secret of the Master,
her second husband never displays ˜˜the fruit of the a¬air,™™ the outward
signs of intellectual impregnation with the Master™s seed.
±·
Henry James, mastery, and the life of art
These homosocial vignettes bracket the body of the narrative, but in
˜˜Figure,™™ as in ˜˜Aspern,™™ the plot of male“male consummation is
supplanted or challenged, not enabled, by a woman and her feminine
plot. The enigmatic ˜˜¬gure™™ whose discovery seems to require male
collaboration with a woman, ideally with a wife “ the narrator worries
that Corvick and Gwendolen ˜˜together would puzzle something out™™
and Vereker allows that marriage ˜˜may help them™™ (CT, ©, p. ) “
inevitably comes to be appropriated and hoarded by Gwendolen in her
capacity as a woman writer: ˜˜˜I heard everything,™ she replied, ˜and I
mean to keep it to myself!™™™ (CT, ©, p. °µ). Despite Vereker™s initial
conviction that a ˜˜woman will never ¬nd out™™ the secret (CT, ©, p. ),
Gwendolen obscurely but emphatically contends, ˜˜It™s my life!™™ (CT, ©
p. °·), and publishes her second and better novel, ˜˜Overmastered,™™ a
year and a half later. Thus, the alluring yet imposing ¬gure behind the
carpet is not only a male ¬gure, an envied and desired father ¬gure, but
also a female ¬gure or a mother ¬gure, whose re-productive capacity as
an artist the narrator also envies and desires. Gwendolen™s death in
childbirth while at work on her third novel, however, suggests an
incompatibility between her maternal and authorial roles. It would be
interesting, though beyond the aims of the present chapter, to investi-
gate the comparable challenges to masculine high-cultural authorship
presented by the woman writer of James™s historical present and recent
past, and by the ˜˜woman™s poet™™ of his more distant historical past.⁴⁴
For our purposes here, it is su¬cient to note that James represents these
two di¬erent models of gendered authorship as enjoying access to both
experience and popular success. Popular success was particularly un-
available to the high-cultural male writer of ¬ction as James himself
performed the role, while access to experience was necessarily routed
through the aesthetic ˜˜form of life™™ which James most often associates
with visual vicariousness. The visual vicariousness of the bachelor nar-
rator as James represents him in ˜˜Figure™™ and ˜˜Aspern™™ thus links this
character to the male author and critic that James himself was in the
process of becoming.
The narrator of ˜˜Figure,™™ however, describes himself as a passive and
unwitting victim of circumstances, a hapless voyeur whose gaze is
shaped by the performers far more than it is able to shape them: ˜˜Pen in
hand, this way, I live the time over, and it brings back the oddest sense of
my having been for months and in spite of myself a kind of coerced
spectator. All my life had taken refuge in my eyes, which the procession
of events appeared to have committed itself to keep astare™™ (CT, ©,
± Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
p. °). This image of ˜˜coerced spectatorship™™ is supported by the
narrator™s account of Corvick™s (stage) directions: ˜˜He did me the
honour to declare that, putting aside the great sitter [Vereker] himself, I
was individually the connoisseur he was most working for. I was there-
fore to be a good boy and not try to peep under the curtain before the
show was ready; I should enjoy it all the more if I sat very still™™ (CT, ©,
p. °). This language recalls the passive yet alert critical receptivity
espoused in the Tempest essay, a style of critical reception which re-
sembles the high-brow audience™s respectfully composed appreciation, a
cultural stance described by Lawrence Levine as emerging in the second
half of the nineteenth century.⁴µ But when Corvick tries to induce the
narrator to assume this receptive position, it is unclear whether he is
really trying to help him to see the show or to keep him away from it. It
seems more likely than not that Corvick is trying to exclude the narrator
from the arena rather than trying to enhance his aesthetic pleasure. In
this scenario, the true disciple, Corvick, approaches the inner sanctum
of art by ˜˜overmastering™™ another man: by reducing the lesser disciple,
the narrator, to a ˜˜good boy™™ who must merely watch, or perhaps just
imagine, the thrilling exploits of the man behind the curtain, a ˜˜real
man™™ who is either Vereker or Corvick, now a Master himself. Implicit
in this understanding of the story is the assumption, one that this
narrator himself seems to hold, that Corvick attains mastery at the
expense of another disciple. Rather than following the more conven-
tional Oedipal trajectory of collaborating to kill their father, here two
brothers war against each other in their competition to commune
lovingly with, and thereby to become, the father.
The narrator tries to cut his losses by reenvisioning his unmanning
˜˜coerced spectatorship™™ as the bourgeois masculine virtue of self-disci-
pline. He does so by portraying his relations with Corvick, and later
Drayton Deane, as loving fraternal bonds which are ultimately in
service of a higher principle:

There are doubtless people to whom torments of such an order appear hardly
more natural than the contortions of disease; but I don™t after all know why I
should in this connexion so much as mention them. For the few persons, at any
rate, abnormal or not, with whom my anecdote is concerned, literature was a
game of skill, and skill meant courage, and courage meant honour, and honour
meant passion, meant life. (CT, ©, p. )

The ˜˜torment™™ that this critic endures, like the exquisite torture James
associates with the life of art in his Preface to The American and in his

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