Henry James and the Language of Experience

Henry James and the Language of Experience

Henry James and the Language of Experience

Henry James and the Language of Experience

Synopsis

Collin Meissner examines the political dimension to the representation of experience as it unfolds throughout James' work. For James, experience was a dialectical process that registered and expressed his consciousness of the external world. Meissner shows how James' understanding of the process of consciousness is not simply an aspect of literary form but inherently political, requiring an active engagment with the full complexity of social reality. The civic value of art resided in an interactive process in which the reader becomes aware of the aesthetic experience as immediate and engaged.

Excerpt

In The American, Henry James's Christopher Newman is characterized as a Bädeker-toting “great Western Barbarian stepping forth in his might, gazing a while at this poor effete Old World” (32). Selfmade, self-schooled, and self-mannered, Newman confesses to neither cultivation, education, nor any knowledge about “history, or art, or foreign tongues, or any learned matters” (32). Instead, he quantifies all of Europe as if it were an entity his opening question “Combien?” can answer (4). Not surprisingly, Newman learns at the close of his European experience how inadequate his mercantile American discourse is in negotiating the European text he had heretofore understood by guidebook alone. Though markedly changed at the close of his experience, Newman is unable to find the language with which to articulate what he has experienced, either for his own conceptual satisfaction or for the enlightenment of curious others. As the narrator explains, Newman “told his friends that he had brought home no 'new ideas' from Europe” (360). and that is just James's point in The American, a novel in which Newman's (in)ability to understand his experiences introduces the basic structure of Jamesian hermeneutics. What James shows in this early novel is how Newman's experience of European culture only becomes intelligible to him when he experiences its power of excluding him, which includes its power of exceeding his capacity for understanding.

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