Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James

Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James

Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James

Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James

Synopsis

"A major work on Henry James, on speech act theory, and on the thinking of Jacques Derrida.... Milleræs consideration of what we do when we read begins to make the true strangeness of that activity evident. What does it mean to say we really have just these words on the page, that nothing can answer for the text except the text? I love the way the author takes nothing for granted. What happens when a reader reads the words before her? In what sense do these words have reference? What speech acts make these words a work of fiction? -Julie Rivkin, Connecticut College

"The appearance of any work by J. Hillis Miller is a major event in literary and cultural studies. Literature as Conduct is one of the best books on James we have and are likely ever to have. -Sheila Teahan, Michigan State University The work of a master critic writing at the peak of his powers, this magisterial book draws on speech act theory, as it originated with J. L. Austin and was further developed by Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, to investigate the many dimensions of doing things with words in Jamesæs fiction. Three modes of speech act occur in Jamesæs novels. First, Jamesæs writing of his fictions is performative. He puts on paper words that have the power to raise in the reader the phantoms of imaginary persons. Second, Jamesæs writing does things with words that do other things in their turn, including conferring on the reader responsibility for further judgment and action: for example, teaching Jamesæs novels or writing about them. Finally, the narrators and characters in Jamesæs fictions utter speech acts that are forms of doing things with words-promises, declarations, excuses, denials, acts of bearing witness, lies, decisions publicly attested, and the like. The action of each work by James, he shows, is brought about by its own idiosyncratic repertoire of speech acts. In careful readings of six major examples, The Aspern Papers, The Portrait of a Lady, The Awkward Age, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Sense of the Past, Miller demonstrates the value of speech act theory for reading literature.

Excerpt

A phrase in my epigraph, "the … conduct of life," is the title of a highminded book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. James may have intended a reference to Emerson's book when he wrote those words. They are part of the eloquent affirmations in the final paragraph of the last preface to the New York Edition, the preface to The Golden Bowl. James claims that "putting" things, that is, saying or writing them, for example in those fictions he wrote, is as much a form of doing, and therefore of conduct, as any other act. Conduct: the word is defined by the Pocket Oxford Dictionary as a noun meaning "one's actions, the way one acquits oneself (esp. as concrete counterpart of character)," and as a verb (with the accent on the second syllable) meaning "lead or guide or escort, direct or control or manage." James wants to stress the way "putting things" in speech or writing is a counterpart of character. "Conduct," one might say, "conducts" one toward the manifestation of character as it is oriented toward some goal.

James emphasizes the superiority of putting things in words, as a form of doing, over other forms of social behavior. The latter are often dispersed or forgotten, while the former leave traces behind, for example, all those printed pages in the New York Edition. Such enduring words, putting as doing, their author can, or even must, acknowledge: "Yes, I wrote . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.