Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

The Problem of Representing "Truly" in Henry James's the Tragic Muse

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

The Problem of Representing "Truly" in Henry James's the Tragic Muse

Article excerpt


In The Tragic Muse (1978) Henry James offers a study of the ways in which acting and portraiture are unseated from a locus of transcendental signification by the fact that they are irretrievably and problematically cut off from origin and self-authenticating presence. Both Miriam Rooth's performances and Nick's portraits fail to bridge the "spacing" that divides imitation from that which it represents. Jacques Derrida's essay "Signature Event Context" (1982) proves to be particularly apposite to a consideration of the narrative and thematic permutations thrown up by the problem of deferred origin in The. Tragic Muse. The notion of iterability is central to Derrida's essay: iterability is a function of differance which refers to a sign's effective operation in the absence of a producer or addressee; as such it is especially pertinent to a discussion of imitation and representation in James's work.


In The Tragic Muse (1978) bied Henry James 'n studie van die maniere waarop toneelspel en uitbeelding ontsetel word vanuit 'n lokus van transendentale betekenis deur die feit dat dit onherroeplik en problematies afgesny is van oorsprong en self-outentiserende teenwoordigheid. Sowel Miriam Rooth se optredes as Nick se uitbeeldings slaag nie daarin om die "spasiering" te oorbrug wat imitasie onderskei van wat dit verteenwoordig. Jacques Derrida se essay "Signature Event Context" (1982) blyk by uitstek van toepassing te wees op 'n oorweging van die narratiewe en tematiese permutasies wat deur die probleem van verskuilde oorsprong in The Tragic Muse na vore kom. Die idee van herhaalbaarheid is sentraal in Derrida se essay: herhaalbaarheid is 'n funksie van differance wat verwys na 'n sinnebeeld se effektiewe werking in die afwesigheid van 'n regisseur of 'n geadresseerde; as sulks is dit veral pertinent tot 'n bespreking van imitasie en voorstelling in James se werk.


Perhaps unusually for Henry James, the presentation of the worlds of art and politics in The Tragic Muse (1978) is delicately coloured with wry, knowing humour. The supporting cast, in particular, provides him with the occasion for almost Dickensian simile and caricature. Lady Agnes, nonplussed by the spectacle of Miriam's early attempts at acting, wears "the countenance she might have worn at the theatre during a play in which pistols were fired" (TM, 100). (1) Waiting for her son's return from the hustings of Harsh, "her tall, upright black figure seemed in possession of the fair vastness like an exclamation-point at the bottom of a blank page" (TM, 162). The dull, plodding, unfortunately-named Grace Dormer; the "immemorial blank butler" (TM, 193), Mr Chayter; the "large, mild, healthy" Urania Lennox "who liked early breakfasts, uncomfortable chairs and the advertisement-sheet of The Times" (TM, 345); the shawl-encrusted, obsequious Mrs Rooth (who "twinkled up at [Sherringham] like an insinuating glow-worm" (TM, 479))--all of these vividly-drawn characters provide the text with the matter and language of comedy, palliatives to its rather more weighty deliberations on the merits and risks of dedicating one's life to art.

But humour in The Tragic Muse is not simply incidental, nor is it vested exclusively in minor characters. On the contrary, Peter Sherringham's childlike vulnerability to the charms of the theatre and its illusions is a target of much of the novel's more pointed satire. The vocabulary of truth, purity and perfection used to describe his idealism is strikingly similar to that used, on occasion, by James himself. (2) Sherringham's logocentric will to completion is particularly evident in his vision, born in "momentary illusion and confusion" (TM, 325), of a manager of the theatre "striving for perfection", a drama in which is rendered "all humanity and history and poetry" and which would be a "new and vivifying force" (TM, 326). Recalling Miriam's performance, he "floated in a sense of the felicity of it, in the general encouragement of a thing perfectly done, in the almost aggressive bravery of still larger claims for an art which could so triumphantly, so exquisitely render life" (TM, 325). …

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