Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Lambert Strether and Negativity of Experience

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Lambert Strether and Negativity of Experience

Article excerpt

"And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances,

And so he plays his part."(1)

The conclusion of James's outline for The Ambassadors raises a difficult question for students of James's fiction. The outline calls for a final conversation between Maria Gostrey and Lambert Strether in which Strether is given "a clear vision of his opportunity" with Maria.(2) In the final text James remains faithful to this last attempt at connection between the pair. The interesting question comes in James's reason for Strether's refusal of Maria's offer of marriage. James explains how Strether "can't accept," how he "won't," or "doesn't," that it's "too late," for such an intimate partnership at this stage of his life. These are reasons we can understand given our insight into Strether at the conclusion of all that has happened. But James goes on to explain how Strether "has come so far through his total experience that he has come out on the other side--on the other side, even, of a union with Miss Gostrey" (p 390). The question here is what does it mean to pass so through an experience that you come out on the other side, that you emerge into a world completely altered? Into what world, that is, does Strether emerge? To reason through James's suggestion is to confront the whole notion of experience and understanding not only in The Ambassadors, but in all of James's projects up to this late novel.

The difficulty of making sense of The Ambassadors's end, particularly Strether's refusal to ground himself in Maria Gostrey, is doubly compounded, first by the permutations of Strether's subjectivity throughout the course of his Parisian experience, and second, by the ambiguity of the novel's closing comment--"`Then there we are!"'(3) Readers have long wondered where "we are" points to, for Strether and Maria Gostrey as much as for themselves To ask this question, one James purposely plants at the novel's close, is to ask about the basic structure of understanding as it functions in James's hermeneutics.(4) In a persuasive and insightful deconstructive reading of The Ambassadors, Julie Rivkin, employing what Derrida refers to as "`the logic of supplementarity,'" argues rather forcefully that what I refer to as the permutations of Strether's subjectivity are "supplementations," a manifestation of the "logic of delegation" which governs the entire novel's narrative structure; in Rivkin's words, a "principle" of "displacement . . . compensating for sacrifices by creating a chain of ambassadors" beginning with James, moving through the Preface, embodied in the text, and made manifest in the "plurality dictated by the text's own logic of delegation--not The Ambassador but, rather, The Ambassadors."(5) The outcome of Rivkin's analysis is to show that what Strether discovers "as he replaces one truth about experience with another is that there is no stopping point in this logic of revision" (p. 828). But in focusing on supplementarily, Rivkin deconstructs all notions of self in the novel and leaves Strether without any ground on which to come to understand the personal and public impact of his Parisian experience in so far as it assists in the development of his conception of self as permeable.(6) And one wonders here whether an argument that focuses on a deconstruction of the self in The Ambassadors retraces the ground Strether has already deconstructed over the course of his Parisian experience? After all, isn't the goal for James and Strether not to get rid of or to "supplement" the self, but to make that self porous? To this extent The Ambassadors can be read as a text that tries to relocate rather than get rid of the self, and this includes a relocation outside deconstruction.

Furthermore, Rivkin's reading of the novel not only intensifies the ambiguity of Strether's final "`Then there we are! …

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