Academic journal article Style

"In the Mystic Circle": The Space of the Unspeakable in Henry James's the Sacred Fount

Academic journal article Style

"In the Mystic Circle": The Space of the Unspeakable in Henry James's the Sacred Fount

Article excerpt

The Sacred Fount, in trying to hold open a space for the unspeakable, uses textual strategies similar to those developed by apophatic mystics to speak about God. In his study of apophatic languages, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Michael Sells argues that the "aporia" of the ineffable in the mystic text--the problem of speaking of that which cannot be spoken about--results not in silence but in "a new mode of discourse" (2). [l] To speak of that of which nothing can be said requires a set of linguistic manoeuvres by which language is always undoing itself--first saying and then "unsaying" in an attempt to allow the transcendent to take shape "between" the words, "beyond" what can be said. In The Sacred Fount, this restless double movement generates irresolvable ambiguities in the text: every gesture towards meaning is countered by a contradictory one, so that meaning is always temporary, always about to be turned on its head. The first-person narrator, far from being the guarantor of any kind of stable mean ing, is himself caught up in the (il)logic of the apophatic strategies he uses on his fellow guests at Newmarch. But though The Sacred Fount despairs of representation, it does not despair of meaning altogether. The sayings and unsayings in this text, as in mystical texts, work to plot the coordinates of a space "beyond" the text where meaning resides, a space that is always, necessarily, off the page, and therefore exists "nowhere." It is this commitment to the presence, as absence, of an other space--"other" in the sense that it is posited as being irreducible to language-that distinguishes the textual strategies of James's novel from those of deconstruction and aligns them, precariously, with those of mystical texts.

For the mystic, language, as a material form belonging entirely to the human sphere, can only fail to represent God. Thus thirteenth-century French mystic Marguerite Porete explains that in attempting to "describe God" (170) in her book The Mirror of Simple Souls (for which she was condemned by the inquisition and burned at the stake), she undertook "something which one could neither do, nor think, nor say, any more than someone could desire to enclose the sea in his eye, or carry the world on the end of a reed, or illuminate the sun with a lantern or a torch" (171). For the mystic, God can no more be enclosed by human words than the (infinite) sea can be enclosed in a human eye; language is at the same peril in trying to express the infinite as a reed in trying to uphold the weight of the world; human discourse can no more reveal God than a torch can reveal the sun. And yet, eye, reed, and torch are all human words that help us to imagine God--they suggest to us how big, how far, how great, how simultaneous ly immanent and transcendent God is. In Porete's text, it is not only the gap between the two terms of her analogy that is important but the frail connection. If the sea cannot be enclosed in the eye, it can yet be "taken in" by the gaze; if the light of a torch disappears in full sunlight, a torch may still suggest to one who has never seen the sun what the sun is like. For all the mystic's myriad protests against language, words are all she has if she is to speak of God. And so she uses words--but uses them resistingly, contemptuously, violently, trying to break open their fixities of meaning and force them to avow that which by definition they never can avow.

When the narrator of The Sacred Fount hands his friend Ford Obert the "torch of [his] analogy" (64, 216), he is doing much the same thing as Porete--he is trying to show, by evocation, allusion, and suggestion, something he cannot say, to use words as a torch to illuminate the sun. Ford Obert, like the ideal reader of the mystical text, takes the torch and follows the chain of associations until he reaches the sun: "I've blown on my torch," he tells the narrator, "till, flaring and smoking, it has guided me, through a magnificent chiaroscuro of colour and shadow, out into the light of day" (222). …

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