Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Turning the Corner of Interpretation: A Response to Elena Anastasaki*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Turning the Corner of Interpretation: A Response to Elena Anastasaki*

Article excerpt

He had bought a large map representing

the sea,

Without the least vestige of land:

And the crew were much pleased when

they found it to be

A map they could all understand.

(Lewis Carroll, "The Hunting of the Snark")

Since the 1960s, Henry James's "The Jolly Corner" has repeatedly inspired critical responses of a particular type: what might be called 'solve the riddle" readings, in which critics try to identify the ambiguously figured ghost Spencer Brydon conjures, stalks, and encounters in his attempt to know "what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and 'turned out/ if he had not so, at the outset, given it up" (James 735). 1 Among other things, the ghost has been identified as the shadow of capitalism, the victim of capitalism, an embodiment of analogy, the effect of prosopopeia, a cuckolded relative, Brydon' s hidden biracial self, and his closeted homosexual identity.2 Recently, however, the trend has shifted away from naming the ghost and toward interpretations that examine how James structured the narrative. Such readings include Lee Clark Mitchell's analysis of the narrator's use of scare quotes, Lynda Marie Zwinger' s study of tense and syntax, and my own reading, which focuses on the story as a rewriting of the Narcissus myth.

Elena Anastasaki' s incisive and provocative essay participates in, and usefully extends, this most recent wave of scholarship. Unlike Zwinger and Mitchell's detail-oriented approach, which focuses on s uch specific stylistic features as James's nuanced use of punctuation or tense, Anastasaki' s reading investigates the larger process of narrative selection and its inevitable limitations. She sidesteps identifying the ghost by self-consciously shifting her attention away "from the apparition's interpretation" and toward "the process of that construction and to the puzzlement of the unexpected outcome" (86-87). In other words, the story is not really about the ghost, but about the way Brydon creates and perceives the ghost. All that can really be known about the alter ego is that it is a "product of a consciousness that refuses to be fixed" because it "refute [s] its very principle and basic function, that of selection" (87). To elucidate this selective process, she uses a number of wide-ranging analogies, including William James's theory of consciousness, Schrödinger's ideas on quantum law, and Umberto Eco' s understanding of the fabula. These equivalent theories of paradox, she argues, operate like the story insofar as each attempts to articulate, not the particularities of the object of study, but rather, the structures that make possible the object's appearance. Anastasaki likens this, in turn, to James's approach to fictional possibility as explained in his famous metaphor of the "house of fiction" (Critical Prefaces 46). According to her, the completely empty house on the jolly corner "is the 'house of fiction' where nothing is decided yet, since the story is lingering on the threshold (95). Ultimately, then, the story operates as an elliptical parable about the conditions and constraints of narrative construction in the face of the limitless possibilities fiction offers.

Anastasaki' s reading, along with Zwinger and Mitchell's, takes a step in the right direction by warily avoiding the temptation to identify a ghost that is so ambiguously figured that it can be all things to all readers. Such interpretations, however, (and I include my own) are ultimately a more subtle version of 'riddle' readings insofar as they reinscribe the ghost at a further remove through abstract analogies. Although these readings do not, properly speaking, 'name' the other ghost, they draw a connection between a feature of the story and an extratextual idea, and then name the ghost's correlate in that other, parallel world. For Zwinger, an analysis of personal pronouns and indirect discourse eventually gives way to a reading that equates Brydon's encounter with a Kristevan confrontation between the deject and an the abject (i. …

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