Will This Kill That?: Henry James, the Representational Arts, and New Media (Part 1)

About halfway through Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902), I found myself beguiled by Milly Theale’s visit to London’s National Gallery, a lengthy passage in which the novel’s heroine wanders through the museum, ignoring the paintings and attending to the “lady-copyists” assiduously mimicking the masters.[1] The worlds of the Titians and Turners pass her by; what engages her interest are those who would re-render the plastic arts, the aesthetic interpretations of the real crafted by others. I think that we might at first assume that James strikes a highly ironic pose here. After all, what absorbs Milly’s attention parodies the Plato’s theory of forms: She delights in the real forgers forging an already forged reality.

Through its platonic riffing, this scene engages indirectly debates about the literary arts and the prose narrative in particular that circulated from at least the 17th century on. Arguments about the novel’s suitability–about the novel’s potentially corrupting influence over the minds of readers and female readers in particular–form the narrative backbone of many texts that appeared during the modern and early modern eras. Consider the following examples: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615), The Coquette (1797), Northanger Abbey (1817), Madame Bovary (1857).

Wings of the Dove contributes a late riposte to such stories. Although James trains his narrative eye on Milly’s experience of visual arts, her response to the National Gallery resembles that articulated by 18th and 19th century critics of the novel. As the narrator explains: “She really knew before long … that something within her was after all too weak for the Turners and Titians. They joined hands about her in a circle too vast, though a circle that a year before she would only have desired to have traced. They were truly for the larger, not the smaller life, the life of which the actual pitch, for example, was an interest, the interest of compassion, in misguided efforts.”[2] Here, Milly’s thoughts betray not only a belief in the overwhelming power of representational art; they also emphasize her desire to remain with the real. Milly may go to the National Gallery to “overtake one or two” significant paintings from the “many-coloured stream of history,” but her general experience of representational art remains aloof, grounded not in losing herself among the paintings but in focusing on the material world—the “actual pitch” of life, the world she could “really kn[ow].” [3] Even when she imagines her former self as a capable observer of the Titians and Turners, she engages the works not as an observer, invoking instead the tactility. Milly avoids representational art because it overwhelms.

[1] Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, in Novels 1901-1902, New York: Library of America, 2006, p. 406.

[2] Ibid., 407.

[3] Ibid., 406, 407.


2 thoughts on “Will This Kill That?: Henry James, the Representational Arts, and New Media (Part 1)

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