Such astute but also such narrowly circumscribed psychological observation in the novels of Henry James… This wealth of noticing: it enlightens, of course, but—like a richly furnished Victorian drawing room—also casts a slightly oppressive spell. It imprisons the reader in the demanding self-discipline that patrician social entanglements call for: that airless clutter of words and objects, of places and ritual gestures, which conjure the protective husk of gentility into existence.
The trick is always the same: to dramatize the impermeable mystery of other selves. No matter how finely one might explore the coiled springs of personality, and articulate the psychological pattern of any given character, even one suspended in our own familiar and culturally legible social medium, something never fails to escape the noticer: characters are in some crucial measure opaque to themselves and to each other—and in the end, prove scarcely less enigmatic to the putatively omniscient narrator or, for that matter, to the reader this disembodied, urbane, elucidative voice addresses.
James never quite took people to be windowless Leibnitzian monads, but, in his conception, while the curious and the perceptive may on occasion glimpse some of the furniture within, or spy a few of the pictures hanging on the walls—and perhaps, with enough patience, even work out the whole interior configuration of the stately abodes where the soul of each new acquaintance dwells in guarded concealment—yet his intimate conviction was that at the very heart of them one would always encounter a secret room, locked off and heavily curtained. It seems that ultimate existential truths must, alas, defy expression; and, even in the event that the words could be found to give voice to such indelicate gospel, still good taste and decorum would surely require it be withheld.
William James, the famous psychologist and Henry’s older brother, was fascinated with that other word-resistant truth: the mystical experience. But whereas mysticism fails to find adequate expression because it overruns the boundaries of ordinary experience and exceeds the very capacities of language, what the younger James points to in his stories is, to the contrary, an ineffable absence—an unanswerable enigma at the center of each life.
We are all strangers sending embassies to one another across the chasm of our separateness; we struggle to decipher mysterious signs flashing from foreign shores. Not for nothing is his greatest, his most perfect, his most exemplary novel called “The Ambassadors.”
The key insight of Sigmund Freud, a contemporary of James, was his conception of the unconscious as a positive force: that it is the hidden center which actively determines the choices we make—the savage heart of darkness where the conflicts that shape us into who we are arise and play themselves out. For James however, the unconscious remained merely a kind of inaccessible backstage to the business of social performance; a negatively defined vantage point from which the uncertain, ambivalent, divided self could begin to gather itself sufficiently to desire freedom, and thereby set in motion the striving that would lead (or not) to its emancipation. James did recognise that intractable, carnally embodied factors of yearning and appetite, of fear and aversion could underlie even our most polished refinements—but unlike Freud, he preferred to let these animal depths tarry undeclared, sealed under a finely expressive but also mystifying surface of convention.