The Continuum of Consciousness: Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James's Novels (American University Studies)

The Continuum of Consciousness: Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James's Novels (American University Studies)

Jennifer Eimers

Language: English

Pages: 117

ISBN: 1433122898

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The Continuum of Consciousness: Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels examines the transformative experience of art in James’s fiction. In a 1915 letter to H. G. Wells, James declares, «It is art that makes life.» This book traces the rich implications of this claim. For James, viewing art transformed the self. Many of his contemporaries, including his famous older brother, William, were deeply interested in the study of perception and individual consciousness. James’s fictional use of art reflects these philosophical discussions. Although much valuable scholarship has been devoted to visual art in James’s fiction, the guiding role it often plays in his characters’ experiences receives fuller exploration in this book. A prolonged look at visual art and consciousness through the lens of nineteenth-century British aestheticism reveals intriguing connections and character responses. By highlighting and analyzing his representations of aesthetic consciousness in four novels at specific moments (such as Basil Ransom’s and Verena Tarrant’s contrasting responses to Harvard’s Memorial Hall in The Bostonians and Milly Theale’s identification with a Bronzino painting in The Wings of the Dove), this book ultimately explores the idea that for James art represents «every conscious human activity», as Wells replied to James.

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from the stimuli to which it reacts. James’s understanding of experience was no doubt influenced by the theories of his older brother William, with whom he frequently exchanged ideas. William, a psychology professor at Harvard, published the highly influential Principles of Psychology in 1890. In the revised and abridged 1892 edition, Psychology: The Briefer Course, William defines the term experience in this way: “what is called our ‘experience’ is almost entirely determined by our habits of

comes to see her as the embodiment of his ideas for the future of the theater: “What he flattered himself he was trying to do for her—and through her for the stage of his time, since she was the instrument, and incontestably a fine one, that had come to his hand—was precisely to lift it up, make it rare, keep it in the region of distinction and breadth” (147). Miriam, as an actress and art object, transforms his perspective of theater and creates in him a sense of duty to the theater world. Once

Norton’s praise of the Englishman. Norton, James’s mentor, set up James’s introduction to Ruskin in early 1869. Later that year James wrote to his family in glowing 88 The Continuum of Consciousness terms about Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. But as he advanced in his career, James pulled away from such whole-hearted admiration for Ruskin, and in fact criticized certain aspects of his theories. The primary focus of James’s disapproval was Ruskin’s “narrow theological spirit, the moralism à

soon” (139). The painting inspires her to face the thought of her own death. Jöttkandt notes that “an apotheosis is not only a supreme moment, or quintessential example of a thing. It is also the elevation to divine status whose concomitant implication is that one is already dead” (63–64). Thus, in the Bronzino painting Milly discovers her death is looming. Milly’s recognition of her death sets off a chain of thought leading to the fuller development of her consciousness. Sharon Cameron, who

Serena Merle and Gilbert Osmond, seem to owe something to his early preference for the anecdotal. However, at the Louvre, where James and his older brother William made regular trips, he slowly absorbed an aesthetic new to him, one based on traditional art, not modern or experimental works. In the Louvre he happily crossed “that bridge over to Style constituted by the wondrous Galerie d’Apollon, drawn out for me as a long but assured initiation” (196). The Louvre represented a place where “the

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