The Sound of the Soul

I’ve started on a new book project. I should say, I’ve revived an old book project. The working title is The Sound of the Soul: How to Re-enact Modern Verse. Here’s what it’s about—your thoughts would be most welcome:

The biggest challenge of industrial society is detachment. The economy operates at such a vast scale that the most consequential interactions among people, businesses, and governments must be reduced to expedient transactions. The worst atrocities of the last two centuries were ordered from a clinical distance. Democracy offers a mechanism to respond—if citizens can overcome their apathy.

Since 1800, poets turned verse into a means for people to re-engage with the world. Charles Olson defined the chief objective of modern poetry: “an actual earth of value to / construct one.” Think about William Blake’s Jerusalem, Walt Whitman’s America, Ezra Pound’s paradise, and Diane di Prima’s Loba.

The Sound of the Soul explains the mechanism through which modern poets engage the reader in this construction. Consciousness is rhythmic; the mind perceives the world in patterns or images that unfold over time. The rhythms of modern verse alter the rhythms of the reader’s consciousness and convert the poem from a communication into an experience. The reader enters the imaginal space of the poem so that its possibilities become his or her own—not just ideas to think about but an earth to inhabit.

To this end, modern poems incorporate three kinds of rhythm that place different demands on readers from those of traditional, metrical verse.

First, modern verse unfolds in two simultaneous streams of sound. Like traditional English verse, modern verse incorporates accent and closely follows the natural stress contours of the language. Therefore, this layer of sound emphasizes the sense of the words. On top of this layer, modern poets add rhythms based on syllabic quantities—long and short syllables—which counterpoint the accentual stream. The long syllables sometimes coincide with accented syllables and sometimes fall on different syllables. Syllabic quantities convert the reading of verse from a primarily intellectual activity into a fuller sensual experience.

Second, modern verse consists of aural images, sections of verse, from one to 12 or 15 lines at most. Each occupy a moment of consciousness in the reader’s mind. William James terms such a moment “the specious present,” the amount of attention our mind can sustain between the hazy, receding past and the intimation of the oncoming future. With an aural image, the reader’s mind assembles the words that the poet posits into a tentative perception. A couple of tensions within the aural image oblige us to participate in generating meaning and not just passively absorb the poet’s message:

  • The poet aims in one direction while the reader’s mind leaps to another.
  • The image resolves into a coherent meaning, or the words remain unresolved as a soul scream.

Third, aural images usually occur in sequence, and this sequence conveys the force of an expansive persona, whether a giant figure such as William Carlos Williams’ Paterson or a revelatory mind like Emily Dickinson’s. The irregular forms of modern verse express a kind of movement in contrast to the narrative flow or argument of traditional poems. “This is the exercise for this morning,” said Olson at his typewriter, “how to dance / sitting down.” The reader moves down the page in sympathy with the persona and enlarges his or her own soul in response. The poem becomes a live event, a joint act of creation.

Modern poets want us to construct an earth of value through the act of reading their verse. “I give you the end of a golden string,” explains Blake, speaking metaphorically of his verse. “Only wind it into a ball: / It will lead you in at Heavens gate, / Built in Jerusalem’s wall.” We do not live on the literal earth; we live on the earth we collectively imagine. We can only renovate the earth if we renovate our souls, whence our relationship to the world springs. The performance that modern poems demand enables the reader to embody a new image of the earth. “Soul of bulk and substance” writes James Hillman, “can be evoked by words and expressed in words; for myth and poetry, so altogether verbal and ‘fleshless,’ nonetheless resonate with the deepest intimacies of organic existence.” Modern poetry redefines reading. We haven’t made a dish just because we looked at the recipe. Similarly, we haven’t read a modern poem just because we consumed the text. We must re-enact it, through its rhythms, to inhabit its meaning.

Nasty Geniuses: Karl Marx

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Karl Marx.

Why a Genius: I am a Marxist, and virtually everyone who thinks about culture and society is a Marxist, too. Marx gave us the insight that the forms of culture and society reflect the economic conditions of the time. A chivalric romance of the Middle Ages reflects the feudal organization of society in which the nobles control agricultural land and appropriate its products for their own uses. A nineteenth century novel reflects the rising middle class of a capitalist society.

Previously, we used to think about cultural forms in terms of models. The Bible and the great works of classical antiquity set the patterns within which later writers had to work. Enlightenment thinkers noticed that this worship of formalism and tradition imposed absurd conditions on those who wanted to write about the world honestly. They used reason to free us from those constraints. Reason could give modern writers an authority of their own in contrast to the now irrelevant examples from the past.

Yes, observed Marx, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that “reason” is entirely disinterested, that it is valid in itself. We unconsciously absorb the values of the society that surrounds us. They determine what seems “reasonable” to us. These values are imposed by those who own the means of production. One way or another, works of culture flatter the self-image of the powerful.

The complication is that in the modern world, society changes rapidly. One set of values always comes under assault by a new set of values just as a new set of owners continually displaces the old set.

Since Marx, no one can write about culture without paying some attention to the values of the wealthy and powerful. Furthermore, we cannot write about culture without honestly confronting how we ourselves are implicated in those values and the society they create.

You don’t have to be a communist to analyze culture in a Marxist way. I’m in favor of capitalism myself. But Marx’s way of thinking remains the most powerful tool for deriving insight about society and culture. Anyone who believes they have some innate entitlement to wealth, power, and privilege gets swept off the stage in gales of Marxist laughter.

Why Nasty: Marx thought he knew where everything was headed. The workers of industrial society would eventually band together and take over the means of production from the bourgeoisie. Looking backward, Marx could see how economics determined history, how old and new interests battle until the new triumphs, how one period inevitably has to follow another. History obeys a kind of natural law, Marx determined. It wasn’t any kind of leap, then, to project history forward just one step from today’s capitalism to tomorrow’s communism.

And why not help history along? If the bourgeoisie are certain losers, why wait? Why not get rid of them today? Most of the butchery of the 20th century traces back to Marx’s sense of the inevitability of history. Josef Stalin wanted to modernize agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s by converting private land ownership into large collective farms in Ukraine. 10 million people died. Mao Zedong did the same thing in China during Great Leap Forward of the 1950s. Add in his work in the Cultural Revolution and other campaigns, and the death toll reaches 40 million. Mao’s example inspired Pol Pot to launch a similar campaign in Cambodia in the 1970s though only 2 million people perished there. Marx’s sense of history influenced even the triumphalism of Adolph Hitler’s National Socialism.

After such hubris, a little humility refreshes. “Man came here by an intolerable way,” said Charles Olson. “When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale, he has to begin again….”¹ I admire most those who choose the humble occupation of poet.

¹ Olson, Charles, “The Resistance,” Human Universe and Other Essays, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), p. 47.

Nasty Geniuses: Shakespeare

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Shakespeare.

Why a Genius: Shakespeare knows who you are. And he knows you’re a freak. He’s more honest about who you are than you are. Brutally honest. Or maybe just brutal.

You like to pretend you’re a normal person. You want your family and friends to think you’re worthy of the relationship. You go out in public or into work, and you want people to like and respect you. Sure, you have your quirks, but they’re harmless. You experience the full range of human emotions—you’re not a sociopath—but you don’t let them harm anyone.

Well, Shakespeare calls BS. He knows you dress up as a man or as a woman “just for fun,” and it turns you on secretly. You’re not just wearing a Halloween costume; you’re acting butch, queaning it up.

He knows when you’re jealous, you don’t just walk away and suffer. You plot something nasty to hurt the person you’re jealous of, maybe your best friend. Oh, you’re careful not to let the plot get traced back to you. You sympathize. You offer advice. You smile in their face. Inside you savor every line of pain you read there.

He knows you like to think of yourself as a talented, charismatic leader. You make everything revolve around you. You surround yourself with sycophantic people who tell you how wonderful you are. And if you let it go on long enough, you start to believe what they tell you. The truth is you’re a doddering old fool people are using for their own ends, and they can’t wait to get your bloated ego out of their life.

He knows you’re a really ambitious person, but you don’t have the courage to take what you want on your own. You married a ruthless spouse to do it for you. When you stop halfway to your goal, she grabs the dagger out of your fearful hands and plunges it into the rest of your enemies.

If none of these describe who you are, it’s because freaks come in an infinite variety. Even as prolific a writer as Shakespeare could only just scratch the surface. But you get the idea. You see what humans are all about. That’s why every modern novelist who wanted to explore psychology learned from Shakespeare.

Why Nasty: Shakespeare is bleak. Hopelessly, needlessly so. Think about what you don’t find in Shakespeare. You don’t find a person with all the skills to have a lucrative career in business who becomes a low-paid social worker because he loves helping people in need. You don’t find a daring, creative poet who stashes her poems in a dresser drawer. You don’t find an ordinary guy who walks back into the store to return two extra pennies the cashier gave him by mistake. You don’t find people who make extra food and bring it to an elderly neighbor. You don’t find people who get scant recognition but keep working hard anyway because it is the honorable thing to do.

These are too quiet for Shakespeare. He scorns them if he even notices them. Society is ripped open in sudden gashes, and Shakespeare is there, relishing every drop of blood. But the wounds are also healed by a thousand invisible acts of kindness, humility and generosity. Shakespeare refuses to acknowledge them.

Sure, you will find eloquent speeches in Shakespeare, praising love, mercy, bravery, and other virtues. But they sound pious, not heart-felt. They don’t engage Shakespeare’s imagination the way our freakish behavior does. The human soul is simply nasty, he seems to think, and the world will collapse into ruin if we let individuals run around unchecked.

The only safety lies in social conventions like respecting rank, obeying the government and going to church. Shakespeare knows there is no God and the authorities are corrupt, incompetent boobs. Still, if we don’t fool ourselves into observing these conventions, we’ll all degenerate into serial killers.

If you ask people inside and outside the academy which one writer should be taught in schools, Shakespeare would come out on top, and second-place might not even be close. Every high school student has read him. Writers steal his plots. His plays are performed everywhere and regularly turned into movies. People take their lawn chairs to Shakespeare in the Park in summers. He’s the bestselling author of all time.

Should we really be exposing children to a nihilist like Shakespeare? Thank goodness his language is too flowery and old-fashioned for people to really understand what he is saying. Otherwise, who knows how much damage he would have caused? Still, it would be safer for society if we got rid of Shakespeare from the curriculum altogether and replaced him with someone like Michel de Montaigne, who has a balanced, humane view of our nature.

Nasty Geniuses: Augustine

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Augustine.

Why a Genius: In pagan antiquity, the outward person was the self, especially when one took part in the public life of the community. The notion of an inner, private self was largely a rhetorical device invented by lyric poets such as Sappho. The early Christians had no hope of a public role in the Roman Empire, so private life became the center of their thinking. Accordingly, they inverted the pagans’ understanding of the self. They turned the rhetorical conceit of an inward self into their main identity, and the public self became the shadow. The Christians directed people to look inside themselves and monitor the struggle going on there between good and evil.

Nobody did more to establish the inward self as a real thing than Augustine in the Confessions (398 A.D.). For instance, here Augustine mulls the effect of praise on his soul:

I wish that words of praise from other men did not increase the joy I feel for any good qualities that I may have. Yet I confess that it does increase my joy. What is more, their censure detracts from it… I tell myself that when I am gratified by the praise of a man who well understands what it is that he praises, the true reason for my pleasure is that my neighbor has made good progress and shows promise for the future. Similarly, when I hear him cast a slur upon something which he does not understand or something which in fact is good, I am sorry that he should have this failing… But here again I cannot tell whether this feeling comes from reluctance to allow the man who praises me to disagree with me about my own qualities, not because I am concerned for his welfare, but because the good qualities which please me in myself please me still more when they please others as well…

My God, in the light of your truth I see that if my feelings are stirred by the praise which I receive, it should not be for my own sake but for the good of my neighbor. But whether this is so with me I do not know, for in this matter I know less about myself than I know of you. I beg you, my God, to reveal me to my own eyes, so that I may confess to my brothers in Christ what wounds I find in myself, for they will pray for me. (X, 37)[i]

We see the two halves of Augustine’s soul debating—the public-facing part that loves praise and leads toward wickedness, and the good, inward- or God-facing part that knows he should be more selflessly concerned for his neighbors than for his own reputation. Augustine believes that one side of his soul or the other must triumph—maybe already has triumphed—yet he doesn’t know which one it is. In his anxiety, he appeals to God to show him the winner, and we know from our own experience that he will never get a clear answer because introspective people suffer chronic uncertainty. The contest between good and evil remains indistinct, a blur of dust and flailing limbs, so to speak.

This episode is hazy because Augustine reports second-hand what each part of his soul tells him, instead of dramatizing the dialogue so that readers can watch it unfold before their eyes. Since good and evil are battling over Augustine’s salvation, intense personal interest compels him to provide a running commentary, which gets between the contestants and the reader. This narrative strategy creates a nesting-doll effect. On the outside, we have the public historical figure of Augustine, and within him we have the personal narrator of the Confessions, and within him we have the good and evil figures who are doing battle. As our gaze moves down through the layers, the figures become less distinct. This layering and murkiness creates the illusion of psychological depth, which we believe to be the hallmark of a human mind. This is the beginning of our modern conception of the self

Why Nasty: This nesting-doll structure raises a fundamental question: What are the good and evil sides of Augustine’s character actually fighting over? We naturally say, “Augustine’s soul,” and we then try to locate in the Confessions the substance or reality that supposedly constitutes Augustine. Our choices range from the vague to the invisible. The soul cannot be Augustine’s outward character as we have defined the soul in contrast to the public self. The soul might be the narrator of the Confessions, but we know nothing about this “figure” apart from the fact of the narrative voice itself, which looks identical to the traditional rhetorical device of a narrator and is therefore not real in a sense that would satisfy a Christian. Most plausibly, the good side or the good and evil sides together comprise Augustine’s soul. As we have seen, these figures are hazy. They are either pure abstractions—“good” and “evil”—with no substance, or assorted impulses. If the latter, the soul or self fissions into particles and loses its integrity. The final possibility is that the soul lies further inside in yet a fourth nesting doll about which Augustine says not a word nor emits a hint. Ultimately, we must posit a soul in Augustine for which we lack any evidence and which we concede cannot be known by another person.

This vagueness is not humanly satisfying at all. Accordingly, the early Christians treated good and evil as objectively existing things in the universe, not merely as qualities or abstract ideas. If good and evil are real, how did they get inside us? Augustine proposed that God created Adam “in His image” as fundamentally good. The problem started with Eve, the not-quite-so-good derivative of Adam. Eve introduced selfish desire into humanity by coveting forbidden fruit and then seducing Adam into eating it, too. This original sin  then became part of the genetic makeup inherited by all descendants of Adam and Eve. Thus, says Augustine, we humans are destined to suffer the wrenching inner struggle between “good” and “evil.”

And it’s all women’s fault. Augustine didn’t invent misogyny, but he did more than anyone else to propagate it throughout Christendom.

Augustine’s notion of original sin became standard Christian theology and continues to influence us today. If we accept this framework, we must logically admit that some people win the inner struggle against evil and are therefore “good” while others lose the struggle and are “evil.” There are objectively good people and objectively bad people. We hear this language all the time today. Naturally, “we” are always the good people, and “they” are always the bad people. “We” can promote God’s work of returning the world to its original Adamic goodness by fighting “them.” By making good and evil literal and locating them inside us, Augustine ensured that the inner struggle would become a literal outward struggle. In such a cosmic battle, we cannot stop at merely defeating our enemies; we must eradicate them from the earth. If you’re looking for a justification of genocide, here it is. Thanks, Augustine.

[i] Saint Augustine, The Confessions, tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), pp. 246-7.

 

Nasty Geniuses: Plato

I introduced the concept of the nasty genius—someone who fundamentally changes the way we think about the world but whose ideas assume something dire about human nature or human possibilities. Today’s nasty genius: Plato.

Why a Genius: Every part of me worships Plato. The professional writer admires his skill with language. The reader of literature admires the drama of his dialogues. The thinker admires the intelligence of his philosophical propositions. Plato’s language is artful. He writes with finesse. He’s the most sophisticated prose writer in antiquity. Treating the dialogues as mere vehicles for philosophy does them an injustice. The speakers are characters, with different personalities, interests, and motivations which must be considered when evaluating the ideas they express. Those ideas always have something to them. We must think seriously about them. They inspire our own thinking.

Plato presents Socrates as a challenge to the reader, not as the authoritative voice. We are not meant to accept what Socrates says as Plato’s final thoughts on a topic. Rather, we readers must match wits with Socrates and out-think him. Plato always wants us to push our minds further. In this way, Plato far exceeds his imitators, the writers of philosophical dialogues from Xenophon and Cicero on up to the Renaissance. They write clumsy works in which the main speaker delivers the author’s message and the other characters are there merely to give him an excuse to talk.

Why Nasty: Plato’s notion of “ideas”—the pure, eternal forms of which the things in the world are pale copies—places truth outside of the world most of us live in. Plato then divides people into classes, according to the supposed quality of their minds and education. The smarter and more philosophical a person, the closer they come to perceiving the ideas. These people rise above the imperfections of this world to see more clearly the ideal form of justice, love and so on. Plato argues for an elite who know better than everyone else and who therefore should rule everyone else. Plato’s penchant for stratified or authoritarian states, such as Sparta and Syracuse, follows logically from his philosophy. He would deprive the vast majority of humanity of the ability to find or create meaning for themselves. Plato’s chief concept empowers Plato by disempowering the rest of us.

The antidote to Plato’s class-ridden idealism is transcendentalism. The world is inherently meaningful, and we all have the capacity to find meaning in the smallest object of this world. Walt Whitman shows how transcendentalism applies to a democratic society.

Nasty Geniuses

Superlatives pop up all over the place when we scan the field of Western literature. I couldn’t count the number of volumes whose titles begin “Greatest Works of …” This isn’t just the American hard sell, either. The French say “Les Chefs-d’oeuvre de”—the masterpieces of… The Germans say “Die Schönste Erzählungen von”—the most beautiful stories of … The Italians are prone to literary superlatives, too.

The superlative marks out a book as beautifully written, deeply thought, and morally conceived. The superlative indicates that readers and scholars have tested the work for generations. It meets the highest standards of excellence. It has received FDA approval. In other words, today’s readers can trust it. They can swallow it whole.

I don’t want to dispute the greatness of this or that writer. Instead, I question whether it’s always safe to swallow greatness when we see it. I’ve come across several writers I consider nasty geniuses—undoubtedly great, the greatest of the great, but whose works, if you follow out their logical consequences, lead to nasty results.

Let me define these terms here briefly.

Genius: The authors I have in mind are not merely great writers. They have such strong, fertile imaginations that they change the way people think about the world and practice their craft. I’ll use an analogy from music: Eric Clapton is a great guitar player. Jimi Hendrix was a genius. He changed what people thought was possible with the electric guitar. As an example of his virtuosity, he starts playing with his teeth about a minute and a half into this version of Purple Haze.

Nasty: I didn’t say evil genius. Some of the writers I have in mind did bad things in their lives, no doubt related to their world view. But here I focus on their thinking, which assumes something dire—nasty—about human nature or human possibilities. It’s only realistic to acknowledge the disasters that people cause each other. To codify evil into a principle of human nature, though, sets it as the inexorable fate of our race, something we cannot overcome. We can only check it … by punishing those we view as wicked.

In later posts, I’ll analyze some of the nasty geniuses I have in mind.

The Radioactive Elements of the Self: Stream of Consciousness

The self comprises three radioactive elements, that is, three distinct rhetorical patterns that sustain the illusion of the authentic self: testimony, revelation, and stream of consciousness.

Stream of Consciousness. Psychological novels, such as Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), infuse characters with the sense of having lived beyond the action of the story. They come from a particular time and place; they have relationships; they have had experiences; they have changed and developed over time. These factors molded the characters into unique individuals. The author stamps this completeness and individuality onto the novel so that it seems a segment of a larger whole with which it is bound up.

The middle-aged, cultured protagonist of The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether, has traveled from Woolett, Massachusetts, to Paris at the request of Mrs. Newsome, a wealthy woman from that town. She asks Strether to persuade her son, Chad, to return to America and take up his position in the family business. Chad had “done” Europe to finish off his education but has fallen in love with Marie de Vionnet, an older French widow with a daughter. The puritanical Mrs. Newsome views the relationship as scandalous.

Through Chad, Strether makes friends with Maria Gostrey, a middle-aged woman of taste and charm but modest income. Strether discusses with her the challenge he faces. He has come to believe that Chad should stay in Paris with the woman he loves, and Strether must somehow persuade Mrs. Newsome to accept Chad’s decision. Mrs. Newsome sees Strether waver and therefore sends another set of ambassadors to persuade Chad: Chad’s sister, Sarah Pocock, and Sarah’s in-laws. Strether believes that if he can persuade the Pococks to support Chad, all of them together might persuade Mrs. Newsome. After one of his conversations with Maria Gostrey at her apartment, Strether gets up to leave:

And now at last he took leave of her, as he had been intending for five minutes. But she went part of the way with him, accompanying him out of the room and into the next and the next. Her noble old apartment offered a succession of three, the first two of which indeed, on entering, smaller than the last, but each with its faded and formal air, enlarged the office of the antechamber and enriched the sense of approach. Strether fancied them, liked them, and, passing through them with her more slowly now, met a sharp renewal of his original impression. He stopped, he looked back; the whole thing made a vista, which he found high melancholy and sweet—full, once more, of dim historic shades, of the faint far-away cannon-roar of the great Empire. It was doubtless half the projection of his mind, but his mind was a thing that, among old waxed parquets, pale shades of pink and green, pseudo-classic candelabra, he had always needfully to reckon with. They could easily make him irrelevant. The oddity, the originality, the poetry—he didn’t know what to call it—of Chad’s connexion reaffirmed for him its romantic side. “They ought to see this, you know. They must.”

“The Pococks?”—she looked about in deprecation; she seemed to see gaps he didn’t. (IX,i)

I needed 190 words merely to set up this quote so you would understand it—a testament to how fully realized a character James has made Strether. This episode in Strether’s life grows organically out of the complex relationships and chains of events that preceded it. The novel depicts some of them while others come from the backstory, before the action of the novel. Strether reacts to Maria Gostrey’s apartment not just from the stimuli he experiences at the moment but also from the character, interests, and expectations he carries with him into the scene. No one else would respond in quite the same way. Another person might find the apartment shabby rather than “noble,” the three successive rooms tedious rather than dramatic. Strether’s reaction speaks of his appreciation for culture, the melancholy of advanced middle age, and the warmth he feels for Maria.

James also conveys Strether’s experience through the pacing of his words. The rhythm of James’s sentences re-enact the tempo of Strether’s passage through the apartment. Strether moves deliberately so as to absorb every detail of the rooms, to savor everything. Here the three clauses reflect Strether’s movements—two quick actions followed by a longer meditation: “He stopped, he looked back; the whole thing made a vista, which he found high melancholy and sweet—full, once more, of dim historic shades, of the faint far-away cannon-roar of the great Empire.” Like Strether, James’s sentences do not stride purposefully to a quick conclusion in strict subject-verb-object form. Instead, they unfold slowly, with some complexity, so that the reader must slacken his pace to comprehend them fully. Note the placement of the phrases in the passage, for example, the use of interjections—“he didn’t know what to call it”—and parataxis (“Strether fancied them, liked them, and, passing through them….”) to elongate sentences. These prose rhythms take the reader along with Strether so that we progress through Maria’s apartment much as he does.

The prose does still more. It doesn’t simply describe what Strether thought; it also recreates the rhythm of Strether’s thoughts. For his physical passage through those three rooms reflects the stream of consciousness that unfolds within him, out of sight of Maria. Strether’s thinking even takes over the narration from the omniscient writer. We start off believing that James himself makes these comments about his protagonist, yet by the end, we find it more poignant to think of them as Strether’s running self-commentary: “It was doubtless half the projection of his mind, but his mind was a thing that, among old waxed parquets, pale shades of pink and green, pseudo-classic candelabra, he had always needfully to reckon with. They could easily make him irrelevant.” The six phrases of the first sentence possess near symmetry. They consist of 12, 7, 6, 6, 8 and 11 syllables as though Strether’s rumination were interrupted by a few quick observations of his surroundings. He then brings his initial idea to a close and resumes the more deliberate pace of his thinking.

The text even skips steps just as we do when our mind moves rapidly: “The oddity, the originality, the poetry—he didn’t know what to call it—of Chad’s connexion reaffirmed for him its romantic side. ‘They ought to see this, you know. They must.’” Like Maria, we must pause to reflect who “they” are and what “this” refers to and why they need to see it. We inhabit the room with Strether as his interlocutor, thrown off balance temporarily by the idiomatic working of his mind. Its rhythm is at odds with our own and therefore trips us up. These stylistic devices give the language a deliberative feel suggestive of the way a real person thinks.

Despite James’s impressive three-dimensional representation, pinpointing Strether’s self proves no easier to do than it was for Sappho. In this passage, Strether’s thoughts consist of impressions of Maria Gostrey’s apartment—the vista through the three small rooms, the candelabra, the parquet floors… From habit, we assume in Strether an independent human mind observing these things, but from the evidence presented by the text itself, that mind is virtually identical to the contents of the apartment and the chains of association they set off. The self merges into the things it encounters. The words “parquet floors,” the observation of parquet floors, and the fact of parquet floors are indistinguishable phenomena while we are reading this passage.

The self serves mainly to offer a reference point with which to organize what would otherwise remain disparate experiences. It emerges from the confluence of Strether’s perceptions. We can think of the self as a kind of hypothesis—James proposes Strether as a figure that these various impressions add up to. Since Strether’s self doesn’t extend beyond the text, we can’t test its reality independently. For all we know, Strether lacks the inner coherence we expect of a self although James manages a convincing simulacrum. Our skepticism causes us to lose the self as a concept, but in compensation, we abandon an artificial barrier that separates us from our environment. The boundaries of the self have become diaphanous. We meld with the world.

The notion of a real, subjective self serves the interests of writers by justifying a strong authorial voice. The self allows authors to assert a unique, compelling experience as the basis for their work. It supports readers less well because it dissolves under the pressure of examination into other things—words, people, and things. Yet this very dissolution suggests another idea of experience that may serve readers better as a more certain support.