Saturday, May 18, 2013

There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house - the radically uninterpretable "Figure in the Carpet"

I was as game as anyone.  A secret thread runs through the novelist’s work; the critic fails to uncover it; another writer succeeds.  Maybe I can succeed, too.  Maybe the clues to the meaning of the fictional novelist’s imaginary texts are ingeniously concealed within the actual text of “The Figure in the Carpet.”

For example, maybe the novelist’s secret is that he is homosexual.  Anyone ever tried that one?  Or am I the first to suggest it?

A couple of other possibilities:  the novelist was lying (or drunk) when he suggested that his books revealed a plain-sight “figure in the carpet” if only anyone would see it.  Perhaps the novelist is kissing up to the critic (and, later, the editor of a literary magazine).  Or perhaps he is teasing them, playing a prank.

Another possible hidden story:  the editor, when he claims to have found the solution to the novelistic puzzle, is actually lying in order to trick a woman into marrying him.  He succeeds – she marries him in order to learn the secret.  This may sound absurd, but I am having trouble with some recurring fuss over exactly when the characters become engaged to marry, e.g. “I subsequently grew sure that at the time he went to India, at the time of his great news from Bombay, there was no engagement whatever” (598).  This must mean something; it must be part of an interpretation of the story, this attention to what looks like a peripheral question.

The clue that convinced me that I was getting “The Figure in the Carpet” more or less right was actually an absence, a dog that did not bark, so to speak.  It would be possible to make a long list of characteristics of the “figure,” most of them straight from the novelist.  But nowhere does the critic who narrates the story give a hint of what might be in the novelist’s texts.  Neither description nor scene nor a single line, not even a title.  No, there is one title, The Right of Way, but the title is of the novelist’s last book, released after the critic has given up on seeing the figure, after the editor claims to have seen it.

A joke, it is all just a joke, even before we get to the absurd over-reactions of the characters who do see the figure.  I mean, I myself have seen such figures in the carpets of other writers.  It is not such a big deal.

James has created a radically uninterpretable story.  Thus the necessity of the vagueness and even absence of what should be essential detail; thus the details that are included pointing towards alternative, unresolvable, stories.  Vladimir Nabokov, when writing a parable of the difficulties of literary interpretation, has to write an entire 999 line poem to make his case.  In the James story, characters insist that they are reading with a Kinbotean intensity, but it is all concealed from the actual reader – of course it never exists.

At three o’clock in the morning, not sleeping, remembering moreover how indispensable he [the novelist] was to Lady Jane, I stole down to the library with a candle.  There wasn’t, so far as I could discover, a line of his writing in the house.  (583)

Now there, that turns out to be a clue.


  1. I've never read this one, and maddeningly enough, it's not in any of the collections we have at the house. I swear I'll read it today (well, tonight more likely) and offer up my own misinterpretation. But it begins to sound sort of like a variation on the emperor's new clothes.

  2. Oh yes - Vereker believes that there is a beautiful, meaningful idea running through his work that no one can see. The reason turns out to be that it is actually drab and banal. Yes, good one.

    The story good be taken as an author's revenge on critics, except James remains so vague - revenge on which critics, for doing what? And James is of course himself a critic, so maybe it is a critic's revenge on novelists. Except James is himself etc.

  3. I'm sure that as a critic and novelist, James had contempt for plenty of each species. I don't know enough about his biography to guess at a specific critic or novelist he'd want revenge upon. Maybe some critic of his generation championed a novelist that James thought vapid. “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’" is sort of similar to this story, I say from the distance of a man who hasn't read "Figure" yet.

  4. One more advantage of James's vagueness. "Why, that story must be about me!"

  5. Fun little mystery that you worked on here. As I mentioned I have not read this but the idea of made up meaning for the purpose of marriage does sound like an elegant solution.

  6. It is not a bad answer, but it is not stable. It shatters when pressed against other parts of the text. Every solution shatters.

  7. The figure in the carpet being of a vaguely sexual nature is hinted at by the facts of the writer only showing it to his fiancee after they get married, and by the widow then being too ashamed to explain it to her next husband. It seems to be the case too that we're not supposed to know exactly what the figure in the carpet is. Evidence for these two points was provided by James himself in the preface he wrote for the New York Edition of the volume containing The Figure in the Carpet. Of course, it is questionable to what extent we can trust James and his trap-laying mind (sorry for the shouting all-Caps emphasis, we don't have italics available) :

    ' [As for The Lesson of the Master,] it was amusing because it was more difficult – from the moment one didn’t simply give it to be taken on trust. Working out economically almost anything is the very life of the art of representation; just as the request to take on trust, tinged with the least extravagance, is the very death of the same. (There may be such a state of mind brought about on the reader’s part, I think, as a positive desire to take on trust; but that is only the final fruit of insidious proceedings, operative to a sublime end, on the author’s side; and is at any rate a different matter.) As for the all-ingenious Figure in the carpet, let me perhaps a little pusillanimously conclude, nothing would induce me to come into close quarters with you on the correspondences of this anecdote. Here exactly is a good example for you of the virtue of your taking on trust – when I have artfully begotten in you a disposition. All I can at this point say is that IF EVER I WAS AWARE OF GROUND AND MATTER FOR A SIGNIFICANT FABLE, I WAS AWARE OF THEM IN THAT CONNECTION. [...]

    I to this extent recover the acute impression that may have given birth to The figure in the carpet, that no truce, in English-speaking air, had ever seemed to me really struck, or even approximately strikeable, with our so marked collective mistrust of anything like close or analytic appreciation – appreciation, to be appreciation, implying of course some such rudimentary zeal; and this though that fine process be the Beautiful Gate itself of enjoyment. To have become consistently aware of this odd, limp, numbness of the general sensibility, which seemed ever to condemn it, in presence of a work of art, to a view scarce of half the intentions embodied, and moreover but to the scantest measure of these, was to have been directed from an early day to some of the possible implications of the matter, and so to have been led on by seductive steps, albeit perhaps by devious ways, to such a congruous and, as i would fain call it, fascinating case as that of Hugh Vereker and his UNDISCOVERED, NOT TO SAY, UNDISCOVERABLE, SECRET. [...]

    Vereker’s drama indeed – or I should perhaps rather say that of the aspiring young analyst whose report we read and to whom, I ruefully grant, I have ventured to impute a developed wit – is that at a given moment the LIMPNESS begins vaguely to THROB AND HEAVE, to become conscious of a comparative tension. As an effect of THIS MILD CONVULSION, ACUTENESS, AT SEVERAL POINTS, STRUGGLES TO ENTER the field, and the question that accordingly comes up, THE ISSUE OF THE AFFAIR, CAN BE BUT WHETHER THE VERY SECRET OF PERCEPTION HASN'T BEEN LOST. That is the situation, and The figure in the carpet exhibits a small group of well-meaning persons engaged in a test. The reader is, on the evidence, left to conclude'.

  8. Is there any other writer to whom hiding and being hidden are more important?

  9. Holy Christmas, that is so hard to read. Like quicksand - someone throw me a vine - maybe if I can stay perfectly still - glub glub glub. Thanks, though.

    I will just note that the sexual nature of the "figure" is, not surprisingly, supported by some parts of the clues but not others ("It's my life!", says the wife). But I think the joke is that no possible revelation could really have the effect that this one does.

    Shelley, I have some plausible answers to your question. They are different, but satisfy the criteria. Flaubert, Hofmannsthal, Nabokov ("Find What the Sailor Has Hidden"). Borges, maybe. Robert Browning. Hmm, now I want to add Shakespeare, too.

  10. If it's hiding and being hidden you're after, I'd add Roussel. Not just for the celebrated method, but for so many things.

  11. I have been meaning to read Roussel for almost twenty years, ever since I read a long review of the translation of How I Wrote Certain of My Books. Unbelievable stuff.

    "Meaning to" does not seem to get the job done.

  12. Well, you have a lot to read, without dipping into RR...

    I will say that when I finally got around to reading "Impressions d'Afrique" I kicked myself for waiting so long.

    "How I Wrote Certain of My Books" is a rich and strange piece of work; but the method is just another blind, another conduit for those mysterious obsessions.

  13. A lot to read, do I ever. Someday, though, with any luck.

  14. I haven't read this story (or if I have, it was so long ago I can't remember it), but it seems to have ingredients similar to those in The Turn of the Screw: a ratcheting up of tension without clear resolution, a mystery that remains a mystery, even (to borrow from humblehappiness' comment) a vague and foreboding sexual element.

    I have to laugh at that notion that someone would marry just to get at the mystery. I've certainly seen marriages built on less, and in a broad sense it doesn't sound much different from most marriages.

  15. This story likely provides a clue about the ultimate interpretability of The Turn of the Screw.

    That story would be improved - someone should write this - someone meaning James Thurber - if instead of ending where it does, we return to the frame. The auditor start interrogating the story-teller about the story ("Yes, but that makes no sense") and questioning how he tells it. Some of the listeners had fallen asleep - it would take a while to recite that whole thing - and demand to be filled in on the parts they missed, which are of course mangled and misremembered by the other tellers.

    Not bad, not bad.