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The Continuum of Consciousness

Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels


Jennifer Eimers

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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CONCLUSION: Art, Consciousness, Life 105


Conclusion Art, Consciousness, Life “I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort.” Henry James, Henry James Letters 4: xxxi Though Henry James made this statement to his niece Peggy in regards to American simplicity, his fiction bears proof of his delight in complication, a delight that raises more questions than it answers. And to draw tidy conclu- sions about his use of visual art in his fiction would be to contradict his cen- tral belief about aesthetic experience—it is infinite and does not allow for tidy summary. In the closing year of his life, the epistolary debate he had with H.G. Wells reiterated a position James had been developing for decades. He be- lieved that Wells’s narrow view of art as “technical and special” limited one’s experience of the world. Like his brother William, Henry resisted finite expe- rience. Kristin Boudreau cites Linda Simon’s observation that for William James, “A world without the possibility of the new, a world that is consistent and predictable: such a world would be nothing less than catastrophic” (Simon 39), a view Henry also held. In this context it is easy to understand why James and Wells ended their friendship over a debate about the “use” of art. For James the philosophy that “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our considera- tion and application” was the central tenet of his own art and one that could not be divorced from his core approach to life. In...

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