Kevin Ohi. Henry James and the Queerness of Style.
Problems of gender identities have long intrigued Henry James scholars. Both women in James's life and his female characters have continuously been a subject of exploration. However, the homoerotic aesthetic of his writings complicates the issues of gender and sexuality, calling for new approaches to his work. Kevin Ohi's Henry James and the Queerness of Style is one of the recent responses to this call. Departing from Gilles Deleuze's definition of a great writer as the one who explores the possibility of foreignness within his/her own language, Kevin Ohi aims to uncover the foreign elements of Henry James's language. Through the technique of close reading, Ohi delves into the stylistic characteristics of James's work such as symbolic and figural language, tone, abstraction, depiction, voice and perspective, thus foregrounding the queerness of style rather than the representation of sexualities and identities.
It is in fact this attempt to move beyond mere representational terms that makes Ohi's book original and thought-provoking not only for James scholarship, but also for the studies centered on the issues of identities extending from political to sexual. Emphasizing that queerness of James's work resides more in the effects of his style than his thematic choices, Ohi performs detailed, nuanced and conceptual readings of some of James's essays and fictions. For that reason, the book, while conveying the potential of stimulating creative ideas for any reader, is particularly exciting for the readers who are familiar both with James's convoluted style and the philosophical framework of contemporary critical theorists, especially the writings of Deleuze.
Henry James and the Queerness of Style encompasses four chapters in addition to an introduction. After discussing how eroticism and queerness relate to literary style, the book analyzes The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, some of James's late writings, and The Ambassadors in the following four chapters successively. James's two essays, namely "The Art of Fiction" (1884) and "The Future of the Novel" (1899), constitute the basis of all these analyses because Ohi views these texts as important sources that show the role James assigns to the novel. This role, Ohi suggests, departs from a "discussable" model of the novel rather than "given formalizable rules" (7). While "discussable" model of the novel demonstrates to James the disruption of the understanding of reading based on consumption, what Ohi calls "moralized reticence" adds to this disruption eventually enhancing the queerness of James's style (8). Since morality is often considered in the context of Victorian interpretation of representations that are harmful to the youth, James's concerns about morality and reservations about the representations of sexuality due to their potential to seduce and corrupt the youth may also amount to a Victorian moral reservation. Ohi's suggestion, however, locates James in a position in which morality is addressed in a reticent manner that distinguishes James's style from a Victorian expression of morality. Tracing James's conceptualization of "experience" in the context of inexperienced youth who are susceptible to corruption, and dwelling in the inevitable corruption of the child, which manifests the disruption of futurism as a form of fantasy, Ohi suggests that the queer style finds its voice in the "eruption of the Real in the Symbolic" (15).
Ohi's close readings of "The Art of Fiction" and "The Future of the Novel" not only expose how these essays frame the queer erotics of James's late style but also draw a theoretical frame for Ohi's close readings of James's fiction in the following chapters. While focusing on James's two essays in this introductory chapter, Ohi goes on to engage with numerous writers, theorists and philosophers such as Roland Barthes, Leo Bersani, Gilles Deleuze, Marcel Proust, and Colm Toibin. The thought-provoking voice of Ohi's book stems from the fact that it intertwines close readings of individual passages with intense references to multiple readings of a concept or a problem. Hence Ohi describes the concept of style, and particularly the queer style, in a substantial way with many references to different uses of the concept. Departing from Deleuze's notion of style which "names the subtraction of the individual" (23) and which is "the foreign language within language" (24), Ohi emphasizes that literature does not represent one's life, but rather it recovers a childhood which is not one's own (25). Ohi explores this "self-subtraction" or confrontation with the impersonal in James's writing by avoiding psychological and thematic explanations of the queerness of the belated life. According to Ohi, "Foundational to queer theory (and what separates it from 'gay studies') is the axiom that its analyses extend beyond (indeed must extend beyond) elements of culture where same-sex desire is explicitly at stake" (27).
Therefore, Ohi's readings of individual texts in four different chapters reflect his specific attention to the unique natures of literary pieces that take their power from their styles. In his analysis of The Golden Bowl in the first chapter, Ohi finds a narrative equivalent for the theme of "betrayal" in the novel which is enhanced by the blurred linguistic registers. Linking the reticence in the novel to belatedness and tracing the figures of zeugma or "double governance" in language, Ohi concludes that The Golden Bowl presents a queer plot in which "the lag in consciousness registered by the characters might thus be read as an after-effect of [the] principle of novelistic antiformalization" (43). In The Wings of the Dove, as Ohi discusses in the second chapter, it is the free indirect narration that functions to disrupt such formalization. Ohi suggests that the reflexive nature of the free indirect narration in the novel results in "a form of nonpsychological identification" or a paradoxical intimacy that enhances depersonalization rather than identification, exposing another facet of James's queer style (60). In the third chapter Ohi traces the words "hover", "torment", and "waste" in some of James's late texts: Introduction to Rupert Brooke's Letters from America; "Is There a Life after Death?", James's letter to Rupert S. Rantoul for the 1904 Hawthorne centennial; and his preface to The Tempest. Uncovering the style of these texts, Ohi reflects on the notions of life, death, memory and eulogy: "Hover, torment, and waste present different modes of the self-substraction through which author and reader meet, unexpressed and unfulfilled, in the 'taking place' of the text" (147). Ohi further examines this "unexpressed and unfulfilled" meeting of author and reader in the fourth chapter, which functions as a concluding and compiling part of the book. Ohi suggests here that even though the life of Strether, the protagonist of The Ambassadors, evokes James's own life, it is not because of the representation of a failed life or homoerotic desire, but because "belatedness is an experience of becoming, of the becoming Deleuze calls 'a life'" (169).
Defining life as becoming, Kevin Ohi opens a philosophical debate on queerness, psychoanalysis and identity studies in Henry James and the Queerness of Style. While the drawback of the book is the lack of exposition at times, one can suggest that it is in congruity with the style that the book itself discusses. Ohi's book, with its rigorous arguments, close readings and complex linguistic strructure, performs belatedness, enabling the meeting of author and reader in the "taking place" of the text.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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