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The villainous empath


Wayne Booth’s book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, appeared in 1961 – a year of Cold War promise. It became one of the references for the exploration of fiction by a New Criticism that was organized to explicate poetry.

Booth used tools of both New Criticism and the traditional philology of sources – notebooks, letters – to explicate (a word tendered in the classroom to gently initiate the vaguely astonished, note-taking, crewheaded rows into the arcana of literature) the novel. Among the canon that passed through his hands was The Aspern Papers. I’ve been re-reading the Aspern Papers, thinking about its highly nasty narrator, and I’ve turned to the explicators for some discussion. Booth’s notion is that James set himself a rather impossible task – an irresolvable double-focused task: on the one hand, the goal of the Aspern Papers is to obtain material – letters especially – from a poet of the romantic period, a sort of American Shelley, from his now aged and dying lover, Juliana Bordereau – and on the other hand, in order to accomplish his task, he has to stoop to various deceits strongly reminiscent of a con-man.

“We have here, then, two neatly distinct subjects. There is a plot, the narrator’s unscrupulous quest for the papers and his ultimate frustration; it is a plot that requires an agent of a particular insensitive kind. There is secondly a “picture”, an air or an atmosphere, a past to be visited and record with all the poetic artistry at James’ command.”

To me, the comedy of Booth’s point comes in with that “insensitive”. There, in that word, we find summoned a whole ideology of the golden era of the University and the humanities: the notion that scoundrels are, by their nature, insensitive. And that comedy came to be exploited over and over again, starting with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and ending with the novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, where the academic sensitives, those who memorize the verses, turn out to be quite as insensitive as Rotary businessmen, becomes a perpetual astonishment.  Booth’s notion here is that conmen, or those unscrupulous enough to manipulate people, through lies and pretences, in order to get what they want, could not possibly exude “pictures” of the high artistry of James, which entails a certain fatal counterfeiting in the confection of his story. To understand and express Venice with such language is the result of climbing Maslow’s ladder – or at least Matthew Arnold’s – where “all the best that is said and done” evidences the highest degree of sensitivity. In a latter phase of the litcrit business, this is labelled empathy and literature is worthy of study in as much as it promotes same. Myself, I think this underestimates entirely what entertainment is about. In a sense, Booth’s discomfort with “The Aspern Papers”  is with a mirror that reflects his own working procedure and self-fashioning as a critic. Though ‘science” has entered into the humanities (the epochē of the author’s life, the formalist attention to the text, etc.), still, “sensitivity”, that echo of an earlier era of connoisseur-ship, remains as the untransformable base. A base that should not be base in the moral sense. And here Booth is confronted, by one of the master texts, with a narrator proposing to use any “baseness” to get hold of Jeffrey Aspern’s private letters to his lover.

Surely, the discrepancy is the flaw in this particular Golden Bowl.

I rather like James’s transformation of the villain – although there is a sense where the villain, since at least Iago’s time, has been the better psychologist than the hero. The path of the villainous empath leads us through all kinds of matters, literary and extraliterary.