Slavoj Zizek Really Knows His Henry James

In his 2006 book Parallax View, philosopher/psychoanalyst/radical left preacher Slavoj Zizek goes for literary criticism. And, unsurprisingly, he’s good.

Referring to Chapter 38 of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, Zizek cites what he describes as James’ supreme achievement, starting with a passing remark which “through its strategic placing at the novel’s end, functions as a point de capiton which ‘quilts’ its meaning… with a direct jump in medias res, to the Hitchcockian object.” This is James’ extract:

‘She had laid on the table from the moment of her coming in the long envelope, sub- stantially filled, which he had sent her enclosed in another of still ampler make. He had however not looked at it—his belief being that he wished never again to do so; besides which it had happened to rest with its addressed side up. So he “saw” nothing, and it was only into her eyes that her remark made him look, declining any approach to the object indicated. “It’s not ‘my’ seal, my dear; and my intention—which my note tried to express—was all to treat it to you as not mine.”’

Zizek later explains, with some psycho-muddling. His style is difficult (he may be the most esoteric writer alive; maybe one of the few esoteric writers alive) but keep that opening line of description (“She had laid on the table from the moment of her coming in the long envelope, sub- stantially filled, which he had sent her enclosed in another of still ampler make”) in mind:

Here the object is clearly established in its “Hitchcockian” quality, as the materialization of an intersubjective libidinal investment—note the key sentence: “So he‘saw’nothing, and it was only into her eyes that her remark made him look, declining any approach to the object indicated”; this directly presents the object as the relay of an intersubjec- tive tension. Such an object is never possessed: we do not manipulate it, it is the object itself which determines what we are, its possession affects us in an uncontrollable way. Note the paradigmatically Jamesian “unnatural” syntactic order (not the standard “She had laid on the table the long envelope from the moment of her coming in . . .”or,even more, “From the moment of her coming in, she had laid on the table the long enve- lope . . .”):in order to create a proto-Hitchcockian suspense, the object—the libidinal focal point—is named only at the end, its appearance is delayed. Furthermore, the first fast reading creates a grammatical confusion:one tends to read the sentence as “She had laid on the table [from the moment of her coming] in the long envelope,” giving rise to a nonsensical quasi-surrealist scene of Kate herself wrapped up in the long envelope on the table; only after reaching the end of this passage—upon registering the nonsense of the outcome of our first reading, and rereading it—do we get the proper meaning. The elegance of this complication is that it shifts the emphasis from the person (Kate) to the object (the letter). Not only is this object Hitchcockian; we can also easily visu- alize this paragraph as a scene in a Hitchcock film: first the exchange of gazes; only then, slowly, does the camera approach the object, the focal point of the scene . . .

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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