Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mind the Gap

Below is a quote from p. 324 of my edition of Wings of the Dove. For my readers (all two of you...hi Bob, hi Myrna!), I apologize for being as stuck as I have been on Henry James, thereby neglecting all those scintillating articles I'd planned to write on Thousand Island dressing and cribbage. The Wings of the Dove is just so....domineering. Really it's more like a landscape than a novel: I'm hiking it, and I keep stopping to look at this interesting rock, or that noisy streamlet. Plus my view keeps changing every twenty steps or so, so that I can never quite get the full sense of the place.

OK, so interesting rock #346:

"That produced a relation which required a name of its own, an intimacy of consciousness in truth for each- an intimacy of eye, of ear, of general sensibility, of everything but tongue."

I like this quote. It also makes me squirm a little. I think both reactions are rooted in the way the passage points up the gap -sometimes narrow, sometimes wide- between what you think and what you say.

Backing up a little, I once took an introductory linguistics course in which either the professor or the textbook -both were vaguely dusty- kept hammering home the assertion that thoughts and words were distinct. This word/thought separation is the gateway drug for Chomskian linguistics: if your thoughts presage your words, then they're free to be fed into a neat little grammar machine and packaged for display.

For a long time, this assertion irritated me. This was probably because it was so alien to my own experience of consciousness (ugh, I just used the phrase "experience of consciousness." That dies here) which pretty much amounted to a lot of words rattling around in my skull. Over the years, though, I've reconsidered. Just because a thought is couched in words doesn't mean it's not a thought. After all, there's a difference between the sentences in my head and the ones that come out of my mouth.

Anyway, the more I tromp through The Wings of the Dove, the more convinced I am that the heart of the novel beats in that flexible space between what's thought and what's said. No one in James's world says what they mean; all social interaction is an intricate campaign wherein words are marshaled, vetted, and deployed in the service of intention. Moreover, the "intimacy....of everything but tongue" described by James seems to be most characters' social ideal: interaction is considered "beautiful" when full communication is achieved using only a few well-chosen (and often superficially irrelevant) words.

In short, James likes his gap wide. In this, he's atypical for an American. We're a nation, after all, that likes its politicians and cultural leaders straightforward and none too smart. Americans tend to distrust people with large gaps, deeming them calculating, devious, or worse. Small-gap folks, with their more immediate transfer of thought to mouth, are more reassuring.

I have mixed feelings. Although I'm more than a little alarmed at the monstrosity our small-gap bias has wrought in the voting booth, large-gap people do have a tendency to make me nervous. If I'm honest with myself, I'd guess that this is because, as a person with a larger gap than I'd like, I know just how much can fall into the crevice between what you think and what you say. Not that large-gap folks can't be talkers; it's just that there's always room for one or more operations between impulse and act, thought and word. Large gaps mean adulteration, modification, guile.

At the same time, though, there's a tricky beauty to it, some quality that James, with his tongueless intimacy, was trying to describe. You see the crown of the tree but not the roots; the fruit but not the vine. You see only part of something and so you look closer, imagine deeper, think long...trip and fall headfirst over the interesting rock. Ah, well.

1 comment:

Kivie said...

3 readers. 3.