"She had a sad, soft, pale face, which (and it was the effect of her whole head) looked as if it had been soaked, blurred, and made vague by exposure to some slow dissolvent. The long practice of philanthropy had not given accent to her features; it had rubbed out their transitions, their meanings. The waves of sympathy, of enthusiasm, had wrought upon them in the same way in which the waves of time finally modify the surface of old marble busts, gradually washing away their sharpness, their details." Henry James, The Bostonians (1886)
I've been writing about ecstasy and de-composition in James's prefaces, with an effort to lead up to this moment in The Bostonians, where the dis-figuring force of enthusiasm is on display in the exposed face of Miss Birdseye. After multiple efforts, I'm still trying to say something about the pathos of this moment (it strikes me as particularly a "moment," engaged as it is with questions of historicity, monuments, with the analogy of time). It is parodic, no doubt, but from within the parody it registers a double loss: if Miss Birdseye is a monument to mid-century reform fervor gone defunct or dysfunctional in the post-Reconstruction era, the monument itself is compromised, de-composed, eroded. The body that stands in for history is fragile, worn, disfigured, at risk--a move that could signal the conservatism of the novel, its alignment with defunct or dysfunctional ideas of privacy. But that the realist narrative cleaves in such detail to the lack of detail--that it offers a portrait that so strikingingly undoes itself as portrait--makes me think otherwise. Miss Birdseye's exposure (like the various exposures and confessions at work in the prefaces) signals a certain tendency towards dissolution (c.f. James's professed fondness for Miss Birdseye, "the best figure in the book" despite her "essential formlessness"). Another thread here--a thread I need to pick up (this is also a piece about ficelles, thread, fringe, boundaries, textiles)--has to do with the stillness of statuary and the wave-like work of enthusiasm. As Barbara Johnson notes, a monument "is supposed to confer on a memory the immortality that only inanimate things can possess." Miss Birdseye's enthusiasm introduces corruption, but it also undoes the stillness of statuary, of type-casting or molding--character becomes possible via a certain corruptibility (c.f. Pygmalion; Frankenstein; James's tenderness towards his "monstrous" little texts).
I wonder, too, about the loss of detail here; Miss Birdseye remains a detail in the text, notable for her very formlessness but also highly accessory in the novel (and highly accessorized: the glasses that keep sliding down her nose, the hat that keeps falling off--as if the body itself ceased to be a fixture). I wonder about the gendering of the detail, whether gender and form come together in the analogy between the body and the text that James is quite fond of...
and this brings me to skin. The skin that melts, that fails to hang together, the skin that stays a skin in the discourse of the realist novel (and not, for example, a mask or an index--c.f. Anne Cheng's recent work on modernist skin). Realism's investment in the legibility of character (c.f. Leo Bersani's The Freudian Body) demands a move beneath or beyond the surface. Ecstasy manifested at the level of skin does something different, puncturing the surface (as a boundary or a threshold) but refusing to open onto some more instructive interiority (ex-stasis, beside the self, an ethics of tangentiality or facing, of the face to face). Exposing the face in its constant erosion, James makes a very anti-phrenological, anti-symptomatic move; he insists on the wearing away of the surface itself, on the process that marks the "public"-ness of interaction and relation. If James worked to parody "the obliteration of any idea of privacy" in this novel of the feminist movement, he also more radically aligned realism not with a hermetic, gender-specific domesticity but with its exposure and erosion (is it that?), with the threshold or the skin, the compromised and corrupted body.