Double Consciousness Essay
Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, which Henry James was undoubtedly referencing in his eponymous novel, is a fascinating model because it contains the germs of a peculiar representation of the double and of some of the motifs associated with this theme: distortion, metamorphosis, liminality and perspectival relativity. At a first glance, the painting displays a simple referential correspondence between its title and the represented subject: it is a portrait of two men, the ambassadors.
However, the beholder’s perception is complicated by the indeterminate form emerging in the foreground. This form represents an anamorphosis, it is actually a skull whose contours can be perceived only from a specific position. This image destabilizes the determinacy of portrait representation. As in a game of distorting mirrors, the figures of the ambassadors seem to have been transformed, turned inside out and reduced to this extremely disturbing figuration of death.
In similar manner, the theme of double consciousness in Henry James’ The Ambassadors and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is put into stage through an intricate play on perspective and vision, aiming to capture the deployment of a fissured double structure of consciousness. Louis Lambert Strether, the protagonist of The Ambassadors, is torn between the exactitude and myopic vision of Puritanical New England and what he believes to be the openness and perspectival amplitude of the European model.
This scission is also rendered in topographical terms as the two continents – North America and Europe – become the epitomes of these radically divergent modes of consciousness. In The Blithedale Romance, double consciousness is dramatized in terms of Mister Coverdale’s oscillation between the safety and pleasure of his life at home and the utopian ambitions of the return to nature at Blithedale. Significantly enough, these two dimensions of the self are allegorized through the juxtaposition of two different spaces: the city, where the plot begins, and the countryside.
This paper will argue that double consciousness has the role, in both novels, to enact the characters’ transformation by immersing them in a series of representations which have many affinities with the device of anamorphosis – distortions, deceiving perspectives and liminality. The transformative and metamorphic nature of the exploration into consciousness is rendered, in both novels, through the central role given to the motif of the threshold, or of the liminal space which acts as a trigger and signifier of the protagonists’ journey into self-discovery.
The Ambassadors is framed as the beginning of a journey, starting in a place of transition. Similarly, Coverdale becomes aware of the dangers of the two extreme modes of consciousness – materialism and transcendence – only the moment he constructs a third place for himself, the “hermitage”, again a liminal space which puts into perspective the two dimensions of the self. The first part of the paper will focus on Henry James’ novel and on the functions of Strether’s double consciousness.
This motif will also be analyzed from the perspective of space and of the implications of the externalization of the interior world. The second part of this paper will provide an analysis of double consciousness in Hawthorne’s novel in terms of the protagonist’s considerations on the materialism versus transcendentalism dichotomy, as well as of the spatialization of this opposition. Double Consciousness in The Ambassadors In her article entitled “James’ Spectacles: Distorted Vision in The Ambassadors”, Hazel Hutchinson suggested that:
Strether’s glimpse through the lens of the aesthetic can be read as a demonstration that there is more than one way of seeing, thereby opening up a bewildering range of possible perspectives, undercutting Victorian objectivity. The fact that James himself was experiencing changes in his own eyesight at this time suggests that his fascination with vision and perspective in his mature fiction was grounded in personal experience and that it also fueled the relative view of reality that emerges in his late writing.
The hologram effect that William describes in this passage suggests an outlook in which objective presence has disappeared or is displaced and is represented only by an illusion of lights, mirrors, and lenses. In this article, Hutchinson makes an explicit reference to the device of anamorphosis in order to discuss the play on perspective and vision in Henry James’ novel. Before proceeding to the analysis of the function of double consciousness in the novel it is therefore useful to understand the connections that Henry James is implicitly making between appearance and reality, perception and understanding.
Distorted or blurry vision is certainly a powerful device in the novel and it is associated with the hero’s incapacity to yet grasp the realities of his mind and of the world: “His eyes were so quiet behind his eternal nippers that they might almost have been absent without changing his face without changing his face, which took its expression mainly, and not least its stamp of sensibility, from other sources, surface and grain and form. ” This passage alludes to the identity between eyes and lenses and to the implied distortion of mediated vision.
Moreover, James problematized the differences between appearance and reality from the outset, pointing to Strether’s specific moment of “illumination”: Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which literally was beginning there and then. It had begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharp survey of the elements of Appearance that he had for a long time been moved to make.
This paragraph is highly suggestive because it marks the beginning of Strether’s introspection and places the character on a threshold – between past and future, appearance and reality. The mirror, like the lenses, functions to prompt the quest of the self and the questioning of the correspondence between exteriority and interiority (as in Holbein’s painting, the representation of the self can achieve varying figurations depending on perspective, angle or optical distortion).
According to William James, the Empirical Self “comprises the Material Self (one’s body and possessions), Social Self (how one is recognized by others), and Spiritual Self (one’s mental dispositions and stream of consciousness)” . At the beginning of the novel, Strether is still lacking a clearly-shaped spiritual self. Henry James gives a detailed description of the material and social selves (this explains the insistence on recognition in the first part of the novel).
The richness of detail of the two selves and the scarcity of references to a possible spiritual dimension hint to the fact that this will be the goal of the journey into self-discovery which Miss Gostrey is prompting after recognition takes place. Moreover, the material self is associated in James’ novel to Woollett and America, whereas Strether’s social self appears almost only in relation to people he encounters in Europe. Therefore, the spiritual self will have to be found somewhere in-between, in a space which reconciles the two.
From the beginning of the novel, Maria identifies herself as a “guide”, who will help Strether find this reconciliatory breach. Strether’s double consciousness can be defined, as Courtney Johnson Jr. suggests, as a series of binaries: “a conflict of impulses and duty or of sensibility and moral doctrine”. However, Strether’s duplicity is even more profound than this, as Maria remarks: “The green cover won’t – nor will any cover avail with me. You’re of a depth of duplicity!
” One of the most telling passages regarding the baffling presence of two opposite states of consciousness occurs in Book 4 when Strether visits Chad the second time: Strether couldn’t imagine; but still –! “Even when the woman’s good? ” Again she laughed out. “Yes, and even when the man is! There’s always a caution in such cases,” she more seriously explained – “for what it may seem to show. There’s nothing that’s taken as showing so much here as sudden unnatural goodness. ” “Ah then you’re speaking now,” Strether said, “of people who are not nice.
” “I delight,” she replied, “in your classifications”. Although he is a bit taken aback by Maria’s unexpected perspectives, Strether begins to fill in the gaps, he starts seeing the possibility of these solutions which are nothing but actualizations of apparently irreconcilable modes of consciousness. These opposites are organized in this passage on a surface/depth axis articulating the division between a shifting and unreliable worldly appearance (the social self) and a more profound and stable force which can be given by self-awareness.
It is at this point in the novel that Strether seems to begin to understand that the solution lies in finding a way to reconcile immutability with transience. As stated earlier, the experience of confronting one’s consciousness and selves is an experience of the threshold, it occurs somewhere in-between past selves and (potential) future selves. In this sense, this act also implies a transgression or transcendence as the etymology of the word “liminality” suggests: The term “liminality” – from the Latin limen, threshold, alludes also to limes, which means limit or border.
Liminality, thus, contains ambiguous, self-contradictory senses. […] Liminal is the ambiguous space both of separation and of a passageway from one area to another. Like a gate, it implies the existence of an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’: it lets you in and out and it locates in between. The rhetorical term that defines it is aporia, from the Greek aporos, which literally means ‘without passage’. It conveys the insight that there is no easy way out of a logical confusion over the truth of a proposition or the bewilderment in the discovery that we stand at the border between two imaginary or real countries.
The motif of the threshold, especially if we consider its etymological significance, appears to be entirely fit to describe Strether’s state of mind throughout the novel, in his passage from blindness towards the self to self-acknowledgement. Significantly, one of the marked moments of this self-realization occurs in a special space, a liminal, sacred space which hints to the transcendental order of the metamorphosis: the Notre Dame Cathedral, “a certain other place” as James phrases it. The entrance in the cathedral is carefully prepared by the author as Strether’s moment of independence and as his relative indifference towards the events.
The space of the cathedral is marked as different from all the other exterior spaces, as the only place capable of inducing the character to see and feel himself: […] for he could feel while there what he couldn’t elsewhere, that he was a plain tired man taking the holiday he had earned. He was tired, but he wasn’t plain – that was the pity and the trouble of it; he was able, however, to drop his problem at the door very much as if it had been the copper piece that he had deposited, on the threshold, in the receptacle of the inveterate blind beggar.
He trod the long dim nave, sat in the splendid choir, paused before the clustered chapels of the east end, and the mighty monument laid upon him its spell. He might have been a student under the charm of a museum – which was exactly what, in a foreign town, in the afternoon of life, he would have liked to be free to be. This form of sacrifice did at any rate for the occasion as well as another; it made him quite sufficiently understand how, within the precinct, for the real refugee, the things of the world could fall in abeyance.
That was the cowardice, probably, to dodge them, to beg the question, not to deal with it in the hard outer light. […] Justice was outside, in the hard light, and injustice too; but one was as absent as the other from the air of the long aisles and the brightness of the many altars. It is at this point that Strether begins to be aware of the two levels of consciousness as well as of the way to a possible synthesis between them. In this passage, the cathedral literally becomes liminal in the sense of overcoming a difficulty and of transcending a limit.
Strether seems to have finally found a way to reconcile the opposites that are so much disturbing him. As he concludes his musings, he realizes that the world outside, the real world is made of such contrasting realities and the key is for him to realize and adapt to them. It is probably no coincidence that Strether’s discovery of his “spiritual self” occurs in a sacred space, Henry James hinting to the close connection between the outcome of the reconciliation between Strether’s two dichotomic selves and the sacral background.
From now on, Strether’s task will be the realization in his every-day life of this newly-acquired knowledge. His actions will change significantly after the cathedral episode: he will become more reticent and restrained, more contemplative than active, one could say, more at peace with himself and the world around him. As Courtney Johnston explains, “gradually the person begins to function less by commands of the ego, mind, desire, or intellect bounded by intellectual needs and concerns, and more by nature as a whole, that is, the laws of nature, which are universal.
” The ultimate proof of the transformation is given in Strether’s last encounter with Marie, in which he seems to have been able to transcend the status of student, becoming in this instance the one who instructs. Double consciousness is dramatized in the novel also in the guise of two continents – America and Europe – and these symbolizations give another dimension to Strether’s opposites. As Robert Emmet Long explains: His (James’) first distinction is that of America and Europe, but their meaning is deepened by other distinctions.
America comes to stand for mind, law and moral order while Europe represents imagination and freedom. […] Almost immediately on arriving in England, the note of Europe is sounded or Strether in a sense of freedom unknown to him before. In this recently achieved distance from Woollett, Strether suddenly has an intuition of the limitations of his former life in New England […] However right that may be, it is also important to note that Strether’s transformation comes about during a journey, as he is a traveller – a status of transition par excellence.
Another important dimension of the character’s double consciousness is resolved in his ambassadorship. The failure of his mission signifies the success of his achieving the spiritual self. For the Strether who had set out from Woollett with the specific aim of bringing Chad back, the failure of this mission would have also signified his personal disaster because his social self would have been compromised. For the newly-created Strether, who has acquired the spiritual dimension of his persona, letting go is a redemptive act.
Double Consciousness in The Blithedale Romance While the exploration of double consciousness has a complex and intricate texture in Henry James’ novel, in The Blithedale Romance it is resolved in more clear-cut terms as the hero’s oscillation between transcendentalism and materialism and between the city and the countryside. The similarities between the two works consist in the insistence on the gap between appearance and reality and in the play on deceiving perspectives.
In Hawthorne’s novel, both extreme figurations are undermined by the counterfeit nature of representation: the idyllic pastoral and attempt at transcendentalism is actually an escapist game of personages from the city who, far from the displayed freshness and innocence of an utopian society, are burdened by a troubled past. Caught in the middle of this jeu de masques – but certainly not a central part of it – the narrator, Miles Coverdale is called, like Strether, to find his own identity.
In this case too, the solution lies in the reconciliation of the two contraries and this metamorphic process is realized, as in The Ambassadors, through the character’s creation of a liminal space of his own. Transcendentalism versus Materialism The reconciliation between transcendentalism and materialism or, rather, the quest for a middle ground between the two, was one of the chief concerns of Hawthorne’s time and also one of the main targets of William James’ theory:
The mystical quest for intimacy and union was both deeply rooted in William James the man and endemic to his era, which felt threatened by the seemingly meaningless, impersonal world that had become the professed official view of science since the rise of the “new physics” in the seventeenth century. It seems as if everyone in New England in the second half of the nineteenth century had been inoculated by the Concord bacilli of mystical transcendentalism as an immunization against this threat.
Along Peirce and Dewey, James made the overcoming of this pernicious bifurcation between man and nature the chief goal of his philosophy. The resolution of this conflict between science and nature seems to have been on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mind too when he wrote The Blithedale Romance. The novel is narrated by Coverdale, a first person narrator who is attempting to offer his perspective on a remarkable series of events which he has witnessed in the making of the Blithedale falanstery: From the outset, Blithedale is described in idyllic terms, hinting to the utopian implications of the enterprise:
Paradise, indeed! Nobody else in the world, I am bold to affirm – nobody, at least, in our bleak little world of New England – has dreamed of Paradise, that day, except as the pole suggests the topic. Nor, with such materials as were at hand, could the most skilful architect have constructed any better imitation of Eve’s bower, than might be seen in the snow-hut of an Esquimaux. But we made a summer of it, in spite of the wild drifts.
In the preface to The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne was noting that he had been interested in creating a space that brings together reality and illusion, hence the intentionality of reconciliation is clear from the outset. Coverdale’s double consciousness is revealed in two stages, first as he undergoes the transformation from materialism to transcendentalism after his illness and secondly, as we will see later, as he begins to grasp the shortcomings of the utopian model of society and starts creating a world of his own.
In a first moment, he is “awakened” to the marvels of country life in the falansterian community: I was now on my legs again. My fit of illness had been an avenue between two existences; the low-arched and darksome doorway, through which I crept out of a life of old conventionalisms, on my hands and knees, as it were, and gained admittance into the freer region that lay beyond. In this respect, it was like death.
And, as with death, too, it was good to have gone through it. No otherwise could I have rid myself of a thousand follies, fripperies, prejudices, habits and other such worldly dust as inevitably settles upon the crowd along the broad highway, giving them all one sordid aspect, before noontime, however freshly they may have begun their pilgrimage, in the dewy morning. After a long time spent in bed, Coverdale is finally embracing the benefits of the community living.
However, Hawthorne is implying that country living and poetry are irreconcilable as the protagonist, once he becomes involved in the every-day activities at Blithedale, gradually begins to forsake his more artistic interests: “I am afraid you did not make a song to-day, while loading the hay-cart,” said she, “as Burns did, when he was reaping barley. ” “Burns never made a song in haying time,” I answered, very positively. “He was no poet while a farmer, and no farmer while a poet. ” “And, on the whole, which of the characters do you like best? ” asked Zenobia.
“For I have an idea that you cannot combine them, better than Burns did. Coverdale’s double consciousness is also symbolized and embodied through the characters of Zenobia and Priscilla, the former pertaining to the countryside ideal of return to nature, the latter representing the pale, mysterious female ideal of poets. The identification of Coverdale’s double consciousness with these characters is quite problematic, given the layers of disguise masking them. Zenobia, on the one hand, although she stands for the perfect robust and healthy country woman at Blithedale, is actually a member of the high society in the city.
Moreover, even the disguise she displays at Blithedale is undermined by the exotic flower she puts in her hair which comes in stark opposition with the surrounding New England nature, but which hints to her status in the city and acts as a reminder of the artificiality of the representation. Priscilla, on the other hand, who appears to be the incarnation of purity and innocence is identified by Zenobia as none other than the mysterious Veiled Lady, who had been the object of general interest before the group’s departure to Blithedale.
Through the equation between Coverdale’s double consciousness with these two ladies, Hawthorne is undermining both extremes and prepares the ground for the finding of a middle ground. City versus countryside With the deconstruction of the transcendentalism versus materialism dichotomy, comes the suspension of the city versus country-side division which the narrator had clearly instituted at the beginning of the novel: What, in the name of common-sense, had I to do with any better society than I had always lived in! It had satisfied me well enough.
My pleasant bachelor-parlor, sunny and shadowy, curtained and carpeted, with bed-chamber adjoining; my centre-table, strewn with books and periodicals; […] Was it better to how, to mow, to toil and moil amidst the accumulations of a barn-yard, to be chambermaid of two yoke of oxen and a dozen cows, to eat salt beef and earn it with the sweat of my brow, and thereby take the tough morsel out of some wretch’s mouth, into whose vocation I had thrust myself? Above all, was it better to have a fever, and die blaspheming, as I was like to do?
At this point in the novel, Coverdale is still oscillating between his “material self”, epitomized by his life in the city and his “social self” which will find its full expression in his interactions with the people at Blithedale. However, as the idyllic picture of the society of Blithedale begins to be contaminated by tokens of materialism – the implication that Hollingworth is entertaining Zenobia with the purpose of using her money for his philanthropist project – Coverdale finds it difficult to believe in the promises of the utopian society.
This is the trigger for the character’s realization of his “spiritual self” which will occur, as in Henry James’ novel, in a liminal space, neither within the confines of the falansterian society, nor in the city. The description of this space of transition towards achieving the spiritual self has clear connotations of transformation and transcendence: A hollow chamber, of rare seclusion, had been formed by the decay of some of the pine-branches, which the vine had lovingly strangled with its embrace, burying them from the light of day in the aerial sepulchre of its own leaves.
It cost me but little ingenuity to enlarge the interior, and open loop-holes through the verdant walls. […] It was an admirable place to make verses, tuning the rhythm to the breezy symphony that so soften stirred the vine-leaves. […] This hermitage was my one exclusive possession, while I counted myself a brother of the socialists. It symbolized my individuality, and aided me in keeping it inviolate. None ever found me in it except, once, a squirrel. I brought thither no guest, because, after Hollingsworth had failed me, there was no longer the man alive with whom I could think of sharing all.
So there I used to sit, owl-like, yet not without liberal and hospitable thoughts. This passage has many affinities with the Notre Dame cathedral episode in The Ambassadors. The achievement of the “spiritual self” coincides, for both characters with the immersion in a special space, a secluded and transitional space which, if it does not necessarily reconcile the two antagonist facets of the protagonists’ selves, it nevertheless offers the propitious solution of a third space, in tune with their inner selves.
This demonstrates the fact that the achievement of the spiritual self takes the shape of a reconciliatory quest for the coincidence of contraries and that this reconciliation necessarily takes place only through the passage through a space of transition. Another common trait between the two metanoic experiences is that both Strether and Coverdale achieve the “spiritual self” only in solitude, without any “prompts”. It is only by assuming and coming to terms with this intimate self that reality can be fully grasped by the two protagonists and that all the veils of deception are taken apart.
Hawthorne’s novel, in its explicit problematization of the materialism versus transcendentalism dichotomy, exposes the dangers of both and establishes a middle ground where the conflicts can be resolved. Conclusion This paper has sought to demonstrate that the experience of double consciousness in Henry James’ The Ambassadors and in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, is an experience of the threshold which the protagonists undergo after a series of plays on perspective and (optical) illusions which resemble the anamorphosis in the Holbeinian intertext.
Henry James’ novel is a complex development on the key-notion of double consciousness. As can be inferred from the tribute to Holbein’s painting, James envisages his character’s consciousness through an elaborate play on the concept of representation which is problematized through the motifs of mirrors and lenses, which pervade the novel. These motifs help destabilize the determinacy of character portraiture, especially as concerns the interiority versus exteriority (assumed) equivalence.
Moreover, these devices also act as triggers to the protagonist’s journey into self-exploration. The theme of deception is also present in Hawthorne’s novel and, as in The Ambassadors, but in a more straightforward manner subverts the two extreme modes of consciousness. In The Blithedale Romance the two modes of consciousness are less ambiguously defined and they coincide with the idealist and materialist uptakes of the world. The game of appearances and masks, when superposed on these two worlds, reveals the fallacies of both doctrines.
Both Hawthorne and James depicted the double consciousness in very similar terms to William James’ “empirical self”. Thus, both Strether and Coverdale are presented, at the beginning of the novels, only in their “material” and “social” selves with little, if any, reference to the “spiritual self”. This is a significant absence and it informs the reader the characters’ quest will be the achievement of the spiritual self. This idea should be read in conjunction with the foregrounded contradictions of the worlds and situations the characters become entangled in at the beginning of the novels.
It implies that the achievement of this third dimension of the spiritual self comes as a response to binary systems of thought and should therefore provide the felicitous solution and reconciliation. Finally, both authors seem to associate the moment of the characters’ reconciliation of their dichotomic selves with a special kind of spatialization, which can be defined as a space of transition, in which the protagonists overcome the difficulties of their fissured consciousness.
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