Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Notes from my Alice James presentation at the Narrative Conference, Burlington 2004

Radical Invalidism: Narrative Form-ing in Alice James' Letters and Diary

[I opened a too-big door of possibility with this "paper" and for six months now it continues to open up into a larger project. Will most likely be shaped into the critical introduction to my manuscript in my dissertation. More on this to come in future months. I have about thirty pages of material for it or some essay to come. Below are the rough notes for the presentation I gave at the conference; I prefer to read and improvise at panels...I also read from Alice's diary and Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson.]

1. William James wrote the following to his sister Alice after doctors found a tumor in her breast:

Your fortitude, good spirits and unsentimentality have been simply unexampled in the
midst of your of your physical woes; and when you’re relieved from your post, just that bright note will remain behind, together with the inscrutable and mysterious character of the doom of nervous weakness which has chained you down for all those years. (Reference Alice’s diary entries concerning doctor’s diagnosis; her earlier diary entry about William’s psychology)

Alice died a year later cornered, still in her invalidity. William’s letter concretely illustrates the confinement Alice withstood to her body. “To her body” rather than “within her body” is significant. The contrast between the qualities of being as being-confined-to-her-body and being-confined-in-her-body distinguishes a problem left unexplored in writing about Victorian women and their illnesses: hysteria and invalidism. Sick women are presented to readers trapped inside defined bodies they did not construct themselves. Such representations are problematic given that many critiques of sexist culture focus on a conflation of physical and psychological illness—a conflation of bodily pain with mental anguish. For example, a common narrative trope: upon encounters with beauty, hysterical women faint. Alice, in fact, participates in this narrative. [read sections from diary.] Men, not only doctors but also husbands and fathers and brothers—like William to Alice—find ways to explain hysteria through their philosophical, religious and medical faith in the separation of mind and body. This dualism, however, is a problem not a given, and should remain a problem, about what it means to know who we are as distinct thinking individuals. Alice’s hysterical confinement was directed to her body not by an ill mind but by a society whose narratives of hysteria require(d) Alice, in fact, to be immobilized.

Gillian Brown, Empire of Agoraphobia, defines the hysteric as “the preeminent figure of immobility for the nineteenth century…whose strange postures freeze normal bodily motion and activity” (135).

Alice explains her daily dilemma in this manner: The only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity but the duties of doctor, nurse, and straight-jacket imposed on me, too. (October 26, 1890)

Many feminist and medical critiques rely on the definitions of dualism they seek to criticize. I not only hope to promote an image of Alice James using her daily writing in order to form her own body out of a text, exemplifying her form-ing narrative which I will refer to as a corpus Alice James, I criticize a tradition of theory that refuses to allow women like Alice out of the binding, almost contractual, commitments to rigid gender and sex definitions. I think immediately of Emily Dickinson...SH's MED.

2. William’s letter to his sister refers to leaving “just that bright note” as well as a “mysterious character…of…doom.”

Invalids are often characterized as non-productive individuals without agency. Alice’s invalidism, according to William, is productive. She is “chained down” by her nervous weakness, yet she produces a mysterious character. I do not wish to give William too much credit. Though he cared deeply for Alice and relied on her being there, he appears at times nothing more than a teasing patron. He instructs her how she should see herself. Consequently, William figured Alice as a good-spirited, morally strong yet physically weak, and unsentimental woman. That would be the bright note Alice would leave behind.

The mysterious character in her, he relates to the doom of her hysteria. If we examine the anxiety present in William’s letter to Alice—rather than impose a quality onto Alice through projection we can apply the recognition of doom to the one who recognized it as a sign of dread—a fear of death—we can reasonably claim that Alice’s mysterious character may be in direct, active and open conflict with the character William, and others in her community, impose on her body.

3. mind/body issues:

Alice’s mind, after her diary, is quite involved with her surroundings and actively engaged with her so-called invalid body. Such a resilience of mind and body together is more likely a source of her alienation from society and of William’s implied dread concerning her mysterious character. The doom he recognizes in her is more appropriately tied to his philosophies than to her being. So, let us address her being, then.

[The first entry from her diary]

During her adult life, Alice was either physically alone or struggling with solitude itself. Out of her struggle with solitude she cultivated a space to create a master narrative for her self. We should appreciate such work, which is the fundamental work of literature and, for Alice, the creation of a radical invalidism.

[define Rad Inv and compare/contrast to W's Rad Empiricism]

Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, explores the solitude any work of literature conducts:

In the solitude of the work—the work of art, the literary work—we discover a more essential solitude. It excludes the complacent isolation of individualism; it has nothing to do with the quest for singularity. He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed. He who is dismissed…doesn’t know it.

We want to focus on the being alone Alice accomplishes when we listen to her story. Narratives of loneliness are important tales in popular discourse meant to instruct the individual about the validity in everyday, public being. Such narratives a steadily stretched along an authentic historicality of being towards death (Heidegger.) Alice, as an invalid (I hope you will allow me to footnote a lengthy discussion involved with the word multiple meanings implied with invalid) was not permitted to participate and quite often could not physically cope with public life. She was physically alone.

In popular, biographical portraits about her life many tales of seclusion, solitude and loneliness are told. Jean Strouse’s significant bio includes a chapter simply titled "Alone." Alice's literary work and the essential solitude such work uncovers as it resists the isolation of the individual is not a monument to being alone; it is not simply a title or casement. Such a monument would fundamentally define her as a woman who cannot keep the facts straight, who cannot pull herself together, and one who merely attempts vainly to profit from her staged invalidity. The weaknesses in her composition as an individual could then be reasonably due to her mental confusion with physical pain. Instead, Alice composes herself radically altering the already present solitude in invalidity. She revises invalidism into the work essential solitude permits a literary artist. Out of her radicalization of invalidism, she produces a distinct body of work. That body of work relies on an essential singularity of mind and body working together in spite of its illnesses that manifest as a united rebellion against representational singularity in the ideal individual.

4. In many ways, Alice’s journal begins as a memorial to solitude. She finds a place alone, a place to be alone, a place to fashion the habit of writing. She takes William’s thesis from his essay “Habit” and makes her “nervous system her ally instead of [her] enemy”. William’s thesis, from his chapter on habit in Psychological Foundations is that “an acquired habit, from the physiological point of view, is nothing but a new pathway of discharge formed in the brain, by which certain incoming currents ever after tend to escape.”

The transition from incoming current to escape is the narrative form-ing that Alice sets out to accomplish with her opening salvo: "I think if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn’t happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me."

the habit
so I may
lose sense
which abides
with me

In the Spring of 1889, Alice left a note behind to create a space within which to work out the bright—shedding light on what does and does not happen—from the dark—coming to terms with the “inscrutable and mysterious character of the doom of nervous weakness.” She continues writing letters. Her correspondence to her friends and family, her visits with close companions, continue alongside her new project. As she works out the difference in a “written monologue by that most interesting being, myself,” she expects to find a few “yet to be discovered consolations.” Many people write in diaries to find unexpected consolations from daily life. The task produces a record of the mundane (but not superficial) character of journaling. As Edel notes in his introduction to her diary, Alice had been keeping a daybook before the 1889 entry we know refer to as the beginning of her diary. In her explicit beginning or opening statements, Alice intends to build a book of her self in order to realize/recognize a corpus Alice James.

[discuss immobility and impermanence]

Dante, similarly, begins his La Vita Nova. When he was ready to share his literary work, his art, with the public, he wrote in his notebooks proofs for his existence as a poet. Alice’s decision to present herself as a writer and to explain her observations and reflections, to develop her ideas, therefore, is a participation in a specific literary tradition that exceeds the formal conventions of the diary or autobiography. [excess] Dante writes as if keeping a notebook. La Vita Nova is an aesthetic treatise written as a poet-already to, for and against other poets.

He begins: "In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed Incipit Vita Nova. Beneath this heading I find the words which it is my intention to copy into this smaller book, or if not all, at least their meaning."

He copies from memory what he recalls, admits forgetfulness, and for that which he cannot remember he will attempt to illustrate meaning. Alice does not merely record facts that happened during the course of her day. She looks at those facts and records them to create meaning. Her diary like Dante’s book marks a beginning for her and is her struggle to order memory. In this manner, Alice creates a self or myself.

5. Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson, asks “How do I, choosing messages from the codes of others in order to participate in the universal theme of language, pull SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE.” (17) Howe doesn’t mention Alice in her study instead uses Emily Bronte...I know she loves Bronte, but Alice is there, too. Howe cites the following Dickinson poem on Identity and Memory.
[read the poem]
[Blanchot “on recourse to the journal” before reading the quote comment on the HE of Blanchot’s discourse. Empty for women/Howe commentary on Dickinson poem.]

In a well-known photograph, Alice rests at her house in Leamington circa 1889-1890. She is on her sofa bed. Her companion, Katharine Loring, stands above her. They are in the distant corner of the room, window to the left. The room is washed in light. Though most certainly staged by Alice, therefore, certainly not candid, the image captures Alice in her corner. It corners her. Captures Alice because she is inside; because she must look out from it and out through the window; because Katharine permanently accompanies her, stands above her as if attending to her both as a nurse to a patient and as a guard to a prisoner. No conversation, not even a gaze between them. Alice looking down at her hands; Katharine looking towards the photographer. Nevertheless, this is Alice’s production—an image to accompany her narrative. We aid Alice in cultivating her corner, rebuilding it each time we read her writing from it.

Gaston Bachelard explores corners in The Poetics of Space:

Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.

Alice’s life, after her breakdown at nineteen, is a series of retreating into corners. The photograph from the Leamington house is only one corner of many possible corners but is likely the ideal corner—in other words, a corner staged.

6. When William expresses his love for Alice and discusses what she will leave behind—what she distinguishes in the world between light and dark—he unconsciously looks to Alice’s corner. She occupies a corner where the light spills into her corner and the image. She is spatially associated with the light-source for the camera. When William looks for her, he finds her there. He tries to see her the way he needs her to be—always at tension with the way she will allow herself to be seen. He stabilizes his view and captures her like a camera captures its image. His eulogy to her is one wall dark, the other light. The two meet at her. From her corner, she writes out to him but also in repose for him.

According to Bachelard, “the corner is a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly—immobility. It is the sure place, the place next to my immobility” (137). [more on impermanence and immobility: light-source] The place next to a woman’s immobility in the late nineteenth century might very well be impermanence. Words, immobility and impermanence, characterize concrete gender conventions for women. From hygiene guides to women’s literature, from daily dress and proper posture to what and when to study, women were cornered and flexible. In Alice’s case, however, her corner was a prop from her vision of immobility and thus allowed her to form a narrative regardless of permanence.

7. Alice’s corner is unique to her because it allows her to present herself as she is; provides her a place to project her being out into the space of her room; to create a complex narrative; moreover, from her corner, her looking at her hands rather than at us through the photographic image or even out of the window is a kind of anamorphosis; her immobility alters how we are able to see her, possibly how we desire to see her and is, therefore, dependent on her presence. [problem with ecriture: author's present absence: Alice's death: etc] In addition, her corner provides those who depend upon Alice with a specific justification for who they wish to be in reference to her. She cannot back off from their approach.

[December 2, Barnum monstrosity]

8. In her response to William’s letter, Alice offers her older brother the ideal example of pragmatic living in the form of radical being.

She instructs:
But you must believe that you greatly exaggerate the tragic element in my commonplace little journey; & so far from ever having thought that “my frustrations were more flagrant than the rule”, I have always simmered complacently in my complete immunity therefrom….I always rejoiced that my temperament had set for my task the attainment of the simplest rudimentary ideal, which I could carry about in my pocket & work away upon equally in the shower as sunshine, in complete security from the grotesque obstructions supposed to be life…

William’s pragmatism always rests in the intersection between rationalism and empiricism. His radical empiricism is charged by a pragmatic muse looking forward to a concrete subject while turning her back on an abstract object. Alice turns her back on her illness to use it as a prop in order to look out for her brother who uses her as a prop to look out into the world. She creates for William an illusion based on her quiet laboring away in tranquility. William would want Alice to be unsentimental and carefree in the face of illness, to habituate/situate within her a solution to any number of troubling narratives for illness. [hysteria as a dealing with panic; invalidsim as a non-specific, or without location, illness] He would want her not to be immobile yet needs to rely on her impermanence as an individual, namely being his sister. Alice solves the enigma of confinement through writing and moves beyond the need to write.

Blanchot argues:
One only begins to write when, momentarily, through a ruse, through a propitious burst of energy, or through life’s distractions, one has succeeded in evading this impulse which remote control of the work must constantly awake and subdue, protect and avert, master and experience in its unmasterable force. The work draws whoever devotes himself to it toward the point where it withstands its impossibility.

9. [explain role William and Henry play]
Alice offered Henry comfort as well. On March 25th, 1890, she reflects on the empathy she and Henry share for one another. "Henry came on the 10th, and spent the day…He comes at my slightest sign and hangs on to whatever organ may be in eruption and gives me calm and solace by assuring me that my nerves are his nerves and my stomach his stomach."

Alice describes a being together that is dependent on her illness. [not lost in the they; not inauthentic] The sibling-sharing occurs through her invalidity, because of her signification of specific moments as an invalid. From her corner Alice embraces her brother. They cared for each other; they became each other. Apparently, that the illness described is ambivalent and ambiguous—having neither symptom nor cause—is not all that important. “Whatever organ may be in eruption,” Henry and Alice share organs, nerves and bodies alike. Her corpus Alice James becomes relevant, useful and generative, transferrable and textual—a germ; a narrative; a habit.

10. In addition to providing her brothers with both signifier and referent for their ideas—William’s pragmatics and Henry’s germ theory, both generative aspects vital to their literary pursuits—Alice used her corner as a place from which to build a conduit for directing her potentiality [more specific, p for what?].

In her first entry, Alice self-reassuringly comments that writing every day might “bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations, and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins.” Janet Bottom, re: Alice’s intentions as a writer, claims “one of the most noticeable thins about her diary…is that it is not a ‘geyser of emotions’” (Swindells 110). Bottom purposefully oversimplifies in order to make a point about the restraint involved with making a habit of writing. [more on the narrative of restraint this brand of feminist theory relies on for a critique of masculinist culture to be possible. Link to Howe's criticism of Gilbert and Gubar.] Her claim slips into the mode of the confinement of the invalid. Yet, the reclining posture of the immobile invalid Alice practiced and participated in is not the sign of a lack of emotion. [read George Eliot entry on page 40 of diary--Dickinson & Eliot] The posture allows Alice the control she desires over an obvious lack she should represent. She should lack sentiment as William characterizes her. Nevertheless, Alice refuses to use privation as a marker for sexual difference and identity. This refusal narrative, Alice's writing towards a moment of vision, should not be tossed out to justify a reading of Alice as a narrative for theory...more

Her hysteria may have been and may be now ready at hand descriptions for the immobility of the invalid and the sexual panic of the hysteric, yet she uses the space privation opens—its irruption—to move out—to erupt—into the world. The wound lack typically signifies is from where Alice meets her immobility and radiates not-Alice. She creates a geyser of emotions and radiates immobility, the corpus Alice James. Alice worked her way into the role of the hysterical invalid. [frenzy; physicality of such a critique; sexuality or erotics of such moment of vision as self-coding femininity regardless of sexist masculinist cultural narratives; narrative of possibilities; impossibility]

11. Alice often played the part at will for the purpose of gaining attention. [read from diary entries about acting the part of hysteric] For example, she would fall into fits when Katharine Loring would leave to be with her sister, Louisa. Henry joked about this performance. Nevertheless, Alice’s performances provided her the solitude she needed to become an author...

further fragments from
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature.
"on recourse to the journal"
it is perhaps striking that from the moment the work becomes the search for art, from the moment it becomes literature, the writer increasingly feels the need to maintain a relation to himself. His feeling is one of extreme repugnance at losing his grasp upon himself in the interests of that neutral force, formless and bereft of any destiny, which is behind everything that gets written. This repugnance, or apprehension, is revealed by the concern, characteristic of so many authors, to compose what they call their “journal.” (28)

The journal is not essentially confessional; it is not one’s own story. It is a memorial. What must the writer remember? Himself: who he is when he isn’t writing, when he lives daily life, when he is alive and true, not dying and bereft of truth. (29)

The journal indicates that already the writer is no longer capable of belonging to time through the ordinary certainty of action, through the shared concerns of common tasks, of an occupation, through the simplicity of intimate speech, the force of unreflecting habit. He is no longer truly historical; but he doesn’t want to waste time either, and since he doesn’t know anymore how to do anything but write, at least he writes in response to his everyday history and in accord with the preoccupations of everyday life. (29)

"Fascination of time's absence"
to write is to surrender to the fascination of time’s absence. (30)

"approaching literature’s space"
The poem—literature—seems to be linked to a spoken word which cannot be interrupted because it does not speak; it is. The poem is not this word itself, for the poem is a beginning, whereas this word never begins, but always speaks anew and is always starting over. (37)

"the need to write"
one only begins to write when, momentarily, through a ruse, through a propitious burst of energy, or through life’s distractions, one has succeeded in evading this impulse which remote control of the work must constantly awake and subdue, protect and avert, master and experience in its unmasterable force.
the work draws whoever devotes himself to it toward the point where it withstands its impossibility.

experience means renewal of oneself in contact with what has been forgotten in memory

"can I die?"
at first glance, the preoccupation of the writer who writes in order to be able to die is an affront to common sense. . . . No one is sure of dying. No one doubts death, but no one can think of certain death except doubtfully. For to think of death is to introduce into thought the supremely doubtful, the brittleness of the unsure. It is as if in order to think authentically upon the certainty of death, we had to let thought sink into doubt and inauthenticity, or yet again as if when we strive to think on death, more than our brain—the very substance and truth of thought itself—were bound to crumble. (95)

Kahane, Claire. “The Aesthetics and Politics of Rage.” States of Rage: Emotional Eruption, Violence, and Social Change. Eds. Renee R. Curry & Terry L. Allison. New York & London: New York UP, 1996.

although [Alice James] had no public presence during her life nor was she a writer by profession or identity, she is an interesting figure precisely because. . .[she] became primarily the good patient, her body the medium through which she could covertly represent the problematics of her being. When shortly before her death, she took up the pen to write, her writing took the form of a diary, a private voice, to be acknowledged only after her death. (129)

When she does turn her eye on herself, her text resonates with suggestive ambiguities (130)

thinking without great anxiety (131): look above, thinking with anxiety and concentration is a form of producing the space for literature—a form-ing narrative.

[see Alice’s attacks on George Eliot's abject reaction to pain. 40-41 of diary]
if we follow the logic of the imagery, the morbid growth, the mildew and fungus all share the quality of a repugnant parasitic dependence. (132) –see blanchot’s use of repugnance above.

the body as enemy is a trope in the diary (133)

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