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INTRODUCTION | The Figure in the Carpet HENRY JAMES 15 one of the few writers who dared to treat in literary form, in “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896), the thorny and inexhaust- ible question of the relationship between the writer (and therefore the text) and his critics. But far from asserting the critic's powerlessness in the face of literature, whose essential quality necessarily remains beyond his grasp, James affirmed two principles contrary to the ondinary con- ception of literary art: on the one hand, there is indeed an object to be discovered in each work, and this is the legitimate task of criticism; on the other, this “secret” is not something unsayable, some sort of superior and transcendent essence that imposes an ecs phor of the figure, or pattern, in a carpet—"as concrete there,” he em= a bird in a cage, a bait on a hook, a piece of cheese in a ‘mouse trap”—was meant to suggest that there is something to be sought in literature that has not yet been described. Addressing the writer Verecker, whose “ttle point” he confesses has always eluded his powers of hermeneutic subtlety, and the meaning of whose work he confesses never to have understood, James's disap- pointed critic asks: “Just to hasten that difficule birth, can't you give a fellow a clue?” To this Verecker replies that the critic is perplexed only because he has “never had a glimpse” of the “exquisite scheme" d links all his books: “If you had had one the element in question would soon have become practically all you'd see. To me it's exactly as palpable as the marble of this chimney.” His professional honor wounded, the ic silence. James’ meta- +, with great id of esoter lea about life, some sort of philosophy” —per- necessary to search texts for the expression of a deep ng that goes beyond their something in the nae eae in the thought? An element of form or an element of eine) lalaree se embracing the useless dichotemy between form and content. “Unless it be,” the critic grasps in desperation, “some of game you're up to with your style, something you'e after in the Lge Pethaps it’s a preference for the letter P! . . . Papa, pota~ ead sort of thing?”—thus proposing a purely formal “There's wouldn't have idea in my work,” replies the novelist, tt which T raw for the whole job. Its the finest, fallest in tention of the lot.” This, the critic finally succeeds in working out, is something “in the primal plan; something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet." The oh na eee in all their superb icacy” remain—like the yet at the same time invisible. flected, “that’s only because itis a secret in spite of itself. I not only er took the smallest precaution to keep it so, but never dre ich an accident: see aerate . izing the critic and his usual assumptions, “The Figure in the Carpet” invites a rethinking of the whole question of critical perspective and of the aesthetic foundations on which it rests. In his feverish quest for the secret of the writer’s work, it never occurs to James’ critic to mn the nature of the questions that he puts to texts, to reconsider 5 mn, which nonetheless is the very thing that blinds Da eae that every literary work must be de~ scribed as an absolute exception, a sudden, unpredictable, and isolated expression of artistic creativity. In this sense, the literary critic practices a radical monadology: because each work is seen as being unique and irre ducible, a perfect unity that can be measured in relation only to itself, the interpreters obliged to contemplate the ensemble of text that form pi is called the “history of literature" as a random succession of singu- larities. ‘The solution that James proposes to the critic—discerning the “fig- the carpet,” which is to say the pattern that appears only once its ee 4 parent disorder of a complex composition —is to be sought not above tnd beyond the carpet itself, but by looking at it from another point of ew. If one is prepared to shift one’ perspective, to step away from a irticular text in order to examine it in relation to other texts, to try to ect similarities and dissimilarities between them and look for recur~ {fone tries to take in the composition of the icas a coherent design, then it becomes possible perceive the particularity of the pattern that one wishes to make ap= pear. The persistent tendency of critics to isolate texts from one another prevents them fiom seeing in its entirety the configuration (to use Michel Foucault’ term) to which all texts belong: that is, the totality of texts and literary and aesthetic debates with which a particular work of ‘erature enters into relation and resonance, and which forms the true basis for its singul real originality. ‘Understanding a work of literature, then, is a matter of changing the vantage point from which one observes it—of looking atthe carpet a8 2 whole. This is why, to extend James's metaphor, the “superb intricacy” dof the mysterious work finds its expression in the overall pattern—invis- ible and yet there forall to see—of all the literary texts through and against which it has been constructed. On this view, everything that § ‘written, everything that is translated, published, theorized, commented upon, celebrated—all these things are so many elements of a vast com= position. A literary work can be deciphered only on the basis of the Awhole of the composition, for its rediscovered coherence stands revealed only in relation to the entire literary universe of which itis a part, The Singularity of individual literary works therefore becomes manifest only against the background of the overall structure in which they take their place. Each work that is declared to be literary is a minute part of the immense “combination” constituted by the literary world as a whole, “What is apt to seem most foreign to a work of | struction, its form, and its aesthetic singularity, is in reality what gener- ates the text itself, what permits its individual character to stand out the global configuration, or composition, of the carpet—that is, the do main of letters, the totality of what I call world literary space—that Hone is capable of giving meaning and coherence to the very form of individual texts, This space is not an abstract and theoretical construc- tion, but an actual—albeit unseen—world made up by lands of litera- carpet asa whole, to se rodwcion | 3 ture; a world in which what is judged worthy of being considered liter~ ary is brought into existence; a world in which the ways and means of literary art are argued over and decided. In this broader perspective, then, literary frontiers come into view that are independent of political boundaries, dividing up a world that is secret and yet perceptible by all (especially its most dispossessed mem= ritories whose sole value and sole resource is literature, ordered by power relations that nonetheless govern the form of the texts that are i and that circulate throughout these lands; a world that has its its own provinces and borders, in which languages become instruments of power. Each member of this republic struggles to achieve recognition as a writer. Specific laws have been passed freein, from arbitrary po pendent regions. Rival languages compete for dominance; revolutions are always at once literary and political. The history of these events can be fathomed only by recognizing the existence of a literary measure of time, of a “tempo” peculiar to literature; and by recognizing that this world has its own present—the literary Greenwich meridian. ‘My purpose in analyzing the world republic of letters is not to describe icerature, still less to propose an exhaustive and equally impossible critical rereading of it. The aim of this book i to bring about a change of perspective: to describe the literary world “from a certain ‘vantage point,” in the historian Fernand Braudel’ phrase, which to change the point of view of ordinary 10 explore that writers themselves have alway and to show that the Jaws that govern this strange and immense republic—a world of rivalry, struggle, and inequality—help illuminate in often radically new ways even the most widely discussed works, in particular those of some of the greatest literary revolutionaries of the twentieth century—Joyce, Beckett, and Katka, to be sure, but also, among others, Michaux, Ibsen, Cioran, Naipaul, Kis, Faulkner, World literary space as a embody literary history—has traced or described. The ambition of the interna- sm that I propose in the pages that follow is to pro- never been proper! tional literary cri 4 | 1me Wome nerunic oF Lees internal criticism, which looks no further than texts themselves in searching for their meaning, and external criticism, which describes the historical conditions under which texts are produced, without, however, counting for their literary quality and singularity. Ie therefore becomes Jecessary to situate writers and their works in this immense territory, which may be thought of asa sort of spatialized history. Fernand Braudel, as he was preparing to write the economic history the world from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, noted with regret that general works rt area context.” “I am convinced,” he said, “that history benefit immeasurably from comparisons made on the only valid of the world . . . [For] it is easier to make sense of the eco history of the world than of the economic history of Europe edged that the analysis of historical phenomena on a world scale might be thought sufficiently daunting an ise “to discourage the most intrepid and even the most naive."> I shall therefore heed Braudel’ advice in what follows, looking to the ‘rary world as a whole in trying to account for the interdependence of local phenomena, while respecting, his ae eo and modesty lust the same, trying to make sense of a space of such gigantic complex- ea ig abandon all the habits avocated with specaized the divisions between 1 divided view of the disciplines—which, to some extent, justify world—because only by going beyond these boundaries will it be possi- ble to think outside conventional frameworks and to conceive of literary space as a worldwide reality. : Te was a writer and translator, Valery Larbaud, who more than fifty of an “intellectual Interna ‘years ago was the first to hope for the advent ti fearlessness, for a global approach the na- to literary criticism. To his tional habits of thought that create the larity, and above a im. The few attempts that until then had been made to describe world simple juxtaposit textbooks of different national literatures.”” But, he continued, in that the future science of Literature—renoun other than the descriptive—can lead only to the constitution Inmiucion | 5