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The Aspern Papers:

Conjuring Ghosts
By Andrew N. Adler
Copyright 1996 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
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Some moments in The Aspern Papers, when taken out of context, seem at once to betray
a radical undecidability. For example, at one point in his ruminations over the Misses Bordereau,
the narrator exclaims, There was no end to the questions it was possible to ask about them and
no end to the answers it was not possible to frame (183).
In context, however, the hyperbole
becomes more evident as such, for the quoted sentence is immediately preceded by the wry
comment, [The Bordereau women] must once have been young or at least middle-aged.
True, James steeps his short story in mystery; some critics even concede that the sought-
after Aspern papers may not even exist. Still, even recent criticism tries to restrain the
undecidability of the text. Waldmeir declares that, The narrator is reliable in his perceptions and
in his reporting them; he is unreliable in his understanding or interpretation of them (262), while
Falconer writes:
We may suspect the narrator but we trust the text. While we never learn the
whole truth about the papers or the relationship between the sisters the
aesthetic premise, the teleological principle that keeps reader interest alive is that
such matters are knowable; reading consists of progress, admittedly haphazard
and liable to interruption, along a road leading to understanding. (8, 9)
Another scholar details how the narrator shapes events according to his own mania, yet this
scholar discusses a consistent progression of events confirmed by the reader even while the
narrator is incapable of interpreting correctly the very story he elaborates (Gargano 1, 5).
Several other commentators, in refuting Booths position that the use of an unreliable
narrator frustrates James alleged purpose of evoking the poetry of the visitable past, also
uniformly assume that Jeffrey Aspern led a Romantic life and wrote Romantic poetry. These
commentators then discuss whether the narrator is capable of understanding or re-enacting or
Parenthetical numbers unaccompanied by other publication information refer to page numbers in the Signet Classic
edition of The Turn of the Screw & Other Short Novels.
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moving beyond the Romantic past.
One relatively sophisticated analysis implicates both James
and the modern reader in the narrators failure to receive the gifts of this past:
[The narrator] represents a state of mind quite opposite to that of a poet whose life
was itself a Romantic poem. James own failure to recover the Romantic past is
thus dramatized in the narrators own story.And the modern reader is denied
the love story of Aspern in part because he, too, cannot write romantic poetry or
love as romantically as Aspern did. We are locked, James seems to say, into our
own time. (Bell 124-25)
In contrast, I want to argue that The Aspern Papers stands as a relatively post-modern
text, in that its own internal evidence (160) admits a reading that questions the existence of any
definitively reliable text, memory, or perception. Certainly, one can deploy the standard post-
modern epistemological attack on the above critics even without having read James story:
namely, we remain so locked into our own time that we can never know what it means if
anything to love as romantically as Aspern did. Hence, we cannot profitably hypothesize an
independent locus of study called the Romantic era except as a functional (and endlessly
deferred) origin of longing.
Yet smugly deconstructing reporting vs. interpreting does not address Falconers
point about the storys aesthetic premise. Falconer apparently means that the most pleasurable
way of reading this particular story (and the way that does least violence to the structural unity of
the storys codes) will accept the convention of narrative trustworthiness ([the narrator] had
been there, it was his story, Falconer 8). But, is it necessarily painful to read the text as
constantly frustrating our attempts to make sense of it? The reader may actually experience
joyful liberation upon realizing that all meaning is contextual and relational, that conventional
and natural narrative alike can emerge clearly, in a close reading, as mutually-supporting
See also Davidson, Schneider, and Booth (354-64).
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On the other hand, zealous interpretations often hamper readers pleasure. If, say, we
construe the apparitions in The Turn of the Screw as genuine ghosts or vision and madness,
we overlook more subtle psychological forces haunting the characters and James himself, and we
consequently miss vistas of metaphorical significance (see Meisel 1995: viii-ix). Analogously,
Asperns bright ghost repeatedly visits the narrator in Aspern Papers. That the narrator might
be hallucinating presumably remains an unacceptable, even unavailable alternative for Meisel
(1995: ix).
In this present essay, though, I provisionally assume the availability of hallucination
(and other counter-conventional untrustworthiness) and attempt to justify my assumptions via
aesthetic acceptability. The forms of untrustworthiness exhibited include, in order of discussion,
(1) documents; (2) paintings; (3) voices; (4) memories; and (5) ghosts.
The first hint that conventions respecting a trustworthy text are flouted derives from The
Aspern Papers allusions to falsified written texts. The narrator prints a bogus visiting card
(160), later writes falsehoods to Tita (251), and Cumnor disguises his own handwriting (161).
Further, Juliana may effectively have forced her niece to write a deceitful letter to Cumnor (She
made me write. I wrote what she bade me., 209), which demonstrates that writings do not
necessary embody any of their authors ego. Even prior to interpretation, if you will, texts can
Second, the story questions the historic truth (236) of physical attributes such as
appearance and voice. When the narrator claims that everyone knows that Aspern was one of
the most genial men (155), the narrator unwittingly proceeds to divulge ample evidence to the
contrary (Davidson 40-41). We encounter more difficulty in disproving the assertions that
Aspern was very handsome (155). Yet, for instance, contemporary accounts of Asperns
favorable appearance might have been tainted by his admirers love for him on other grounds.
The narrator himself judges the only extant portrait of Aspern as a youth to have a valuable
quality of resemblance (217), but here we discern the narrators bias towards his god.
I wrote this essay for a class taught by Prof. Meisel, and Im particularly indebted to him for his concept
of deferred action (Meisel 1987: 22-36, 182-92), a crucial feature of my argument.
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Furthermore, the narrator, as discussed below, imagines the portrait changing expression and
speaking, which casts doubt on the narrators ability to objectively perceive resemblance. Also,
Julianas father may have painted the portrait, and if Juliana had also thought Aspern a god
(195), the artist may have exaggerated Asperns good looks for his daughters sake.
The narrator twice acknowledges the unreliability of transcriptions of visual data. First,
he notes that Juliana may veil her eyes so that nobody will notice that the great poet had
overdone it (223). (Here, he characteristically attributes meaning to absence. He earlier had
thought that closed shutters became as expressive as eyes consciously closed (182).) When
Tita actually gazes into the old womans eyes, without the veil of textual mediation, she
(unreliably) hallucinates (243). Second, the narrator longs for the romantic days before
photography annihilated surprise (185; cf. 157). By implication, the narrator believes that,
prior to photography, surprise accompanied previously unseen faces.
The above textual evidence concerning the non-privileged position of visual/pictorial
images consistently if faintly evokes a sophisticated late-twentieth century philosophic stance.
Today, one can articulate that poems or paintings from a bygone era became great and
romantic precisely because they elicited surprise (overdoing it) i.e., because they
represented their subject in a way that prompted us to belatedly and enjoyably imagine that the
subject had always conveyed those represented attributes. Indeed, Robert Schwartz has
propounded the strong claim that pictures not only shape our perception of the world; they can
and do play an important role in making it (711).
Incidentally, The Aspern Papers narrator is
mistaken in trusting that photography has changed this dynamic. Photographs alter our
perceptions (Sontag) and even help to create our world (Goodman 15-16).
Schwartz takes seriously Picassos claim concerning a portrait of Gertrude Stein which the artist had just
completed. When told by critics that the picture didnt look like Stein, Picasso is supposed to have quipped,
Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait, but never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it
(Schwartz 711).
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My next example of undecidability involves the perception/creation of others voices.
First, consider how the narrator complicates the source of his alleged knowledge of Asperns
He was not a womans poet in the modern phase of his reputation; but the
situation had been different when the mans own voice was mingled with his
song. That voice, by every testimony, was one of the sweetest ever heard.
Orpheus and the Maenads! was the exclamation that rose to my lips when I first
turned over his correspondence. (156)
It turns out, in the next paragraph, that the modern phase rests upon mere echoes of echoes
inevitably, for the dead cant speak for themselves (213). Yet instead of rehearsing the
supposedly bountiful testimony concerning Asperns original voice, an ancient allusion
(Orpheus) passively substitutes. Crucially, the narrator often repeats this type of evasion. That is,
while he believes that he can distinguish nuances in individual voices, those voices in fact graft
onto one another in unpredictable ways:
Thus, the narrator boasts that he can distinguish perfectly between the speeches [Tita]
made on her own responsibility and those the old lady imposed upon her (175). Further, he
perceives that he can surely judge Titas veracity by her extreme limpidity (207) or her
information, [given] flatly, without expression that seemed such a direct testimony (195).
In contrast, he well remembers the old-fashioned, artificial sound that Juliana imparts to her
mendacious speech (201). But, when the narrator describes his theory for how Tita acquired her
manner of speech, the foundation for his conclusions crumbles:
I observed for the first time that Miss Tita had acquired by contact something
of the trick of the familiar, soft-sounding, almost infantile speech of [Venice]. I
judged that she had imbibed this invertebrate dialect from the natural way the
I use the term voice broadly to include written style.
Because the narrator thinks that he can separate Titas voice from her aunts and that he can tell if she is lying, he
reports twice that Tita can only fib on paper (209, 230).
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names of things and people mostly purely local rose to her lips. If she knew
little of what they represented she knew still less of anything else. If she had
not been so decent her references would have seemed to carry one back to the
queer rococo Venice of Casanova. I found myself falling into the error of thinking
of her too as one of Jeffrey Asperns contemporaries; this came from her having
so little in common with my own. (193)
By this account, extreme limpidity, spontaneity, or naturalness of inflection carries not
truth but its opposite, non-referentiality.
Natural, osmotic and therefore meaningless phrases
include those that rise to the lips like the narrators own Orpheus and the Maenads!
Furthermore, it remains impossible for the narrator to distinguish whether or not Titas natural,
direct testimony (that she is privy to a former generations secrets) constitutes a trick.
Conversely, Julianas artificial speech reveals neither knowledge nor deceit. (Getting Juliana
to pronounce Asperns name first will prove nothing (217).) These conclusions apply
generally, to anyone trying to interpret anyone elses words. For, communication works within a
web of graftings and translations, and no original or solitary voice emerges as an index to truth.
Now, within the conventional framework, these communicative gaps arguably expose
ambiguity but nothing more revolutionary. After all, if the two Bordereau women are in cahoots
to mislead the narrator, they can deliberately change their tone of voice to conceal their
conspiracy (grafting). And, if the narrator fails to find Asperns true voice, in order to imitate or
exalt it, the failure may derive from the narrators incompetence as lover and critic. The storys
central irony remains namely, that its editor-narrator cannot discern whose voice is whose.
Yet, conceivably, the text does not so limit its logic. Arguably, the text denies direct
testimony not only to Aspern and to its modern readers, but also to everyone, generally. It
invites us, Zen-like, to inquire further: Why is Aspern romantic if nobody hears his pure
Im adopting definitions from Hilary Putnams semantic argument against Cartesian skepticism (see Putnam 22-
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voice? Why is Aspern handsome if nobody sees his face? Who printed up this short story, and is
he trying to mislead us?
Fortunately, we can spiral down the ravine of undecidability only so far before the
principle of deferred action (of memory and imagination) organizes an aesthetically-pleasing
respite from vertigo (cf. Meisel 1987: 22-36, 182-92). In my reading of Aspern Papers, even a
reliable narrator or ideal reader could never reclaim the alleged original Aspernesque
romance. Nevertheless, what we can do, and what the storys narrator attempts to do without
much self-awareness, is to imaginatively and self-consciously create a textual romance of our
own. The story itself provides a recipe for creating a romance.
First, the narrator hatche[s] a little romance about Juliana and her artist-father (184),
which allows him to organize such information as the quality of the portrait and of Julianas
European accent. Then, his imagination frequently went back to the period when Aspern first
traveled abroad, and he molds an Aspern to suit his own sensibilities: I went with him
[Aspern] I tried to judge how the Old World would have struck him (186). Although the
narrator sometimes speaks of historic or literal truth, he also constantly uses the conditional
language of imagination, invoking the phrase as if more than a dozen times (e.g., discovering
Juliana still alive was as if I had been told Queen Caroline was (155).) At one point, it was as
if Miss Bordereaus secrets were palpably in the air (182), in a Paterian instantiation and
contextualization of words. And, although ridiculed for it by ancient Juliana, he hits the mark
when he reduces his career goal from lay[ing] bare the truth to measuring the great texts
with the yardstick of his own interpretations (214).
Memory is also a tool of the imagination. So, imaginatively commanding the forward-
looking counterpart to deferred action, the narrator asks, [W]hat store of memories had [Juliana]
laid away for the monotonous future? (184). The text thus dramatizes the minds creative action
in advance of (and anticipating) any given moments stimuli.
In an ingenious symmetry,
The text demonstrates the existence of the mechanism described here even though the narrator is probably unaware
of it. In fact, the often-repressed narrator at one point represses repression: It was not to be supposed that the
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however, the text also dramatizes the difficulty in prov[ing] memories false. The narrator
endeavors to do just that with Titas glory days in Venice. He scoffs that, It was Miss Tita who
judged it brilliant, and Poor Miss Tita evidently was of the impression that she had had a
brilliant youth (192, 193). Remarkably, however, these lines come just before his structural
analysis of her speech, which, as I discussed above, obliterates his claim to know that she is
exaggerating. The unknowability continues several pages later, when (at a caf) the narrator
again divines that Tita is pining over her misspent adulthood:
I saw that she enjoyed it even more than she told; she was agitated with the
multitude of her impressions. She had forgotten what an attractive thing the world
is, and it was coming over her that somehow she had for the best years of her life
been cheated of it. She became silent, as if she were thinking with a secret
sadness of opportunities, forever lost, which ought to have been easy. (206)
Here, on the one hand, the narrator creates romance by reading silence as if it were
plenitude, even though his conventional opportunity for romance with Tita or through Aspern
is already forever lost, and even though (as the text has demonstrated with its deconstruction of
natural voice) he cannot possibly know what Tita is thinking. On the other hand, if the narrator
has by chance described Titas secret thoughts, then she herself has constructed a romance
for she broods over what she never experienced and thus cannot conjure except through the
mechanism and effect of deferred action.
In either case, then, it is not so much the narrators, Titas, or the readers failure that
forces this indirect route to romance. Rather, a familiar metacritical paradigm (a function of the
text itself) predestines this route. Recent criticism notwithstanding, the narrator and reader can
find romance, even though the direct route there (supposedly represented by Jeffrey Aspern) was
never available in the first place.
emotion produced by her aunts death had blotted out the recollection that I was interested in that ladys relics
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Finally, the story contains a parable to explain why ghosts appear. Granted, the text
contains a wealth of evidence that the characters do not hallucinate. For example, the narrator
speaks of an optical trick (at Titas transfiguration, 250) as opposed to real darkness (251),
and Tita merely speaks in the character of a young woman. The Colleoni statute only looks as
if it will cast its personal voice towards the overwrought narrator (248), and so forth. These
qualifications presumably suffice to allay our fears about the narrators sanity when he hears the
portrait speak without any as ifs, or about Titas when she simply sees Julianas eyes stare at
her in the dark.
Yet we can still read these ghostly visitations literally, which adds to the richness of the
reading experience by not prematurely cutting off the texts formal logic. For, as I have tried to
show, the text allows for the possibility of very unreliable perceptions and memories, and it
allows for the possibility that such dubious data are inevitably one source of our world-making.
With this in mind, consider the sequence of events leading to the first supernatural
summons (180): First, the narrator gets no rent receipt from the old lady. He then takes this
omission as deliberate, as a visible irony. Third, he reports that he afterward perceived the
real reading, i.e., the true reason why Juliana purposely refused to give him even a morsel of
paper. Lastly, he invokes Asperns ghost, and it appears. This passage enacts the ways to deal
with the definite absence of objective documentary evidence. Initially, one can assert the
structure of irony, declaring that everything was something else; here, absence is visible. If
that bold declaration doesnt satisfy, one can project backwards a later absence and belatedly call
it a perception and a real reading. But, if one has already figured out the significant
incompleteness of memory and perception, it might occur even to a sane person that the next
logical step to knowledge entails maneuvering as close as possible to vision and madness
the extremes of imagination. The post-modern reading paradoxically recommends conjuring
ghosts as the only rational response.
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Works Cited
Bell, Millicent. The Aspern Papers: The Unvisitable Past. Henry James Review. 10:2 (1989):
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1961.
Davidson, Arnold E. Transformations of Text in Henry Jamess The Aspern Papers. English
Studies in Canada. 14:1 (1988): 39-48.
Falconer, Graham. Flaubert, James and the Problem of Undecidability. Comparative Lit. 39
(1987): 1-18.
Gargano, James W. The Aspern Papers: The Untold Story. Studies in Short Fiction. 10 (1973):
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976.
Meisel, Perry. The Myth of the Modern. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.
Meisel, Perry. Introduction. The Turn of the Screw & Other Short Novels. By Henry James. New
York: Signet, 1995. vii-xiii.
Putnam, Hilary. Reason, Truth & History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
Schneider, Daniel J. The Unreliable Narrator: Jamess The Aspern Papers and the Reading of
Fiction. Studies in Short Fiction. 13 (1976): 43-49.
Schwartz, Robert. The Power of Pictures. Journal of Philosophy. (1985): 711-20.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Dell, 1977.
Waldmeir, Joseph J. Miss Tina Did It: A Fresh Look at The Aspern Papers. Centennial Rev.
26:3 (1982): 256-67.