Fiorenzo Iuliano (Cagliari)
“The Portrait of a Fugue: Henry James’s Baroque Consonances”
This presentation was given as part of the "Beyond Narrative" conference on October 11, 2019.
Abstract: The Portrait of a Lady is usually read as the novel that, breaking away from Nineteenth century realism, paves the way for the experimentations that will lead to the ground-breaking works of James’s major phase and, in general, to modernist prose. The focus of this paper, however, stems from two other, radically different, hypotheses. The first is that, rather than as a novel that looks ahead to new narrative forms, The Portrait of a Lady retrieves the Baroque formal architectures and their philosophical implications (e.g. Leibniz). The second is that it is music, rather than any other art, that ideally provides a paradigm for Isabel Archer’s story. The novel, in fact, could be likened to a majestic fugue, for both its formal construction and its aesthetic and epistemic axioms. The fugue is the form that, probably better than any other, embodies the Baroque anxiety to either understand or grapple with the new metaphysical horizons provided by the Seventeenth century scientific step-changes, accounting for the impossibility of finding any narrative sequentiality and conclusion in the musical discourse. Likewise, the anxieties of the impending fin-de-siècle find their way in The Portrait of a Lady as a text that rejects any teleological conclusiveness and features instead characters whose existences imitate, replicate and hark back to each other, never overlapping but nevertheless resulting in a harmonious, albeit tragic, final consonance. My contention is, thus, that The Portrait of a Lady, rather than – or besides – anticipating the modernist novel, makes use of the early-modern and intrinsically anti-narrative architecture of the fugue so as to host and embody anti-positivistic (and anti-Emersonian) perspectives. The non-linear, convoluted and replicating stories of its protagonists brilliantly account for the transformations of the western world in the 1870s, but find in the numberless and mutually reflecting folds of the Baroque experience of reality more adequate formal and epistemic paradigms than the ones provided by Nineteenth century realism.