1. Against Alain Badiou's claim that the task of contemporary poetry is to 'win its proper atheism', Jean Greisch points out that lyric poetry like that of Paul Celan or Ossip Mandelstam 'opens a space of questioning address', and that this is intrinsic to its nature as poetry (Greisch, 61-125). Would it be possible to say something similar of the modern novel, which in the hands of Flaubert, James, Proust and Joyce seems to present a radically secular world in which God's 'housing problem' (D. Strauss) is more acute than ever? Could we see Ulysses, for example, as a kind of Mass, offering up one day in the life of its shabby lower middle class characters, a day consecrated by all the resources of style and form, to some unnameable but gracious ultimate?
Of James's novels, The Wings of the Dove is the one that most manifests a thrust to transcendence. The work is not as formally self-enclosed as its rounded companions The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. Its open, broken character opens up a space of questioning beyond the well-defined issues of the other two novels, and allows it to reach further, at least by suggestion, into moral and spiritual possibilities. The characters have the conatus of the urge to life (which may stumble on ultimate futility) and the conatus of style and form redoubles this and extends its energies. 'The imaginative force is outward, straining toward a meaning not to be found within the work, but beyond it, escaping the constrictions of Kate's mean world and of Milly's death-bound "box": a meaning Densher will come to recognize only in its absence, as an opportunity passed: the state to which those who can never be again "as we were" might have aspired' (Bradbury, 72).
2. The chief centres of energy in the novel are the scheming Kate and Densher, just as Satan is the engine of Paradise Lost. Like the first edition of Paradise Lost, and like The Awkward Age, the novel is in ten books. Kate is introduced in Books I and II, just as Satan is in Milton's epic. James is not given to biblical allusion, but when the Bible is filtered through Milton it falls within his favoured range of classics. Milton was already a source for the 'Satanic' traits of the narrator of 'The Aspern Papers'. 'The sense of the slippery and the sticky' (WD 21) in Lionel Croy's rooms is the novel's equivalent of the burning lake where Milton's action begins. 'Slippery' suggests a serpent, and we hear later that Mr. Croy 'wriggles' (58). Kate faces her infernal background as bravely as Satan his woes: 'To feel the street, to feel the room, to feel the table-cloth and the centre-piece and the lamp, gave her a small salutary sense of neither shrinking nor lying. This whole vision was the worst thing yet' (21). The relation between Kate and her father recalls that between Satan and his daughter Sin: they cling to each other yet hate each other. Like Satan, the father of lies, 'there was no truth in him... he dealt out lies as he might the cards from the greasy old pack for the game of diplomacy to which you were to sit down with him' (23). He uses the words 'conscience', 'morality', 'duty', 'honour' (29-30) in an inverted sense, partly in cynicism, partly in self-deceit, as the leading devils do in Paradise Lost II. The name Croy suggests a scavenging vulture, while 'Kate' suggests 'kite', the hawk to Milly's dove. The Croys are condemned to scavenge on the body of a rich but moribund society.
It is against this background that the vision of luxury opened up by Aunt Maud can assume sacral status: 'how material things spoke to her' (35). Aunt Maud wants Kate to be exalted: 'I want to see her high, high up -- high up and in the light' (65). Kate is driven by a vision of pride; there are references to 'the pride of her step' (61), Aunt Maud's 'fond proud dream' (66), 'your pride and prejudice' (69). The pride goes hand in hand with idolatry. Aunt Maud's opulent furniture is described as the blazonry of paganism: 'the heavy horrors that could still flourish, that lifted their undiminished heads, in an age so proud of its short way with false gods' (63); 'she's on the scale altogether of the car of Juggernaut... The things in your drawing-room there were like the forms of the strange idols, the mystic excrescences, with which one may suppose the front of the car to bristle' (69).
All of this threatens the Edenic innocence of Kate's trysts with Densher in Kensington Gardens. Their intimacy becomes conspiratorial, already a little corrupt: 'Our being as we are... So extremely gone... we shall go a good deal further' (73). Deception is in the air: 'There was a difference in the air' (74). The scene is 'frightening because we feel that we are at the inmost pulse of a relationship: we can feel its life, and we can feel its life flicker and hesitate' (Graham, 170). By such delicate touches, 'James is able to "naturalize" the transcendental, and to make the world of the spirit a part, even if a tragic part, of our natural living' (Graham, 162).
Book III begins on Alpine heights, echoing the ascent to heavenly light at the start of Book III of Paradise Lost. Just as Milton introduces Christ, Satan's victorious opponent, at this point, so Milly is portrayed as the angel of light over against the dark world of Kate. Seen through Susan's eyes, she is in some ways a twin or double of Kate. She plays Amelia Sedley to Kate's Becky Sharp; Kate is full of 'Thackerayan character' (112). Like Kate, Milly first appears in a black dress. She, too, has her vision of the world: 'She was looking down on the kingdoms of the earth, and though indeed that of itself might well go to the brain, it wouldn't be with a view of renouncing them' (87). Quite explicit is the parallel with Christ in the wilderness, as well as the contrast (Paradise Regained). Her greed is of a higher, more spiritual order than Kate's. She, too, is tempted to hubris: 'her liability to slip, to slide, to leap, to be precipitated by a single false movement, by a turn of the head -- how could one tell? -- into whatever was beneath' (87). So at least Susan's melodramatic, novelistic imagination sees her (Bradbury, 89). She spreads her wings to fly into danger. Susan warns 'we move in a labyrinth' and she replies 'Don't tell me that -- in this for instance -- there are not abysses. I want abysses'. Susan is won over to this dangerous recklessness: 'Ah then let us hope we shall sound the depths -- I'm prepared for the worst -- of sorrow and sin!' (120). This echoes Paradise Lost IX: 'Sin and its shadow, death, and misery/Death's harbinger', and soon we hear the post-lapsarian phrase 'the world was all before them' (89), from Paradise Lost XII.
Milly's temptations are those of great wealth, Kate's are those of desperate need. One sets herself up as prey, the other as predator. Neither are innocent. Are there any adult innocent victims in James's fiction? Isabel Archer could marry Osmond only by dint of wilful blindness; Catherine Sloper, Tina Bordereau, Maggie Verver are deceived by their own wishful naivete. Milly suspects Kate's intimacy with Densher quite early: 'Is that the way she looks to him? (140; also 157-8); their conversation is 'practically all stamped with avoidance' of Densher's name (144; also 169-70). Yet 'she shook off the obsession' and decided to trust Kate totally. However, the word 'grace' is associated with Milly from the start: 'something helpless in her grace' (91). Kate also struggles for 'grace' against the vulgarity of her relatives: 'the grace to which she had sacrificed' (44), but it is a willed grace, and her attitude is that of the Pelagian heresy.
Milly's success in London society, 'the pink dawn of an apotheosis coming so curiously soon' (137) anticipates her final apotheosis after death. The chill in the air materializes in the Bronzino portrait: 'Looking at the mysterious portrait through tears', Milly feels her life has reached its peak, and is brushed by a fear of impending death: 'The lady... was a very great personage... And she was dead, dead, dead. Milly recognized her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her. "I shall never be better than this"' (137). Kate, comparing Milly with the portrait, appraises her as 'superb': there is a hint here of the deadening aestheticization and commodification of people that is a major theme in this novel and its successor, a hint underlined when Kate's evaluation is picked up by society: 'Lady Aldershaw meanwhile looked at Milly quite as if Milly had been the Bronzino and the Bronzino only Milly. "Superb, superb. Of course I had noticed you"' (139).
Milly's redemptive role is in formation from about this point. After a troubling interview with her physician she sits in Regent's Park: 'here doubtless were hundreds of others just in the same box. Their box, their great common anxiety, what was it, in this grim breathing-space, but the practical question of life?' (153). In her decision to live she is in solidarity with suffering humankind. Later she accepts Kate's identification of her as 'a dove' (171). At first being a dove involves no more than a sweet social manner, which works like magic; a loftier significance will accrue to the role as she discovers 'how a dove would act' (172). The first half ends with Milly's love-lit encounter with Densher -- in which she overlooks the significance of Kate's presence at his side and even her own suspicion that Densher is merely being kind.
3. As in The Golden Bowl, the second half begins under the sign of a redemptive project of the heroine. Both Maggie and Milly emerge as counter-forces to the energies, or iron laws, prevalent in the first halves. What Milly actually does is something characteristically Jamesian. She assumes the role thrust on her by circumstances, but transforms it by the consciousness she brings to it. Her social value as a 'rich American girl', like Kate's social value as 'the handsome English girl', transformed her into a commodity. But the commodity acquires sacral overtones, like Mrs Lowder's furniture. Her identification with the Bronzino lady and the dove image and her 'Byzantine' self-immurement in the Palazzo Leporelli lend aesthetic sublimity to her fetishized status. Then she deploys her fetishized identity with a new creative purpose, transforming herself from idol to icon, to transmit a gracious message that will form the basis for her posthumous apotheosis. Enacting the role of the Virgin Mother in Veronese's 'Wedding Feast at Cana', she embodies the freedom and generosity of a maternal charity. 'Let loose among them in a wonderful white dress' (301) for the first time, in her last public appearance, she fully exhibits her dove persona, recalling the dove let loose by Noah in Genesis 8.8-11, a figure of peace and reconciliation. 'Under some supreme idea' (302), her wings have 'spread themselves for protection' (304). As the Bronzino completed her profile in Volume I, surrounding her vital figure with the aura of death, here her final profile is determined, that of a dying woman radiating the glow of life (Tintner 1993:100-1). She has mastered the process of aestheticization or fetishization and put her own stamp on it. Her other actions: the decision to live and conceal her ill-health, the decision to love Densher, and above all her forgiveness of Densher and bequest of her money to him, are not fully developed by James. What they stand for, an economy of grace and mercy that breaks the chains of the utilitarian and calculating money logic summed up by Lord Mark: 'Nobody here, you know, does anything for nothing' (106), is best grasped by an observing consciousness. And if the consciousness is that of the chief beneficiary of her graciousness, who become increasingly conscious of his unworthiness of it, then we have the perfect medium for the exhibition of Milly.
It is Densher's consciousness that will register, and magnify by idealizing and fetishizing it, Maggie's redemptive counter-project. Two Books are narrated from Kate's point of view (I-II); four from Milly's and Susan's (Bks III-V, VII); and four, finally, from Densher's (VI, VIII-X). The effect is rather as if the first Book of The Golden Bowl had been dominated by Charlotte and the second by Amerigo. What makes Densher invaluable as the centre of consciousness is that he tastes ever more fully of the Tree of Knowledge: 'His knowledge of American friends was clearly an accident of which he was to taste the fruit to the last bitterness' (202). To say, in regard to earlier appearances of this motif, that James 'seems to have forgotten that such an image is inescapably one of temptation' (Matthiessen, 65) is to miss how much James suggests by light allusions, avoiding the heaviness of point by point allegory.
Of course James is well aware of the temptation to sentimentalism and cheap religiosity that such a formula of composition entails. His own dealings with the memory of Minny Temple would have instructed him on the ambiguities of apotheosis. So he naturalizes all these redemptive notes, notably through underlining the fetishistic character of Densher's final attitude to Milly. I have used the word 'fetishization' rather freely so far. Before going further I should like to clarify it, drawing on Mircea Ian's remarks in a discussion of this topic on JamesF-L internet discussion group (see 'The Henry James scholar's Guide to Web Sites' at www.newpaltz.edu/~hathaway).
4. In that discussion, Marcia Ian quoted an interesting passage from Roderick Hudson (1875) in which James criticizes Mrs Light's exploitation of her daughter's beauty thus:
Mrs. Light evidently, at an early period had gathered her maternal hopes into a sacred parcel, to which she said her prayers and burnt incense -- which she treated generally as a sort of fetish. These things had been her religion: she had none other, and she performed her devotions bravely and cheerily, in the light of day. The poor old fetish had been so caressed and manipulated, so thrust in and out of its niche, so passed from hand to hand, so dressed and undressed, so mumbled and fumbled over, that it had lost by this time much of its early freshness, and seemed a rather battered and disfeatured divinity.
Reading his use of the fetish here requires a complex parsing out of James's understanding of what might be described as the Catholic paradigm of self-psychology vs. the Protestant (and, further down the religious food chain, the Muslim and Jewish)... Catholicism was caricatured by Protestants throughout the nineteenth century, as it had been since the Reformation, and as Henry Sr. also caricatured it, as a primitive and fetishistic religion; this is also in part why James is attracted to it. Fetishism was thought to be even more primitive than idolatry, since the fetish embodied, rather than represented, Something... James is developing and exploring by way of the novel such antithetical (for James) concepts as 'idol' vs. 'ideal'.... The novel is full of stifled ideals and imperious idols; Rowland Mallett survives the psychological slaughter the plot enacts precisely because he idealizes (and accordingly sublimates to achieve this), rather than idolizes. Those who idolize -- Mrs Hudson and Mary Garland who idolize Roderick (as he himself says), Roderick who idolizes Christina -- lose out.
In James's day the notion of fetishism was fresh, illuminating, pregnant. Comte identified fetishism as the earliest stage of human civilization. Alfred Binet theorized that everyone had fetishistic tendencies. Marx saw a kind of fetishism at work in the production of commodities: 'The riddle of the fetish of money is just the riddle of the fetish of goods become visible' (Das Kapital). Such fetishes blind us to the real social relations that produce them, thus replacing a relation between humans with one between things in a process of reification, mystification, and alienation. James too is a connoisseur of fetishism, in its intersection of the religious, the aesthetic, the economic, and the psychosexual. Here is Milly seen through the eyes of the unconsciously resentful Kate: 'her freedom, her fortune and her fancy were her law; an obsequious world surrounded her, she could sniff up at every step its fumes' (114). What the sacrificial 'fumes' are offered to is not Maggie the individual but Maggie as an embodiment of the magic of money. Wherever she goes she stirs this fetishistic excitement in others. Her money is indeed a 'law' binding her to this reified status.
A fetish is an artificial or natural object which is felt to have sacral power, mana, and which is treated accordingly. It can be used for magical purposes, black or white. Psychoanalysts are fascinated with the fetishistic effect whereby a common thing is transformed into a sacral Thing. A postage stamp has a useful function in everyday life, but we are scarcely conscious of it as a thing in its own right. But in the philatelist's collection it shines as a precious Thing. All collectors have a touch of fetishism in their make-up. Lacan admired Jacques Prévert's matchbox collection, and notes that here the matchbox became a thing for the first time:
I think that the shock, the novelty, of the effect realized by this assemblage of empty -- that point is essential -- matchboxes was that it showed this: that a matchbox is not at all simply an object, but that it can, under the form, Erscheinung, in which it was proposed in its truly imposing multiplicity, be a Thing. In other words, that arrangement showed that a matchbox is not simply something with a certain use, nor even a type in the Platonic sense, the abstract matchbox, but that it is all on its own a thing, with its coherence of being. The completely gratuitous, proliferating and superfetatory, almost absurd, character of that collection aimed in fact at its thinginess as a matchbox. (Lacan, 136)
Lacan calls this 'one of the forms, the most innocent, of sublimation'. He identifies sublimation and the 'overvaluation of the object' in erotic relationships (130), which is dictated by basic drives.
Lacan uses Heideggerian language in speaking of das Ding. But this may create a confusion between the sacralized thing of fetishism and the authentic thinghood perceived by an artist. Things come into their own when envisioned by an artist such as Cézanne. When the thing 'things' it opens up worldhood at the same time. Prévert's matchboxes, if treated as objets trouvés in the manner of Marcel Duchamp, might claim the status of art. But the collector psychology works at a more primitive and less disinterested level than the appreciation of art. James's collectors, too, however fine the things they collect, are motivated by a tenacious clutching that has nothing to do with art. Like the work of art, the fetish makes the thing a Thing, but one that excludes worldhood by monopolizing the attention of the one on whom it has cast its spell. While a fetish confers vibrant spiritual or magical life on the thing, it also makes the thing an abstraction by stripping it of its relations to the world.
Erotic fetishism is seen by Freud as the most revealing kind. The fetish usually acquires the psychic value of a phallus and can serve to compensate for (or serve to deny) the sense of lack or 'castration'. Fetishistic sexuality has an infantile cast to it. It may substitute for encounter with a human other, and thus like commodity fetishism produce a reification of human relations. One could speak of the Midas touch of the perverse imagination, both in its ability to turn dross to gold and in its reduction of the other to the 'gold standard' of its fantasy. However, in the economy of a given individual situation fetishism could possibly function as a source of sexual and affective energy, pleasure and fulfilment. There are still a lot of mad scientists around who offer aversion therapy and electroshock therapy to those anxious to be rid of embarrassing fetishistic habits. It would be more humane to open up to the anxieties or sense of lack that may underlie these habits, or failing that, just to sit back and enjoy them.
The most promising approach to James's sensitivity to fetishistic phenomena today would be to rearticulate it in terms of Lacan's account of the objet petit a, the obscure object of desire that plays a pivotal role in human passions and relationships. We should differentiate this from reification, whereby the openness and complexity of personal interaction becomes a stylized or ritualized business in which persons become things or roles -- in which Milly becomes for example 'the New England heroine', 'the American girl' or 'the dove'. In addition to commodity fetishism, James's characters sacralize the objects of their desire in a way that borders on madness and that is full of primitive religious energy. James portrays many characters obsessed by such desire. Sometimes it is a desire for knowledge: the contents of the Aspern papers, the secrets of the children in 'The Turn of the Screw', the solution to the riddles in The Sacred Fount and 'The Figure in the Carpet'. His texts systematically refuse to satisfy this desire, either for the characters or for the readers who become infected with the characters' desire. Instead, he dramatizes the blinding influence of this obsessive mentality. The typical Jamesian consciousness is an intense and isolated one, which is impinged on by a series of others who are experienced as threatening and fascinating. Dealing with others as a philosopher would with inscrutable riddles, this consciousness 'in the cage' may find every kind of fetishization a useful recourse. The stories, and their style, are a demonstration that the desire for fetishized knowledge is rooted in this deeper, pervasive sense of lack, and that this lack must be faced and accepted, both in its sexual aspect as castration anxiety and insofar as it is intrinsic to human finitude. The fetish-ridden narrators of 'The Turn of the Screw' and The Sacred Fount fail in their desperate attempts to understand the people around them, being unable to move from fetishizing consciousness to a more responsive awareness based on mature recognition of their own existential lack. Their ultimate defeat is also the reader's defeat, for we are not able to produce a superior authoritative account that could rectify the narrators' perceptions. Like the burning of the Aspern papers or the Poynton 'things', this defeat dissolves the fetishism into which the text has lured the reader and refocuses attention on the human texture of the desires and anxieties of the characters. Though the unhappy protagonists are left in the lurch, the text has considerable therapeutic value for the readers, educating them not only in greater sophistication but in greater sanity.
One James list correspondent writes: 'The system of suggestiveness in James' writing is related to a suppression of something -- akin to the circumlocutionary writing of Proust -- and perhaps that constitutes a fetish for the text'. The writing seems to circle around some elusive central riddle; so do the meditations of the principal characters. But I would not call this a fetish. In Proust it's obvious what the fetishes are -- the little obscure objects of desire that recur obsessively throughout the work -- they include names (Guermantes, Balbec), places, people, pieces of music (the Vinteuil melody), works of art. The desiring subject (Marcel rather than Proust himself) believes that in possessing or consuming these fetishes he will know happiness and peace. They are projected from a deep sense of lack and they promise to allay that sense of lack, but the promise is deceptive. Now opening up to the 'elusive central riddle' means stepping beyond fetishism and embracing one's lack ('castration'). Then the obsessive fetishes are replaced by the creative labor that produces the work of art, which is no longer the fetish of a dilettante but an instrument of exploration of reality.
5. The only fully material fetishes in The Wings of the Dove are Mrs Lowder's furniture and the two letters Densher receives after Milly's death. In both cases James piles the fetish-language on thick. But the obsessive character acquired by thoughts (Densher's desire for Kate, his memory of Milly) or images (Milly's self-image as dove) also has a fetishistic aspect.
Densher is enveloped by a 'sacred hush' (399; cf. 369) as he takes in the immensity of Milly's forgiveness: 'something had happened to him too beautiful and too sacred to describe. He had been, to his recovered sense, forgiven, dedicated, blessed' (370). Her letter falls portentously into this hush, as the embodiment of her essence. It has an uncanny, preternatural presence: 'I found it with some other letters on my table. But my eyes went straight to it, in an extraordinary way, from the door. I recognised, I knew what it was, without touching it' (386). It is a numinous object -- 'the thing' (392, 394), 'something I feel as sacred', 'the sacred script' (393). It is handled ceremoniously, and casts a spell on the handlers, who move as if under hypnosis: 'he drew, standing there before her, a pocket-book from the breast of his waistcoat and he drew from the pocket-book a folded letter to which her eyes attached themselves. He restored then the receptacle to its place and, with a movement not the less odd for being visibly instinctive and unconscious, carried the hand containing his letter behind him' (391).
The fetishized letter looms even larger in Densher's mind after its destruction by fire (Kate's vain attempt to extinguish its threatening mana). Now it is the thought of the letter that is handled ceremoniously: 'he took it out of its sacred corner and its soft wrappings; he undid them one by one, handling them, handling it, as a father, baffled and tender, might handle a maimed child' (398). It is by being destroyed that the letter reaches its destination, sealing Densher's love for Milly, by causing all its lost possibilities to vibrate in his mind: 'he should never, never know what had been in Milly's letter'. Its possible contents become 'a revelation the loss of which was like the sight of a priceless pearl cast before his eyes... into the fathomless sea, or rather even it was like the sacrifice of something sentient and throbbing, something that, for the spiritual ear, might have been audible as a faint far wail'. The later letter from Milly's lawyers -- 'that thing' (401), 'the long envelope on the table' (403) -- has again the threatening aura of a poisoned gift, and Densher is again to 'surrender' it.
Milly might also be considered as an icon (opening up a space of transcendence), as opposed to an idol (a signifier which has become its own signified, absorbing the devotee's fascination entirely and blocking out transcendence). But there is a tense dialectic between Milly as fetish and Milly as iconic ideal. Insofar as Densher is an infantile fetish worshipper here he cuts a comic figure (as one critic has observed), but the other, more sublime reading also holds its own. Densher may still be in thrall to a deadening image, yet we sense too that a space of transcendence has opened up for him. The very ambiguity of his feelings save James from ending the novel on a sentimental and melodramatic note. It might be suspected that the aura surrounding Milly's posthumous letter is a melodramatic effect, and that it is James who vamps up the letter to bring his novel to a satisfying conclusion. But in fact this final epiphany of Milly has been organized by Milly herself. Her triumph, like Portia's, is not without a shade of ruthless manipulation. She arranged to have her letter arrive on Christmas Eve: 'This thing has been timed' (392). A fetish, according to Freud, is a replacement for the absent maternal phallus. Thus a mother reassures her son by providing fetishes: rattles, lollipops, filled Christmas stockings. The 'mercy' (303, 316, echoing The Merchant of Venice) that Milly shows to Densher and Kate is distinctly that of a mother (all three are orphans). The dove's wings that 'cover' the couple (403) are not merely those of sentimental indulgence, however. They recall Milton's maternal image of the Spirit: 'with mighty wings outspread/Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss'. Milly uplifts her erring 'children' and her idealized memory supplies Densher with a prosthetic moral backbone.
The idea of human beings reifying themselves, fixating themselves in roles (a process which one critic analyzes as Milly's 'bad faith'), or conversely assuming such roles in a creative spirit (as when Maggie becomes an 'actress' in the latter part of The Golden Bowl), is a Jamesian preoccupation. The narrative coherence of The Wings of the Dove is not undermined by our uncertainty as to whether the final tableau of Densher's necrophiliac remorse and Milly's covering wings is to be taken at face value. Perhaps some of James' tales, including this one, should be regarded as open-ended problematic compositions, leaving the readers free to navigate their own path through the possibilities explored. Similar problematic endings are characteristic of Goethe, probably the modern author James most admired. Goethe may have freed him from any sense of obligation to Victorian or French ideas of the well-made novel, with all ambiguities neatly wrapped up.
Marcia Ian doubts if Milly can be called Densher's fetish:
She lacks several signal qualities of a fetish, whether defined anthropologically, sexually, economically, or semiotically. She is, and stands for, the immaterial, not the material. The materiality of the fetish is key. Obviously nothing in a novel is literally material, but it would at least have to signify the material. Her money does not count; she is an 'angel with a thumping bank account'. It is Maud's money that signifies the material. Milly is not of a 'low' order but is on the contrary the top of the representational hierarchy in the novel. A fetish must have something low about it -- whether a smell, some connection to the lower bodily stratum (a phrase from Bakhtin), commodity status, whatever. She is no gilded turd, you should pardon the expression... Densher idealizes Milly, he does not fetishize her, and this is why in effect he comes out 'on top'. On the other hand, and 'below' Milly down on earth, Densher might well be said to fetishize -- to materialize and treat as sacred -- his own mental objects, most obviously the phallic 'idea all erect before him' which appears to him in his rooms after he has taken Kate to, and in.
But does a fetish have to be 'low'? Fetishistic investment or cathexis is not confined to things but can also extend to ideas or symbols or public totems (Throne and Altar, as Freud notes). A person can fetishize their own role or symbolic identity (as Goethe 'godified himself' according to D. H. Lawrence, who also criticized Wordsworth for 'making flowers speak', another kind of fetishism). Even a precious object is 'low' when it is the object of greed or retentiveness, and in this sense Milly can become a fetish for others. Perhaps fetishism has roots in the anal stage of infantile sexual development. Hence the high/low undecidability attaching to fetishes ('filthy lucre' etc.); recall how the narrator of 'The Aspern Papers' expresses a revulsion against his precious spoils when faced with Tina's marriage proposal as their price. Just the tension between the two poles gives the fetish its power. Ultimately, Milly establishes herself as lofty icon, but the ado about her in London society (like the press's 'feeding frenzy' about Princess Diana) is a primitive fetishism she has to overcome. Milly follows the old literary strategy whereby one who dies young becomes an adored symbol, beckoning from the abode of the eternal. She constructs herself as a symbol of charity over against the tightly ordered Balzacian world of self-interest and deceit. She exploits the literary resources of elegiac apotheosis, assuming actively the Adonais strategy that James had imposed on the Minny Temple. Even before she dies Mrs Lowder and Densher speak of her as if she were already dead. Her human personality has been absorbed into the symbolic shape of her career, into the image of the Dove. In contrast, Maggie Verver reconstructs conventional order over against a chaotic world of passion. She exploits the literary resources of comic resolution, which dictate the restoration of marital harmony.
Milly and Maggie thus collaborate with the author in the construction of meaning and in determining the novel's final form (though it is Densher who draws out the full significance of Milly's gestures). Indeed, it is a necessity of James's later rigorous novelistic ethics that the characters themselves construct the novel. The relation of author (or the narratorial persona who fills in for the author) to characters becomes so intimate that one critic (Leo Bersani) speaks of a breathy proximity of the late James's narrative voice to his centers of consciousness. They are all Jamesian meditators, and one senses that narrator and character-consciousnesses are constantly confabulating and conspiring as they work together to construct of the novel. James comes down to the level of his characters, brooding with them on their problematic choices. He knows no more about the ultimate meaning of life than his characters do. If Densher's religiosity does not in the end completely transcend an infantilist fetishism, James does not claim to judge it from a higher standpoint. The play of irony and scepticism in the presentation of the characters' motives is more an uneasy interrogation (particularly acute in the case of Maggie) than a superior correction.
The radically secular world of the post-Flaubertian novel may espouse a transcendent conatus in human existence, which is enhanced and doubled through the labour of style and structure. In James the collaboration of author and protagonist integrates this transcendent opening more thoroughly into the texture of the tale. The pointers to transcendence are produced by purely immanent means, as human constructs, and there is continuity between the characters' mythmaking and the novel's questioning openness. The fetishistic energy of Milly and Densher, which bursts the Balzacian constraints that provide the ground-rules of their universe, is continued in James's own imaginings. No dogmatic religious certitudes are needed to keep this space of questioning open.
The Wings of the Dove combines indirection and obliqueness in the texture of the writing with a starkly melodramatic plot-structure. The melodramatic elements seem to be systematically toned down (in contrast to some scenes in The Portrait of a Lady). Not only is the drama transferred to the consciousness of Densher and the conversations between Densher and Kate, but even here there are few points at which issues come vividly to a head. It is as if the melodramatic plot existed to provide orientation for the reader, while the author devotes himself to wringing the last degree of subtle psychological and ethical analysis out of it.
Fetishes in James threaten to trap and imprison their adherents. When a fetish is destroyed, that signals a spiritual liberation. Tina's burning of the Aspern papers may not liberate the narrator but it is certainly a liberation for Tina herself, who has perhaps come to share the narrator's obsession, not because of love for the fetishized dead poet but for love of the narrator himself. 'I have done the great thing. I have destroyed the papers', she declares, as after the consummation of a ritual sacrifice.
When Kate burns Milly's letter she is attempting to shake off its power over Densher. Densher's own surrender of both letters to Kate is a heroic sacrifice. It frees him from a polluting bondage to Milly's money and to Kate's schemes. But the same gesture lays the foundation of an altar to Milly in Densher's mind. Does he then become a higher-level fetishist of the kind of which James heartily approves? Does he retreat into an ivory tower of solitary consciousness? Everything comes into perspective through Densher's eyes. He sees Kate's family situation compassionately (we had seen it through her eyes in Book I). Mrs Lowder also comes into more sympathetic focus as Densher talks of Milly with her. The final image of Milly herself crystallizes in Densher's mind, as the emblem of grace and mercy, and there can be little doubt that this is meant to be taken as the keystone to the meaning and structure of the novel, despite all the ironies that James allows to play around it.
A Christian reading of this novel does not demand any allegory, since the themes of sin, grace, and forgiveness are quite explicit. When Densher is turned away from Milly's door, he has 'a sudden sharp sense that everything had turned to the dismal' (325), the beginnings of a full-blown case of 'conviction of sin'. James applies the moral scalpel as lightly and effectively as Austen, George Eliot or Meredith: 'It was his own fault if the vulgar view, the view that might have been taken of an inferior man, happened so incorrigibly to fit him. He apparently wasn't so different from inferior men as that came to' (325). Of course, James is too subtle a realist not to allow Densher lots of self-excusation: the new-found morality of his expostulations against Lord Mark, and the pathetic, 'I had meant awfully well' (364). His guilty Venetian broodings recycle the narrator's torments in chapter 9 of 'The Aspern Papers', carrying the analysis of guilt and denial to dizzying heights of fine observation. It must be regretted that his acceptance of the wooing of Milly (with her reactions) was not given proportionate treatment; that too recalls the earlier Venetian story: the word 'kind' was of frequent occurrence to describe the narrator's attitude to Tina Bordereau; now Densher thinks of Milly as 'the little American girl who had been kind to him in New York and to whom certainly... he was perfectly willing to be kind in return' (279-80). His subsequent search for 'straightness', the way he is moved to awe by Milly's forgiveness in terms similar to but even more intense than those in which he responded to Kate's surrender to his desire, and the way he drifts to the Oratory after hearing that Milly is dead, are all described in a very convincing way (all the more so in that Densher still has those passive, obtuse, indecisive traits that got him into his moral pickle in the first place).