If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Elizabeth Bishop, ‘At the Fishhouses’

‘Like what we imagine knowledge to be’. There are many ways of imagining knowledge – this is a proposition not likely to provoke much dispute. But how about this one? There are many ways in which the imagination creates and imparts knowledge. Is this claim self-evident, or just untrue – untrue because the imagination, whatever its wonders and virtues, doesn’t deal in knowledge in any but the weakest, least demanding sense? There are all kinds of good things which are not knowledge, and we should not betray them by giving them the wrong name.

The worry about the relation between literature and knowledge is a very old one, and it’s not getting any younger. When Dorothy Walsh, in an elegant book called Literature and Knowledge, published in 1969, said the worry was old, she meant it went back at least to Plato. When Stathis Gourgouris says it is old, in a book called Does Literature Think? published earlier this year,1 he means the same thing:

The idea that literature might harbour its own mode of knowledge is ancient, at least as old as the so-called quarrel between poetry and philosophy and Plato’s notorious expulsion of the poets from the city in the Republic. It is fair to say that since Plato’s famous decision there has been an implicit but consistent association of the poetic act with a peculiar, mysterious, and even dangerous sort of knowledge.

Actually, even Socrates thought the worry was old, and apologised for his dismissal of poetry by saying: ‘But in case we are charged with a certain harshness and lack of sophistication, let’s also tell poetry that there is an ancient quarrel between it and philosophy.’

But Plato’s worry is not ours, and indeed our worry, in 2003, is perhaps not quite the worry we might have had, did have, in 1969. Or if the question we are asking is the same – to quote Dorothy Walsh, ‘What kind of knowledge, if any, does literary art afford?’ or, more delicately, ‘Do works of literary art, when functioning successfully as such, have any intimate engagement with what may be called knowledge?’ – our reasons for asking it are different, and so is our idea of what might constitute an interesting answer. Walsh thought that the disengagement of literature from direct knowledge claims might ‘be seen as the liberation of literature from the alien and extraneous burden of cognitive concern. So liberated, literature is free to develop its potentialities strictly as art.’ The opposite view, she suggested, was not engagement with direct knowledge but a different sense of disengagement, the view that ‘the disengagement provides the opportunity for the recognition of the distinctive kind of cognitive significance literary art can have.’ ‘Shall we see the disengagement as the liberation of Ariel?’ Walsh asked. ‘Or . . . shall we say that the magic island . . . cannot be abandoned and that the control of Prospero over both Ariel and Caliban must be sustained?’ I don’t think many people are recommending the liberation of Ariel these days, or a picture of literature ‘strictly as art’, and I don’t wish to recommend them myself. But I do want to wonder, as Walsh did, whether the only alternative is total submission to Prospero.

There is an excellent focus for the old and new question, a brilliant brief statement of its current force, and a way of holding the whole issue before our minds, in Peter de Bolla’s book Art Matters.2 De Bolla is looking at a Barnett Newman painting (Vir Heroicus Sublimis) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has decided that the usual critical questions – what does this painting mean, what is it trying to say – are the wrong ones. He offers one or two not all that appealing alternatives (‘how does this painting determine my address to it, how does it make me feel, what does it make me feel’) and says that ‘beyond these questions lies the insistent murmur of all great art, the nagging thought that the work holds something to itself, contains something that in the final analysis remains untouchable, unknowable.’ Then De Bolla arrives at what I find the truly haunting question: ‘What does this painting know?’

The question has two immediate and very interesting implications. First, that a painting might know something that the painter didn’t. And, second, that the painting probably knows a lot that it is not going to tell us. I’m interested in the murmur of small art as well as great art – I think small art knows things, too – and I want to put the question to literature rather than to painting, but the question is the same. To frame it rather schematically, thinking of Proust and asthma, say, we could ask, not what Proust knew about asthma or what we know about asthma or what doctors knew or know about asthma in Proust’s time and in ours, but what A la recherche du temps perdu knows about asthma: what it knows and perhaps will not directly tell us, or what it knows that only novels know, or what it knows that only this novel knows. Many see dangers in such personification – the novel is not a person and can’t know anything, only novelists and readers can – but for the moment I should like the question, and the figure of speech, just to hang in the memory, like a motto, or an old tune.

My slightly frivolous title, ‘What Henry Knew’, takes us straight to Henry James, of course, and the (feeble) joke is meant, among other things, to indicate that I recognise how obvious a move this is, once we have started on the question of literature and knowledge. It was James who wrote so eloquently, in relation to the publication of Flaubert’s letters, of ‘the insurmountable desire to know’, and who thought, in that context, that ‘some day or other we shall surely agree that . . . we pay more for some kinds of knowledge than those particular kinds are worth.’ But to read these words, and to think of the knowledge at issue – the fact, as James says, ‘that the author of calm, firm masterpieces . . . was narrow and noisy’ – is to remember how many kinds of knowledge there are, how much work the words know and knowledge are asked to do, and how varied that work is.

If we read the actual sentence I have massacred for my title, for instance, at the point in the novel from which James takes his phrase, we come upon another kind of knowledge entirely: not the goal of curiosity but the fruit of experience. In his preface to What Maisie Knew, James writes of the appeal for the novelist of a child’s ‘confused and obscure notation’ of a tangle of adult relations – namely, the goings on of her divorced parents and their changing companions – and then says that it was important for him that Maisie should see more than she understood. ‘Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them.’ (I shall return to this phrase.) ‘She has,’ James says of Maisie, ‘the wonderful importance of shedding a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension.’ This is clear enough, and James’s remarks are of enormous technical interest. But the text of the novel itself is more ambiguous, and is ambiguous precisely because of the strong and multiple valences of the word know. Do Maisie’s perceptions shed ‘a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension’? Well, perhaps not beyond any reach. Just beyond the reach we are likely to assign to it. But is that the right reach? The novel is not called ‘What Maisie Saw’, or ‘What Maisie Failed to Understand’. The whole beauty of the thing is that we can’t know for sure what Maisie knows. Tony Tanner has said that ‘in a sense the book hinges on what Maisie does not know’ – especially what she doesn’t know about sex. But by the same token she can, as Tanner also suggests, deeply know all kinds of things without knowing the basic facts. Right at the end of the book the governess Mrs Wix gives Maisie a piece of information about the whereabouts of two of the errant adults. Maisie says: ‘Oh I know.’ James then writes: ‘Mrs Wix gave a sidelong look. She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew.’

We still have room for wonder at what James knew – and in the light of my question about literature and knowledge, at what James’s novels knew. I hope my title, if viewed suspiciously enough, may help to suggest that to ask what Henry James knew is also to ask if his novels know the same things. I want to use a great novel by James to explore some of the working meanings of the notion of knowledge; and I want, at the same time, to use the notion of knowledge to open up a great novel in what I hope is a fresh way. The novel is The Wings of the Dove, first published in 1902. This novel seems to know a lot about knowledge, and especially about knowledge and words, and about knowledge and novels.

It will help clear the ground a little if we look briefly at some of the ostensive definitions of knowledge the novel handily offers us. They correspond to, but also complicate, the OED’s central definitions, especially the ones that pertain to knowledge by experience or personal acquaintance, knowledge as awareness of the facts, and knowledge as an understanding of patterns of relations or connection. For the sake of convenience, and following the tutelary spirit of William Empson, I’ve grouped the meanings of knowledge in The Wings of the Dove in seven sets.

One. In this novel, you can know that something is the case. This is the most frequent meaning of the words know and knowledge. You could know, for instance, although you don’t, what terrible disgraceful thing your father has done. In the opening pages Kate Croy is waiting for her elegant but seedy dad, and James’s prose is at its insidious best. Lionel Croy is, we learn, ‘a terrible husband not to live with’. ‘Those who knew him a little said “How he does dress!” – those who knew him better said “How does he?”’ ‘Nothing . . . was more wonderful than what he sometimes would take for offence, unless it might be what he sometimes wouldn’t.’ What’s important here is that the possibility of simple if disagreeable knowledge is mentioned only because it is so resolutely refused – a pattern which comes up again and again in the novel. ‘Whatever it was that was horrid . . . that he had done,’ the wife and daughters think, ‘thank God they didn’t really know.’ A little later Merton Densher, the man Kate is in love with, asks her just what it is her father has been up to.

‘What has he done, if no one can name it?’

‘He has done everything.’

‘Oh – everything! Everything’s nothing.’

‘Well then,’ said Kate, ‘he has done some particular thing. It’s known – only, thank God, not to us.’

Kate recalls her mother telling her – Kate was about fifteen – that if she hears anything against her father she is to ‘remember it’s perfectly false’. ‘That was the way I knew it was true,’ Kate adds without missing a beat.

In this same sense of knowledge, and in this same novel – I’m listing only instances where James himself uses the words know or knowledge – you could (and do) know what your material circumstances add up to, what your aunt’s position in the world means. You could (and do) know that your young friend lacks culture, needs to broaden her horizon by travel. You could (and later do) know that she is ill. You could (and do) know that you yourself are ill. You could (and nearly everybody in the book does) know a particular fact or set of facts, a secret, something that others don’t know.

Two. You can, if they tell you, know what other people think, and, if you are willing to contemplate it, you can know what you yourself feel or believe. It is in this sense that Kate Croy’s sister tells Kate that she wants her to know how unfavourably she views Merton Densher, and it is in this same sense that Densher knows he will never be rich. Or more precisely, he knows how firmly he believes he will never be rich.

His conviction on this head was in truth quite positive and a thing by itself; he failed, after analysis, to understand it, though he had naturally more lights on it than anyone else. He knew it subsisted in spite of an equal consciousness of his being neither mentally nor physically quite helpless . . . he knew it to be absolute, though secret, and also, strange to say, about common undertakings, not discouraging, not prohibitive.

Three. You can know people, in the sense of having been introduced to them. It is in this context that two Americans disembark at Dover, ‘completely unknown . . . amid the completely unknowing’. There are of course other suggestions lurking there, too: of stealth, on the visitors’ part; of unpreparedness, on the part of the home team. You can know, in the sense of being acquainted with, certain social refinements, and a character asserts, with some show of truth in the particular context, that ‘men don’t know’ about such things. Or rather: ‘They know in such matters almost nothing but what women show them.’ We are still within the same range of meanings when we are told that a suave and ultimately rather sinister English aristocrat has given up discriminations ‘from too much knowledge’. Well, strictly we are told that ‘he spoke as if he had’ given up discriminations from too much knowledge. And if you can know too much about the world, you can also know too little, as the young American visitor in conversation with this man obviously does. Yet she is the person who beautifully complicates just this sense of knowledge by making it modulate towards some of its more interesting meanings. She says to this man (they are at a dinner in high to middling English society): ‘You all here know each other – I see that – as far as you know anything. You know what you’re used to, and it’s your being used to it . . . that makes you. But there are things you don’t know.’ The young woman has another interesting perception. If these people all know each other but still can’t place Kate Croy – ‘if the handsome girl’s place among them was something even their initiation couldn’t deal with’ – then Kate must ‘indeed be a quantity’.

Four. You can know people, and things, in the sense of recognising them, and this is what happens when Milly Theale, the young American I have just been quoting, happens to be in the National Gallery in London and catches sight of someone she has met in New York – the already mentioned Merton Densher. She looks at his bared head – he has taken his hat off to mop his brow – and is ‘shaken by a knowledge of it’. As a matter of narrative information this phrase means only that she is surprised to see him, but we soon learn that she is shaken because she knows him well enough to like him a lot, and not well enough to know what to do with her liking.

Five. You can know people or fail to know them, in the sense of deep intimacy: this is not the most frequent sense of knowledge in the novel, but it may be the most important. Several people insist, for example, that Milly is not ‘easy to know’, and Kate says, paradoxically, that it’s hard to know her because it’s so easy to see her. ‘One sees her with intensity – sees her more than one sees almost anyone; but then one discovers that that isn’t knowing her.’ And in a terrible piece of deception and self-deception, a lie which turns into a truth, Densher tells Milly that he doesn’t feel as if he knows Kate – ‘really to call know’. He is in love with her and planning to marry her, but he doesn’t know her. We get a glimpse of the lie and the truth in such a comment when, right at the end of the novel, we are told that he sees in his and Kate’s embrace ‘the need to bury in the dark blindness of each other’s arms the knowledge of each other that they couldn’t undo’. What could have brought these likeable people to such a pass?

Six. There recurs in the book, and in much of James, an interesting, semi-intransitive sense of know, where the word seems almost synonymous with life, or at least with vivid consciousness. ‘She hadn’t cared,’ we read of the young American woman, ‘she had too much wanted to know.’ Wanted to know what? Particular things about the world, of course. But also everything. Earlier in the book, two lovers are said to have ‘somehow everything to feel and to know’. Even if everything is not nothing, as Densher suggests, there is a sense of deep risk in such a suggestion. With such ambitions, if one failed to know everything, one might feel one was left with nothing.

Seven. And finally there is a sense of knowing as simply meaning ‘guessing right’. ‘She knew,’ one character says of another. ‘She knew.’ The knowledge in question has to do with a visit to a doctor. When challenged, the person says she knows only that the other character saw something. ‘When I say she knows I should say she’s a person who guesses.’ Is this knowledge? Strictly it can’t be. A guess is a guess, right or wrong. But guesses connect with the realm of knowledge when they are right, and I’m not sure that the temptation to say we knew, when we were only guessing with deep conviction, has to be resisted in every case. I agree the sense of what we usually mean by knowledge would have to be expanded a little – but why not?

The shabbiness of Kate Croy’s father is a pure delight, but I dwelt on it for another reason. For two other reasons. Because his case represents the first of several mysteries in the novel, zones where knowledge is available but refused or hidden, and because his daughter does not, in the end, escape his seedy shadow. For all the clarity of her heart and mind, her high courage, her being such a ‘quantity’, as Milly thinks, Kate ends up on just the shifting moral ground where we imagine her father to be so nastily at home. She herself is not shifting; she is magnificently firm. But the ground gets very marshy around her, and she bears her responsibility for that. Kate has a design that, as Dorothea Krook says in The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (1967), is ‘a miracle of intelligence, courage, good sense, good will – everything in fact that the world ever asks of any worldly design, provided that it succeeds.’ And if it doesn’t succeed? And who determines success and failure in such intricate cases?

What is the case? Most of the pieces of it lie before us in the passages I have already quoted. Let’s put the pieces together. Kate Croy, anxious to separate herself from her father’s shame, to give what she calls the ‘broken sentence’ of her family’s life ‘a sort of meaning’, and at the same time to avoid the penury and meanness of her sister’s married and then widowed state, has allowed herself to be taken up by her rich Aunt Maud. Maud admires Kate greatly, and wants to marry her off to some grandee, or failing a really grand grandee the sinister aristocrat I mentioned earlier as in conversation with Milly. His name is Lord Mark. Kate has other plans. She is in love with Densher and won’t marry anyone else. But she won’t marry him as long as he is poor, and she has Aunt Maud’s wishes to contend with. Her idea is that it must be possible to have money and marry whom she wants – she just doesn’t know how. Perhaps Aunt Maud will come round to the idea of Densher. No point in giving up yet.

Enter Milly Theale, the young American, and her travelling companion, Susan Stringham, an old friend of Aunt Maud’s, it turns out. Milly is immensely rich, and James really goes to town on the topic.

It prevailed even as the truth of truths that the girl couldn’t get away from her wealth . . . She couldn’t dress it away, nor walk it away, nor read it away, nor think it away; she could neither smile it away in any dreamy absence nor blow it away in any softened sigh. She couldn’t have lost it if she had tried – that was what it was to be really rich. It had to be the thing you were.

Milly is also very ill, in fact dying, and I have always wanted to believe that her wealth is her illness, that in a furiously compressed parable James is telling us not that money is the root of all evil but something like the reverse: that the combination of real wealth and real innocence is mortal, that the mere promise of unconditional, uncalculating possibility is enough to bring down, as if by magic, the trap of what James calls, in this novel, ‘the offensive real’. But in fact he is saying, or his novel is saying, something rather more complicated.

We never get to know what Milly’s illness is. Susan Stringham doesn’t want to know, and recognises only that it isn’t what Milly thought it was. ‘She’s wrong – she hasn’t what she thought.’ The great doctor Sir Luke Strett examines her ‘for what she supposed’ but finds ‘something else’. It’s a relief to know he examined her, because he mostly seems to diagnose by talking like an oracle, and by giving Jamesian advice about ‘living’. Milly thinks he finds things out ‘simply by his genius’, and you have to read very carefully to discover a mention of ‘much interrogation, auscultation, exploration, much noting of his own sequences and neglecting of hers’. I think that’s an examination. Kate thinks it can’t be tuberculosis. ‘Isn’t consumption, taken in time, now curable?’ But perhaps Milly’s sickness is not ‘taken in time’. In any event, it is clear that Sir Luke thinks the illness has an element of ‘option’ or ‘volition’ about it, and that happiness and love would be good for Milly. Would they prolong her life? The suggestion is repeatedly made, but perhaps all anyone means is that if her life is full it will matter less how short it is.

At this point a ghastly conspiracy arises. Two ghastly conspiracies. Kate and Densher decide that if they deny or hide their love for each other, he can pay court to Milly, and see what comes of it. Well, he won’t even have to pay court, only allow the girl to love him. They spell out the implications of their plan down to the last detail. If necessary, Densher is to marry Milly. ‘So that’ – he puts it as a question – ‘when her death has taken place I shall in the natural course have money?’ Kate assents: ‘You’ll in the natural course have money. We shall in the natural course be free.’ A moment later he says: ‘What I don’t make out is how, caring for me, you can like it.’ Kate says: ‘I don’t like it, but I’m a person, thank goodness, who can do what I don’t like.’

In the other conspiracy, Aunt Maud and Susan Stringham decide that Densher will be good for Milly, like some extraordinary fortifying medicine, and are undeterred by their certain knowledge of his and Kate’s commitment to each other. Aunt Maud is very firm: ‘Kate thinks she cares. But she’s mistaken.’ Maud means that Milly doesn’t have to be told about Kate’s supposed mistake, and that Densher therefore does not count as spoken for. It doesn’t matter what Kate feels if no one mentions it; and although Maud and Susan Stringham don’t know it, Kate herself is busy giving exactly the same impression to Milly – namely, that she doesn’t care at all for Densher.

Milly and Susan have gone to Venice, and everyone visits them there. Densher stays on and pays his passive, dilatory court to Milly, his whole idea of honour attached to the idea that he has not actually lied about anything. When Kate says at one stage that they have told too many lies to back out now, he insists that he hasn’t told any. Then Lord Mark, having briefly pursued Milly to Venice in order to propose to her (in vain) and returned to London to propose to Kate (also in vain), puts two and two together and tells Milly the whole shabby story, the fact of Densher’s and Kate’s long-standing and unbroken engagement. Milly loses the will to live, and ‘has turned her face to the wall’, we are repeatedly told. There is an excruciating scene between Susan and Densher in which she asks him to deny, if he can, the revelation Lord Mark made to Milly. Densher has one last interview with Milly but he doesn’t deny the revelation. In that interview, we later learn, he felt ‘forgiven, dedicated, blessed’ by Milly, and she writes him a letter which reaches him just before Christmas, and at the very time of her death.

Densher takes the letter, unopened, to Kate. They both know what is in it. Know? They guess. No, they know. They know Milly will have left him a lot of money, because she is, as they say, ‘stupendous’. Kate burns the letter, still unopened; and because the novel has spent so many of its later pages in Densher’s murky and self-deceiving consciousness, we may be rather surprised to find she thinks that the whole scheme was a tremendous success, that everything has gone more or less as planned. ‘We’ve not failed,’ she says even before the letter comes. ‘We’ve succeeded . . . She won’t have loved you for nothing . . . And you won’t have loved me.’ He will have loved her enough, in other words, to have passed to the end, to Milly’s end, as the person who didn’t love Kate: that is, as the person who loved Kate so much he could deny her in order to keep her. This, of course, is what he has not quite managed to do.

In fact, things have gone terribly wrong, and neither Kate nor Densher, lucid as they are, is quite able to see what a wreck they have made of their love. Kate has been clear throughout about their goal and the lies it would cost. She has paid the price in lies, and her moral comfort is that she really liked Milly and wanted her to be happy, and genuinely felt that Milly could have what she wanted while she, Kate, a little later, would also get what she wanted – even if both wanted the same thing. Densher’s comfort has been that he hasn’t lied, and there is a weird moral dimension in which his honour is his deepest weakness, the flaw that makes him unworthy of the ruthless Kate. He didn’t deny their relation when he last spoke with Milly, because he didn’t have to, because Milly didn’t ask. ‘She wanted from my own lips – so I saw it – the truth. But I was with her for twenty minutes, and she never asked me for it.’ ‘She never wanted the truth,’ Kate devastatingly says. ‘She wanted you . . . You might have lied to her from pity, and she have seen you and felt you lie, and yet – since it was all for tenderness – she would have thanked you and blessed you and clung to you but the more.’ Remaining faithful to Kate, as he thinks, Densher has come close to betraying their scheme, and has failed of tenderness towards Milly into the bargain. All he kept faith with was his own literalist, prevaricating notion of honour.

Still, his honour is not simply to be dismissed, and he finally understands precisely why Kate is wrong about the success of their scheme. His understanding hinges on what he does and does not know about Milly’s letter, the one Kate threw into the fire. Of course he and Kate knew it would name a bequest, and the later communication from a New York lawyer confirms that. But if he betrayed Kate’s passionate ruthlessness and lucidity by his prevarication, Kate took something precious away from him by burning the letter. It was hers to burn, he had given it to her. ‘He had given poor Kate her freedom,’ we are told. Since when was he able to say ‘poor Kate’, and why can he say it now? Because he is thinking that he will ‘never, never know what had been in Milly’s letter’. He knows what it says, but not how Milly said it, and the thought of ‘the turn she would have given her act’ produces the image of an irrevocable loss, the forfeit of a revelation he will now never have, ‘like the sacrifice of something sentient and throbbing, something that, for the spiritual ear, might have been audible as a faint far wail’. Densher’s understanding is complex and muffled, even distanced through the imagery James lends him. But he has found his way to the idea of sacrifice, and what is wrong with the sacrifice of the innocent.

Densher offers to marry Kate without the money, or if they don’t marry, to give the money to her. Kate accuses him of falling in love with Milly at their last interview, falling in love, that is, with the future dead girl: ‘She died for you then that you might understand her.’ And just as he couldn’t tell Milly that he and Kate were not engaged, Densher cannot now tell Kate, when she asks him point blank, that he is not in love with Milly’s memory. He is dismissive about the idea, but Kate insists: ‘Don’t speak as if you couldn’t be. I could in your place.’ This is ‘the knowledge of each other that they couldn’t undo’. He can’t love, perhaps never loved enough, the strength he thought he loved in Kate. She can’t bear his lapse into guilt, which he has crystallised in the dead girl. Kate has, as she said earlier, taken trouble for him she ‘never dreamed’ she should take ‘for any human creature’, and the creature has sought forgiveness and blessing in the very moral scheme she had grandly set aside. When worldly designs succeed, as Dorothea Krook suggests, their success redefines our scruple. With success, Kate would have left her father’s world far behind. She and Densher would have married, the memories of shady dealing would have faded and Milly would have been remembered as an immense benefactor. Densher wants to put away the bad memories by not taking the money, but his even thinking this, let alone doing it, undermines the whole scheme and turns it into a moral disaster. Now the very attempt to outride scruple seems not heroic but simply unconscionable, and it invites us to believe that for all her magnificence Kate was never going to get out of the land of disgrace, as Densher was never going to make any money.

Robert Pippin, in an excellent recent book called Henry James and Modern Moral Life, summarises these dilemmas starting from Densher’s point of view.3 Pippin says Densher can’t take the money because he can’t, in the end, act ‘as if no great moral complication would shadow their life’. If this view is right, Kate must be in the wrong, and have always been in the wrong. She ‘plausibly’ disagrees, Pippin says, because she sees that they can’t retrospectively put themselves in the right. But were they in the wrong? ‘Interestingly’, Pippin says, it doesn’t seem so to Kate. We might ask, although Pippin doesn’t, whether Kate’s amorality is in some way defensible, and indeed whether it might not be a sort of morality. But with or without this question, what do we think has happened? Has Densher arrived late at the right morality, or is he just trapped in some blurred and generalised sense of guilt? The right morality, Pippin wants to argue, has something to do with Milly’s ‘entitlement’ not to be treated in the way she was treated. There is always the possibility, Pippin continues, that ‘such judgments are vestigial or sentimental or finally empty’ but he doesn’t think James believes they are, or always are. James is not a ‘moral sceptic’. ‘I don’t think there is any question,’ Pippin says, ‘that James is treating Kate’s attitude as wrong, and the interesting issue has been all along why he thinks that, what else he must be committed to in order to believe it.’

I don’t think there is any question that Pippin and I regard Kate’s attitude as wrong, and James may well have felt the same. But the novel itself, with its extravagant moral subtlety and its exemplary moral discretion, makes some very strange suggestions, a few of which I have evoked more or less in passing. That honour may be a form of weakness. That ruthlessness may be a kind of probity, and in its clear-sightedness may even generate more tenderness than honour is likely to. That success and failure alter the moral dimensions of any worldly action. Could it be that the novel is a moral sceptic, even if James isn’t? What does this novel know?

It’s worth remembering that novels can be deeply preoccupied with morality without offering any moralising, and that they are under no obligation to endorse our views or anyone else’s – indeed we might think they are under some obligation not to do any endorsing at all. But this is not the same as asking what they know. The Wings of the Dove suggests, perhaps contrary to our expectation of a James novel, and contrary to many familiar readings of this one, that knowledge is very often fully available but entirely unwelcome. This is a little odd, given James’s interest in perpetual inquiry and the difficulties of knowing, and his often remarked propensity for verbs of perceiving and descrying. Things are always ‘seeming’ and ‘appearing’ and ‘as if’, and Seymour Chatman, in The Later Style of Henry James (1972), has listed a host of words and phrases of discovery in James: ‘see that’, ‘see how’, ‘make out’, ‘recognise’, and of course ‘learn’ and ‘know’. But here, Kate’s family has no wish to know what Lionel Croy has done. Milly doesn’t want to know the name of her illness, and Susan Stringham doesn’t either. Kate, having speculated about the same thing, decides that ‘it’s a matter in which I don’t want knowledge,’ adding that Milly ‘doesn’t want one to want it’. Densher doesn’t want to know anything about the situation he has got himself into, and is capable of wonderfully hazy bits of argument such as the following: ‘The single thing that was clear in complications was that, whatever happened, one was to behave like a gentleman – to which was added indeed the perhaps slightly less shining truth that complications might sometimes have their tedium beguiled by a study of the question of how a gentleman would behave.’ Neither Aunt Maud nor Susan Stringham is interested in the truth of the relationship between Densher and Kate. Densher and Kate burn Milly’s letter without reading it, and although Kate reads the New York lawyer’s letter and knows how much Milly has left to Densher, he hasn’t read the letter and doesn’t want to know. And finally there is the unundoable knowledge of each other that Kate and Densher bury in each other’s arms, or that he at least thinks they are burying there.

This all adds up, it seems to me, to a story not of epistemological uncertainty or moral relativity but of willed and systematic blindness. By looking closely at the question of knowledge in The Wings of the Dove we come to see how rarely people want it. When Kate says her father’s disgrace is ‘known – only . . . not to us’, she seems to anticipate Kafka’s famous remark to Max Brod. Kafka told Brod that he sometimes saw our world as one of God’s bad moods, or bad days. ‘So there would be no hope outside our world?’ Brod said. ‘Plenty of hope,’ Kafka said, smiling, ‘for God – no end of hope – only not for us.’ But Kafka is talking about an unfortunate exclusion, a kind of privilege that God keeps to himself, while Kate is thinking of an anonymous public record that she and her family don’t have to pay any attention to: they are not excluded, they are excluding. Just think of what can be known and isn’t in The Wings of the Dove: disgrace, illness, dishonesty, love, charity and a specified large amount of money. This is a lot not to want to know, and it’s a very varied list. With the list in mind, and with our sense of the sheer force of willed blindness in the book, we can return to the question of Kate’s wrongdoing.

Whatever Kate is, she is not blind. Even in not wanting knowledge of Milly’s illness she is lucid about Milly’s preference, and about her own sheer distaste for the very idea of illness. ‘I’m a brute about illness,’ she says. ‘I hate it.’ ‘If you want things named,’ she later tells Densher, ‘you must name them.’ This is just before she makes him spell out their plot in all its greedy and ghoulish detail: ‘Since she’s to die I’m to marry her?’ But once he’s out of her presence Densher is no great shakes at naming things, rather an expert at dodging categories: with or without him Kate remorselessly calls things by their precise and proper names. In this novel, to name is to know, and to know you know, and Kate is almost alone in doing this. Her only companion is Milly, who names things, or some things, when she can, and learns fast. She understands, for instance, that Kate may be ‘the least bit brutal’, although she isn’t ‘brutally brutal – which Milly had hitherto benightedly supposed the only way’. It’s a tribute to her that she doesn’t like Kate any the less for this, and it is because they both like to name things and to know things that they hit it off so well.

Kate isn’t brutally brutal, and she isn’t deceptively deceptive. She offers a paradoxical case of openness in a world of hiding because her own lie is so clear and logically grounded. It’s hard not to feel this quality in her is some sort of virtue, even when she is manifestly engaged in swindling a dying girl out of her money. James has crafted an exquisite moral dilemma for us as well as for his characters, and we, too, like Kate, find ourselves knowing more than we can say (‘She knew more than she could have told you,’ is James’s phrase), and even perhaps like the child Maisie, perceiving more than we can translate. There is, I think, no way of describing what is happening in this novel without getting it wrong, and I’ve been doing it for some time. If we admire Kate for her clarity and her courage, her wish to have what she can have, we seem to be endorsing what the least moralising of critics, F.W. Dupee, in his afterword to the Signet edition of The Wings of the Dove (1964), calls ‘traffic in the affections’, and most critics go a lot further. Dorothea Krook calls Kate’s scheme diabolical and dreadful. I’m not much of a moraliser myself, but I have used the words ‘greedy’, ‘ghoulish’, ‘shabby’, ‘disgrace’ and ‘swindling’. But to use any of these words and leave them standing is to have missed everything that matters about Kate, and to have misrepresented our own feelings about her and her actions.

Couldn’t she be clear and brave and crooked at the same time? No. Because what we admire in her is her straightness. But she could be clear and brave and wrong. The question – Pippin’s question and now ours – is how she is wrong, what exactly she is wrong about. I don’t believe in Pippin’s notion of Milly’s ‘entitlement’ to certain forms of treatment, or rather her entitlement not to be treated in certain ways, but the answer to our question must centre on Milly. If it is all right to deceive a person into happiness, as Kate and Densher (and Aunt Maud and Susan Stringham) seek to do with Milly, if happiness is happiness, deceived or undeceived, then Kate’s scheme is unconventional and indirect, but can’t be substantively wrong. And surely it can be all right to deceive a person into happiness, and has been on many occasions. Why not here? Because happiness is not the issue. Love and life are the issue, to have loved, to have lived. But an obstinate, practical doubt remains. Hasn’t Milly finally loved and lived, even if in error about her dawdling suitor? Isn’t it the discovery of the error that kills her, takes away her will to live, rather than the error itself? Wasn’t the error working just as well as the truth would have? I know these sound like dastardly questions from any sound moral point of view, but that is what I am suggesting the novel does for us. It rattles not our morals but our sense of their reasonableness, and that is why we are in such a fix when we try to talk about the book.

I should like to say that everyone in this novel has too cheap an idea of Milly’s desire for experience: that is, they fail to see the depth and extent of her longing, and are too ready to give her just a little life and imagine she is happy with it. After all, as we might brutally say, she is dying, how much can she expect? Kate thinks Milly lacks the imagination of terror (by which, interestingly, she means the imagination of thrift and dependence on others, the things that terrify Kate), but Kate herself lacks the imagination of disinterested knowledge, the knowledge that I suggested earlier was for James synonymous with life. When Milly is surprised by Susan Stringham on the edge of a mountain in Switzerland, ‘looking down on the kingdoms of the earth’, Susan realises that Milly is not planning to renounce any of them. The question is: ‘Was she choosing among them or did she want them all?’ The biblical parallel is important, the echo of the scene where Satan offers the kingdoms of the earth to Christ, but there is nothing diabolical about Milly’s refusal to renounce. She doesn’t want to possess the kingdoms of the world – she already possesses enough – she wants to know them. No one else in the novel understands this, and this shows a poverty of imagination on their part – on the part even of the most imaginative. But is this a moral failing? Does it justify all the ugly words we want to use?

And yet we continue to want to use the words, or many of us do. We want to say, with Dupee, that in Kate’s case even ‘infinite fascination and understanding’ can’t lead to forgiveness, but I’m not sure that forgiveness comes up even as an impossibility. Morals are what they are but the shifting world is also what it is. Barthes contrasts knowledge itself, and not only morals, with life as it is lived. ‘Knowledge is coarse, life is subtle, and literature matters to us because it corrects this distance.’ I’m translating the French word science as ‘knowledge’, rather tendentiously, but it’s clear that the English word ‘science’ doesn’t catch what’s meant. ‘La science est grossière, la vie est subtile, et c’est pour corriger cette distance que la littérature nous importe.’ Let’s say science here means ‘organised knowledge’, and in this context would mean ‘organised ethical thought’. Organised thought would be coarse and life would be subtle – a reversal of a familiar assumption. Barthes also writes of a fundamental failure of relation between language and reality, an ‘inadéquation fondamentale du langage et du réel’. I think, too, of J.L. Austin’s phrase about ‘the innumerable and unforeseeable demands of the world upon language’. We have words, as Austin shows, that help us to meet these demands, but we also have, like Maisie, perceptions we cannot translate into words. And if those perceptions come to us from a novel, we may find we cannot happily translate them into words other than those we have already been given. We do translate them, but we can’t do it happily. Recognising this fact, pausing over the untranslated perceptions, settling for coarseness when we have to, but remembering the subtlety we have just betrayed, is not moral relativism but a form of patience, a way of looking the world’s complexity in the face. This, I take it, is what the novel knows. Henry James knows it too, but I’m not sure it’s the main thing he knows, and the novel knows it on every page.

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