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Travelling with Ghosts in “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval’”

Sheila Teahan


Cet article propose une lecture rhétorique de « Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval,’ » texte qui est structuré par l’aposiopèse, figure de l’interruption ou du suspens, et où James en vient à s’interroger sur les relations insaisissables entre voyage et spectralité. La mort étant l’ultime aposiopèse, la figure avec ses implications tropologiques et eschatologiques constitue à la fois le sujet de l’essai et son principal procédé rhétorique. La relecture de Denis Duval par James révèle la relation étroite que le voyage entretient à ses yeux avec le spectral, la mort et l’activité tropologique de la littérature elle-même.

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Texte intégral

To the Memory of James Seaton, Fellow Jamesian Traveller

Travelling with Thackeray

1I work from the premise that Henry James’s travel writing is no less literary than his fiction. His travel writing resists assimilation to philosophical, historical, or aesthetic paradigms that it could be judged to reflect or anticipate, and it especially resists relegation to the status of mere illumination or illustration of his theory and practice of fiction. I propose here to examine the literariness of “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval,’” which Philip Horne distinguishes as the James essay “that combines so thoroughly travel writing, literary criticism, and autobiography” (2017 219). Written in 1899, published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1901, and republished with minimal revision in English Hours in 1905, the essay revisits Denis Duval, the novel left unfinished at Thackeray’s death in 1863. In doing so, it develops an inquiry into the ontology of the literary. James foregrounds his essay’s theoretical stakes: he sees Thackeray’s narrator Duval as “a practised literary artist” and understands Denis Duval as articulating a “general poetic” of its historical moment (1993 235, 240). His preoccupation with the posthumous serialization of Thackeray’s fragment engenders a sustained reflection on the rhetorical and eschatological implications of aposiopesis, the figure of interruption or of stopping short—the figure that is both the subject of James’s essay and its principal rhetorical procedure. James’s rereading of Denis Duval articulates and is informed by the interintrication of travel with memory, the ghostly, and literary tropology itself.

  • 1 See Cornelius Crowley’s article in this issue for further discussion of this letter (editor’s note (...)

2Given the subject of this special issue, it may be useful to interrogate the idea of travel itself. Alain de Botton suggests that the nature of travel is less intuitive than first appears: although “few activities reveal as much [as travel] about the dynamics” of the human quest for happiness, “rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems” (9). I follow Horne in reading “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval’” as an example of travel writing, albeit an eccentric one. It illustrates what Alison Booth deems James’s “participation in the discourse of ‘homes and haunts’—a hybrid genre of travel narrative, literary journalism, biography, and guidebook—that supported the rise of literary tourism in the nineteenth century,” a touristic genre to which he contributes “in part through his establishment of the future literary museum, Lamb House” (216). James explicitly posits reading as a form of travel, asserting in his 5 March 1907 letter to Grace Norton that “the travel-impulse (which I’ve had almost no opportunity in my life really to gratify) is extinct as from inanition (and personal antiquity!) and above all, more and more, the only way I care to travel is by reading. To stay at home and read is more and more my ideal” (1920 68).1 In addition to its exploration of the phenomenology of travel, James’s essay embeds two episodes of physical travel: Thackeray’s visit to Winchelsea and the geographical displacement of his protagonist Duval in the mid-eighteenth century from France to England. As reflected by its inclusion in English Hours, James regarded “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval’” as a significant contribution to the body of his travel writings.

3The minimal physical travel he recounts there (reading, walking, bicycling, and looking over a garden wall) appears expansive compared to the readerly practice of Xavier de Maistre, the eighteenth-century author of Journey Around My Bedroom, a text de Botton credits with having “pioneered a mode of travel that was to make his name: room travel” (240). De Maistre was a bookish romantic obsessed with aeronautics who built a flying machine from paper and wire and crashed a hot-air balloon into a forest. After these misadventures, de Maistre retired to his room in Turin, opining that “[m]illions of people who, until now, have never dared to travel, others who have not been able to travel and still more who have not even thought of travelling will be able to follow my example” (quoted in de Botton 241). Although de Maistre’s defamiliarizing “travel” to his sofa sharpens his powers of perception (his “journey having shaken him from his usual lethargy, he looks at it through fresh eyes and rediscovers some of its qualities”), his narrative devolves into “long and wearing digressions” about his dog, his lover, and his servant (241, 242). De Maistre hyperbolically anticipates James’s fantasy of travel as housebound reading and dramatizes the power of the “travelling mind-set” (242). De Botton’s second example of sedentary travel is the Duc des Esseintes, the misanthropic protagonist of J. K. Huysman’s 1884 novel A Rebours, who reads in bed while “moulding acerbic thoughts about humanity” (10). David Copperfield inspires his urge to see “English life”; but while waiting for his train, he is overwhelmed by the prospective discomforts that would “soil his dreams” of travel (10, 11). Reflecting, “[w]hat was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair?”, he returns to his villa for good (11). To be sure, the historical and fictional cases of de Maistre and des Esseintes seem remote from the inveterate traveller James and his disingenuous complaint about lacking opportunity to gratify the “travel-impulse.” Nonetheless, de Botton’s narratives of room travel literalize James’s perception of reading as phenomenological travel. Venues of sedentary travel such as de Maistre’s chair and the Duc des Esseintes’s bed materialize what de Botton terms “the power of the liminal travelling place” (30). This rich formulation, which combines a pleonasm (“liminal travelling”) and an oxymoron (“travelling place”), captures the liminal character of reading, travel, and place alike.

Traveller, Interrupted: Aposiopesis

4James’s preoccupation with Thackeray’s fragmentary novel is undergirded by themes of loss and death. Susan Griffin argues that his essay reads the ruins of Winchelsea and Rye as “signs of the futility of human work in the face of time” (154), an anxiety poignantly registered in his implication that he himself may have read Denis Duval for the last time: “It is all beautiful once more to a final reading” (234). As Horne observes, his 25 March 1864 letter to T.S. Perry playfully links Thackeray’s death to an unidentified fiction of James’s own. He writes, “I had made up my mind to finish a certain task or die in the attempt” and dramatically exclaims that “I am dying to hear the end of Denis Duval: that is an earthly expression” (Horne, 1999 3). But his interest in the “precariousness of serialization” (Horne, 2017 220) extends beyond the theme of mortality. In his analysis of James’s ambivalence toward “the exigencies and possibilities of serial form,” Poole notes that the affective drama of serialization is not limited to anxiety that the author might die before finishing the text, as with Denis Duval, nor to the possibility that the reader might die before reaching its conclusion, but accommodates both exigencies (144). The eschatological stakes of serialization are intrinsic to its suspensive character. In sum, they are formal.

5Accordingly, James’s fraught relation to serialization has rhetorical implications: his reflection on Thackeray’s fragment is structured by the trope of aposiopesis, a “becoming silent” or interruption. Richard Lanham aligns aposiopesis, a “[s[topping suddenly in midcourse, leaving a statement unfinished, sometimes from genuine passion, sometimes for effect,” with the tropes of interpellation and reticentia (20). The ultimate aposiopesis is surely death, the interruption that silences Thackeray midway through Denis Duval. Yet strikingly, what seems most to perturb James is not the novel’s aposiopetic “truncated serialization” (Horne, 2017 228), but its ghostly protraction. Its serial appearance continues for six months after Thackeray’s death, as if he writes from beyond the grave, and James finds this apparitional utterance disconcerting and uncanny. He has seen, or rather read, a ghost. How are we to conceive the relation between aposiopesis and spectrality? Thackeray’s disembodied utterance is an irruption of the spectral: the aposiopetic rupture of death marks the ghostly continuation of a posthumous voice travelling in textual space and time. Paul de Man’s dense and challenging assertion that death “is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament” (1984 81) may be useful here. Taken as a strong reading of the trope of aposiopesis and its link to death, de Man’s formulation helps us to understand the spectral linguistic residue that moves through time both because and in spite of Thackeray’s interruption.

6If the posthumous publication of Denis Duval illustrates the irruption of the spectral through aposiopesis, it also exemplifies the ghostliness of the literary per se: as Derrida argues, a “masterpiece always moves, by definition, in the manner of a ghost” (18). The ghostly is a prominent presence in James’s essay, if such can be said of the ghostly. Winchelsea and Rye, “the two small ghosts of the Cinque Ports,” were ports until the storm of 1287 (236; on this historical context, see Horne, 2017 221, 225). Old Winchelsea signifies the “dim ghost of a tradition, with its very site—distant several miles from that of its successor––rendered uncertain by the endless mutation of the shore” (242). However invisible the watery site of its death by “drowning,” Winchelsea attests to its erasure by history: the mutilated text of the town’s “broken accents and scant and shabby signs” testifies to a “sense of obliterated history” (244, 248). Aligning Winchelsea with Denis Duval itself, James speaks of the “few chapters left to us” (234) as if the novel were a ruinous fragment whose remainder has fallen away, like the lost margin of the Sussex coast. The invisible ruin of Winchelsea invites us to think about history “itself as ghostly, as what can in some form or other always come back,” like the uncanny itself (Bennett and Royle 183). Booth observes that the prospect of spotting a ghost was a principal touristic selling point of the house museum (216), and the essay’s coy allusions to its narrator render James himself a prospective ghost of the unnamed Lamb House, appearing only as the anonymous “fond proprietor” of one of Rye’s “ancient doorsteps” (247). Much as the revenant or re-venant can only haunt without ever having been present, and thereby appearing “only by means of figure or fiction,” as Derrida explains (1989 64), so James, despite his allusively registered proprietorship of Lamb House, appears in his own narration not properly present (proper and proprietor both deriving from the Latin proprius, own), but only spectrally so.

7Contemplating the incompleteness of Denis Duval, James counterintuitively finds that its interruption “really gave it something as well as took something away” (234). Its fragmentation is both additive and privative, which is to say that it is supplementary in the Derridean sense, revealing an originary lack regardless of whether the novel is finished or not. This lack is balanced by the assurance that Denis Duval and Denis Duval alike, both character and text, benefit from a beautiful premature death by having been taken in their prime: “It might have been as true of works of art as of men and women, that if the gods loved them they died young” (234). James locates the novel’s aesthetic value in “the beauty of its being its author’s,” a better “reason for liking a particular book” than “the particular book seems in a position itself at last to supply” (234, 235), thus shifting his attention from the fragmentary form of Denis Duval to the pseudo-plenitude of the authorial presence that transcends it.

8Despite this plenitude, James faults the novel for its alleged lack of pictorial description and of a recognizable subject. On the first question, he speculates that its “extraordinary avoidance of picture” implies that Thackeray may never have seen Winchelsea: “The impression of to-day’s reader is that the chapters we possess might really have been written without the author’s having stood on the spot” (240, 237). Since he knew that Thackeray had visited Winchelsea (Griffin 157), this suggestion is a playful counterfactual ruse. James indeed appears to savor the prospective banishment of “the mere eye of sense” (237) from loco-description. In his own terms, the absence of picture is scarcely an aesthetic demerit, and we should further recall his famous precept in “The Art of Fiction”: “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnée: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it” (1984a 56). Even assuming that an absence of pictorial description belongs to the novel’s donnée, James’s claim is clearly a trope, but a trope for what? Horne notes: “James’s assertion that Denis Duval lacks pictorial vividness can seem perverse in the light of a passage like the following” from Chapter III: “I have the picture in my mind now. I see a winding road leading down to one of the gates of our town; the blue marsh-land, and yonder, across the marsh, Rye towers and gables” (Horne, 2017 229 n.3; Thackeray 50). Like the term “picture,” Duval’s first person present tense narration here foregrounds the phenomenology of the pictorial. This foregrounding of the narrator is a device James famously criticizes in his 1883 essay “Anthony Trollope.” There, he contends that Thackeray’s “suicidal satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe” undermines his narrative authority: “It is impossible to imagine what a novelist takes himself to be unless he regard himself as an historian and his narrative as a history. It is only as an historian that he has the smallest locus standi. As a narrator of fictitious events he is nowhere” (1984a 1343). In rhetorical terms, narratorial intrusion is parabasis, a tarrying or digression, the trope de Man calls “the interruption of a discourse by a shift in the rhetorical register,” “the author’s intrusion that disrupts the fictional illusion” (1996 178; 1983 218-219). Etymologically, parabasis is a going aside, stepping forward, or walking. The Arte of English Poesie dubs it “the straggler,” and Puttenham’s arresting military metatrope for the trope of parabasis is a soldier who “marches out of his array” or leaves his formation (240). Parabasis is a rhetorical going AWOL. Like aposiopesis, it is at once a breaking off and a movement forward, an interruption and an extension. Maebh Long explains: “Ironic parabasis is a step forward and a step back, a transgressive, skewed step that is and is not the step of self-reflection. It crosses boundaries and markers; it is always inside and outside […] It interrupts and continues, it explains and mystifies” (93). With its emphasis on the liminal, Long’s analysis of the double shuttling movement of parabasis links it to the transgressive crossings of the ghostly and its uncanny travels.

Ghostly Travel

9Virginia Woolf lauds James’s fiction for its distinctive internalization of the ghostly: “Henry James’s ghosts have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts—the blood-stained sea-captains, the white horses, the headless Ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange” (52-53). For Woolf, the ghostly emerges where the familiar is bordered by the unfamiliar and, like that of Freud’s uncanny, its origin arises from within rather than impinging from without—although one of the effects of the uncanny is, of course, to undo this and other binary oppositions. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle contend that the ghost emerges as a “psychological symptom” in tandem with the development of psychoanalysis in the nineteenth century (183). They link this development to the rise of the psychological novel associated specifically with James, whose fictions “conjure and explore the ghostliness of experience in profoundly unsettling ways” (185). This ghostliness of experience is equally the subject of “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval,’” in which James’s own spectral presence conveys metonymically “the sense of ghostly secrets, of what [Nicolas] Abraham called the ‘gaps left within us by the secrets of others’, together with a sense of the ghostliness of the ego (or ‘I’) itself” (185). The essay’s interarticulation of travel with the ghostly is axiomatic. Both travel and the ghostly are structured by the interintrication of presence and absence, and they inhabit much the same territory—or more precisely, bear the same impossible relation to place. Bennett and Royle note that ghosts “are always inscribed in a context: they at once belong to and haunt the idea of a place (hence ‘spirit of place’ or genius loci) and belong to and haunt the idea of a time” (182). However tied to a particular place, such as a “haunted house”—in the pleonastic designation of a seemingly and speciously special case of what all houses are—ghosts do not stay put. They come and go; they travel.

10The distinctive internalization of the ghostly that Woolf attributes to James frames his rereading of Denis Duval as “a literary adventure which, though not followed by the prostration that sometimes ensues on adventures, has nevertheless induced meditation” (233). This trope of reading as internalized adventure anticipates James’s promotion, in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, of Isabel’s “extraordinary meditative vigil” in Chapter 42, “the vigil of searching criticism” that “throws the action further forward than twenty ‘incidents’ might have done” (1984b 1084). He specifies: “It is a representation simply of her motionlessly seeing, and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity of her act as ‘interesting’ as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate” (1084). Like his repetition of the key word “vigil,” which underlines Isabel’s act of intense and sustained watching, James’s gingerly placement in dissociative and ironizing quotation marks of the paired assonant terms “incidents” and “interesting” (with “incident” carefully distinguished, however, from the implicitly lauded “vivacity of incident” attributed to her vigil, 1084) pointedly valorizes “seeing” over the sensational plot mechanics of caravans and pirates. Poole notes that “most serialized fiction reveled in incident and plot, the action seen rather than the act of seeing” (144), and this distinction subtends the entire preface. James’s complaint that Denis Duval lacks a “subject” may, as Horne suggests, reflect his “longstanding critical dispute with the middlebrows about ‘story’ and what it is,” prompted especially by Howells’s claim in “Henry James, Jr.” (1882) that James “stands for ‘a new school’ that proposes ‘a novel which is an analytic study rather than a story’” (2017 226). Thus does “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval’” elevate, dramatize, and emplot the drama of seeing celebrated in James’s preface to The Portrait of a Lady. Both texts affirm the identity of subject and form. Like the room travel of de Maistre and the Duc des Esseintes, Isabel’s vigil of motionless seeing in Chapter 42 telescopes her mental travel.

11Nicolas Abraham proposes that people see ghosts because the dead have taken “’unspeakable secrets to the grave’. These secrets remain, like a crypt, a gap, in the unconscious of the living […] what haunts us are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others’” (quoted in Bennett and Royle 184). Does James see ghostly signs in Winchelsea because he is haunted by the secret of Thackeray’s absent subject? He muses: “what were they [Duval’s adventures] to have been about? Thackeray carried the mystery to his grave” (242). His counterfactual suggestion that Thackeray never saw Winchelsea may be intended to cover over the gap of Duval’s missing adventures. Certainly a subtext of the essay is a triangular anxiety of influence dynamic in which James, Thackeray, and Duval vie for preeminence. Thus James oddly describes Duval as being in metaleptic competition with his creator, “possessed in perfection of his master’s maturest style. He writes, almost to the life, the language of ‘The Roundabout Papers’” (238), as if Thackeray’s protagonist has preemptively displaced or plagiarized his author. James frames the resulting thought experiment as a temporal chiasmus: did the eighteenth-century character Duval write nineteenth-century English, or did the nineteenth-century novelist Thackeray write eighteenth-century English? He playfully imagines coercing Thackeray into revealing Denis Duval’s settings: “I should, in truth, have liked to lock up our novelist in our little pavilion of inspiration, the gazebo at Rye, not letting him out till he should quite have satisfied us” by divulging “just the things I should have liked to know—the things, above all, I should have liked most to tell” (250). He expresses a desire to tell that would preempt Thackeray’s authority and authorship alike, and imagines the cliffside pavilion in Rye, termed by Horne “a removed scene of ideal writing,” as “the special spot in the world where Thackeray might most fitly have figured out his story” (Horne, 2017 227; James, 245-246). Thackeray’s spectral proximity summons James’s boyhood reading of a forgotten novel, passages of which “haunt me, yet escape me, like the echo of an old premonition” (246), in a ghostly metaleptic repetition (echo) of something that has not yet happened (premonition). The faltering and aporetic temporality of James’s formulation captures Derrida’s explication of the problem of memory in de Man, for whom “the past does not exist. It will never have existed in the present, never been present […] If a past does not literally exist, no more does death, only mourning, and that other allegory, including all the figures of death with which we people the ‘present’” (1989 58-59). For de Man, as we have seen, “death” is itself one catachrestic figure among the figures that populate, indeed constitute, memory.

12James’s professed liking to tell shapes the aposiopetic narration of “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval.’” It introduces his rereading of Thackeray under the sign of negation (“though not followed,” “not astounding,” “consisted merely”), and almost dismissively (“I mention it, to be frank, only in the interest of its sequel,” 233). The essay’s opening is rhetorically minimizing, emphasizing both the novel’s fragmentation and James’s disappointed expectations that it might shed light on the settings of Winchelsea and Rye: “The case, in short, to put it simply, was that Thackeray’s charming fragment of ‘Denis Duval’ proved to have much less than I had supposed to say about the two little towns with which the few chapters left to us are mainly concerned” (233-234). Yet these dismissive gestures generate the essay that follows; for as Horne remarks of chiasmus, aposiopesis is not merely a verbal device, but “a structure of thought, an analytical tool, a generator of ironies” (2017 222). “Subject” is both a key word in the narrative diction of “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval’” and its most semantically elusive term: the essay’s aposiopetic rhetorical procedures mirror its subject of the search for a missing subject.

13Like de Botton’s sedentary narrators, Thackeray’s Duval is past his travels, “in a placid port after many voyages” and recounting “a troubled life from a winter fireside” (235). James contends that Duval has narratively short-circuited his autobiography with the effect of mystifying the novel’s occluded “subject.” Bypassing the narrative interest of a “more tangled skein” of his romantic history, Duval undermines the story’s love interest by revealing at the outset that the wife seated beside him is Agnes, “the object of his infant passion” (235). According to James, this narrative foreshortening is sustained until the novel’s aposiopetic break: “We get, to the moment the work drops, not a glimpse of his central idea; nothing, if such had been his intention, was in fact ever more triumphantly concealed” (235). Whereas the narrative of Isabel’s motionless seeing in Chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady––singled out in James’s preface as “obviously the best thing in the book” (1084)—condenses an extended timeline of precious consciousness, Duval’s sedentary fireside retrospection appears to James both obscure and obscurantist.

Travelling with/and Tropes

14Ironically, the elusive subject of Denis Duval is progressively occluded by James’s very pursuit of it. Just as his critical prefaces illuminate (however obliquely) the works they address but also produce further discourse that itself demands tropological analysis, so his essay on Thackeray both reveals and conceals, like discourse in general. Thus James complains that Thackeray’s letter to his publisher similarly “reads like a mystification by which the gentleman was to be temporarily kept quiet. With an air of telling him a good deal, Thackeray really tells him nothing—nothing, I mean, by which he himself would have been committed to (any more than deterred from) any idea kept up his sleeve” (241). The letter neither acknowledges nor disavows the content of Denis Duval, and the editorial notes and introductory material by Anne Thackeray Richie leave the reader “equally distant from a clue” (241). Like the “little ancient and most decorative map of Sussex” that marks only where Old Winchelsea is not, these narratives conceal the subject they seem to promise to reveal (242). James’s essay similarly occludes the subject it seeks in ways that foreground its own central concern, which is literariness itself. If the novel’s ostensible subject is Duval’s adventures, “these adventures could at the best have constituted nothing more than its form” (242)—or, one might add, nothing less than its form. Like the elusive subject of Denis Duval, the realm of ghosts “only appears through writing. The strangeness of fiction may be said to consist in this idea of a ‘medium’, a text, in which the apparitional and non-apparitional are made of the same stuff, indistinguishable” (Bennett and Royle 186). If the ghostly and the non-ghostly are indistinguishable, made of the same stuff, the same can be said of reading and writing. And if reading is a mode of travel, so too is writing, as suggested by James’s trope of writing as riding: “The production of a novel finds perhaps its nearest analogy in the ride across country” (241). Note, however, that this trope complicates its assertion of the writer’s agency. For if the “competent novelist” follows the scent of the fox that figures his “idea,” it follows that “when he rides straight he rides, regardless of danger, in whatever direction that animal takes” (241, 242). The fox, not the rider or writer, determines the trajectory of the journey. “Straight” riding is a virtual oxymoron. Like the (mis)step of ironic parabasis, “it never quite takes you to your planned destination” (Long 93).

15The incoherence of James’s trope of riding reflects not a logical contradiction, but the non-self-identity of tropes. His essay accounts scrupulously for the heterogeneity of its own thinking, not least through its play on the word “difference” and its variants. Thus he identifies the “fond indifference, an element of condonation” that motivates us to read novelists we esteem (his examples are Scott and Dickens) even in the absence of “a literary pleasure that is the highest of raptures”: “You go on liking ‘David Copperfield’—I don’t say you go on reading it, which is a very different matter” (234-235). He finds Denis Duval “remarkably different” on its third reading and notes that this difference “is precisely where my story lies” (234). Difference is thus (impossibly) the very basis––the logos in the triple sense of origin, ground, and telos––of James’s narrative. Like the text it rereads, “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval’” inevitably differs from itself in fruitful and exemplary fashion. One sign of this self-difference is James’s repetition, in his “literary adventure” of rereading Denis Duval, of the problem of the “adventures” allegedly missing from Thackeray’s fragment (233, 242)––adventures doubly occluded by the novel’s interruption and by Duval’s narrative foreshortening of his romantic history.

16The tropological status of memory addressed here is also the subject of the opening paragraph of “Venice,” the introductory essay of Italian Hours. Like “London,” “Venice” enjoys pride of place in the collection of travel writing it introduces, and Marie-Odile Salati remarks in her essay for this issue that in “London” James “marks out the space of travel writing, which he removes from the sphere of spatial geography to the mental sphere of the reflecting consciousness” (“The Trope of Passage in English Hours”). The playful and self-reflexive opening of “Venice” similarly reflects on the ontology of travel in ways that link it to “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval.” It argues the impossibility of saying anything about Venice, and it is structured by praeteritio or occultatio, the trope that articulates something “by pointedly seeming to pass over it” (Lanham 104): “I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer” (1992 7). The ubiquitous plenitude of images of Venice preempts not only its representation but even, in James’s opening sentence, the utterance of its place name: “It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it. Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities in the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer’s and you will find three or four high-coloured ‘views’ of it. Everyone has been there, and everyone has brought back a collection of photographs” (1992 7). James’s identification of reading books and viewing pictures as forms of travel posits a phenomenological theory of travel that disjoins it from physical visitation. Venice is so exhaustively represented that “[t]here is nothing more to be said on the subject” (1992 7). More, he pointedly valorizes the impossibility of saying anything about her: “There is nothing new to be said about her certainly, but the old is better than any novelty” (1992 7). The representational exhaustion of Venice renders travel there at once superfluous (you can visit without going there anyway) and belated (everyone has already been there already). He indeed attributes to Venice a privileged anteriority in which she––in James’s feminized personification–belongs to the realm of pure memory. In a curious and asymmetrical analogy, he further imputes to her a hyperbolic, even banal, overfamiliarity: “There is as little mystery about the Grand Canal as about our local thoroughfare, and the name of St. Mark is as familiar as the postman’s ring” (1992 7). The anglicization of Italian place names registers this familiarizing assimilation, but the eccentric trope of the postman’s ring is enigmatic: unlike the Canale Grande or San Marco, it lacks a referent, since we can’t know what the postman carries and is poised to deliver. We are reminded of what Abraham terms the gaps left within us by the ghostly secrets of others, gaps that figure the ghostliness of the self itself, its essential impropriety. The content of the postman’s bag may be one such gap, like the idea of Denis Duval that Thackeray keeps up his sleeve or the missing subject that James’s essay keeps up its own sleeve, a pure form that can be named only by catachresis, like death. Given that metaphor is an etymological transfer or carrying over, a mode of semantic travel, I would suggest that the postman’s package occupies precisely the place of metaphor—the transfer which, like the transit both signaled and suspended by his ring, never quite delivers: in other words, tropology itself.

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1 See Cornelius Crowley’s article in this issue for further discussion of this letter (editor’s note).

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Sheila Teahan, « Travelling with Ghosts in “Winchelsea, Rye, and ‘Denis Duval’” »Viatica [En ligne], HS 3 | 2020, mis en ligne le 23 janvier 2020, consulté le 21 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sheila Teahan

Michigan State University

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