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Early in “Outing Texture,” Renu Bora adduces something called “the reality effect” (effet de réel) in order to make a point about the fundamental mode of description in The Ambassadors. Invented by Roland Barthes in his essay of the same name, the “Reality Effect” obtains when a narrative includes “useless” (superflus) descriptions of objects—descriptions whose uselessness signifies nothing more than that “we are [in] reality” (nous sommes le réel). These useless descriptions are contrasted against pregnant, useful ones: in Madame Bovary, Barthes argues, Flaubert deploys the ‘narratively luxurious’ technique of bundling a character’s social position (bourgeois, ie) into the simple, straightforwardly-signifying items in a room (dans la notation du piano). Bora argues that Henry James’ The Ambassadors foregoes this traditional, social-realist “Reality Effect.”

Surely it could be argued that something approaching the “Reality Effect” does obtain significantly across The Ambassadors; in any case, I am happy to believe that Bora’s main point stands. His point is that

instead of describing perception in terms of the visual properties of the objects themselves, James tends simply to note the abstract effects and results of such impressions and perceptions, as in words such as ‘rich,’ ‘massive,’ ‘shabby,’ ‘solid,’ ‘ponderous,’ etc. (98)

Writing about description in the wake of social-realism, Barthes claims that “concrete reality” itself presented the sufficient justification for speech (la justification suffisante du dire). By contrast, Bora is saying that James chooses to imbue, via free-indirect discourse, effectively all the perceptions of his narrator with what we could just call “value judgments.” James prefers to have Strether’s perceptions tugged ‘with a high degree of subjectivity’ (rich, massive, shabby) into the descriptive-narrative scene.

That said, it is not as if James’ disavowal of the reality effect means he ‘only engages in useful descriptions’ in Barthes’ sense of use (owning a piano = wealth, etc). According to Bora, the capaciousness and energy of Strether’s private imaginative wanderings itself “signifies luxury”:

Strether with his comrades will refer to Chad, Mme de Vionnet, and her daughter   without anchoring his virtue and taste vocabulary in concrete scenarios, so his curiosity has a perpetual lightness even in its persistence. The very levity of the curiosity performs perhaps a decadence of lifestyle itself, of having the luxury, leisure, and taste to lounge about Paris suspending countless acts, quests, and questions with an equally decadent circle for whom time is as abundant as money. (113)

“Without anchoring his virtue and taste vocabulary in concrete scenarios.” (I am, I think insolently, avoiding actually engaging with Marx and class, here.) This passage from Bora seems to want to claim that, for instance, the free-floating, impressionistic / synaesthetic quality of Strether’s social-psychological mind accomplishes a similarly signifying function with respect to (something like) class as Flaubert and Barthes’ piano accomplishes. That Bora praises James’s “refusal” to deploy either the luxe de la narration or an unbundled “effet de réel” suggests Bora wants to call their replacement—Strether’s unbounded social synesthesia—aesthetically fulfilled; or else an art-historically incisive / utopic response to a social realism that had by James’ moment run its course. In any case, Bora would position the late James not as an “apogee” (98) of psychological realism (Dostoevsky/Stendhal) but as the bridge to a modernism which, by saturating its narrative reality with the impressions and aesthetics of its protagonist, might very well figure the utopic in the textures of a subject.

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