Henry James at the Louvre
A museum without people wandering its halls is but a silent storehouse. Part of the appeal of museums, like the Louvre, is the way they serve as both a repository of objects and of cultural tradition. Aside from glimpsing the famous works of art, people visit the Paris museum in order to feel immersed in this tradition, to walk where countless others have walked, to gaze upon sublime objects from cultural worlds that are long disappeared. The often-suffocating museum crowds can be tolerated in order to participate in this remarkable spectacle of human creativity and feel a part of the human force that carries on the significance of material heritage.
The Louvre held a similar allure for Henry James, the canonical 19th century novelist famous for his realist style and careful description of museum pieces. Like many other writers from that time period, James was a cosmopolitan man. Born in America in 1843, he crossed the Atlantic many times in his life and Europe would become a repository for his fictional pursuits. His firsthand experience of the clash between the old and new worlds came to infiltrate his writing, animating novels such as The Portrait of a Lady (1881), whose main character feels a pull between the social imaginaries of America and Europe along the lines of culture and class.
One of James's first encounters with the old world came by way of an extended family tour of Europe from 1855 to 1860. He was still a boy when he was first introduced to the Louvre, and his young mind was just waiting to be filled with the museum’s marvels. He recounts this visit in his childhood memoir, A Small Boy and Others, which he began writing just prior to his 70th birthday. James describes the halls of the Louvre as displaying so many styles that “at first they simply overwhelmed and bewildered me.” The museum presents a “deafening chorus” filled with more “visibilities as one could directly deal with. To distinguish among these, in the charged and coloured and confusing air was difficult – it discouraged and defied.”
Seeing the vastness of human culture represented in one place was understandably a fantastic and overwhelming experience. While James had seen more of the world than most at that young age, the abundance and opulence of the Louvre invited him into countless other imaginary spaces. The Galerie D’Apollon, which James described as “a prodigious tube or tunnel through which I inhaled little by little, that is again and again, a general sense of glory”, had been refurbished only five years before. Its vaulted ceilings and gilded features, now deemed a world heritage site, remain an awe-inspiring sight.
As James recounts, the mass of styles and images coupled with the cavernous nature of the Louvre’s halls made the museum imposing to his childhood mind. It seemed to be a chaotic storehouse, rather than a legible space of order. The galleries proved hard to navigate and the organization made little sense to him. This is an experience we can all be sympathetic to on some level; our own first encounter with a museum can be equally overwhelming. The vastness of the collections, not to mention the organization of styles and periods—categories that eventually help make the cultural world legible—can appear arbitrary and random at first. Making sense of the museum space can indeed be "difficult" and "discouraging."
James’s effort to recount this defying experience in his memoir seems to trigger another encounter with the Louvre he had much later in life, this time through a dream. Immediately following his first impressions of the Louvre in the memoir, James includes a dream report from 1910 (when the author was sixty-seven), what he calls “the most appalling yet most admirable nightmare of my life.”
In the dramatic dream sequence, lit only by flashes of lightening, a pursuit takes place. James recounts that initially he was pursued by an “awful agent, creature, or presence” in a dream within the dream. Suddenly though, the tables are turned and the pursued becomes the pursuer. This twist does not happen by an act of physical strength, but through a “great thought that I, in my appalled state, was probably still more appalling than the awful agent.” The common dream trope of a chase scene is turned on its head within the dream as James assumes a sense of control.
The Galerie d'Apollon became for years what I can only term a splendid scene of things, even of the quite irrelevant or, as might be, almost unworthy; and I recall to this hour, with the last vividness, what a precious part it played for me, and exactly by that continuity of honour, on my awaking, in a summer dawn many years later, to the fortunate, the instantaneous recovery and capture of the most appalling yet most admirable nightmare of my life. The climax of this extraordinary experience—which stands alone for me as a dream-adventure founded in the deepest, quickest, clearest act of cogitation and comparison, act indeed of life-saving energy, as well as in unutterable fear—was the sudden pursuit, through an open door, along a huge high saloon, of a just dimly-descried figure that retreated in terror before my rush and dash (a glare of inspired reaction from irresistible but shameful dread,) out of the room I had a moment before been desperately, and all the more abjectly, defending by the push of my shoulder against hard pressure on lock and bar from the other side. The lucidity, not to say the sublimity, of the crisis had consisted of the great thought that I, in my appalled state, was probably still more appalling than the awful agent, creature or presence, whatever he was, whom I had guessed, in the suddenest wild start from sleep, the sleep within my sleep, to be making for my place of rest. The triumph of my impulse, perceived in a flash as I acted on it by myself at a bound, forcing the door outward, was the grand thing, but the great point of the whole was the wonder of my final recognition. Routed, dismayed, the tables turned upon him by my so surpassing him for straight aggression and dire intention, my visitant was already but a diminished spot in the long perspective, the tremendous, glorious hall, as I say, over the far-gleaming floor of which, cleared for the occasion of its great line of priceless vitrines down the middle, he sped for his life, while a great storm of thunder and lightning played through the deep embrasures of high windows at the right. The lightning that revealed the retreat revealed also the wondrous place and, by the same amazing play, my young imaginative life in it of long before, the sense of which, deep within me, had kept it whole, preserved it to this thrilling use; for what in the world were the deep embrasures and the so polished floor but those of the Galerie d'Apollon of my childhood? The "scene of something" I had vaguely then felt it? Well I might, since it was to be the scene of that immense hallucination.
Control is a feeling that James lacked in childhood visits to the Louvre and in his adult life. When the novelist had this dream, he was said to be experiencing debilitating depression. As he recounts it, the night vision “stands alone for me as a dream-adventure founded in the deepest, quickest, clearest act of cognition and comparison, act indeed of life-saving energy.” It seems the Louvre dream brought the novelist a sense of psychic renewal. He drew a parallel between his early encounters with the museum and his unconscious struggles—both of which, he decided, required interrogation in order to decipher the patterns they presented.
The Museum as Dream
In this passage, James is speaking of the actual museum, but there is a connection to be made between the museum as a dream space and the unconscious itself as a museum-like fortress. James description of his dream is reminiscent of a claim made by Nikolai Federov, who wrote in 1915 that “each man bears a museum within himself, bears it even against his personal wish, as a dead appendage, as a corpse, as reproaches of conscience; for conservation is a basic law, preceding man, having been in force before him.” Here the mind is similarly portrayed as a storehouse that is enlivened through our experiences and memory.
This view of the mind as museum echoes some of Sigmund Freud’s early theories about the unconscious, which he initially formulated as a topography—a geographic area where memories and experiences are organized and arranged in an associative fashion. James relies both on the metaphor of the mind as storehouse and geolocater. The museum is both a psychic object which James makes thrilling use of, and means to access his unconscious memories. He writes: “the lightening that revealed the retreat revealed also the wondrous place and, by the same amazing play, my young imaginative life in it of long before, the sense of which, deep within me, had kept it whole, preserved it to this thrilling use.” It is significant that in James’ dream, the halls of the Louvre are revealed to be empty: “cleared for the occasion of its great line of priceless vitrines down the middle.” Control seems to come when the material world is not immediately in the way.
Today, this scene feels especially dreamlike. It is hard to imagine the halls of the Galerie d’Apollon empty. As one of the Louvre’s most visited and majestically preserved vistas, the Galerie is more often than not packed with people awestruck by its gilded walls just as much as the contents of its cases.
Unlike the momentary flashes of cognition found in James’s dream, the Louvre acts as a point of return, a place where navigation of “cognition and comparison” seems to become more predictable, safe, and oddly unchallenging. It is remarkable that this sense of control came in a dream, the very psychic experience in which we often feel least in control. This is significant for museums as well. Though we believe the museum is a space in which we can gain control over the vastness of our cultural traditions, museum visitors must also give themselves over to the patterns created by curators, art historians, and academics. This is often unsettling, and metaphorically reminiscent of the encounters we have with our dreams.
In the Louvre, connections are often made along the lines of a work’s medium, its periodization, and its cultural or geographical origins. Walking through its halls we learn the standard modes of comparison that the museum employs. Sculptures merge with the antiquities, decorative arts sit side-by-side with paintings, and within these categories divisions of culture and nationhood narrow the object’s place and belonging. Just as the vastness of the unconscious can feel overwhelming and bewildering, the museum must work to draw associations between the vast sea of creative works. The presence of lightening in James’ dream corresponds to similar jolts of recognition within the Louvre itself. The dream works with James’ memory of the museum to present him a glimpse of the ordering systems he is struggling with, both in terms of the storehouse of the unconscious and the storehouse of the museum. Often only brief glimpses of clarity are permitted of both, making moments of cognition and mastery all the more difficult and satisfying.
The idea of the museum as dream-space has several layers. In James’ dream, the museum acts as a metaphor for the depths of his own unconscious and his struggle for mastery in his own mind. But the idea of the museum as dream might also help us to navigate through the assumptions and unconscious connections that orient and organize cultural institutions such as the Louvre. The lexicon of dreaming, which evokes the realm of memory and repressed contents, might help open up questions concerning our desire to control and define otherness, desires that manifest directly in the museum. Indeed, in the case of the Louvre, framing the museum as a dream-space might help us interrogate its methods of categorization and orientation as techniques of cultural control. Part of the Louvre’s success relies on this tradition: it provides a sense of stability that might be overwhelming at first, but quickly becomes a point of familiar return. Part of its appeal lies in these very structures of control—structures which are in opposition to the world of the unconscious, which do not provide such strictly defined routes or reliable wayfinding mechanisms. The connection James makes between his early trips to the Louvre and his own struggle to control his mind suggests that we treat museums as dream spaces, that we unmask our own desires for control and the mechanisms that make cultural tradition so powerful. As he narrates his own discomfort with his ability to control the mass of objects and their categorization found in the Louvre, and as the dream portrays these anxieties around control, the museum becomes a complex portal. In short, treating the museum as dream space offers a novel means to make sense of the systems that order us.
Treating the museum as a dream-space can help us to think through some of the current changes that institutions are implementing as they imagine new forms of comparison and categorization. When the Museum of Modern Art chose to include more pieces from Muslim countries—as they did after the first announcement of President Trump’s travel ban in February of 2017—the institution was not only making a political statement, but also asking its viewers to interrogate their own patterns of recognition and understanding. In this respect, the museum as dream-space opens another arena: important political work is not only achieved through categorical changes, but through the interrogation of our struggles with mastery, cognition, and the desire for uninterrupted return.
—Amy Freier is a PhD student in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University in Canada.
"Henry James at the Louvre" © November 2017