115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Being in Henry James and Eihei Dogen: Notes Toward an Aesthetics of Time in the Novel

Lynda Zwinger, University of Arizona

This paper centers Buddhist notions of time and subjectivity (specifically, Eihei Dōgen's "Uji") and Henry James. James’s writing, like Dōgen's, is preoccupied with finding ways to present us with a capacious flow of time, being, things, and selves as co-present with one another.


In “The Art of the Novel,” Henry James famously pictures the novelist as being


in the perpetual predicament that the continuity of things is the whole matter, for him, of comedy and tragedy; that this continuity is never, by the space of an instant or an inch, broken, and that, to do anything at all, he has at once intensely to consult and intensely to ignore it. (AN, 5)


In this paper, I propose to closely examine James’s fiction taking the crucial and usually overlooked phrase “by the space of an instant or an inch” as crucial to reading James. Henry James, that is, did not propose to his reader an exclusively psychologized rendition of character, plot, or mise-en-scène; rather, his writing is preoccupied with finding ways to present us with a capacious flow of time, being, things, and selves as co-present with one another. His challenge, and ours, is that his choice of form was a (hitherto) fairly linear genre, the novel. To elucidate, this paper will turn to the thirteenth century Buddhist Zen master, Eihei Dōgen, founder of Zen's Soto school. Dōgen’s way of reading and writing are uncannily like James's in its extravagant, densely troped prose and a kind of wily indirection in the pursuit of the articulation of the all-but inarticulable. When James muses about the art of fiction, he is posing a question about the being-ness somehow invoked by the words that bring time and being onto the page as inevitably inseparable. Dogen’s fascicle “Uji,” also engages the concept of self as time:


The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time. . . . Thus the self setting itself out in array sees itself. This is the understanding that the self is time. (“Uji,” section 3)


The assumption that James’s project was a realistic (or romantic) representation of reality as understood by a culture that was (is) also invested in a fiction of time as linear and as existing somewhere “out there” has consistently masked the radically non-psychologized notion of both self and time James’s fiction offers to us. We can begin to trace it in his dense and often difficult deployment of verb tenses, narrative shifts, and indeterminable boundaries between character and narration, and our careful textual attention to James’s prose can be amplified and enriched by a similarly careful reading of the work of a writer he can never have read, Eihei Dogen.