‘The Figure in the Carpet’ by Henry James

“It’s the finest, fullest intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does say it is precisely what we’re talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it.”

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner depicts a scene in which Ezra Pound meets Henry James. Of Pound, Kenner writes: “He liked James, he wondered at James, as at a narwhal disporting.” I too like James and wonder at him—narwhals disporting and all that—and, in a way, that’s what ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ is about. Like other sublime stories about obsessive literary critics, including ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’ by Oscar Wilde and ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ interrogates how artists entrance us with their woven tapestries, how we long to understand their genius in the hopes of better understanding ourselves, but also how in our obsessive attempts at interpretation we often miss the forest for the trees. Or might it be missing the vast ocean for the disporting narwhals? 

First published in the January/February 1896 issue of Cosmopolis, collected in some James story collections, printed individually as a novella, including as a Penguin Little Black Classic, and available online at Project Gutenberg

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