Henry James’ Guide To Revealing The Unmentioned
Why “the figure in the carpet” remains relevant for our modern world
For those who haven’t studied literature, the name Henry James may not be familiar; certainly not as familiar as his better-known brother William James, who taught at Harvard and was a leading proponent of empirically-based psychology. But like his brother William, Henry was fascinated by the notion of “truth” and developed a literary technique whereby truth was alluded to but never directly spoken. One approaches the truth in Henry James’ novels by understanding what is not being said. This is his “figure in the carpet” technique, by which he meant that the surrounding pattern reveals the unwoven shape in the middle. This is a more subtle and complex version of the simple image illusion whereby one object is discernable only by reference to other objects on either side.
James uses his technique to great effect in novels such as What Maisie Knew, where the narrator is a young girl who during the course of the book grows from childhood to precocious maturity and (seemingly unconsciously) paints a devastating indictment of the behavior of the adults around her. In The Bostonians, James essentially paints a (then prohibited) lesbian relationship without ever once actually doing so explicitly. Astute readers of James’ novels, therefore, learn to infer what is truly meant by seeing what is carefully avoided.
This is precisely the approach taken by millions of educated Russian-speakers during the long dire period of Soviet rule. Newspapers with amusing Orwellian titles such as Прабда (“Truth”) were pure propaganda and intelligent people knew their contents were spurious. But by noticing what was not being reported, readers could sometimes gain a sense of what was really happening. When formerly lauded Heroes of the Soviet Revolution or senior members of the Politbureau suddenly ceased to be mentioned, one could reliably infer they’d been purged. When there were no reports of glorious over-production by heroic peasant farmers, one could infer that famine was on its way. When articles lauding some out-of-date Soviet motor car appeared, one could infer that there was no money in the State coffers to permit retooling in order to manufacture less ancient and fault-prone machines.