December 2010 Archives


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I am now about to do something truly singular.  Nowhere else on the planet will you read a text that compares David Grossman's To the End of the Land with Noel Coward's Design for Living.  Google it if you don't believe me: only one text combines those two titles, and it's this blog post.  Prepare to experience the totally unique!

Now that you're prepared, allow me to share my thought process that led me to this surprising juxtaposition.  I found myself disturbed by several contrivances in To the End of the Land.  Of course, all literature depends on contrivances, but to operate effectively the contrivances have to find themselves in an accommodating context.  A poisoned glass of wine sipped by an unintended victim works fine in Elizabethan drama (e.g., Hamlet, Women Beware Women), but it's going to flop in a Jane Austen novel. 

By the same token, the threesome at the core of To the End of the Land struck me as an element of contrivance that defied assimilation into the novel's reality.  Ilan is rigid, unimaginative, unappreciative, emotionally choked - he's so much lesser than Avram or Ora, that he seems an implausible candidate as a beloved (platonic or otherwise) for either.

At bottom, I didn't believe it.  The following question kept surfacing: do two men and a woman really love each other and sleep with each other and have kids with each other and raise each other's kids - not as something that happened at a party, or over the course of a drug-addled summer during a transitional point in one's life - but over a thirty year period?  Does this kind of thing happen?

My reflexive answer to that question was, "It worked in Design for Living, but in To the End of the Land it's a contrivance."  Otto, Leo and Gilda are, after all, artists, aesthetes and, in certain significant instances, bisexual.  They're cosmopolitan and glib.  It's a comedy.

But my next thought was: what the hell am I talking about, Design for Living was totally contrived!  Otto's and Leo's competition for Gilda never makes sense because Gilda's such a blah nothing.  The whole set-up is an elaborate contraption through which Coward snuck homosexuality into the subtext of mainstream theater.  It's not a description of reality.  If Coward could have written openly about gay life, we'd never have heard a peep about Gilda.

The appeal to writers of threesomes is obvious, so it is with some sadness that I tentatively propose that threesomes are, as yet (to my awareness), a contrivance in search of a context that can handle them.  Greater work remains to be done realizing threesomes in life before writers can nail the phenomenon on the page.  Prepare yourselves.
(Image of Coward, Lunt and Fontanne in Design for Living from Wikipedia)

Breaking the dove's wings

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Wings_of_the_Dove.jpgTaking a delightful dig at a certain type of imaginatively-constrained reader or critic, Henry James included the following passage at the opening of The Turn of the Screw:

"Who was it she was in love with?"
"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.
. . .
"The story WON'T tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
"More's the pity, then.  That's the only way I ever understand."
(pp. 3-4.)

Apparently, that's the only way Iain Softley thought his audience would understand his 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove.   And more's the pity.

The movie, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks.  Where Henry James drips the poisonous motivations into the plot, Softley floods the story with them.  Where James is indirect, Softley charges like a blundering drunk.  Where James refers to sex, Softley stages street corner couplings and full-frontal nudity.  To say that much is lost in the story's translation from novel to screen is an understatement.

I will not here deny that I had issues with the pacing of the novel, The Wings of the Dove.  The gambit to seduce Milly in order to inherit when she dies was apparent well before the characters speak unflinchingly of it.  But in the strategic creep of the deception, the reader - as much as the characters - acclimates to it, gets drawn in and is ultimately seduced by the plan.  In the film, however, rapidity causes shock and revulsion at the deception; the viewer recoils.  (Sample comments from my companion in watching the film, my mother: "That woman is evil"; "What a devious bitch.") 

Nor will I deny that a certain frustration attends to James' "blanks."  For example, Kate Croy's father's badness remains unspecified in the novel.  The reason everyone finds him despicable is simply not named, nor even hungered after: 

What was it, to speak plainly, that Mr. Croy had originally done?
"I don't know - and I don't want to . . . ." Kate explained.
(p. 75.)

I have written before of how James leaves these lacunae to be filled by the readers' imagination, but the film cannot tolerate such ambiguity, even at the expense of the viewer's engagement.  In the film, Kate Croy's father is an addict: mystery concluded.

As for the sex, I was frankly bowled over by the explicitness of James' reference to an act of lovemaking ("Come to me").  Nonetheless, James keeps the "who did what to whom" out of sight, so as to heighten its sensual power.  After Merton persuades Kate to make love with him before she departs with her aunt for London, Kate's presence is constant in his rooms in Venice, a goad and a talisman, proof of her love and a guarantee (to himself) of the justification of his actions.  In the film, on the other hand, the kissing, groping, entangling and disrobing is so cavalier that it can't signify anything.  It's mere prurience.

To proceed on the supposition that the film's approach to storytelling is the only way an audience will "understand" is a profound error and a terrible disservice.  Far from fostering understanding, this "literal, vulgar way" of telling a story undercuts comprehension.  Having slashed mercilessly at the progressive development of the novel's plot, the film of The Wings of the Dove descends into inscrutability.  (Why Kate takes off her clothes in the film's penultimate scene is an unanswerable question of a magnitude second only to why Merton follows suit.)   

More importantly, from the film, no one could possibly see why the novel, The Wings of the Dove, is great.  More's the pity indeed.     

(Image of Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Elliott playing Kate Croy and Milly Theale in the 1997 film production of The Wings of the Dove from Film Reference)

American broads abroad

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Critics and scholars of Henry James fixate on James' alleged fixation on The American Girl.  As Gore Vidal, among many (and certainly among the sharpest of the bunch) noted in The New York Review of Books, The American Girl was James' theme, possibly for commercial reasons:
As every writer then knew, the readers of novels were mostly women; and they liked to read about the vicissitudes of young women, preferably ladies.
But, although James certainly wrote about American girls - from Daisy Miller, to Isabel Archer, to Milly Theale - all of whom may have traced their lineage back to James' cousin, Minny Temple - their significance in my mind is not as American girls qua American girls, but as American girl expatriates.

Indeed, to this American girl, the most interesting aspect of James' writing is not about "the vicissitudes of young women," but about the social regulation of expatriate society.

Daisy Miller has much to offer on this front.  The story of a young woman on a family-chaperoned European tour who comes to a sad end, Daisy Miller features an eponymous protagonist who is of scant interest in herself.  She's a pretty, "uncultivated" teenage "flirt."  Yawn.

Her sad end, however, has much to do with the social regulation of American expatriate society in Europe.  Irrepressible Daisy won't obey the rules.  She does

[e]verything that is not done here.  Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o'clock at night.
(pp. 90-91.)  As a result, she is shunned.  And, in response, Daisy misbehaves all the more defiantly. 

The story's narrator, and Daisy's admirer, Frederick Winterbourne, spends most of the book unable to make up his mind as to whether Daisy is innocent and unsophisticated, or simply not "a nice girl."  As a result, he allows himself to be rebuffed despite indications that Daisy "would have appreciated [his] esteem" (p. 133), with the consequence that Daisy favors her Italian suitor, Giovanelli, a man of such little judgment that he takes Daisy to the Coliseum at night, despite the fact that the ruin is a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes.

After Daisy (spoiler alert!) sickens and dies, Winterbourne feels guilty for having done Daisy an "injustice."  Had he persisted in his courtship of her, he might have won her and, like Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, spared her both social humiliation and - ultimately - an untimely death.  Social constraints strike down yet another young American free spirit.

Whatever one might think about the class dynamics of such social regulation; or the fundamental insecurity it reflects; or the extent to which it is promulgated by, enforced by and imposed upon women (Winterbourne, after all, is an American man entangled with an older, foreign lady in Geneva - and he manages to avoid condemnation), what strikes me most about the social regulation Henry James describes is that it exists

I myself have lived overseas as part of an American expatriate community, and the most salient feature of that community was its absence of legal and social regulation.  (Indeed, my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, is about the effect of such "freedom" upon the community's members.) 

Granted, I was living in East Asia, not in the heart of Europe; and I lived overseas just over a century after Daisy Miller did.  But the time and distance had apparently worked the following transformation: whereas in Daisy Miller's time, American freedom clashed with the conservatism of expatriate society, in my era, the total freedom of the expatriate existence threatened to erode the foundation of an individual's values - be they moral, national or otherwise.  Daisy Miller's "America" represents transcendence; my "America" represents social structure.

Which is not to say that Daisy would have done any better in my expatriate community than she did in her own.  Although flirting, fraternizing with locals, dancing all night with the same partner, and receiving visitors at odd hours wouldn't get a person shunned in Beijing, neither would being an alcoholic who leaves his girlfriend in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to escape paying her the tens of thousands of dollars he owes her.  In this respect, at least, Henry James nailed the situation: whether the social constraint is so tight as to indict trivialities, or so lax as to countenance barbarity, vivacious American women are overrepresented on the losing side of the equation.

(Image of the frontispiece of the 1892 edition of Henry James' Daisy Miller from Eldritch Press)

A homeopathic remedy for mortality

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I received David Grossman's To the End of the Land as a gift, which - for me - was a bit like receiving the present of having a neurologist attach electrodes to my skull and zap my brain. As a button pusher, the novel is like dropping an elephant on my control panel: all the indicators light up.

Nonetheless, among the many stimuli, one stood out.  In To the End of the Land, a young Israeli soldier, Ofer, is deployed in a campaign against Palestinians.  His mother, Ora, responds by becoming a "notification-refusenik": she goes on a long hike so that she will not be at home to receive - in the event that it comes - notification of her son's death.  But her protest is not mere evasion: taking refuge in magical thinking, she believes her act will protect Ofer and keep him safe.  As David Grossman explains in a recent New Yorker interview, "[S]omething else flickers in [Ora] . . . If [the notifiers] don't find her, if they can't find her, [Ofer] won't get hurt."   

Ofer's participation in the campaign is a crushing disappointment to Ora because Ofer was supposed to be released from the army.  Ora and Ofer had planned a week-long vacation in the Galilee to celebrate his completion of military service.  But instead of enjoying family time with her son, Ora must confront another month of fearful dread for Ofer's safety.  

In a tense scene, Ora extracts the truth about how Ofer, rather than being released, was reenlisted:

[Ofer] admitted that he had called them that morning, even before six he had called the battalion and begged them to take him, even though today, at nine-zero-zero, he was supposed to be at the induction center for his discharge, and from there to drive to the Galilee with her.  As he lowered his gaze and mumbled on, [Ora] discovered, to her horror, that the army hadn't even considered asking him to prolong his service.  As far as they were concerned he was a civilian, deep into his discharge leave.  It was he, Ofer admitted defiantly, his forehead turning red, who wasn't willing to give up.  "No way!  After eating shit for three years so that I'd be ready for exactly this kind of operation?"  Three years of checkpoints and patrols, little kids in Palestinian villages and settlements throwing stones at him, not to mention the fact that he hadn't even been within spitting distance of a tank for six months, and now, at last, with his lousy luck, this kind of kick-ass operation, three armored units together - there were tears in his eyes, and for a moment you might have thought he was haggling with her to be allowed to come back late from a class Purim party - how could he sit at home or go hiking in the Galilee when all his guys would be there?  In short, she discovered that he, on his own initiative, had convinced them to enlist him on a voluntary basis for another twenty-eight days.

(p. 65.)

The scene comes fairly early in the course of a 576-page book, and it contributed substantially to my sense that the following 510 pages were, in some sense, a burden.  I was so revolted by Ofer's behavior - by his combination of adrenaline joy at the prospect of military action with his disregard of his commitment to his mother and his inflicting pain on her - that I didn't care if he died.  The extraordinary energy that Ora invests, over the course of the remainder of the book, in willing Ofer's continued health and vitality drained and demoralized me.  Such effort for so loathsome a character (whose Jewish mother nonetheless thinks he's wonderful, what else is new?) struck me as futile.

I could easily view Ofer as a liability to the book: not likeable, causes readers to want to put the book down before the end.  And, yet, even as I was writing the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, I recognized that what I'd just described - a draining and demoralizing burden, exhausting expenditure of energy for a futile end - is the general parameters of life under conditions of mortality.  I thought back to Grossman's interview in The New Yorker, in which he related:

"We lost a son, Michal and I," Grossman said. "I see how much energy and how much it's an everlasting struggle to remain yourself after such a tragedy. My grandfather lost all his family [in the Holocaust] - all his town, all his friends, everything. . . . One has to work very hard on oneself to believe in mankind, in order to trust someone, in order to believe in having a future, in wanting to have children. What a superhuman achievement it is after the Shoah to bring children! It's an act of choosing life. . . . It's really heroism."
And I marveled that, in devising his novel as he did, Grossman has constructed a mini-version of that "everlasting struggle" - a sort of vaccine to provoke the development of anti-bodies with which I can deal with mortality.  

Reading those 510 pages following Ofer's revelation of his militaristic-mother treachery might have been a burden.  But the rest of my life will be a lesser burden - perhaps infinitesimally so, but lesser nonetheless - because I now have To the End of the Land to think back to when the need - as it inevitably will - arises.

(Image of David Grossman from The Star)

Critic of little faith

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After repeatedly reminding myself that sentences striking my ear as long-winded resonated differently for audiences of a hundred or two hundred years ago, and that patient openness to the antiquated language will yield insights about the mindsets and psychologies that predominated in days past - in short, that even long-windedness has much to teach me - I found my jaw flapping after reading the following sentence in Edmund Wilson's essay, "The Ambiguity of Henry James," written less than twenty years after the great writer's death:

Henry James never seems aware of the amount of space he is wasting through the long abstract formulations that do duty for concrete details, the unnecessary circumlocutions and the gratuitous meaningless verbiage - the as it were's and the as we may say's and all the rest - all the words with which he pads out his sentences and which themselves are probably symptomatic of a tendency to stave off his main problems, since they are a part of the swathing process with which he makes his embarrassing subjects always seem to present smooth contours.
(p. 122.)

Well call me Earnest Ernestine and Naive Nana all rolled into one.  Here I've been, slogging through James' sentences, castigating myself for each eye roll, dutifully reviewing sentences the incessant meandering of which led me to seek escapist refuge in the bliss of contemplating inane YouTube videos, when all the while no lesser an authority that Edmund Wilson has been dismissing the Master as an unaware sentence padder.

My only consolation, of course, is that Edmund Wilson is wrong.  The space is not "wasted."  The "long abstract formulations," the absence of "concrete details," the "circumlocutions" - none would get Henry James hired by his local newspaper, but he's not wasting space.  He's creating room for the reader's engagement of his or her imagination. 

Edmund Wilson, a critic, might not be able fully to understand, appreciate or celebrate this aspect of James' skill, but writers get it.  Henry James has ignited the creative fires of writers from Colm Toíbín to Cynthia Ozick to Alan Hollinghurst.  Indeed, I became attracted to Henry James only because he exerted so obvious and powerful an influence on so many contemporary writers.  James' status as a writers' writer derives from this quality in his writing: its spaciousness, its invitation to the reader to move into the rooms created by the sentences, to walk around, lounge on the cushions, and make themselves at home.

Or, in my case, to go to sleep.

I'm still striving.  But in the absence of receiving the passed-on creative fire, I have the tiny flame of faith that persistence in reading James will pay off.

(Image of Edmund Wilson from The New York Times)

Real combat

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David Grossman's To the End of the Land might be a great book, but it's a mess.  It has tics, like its characters.  (And this is a book in which a boy rhymes incessantly for months, and then graduates into OCD hand-washing/lip-puffing/face-contorting, etc.).
Grossman's protagonist, Ora, is a little too emotional, and a little too unintelligent, to hold the book together.  It flies apart with her tantrums, her sudden impulses to cook, to flee, to write, to argue.
Like Ora, the story occillates.  The book begins powerfully, with evocative scenes in an isolation ward in a hospital during the 1967 war.  Fast-forwarding to 2000, the book continues strongly, with a devastating sub-plot involving Ora's Arab driver, Sami.  But - too soon - Sami disappears.  Ilan, Ora's husband, and Adam, her oldest son, have disappeared before we meet Ora in 2000, and her younger son, Ofer, vanishes into a military campaign shortly before Sami takes off.  All this fleeing leaves Ora alone with Avram, a man of severe incapacities, on a hike along the Israel Trail, from northen Israel back down to Jerusalem.  The narrative for the next four hundred pages or so must rise and fall with Ora, and she isn't up to the burden.
Grossman tries to help her out.  At one point, feral dogs menace Ora and Avram, with the upshot that Ora attracts - and functionally adopts - a dog who follows their meanderings for the remainder of the book.  At another point, Ora and Avram meet an elderly pediatrician, hiking alone, wearing two wedding rings and asking intimate questions.  The doctor finds a notebook Ora dropped, and Ora later retrieves it from him while he naps.  In my favorite of these tangents, Ora and Avram are picked up by a jester of sorts, a holy fool named Akiva, whose job is as a "gladdener of the dejected."  
But none of these narrative life-savers thrown by the author gets Ora to swim.  She swirls along with the currents and the breezes, and by the end of the book the narrative seems to expire from exhaustion.  The desperately important sub-plot with Sami is left hanging; the fate of Ofer in the military campaign limps to an ambiguous closure; the rupture in Ora's relations with her husband, Ilan, and her son, Adam, raises its head, but barely receives a pat. 
Instead, we get Ora's final tantrum, which occurs after she's invaded Avram's privacy by checking his voicemails without his knowledge and intercepted a sensitive message from his girlfriend in which she seems obliquely to be confessing to an abortion.  Ora - though the aggressor and the violator in this scenario - is hurt and acting out, and in the context of everything else with which she and Avram have been dealing over the course of the book (horrorific torture, war crimes, divorce, abandoment, helplessness to protect one's children), Ora's behavior rings a sour and petty note on which to conclude the book.  But the ending feels like Grossman simply couldn't go on: Ora wore him down.  He had to close the book on her. 
And yet the book has the ambition, the empathy and the sheer compulsion - the sense that it ripped itself from its author's guts and loins - that makes it great: "great" in the sense that the great Roberto Bolaño defines great books in his great and monumental novel 2666:

What a sad paradox . . . . Now even bookish [readers] are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.  They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.  Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
(p. 227.)
Bolaño has distilled the issue perfectly.  In To the End of the Land, Grossman struggles mightily against what terrifies us all, literally amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.  And he has produced an imperfect, torrential work that blazes into the unknown.  
For Grossman, for Bolaño, and most of all for ourselves, we mustn't fear to take it on.

(Image of David Grossman from The Guardian)

Hasn't the governess suffered enough?

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Governess_Turn_of_the_Screw.jpgIn 1934, Edmund Wilson, in an essay called "The Ambiguity of Henry James," argued that governess was crazy, and that the ghosts were hallucinations resulting from her sexually-repressed psyche.  Since then, volumes of critical argument debating the point have amassed.  (So much so, in fact, that Edward J. Parkinson, Ph.D., compiled an overview of the critcism for his dissertation.)

I am not a scholar of this, or any other, issue, and I haven't done anything more than skim the arguments in the course of Internet surfing.  But nothing I've glimpsed has made me want to read more deeply because the arguments seem so implausible.

The Turn of the Screw is a multiple frame story: the unnamed and unidentified narrator tells us what Douglas said, and Douglas in turn reads from a manuscript written by the governess.  The narrator gives no indication of being unreliable, and Douglas exists on the page as serious and discreet. 

The questions about narrative credibility only begin when the governess' narrative voice takes over the story.  The governess, after all, is seeing ghosts - ghosts whose presence are not confirmed by another witness; additionally, the governess liberally leaps to wild conclusions (The ghost was looking for little Miles!  The children see the ghosts!  The ghosts want to possess the children!) that are supported by no tangible evidence.

Nonetheless, Douglas attests to the governess' credibility.  He tells us, at the beginning of the book, that the governess had been his sister's governess, that he'd found her

the most agreeable woman [he'd] ever known in her position. . . . [S]he struck me as awfully clever and nice.  Oh yes; don't grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too. 

(p. 3.)  He also reveals in his preamble to the governess' manuscript that the governess never saw her employer again after her initial interviews for the job.  (p. 7.)

By the end of the book, (spoiler alert!) with little Miles' heart abruptly stopped, the reader can easily forget Douglas' testimony from the beginning of the story.  According to Douglas, after this governess had a charge die on her watch, she nonetheless was able to continue working in her profession.  She was not shunned by prospective employers, which suggests strongly that her employer, Miles' uncle, gave her a good recommendation. 

More astonishingly, her employer didn't see the governess after the death of his nephew.  This fact is all the more shocking because, before Miles' death, the governess dispatched Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, with Flora, Mile's sister, to take refuge at the uncle's flat in London.  With a niece crowding his bachelor lodgings because, in the throes of illness, she appeared possessed by the ghost of her former governess, and with a nephew dead in the arms of the current governess back in the country house in Essex, the uncle still doesn't meet with the governess - not to investigate, not to commiserate, not to mourn, not to condemn.

Granted, the employer admittedly didn't like the fuss and bother of caretaking children, but once Flora is at his London abode, and Miles needs to be buried, he must engage - just as he had to divert himself from his bachelor's schedule to hire another governess after the first governess, Miss Jessel, died.  Why he would engage without seeing the current governess is odd. 

I picture the employer sending money and a glowing recommendation through his solicitor, and then prodding her on her way.  Or possibly the solicitor made quiet inquiries to place her elsewhere.  But in all events, Miles' death seems to have prompted a distasteful cover-up - and one that bespeaks both a sense of guilt on the part of the uncle and a sense of vindication for the governess.  In his smoothing over of the event, the uncle tacitly acknowledges that he shouldn't have left the governess alone and without recourse to his advice.  Such a concession seems exceedingly unlikely in the event of wrongdoing (even insanity-induced wrongdoing) by the governess.

No other option accords with Douglas' testimony.  If the governess had been subject to state action because of Miles' death - whether criminal investigation, imprisonment, commitment to an insane asylum, or civil suit - she would not have been able to continue her work as a governess with Douglas' sister.  Nor is it likely that her personality would have been so winning by the time she met Douglas.  Moreover, the uncle almost certainly would have seen the governess in the course of such state action, whether to provide testimony or otherwise.

To insist on the insanity of the governess in the face of Douglas' testimony is to question Douglas.  Some critics do.  For example, various theories suggest that Douglas is a "grown-up" Miles.  But I think that, by the time we're positing convoluted scenarios in which dead children resurface elsewhere in the story as grown adults with different names, we're out of the realm of interpreting Henry James and into the fresh, wide-open space of independent creation.   

In his Preface to The Turn of the Screw, James is forthright about leaving the ghosts vague:

What . . . had I given the sense of?  Of [the ghosts] being . . . capable . . . of everything - that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims . . . might be conceived as subject to.  What would be then . . . this utmost conceivability? . . . There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to . . . the spectator's, the critic's, the reader's experience.  Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough . . . and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy . . . and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.  Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. 

(p. 8.) 

This Preface, combined with the testimony James gave Douglas to submit on the governess' behalf, elucidates James' intent.  He wrote a ghost story.  Whatever the governess' psychological profile, she is in the presence of ghosts.  James just thought the ghosts would be more effective if he left them highly undefined and let the readers' imaginations fill in the details.  Rather than offer "weak specifications," James wants the readers' imaginations to fire up. 

I hope I'm not out of line when I say, with all due respect to the Master, that I think he let himself off the hook of detailing the "weak specifications" a little too soon.  Without a doubt he fired up readers' imaginations.  But, as I detailed in a prior post, precisely because the horror of the story isn't palpable, because his "general vision of evil" wasn't "intense enough" to weather the changing consciousnesses of readers in ever-more-modern societies, the absence of "weak specficiations" has enabled readers' imagations to wander wildly from the topic of the evil in which the ghosts were engaged.  Ghosts?  Modern readers dismiss ghosts and look for alternative explanations, Freudian sub-texts, and twisted conspiracies.

Poor governess: the ordeal to which the author subjected her is nothing compared to her eternal afterlife on the prongs of the critics' pitchforks.

(Image of Michelle Dockery playing the governess in a BBC television version of The Turn of the Screw from The Mirror)

The ghosts of the love that dare not speak its name

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Turn_of_the_Screw_opera.jpgAnd here I must come round to the confession that I have seriously exaggerated, or possibly distorted or overstated the case, such that an entire blog post is necessary for clarification.

In a prior post, I claimed that The Turn of the Screw didn't frighten me.  While it's true that the story didn't scare me the way, say, The Shining did (does), it is not true that I didn't detect an oppressive, fearful tension in The Turn of the Screw.  I did.

It just wasn't the ghosts.  It was the silence.

Prohibitions on speaking, both implicit and explicit, abound in The Turn of the Screw.  The story begins with a gag-order when the governess' employer forbids her to write to him for any reason: she must "only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone."  (p. 7.)

Then Miles, the elder of the governess' charges, is expelled from school under circumstances unexplained by the headmaster.  In a bewildered state emerging from her inability to reconcile Miles' innocent appearance with this condemnation, the governess opts to remain silent on the topic - in response to the headmaster, to her employer, and with Miles himself - with the result that the subject of Miles' expulsion becomes a matter of "deep obscurity."  (p. 24.) 

Into these silences waft the ghosts.  The governess sees the ghosts of her charges' former companions, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and she believe that Miles and his sister, Flora, also see the ghosts.  But Miles and Flora never mention either their now-deceased companions or the ghosts, and the governess dares not be the first to speak:

I was confronted . . . with all the risk attached . . . to sounding my own horrid note. . . . [Miles] could do as he liked . . . so long as I should continue to defer to the old tradition of the criminality of those caretakers of the young who minister to superstitions and fears. . . . [W]ho would ever absolve me . . . if . . . I were the first to introduce into our intercourse an element so dire?

(p. 61.) 

Time and again, the governess has opportunities to confront Miles and Flora about the ghosts, and repeatedly the governess declines them.  She expresses her fear that, when confronted, the children will lie and deny seeing the ghosts (p. 42).  She alludes to the possibility that her sanity is vulnerable to question (p. 64).  And, of course, she is aware that she could be accused of polluting the children with foolish superstitions.

From this silence upon silence upon silence springs the horror of The Turn of the Screw: not the return of the dead, or the evil of the people who the ghosts had once been, but of the corruption to morality, conduct, sanity and even reality itself that arises from the unspeakable.  If we cannot speak of our lives, we create the conditions for horror.

I imagine Henry James knew intimately the risks of the unspeakable.  James may have been gay - celibate or otherwise, but definitely not "out" to his family (his letters to gay and bisexual men lend themselves to that interpretation).  Whatever the truth, James chose silence on the topic of the connection - if any - between his sexuality and his bachelerhood. 

Meanwhile, around him, those who spoke suffered.  James' contemporary, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned; James' close friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, who may have gone too far in expressing her love for him, committed suicide.  In his languid novel of Henry James' life, The Master, Colm Tóibín imagines Henry James remaining largely silent, and indignant, as well-intentioned people confront him about both these events. 

Whatever liability or incapacity prevented this most verbose of men from a verbal defense must have been most horrible.  However his silence warped his life was likely a defect he marked well . . . and possibly transmuted into The Turn of the Screw: a parable illustrating how the warping action of repressive silence costs one love, as well as life; a parable in which the ghosts that torment the governess are lovers who broke society's rules.

After gazing on such "dreadful - dreadfulness" (p. 2), the rest is silence. 

(Image of Crispin Lord as Miles and Anna Devin as the governess in Benjamin Britten's opera adaptation of The Turn of the Screw from The Independent)

A wobbly hand on the screwdriver

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The_Innocents.jpgAt the opening of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Douglas describes the story he's about to tell as "quite too horrible." 

"It's beyond everything," he insists.  "Nothing at all that I know touches it . . . . [f]or general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."
(p. 2.)  Though instinctually I credit Douglas, and although (spoiler alert!) the death of little Miles at the story's conclusion lends credence to Douglas' characterization, I didn't see "the horror" myself.

Let's put to one side the fact that, after mustard gas in the trenches of WWI, and gas chambers in the Holocaust, and killing fields in Cambodia, and the torture chambers into which Chile's disappeared vanished, and - well, you get the idea - a pair of ghosts in a country house (even a pair of ghosts in a country house who kill a little boy) are far, far from the known human extreme of "general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain." 

Of course, Henry James was writing before the generally uncannily ugly, horrible and painful twentieth century.  Nonetheless, he set himself a high standard, even for his own time.  I'm not convinced that he met it.

Throughout The Turn of the Screw, the governess reacts with revulsion and terror to the prospect that the children, Miles and Flora, can see the ghosts.  ("They KNOW - it's too monstrous: they know, they know!" cries the governess when she concludes that Flora has seen the ghost of Miss Jessel (p. 41).) 

But though the governess is terrified, I, as a reader, was not.  The ghosts didn't seem to be doing anything objectively scary: they manifest on the tower and by the lake, they occupy the staircase and peer in the window.  At one point, the governess hypothesizes that the ghosts may lure the children into harm by tempting them to climb the tower or wade into the lake (p. 66); such a stratagem would have scared me.  But the governess' larger concerns seem related to the vaguely bad characters that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel displayed when alive.  That said, the only "bad" thing positively attributed to Quint and Jessel is a violation of class boundaries:  "'SHE was a lady . . . . And he so dreadfully below,' said Mrs. Grose."  (p. 44.)  Hardly horror.

Of course, if the ghosts were frightening Miles and Flora, then the governess' fear would have been justified - and infectious.  But plainly neither Miles nor Flora is scared.  For example, when Miss Jessel first appears, Flora turns her back to the ghost and calmly proceeds to play with twigs by the side of the lake (p. 40). 

Indeed, at one point, Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, hazards the possibility that the children like seeing the ghosts; the governess wildly dismisses the notion:

"Dear, dear - we must keep our heads!  And after all, if she [Flora] doesn't mind it - !"  [Mrs. Grose] even tried a grim joke.  "Perhaps she likes it!"
"LIKES such things - a scrap of an infant!"
(p. 43.) 

Despite the force of her assertion, I couldn't help concluding that the governess' assumptions about children's capacities for liking "the dead restored" (p. 64) are a bit aggressive.  If the ghosts are, as the story posits, apparitions of people with whom the children had positive relations, then why the children should automatically apprehend danger in their restoration from the beyond seems unclear.

Publishing only six years after The Turn of the Screw, J.M. Barrie makes this precise point in Peter Pan and Wendy:

Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them.  For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event happened, that when they were in the wood they met their dead father and had a game with him.
(p. 8).  J.M. Barrie's observation resonates with accuracy; the governess' behavior rings with hysteria. 

Consequently, I spent so much time wondering why the governess was assuming that the ghosts were a threat to the children, that I failed to be frightened.  Rather than feeling caught in the building suspense of the story, I felt distanced and analytical; my "anthropologist" switch got flipped, and I began asking epistemological questions about how the governess knew what she claimed to know.  (I found no satisfaction in the governess' propensity to answer Mrs. Grose's occasional outbursts of "[H]ow do you know?" with responses like, "I know, I know, I know!" (p. 35.))  As a tale of dread, the story failed to put the screws to me.

None of which is to say that I didn't find The Turn of the Screw fascinating and absorbing.  But it did confirm that Henry James is no Stephen King.  While that discovery doesn't particularly disappoint me, I do feel relief that Douglas won't ever have a chance to read Stephen King: Douglas couldn't handle him. 

(Image of Deborah Kerr as the governess, and Peter Wyngarde as the ghost of Peter Quint, in The Innocents, a film based on The Turn of the Screw, from The Guardian)

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