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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)

F111.jpgIn 2000, I went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and saw a show called, "Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors and the Camera."  The show charted the use of photography by fourteen artists at the turn of the twentieth century.  Looking back on descriptions of the show, I gather that the artists on exhibit made various uses of photographs; but what I remember, what particularly impressed me, was the idea that a core of two or three images or concepts could and did nourish these (or some of these) artists through their entire careers.  Degas' horses and ballerinas, Gaugin's Tahitian women and (although they weren't in the show) John Singer Sargent's society ladies, James Rosenquist's spaghetti and Philip Guston's cartoon Klansmen, light bulbs and shoe souls all seem to be examples of this phenomenon.

For the past nine years I've been thinking about that argument and wondering: are two or three concepts really enough for a lifetime? 

My musings received more fodder when I read the following passage in Colm Toíbín's The Master:

[Henry James] did not realize then and did not, in fact, grasp for many years how these few weeks in North Conway - the endlessly conversing group of them gathered under the rustling pines - would be enough for him, would be in, in effect, all he needed to know in his life.  In all his years as a writer he was to draw on the scenes he lived and witnessed at that time, the two ambitious, patrician New Englanders [Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Gray], already alert to the eminence which awaited them, and the American girls, led by Minny [Temple], fresh and open to life, so inquisitive, so imbued with a boundless curiosity and charm and intelligence.
(p. 102.) 

Of course, novelists often rework familiar territory.  Marilyn Robinson's Home is a retelling from another perspective of her novel Gilead.  Philip Roth's The Plot Against America gives us a Jewish family from Newark recognizable from his other novels.  Joyce Carol Oates fictionalizes lurid news stories.  What's Milan Kundera without Communism or Jane Austin without Britain's class system?

Still, despite the evidence, I'm not convinced.  Two or three ideas seems like fuel for a decade, not a lifetime . . . unless you're defended or restricted from, or uninterested in, the wider world. 

Granted, most adults are not continually open to world throughout their lives.  As Toíbín's Henry James explains in The Master, referring to Isabel Archer,

decisions [about] matters of duty and resignation were often more easily made than . . . . "leaps in the dark.  Making such leaps requires us to be brave and determined, but doing so also may freeze any other possibilities.  It is easier to renounce bravery rather than to be brave over and over. . . . The will and never needed for such actions do not come to us often." 
(p. 324-325.)

The "two or three concepts for a lifetime" theory strikes me as a byproduct of stasis, laziness, oppression or other barriers to making "leaps in the dark," those terrifying risks that reinvigorate one's supply of motivating ideas. 

On the other hand, maybe "two or three concepts" represents an intrinsic limit in human capacities, a reflection of the human penchant for imposing familiar, convenient and appealing constructs on the external world - the likelihood that, having leaped into the dark, you'll find there a variation of what you thought you were leaving behind.

For myself, if two or three concepts are animating my work, I'm not seeing them yet.  Certainly, I could identify common themes for my novels, but I think doing so would be a process of post-hoc rationalization.  If I've had my North Conway experience - if I've stumbled upon the well to which I will return year after year, novel after novel - I don't know it. 

Perhaps I haven't found or can't recognize my life-long subjects yet.  Or potentially I'm outside the "two or three concepts" paradigm.  Or, maybe, rather than leaping in the dark, I'm free-falling.

(James Rosenquist's F111 from Aasavina)

Roman the Rapist has done his time

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If Jeffrey Toobin correctly recounts the facts in his recent New Yorker article about Roman Polanski, then the public condemnation of Polanski's A-list supporters (who include Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Debra Winger and Bernard-Henri Levy) is disturbingly misguided.

In her blog for The Nation, Katha Pollitt leads the condemnation team with a rallying question:  "If a rapist escapes justice for long enough, should the world hand him a get-out-of-jail-free card?"  She concludes:

It's enraging that literary superstars who go on and on about human dignity, and human rights, and even women's rights (at least when the women are Muslim) either don't see what Polanski did as rape, or don't care, because he is, after all, Polanski - an artist like themselves.
But if Toobin's reporting is right, then Pollitt's analysis is wrong.  She goes awry in her first question.  Polanski, according to Toobin, did not escape justice and did not (and cannot) get out of jail free.  Rather, Polanski was incarcerated for about a month-and-a-half, during which he was psychologically examined.  The psychological report recommended that any further punishment should be limited to probation.

At the outset, Judge Rittenband had assured Polanski's attorneys that the psychological examination would serve as Polanski's punishment (despite Polanski's lawyer's objection that such a use was an improper deployment of psychological testing).  After Polanski's release, however, Rittenband toyed with the idea of sending Polanski back to prison for another month-and-a-half and then deporting him - a punishment that Rittenband (as a state judge) had no authority to impose (deportation being the jurisdiction of the federal government).

Polanski therefore chose to flee - not from the imposition of punishment in accordance with the American criminal justice system - but from the fickle and illegal abuse of judicial power.  For a man who'd shown resilience in the face of blows of fate unseen since Greek tragedy - including surviving Hitler, his mother's death in Aushwitz, and the murder of his wife and child by the Manson gang - a reluctance to submit to the corrupt whims of a civil servant strikes me as understandable.

Thus, Pollitt's opening question should have been: "If a rapist is punished much more leniently than satisfies modern sensibilities, and further takes matters into his own hands when his punisher proves to be corrupt, is extradition more than thirty years later, with the aim of imposing a stricter sentence, consistent with our system of justice?"

The answer is no. 

Pollitt is simply incorrect that "literary superstars" and other Polanski supporters don't see what happened as rape.  Without question, Polanski raped a child and caused her tremendous pain, both physical and emotional. 

Pollitt is similarly wrong when she complains that Polanski's supporters "don't care" that he raped a girl because he's an artist.  Polanski's supporters do care that he raped a girl (and the fact that he's an artist is irrelevant to his status as a rapist); but they also care that, in a Judeo-Christian system of ethics, even rapists (and even artist-rapists) get to serve their time and move on: it's called redemption - or paying one's debt to society - and it's the bedrock of the Western system of justice.

Pollitt's disregard of the basic ethics of Western justice seems to result from the reflexiveness and unexamined quality of her response.  To the extent that Pollitt's knee-jerk objection has merit, it's that Polanski was allowed to repay his debt to society at unfairly favorable interest rates.  But public mores about sentencing in rape cases have changed radically in the last thirty years.  And, while I agree that Polanski's behavior merited more strenuous legal repercussions, the fact that we in 2009 don't accept as sufficient Polanski's punishment in 1978 doesn't give us license (morally or legally) for a "do over" - which is as it should be.

"Do overs" are dirty tricks, the kind of stunts that mobs demand, and that authorities provide when they cowardly capitulate to a tyrannical public.  Western systems of justice, and the American system in particular, are rightly and wisely designed to resist the vagaries of popular feeling and to protect those most likely to be its targets, no matter how unsavory - e.g., child rapists. 

This policy is good, not just for the health of a nation's system of justice, but also for its literature.  Katha Pollitt would do well to mark Henry James' concern for his friend Edmund Gosse, who was swept along in the flotsam of the public's outrage about Oscar Wilde's sodomy:

Henry studied Gosse and paid attention to his tone.  Suddenly, his old friend had become a rabid supporter of the stamping out of indecency.  He wished there were someone French in the room to calm Gosse down, his friend having joined forces, apparently, with the English public in one of their moments of self-righteousness.  He wanted to warn him that this would not help his prose style.   
Colm Toíbín, The Master (71-72).

If Katha Pollitt's writing about Polanski is any example, she can't afford any further diminishment in the quality of her prose.

(Photo from The Guardian)

Master bashing

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Henry_James.jpgAn odd aspect of the writer's ego is that, despite the size, it's so, so, so easily bruised.  For reasons I don't quite understand, having another critique one's work can be excruciating - it feels a profoundly personal attack, despite all attempts at "creating distance" or remaining stoic.  And the experience can be debilitating beyond the immediate pain it causes: careless critiques can savage one's motivation to write.  A related problem is the bizarre frequency with which utter incompetents undertake to "offer their opinions" - as if the author should care - and (because of the aforementioned ready-bruising issue) cause damage disproportionate to their importance.

I was intrigued to see Colm Toíbín depict exactly such a scene (apparently, the temerity of incompetents is timeless) in The Master, his novel about Henry James.  Towards the end of The Master, Henry's brother William - an alpha-male with, nonetheless, probable good intentions (that mask probable unconscious jealousy or insecurity) - lashes into Henry about his style and his subjects:  "I believe that the English can never be your true subject.  And I believe that your style has suffered from the strain of constantly dramatizing social insipidity.  I think also that something cold and thin-blooded and oddly priggish has come to the fore in your content."  (p. 316.)  

William's prescription is for Henry to write an historical novel about the Puritan founding fathers of the United States, a project that, in William's eyes, is an appropriate antidote to the stuffy British subject matter that has hitherto occupied his brother.  In response, Henry does what all writers have to learn to do: he stands up for himself against William's incursion.  "'May I put an end to this conversation,' Henry said, 'by stating clearly to you that I view the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness.'"  (p. 317.)
Gulp.  Historical novels tainted by a fatal cheapness?  But I'm in the midst of writing a historical novel.  Was it really necessary for Henry James to stand up for himself at the expense of putting me down?   How am I to carry on when as esteemed a critic as Henry James finds the endeavor "humbug"?  Wait, wait, not Henry James, but Colm Toíbín's depiction of Henry James . . . but still, Colm Toíbín is a pretty esteemed critic himself: what if he believes that historical novels are tainted by a fatal cheapness?  But, but, but Colm Toíbín wrote an historical novel: The Master!  Right.  But that doesn't mean that he doesn't think that his own historical novel isn't tainted by a fatal cheapness - authors can be tough on their own work, after all . . . merde alors: Henry James is dead; Portrait of a Lady was overwritten, Isabel's character was under-developed, and the plot was contrived; and The Master was slow, not to mention plotless.  Onward with my historical novel!

(Image of Henry James courtesy of The Guardian, image of Colm Toíbín also courtesy of The Guardian

Note to Self

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Having become excited about Henry James by Alan Hollinghurst's infectious enthusiasm for James in The Line of Beauty, I for some reason decided, instead of reading Henry James, to read Colm Toíbín's The Master, a biography of Henry James in novel form.

I cannot explain why this course of action seemed the logical expression of my interest in James' novels.  

I was disappointed by The Master, finding James the man less than his work.

Unfair, of course, to James; I cannot think of a single artist who isn't less than his or her work.

Unfair, as well, to Toíbín, whose achievement in The Master cannot credibly be criticized for not being one by Henry James.

No option, I'm afraid, but to pick up a novel by James.  I just wish Portrait of a Lady hadn't been so long and, I can't help thinking, contrived . . . .

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Master category.

The Line of Beauty is the previous category.

The Moon and Sixpence is the next category.



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