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This week's New York Times
Book Review ran an multi-piece special on "Why Criticism Matters," and I, for one, was delighted, despite the fact that the articles barely managed to say anything interesting.
Two of the critics - Katie Roiphe
and Sam Anderson
- agree that critics have to write better than dimwit attention-mongers who leave opinions on websites, which - as an insight - ranks with the observation that a normal foot has five toes. A third critic, Adam Kirsch
, insists that "a serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world," which is the kind of subjective pseudo-deep remark that I'd expect from Khalil Gibran. A pastiche piece
excerpting quotes from great critics of the past includes some nuggets like Randall Jarrell's remark that "[c]riticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness," and Oscar Wilde's invocation of "Beauty."
All of which made me giggle. The reason criticism twists so uncomfortably between its insecure need to justify itself and its inability to offer that justification in anything like persuasive terms is because critics seem unwilling to name their true "value added": they know more. They've read more of the books by the author under review than you, and especially I, have; they've had more discussions, thought more deeply, written more about the topic, seen more, done more and experienced more of relevance to the issue than you and I have. Their opinion is an elite, expert opinion, and that's why it's useful.
It's also why the critics don't want to mention it. Aside from the social faux pas
inherent in establishing and brandishing such qualifications, elites and experts aren't having such a grand time of it in today's culture. Glen Beck recently cast elites as the bad guys in his thriller, The Overton Window
(a fact I myself wouldn't know if I didn't read a review
of it in an elitist rag like The New York Review of Books
In addition to such bashing, elites have suffered a real diminution in power. In the one passage of surpassing interest in the Book Review, Adam Kirsch made this point:
Like everyone, I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what
Virginia Woolf called "common readers," still exists. If it does, the
readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it. But
measured against the audience for a new movie or video game, or against
the population as a whole, even the Book Review reaches only a niche
audience. Perhaps the only difference between our situation and Arnold's
is that in Victorian England, the niche that cared about literature
also happened to constitute the ruling class, while in democratic,
mass-media America, the two barely overlap.
Critics used to pass judgment on the cultural representations of political power; now they're talking about artifacts of just another interest group. The demotion is embarrassing.
Nonetheless, people still listen to experts and elites. Knowing more still counts for much. People may be stupid, but even stupid people know the difference between an informed opinion and an emotional one. They may prefer one or the other on a given day, or depending on presentation - and America's is not a culture that appreciates a condescending, informed opinion - but people recognize a need for knowledge in their lives.
The critics offering highfalutin, vague and indirect explanations are working against themselves. No one who talks eloquently around the elephant in the room can be deemed an authority. Critics who talk honestly and openly about what distinguishes their contributions, and who do so in an accessible way, will find not only do they command authority, but that they've earned it.
(Image of Honoré Daumier painting, "The Critics," from Artnet
Taking 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."
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.
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
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.
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.
In 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.
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)
And 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?
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)
Henry James' The Aspern Papers
made me giddy, the way children are delighted when a beloved uncle plays a trick on them.
By this admission, I don't mean any backhanded compliment. The Aspern Papers
isn't in any respect cheap, superficial or manipulative. Nor, on reflection, do I think it really has a trick ending - not in the sense of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," or O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."
But James' rendering of Juliana Bordereau, the elderly ci-devant
lover of (fictional) poet Jeffrey Aspern, is so compelling that it utterly blinded me to where James was heading with the plot. (Warning: I am about to mention some plot spoilers.) When Juliana catches the narrator opening her secretary cupboard, and he sees "for the first, the last, the only time . . . her extraordinary eyes" (p. 112), the confrontation was so electric that I could only feel, upon learning four pages later that Juliana had died, that James had lost his way in the plot. Surely, I thought, the story hinges on the narrator's conflict with this indomitable, controlling, ancient woman - a woman so crushing and incomprehensible that she seemed a pagan god?
But, no, Juliana was an elaborate distraction in a story more directly about innocence than about conniving.
On my second go-round through the story, I noted Juliana's emphasis on pushing the narrator into relations with her middle-aged spinster niece, Miss Tita. I had registered the references before, but they hadn't clued me into the endgame of Miss Tita's marriage proposal, partly because I couldn't ever decide whether Juliana's relationship to Miss Tita was supportive or destructive. Juliana's desire that the narrator spend time with Miss Tita seemed more likely to be a ploy to embarrass and control them both, or to get them out of the house in order that Juliana might burn the Aspern papers; a shidduch
for Miss Tita's benefit and pleasure didn't seem an obvious option. That Juliana's relationship to her niece turned out to be both supportive and destructive only deepens the realism and resonance of the story.
Seeing and analyzing the mechanism that tricked me, I feel admiration . . . and also a little disappointment. Now that I know the trick, it won't work on me again: I'll never be able to feel the same giddiness at the conclusion of The Aspern Papers
. All the more reason to savor its memory.
(Image of Henry James from The Guardian