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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James So, I'm going to go on a long, rambling digression before I actually start talking about the novella itself, so if you feel like skipping to that, go ahead. But I'm talking about Henry James here, after all, so I think a digression is in order. I'll try to keep comma use to a minimum.

At my graduation party, I was treated to an outburst that pretty much ruined me on Henry James until recently. It's been nearly 20 years, so it was that memorable. I was, for some inexplicable reason, in a unlikely conversation triangle with two people: my mother's friend, whom we will call Molly, and the mother of one of my friends, whom we will call Sarah. Molly is witty, funny, and totally savage; she's got the knife in, out, clean, and back in her pocket before you notice that you've just been disemboweled. I love her, but she's also a little scary. Sarah was a philosophy professor of some kind, and was thoughtful, reserved, and very mature.

For some reason, the conversation came around to Henry James. Don't ask me how this happens; it just does. Sarah said something thoughtful and reserved about James, at which point Molly launched in to one of the most transcendentally beautiful diatribes I've ever witnessed. It wound up with Molly being in England, on unrelated business, and making a special trip to Cambridge so that she could dance on his grave. She demonstrated, yelling “You'redeadyour'edeadyou'redead!” It was clear that she had actually done this. I've never seen anyone more appalled than Sarah at that moment. I can still see her mouth in a little o, and her fingers pushing into her chest. My vision was a little blurry, but as Bob Dylan put it, the tears on my cheeks were from laughter. Since that time, for the last 20 years, every time the conversation comes around to James, and it does, oh yes, Mum and I end up doing a “you're dead” dance and laughing manically. Poor Henry James. Or not. You can hate him too; it's okay.

So, anyway, as you may imagine, I haven't been able to read James without hearing Molly's “you're dead” song, so I haven't read him at all. Then Mum posted a review of Turn of the Screw here on GR, and as I've been loitering about reading a bunch of Gothic, I thought I'd give it a shot.

(HERE'S WHERE you can come in if you skipped the anecdote)

Oh Gods, what a pretty piece of poison. Lovely, lovely curly, smoky sentences that capture something of the feminine obfuscation and denial of will. The narrator is seduced by a man, goes into his employ to be governess to his orphaned niece and nephew at a rural manor, and instructed to never bother him again in the matter. She slowly goes off the rails, imagining or seeing ghosts (is there a difference?) She clings to her employer's cone of silence, nuttily, and alludes constantly to showing him how strong and willful she is by never contacting him with the increasing unsettling events. This is, of course, stupid, and the uncle is a total douche, but this isn't the point of the story, right? She's committed to proving her will: to the ghosts, to the kids, to the douche-employer, but her language is this arabesque of “I think”s and “It seemed to me, maybe”s. Her sentences are limp and fractured things that defy both trajectory and sense.

Here:

“It was a pity I should have had to quaver out again the reasons for my not having, in my delusion, so much as questioned that the little girl saw our vision even as I actually saw Mrs Grose herself, and that she wanted, by just so much as she did thus see, to make me suppose she didn't, and at the same time, without showing anything, arrive at a guess as to whether I myself did!” (A page or two into Chapter 8)

Jeez, what the crap tense is that in? I'm completely in wonderment. But this totally works! No really, it's not yet time to strap on your dancing shoes and books those flights to Albion! There's something totally deft the way James suggests connections, even while he's snowing you under a pile of dependent clauses and conditionals. I'm plodding along, reading, and I keep seeing the word “lurid” in various contexts: “I made her the receptacle of lurid things...” (just after the beginning of Chapter 11) etc. Then James nails me with the use of the word “lucid”, in almost the exact same context:

“My lucidity must have seemed awful, but the charming creatures who were victims of it, passing and repassing in their interlocking sweetness, gave my colleague something to hold on by...” (Start of Chapter 12.)

Holy crap, man! What did you just do? Did you just suggest that clarity is a form of insanity? Did you totally blow my mind by changing one freaking letter? Bra-fucking-vo! You're the Prince of Darkness, but in a good way! You're dead!

I think Gothic is especially attuned to a sort of wish-fulfillment, but in the negative. I think of King Lear, which is pretty proto-gothic, right? and I'm convinced that starting from the times Lear begins bitching about G & R of being unfaithful and all that, everything that happens in the play occurs in his increasingly overheated imagination. All the plotting and murder from G & R and crew is some sort of Freudian death-wish fulfillment. I mean, if your kids are not plotting against you, how else did you become this old, batty nutcase who has unreasonable and frankly disturbing expectations of your daughters? This is why Cordelia never says anything when they're locked up together: because she's imaginary, the ghost of his stupid, infantile disapproval. What is the tempest but that old hoary friend, the pathetic fallacy? And what is the pathetic fallacy but your crazy internal state, writ large?

I'm not even going to get into how much of this destructive wish-fulfillment stuff shows up in Frankenstein. It's like every 15 seconds, the Baron thinks to himself, “Boy, it would be really crappy if my creation showed up and murdered my wife/killed my friends/burned down the castle.” And then, thunderclap!, there's the creature, matches in hand. Freud called, man, he says the thing that you did using women as chits in a male game of creation and destruction was way uncool, and he has some tickets to Antarctica for you.

Oh, speaking of Freud, how 'bout this one, from the final confrontation between the governess and the boy: “We continued silent while the maid was with us – as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding-journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter.” (4ish pages into Chapter 12). Whimsically, eh? Nice one.

Oh, and I had some thoughts about gothic writers and the way they reference other writers: the narrator specifically mentions Mysteries of Udolpho and Amelia, and alludes to Jane Eyre; how the reading of novels becomes a kind of poison that ends up converting your normal, boring existence into omens and portents, but not in a Good Way. I mean, Northanger Abbey, right? But this is already a book report, and I think maybe I've blathered enough.

While I'm not quite sure I'm going to be diving into the House of Mirth anytime soon, this was a nasty little piece of work, expertly constructed. Henry James is dead; long live Henry James!