Monday, February 3, 2014

M. R. James and Count Magnus: What Is This Thing That I Have Done?

'Count Magnus', first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James, 1904.

'The Count' by Rosemary Pardoe

Montague Rhodes James, like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien after him, exemplified a bygone variety of creative and scholarly fecundity that many people would easily conjure to mind: the image of the British university don, scribbling away at private, eccentric visions as a pastime in between lectures and research. Perhaps James helped create the image himself, with his characters often coming from the ranks of tenured savants, variously absent-minded, churlish, gruff, and/or asocial. The impact James, Lewis, and Tolkien had on the fantastic genres of the twentieth century was genuine and substantial, and yet they stood far outside the usual flow of pressures familiar to most commercial genre writers, in their own time and ours (quite distinct from today when literary writers basically have to become teachers to make a living). On the contrary, their appeal and achievement lay precisely in the way they offered to readers respite from the raucous. Like Tolkien, James worked his own delight in the arcane and the trappings of the scholarship he enjoyed into the texture of his creations, and likewise, the sense of untold lodes of lore and knowledge informs so many fleeing concepts and words found in their work. But James, a medieval scholar, archaeologist, translator, archivist, and finally teacher, was ultimately a very different kind of artist to the two later fantasy writers, and not just because they were Oxfordians. James’ world is our world, petty, mundane, often chokingly dull and predictable, and yet occasionally a veil is ripped, and emanations of another zone invade stable reality and shock his characters into comprehending the fragility everything that surrounds them. The past stalks them like a bloodhound. Their transgressions, their need to learn, to uncover, to profit, to know, becomes their undoing, as they run into the limits of the liminal. If they are to be saved, if they can be saved at all, they must abide the primal rules of the taboo and the ritual. Return the treasure to its hiding place. File the ancient document in the deepest archive. Pass the runes back. Run away as fast as you can.

An anecdote from James’ childhood holds that he broke out in tears when faced with a birthday party, and only calmed when he was allowed to retreat into a library. Around the same time he developed a fascination for an antique bible that he poured over for hours. Not surprisingly, he died unmarried. Yes, James was what we’d now call a nerd, and much of his later writing contains an element of self-criticism, and self-provocation, in having the bubble of scholarly calm, and the domesticity and regulated, conciliatory civility of English life around it, disturbed by reminders of the uneasy nature of all stability. James’ prose is off-hand, rarely descriptive, except when sensatory experience starts to be distorted by strange presences and epiphanies. Oftentimes he writes as he’s speaking to another academic scholar, mumbling about manuscripts and pedantic details of dating, sometimes commencing stories with dry anecdotes how he obtained such and such a paper. The feeling of confidentiality, even intimacy, that James could create, turns his readers into confidants, fellow academes, someone to be told over a nice glass of sherry and a warm fireplace just why Professor so-and-so had to retire last year, or why Mr somebody-or-other seemed to just vanish. There’s often the carefully contrived feeling that he’s writing down a conversation or experience of his, or a friend’s. James got a kick out of reading his stories to fellows and friends around the university. It’s also certainly an aspect of the matter-of-fact approach he takes, and indeed often gives his work a unique quality, at once fustily old-fashioned and peculiarly modern, even post-modern. Texts and accounts pile up, as if loosely arranged in a pile on his desk, trying to add them up into a narrative, scanning the evidence for the pivotal phrase, the revelatory moment.

M.R. James

There is, in this method, some anticipation in James of Jose Luis Borges’ games with fake manuscripts and troves of imagined lore. ‘Count Magnus,’ one of James’ most famous and anticipatory tales, coalesces into a narrative in such a fashion, and indeed James states it upfront: these “papers out of which I have made a connected story…assumed the character of a record of one single experience, and this record was continued up to the very eve, almost, of its termination.” The recent craze for “found footage” movies – The Blair Witch Project, Rec, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Chronicle, Paranormal Activity, ad nauseum – which has proven particularly common in horror cinema, is based around exactly the same method, and popular for exactly the same reason. As a storytelling method, it raises an ambiguity, however spurious, over the presumed nature of the narrative the audience is experiencing, bringing some elements into crucial relief whilst helping obscure others. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Bram Stoker’s Dracula exemplified the epistolary novel as a method for making the supernatural seem credible, but James’ approach is consciously much less neat. Whereas Dracula makes literal and clear what threat the living protagonists are dealing with, and arms them with all the power of a rational society to meet it, ‘Count Magnus’ is disturbing for its elision, even abstraction, of the threat. That ambiguity is generated by James’ careful diffusion of the narrative in making the reader conscious of how it’s been recorded, or, indeed, failed to be recorded. James engages with the almost tactile nature of the document as a repository of selective truth.

An illustration for 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad,
frequently used as a cover illustration for James' books.

James was the great suggester of horror fiction, what Val Lewton would be for the cinema, the firm proponent that true interest lay in just what can’t be entirely identified, quantified, or treated with a rational mind. James’ namesake Henry had laid the building blocks for the psychological horror story with ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ but both men digressed from taking such a tack too literally, knowing the effect of such stories would degrade if reduced too obviously to symbolic tales of repression and frustration, and probably such an approach would have bored them anyway. And yet these qualities haunt M.R. James’ stories, stalking his heroes with their dried sap and fusty introversion. James’ stories often seem to ramble at first, partly because of his methods, as if the product of some intelligent but disorganised mind and disinterest in the reader’s immediate desires. ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ commences with a full, long paragraph of Latin, an antiquarian’s nastiest joke on his average reader. Structure and language often seem quaint, distracted, and yet his best stories always seem to suddenly crystallise in some memorable piece of phrasing that doesn’t violate the authorial voice and yet signals the presence of the unnatural, an obtuse invocation of something intensely disquieting, with an effect that can raise goose-bumps at the right hour of the morning. Examples stick in my mind years after first reading them:

“…He could have sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, squirrel or not, it had more than four legs.” – The Ash-Tree

“There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.” – Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

“One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from life.’” – Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook

“…But now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones.” – Count Magnus

These lines are generally benign out of context, gaining effect only after the mood James creates has done its work. Only the last quote resembles a kind of gore money shot found in movies, where the other quotes are more oblique, yet all contain a queasy communication of unnatural physicality, made flesh out of the perversities of nightmare figurations. As Nigel Kneale, one of many genre writers who counted James among his influences, noted, James was always at his most concise and effective when describing physical mutilation and abnormality. The line from ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ comes at the end of a passage describing an illustration in a medieval book, of a Satanic monstrosity so perversely shaped a sane and lively contemporary expert in morphology couldn’t sleep for nights after seeing it. The idea that it’s so real, so troubling, that it can only have been drawn with the model standing before it, provides a gleefully alarming punchline. H.P. Lovecraft often tried to achieve a similar effect, to impart to the reader a sense of something so utterly inhuman that it beggars both countenancing and description. Lovecraft is often mocked for sometimes failing to achieve what he was going for, which indicates perhaps how skilled James was. He never made the mistake of describing too much. The use of the most seemingly bland, inexact word imaginable, “something,” in the quote from ‘Oh, Whistle,’ is James’ coup there, conjuring a disturbing image for the reader without anything concrete: everyone can fill in their own notion of alarming locomotion. The thing with more than four legs that mysteriously stalks the estate in ‘The Ash-Tree’ proves, in the climax, to be a spider: nothing so unnatural in that, except that the spiders, when uncovered, prove to be poisonous brutes the size of a king crab. In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,’ the treasure-hunting hero uncovers a horde of treasure, only for an unseen monster to gasp him with a clammy sensation of cold flesh, unknowable numbers of limbs, and wretched stench. James’ ability to concisely communicate a sense of physical unease permeates so many of his tales that some commentators have believed he was trying to work through a phobic dislike of all bodily contact.

Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, the inspiration for James' character.
He was the Lord High Treasurer of Sweden 1652-1660.

‘Count Magnus’ begins, as usual, in a conversational manner, as the narrator, James “himself,” imparts how he assembled the tale from many documents, whilst mentioning that the reason he now possesses them thanks to a stroke of fortune which, however, he can’t reveal until the story’s end. The protagonist of his tale, Wraxhall, is only vaguely rescued from the obscurity of the written word and the fragmentary nature of the evidence; even his first name isn’t given, and the sorts of accidents that render a historian’s work frustratingly hard, in this case a fire that consumed a repository, have conspired to keep Wraxhall’s background all the more obscure. A professional writer with scholarly interests, Wraxhall embarked upon writing a guide book for English tourists venturing to Sweden, having already written one on his time in Brittany. James takes a poke at the fad for such books in the 1840s and ‘50s, a time when the idea of recreational travel was becoming more possible for burgeoning middle class folk in Britain, and explains the formula for writing such books: “reported conversations with intelligent foreigners, racy innkeepers and garrulous peasants.” James’ sideswipe at a dated version of Lonely Planet and the well-manicured paths of popular travel gives both an aptly mundane background to his story, a hint of satire, and also a digression of mood that’s a familiar part of his method. Wraxhall, James goes on to explain, travelled widely in Sweden before visiting a hamlet in Vestergothland, where he wanted to investigate a large archive kept by a prominent local family, at their manor house, known as Råbäck. Out of deference to the family’s respectability, he only goes so far as to refer to them by the name of one of their antecedent clans, De La Gardie.

Loneliness is a keynote of ‘Count Magnus’ – loneliness, rootlessness, exposure, and finally desperation. Wraxhall is a forgotten being, albeit one who, in his time, was successful, but untethered to any hearth or heart, past middle-age and “very much alone in the world.” James notes that “he had, it seems no settled abode in England, but was a denizen of hotels and boarding-houses.” He declines an offer to stay with the De La Gardies and instead takes up in a hotel a mile away from the manor, a consequential choice. Wraxhall’s intention to write a usefully middling book is twisted back on itself, as he all but disappears within his travel notes, with their seemingly inane lists of fellow passengers. James folds the narrative inwards like origami until Wraxhall becomes only a distant, haunting memory of strangers of a frantic man who died mysteriously and gruesomely. Whilst sifting through the De La Gardie archive, he learnt unusual things about the founder of the family’s fortunes, Count Magnus, whose body rests securely in a large sarcophagus in the church situated halfway between manor and hotel, in the midst of a private forest Magnus used as a game reserve. So zealous was Magnus about the inviolability of his property and protecting it from usurpers that he burnt down the houses of neighbours, with whole families inside, and earned infamy for vicious reprisals to a peasant rebellion. Yes, Magnus was a right charmer, but for Wraxhall, as for most any inquisitive contemporary person safe in their vantage centuries hence, horror and tyranny have become sideshow. Discovering that Magnus apparently dabbled in alchemy and magic on top of such ruthless aristocratic behaviour “only made him a more picturesque figure.”

Varnhem Abbey, the real resting place of Magnus

Count Magnus should be, like Wraxhall, a mere vestige. Like the writer, he is held firmly in the grip of the past, extant to posterity only through his works, writings, and legend. But here emerges qualitative difference: Magnus is force of nature and force outside of nature, as desolating and consuming as nuclear fallout, and the totems of his existence have terrible power. Far more so than Wraxhall, who can barely dominate a page of his own narrative. Wraxhall is hapless Everyman. Magnus is extraordinary lord, a product of an age with a different, less constrained idea of power, made immortal by different concepts of existence. Magnus’s portrait, Wraxhall records, depicts an extraordinarily ugly man. His book of cabalistic and alchemic research, which the unlucky writer finds in the De La Gardie archive, contains references to the unholiest lore. His body still lies in a sealed sarcophagus in the church, held in check by three massive padlocks. His house and grounds are still inviolate. Upon the sarcophagus are engraved unusual designs, including one that depicts a mysterious, diminutive form chasing a hapless man in a forest, at the direction of an onlooking master. Of the pursuer, we’re told, “the only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm. Mr Wraxhall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish.” Holy hentai, Batman. But most of all the power of Magnus is sensed the effervescent fear apparent in the locals when questions about Magnus’ activities are raised. The terror engendered by Magnus in his tenants and neighbours when alive was bad enough, but his malign reputation still reverberates. Wraxhall’s enquiries are, in what is now a familiar pattern for genre fans, deflected and delayed by garrulous men and helpful priests who suddenly clam up and avoid further questions when some particularly grim or evil subject is broached, especially that matter of the Black Pilgrimage.

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote fine some fantastic stories situated on similar fault lines of the modern consciousness to his, James was essentially a late Victorian writer, but one who also kept producing stories until his death in the 1930s, and so helped mediate his era’s struggle to accept the coexistence of emergent modernity’s sanitising urges and nagging cultural spectres. The capacity of the Victorians to be both archly rational and airily religious stemmed from a zeitgeist very different to the one James, with his knowledge of the arcane world of medieval and classical literature, knew underpinned much of the European intellectual tradition. In studied contrast to the sun-dappled, pacific moods of the tea-sipping Anglican sensibility, James dredges up pages torn from ancient alchemy textbooks, points of lore from near-forgotten grimoires, relics from before Hastings, and obscure evils from the darkest corners of Mosaic and early Christian mythologies, like the monster from ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’, a Solomonian grotesque that seems to eat its way out of the page containing it to stalk the milquetoast sons of men inhabiting the future. James delights in suggesting such scarcely plumbed depths from ages when distinctions were far more permeable and the zone of religion, science, magic, philosophy, and politics grew in tangled, troublingly intimate awareness of each-other. Lovecraft synthesised a body of imagined lore to prop up his morbid universe. James merely refers with sinister vagueness to such a body of possibly imagined yet authentic-sounding volumes from the dark vaults of Medieval Europe’s covert intelligentsia violating boundaries of presumed reality. Wraxhall records Magnus as possessing “the book of the Phoenix, book of the Thirty Words, book of the Toad, book of Miriam, Turba philosophorum, and so forth.” At the heart of the story’s mystery is a genuine piece of Biblical lore, the village of Chorazin in the Holy Lands, where the Antichrist will supposedly be born. Magnus went on his “Black Pilgrimage” there to kneel in obeisance before a Satanic emissary, and “brought something or someone back with him.”

'Count Magnus' by Paul Lowe

Could it be that Magnus returned to his home with his own personal devil, that disturbing imp portrayed on the side of his sarcophagus? Well, duh. Small wonder that Magnus in all his cruelty and malignancy emerges far more vividly than Wraxhall from his artefacts, to the point where Wraxhall falls under his spell, quite literally it seems. “Ah, Count Magnus, there you are,” he utters fatefully (and fatally) in a seeming jest whilst gazing at the Count’s mausoleum: “I should dearly like to see you.” Later, “James” informs us, Wraxhall recounted an odd interlude of distraction bordering on compulsion, recovering to find himself “singing or chanting some such words as, “Are you awake, Count Magnus?” or, “Are you there, Count Magnus?”’ There’s an echo here of the repeated name that manifests Clive Barker’s Candyman, with a similar note of reference to both religious liturgy and childish invocation. “He had not no eyes for his surroundings, no perception of the evening scents of the woods or the evening light on the lake,” James notes as Wraxhall is drawn towards the church for one of his dissociative reveries, drawing the reader’s attention to imagine precisely those things whilst describing Wraxhall’s state, a fine example of James’ minimalist skill.

‘Count Magnus’ is interesting not least because of its resonance with that more famous undead literary count; indeed, the anthologist Peter Haining once included the story in a collection entitled The Rivals of Dracula, where I first read it. As in Stoker’s book, a Briton travels into an unfamiliar locale in one of Europe’s extreme places, and encounters a supernatural remnant of an aristocracy that once lorded over a Europe so different to the new society, and yet whose powerful grip on the mind and reality of the structure of that society can still prove staggeringly powerful. Like Dracula, based on Vlad ‘the Impaler,’ Count Magnus De La Gardie is associated with the past’s harshness. Except that where Vlad was a religious warrior in a time of invasion, Magnus is characterised as a vicious oppressor, who seems to have actively sought as much power in the spiritual world as he had in the human, his hubris both transcendingly mighty and amazingly petty and greedy (a common trait of those who set evil in motion in James’ tales). Unlike Dracula, Magnus remains a threatening cypher, a black figure at the far end of the path in the twilight. James’ manipulation of viewpoint and storytelling texture is most pronounced when Wraxhall finally extracts the source of his innkeeper Nielsen’s anxiety in discussing Magnus. Nielsen cautiously offers up his own anecdote from “my Grandfather’s time – that is, ninety-nine years ago.” Another layer of storytelling, another layer of time, and yet here the presence of threat becomes tangibly immediate. “I can tell you this one little tale, not any more. You must not ask anything when I have done.” Nielsen presents details like James himself, hard and impersonal, descriptive but unelaborate, telling everything by only telling what was certain. Nielsen recounts his grandfather’s story of two men who decided to mock Magnus and violate his domain, that private forest, and culminates in pure horror movie shtick of recollections of dreadful screams (“just as if the most inside piece of his soul was twisted out of him”) and mocking, inhuman laughter. The morning after finds one man driven mad, pushing away what he still imagines is threatening him, and the other man, the good-looking one, the one who no longer had a face: “The eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them.”

Yikes. By James’ standards this is gory, spectacular stuff, but wrought with an exacting skill, like the use, in the sentence I quoted earlier, of the word “sucked” in noting the mutilation of Bjornsen’s face. Not a cliché like eaten, gnawed, or ripped, but sucked. What the hell kind off unholy creation could suck a man’s face off, we’re left to wonder. Perhaps even more effective is the description of the reaction of the men present – so appalled were they that they buried Bjornsen on the spot – and those who have been told this tale, all of whom have its baleful intimations engraved upon their memories. This note recurs again in the story’s finale. Nielsen’s anecdote is a work of artisanal concision, delineated with pronouncements that describe the edge of taboo and atrocity, recalling an event so terrible it still chills the blood of people 99 years later, and ending with the bluntness of a smash cut in a movie, for the story continues the next day, without note of what sort of night’s sleep Wraxhall had after hearing that. Not too bad, it seems, as Wraxhall remains ignorant of threat until it’s too late. Too late being when, about to depart for England, he stops for a farewell visit to Magnus’ sarcophagus from which the padlocks keep seeing to fall off (a touch pilfered by Terence Fisher and Peter Bryan for The Brides of Dracula, 1960) in defiance of physical fact. The last one clangs to the floor at his feet, and “there was the sound of metal hinges creaking, and (he) distinctly saw the lid shifting upwards.” Bad enough, but Wraxhall further describes that “there was something more than I have written that alarmed me, but whether it was sound or sight I am not able to remember. What is this thing I have done?”

Wraxhall’s subsequent flight from Sweden and journey home dissolves is described only in a peculiar series of lists he makes of fellow passengers, and James’ inference from his handwriting that a mere few days of sailing reduced him to “a broken man.” What he was looking for becomes clear: a tall man under an old-fashioned hat and a short companion in a hooded cloak. Magnus and his familiar, pursuing the scholar, for whatever reason, whether for a petty slight or in maliciously black-humoured fulfilment of his wish. The undead master and malignant imp dog Wraxhall’s footsteps until he meets his fate in a village, Belchamp Saint Paul. The sparseness of the narrative style here, with James’ bare-boned, inference-laden telling from scant details, somehow manages to wring the worst kind of existential despair from the situation. Wraxhall finds himself spiralling unavoidably towards a fatal encounter, with the bitterest of ironies: this man who has no home and knows only boarding houses and hotels can find lodgings in the village but no aid, for even the parson’s away for some reason, and we’re left to imagine a Wraxhall in his final hours quivering in terror at what will inevitably be his horrific end. “What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?” James questions.

Nor does James provide any final escape: “And the jury that viewed the body, seven of ‘em did, none of them wouldn’t speak of what they see,” he recounts. Note the shift to the regional dialect, James’ last twist of technique, as he now quotes an eyewitness (and not even distinguished by quote marks), another layer of storytelling and this one the most immediate and (falsely, of course) authentic, spoken to James’ own ear, or so he would have us believe. And how did he piece together the bulk of Wraxhall’s narrative? Why, he happened to inherit the house where Wraxhall found his last lodging, so benighted by the event that no-one would live in it, so he had it demolished, uncovering Wraxhall’s papers. Nice one, Monty. James wasn’t always a downbeat or unsentimental writer, and some of his great endings, as tales like ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Lost Hearts’ provide memorable defeats for evil, as does the closest thing I think he ever wrote to a romantic narrative, in ‘The Tractate Middoth’. But never in James’ work is the feeling that the forces of the supernatural are more than briefly containable. No silver bullets, no stakes through the heart, no handy exorcisms. Often his tales end with the protagonists wisely repairing whatever violation they’ve committed and retreating gratefully into obscurity. This quality makes him still feel modern and vital in the horror genre, and one reason why his influence seems to me to be everywhere in it today, even in product from another culture, like those signal J–Horror works, The Ring movies. Whereas Bram Stoker demonstrated that the new world of mercantile bourgeoisie could forge alliance with deferential aristocracy and the new prophets of science to defeat an emissary of an evil variously identified as foreign, bygone, and tyrannical, James offers no such solace, nor even a grip on the phenomenon. Magnus and his familiar are finally as alien as Stanislaw Lem’s planet in Solaris, as cryptic and unforgiving as Kafka’s unseen forces, as unstoppable as Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. Magnus is the pure spirit of the past’s evil, but also the future’s, blank, abstract, and implacable, sure as death. Wraxhall does at least achieve one small victory. No-one who reads his tale would ever make the mistake of wanting to meet Count Magnus. 

Note: this piece first appeared on the website The Kind of Face You Hate.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What He Rightly Is: King Lear as King and Man, Parent and Child

The Tragedie of King Lear, by William Shakespeare, 1606.

Woodcut illustration for "The Tragedy of King Lear" by Claire Van Vliet

Come, sir.
I would you would make use of your good wisdom,
Whereof I know you are fraught, and put away
These dispositions, which of late transport you
From what you rightly are. (1.4.213-17)

Of the many themes King Lear encompasses, perhaps the most essential is that of the disintegration of order. Natural order, familial order, political order, even finally in the psyche, language, and the body: all fall prey to a process of test and failure that almost, but not completely, destroys the settled world found at the play’s outset. Most fundamental is the fateful fall of Lear himself, both representative and singular man, a confluence of social and metaphysical orders. This fall, whilst foreshadowed from the outset, commences proper in the lengthy, subtle, crucial Act I, Scene iv, as the forces that will destroy Lear and his legacy begin to resolve. In the course of this scene, the breach between Lear and his daughter Goneril properly manifests, and the course of the subsequent drama takes on, from this point, a quality of inevitability, diving towards a nadir of human behaviour in which a handful of exemplary characters labour and largely fail to save each-other from oblivion. What Lear “rightly” is, as king and patriarch, gives way to the vagaries of old age and the insidious potency of the inheriting generation, and small acts of offence and betrayal snowball into calamity. This scene therefore presents the dramatic fulcrum of the first part of the play, whilst raising the question of just what Lear rightly is, pivotal to comprehending a vast moral drama, with subsequent dramas foreshadowed in the characters’ words and attitudes in this early scene.

Detail from "Cordelia Disinherited" by John Rogers Herbert
At the outset, one settled order is concluding, and the order that will replace it is the crucial question. Lear’s famous solution, to divide his kingdom for each of his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, immediately begins to go awry when Cordelia fails to play the game Lear has made an unstated condition of his settlement. In Scene iv, the cracks in Lear’s solution truly begin to show. Characters are now polarising according to the sides they will now take, with Kent, appearing for the first time in disguise, ingratiating himself for the purpose of protecting the king. His opposite, Oswald, the archetypal venal courtier, is introduced. So too is the Fool, a voice of honesty strained through songs and jokes, meditating upon Lear’s ill-wisdom. Goneril, offended by her father’s retinue, plots to create a crisis that will enable her to lay down the law. Albany, as he will continue to, equivocates, pleads innocence, and lets others fight for him. Lear rejects his daughter’s presumptions, and storms out. On the level of exposition, this scene sees much that could go wrong in the opening’s settlement begin to do so, whilst fundamental ironies rise to the surface. Kent, ill-treated and stripped of all that is his, nonetheless proves himself peerlessly loyal. The Fool offers telling sense, making explicit that Lear is the real fool for putting himself at his daughter’ mercy. Goneril, having mouthed pretty speeches as required of her, now reveals herself as manipulative and disrespectful. By the scene’s end Lear is beating his own head, realising his folly (1.4.272-3), and the monarch of supreme power is literally on the road to becoming a semi-crazed vagabond.

Scene from Grigori Kozintsev's Korol Lear (1971): Jüri Järvet as Lear, Valentina Shendrikova as Cordelia
King Lear is defined by its relative abstractness and remoteness from all but the broadest political references, based as it is in the accepted conventions of folk-tale-derived material (Bradbrook, 1935: 40). This quality however gives the play scope to explore notions like royalty, loyalty, duty, family, and hierarchy in a less hampered context. This is the Tragedy of King Lear above all. The disparity between Lear the man and Lear the king is apparent, and a certain alienation of one from the other is an aspect of Lear’s character, as Regan notes his lack of self-knowledge (1.1.293-4), and yet their simultaneous unity cannot be ignored. Even in his now aged and intemperate state, Lear is at the outset still a vessel of great power: voice of law, partitioner of the natural and social worlds, a dragon, a father-god, “the summum of all that culture is” (Long, 1976: 170). A fundamental discrepancy, of the mortality of the man and the immutable nature of his role, leads to an ultimate crisis in this culture: we have the “spectacle of a king who overthrows his own kingdom” (Epstein, 1993: 6). The lone voice of tolerated dissent is his Fool, who counters Lear’s misapprehensions through metaphoric jests and allusive mockery, and his concise description of the lot of the honest: “Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out.” (1.4.114-15) Lear’s power, however, cannot do much to prevent him from walking into Goneril’s design, or avoid justifying her subsequent acts, with his aggression towards Oswald and his knights’ general intransigence. When Goneril upbraids Lear for his “dispositions”, taking precedent over his “good wisdom”, it is already clear what these dispositions entail, after Lear’s summary fury in exiling Cordelia and Kent. These are not wise acts, and the lack of wisdom will reverberate throughout the play.

Romola Garai as Cordelia and Ian McKellen as Lear, in a 2007 RSC production
Lear compounds his mistakes in I, iv. Kent ingratiates himself with the king by indulging his prejudices and participating in his sufficiently offensive antics. Lear would not have tolerated them; Goneril does not, either. Lear is no longer, as Goneril’s words indicate what he once was, a man of sound strategic wit, now irascible and tetchy. He has pinned his fate on what is essentially an act of faith, that his daughters’ words and actions must accord. Lear is here inseparable from his self-concept as king and the way meaning and form flows out from his person, and his mistake is to believe this is felt by all others to be incumbent upon them. Even his contradictions and switches of mood are inviolate: “I have sworn; I am firm” (1.1.245). His idea of what his daughters are for is made clear to Cordelia: “Better thou / Hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.” Lear’s heirs are extensions of his own unbounded ego, and his power is a cultural maxim. “Lear is (a) character who…asks us to think about the psyche of a ruler from the inside out, of what it must be like to consider yourself godlike even as your body and your children betray you” (McEachern, 2010: 192). Good and evil in the play are subsequently defined by individuals’ relationship with that maxim, even as it is tested and found wanting. The heroic characters, Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar, display unswerving fealty even when mistreated. Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Cornwall see value in wresting such power for themselves, and are willing to ignore sentiment to do so. And yet in that act they annihilate the very purpose of this leadership caste, which is to define and uphold certain faiths. All that is left otherwise is mere power. In I. iv, Goneril begins this process of disentangling the legal and moral shape of a world, much as the bastard Edmund has already vowed (1.2) to accomplish, which Lear has been the guardian and definer of.

Scene from Peter Brook's King Lear (1971): Alan Webb as Gloucester, Paul Scofield as Lear

The irony of Goneril’s request for Lear’s “good wisdom” is then clear, in that she has no desire for Lear to return to what he “rightly” is, or rather, her definition of that is not one he would recognise. She wants him to behave in a becoming fashion, and adapt to her regime. She is quick to put his anger down to a man giving way to senility: “Let his disposition have that scope / as dotage gives it” (1.4.295-6). Lear has no wish to adapt. For one thing, it is virtually incompatible with the role he is defined by: the king is still the king, a fact which betrays a false assumption in his settlement. His exiling of Cordelia and Kent is the act of a man used to no limits on his power. But Lear is subsequently a reactive rather than decisive force. “The King himself destroys his own kingship, and the remainder of the play shows the restoration of that kingship in him” (Epstein, 1993: 4). Lear’s motives for the division of his kingdom are unstated beyond simply making provision for his inevitably brief future, and yet implicit in it is awareness of his own failing capacity to govern. That he will be alive, and yet no longer an omnicompetent ruler, presents an inevitable tension, which he exacerbates in his insistence on maintaining the privileges of overlordship. Lear’s legacy can be seen as an attempt to avoid making painful choices. He gives up power, but not the form of it; he gives away his country, but instead of favouring either of the most powerful lords in his realm, Albany and Cornwall, connected with his eldest two daughters, he divides it between the three daughters, a balanced act immediately undone because of Lear’s rash temper. From one perspective, Goneril’s sentiments about the behaviour of Lear and his retinue are entirely understandable. And yet she capably avoids the one real price she had to pay for gaining half a kingdom. The breach of this condition is the germ for a tragedy that destroys a governing class.

"King Lear" by Benjamin West

The roles of family are here irreducibly linked with those of royalty. Lear’s betrayed prestige is both political and patriarchal; likewise his exile. For daughters to cause their elderly father to wander off in the rainy night would be seen as a failure of care, no matter the era and reason. It is also in this context an act of treason, albeit one Lear’s own lapses have allowed. Lear is at least canny enough to recognise Goneril’s game almost immediately: his riposte to her entreaty, “Are you our daughter?”, comes well after he has sensed the wane of deference and respect for his party amongst her retinue, which he has resisted interpreting until now as purposeful aggression (1.4.68-72). His question recognises the distance between this Goneril and her earlier, fawning filial piety. Lear makes it plain that he was bargaining for a kind of treatment that he now sees he will not receive. Father and daughter now talk past one-another. Goneril has engineered a situation to stoke her father’s anger and justify her own; he refuses to reply to her according to “good wisdom” and instead will not recognise her. These stances can only have one outcome, and Lear is the clearer loser. His savage invocation to nature (1.4.278-292) for barrenness to be visited upon Goneril, concludes with the most telling phrase that “sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / to have a thankless child.” Here Lear’s pathos as both father and king is clear. Lear, as a lawmaker and supreme figure, sees his own fall as a fall for all humanity, invoking the wrath of gods on his daughter’s womb, and then at mankind in general (3.2.1-24), before, in his “mental fragmentation” (Brailowsky, 2009: 208), giving way to a complete dissolution of moral and sexual propriety which is, by his standards, an embrace of total nihilism even before the cast begins to die like flies. That development may in fact, considering the potency of Lear’s relationship as king with the metaphysical order, be rooted in his nihilistic curses: his invocations on mankind carry weight with the gods he and others see working behind human actions.

"Cordelia's Farewell" by Edwin Austin Abbey

In I, iv, the Fool teases Lear with his mixture of wit and astringent truth, perhaps most enlightening in this screed: “Thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for when thou gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches” (1.4.174-76). The inversion of the power relationship of parent and child that is an effect of aging is here given new urgency as a more severe inversion, that of master and supplicant, looms. The threat that Lear will essentially be a child, coddled and scolded by daughter-mothers and reduced to dependence, is a fate he rejects with self-destructive fury. Lear’s settlement again tried to avoid this, but instead he loses all support. The king, defined by his office and power, completely stripped of all trappings of rank and power, returns to a state of childishness, garbing himself in flowers, and rejecting previous moral maxims, newly instilled with “compassion for sin as well as suffering” (Granville-Barker, 1970: 43). When he is finally rescued and awakens before Cordelia, he is both a very old man and a young child, Cordelia both true daughter and mother-blesser, the only force who can restore him to sanity, sanctity, and kingliness. Captured by their enemies, Lear looks forward to sharing childhood with Cordelia in jail, a rebirth in being relieved of all responsibility and laughing at the courtly world he so recently headed. Yet the next-to-final image of him is almost motherly now in himself, “a reversal of the mother-son axis in the imagery of the Deposition as depicted in countless paintings and statues of the Italian Renaissance” (Riemer, 1994: 16), carrying Cordelia in his arms, now a vessel of world-sorrow. Moreover, the plot completes the inversion of the natural in the fashion that Goneril and Regan, having failed in their responsibilities towards a male patriarch, destroy each-other rather in competition for a male pretender, Edmund. Edmund, the anti-social force, is a perfect fetish object for the two daughters.

Scene from King Lear, 1982 Granada TV production: Laurence Olivier as Lear, John Hurt as The Fool

Lear’s rhetorical failure to recognise his daughter elucidates how sight, and its corollaries recognition and discernment, becomes a crucial motif. Lear has already failed to recognise Kent as an honest friend and then at all. The same with Cordelia, whilst the borrowed verbal facades of Goneril and Regan have entirely fooled him. Coming after Goneril’s entreaty, this failure of recognition highlights the constant alteration and alternation of roles throughout the play. King to vagabond, earl to exile, bastard son to almost-prince, beloved offspring to hated enemies: characters remain constant and yet their roles and apparels are in flux, a dangerous state for a society defined by roles. Whilst disguise is an art of the wicked, it’s also a survival tool and weapon for the wronged, as it is for Kent and Edgar, and these disguises both increase the intrigue and the emotional complexity of the play (Bradbrook, 1935: 67). In such a world, the notion that anyone is rightly something seems almost absurd, when identities can so easily be blurred, usurped, stolen, adopted. Gloucester’s eyes, instruments which he abuses himself for failing to tell the difference between good son and bad, are the targets of grim punishment, in a scene where “the emphasis immediately shifts from blinding to things which must not be seen” (Peat, 1985: 104), redolent of crossing the boundaries of taboo, things that are against the shape of the human and world. Gloucester is then given a redemption by his son Edgar in a play-act contrivance, as the loss of physical sight gives way to a clearer vision of the truth. Lear’s own prescription in the midst of his derangement: “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears” (4.6.151-2). The Fool’s constant wordplay dresses and undresses the truth, and he gets whipped for all possible interpretations of his words, for “his philosophy demands of him that he tell the truth and abolish myths,” (Kott, 1967: 129) in a role that is at odds with Lear’s as the proponent of form over truth. “These are biblical parables. The blind see clearly, madmen tell the truth.” (Kott, 1967: 127)

There are bonds and feelings that finally do not break, between Lear and Cordelia, Lear and Kent, Edgar and Gloucester, and the servants who aid Gloucester, and these confirm the strength of deeper links between humans in the face of nihilistic forces. These bonds, as well as the cleansing process of his alienation and madness, partly redeem Lear from his foolishness and obstinacy, and yet the play finally refuses to depict a world put right. Instead, like a broken gear, the initial mutual lapses of wisdom and respect smash the entire mechanism. Justice catches up with the wrongdoers, but the innocent and the misguided are also victims, and therefore the meaning of the tale moves out of the stage of the morality play and into a more urgent consideration of the ties and responsibilities that construct a civilised world. The mighty, the guiltless, the villainous: all become victims of a form of blindness that fails to perceive the authentic and the sustaining. By the otherwise desolate finale, Lear’s own life has undergone a simultaneous evolution and devolution, sifting the ages and states of man in a desperate process of attempting to find just what he rightly is, what any human then rightly is, attempting to bear the burden of crushing sorrows and still, indeed, remain human.

Bradbrook, M. C. 1935, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, C.U.P., Cambridge.
Brailowsky, Yan 2009, ‘“The Lusty Stealth Of Nature”: Desire And Bastardry In King Lear’, And that’s true too: New Essays on King Lear, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, UK.
Epstein, Paul 1998, ‘The purgation of the Shakespearean hero’, in Animus: The Canadian Journal of Philosophy and Humanities, Vol. 3, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Corner Brook, Newfoundland.
Granville-Barker, Harley 1970, ‘King Lear’, in Prefaces to Shakespeare: King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, B.T. Batsford, London.
Kott, Jan (trans. Taborski, B.) 1967, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 2nd Edition, Methuen and Co, London.
Long, Michael 1976, The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy, Methuen and Co, London. 
McEachern, Claire 2010, ‘Shakespeare, religion, and politics’, in The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, eds Margareta de Grazia & Stanley Wells, 2nd edition, C.U.P., Cambridge.
Peat, Derek 1985, ‘Responding Blindly? A Reading of a scene in King Lear’, Sydney Studies, Vol. 20, University of Sydney, Sydney.
Reimer, A. P. 1994, ‘The Promised End: Some Last Words on King Lear’, Sydney Studies, Vol. 10, University of Sydney, Sydney.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Watching the Screw Turn: Henry James, Narrative Ambiguity, and the Battlefield of Interpretation

‘The Turn of the Screw’, by Henry James, originally published serially in Colliers Weekly. Edition I read: The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition, Norton, New York, 1966.

Henry James, in a 1913 charcoal sketch by John Singer Sargent.
Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, presents, on the face of it, an eerie ghost story. It recounts the experience of an unnamed young Governess, commissioned by a blithe young gentleman to take care of his orphaned nephew and niece, who finds herself the sole apparent observer of manifestations of a haunting around the two children and the large house of Bly they inhabit. The ghosts, she comes to believe, are those of Mr Quint and Miss Jessel, two former employees, who the Governess comes to believe wants to keep a grip on the children. This story, perhaps the most famous James ever wrote, has become since its publication the subject of argument as to whether it is a tale of psychological disintegration, or a plain tale of supernatural haunting. This argument is complicated by James’ own pronouncements on the subject, displaying his evident intent to write a literal ghost story, and, therefore, the legitimacy of the psychological interpretation has been forcibly denied. And yet it persists, partly because of questions of James’ motives for writing the story, but chiefly because of the ambiguity of James’ chosen writing style, the depth of his engagement with the problem of point of view, and the nature of the genre he was working in. Tales of the supernatural are all, arguably, metaphorical adventures into the realm of the psyche and the irrational, and therefore by working in the genre James invited such reinterpretation. James’s own announced intentions, to return vitality to the ghost story by minimising the fantastic, also concedes to an age in which credulity is best achieved through minimisation of the fantastic.

“In matters like this the work itself and not the author that is the ultimate authority,” Harold Goddard, one of the first to take up the psychological argument for interpreting the book, declared. Here arises one of the recurring problems of intention versus interpretation, which is central to so much contemporary literary study. “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” as Roland Barthes stated, and the idea that an author can have a grasp of every conceivable interpretation of a work is disputed. But so can the notion that an author is fixated on and aware of only one interpretation. James’ story is in itself an interpretation, of a ghost story he said was told to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less. James synthesised characters to act out the roles in such a fashion that pleased him and his opinion of how to make such a story believable and dramatic. One of James’ first decisions was to utilise a layered authorial voice, and reception of the story depends on this. James uses three levels of storytelling: that of the authorial “I”, recounting the gathering of people listening to ghost stories; the reading by Douglas, one of that group; and the memoir he reads, of the memoir by the Governess herself.

The Turn of the Screw takes its name from a metaphor used by the second of three narrators for the tale, Douglas, meaning the desired effect of intensification of drama and suspense. The story calls attention not merely to its own designed effect, but to the effects behind its literariness: the object of The Turn of the Screw is not merely to turn the screw, but to observe how it is turned. This was not so uncommon in fantastic genre writing of its era: the controlled reportage and viewpoint in “found” material, such as diaries, letters, and journalistic accounts, was a commonly utilised method for affecting realism, one that would give grounding to the incredible, not far, indeed, from the method of contemporary horror movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) in imitating documentary and home movie techniques. The fantastic genre can be defined as one that “oblige(s) the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and supernatural explanation of events...the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work”, as Tzvetan Todorov describes it.

Supernatural phenomena were largely, by the time of James’ writing, considered improbable if not ludicrous by most. Therefore, the construction of a mood of credulity became the most important task in a supernatural tale. James wrote his novella in this generic mould, and this genre is distinct from the realistic, albeit highly psychological, morally searching novels James was best known for. Unlike such works, which are indebted for at least a certain amount of their creation to grounded observance, the representative nature of a ghost story is easier to suggest. James’ preoccupation, whilst engaging this technique, as he himself acknowledged the start of this tendency as being Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, was to move beyond pseudo-realism into something more penetrating. He moves sideways from this; despite the first-person narrative, the Governess writes like Henry James with long, endlessly qualified and subjunctive sentences, and she even jumps over key pieces of her own experience contrary to the nature of most first-person reportage where the precision of description afforded by observation might be expected. Such leaps include her observations of Miss Jessel, when she appears close to herself and Flora, just like a writer delaying narrative pay-off for the sake of suspense, but also because it is only in the later recounting to Mrs Grose that this incident and the Governess’s instinctual observations take on reality – in the act of communicating them.

How one interprets such a story depends on individual point of view. Especially following Edmund Wilson’s essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James”, the psychological view became important in regarding The Turn of the Screw. People predisposed to belief in spirituality and other concepts that resist purely rational reduction will possibly retain at least credulity for spiritual emanation and thus be sympathetic to the substance of the ghosts. An arch rationalist, with a scientific mindset or an awareness of psychological theory, will probably interpret any ghost story as essentially a psychological one, investigating it for coherence of metaphor and the intelligibility of its codification of psychological concepts. Such attitudes are not necessarily automatic, but there is still a choice of viewpoint involved. James’ story presents, in its images, characters, and narrative processes, much material that resembles psychological symbolism. James’ brother William was a pioneering psychologist, although such symbolism as the phallic tower on which Quint appears whilst Miss Jessel appears by the equally suggestive lake is more distinctly Freudian. The possibility that James was writing a disguised meditation on the illness of his sister Alice has been floated, including by Oliver Cargill, and that this was his reason for now being explicit about his intention, instead preferring to call it, in a letter to H.G. Wells, “essentially a potboiler.” A problem here is not just the disparity between the intention and effect of an author’s labours, but also how reception of a work evolves. Just because later readers and critics regarded James’ story as a great work that might encompass deeply personal reflections and acute thinking on psychological viewpoint and therefore represent a major James tale, that nonetheless doesn't mean that the writer himself couldn’t think it really was a potboiler, compared to his more elaborate, realistic novels. Nonetheless James’ determination, as stated in his preface, to “improvise with extreme freedom”, indicates his intent to explore new territory in the ghost story. And how to achieve this? To recharge its effect by deemphasising the spectres as much as possible and rendering them secondary in controlling effect to the viewpoint of the heroine, working on the theory that what is not seen, explained, literalised, is the most effective. James is therefore demonstrating how perspective is inseparable from reality, and that credulity is perhaps ironically best serviced by ambiguity. If the traditional manifestations of ghost are, as James argues, “little expressive…little dramatic,” then the only thing that can give them substance, threat, drama, is to make their nature undecidable.

Rebecca Evans and Timothy Robinson in an English National Opera production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, composed in 1953.
Throughout the narrative, events, statements, and curiosities of expression in the testament of the Governess suggest an authorial awareness of the nature of hysteria, projection, and sublimation, constantly in evidence throughout the tale. These are seen in the behaviour and attitudes of its heroine, enforced by the subjective nature of the telling, where things are only seen and reported, albeit with curious elisions and apparent distortions, through her eyes. The Governess, barely out of adolescence herself, can be seen to invent bogeyman projections of gross male sexuality in Quint, displacing a desire stoked by her employer, and a wretched self-projection in Miss Jessel as a fallen woman, a duality hinted when the Governess recognises herself as having taken the place of Miss Jessel as the wretched woman at the foot of the stairs. She then displaces her fearful emblems onto her two young charges, whose very lack of obvious maliciousness and minor faults become a blank screen onto which the Governess can project her neurotic obsessions. The most famous film version of the story, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), exacerbates the theory of sexual repression by casting not a young woman but the middle-aged Deborah Kerr as the Governess, and, accordingly, transforms the tale into “precisely the psychological narrative which James’ writing painstakingly invalidated and avoided,” as it was put in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Film. At one point, referring specifically to a boat, but in a way to the entire substance of her narrative, the Governess cries, “Our not seeing it is the strongest of proofs.” Such a line can seem a precise portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic mindset, where elaborate fantasies are constructed, where everything is infused with meaning due to a private logic.

Therefore aspects of the tale can be used to argue against a literal haunting. The fact that no-one else sees the ghosts is perhaps the most significant, with Mrs Grose’s and Flora’s apparent inability to see Miss Jessel when the Governess can. Whether by the design of the ghosts or the illness of the narrator, they do not share their appearance with anyone else. Yet this does not mean they are not there, or, as Desmond Manderson recently put it: “This nothing is what is most troubling about James’ ghosts; ironically, it establishes their presence and their menace.” The Governess has explicated how the children always readily acquiesced to her scenarios to act out, and it might be argued that the moment of truth with both children sees them stricken with cognitive dissonance at this new scenario, in which their perpetual companion and mentor suddenly starts seeing dead people, and wants them to do the same. The children therefore respond, unconsciously, to the Governess’s desires for them to enact her fantasies. Simultaneously, incidents which allow the possibility of the Governess’s convictions include the fact that Mrs Grose seems to recognise Quint from the Governess’s description, the inexplicable nature of Miles’s expulsion from school (“for that was really but the question of the horrors gathered behind”), the eventually revealed cause of it, his collusion with Flora to defy the Governess at several junctures, and his apparent anxiety and inexplicable death when the Governess tries to break her hold over him. Yet none of these on their own constitute solid proof. The Governess’s description of the man could simply have given Mrs Grose a slate on which to inscribe the face of Quint, a man who offended her. Miles’ rude language might have been picked up from Henry Fielding, whose Amelia even the Governess, whose experience has before Bly not even encompassed such an act, reads, or indeed from other sources. Mrs Grose surrenders to credulity thanks to her conviction in what she “heard” the children say, and to the persuasiveness of the Governess’s conviction.

Deborah Kerr as the Governess and Peter Wyngarde as Quint in The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film version.
The Governess’s preoccupation eventually narrows to the moments in which she tries to confirm that the children are aware of the spectres too. The result in one instance is for Flora to not want to speak with or see the Governess again, and for Miles to drop dead. Only in this last case does a real, undeniable event linking the Governess’s fixations with undeniable physical truth occur, and even here, what causes his death, whilst she attributes it to his being “dispossessed”, is hardly inarguable. Throughout the story, key aspects retain an ambiguity that is hard to dismiss, particularly in the Governess’s encounters with Miss Jessel in Chapters VI and XV, where the information she gives to Mrs Grose in subsequent chapters seems at odds with what she herself describes. The observations and certainties that the Governess expresses to Mrs Grose in Chapter VII seems to have no basis in what can have been observe by her, but a chain of inferences based either in preternatural or paranoid sensitivity. The limitations, and the advantages, of the viewpoint James chose for telling his story here become apparent. The peculiar elision at the end of Chapter VI, which concludes with the Governess resolving to observe the shade of Miss Jessel watching her and Flora: “My apprehension of what she was doing sustained me so that after some seconds I felt I was ready for more. Then I again shifted my eyes—I faced what I had to face.” The narrative voice then jumps to the subsequent conversation where the gap between what seems substantiated by her earlier observations and what the Governess now proposes is difficult to account for.

Nonetheless, whether the apparitions are real or imagined, the story can still be observed to work, at least on a mechanical level, in the same fashion. Apparitions appear to the heroine; they make her concerned for the safety of her position and the children entrusted to her care; she sees the apparitions as attaching themselves to the children and fears their corruption; this drives her to assert more and more rigorous control over the situation, which instead causes her command to completely unravel. This attempt, to assert control over the irrational, be it spectral or psychological in nature, is the lynchpin of the story. The Governess is entrusted with a position of great nominal power, especially by the standards of a young woman in her profession, far beyond the normal in fact. Her commission from the employer is “that she should never trouble him…take the whole thing over and let him alone,” far beyond the usual limits of a Governess, especially one of the protagonist’s age and level of experience. Into her hands is thrust not only the task of teaching the children but in taking proxy responsibility for them in all things, and the stake of the drama, the end which the Governess dreads most of all, is being forced to appeal to the masculine employer who excised himself from the situation.

Equally central to the Governess’s threatened failure is the possibility of her losing control over the education of the children, the infiltration of their minds and worldviews by Quint and Jessel and the forbidden values associated with them, the bad language which caused the expulsion, as the Governess finally teases out from Miles. This merely accentuates the problem of child-rearing, for which the Governess is unequipped, and the anxiety of exposure to corrupting influences that rupture the boundaries of the acceptable, the ordered, and the controllable. In both the psychological and literal readings, the ghosts still perform this function, of perverting the course of learning for the children, or at least the Governess fears they will, away from the accepted norm which she has been charged to shape them to; the ghosts literally and figuratively embody the threat of sexuality, amorality, and disobedience assaulting the settled order the Governess must maintain. As the Governess’s anxiety mounts, even their seeming perfect behaviour becomes, becomes a pretence through which she professes to discern a great play-act designed to fool her. Later, particularly in Chapter XVII, Miles’ own precocity, with his pronounced desire to “see more life” and suggestions of adult sexuality beginning to grow in him, or, as the Governess would have, being instilled in him by Quint, responds to the attention of the Governess herself, whom he calls “dear” like an adult. This is increasingly complicated by the fact that the Governess projects an adult sexuality onto the boy, that of Quint, rather than an emerging form, and her own incapacity to differentiate the two, exacerbates the problem, leading to the moment in which Miles blows out the candle like a lover. Here, the gap between the interpretations is so great yet so close, as the choice is between an external, malevolent force, drawing them both in through deception and advantage, or an internal force in both violating a social and psychological barrier.

There is therefore an implicit disparity between the conclusions offered by the literal and psychological interpretations. If Mr Quint and Miss Jessel really have come from beyond to claim the children, then the things they embody are designated as Other, as evil, corrupting, and corrosive as the Governess fears, dispersing the anxiety generated by the personal ramifications of the story, and partly justifying the Governess’ push into a “war” that ends in an innocent’s death. If, however, they are manifestations of her mind, they are the opposite, representing the inescapable human-ness of sexuality and its perversion, through lack of self-awareness, by a repressive social order that tries to restrain it. Miles’ death is the product of the failure of the paradigm the Governess tries to enforce, but which is failing inside her already. Yet if ghosts are automatically symbols, then either way, they embody a primal truth unanswerable to reason. Michael Scofield argues that James left his story so much implied because of three reasons: to rouse the reader’s imagination, because the subject matter of his story was too shocking to treat overtly, and because he himself did not want to face its implications. Yet studies of “evil…of a sexual nature” were a familiar James preoccupation. As with the question of point of view, therefore, a consistent authorial interest has been invested in the work, which, then, enriches it, intentionally or not, beyond generic limits: it becomes instead a study in the way the individual human deals with reality and subliminal drives. James’ desire to avoid writing a ghost story as a “mere modern psychical case, washed clean of all queerness as by exposure to a flowing laboratory trap,” as he described it, indicates a need not only to preserve mystery, but to respect the things he was invoking, suggesting their power and vitality even in their monstrousness. Therefore, part of the beauty of The Turn of the Screw is that it never forces a definite conclusion.

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The Innocents (motion picture), 1961. 20th Century Fox, Achilles. Director, Producer: Jack Clayton. Writers: William Archibald, Truman Capote.