Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Notes Towards Day 6: Writing and Madness

Anne Dalke's picture



I. coursekeeping
name test?
jrlewis recording

Your webpapers (experience of writing/posting on-line?
did you read one another's? would you? and comment?)
let's hear about 1/2 of them today; 1/2 on Wednesday....

Reading for Wednesday: another
Henry James' short story, “The Real Thing” (1892--
the year Alice James died, and 6 years
earlier than "The Turn of the Screw")

on the selection process --> looking for contemporary resonances

Next Monday, I'll ask each of you to have selected a contemporary
spin-off, and come ready to explain the connections/divergences
(so read James's story w/ that upcoming task in mind):

Kurt Anderson's 1980 collection of humorous essays;
Tom Stoppard's 1982 play;

albums by Bo Bice, Faith No More, Midnight Oil, PureNRG, Taj Mahal, Vanessa Williams, Marvin Gaye, Jill Scott, The Higgins, 2Unlimited, Joe Nichols;

songs by ABC, Jellybean, Lisa Stansfield, Russell Morris, Tony Di Bart, Javine, Gwen Stefani, Kenny Loggins, Kingston Wall, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jame and Cypress Hill....

II. In preparation for "the real thing": today's ghost story.
do you believe in ghosts?
have you ever seen them? felt them....
or a spiritual presence of any sort?
do you like ghost stories?
do you like horror movies?

III. Did you experience the ghosts as "real"?
Did you think the governess was "mad"?
Did you buy the idea that Henry was writing about his own
sister's ill health, when he composed his story of "hysteria"?

Calamity: Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" confused me, but in a good way [I think].  Once I finished reading it, I couldn't tell if the governess was a few bubbles off level or if the children really were evil little minions of the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Mr. Quint.

MissArcher2: A passage that I ... that I thought was most telling ... "Then I again shifted my eyes--I faced what I had to face" .... I think its very interesting that she describes the presence as a "feeling"--she knows he is there before she looks up and sees him ....  I feel like this passage in particular indicates the madness of the governess, even though other elements of the story ... cannot be explained as such.

aseidman: The governess was SO unreliable a narrator, that one could ... not believe anything she had said .... Could the entire thing have been made up, fabricated by a damaged mind? It seemed to me that a narrator who, at the end, could not in ANY WAY be credited was a little too much. Henry James seems to have taken unreliability in a narrator and maxed it out to it's full potential ....

Tzvetan Todorow, "The Fantastic":
... an event which cannot be explained by the laws of the familiar world .... either [we are] the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination -- and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place ... but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us .... the fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.


What do you do, when you are confronted with this sort of (literary?) event?
What kind of reader are you? Hesitant? Trusting? Skeptical?
What do/can you trust to, when you read?
Should you trust anyone/thing when you read?

Cf. Judith Butler
on "reading as 'taking down,'" with what

Shoshana Felman says that "what is most scandalous" about the story is that we are forced to participate in the scandal: "there is no innocent reader of the text," "the scandal resides in the text's effect on us:  what is outrageous is that which makes it speak to us" (taps our own deep darkness....?)


a naive reading lends credence to the testimony of the governess;
a disillusioned reading would--ironically--
"see through" the governess's version of events

James' story was composed @ time when Freud was supplementing his
neurological account of consciousness w/ psychological constructs

three yrs before "The Turn of the Screw" was published,
Freud and Breuer produced Studies on Hysteria.

In 1934, Edmund Wilson followed Freud's lead,
suggesting that this is a study of a case of neurosis:
the ghosts are figments of the governess's sick imagination,
symptomatic of frustrated repressed sexual desire:
"not merely is the governess self-deceived
but James is self-deceived about her."


Psychoanalytic framework engendered polemical framework,
two camps of critical discussion--
one affirming, one denying objectivity/reality of ghosts
metaphysical/religious/moral camp sees heroic moral struggle
psychoanalytic camp sees destructive clinical neurotic
(evidence of readers' desire not to be duped,
to uncover and avoid the traps of the unconscious,
to be exterior to error, to see the truth)

vocabulary of debate: language of aggression, conflict,
danger, preposession, salvation, exorcism;
accusations of critics' "hysterical blindness"
job of Freudian critic: pull answer out of hiding place: answer for the text
traditional response to literature: provide reliable, professional "answering service"
but--imaginative poverty of much Freudian criticism:
reduces text to a commonplace critical record (of sexual repression)
ambiguity of text calls out for interpretation
for Wilson, given the proliferation of erotic metaphors/symbols
(w/out proper naming of sexual nature),
the "abnormal" content, the "enigmatic" narrative structure,
sexuality is the answer to the "question of the text"


Cf. Joyce Carol Oates 1992 short story,
"The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly"
reimagined from the ghosts' point of view:
"makes explicit everything that is ambiguous"
(pedophilia, homosexuality, erotic melancholia...)

In fact, my story is a not unrespectful reimagining of the children, Peter Quint, Miss Jessel and the messianic governess, in which a "family" bound together by homoerotic affection is destroyed by a fanatic Christian .... Our reimagining of homoerotic ties as not "by nature" repellent is a cultural development Henry James, for all the magnitude of his genius, could not perhaps have envisioned. But my story ... is also an exorcism of all ties -- well intentioned or fanatic -- and in it little Miles does not die of a "stopped heart" but escapes his oppressors, and lives.


Does James or Freud authorize this reading?


psychoanalysis as a school of suspicion:
it feeds on the discrepancy/distance that separate signifier from signified
governess reads Mrs. Grose (who can not read):
her suspicion gives rise to interpretation

psychoanalyst as "terrorist: demands that one speak in clear language"
=governess, forcing the child to a confession=extorting the secret of the text
L. child infans, "one incapable of speaking,"
figure of knowledge that cannot know itself/reflect on/name itself


Governess: "It's a game, its a policy, and a fraud."
Mrs. Grose: "It's all a mere mistake, a worry and a joke."
Nietzche: "error is the condition of life...irreduceable and fundamental error."
Lacan: "the text fails to mean...engenders a conflict of interpretations ....
Nowhere is there a last word ... Meaning indicates only the direction,
points only at the sense toward which it fails."

James: "The story won't tell; not in any literal, vulgar way."

(What would a tactful reading look like??)

James' New York Preface: "Portentous evil--how was I to save that, as an intention on the part of my demon spirits, from the drop, the comparative vulgarity inevitably attending...the cited act, the limited deplorable presentable instance?" (he also called the tale "an amusette to catch those not easily caught")

The vulgar is the explicit, the specific,
the unequivocal and immediately referential, the literal and unambiguous--
because it stops the movement constitutive of meaning,
and blocks the endless process of metaphorical substitution.
The vulgarity that James seeks to avoid is outspoken forthright language;
vulgarity is the elimination of indecision/ambiguity of text.

Cf. my colleagues in PSB: "why do poems have
to be so
complicatedly hard to understand?
Why can't they just say it straight??"


To be continued on Wednesday....