Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 2: Thursday, January 19, 2005

I. coursekeeping:
sign-in sheet, questionnaires, practical questions (i.e. "on time"@ BMC is 10 minutes after...), theoretical questions, #s of us (??), Call for Papers

One after-thought, from Laine:
Anne, you commented that you asked the artist to paint a picture of emotion and then when she showed you the hand with the apple you told her it was cliche and asked her to paint you something else. I was a bit surprised at this because it seems that you are implying that some emotions are more credible/viable/interesting than others? I found the picture of the hand and the apple to be much more stimulating than the second painting. To me it represented a moment in time, a moment of anticipation before the fruit of labor is finall acheived. In that moment between not having and having any number of emotions are possible and the range of possibility spoke in that painting spoke much more strongly to me than in the second painting.

The artist said,
aahhh.. very interesting! i have to agree with her. my own sense was that i inferred many more and complex emotions from emotion1 than i did from emotion2. emotion1 suggests more conflict, emotion2 seems more "predictable" as an image of emotion(s).

II. Laine's idea about emotion as "hesitation" and
Sharon's about it as "conflict" sound today's keynotes

Let's try another....

From Paintings by E. E. Cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

(e.e. cummings, 1973)

Michael Tratner's story on the study of "feeling":
in thematic apperception tests (when you are given a little scene, and have to write a story about it), emotion only shows when the story is NOT coherent!

Cf. James, in 1898 letter to an inquiring reader:
"I'm afraid I don't understand the principle question you put to me about "The Turn of the Screw"...in truth I am afraid...that I somehow can't pretend to give any coherent account of my small inventions...after the fact"

II. Let's look together now @ what (the Lacanian critic) Shoshana Felman
(in "Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation") called
one of the strongest--i.e. most effective--texts of all time
consider the vehement aggressive tone of first reactions:
"the study...affects the reader with a disgust"
"the feeling...is that one has been assisting in an outrage"

what is most scandalous: we are forced to participate in the scandal;
there is no innocent reader of the text
scandal resides in the text's effect on us:
what is outrageous is that which makes it speak to us

IV. Let's take a look @ your reports of the tale's effect on you

From ArenaPal

Chris: After finish the novel, I was quite confused to what had happened....This ending is very difficult...because is does not appear to make sense....my main idea...is the children never see these ghosts. They are just children, acting like children, which is too much for the governess to handle....in the only motherly role she can think of, she kills him, to protecting from what greater evil he might have had to encounter.

Laura: My difficulty was in understanding the whole story.... By the end, I didn't know what was real or fabricated. I didn't know which characters to believe....Hopefully, some class discussion could help to clear that up.

Jessica: I am missing whole paragraphs...and it doesn't seem to make much difference....they only articulate half an idea, and the other one seems to get it, even if its extremely vague or makes very little sense. I found the governess to be a tiresome narrator, and possibly insane. But, there was no one credible in the story to be telling it.

Emily: It seems like the story is leading up to a disaster, but I'm not entirely convinced.... I'm not sure that their intentions are bad, despite the dark forshadowing implied. I'll just have to read more to find out.

Lauren: This little story was a more than welcome change of pace for me.... I tore through this story, totally absobed by its characters, events and actions. It's very "Sixth Sense" meets "Village of the Damned" but was still engaging and felt completly original to me. I guess I would say that I felt curious, involved and in a way ambitious (I wanted to find out what happens!) throughout my reading of the book, but not really scared or nervous. Ok, so it was pleasantly creepy and a quick read.

Laura: The ending of Turn of the Screw was so unsatisfying! I love ghost stories. I read it before bed on purpose because I was anticipating a good scare. It started off well, it seemed like it had the potential to be sufficiently terrifying - and then it let me down....I was surprised that this James' work seems to suggest that the ghosts aren't real at all, but a figment of the governess' imagination. Ghost stories that end without real ghosts are no fun!...a few other things about the work that frustrated me.... I was annoyed by the use of the frame narrative. I feel like authors use this to distance themselves from the stories they tell - if I as a reader don't think it's a good yarn, well, I can't blame James (or the narrator), he's only repeating what he heard.... I think it takes away from the story. Also, it annoys me that James can't just be brave and admit that he wants to write as a female narrator. He has to go hide behind this male character at the Christmas party, and further remove himself from the governess by having her story relayed through Douglas.... the "my dear"s...were a little creepy. I also thought the references to Quint and Miss Jessel being "too free" with the children to be creepy. Did anybody else read that in a sexual way? Overall, I was disappointed with the book. It wasn't nearly scary enough.

Margaret: yes, Laura, I did read "too free" in a sexual way. I thought that dear Miles had been sexually abused and had repeated these actions (or said he wanted to perform these actions) with the schoolmates he liked. The main problem I have with it is that, unlike Laura, I don't like ghost stories. Whenever I read one I am always looking for some sort of logical explanation for whatever has occured. Perhaps too much Scooby-Doo as a child? As a read it again I kept wondering if the ghosts were real or if they were a figment of the governess' imagination (due to repressed sexuallity perhaps? or stress because of the troubles at home and/or her eccentric father).

Catherine: Some individuals find mysteries fascinating and look for the lynch pin that ties the story together. James is too ambiguous for me to truly enjoy "The Turn of the Screw." I'm still not quite sure...exactly how Miles died....Also, were there many sexual innuendoes that I did not catch? When Miles said he "said things" to boys that he liked does that mean he was expelled for showing the boys inappropriate things? There are too many questions left unanswered for me to appreciate the storyline. The diction is beautiful and James can keep the reader on the edge of her seat and honestly, my heart stopped when I, yes I personally saw, Quint staring up close through the glass of the window. By the end of the story, my main emotion was emptiness... I felt cheated out of explanations.

Di: I was definitely getting freaked out when they kept talking about how the children would "go off alone" with Jessel and Quint, and felt bombarded with sexual implications almost every time they were mentioned. I thought there might have been something kinda funky, not necessarily sexual between Mrs. Grouse and the governess.... The story started out promising, but then it just kept going. And going. I didn't feel like anything different was happening. Maybe I just didn't "get it." I definitely didn't get the ending. I don't understand why we never went back, at the end,...to hear the reaction of the people around the campfire. What was the point in having that part in the first place? Why didn't he just skip it? Maybe it adds something to the story that I missed. Overall, I liked it in the beginning, but as it went on, it seemed kind of repetitive. She saw a ghost. She was suspicious. She told Mrs. Grose. They both were scared. She suspected the children. Things got better until........She saw a ghost. She was suspicious...etc. And then at the end it was like James (and me, the reader) got sick of the cycle so Miles died. The end. Again, I feel like I must not be getting something here because I wasn't wowed, or even moved by the book at all. The main emotion I felt was annoyance at having read the entire thing and then been let down at the end.

Anna: hmmm...well. i definitely felt that the book was positively charged with sexual energy. quint and the boy especially - but even the narrator and mrs grose had their moments of intimacy as well.... i liked how the book was structured, too - that it brought you up to the main secret with the narrator by your side...traveling through a story with the narrator...i enjoyed having a "companion"....i did find the reading a little tedious. i had to read several sentences twice....i hope im not the only one who found some of the sentences complex/confusing! they twisted and wove and sometimes wandered a little too far off topic for me...i found myself thinking about other things after some rather longer sentences.... i started reading some of it out loud to myself (some of the sentences that didnt quite make sense right off the bat) and it came out easily. the words all make sense when i heard them, just, at times, on paper...i found myself a llittle lost.

IV. Let's talk about the issues you've flagged (or it is just one issue, w/ various facets?)
The OBLIQUE WAY James writes (and structures his stories)
--and how that contributes to
what Paul Armstrong calls the "realist/idealist question,"
what Shoshana Felman identifies as a "clash between "imaginative" and scientific" truth,
between "naive" and "disillusioned" readings,
between the "gullibility" of Mrs. Grose and the "suspicion" of the governess,
what Ned Kukacher calls the "lapse from salutary skepticism to grotesque certitude"--
and what all that has to do with our own responses to the text
(frustration, fright, boredom...we run the gamut!)
What have I missed?

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.

So: what do you do, when you are confronted with this sort of (literary?) event?
What kind of reader are you? Trusting? Skeptical?
What do/can you trust to, when you read?
(Cf. Judith Butler on "reading as 'taking down'")
What would you say to a psychoanalytic reading of this tale?

(Anyone take the 300-level course on Psychoanalytic Theory with Aileen Forbes?)

Drawing heavily on Shoshana Felman's essay to
read James "through the lens Freud provided"

(Henry Sussman notes that) James' story was composed @ time when
Freud was supplementing his neurological account of consciousness
w/ psychological constructs

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

In 1934, Edmund Wilson suggested 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
he said, "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
(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)
psychoanalytic camp sees destructive clinical neurotic
metaphysical/religious/moral camp sees heroic moral struggle

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"

Does James or Freud authorize this reading?

"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??"

Cf. also Wilson's procedure of "literalization" w/ Freud's 1910 comments in "Wild Psychoanalysis":
"one may sometimes make a wrong surmise, and one is never in a position to discover the whole truth...In psychoanalysis the concept of what is sexual...goes lower and also higher than its popular sense....emphasizing exclusively the somantic factor in sensuality...undoubtedly simplifies the problem greatly....a good number of...people are, indeed...in general incapable of satisfaction...nervous symptoms arise from a conflict between two forces--the libido and repression....lack of satisfaction ...is essentially inherent in sexual life."

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
we can behave like Mrs. Grose (don't believe the governess) or
we can behave like the governess, play suspicious role

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

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...irreducable 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"

V.

Di: I don't know what is meant by "The Turn of the Screw." I don't know why that's the title.
I think it's like some kind of phrase or expression, but I don't know what it means.

What does the title of James's story add to this conversation?
What does it tell us? What direction does it point us towards?
(As Shoshana Felman asks,
"What does the act of turning a screw have to do with literature?
What does the act of turning a screw have to dowith psychoanalysis?"

"The last turn of the screw and the omni is secured."

Oxford English Dictionary:
d. turn of the screw: an additional twist to tighten up the hold; an extra twist given to a thumbscrew by way of increasing the torture (in quots. fig.). 1796 [see SCREW n.1 2a]. 1853 DICKENS Bleak Ho. xxiv. 331 (heading) A turn of the screw. 1898 H. JAMES Turn of Screw 4 If the child [in a ghost story] gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children? 1940 Manch. Guardian Weekly 1 Mar. 175 Even more far-reaching schemes of increasing direct taxation..are certain to be realised..whenever the psychological ground is favourable for this further turn of the screw. 1973 Listener 14 June 785/2 The first turns of the screw on the car commuter are already being prepared. The GLC wants to put up parking fines from 4 to 20.

At the beginning, Douglas asks,
"If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children--?"
Towards the end, the governess reflects that she
"could only get on at all.... by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue."
T.J. Lustig calls this an "odd mechanistic metaphor:
centripital--restriction, intensification, enclosure, enforcement, constraint"

Is that the final "turn of the screw"?
--as "speculations become a conclusion" (Sussman)
--as the governess "comes to believe too vehemently in her constructions of an event that remains remains rigorously unknowable" (Kukacher)
--as, faced with blanks, the unrepresentable, the governess begins to elaborate (Lustig)
--does the critical debate (unwittingly?) participate in/act out/reproduce the text?
--does the conscious psychoanalytic reading repress the unconscious it purports to explain?
--does the effort to 'see it all' exclude the unconscious?
--is the invitation to undertake a reading an invitation to act like the governess, to repeat the text by seeking to stop the meaning, to arrest satisfaction, to "get hold of the clue to this meaning" (=illusion of "whole answer"?--Felman)
"HJ never seems aware of the amount of space he is wasting...
the as it were's and as we may say's"
--but maybe he is? maybe therein lies his "mastery"?

(All critical commentary taken from the Norton edition of "The Turn of the Screw")

For Tuesday: finish the novella (if you haven't), post your reactions to it/our conversation here (if you haven't...or even if you have!) For Thursday: read William James (on-line) and 3 selections from Freud (packets available on Tuesday)

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