375. (Henry James)

The Turn of the Screw is the turn of the key into the heart of Henry James’ fiction; it is not, and could not be, owing to what I will say, be the greatest even of his novellas, but it is the heart nonetheless. By that, I mean that it makes the absence essential to his work a presence as it nowhere else is: the absence in Turn of the Screw is of course the ghosts, and even the possibility of ghosts, which are, being ghosts, both there and not there; their essential uncertainty is the uncertainty of whether they are “real,” where “real” means reconcilable with other events, persons, and actions in the novel. But if I am saying that such ghosts are somehow present in all of James’ fiction—and that is what I am saying—then what does it mean to say they are differently present here? It means that their presence is everywhere else accepted as a negation that will not be spoken and cannot be fully known, but that is nonetheless an acceptable mystery, whereas in Turn of the Screw, James dramatizes the very doubt that makes some readers of his fiction recoil in disgust: the sense that there is nothing really there underneath the exclamations of admiration and on the other side of the hesitations, or that, if there is something there, some true self, some unspeakable event, some dark matter that exerts a force sufficient to curve his sentences into sinuously evasive entities, then it is much more mundane then he admits. Being a “silly” horror story, a “mere” ghost story, James does not insist that we believe; he insists that we believe only that someone else believes, or is compelled to entertain the possibility of believing, in an absence that cannot be fully known, consistently sensed, or communicated with by the normal channels of language.

The crucial word in the novella is “see.” It is a charged word in James; charged in the same way as “innocence,” “experience,” and “knowledge” are charged, and the relation between them is explicit here: to see certain things is to lose innocence, but also possibly a proof of it, if the seeing is withstood; experience is itself a matter of seeing, and knowing what one sees, but knowledge can corrupt the capacity for experience to be felt; etc etc. These are the permutations of James’ fiction. They would be entirely hollow if it were not that in James’ fiction there is also, within their orbit, at its center, the possibility of violence, psychic usually, social too, but physically on occasion. In Turn of the Screw, that threat of violence is both localized in the ghost and diffused by their presence: their being unknown and unknowable, makes it less certain what sort of violence they might inflict, or how they might inflict it, even as they represent, in salient form, its threat.

One of the wonderful things in the novel’s patterning of language is the verb “see” (and the name Bly must hearken to “blind” as Quint suggests “squint”):

“I know, I know, I know!” My exaltation grew. “And you know, my dear!”

She didn’t deny this, but I required, I felt, not even so much telling as that. She resumed in a moment, at any rate: “What if he should see him?”

“Little Miles? That’s what he wants!”

She looked immensely scared again. “The child?”

“It’s only then to spare you.”

“No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

Mrs. Grose tried to keep up with me. “You mean you’re afraid of seeing her again?”

“Oh, no; that’s nothing—now!” Then I explained. “It’s of not seeing her.”

But my companion only looked wan. “I don’t understand you.”

“Why, it’s that the child may keep it up—and that the child assuredly will—without my knowing it.”

He fairly glittered in the gloom. “Not at all. I sat up and read.”

“And when did you go down?”

“At midnight. When I’m bad I am bad!”

“I see, I see—it’s charming. But how could you be sure I would know it?”

“Oh, I arranged that with Flora.” His answers rang out with a readiness! “She was to get up and look out.”

“Which is what she did do.” It was I who fell into the trap!

“So she disturbed you, and, to see what she was looking at, you also looked—you saw.”

“While you,” I concurred, “caught your death in the night air!”

He literally bloomed so from this exploit that he could afford radiantly to assent. “How otherwise should I have been bad enough?” he asked. Then, after another embrace, the incident and our interview closed on my recognition of all the reserves of goodness that, for his joke, he had been able to draw upon.

He just considered. “Oh, I’m happy enough anywhere!”

“Well, then,” I quavered, “if you’re just as happy here—!”

“Ah, but that isn’t everything! Of course you know a lot—”

“But you hint that you know almost as much?” I risked as he paused.

“Not half I want to!” Miles honestly professed. “But it isn’t so much that.”

“What is it, then?”

“Well—I want to see more life.”

“I see; I see.” We had arrived within sight of the church and of various persons, including several of the household of Bly, on their way to it and clustered about the door to see us go in. 

Flora continued to fix me with her small mask of reprobation, and even at that minute I prayed God to forgive me for seeming to see that, as she stood there holding tight to our friend’s dress, her incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished. I’ve said it already—she was literally, she was hideously, hard; she had turned common and almost ugly. “I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!” Then, after this deliverance, which might have been that of a vulgarly pert little girl in the street, she hugged Mrs. Grose more closely and buried in her skirts the dreadful little face. In this position she produced an almost furious wail. “Take me away, take me away—oh, take me away from her!

This second to last instance I especially enjoy for how it returns the word to the mundane use, for how it shows, at a moment of heightened tension in the story, how flattened out such a crucial word can be, but also how, in light of all that comes before, it retains the tincture of strangeness, the tincture of the uncanny, that it has achieved elsewhere in the story. And we find (we see) also that the word has a similar tincture not only in this story, but elsewhere in Henry James’ fiction.

An unusual corollary of sight here and elsewhere is James’ relative lack of interest in re-presenting what it is that characters do see: a few astonishing descriptions (Aunt Maud in Wings of the Dove) aside, James is notoriously reluctant to give us much of the sensual grit of the world as it is seen (in his fiction at least; the travel writing must be otherwise); he is at the other extreme from Ruskin. Hence Nabokov’s complaint that James described the glow of a cigarette in the dark as “red” or some shade of red, when it is in fact a shade of orange. For Nabokov, colors and the facts of the senses are not negotiable.

But it is not so unusual if we consider that for James, seeing is always figurative as well as literal, concrete as well as abstract; that we can never have some sort of naïve or bare sight of things, or that if we were to have such a naïve or bare sight, it would itself be a claim of innocence, less interesting for what was seen than for what is means for a subject’s perception to be bare or naïve.

James, then, does not “problematize” (terrible word) sight in Turn of the Screw any more than he does elsewhere in his fiction; it is always a problem. By problem, I mean that sight both establishes the patterns of our experiences, finds and fits parts into those patterns, and discerns the puzzles in those patterns—and also is itself a pattern, which yields puzzles. Our self-consciousness of “seeing” will follow the conventions of speech and habits of thought until suddenly we find ourselves saying we see or do not see, and yet not knowing quite what we mean by that word anymore, not knowing, that is, what it would be to see this thing that is not something that has color or shape, but that is immediately apprehensible as if it were sensory, and that seems to require, as much as the sight of a dog or cat, the verb “see.” That is why James’ characters speak in riddles about what they see, or whether they admire (the root of admiration being sight), or what they know but don’t see etc etc. In The Turn of the Screw the puzzle of sight is given a name: a ghost is a presence that both fits and doesn’t fit into our habitual ways of seeing the world. The ghost centers, and trivializes, the puzzles of sight—the puzzles of the self-conscious language games and metaphysics of seeing–that are elsewhere, perhaps everywhere, central to James’ fiction; it trivializes because it makes the solution to the puzzle an impossibility, a sign of madness, or at the least a concrete symptom of traumas that must have been gleaned through other perceptions that the novella does not represent (which would be fine, except that ghosts are not the usual symptoms detected by therapists examining patients). At the same time, this novella insists, as James does not, and cannot, elsewhere, that all of the talk about whether people “see” is not just a euphemism for understanding or feeling, detached, as it were, from seeing objects and sight as a physical act, but that “seeing” is always not just linguistically, but socially, existentially, rooted in such brute, animal perception. Rather than seeing James as dissolving the corporeal and animal in the mental and psychic, we need to see him insisting on the corporality of the mental and psychic.

There is a ghost in all of James’ work; only here it is named, and so the ghost here is the ghost at the heart of Henry James. It is the holy spirit that completes the relationship of author and character, making it into a trinity; what unites the characters and authors is the sense of a remainder, in experience for the characters and in the perfect formal unity of the text for the author, that cannot be articulated, seen, made fully present; it is an absence or negative in the pattern of life and the pattern of language, that must be acknowledged, and that here, in The Turn of the Screw, is acknowledged with a name that resolves nothing, but that marks out the limits of what can be resolved. A ghost cannot be seen; it cannot with any finality be explained; it cannot be narrated without reducing it from a ghost to something else; it cannot be seen with any certainty without reducing it from a ghost to something else—and some such ghost is found everywhere in James, and everywhere, perhaps, in fiction, and in the fictions we construct in life: something we see, that orients us, that cannot be set in any firm relation with all else that we see, that is absent by the terms of presence that unify all else except for our awareness itself, so that it becomes part and parcel only of the possibility of seeing and knowing, even if it is not itself seen or known.

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