Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry”

1756

Burke sets out to define and explore beauty with greater precision than has been done before. He defines taste as the judgment of imagination and art 13. He gives language as a sort of proof for universal taste, and locates sight as perhaps the simplest aesthetic source of agreement: we all prefer sunshine and swans to clouds and geese, he claims 15. Taste is a composite, moving from the senses through the imagination up to the level of understanding – it is not a separate faculty.

Burke argues that our minds are more apt to trace resemblances than differences “because by making resemblances, we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock, but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination” 18. Though knowledge has increased over time, Taste has not changed 19. Aesthetics are common across nations and classes of men through “the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated… the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident” 20. We differ in the degree, not the manner, of our response, either through closer attention to the object or greater natural sensibility to its charms 21.

Bad taste arises from “a defect of judgment” which is either “a natural weakness of understanding” or “a want of proper and well-directed exercise” 23. For Burke, like Kant and Schiller, aesthetic training promises what Kant calls a sensus communis, where the “common sense” that unifies man’s faculties is translated to communal taste.

Curiosity is the first of our emotions, but it is fickle and unfaithful in its pursuits 29. Burke separates pain and pleasure, holding that both are positive – but that the removal of one does not cause the other. Rather, each is something instantly felt as a positive value, not merely something that occurs in the other’s absence 31. Delight is the removal of pain, whereas pleasure is the positive experience.

The passions surrounding individual preservation hover around pain and danger, and they are the ones we feel most powerfully 36. For Burke, anything that excites terror is sublime. The preservation of mankind must be incited by a great pleasure (sexual pleasure), but its absence is not significantly painful 38. Men do not make love in seasons because reason already moderates the frequency of sex. The pleasure of sex is a mixture of love and lust, and the object of this feeling is women.

Burke wonders why beauty, which is separable from the sexual, should inspire feelings of tenderness in us – why God ‘designed’ it so 39. He turns first to sympathy, which is “a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected… it is by this principle chiefly that poetry, painting, and the other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” 41. I’m struck by how this model of sympathy poses it as a form of metaphor or figuration.

But we also take delight in the pain of others, namely when it occurs in artifice, for imitation “is never so perfect, but we can perceive it is an imitiation” 43. Imitation is a pleasure in itself. When the object is something we would otherwise not have interest in, an artwork has its strength mainly in mimesis (form, not content) 45. When the object is something spectacular, then the artwork is mainly about the object itself (content, not form) 46. Burke concludes the section by acknowledging that if he has made mistakes, he at least “clears the way for others” 50.

The next section investigates the sublime and the beautiful. Burke once again emphasizes the primacy of the visual. The sublime must be something we cannot fully know, but this is actually better effected by language than visual imitation 54. “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea,” since a great idea will appear boundless 58. God, for this reason, is sublime. Burke compares length, height, and depth as modes of the great dimension of the sublime [these are also the visual dimensions of cinema – think Linda Williams on Avatar!] Depth is more sublime (looking down) than looking out or up can be 66. “No work of art can be great, but as it deceives,” and this it does by dimensions that appear boundless, but, paradoxically, not in excess 70.

Magnificence, which is the profusion of things, is also sublime [faceting]. Stars are not beautiful as one, but in their number.

“In works of art, this kind of grandeur, which consists in multitude, is to be very cautiously admitted; because, a profusion of excellent things is not to be attained, or with too much difficulty; and, because in many cases this splendid confusion would destroy all use, which should be attended to in most of the works of art with the greatest care; besides it is to be considered, that unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have a disorder only without magnificence” [Jameson, postmodernism, hysterical realism] 72.

“There are also many descriptions in the poets and orators which owe their sublimity to a richness and profusion of images, in which the mind is so dazzled as to make it impossible to attend to that exact coherence and agreement of the allusions” 72.

Smell and taste have a lesser role in greatness than sight and even sound [think of Vivian Sobchack: cinema is not touch itself, but s(t)imulates it]. Burke turns to beauty next. He contends, vs the Greeks, that beauty is not in proportion or measurement. He uses the scientific method to claim that if “two bodies produce the same or a similar effect on the mind,” the properties in which they agree, rather than disagree, should be examined 85. Beauty is varied not just between species of flora and fauna, but individuals of the same species (women). Still, “there is a certain proportion in each species absolutely essential to the beauty of that particular kind,” and “the beautiful in each kind will be found in the measures and proportions of that kind” 90. (This is where Kant will divide beauty and free beauty.)

If beauty were utility – the suitedness of a particular being to “answer its end,” then we would find many things beautiful that we instead find ugly 95. To be beautiful, the imagination must “revolt against the reason” 99. Burke considers that women affect weakness and silliness because “beauty in distress is much the most affecting” 100. We do not love the father’s authority as we do the mother’s tenderness 101. Beauty is “some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” 102. Thus beauty is the mediated sensual experience of the object. Beauty is usually small, whereas the sublime is usually large (TV/cinema).

Burke then moves on to claim that every lovely thing is smooth: leaves, flowers, streams, “coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skins; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces” 104. (Already underlying this idea seems to be the lack of challenge beauty presents, vs. the sublime – it is facile.) “Any ruggedness, any sudden projection, any sharp angle, is in the highest degree contrary” to beauty 104. He even imagines the suturing of the gaze across a woman’s body – the smooth maze around her neck and chest where the eye wanders 105.

Burke finally turns to touch. He claims that pleasing surfaces “are so by the slightness of the resistance they make” – “bodies which continually vary their surface,” but never “suddenly… squares, triangles, and other angular figures, are neither beautiful to the sight nor feeling” 110. In the end, beauty and the sublime are so explicitly gendered in Burke that to state it is an embarrassment.

Burke admits that many of these are his own personal conclusions. He also writes, in advance of Sobchack, as it were: “Our minds and bodies are so closely and intimately connected, that one is incapable of pain or pleasure without the other” 121. Some have periodized this as a loss in postmodernism, but it would be interesting to counter that with “cinesthetic bodies.” Love is one such connection of the mind and the body (beauty and lust) 136. Burke ends by beginning to prioritize poetry, since “words… [are] capable of being the representatives of these natural things… able to affect us often as strongly as the things they represent, and sometimes much more strongly” 161. (Think of Forster and sympathy, as well as how Burke himself makes sympathy a figuration…) Still, the purpose of the treatise, he asserts, was to create a standard of taste across genres.

 

Joseph Conrad: “Heart of Darkness”

1899/1902

Whenever I pick up Heart of Darkness (and I think this is about the tenth time), I find I can recall the beginning and the end, but the painstakingly slow ‘progress’ between those points – the order in which the almost monotonous series of ‘events’ takes place – falls away from my memory within a few months of each reading.

Part of this, to be sure, is Marlow’s notoriously ambiguous and repetitive narrative voice. The flatness and silence of the landscape to him, the synecdochic swarm of body parts behind the curtains of branches, the nameless character ‘types’ who populate the points of his journey, all contribute to this. But this is also a way in which we are reminded that this is a narrated story, carefully curated in print to appear as orality.

Indeed, the tension in the novel between textual and narrative authority is constant. It is as if Marlow’s wandering “yarn,” full of assertions of the illegible and inscrutable nature of the land and people he encounters in the Congo, is itself striving to have in it something of the unutterable cry. Marlow strains against the fixedness of Kurtz’s report, with its terrible scrawled addendum, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow himself, both here and in Lord Jim, seems to be an outsider as well, one the frame narrator of this tale regards disinterestedly.

I am perhaps most interested in tracing a lineage from this text through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. When teaching this text to students in a discussion section, I also broke them into groups of 5 and gave them a list of page numbers on three major themes: Race, Gender, Empire. They took about 20 minutes to develop a thesis statement of 1-2 sentences. We then reviewed and edited the theses for about 10 minutes and used those ideas to drive the rest of class discussion (20 minutes).

Joseph Conrad, “Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus”

1897

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect” 1887.

Conrad clearly lays out problems of surface and depth here, akin to Forster’s interest in flat and round characters – these are some of the many origins of the denigration of attention to surface culture. Like Woolf, Conrad is interested in discovering what “is fundamental, what is enduring and essential… the artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal” 1887. But while the thinker “plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts,” and they speak to us in “common sense” and “always to our credulity… it is otherwise with the artist” 1887.

“Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal… to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities – like the vulnerable body within a steel armour” 1887.

“His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring – and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition… to our capacity for delight and wonder… solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn” 1887.

Why is the effort made “to present an unrestful episode in the obscure lives of a few individuals out of all the disregarded multitude of the bewildered, the simple, and the voiceless”? 1888. “There is not a place of splendour or a dark corner of the earth that does not deserve, if only a passing glance of wonder and pity” 1888.

“Fiction – if it at all aspires to be art – appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time… appeals primarily to the senses… it must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music – which is the art of arts” 1888.

“And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage” 1888.

It’s interesting that for Conrad, words are materials – surfaces worn thin that need to be… refaceted?

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see… it is everything… also, that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask” 1888.

“To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task… to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mode… to show its vibration, its colour, its form… reveal the substance of its truth… [to] attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision… shall awaken in the hearts of beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity… which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world” 1889.

The writer who holds to these ideals “cannot be faithful to any one of the temporary formulas of his craft… the supreme cry of Art for Art itself, loses the exciting ring of its apparent immortality. It sounds far off. It has ceased to be a cry, and is heard only as a whisper, often incomprehensible” 1889. Art is more like witnessing the attempt of a laborer. “Art is long and life is short” (Hippocrates), and its goal is veiled in mists – it is not to unveil a secret or law, but something rarer.

“To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour… to make them pause for a look… reserved for only a very few to achieve… behold! – all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile – and the return to an eternal rest” 1889.

Thomas Hardy: Poems

Hardy (1840-1928)  grasps the old, pastoral England, not as a prophet, but a eulogist. Many of his poems focus on loss, regret, bitter irony, and unfortunate coincidence (as opposed to the more emotional, less skeptical forms of the Victorian period). He is a key figure in the transition from Victorian to modern poetry. Hardy constantly mined his own older writings, including and reworking old material in new collections. His poems have a rough-hewn quality partly because he “wanted to avoid the jewelled line,” in his own words. His efforts to displace syntax and form predate the “dislocations of poetic form” characteristic of modernism.

WESSEX POEMS & OTHER VERSES

“HAP,” 1898

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
Typical of Hardy in tone, “Hap” emphasizes random chance, rather than malicious intent, as the source of pain and loss in his life, depriving him even of the righteous anger faith would provide. There is a sort of desire to surrender to a lack of free will here, but it is impossible.

“NEUTRAL TONES,” 1898

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
         – They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
         On which lost the more by our love.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
         Like an ominous bird a-wing….
Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,
         And a pond edged with grayish leaves
The poem itself forms a sort of mirror – like the reflection of the water, moving from the clear image of the event of the first stanza to the wavering and distorted memory of the last. In between, Hardy uses “as though” and “like” to give the feeling that it is not the event at hand, but some abstract and inarticulable feeling, that matters here.

“I LOOK INTO MY GLASS,” 1898

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

The body fades and rots, but the soul continues to throb and desire and experience as if it were young.

POEMS OF THE PAST & PRESENT

“THE DARKLING THRUSH,” 1900, 1901

I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The first stanza looks back to a memory in the dead of winter (reiterated as Frost, gray, Winter, dregs, desolate). The view of the sky “like strings of broken lyres” reminds me of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” as if the promise of aesthetic preservation were snapped.

The land’s sharp features seemed to me
The Century’s corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervorless as I.

Evident here, Hardy sees the new century not as a beginning, but as a death. Hardy participates in the British tradition (Shakespeare, Hopkins, etc.) of returning to old forms of words and twisting them to make them feel new. The term “outleant” could mean lain out or leaning out – one suggests peaceful rest, the other is resurrectory, zombielike. To lean, too, is to be between two places and moments. Hardy reads the natural world around him as sad and fervourless like himself (in “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats envies and wonders at the bird as a symbol beyond time, carrying on happy song while he, the poet wishes for death. He calls the nightingale “darkling”).

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

The bird is old, frail, and dying, almost like the speaker of “I Look into My Glass.” The little thing is a far cry from Keats’ free-soaring nightingale, but it still trills joyfully, if pathetically.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.

The poem is forward-dated to 1900, but written in 1899 (according to Kent Puckett). Apparently the Victorians disagreed about which of these two years signified the end of the century. As opposed to Keats, where the bird is blissfully ignorant and the poet is burdened by knowledge, here the bird seems to know of a happiness the narrator does not.

“A BROKEN APPOINTMENT,” 1901

 You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb,—
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
         You did not come.
         You love not me,
And love alone can lend you loyalty;
–I know and knew it. But, unto the store
Of human deeds divine in all but name,
Was it not worth a little hour or more
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
         You love not me?

“THE SELF-UNSEEING,” 1901

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
The loss of time – the memory reenlivens details, but cannot compensate for wasted moments (think about Terada, looking away?)

SATIRES OF CIRCUMSTANCE, LYRICS & REVERIES

“CHANNEL FIRING,” 1914

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day
And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,
The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:
“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.
“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening….
“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”
So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”
And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
Written at the very stirrings of WWI, this snide, almost sarcastic treatment of skeletons sitting up at the sounds of war (only practice) seems bent on imagining the counterfactual, on defending the territory of the imagination, as its ending in Camelot and Stonehenge suggests. It is an act of playing dead in the “indifferent century.”

“THE CONVERGENCE OF THE TWAIN,” 1912, 1914

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I
            In a solitude of the sea
            Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
II
            Steel chambers, late the pyres
            Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
III
            Over the mirrors meant
            To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
IV
            Jewels in joy designed
            To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
V
            Dim moon-eyed fishes near
            Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …
VI
            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
VII
            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
VIII
            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
IX
            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
X
            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
XI
            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
Hardy here is interested in the contrast of surface (jewels, mirrors, and sparkling opulence) and depth (the literal depths of the ocean, with ‘dim moon-eyed fishes’ and slugs inhabiting the finery. He mentions Immanent Will, which is, in his philosophy, a blind force slowly gaining consciousness as it moves through the centuries (why, then, is it seemingly more indifferent than ever?)

“THE WORKBOX,” 1914

See, here’s the workbox, little wife,
That I made of polished oak.’
He was a joiner, of village life;
She came of borough folk.

He holds the present up to her
As with a smile she nears
And answers to the profferer,
”Twill last all my sewing years!’

‘I warrant it will. And longer too.
‘Tis a scantling that I got
Off poor John Wayward’s coffin, who
Died of they knew not what.

‘The shingled pattern that seems to cease
Against your box’s rim
Continues right on in the piece
That’s underground with him.

‘And while I worked it made me think
Of timber’s varied doom;
One inch where people eat and drink,
The next inch in a tomb.

‘But why do you look so white, my dear,
And turn aside your face?
You knew not that good lad, I fear,
Though he came from your native place?’

‘How could I know that good young man,
Though he came from my native town,
When he must have left there earlier than
I was a woman grown?’

‘Ah, no. I should have understood!
It shocked you that I gave
To you one end of a piece of wood
Whose other is in a grave?’

‘Don’t, dear, despise my intellect,
Mere accidental things
Of that sort never have effect
On my imaginings.’

Yet still her lips were limp and wan,
Her face still held aside,
As if she had known not only John,
But known of what he died.

The eerie juxtaposition (or continuity?) of the shingled surface provides an eerie, material meeting of the living and the dead here. The box that will last all her years and more has a strange resonance with the idea of the coffin, even before we know the connection exists. Finally, is there perhaps a pun on shingles as the cause of the boy’s death? Or is it more mysterious?

Laura Mulvey, “Visual & Other Pleasures”

VISUAL PLEASURE & NARRATIVE CINEMA (1975, Screen)

“This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him. It takes as its starting-point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle… Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” 14.

(Interesting that Mulvey uses ‘fascinate’ twice – linked to witchcraft and enchantment, but also to the Greco-Roman ceremonial phallus, the fascinum.) Mulvey begins by pointing out the paradox of phallocentrism: that the man’s “presence” can only exist against the woman’s “lack”: woman is necessary to the construction of man 14. Maternal plenitude and phallic lack are the two forms “posited on nature (or on anatomy in Freud’s famous phrase). Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound; she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis” 14.

“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which an can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” 15.

Mulvey argues “we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one” 15. With the advent of 16mm film, Mulvey argues, film has been opened up to artists beyond the capitalist Hollywood regime and its ideologically mimetic films 15. The “magic” of Hollywood cinema is in “its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order… through its formal beauty and its play on [the subject’s] own formative obsessions” 16. Mulvey seeks “a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film,” since “analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” 16. The tradeoff is “a new language of desire” 16.

One of the pleasures of cinema is “scopophilia” – the pleasure of looking 16. Freud identifies it as a drive separate from the ‘proper’ erogenous zones: “he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze… the voyeuristic activities of children… the primal scene” 16. The gaze is “essentially active” – its extreme is the voyeur or Peeping Tom (think Psycho & Peeping Tom, both 1960!) How can this be in film, where “what is seen on the screen is so manifestly shown”? 17.

“The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy. Moreover the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… an illusion of looking in on a private world… the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” 17.

Cinema actually “develops scopophilia,” however, it does not just satisfy it, partly by creating a world on screen that is anthropomorphic in its proportions and fixations 17. Lacan’s mirror stage hinges on the moment the child’s “physical ambitions outstrip their motor capacity… more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body… thus overlaid with misrecognition… an ideal ego” that “prepares the way for identification with others in the future” and “predates language for the child” 17. The parallel for Mulvey between mirror and film screen lies mainly in the fact that “cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it… the sense of forgetting the world as the ego has come to perceive it… is nostalgically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition” 18.

Thus the cinema is involved in contradictory pleasure structures: one scopophilic (sexual stimulation by the sight of another), one narcissistic (identification with the image as mirror) 18. Instinctual drive and self-preservation are polarized forms of pleasure, but they both engage in “indifference to perceptual reality” 18. “The look, pleasureable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallises this paradox” 19.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female… In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spctacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfield to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire” 19.

“Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative. (Note, however, how in the musical song-and-dance numbers interrupt the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” 19.

Woman is erotic object for both subjects: character and spectator, “with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen,” making the showgirl, in her exhibition to both, a perfect combination of those gazes (think of Foucault, “Las Meninas” 19. (Do we compete with characters for her?) “For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no man’s land outside its own time and space” 19-20 (think of Betty & Megan in Mad Men, or Some Like It Hot – where the men in drag actually drag the pace of the action – use ‘female’ performance as a delay mechanism!)

“Conventional close-ups of legs… or a face… integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative; it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon, rather than verisimilitude, to the screen” 20.

(FACETING!) “The male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen… the bearer of the look of the spectator… transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle” 20. The centrality and activity of the male protagonist are a “screen surrogate” for the spectator, who feels omnipotent and in control of the filmic events – the male film star is the ideal ego (more in control than the spectator) and the female film star is the object of scopophilia (voyeured object of desire) 20. The narrative space of the male star is thus 3-dimensional, rather than flat (interesting to think about this as another reason for treating surface seriously – because women themselves are reduced to it – it is a tool of patriarchy that can unmake the house?)

The female star is usually presented alone, sexualized, and exhibited at the start of the film, but becomes the tamed property and possession of the protagonist over the course of the narrative (and therfore of the spectator as well) 21. The problem, however, is that

“ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star” 21.

(This all seems pretty flawed to me, actually. Williams’ argument is stronger by far.) Fetishism is flatter than the sadism of scopophilia, which “demands a story,” either “punishment or forgiveness” – as in Hitchcock 22.  Mulvey emphasizes the flatness of Sternberg’s films (vs Hitchcock’s), focused on women as stylized products that merge with the screen, ultimate fetishes in cyclical, rather than linear, time, with plots focused on misunderstanding, rather than conflict, sans controlling male gaze. 22. “The high point of emotional drama in the most typical Dietrich films, her supreme moments of erotic meaning, take place in the absence of the man she loves in the fiction” 22. In Hitchcock,

“the power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned onto the woman as the object of both… True perversion is barely concealed under a shallow mask of ideological correctness – the man is on the right side of the law, the woman on the wrong… liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist draw the spectators deeply into his position, making them share his uneasy gaze. The spectator is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegesis, which parodies his own in the cinema” 23.

Versus other visual forms, cinema uses the “shifting emphasis of the look… cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself… Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” 25.

“There are 3 different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences… fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth” 25.

“Nevertheless… the structure of looking in narrative fiction film contains a contradiction in its own premises: the female image as a castration threat constantly endangers the unity of the diegesis and bursts through the world of illusion as an intrusive, static, one-dimensional fetish. Thus the two looks materially present in time and space are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego. The camera becomes the mechanism for producing an illusion of Renaissance space, flowing movements compatible with the human eye, an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject; the camera’s look is disavowal in order to create a convincing world in which the speaker’s surrogate can perform with verisimilitude’ 25-6.

“Simultaneously, the look of the audience is denied an intrinsic force: as soon as fetishistic representation of the female image threatens to break the spell of illusion, and the erotic image on the screen appears directly (without mediation) to the spectator, the fact of fetishisation, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator and prevents him from achieving any distance from the image in front of him” 26.

For Mulvey, this phenomenon is specific to film (a lot of it seems like baloney, as many critics have since pointed out). Mulvey calls for a freeing of the look of the camera (Vertov? Eisenstein?) and the freeing of the look of the audience “into dialectics and passionate detachment” 26. This destroys the pleasure of film, which for women should cause nothing more than “sentimental regret” 26.

AFTERTHOUGHTS (1989)

Mulvey returns to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to address the melodrama of the uncertain female sexual identity (making female stars central) and alternatives to the 3rd-person male spectator position (the liberation of the female spectator vis a vis the freedom of the male protagonist) 29. For Freud, children of both sexes pass through a phallic phase, though for girls it ends in the repression of the masculine 30. “Hollywood genre films structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a woman spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis” 31. “As desire is a given cultural materiality in a text, for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second nature. However, this Nature does not sit easily and shifts restlessly in its borrowed transvestite clothes” 33.

The marriage or not- marriage plot is the signifier of either social acceptance as it “sublimates the erotic into a final, closing, social ritual” 34 or “the rejection of marriage personifies a nostalgic celebration of phallic, narcissistic omnipotence” 33. For the female spectator, the Western is more than Oedipal nostalgia, more than the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence 37. For a woman to “drag” in masculinity is to refuse acceptance, even as she accepts a sort of vicarious agency 37.

NOTES ON SIRK & MELODRAMA (1989)

“It has been suggested that the interest of Hollywood 1950s melodrama lies primarily in the way that, by means of textual analysis, fissures and contradictions can be shown to be undermining the films’ ideological coherence,” which “seems to save the films from belonging blindly to the bourgeois ideology which produced them” 39. But “this argument depends on the premise that the project of this ideology is indeed to conjure up a coherent picture of a world and conceal contradictions which in turn conceal exploitation and oppression. A text which defies unity and closure would then quite clearly be progressive” 39.

This unfortunately creates a trap “quite characteristic of melodrama itself,” however 39. “Ideological contradiction is actually the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama, not a hidden, unconscious thread to be picked up only by special critical processes” 39. The excitement of melodrama lies in sexual repression and frustration, in conflicts of love and blood, not those of enemies 39.

“Melodrama as a safety-valve for ideological contradictions centred on sex and the family may lose its progressive attributes, but it acquires a wider aesthetic and political significance. The workings of patriarchy, and the mould of feminine unconscious it produces, have left women largely without a voice, gagged and deprived of outlets (or a kind supplied, for instance, either by male art or popular culture) in spite of the crucial social and ideological functions women are called on to perform. In the absence of any coherent culture of oppression, a simple fact of recognition has aesthetic and political importance. There is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stomping-ground, the family” 39. (think of Berlant)

Melodramas like Sirk’s are thus “a corrective… probing the pent-up emotion” 39. As in Greek tragedy, where the overvaluation of patriarchy destroys social balance, the melodrama calls for the softening of sexual difference 40. “As Sirk has pointed out, the strength of the melodramatic form lies in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, the cloud of overdetermined irreconcilables which put up a resistance to being neatly settled, in the last five minutes, into a happy end… He turns the conventions of the melodrama sharply” – away from happy resolution 40.

“Discussions of the difference between melodrama and tragedy specify that while the tragic hero is conscious of his fate and torn between conflicting forces, characters caught in the world of melodrama are not allowed transcendent awareness or knowledge” 41.

“The formal devices of Hollywood melodrama… provide a transcendent, wordless commentary, giving abstract emotion spectacular form, contributing a narrative level that provides the action with a specific coherence. Mise en scene, rather than the undercutting of the actions and words of the story level, provides a central point of orientation for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk allows a certain interaction between the spectator’s reading of mise en scene, and its presence within the diegesis, as though the protagonists, from time to time, can read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience. Although this device uses aesthetics as well as narrative to establish signs for characters ont he screen as for the spectator in the cinema, elements such as lighting or camera movement still act as a privileged discourse for the spectator” 41.

“Sirk ironises and complicates the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers” 43.

“Melodrama can be seen as having an ideological function in working certain contradictions through to the surface and re-presenting them in an aesthetic form… It is as though the fact of having a female point of view dominating the narrative produces an excess which precludes satisfaction. If the melodrama offers a fantasy escape for the identifying women in the audience, the illusion is so strongly marked by recognisable, real and familiar traps that escape is closer to a day-dream than to fairy story… a story of contradiction, not reconciliation” 43.

Fredric Jameson, Introduction (“Postmodernism”)

1990

Jameson’s brief introduction to the larger volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism precedes the infamous chapter on “Culture” (the original essay entitled “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”). In about fifteen pages, Jameson lays out the structure of the book, beginning:

“It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” ix

For Jameson, this manifests as “the sheer enumeration of changes and modifications,” different from the modernist fixation on “the new” because it is focused on breaks and events, changes in representations, rather than new worlds and orders of perception. He argues later that both subject and object have changed, but this argument, in particular, seems to focus on the change of the subject, and how we  no longer consider “the thing in itself,” for postmodernism is the more “formal” and “fully human” mode which is

“more ‘distracted,’ as Benhamin might put it; it only clocks the variations themselves, and knows only too well that the contents are just more images.” ix

“…culture has become a product in its own right… Postmodernism is the connsumption of sheer commodification as a process.” x

Jameson suggests that in this shift, our theories should relate to Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Culture Industry” as “MTV or fractal ads bear to fifties television series” x. He notes the irony of Lyotard’s “end of master narratives” or “end of history” being narrativized in historical terms xi, since “virtually any observation about the present can be mobilized in the very search for the present itself” xii. In a world where all is surface,

“there no longer exists any such ‘deeper logic’ for the surface to manifest… a pathology distinctively autoreferential.” xii

“postmodernism – has crystallized a host of hitherto independent developments which, thus named, prove to have contained the thing itself in embryo and now step forward richly to document its multiple genealogies… like lightning striking from the superstructure back to the base, fuses its unlikely materials into a gleaming lump or lava surface.” xiii

If the modernist aesthetic paradigm was built on time, catastrophe, and disaster, postmodernism is built on space, uncertainty, disorientation. Its terminology, for Jameson, is “McLuhanite” xiii (referring to the communications philosopher and media theorist who coined the phrases “the medium is the message” and “the global village”). He proposes that Raymond Williams’ idea of “structures of feeling” only applies to postmodernism if we undergo “profound collective self-transformation” xiv, but in fact for Jameson, culture and economy in postmodernism are more mutually reinforcing than ever before; there is no “outside.”

Jameson wonders about the use of “utopia” in the “spatialized” age of postmodernity (vs modernity, focused on time), and also begins to suggest that theory (aesthetic theory in particular) seems to have begun to replace aesthetic objects as being able to “defy the gravity of the zeitgeist” xvi and perhaps even be avant-garde. However, with such theorizing, what is “the text” that replaces “the work” in “the Heisenberg principle of postmodernism… the endless slide show, ‘total flow’ prolonged into the infinite”? xvii. Whereas once the world or language was fragmented and the subject (the bourgeois ego) expressed that, now the subject is fragmented, or ceases to exist (thus the “waning of affect” Jameson notes and Ngai contends).

TERMS: Jameson also explains his use of the word “nostalgia” for the film chapter here – an affectless return of the repressed of the twenties and thirties xvii. He uses “late capitalism” as a synonym of “multinational capitalism,” “spectacle or image society,” “media capitalism,” “the world system,” and calls “postmodernism,” Adorno’s “administered society,” and even “postindustrial society” cousins of the term xviii. He traces the term back to Adorno, Horkheimer, & the Frankfurt School to refer to “a tendential web of bureaucratic control… a Foucault-like grid avant la lettre” and “the interpenetration of government and big business… Nazism… the New Deal… some form of socialism, benign or Stalinist” xviii.

Though the term has shed some of the paranoia of these older associations and (frighteningly) these features have become naturalized, it is still a useful way to think about the post-imperial stage of capitalism (see notes to Chapter 1). The pieces came gradually, but have jelled into a new system of which we are now actually aware, characterized by international labor division, media & computing on the rise, emergence of yuppies, and global gentrification xix. Jameson claims that the economic structures were laid in the 50s, but that the cultural aspect necessitated a new “psychic habitus… the absolute break” only possible a decade later:

“That the various preconditions for a new ‘structure of feeling’ also preexist their moment of combination and crystallization into a relatively hegemonic style everyone acknowledges… the basic new technological prerequisites of the… third stage… were available by the end of World War II…. Culturally, however, the precondition is to be found… in the enormous social and psychological transformations of the 1960s.” xx

“If you prefer a now somewhat antiquated language, the distinction is very much the one Althusser used to harp on between a Hegelian ‘essential cross section’ of the present (or coup d’essence), where a culture critique wants to find a single principle of the ‘postmodern’ inherent in the most varied and ramified features of social life, and that Althusserian ‘structure in dominance’ in which the various levels entertain a semiautonomy over against each other, runa t different rates of speed, develop unevenly, and yet conspire to produce a totality” ixx-xx

Jameson cuts the “short American century” to 30 years: 1945-73, beginning with WWII ending and culminating in the oil crisis, end of the gold standard and ‘wars of national liberation’/death of traditional communism of 1973 xx-xxi. “Late capitalism,” far from suggesting the system’s death, seems “more permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all-pervasive” xxi. Though the term “postmodernism” is not ideal, it is unavoidable, and “every time it is used, we are under the obligation to rehearse those inner contradictions and to stage those representational inconsistencies and dilemmas” xxii.

The full list of sections of the volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is as follows (those in bold are those I will be reading):

0) Introduction
1) Culture: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
2) Ideology: Theories of the Postmodern
3) Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious
4) Architecture: Spatial Equivalents in the World System
5) Sentences: Reading and the Division of Labor
6) Space: Utopianism after the end of Utopia
7) Theory: Immanence and Nominalism in Postmodern THeoretical Discourse
8) Economics: Postmodernism and the Market
9) Film: Nostalgia for the Present
10) Conclusion: Secondary Elaborations

D. H. Lawrence: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”

1928

Lady Chatterley’s Lover circulated widely in pirated copy for decades after its initial (self-)publication run, and was finally re-released, unexpurgated, in 1960, when Penguin won its censorship case. D. H. Lawrence’s most “scandalous” novel concerns the sexual and spiritual awakening of Constance Stewart Chatterley (nee Reid, called Connie). Having received an “aesthetically unconventional upbringing” and a good education in Europe, where she had an affair of the mind (and sort of the body) with a young German, Connie returns to England and marries the bright Clifford Chatterley in 1917 (2). By 1920, Clifford has returned from the war in a wheelchair, paralyzed and impotent, and the two settle at Wragby, the family estate at the collier town of Tevershall.

In a nod to Madame Bovary, at the start, Connie is “herself a figure somebody had read about” and her initial sexual experience only “marked the end of a chapter… very like the row of asterisks that can put to show the end of a paragraph, and a break in the theme” (17, 4). As the narrative continues and Connie becomes increasingly sexually frustrated and, subsequently, fulfilled, however, she abandons the conceptualization of the world through words and begins to favor the experience of the body. This is reinforced by Clifford’s constant, ineffectual quoting of poetry at the expense of really seeing or understanding the world around him:

“Sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,” he quoted. “I don’t see a bit of connection with the actual violets,” she said. “The Elizabethans are rather upholstered.” (95)

The distance Lady Chatterley’s Lover effects between word and deed reverses the conventional wisdom of the novel, suggesting figurative language as mere surface and physical experience as true depth. The novel must therefore surmount its own skepticism about and resistance to language largely through self-awareness. Lawrence’s digression on the importance of the novel for the “flow of our sympathetic consciousness” seems explicitly to condemn, the other, purely visual, “celluloid” medium of the day (106). And, too, the narrative tone seems to shift into erotic high gear right along with Connie’s experiences, as though it were a rendering in words (repetitive, imperfect words that constantly undermine the power of words to represent that experience) of the inexpressible changes in her body and affect. It is not reading that is the problem (in fact, Lawrence takes pains to describe Mellors’ books), but quoting poetry in lieu of experiencing one’s environment (and this seems largely to be an attack on the upper class).

Though the novel employs unusually frank language about sex (notably the repeated use of “fuck” and “cunt,” the latter of which Lawrence transforms into a kind of mystical aura that extends beyond a woman and into the realm of shared sexual experience), it is not merely explicitRather, it plays constantly (pun intended) with a variety of available sexual puns and euphemisms, even as it purports to wear its sex on its sleeve. Constance’s very name ironically highlights her infidelity, and the transparency of names continues with the clingy Ivy Bolton (bolt-on), who attaches herself to Cliff, and with  Oliver Mellors, whose first name refers to “a tilt hammer used to shape nails and chains,” thus both literally referring to his former career as a blacksmith and figuratively relating to his re-shaping “molten” Connie from her machine-like mold.

Eric Naiman has argued for the importance of the “verbal squint” of the pun in Pnin (Nabokov, Perversely 97). Naiman contends that the appearance of a professor Konstantin Chateau in Pnin is one of the many hidden erotic clues to the novel, since the first syllable of his given name echoes as “con” (French for cunt) and the first syllable of his surname sounds like “chat” (French for cat, and close to chatte, or pussy) (78).

Strikingly, Constance Chatterly’s name presents an identical pairing; perhaps even plainer, since both con and chatte are fully spelled out. Naiman also points to the repetition of close, clothes, cock(er), snatch, and other puns that refer to poetry to bolster the case, all words that repeatedly show up in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (84-8). Such a reading gives new humor to Clifford’s limp assertion that even if Connie has a child out of wedlock, he “will make a perfectly competent Chatterley out of him” (197). It’s also worth considering that, if Connie does end up escaping herself as “chattel” and “pussy” by  marrying Mellors, her new initial syllables will be Con and Mel – the very “sweet cunt” the gamekeeper praises and possesses throughout the novel.

These puns are half-concealed, however; not only are they de-emphasized “by half” in descriptions of the wood as “full of the mystery of eggs and half-open buds, half-unsheathed flowers” (vagina is Latin for “sheath” and Mellors’ penis is repeatedly called a “bud”), but the reader is ambiguously both more sensually awake to language because of the explicit nature of the book and also not hunting for such hermeneutic clues, being sated with explicit description (130).

In a novel so avowedly about sexwhy such euphemistic fun? In the essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lawrence writes that he hoped his novel will make “men and women able to think sex,” for after reading the taboo words, he claims, “people with minds realize that they aren’t shocked, and never really were, and they experience a sense of relief” (331-2). Perhaps one of the chief joys of this novel is the tension it creates between naturalizing truly open, free sexuality and mysticizing the “secret parts” of the particular, indescribably individual body of the lover, a tension which seeks to mimic the physical experience of sex itself.

Constance and Oliver may or may not escape the social constructs of their fictional world at the narrative’s close. But they have abandoned what bonds of class they can, they have fled from industry and mechanization to the country (pun, again, intended).  There will be a child, and there is already hope, represented by the names of their genitals, fully embodied: “John Thomas says goodnight to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart” (328).

Henry James: “The Turn of the Screw”

1898/1901

In The Turn of the Screw, an unnamed young governess attempts to defend her young wards, Miles and Flora, from the eerie apparitions of two dead staff members at the family’s lonely estate: first the former employee Mr. Quint, and later the previous governess, Miss Jessel.

The governess feels that the children are aware of Jessel and Quint and desire to commune with them, but that they are conniving about it, and wish to conceal their desires from her. Jessel and Quint had an affair, and may also have abused or corrupted the children. The children often contrive ways to be left alone or apart from the governess together – in her mind, so that they can be drawn in to the ghosts. In one scene, the governess wakes to Flora staring out at Miles on the lawn, whom the governess is convinced must be staring at Quint. In the final scene, the governess finally confronts Miles about his expulsion and all of the other ‘secrets,’ when suddenly Quint appears to her in the window behind the boy. As she embraces him and tells him he is free of Quint (the name alarms Miles), the boy dies in her arms.

The frame is that of an unnamed narrator reporting the tale told to him one evening by Douglas, himself reading the manuscript version of a story told him by the governess, which he claims she committed to print before she died.

It seems vital that Douglas have the manuscript mailed to the party so that he can read it from the governess’ written account – also that we are reading the version the narrator claims to have his own manuscript copy of. One might consider the governess herself not just as the writer of her tale, but as a reader, and our interpretation of her as vacillating between surface and paranoid readings of the text’s possible implications.

• the narrator says that Douglas “read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of the author’s hand” (6).

• The uncle actively halts the governess from writing, leaving her to interpret the events where she is largely in solitude – or at least without an ‘equal’ around. When Miles is expelled, the uncle writes the governess, “Read him but don’t report” (10).

• Miles reads the letter illicitly and uses the excuse of finishing his book to derail the governess. Also, his seeming awareness of his fictional position: “the true knights we love to read about never push an advantage too far” (66).

• Flora, too, “appeared to read and accuse and judge me” (71).

• the governess reads books, sometimes to trick other characters (17, 40, 46, 47, 28) and reads letters (78, 85). She calls reading “an unavowed curiosity of my youth,” particularly “last century fiction… of a distinctly deprecated renown” (40).

• the governess wonders about Jane Eyre and The Mysteries of Udolpho (17), as well as Fielding’s Amelia (40). She is in the position of only knowing what Mrs. Grose tells her about Jessel and Quint, and her analeptic/proleptic pasting-together of clues, her proof, “so I saw him as I see the letters on this page” (17) is double-edged: both totally clear (legible) and wholly imagined (since language is not visual and offers no proof).

• Mrs. Grose, unlike the governess, cannot read, which is “dreadful” (11)

• Much of her reading also involves, of course, her interpretive work, which might verge on a paranoid, exploitative interpretation of her surroundings (worth thinking about how that reflects upon us as readers, too). She even admits her own paranoid reading of the situation at times: “I had restlessly read into the facts before us” (27), “I only sat there on my tomb and read into what our young friend had said to me in the fulness of its meaning.” (57), and “I suppose I now read into our situation a clearness it couldn’t have had” (84).

• the word read appears by itself or within in other words 97 times in the text: in readily, ready, already, thread, bread, etc. Read is used in the past tense each time, making it shine through and rhyme with the other words in which it is embedded. Particularly notable is the repetition of dread and dreadful (26 times), which includes both the words dead and read within it.

Especially interesting is the substance the governess tries to give to the purely visual ghosts, especially by explaining her depth perception of these surface apparitions.

Critical interpretations long focused on the mutually exclusive implications of the story (some even suspecting that the governess remains unnamed because she might be based on Henry’s ‘hysterical’ sister Alice). Edmund Wilson was among the first to suggest that the governess was insane and had imagined the ghosts altogether.

Eric Solomon claims in “The Return of the Screw” that Mrs. Grose is the villain or killer based on the line “Someone had taken a liberty rather gross.”

Mark Spilka, in “Turning the Freudian Screw,” addresses the erotic ambiguities of the tower and the lake, embedded in a tale about the Victorian obsession with asexual, childish innocence (and the implication that one or both of the now-ghosts molested the children, ‘infecting’ them, as critic Craig Raine insists).

John J. Enck (“The Turn of the Century”) praises the craft of James’ prose and places the story’s irony and uncertainty in “the reader’s intelligence” and compares his writing to Nabokov.

Shoshanna Felman