Monday, December 7, 2015

Family Romances

In these last few weeks of the semester as we talk about Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home, I want you to think about how the work we've accomplished in class can be used to better understand the role of narrative in our own lives. Freud's use of the Oedipus myth and his attention to children's literature and fantasies in "The Family Romance," give us two narrative structures through which to read not only literary works, like Fun Home, but our own lives as well.

If I had to boil down the relation between Freud's work and literature into the simplest formula it would be this: Freud teaches us once again about the central human importance of reading and writing narrative. Everything that humans communicate in any way in language is "telling a story" (and this goes for conscious and unconscious thought as well). In a very real way, the contents of your head are "just stories," that is, narratives constructed in interaction with your environment and meaningful to others. There is no "outside" of narrative if you are a homo sapiens; in fact there is currently some really good work in neuroscience on how the evolution of our brains has produced the necessity for narrative in order to construct a time-bound sense of our environment and cause-and-effect rationality.

As I've said in class, I find the Freudian Oedipal Complex and the Family Romance to be intimately connected. One is the story of the child's struggle to negotiate authority and eventually capitulate to its demands. But the other speaks of the creative ways we deal with those necessary compromises, finding ways to sublimate our frustrations, empower ourselves and even, on occasion, triumph.

While thinking about the Family Romance and the various ways we rewrite the scripts of our lives through fantasy and fiction, I was reminded of an episode of the radio program, This American Life that has always struck me as a poignant example of the very real power of "fiction." It is the story of two siblings who grew up in a house controlled by a domineering and crazy mother. While the brother was allowed all manner of freedom in his coming and going, the sister, because she was a girl, was under constant restriction, scrutiny, and accusation. To gain a measure of freedom the two siblings constructed a fictional family they told their mother that they were babysitting for. Because of their mother's particular blend of paranoia, semi-agoraphobia and insanity, they were able to bring off a complex deception based on the creation of an elaborate fantasy family, one which was both a substitute for, and a means of surviving, the family they lacked.

One of the moving things about this episode is hearing it told in the siblings own voices, especially the sister's, in whose tones one can still hear the joy of those long ago freedoms. You can listen to the audio here, it is Act Three of the Babysitting Episode (you can also purchase individual episodes of TAL on iTunes to download to your mp3 player). You can also read a transcript of the episode here, again scroll down to Act Three.

So when you start thinking about your final paper, I want you to also feel free to think about your own family narratives. Freud's work suggests that there is a certain narrative universality to family life. The particulars of Alison Bechdel's story are different from mine, but there is certainly much I can recognize in the subtle power struggles, the narrative gaps of family secrets, and the eventual need to put one's parents into proper perspective: neither gods nor monsters.

Fun Home as Family Romance: Final Paper

"But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I lept."

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, is brimming with recognizable elements from nearly every text we've read this semester. It's a veritable index of Freudian particulars. We've got the intense devotion to lexical explication (i.e., looking things up in the dictionary) that we remember from Freud's essay on "The Uncanny," we've got dreams and dream analysis, Freudian slips, unreliable memories riddled with gaps and lacunae, recursive narrative structures, doubles, multiple returns of multiple repressions and above all, The Family as the harrowing forge of individual identity.

For the final paper I'd like you to discuss Fun Home as a family romance. In other words, how does Freud's essay illuminate our understanding of the family dynamic examined in this memoir? In Freud's terms, the family romance is a way of talking about the stories through which children negotiate their necessary separation from their parents. Much like the Freudian concept of Oedipal conflict, children necessarily struggle with both identification and rejection of parental authority; indeed the Oedipal struggle is premised on the death of the father. But how do you kill a father that is already dead?

In thinking about Fun Home as an active exercise of memory and narrative, it's important to consider that Bechdel has spoken about her work as not only a story about identity, but also a story about becoming an artist, an endeavor which also involves a negotiation with the influence of her father.

You can organize your use of Freud in this discussion any way you choose. I do, however, ask that your discussion include some commentary on the book's narrative structure: the relationship between text and image.

Due: Monday, December 21
Length: 4 pages

Reading Readings of H

Some quick, pre-class feedback on the last round of papers for those waiting nervously.

As a whole it was a stronger group of papers than the first round. Students who were having trouble with development and organization improved in those areas. And pretty much across the board, everyone attempted analyses of the kind required by a non-conventional narrative like H with detailed attention given to the narrative's latent information and assumptions.

In no particular order, these are some individual bits of insight and interpretation that I thought were especially solid and useful. You may recognize some (in some cases many) of your own points here:

1) The "bicycle incident" is probably the most revealing example of the limitations of the "authorities" (parents, doctor, camp directors and counselors) point of view. From their angle, Benjamin is irrational and violent, a potential threat to others. From Benjamin's angle, the context of the incident is explained as well as Benjamin's remorse and realization that he acted wrongly. Here we also see a pattern consistently reproduced: Benjamin's actions are seen in isolation and not in context by those in authority over him.

2) Mr. and Mrs. Sherman are almost diametrical opposites: distant vs. too involved, cold vs. too emotional, one insisting that Benjamin "grow up," the other desiring that he remain her little boy. They are similar however in their lack of any sense of responsibility for Benjamin's "problems."

3) As two students pointed out, Mr. Sherman's never writing to Benjamin directly is symbolic of his inability to address the situation, i.e. his letters are not "addressed" to the right person. One paper specifically compared Mr. Sherman with the absent Master in The Turn of the Screw, another figure who avoided communication by letters and whose absence powerfully influenced the actions of the other characters. Another paper brought in Freud's essay on the "fort/da" game as a way to make sense of Elliot and Elliottown as a means to deal with this parental absence---like that game, the Elliottown fantasy gave Benjamin a sense of control and a way to, as one student said, "write his own story," a story much different than his father's.

4) Benjamin's progress at camp is seemingly invisible to his parents. Can his parents even "see" Benjamin or only their own desires for him? Several students noticed that everything positive about his camp experience is overlooked by his parents, in particular his friendship with Amelia. Since they expect him to make friends with other boys, they are oblivious to the one possible friend he does make.

5) Elliottown is a compensatory fantasy. One of the things it provides that is glaringly missing from Benjamin's "real life" is trust. He cannot trust his parents: after telling him he can decide if Elliot stays at camp, they take her away anyway, Mr. Sherman listens in surreptitiously on Benjamin's phone calls with his mother, Benjamin agrees to go into the hospital, but obviously hasn't had the conditions of his release made clear to him, and so forth. One paper pointed out how Elliottown provides Benjamin with a sense of importance and meaning: he is a capable emissary from another world, sent to observe and make conclusions about Earth, as well as being some kind of "expert" able to help solve various Elliottown problems. Within the Elliottown world, Benjamin has status as a competent leader and advisor.  Another paper pointed out how important Elliot was to helping Benjamin construct an independent identity, independent of his parents and their version of a "perfect son." And many students made the point that most of the adults seem oblivious to Benjamin's sheer creativity. Whatever the ultimate positive/negative effects are, Benjamin's fantasies are deeply creative and maybe this was lost even on his doctor, a man who could help Benjamin utilize his creative play in a more positive (or socially acceptable) direction. Although, interestingly, opinion differed on the extent to which students felt Dyson handled Benjamin's case well (see 10a below).

6) Dave the counselor's perception of Benjamin is an interesting point of contrast with other authority figures. Everyone else sees Benjamin as the problem, but for Dave he is only a problem, and not the worst one at that (i.e., not as bad as the kid who continually poops his pants, or Mike "Motherfucker.") One paper argued that Dave's "matter of fact" handling of Benjamin shows how Benjamin might have acted differently in a different family. Another paper made the astute observation that it was Dave's letter about the camp reunion, and not Dr. Dyson's treatment, that most seemed to spur Benjamin's efforts to leave the hospital. Still another paper argued for seeing the camp directors as slightly different from the other "authority figures" in the first section. This paper appreciated the wise decision they made to not stigmatize Benjamin by disclosing his diagnosis to counselors and other campers, a decision which seemed to create the circumstances in which Benjamin was able to "thrive" relative to his existence pre-camp.

7) Several papers pointed out that Dave seems like a surrogate Father/role model for Benjamin. Interestingly, he is exactly the kind of "average guy" mainstream male that Mr. Sherman wishes Benjamin was. And because Benjamin looks up to him, we see Benjamin is not completely outside of even as limited a view of "normal" as his father's.

8) If being distant, lost in one's own world, and unable to communicate with others are the criteria for being "sick," then isn't Mr. Sherman as sick as Benjamin? Most papers mentioned that nearly all the initial letters encourage the reader to see Benjamin as "sick," but it is only when one views all the letters as a whole that one starts to question the validity of their individual diagnosis. Following through on our class discussions, some students argued that the Sherman family is the major "unsaid" of the text: it is only through a patient (and, of course, partial) reconstruction of the relations between Jeffery and Peggy and their relations to both Benjamin and Hannah that the reader can begin to make sense of Elliot and Benjamin's need for her. 

9) All the authorities see "the problem" as a strictly individual rather than collective one. That is, "the problem" is limited to Benjamin and his behavior, rather than reading Benjamin's behavior as a manifest symptom of a latent context: his family situation. Thus the "cure" is limited to changing Benjamin and not his parents as well (or maybe even society at large?).

10) Several students drew out comparisons between H and The Turn of the Screw as narratives. In particular, these students were interested in the way both novels seemed to them to lack a complete narrative closure, thus placing the reader in an unusual position. These papers were interested in the effects of narratives which don't adhere to traditional formal expectations: a clear beginning, middle and end, lots of narrative exposition to "explain" things to the reader, and a tight closure where a single and clear authoritative meaning is reached by the end. Instead, these two works seem to share a similar effort to engage the reader in the process of reaching final conclusions, conclusions which could play out in several directions and therefore don't really seem to be "final."

10a) Some very interesting readings of the end of the novel were produced. Clearly, it is difficult to decide whether or not the ending is some kind of triumph or failure. How do we make sense of the space Benjamin is in by the novel's end? One student argued, "The last page of the novel is the result of Jeffery and Peggy's hard work. Beat down, tired and medicated, Benjamin gives up the most special gift he had, which is his is tragic because Benjamin did not outgrow Elliot but was instead forced to do so." Most students who took this line felt Dyson was complicit in this tragic loss. However, one paper made a plea to understand the position of Dr. Dyson differently: "Eventually, the place that gave him value is gone.  His relationship with Elliot ends as well. Both are huge leaps for a special child like Benjamin. Through therapy sessions with Dr. Dyson, and with his new found confidence, it looks as if he found his own sense of self...The last letter from Dr. Dyson was most disturbing to me.  After his parent's request to have Benjamin back home...the doctor's response made me feel heartbroken for Benjamin's fate. ...(A)fter I read his last letter my heart dropped at the idea that he will be left back in his parents care, especially without the education and experience of Dr. Dyson. The doctor's letter seemed as if he felt defeated. It was the first time I felt sympathetic to anyone else other than Benjamin."

Monday, November 30, 2015

Return to Oedipus

Freud’s well known concept was inspired by the Greek legends of Oedipus Rex, especially as they are expressed in Sophocles's play, who unknowingly marries his mother and kills his father. The Oedipus complex is way of talking about both the erotic and destructive components of the child’s (especially the male child’s) relation with its parents. Because the legend is about a figure who usurps the Father's role, both as family and state authority (husband and ruler) and suffers horrific mutilation and guilt as a result, the narrative is useful to Freud as a symbol of childhood rebellion and eventual conformity (or psychological "mutilation" for failure).

But the legend of Oedipus also has much in common with the ideas in Freud's essay, "The Family Romance." Oedipus is a figure who is on a quest to discover his parentage: he has been raised by surrogates, first a shepherd and later the royal family of Corinth. It is in order to learn the truth of his birth that he embarks on the journey that leads to his tragic enlightenment. It is the universality suggested in the tale, signaled by the solution to the Sphinx's riddle: "mankind," that intrigues Freud, who writes in The Interpretation of Dreams,

"His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours---because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our Father..."

I think it's interesting to note the way Freud reads literature here: he looks at it as something which throws light on the other narrative components of our lives---our dreams and our retelling of our pasts. In other words, the overlap between "psychoanalysis" and "literature," illuminates what both domains share: an interest in signification, symbolic representation, narrative, interpretation, issues of reading.

Freud worked and re-worked the idea of Oedipal struggle over the course of his life, using it as a way to think about how individuated consciousness is produced, how "humans" are made. As you recall, Freud theorized the pre-Oedipal infant as boundary-less and unfocused mass of needs and desires, unable to distinguish between objects or understand their relation, as this image of an "infant's eye view" suggests:

Pre-Oedipal consciousness is unable to distinguish between self and other, yet dependent on the care of others to satisfy basic necessities. Freud emphasizes the powerful early role of the child's relation to the mother and the mother's breast (or as illustrated in this slightly de-sexualized photograph from 1947, the bottle) as the site of early sexual pleasure or desire:

The pre-Oedipal child's world is focused on the Mother (or a fusion between Self and Mother):

into which the Father intervenes, an unwelcome rival and threatening challenger

to whose power the infant must eventually capitulate.

The child must concede power and centrality to adult authority, moreover his/her early polymorphous sexuality must be funneled into socially acceptable channels: no more self or incestuous pleasure and proper identification with properly gendered role models. The boy learns to accept and identify with male authority, the girl learns to identify with the mother and accede to this less powerful position (though perhaps always resentfully). Through negotiating the traumatic upheavals of the Oedipal struggle, a boundary-less nexus of libidinal pleasures learns to accept His or Her place in the vastly hierarchical scheme of things: gender roles reinforced, satisfactions postponed, authority accepted, the family and society reproduced.

I've sketched out a very simplified account of the Freudian Oedipal struggle because I want to highlight its narrative elements, its function as a story about the birth of individual consciousness through struggle and conflict with parental (and by extension, social) authority and power. But if the Oedipus narrative is a story about capitulation, the Family Romance is a tale of the child getting his own back, fighting for independence by rewriting the family narrative.

The Family Romance

In his short essay, "The Family Romance," Freud talks about the common childhood fantasy of imagining oneself adopted, the child of some other, much better and cooler set of parents. He uses the phrase to talk about the conflicts between parents and children as the child necessarily grows up and grows away from his family.

Freud theorized that a denigration of one's parents replaces an early overestimation of them and that such feelings and desires are not only part of a “healthy” transition to adulthood, but are less about actually “hating” one's parents than kind of contradictory “expression of the child’s longing for the happy, vanished days when his father seemed to him the noblest and strongest of men and mother the dearest and loveliest of women. He is turning away from the father whom he knows to-day to the father in whom he believed in the earlier years of his childhood; and his phantasy is no more than the expression of a regret that those happy days have gone...”

The "family romance" fantasy also addresses the child’s question, “who am I?” and so expresses an attempt to place oneself in a broader social history. Thus, it can also touch on issues of social relations and relations between extra-familial generations as well issues of aging and the passage of time.

My question for our discussion of Fun Home is: Is some element of the family romance fantasy necessary to autobiography, or even memory itself?

(The image above is Charles Ray's "The Family Romance," a sculpture in which all of the members of a generic family have been resized to equal height. Because the figures are not quite either "adult" or "child" sized---they are roughly 4 1/2 feet tall---it's not easy to resolve if it's the parents who have been brought down to size or the children who've been enlarged. Nevertheless, whenever I see it, I see miniaturized parents before I see a gigantic baby.)

Alison Bechdel on Fun Home

In this interview, Bechdel describes her writing/drawing process in creating Fun Home, including her methods of research. You'll see a couple of family photos as well as the actual site she incorporated into a particular scene:

And here you can see Bechdel reading from her memoir:

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

This old house

One place to start thinking about how Bechdel's narrative is developed visually as well as textually, is to focus on how the interior "shots" are composed. What sense of everyday life is conveyed? How are relations between family members structured by their situation within rooms, hallways, windows, and so forth?

The first two photos above are from a fascinating New York Times interview with Alison Bechdel that takes place during a visit to her former home (now owned by others, but still keeping much of the original decoration intact). The writer, Ginia Bellefonte makes this perceptive remark about how the Victorian restoration is visual map of Bruce Bechdel's psyche:

"The offending accouterments are still in place: wallpaper imprinted with floral buds and a heavy chandelier that looks as if it were made of skulls. The combination seems a reminder of just how powerfully Victorian d├ęcor embraced the nascent and the sepulchral, life and the negation of it, much as the era’s mores were charged with the tension between vagrant urges and the enforced repression of them. If Bruce Bechdel aimed to keep the truth of his life hidden, one could argue that he also put it flamboyantly on display."

The rest of the article can be found here. The last photo above is a snapshot from when the Bechdel family was in residence. I'm sure you can pick out everything in the photo including the vase that somehow got too close to the edge of the table...

You can find a related NYT Q & A session with Alison Bechdel here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Screen/ing Memories

The last literary text we are examining this semester is Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, an ambitious memoir about her childhood and her relation to her father (and other family members). The last two bits of Freud we will read are two essays which may be helpful in approaching Bechdel: "Screen Memories," and "The Family Romance." The following is an introduction to Freud's thoughts on the memory, and especially childhood memory/memories of childhood.

The problem of memory is at the heart of Freud’s work. Before he developed his theories of dreams and their relation to the Unconscious, he argued for the central position of memory as a subject of analysis. We can see the importance memory would have in his later work in his early attempt to define the root of "hysteria:" "Hysterics suffer from reminiscences." In his essay, "Screen Memories," Freud saw a psychological function of general importance, that memory is an active process of the present, reorganizing and reinterpreting the past at the same time preserving shards of original experience. It is through memory that we produce the narrative that is our "selves," a fictional construct with its own truths.

One of the most provocative suggestions in Freud's early and brief essay, "Screen Memories," is the notion that memory itself is a kind of fictional narrative. In other words, memory is more about the present than it is about the past and it is always "image-inary" in nature: something we create rather than just "have." At the end of "Screen Memories," Freud remarks, "It is perhaps altogether questionable whether we have any conscious memories from childhood: perhaps we have only memories of childhood. These show us the first years of our lives not as they were, but as they appeared to us at later periods..."

In her book on children's fiction, The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction, literary theorist Jacqueline Rose offers some comments on Freud's essay that may be of interest to our work on representation of memory and childhood.

Rose is interested in the way that Freud seems to come to his master concept of the Unconcious via his early essay on childhood memory. We've read much of our Freud out of chronological order, so it is useful to remember that "Screen Memories" predates Freud's work on dreams and the consequent elaboration of his theories of repression, displacement and sublimation: the transformation of meaning that takes place in the dream-work.

"We do not realise that Freud was first brought up against the unconscious when asking how we remember ourselves as a child. The unconscious is not an object, something to be laid hold of and retrieved. It is the term which Freud used to descibe the complex way in which our very idea of ourselves as children is produced... Setting himself to analyse one of his earliest recollections, he found that the event he remembered had never taken pace. The importance of the memory was not, however, any the less for that. For what it revealed was the unresolved conflicts affecting the way in which he was thinking about himself now. [One of] the most crucial aspects of psychoanalysis is the insistence that childhood is something in which we continue to be implicated and which is never simply left behind. Childhood persists... It persists as something which we endlessly rework in our attempt to build an image of our own history. When we think about childhood, it is above all our investment in doing so that counts...

For Freud, neither childhood nor meaning can be pinned down---they shift, and our own identity with them... [T]he often contradictory and inconsistent ways that childhood appears in analysis undermines any notion of a straightforward sequence and throws into crisis our relationship to meaning itself. Meaning is not simply there---it is built up, it can be determined by totally contradictory associations, and can emerge long after the event which apparently gives it form." (12-16)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Introducing Fun Home

In 2006 Time Magazine picked Fun Home as the best book of the year. Not as the best comic book or graphic novel, or fiction or memoir, but best BOOK period. Here's a multimedia roundup of Fun Home information you may find of interest.

First, some stuff to read:

The Wikipedia entry on Alison Bechdel is pretty good. Here you will learn useful things and fun trivia such as Bechdel is a member of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and her baby brother John is now a keyboardist who's played with Ministry, Fear Factory, Prong and Killing Joke among other bands.

Alison Bechdel's website is a compendium of useful items: an archive of her comic strip, information about other past and future projects, links to reviews about Fun Home and so on. One thing you might want to take a look at is a piece she wrote for Slate about telling her mother she was writing about their family.

Here's a short YouTube video of Bechdel drawing the wallpaper endpapers of Fun Home:

And here she talks about her process of drawing many of the scenes in the book by acting out and photographing herself in many of the character's roles (adding more to the many uses of photography in Fun Home):

Here's an early (1981) strip which now reads as trial run for part of Fun Home. Coming Out Story covers some of the same incidents that are also represented in Fun Home.

And if you want to see how academics have treated Fun Home, here are links to three downloadable .pdf's of papers presented at a scholarly conference in France: Double Trajectories: Crossing Lines in Fun Home, by Karim Chabani, Images as Paratext in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, by Agnes Muller and Drag as Metaphor and the Quest for Meaning in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a Family Tragicomic, by Helene Tison.

In 2009, Fun Home was adapted as a musical by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. It debuted Off-Broadway in 2013 and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical and the Obie Award for Musical Theater the same year.  A Broadway production began in 2015, which won five Tony Awards.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Thoughts on first papers

Although I'm going to try to hand the papers back this Wednesday, I hope I can put everyone's mind at rest by saying that this batch of papers was quite good: most everyone exhibited clear engagement with the ideas we've been working over in class. I wanted this first assignment to give you a kind of experimental space to "play" with the theory we've been discussing, to bring it into the space of reading fiction and perhaps discover new ways to think about narrative and its place in our lives.

I know some students felt flustered by the lack of conventional essay guidelines. Clearly, I didn't want students to simply reproduce the ideas they'd read or the discussion we've had. That can be a tall order when much of your education has focused precisely on those skills: mastery of a formula and its accurate reproduction are useful processes for some areas of academic study, if not all. And that kind of "learning" is pretty much where we all begin our earliest lessons: mimicking the sounds cooed to us by parents, following their instructions help us become a "big boy" or a "big girl."

But, necessary as this kind of mastery of social convention is for the infant, it is a far cry from learning to be able to critically reflect on those conventions, on our lives and on our adult selves. Learning how to consciously use ideas is the empowering conceptual break common to both pedagogy and psychoanalysis.

Freud once wrote that "The discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain, and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it...[however] if you succeed in persuading him to accept, by virtue of a better understanding, something that up to now, in consequence of this automatic regulation by pain, he has rejected, you will then have accomplished something towards his education."

Though all of your papers had varying strengths, it was clear to me that there was still resistance (and most of it probably unconscious) to push beyond the usual English paper assignment. Many papers began by rehearsing information about Freud or about psychoanalysis or about Henry James that was completely unnecessary for this paper. I think we can take it as a given that Freud and Henry James are "famous writers" and other such generalities. Papers which began this way usually didn't stray too far from simple "book reports" (rehearsal of plot) or comparison/contrast essays.

Likewise, many students exhibited a great deal of anxiety about the assignment both before and after. I'm not so much interested in all of this in terms of "correcting problems;" I am interested, though, in the roots of such fear and how it can obstruct learning. The last time I taught this course, a student once linked "the Uncanny" with students' performance anxiety: grounding it both in the fear of not seeing (not understanding things correctly) and the fear of being seen (looking like an idiot in front of the teacher/class). I think that the repression trauma that produces the infant as functioning subject certainly has a clear analogy in our current educational structures.

But, back to the papers. Here are a few interesting and useful bits from the papers on "The Turn of the Screw:" I think there are some good ideas here for further work in future papers. I particularly want to turn your attention to the way these students touched on the role of the reader: that the novel was not just a story about the Uncanny, but an experience of it.

Andrew began his paper with a frank admission of his anxiety over the assignment: not being sure he understood the concepts under discussion, not being sure he understood the novel, not being sure how to draw both together, and so on. But, he also related how this frustration with "not knowing" let him to rethink "knowing" itself: "In class we discussed the calculated ambiguity of the novel, so I realized my duty to inject my own perceptions into the stories' blurred parameters....I no longer looked for answers, but created them with Freud as my guide." Andrew expressed how this freed him up to explore areas of the narrative he previously hadn't considered; finally deciding to read "The Turn of the Screw" as a kind of allegory about control (though the use of the term "allegory" is mine not Andrew's). The rest of his paper explored the Governess being "haunted" by her lack of control within the framework of being put in sole control. I think some of Andrew's ideas can be profitably extended to both H and Fun Home, both of which foreground the relations between children and parents.

Bar, too, focused on the relation between knowledge and "the Uncanny." His starting point was that of Freud's definition: the Uncanny doesn't disturb through novelty, but by familiarity, albeit the unfamiliar aspects of what is assumed to be "well known." But Bar pushes this even further: "The uncanny does not create disquiet simply because it introduces a new, unknown aspect to something which was perceived to be known. It is that which exposes everything to be necessarily unintelligible. The uncanny does not lie solely in the story, but rather is an effect of the reading itself. The experience of reading the story in itself reveals to the reader that they in fact don't have anyway of knowing anything." The rest of his paper follows up the "funhouse" effect of the multitude of doubling and doubles found throughout "The Turn of the Screw." Everything that seems "objective" is "subjective," everything the seems clear is revealed to be opaque, everything seems to fold into its opposite: The Good Governess and The Bad Jessel are obvious mirror images. Bar talks about an "Inception"-like chain reaction produced by the Uncanny: an unending opening up of ambiguity where once there was certainty, a chain of possible readings and interpretations which constantly undermine each other.  Bar seems to take the Uncanny to an almost nihilistic point---can we really know anything?

Tehreem focused most of her discussion on the Governess and her uncanny experience of the ghosts. She points out that this uncanny quality is an effect not of their "supernatural" status (spirits of the dead!) but instead of their narrative function as doubles.  These "ghosts" have returned because they are the repressed: they represent not only the individual repressed desires of the Governess (sexual in nature), but also the larger repressed behaviors of society itself (based in class divisions).

Quelsy started with a discussion of "The Sandman" and extended that story's recurring motif of eyes/sight into an examination of the dynamic of the seen/unseen in "The Turn of the Screw." He compared the ghosts' desire to be seen to that of the Governess. Both crave a recognition; in the case of the Governess, she want to be "seen" by the Master as fulfilling his desires, but his desires can only be fulfilled be her remaining "unseen" (not contacting him). He also points out how the frustrations of the characters in the text mirror the frustrations of the reader with the text---what is it that the reader "sees?"

Caroline began by thinking about the convention of the "ghost story:" a narrative which usually entertains by scaring us in sometimes unpredictable, sometimes predictable, but always "safe" ways.  She finds "The Turn of the Screw" parting ways with the traditional ghost story because its distressing effects are not found in the "unusual" elements of the story (the ghosts, which aren't particularly scary in a conventional way) but in the disquiet of the "everyday:" things taken for granted that are revealed to be less familiar, less understood, than initially supposed. And worse, the possible impossibility of ever being able to know with certainty: the children, innocent or corrupt? the Governess, careful or neglectful of the children? Caroline ended her paper with how this ambiguity rebounds on the reader: "scaring" us with this lack of certainty rather than showing us some "certain" evil.

These are only a few examples of the work everyone did in their papers. But they give a glance at the differing ways people approached the assignment and differing aspects of both the novel and the concept of the Uncanny that students focused on. One carry over from this assignment to the next paper might be to again think about the position of the reader: how a text might "force" us to read it in a certain fashion, and what the results of that are on the reader. And also, what Freud's texts teach us about reading: how do we "interpret" the stories we encounter---not just in this class but also in our lives in general. As I think most students concluded at some point in their papers, a final certainty seems to be off the table. But what about reading less as a way to find answers and more as a way to construct (new, useful) questions?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Excavating H

Elizabeth Shepard's novel, H, is a story told entirely through letters---correspondence by, or concerning, the case of Benjamin Sherman. The plot is necessarily fragmented: we have no comprehensive narrative exposition which ties the events of the plot together into an interpretive whole. The role of the reader, then, is much like the Freudian analyst who examines each dream, memory or association as a rich piece of evidence or telling relic, a part which suggests the missing or repressed whole. Freud often likened his work to that of an archeologist, one who examines surface detritus for what it suggests about structures buried beneath.

Freud used the metaphor of archeology quite early in his work, long before he fully developed the model of accessing latent content via its manifest traces in dream interpretation. In Studies of Hysteria, he likened analysis to "the technique of excavating a buried city." And in his essay "Delusions and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva," he again invoked the metaphor in this passage: "There is actually no better analogy for repression, which both makes something in the mind inaccessible and preserves it, than the burial that was the fate of Pompeii and from which the city could reappear through the work of the spade."

Literary theorist Pierre Macherey called such interpretive work, symptomatic reading. As in psychoanalysis what is not said is as important as what is said, and a symptomatic reading must focus on what the narrative omits or excludes as well as what it has included. Clearly, H demands an attentive reader who can read the silences in and between individual letters, who can hear what is stubbornly not being said, who can perceive the avoided and repressed as well as the obvious. For most of the characters in H, Benjamin is clearly the problem, for the reader he is part of a problematic: a larger story which includes the story of the Sherman family, the story of Mr. and Mrs. Sherman, the story of siblings Benjamin and Hannah, the story of conventional psychiatric treatment, the story of conventional notions of childhood and childhood development, and so forth, all of which must be excavated in order to make sense of Benjamin and Elliot.

Discuss your excavation of H: what were you able to reconstruct of the "missing" problematic? What parts remain indeterminate or unrecoverable? Does the narrative itself suggest or imply certain ways of filling in the blanks? Does it favor some interpretations over others? And most importantly, how does the narrative conceptualize the important categories of "sick" and "healthy"? The text's authority figures all take Benjamin to be "sick" (though with differing definitions of "illness") and they advocate for his "health" (again with very differing notions of "sanity"). How does the narrative resolve these contradictions (or does it)? Clearly Benjamin has changed by the end of the story, and clearly this change is predicated on the loss of a rich and creative, if quirky, imaginative structure. Much like the Freudian infant whose polymorphous capacity for pleasure must be narrowed down and contained within accepted behaviors, Benjamin must shed those parts of his psyche which "don't fit." Does the narrative suggest how we should interpret and judge his transformation?

Length: around 5 pages
Due: Monday, November 30

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The "Fort / Da" Game

(Above, Freud and his daughter Sophie, whose son Ernst is the fort / da spieler.)

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Sigmund Freud relates the story of a game his grandson invented at the age of one and a half, before he could speak many words. He used to throw small objects away from him, then say "o-o-o-o" with pleasure. He also took a wooden spool attached to a piece of string, and threw it over the edge of his cot, so that it disappeared. After saying "o-o-o-o," he would pull it back to himself and say, "da." He repeated this game over and over. Freud and the boy’s mother understood him to be saying "fort" and "da" (German for "gone" and "there").

Freud theorized that this game of disappearance and return allowed the boy to manage his anxiety about the absences of his mother, to whom he was very attached. By controlling the actual presence and absence of an object, he was able to manage the virtual presence of his mother. The fort / da game was the child’s invention of symbolism: the use of one object (wooden reel) to represent another (mother).

If you recall our earlier discussion of language, you'll remember that Jacques Lacan discusses the important moment in the development of subjectivity when the child grasps the idea of language (the field of culturally symbolic sounds and representations) and so enters what he terms, "the symbolic order." In Lacan's reworking of Freud, language---symbolic representation---is the all important medium through which our access to "the real" is structured.

Freud's grandson was using his creative play as a way to deal with a basic childhood anxiety through representation. He was asserting control over his environment, learning a method to dispel anxiety and frustration and coming to terms with a concept: absence and presence, the idea that mother can be "gone" yet still there, in memory and play.

Here is the relevant section from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

"…At this point I propose to leave the dark and dismal subject of the traumatic neurosis and pass on to examine the method of working employed by the mental apparatus in one of its earliest normal activities. I mean in children's play.

The different theories of children's play have only recently been summarized and discussed from the psychoanalytic point of view by Pfeifer (1919), to whose paper I would refer my readers. These theories attempt to discover the motives which lead children to play, but they fail to bring into the foreground the economic motive, the consideration of the yield of pleasure involved. Without wishing to include the whole field covered by these phenomena, I have been able, through a chance opportunity which presented itself, to throw some light upon the first game played by a little boy of one and a half and invented by himself. It was more than a mere fleeting observation, for I lived under the same roof as the child and his parents for some weeks, and it was some time before I discovered the meaning of the puzzling activity which he constantly repeated.

The child was not at all precocious in his intellectual development. At the age of one and a half he could say only a few comprehensible words; he could also make use of a number of sounds which expressed a meaning intelligible to those around him. He was, however, on good terms with his parents and their one servant-girl, and tributes were paid to his being a 'good boy'. He did not disturb his parents at night, he conscientiously obeyed orders not to touch certain things or go into certain rooms, and above all he never cried when his mother left him for a few hours. At the same time, he was greatly attached to his mother, who had not only fed him herself but had also looked after him without any outside help. This good little boy, however, had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him into a corner, under the bed, and so on, so that hunting for his toys and picking them up was often quite a business. As he did this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out 'o-o-o-o', accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction. His mother and the writer of the present account were agreed in thinking that this was not a mere interjection but represented the German word 'fort' ['gone']. I eventually realized that it was a game and that the only use he made of any of his toys was to play 'gone' with them. One day I made an observation which confirmed my view. The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive 'o-o-o-o'. He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful 'da' ['there']. This, then, was the complete game of disappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself, though there is no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act. (1)

The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It was related to the child's great cultural achievement: the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting He compensated himself for this, as it were, by himself staging the disappearance and return of the objects within his reach. It is of course a matter of indifference from the point of view of judging the effective nature of the game whether the child invented it himself or took it over on some outside suggestion. Our interest is directed to another point. The child cannot possibly have felt his mother's departure as something agreeable or even indifferent. How then does his repetition of this distressing experience as a game fit in with the pleasure principle? It may perhaps be said in reply that her departure had to be enacted as a necessary preliminary to her joyful return, and that it was in the latter that lay the true purpose of the game. But against this must be counted the observed fact that the first act, that of departure, was staged as a game in itself and far more frequently than the episode in its entirety, with its pleasurable ending.

No certain decision can be reached from the analysis of a single case like this. On an unprejudiced view one gets an impression that the child turned his experience into a game from another motive. At the outset he was in a passive situation, he was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took on an active part. These efforts might be put down to an instinct for mastery that was acting independently of whether the memory was in itself pleasurable or not. But still another interpretation may be attempted. Throwing away the object so that it was 'gone' might satisfy an impulse of the child's, which was suppressed in his actual life, to revenge himself on his mother for going away from him. In that case it would have a defiant meaning: 'All right, then, go away! I don't need you. I'm sending you away myself.' A year later, the same boy whom I had observed at his first game used to take a toy, if he was angry with it, and throw it on the floor, exclaiming: 'Go to the fwont!' He had heard at that time that his absent father was 'at the front', and was far from regretting his absence; on the contrary he made it quite clear that he had no desire to be disturbed in his sole possession of his mother. We know of other children who liked to express similar hostile impulses by throwing away objects instead of persons. We are therefore left in doubt as to whether the impulse to work over in the mind some overpowering experience so as to make oneself master of it can find expression as a primary event, and independently of the pleasure principle. For, in the case we have been discussing, the child may, after all, only have been able to repeat his unpleasant experience in play because the repetition carried along with it a yield of pleasure of another sort but none the less a direct one.

Nor shall we be helped in our hesitation between these two views by further considering children's play. It is clear that in their play children repeat everything that has made a great impression on them in real life, and that in doing so they abreact the strength of the impression and, as one might put it, make themselves master of the situation. But on the other hand it is obvious that all their play is influenced by a wish that dominates them the whole time, the wish to be grown-up and to be able to do what grown-up people do. It can also be observed that the unpleasurable nature of an experience does not always unsuit it for play. If the doctor looks down a child's throat or carries out some small operation on him, we may be quite sure that these frightening experiences will be the subject of the next game; but we must not in that connection overlook the fact that there is a yield of pleasure from another source. As the child passes over from the passivity of the experience to the activity of the game, he hands on the disagreeable experience to one of his playmates and in this way revenges himself on a substitute.

Nevertheless, it emerges from this discussion that there is no need to assume the existence of a special imitative instinct in order to provide a motive for play. Finally, a reminder may be added that the artistic play and artistic imitation carried out by adults, which, unlike children's, are aimed at an audience, do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy) the most painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable. This is convincing proof that, even under the dominance of the pleasure principle, there are ways and means enough of making what is in itself unpleasurable into a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind. The consideration of these cases and situations, which have a yield of pleasure as their final outcome, should be undertaken by some system of aesthetics with an economic approach to its subject-matter. They are of no use for our purposes, since they presuppose the existence and dominance of the pleasure principle; they give no evidence of the operation of tendencies beyond the pleasure principle, that is, of tendencies more primitive than it and independent of it.

(1) A further observation subsequently confirmed this interpretation fully. One day the child's mother had been away for several hours and on her return was met with the words 'Baby o-o~o!' which was at first incomprehensible. It soon turned out, however, that during this long period of solitude the child had found a method of making himself disappear. He had discovered his reflection in a full-length mirror which did not quite reach to the ground, so that by crouching down he could make his mirror-image 'gone'."

(Sigmund Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," The Freud Reader, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1989, pages 599-601)

Thanatos: Beyond the Pleasure Principle

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud modified his earlier model of psychic economy in which “the pleasure principle” (and its repression/sublimation) is the central force propelling human action, behavior and development. In this essay Freud sketches out a new theory of drives by adding “the death drive” (called “Thanatos,” in complement to “Eros” by Freud’s students). Beyond the Pleasure Principle produces a striking portrait of the human psyche as struggling between two opposing forces: Eros, the progressive drive toward sexual and pan-sexual pleasure, creativity and harmony; Thanatos, the regressive pull of repetition, compulsion, aggression and self-destruction.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle was born out of Freud’s work with victims of trauma--specifically the traumatized soldiers returning from World War I. In fact, one of the cultural effects of the Great War was a growing popular recognition of the existence of psychological damage itself: that one could be as debilitated by mental trauma as physical injury. Freud observed that his patients often tended to repeat or re-enact these traumatic experiences, in symbolic or displaced forms, a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon that he termed repetition compulsion. Such compulsive repetition of the unpleasurable appeared to contradict the pleasure principle. In his further reflection on the phenomena, Freud noticed this repetition of unpleasant events could be found even in other circumstances like the play of children, as elaborated in his famous description of the fort / da game of his grandson. It is clear from this example that, at least on one level, such repetition compulsion is born from and can produce a positive and healthy attempt to deal with trauma by regaining control over a situation where previously one had none.

While Freud believed that in many cases we repeat traumatic events in order to master them after the fact, this is not the only motive or result of a drive away from pleasure. Freud began to distinguish a deeper masochism, a process that involves the drives turning against the self. Freud postulated the existence of a fundamental death drive that would counterbalance the tendency of beings to do only what they find pleasurable. According to this idea, organisms are driven to return to a pre-organic, inanimate state: to seek to withdraw from the anxiety of life (movement) in stillness and death.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Works cited

Here is the protocol to follow with papers for this class. A good practice is to always ask the professor to provide an example of how they would like citations referenced---although citing practices are becoming more streamlined and more consistent across the disciplines, there are still some differences in style guides and citation procedures (if you are publishing an article, the journal or editor will always provide you with a style sheet to follow).

Embedded citations (used in MLA style) are nice and simple. For an embedded citation, you simply put a parenthetical reference to the work from where you got your information. This information may have been paraphrased or directly quoted; either way, the information is not your original work and must be attributed to its author.

The idea of parenthetical references is to keep the flow of the paper as smooth as possible and make it easy for the reader to find the reference in your Works Cited page at the end of your essay. Your Works Cited page will list all your references in alphabetical order by author's last name (or title in the case of work with no author given).

Thus, if you have mentioned the author in your writing, you simply cite the page number, if you have not, then you cite both author's last name and page number. For example:

In the opening of The Turn of the Screw, Douglas remarks, "The story won't tell...not in any literal or vulgar way." (James, 5)

At the beginning of James's novel, Douglas remarks, "The story won't tell...not in any literal or vulgar way." (5)

If you don't have an author to cite, use a shortened form of the work's title.

In organizing your Works Cited page, follow these examples (MLA style):


Lastname, Firstname. Title. City: Publisher, Date.

Essay in a Book of Essays:

Lastname, Firstname. "Title of Essay." Title of Book. Editor's Firstname Lastname. City: Publisher, Date.


Lastname, Firstname. "Title." Periodical day month year.


Lastname, Firstname. "Title." Journal volume (year).

Web page (blogs and other online sources): Web page format and content vary widely. Use the following guidelines (blogger software will not allow me to type the term "URL" enclosed in <> marks. But that is the format you should follow):


Lastname, Firstname. "Article Title." Site Name. Organization name if pertinent. Article date. Date of access. End with URL enclosed in <> marks

With no author and no page date:

 "Article Title." Site Name. Organization name if pertinent. Date of access. End with URL enclosed in <> marks

Site with no site name:

Lastname, Firstname. "Article Title." Home Page. Article date. Date of Access. End with URL enclosed in <> marks 
Note: If there are no page numbers, as is usual with Web documents, do not make up one or use the number one (as in "Jones 1") to cover the whole document. Use a number only when there is a number.

Class materials with no publication information/page numbers/other data:

Craft a citation using the information you have; you will at least have author's name and the title of the story or essay.

I think this covers all the situations you will encounter in writing this paper.

For any other questions you may have, feel free to ask.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

First Essay: The Turn of the Screw and the Uncanny

In our last class, some students asked that I post the first essay assignment now, although we haven't yet begun to explore The Turn of the Screw to any great degree. I think that's a good idea, too, because we can use the questions posed in the assignment to guide our discussion in the coming weeks.

Discuss Henry James' novella, The Turn of the Screw as an instance of the Freudian Uncanny. Can you see similar or parallel elements in this narrative to those Freud finds in "The Sandman" and his further definitions of the category, "das Unheimlich," in his essay?

Think about how Freud investigates the Uncanny. He describes many features of this estranging effect; his discussion of the concept centers on examples of doubling, repetition, ambiguity, above all the unfamiliar face of the familiar. His first move in his essay is to demonstrate the unheimlich hidden in the heimlich: the uncanny in the "home-ly." In this way he connects the Uncanny with the return of the repressed:

"It may be that the Uncanny (the 'unhomely') is something familiar ('homely', 'homey') that has been repressed and then reappears, and that everything uncanny satisfies this condition...I believe that it...can be traced back every time to something that was once familar and then repressed..."

Freud also associates the Uncanny with Oedipal anxiety; he pays particular attention to "The Sandman" as a story about Fathers and Children.

What is the return of the familiar, the homely in The Turn of the Screw? The unfamiliar familiar? The hidden familiar? Family and familiar share the same root and indeed a family, a displaced and disrupted family is at the heart of The Turn of the Screw. We have two children and three sets of parents----the children's biological parents, the surrogate parental couple of Jessel and Quint, and the Master and the Governess. Four of the six are dead; of the two living, one has abdicated his (legal, biological) position entirely and given the other an absolute authority. The Governess is The Father in this case.

Also consider the way this "coupling" of characters sets up patterns of repetition and doubling: Quint/the Master, Jessel/the Governess, the Governess/Quint. Although the Governess's story is premised on a clear distinction between Good and Evil, the various similarities in situation and activity between the Governess and the Ghosts blur those lines and render motive and meaning ambiguous.

Finally, this is a story established at the beginning as one which "won't tell, not in any literal or vulgar way." In other words, this is a story of suggestion rather than revelation, of "evidence" that can be construed in multiple directions, of questions that can be entertained but never assigned a final answer. Literary critic J. Hillis Miller commented on The Turn of the Screw, "The words on the page work infallibly as speech acts forcing the reader...against his or her will, to "read into" the words meanings that are not there. The reader will fill the blanks out of his or her imagination and so be responsible for whatever evil thoughts he or she may have."

This assignment should be very simple on one level and very challenging on another. Think of this first paper as a trial run: a place to “try out” some of the ideas we’ve been talking about in class, a place to try out new ideas and observational skills. Think about how Freud's essay illuminates James's novella. Do not perform a literal and vulgar "Freudian" reading: i.e., do not attempt to "psychoanalyze" the Governess and "solve" her "case."

And don’t forget to title your essay. A title is one of the elements which distinguishes a piece of formal writing from an informal series of notes. Your title should reflect something pertinent to your discussion. "Paper One," "Essay," "Freud Paper," and the like are not adequate essay titles. Neither is the title of the novel you are writing about.

Length: 4 1/2 to 5 typewritten double-spaced pages.
All papers must be stapled or they will not be accepted.
Due: Monday, November 2

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Victorian Cult of the Child: Innocence and Experience, Ignorance and Knowledge

Above are two images that illustrate aspects of Victorian beliefs about children and childhood. The first, "The Child Enthroned," pretty much says it all in its title. This 1894 painting by Thomas Cooper Gotch was wildly popular as an expression of "the child" as a quasi-divine icon. The second is a photograph of Alice Liddell by the Rev. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. To our modern eyes, this image looks seductive and likely a bit sexualized. Yet both are rather mainstream images which would have been read as exemplars of childhood innocence by Victorian eyes.

According to the Victorian ideal, the child was viewed not as a miniature adult, as children had been perceived in an earlier era, but as innocents who were to enjoy a life of carefree happiness until old enough to assume the responsibilities of (a gendered) adult life. But for Victorians, the moral category of "innocence" was defined by ignorance. Well-bred young ladies and adult women were also expected to be "innocent" and childlike (in fact, both women and children occupied the same legal status in Victorian England as non-competent dependents) and this meant being in large part ignorant of the "brutal" sphere of public life (work, commerce, people from outside one's own genteel class). For children, innocence and moral purity was defined by their ignorance of adult life and adult knowledge. Above all childhood innocence was premised on a lack of sexuality: the child was seen not so much as a pre-sexual creature, but by definition, an asexual one. This is why Lewis Carroll's child photography---including nude studies that seem "obviously pedophiliac" to contemporary eyes---did not ring any alarm bells among Victorian parents who not only permitted, but were often present, during sittings.

Of course it goes without saying that all this angelic innocence and purity applies only to well-bred children, the offspring of ladies and gentleman. The spawn of the working classes were quite another thing indeed. (Here you can read about their pre-child-labor law innocence--don't miss the affidavits from child miners who started working at around age five). These images

contrast sharply with these

this portrait

with this one

Looking at Miles and Flora again, then, may reveal why they would be such disconcerting figures to their original audience: while they are no more intelligent than the average children of their class, they are knowing. Tainted by access to (adult) knowledge, they are no longer ignorant and therefore no longer innocent.

Here is a review from The American Monthly Review of Reviews, December 1898, which expresses unease with having children as fictive figures of "evil:"

"The malignant spirit is worsted, but the price of victory is death. There is something really great in the story and assuredly the skill is superb. But surely we are not merely sentimentalists in our protest again children being made pawns in this horrible contest."

The Outlook (October 29, 1898) finds: "The story itself is distinctly repulsive."

And a reviewer in the New York weekly, The Independent, January 5, 1899, is more adamant in his disgust:

"The Turn of the Screw is the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern. How Mr. James could, or how any man or woman could, choose to make such a study of infernal human debauchery, for it is nothing else, is unaccountable...The study, while it exhibits Mr. James's genius in a powerful light, affects the reader with a disgust that is not to be expressed. The feeling after perusal of this horrible story is that one has been assisting in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence, and helping to debauch---at least by helplessly standing by---the pure and trusting nature of children. Human imagination can go no further into infamy, literary art could not be used with more refined subtlety of spiritual defilement."

While this probably reads to us as a distinctly over-the-top reaction to The Turn of the Screw, we should also remember that a similarly scandalized reaction first greeted Freud's initial theories of children's development because they were premised on both the existence of childhood desire and sexuality and its naturalness.

The Victorian Governess

The heart of The Turn of the Screw is a manuscript written by a governess about a singular experience in her employment. In order to appreciate the position from which she is writing, indeed, the position from which she is making sense of the experiences themselves, a quick look at the historical position of the Victorian governess is absolutely essential.

Because she was neither family member nor working class servant, the governess held a peculiar and ill-defined role in Victorian society, a society which found middle-class female employment problematic. The only time a woman of genteel birth was justified in seeking employment was if she found herself in financial distress and had no male relatives to give her support. The governess was usually a lady forced to support herself because of her father’s death or financial ruin. While it was paid work, it was “respectable” labour. In the gender-appropriate domestic sphere and among the respectable classes, she was kept from contact with the vulgar and “common” world of working class employment. But because she was nevertheless employed, her social status was lessened. Definitely not a servant nor a menial, she was nevertheless not quite a class equal of her employers. In fact, aristocratic and middle-class Victorians were often not sure how to treat the governess: while she was roughly from the same social class, her lack of financial stability made her their obvious inferior.

The governess occupied a grey area in the class hierarchy of the Victorian household: she was “above” the servants, but “below” the family. And in no area was her class dilemma more clear than in the attenuated marriage prospects of the governess. She would likely remain a spinster since she must not consort with men from inferior or superior classes.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The story won't tell: beginning "The Turn of the Screw"

In the framing prologue there are several statements which seem to prefigure what kind of story we will read. The tale is categorized as a "ghost story," and yet distanced from that facile label: "It's beyond everything." In describing the governess's feelings for her employer, Douglas remarks that, "I saw it, and she saw I saw it; but neither of us spoke of it." This statement could sum up a great deal of the "action" of the story: a series of "knowing" looks where everything is, and isn't, said. The narrator suggests that any mystery will be cleared up once Douglas reads the manuscript aloud and that "The story will tell." But Douglas is quick to reply, "The story won't tell...not in any literal vulgar way.

We begin, then, with a story which "won't tell," won't reveal. A story about a young woman hired under condition that she "but never, never...appeal or complain, nor write about anything."

This is a narrative of gaps and silences. Of letters whose contents are momentous, but of which we never exactly learn. A story of monstrous, shameful actions which are constantly hinted at, but never revealed.

It is also a story about a story---the prologue establishes that we are "hearing" a story through three sets of narrators: the governess (who has written her story down), Douglas (who reads the governess's manuscript aloud to the house guests) and the narrator who is transmitting to us "an exact transcript of my own made later." And this haunting story about the dead is "haunted" by death before it's even begun---not only has the governess died years before Douglas tells her story, but Douglas himself has died prior to the narrator's re-telling of the story read out to the "hushed little circle" of expectant listeners.

It is a story of returning presences--ghosts--and characters who replace/displace each other. The governess is initially hired as replacement, as a kind of double replacement for both the governess and the absent Master. Moreover, she is constantly stepping into the position of---replacing---both Miss Jessel and Quint (at the window, at her desk, sitting at the bottom of the stairs, standing on the shore of the pond, etc.)

It is also a story of people slipping out of their "proper places." Part of Quint's "evil" is that he overstepped or didn't know his place (he wore his master's clothes, he presumed relations with his betters). And part of Miss Jessel's "evil" is that she, too, "fell" from of her place through her alliance with a social inferior. And yet the governess, clearly marked as "not evil" in the (her) story, is also out of place, invested by the Master with a proxy authority well beyond a governess's traditional duties.

And finally, it is a story about...well, what is it a story about?

Turns of the screw...

As I spoke about in class, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, one of the most famous ghost stories is also a very ambiguous ghost story.  And his novella is premised on many kinds of ambiguity: not only on the level of  content (are the ghosts "really" there? what exactly is so terrifying about them?) but also form. James' story is presented as a manuscript written by a woman long dead, read years later. James' use of this narrative frame creates a distance between the events and our understanding of them. It’s so ambiguous that there are questions about the questions.

As you might expect it has become a very popular text for literary scholars and critics to analyze. It's also been a very popular inspiration for other artists: there are countless film and theater treatments of the story.

After we discuss The Turn of the Screw, we'll be reading one of the more ambitious and fascinating responses to it, Joyce Carol Oates's short story, "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly," a work which attempts to turn TOTS on its head, so to speak.

But the work has inspired many treatments, versions and responses. Here's a far from complete list of other works which derive from The Turn on the Screw, many of which are more or less "faithful" adaptations for stage or sceen:

Benjamin Britten wrote an opera based on "The Turn of the Screw" in 1954.

A 1959 live television version starring Ingrid Bergman.

The Innocents (1961) with Deborah Kerr as the Governess and Michael Redgrave as The Uncle. Truman Capote worked on the script.

There's a television version with Lynn Redgrave as the Governess in 1974.

Shelley Duvall directed a version in 1989 for her television series, "Nightmare Classics" with Amy Irving as the Governess and Balthazar Getty as Miles.

A 1994 British version with Patsy Kensit and Julian Sands updates the story to the 1960s.

A 1995 television version called The Haunting of Helen Walker casts Valerie Bertinelli as the Governess.

Another television adaptation, in 1999, with Colin Firth as The Master.

A 1999 film adaptation Presence of Mind with Sadie Frost as the Governess, Harvey Keitel as the Master (!), Jude Law as The Secretary (!!?) and Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Grose (!!!!!!!)

The 2006 horror/thriller In a Dark Place is another TOTS adaptation, giving the story a contemporary setting.

Allegedly, the 2001 Nicole Kidman film, The Others is a TOTS version...but not very TOTS-y.

And probably the strangest film treatment I've come across is a 1971 prequel (!) to TOTS, The Nightcomers with Marlon Brando as a small-animal-torturing, BDSM Peter Quint. I'll have to try to track this one down soon.