A first turn of the screw, pt. I: writing and publicity
These thoughts will inevitably be partial, as I have read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but once, and have hardly digested the closing pages, but I venture them nonetheless. For I do not pretend that a second reading will leave me with thoughts any less partial, only I know it will drive these thoughts I have now from my view. Better, then, to put them forth, that they might one day converse with my future.
I have been teaching, this semester, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius shares with the Stoics, with whom he might justifiably be lumped, the commitment to valuing only what is within one’s own control. Only one’s own virtue meets this strict criterion; hence, only one’s own virtue is an appropriate object of concern. Toward external events, indifference—and indifference especially toward reputation. Virtue is self-sufficient. It requires no audience. In this vein I recall also, from my Jewish upbringing, Maimonides’ teaching on charity: that the greatest gift is the one given by one who does not know the recipient, and received by one who does not know the giver. To publicize virtue spells trouble: it lets society in, with its petty demands for repayment, with its imposition of the sense of being in debt.
I find much admirable in this view, as I suspect anyone must, and much right in it, but as I read The Turn of the Screw I could not help but question it. The story is told in two parts, an introductory chapter by a first unnamed narrator, and the remainder of the novella by a governess at Bly, a haunted estate. The second narrator reveals throughout her need for an audience. She has a conception of herself as heroic, as struggling to save a human soul, as fortified in the face of danger, and she needs an audience for it. Within the text, she needs the belief of Mrs. Grose—the emotional nadir of the tale comes when she fears she has lost this belief, when Mrs. Grose does not see the apparition she sees.
But more than that, it comes out in the fact that she is writing. Sometime after the fact, she puts her story to paper. Part of this speaks to her need to be believed, her need to publicize her self-attributed virtue. That is what gets her over the activation barrier to start—and to continue—writing. (She makes it clear that her retelling of the story is a form of reliving it in all its dread, an idea that I have already explored in the case of Beckett’s trilogy. I have given this post the hopeful appellation “pt. I” in anticipation of exploring this further.) She writes this story in order to be read, in order for others to see what she has done. Her need for validation permeates the language throughout: how often she brings in the language of science—justification, confirmation, proof, falsification—and the language of the courtroom—judge, witness, trial, arraign! She needs objective support (science); she needs the vindication of a jury of her peers (court).
With this thought, we may compare her intensely serious self-presentation with the presentation, in the introduction, of her story as a bit of entertainment, to be judged by its gruesomeness and its dreadfulness, not its truth. It is received, not as something to be believed, but as something to be enjoyed. This reveals, almost comically, the extent to which she failed, but at the same time throws her intent in writing into sharper relief. (I will return to this disparity.)
But perhaps a greater part of it speaks to the very act of writing, which presupposes an audience, or at least the hope of one. The virtues of the writer cannot be private virtues, at least not without sacrificing the inherently public function of writing. Even in private writing such as journaling, one’s future self is an audience. Thoughts are not recorded to no end. One person writes, and another reads. Another way to put this is that the virtues of the writer are not self-sufficient in the way the Stoics conceived virtue. Even when they have been manifested in the writing of a text, they remain uncompleted. The act of reading, with its virtues, is yet to be done.
Moreover, this brings with it an element of instability, of risk. The most apt self-reflection in the novella comes after little Miles has been “bad”, and the governess finds that this equally puts her in a predicament. “I was confronted at last, as never yet, with all the risk attached even now to sounding my own horrid note.” (p. 71, this volume) She is not here speaking of writing, but she may as well be, for in writing down her story, in sounding her “horrid note”, she takes on a great risk: she cannot control how she is read. We already encountered this in the painful disparity between the way she so dearly wishes to be read and the way her story is presented in the introduction. But it comes out also, perhaps even more so, in how I read her. I do not take the story quite so crassly as the first narrator, yet neither do I take it in any way like that which the governess desires. (These very reflections are, I hope, ample proof of that.)
The Stoics were prudent in taking virtue to lie entirely within an individual’s control, in excluding from the domain of virtue anything that depended on others—for they aimed at tranquility of mind, a tranquility so perfect it could not be disturbed by any external event, so long as one maintained perfect virtue. If they were right to do this, and insofar as one aims for tranquility I believe they were, we must conclude that writing cannot aim at tranquility. One gets the sense, in reading Aurelius’ Meditations, that Aurelius perceived a vast gulf between individuals. Virtue, though it aims at the good of the whole, of which each individual is a part, is nonetheless a purely individual affair. Not so with writing, whose virtues submit themselves to the mercy of their readers. Writing takes a risk: it trusts its completion to people it has no basis for trusting. The virtue of our governess is out of her hands.