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A first turn of the screw, pt. II: retelling as reliving

The time has come to fulfill yesterday’s promise of an exploration of the manner in which retelling is a form of reliving in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I have already explored this idea in the case of Beckett (links in yesterday’s post), and perhaps one day I will be able to synthesize Beckett and James, but today I hardly remember my thoughts on Beckett, and so will stick to James.

My first realization that the second narrator, in retelling her story, is reliving it came when she wrote, “I find that I really hang back; but I must take my horrid plunge. In going on the record of what was hideous at Bly I not only challenge the most liberal faith—for which I little care; but (and this is another matter) I renew what I myself suffered, I again push my dreadful way through it to the end.” (60, this volume) My realization was no great leap: she is quite explicit what is occurring. Moreover, not only does she state this idea, but she exemplifies it. The first words of her section of the story—“I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops” (11)—are echoed here in her speaking of her writing as taking a “plunge”.

There is also a disparity between these two quotes. The second speaks of memory, of remembering, not of reliving. At the outset of her tale, there is more of a distance between her and her writing. It is only gradually that her writing, as it were, takes on a life of its own. I think we see this best in the steady increase in prominence of the language of submission and mastery, of the narrator’s increasing tendency to insist upon being in the dominant position. (Tracking this increase helps me, at least, to understand why the story ends as it does.) This language conflicts with that of virtue: her self-presentation, from the start, is of herself as a virtuous person. She is desperate to be seen, publicly, in her virtue. Insofar as her writing is a form of remembering, this need dominates it: she remembers her own virtue so that others might remember it after her—writing gains her virtue an audience. But as the story goes on, we start to suspect that, however much she tells herself she is motivated by her (mostly self-imposed) duty to the children, her real motive lies in the need for domination. It is no accident that she refers to an instance in which Mrs. Grose provides her with information that “justifies” her as a “submission of memory” (74-5, my emphasis). The less her story becomes self-presentation, and the more it becomes reliving, the more her true motive shines through.

Considering this theme, of retelling as reliving, forces me to return to my thoughts of last night. There, in reflecting on the publicity of writing, and especially of its self-insufficient virtues, I worried a great deal about how I, as a reader, do not “believe” the governess, desperate as she is to be believed. Yet, insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, this problem vanishes, or at least splits. Now there are two stories to consider. One is the tale of the governess at Bly, struggling with apparitions of evil for the soul of a young boy and girl. The other is the story of the governess writing, a story that I do not receive secondhand, but watch unfold for myself. For the second story, there is no question of believing or not believing—do I not see it directly? And insofar as I am concerned with this story, the question of whether I may believe the first becomes subsidiary. Perhaps that story involves the “submission of memory” to the vicissitudes of the governess’ psychology—but these submissions bring me no sense of having been lied to. Rather, they are honestly presented phenomena, events in the second story I watch unfold.

Insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, it may be self-sufficient—that is, it may require no audience for its completion. Once the governess has written her story, her act is done, and she may die. There is nothing that requires a reader, an audience. In yesterday’s post, the reader was required because the virtues of writing were not self-sufficient. Today they are. But what, then, of the reader? What am I?

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A first turn of the screw, pt. I: writing and publicity

2014/03/13 1 comment

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.

On the nothing new, having no alternative, the sun shone

2013/12/18 2 comments

I have not read Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, but I shall not let this self-consciousness quell the rising tide of injustice within me.

On the nothing new,

Whitman enjoys giving lists. There is good reason for this: lists do not require any imposition of form, beyond the minimum of sequence. Then, if “the press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections,” and if “they scorn the best I can do to relate them,” there is a solution: list them. It is a misfortune of human cognition, no more, that we must experience the list sequentially. Perhaps it is impossible to experience Whitman as he ought be experienced: all at once, in a single gulp. Only this is no accident; the poetry is a resting place for the wayfarer, and the moment she leaves Whitman’s side the hundred affections crowd around her.

What Whitman lists, is nothing new. They are the old things. What Whitman comments of them, is nothing new. Hundreds of thousands of years and billions of individuals—do you believe there are any recesses of human experience yet to be explored? Humanity and human possibility is an old thing. There are no new ways of being human, no new ways of seeing. There is nothing new under the sun, as they say. You believe in new things? “You foolish child!”

having no alternative,

The concept of inevitability gives philosophers fits, yet not because it is elusive, rather, familiar. Stepping out of our closet, the problem is easily inhumed, with a simple look at the sun. The sun is not virtuous, has no free will, yet it shines, having no alternative, none the less for it. Choice is the precondition for virtue, goodness: one is not morally commendable for what one had no choice but to do. It is a fool’s errand to praise or thank the sun. No supplication will modify its shining.

Moral-commendability-enhancing actions are praiseworthy, if ungainly. There is a quieter beauty to be found in the self-contained animals. “Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth,” and in just this lack of virtue they command our admiration. Morality has a downside: it produces words, endless words, moaning words—I am a sinner, I am a wretch—encouraging words—do it, for it is your duty to God—praising words—you are a good person. Much better the quiet contentment of a furiously pounding April rain. Praise to the man or woman who has no more intricate purpose than does the April rain, no more private and parochial purpose than the mica on the side of a rock.

the sun shone.

Walt Whitman enjoys giving lists; he illuminates what is there. What is there? The old things are there, “the old forever new things.” What illuminates them? The soul. The soul is no intentional agent, no purveyor of purpose; “Not you will yield forth the dawn again more surely than you will yield forth me again.” There is an ontological assumption here. Let us not say—here is the sun, here are the things, now let us relate them by shining—that will not do. Let us instead say that each comes into existence with the other. “All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it.” Architecture does not lie in the stones. The things do not lie in themselves, without the sun.

The soul is my most intimate companion, but it stands beside and not within me. It remains to be realized. Not just soul is realized; “animals and vegetables,” “laws of the earth and air” equally must be realized. None are given. The nothing new remains untried. Only when the soul illuminates the animals, are they both. Things are the biography of the soul, contain its themes.

Nothing is new, but all is unknown. What confidence is possible, then? “But I know it is sure and alive, and sufficient.” Beckett’s sun is an experimenter.

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[All quotations are from the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s leaves of grass, as published by the Library of America.]

Death within Life: Beckett and Montaigne

2013/09/29 1 comment

Samuel Beckett once wrote, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” (Murphy). The nothing new glistening in the sunlight includes, of course, Samuel Beckett’s own oeuvre, which is no more novel than anything else, despite including several. I want here to suggest a few parallels between Beckett’s Three Novels, which I discussed extensively in an earlier series of posts, and Montaigne’s essay on philosophizing as learning to die. The upshot is that we may understand Samuel Beckett’s work as pure philosophy by this criterion.

Naturally, there being nothing new under the sun, the ideas that I am attributing to Montaigne need not have originated there. The essay, number 20 in book I of his Essays, contains a long section in which Montaigne imagines personified Nature chastising her human inhabitants for their fear of death. My copy of the work (in the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s Complete Works, pp. 67-82) suggests this speech is largely a paraphrase of Seneca and Lucretius (fn5, p. 77). And certainly the notion of philosophy as preparation for death can be traced back to that venerable lineage.

A few intriguing themes arise in Montaigne’s essay. One is the impossibility of newness that we have already seen in Beckett. “And if you have lived a day, you have seen everything. One day is equal to all days.” (78) What good is it to fear death, if remaining alive will bring you only more of the same? Indeed, the tedium might even make one desire death—which occurs in Beckett’s novels.

Even more interesting than this, however, are Montaigne’s reflections on the relationship of death to life. Montaigne brings up the classic theme that death is not a harm, since after your death there is no one left to be harmed by it, and while you are alive you are not yet dead and so not harmed by death—except insofar as you fear it. “It [death] does not concern you dead or alive: alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more.” (80) And related to this is the correct remark that death cannot be experienced, for you must be alive to have experiences; death ends all experiences and so stands as the unexperienceable limit of experience. This is grounds for condemning those who condemn death: “How simple-minded it is to condemn a thing that you have not experienced yourself or through anyone else.” (80)

This impossibility of experiencing death is hugely important in Beckett’s work. In my earlier posts I discussed at great length the ways in which Beckett word and object are mixed up in his work. Retelling is reliving, so what is said to occur and what actually occur come to exist in a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase) in which it is inherently impossible to tell one from the other. And what this means is that death never actually enters into Beckett’s work. It always exists at the limit, outside of it. For if retelling is reliving, then death is the end of retelling. But the retelling itself cannot contain its own end; the end is its limit. Thus Molloy, Malone, and the unnamable narrator of The Unnamable all approach infinitesimally close to death, but their deaths never enter the text. The inexperienceability of death is thus an essential portion of the structure of Beckett’s work.

Montaigne, earlier in his reflections, bluntly states, “The goal of our career is death” (69). Life itself is no more than a long march toward death. Every step forward (in time or space) is a step forward to death. In Nature’s speech, this becomes, “The constant work of your life is to build death. You are in death while you are in life; for you are after death when you are no longer in life. Or, if you prefer it this way, you are dead after life; but during life you are dying; and death affects the dying much more roughly than the dead, and more keenly and essentially.” (78)

What I take Montaigne to suggest here is that life, at least human life, since humans are conscious of their ineluctable end, is inevitably structured by its end, death. Life is best conceived as the process of dying. And this more than anything else I have mentioned is crucial to Beckett’s Three Novels. That dying is a process is established on the first page of Molloy: “For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury.” (4) Dying here is an extended process: one may die more or less (and as the rest of the novel makes clear, Molloy is progressively dying more and more). Eventually one reaches a threshold past which one is dead “enough to bury.” Beckett’s novels are about the process of dying, as it is structured by death, which exists at their limit but is not contained within them. In short, Beckett’s novels are about life itself, in its essence.

Montaigne’s Essays are the record of a man rigorously at work on himself, diagnosing himself that he might cure himself. In so doing he prepares himself for death—that is to say, he philosophizes. On this mountainous model, such work is precisely the work of philosophy. What I hope I have compellingly defended here is that Beckett’s Three Novels constitute just this same sort of work, and that we should not let a superficial difference of genre obscure the fact that the Three Novels are, fundamentally, philosophy.

The Skeptic Within the Closet: Beckett’s The Unnamable

2013/05/13 7 comments

There is a famous quote by David Hume, for which my life provides experimental confirma­tion a thousand times over, in which he highlights the difficulty of bringing the re­sults of philosophy into the real world. He wrote (I am stealing this from his wikiquotes page):

There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning. that it may silence, without convincing an antagonist, and requires the same in­tense study to make us sensible of its force, that was at first requisite for its invention. When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and ’tis difficult for us to retain even that con­viction, which we had attain’d with difficulty.

This is especially pertinent to Hume, who was, of course a skeptic of the empiricist variety. Epistemological humility, as demanded by the abstruse reasoning taking place in his closet, would require withholding judgment about even the reality of external objects (e.g. his closet). But life does not leave much room for withholding judgment rigorously, because one must act. The skeptic, when he steps outside his closet, must be unfaithful to his skepticism.

My goal in this post is an attempt to explore how a similar thought poses a problem for the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. Before I begin, a few words about style are pertinent. In my previous post about the novel, I noted that, in order to do justice to the novel, one really ought to write about it solely in the first person, in order to avoid naming the narrator (which, in using the term ‘narrator’, I have already done). In this post I will not obey my own stricture, since it would make the post much more difficult to understand. In my defense, Beckett, in titling the novel The Unnamable, violates this edict, too, and in a way that illustrates the theme of the book that all language is a sort of violence against what is just and true, that all language falsifies reality.

Beckett’s novel is the third in a series, and taken together they constitute as thorough an excavation of the soul as any in literature. Hume famously introspected on his experiences and could find no experience of a uniting self, and used this as the basis for his skepticism about even what Descartes thought could not be doubted: that I am. Over the course of the novels, Beckett seems to ratify Hume’s conclusion: there is no stable, unified self. Instead, selves are fluid; identities shift and merge, multiply and coalesce, and even when we see to have bored down to the very center, to the ‘I’ of The Unnamable, we still find this lack of unity. (Charlotte Renner’s essay “The Self-Multiplying Narrators of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable” provides very useful discussion of this point, and is generally an excellent piece.)

This fluidity poses problems for the ‘I’ of The Unnamable, who strives throughout the novel to say the words that will allow him to go silent. In order to be able to go silent, truly silent (for the book is full of imperceptible silences that are not true silence), the ‘I’ must say something true to himself. This leads him into a dilemma. The dilemma is set out on the very first page of the novel, when he asks himself how he is to proceed:

What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, sooner or later? (285)

The ‘I’ has two options: aporia or falsehood. ‘Aporia’ is an interesting term—it is frequently used to describe Plato’s early dialogues. Aporia represents a state of seemingly insoluble puzzlement. Plato’s early dialogues work by taking some position held to be certain or obvious and having Socrates reduce the holder of that position to a state of aporia. To proceed “by aporia pure and simple,” then, is to proceed by, in effect, withholding judgment, by being puzzled. The other alternative is not to reserve judgment, but to go ahead and make claims, claims which must turn out false in the end. Because identities are fluid, there is no stable resting point about which something true may be said. Even if it is true momentarily, whatever the ‘I’ says about himself will be invalidated as soon as he goes through one of his innumerable shifts.

The abstruse reasoning, then, surely would favor aporia. And indeed aporia here would be a sort of silence, and if he could reach the ultimate Socratic aporetic state, that of knowing only that he knows nothing, perhaps he could achieve true silence. But there is a paradox of that state: if you say that you only know that you know nothing, then you are stating a bit of knowledge you possess, and so are denying your claim to know nothing. To really know nothing, you cannot even so much as say so without losing it. Indeed, aporia is not a real option for Beckett’s ‘I’, and for very much this reason. For, as the ‘I’ says, “I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares?” (285) The very problem is that one cannot be ephectic (given to suspense of judgment) otherwise than unawares. Awareness itself creates judgment. Since the ‘I’ is nothing if not aware, compulsively, pathologically aware, it is cut off from ephecticism, from aporia. It must speak, must utter judgments that will be invalidated “sooner or later.”

Thus we can see in Beckett a skepticism even more thorough and extreme than Hume’s. Hume thought that the skeptic’s conclusions must be abandoned and lost when leaving one’s closet to engage in the affairs of daily life, for the affairs of daily life certainly require judgment, as action presupposes judgment. Inside the closet, however, skepticism could be maintained. Introspection, at least, could provide the grounds for some certain judgments, augmented by logic. But in Beckett’s world, even reason and logic and introspection as suspect. The ‘I’ muses time and again about how some unknown “they” taught him reason, and about the fat lot of good it did him. And likewise for introspection: even the introspective “truths” of the ‘I’ seem to be invented by the ‘I’’s speaking, and “truth” that is created by fiat is no real truth at all (and, as we have seen, ceases to be “true” quickly, in any case).

It is interesting in this respect that the narrators of the three novels are all confined to narrow regions. Though Molloy and Moran (of Molloy) do wander, Molloy wanders in a narrow region, and both are, by the end of their respective sections, confined to a single room, where they write their “reports”. In Malone Dies, Malone is cooped up in the room for the entirety, and the only wandering that happens is that of the characters Sapo and Macmann, characters explicitly invented by Malone as part of his “playful” telling of stories. By The Unnamable, this confinement is even more extreme, as the ‘I’ is spatially confined to ‘here’—and ‘here’ is always the same, always unchanging. (My previous post, linked above, explores this further.) Molloy, Moran, Malone, the ‘I’—all are cooped up in regions as confining and impractical as Hume’s closet. They are cut of from the necessities of life that require judgment and forced Hume to (in action) abandon his skepticism. In effect, then, they are in the closet, in the one place where Hume could achieve some certainty, however meager.

And even here, even in this narrow region where there is only writing and speaking, skepticism is what abstruse reasoning dictates. But that is not right, it is not dictated by reason at all. Rather, there is a felt sense, made explicit by the ‘I’, that aporia might be the way to proceed, that any judgment made is sure to be invalidated. Only the very concept of aporia is inaccessible, because ephecticism is available only to the unawares, in much the same way that one who truly knows nothing cannot know that and cannot say it. Since the narrators of the novel are compulsively aware, they cannot ever manage aporia. Even in the narrow regions of the head, judgment is inescapable. Once you begin speaking, you cannot stop, “you must go on.”