Should it surprise the reader that a conclusion is immediately forthcoming in this essay which has made so little attempt at coherency or cohesiveness, it would do him well to remember James’ own words that this story was the “sort least apt to be baited by serious criticism”.17 So, serious criticism of the story, as such, has not been deemed necessary. However, the consciousness problem of the book has been seen to be at least worth semi-serious consideration. And if we are ever to crack this little nut, it will be now, in our modern world, which so closely resembles in reality the chaotic, nonsensical confusion that James so brilliantly and artistically created in this tale which was so far ahead of its time.
Just exactly what do we have here? Well, we have an “action if nothing else”18 in which certain characters move about in a certain setting and interact with one another in certain ways that bring about certain consequences. However, as we try to evaluate motives and intentions, and place cause with effect among these interactions, we run into a bit of trouble. We can’t quite figure out the governess. She seems to be telling the truth and lying at the same time. She describes her ghosts with crystal clarity at one moment and acknowledges her delusion the next. She convicts the children with her intuition and exonerates them with her observations about which she is so honest that we are strongly urged to believe her intuitions. She intelligently narrates her story with such blatant, once we have seen them, contradictions that we are at a complete loss for what to think of her.
We want to believe the children are innocent, but we can’t help seeing that even though we view them entirely through the eyes of the governess, the eyes of the governess are clear enough at times that the children maintain a suspectability of their own outside of her perceptions. And yet this suspectability is entirely dependent on the ghosts whose real existence is not only highly suspect within the story, but in our minds, in reality, as well.
Each question we ask of this story seems to depend on the answer to another, and this other seems to depend on the answer to the one we are asking. Questions seem to perpetuate questions and avenues of thought seem only to lead to complicated intersections where, if we are conscientious, we completely lose our sense of direction. When we try to go outside the governess’ story to the next link in the chain of authority we find Douglas who seems to urge us with his serious and trustworthy tone that everything is all quite proper and straightforward. But, when we consider who Douglass really is, we see that he is only a mental image (or creation) from the memory (or imagination) of a narrator who we haven’t the slightest concrete basis for trusting – or not trusting. However, this first person narrator is so near in essence the author of all we are reading, and whom we know to be a profound and serious man, that we don’t dare challenge some lofty purpose in all of this. But, at the same time, we are disconnected enough from the real man that we don’t dare believe a word we are reading. What can we think of all of this? Are we trapped beyond escape? Is there no way to turn? Is there nothing we can do?
This essay believes there is another turn to this screw; that there is something we can do to resolve this dilemma; that we can at last succeed in sharing this amusement as James hoped we might.
By way of example of this last, but only possible course we can take, consider if you will this tale about a soul on his way home after enduring the trials and tribulations of any particular day during any particular period in his life. On his path he comes to a pass in the geography through which he has traveled many times before with no problems whatsoever. Today, however, there has suddenly appeared a presence. It is all ominous and forbidding and appears very evil; it is breathing fire, if you like, roaring, pawing the ground, shaking its head and limbs, and just generally causing an awful commotion. It is, in fact, doing everything frightening and everything forbidding and it is right in the center of this narrow passage through which he must pass to get back home to a warm supper and a cozy fire. When he first comes upon this awesome thing he is very frightened indeed and he runs behind a tree hoping it will go away. As time passes though, and the thing is still there, showing no intentions of leaving, he finds the courage, because he is a little hungry and a little cold, to come out from behind the tree and shout a few names at it to try to “shoo” it away. Though he becomes bolder and bolder in the nature of what he shouts and louder and louder in the doing of it, he eventually sees that all efforts in this direction are useless. A good long time elapses and he is now getting very hungry, much colder, and he is missing his warm supper and cozy fire more than ever and he could certainly put a pinch of tobacco to good use in his pipe. With a state of mind induced by these discomforts, he gets very crafty and decides to change his tactics. After observing and studying the situation he attempts many tricks and effects many lures, but though he tries with all his wits for a very long time and is very inventive and clever, this method of attack also proves itself useless, for the terrible presence is still there.
He is very dejected now, for he has tried everything in his power to get past this thing that stands between everything he wants and needs, and he has failed. He is now almost starving, he is cold to the bone, very lonely, and quite desperate. Then, slowly, it comes to him that there is only one thing left to do. He can’t think about what he is doing, for even though it is the only thing left to do, it’s a very silly thing and almost certainly doomed to failure. Nevertheless, he gets up, grits his teeth, whoops a few war cries and starts running and kicking and swinging his arms and delivers himself right into the fiery breath, the sharp teeth and claws, and the impenetrable armor of the very terrible monster itself.
What’s this! Right at the point where he expects to engage in the most terrifying, and undoubtedly the last, battle of his life, there is only thin air. He is running so hard and so fast and expecting so certainly to strike against the monster, that he quite leaves his feet and in a spectacular tumble of limbs and accouterments he lands squarely at the feet of a very, very good friend of his. This friend is at the controls of a very complicated machine of his own invention which has many buttons, switches, levers and knobs, all of which he is cleverly manipulating in the projection of his incredible image. When the little man finally gets up and dusts himself off, the first thing that strikes him, though he couldn’t have put it into words, or even into an idea at this time, is the incredible difference with which his mind views this horrible monster as his eyes look back at it still being projected there. It still looks very real and very evil, but he knows for certain now that it isn’t. He looks back at his friend who he has always known to be very brilliant, though sometimes a bit eccentric, and he even remembers now that he had been warned of a little trick to be played on him. The grin on his friend’s face is so large that it never even occurs to him to put his boot to the back of his friend’s britches, for though his inconvenience has been great, his marvel at the trick is much greater. And, besides, in the end, it will only serve to make his supper tastier and his cozy fire more comfortable. He breaks into a broad grin himself, walks back up to the terrible thing, kicks and punches at it a few times, calls it a few nasty names, and then breaks into a laugh and politely invites it over for tea. The nasty thing, of course, is of a conceived nature, it isn’t really real, so it couldn’t come. Even if it was programmed for such nicities, it would have been a waste of good tea for it would fall right through its belly onto his nice clean floor. However, on a like invitation, his friend accepted most heartily and they went off to his home and not only had tea, but a very substantial supper of the very best things from the larder and afterwards sat around the fire, smoked their pipes, drank a bit much, and carried on as lively and merry a conversation as you can possibly imagine in a bond of friendship that was not likely ever to be broken.
The Turn of the Screw then, is just only, but at the same time, quite all of this. It is a sort of literary hologram. It is very cleverly depicted as all too real, but when we do finally challenge it and boldly pass our minds actively through it; when we finally rebel at this complete, though intentionally created, overload on our willingness to suspend disbelief, we find that it just as cleverly lacks a certain substance which we have heretofore only assumed it had and by which it was a threat to us. This substance that it lacks, if we are to try to name it, is the ephemeral substance “sense”. The story most clearly and intentionally lacks this; there is no gray area here. And, with the shift of consciousness that allows us to perceive this, we also feel an equivalent lack of the horror and evil that has so horribly plagued us. Because of the lack of this so important, even though ephemeral, substance, all of our questions about the governess, the ghosts, the children, etc., somehow become non-questions in this non-story, and it is with a sense of freedom that we now see and accept all the breaks in the thread of the story which we were before so futilely trying to connect. The dagger is rubber; the real looking pistol shoots not even water; and all of our previous discomfort has been caused by a few cents worth of pulp paper and an even lesser worth of printers ink. And though we, just as the little man in the story, have had to make a sort of leap, we find that this has even been made as easy as possible for us through the line of authority which leads us so near James himself. We too end up face to face, mind to mind, and grin to grin with a man who has so boldly and instructively, but givingly, put himself in doubt as our friend.
Meaning? Well, it is enough to say that there is perhaps as much as there appears not to be, but it’s a personal sort of thing, the extraction of which is rather an individual process. Also, there is as much excuse for reticence in expounding upon it in an essay as even James saw himself in the writing of the book. However, it can perhaps be said to come into play in this way, Just as the little man in the story has had to struggle with himself to take his leap at the imaginary demon, we have had to do the same with ourselves for the imaginary evil of the book. The more intensely and seriously we struggle, the more we are, not only, to the same degree set free, but the more we are able to see a parallel to this theme in life. As the trick is finally perceived, it seems to be a concurrent perception that it really isn’t one. As we accept the contrived paradoxical nature of the story, our relaxed vision breaks through the surface of it and up pops a 3 dimensional view of the unarguably necessary paradoxical nature of life itself. Very similarly to the way in which we finally see the 3 dimensional vision behind the surface of the relatively new computer aided drawings which seem so monotonous, chaotic, and meaningless on the surface, we finally perceive, and receive “…the lesson… the idea… that deeply lurks in any vision prompted by life”.19
This essay is an attempt to ensure that this “germ” that James has picked up and cultured into such a fine vaccine doesn’t fall back into the wayside dust of life whence it came. This would be wastefulness indeed. The scope of this work is rather greater than we have as yet been able to imagine, but it only takes a look from a different, intuitive, angle to slip what it has to offer into our consciousness. It is the mental process required for our ultimate understanding of this little tale that we may find to be of some value and Henry James has, by the creation of this little “amuzette”, made perhaps the most unique and individually bold attempt ever to force feed this mental process to us. We don’t like things we don’t understand. Our reason urges us to solve, conclude, label and categorize. Nevertheless, there is mystery in life, paradox, places that reason can’t go, and though it is with the greatest reluctance we abandon this overrated mechanism of survival, it is with the greatest delight that we finally do. And seconded only slightly to our sense of delight is our surprise that an opportunity to make this shift in consciousness has come through the strange little book (or rather lengthy Zen koan), The Turn of the Screw.