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Desire and Anomie in The Turn of the Screw

Andrew J. Scheiber
University of St. Thomas


Dr. Jean Itard's work with Victor, the "wild boy of Aveyron," constitutes one of the axiomatic scientific fables of the Nineteenth Century. First published in English in 1802, it documents the collision of Rousseauistic freedom worship with the suggestion, embodied in the feral foundling Victor, that the individual personality is constructed rather than inhibited by the symbolic systems of culture; the lesson of the fable, as Christopher Herbert aptly summarizes it, is this: "that in order for desire to exist in any coherent, active, and potentially satisfiable form, it must embed itself in a fully social matrix, which is to say, become directed toward objects conventionally defined and symbolically coded as desirable by human society" (Herbert 50).

This fable was refigured frequently throughout the rest of the century, which may be fairly characterized as one in which the impulse towards limitless freedom--economic, political, geographical--seemed ideologically constrained less by the traditions of the past than by fears of the future anarchy that was implicit in the pursuit of such freedom to its logical extremity. In its various permutations, the fable affirms the social and cultural environment as fundamental to individual identity, interpreting even such "basic" drives as sexual desire as unactualized, even degenerate, in the absence of socially constituted objects or symbols.

This culturally deterministic view of human feeling and behavior enjoyed a resurgence in the early 1890's, as sociological pioneers such as Emile Durkheim insisted that "Social facts are not the simple development of psychic facts, but the second are in large part only the prolongation of the first in the interior of consciences" (DL 349). For Durkheim and others, the socially authorized symbolic objects of desire did not in effect limit the avenues of human feeling, but rather constructed those avenues, mapping routes through what otherwise would be a chaotic wilderness of emotions and impulses. In this view, the norms of "civilized" culture were understood not as restraints, as Rousseauistic romanticism would have it, but rather as tools, a kind of technology of satisfaction which provided the necessary matrix for human desires and their fulfillment. (This is, of course, a position similar to that argued by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy, wherein he characterizes freedom as a form of "machinery" that has become fetishized as an end in itself.)

The characteristic problem of consciousness in Durkheim's system, then, is not "repression" but its opposite--a condition which he calls "anomie," the anxiety that afflicts individuals when society fails to provide adequate norms for the healthy construction of the personality. Without such norms, he argues, human needs and desires are not so much satiated as deranged; as he says in his study of suicide, "It is not human nature which can assign the variable limits necessary to our needs. . . Irrespective of any external regulatory force, our capacity for feeling is in itself an insatiable and bottomless abyss" (S 247). Christopher Herbert aptly summarizes: "The modern predicament, according to [Durkheim], is specifically an epidemic of boundlessness," a "morbid ideal that . . . has repeatedly masqueraded as 'freedom,' and whose signal effect is a kind of "moral insanity" (Herbert 69, 72, 71).

It's useful to reflect briefly on the relevance of Durkheim's basic conception to some current debates in literary theory. For him human identity is radically embedded in societal and material contingencies; but more importantly, these contingencies are significant principally in their systematic symbolicity, through which they produce and shape human motives and behavior. Desires of all kinds (including sexual ones) are experienced as a valences of identity, and are not only "trapped in the economy of the sign," as Lacan says; they are in fact created by that economy, their expression and satisfaction dependent, as Jay Clayton puts it, on "embodiment in social and historical forms" (82, 83).

So while historicizing desire is a recent theoretical focus, the notion that these constructions are socially symbolic possessed intellectual currency in James's fin de siecle as well. As Durkheim and other pioneers of the "human sciences" grappled with the syntax that governed human society and personality, they theorized the apparent materiality of civilization as a semiotic system within which individual self-awareness was itself constituted. For Durkheim individual states of conscience arise "not from the psychological nature of man in general, but from the manner in which men once associated mutually affect one another," and that "individual constitutions are only remote conditions, not determinate causes" (DL 350); in addition, these "mutual associations" are essentially semiotic in nature, since "it is clear that essentially social life is made up of representations" (S 312).

The key point to be grasped here is that in Durkheim's view the semiotic terms that determine self-consciousness include desires and objects--including sexual ones--that the repression model holds to be pre-civilized, and therefore pre-semiotic; as a consequence, disruptions or deprivations of the socially symbolic arena can lead to crises of both identity and desire. This formulation seems to find some support in Itard's narrative of the wild child Victor. Raised in a state of radical cultural deprivation, Victor despite undergoing the biological upheavals of puberty is unable to focus the the changes in his body into anything approaching sexual desire; "erotically oblivious to women, . . . incapable of recognizing [them] as objects of his sex drive," Victor experiences other, less sexually defined symptoms: not only apathy and lethargy but a series of traumatic sensational responses, including "convulsive frenzies," profuse bleeding from the nose and ears (Herbert 49-50).

Victor's behavior suggests the incoherency of his sexual identity at two different levels. First of all, his anarchic symptoms suggest a kind of bodily semioclasm: he is unable to experience himself as a "sign," a socially constructed combination of bodily signifiers (including sexual desires and responses) and underlying biologically determined signifieds (his procreant organs and capacities); but secondly (and more importantly for our understanding of The Turn of the Screw) Victor's "semiotic emergency" (Lacan's phrase) is caused by a larger disruption--that of the relational nature of sign to sign. Deprived of initiation into the system of representations on which the social and interpersonal dimensions of sexuality are contingent, Victor finds it impossible to construct an individual sexual self-concept as well.

Victor's crisis is, to borrow from Jameson, a "breakdown in the signifying chain" (Jameson's term), a moment in which "the genesis of meaning out of the interplay among signifiers in a total order of meaning is paralyzed by a breach . . . upon which such interplay depends" (Cantwell 292). But while Victor's emergency is profound and particular, it is possible to see in it an extreme version of the crisis encountered through James's governess. In her tale the the radical reversals of interpretive paradigms, the doubling and trebling of masculine and feminine figures, suggest a consciousness unable to establish stable symbolic objects of desire. And while the governess's problem is not one of social deprivation, she is embedded in a cultural moment marked by critical "breakdowns in the signifying chain" by which sexual desire and behavior are constructed and regulated--a breakdown which provokes in her responses problematically similar to Victor's own.

I. Mirrors and Mediations

In the tale's labyrinth of symbolic doublings, the mirror scene which inaugurates the governess's tenure at Bly stands out as a point of reference. She is ushered into her room, "one of the best in the house," where, amid the other luxurious appointments, she notes "the long glasses in which, for the first time, I could see myself from head to foot" (10).(1) It is possible to read this scene as representing an accession to self-consciousness, especially of a sexual sort; after all, her description implies that here, for the first time, she sees herself as a body.

But while this may be so, the "long glasses" are material as well as metaphorical signs; unlike Narcissus's reflection in the pool, her "head-to-foot" self-perspective is an elaborately manufactured cultural product. That is to say, the frame in which this image is cast is framed by the larger context of Bly, which is itself significant of larger political and economic contingencies from which the governess must (at least in part) derive her identity. Not the least of these contingencies, of course, is the governess's commercial relationship to the uncle, which of course provides the venue for whatever sexual aspects one would ascribe to their encounter; but it is also important that the governess can fully "see herself" only through the mirror of an-Other; like the reflection of herself that Hester Prynne glimpses in the breastplate hanging in the Governor's Hall in The Scarlet Letter, the image the governess sees in Bly's "long glasses" is not narcissistic, but rather a product of the socio-symbolic nexus within which her existence is inscribed.

Yet that identity, while socially and economically determined, is problematically unstable and incoherent. This is so for one principal reason: while the mirror is a normally a narcissistic instrument, it is not hers, not meant for her. Her opportunity to view herself with such completeness is an accident of circumstance, born of the tenuous authority she enjoys at Bly--at once a replacement for, and a servant of, the one whose image the mirror, and indeed the entire estate, is designed most properly to reflect.

We might say then that the governess's self-reflection is a function of the simultaneous representation and mystification of the master's ownership and authority at Bly. This insight allows us to begin to understand the problematical structures on which the governess's identity and desires are contingent. At Bly she is at once mistress and usurper, at once a reflection of the master's authority and an other with respect to it; she is torn between the sensation of liberty, power, and self-consciousness and a peripheral awareness of the alien otherness of the matrix within which those sensations are framed.

If (as many have insisted) the governess's struggle is an epistemological one--an attempt to discover the conditions of meaning within a chaos of sensation--it may clarify things to think of this struggle for meaning as "ideological" as well, at least in the sense that Fredric Jameson speaks of it: "ideology," he says, is

the sign for a problem yet to be solved, a mental operation which remains to be executed. It does not presuppose cut-and-dried sociological stereotypes like the notion of the 'bourgeois' or the 'petty bourgeois' but is rather a mediatory concept: that is, it is an imperative to re-invent a relationship between the linguistic or aesthetic or conceptual fact in question and its social ground. (510)

The "conceptual fact" with which the governess must struggle, I argue, is an insistence upon "freedom" as a constituent norm, as a value in itself, which James like Durkheim portrays as an insidious and psychically destructive myth, for reasons to be shortly discussed. And the "social ground" with which the governess attempts to connect this fact is that of the situation of women like herself, with options determined by gender and class, in late Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American culture. The tension--if indeed the outright incompatibility--of this conceptual fact with its social grounding is what creates the "anomic" conditions, both moral and epistemological, that haunt the governess in the tale.

Besides the mirror scene, the most striking aspect of the early chapters is the governess's repeated reference to a sense of freedom and power which nevertheless strikes her as unreal, even dangerous. Her manorially appointed room, in which those crucial "long glasses" hang, strikes her as symptomatic of "the liberality with which I was treated" (10); she gradually sheds "the teachings of my small, smothered life" and cultivates, after a fashion, a kind of carpe diem philosophy, in which she "learnt to be amused, and to be amusing, and not to think for the morrow." Summing up her newly vertiginous sense of life's possibilities, she remarks: "It was the first time . . . that I had known space and air and freedom" (18); but she then quickly observes the sinister and seductive nature of this newfound expansiveness: "Oh it was a trap--not designed but deep--to my imagination, to my delicacy, perhaps to my vanity" (18).

Even more, finding herself "strangely at the helm" (13), she allows herself the liberty of thinking of others as plastic to her will--or even more, that their thoughts have identity with her own. She sees in the opportunity to "form" Flora the basis for a "happy and useful life" (11), and persuades herself that she and Mrs. Grose "should on every question be quite at one" (12). In short she sees both Flora and Mrs. Grose (neither of them male, significantly) as extensions of the newly developing self-consciousness that her position at Bly (as reflected in its "long glasses") has evoked and authorized. Her sense of "freedom" is in short a refracted image of the uncle's aristocratic authority, including his power to hire and delegate, his freedom to make his own arrangements in life (including sexual ones); in short his ability to command loyalty, agreement to terms, and to make people not only accept but like it--indeed, to loved and respect him for it.

In other words her newfound "freedom" is normally the prerogative of well-situated males like the uncle. As a socially constituted symbol, Bly certainly signifies this connection, reflecting the master's freedom and self-possession--ironically, doing so as much by his absence as by any "presence" he projects there. So despite her delegated "authority" (which, as James himself admits in Preface, "is a good deal to have given her" [AN 174]) in terms both of class and gender the governess cannot but experience her new discretionary powers as alien, Other. To return, then, to Jameson's notion of the "ideological": how is the governess to connect the "conceptual fact" of freedom--both hers and the uncle's--with the "social ground" of her status as a female and employee? Or, considered in the light of this panel's topic, how might we see the governess's experience of sexual desire as determined by the matrix of this conceptual fact and social reality?

For the governess there are two principal arenas--the economic and the sexual--which must be ideologically mediated. Ordinarily the need for such mediation should not provoke a crisis, since the terms of its solution ought to be available somewhere in society's "signifying chain" of images and objects. And, as Millicent Bell has observed, both fiction and reality offered a model of such mediation to those like the governess, who though "isolated from their own supportive background" by the conditions of employment were offered the prospect of transcending limitations of caste (if not of gender) by marrying into the "employing class" (see Bell 224).

Central to this mediating mythos, as Bell and others have suggested, is the image of the manor as a site of romantic desire. Here young women like the governess or her prototype Jane Eyre find freedom from the circumscribed existence of parsonage or orphanage, or--more to the point--from the life of poverty and degradation that always threatens unattached women; but here also yawns an infinity of transcendent possibility: of power and authority, of sexual and romantic fulfillment, of upward social mobility--a freedom to, whose objects (according to Durkheim) must be formulaically specified if they are to serve their proper psychological and social functions.

Thus the Bronte "intertext," as Bell has called it, represents another frame within which the governess attempts to construct her identity and give shape and form to her desires. The eros awakened in Jane by Rochester is an "ideological response," a mental/psychological action which attempts to link a culturally determined norm (the freedom of the romantic self) with its social ground (the limitations on such freedom presented by Jane's economic and sexual position in society). In this early Victorian version of the Cinderella story, the handsome prince becomes the objectification of freedom; and while the dangerous freedom of, say, a Byronic hero is still off limits to women, the Jane Eyre myth presents a tenable compromise through Jane's eventual union with the wounded Rochester, wherein her liberation from the missionary discipline of St. John Rivers is fused with eros and tempered with an ideal of chosen, as opposed to imposed, duty.

II. Breaking the Signifying Chain

James's interest in the connection between economic and affectional arrangements has long been established; and both are implicated in, if not determined by, social structures. The "sex ethic" of the story, like the "work ethic," regulates impulses in which social and economic relations are inherent; "desire," far from being a phenomenon of individual biology, is already organized and experienced in terms of these anticipated relations. In this respect The Turn of the Screw may be read as a discourse parallel to Durkheim's own view of sociological basis of such desires. He proposes that the attraction between the sexes is itself is economic in the most fundamental sense, part of the "productive" imperative of human society as a whole. While it may be, as he observes, "[p]recisely because man and woman are different [that] they seek each other passionately," this difference is "not a contrast pure and simple" but one in which the differences "require each other for their mutual fruition" (DL 56).

But this "fruition" is social and not individual; the "sentiments" expressed in sexual attraction are only the outward envelope of a more fundamental energy on which the evolution of society itself is based--the "division of labor" which assures both the continuity of social consciousness and the interdependent solidarity through which society is maintained. As I have suggested above, the governess's awakened eros is, like Jane Eyre's, an ideological response conditioned within the sexual and class structure of her age; but what significantly marks her relationship with the uncle is the attenuated "solidarity" which Durkheim saw as a chief social purpose of the division between the sexes. The uncle's behavior, most particularly his "famous condition," is corrosive of this solidarity; put another way, it has the effect of "breaking the signifying chain" which joins sexuality to the world of socially constituted energies and values.

As the narrator of the prologue avers, the uncle is of "a type" easily "fixed": "a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage" (7). Yet from this idealized image there emanates a strong whiff of decadence: "she saw him all in a glow of high fashion, of expensive habits, of charming ways with women"; he is "fearfully extravagant," and resides in town in "a big house filled with the spoils of travel and the trophies of the chase" (7). The conspicuous leisure evident in this brief inventory may be read as symptomatic of a dangerous restlessness, a hint of energies and powers devoid of purposeful objects.

This is nowhere more event than in the "freedom" he claims for himself by requiring that the governess should "never trouble him" about about the children, but handle everything herself and "let him alone" (9). This condition is really a bond of freedom for the uncle on two counts: it at once absolves him of his own obligations as a surrogate father and sidesteps the problem of supplying a "mother" for the children--an obligation which might conceivably require him to surrender his "bachelorhood" on the altar of marriage.

The uncle's attitude here is not eccentric with respect to James's era. His retreat from conjugal and familial responsibilities evokes a phenomenon of fin de siecle culture, that which Elaine Showalter has described as the "odd man"--he who with increasing frequency in the 1880's and 1890's "married late or never," and preferred the adventures of colonial enterprise, the pleasures of a fine horse, a good cigar, and a congenial club to the responsibilities of marriage and family (24-26). The presence of these "odd men" created a crisis in the sex ethic of the age, as is evident in the frequency with which the popular press in England in particular lamented the virtual extinction of the married man.

But for the most part the burden of this crisis was displaced onto women. While the bachelor "was not seen as a problem," and suffered no diminution of "dignity and honor"--nor of sexual activity--(Showalter 25), the problem, really, was what to do about the many "odd women," either freed or forced to pursue sexual and economic independence by the changing sex ethic of Victorian men. In yet another version of the double standard, it was these women whose "freedoms" were seen as politically and morally problematical, while the procilivities of their male counterparts met with no real censure or opprobrium. What this judgment represses is the fact that it is men like the uncle who have broken the signifying chain which links desire to objects in both sexual and economic realms, and have thus frayed the matrix of social relations from which identity derives for both sexes.

The governess's moral vertigo is then an index of this broken chain, a severance of the socially determined "mutual relationships" without which, as Durkheim writes, individuals "tumble over one another like so many liquid molecules" (S 389). The uncle's "famous condition" effectively removes him from the chief social end that underlies sexual difference and the sentiments associated with it--procreation; and following Durkheim's argument that the healthy expression of desire is contingent on the identification of socially determined symbolic objects, the governess might reasonably wonder what sexual desire is for: that is, by what symbolic objects is it constructed--when the "procreant urge" is replaced by the "libertarian" one.

What James's tale seems to question is whether such "freedom" as that claimed by the uncle can be a constituent norm, an object of desire, at all--a query which may be answered, in part, by the critique of libertarian individualism that runs throughout Durkheim's work. For him, freedoms conceived in the negative--as indefinite freedoms from--are always dangerous not only because they threaten the social solidarity upon which human identity and moral sensibility are contingent; but secondarily, such freedoms are inherently problematical in terms of supplying the shared objects of desire which develop and maintain that solidarity. As I have suggested, the contagion of "freedom" which spreads from the uncle to every corner of the governess's tale is ultimately horrible because it is unspecific, without a visible social object or dimension.

One could observe this not only of the governess's vertiginous sense of her own liberty, but of Miles' insistence on his own "freedom"; of the sudden eruption of "dirty words" from Flora's mouth; and of the various unspecified sexual liberties alleged of Quint and Jessel. These are not to be understood as the surfacing of repressed, id-like urges, liberated by the absence of the master/superego, so much as the chaotic expression of human energy (like Victor's incoherent frenzies and other physical symptoms) rendered restless and aimless by a disruption of the signifying chain of relationships and symbolic objects by which they are called forth and organized.

Indeed, this may explain why the tale has been so variously interpreted in terms of sexual deviances, from hysteria to homosexual pedophilia; it may also help explain the significance of the ghosts. They function, I would suggest, as a kind of visionary correlative for the boundlessness in which the governess finds herself adrift; the terror they inspire derives to a great extent from their unspecified and therefore limitless possibilities, especially with respect to sexual behavior. James himself says that he had to give the sense "of their [Quint and Jessel's] being . . . capable, as the phrase is, of everything" (AN 176). In other words, as ghosts they may be taken as emanations of what Durkheim refers to as "anomic desire"--that which, unformed and unregulated by concrete social interdependencies, becomes insatiable nd incoherent precisely because it has no objects which limit it.

III. Desire, Anomie, and the Division of Labor

As I hope will be evident by now, Durkheim's analysis of sexuality as socially constituted has great explanatory force with respect to James's tale. One key question remains, however: why, at this particular juncture in his career, should James's vision be so dominated by the problem of anomic norms?

There may be some clues in Durkheim's analysis of the transitional and improvised nature the of late-Nineteenth Century social constructions implicitly dramatized in the tale. While Durkheim's analysis bears no particular Rousseaustic fantasies about an earlier, simpler age in which individual desire was more freely and authentically expressed, he does see a historical progression from "primitive" to "modern" societies; but this progression is as much symbolically as materially organized, a transition from from what he calls "segmental" to "organic" solidarity among individuals.

The distinction between these two social models might be summarized, in structuralist terms, as one between paradigm and syntagm, between the axis of substitution and that of functional relations: for Durkheim, "a segment designates a social group into which the individuals are tightly incorporated. But a segment is also a group locally situated, relatively isolated from others, which leads its own life. . . . The segment is self-sufficient, it has little communication with what is outside" (Aron II: 12-13). Identity and desire are matters of identification based on resemblance and kinship--what John Pearson, in his excellent article on the tale, refers to as Nietzscheian "repetition." By contrast, modern "organic" society defines relations syntagmically, through a system of relations determined by industrial and commercial activity, which Durkheim characterizes as "the division of labor."

In fact Durkheim sees England--the location of the events in the tale--as a nation in which the underlying "segmental" consciousness of the collectivity is overlaid with a more "organic," differentially structured economy of work. In England, he says, "Major industry, big business, appears to be . . . highly developed," while "the honeycomb system is still very much in evidence, as witness both the autonomy of local life and the authority retained by tradition" (DL 282n). What we see at Bly is the site of an older "segmental" society, but now inhabited by a new, dispersed economic and social order for which the organs of solidarity have not yet been created.

On one level the enforced isolation of Bly represents a persistence of this "segmental" society, a closed circle which stands in contrast to the "organic" quality of modern industrial society; in its "autonomy" and its kinship relations (Miles, the heir apparent, shares the master's tailor if not--like Quint--his very wardrobe), Bly is a place where "tradition" once supplied continuity and social solidarity. But with its absent master, its paid functionaries, and its apparent irrelevance to the economic structure emergent in the Nineteenth Century, its arrangements (including the uncle's "famous condition") inscribe a complex system of economic exchange--including delegated labor, specialization of function, the geographical separation of work from market and client, the attenuation of "segmental" family ties--which Durkheim describes as characteristic of "organic" society. Bly is thus an index of the larger social crisis wrought by the colonialist project, whose economic expansion and diffusion strained old organs of social solidarity and put in their place a new ideology of libertarian individualism and entrepreneurship.

Thus, through the refractions of Durkheim's thought we can see more clearly James's analysis of the Victorian moment. The uncle represents power de-localized, set free, by the social dispersal of colonialist society, and by the latitude of action enabled by such liberation. In place of the old social social interstices we find substituted the anomic value of "freedom" claimed by the uncle and reflected in the governess's sense of her own "liberty"--a freedom that by definition (or rather lack thereof) is disintegrative to the personality and contagious with respect all involves, including the children. The result (the ghosts) is a return of the spectral "segmental," a "repetition" or "substitution," irrupting what is now the theoretically "modern" text of purely differential/functional relations.

IV. Anomie and Narratology

Having noted, with others, how The Turn of the Screw uses a received paradigm--Bronte's novel--as a figure against which James distinguishes the shape of his own tale, principally by replacing the fulfillment of the earlier novel's "marriage-plot" with his own "abstention from the convention of personal closure" (Bell 233), I would suggest that this abstention is not a mere authorial predilection; rather it is a logical consequence of the theme of anomie that dominates the text. James's tale lacks the closure of Jane Eyre because an "end" for the story cannot be named, given the current social circumstances. The representations of class and gender which in Jane Eyre furnish the objects of eros--of class, wealth, power, passion--no longer function as part of a semiotics of desire--or, to the extent that they do, they're curiously weightless, without correlatives, undercut by anomic freedom and incoherence. Rochester no longer is in residence, nor is there a mad wife to furnish both moral and dramatic impetus to the tale (possibly a reason for the wildly vacillating moral judgments the governess makes with respect to the children: how can there be morality, good and evil, when there is no decidable eschatology of the tale that can be imagined?); the "segmental" world of which the manor house is the focus has been abandoned--like the hearth which serves as a focus for the family--in the name of anomic freedoms bought by irrational power: colonialism, sexual anarchy, and so forth.

As seen in the tale, freedom is debasing unless it's a freedom to, with respect to some specific object of desire; the governess, like her narrative, lacks final coherence because she can locate no such eligible object in her social horizon. James himself suggests this when he states the problematic of the tale: "To improvise with extreme freedom and yet at the same time without the possibility of ravage, without the hint of a flood"(AN 172). Yet what the governess's narrative dramatizes, with perhaps a clarity that escapes "ravage," is the danger of such "extreme" freedom of desires when divested of the "control" of specific objects. The result is an odd tale in which narrative paradigms, like the forms or manifestations of sexual desire, appear and dissolve in the absence of stabilizing norms. The governess's peripatetic, mercurial opinions of the children are symptoms of a semioclasm; relation of material signifiers (such as beauty) to underlying structural narrative is strained.

It is possible, then, to see the problem of anomie as one of form as well as content in James's tale. To the extent that we subscribe to the convention that a story is, loosely speaking, a history--that is, an arrangement of events interpreted from the point of view of a particular unifying consciousness (whether of the implied author or of his or her "delegate," to use James's favored term)--The Turn of the Screw offers us some curious frustrations. Helpful here is Hegel's analysis, which sees historical narrative in terms of dialectic of subjective freedom and desire and limiting institutional rules: as he writes, narrative self-consciousness is enabled by the interplay of "profound sentiments" of the subject such as "love" and "religious intuitions"--in other words, "conceptual facts"--with a social ground "enshrined in . . . rational laws and customs" (qtd. in White 12). As Hayden White adds: "Where there is no rule of law, there can be neither a subject nor the kind of event that lends itself to narrative representation" (13).

James's narrative funhouse in The Turn of the Screw, however, refigures this paradigm in a way that curiously parallels Marx's own revision of Hegel's idealism: what if "desire" itself, if the "love and religious intuitions" which Hegel sees as the innate property of the subject, are themselves already determined at the social and material plane, as part of a system of representations which has already organized its own opposition? And what if one of the constituent norms of that system is the notion of "freedom," which is not so much a norm but a refusal to specify and enforce more particular symbolic objects? What kind of narrative is possible when the rule of law fails in its responsibility to construct a coherent perceiving subject?

This, is seems to me, is the sort of reflection James's "excursion into chaos" is designed to provoke. Not only does it interrogate the centrifugal stresses of fin de siecle sexual and class politics; it reveals James's own artistic praxis as self-consciously linked with the signifying chain, strained to the point of breakage, which made comprehensible the politics and the culture at large. A comparison with James's earlier remarks on artistic freedom (especially with respect to the problematical ethos of the romance) in 1884's "The Art of Fiction" might serve as an illuminating index of his shift in thought and technique; for in The Turn of the Screw and the works that follow we see James moving away from the dramatization of psychologically realized characters and toward an exploration of the concealed social infrastructure on which individual identity and psychology are contingent.


1. Lacan's psychoanalytic model has some application here. He posits as a stage in the development of the psyche a "mirror" image, "through which the I is precipitated in a primordial form," a stage which is followed by a second and dialectical element, its "social determination." The first stage Lacan calls "idealization," and the second "differentiation," with individual self-consciousness a result of the interplay of the two (2). But if we consider The Turn of the Screw in light of contemporaneous models such as Durkheim's, we find the suggestion that even this primordial "idealization" of the self is socially constituted.


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