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Sunday, October 11, 2009

The secret centre: Blanchot and The Turn of the Screw

An essay that has stirred me lately is Blanchot's on the importance of Henry James' notebooks in relation to his development as a writer and in particular to his story The Turn of the Screw; "As the years pass", Blanchot writes, "and as James moves in a more deliberate way toward himself, he discovers the true significance of this preliminary work that is precisely not a work."

Endlessly, he speaks of these hours of preparation as "blessed hours," "wonderful, ineffable, secret, pathetic, tragic" instants, or even as a "sacred" time, when his pen exercises "an enchanted pressure," becomes the "deciphering" pen, the magic needle in movement, whose turns and detours give him a premonition of the innumerable paths that are not yet traced.

Blanchot asks: "Why this joy, this passion, this feeling of a wonderful life, which [James] cannot evoke without tears, to the point that his notebooks, "the patient, passionate little notebook becomes ... the essential part of my life"?".

This question and Blanchot's answer stirs me because I have noticed with surprise how much enjoyment I take in making notes; how much more, that is, than in the actual production of a work.  Against initial assumptions, I sensed it is too easy to dismiss this as an eternal delay of the real thing or as the unobtainable carrot of perfection, but have never really appreciated why. We all know about Bruce Chatwin's attachment to his Moleskine notebooks, and how he offered a reward to anyone who could return one lost, but this reliance on the information contained within is something other than that addressed by Blanchot. The essay is so rich that it is difficult not to quote from every page, so this will be the betrayal of even a potted summary. In mitigation, the essay itself offers a good summary of the essence of Blanchot's form of engaged reading; a reading that does not lead to or from any theory.

The beginning of the essay looks at possible subjects of The Turn of the Screw before concluding, after various detours, that the subject remains a secret. However, it is not a secret to be found outside the story, in biographical anecdote or in speculation, but at the very centre of the story: its words, or, better, its writing. The subject, Blanchot says, "is – simply – James's art, the way he has of always circling round a secret that, in so many of his books, some anecdote sets in operation, and that is not only a real secret – some fact, some thought or truth that can be revealed – that is not even a detour of the mind, but one that escapes all revelation, for it belongs to a region that is not that of light." The anecdote – which may on the surface be the subject of a traditional reading – appears then only as a means to produce the experience "not of the narrative that he must write but of its reverse, from the other side of the work, the one that the movement of writing necessarily hides and about which [James] is anxious". This then is why notes produce an enchanted pressure. The other side of the work, the secret centre, is written and not written.

What can then be called the passionate paradox of the plan with James is that it represents, for him, the security of a composition determined in advance, but also the opposite: the joys of creation, which coincide with the pure indeterminacy of the work, which put it to the test, but without reducing it, without depriving it of all the possibilities that it contains (and such is perhaps the essence of James's art: each instant to produce the entire work present and, even behind the constructed and limited work that he shapes, to make other forms felt, the infinite and light space of the narrative as it could have been, as it is before any beginning).

How difficult that is, to subject a narrative in each instant to the pressure of its secret centre! Perhaps the ability to do this – perhaps rather to let it occur, involving both guile of craft and stubborn resistance to the easy gifts of craft – is the secret of great writing.

All this may seem typically cranky. Oh yes, here we go, Blanchot is turning a famous ghost story into  metafiction. Except Blanchot ends with a remark piece of evidence. What, he asks, does James call "this pressure to which he submits the work, not to limit it but on the contrary to make it speak completely, without reserve in its nonetheless reserved secret, this firm and gentle pressure, this pressing solicitude ... ?". The answer is to be found in the notebooks themselves. James calls it "the very name he chose as title for his ghost story: The Turn of the Screw. 'What can my case of K. B. [a novel that he will not finish] give, once submitted to the pressure and to the turn of the screw?' " "Revealing allusion" Blanchot says:

It confirms to us that James is certainly not unaware of what the "subject" of his story is: this pressure that the governess makes the children undergo in order to tear their secret from them and that they also perhaps experience on the part of the invisible, but that is essentially the pressure of the narration itself, the wonderful and terrible movement that the deed of writing exercises on truth, torment, torture, violence that finally lead to death, in which everything seems to be revealed, in which everything, however, falls back again into the doubt and void of the shadows. "We are working in darkness – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion, our task. The rest is the madness of art."

An amusing irony for me is that this essay is one that has produced not one note in my Moleskine. Re-reading only a few sentences begins to close down the everyday busyness of thought and instead demand a renewed attention to the region that is not that of light, that escapes all revelation. Indeed, having read Blanchot with a patience one can gain only through reading Blanchot again and again, one begins to see this region illuminated both in every creative work and in one's own work to come. More prosaic, shorthanded, ideological, historical or psychological readings, readings of which this blog is inevitably and apologetically one, no matter how convincing they are in their own way, rarely casts the reader so far and so deeply into the sovereign realm of writing.

Note: all quotations are from The Book to Come.

9 comments:

  1. Hmm, it's interesting, but I think there's a weakness in Blanchot's idea. Henry James was not a prolific notebook writer. He didn't keep a journal (not surprising for one who felt that private life should no invade the life of the artist), unlike many authors and other creators of his time. His notebooks - in their "complete" edition - take up about 200 pages (the remainder of the book being "pocket diaries", notes during his American visit late in life, and dictated notes at the end of his life. I would therefore suggest that Blanchot is somewhat mistaken.

    No, Henry did not write much in notebooks, but, however, he wrote some 15,000 letters, which are only finally beginning to be published (only selections were published in the past).

    As to "having read Blanchot with a patience one can gain only through reading Blanchot again and again", it's a shame, but he's poorly translated (though his French is not very easy to understand either).

    Kirk

    www.readinghenryjames.com

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  2. Oh, despite the quotations from James that shows Blanchot has read through the material, the important thing is that James' wasn't prolific?

    What would be prolific then - 500 pages, 400, 300, 201?

    I suggest you leave your illogical nitpicking to your own website.

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  3. "The subject, Blanchot says, 'is – simply – James's art, the way he has of always circling round a secret that, in so many of his books, some anecdote sets in operation, and that is not only a real secret – some fact, some thought or truth that can be revealed – that is not even a detour of the mind, but one that escapes all revelation, for it belongs to a region that is not that of light'."

    For me James's own distillation of this is The Sacred Fount, a novel I never hear discussed enough and which doesn't seem to be very highly rated by most of James's critics -- they seem to consider it an outlier, whereas this view of Blanchot's would suggest that it is central.

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  4. Thanks Edmond. For anyone interested and with an eReader: http://www.munseys.com/book/4300/Sacred_Fount,_The

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  5. "Oh yes, here we go, Blanchot is turning a famous ghost story into metafiction."

    I wouldn't be worried: most great thinkers have about one great thought.

    Thanks for the post.

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  6. I thought James did keep notebooks - and it seems also letters at the very least - but he kept the most painstaking notebooks about the intent and movement of his fiction. It was a way of planning, to be sure, but also a way of working out the movements of his characters through desired pcyhological states, with their corresponding afffecting plot points.

    In regard to "Turn of the Screw," I have recently read of another French critic who says James, by ending in this manner, mocks the reader who insists upon a psychological analysis as the "key" and is no better, really, than the hysterial governess who insists upon "answers." Blanchot's "metafictional" interpretation adds a wonderful layer. I look forward to going back and reading this essay.

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  7. Sorry about the typos! I could stand to be a bit more painstaking with my posts.

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  8. Thanks for the first comment Meg. I didn't notice any typos - and rather them than nothing.

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  9. Nice commentary on Blanchot and very accurate to my (very engaged and long-standing) sense of both him and James. Thanks.

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