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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, December 14, 2007

INNOCENTS BROADSIDED (Spoilers)

"[Henry] James' world... is ruled by women. With a few slick exceptions, men are limited, subordinate or ludicrous. The mother herself presses turgidly on the late novels, a paralyzing biographical force whom James both resists and adores"-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 621.

I recently had occasion to reread James' TURN OF THE SCREW and re-view the 1960 film adaptation THE INNOCENTS. Despite minor differences, both end the same way: the hysterical governess trying to cast out the ghostly spirit that she thinks has possessed her ten-year-old charge Miles, on whom she dotes as if she were the boy's mother. The result is that though she forces Miles to speak the name of the ghost Peter Quint (which the governess thinks will exorcise the spirit or its influence), the boy's spirit is also cast out, so that he dies in the governess' arms, sort of a literary-horror version of Michelangelo's Pieta. In essence Miles dies because the governess fears the shadow (Jung would say "animus") of malefic masculinity dawning within the prepubescent boy, represented (at least in her mind) by the ghostly image of a dead dominant male.

Interestingly, James comes very close in TURN to a setup described in Philip Slater's study of Greek myth and society, THE GLORY OF HERA. To summarize Slater briefly, he felt that the Greeks of the classical period suffered from a mother-complex that grew out of the strong bifurcation of male and female roles in classical Greek society. The husband went away to pursue war and/or business affairs (much as in TURN, there is an uncle who arranges for the governess to take charge of his niece and nephew but then has no more to do with the situation). This situation left his wife totally in charge of the affairs of the house, but without any avenue for sexual gratification in misogynistic Greek society (though naturally the husband was not so constrained). The governess of TURN, who indicates an almost subliminal lust for the uncle, is in much the same situation, and never seems to have any yearnings for a separate romantic life while in service to the uncle, though arguably her sexual desires are realized by her encounter (or fantasy) of the ghost of roisterer Peter Quint.

Slater went on to give copious examples to show that in myth and literature at least, the frustrated desires of real-life mothers in Greek society came out in the form of fantasies about fictional mothers who killed, harmed, or controlled their sons-- sometimes as small children, sometimes as full-grown men (particularly in the legend of Heracles, who was persecuted until death by his stepmother, and whose translated name forms the title of Slater's book). All such violence Slater regarded as projections of a displaced sexuality.

It's not hard to see a similar pattern in TURN OF THE SCREW, where the social roles of James' England were not much less stratified than those of classical Greece. But perhaps in one respect the movie adaptation inadvertently came even closer to the archetype of the devouring mother than the original book. In TURN, the unnamed governess is a very young woman, perhaps so that James might suggest her instability due to age (in the frame-story she goes on to continue her career as governess, and the reader never knows from the frame how Miles' tragedy affects her). But THE INNOCENTS casts 40-year old Deborah Kerr as the lethal child-care minister, and thus puts the character more in the mold of the frustrated spinster. Arguably, then, Miles' death in her arms is an even more mythically-appropriate "Pieta" than the one seen in the original prose of mother-worshipping James.

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