Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On The Significance of Hats in Henry James, "The Turn of The Screw"

E@L has been poring over an eBook on his Exaspera X10 during lunch, dinner and all point South this week and has been fascinated by the absolute impenetrability of the hallowed tome he has chosen to peruse (because it was free).  In 18something or other, an American writer tried to prove to the world and himself that he was English and that he could write a hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-stands-up type ghost story using more punctuation marks than words, a post-modern feat unrivaled until some time after the moderns.

The result was that Henry James made a thin tale into a thin volume called "The Turn Of The Screw."   And that was turned into a movie in 1961 called The Innocents which I thought was spooky, but in self defence, I must add that I was only 4 at the time; a shadow on the wall could cause me to shit my pants.

Well, who hasn't wanted to take their turn to screw Deborah Kerr; or Joan Fontaine for that matter, or even Olivia De Havilland (her father made planes) or even, at a stretch, Debbie Reynolds? - they were so gorgeous in those old fillums of my childhood and my rapidly approaching puberty, with their pointy bras under their angora sweaters, and those revealing mid-calf dresses with high heels, eh?   Reynolds, she's Princess Leia's mum, trivia buffs please note, and who hasn't wished they were Jabba the Hutt slobbering over Carrie Fisher in those all too brief moments where we see her in that slave outfit?

Oops. Sorry, I am too easily distracted.


So E@L has worked hard on this review of "The Stern of the Crew" (oops, no that was some gay Navy flick) for you's all, almost as hard as he worked on his book reviews for Brother "Puffy" McDuffy back in Form 3.  And with almost as much perception and intellectual rigor as he could raise after surfing all weekend and reading nothing of the set text.

Before we start:

Olde type people, with hats; just to give you an idea.


It lasted while I just bridled a little with the sense that my office demanded that there should be no such ignorance and no such person. It lasted while this visitant, at all events—and there was a touch of the strange freedom, as I remember, in the sign of familiarity of his wearing no hat—seemed to fix me, from his position, with just the question, just the scrutiny through the fading light, that his own presence provoked.

Chapter 3.

In her first glimpse of the ghost of Peter Quint on the balcony high over the lawn in one of those "square, incongruous, crenellated" towers so beloved of the writer of gothic tales, our (obviously hysterical) narratoress is struck mostly, not by the fact Quint has been dead this last year (actually she doesn't know this at the moment), but by the strange "familiarity" of him not wearing a hat.  Anyone who has been married or worked at the same tedious job for 20 years or so (I was 19 years at my first real job, I can verify this) is all too familiar with the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, but the news that hatlessness breeds good ghosts stories is something we need to uncover (ho ho) more detailed information about.

One wonders if the excessive number of commas in James' sentences has something to do with it.


... "But I did come. I have my duty."

"So have I mine," she replied; after which she added: "What is he like?"

"I've been dying to tell you. But he's like nobody."

"Nobody?" she echoed.

"He has no hat." ...

Chapter 5

Shock horror!  The bad, dead, hatless Quint now appears at the dining room window.  The presumptuousness of it!  And again, with no hat, like a nobody!

So exactly how does the presence of a hat confer the quintessential (ho ho) essence of a yesbody to those ethereal will-o-the-whisp creatures, the disembodied dead?  Mr James does not make this clear.  It's probably because he uses so many commas.  Nothing, makes any sense when you put commas, colons  and freaking semi-colons everywhere.  Fuck; it's annoying.


She'll be above," she presently said—"in one of the rooms you haven't searched."

"No; she's at a distance." I had made up my mind. "She has gone out."

Mrs. Grose stared. "Without a hat?"

I naturally also looked volumes. "Isn't that woman always without one?"

"She's with HER?"

"She's with HER!" I declared. "We must find them."

Chapter 18.

Here the common (not mutual) hatlessness of the young Flora and the dead (of pregnancy one assumes: I haven't finished it yet - hey, just like my book reviews in Form 3!) Miss Jessel is cause for augmented alarums.  How alarumed is everyone?  To the extent of CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks! That's how much alarums they have!  It speaks volumes. (LOOKED volumes?  What the fuck?  James' is an idiot!)

Hatlessness is once again a metaphor of that dreaded familiarity which inevitably will bring down upon us works of ominous contemptuousness, like Oscar Spengler's "The Decline Of The West", a crime that is beyond forgiveness.  Have you ever tried to read that portentous waffle?  Awful.  So bad it makes James look like he can write, VOLUMES.


I quickly, by way of answer, felt for my letter, drew it forth, held it up, and then, freeing myself, went and laid it on the great hall table. "Luke will take it," I said as I came back. I reached the house door and opened it; I was already on the steps.

My companion still demurred: the storm of the night and the early morning had dropped, but the afternoon was damp and gray. I came down to the drive while she stood in the doorway. "You go with nothing on?"

"What do I care when the child has nothing? I can't wait to dress," I cried, "and if you must do so, I leave you. Try meanwhile, yourself, upstairs."

"With THEM?" Oh, on this, the poor woman promptly joined me!

Chapter 18.

It took me a while to realize that my fantasy of women and young girls running around naked in the fields of olde Englande like it was some depraved Austrian sauna was far from the truth; they were talking about not wearing their HATS! (Note the reintroduction of the capital letters, plus an exclamation mark, signifying yet more alarumedness.)

During that period, before my enlightenment, I was most disconcerted by the limited possibilities of where on or in her person she so had placed the letter that it had to be felt for and drawn forth.

Nota Bene: there are seven commas in that first sentence! SEVEN!


"You want so to go out again?"

"Awfully!" He smiled at me heroically, and the touching little bravery of it was enhanced by his actually flushing with pain. He had picked up his hat, which he had brought in, and stood twirling it in a way that gave me, even as I was just nearly reaching port, a perverse horror of what I was doing. To do it in ANY way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse?

Chapter 23

Here it is the PRESENCE of the hat which so disturbs our narratoress. What the fuck? A bit of consistency is all I ask. Which is bad, which good?  Hat or no hat? Make up your mind, beatch!

There's the possibility of another SNAFU as well; "what *I* was doing"? Surely the horror comes from her interpretation of what HE was doing: i.e. twirling his hat? (We MAY have misread this.) Our studious and meticulous reinterpretation here further raises the distinct possibility, no revelations here, that Mr James was a freaking idiot.  He wants the possibility of beautiful intercourse?  He can leave, and have it with himself.

*cough* The ambiguity of the hat, as a metaphor, for "familiarity", and its association, with sexual depravity, with beautiful intercourse (which no doubt entails the eschewing of condoms), with necrophilia, cats and dogs living together, weird perversions +/- gross and violent acts of extreme rudie-nudieness... this all stuns, this reader at least, with its vivid, and, frightening... um... ambiguity.

Hats, are: bad/good.  Familiarity, is: bad/good.  Which: Mr James; is it?  One has to, ask.  But WHAT! is the answer?


Isn't it obvious?

People are not wearing enough hats.

(I'm wondering why one hat per head is insufficient?)


[Note to self: rewrite, finding some way to insuinate off-handedly the word galericulate.]


knobby said...

you, evidently, don't like commas, it would seem, though i do recommend, for your edification, your intellectual betterment, your spiritual enlightenment, a quick perusal of the nearest wodehouse, one of which, i'm sure, lies close at hand, and will demonstrate, undoubtedly, the inveterate yet perfectly appropriate use of commas.

Paula said...

I remember "The Innocents" - what a scary, yet enthralling movie - yes, Deborah Kerr! - perfect in her role.

expat@large said...

Knob: it was, then, the way write. At least Wodehouse has the advantage of being the funniest person ever.

Pauls: I was about to swear it was Olivia De Havilland, had to rewrite that paragraph.

rockstar69 said...

Thanks for the link to "Leia's metal Bikini". That's 6 hours I'll have to make up at work!!!!~

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