Saturday, November 5, 2011

Names of Works: Names ("Turn of the Screw," for example)

What does Reservoir Dogs mean?  Everyone knows: it's that movie that established Quentin Tarantino's reputation for gripping pulp violence, for a kind of pop pleasure in the interactions of large, primary-colored characters (figuratively as well as by way of their names) punctuated by violence, but where the violence isn't quite our central anxiety but part of the stakes in the story.  Before you go see the movie, you assume you'll find out the significance of its title in the movie; afterwards you do know the significance: it's the perfect title for that Quentin Tarentino movie.

Yet, if you've seen it you know that there's no reservoir, no dog, no reference to their concatenation in the movie.  Somehow the completely gripping story so fills your mind that when you've watching it, you don't notice that it skips the part where the meaning of the title gets explained.  By the end, it just means that Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs.

Tarantino does this so effectively that we can see something really wonderful: an idiom aborning.  The title has the same linguistic effect as an idiom: a piece of language that means the way words mean, but not by virtue of the combination that it comprises.  The whole phrase easily dissolves into the flow of meaning, just like any other word.  The hotly contested philosophical distinction between names and definite descriptions (cf. Russell, Kripke) comes undone in the case of what we could call the idiomatic name, the name that starts out looking like a description and then, after a while, doesn't.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about The Turn of The Screw, and what the title means.  Everyone knows, right? that Henry James novel, and also the sense of twist after possible twist.  But why "turn of the screw"? The phrase appears in the novel twice, in that strange way that James has of treating bits of language as though they're common coin, even though they're not ("hang fire" being perhaps the most notorious).  In the frame narrative, Douglas remarks about the ghost story that Griffin has just told,
"I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?"

"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them."
And then later (though earlier in time), towards the end, the Governess describes yet once more the line she's had to pursue throughout her time at Bly:
Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature. I could only get on at all by taking "nature" into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.
Sure, Douglas could have picked up the phrase from her, but that seems to be considering it too curiously, as though we're suddenly supposed to think back to the way she's influenced Douglas at this moment when she's praising the ordinary, confronting the ordinary against the ordeal.  It feels more as though the phrase itself has become virtuously, valorously, ordinary, idiomatic, something that people do, in that wonderful offhanded praise (so like James) of "ordinary human virtue."  What is a turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue? Even with just this context, these contexts, it means something like a tightening up of the apparatus, to make it more "rigid" (her word), more capable of resisting the stress or push it undergoes.

Anyhow, the phrase is not an idiomatic one before James made it one.  It does have an origin though: it's the title of a chapter in Bleak House ("A Turn of the Screw") in which Phil calls Joshua Smallweed "a screw and a wice in his actions."  Thus the turn of the screw is the gradual increase of pressure, tightening what is already tight, turning a structure into nothing but itself, the way an idiom comes to mean only that untranslatable thing that the idiom captures so well.

This is essentially Blanchot's reading of the story. His great insight (greater even than what he was the first to remark: that the story is studiously and relentlessly ambiguous, not only about the real existence of the ghosts, but about whether it's ambiguous at all, an ambiguity which requires Miles to die) - his great insight is the importance of the fact that the governess is the narrator.  What this means, he says, is not only that we don't know whether she's reliable, but that the subject of the story is its own narration, the narration of the fact that the narration is at issue. It's her story, which means that the content of the narrative is that it is a narrative: as with Proust it is, in the end, the story of the narrator as narrator.

Blanchot doesn't want to make this into some standard circular paradox of self-referentiality, any more than Proust does.  He wants to see this collapsing of the difference between narrative and thing narrated as the pressure of narrative itself, increased sufficiently to squeeze out of narrative everything inessential, everything that isn't, finally, narrative pressure, so that the pressure of narrative is finally what it is: a pressure to be found only in the irreality of fiction because no fact of the matter, no truth, can come to resolve and relieve that pressure.  The turn of the screw tightens the fiction to itself, makes of the work its own idiom or idiolect, a language you can learn but not one that you can translate, not in any literal, vulgar way, as we are warned from the start:
Mrs. Griffin, however, expressed the need for a little more light. "Who was it she was in love with?"

"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.

"Oh, I can't wait for the story!"

"The story won't tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
Waggish's recent post on MacGuffins put me in mind of this.   For Hitchcock (and others) the MacGuffin is the mechanical narrative rabbit (hence the rabbit's foot of MI 3, perhaps), that the greyhounds of plot baying after it.  But for Blanchot (and, if ironically, for Blumenberg) the MacGuffin isn't just (to change the metaphor) a catalyst, some reagent that gets things going and then withdraws.  It's the work itself, the fact of narrative or of fiction, the thing that fiction wants to be able to tell: the significance of its own existence.  And that's what it can't tell in any literal, vulgar way: if it could, its existence wouldn't be significant.  If you chase the MacGuffin in James, or in Proust, or in Kafka (Blanchot compares the three of them) you may indeed go over to the world of parable.  Is this in reality possible?  Of course not.  Only in parable.  You have to learn another language and make its idioms your own, even if they don't translate into anything in your native tongue.

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