Friday, February 04, 2011

The Turn of the Screw: How to transform cliches into awesome new images

This week, Henry James teaches us a way to transform a totally hackneyed trope into something new and amazing. Ready? The secret is: be Henry James.

Sorry, that was discouraging. In fact, I think writing can be taught, even to those of us who aren't scions of brilliant, eccentric clans. Which is to say, I think in many cases, teaching means giving permission. Like everybody else, writers get stuck in ruts. Getting out of them is often simply a matter of showing us that something we thought couldn't be done, can be. Wait, it's OK to do that? Who knew?

In The Turn of the Screw, James gives us permission to depict that hoariest of literary tropes, silence, not as an absence, but a presence. Mind you, this could have turned out badly. He might have used a hack phrase like "palpable silence" to attempt to create that sense of presence. But he doesn't. Rather, you can almost imagine that he started with that phrase, and then decided to really examine what that feels like. As a result, when the apparition of Peter Quint manifests itself to the governess for a third time, we get this:

I had plenty of anguish after that extraordinary moment, but I had, thank God, no terror. And he knew I had not—I found myself at the end of an instant magnificently aware of this. I felt, in a fierce rigor of confidence, that if I stood my ground a minute I should cease—for the time, at least—to have him to reckon with; and during the minute, accordingly, the thing was as human and hideous as a real interview: hideous just because it WAS human, as human as to have met alone, in the small hours, in a sleeping house, some enemy, some adventurer, some criminal. It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural. If I had met a murderer in such a place and at such an hour, we still at least would have spoken. Something would have passed, in life, between us; if nothing had passed, one of us would have moved. The moment was so prolonged that it would have taken but little more to make me doubt if even I were in life. I can't express what followed it save by saying that the silence itself—which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength—became the element into which I saw the figure disappear; in which I definitely saw it turn as I might have seen the low wretch to which it had once belonged turn on receipt of an order, and pass, with my eyes on the villainous back that no hunch could have more disfigured, straight down the staircase and into the darkness in which the next bend was lost.

What's striking in the part I've bolded how the narrator herself is struck. She doesn't just say something like "the silence was heavy and thick," and go on to describe the way the figure turned. Instead, she tells us how she watched the silence become an "element" into which it's possible for a figure to disappear. She is still amazed by how she saw the figure turn into the silence. She doesn't--importantly, I think--compare the silence explicitly to something else, such as a fog or a curtain. She describes as best she can the astonishing visibility of the silence, but at the same time she can't be too precise, because this is such a singular experience. This isn't exactly like stepping into a fog: it's a unique sight, because silence is a unique "element"--made visible here for the first time.

So what can fiction writers learn from this? One, when you find yourself about to employ a cliche, ask yourself what about that cliche appeals to you. Rather than simply steering clear of it, you can really inhabit that cliche (palpable silence, burning rage, heavy sorrow, whatever) and imagine how it really feels. Two, and even better, translate it out of its usual sensory medium. Silence is an auditory experience usually, and perhaps tactile as well. James has made it something we can see. So maybe "heavy sorrow" could be something you could hear, or smell, or taste, rather than feel.

No comments: