The remembered future: neuro-cognitive identity in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.
Literature (Research)
Wesley, Marilyn C.
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Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Spring, 2004 Source Volume: 31 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Product Code: 8425000 Literature NAICS Code: 71151 Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers SIC Code: 8999 Services, not elsewhere classified
Named Person: James, Henry (American writer, 1843-1916)

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The concept of selfhood has taken a beating lately through the political critique of so-called "identity" politics, the post-structural obliteration of individuality, and the sociological condemnation of a culture of narcissism. But as much as we may want to condemn personal identity as we know it, shaped by the isolation and instability of contemporary life, and exploited by 20th-century advertising, the self, understood neurologically and cognitively, is one of the superb achievements of human evolution. Further, its maintenance, a full-time job for human consciousness, also includes, I believe, the practice of literary narrative. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, a novella that, paradoxically, celebrates the achievement of narrative identity even as it tells a tale of autobiographical failure, demonstrates that the self--as a structure of the mind and as a device of fiction--integrates an extraordinary range of information for adaptive use in a challenging world. James's novella, a famous story that foregrounds identity by making it problematic, displays a central purpose of literature and well exemplifies the related processes of fiction and mind that should guide our inquiries into the similar functions of narrative and consciousness.

Of the 500-plus interpretations of James's famous novella, a large number argue or assume that the mental affliction of the unnamed governess who narrates the story is the unreliable source of its supernatural incidents. According to Edmund Wilson's influential explication, "the governess who is made to tell the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and ... the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess" (1960, 115). Yet there is another plausible way to understand the striking "mind" of the text. The Turn of the Screw is an extraordinarily detailed account of the construction of past events in response to the cues and needs of present circumstances. It is a remarkable report of the operation of what we may call autobiographical memory (1)--the creative application of experience to the evolution of personal identity, one of the most important products of the relation between the human brain and the natural and cultural world. My purpose in shifting the predominant psychoanalytical focus to include emerging issues of neurology and psychology is not meant to substitute a novel interpretation--likely an impossibility--but rather to reuse what we already know about a representative classic text in the service of what we are just beginning to learn about the parallels of mind-making and narrative process.

In place of the common-sense belief that memory replicates experience, evolutionary neurologist Gerald M. Edelman, from whom I adapt my title, theorizes the constructive nature of remembering. (2) In a similar vein, cognitive neurologist Antonio Damasio argues that memory is best understood in terms of narrative process. And cognitive psychologist David B. Pillemer posits narrative construction as the very basis of autobiographical memory. This substitution of active creation for passive retrieval has significant parallels to literary narrative, which may seem to offer a reflection of reality but in fact operates as structure through which actuality is organized for social use, a purpose I will consider in light of Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning (1990). The special ability of conscious memory to weave details of emotional context, sequentiality, sensory effects, and causal relationships into the personal sense of repetition of an event--the hallmark of remembering that is actually a recreation shaped to the internal needs of the individual in relation to the complicated forces and issues of external environment--is, I shall argue, the subject and strategy of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

Figures for Memory

In the absence of any complete scientific understanding of the operation of the human mind it has historically (and currently) been necessary to speculate about specific properties through the imposition of provisional symbols. In fact, in a recent study of ideas about the mind, historian of psychology Douwe Draaisma argues that conceptions of memory have been shaped by the many metaphors employed to define it, and these metaphors inevitably operate as ideological bridges between concepts of memory and the contexts out of which they emerge. In Metaphors of Memory (2000) he considers the influence of a range of comparative figures--from Socrates' simile of the aviary to present-day holographic imagery--on psychological, philosophical, and neurological models of remembering. Since The Turn of the Screw is plotted as an account of the memories of the central character, let us begin by considering the figures for memory James brings to bear. The intriguing introductory chapter makes use of three: the locked drawer, the ghost story, and the act of narration.

One of the earliest and most enduring tropes of memory is that of "the storehouse," a veritable "archetype" of scholarly descriptions, according to Draaisma (2000, 27). This metaphor is repeated in James's prologue to the novella through the detail that the governess's written record, which, previously consigned to Douglas's care, has been for many years secured in "a locked drawer" and must be obtained by his manservant and carried to his present location before her story can be imparted (9). This figure conveys the sense that memory, absent from present consciousness, is like a buried treasure repossessed after exertion and delay. According to this metaphor, memory is organized, particularized, valuable, and recuperable in a form identical to the original.

As Draaisma explains it, the advantage of metaphoric expression of psychological states resides in the rendering of what science is unable to describe--"either not yet or in principle" (2000, 11). But the concomitant drawback is that figurative representation may also limit in advance what it is possible to understand about what is not yet understood. The storehouse metaphor is a case in point. While allowing us to imagine memory as the accumulation and later retrieval of perceptual experience, according to Draaisma, it also "raises the question of how something can be found in the memory which has not entered through the doors of the senses" (28). It is in relation to this question that James's introductory metaphor for memory conflicts with the content of the governess's recollection of literally non-corporeal experience.

For the existence of unconscious experience is validated in James's second figure for memory--the ghost story, a form that exaggerates a hypothesis of creative, rather than reflective, memory. The infamous first ghost sighting in The Turn of the Screw is rife with details of impalpable discernment. The young woman, fresh from a poor country parsonage, new at her job, finding herself in charge not only of the children but of an impressive gentleman's grand country estate, is enamored of her elusive employer, as Wilson pointed out (1960, 116). But she is as much, or more, beguiled by the challenge he has given her to prove her own mettle. "I dare say," she confides, "I fancied myself a remarkable young woman and took faith that this would more publicly appear. Well, I needed to be remarkable to offer a front to the remarkable things that presently gave their first sign" (James 1995b, 37). As the inexperienced governess wanders the grounds early in her tenure at Bly, it is a mirroring presence, rather than a sexual partner, she longs for and then imagines: "Some one would appear there at the turn of the path," she muses, "and would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn't ask for more than that--I only asked that he should know ..." (37). In Freudian terms, the signatory apparition that answers these needs for sanctioned identification is not so much a projection of repressed desires of the id as an expression of the strivings of an emergent ego.

If we accept that the generic ghost story provides a form for the expression of the powerful influence of nonexistent phenomena, the issue becomes, what unacknowledged influences are active enough to shape such representation? In the Preface to the 1908 edition of The Turn of the Screw, the author recounts that, as is the parallel case for Douglas, who in the prologue hears a partial ghost story that moves him to recount another, James's own hearing of an incomplete ghost story provoked his narration. This "shadow of a shadow" was appealing, he explains, precisely because its "thinness" allowed authorial amplification. And it is to a similar omission that James attributes the success of his effort. Abjuring any representation of "absolute" horror, through his wraiths James presented each of his readers with an outline to complete according to personal proclivities. Thus, according to James himself, the "values" introduced by the governess's ghosts "are positively all blanks" (1995a, 123). His emphasis, then, is not so much on the force of depravity, the evil manifested in the conventional ghost story, as the need for self-expression, which is also the impetus for the governess's story in The Turn of the Screw.

Mediating the presence and the absence represented through the first two opposing expressions of memory--the storehouse of physical actuality and the ghost story of fanciful lack, the hidden treasure or the blanks of Bly--is the most important figure of the novella: that of transformative narrative process. One important purpose of the prologue to the governess's tale is to track the convoluted trajectory of the narration to follow. Provoked by another story, its existence is described to the narrator of the prologue, who helps to facilitate its eventual rendition by Douglas, to whom the governess herself had confided her account, to the appropriately appreciative group at the country house. The storyteller of the prologue provides the history of the governess's story--not as a record of original events but, instead, as a sequence of narrative performances--tracing its transmission first as an oral confidence shared with Douglas, then as a written record submitted to his safekeeping. In apparent awe of both the author and its subject. Douglas had hidden the document away for forty years, yet he eventually reads the story aloud to the assembled company and passes the written record to the prologue narrator, who transcribes it once again, then reproduces it in the subsequent chapters as recounted in the voice of the governess. And finally, as James's 1908 Preface stresses, all of these versions nest within the author's creation of the artifact addressed to readers of the text.

This performative history has several important effects. First, it establishes the transmission of memory rather than the authenticity of origin as the real focus of the story, and it emphasizes this focus by elongating the episodic distance between source and rendition. This emphatic attenuation also signals a complex relation between the past and the present that must be negotiated creatively through the making and re-making of stories. And, finally, by stressing the sharing of the tale, James relocates the context of cumulative association from the individual to society. In The Turn of the Screw, autobiographical memory, so immutable in the metaphoric treasure house of the mind and so seemingly private in the apprehension of ghosts, is released to the free market of ideas and stories we encounter as culture.

Narrative Memory

For Antonio Damasio, a comparable construct of dynamic memory is fundamental to the establishment of human consciousness, a process he conceives as a special kind of story-telling that occurs in two linked stages through which what he calls "the autobiographical self" is realized. The first-stage construct he calls the "core self" is the nonconscious sense of integrity of any organism out of which, in human beings, a sense of autobiographical identity emerges through a special kind of story. This initial "imaged nonverbal account of how the organism's own state is affected by the processing of the object," told endlessly by the brain, both enhances awareness of the imagery of the "temporal and spatial context" at work and briefly illuminates the organism itself against that temporary backdrop. The core self, then, is the imposition of an experiential perspective, an instantaneous projection made over and over which is the "sense of the self in the act of knowing" produced as a byproduct of the biological "narration" of relationship (1999, 169). It is this continuous but varying iteration of the relation of the organism to its environment that eventually produces the multifaceted ability that, as humans, we know as autobiographical memory, a consciousness of history that includes knowledge of self in relation to past events, present experience, and future plans. For eventually, according to Damasio, the repeated "telling" of the "story" of the relation of primitive core self to all that it encounters generates the "autobiographical self" (196, 197).

Without memory, the "plot" of the core self is something akin to the flashing blip on a radar screen that defines a perspective poised for response, a "pulse" that conveys a momentary consolidation born of instant reaction. Genuine memory, as opposed to immediate awareness, resulted from the evolution of brain structures that can consolidate and reactivate perceptions of and reactions to experience. Memory, within this system, is the name we give to the sophisticated operation of making this useful information available for reuse in service of the evaluative choices the conscious mind experiences within the process we call thought.

In order to negotiate a complicated physical and social environment, human beings generate two kinds of "imagistic" records: perceptual memories of conditions precipitating action and what Damasio terms "dispositional" memories of the effects of those actions experienced as affects--the emotions, positive and negative, that orient us to the value of behaviors (1999, 219). The "autobiographical self"--a consistent identity replete with past experience and future projects in contrast to the unrecognizable "core self" pulsating within a constantly renewing, and therefore unknowable, present--is a special consequence of dispositional memory. And since, Damasio posits, a sense of the "self in the act of knowing" is a part of every conscious thought, the records that result in autobiographical memory acquire the special permanence associated with a sense of identity because they are being continually reactivated.

That is, consciousness, seemingly a collection of disparate mental projects--thinking, daydreaming, planning, observing, as well as what we usually think of as remembering--occurs in conjunction with the continuous reproduction of the "self," or the unifying perspective that lends each separate construction its coherence. For Damasio, the thinking that characterizes full human consciousness is a product of memory that binds the awareness of the world to the special kind of awareness that generates the self. As he explains it, the "sustained display of the autobiographical self is the key to extended consciousness," which "occurs when working memory holds in place, simultaneously, both a particular object and the ... objects in one's autobiography" (1999, 222). (3)

This kind of binding is memorialized in The Turn of the Screw when the governess confides that in the very midst of the escalation of the lurid apparitions she believes the children also witness, they are begging for the mundane details of her previous life. Even as she waits in dreadful anticipation for ten-year-old Miles and his younger sister Flora to introduce what she classifies as forbidden subjects--"the question of the return of the dead" and memories of the previous governess and manservant, Miss Jessel and the infamous Peter Quint, with their terrible history--the children manifest instead "a delightful endless appetite for passages in my own history to which I had again and again treated them": "the story of my smallest adventures and those of my brothers and sisters and of the cat and the dog at home, as well as the particulars of the whimsical bent of my father, of the furniture and arrangement of our house and of the conversation of the old women of our village" (James 1995b, 76).

The governess is surprised at the prominence of such homely curiosity at this precipitous time. But assuming that she projects her own preoccupation with the "ghosts" onto the children, she also assigns to them her own escalating need to reproduce a sense of "self" in conjunction with the troubling events which occupy her thoughts. The dislocation occasioned by her new situation would evoke this necessity and her later recollection in light of Miles's death must have required a similar reformulation of her own identity. The self-ordering unnoticed in the ordinary course of experience is remarkable at this point precisely because it is problematic. The parson's daughter and the governess are in important aspects unrelated. If the ghost story is the narrator's perceptual objectification of disturbing conditions and events, the narration of her past is a contingent effort at dispositional subjectification. The governess's report of the peculiar linkage of the ghost story and her personal narrative, while demonstrating the difficulty of endeavoring to establish a new identity, also supports Damasio's contention that both the world and the self are necessarily memorialized within the unfolding story that constitutes human consciousness.

Central Stories

Story-telling, which for neurologist Damasio remains a suggestive metaphor for autobiographical memory, provides the literal basis for the process of self-definition posited by cognitive psychologist David B. Pillemer. Whereas Damasio theorizes that the world and the self are continuously recreated by memory, Pillemer suggests how this process actually takes place. In Momentous Events, Vivid Memories, Pillemer argues that associative networks of significant personal event memories form an individual's sense of autobiographical identity and that these central memories are structured as narrative. According to Pillemer, this kind of nodal memory.

Pillemer's inclusion of perceptual imagery along with his account of the persistence of emotionally significant episodes combines the biological immediacy of Damasio's "core memory" with the permanence of Damasio's "autobiographical memory," an experiential combination only available to an individual through the cultural framework provided by narrative.

The last chapters of James's novella, which conclude abruptly with the bizarre death of the governess's young charge, Miles, encapsulate the principal personal event memory at the center of the governess's identity--that of her failure to nurture and protect the children. After the departure of little Flora, whom the governess has frightened with accusations about the ghost of Miss Jessel, she is left alone with the boy. Her last confrontation with him culminates in the sudden, inexplicable cessation of his heart. During this final interview, the governess demands the truth about two mysteries concerning Miles--whether or not he pilfered her letter to his uncle and the reason that he had been dismissed from boarding school. Although evidently upset by her uncharacteristically direct questions, Miles bravely confesses the circumstances of his guilt in both instances, but when this information does not allay her continuing agitation, he infers that she is again disturbed by the ghost of the former governess, as she revealed the previous day. (4) However, when even this inference is rejected, he apparently conjectures that his governess is responding to yet another ghost--that of Peter Quint, Miss Jessel's notorious paramour--although, according to the governess's own account, Miles himself is unable see the specter that she intermittently observes peering in through the window. (5)

Except for Miles's confessions, the narrative, a tissue of guesses and absences void of verifiable truth, is a "blank"--a ghost story in the Jamesian sense. Nevertheless, even its nonexistent content is realized through physical texture. As the governess experiences the episode, both her interpretation of the boy and her cognizance of the ghost are presented in terms of sensuous experience. Overwhelmed by the significance of the occasion, she collapses onto a divan in the dining room and notices the large window, the dominant feature of the room. Initially, she interprets "the frames and squares of the great window as an image" of Miles's inability to see Quint's ghost (James 1995b, 110), and she continues to monitor the same concrete location as a kind of gloss on events as they unfold. After unsettling Miles by demanding information about the missing letter, she spots Quint for the first time as the "white face of damnation" beyond the glass. It is at this point that she comes closest to acknowledging the meaning of her vision: "It represents but grossly what took place within me." But as she regains her confidence ("no woman so overwhelmed ever in so short a time recovered her command of the act") and resolves to secure a heroic "personal triumph" by shielding the boy from the sight of the ghost, Quint's face disappears from view. In addition to its focus on her management of the interview and the report of the intermittent appearances and disappearances of the ghost, the governess's story also notes the physical symptoms portending Miles's imminent collapse. As their disturbing conversation progresses, although her attention is centered on her own reactions, she is peripherally aware of his face "white" as that of the ghost, "the sudden fever of his little body," and "the tremendous pulse of his little heart" (113). And although the governess's understanding of the events may be fantastic, her autobiographical memory, detailed, sensory, located in an historical context, and conveying personal belief and meaning, conforms to Pillemer's narrative conditions.

Whereas personal event memories, as Pillemer theorizes them, do not have to be true, they do have to be significant. This significance may emerge from their role as "memorable" or "symbolic" messages, "originating" or "anchoring" instances, or as "turning points." Although a medically informed contemporary reader might interpret Miles's death as the result of a freak heart anomaly, for the narrator it signals her inadequacy as a competent governess, a role she was uncertain about from the start. According to the prologue, the governess, "a fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage" (James 1995b, 25) was intimidated by the "serious duties" of her lonely appointment (27). Self-doubt, realized as a "succession of flights and drops" of emotion (28), according to the very first sentence of the governess's tale, shapes the entire narrative. And this vacillation of confidence is also withessed throughout by the governess's on-again off-again projection of the ghosts as a sign of her own failing, a pattern exaggerated by the sporadic visibility of Quint in the ultimate chapter.

Given her apprehensions, the death of Miles is vivid in the governess's memory not only because it is sad and frightening, but because it symbolizes the utter collapse of her projected identity as the caretaker of children. The questionable death of the child she is responsible for indicates the total failure of the governess, for whom, it is important to note, the diction of the story allows no other name or identifying term. As a document of psychological disturbance, The Turn of the Screw illuminates the complexities of the creation of selfhood in a restrictive environment.

An originating event, like a turning point, dates the change of a life course and predicts its new and continuing direction, while an anchoring event serves as "a touchstone for a continuing set of beliefs." Miles's death is both an anchoring and a pivotal event for the governess. According to Pillemer, the power of an experience is sometimes so great that the "memory of a specific incident" provides "more than an emblematic surrogate for a long established lifescript--it is an active force in forming, redirecting, and sustaining the life course" (1998, 24). While the bulk of the novella provides a detailed representation of its precipitating circumstances, the prefatory chapter, tracing multiple renditions, demonstrates that the abiding project of the governess's life has been the narration of the momentous memory of the death of little Miles as a means of redefining selfhood in the face of her early, painful failure to realize a new identity.

Social Narrative

To think of identity in terms of storehouses or ghosts supports the conventional belief that the human self, as either conscious essence or unconscious potential, exists prior to or outside of its manifestation as consistent autobiographical presence. But the theories of both Damasio and Pillemer stress the production rather than the realization of selfhood. In their models, identity is made instead of merely fulfilled, and the agent of this creation is narrative memory. For Damasio, consciousness consists of perception recollected in conjunction with dispositional record. Thus the self develops, at least in part, in response to the social world it reacts to. But for Pillemer the self develops in direct conjunction with culture. Narrative by form rather than formation, Pillemer's nodal memories, like stories, are comprised of particular "episodes," are experienced by identifiable characters, occur in specified locations and times, and contain "feelings, perceptions, and bodily sensation" (1998, 1). In fact, Pillemer points out that "when in our everyday lives we say that we clearly 'remember' a specific past event, we usually mean that we can produce a detailed narrative description of the episode as it was personally experienced" (4). To define memory as story--replete with protagonist, setting, imagistic description, and episodic demarcation--is to define it as coextensive with narrative patterns provided by culture. Citing the research of Katherine Nelson, whose studies of young children suggest that storytelling competence emerges in conjunction with speech, (6) Pillemer argues, in effect, that memory, popularly believed to be a biological product of the brain, is, like language itself, also significantly structured by social systems.

The ability to render random experience explicable in terms of human expectations depends largely on the cultural conventions of narrative. And, according to psychotherapist Donald E. Polkinghorne, because the primary function of narrative conventions is to supply a "cognitive scheme ... by linking diverse happenings along a temporal dimension and by depicting the effect one event has on another," a story is a formal means of differentiating some events out of an endless train of perceptions and designating them as significant (1988, 15-18). This significance arises from the temporal imposition of sequence in which the conclusion of a story defines an "outcome," and conditions preceding it are understood as causing it. "Narrative explanation," Polkinghorne explains, "is retroactive" (21).

The causal function of storytelling is in fact so important that it usually occupies the most powerful place in the tale--the ending. In traditional literary narrative, a complicating situation leads to climactic action usually followed by a denouement. That is, an explanation of the changes that make ending possible, a solution to the mysteries introduced by the story, a resolution of the conflict, or at least a sketch of conditions likely to result from the decisive action provides the traditional conclusion to a story. But this is not the case in The Turn of the Screw. The governess abruptly truncates her account without additional remarks at the very instant Miles's heart "stopped" (James 1995b, 116). The immediate effect of this unelaborated conclusion is to imply that the mysterious circumstances of the supernatural story have rendered its teller incapable of further explanation. Yet that impression is belied by the exaggerated chronicle of narrative elaboration supplied by the introductory chapter. The inexplicable action would instead seem to have introduced a continuing need for the causal ordering of narrative plot that accounts for its repetition.

According to Jerome Bruner, there is a rhetorical impetus for continuing attempts "to get the story right: In human beings one of the principal forms of peacekeeping is the human gift for presenting, dramatizing, and explicating the mitigating circumstances surrounding conflict-threatening breaches in the ordinariness of life" (1990, 95). Such mitigations serve to define, or sometimes redefine, the narrator as a positive agent in the events recalled and recounted, an important effect of the governess's story. Telling of little Miles's death, years after the event, as a "ghost story" implies the missing cause--supernatural intervention, surely not the fault of the innocent governess. By stressing her insanity, commentators miss the social effect of the enigmas and solutions the governess's account devises. The exculpatory rendition is a means of laudatory self-assertion in a communal context. Her narrative is presented as confided to Douglas, whom the preface introduces as the elder brother of a little girl the governess was caring for at the time of their conversation, parallel circumstances that underscore the success of the governess's story. Douglas, who is comparable to Miles, finds in the governess's disquisition reason to admire both her generic and her personal achievements rather than cause to condemn her failure to protect her unfortunate charge--a far more likely response to the devastating events she recounts. As Bruner argues, to redefine circumstances to the benefit of the narrator is an important purpose of narration. But in order to accomplish this result, the story has to be told in a form which accords with the ideology of the audience. By literally re-membering her morally questionable tale in terms of the ambiguities of the ghost story, the governess manages to stereotype herself as victim of rather than responsible party to the tragedy, as hero rather than villain of the story. Although our commonsense belief is that autobiography explains the formative influences that produce a subject, what is actually plotted is the controlling effect of that subject upon his or her circumstances, an authorial accomplishment that may account for the celebratory tone of James's prologue to a disturbing story.

Neither narrative nor autobiography comes into existence independent of collective culture. Just as the governess in The Turn of the Screw seems to require the sanction of an external presence projected during the first ghost sighting, the children cannot develop in seclusion. Like her they are attempting to create competent identities, and they actively recruit her approval of their own preliminary efforts. This shared imperative is evidenced by the imagery which connects six-year-old Flora to the governess, who expresses her own need to establish a self-concept that includes positive agency through nautical diction. Although she admits feeling "at sea" in the storybook world of her first impressions of Bly, the governess aspires to take "the helm" to steer the "drifting ship" (James 1995b, 31). In a related passage Flora enacts a similar aspiration by twisting two pieces of wood together, that, in the imagery supplied by the governess, resembles "a boat" and "a mast" (54). Wilson's Freudian interpretation discovers the governess's unconscious sexuality in the scene (1960, 117), but an alternative meaning may be inferred when Flora is later discovered on the far side of the pond, having made the brief journey by rowboat--a real action of competence that literalizes the shared goal represented by the nautical motif. Although this journey implies ghostly intervention to the governess, it may demonstrate, instead, that the child who has actually navigated the vessel, like the governess, is engaged in the constructive development of a proficient persona, and indeed, also like the governess, is hoping for communal sanction of her efforts. For at the conclusion of her adventure, the little girl bravely and "solemnly" awaits the governess's reaction: "I saw Flora's face peep at me over our companion's shoulder. It was serious now...." The governess is even struck by the "small valour" of Flora's responses to what, to the child, must seem angry and incomprehensible rejection: the governess's agitated announcement of Miss Jessel's corrupting presence (James 1995b, 97).

The governess also fails to identify and support Miles's similar attempts at self-development. When he ventured outside to stand at midnight in the moonlit yard, he tells her, he was hoping she would observe him and come to understand him in a new way. But, instead, on this occasion, the governess had diverted her attention from the real boy to the ghost she believed must have been standing in the obscurity of the tower above her. Whereas she is probably blameless in Miles's extraordinary death, the governess is guilty of failing to provide supportive attention both of the isolated children require.

Eventually, Miles demands her recognition of his emerging selfhood. Since the governess has confined him, despite his more advanced knowledge, to the elementary lessons of his younger sister, he directly addresses the oddly unspoken problem of his return to boarding school. Aware of the abandonment of his warder and in spite of his dismissal from his previous academy, he presses for the governess to write to his uncle to arrange a return to school: "I want a new field," he declares (James 1995b, 91).

A significant "turn of the screw" in James's novella is the escalating collective abdication of social responsibility that culminates in Miles's death. The peculiar paternal interdiction--that the uncle receive no communication about his wards, the condition of the contract between the governess and her employer--pervades the story. Absent effective social connection, the emergent selves of the governess and the children fail to achieve the complement of communal recognition within the events of the story. And in conformity to this destructive condition, just as the uncle fails all of them, the governess fails the children. Her own implication in this pattern is cemented during the first apparition when the approving external presence the governess desires turns into a malevolent ghost, later identified by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, as the baleful Peter Quint. The ghosts in this story signify the narrator's lapses of confidence because they are representations of absence: dead and dishonored, Jessel and Quint, are the negative signs of failed community.

To stress the neuro-narrative structure of identity that is attained by an individual in complex relation to community is to challenge two popular opposing theories, both rooted in disconnection: the essentialist view that the "self" is the automatic unfolding of pure inborn individuality and the post-structuralist argument that personal "subjectivity" is merely the illusory effect of social determination. Despite the actual existence of both biological potential and social conditioning, neither innate tendency nor communal expectation, separately, produces the felt sense of individual consistency that is the hallmark of identity. This constant is the achievement of autobiographical memory, which recreates the brain's varied records of physical and emotional experience in conjunction with the cultural codes of narrative to continuously compose a recognizable "self" that joins the human body to the social world.

The Remembered Future

While the existence of bio-social self-awareness may indeed, as I am arguing, demonstrate the influence of narrative on consciousness, we may also speculate about the influence of consciousness on narrative. According to Gerald M. Edelman's evolutionary account of human consciousness, at a preliminary stage of the development of the mind, the limbic system, which responds to threat and advantage, along with the various perceptual registers of the thalamocortical system combined to produce the capacity to construct a "scene." This phenomenal registration, joining perception to rudimentary evaluation, imagistic in form and affective in effect, is the basis for what Edelman describes as "primary consciousness," the integrated awareness of a "remembered present" in which past results of sensory events orient an animal's current reactions (1992, 118). It is just this kind of orienting awareness, we have already noted, which calls forth the elementary "core self" proposed by Damasio and is realized in the perceptual imagery of Pillemer's theory of memory.

Human "higher-order consciousness," according to Edelman, results from the later evolution of language capability. The combination of the integrated perceptual and value systems of primary consciousness and the symbolic organization provided by culture results in the production of a genuine "social self" (1992, 131). And because at this level of awareness, the conscious individual recognizes a permanent personal past, he or she also gains the ability to plan for a projected future. Such consciousness includes perceptions--all of the physical "qualia" of the body's variegated encounters, including proprioceptive, kinesthetic, and somatosensory experience along with images--pictorial and otherwise sensorial representations of the body's engagement with the world--and feelings--all of the subtle degrees and types of emotional response defined through direct bodily reaction. This content, originating in the exchange between the biological entity and its context, both material and social, is augmented through temporal organization to include what we commonly think of as memory of the past, the discernment of present influences, and the imagination of a future. Physical and emotional awareness is further expanded through participation in language and culture to include the "enhanced ability to hold" all of humanity's collective "knowledge in mental display and manipulate it" so as to make intellectual and ethical sense of human experience (Damasio 1999, 311).

It is striking that Edelman's defining qualities of higher-order consciousness are replicated in the characteristic elements of narrative. Traditional narration locates particular events within a context of time, perception, and emotion and places the resulting "scene" within the perspective of a particular human being; it weds this scene to emotion; and the preeminence of both character and point of view in story parallels the construction of the autobiographical self. Like higher-order consciousness, narrative is, of course, realized through language. Finally, and again like higher-order consciousness, narrative fuses disparate formulations in order to facilitate the evaluation of experience, and in some stories, particularly as expressed in literature, cognitive evaluation includes an ethical dimension.

Consider, for example the opening paragraph of the governess's tale:

The perceptions in the passage include the description of the day and the destination; the latter rendered in imagistic detail, including the kinesthetic suggestion of the "bumping" ride, the appearance of the house, the accompanying sounds of the carriage running over gravel and the cries of the rooks. The ups and downs of the emotional effect on the governess, with reference to her past experience, of the last several days and the years preceding, as well her hopes for the future are subject to evaluation. The "right throbs and the wrong" are registered and a possible "mistake" is noted, only to be replaced by the general impression of "greatness" of setting that extends to the governess's sense of positive anticipation. What she herself designates as a "scene" evidently contributes to her developing sense of self, the transition from her private role within a family of "scant" means to her emerging public role as the governess of a large estate. The meaning of this transformation is implied through social signs embedded in personal experience: the "commodious" conveyance which awaits her, the apparent anticipation by the expectant household staff, and especially the ceremonious "curtsey" which formally institutes a new and elevated status.

In addition to the content of higher-order consciousness. Edelman and Giulio Tononi theorize its functional properties:

The arrival at Bly, although composed of many observations, produces a unified impression. Even at the level of primary consciousness, according to Edelman and Tononi, the brain is capable of abstracting the "gist" of an experience (2000, 141), a rudimentary sense of whether it is a threat or a boon to the participant, and the essence of this more complex scene is evidently its portent of possibility for the governess. Just as the composite of consciousness organizes variable information, the paragraph seems to foster the emergence of an identity that can cope with its own exigencies. The composite memory of the governess's arrival at Bly, translated into language, provides not so much a mimetic record as a formulation to advance the agency and perspective the rest of the story tests. From the first person point of view of the governess, the scene denotes and connotes a future "self," which by the end of the tale is subject to potentially devastating moral evaluation.

On the basis of this comparison, we may conclude that the special kind of awareness of experience, emotion, perceptual imagery, place, time, personhood, and judgment that characterizes autobiographical memory may also define literary narrative. That is, narrative mimics consciousness to unite the needs of the organism, the perceptions of the world through the complex social codes of language and story forms into an "identity" capable of negotiating a demanding environment. The brain's capacity to bind distributed neurological information into a form that may be used for adaptive choice, especially evident in autobiographical memory, is reflected in the formal features of fiction, probably for a similar purpose: to cultivate an aptitude for the speculative insight necessary for planning goals and predicting outcomes. The aim of autobiographical memory is to superintend what can happen to the self in a kind of "remembered future," the same objective, I argue, that the governess's story illustrates.

In his monumental treatise The Principles of Psychology published in 1890, just seven years before his brother Henry completed his popular novella, William James claimed that what we think of as memory is not a mere "copy" of the past but "on the contrary, a very complex representation, that of the fact to be recalled plus" all its later associations--an ongoing reconstruction of experience deemed as integral to the emerging identity of the rememberer (1904, 650). "The electric current, so to speak, between it and our present self does not close," James asserted (652). Given the mutually influential affiliation of the James brothers, the psychologist and the author, it is reasonable to assume that the "complex representation" of experience--memory reproducing its train of past associations in the present, connecting the current world to the future "self," within both the psyche and the text--might have interested both of them. The fraternal alliance may account for Henry James's suffusion of Turn of the Screw with issues of creative remembering.

For as we have noted in Henry James's remarkable example, consciousness, in its many manifestations, generally includes a sense of self-awareness, but it is in the special branch of consciousness psychologists designate autobiographical memory that this feature is most fully realized. If it is true, as I propose, that the remarkable similarities shared by fiction and autobiographical memory also confirm that they share a common purpose--promoting a capability for the kind of complicated adaptive action demonstrated in the governess's self-construction in The Turn of the Screw--investigations of autobiographical memory may also contribute to our understanding of how it is that stories sustain us. It is the business of neurologists to determine how this complicated transaction is achieved by the cells of the human brain. And it is the responsibility of cognitivists to describe how the properties we know as autobiographical memory and selfhood contribute to human knowing. For literary scholars, an important task is to make full use of the emerging revelations about how neuro-psychological memory does what it does in order to understand how it is that the narrative self, the functional center of public text and private life, helps us to know what we do, to be what we are, and become what we shall.


(1) The complex concept of autobiographical memory is usefully defined by Martin A. Conway in terms of its inclusion of key characteristics: lengthy duration of recall, "self-reference," "experience of remembering," "context-specific sensory and perceptual attributes," frequently accompanied by "imagery" (1990, 14). For William F. Brewer autobiographical memory includes a number of different forms of memory: "personal memory," "autobiographical fact," "generic personal memory," and "self-schema" (1986, 29).

(2) With reference to Edelman's 1989 title The Remembered Present.

(3) Damasio's recent theory finds support in William James's far earlier claim that the concept of memory "requires more than mere dating of a fact in the past. It must be dated in my past. In other words, I must think that I have directly experienced its occurrence. It must have that 'warmth and intimacy' ... characterizing all experiences appropriated by the thinker as his own" (1904, 650).

(4) The governess herself refers to this inference by Miles as "his supposition" (James 1995b, 116).

(5) The governess's report emphasizes Miles's inability to see the ghost when he demands to know "Where?" Quint's apparition is visible to her (James 1995b, 116).

(6) That the process of selection, sequence, and causality as a social expedient is evident in Katherine Nelson's account of the narrative development of a precocious toddler from her eighteenth month through her third year. In Narratives from the Crib Nelson recorded little Emily's stories and charted the emergence of various speech patterns that made her capable of recounting her own experience. The first step in this process was learning the linguistic forms expressing temporality: conjunctions and words like then. And these forms were soon accompanied by verbal means of imputation--words like because (Bruner 1990, 90).

Works Cited

Brewer, William. 1986. "What Is Autobiographical Memory?" In Autobiographical Memory, ed. David Rubin. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bruner, Jerome. 1990. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Conway, Martin A. 1990. Autobiographical Memory: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Milton Keynes.

Draaisma, Douwe. 2000. Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas about the Mind. Trans. Paul Vincent. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Damasio, Antonio. 1999. The Feeling of What Happened: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt.

Edelman, Gerald M. 1989. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness. New York: Basic Books.

______. 1992. Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Edelman, Gerald M., and Giulio Tononi. 2000. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. New York: Basic Books.

James, Henry. 1995a. "Preface to the 1908 Edition." In The Turn of the Screw, ed. Peter G. Beidler. New York: Bedford St. Martin's.

______. 1995b. The Turn of the Screw. Ed. Peter G. Beidler. 1908. Reprint. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.

James, William. 1904. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. I. 1890. Reprint. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Nelson, Katherine. 1989. Narratives from the Crib. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.

Pillemer, David B. 1998 Momentous Events, Vivid Memories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Polkinghorne, Donald E. 1988. Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Wilson, Edmund. 1960. "The Ambiguity of Henry James." In A Casebook on Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," ed. Gerald Willen. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Marilyn C. Wesley, associate professor of English at Hartwick College, is author of Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates' Fiction (1993). Secret Journeys: The Trope of Women's Travel in American Literature (1999), and Violent Adventure in Contemporary Fiction by American Men (2003).
represents a specific event that took place at a specific time and
    place; [it] contains a detailed account of the rememberer's own
    personal circumstances at the time of the event; [the] verbal
    narrative account of the event is accompanied by sensory images,
    including visual, auditory, olfactory images or body sensations,
    that contribute to the feeling of "reexperiencing" or "reliving";
    [the] sensory details and images correspond to a particular moment
    or moments of phenomenal experience; [and the] rememberer believes
    that the memory is a truthful representation of what transpired.
    (Pillemer 1998, 50-51)

I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops,
    a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong. After rising, in
    town, to meet his appeal I had at all events a couple of bad days--
    found my doubts bristle again, felt indeed sure I had made a
    mistake. In this state of mind I spent the long hours of bumping
    swinging coach that carried me to the stopping-place at which I was
    to be met by a vehicle from the house. This convenience, I was told,
    had been ordered, and I found, toward the close of the June
    afternoon, a commodious fly in waiting for me. Driving at that hour,
    on a lovely day through a country the summer sweetness of which
    served as a friendly welcome, my fortitude revived and, as we turned
    into the avenue, took a flight that was probably but a proof of the
    point to which it had sunk. I suppose I had expected, or dreaded,
    something so dreary that what greeted me was a good surprise. I
    remember a thoroughly pleasant impression the broad clear front, its
    open windows and fresh curtains and the pair of maids looking out; I
    remember the lawn and the bright flowers and the crunch of my wheels
    on the gravel and the clustered tree-tops over which the rooks
    circled and cawed in the golden sky. The scene had a greatness which
    made it different from my own scant home, and there immediately
    appeared at the door, with a little girl in her hand, a civil person
    who dropped me as decent a curtsey as if I had been the mistress or
    a distinguished visitor. I had received in Harley Street a narrower
    notion of the place, and that, as I recalled it, made me think the
    proprietor still more of a gentleman, suggested that what I was to
    enjoy might be a matter beyond his promise. (James 1995b, 28)

1) A conscious scene is unified--it operates as a gestalt
    impression, rather than a conglomerate of parts;
    2) it is private in that it is apprehended from a single point of
    3) it is focused. The unity and singularity of conscious experience
    seem to preclude other conscious experience at the same time. As a
    result, conscious states are experienced serially as a linear
    trajectory of impressions. Thus, although "continuous,"
    consciousness "is continually changing."
    4) The conscious state that is being experienced is selective; that
    is, it is differentiated from an infinite number of alternative,
    potentially associable sensory, imagistic, emotional, intellectual,
    ethical qualities that could have been included;
    5) it is informative: "the occurrence of a given conscious state
    among billions of others represents information, in the fundamental
    sense of reducing uncertainty among a large number of choices;
    6) and for this reason the awareness produced by consciousness can
    lead to a large number of behavioral outcomes. Therefore it
    promotes a flexibility of response based on the adaptive "ability
    to learn unexpected associations among a large variety of
    apparently unconnected signals." (Edelman and Tononi 2000, 147-152)
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