Logos Multilingual Portal

9. From text to initial image: the psychology of artistic creation. Notes on the unconscious process that takes the author from vision to linguistic realization


a) The word and its reflection

In The Golden Bowl, Henry James constructs an entire story on the lack of a point of view. The novel is divided into ‘antidramatic’ dialogues, so that the subject being dealt with is submerged by the many opinions arising on it. The language in this extreme contribution by James to the "aesthetics of the mobile point of view" only serves to avoid defining things. Reality is spoken of almost to exorcize the fear it instils. In The Turn of the Screw, James created a ‘interior’ nightmare situation. A direct link between The Golden Bowl and the story derives from the common theme: the obsession with ‘psychic vampirism’ that marked the writer throughout his entire creative course. The setting of the ‘dialogue’ novel is a party at which a strange couple appears: he is the former hypochondriac, full of vitality, whereas she was a lovely girl with a natural exuberance, and now seems emaciated and vacant. But when the idea of vampirism arises, someone says that his hypochondria was in turn caused by a saturnine love for a dark lady who could be the same ‘lovely young girl’.

On the other hand, in The Turn of the Screw, a preamble set in an after-dinner gathering between friends creates a 'genre' atmosphere, allowing James to spread a veil of ironic detachment from the events. Does the governess, who saw the two children entrusted to her care fall into the clutches of the ghost of the mysteriously disappeared servant, suffer from hysterical disorders? Is she is in love with her unattainable gentleman and father of the children? Perhaps it was she who drove sensitive little Miles to death from despair. In James, opinions are facts.
Like Bernard Shaw, James arranged his characters on a chessboard, and then worked out their possible moves. In him the external landscape coincides with the individual - and hence limited - perception that his characters from time to time have of it. Thus, the unspoken can prevail over the explicit.

We shall examine the incipit of The Turn of the Screw:

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child."

James’s subtlety lies in making the conventional "old house" the stage of the governess’s hysteria. On the other hand, making the unconscious - that nightmare of the discourse - visible as a scenario is the trump in translating the work of this writer who is so difficult to render in another language. Note the ballade tone used in placing between the story and its representation the invention of a stage on which social conventions become linguistic convenience. The story is told in view of its ‘staging’ before an emotionally detached audience that only seeks a certain degree of feigned affected intensity. Also note the how the theme of the ‘supernatural’ (the ‘visitation’ of the ghost) becomes the nodal point of the story by simple analogy with the echo of the story that was told before this incipit, and whose connotation we will never know: if it was ironic, or part of the supernatural event. Thus, one can appreciate the difficulty in rendering "such a visitation": in Italian, for example, "una siffatta visitazione" is a neutral translation, and therefore close to that real counterpoint of counter-texts James sought at that point. The ‘visitor’ is already that "somebody" whose identity is not revealed. At the end of the tale we discover that the narrator’s ghostly nature is one of the most disturbing ‘retrograde’ effects of this perfect short story. In fact, without a synthetic point of view, any difference between hallucination and real life disappears. For a translator, not ‘marking’ this play of shadows reflected inside mirrors with clarifying linguistic levels becomes increasingly difficult. Moreover, "sufficiently breathless" is not "a sufficienza senza fiato" (sufficiently without breath): the irony is the irreproachable way the public accepts the fiction of the story in being a 'genre story', or a play of roles; where James requires the reader to suspend a priori any aspirations after re alism. And, with him, the translator, who is the first among readers.

A useful exercise is to make a map of the castle, with all the outlines marking the emergence of the ‘underworld’ of the ghosts in the field of vision of the governess, and then of Miles. Lastly, the setting of the room in which the narrator is telling the story to his friends must be drawn. Will it thus be discovered that Peter Quint’s ghost is the translator himself?