From charlesreid1


It is because men are weak that they lie. Even to themselves.


I watched Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon [1], a classic depiction of unreliable narrators, within two days of reading Turn of the Screw by Henry James [2]. I noticed parallels between both when I realized, while watching Rashomon, that I was applying a familiar technique of trying to figure out how to filter the information provided by the narrators. It was a familiar technique, because I had been applying it two days earlier while reading Turn of the Screw. The parallels between the two became most obvious during Rashomon when the medium channeled the spirit of the dead samurai to tell the dead samurai's version of events, invoking elements of the supernatural and begging the question of how far you can stretch your believability when watching a story.

Both stories bring up an important question about the reader's or viewer's ability to filter information from unreliable narrators: if we know that ghosts are not real, can we, honestly, consider that a narrator who sees ghosts, or believes ghosts, or channels ghosts, can be telling the truth?

This is a meta-question that this story and this movie ask about the nature of stories and movies themselves. When watching a movie, or reading a story, we engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. We enter into a contract with the storyteller, and we allow them to take liberties with reality in order that they may communicate their ultimate message or experience. And we as audience members can generally easily distinguish the liberties taken from the truths that hold in reality - we can take a lesson learned from a story involving talking animals and apply it to our lives, without believing that animals must be able to talk in order for that truth to hold.

This is what made the meta-question so interesting to me. What makes an element of a story that disagrees with reality a simple liberty, or simply a part of the story, like a talking turtle? And what makes an element of a story that disagrees with reality into a deception on the part of the narrator, and transforms them into an unreliable narrator? When does the storyteller violate the contract we've entered into, and abuse our willing suspension of disbelief?

Turn of the Screw

Both Turn of the Screw and Rashomon stage the stories they tell as narratives within narratives, a useful mechanism for creating elements of ambiguity and unreliability. But creating this frame also allows the storyteller to establish "ground rules" more clearly. I think establishment of ground rules is important to stories, particularly stories that take grosser liberties with our willing suspension of disbelief. For example, fairy tales usually begin with "Once upon a time...", and this way of beginning a story cues in the audience to the fact that the story they are about to hear will be a fairy tale, with all the liberties with reality that fairy tales are wont to take. A Tom Clancy-style novel whose narrator suddenly begins to talk about fairies, on the other hand, is a cue that the narrator has lost all their marbles.

Stories don't just suspend our disbelief - they suspend our disbelief in a certain way. The context of how you are supposed to suspend your disbelief, what the storyteller is supposed to do or not supposed to do in the course of telling the story, is a very complicated epistemological question. Untangling this is a difficult task, but one that even children can do with ease. It's possible for us to do in large part because stories are never told in a vacuum - even the simplest story is laden with context, expectations, and patterns. Who is telling the story? What kind of story is it? What have we been told about the story to prepare us?

Each of these elements (the context, our expectations, the story's patterns) in turn form an internal mental canvas, onto which the story is then deposited. And much like a piece of modern art, the stories told in Rashomon and Turn of the Screw (and stories with unreliable narrators in general) call attention to the canvas itself: they are paintings that say, "Look at me! I'm a painting! Did you notice the texture of the canvas? Did you notice that I'm actually just a bunch of dabs of colored paint?" Just as a canvas covered entirely with one color forces us to think about what a painting fundamentally is, the stories in Rashomon and Turn of the Screw, by toying with our notions of truth within stories, force us to think about what a story fundamentally is.

That the human brain is capable of handling the epistemological tangle of layered truth that stories present to us, and that it has been capable of doing so for literally thousands of years, is nothing short of astounding. We know, from the time we are very young, how to perform the complicated task of listening to a story, and how to distinguish the different layers of truth, and how to sort the information in a story into separate bins corresponding to different kinds of knowledge. (In fact, the complexities of truth in storytelling are reflective of the deeper tangle of truths inherent in language. One can use language to construct statements, ideas, and experiences that do not correspond to reality, but nevertheless carry some meaning.)

This is what epistemology is all about - what is truth, what is reality, and how do we come to know them? How do we translate experience and knowledge from one mind to another? Nietzsche, in Will to Power, writes:

There are many kinds of eyes. Even the sphinx has eyes - and consequently there are many kinds of truths, and consequently there is no truth.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power § 540

Rashomon is a movie that embodies this haunting quote. It forces us to face up to the fleeting nature of the truth in a world where all we can know is what we see and remember: faculties we know are fallible, unreliable, and subject to our wills. ("There are four eyes; and consequently there are four truths; and consequently there is no truth.")

Turn of the Screw, on the other hand, is less about showing the same story from "many" eyes, and more about focusing on the unreliability of eyes in general. To say that we can never know the "Truth-with-a-capital-T" (Kant's noumenon, or "world-in-itself" [3]) because all of the human faculties and senses that lie between us and that Truth are fallible, is a nihilistic statement (one that Nietzsche would emphatically agree with); and Turn of the Screw seems to shine the spotlight on this fact: the fact that we will never know the truth. In the story, there is no single interpretation of events. The information we have is imperfect. The frame of the story casts doubt on every fact. The events may be read in virtually any manner the reader pleases. All that we are left with, in the end, is the uncertainty of interpretation that characterizes the story. This is what makes it so unlike other stories - ambiguity is baked into the story, such that we can't escape it. And this is a reflection of how we experience reality.

Often, the sweet syrup of story is created by boiling off the ambiguity from the mash of messy reality, which consists of disparate experiences, events, memories, and interpretations. But Turn of the Screw refuses to do that. It presents us with the ambiguous, raw narrative, without an interpretation, and leaves everything unfinished, unexplained, and open. It shows us, in how we respond to it, how we ourselves deal with ambiguity in our own reality, how we craft our own stories from tangled and uninterpreted events. It is a giant mirror reflecting our own desire to create a coherent narrative thread to pull events together.

Turn of the Screw is a single story, and the "many eyes" that Nietzsche refers to are the many eyes of the readers. The ambiguity of Turn of the Screw is the ambiguity of our own world. It illustrates to us how we craft our own narrative from facts. Each reader has their own interpretation of the "truth" of the story. Many eyes, many truths, no truth.

Rashomon explicitly shows us four eyes and four truths; Turn of the Screw implicitly shows us thousands of eyes and thousands of truths. But both illuminate the same idea - how we construct meaning if there is no truth - and turn a mirror on that process.

Rashomon and Turn of the Screw: two eyes, one idea.