Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

What Maxie Knew: The Gift and Oedipus in What Maisie Knew and Rushmore

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

What Maxie Knew: The Gift and Oedipus in What Maisie Knew and Rushmore

Article excerpt

This essay examines the relationship between gift-giving and violence in texts about the Oedipus complex. It argues that in Henry James's novel What Maisie Knew and Wes Anderson's film Rushmore, a secondary repression is enabled by narrative techniques that mobilize a collective act of forgetting through the enjoyment of plot.


The small expanding consciousness would have to be saved, have to become
presentable as a register of impressions; and saved by the experience of
certain advantages, by some enjoyed profit and some achieved confidence,
rather than coarsened, blurred, sterilized, by ignorance and pain.
--Henry James, Preface to What Maisie Knew

Max Fischer to Miss Cross: "At least no one got hurt."
"Except you," she replies.
"Nah. I didn't get hurt that bad."--Wes Anderson, Rushmore

In a recent paper on violence and deconstruction, Elizabeth Grosz suggests that violence is "the unspoken condition of a certain fantasy of the sustainability of its various others or opposites, peace, love and so on" (8). What Grosz is discussing here is the relationship between deconstruction's interest in a certain foundational violence, the arche-writing that inscribes the "thing-in-itself" into a system of representation, and a "second, 'reparatory' or compensatory violence, the violence whose function is to erase the traces of this primordial violence" (10)--the violence of the law or of reason. The legitimating structures of law function in this paradigm as the site of fantasy--that which enables us to engage in a collective act of forgetting about the originary violence of representation itself. Narrative, especially a particular kind of narrative, functions as another such site of utopianist forgetting: the story of the end of childhood, and its denial of the violence of the Oedipus complex.

In the epigraphs above, two texts which take as their subject and theme the loss of childhood innocence in the resolution of the Oedipus complex both deny the pain of that resolution for the children involved. Not completely deny, of course: James leaves open the possibility that Maisie will perhaps be slightly "coarsened, blurred, sterilized" by the pain of her ordeal, and Max admits to his adult love object only that he was not hurt "that bad." Nevertheless, the denial remains--even as it is, necessarily, refracted, expressed, and resolved differently for the boy and the girl. Both authors implicitly argue that regardless of a few bumps and bruises along the way, everything turns out all right in the end; as readers and viewers we are invited to experience these endings as restorative, even though both narratives have insisted quite strenuously on the pain and suffering--even to the point of physical violence--endured by their main characters.

Aside from their similar histories of violent repression, these central characters could not be more different. Where Maisie is (at least initially) befuddled and trusting, Max is shrewd and circumspect. Where Maisie enacts her creator's desire to explore a character who "resist[s] [...] the strain of observation and the assault of experience" (Maisie xi), Max is characterized early on in the film as someone who "seem[s] to have it pretty figured out." Even more importantly, the trajectory of each character's Oedipal drama is quite different, as Freud's discussion of gender difference in childhood psychosexual development would insist: this sexual difference, in fact, suggests an explanation for why Maisie resists the "assault of experience" while Max embraces it. Yet the two narratives also share a deeper affinity than a characterological sketch of their protagonists would allow. Both are concerned with the power and powerlessness of children, and the ways in which children negotiate and participate in adult violence. Both texts are utopianist wish-fulfilments that enact certain fantasies of and about childhood. The first-order fantasy is the wish of infantile/pubescent sexuality, that the child will somehow end up with his or her "final" (heterosexual) Oedipal object: Maisie will live happily ever after with Claude, and Max will . …

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