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  • Childhood LivingJames and Tarantino
  • Patrick O'Donnell (bio)

This essay is the third installment of a work in progress on the fiction of Henry James in relation to modern and contemporary film. Previous discussions explored object relations, voyeurism, and the totality of representation in James's "In the Cage" and Hitchcock's The Birds, and memory and the representation of the future in James's "The Beast in the Jungle" and Christopher Nolan's Memento. In the present instance, I will focus on issues of temporality, childhood, and the structuring and destruction of experience in James's sexual free-for-all for Edwardian adults, What Maisie Knew, and Quentin Tarrantino's postmodern chronicle of corporeal mayhem and a free-for-all of another kind in Kill Bill, Volumes One and Two. Doubtless, on the surface, it seems a stretch to compare James to Tarantino, or for that matter, James to Nolan or Hitchcock. My interest, however, is not comparison in the usual sense—not, fundamentally, shared aesthetics or worldviews or thematics. Rather, I am interested in ratios and differentials in the enscenement of states of being and nonbeing, time, and the representation of [End Page 1] experience in time, and I believe it is instructive to observe these as they occur across the fiction of a modernist writer whose fashioning of visuality as ethos is still being worked out on film. What is being worked out between What Maisie Knew and Kill Bill is a specific relation between time and experience. Both ask, What happens when the ratio between experience and temporality is skewed, when there is an overexposure to the end of experience in mortality? And both locate this conundrum in the figure of the child, whose ephemeral existence is only and always conceived as a passing away before time.

Kill Bill is a film about wasting time, the wasting away of temporality, the time of wasting bodies, landscapes, cinematic repertoires. It is a film that envisages the serialization of the historical, as if history were simply a pure succession of events marked by the afterglow of their consummation. Pertinent here is Harry D. Harootunian's observation that, for Walter Benjamin, the construction of history is essentially performative, seeking to "produce a certain concrete effect, the coming together of the Then … and the Now … into a constellation like a flash of lightning" (1996, 77). The notion of history as composed of constellations that link the past and present in a series of simultaneities or instantaneous aporiae is clearly in opposition to all historicisms that posit eternal successions or reich-like continuums extending into the far reaches of time. This is a notion to be differentiated as well from what Giorgio Agamben, in "Critique of the Instant and the Continuum," refers to as the "dead time" of modernity; that is,

the representation of time as homogenous, rectilinear and empty [that] derives from the experience of manufacturing work and is sanctioned by modern mechanics, which establishes the primacy of uniform rectilinear motion over circular motion. T e experience of dead time abstracted from experience, which characterizes life in modern cities and factories, seems to give credence to the idea that the precise fleeting instant is the only human time. Before and after, notions which were vague for Antiquity—and which, for Christianity, had meaning only in terms of the end of time—now become meaning in themselves and for themselves, and this meaning is presented as truly historical.

(1993, 96) [End Page 2]

Even though the formation of historical constellations may be instantaneous, Benjaminian temporality relies, precisely, on the linkage of then and now—a linkage that is not preordained, nor eschatologically integrated into some grand narrative of progress. As Agamben suggests, it is the forging of the relation between then and now, or before and after, that is critical to the construction and representation of an authentic historicity, one that, as he writes elsewhere, offers a resistance and alternative to the forms of experience legislated by modernist temporalities of the instance, given over to "the imposition of a form of experience as controlled and manipulated as a laboratory maze for rats" (1993, 16). "[W]hen the only possible experience...


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