Knowledge and ignorance of the past in The Beast of the Jungle

I went back and reread the beginning of Beast in the Jungle after reading Helmers and realized how totally strange the moment between Bertram and Marcher just preceding the revelation about their past reads after one has concluded the story:

“He would have liked to invent something, get her to make-believe with him that some passage of a romantic or critical kind had originally occurred.  He was really almost reaching out in imagination—as against time—for something that would do, and saying to himself that if it didn’t come this sketch of a fresh start would show for quite awkwardly bungled.  They would separate, and now for no second or no third chance.  They would have tried and not succeeded.  Then it was, just at the turn, as he afterwards made it out to himself, that, everything else failing, she herself decided to take up the case and, as it were, save the situation.  He felt as soon as she spoke that she had been consciously keeping back what she said and hoping to get on without it; a scruple in her that immensely touched him when, by the end of three or four minutes more, he was able to measure it.  What she brought out, at any rate, quite cleared the air and supplied the link—the link it was so odd he should frivolously have managed to lose” (first chapter, 5th paragraph).

How is it possible that Marcher forgot what he told Bertram? Why were they not made inseparable the first time they met after he shared his secret? This is peculiar and suspicious to me. Right before Bertram’s revelation, Marcher confesses his desire to invent a critical moment in the past in order to create a connection that will bind them in the present and future. She then “herself decided to take up the case.” Then his perception of the moment changes, and it seems “as soon as she spoke” that she had known something all along. I think what is going on here is a creation, an invention of the past in the present. Even if it’s based on some truth, that Marcher confessed something of his feelings of dread in his youth, the total import of this moment in the past and the secret on his life is created in this moment, it had for him no importance before, to the point that he literally forgot it completely.

Contrast this moment with a previous paragraph:

“Her face and her voice, all at his service now, worked the miracle—the impression operating like the torch of a lamplighter who touches into flame, one by one, a long row of gas-jets.  Marcher flattered himself the illumination was brilliant, yet he was really still more pleased on her showing him, with amusement, that in his haste to make everything right he had got most things rather wrong.  It hadn’t been at Rome—it had been at Naples; and it hadn’t been eight years before—it had been more nearly ten” (third paragraph).

Here we see Bertram recalling the past with ease and confidence, with no implication of invention, but instead with the familiar associative linking of recollection that feels like the illumination of objects in the dark. Yet Bertram is wrong about key events here and there is no mention of what we are to find out was his most compelling “memory.” In this paragraph he confesses he was “really still more pleased” to discover that the memories he thought were real were wrong. It is interesting and telling that he would find this failure of memory to be pleasurable, and he is willing to allow Bertram to reconstruct his past.

I think looking at these passages expose of implications of what this story is doing with knowledge of the past, history, and especially personal history. Our failure to understand history and the past, the possibility that it is invention rather than recall that is operating and that the past is a construction vulnerable to the influences, pressures, and desires of others. In this sense, Marcher’s failure to recall a significant event and failure to be knowledgeable about his past allows for Bertram to become essential in his construction of a personal narrative.

Helmer’s writes about the nature of knowledge and time that Marcher comes to experience through Bertram:

“…the tessellated pattern of Western culture in which time, understood as a past and present that contain a set of interrelated events that certain people can accurately remember or predict, tessellates into a system of knowledge where people can dig up previously buried pieces of knowledge in order to arrive at a more thorough understanding of past and future and an intimate comprehension of the interiority of other subjects. This epistemic system tessellates into a desire for these bits of knowledge, a desire that points toward times and pieces of knowledge not present in the present moment, something lacking in this moment that the subject can nonetheless desire and bring about through careful examination of the buried treasures of knowledge hidden in the past and future” (113).

And argues:

“Following John Marcher in his queerness, then, is not a process of embracing ignorance or unknowing. Instead I propose an alternate system that, while approximated by the binary of knowledge/ignorance as ignorance, removes itself from this play as not governable within its rules. This is not to say that Marcher’s queerness, or my reading of his queerness, transcends or eliminates the play of knowledge/ignorance but rather that his queerness opens up new spaces both within and without the binary for conceptualizing alternate modes of knowledge and the subject” (113)
Though I am not confident that Helmer is getting at this point, perhaps Bertram and Marcher’s collusion over the past is a kind of “alternate mode of knowledge” that transcends the knowledge/ignorance binary, since rather than knowledge or ignorance it is imagination/creation which is not really either, operates as both in a way, and is also outside of both.


1 thought on “Knowledge and ignorance of the past in The Beast of the Jungle”

  1. I found this first exchange between the two of them rather questionable as well. If he’d never told anyone before in his life, how would he not remember telling her? He clearly must have felt some sort of connection to her to tell her
    So much of identity is built on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves; the way we repeat our memories into myth and trade the truth of action and occurence for the subjective truth of memory. In the passages you provided, the switch in the story and acceptance of May’s version does seem willful in a sense rather than consciously genuine. Marcher’s easy pliability in regards to his memory certainly establishes him as an unreliable narrator early on. Marcher doesn’t seem to be constructing his identity on his memories so much as his relationship with this unnameable “Beast”. Perhaps May’s ability to “save” him lies in the chance she gives Marcher to use her to construct a normal identity.
    I think the end of the novel can be seen as a parallel to this scene, just as May alters his memory of their meeting at Rome or Naples she also alters the nature of “the Beast” by claiming it has already pounced.


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