Something to push back on: Failure and the lack of an antithesis in James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”

There are two or three instances in “The Beast in the Jungle” when Marcher describes his desire to have something to, for lack of a better phrase “push back on.” When he is originally describing his belief that “something” will occur in his life, something monumental, and unique, one of the ways that silhouette is characterized is that it will dramatically change his life, that it will provide, a something that he will have to respond to. This formulation of the event, as a thing that will change him, places Marcher in the role of the reactionary. In this way his waiting for the event is a fundamentally passive relationship to the event. Another one of the “thing”‘s characteristics is that it will rupture in on him, and will mark, or inscribe him in a fundamental way (36). However, what defines the event is also that it is effective, that it does inscribe in a way that is not simply the result of his response of reckoning with the event.

Marcher feels a similar desire for something to push up against during his bereavement after May’s death. In this moment, I believe we can get a sense of how this story figures failure in terms of an interaction, and also (as I’ll touch on later) as a type of event that requires a witness. Marcher would have liked, “by some aggressive act, to take his stand on the intimacy of his loss, in order that it might be questioned and his retort, to the relief of his spirit, so recorded” (64). Here we see Marcher searching for some antithesis (in this case a challenge to his relationship), provocative force that would create an opening for him to react. This desire to respond, rather than to declare figures also in the irony of the story, that faced with the opportunity to take initiative during his second-to-last encounter with May, Marcher fails to avoid his unique fate and failure.

However, in both of these cases, there is something to the question of what constitutes an Event in the first place. For a number of thinkers (I’m thinking of Zizek, Badiou, Bataille, and to a lesser extent (though maybe I’m just less familiar with his work) Lacan) a true, monumental “event”must have the trappings of Marcher’s beast, and his desired confrontation. Of those trappings, the most important aspect is that the Event must be unexpected, must burst forth and fundamentally alter the affected’s outlook and life. Most importantly, (especially for Bataille and Badiou), there must be something in the event that shows the void or falsity of the past and, by extension the expected future–because our visions of the future are based upon a knowledge set informed by, and predicated upon the past–to the subject(s) that are tied to the event.

If we buy this notion of what makes an event an Event, then Marcher’s passivity almost begins to make sense, because he is (presumably) unable to prepare for an (by definition) unpredictable future. Furthermore, the notion that he knows the event will be effective, could be read to help make a kind of sense of the non-event itself. This is because, if the “event”is most fundamentally conceived as a phenomenon that takes its meaning from, and is identified by, a change in the affected subject, then Marcher’s expectation of an event paradoxically creates the void that is shown to be empty by the absence of an event (that the thing is unnoticeable because it is Marcher’s inaction itself).

However, this in turn creates an event out of the nothingness that has passed him by. The non-event shocks and ruptures Marcher’s life-long anticipation of an event, and shows him a new truth (that he was wrong, that what he had felt so strongly all his life was not what the future actually held for him), thus, for all intents and purposes, his realization that he was wrong, the fact that nothing occurred, creates, (recursively) a something, an event. This is primarily because to Badiou et. al., an event is untied from the historical account, but is rather made wholly by the response of the affected subjects. Thus, in the end, Marcher is stuck vacillating in a paradox, or irreducible dilemma. For the nothingness to be an Event, it must also be a non-event.

To make it a little more clear: The fact that nothing happens, that Marcher doesn’t have anything happen to him comes to show to tht he was wrong to think something would happen (that wrongness is the “void”). This new knowledge, which shows how he was previously mistaken is what, for Badiou et. al. the exact kind of response that would make an event an Event. However, if, by showing Marcher the void in his knowledge, the non-event (the nothingness/passivity) becomes and Event, then Marcher wasn’t wrong at all. He was right to anticipate that something would happen to him (it just happens that what he anticipated was a nothing). If that is the case, then that nothing, by becoming something, stops showing the wrongness of Marcher that made it into a something.

Ok, so that really wasn’t any clearer, but it demonstrates the big problems that this story asks us to try to (or not to try to) make sense of. I believe this way of reading the ending might be a way of beginning up the tree of un-paranoid reading.

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Lastly, I also think this leads to worthwhile questions about how the witness/observer is figured in this story. May’s unique function in Marcher’s life was her ability to ascribe meaning to that life by both holding his secret and functioning as a priviledged–if not objective–observer. One of the questions that I believe the text leaves especially ambiguous (and should not be written off too lightly), is whether or not what May states/sees of Marcher is “the truth” because Marcher believes, and accepts it to be the truth about himself, or whether it is the narrative truth. This is ambiguous because when the “truth on her face” is mentioned in the text, it occurs in moments where the perspective is unclear. It could be read that the narrator is reporting that Marcher thinks May’s face holds the truth, but it could also be read that the narrator (with its textual, world-building power) is stating that May’s face holds the truth.

Regardless of the way it is read, I believe there is some real worthwhile questions that can be teased out from the portrayal of May as the source of the truth about both the event and about Marcher in general. I believe this primarily because it leads to a question of whether or not an event is constituted as an event if it occurs without an audience (that is to say it happens to one person, but there is no one else to “read” it, or register the change in the subject. (As a side note, in his short book Ethics, I believe Badiou would argue while an Event does not require a witness, it requires another participant to make the event something that he says leads to a “truth-process.”

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