Bartram’s paranoid system

I used my post from earlier this week as a jumping off point. In this post I explore what “paranoia” means and how it relates to time and Marcher’s relationship to Bartram. I attempt to flesh out what Helmer’s is getting at and look closely at the scene of re-encounter between Bartram and May.

Helmers talks about “the possibility that knowledge itself can be conceptualized in a different fashion, that we can queer knowledge and point toward the possibilities of un-totalized epistemic systems” (112). He sees this kind of knowledge as a different approach than the “paranoid reading” which formulates knowledge as something that can be uncovered and brought to light, that guards against surprises and seeks a total account of a situation or text. He points to examples of Marcher’s “queer knowledge” which exist before and after he is entwined with Bartram. While Bartram functions to give Marcher a more-or-less heteronormative existence, at least on the surface, she also gives him a different a sense of time, time that is normative and not queer, time that is linear, made up of pasts and futures which “enable the enactment of desire,” a paranoid system (14). Among these examples that Helmers mentions of Marcher’s queer-time which he exists in without Bartram are Marcher’s ability to “take things as they come” before (second paragraph, first chapter) and the return of the sense of surprise as May is dying: “His surprises began here; when once they had begun they multiplied; they came rather with a rush: it was as if, in the oddest way in the world, they had all been kept back, sown in a thick cluster, for the late afternoon of life, the time at which for people in general the unexpected has died out” (chapter three).

I think another, revealing example takes place when Marcher first meets Bartram and he is trying to place her. This exchange comes after Marcher has believed he has recalled the specifics of their encounter successfully, only to be told he is wrong by Bartram. (I used this quote in my previous blogpost but I am going to post it again for easy reference):

“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).

I think that here we see Marcher engaging with a sense of time, memory, and knowledge, that is queer rather than normative. When Helmer talks about knowledge as something that can be reconceptualized, queered, un-paranoid, and outside of the ignorance/knowledge binary, I think that imagination/creation play a part in this kind of knowledge, knowledge of the past and future that is flexible and creative and subjected to human will (I think this a major theme in the novel). When I first read this story, I immediately forgot about this exchange, and took for granted that Marcher’s original confession of a secret was what bound him to Bartram and that the secret was the most important motivating thing in Marcher’s life. But in rereading this passage, there is no way to understand this and still think of Marcher as essentially engaging in a paranoid, linear, or normative sense of time. He forgot that he told her, and then wishes he could invent a past between them in order to forge a connection. This suggests that Bartram has more power over what the secret is and its importance than Marcher, or fate, or whatever does. There is an odd sense of collusion in the paragraph, “she herself decided to take up the case,” and in that moment Marcher shifts into what Helmer calls “Bartram’s paranoid system” (112). The link is made, and Marcher surrenders himself to Bartram.
What I wonder is why Marcher participates in this surrender? Is it out of loneliness? A need to feel normal, motivated either by closeted queerness or by an original inability to conceptualize knowledge and time in a normative way? And what is Bartram getting out of it? Perhaps Bartram has more practical or romantic concerns (she asks him if he’s ever been in love soon after this exchange). Maybe she is just waiting around for him to marry him (the comment she makes about being his “dull woman” seems like her in a moment of irritation and resignation as she realizes she has wasted her life waiting for this man to marry her).

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1 thought on “Bartram’s paranoid system”

  1. Hey Hayley, great post! I think that one of the ways we might understand how his “surrender” works, is by not assuming that Marcher understands it to be surrender at all. During their interaction in Weatherend, and later when Marcher is reminiscing on May’s unique relationship to him, it is her credulity, and her lack of dismissal of his fantasy that binds them together (38). Marcher, like a UFO abductee, knows that despite the “truth” he feels/believes, this type of knowledge is simply the kind of thing that is considered in the realm of madness. Part of the reason Marcher is so “indebted” to May is that she is someone with whom he can safely share his secret. A secret that Marcher believes would cause him enormous social embarrassment (if not financial, legal problems) due to the potential of his being labeled “mad”.

    One of the things I’ve found most surprising in the critical reading we’ve read so far have been how the specter of mental disorder has been ignored. To me, the fear of being outed as a delusional person seems just as valid a reading as a fear of being outed as homosexual. That fear makes his “surrender” to May make perfect sense to me, in that he finally has someone else with which to share his unspeakable thing, exactly because she also believes.

    One of the reasons I imagine our texts haven’t spent a great deal of time on this subject (besides the fact that both texts are primarily concerned with Queer Theory, is that Foucault (a major figure for all of these writers) dismisses the much of the intellectual framework that identifies mental illness as illness in his work Madness and Civilization. However, even if we believe Foucault to be right, there is still a lot to work with concerning the way the novel figures “delusional thinking.” I’m specifically thinking of the way the line between delusion and prophesy become problematic in a text like this. If we read the “thing” to have come to pass by the end of the novel, does this make Marcher “sane” because his premonition was fulfilled? If the “thing” arrives, does that make Marcher a prophet? How can Marcher be a prophet if the only one who seems to have a clarity of vision of the “thing” is May? If we read the “thing” to have not occurred, does that make Marcher insane?

    In a similar vein, I think it would be interesting to see how a reading of May as legitimately prophetic, or especially sighted would change the way we regard the claims of the “truth” in her face (59)

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