The Rupture: Physical Manifestations of Irritation in Quicksand

In Ngai’s chapter on irritation she states that, “Irritation’s marginal status thus seems related to the ease with which it always threatens to slip out of the realm of emotional experience altogether, into the realm of physical or epidermal sensations.” (184). In the chapter, Ngai refers to Helga’s train trip from Naxos to Chicago, in which Helga is, “irritated…like a physical pain.” (28), to explain her point. I would like to point out a couple different episodes in which the irritation ruptures to a physical point that acts as a catalyst that takes Helga from affect to feeling to emotion, in terms of the Affect Theory, and renders her calls to action, or flight, as it were. Each one distinct in its particular political offering, yet all grounded in Helga’s relation to previous as well as current experience.

The first of these rupturing episodes is in Harlem at the cabaret she attends with her friends. At first, “It was gay, grotesque, and a little weird. Helga Crane felt singularly apart from it all…they descended through a furtive narrow passage, into a vast subterranean room.” (60). Already Helga feels distanced from the scene and any sense she was to get would be one of affectation (it is interesting to note that they “descended” into a “furtive” passage, suggesting hidden depths that are about to be discovered). This affectation continues as she was, “oblivious of the reek of flesh, smoke, and alcohol…oblivious of the color, the noise, and the grand distorted childishness of it all.” (61).  Then the music overtakes her senses and provides a feeling in which, “The essence of life seemed bodily motion.” (61). This bodily motion seems to be the catalyst of a physical sensation that creates in her a ‘feeling’ of racial self-loathing. For when the music stops Helga is shaken to, “a shameful certainty that not only had she been in the jungle, but that she had enjoyed it, began to taunt her…She wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature.” (61). Even though moments earlier, “the essence of life seemed bodily movement”, once the music stops a sense of shame takes hold that seems tied more to Anne Grey’s ways of seeing things than Helga’s, but the seed of emotion brought on by this ‘physical’ irritant awakens in Helga a call to action, or at least a call to flight. In the end, it takes the derisive talk by her Harlem compatriots concerning Audrey Denney, Helga’s elusive visionary double, and the pure envy and admiration that Helga feels at watching Denney dance with unabashed freedom from anyone’s gaze to actually “feel”, as she “forgot the garish crowded room. She forgot her friends. She saw only two figures, closely clinging. She felt her heart throbbing. She felt the room receding.” (64, emphasis added).  She’s gone.

The second such instance in which a physical irritant leads Helga to feelings and then emotions in which she physically acts, to once again flight, is the revival scene in which she seeks refuge from a storm (both a meteorological and mental state after having been rejected by Anderson). As she finds shelter in the revival, at first she is emotionally wrought and breaks down, though it isn’t specified what she is breaking down for (although presumably it is Anderson’s response to her) the audience she is a part of in the revival certainly doesn’t know this. Helga then composes herself to observe her surroundings and the affectation begins. There were, “shouting and groanings of the congregation. Particularly she was interested in the writhings and weepings of the feminine portion, which seemed to predominate…frenzied women gesticulated, screamed, wept, and tottered to the praying preacher, which had eventually become a candenced chant.” (114, emphasis added). The words used to describe her observations are, “entertained”, “interested”, and generally the narrative tone here is one of observation with little to no feeling involved. Then, “Fascinated, Helga Crane watched until there crept upon her an indistinct horror of an unknown world. She felt herself in the presence of a nameless people, observing rites of a remote obscure origin.” (114). So once again, the affection which Helga takes in this revival turns to feeling in which she is usually familiar but in this last and final case she is unfamiliar, “she felt an echo of the weird orgy resound in her own heart; she felt herself possessed by the same madness;…Frightened at the at the strength of the obsession, she gathered herself for one last effort to escape, but vainly.” (114, emphasis added). She goes from “felt” to gathering for one last “effort” implying an emotion, or physical manifestation of her feelings. Once again, she takes on flight, but this time it is one of submission as she relinquishes control of her own soul and body and seduces the pastor into a situation of forced matrimony.

The journey taken internally, due to external circumstances, is one that is illustrated in the actions, feelings, and emotions of Helga throughout the novel; but the scenes of physically extreme agitation are the ones in which she ruptures into action. This journey of feeling from affect, to feelings, to emotions is displayed in the syntax, diction and narrative of Quicksand and supports the irritation argument, as well as its physical manifestations, that Ngai puts forth.




2 thoughts on “The Rupture: Physical Manifestations of Irritation in Quicksand”

  1. It’s interesting to think of physical irritation in terms of 1) the commodification of Helga’s body and 2) Ngai’s claim that irritation is a resistance to moralistic reactions to the injustice Helga faces. (In other words, she is irritated when the reader moralistically wants her to feel righteous anger.) What should we make of the irritation in Helga’s comodified body? Is her constant irritation a way of punishing those who consume her, because she places her irritation onto them? Is this Helga’s “righteous anger?” Just some questions.

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  2. Hello Pippyboy9, thank you for your interesting post. I appreciate your description “in which the irritation ruptures to a physical point . . . from affect to feeling to emotion.”

    Helga was uncomfortable in her own skin, and her discomfort manifested by rupturing almost constantly into emotional irritation. I felt too, that her discomfort and irritation were like magnets to her, or a sort of negative security blanket. Because of her chasing-after of negative security she was her own worst enemy.

    Ngai points out Helga’s negative security blanket when discussing the scene in Paris at the club when “out upon the stage pranced two black men, American Negros” (193). In that club scene Helga disengaged physically, intellectually and emotionally. She seemed almost catatonic. We know from her cravings and rantings at the beginning of Quicksand that she wanted comfort and fine clothes, and beyond that she would not comprehend. And so a person on a stage is exactly what Helga had self-made herself as—a showpiece of American Negro. Instead of confronting her inner self she continued to blanket what was more than skin deep. Then when she was offered ease and admiration in the form of a rich marriage where she would not need to be more than beautiful, at ease and finely clothed, she fled.

    Though her thoughts and emotions consistently jumped between vanity and substance of being, she would not exert herself physically, intellectually or emotionally to construct her own substance. She refused to get herself past, as Ngai pointed out, “That is not me.” (193).

    In the end, Helga consigned herself to rags and physical degradation, and continued in her cravings and rantings for something different. But what did she actually do? Nothing more than continue to degrade, crave and rant.

    These continuous ruptures from physical to emotional—wanting and getting then fleeing, wanting something more but unwilling to construct what that might be, and her inability to see herself for what she was and make rational determinations for change—are why Helga was her own worst enemy.


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