Expanding the Present: Crisis, Trauma, and Time Dilation in Good Midnight

 

While I was reading Good Morning, Midnight, one of the things that stuck out to me was the way, unlike the protagonists of all of the other novels that we’ve read this term (with the exception of The Beast in the Jungle), Sasha exits financial insecurity. With this exit, I believe Sasha represents a case study for looking at how failure functions with a safety net in place.
I am primarily interested in the intersection between what Berlant refers to as an expanded present moment and Sasha’s dilation of time through acts of consumerism. The impasse is defined the expansion of the present moment–an existential treading of water–in the absence of evental resolution (Berlant 10). Basically, the precarious crisis of the present is prevented from passing into the past because the crisis continues. To understand this clearly, it is important to have a (tremendously) rough and dirty summary of the Badiouan “Event.”
Described most simply in Badiou’s Ethics, an Event is a kind of reading of a historical happening that becomes an Event because of the way subjects react to it. Here is a very, very, very simple (an partially incorrect) example of a Badiouan Event:
1. There is a dam that fails during a flood and causes damage downstream. (The thing that
     happens, not yet an Event).
2. Prior to the dam breaking, there was an understanding of dams and dam construction
     that failed to account for the problem which caused dam to fail.
3. After the dam breaks, two or more individuals (in this case they are probably engineers)
     see:
a) that the prior knowledge of dams had a pretty big hole in it (the “void”),
b) that the dam demonstrates this hole,
c) agree that the dam’s failure demands a new way of thinking about dams, because the
failure showed that the previous way of thinking about dams was wrong,
d) come together to find a new “truth” about dams that accounts for the dams failure               (this  is called a “truth-process”) and
e) remain faithful to this new truth even if it means fighting those who have a vested               interest in the old way of understanding dams (this is the “good”).
4. Thus, the event of the dam breaking becomes an Event after the “truth-process” is
     created and the event is given subjective power and meaning by the power and meaning
     it generates in those subjects who respond to it.
(There are a number of problems with this example, not least of which is the empirical nature, and low stakes of the example. The point is that the subjects who carry the burden of the new knowledge (having identified the void and found a new way of seeing as a result) make the event and Event, by acting in accordance with the new knowledge that springs from their consideration of the event rather that from the event itself. With a dam, there is a sense of the irrefutability of the conclusions the engineers would draw from the dam’s failure, whereas the kinds of events Badiou is generally talking about rely on a faith or belief in a new way of being that addresses the void.)
With this sense of the Event in mind, we can understand more lucidly what Berlant means when she talks of the expanded present. Basically, (this is what I understand her to mean)the precariat are those stuck in the aftermath of the event (getting fired, running out of welfare, losing one’s retirement in the market crash), but unable to make of the event an Event, because of the way the event turns their world upside-down. According to Berlant, the event has shown the “void”– the “fantasy” of upward mobility, meritocracy, state and commercial stability, etc.–of the knowledge of life in the West, but nothing has come to fill that void, no new ways of being or understanding of the world have arisen to acknowledge and move forward in light of the void. Instead, the members of the precariat are left adrift, unable to connect with each other, because to do so while treading water would lead to drowning (the threat of the danger of connection might, in Badiouan terms, help us understand why a new “truth-process” hasn’t emerged, as it requires two or more subjects coming together to share a single vision despite their radical differences). As such, the precariat is unable to move past this crisis, and remains mired in the impasse of neoliberal precariousness.
Understanding the temporally dilating power of the Berlantian impasse, what are we to make of Sasha’s deliberate resistance to progression? As a text that formally remains in the present by: 1) almost exclusively using the present tense regardless of a passage’s position within the  fabula, 2) rarely clarifying which “present” is the present, which “pasts” are further in the past than others, 3) having the narrator (as world-(un)builder) literally erase, conflate, deflate temporal progression, and 4) undercuts a readerly sense of progress by continually repeating scenes, and returning to locations without a fundamental change in character or circumstances (once again crying in the lavabo), how are we to understand both Sasha’s attempts to “remain” in the crisis as a negotiation of her crises and the Good Morning, Midnight‘s own aesthetic goals?
Unlike Vincent, the Slackers, Murphy, or Helga, Sasha comes into an economically stable situation (through her inheritance) prior to the majority of the scenes in the novel. Although it is difficult to tell time in GMM, I place her inheritance of the housing and 2P 10S/week per diem a short bit after Enno leaves her and she heads back to England. (many years before the novel’s written present and the two week vacation to Paris). As this seems to be Sasha’s situation, I wonder if the endless spending, regardless of the inheritance, leads to something like a return to the impasse. That is to say, by constantly spending money on cheap, disposable items (imitation high-ends goods, authentic but poorly made goods, and booze) is Sasha’s unwillingness to be frugal a way of maintaining herself in the Berlantian impasse, a way of staying within the crisis she enters after the death of her son and her abandonment by Enno?
A kind of traditional, anti-consumerist reading of Sasha’s behavior would identify her spending habits as a pathological response to the pain of living in grief, that Sasha is attempting to “fill a hole” with the disposable purchases she compulsively makes. This reading would imagine that Sasha, after the event of her child’s death and abandonment, identifies the “void” of her prior future-oriented journey towards happiness (“once we get to Paris”) as bankrupt, but is unwilling or unable to discover a new way of being that addresses the void, and instead seeks the next purchase or the next drink (never the one she is making or drinking) to fulfill her current deadness. Badiou sees this way of responding to the void (one that sees the event as proof of the voids fullness, or correctness, rather than its inadequacy) as a kind of Evil. The Nazis, Badiou argues, saw in the event of WWI the void of German nationalism, and instead of finding a new way of viewing the German state, doubled down on the idea of the German/Aryan racial superiority. In this reading, Sasha is undone by the disruption of her future-oriented conception of happiness and fullness, and is unable to respond to the event in a way that leads out of the traumatic response of attempting to “make true” that which her trauma has shown to be false.
However, (and Badiou would HATE this, as would Berrlant I’m sure), perhaps Sasha’s continual spending represents something like a turn away from the future, a realization that frugality is part of a larger lie that commands us to deny the present in service of the future. Perhaps Sasha’s spending represents an absolute turn away from the future as a source of salvation in comfort in a way similar to Halberstam’s claims of Xuela’s self-negation. In this reading, Sasha sees the vision of an ever-receding mirage of security, fullness, and comfort as simply a vision, the void of futurity, and is revolting against the demands of the oasis of futurity by preventing all possible paths that might make it possible. This reading, however bleak, imagines that the only way to find footing in the impasse is to realize that is will never end. Within the Badiouan scheme however, this creates a paradox because the “truth-process” Sasha is being faithful to is the disavowal of exiting the impasse, and finding a new way to live (also, because this “truth-process” lacks any other participants it automatically fails to live up to Badiou’s criterion for an Event).
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1 thought on “Expanding the Present: Crisis, Trauma, and Time Dilation in Good Midnight”

  1. I agree that Sasha has submitted to the impasse and that linear time/futurity has broken down for her and that is reflected in the form of the novel as you have described. I wouldn’t argue that her shopping is an attempt to remain in the impasse, but I agree that it is symptomatic of it.

    Evidence of your point that for Sasha, the ritual of consumerism is a rejection of futurity, is on page 23, when she sees herself in the old woman: “Oh, by why not buy her a wig, several decent dresses, as much champagne as she can drink…One last flare-up, and she’ll be dead in six months at the outside. That’s all you’re waiting for, isn’t it?”

    While she is young in Paris, her orientation toward the future as a source of potential promise is in earnest (“my beautiful life in front of me, opening out like a fan in my hand….” (118). But in the present of the story her refrain of “tomorrow, tomorrow,” begins to take on an ironic character and eventually she admits: “But when I think ‘tomorrow’ there is a gap in my head, a blank– as if I were falling through emptiness. Tomorrow never comes” (159).

    I think in your take on Sasha’s compulsive shopping there is an implication of masochism, that it’s an action that works against her best interests in the future or agitates her traumatic impasse. When it comes to drinking, yes, I agree. It’s interesting though that the only times in the novel that she feels peaceful and perceives herself as being treated kindly by others is when she’s pregnant, when she’s shopping for the hat, and when she is getting her hair done. So this brings up how Sasha finds refuge perhaps in participating in the reproduction of capital and social capital.

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