Time in Good Morning, Midnight

I might risk focusing too much on character motivation and psychologizing Sasha in this post, but I think the novel is so much about Sasha’s consciousness and how and why it functions as it does so it’s kind of unavoidable for me. In Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha’s experience of time seems to have a cyclical and static rather than linear quality. Thinking of past and future are expressed in repetition: “tomorrow, tomorrow…” and “…Back, back, back…” (57) with the ellipses connoting endless regression or momentum, a kind of infinite repeating that continues until it dissolves and there is nothing but a gap, an oblivion of the kind that Sasha seeks through drinking, dreams of annihilation, and her moments of extreme passivity and immobility. But “tomorrow, tomorrow” and “back, back” and similar repetitions throughout the novel could also be interpreted as a kind of mantra or incantation. Especially when she is considering her future actions, she is willing herself in the future rather than in the present (promising herself she will only have so many drinks in the near future, promising herself future brief satisfactions from the ritual of shopping (sort of brief, two hours is a long time to shop for a hat in one place)). I think an argument could be made that Sasha’s trauma, the trauma of having lost her baby but also the trauma of poverty in her past, has changed her sense of time, and this trauma which is very much part of her daily experience leads to her constant evasion of the present moment, but it is difficult for me to say what exactly the present moment is for Sasha since the past and the future are very much so the present in this novel. This is reflected in the form of the novel, which maintains present-tense stream of consciousness narration in flashbacks. When we are reading about Sasha’s experience losing her baby, she writes (thinks? speaks?): “Back, back, back…This has happened many times” (58). I think that the relationship to time is the most significant reason why Sasha refers to herself as having a “film-mind.” A film is a document of time, when you’re watching it has a linear progression that you flow along with (like Sasha’s thoughts flow along in the constant present of the book), but since it’s a recorded medium it’s also timeless in every moment. Beginning, middle, and end of the film are all accessible to the viewer at any time (not literally, but you get my point). Sasha’s mind, the novel’s form, and film, make a paradox of time, presenting it as something in motion but never changing, cyclical and static, yet infinite because you can move backwards and forwards in it forever. Like Marcher in Beast in the Jungle, Sasha fails to experience normative time; her failures/traumas disrupt normative time. Unlike Marcher, Sasha appears to have no desire to rectify this rupture and instead seems to want to absorb herself in these gaps, moments of stillness and unproductivity. She lays in bed watching the curtains and shadows, “The musty smell, the bugs, the loneliness, this room, which is part of the street outside– this is all I want from life” (131). Helmer’s argues that Marcher is able to conceptualize himself in normative time through his relationship to Bertram and thereby a relationship to knowledge as something that can be dug up, uncovered, and this organizes time linearly. But while Marcher strives to create normative time, and strives to know, Sasha strives to not-know, to let the gaps in her memory and thought be gaps, to obliterate and annihilate knowledge. Marcher wants to bring knowledge to light but Sasha wants to keep it in the dark.

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Capture the tag: Fear

I address three posts here, “Industry of Culture” by samuelwhitehorn, “Henry James on Failure” by mmmagc123, and “Vincent’s Failures” by vanessatshionyi.

All these posts are tagged with “fear” though none of them, except arguably the second, deal with the topic at much length directly. Still, I think fear is a hugely important affect when thinking about success and failure, so is worth exploring more deeply.

The post “Vincent’s Failures” draws attention to the apparent fear that Vincent’s family displays once they become aware of his facade. The author argues that this is at least in part because Vincent has not invested in his social capital; his bonds with his children are weak. The children’s fearful reaction happens in the scene where the family as a cohesive unit is threatened. Their fear, then, is connected to Vincent’s overvaluing of capital.

The post “Henry James on Failure” argues that Marcher’s fear is failure itself: “the ultimate failure in life is to live in fear, thus not really living at all.” Because Marcher lives in a state of constant apprehension life passes him by completely.

The post “Industry of Culture” tells an anecdote of complex social ramifications about an interaction between an ostensibly heterosexual and homosexual man, and the difference in the heterosexual man’s behavior when he realizes he is being watched. The homosexual man appears to react with fear: seeming fragile in response to his conversational partner’s sudden shift to masculine performativity.

In each of these examples, fear is a response to power gone awry, power with an element of unpredictability or chaos. Vincent’s family fears him because it as the patriarch he is responsible for their financial and social well being in society, and they depend on his sanity for their wellbeing. A sign of Vincent’s potential insanity is a source of insecurity for the whole family. In the second example, the power over Marcher’s life takes a more abstract form, fate or destiny itself. Its power is overwhelming but the specifics of Marcher’s fate are unpredictable to him, and this torments him and encourages his worry. In the third example, the homosexual man is rendered submissive by an unpredictable shift in behavioral display from a person in a position of relative privilege and power over him.

In these examples, does fear lead to failure or is fear only a sign of impending or potential failure? It seems that it is impossible to extricate the two; to be a failure is to live in fear, to be afraid is to invite failure, or at least see it coming. In these examples and perhaps generally, it is as if the fear is always implied, just under the surface, until triggered by an event as just cause in which case it is activated and betrayed by physiological responses (the look on the children’s faces, Marcher’s begging, the man’s inability to communicate verbally). In Time Out, Vincent’s family reacts with fear to his perceived insanity. But if the fear wasn’t always already implied in the family, Vincent would not have feigned still having a job the entire time that he was out of work. Vincent may in part be motivated to behave insanely in the first place to forestall and repress the expression of fear within the family and within himself. There may be the intuition that to live in fear is the emotional sign of failure, as it is with Marcher. In the third scenario, the gay man’s fear is likewise always already there, easily triggered by the coded and performative behaviors of his conversational partner. This fear is a sign of his failure to exist heteronormativity; the fear and the failure are always there, immediately accessible. In all these examples, fear and failure are inseparable: to be afraid is to be a failure. There is also a similarity in how fear affects relationships in each scenario. Fear keeps father and family estranged from each other (as the referred-to post argues), it keeps Marcher from really knowing or loving Bertram, and it prevents the final pair from having a genuine connection and conversation. Fear, failure, and and a sense of alienation from others are all connected.

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).

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.

Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and shadow feminism

In this post I make an argument that Kate Chopin’s novella “The Awakening” is an example of the shadow or anti-social feminism that Halberstam explicates. The Awakening has long been a favorite novel of mine for reasons that I could only vaguely articulate before reading this chapter from The Queer Art of Failure. There are many narratives I am drawn to that seem to follow under this category of “shadow feminism” and they are always narratives that I feel fairly defensive of as they are often polarizing because they fail in interesting, or disappointing, depending on your views, ways. Briefly, “The Awakening” (published in 1899) is about a woman who leaves her husband and children to pursue an independent and reclusive life as a painter. While she is in transition a younger man whom she had a romantic affair with returns to ask her to marry him. She refuses marriage because of her ideals of independence and autonomy. After a night of existential anguish she realizes that her desire is doomed, her desire to be with Robert is overwhelming but at the same time being with him would mean losing her independence. In the morning she drowns herself in the sea in response to this irreconcilable dilemma.

Obviously, this ending is frustrating to any reader whether their bias is to be sympathetic toward a feminist character or not. Edna cruelly leaves her children motherless, and fails to create the alternative life she dreamed of. Instead, she gives up. There is probably no bigger indication of failure in our society than a selfishly motivated suicide. Edna’s suicide is an epitomization of the “complete dismantling of self” that Halberstam describes (124). Halberstam identifies shadow feminist texts as texts that “refuse to think back through the mother, they actively and passively lose the mother, abuse the mother, love, hate, and destroy the mother” to the end of dismantling the patriarchal systems of tradition and to unbecome woman (125). The Awakening breaks the mother connection in two ways connected to her final act, by first having Edna, as a mother herself, permanently annihilate the bond with her children (whom she describes as “antagonists” that “sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days” (212)) and secondly by disappointing the traditional, hoped-for outcome that Edna would successfully follow in the footsteps of Mademoiselle Reisz, a spinster and talented musician who serves as Edna’s originally inspiration and guide and symbolic mother.

Halberstam refers to the “fantasy of an active, autonomous, self-activating individualism” that motivates the forms of prescriptive feminism we are familiar with that they view as inevitably playing into patriarchy and colonialism (130). Edna perverts this ideal of agency and individuality by using her will to self annihilate and unbecome woman. She realizes that as a woman in her particular social context, there is no choice that she could make that would result in fulfillment. If she chooses love, she chooses to submit to the patriarchal form of love as Robert and her society have defined it and lose her independence. If she chooses to follow in her mother-figure’s footsteps and lead a life of reclusion, disdained and isolated by others, she gives up on love. She can see no way out: either way she would be led into a role created for her by patriarchy, as either a married woman or a lonely spinster. The only agency Edna can enact is to refuse to choose one or the other and refuse to participate altogether.

This novel also carries with it implications of aesthetic failure and personal failure. The ending disappoints the sympathetic reader’s expectations and hopes for Edna and comes as a cruel shock. One could even read the ending as anti-feminist, presenting a woman attempting to live life on her own terms as a doomed project. But I think this reading is to assume that all feminist narratives have to propose a hopeful alternative even if it is a fantasy. Kate Chopin’s personal and professional reputation were ruined for writing the book; she was prevented from publishing again and died five years later in relative obscurity.