CTT: Paranoia

In her blog post, stephaniecaputo23 looks at the relationship between paranoia and desire in Matthew Helmers’ piece on Beast in the Jungle. She quotes Helmers:

“Paranoia enjoined us to look at time and see a system that applies to desire, and to look at desire and see the same system that applies to sexuality and, through syllogism, to reduce all of these elements into a well-understood structural unity: the tessellated pattern of Western culture […]” (Helmers 114)

Her own interpretation of this quote is that James Marcher in James’ Beast in the Junglebegins to think of Western culture as the only correct form of knowledge, despite ‘his struggles to exist within [this] system’ (Helmers 115)”. We read various theorists’ arguments regarding Marcher’s homosexuality, which did not, at the time of this story’s publishing, fit into the traditional heteronormative values of Western culture. Stephanie seems to be relating Helmers’ idea of the relationship between paranoia and desire as relating directly to the possibility of Marcher’s homosexuality and his feelings about it. I think there are two ways in which paranoia could relate to Marcher’s desire: either he is homosexual and suppresses or hides it because he is paranoid about what traditional Western society may think; or, he does in fact have feelings for Bartram, but the paranoia he feels towards his supposed looming Beast gets in the way of any romantic action being taken, which was my own reading of the story.

In her post, hayleykboyd brings up the term “paranoid reading”, which she says “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”. This approach probably applies to most people’s reading of Beast in the Jungle, so in that sense, readers are having an experience that parallels Marcher’s own paranoia about this supposed knowledge that he expects will be “brought to light” eventually. Hayley contrasts this “paranoid reading” approach to knowledge with the approach Helmers discusses, “the possibility that knowledge itself can be conceptualized in a different fashion, that we can use queer knowledge and point toward the possibilities of un-totalized epistemic systems” (112).

Hayley also discusses the sense of time James ascribes to Marcher as “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)”. This relationship between paranoia and desire relates back to stephaniecaputo23’s exploration of Helmers and James.

Later in her post, Hayley argues that “there is no way to understand [the secret as motivation in the story] and still think of Marcher as essentially engaging in a paranoid, linear, or normative sense of time.” She brings up “Bartram’s paranoid system” (112), arguing that Marcher gave himself up to this system, surrendering to the paranoia of it. Many cases have been made both inside and outside of class that it is Bartram who is the real victim in this story, getting pulled into Marcher’s paranoia, but Hayley’s post helped me see the story in a new light. Bartram could be seen as someone who brought out the paranoia in Marcher, who maximized the intensity of the secret and brought it to the forefront of Marcher’s attention when he did not seem quite so intensely plagued by it prior to running into her. Bartram seems to instill a sense of urgency and paranoia in Marcher simply by involving herself in his secret. The story is rather open-ended, but I think cases can be made for both sides of the “Bartram as a victim” argument.

In my own post for the ‘paranoia’ tag, I wrote on something entirely different: paranoia in Sianne Ngai’s “Ugly Feelings”, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand,  and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener”. I suggested that the ways in which Helga and Bartleby similarly avoid responsibility and the seemingly-obvious “right” choices, to put little effort into their own success, relate to paranoia. Both characters are paralyzed by their pasts, and their paranoid mindsets, their distaste for the conventions of “polite society”, seem to contaminate their respective presents.

Though the three of our posts each took different approaches to paranoia, I think stephaniecaputo23’s and hayleykboyd’s connection of paranoia to desire could relate to Ngai, Larsen, and Melville in that it is human to want security and success, and deep down it is hard to say that Helga and Bartleby did not want to succeed, but their paranoia did get in the way of their successes, leading them to suppress their efforts and hopes the way Marcher could have been suppressing his own sexual desires. All of these works involve paranoia, desire, and the self-sabotage that stands between the two.

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Irritation: Helga vs. Bartleby

While reading Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, I was struck by the term “Bartlebyzation”. I didn’t know what it meant, and it seemed to be something Ngai was suggesting her readers should know, since she didn’t offer any context or explanation. After some Internet research I discovered that this term is a reference to Herman Melville’s acclaimed short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”. While I had never read the story before, after reading and some research it became clear that there seem to be more underlying parallels between it and Larsen’s Quicksand than Ngai mentions in her chapter on Irritation.

As Ngai does discuss, both Bartleby and Helga experience their talents demoted, misplaced, and belittled to banal, mediocre tasks; Helga’s by her secretarial position, and Bartleby’s by his scrivener position when he is in fact able to write extensive high-quality material. This “artistic misplacement” reflects the other societal misplacements the characters experience, Helga with her racial displacement and Bartleby with his physical displacement.

Both characters experience a certain level of “homelessness”. Bartleby experiences it in more of a literal sense when he ends up living in the office building he was supposed to be working at, curling up in doorways and stairways. Helga’s own “homelessness” is primarily experienced in the metaphorical sense. She feels a lack of belonging and a sense of misplacement wherever she lives, and thus refuses to get comfortable anywhere, pushing every potential “home” away. In that sense, she differs from Bartleby, who seems perfectly content and even insistent to sleep on the hard floors of a rigid office building. But he provokes Helgaic frustration when the story’s narrator invites Bartleby to come and live with him, in a real home, and Bartleby refuses, clinging to his discomfort as Helga does throughout Quicksand.

This discomfort seems to be comfortable for the two characters, or at least habitual. Both characters have experienced certain things in the past that have affected them long-term: Helga with her parents and her childhood of abandonment and racial misplacement, and Bartleby with his rumored former job of working in a dead letter office and thus being surrounded by missed connections and emotions lost in the mail. These events cause the characters to lose hope, to turn their backs on the possibility of happiness to a certain extent, to have little motivation to put effort into their own success or even survival.

Both characters capture hearts on a fairly wide scale and are the subject of the affections of many people they come into contact with. Helga has her many suitors, whom she routinely turns down and pushes away. Bartleby appeals to the emotions of his boss and the story’s narrator; as previously mentioned, the narrator offers him a place to live, and despite his odd behavior and lack of action, Bartleby affects his boss emotionally so much that the man moves his business elsewhere rather than kick Bartleby out of the building. Readers are repeatedly left in frustration, wondering why the respective characters would not seize their multiple opportunities for a sense of home and security and possibly even happiness. But the characters’ backs are turned away from the light and towards brick walls, partially ones of their own creation.

Both Bartleby and Helga are presented with multiple pathways, in the forms of people, places, and actions, towards making their lives better for themselves despite their past pain. Bartleby could have simply made the copies at his new firm, and supported himself that way, or moved into the narrator’s home. Helga could have settled into one of the various places that could potentially have worked as satisfying homes for her. She could have acted more decisively in that sense, and also in the sense of sticking to her seemingly confident decision not to have children. Instead of just doing these things, Bartleby dies in prison and Helga is left trapped in a prison of her own baby-making. This provokes a Romeo-and-Juliet reaction: if the characters had simply done what readers knew were the right choices, if they had made some minor changes, then their chain reactions towards imprisonment, discomfort, and even death could have been avoided. In Ugly Feelings, Ngai cites Barbara Johnson’s assessment that “chapter breaks often occur where psychological causation is missing… and is the difficulty of defining the causes of Helga’s suffering that leads to irritation.” It is human nature to feel satisfied when we understand something, and intensely frustrated, irritated, even threatened when we do not, and these literary works so excruciatingly hit the nerve of perplexity.

Henry James on Failure

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

I think the quote above is pretty relevant to the overall message of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”. The story’s unfortunate protagonist, James Marcher, ultimately “fails by default” by “living so cautiously he might as well not have lived at all.” Marcher’s lifelong and overwhelming fear of the ominous metaphorical “Beast” in the “Jungle” of his life kept him from really living. His laser-focus on the mere possibility of the “terrible thing” he felt awaited him was blinding, and his imaginary “blinders” kept him from seeing the possibility of joy, kept him from seeing the love that was constantly at his side, kept him from seeing the truth. In this sense, the proclaimed “stupidities of ignorance” (36) that he said passed between them on their first meeting continued to play a major role in their relationship on Marcher’s end. May Bartram even suggests early on in the story that Marcher’s “Beast” may be the act of falling in love: “Isn’t what you describe perhaps but the expectation– or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people– of falling in love?” (39) In an abstract sense, Bartram was right; or rather, Marcher’s failure was not in falling in love, but in failing to do so. It is not that romantic possibilities do not cross Marcher’s mind, it’s that he ignores and resists any action or realization of his suppressed romantic feelings for May because he is too busy worrying about the “Beast”, which could be a metaphor for “failure”.

The idea of failure is generally regarded in society as making a mistake or missing the mark in some way. But making a mistake requires taking action, and missing a mark requires aiming in the first place. Marcher does neither; he does, essentially, nothing but worry. He avoids risk, he avoids danger, and therefore he avoids life. Fear stands in the way of love and happiness, and Marcher’s life is a direct representation of this. During Marcher’s realization of what the “Beast” actually was, it is said that he “had seen outside of his life, not learned it within…” (70) By fearing his life, he missed out on really living it. Marcher may have lived so cautiously that he did not necessarily “fail” in the traditional sense, but he certainly “failed by default”, by Rowling’s definition. This concept also relates to a well-known quote (widely attributed to Mark Twain) that hung on the bulletin board in my dorm hallway freshman year:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

James’ overall message with “Beast in the Jungle”, it seems, is more or less the same as Twain’s and Rowling’s after him: that the ultimate failure in life is to live in fear, thus not really living at all. Taking risks– whether that means “sailing away from safe harbor”, sending a  draft of your first book to a publisher, or the danger of falling in love— is the only way to really live, and, contrary to popular belief, the way to have the least possible regrets when your life comes to an end.

On high and low theory

According to Halberstam, low theory “tries to locate all the in-between spaces that save us from being snared by the hooks of hegemony and speared by the seduction of the gift shop [in their aforementioned SpongeBob reference]. But it also makes peace with the possibility that alternatives dwell in the murky waters of the counter-intuitive, often impossibly dark and negative realm of critique and refusal.” (2)

This relates to the queer experience because these so-called “murky waters” are where the queer way of life tends to “dwell” within the structure of society. The queer community is no stranger to “critique and refusal”, both in conspicuous and inconspicuous ways. Not only do queer-identifying people encounter homophobia and outwardly-expressed prejudice from fellow humans, but they also experience exclusion by existing in a heteronormative society on a daily basis.

When Halberstam mentions the “hooks of hegemony”, they are referring to the societal construction of one way of life as the dominant or superior way. In their view, low theory and high theory could be referred to as hegemonic versus counterhegemonic theory. The idea of the existence of a dominant group within society is successfully persuasive “precisely because [it does] not present [itself] as ideology or try to win consent.” (16) In other words, hegemony is collectively accepted because it is presented as essential fact rather than subjective possibility.

Halberstam goes on to discuss the application of low theory to texts, referencing Stuart Hall’s perspective of low theory as “aiming low in order to hit a broader target” (e.g. the queer community) and as “a mode of accessibility… that is assembled from eccentric texts and examples and that refuses to confirm the hierarchies of knowing that maintain the high in high theory.” (16) The application of low theory to texts makes them accessible not just to the most common or widely-accepted demographic, but also to the outlying groups that operate under “alternative” methods of thinking or being. Halberstam suggests that low theory can be seen as “a counterhegemonic form of theorizing, the theorization of alternatives within an undisciplined zone of knowledge production.” (18)

High theory, on the other hand, does just the opposite. High theory in application to texts is geared toward a specific hegemonic group (e.g. heterosexuals). Thus, high theory is a mode of accessibility only to the group deemed superior “through the production of an interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives.” (16) High theory not only alienates alternative groups but also reinforces and maintains this persuasive system of ideas that paints one group as “right” and any others as “wrong”. Halberstam argues that high theory “does not really allow for a complex understanding of the social relations that both sustain… [and] change” (18).

Throughout the Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam considers failure in conjunction with capitalism. “Failure goes hand in hand with capitalism,” (88) he asserts, insisting that there must be “winners” and “losers” in order for capitalism to succeed. “In order for [economic] structures to work,” they claim, “it has to keep creating and maintaining the structures or the structured relations which allow it to function.” This relates to the aforementioned argument that, unlike high theory, low theory allows for an understanding of what “sustain[s]… and can change” the mode of knowledge production in both the social and economic realms of society. They then establish a distinction between this notion and “saying that the economic base determines the form of every other social force.” (17) In a social context, this is to say that the hegemonic group does not determine the form of alternative groups, but that understanding hegemony can help develop a more complex understanding of the way we function as a society, which helps equip us to make societal changes.

Using references to the experience of queerness in a heteronormative society and to the inner workings of capitalism, Halberstam seems to be exploring the idea that failure is an integral part of success, and that nothing can be deemed “successful” without consideration of the opposite side of the coin.  The introduction to The Queer Art of Failure seems to claim that there is some sense of value, or at least necessity, in contemplating hegemony for this reason.