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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May & Marcher: From Everyone to Weatherend

In Halberstam’s article she paraphrases James C. Scott by stating, “to ‘see like a state’ means to accept the order of things and to internalize them;…think with the logic of orderliness…and indeed sacrifice other, more local practices of knowledge…that may be less efficient, may yield less remarkable results, but may also, in the long term, be more sustaining.” (9). This internalization is inherent in the motives and actions of Marcher, as well as Bartram, in as much as they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ of life for themselves and lean on one another for the resemblance of normalization, ie; hetero-normalization and accumulation.

In the third chapter of The Beast in the Jungle, when the Bartram and Marcher have established their friendship, the conversation that takes place is one that truly defines what has become of their partnership around the mutual core of their fateful “knowing” as well as recognize the veil of difference between themselves and every other.

“’I never said,’ May Bartram replied, ‘that it hadn’t made me a good deal talked about.’

‘Ah well then you’re not saved.’

‘It hasn’t been a question for me. If you’ve had your woman I’ve had,’ she said, ‘my man.’

‘And you mean that makes you alright?’

 

The almost backward way in which she mentions the possible gossip about herself from the outside world in the first line of dialogue, implied by the word “it”, acknowledges an “other”-like presence that they both are aware of but not a part of. The object of the line “me” is buried in the middle of the phrase between the subject “it” and the action itself “talked about”. This ‘burying’ of herself is indicative of her relationship with Marcher (buffering him from the prying minds of normalized society) as well as giving no indication of a life of her own, being tied up as she was with the “knowing” of Marcher. There is also a parallel in the syntax of the two lines that Bartram speaks, with the phrase being broken up by noting that May or “she” is speaking.

Marcher’s reply to this using the word “saved” implies there is a universally understood form of right and wrong here, as well as a need to redeem oneself according to paradigm of their society or state that they feel estranged from; one that perpetuates hetero-coupling and accumulation as “norms”.

The certainty that Bartram speaks her lines with displays the duality of their relationship in terms of who is the giver and knower of knowledge (Bartram) and who is the novice or receiver of it (Marcher). She is sure of her statements saying, “I never,” definitively in the first line and stating that, “it hasn’t been a question,” for her, ie; she is certain. Marcher on the other hand begins his phrases as continuations of the statements she makes, with an, “Ah well then,” to indicate a challenge, albeit in a jocular tone. His second phrase is simply a question asking for clarification to her previous statement with the word “alright” again implying a counter-opposition to the norm.

The implied, as well as, outright acknowledgment of the hegemony in their dialogue is illustrative of the inside/outside aspects or “queer”ness that is a commonality in the dynamic of their relationship. Whether they are actually homosexual or spend their time queerly the tone is that of ‘recognized outsider’ and a masking of this same understanding. The role each takes on in the conversation as well as their relationship, the syntax used by James, and the choice of words is compositely representative of internalization of the state by these two, middling, muddling and memorable characters.

 

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.

The Beast in the Jungle and the Halberstam Reading

Many themes in the Halberstam reading correspond to Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. For example, I mentioned in my last post that Halberstam uses words such as “shadows” and “detours” to describe her approach to queer theory (Halberstam 4, 6). The narrator uses these same words to illustrate Marcher, for example when he mentions “the great vagueness casting the long shadow in which he had lived” (James 53). I also noticed that a large part of Marcher and Bartram’s relationship consists of listeners not being able to follow their conversation. The narrator states how “on the other hand the real truth was equally liable at any moment to rise to the surface, and the auditor would then have wondered indeed what they were talking about” (James 46). This is interesting to me, because it seems as if James is pointing out how readers never know exactly what the characters are referring to as they get lost in the conversations. This has a (probably intentional) alienating effect on the reader. This concept reminds me of when Halberstam urges us “to think about ways of being and knowing that stand outside of conventional understandings of success” (Halberstam 2). Not succeeding is a large part of this story, and I think the emphasis for both authors is on what can come out of this fail to succeed. One example is when the narrator describes Marcher’s inability to express himself, thus giving Bartram the opportunity to do so. The narrator explains how “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” (James 37). Another instance of opportunity springing from something negative is the death of the aunt allowing more opportunities for the characters to meet (James 41). An interesting passage I think we should look at in class deals again with that locational idea of queer as being “beneath the surface.” The narrator writes how “the rest of the world thought him queer, but she, she only, knew how, and above all why, queer; which was precisely what enabled her to dispose the concealing veil in the right folds” (James 45). In this quote the narrator is explaining how Bartram can see the identity under Marcher’s “mask painted with the social simper” (James 45). We can discuss how masking of identity/knowledge/truth furthers the theme of alienation of the readers who don’t have the privilege Bartram does to see beneath it. I am also reminded of an essay titled “The Thing Not Named”: Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer I read a while ago where the author, Sharon O’Brien, further describes “queer” as a connection not explicitly stated in the text. I think this is in part why the Beast is never named, and why Marcher later confides that “I can’t name it. I only know I’m exposed” (James 49). Lastly, a lingering question I have is why Marcher is so interested in being perceived as unselfish and noble, such as when the narrator comments on the two’s relationship, stating that “the definite point was the inevitable spring of the creature; and the definite lesson from that was that a man of feeling didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady to a tiger-hunt” (James 44). Another example is later when Marcher voices wanting to be considered courageous (James 49). Hopefully you can all help me with this, and why Marcher is also concerned with getting some sort of pay off from their relationship.