Quicksand, the Aesthetic Gaze and the Heterogeneous Subject

I would like to look at how the role of aesthetics in Quicksand relates to the “irritation” noted by Sianne Ngai in Ugly Feelings  and informs Helga’s racial consciousness.

Helga relies on the semiotic capabilities of beauty in order to string together a rational narrative of her life from the outside in, despite the inconsistency and tumult of her psyche. It is evident from the beginning, when Helga “smiles inwardly” at the message her small hats and elegant shoes send to the prim-minded employees of Naxos, who find them “positively indecent”(52). Early on, too, we learn that her entire life Helga has “loved and longed” for beautiful and pleasing “things” (41). It is in this desire for material beauty that we can find Helga’s method of anestheticizing the pervasive irritation that motivates her throughout the novel.

When the signifiers of her appearance are co-opted by the Dahls Helga enjoys it—at first. Helga invests her emotional capital in the “business” of her manufacture as an exotic aesthetic product, “[giving] herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired” (104). It is important to remember that Helga consents to this “aestheticization” in the beginning and that it is “intensely pleasant to her” (104). The eventual pleasure Helga finds in her beautiful appearance dissolves the initial “perturbation” (103) or irritation Helga experiences at being a “peacock” (103). In this moment Helga rejects any racial obligation to feel ashamed of her marketability in Copenhagen as an exotic and beautiful object. Her willingness to “try on” the identity the Dahls fashion for her, to try to locate her subjectivity through the eyes of her aunt, uncle and Copenhagen society, echoes the impulsiveness with which she relocates herself geographically. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness. By cultivating her own objectification Helga obtains the ontological glue, so to speak, that temporarily alleviates her riven condition.

In Copenhagen Helga purposefully seeks to claim her blackness through the gaze of the Danish. “Intentionally” she speaks the “slow, faltering Danish” she thinks makes her more attractive for its indication of foreignness, and is gratified by the attention she receives (104). In the same turn Helga criticizes black Americans as hypocritical, denouncing that they “didn’t want to be like themselves”, and desired instead to “be like their white overlords” and “were ashamed to be Negroes, but not ashamed to beg to be something else. Something inferior” (104). In adopting her aestheticized and fetishized identity Helga cultivates a counterintuitive racial pride in opposition to both whiteness and blackness. In her above critique we can read Helga’s earlier criticisms of racial uplift, here characterized as the white washing of an essential quality of blackness. That this critique emerges from Helga’s being recast as a fetish object—a luxury item with the power to promote social buoyancy—is problematic, to say the least. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness.

If Helga’s racial consciousness only manifests from the outside-in, as mediated by her beautiful environment, possessions, or appearance, then it follows that this identification exists only in that it is refracted through the eyes of another. In accordance with this triangulated aesthetic gaze, instances of beauty in the novel become representative of a symbolic observer that has the power to confer upon Helga a particular kind of social capital. Aesthetically objectified and “appraised” (81), Helga is contracted into a value (product) and thereby unified into a singular subject (paradoxically) by another’s objectifying gaze.

To be beautiful and to have beautiful things is a way to surrender to the gaze of another and so solicit the unified value that evades her internally. The pursuit and attainment of beauty alleviates temporarily the irritation Helga cannot seem to escape. In Helga’s characteristic attraction to beauty we can read her desire to anestheticize the irritation that stems from her incongruity with an ever-nagging racial binary. Even the “miraculously beautiful” (149) community she experiences in Alabama is refracted through the fervently religious eyes of Reverend Pleasant Green, her marriage to whom was tonic to the irritative rupture that occurred after her final meeting with Dr. Anderson. Helga chose, chased and conquered the Reverend as a way to still herself, to arrest her roaming consciousness and identity in favor of the numb bliss of religiosity and domesticity. Of course, at the end of the novel, in the bed after childbirth, Helga returns to her nomadic state, if only psychologically, and by the last sentence teeters on the edge of self-obliteration.

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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.