Helmers’s Take on Time

In his article “Possibly Queer Time: Paranoia, Subjectivity, and ‘The Beast in the Jungle'” Matthew Helmers discusses the manner in which May Bartram serves as an anchor for John Marcher in a linear, and “normal” sense of time, rather than the sense of time he had been living in before, which was more easygoing, as it seemed completely unaffected by an unremembered past. Helmers’s reading of Marcher’s time as being “queer” is evidenced in the story by Marcher’s assessment of his meeting with May in Weatherend as being “the sequel of something of which he had lost the beginning” (James 34). The beginning mentioned is lost not only to Marcher, but to the reader as well, making the reader just as reliant on May to fill in the gaps of the past as Marcher is. Helmers argues that by transferring Marcher into this linear sense of time, he and May then act as a heteronormative couple. He explains this by stating: “This unification happens not through the play-acting of heterosexuality but through the ascription of both characters to a specific model of time, a model that the story unites with courtship, history, knowledge, and intersubjectivity”  (107). Marcher and May are not performing heterosexuality, but rather the interpretation of the two of them as a heteronormative couple is based on a shared history and their subsequent relationship that mirrors traditional courtships (their frequent outings to museums and the opera), and the passage of time that develops a deeper knowledge and understanding between the two.

As Helmers points out, May is also the one that brings the concept of the beast back into Marcher’s life, thus providing him not only with a past, but also with a future that he had forgotten he was anticipating. Subsequently, Helmers says, Marcher “commits himself to her so that he can watch and wait for the future event” (107). When he is reintroduced to his desire for whatever the future may hold for him, Marcher seeks to hold on to that desire and anticipation by committing both himself and May into both a seemingly heteronormative coupling, and an endless waiting game that only gets interrupted by the deteriorating health and eventual death of May. Thus May serves as a link not only to Marcher’s past and future, but also as a link to his desire. If May’s motivation for committing herself to Marcher is read as her desire for him, then her control of his sense of time and desire is seen as largely in her favor. This, however, makes her unfulfilled desire so much sadder, because, despite the amount of power she has over Marcher’s life, she was unable to gain the one thing she needed from him. By remaining so focused on his anticipation of the beast, Marcher remains ignorant of any desire May might have for him, and in turn any desire he might have for her, or for anyone. However, this does not mean that Marcher’s life is lacking desire, as he spends the entire story desiring to know what the beast may bring for him. His desire is ultimately unfulfilled as he realizes that his lot in life was to actually have a completely uneventful life, but that does not mean that desire was completely absent from his life.

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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.