Ignorance vs. Lack of Understanding

While exploring the accumulated tags of this class blog, I was struck by the discussions on ignorance. I have found that each of the main characters we have focused on throughout this class have displayed some level of ignorance. There seems to be some kind of lack of understanding about themselves that leads to or perpetuates their failure. For the purposes of this post, I am operating under the assumption that those who are ignorant have good intentions, but simply a lack of knowledge. The idea of ignorance as it pertains to failure is quite interesting, as when I think of one who is ignorant of certain knowledge, it is not by choice, but simply because they have not been exposed to that knowledge. Someone at an old job said to me once, “You can’t know what you don’t know.” Many of the failures we have explored, however, have been rather active. Characters have made choices, or refused to make choices, that have ultimately led to their failure. I think it’s interesting to explore the idea of something passive, such as ignorance, an unintentional not knowing or understanding as it compares to and leads to an active, even if in the form of inaction, failure.

In their blog discussion of ignorance and knowledge as it relates to James’ The Beast in the Jungle, hayleykboyd writes in “Knowledge and ignorance of the past in Beast in the Jungle”  about Marcher’s mysterious ignorance of his previous conversation with Bertram, and the seemingly improbability of forgetting such a moment. They discuss the creation and construction of knowledge and history, and the the influence of one’s experiences in this process. I was particularly interested in this idea as it relates to alternative knowledges and understandings. The theorist in me would like to question whether basted off of this idea, that the changing understandings of knowledge and history, if there is a certain alternative knowledge in ignorance. Perhaps there is a queerness in ignorance, as it leads to the construction of queer time. The social justice warrior, on the other hand, would like to argue that the only alternative knowledge in ignorance is a justification for oppression and inequality. I question whether alternative knowledges as a result of ignorance are even a failure at all, while I can definitively say that failure results from social inequality at the hands of ignorance. Is there a queerness in ignorance as it creates alternative knowledges or is ignorance what erases these alternative knowledges, or is it possible for these to exist simultaneously?

In “Irritation: Helga vs. Bartleby,”  mmacg123 compares Nella Larsen’s Quicksand with Melville’s Bartleby. They discuss the uncomfortability of each character as a result of their refusal to take advantage of the many choices and opportunities afforded them. They make the point that if each of these characters had simply done what readers knew was the right choice, there would not be a failure at all. They finish by saying that the irritation is caused by a lack of understanding of why something is happening. The reader does not understand Helga’s physiological motives for the choices she makes. I am interested in this form of lack of understanding as it compares to ignorance, and I question whether they are even the same. While the reader may not understand why Helga makes certain choices, I would be pressed to say that Helga herself does not understand her own motives, even if if the only motive boils down to the simple fact of her not being satisfied. Helga is not unknowledgeable of her motives, she is ignorant of them- seeing them come up without the ability to fully process them. The reader lacks understanding and is also ignorant. These are separate from each other, perhaps also leading to the production of alternative knowledges. Lack of knowledge may lead to the creation and construction of different understandings and knowledges.

I have used this blog post not to solidify my ideas, but more to explore them, yet have perhaps created more questions for myself than I have clarified them. It seems that there is not one universal way of being ignorant, as there is also the lack of knowledge. While I believe that a knowledge is inherently queer and exists in queer time, leading to the creation of and imagination of time and history, there is a flat failure in ignorance. Ignorance leads to nothing, while the queer failure of lack of knowledge still leads to the production of new understandings. Ignorance is a black hole that sucks up knowledge, while lack of understanding creates new understandings. Ignorance is passive, leading to a passive failure, while there is a dimension to a lack of knowledge that leads to an active and queer failure.

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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.

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.