Helmers, James, and trying to understand Paranoia

I did my “make up class” post on James’ The Beast in the Jungle and related it back to the Halberstam reading. For this post, I want to focus more on fleshing out the Matthew Helmers reading. This essay was definitely more difficult than the last one. I was able to understand the first part of the reading as I have read some of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work before. I think there are a few places in the text that point to the possibility that Marcher is homosexual, for example, when Marcher tells Bartram that she helps him “pass for a man like another” (James 51). He also realizes his potential deeper feeling for Bartram after witnessing strong feeling coming from another male (James 69). On the other had, I am really more interested in May Bartram. I can’t help but wonder if she is actually satisfied in her arrangement with Marcher. Her satisfaction can be supported by the fact that she never wants any payment from him, but simply asks for him to continue “going on as you are” (James 51). Maybe she doesn’t want to marry, and is content living an independent life. If Bartram acts as a sort of surrogate heterosexual partner for Marcher to pass as “normal,” I don’t see why she can’t be using him for the same reason. As Bartram says, “If you’ve had your woman I’ve had,’ she said, ‘my man’” (James 50). Of course, this is just one possible theory, and it could very well be that I am still just being influenced by my Willa Cather class. One of the questions that I had in my last post was why Marcher is so interested in payment. I think that the Helmers reading and our discussion in class have helped me understand this a little better. Helmers writes that “paranoia enjoined us to look at time and see a system that applies to knowledge as well, to look at knowledge 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). If I am understanding this right, Marcher begins to think of Western culture as the only correct form of knowledge, despite “his struggles to exist within [this] system” (Helmers 115). A point in the text where I think James points out the failure of this system is when Marcher doesn’t understand why, despite their close relationship, he had such “few rights, as they were called in such cases, that he had to put forward, and how odd it might even seem that their intimacy shouldn’t have given him more of them […] He was in short from this moment face to face with the fact that he was to profit extraordinarily little by the interest May Bartram had taken in him” (James 64). In this quote Marcher seems to be wondering how such a deep relationship could be considered lesser by society solely because they were not, for example, legally documented as married. This could be James’ way of questioning capitalism/ Western culture and values, or strong theory. To end this post, I admittedly struggled with the idea of paranoia, so I hope I articulated myself well enough. I am sure as the term continues I will gain a better understanding of this reading.

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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.

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.

 

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.