Structure of Trauma

 

The structure of trauma in Sasha’s narration deteriorates the exchange value of experience. Within Good Morning, Midnight, we are able to witness consciousness attempt to exile and omit trauma, only to fail and amplify its impact to the point of diminishing the rest of experience by comparison. Sasha’s projected gaps, understanding of herself as spectacle, breaks into isolated spaces, reliance on transaction, and ambiguity of interaction all contribute to and furnish an alienated experience after trauma. The words, events, and understanding are all distant and malleable to the point of non-existence.

One characteristic of the ellipses and gaps in the narrative are the repeated words or phrases that serve as their precursor – on page 17 (“Here this happened, here that happened. …”) page 26 (“Say something, say something. …”), page 33 (“quiet, quiet…”), page 34 (“A beautiful room with a bath. A room with a bath. A nice room. A room. …”), a not insignificant five times on page 59 (“money, money, money for my son; money, money….”, “Money, money for my son, my beautiful son….”, “Money, money….”, “Money, money.…”, “A beautiful, beautiful baby….”), and sustains a structural pattern over the course of the novel. It treats the language as an object, launched continuously into a gapped and narratively gaunt memory. These images narratively managed to be the sources and sequiturs of the trauma.

 

The novel opens with Sasha describing the interior of a room –

“There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for             monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of                   cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-                       stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.”

On 35 –

“And there I am in this dim room with the bed for madame and the bed for monsieur              and the narrow street outside (what they call an impasse).”

Sasha reiterates the environment’s hierarchy and concludes with its general indisposition. The depiction is an indecisive and pictorial form of literature, holding a reserved similarity to Emily Dickinson – “Delight – becomes pictorial -/When viewed from Pain.” The first is an assumedly content moment from which she withdraws. Within the second is a sense of a snared indifference. The prose has lost its momentum and separation, the language its coherence while the depiction is relatively the same. The meaning alone is near identical as the feel is undone due to its structure.

Sasha’s ambiguous interpretation of interaction following hostility also distances the narrative from experience. It first appears in her confrontation with Mr. Blank. After the confused, labyrinthine route Sasha takes from a misunderstood word, Blank, condescending and inimical, asks Salvatini whether or not he agrees on the fact that Sasha is hopeless.

“Salvatini makes a rolling movement of his head, shoulders and eyes, which means:              ‘I quite agree with you. Deplorable, deplorable.’ Also: ‘She’s not so bad as you think.’             Also: ‘Oh, my God, what’s all this about? What a day, what a day! When will it be                    over?’ Anything you like, Salvatini’s shrug means.”

Another example occurs after the tall and thin English girl at Theodore’s publicly humiliates her. On her way out, Theodore reappears.

“Theodore comes out from behind the bar and opens the door for me. He smiles, his                pig-eyes twinkle. I can’t make out whether his smile is malicious (that goes for me,              too) or apologetic (he meant well), or only professional.”

She has come to approach interaction transactionally. The other is alienated to an economical and indeterminate meaning, independent from the world itself. Salvatini is telling “anything you like” while Theodore’s emotions are away from function. It allows for her structure to elevate above what the narrative itself has to say. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. She has admitted to supposing the world and outcome are unreliable outside of oneself.

When words repeat, the narrative leaves in the gaps and when confrontation occurs, the narrative eschews interpretation for indifference. It is as if Sasha refrains from the irony of picking what physical language and narrative language mean. You might say that the exchange of interaction and experience are devalued after trauma and its continuous echo. The novel, in my opinion, is brilliant because it demonstrates how structure can exile its own words.

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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.