Burden of Truth

In the blog written by jab23 they posit that, “In being perpetually petrified, an element of Marcher’s Beast is fear of success and happiness” in regards to the dilemma of James’s protagonist (“Fear of Happiness”). They go on to relate this fear to an “inability to act on his own behalf for his own desires” and use the example of Marcher “[a]t Bartram’s grave” where he “stood for an hour, powerless to turn away. And yet powerless to penetrate the darkness of death” (“Fear…”). jab23 says this latter statement also “illustrate[s] his refusal to overcome his inabilities” (“Fear…”). So though Marcher is in-able to “act on his own desires,” even when he comes to realize this while at Bartram’s grave, he refuses to overcome this inactivity and we are to believe that this may be out of a “fear of success and happiness.” jab23 goes on to use a question from Halberstam, “What kinds of reward can failure offer us?” in order to ask what Marcher’s reward is for this inactivity, and they assert that it is in fact the realization of his “fear of success and happiness” (Halberstam 3). Ultimately, while Marcher was staring into Bartram’s headstone thinking of the past, his epiphany is that he is “powerless” to achieving success or happiness, paralyzed of their prospect. The reward of his failure: a crippling realization of his crippling fear.

After reading vanessatshionyi’s blog titled “Masochistic Passivity,” I came across a quote by writer Jamaica Kincaid who said that Americans “…are inevitably looking for a happy ending” and “find difficulty very hard to take” (132). I think this sentiment rings true with the image of Marcher at Bartram’s grave in mind. He clearly isn’t taking things well, and is coming to terms with his search for a happy ending and then finding fear of happiness. In light of another quote by Kinkaid, Marcher found truth, and as the writer says of this reward that “truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite” (132). I then ask, is the opposite of happiness the fear of happiness then, a truth? I think that the fear of not being happy drives people to pursue happiness in a less prejudicial manner—something that looks like Ehrenreich’s form of optimism, the indiscriminate “mass delusion.” But do those living in fear of happiness reject optimism and adopt negativity and then subsequently aren’t deluded? Are negative thinkers then, sharper and using their fear more discernibly? Are they like Kinkaid says, more predisposed to truth in warding off false optimism?

vanessatshionyi states that they think “Kincaid and Ehrenreich question whether putting on the facade of happiness allows us to actually ask critical questions of our society. Kincaid and Ehrenreich use masochistic passivity to ask those critical questions of their society.” Once again, with Marcher’s epiphany in mind, I think that the term “masochistic passivity” fits very well—in fact I think he could be the poster boy for that term. Taking each of those words and applying them separately we can see that James’s protagonist is certainly tortured and very passive. Marcher is haunted by this beast, this burden, but he is very passively pursuing its presence—constantly treading the usual routines and leaving many decision up to Bartram as to what to do with it. In many ways Marcher, in leaving control up to Bartram, is avoiding the typified male gender role of being in charge. According to vanessatshionyi, “Masochistic passivity rejects the normative roles that patriarchal society places upon its members”—a description that I think encompasses Marcher and Bartram’s particular relationship. Bartram acts as more of a mother to Marcher, than he acts as a father to her.

Marcher may not be optimistic throughout James’s novel, but he also doesn’t really ask critical questions of himself until the end. All along I think he was massively deluded by this idea of a beast. So is he treading a fine line between positive and negative thinking until he finds then the “opposite of happiness”? I think that there are times in which Marcher and Bartram are “putting on the facade of happiness” by performing the occasional “normative roles” in public, but not in private where their relationship resembles more of a “masochistic passivity.” In regards to vanessatshionyi’s claim that “Kincaid and Ehrenreich question whether putting on the facade of happiness allows us to actually ask critical questions of our society” I would posit that James with “The Beast in the Jungle” is doing much the same.

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Masochistic Passivity

Halberstam endorses what they call the radical form of masochistic passivity. To break down the term, masochistic or masochism, as Bersani puts it is “the counter narrative of sexuality that undergirds the propulsive, maturational, and linear story installed by psychoanalysis”(130-131) and passivity can be equated to accepting way things are without resistance.

The radical form of masochistic passivity “not only offers up a critique of the organizing logic of agency and subjectivity itself, but also opts out of certain systems built around a dialectic between colonizer and colonized”(131). Halberstam claims that radical masochistic passivity breaks itself away from the norm of the transfer of femininity from mother to daughter(131). By breaking itself away, masochistic passivity “seeks to destroy the mother-daughter bond altogether” (131), criticizing the role that passivity entrenches itself into femininity. Halberstam is examining the way masochistic passivity criticizes the role patriarchy puts on the feminine expression. Identity plays a big role in the way Halberstam endorses masochistic passivity. The reading as a whole covers the way identity is shaped, through the views of society. Masochistic passivity rejects the normative roles that patriarchal society places upon its members.

As the reading previously talks about the false sense of happiness, masochistic passivity can be found in the way that many of these feminist writers, especially Kincaid, refuse to write stories that follow the “happy” and the pursuit of happiness. Halberstam quotes Kincaid saying “Americans find difficulty very hard to take. They are inevitably looking for a happy ending”(132) echoing Barbara Ehrenreich’s quote from Bright-Sided. Ehrenreich questions the status quo saying “How can we be so surpassingly ‘positive’ in self-image and stereotype without being the world’s happiest and best-off people?”. Kincaid continues to say I am not interested in the pursuit of positivity. I am interested in pursuing the truth and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite”(132) explaining her role in perpetuating this idea of masochistic passivity. Kincaid feels that her rejection of the notion that all stories, as perceived by Americans, need to seek out happiness enacts masochistic passivity, in way that Halberstam would classify as radical. Kincaid and Ehrenreich question whether putting on the facade of happiness allows us to actually ask critical questions of our society. Kincaid and Ehrenreich use masochistic passivity to ask those critical questions of their society.

While Halberstam focuses on masochistic passivity in terms of feminism, they also refer to masochistic passivity in terms of race. In Jamaica Kincaid’s novel, “the colonized subject refuses her role as colonized by refusing to be anything at all” (131) rejecting all normative roles that the colonizer usually takes. Kincaid, according to Halberstam, uses masochistic passivity to feed her whole story. The character Xuela rejects every form of her former self. She rejects her mother, her culture and her womanhood. Xuela is a woman who “cannot be anything but the antithesis of the self that is demanded by colonialism”(131). Not being as familiar with Kincaid’s novel Autobiography of My Mother, the existence of the masochistic passivity allows me to relate it to other texts that I have read. Nella Larsen’s Passing, strikes up images for myself of enacting masochistic passivity. Both the main characters, Clare and Irene, reject their African American roots, creating a new identity for themselves. Masochistic passivity is all about making the decision to refuse the factors of ones life that was forced upon them by society. By refusing to identity as African American, or simply passing as a white women, Clare and Irene are refusing to participate in the identities placed upon them by the colonizer society.

Masochistic passivity shows the way refusing to participate in the standards that patriarchy or the colonizer put upon different groups of people. Jamaica Kincaid uses her novel, Autobiography of My Mother to exemplify what exactly masochistic passivity does. The word passive invokes the idea of remaining silent while letting things happen, but masochistic passivity turns this idea on its head. Masochistic passivity takes the notion that being passive does not necessarily mean one has to loose all sense of resistance and ground. Masochistic passivity challenges the norms placed upon groups of people, such as the identity as being the ancestor of the colonized people, and allows those participating create their own storyline.