Quicksand, the Aesthetic Gaze and the Heterogeneous Subject

I would like to look at how the role of aesthetics in Quicksand relates to the “irritation” noted by Sianne Ngai in Ugly Feelings  and informs Helga’s racial consciousness.

Helga relies on the semiotic capabilities of beauty in order to string together a rational narrative of her life from the outside in, despite the inconsistency and tumult of her psyche. It is evident from the beginning, when Helga “smiles inwardly” at the message her small hats and elegant shoes send to the prim-minded employees of Naxos, who find them “positively indecent”(52). Early on, too, we learn that her entire life Helga has “loved and longed” for beautiful and pleasing “things” (41). It is in this desire for material beauty that we can find Helga’s method of anestheticizing the pervasive irritation that motivates her throughout the novel.

When the signifiers of her appearance are co-opted by the Dahls Helga enjoys it—at first. Helga invests her emotional capital in the “business” of her manufacture as an exotic aesthetic product, “[giving] herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired” (104). It is important to remember that Helga consents to this “aestheticization” in the beginning and that it is “intensely pleasant to her” (104). The eventual pleasure Helga finds in her beautiful appearance dissolves the initial “perturbation” (103) or irritation Helga experiences at being a “peacock” (103). In this moment Helga rejects any racial obligation to feel ashamed of her marketability in Copenhagen as an exotic and beautiful object. Her willingness to “try on” the identity the Dahls fashion for her, to try to locate her subjectivity through the eyes of her aunt, uncle and Copenhagen society, echoes the impulsiveness with which she relocates herself geographically. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness. By cultivating her own objectification Helga obtains the ontological glue, so to speak, that temporarily alleviates her riven condition.

In Copenhagen Helga purposefully seeks to claim her blackness through the gaze of the Danish. “Intentionally” she speaks the “slow, faltering Danish” she thinks makes her more attractive for its indication of foreignness, and is gratified by the attention she receives (104). In the same turn Helga criticizes black Americans as hypocritical, denouncing that they “didn’t want to be like themselves”, and desired instead to “be like their white overlords” and “were ashamed to be Negroes, but not ashamed to beg to be something else. Something inferior” (104). In adopting her aestheticized and fetishized identity Helga cultivates a counterintuitive racial pride in opposition to both whiteness and blackness. In her above critique we can read Helga’s earlier criticisms of racial uplift, here characterized as the white washing of an essential quality of blackness. That this critique emerges from Helga’s being recast as a fetish object—a luxury item with the power to promote social buoyancy—is problematic, to say the least. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness.

If Helga’s racial consciousness only manifests from the outside-in, as mediated by her beautiful environment, possessions, or appearance, then it follows that this identification exists only in that it is refracted through the eyes of another. In accordance with this triangulated aesthetic gaze, instances of beauty in the novel become representative of a symbolic observer that has the power to confer upon Helga a particular kind of social capital. Aesthetically objectified and “appraised” (81), Helga is contracted into a value (product) and thereby unified into a singular subject (paradoxically) by another’s objectifying gaze.

To be beautiful and to have beautiful things is a way to surrender to the gaze of another and so solicit the unified value that evades her internally. The pursuit and attainment of beauty alleviates temporarily the irritation Helga cannot seem to escape. In Helga’s characteristic attraction to beauty we can read her desire to anestheticize the irritation that stems from her incongruity with an ever-nagging racial binary. Even the “miraculously beautiful” (149) community she experiences in Alabama is refracted through the fervently religious eyes of Reverend Pleasant Green, her marriage to whom was tonic to the irritative rupture that occurred after her final meeting with Dr. Anderson. Helga chose, chased and conquered the Reverend as a way to still herself, to arrest her roaming consciousness and identity in favor of the numb bliss of religiosity and domesticity. Of course, at the end of the novel, in the bed after childbirth, Helga returns to her nomadic state, if only psychologically, and by the last sentence teeters on the edge of self-obliteration.

CTT: Relations

In vanessatshionyi’s posts “Vincent’s Struggles” and “Beasts in the Jungle,” and pippyboy9’s post “May & Marcher: From Everyone to Weatherend” an interesting dialogue emerges that demonstrates just how much the idea of failure in the texts we have looked at is rooted in relations and relationships. Through these relationships it is clear that there is an anxiety about no just being a failure, but also of failing others. Not only that, but these posts also make it clear that the character’s failures are also defined through their relationships with others.

Both bloggers discussed Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle, and the relationship between Marcher and May in said novella. While pippyboy9 discusses the performative nature of their relationship, vanessatshionyi talks about Marcher’s failure to recognize the possibility for love in his life. In discussing the queerness of the relationship between Marcher and May, pippyboy9 also discusses their relationship with the outside world. Specifically, pippyboy9 analyzes the scene where Marcher and May discuss the idea of “saving” one another and May saying she’s had her man. In regards to this scene pippyboy9 says: “The almost backwards way in which she mentions the possible gossip about herself from the outside world… acknowledges an ‘other’-like presence that they both are aware of but not part of.” The argument about not just the personal relationship between Marcher and May, but their relationship to the “other” and their acknowledgment of that relationship demonstrates their knowledge that they exist in a queer relationship, and that they are defined not only through their relationship with each other, but also through their relationship with the normative “other.”

Vanessatshionyi’s post focused more on their personal relationship, but through the lens of the final scene in which “Marcher sees the grieving man at the grave and suddenly has an awakening.” By examining their relationship through this lens, she, like the novella, creates a distance between Marcher and his relationship to May. She also reads the “beast” as being Marcher’s sexuality, and argues that “James never fully allows Marcher to explore his beast, and this repression of Marcher’ sexuality makes Marcher go insane.” By referring to Marcher “exploring” his beast she expands on the relationship that Marcher has with his beast, and highlights the fact that, like his relationship with May, there is a lot of distance between the two. What sets her argument apart from others is her reading of Marcher’s suppressed sexuality not as a suppressed homosexuality, but as Marcher refusing to acknowledge his sexual attraction to May. However, what she seems to be arguing is that at the end of the novella, the thing that Marcher seems to have missed out on the most is not his sexuality, but his lack of romance, and the potential for a romantic relationship he could have had with May.

Vanessatshionyi also wrote a post about “Time Out” where she discusses Vincent’s relationships with his various family members, and the ways in which they seem to fail. She starts off by discussing Vincent’s relationship with his children stating: “Vincent feels that in order to be a good father, he needs to provide financially to his children without being present.” She then argues that Vincent creates a relationship with his children purely through money, completely devoid of emotion. After talking about the scene towards the end of the film where Vincent’s children seem to fear him she says that “The children’s weariness towards their father shows how much his absence has created a strange place between himself and his family.” I find this description of there being a “place” between Vincent and his family a very accurate description of that scene as there was a sense of something almost physical separating Vincent from understanding his family in that moment. She then talks about how Vincent struggles to maintain a masculine image in front of his wife, and is afraid that if he admits to her that he lost his job, she won’t accept him. At the end of her post she discusses Vincent’s relationship with himself and how he is “not present in is own world,” using “world” to refer to all the relationships he has outside of himself. She talks about how throughout the movie we see Vincent choosing to spend most of his time alone, only occasionally checking in with his family, and this leads her to asking “how much does his family actually mean to him?” I think this brings an interesting aspect into the conversation, because it is clear throughout the film that his motivations are based around his not wanting to fail his family, or lose face in front of anyone, but if we really look at how much his family means to him then we must consider whether or not these motivations come from real love for the people around him, or from a simple sense of obligation.

What these different posts show is the variety of ways in which character’s failure are defined through their relationships with others, and how even the most impersonal relationships can hold a great weight. I think what we can learn from this, and from Murphy as well is that failure and relationships are often intertwined.

Fear, Failure and Relationships

In “Vincent’s Struggles”, Vanessatshionyi analyzes the film Time Out and the protagonist Vincent and explain his personality, emotional state and the social capital he uses to navigate though the world he is finds himself in.  The keywords or tags used: failed system, failure, fear, fear of change and relations  help guide this discussion. “Inverted Class Protrusion” by Bodonn opens up Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism and the concept of the good life with “mass delusion” being the tag Bodonn uses. “Helmer’s Take on Time” by Madisonduarte  analyzes the novel, The Beasts in the Jungle by Henry James and the concept of heteronormative coupling with the tags forgetting, queer, relations and  sexuality the explains the protagonist’s challenge. “Halberstam’s Take on Pedagogy” by Calexrose discusses The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam, focusing on her take of the education system with the keywords, academia, education and pedagogy. The similarity between the four conversations is the concept of fear, relationships, the expectation of living “the good life” however one defines it and failure being the end result for the subjects or characters.

In all of the tags listed and discussed, all nine of them can be divided into four groups. Failure, fear, fear of change, failed system being in the first group. Queer, relations, sexuality in the second group and mass delusion and forgetting being in the third group. Academia, education, pedagogy can be the forth group. Fear, relationships, education are the parent topics of the tags. Though the categories, including the parent categories may seem to be separate subjects, they all can be linked together to form a similar outcome when one lives thoughtlessly, improperly or without self –awareness. That outcome is usually failure.

Vanessatshiony points out that the protagonist in Time Out “uses his different roles, as a husband, son and a father, to navigate through a world where he does not have to get super close to those around him” (Vanessatshionyi). She explains how fear drives Vincent’s thoughts and actions and allows him to push away those who are closest to him including family and friends. Providing for his family financially, even in ways and methods that puts their emotional health at risk comes before anything else. The chasing of the “good life”, as Lauren Berlant in After the Good Life, An Impasse, imprints “a new mask” (Berland 196) onto Vincent’s face and life. This chase affects his “relations” or the relationships he’s cultivating though a good portion of his life. The fear he experiences, which is the fear of not being a good provider, is not limited to himself, “his children seem to fear him” (Vanessatshionyi), as the trait is passed on to them.

In Madisonduarte’s analysis on “Helmer’s Take on Time” and The Beasts in the Jungle, the tag: “relations” in some ways drives the story and also end it. Unlike Vincent’s relationships that is very peripheral, John’s relationships are more central and internal with May being the only person in his life. Madisonduarte  points out that “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.” It is suggested that May lay in waiting for John to commit to her until her life ends.  Madisonduarte concluded that this makes her “unfulfilled desire so much sadder, because, despite the amount of power she has over Marcher’s life, she is unable to gain the one thing she needs from him.”  Though “fear” is not mentioned in the conversation, one could argue that fear is a driving force in John’s and May’s life together. Though sexuality is implied in the essays, it seems like its secondary to fear.

Though the above keywords were not mentioned in “Inverted Class Protrusion” by Bodonn, fear can be intertwined in it. “The painstaking restlessness that fatigues Vincent throughout the movie seems to me to be a reaction of disillusionment from the deflective optimism that creates these good life fantasies” (Bodonn). One could ask what is driving Vincent to the levels he is shooting for. What force is propelling him?  Vincent is working diligently to prevent the failure Judith Halberstam writes about in The Queer Art of Failure. Since Vincent is not the “queer” Halberstam writes about, he is not going to experience the freedom to “escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering [him] from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods” (3). In other words, he never develops and that brings Vincent back to square one, the job interview at the conclusion of the film.

“Halberstam’s Take on Pedagogy” pinpoints the author’s take on the failure of pedagogy and the education system. The keywords, academia, education and pedagogy can also be eventually linked to fear and eventually failure. Though Halberstam’s “Queer Art of Failure” discussed various types of failure, my discussion focuses on education. Failure and fear generally goes hand-in-hand and the terms that’s often used in pedagogy when it comes to avoiding failure, “’rigor’, ‘excellence’, and ‘productivity’” (Calexrose). This could also be the “mass delusion” Bodonn wrote about in his essay.

The tags in the discussion, though on the surface can seem separate, they all come together in the end. Fear and eventually failure being the end result. Relationships, especially interpersonal relationships are usually sacrificed in the process.

Vincent’s Struggles

Berlant suggests that Vincent “acts mannerly with his children, Oedipal with his parents, softly masculine with his wife—doing whatever it takes to protect the privilege of drifting without entirely drifting off, or going off the cliff”(221). If we look deeper into this, we see that Vincent uses his different roles, as a husband, son and a father, to navigate through a world where he does not have to get super close to those around him. Vincent is navigating through a world which he is in the constant state of drifting off, but still somehow hanging on. If we look at each of these relationships, we can see how Vincent uses them to gain some sort of footing in a capital stock, be that social or emotional.

Vincent has a very mannerly relationship with his children, like Berlant stated. Every time we see Vincent interact with his children it seems as though he is going through the motions. The scene where Vincent gives his eldest son, Julien the money to buy himself clothing is a good example of this. Vincent feels that in order to be a good father, he needs to provide financially to his children without being present. Vincent is lacking in the emotional capital that helps him form more unifying bonds with his children. Instead, Vincent feels that him “working” and being able to give his children money for clothes, makes him a hands on father. Julien, in this scene, you can tell by his body language is put off by his fathers lack of intimacy. You can tell Julien appreciates the money, but at the same time his face looks very disappointed, as it is apparent that Julien would rather spend time with his father than receive money. One of the very last scenes with Vincent and his children shows the unraveling that Vincent has done in his relationship with not only his children but his whole family. When Vincent returns home from his heated exchange with Jefferey, his children seem to fear him. The children’s weariness towards their father shows how much his absence has created a strange place between himself and his family. Vincent has spent so much time focusing on how to make money and seem as though he is keeping busy that he has lost any emotional connection with his children and his wife.

With his wife Muriel, Vincent portrays the role of the masculine figure. Once Vincent lost his job, it is apparent that he felt as though he lost a certain part of his manhood. In patriarchal societies, it is expected that men go out and earn the money, while the wives stay at home with the children, and when this gets shifted on its head, Vincent has no idea what to do. When Vincent takes Muriel to Geneva to view the “apartment” that he has bought is an example of Vincent using his masculine power over his wife. Vincent knows that he does not have an apartment, but an empty shack that he’s been staying at, playing with Muriel in a deceptive way. The way Vincent wants to impress his children with money and new clothes, Vincent wants his wife to believe that he is the ideal masculine husband, who has the perfect job and has enough money to treat his family to nice things. Vincent is afraid that Muriel wont accept him if he told her that he had lost his job. In his mind, he needs to keep up the image that he is the husband he’s always been, but now with a better, mysterious job.

All of these relationships Vincent is trying to navigate, while trying to keep himself afloat, tie into his emotional capital. Vincent uses these relationships to gain what he feels he needs to get ahead in life. With his ex-school mates and acquaintances, Vincent uses their networks to gain leverage in his UN business. Vincent also uses them to cover for the fact that he actually is not working in a legitimate office. Through these networks Vincent is using them to build up his social capital. Vincent’s relationship with his family allows him to be immersed in emotional capital, but not take full stock in the emotional capital that his family provides for him.

The idea that is brought up by Berlant that Vincent’s behavior with each of his different family members allows him to drift without entirely drifting off plays into the idea that Vincent is not present in his own world. Throughout the film we view Vincent driving alone, writing alone, studying alone, showing how much time Vincent spends in his own quiet abyss. In these private, alone spaces, Vincent checks in with his family every now and then, but this asks the question of how much does his family actually mean to him? Vincent seems to have really high expectations for himself in the business world, but does not seem to have the actual drive to go out and get an actual job that will allow him to feel powerful in the business world. The very end scene where Vincent is offered a job where he is overseeing a group of people, we see a very cold and almost calculated look upon his face. One could read this as Vincent being optimistic for the future, but for me I see Vincent not wanting this job, even though it will bring him the status that he wants to provide for his family. This scene we see another example of Vincent drifting without falling off the cliff. Which begs to ask the question if Vincent will ever be truly satisfied with his life?

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.

May & Marcher: From Everyone to Weatherend

In Halberstam’s article she paraphrases James C. Scott by stating, “to ‘see like a state’ means to accept the order of things and to internalize them;…think with the logic of orderliness…and indeed sacrifice other, more local practices of knowledge…that may be less efficient, may yield less remarkable results, but may also, in the long term, be more sustaining.” (9). This internalization is inherent in the motives and actions of Marcher, as well as Bartram, in as much as they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ of life for themselves and lean on one another for the resemblance of normalization, ie; hetero-normalization and accumulation.

In the third chapter of The Beast in the Jungle, when the Bartram and Marcher have established their friendship, the conversation that takes place is one that truly defines what has become of their partnership around the mutual core of their fateful “knowing” as well as recognize the veil of difference between themselves and every other.

“’I never said,’ May Bartram replied, ‘that it hadn’t made me a good deal talked about.’

‘Ah well then you’re not saved.’

‘It hasn’t been a question for me. If you’ve had your woman I’ve had,’ she said, ‘my man.’

‘And you mean that makes you alright?’


The almost backward way in which she mentions the possible gossip about herself from the outside world in the first line of dialogue, implied by the word “it”, acknowledges an “other”-like presence that they both are aware of but not a part of. The object of the line “me” is buried in the middle of the phrase between the subject “it” and the action itself “talked about”. This ‘burying’ of herself is indicative of her relationship with Marcher (buffering him from the prying minds of normalized society) as well as giving no indication of a life of her own, being tied up as she was with the “knowing” of Marcher. There is also a parallel in the syntax of the two lines that Bartram speaks, with the phrase being broken up by noting that May or “she” is speaking.

Marcher’s reply to this using the word “saved” implies there is a universally understood form of right and wrong here, as well as a need to redeem oneself according to paradigm of their society or state that they feel estranged from; one that perpetuates hetero-coupling and accumulation as “norms”.

The certainty that Bartram speaks her lines with displays the duality of their relationship in terms of who is the giver and knower of knowledge (Bartram) and who is the novice or receiver of it (Marcher). She is sure of her statements saying, “I never,” definitively in the first line and stating that, “it hasn’t been a question,” for her, ie; she is certain. Marcher on the other hand begins his phrases as continuations of the statements she makes, with an, “Ah well then,” to indicate a challenge, albeit in a jocular tone. His second phrase is simply a question asking for clarification to her previous statement with the word “alright” again implying a counter-opposition to the norm.

The implied, as well as, outright acknowledgment of the hegemony in their dialogue is illustrative of the inside/outside aspects or “queer”ness that is a commonality in the dynamic of their relationship. Whether they are actually homosexual or spend their time queerly the tone is that of ‘recognized outsider’ and a masking of this same understanding. The role each takes on in the conversation as well as their relationship, the syntax used by James, and the choice of words is compositely representative of internalization of the state by these two, middling, muddling and memorable characters.


Beasts in the Jungle

“It had sprung as he didn’t guess; it had sprung as she hopelessly turned away from him, and the mark, by the time he left her, had fallen where it was to fall. He had justified his fears and achieved his fate; he had failed, with the last exactitude, she had prayed he mightn’t know. This horror of waking—this was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze” (71)

This passage comes markedly at the end of the novella, when Marcher sees the grieving man at the grave and suddenly has an awakening. Marcher realizes, through seeing this mans grief, that he never experienced life to the fullest to understand exactly what real grief felt like. The whole text is written in a what I find to be stream of consciousness, as the sentences run-on and continue into the next thought without any pause. Looking at the very first sentence “It had sprung as he didn’t guess; it had sprung as she hopelessly turned away from him, and the mark, by the time he left her…” it bounces from one thought to another, showing how much Marchers thoughts absorb him into his failure. This realization that May is gone forever and knowing that he will never truly understand his beast, Marcher’s sense of loss has sprung up inside of him. May left a huge sense of unknowing in Marcher, leaving him to question himself once he sees the grieving man at the cemetery. Having justified his fears, meaning giving into his fear of transforming into the said Beast, Marcher feels he lived an anti-climatic life. Marcher “failed, with the last exactitude” failing to see just how much the little details of his relationship with May really affected him. Marcher knew all long, even the tiny details, pointed to his beast, and how he was really in control of his beast the entire time. Realizing this, Marcher felt the “horror of waking” or coming into this knowledge about himself too late. Marcher realizes that he was in control too much of his beast, or what I see as his sexuality. James never fully allows Marcher to explore his beast, and this repression of Marcher’s sexuality makes Marcher go insane. This is why his tears in his eyes freeze, as they come to realize that they, the tears, will never be fully capable of loving, as they have just observed from the stinger in the cemetery. James really relies on the use of stream of consciousness to carry the thoughts that Marcher has throughout the text.

James’ novella views failure as Marcher being unable to realize that he is capable love, missing his chance at being able to fully immerse himself into his relationship with May. All this time Marcher was trying to figure out how to control his beast, without ever realizing that his beast was his inability to transform his relationship with May into a romantic relationship. Marchers beast also represents his sexuality. Marcher spent his whole life, at least the life we see in the story, suppress his sexuality, hoping to find out the secret about himself that he felt May held. Marchers problem seems to be that he cannot seem to come to terms with his sexuality. Marcher  never once gives into May, and the desires she seems to carry for him. He, instead, chooses to subject himself and throw himself into finding out what beast he has living in the closet, that he cannot seem to get to come out.