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.