John Pistelli

writer

Nella Larsen, Quicksand

QuicksandQuicksand by Nella Larsen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This rigorously ironic 1928 novel of the Harlem Renaissance (its author’s first) has itself, in its afterlife, succumbed to an irony: contemporary readers tend to encounter it in the context of political discourses on American race relations, yet its heroine, Helga Crane, early on in the book decides that she is bored and even disgusted by all such discourses. Helga, working as secretary and personal assistant to a prominent black activist, quickly loses interest in the topic:

On the train that carried them to New York, Helga had made short work of correcting and condensing the speeches, which Mrs. Hayes-Rore as a prominent “race” woman and an authority on the problem was to deliver before several meetings of the annual convention of the Negro Women’s League of Clubs, conveying the next week in New York. These speeches proved to be merely patchworks of others’ speeches and opinions. Helga had heard other lecturers say the same things in Devon and again in Naxos. Ideas, phases, and even whole sentences and paragraphs, were lifted bodily from previous orations and published works of Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and other doctors of the race’s ills. For variety Mrs. Hayes-Rore has seasoned hers with a peppery dash of Du Bois and a few vinegary statements of her own. Aside from these it was, Helga reflected, the same old thing.

Two chapters later, Helga wearies of another activist friend, Anne Grey, who, she complains,

was obsessed by the race problem and fed her obsession. She frequented all the meetings of protest, subscribed to all the complaining magazines, and read all the lurid newspapers spewed out by the Negro yellow press. She talked, wept, and ground her teeth dramatically about the wrongs and shames of her race. At times she lashed her fury to surprising heights for one by nature so placid and gentle. And, though she would not, even to herself, have admitted it, she reveled in this orgy of protest.

To measure the bitter impiety of Helga’s weariness, simply update the references: imagine a contemporary black heroine of fiction diagnosing Black Lives Matter as a case of misdirected libidinal energy and then yawning with elaborate Wildean languor at the prospect of ten thousand more earnest words from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Given this, we might wonder: who is Helga Crane, how did she come to such startling opinions, and will she be punished for them—on the grounds that you may not believe in race, but race believes in you—in the course of the novel she inhabits?

Helga Crane, like her author, has a divided ancestry: born to a white Danish immigrant mother and a black father of uncertain origin. Ostensibly, then, Quicksand is the story of a young woman who feels herself to be neither white nor black and neither European nor American. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Thadious M. Davis quotes the opinion of Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke to the effect that Quicksand revises the “tragic mulatto” narrative from its usual biologically-essentialist lament over the doom conferred on a person by mixed blood into a story about the irreconcilable conflicts of culture. Helga’s problem is not that black and white blood war within her body, but that African-American and European aesthetic, ideological, and religious commitments war within her soul. Add to this the expectation, still almost universally shared in the early twentieth century by blacks and whites alike, that a young woman must marry and bear children, and Helga’s difficulty not only in achieving freedom but even in understanding what freedom might mean for her becomes clear. Her impatience with what today we might call “identity politics” inheres in her uncertainty about her own identity.

Larsen does much to validate the above reading. A picaresque novel, Quicksand charts Helga’s peregrinations in her twenties, from a Tuskegee-like black school in the South devoted to “uplift” and the embourgeoisment of African-Americans (whence she flees out of disgust with its middle-class conformism), to Harlem in the midst of its jazz-age cultural efflorescence (whence she flees out of a suffocating alarm at its ghettoization), to the Old-World charm of Copenhagen (whence she flees because seemingly friendly Europeans reduce her to an exotic specimen and an erotic object), and eventually back to the rural south as a preacher’s wife (where she seems destined to die in childbed, lost in total disillusionment and misery).

As its title indicates, Quicksand is an anti-picaresque picaresque novel, one about a slowly killing stasis that gets only more fatal as you struggle to escape it. There is no lack of clarity on Helga’s (or Larsen’s) part about “the race’s ills.” Organized by a progression through different social settings, Quicksand captures—and Helga becomes aware of—each white setting’s particular type of racism (the southern whites’ open contempt, the northern whites’ paternalism and aversion, the European whites’ exotifying appetites) as well as of each black setting’s partial and problematic response thereto (the southern black bourgeoisie’s conservative drive for middle-class respectability, the northern black bourgeoisie’s elitist cultural vanguardism, and poor southern blacks’ crushing religiosity). Loyal to her dual Scandinavian and African-American literary inheritance, as Davis points out in her introduction, Larsen fuses in Quicksand Henrik Ibsen’s almost nihilistic ruthlessness of anti-bourgeois critique with Jean Toomer’s psychosexual canvassing of black America and expression of its unique voice and situation. And Helga, despite episodes of internalized racism, as when she feels herself “a jungle creature” in a jazz club, does come in redemptive moments to associate pleasure and freedom with life among black people, especially in Harlem, where they attained not only some measure of political or social freedom but also the artistic freedom and cultural consciousness promised by the aforementioned Alain Locke in his manifesto of “The New Negro.” In Europe, she thinks:

“I’m homesick, not for America, but for Negroes.”

[…]

She understood, now, [her father’s] rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all Negro environments. She understood and could sympathize with his facile surrender to the irresistible ties of race, now that they dragged at her own heart.

Note, though, the persistent distance and ambivalence even in the language of this passage: “his own kind” (not hers), “facile surrender” (as opposed to an intelligent one). Here we see that, even more than a realist and at times satirical picaresque, Quicksand is a psychological novel, a modernist novel of consciousness, written in close third-person perspective, focalized through Helga but at the slight ironizing distance afforded by free indirect discourse.

Accordingly, the novel, which does so much to examine the social determinations that race exerts on an individual life, is also about the collision of a very particular sensibility with not just one but a whole succession of social orders hostile to the individual, especially insofar as the individual may not be interested in predictably productive or pious forms of order. Affected by race and gender though she is, Helga is described over and over again in the novel as uniquely incapable of getting along; almost everywhere she goes, she encounters well-adjusted people, mostly other women, who judge her for not simply settling down into the kind of life that has satisfied them. Quicksand, therefore, is not the story of every black woman, any more than that other misfit Dane’s tragedy (I mean Hamlet) is every white man’s tale. Helga is special: she’s an aesthete, an incipient artist. Here is our first sight of her:

Helga Crane sat along in her room, which at that hour, eight in the evening, was in soft gloom. Only a single reading lamp, dimmed by a great black and red shade, made a pool of light on the blue Chinese carpet, on the bright covers of the books which she had taken down from their long shelves, on the white pages of the open one selected, on the shining brass bowl crowded with many-colored nasturtiums beside her on the low table, and on the oriental silk which covered the stool at her feet.

Cataloguing her beautiful things and slightly echoing The Picture of Dorian Gray‘s first paragraphs, Larsen introduces us to a heroine of art for its own sake who will, not unlike Dorian and his deviser, come to a bad end, partially on account of the aesthete’s incorrigible social and political aloofness. Note, too, the Orientalism in Helga’s aesthetic preferences; like any Decadent Frenchman, Helga has an exotifying and objectifying and sexualizing gaze to turn on life, and we as readers benefit from her extraordinary perceptiveness and sensitivity. But her ironic tragedy is this: wishing to subject others to her aesthetic eye, Helga nevertheless lives in a white and bourgeois and male world where it is she who will be reduced to an object in the appetitive eyes of others.

The unsparing quality of Larsen’s irony is remarkable: Helga’s desires are not only socially unattainable for one in her race/gender/class position, but they are also ethically untenable in themselves, as the aesthetic requires some hierarchy of subject/object and norm/exception—all this, even as the aesthetic is the chief pleasure offered by this novel, since it demolishes in turn every social or political or religious expedient for Helga’s problems. Few American novels (outside of Corregidora—also about a black woman artist—and Nightwood—also about Americans abroad in interwar Europe) are so willing to countenance despair and to court nothingness as Quicksand is. Even the stoic endurance counseled by Faulkner falls away in this novel’s final pages, which long for the relief of death. In this sense, Larsen does join Helga in turning aside in boredom and disgust from politics as from life itself.

Contemporary readers will perhaps also be startled by the novel’s concluding pages, with their scathing portrait of religion as a savage rite of irrational patriarchalism functioning as opium for the oppressed:

Religion had, after all, its uses. It blunted the perceptions. Robbed life of its crudest truths. Especially it had its uses for the poor—and the blacks.

The previously irreligious Helga’s Christian conversion comes when she enters a Harlem storefront religious meeting and, unlucky in love and dissatisfied with her materialism, raises her aesthetic yearning from what the novel had described her as having wanted earlier—”Things. Things. Things.”—to matters of the spirit. But after she finds herself carried off to rural Alabama and brutally reduced to serving as a brood-mare for a preacher presiding over a harem-congregation of illiterate women, she finds herself dreaming of escape even as she languishes in unending pregnancy. Her desire to reach the spirit through things—what any aesthete is trying to do—ends in tragic irony with her own probably fatal condemnation to thing-status by the self-appointed master of the spiritual life. A version of this fate had befallen her in Copenhagen, when she was painted in stereotypical racist terms by her would-be husband, the flamboyant artiste Axel Olsen. To him she had declared, in her finest hour in the entire novel:

“But you see, Herr Olsen, I am not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t care at all to be owned. Even by you.”

But from her eventual preacher-husband there will be no escape. The novel’s sociopolitical analysis seems to terminate in the frank conviction that the cultural conditions of poverty really are much worse than middle-class hypocrisy, whether in Harlem or Copenhagen, which at least offers moments of pleasure and reprieve from coerced sociality for a woman artist who needs to be by herself as much as she needs to belong. In fact, that is the novel’s real departure from some “tragic mulatto” narrative out of the nineteenth century: it is not that Helga lacks a people she can call her own, but that she lacks a place where she can be securely alone, rather than merely alienated, outcast, or impoverished.

The chief advantage of aestheticism for the novel is its hatred of the didactic. The aesthete is not concerned with beauty in itself, but with, in Pater’s words, “sensations and ideas.” Helga never quite understands this, and insofar as she is punished by Larsen’s narrative design, it is for this lapse as much as or more than for her inattentiveness to racial politics:

Always she had wanted, not money but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings.

But Larsen knows, if Helga does not, that anything is susceptible of aesthetic representation without moral or political resolution. Hence the rigor of Quicksand: brief quotation cannot do justice to the logic with which Larsen moves through Helga’s inchoate emotions as they flame on her flesh and give rise to action. Avoiding judgment, Larsen allows her powers of perception to guide her through an extraordinarily complex labyrinth of race, gender, and psychology at nearly novella-length, crafting the kind of compact and polished literary object that defined modernism’s war on Victorian imperial expansiveness and acquisitive bourgeois bloat.

The aesthete will never be of great use to the cause, will always let down the side, because of her entirely correct judgment that every new instance of political rhetoric is just “the same old thing.” But it is only the aesthete who can preserve in the amber of her artistry what it felt like, what it feels like, to be alive just now, just here—to be a balked artist, a half-Danish black woman in Jim Crow America and interwar Europe. Even the wretchedness and dissatisfaction of experience, often banished from polemical or ideological or idealist art, but never from this fearless novel, glows with the achievement of perception achieved and time arrested.

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