Falling in Public: Larsen's Passing, McCarthy's the Group, and Baldwin's Another Country

Article excerpt

There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window, the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not his.

--Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (226)

Suicide is difficult to read and to mourn. It unsettles fundamental assumptions, most emphatically the assumption that life, however painful, is worth living. More precisely than any other act, it illustrates the tensions between freedom and determinism, between being an agent and being a victim. (1) The body turns against itself, becoming murderer and victim simultaneously. Already these words--"murderer" and "victim"--fail to work, to signify properly. What is the outside of suicide? The inside? Andre Breton offers an understandable complaint--"Suicide is a badly composed word: the one who kills is never identical with the one who is killed" (qtd. in Boym 151). And yet, suicide brings the body terribly together: a hand cuts a wrist, legs push off a bridge, a palm lifts pills into a mouth. The appalling hurt of self-destruction seems to lie in this instant of consolidation. She died by her own hand. He took his own life.

In this essay, I examine what happens when suicide, this almost indecipherable action, is incorporated into three twentieth-century US American novels. With "incorporated," I allude to Sigmund Freud's theory of melancholy and mourning as well as to the depathologizing approach to melancholy taken by David Eng and Shinhee Han. According to Freud, the melancholic person psychically incorporates the lost object into the ego, rather than accepting and grieving the loss. Consequently, anger that would have been directed outward turns inward, shattering a solid sense of self. Eng and Han make an important intervention into this theory, drawing on Asian-American literature and their experiences with Asian-American students: "While the ambivalence, anger, and rage that characterize this preservation of the lost object threaten the ego's stability, we do not imagine that this threat is the result of some ontological tendency on the part of the melancholic; it is a social threat" (695). Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), Mary McCarthy's The Group (1963), and James Baldwin's Another Country (1960) dramatize the force of this "social threat" and do so through what I call the queer textuality of suicide.

Suicide appears unreadable because, like other queer texts and acts, it is abundantly open, liminal, transgressive. It generates a multiplicity of interpretations and silences. (2) It does not fit into conventional narrative. This adjectival "queer" requires some inital explanation. There is clearly no essential or causal connection between queer sexualities and acts of suicide. (There is legitimate concern, however, about a causal connection between homophobia and acts of self-destruction, attempted and completed.) (3) By naming suicide a "queer textuality," I do not want to contribute to an elision between queerness and death that bolsters claims by some on the religious right. Suicidal bodies, like queer ones, remain a site of surveillance and the subject of contentious debate about choice, morality, legality, mortality, and reproduction. Rather, with Sue-Ellen Case, Sharon Patricia Holland, and Peggy Phelan, I want to explore how subjectivities positioned by heteronormative culture as "the dead" (or as "the undead," as always opposed to "the living") do, in fact, survive--and how this survival prompts a reconsideration of "death" (4) itself.

Margaret Higgonet compares suicide to a kind of photography, named "foto-kadry" by Aleksandr Rodchenko in 1930, that does not aim to capture the whole but to fragment the scene: "so the suicidal cut creates an oblique point of view directed toward an understanding that resides beyond the social maxim, and perhaps beyond narrative itself" ("Frames" 229-30). Both Higonnet and Elisabeth Bronfen have articulated the ways that femininity and suicide have been similarly socially constructed--as the Other, the uncanny, the scandalous, the unrepresentable. …