Jungle Creatures and Dancing Apes: Modern Primitivism and Nella Larsen's Quicksand

By DeFalco, Amelia | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2005 | Go to article overview

Jungle Creatures and Dancing Apes: Modern Primitivism and Nella Larsen's Quicksand


DeFalco, Amelia, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay examines the repercussions of modernist primitivism on black subjectivity in Nella Larsen's Quicksand. The essay forges intertextual connections between Larsen's novel and contemporary cultural forms in order to untangle the cultural web of primitive fetishization that ensnares the protagonist.

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In early-twentieth-century modernism, "respectable" white patriarchal culture found an exemplary representation of sexuality--unsuitable and yet seductive--in the form of the black female body, which became a useful palimpsest continually re-inscribed with multiple meanings, at once animal, sexual, desirable, illicit, and pathological. This overdetermination is the product of primitivism, a term I use without quotation marks since my employment relies on assumptions of primitivism as always constructed in its signification of savagery, purity and the eternal, excluding fantasies of a "real" primordial subject. Within primitivist discourse, the black female body, whose meaning was imposed from the outside, became an overdetermined symbol assumed to be representative of all of black women. A history of primitivism (both social and scientific), atavisim, and the evolution of anthropology, along with modern artistic interest in the unrepressed consciousness of white patriarchal culture, functioned to produce a modern perception of the black female body as sexual fetish. According to Sander Gilman, in ethnographic displays in 1930s Paris "blacks represented sexual expression untrammelled by the repressive conventions of European society" (120). Josephine Baker's enormous popularity in Europe in the 1920s characterized the urges of that society "to forget the ravages of World War I and embrace what Freud explained and the Victorian era repressed, sexuality" (Rayson 1). A similar fascination with blackness was occurring in the United States, though the white American public's fascination was more often tinged with dread.

In Nella Larsen's 1928 novel, Quicksand, superficial appearances repeatedly work to determine meaning, and the body of the protagonist, Helga Crane, repeatedly threatens to function as the determining signifier in the construction of her identity. The novel concerns the "illegitimate" Helga, daughter of a black man and a white woman, and her frustrated attempts to join various social communities. The novel begins with Helga teaching at Naxos, "the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country" (2-3), and engaged to fellow teacher James Vayle. She soon flees the job, and her fiance, both inspiring a kind of physical disgust, a corporeal response to the conflated desire and repulsion that plagues her throughout her novel. Helga's escape from Naxos initiates a narrative of geographical wandering that takes her from "the south" to New York City, to Copenhagen and back again, and finally concludes with her return to the south where she enters a stultifying marriage that transforms her into a reproductive machine. Helga's repeated fleeing functions as a symptom of her eagerness to separate herself from the static stereotypes assigned to the black female body by popular white culture in modernism; her sudden flights consistently correspond to her disgusted rejection of sexual desire (both her own and others') that suggests a refusal to conform to racist tropes of black licentiousness, and consequently, a repression of her own lust. Indeed, Helga's final capitulation to desire is disastrous, initiating a reductive transformation into reproductive animality that nearly kills her.

Much of Helga's psychological torment and restlessness can be understood as repercussions of a history of primitivist assumptions operating in medical, artistic, and popular discourse that work to turn the black female body into a fetish, a grotesque convergence of pathology and hyperbolic, animalistic sexuality. These assumptions contribute to the construction of an oppressive racist mythology that stifles subjectivity. …

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