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Passing -- And The 'Fading' Subject (An Essay)

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    [Passing] (Essay) Nella Larsen s Passing and The `Fading Subject -- by Neil Sullivan ... Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had
    Message 1 of 3 , May 27, 2006
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      Passing

      (Essay) Nella Larsen's 'Passing'
      and The `Fading' Subject

      -- by Neil Sullivan

      ... Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in
      her life, that she had not been born a "Negro".
      For the first time she suffered and rebelled because
      she was unable to disregard `the burden of race'.

      It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a
      woman, an individual, on one's own account,
      without having to suffer for the race as well.
      It was a brutality, and undeserved.

      Surely, no other people were so cursed
      as Ham's dark children. (Passing 225)

      Although many critics have accused Nella Larsen
      of using race as a pretext for examining other
      issues,(1)

      Passing (1929), her second novel,
      is profoundly concerned with "racial" `identity'.

      In "Toward a Black-Feminist Criticism," Barbara
      Smith cautions critics about the danger of ignoring
      "that the politics of sex as well as the politics of
      race and class are crucially interlocking factors
      in the works of
      "black"^^ women writers" (170).

      For Larsen, too, "race" is inextricable from the
      collateral issues --- including class, gender, sexuality,
      and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of `identity'.

      "Passing," of course, alludes to `the crossing of the
      color line' that was once so familiar in American
      narratives of "race," but in Larsen's novel the
      word also carries its colloquial meaning - death.

      Thus
      Passing's title, like the title of Larsen's earlier
      Quicksand, hints at the subject's disappearance
      in the narrative, or the possibility of aphanisis,
      which Jacques Lacan defines in 'The Four
      Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis' as the
      disappearance of the subject behind the signifier.

      For Irene Westover Red field and Clare Kendry
      Bellew, the "twin" protagonists of
      Passing,
      the obliterating signifier is `nigger', a word that
      comes to encapsulate their struggle with the
      conflicts of American racism and assimilation.

      The narrative representation of these conflicts
      also suggests at a symbolic level Larsen's
      repetition and working through of her own
      anxieties about the rejection she experienced
      as a result of her racial `identity'.

      Her `hazy' origins and almost traceless
      "disappearance" differentiate Larsen from the
      other authors of the Harlem Renaissance, but
      not from the characters of her own novels.

      Until the publication of the 1994 biography
      by Thadious Davis, Nella Larsen's life
      was `shrouded in silence'; not even
       the year of her birth was certain.(2)

      Davis 's project was "to remove the aura of mystery"
      from Larsen's life (xix), an aura that often resulted in
      critics' presentation of Larsen as inscrutable Other.(3)

      But with the details unearthed in her extensive
      research, Davis reveals that Nella Larsen
      was deeply scarred by the reality of racism;
      her seeking of celebrity as a writer was
      in fact a symptom of the need for recognition
      and validation, something which she
      never received as a child and only
      tenuously as a young adult (Davis 10).

      As the daughter of the Danish immigrant Marie
      Hansen and the African American Peter Walker,
      Larsen was already doubly
      marginalized in American society,
      but when her mother remarried a
      `white'* man (also a Danish immigrant),
      Larsen found herself so excluded from the family
      that her mother did not even report her existence
      to census takers in 1910 (Davis 27).(4)

      The Larsens orchestrated their dark daughter's
      absence from their Chicago home by sending her to
      the Fisk Normal School in Nashville when she was
      only fifteen, and when the money ran out a year later,
      Marie Larsen apparently asked the sixteen-year-old
      Nella (then Nellie) to make her own way in the world.

      Larsen vanished temporarily, resurfacing three years
      later at the Lincoln Training Hospital in New York City
      as a student nurse, where, according to Davis,
      she began her ascent into the
      "black"^^
      middle class all alone (66, 70-72).

      Nlarson

      Larsen's childhood rejection was seemingly reiterated
      in her 1919 marriage to Elmer S. Imes, which
      ended in a much-publicized divorce in 1933.

      As Ann Allen Shockley explains, the deterioration of
      the marriage was accelerated by the overt antipathy
      felt by Larsen's light-skinned mother-in-law
      and, significantly, by Imes's indiscreet affair
      with Ethel Gilbert, a
      `white'* staff member at Fisk
      University , where Imes taught physics (438).

      "He liked
      `white'* women," several of Imes's friends
      remarked to Thadious Davis in explanation
      of his betrayal of Nella Larsen (362).

      It is hardly incidental in Larsen's construction and
      subsequent dissolution of `identity' that the rivals for
      her husband's affection were both
      `white'* women,
      and that she could therefore attribute the second
      major rejection in her emotional life to her
      inability to be `sufficiently
      `white'*'.(5)

      Although there were many problems in the
      Larsen-Imes union, the divorce contains the hint
      of another command to "turn
      `white'* or disappear,"
      the imperative that Frantz Fanon suggests
      is implicit in all interracial dialogue (100).

      In effect, the rejections by her family
      and by her husband, exacerbated by the
      "problem of authorship" stemming from
      charges of plagiarism in the "Sanctuary" affair
      ( Dearborn 56), destroyed the `identity' Larsen
      consciously cultivated during the 1920s, and
      provoked her disappearance from public life.(6)

      Perhaps because Larsen discovered Imes's
      affair with Ethel Gilbert during the composition
      of
      Passing ( Davis 324), her `desire for
      recognition' and `fear of rejection' surface in
      the characters Clare Kendry and Irene Red field.

      Passing

      In
      Passing, Irene and Clare are tyrannized by the
      Other's desire, and though their relationship is
      complicated by issues of gender and sexuality,
      the dynamics of
      `white'* racism and the demands
      of assimilation dictate the lives of the two women.

      `White'* racism ultimately defines their lives in the word
      `nigger', and that definition determines the limits
      of their lives; in other words, it over-determines
      their ends –---- narratively and otherwise.

      The need for recognition is paramount
      in the lives of Clare and Irene,
      just as it was in Larsen's own.

      Recognition is always bound to
      the Other's inscrutable desire, for
      "man's desire is the desire
      of the Other" (Lacan, Four 38).

      Thus, Irene accuses Clare -

      "exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting"
      - of a "deliberate courting of attention" (Passing 203),

      while she herself spends an inordinate amount
      of time dressing throughout the novel.

      Recognition requires an appearance of wealth and
      'whiteness' in the bourgeois milieu of Passing.

      Irene "passes" not by adopting a
      `white'* `identity'
      as Clare does, but by adopting
      `white'* "values",
      including
      `white'* standards of beauty.(7)

      Thus, Thadious Davis explains Irene's "attraction
      to Clare" as an "aesthetic attraction to `whiteness',"
      a "logical extension of her
      "black"^^
      bourgeoisie lifestyle and ideology" (326).

      While Clare claims Irene as her link to
      "blackness", Irene mediates her desire
      for `whiteness' through Clare.

      With her "ivory face under that bright hair"
      (Passing 161) and her marriage to a
      `white'* financier, Clare becomes Irene's
      vicarious connection to the
      `white'* world. (8)

      In dialogue, the subject must determine the desire
      of the Other, or as Ellie Ragland-Sullivan writes,
      the subject implicitly asks the Other,
      "What am I to/of you?" (48),
      a question that Irene asks not
      only of Clare, but through Clare.

      As I will argue, Clare becomes an image of Irene's self;
      Clare's definition as "nigger" in the eyes of John Bellew
      will then become Irene's definition of herself.

      When that meaning literally eclipses Clare's being,
      Irene, too, will suffer aphanisis, the disappearance
      of the subject behind the signifier.

      Before deciding to pass for
      `white'*, Clare
      lived an
      "black"^^ `identity', not as Irene does
      as a member of the African American middle
      class, but first as an impoverished daughter of
      an alcoholic janitor and then as the orphaned
      niece of two
      `white'* great-aunts who treat
      Clare as if they were ugly step-sisters
      in the Cinderella tale.

      Clare describes to Irene an upbringing
      commensurate with the ideology her Aunt
      Grace and Aunt Edna borrow directly from
      the slavery apologists of the Old South:

      "I was, it was true, expected to
      earn my keep by doing all the
      housework, and most of the washing.
      But do you realize, 'Rene, that if it
      hadn't been for them, I shouldn't
      have had a home in the world? ...

      Besides, to their notion, hard
      labour was good for me.
      I had Negro blood and they belonged
      to a generation that had written
      and read long articles headed:
      'Will the
      "blacks"^^ work?'
      Too, they weren't quite sure that the
      good God hadn't intended the sons
      and daughters of Ham to sweat because
      he had poked fun at old man Noah once
      when he had taken a drop too much.
      I remember the aunts telling me that
      that old drunkard had cursed Ham
      and his sons for all time". (15859)

      The aunts echo nineteenth-century paternalist
      pro-slavery arguments by pronouncing the
      curse of Ham upon Clare, assigning her
      a subservient position in the family, and
      intimating a moral degradation that only
      hard work and
      `white'* guidance can correct.

      In a rare moment, Clare confides to Irene that
      the economic and psychological impact of
      the aunts' beliefs drove her to discard her
      "black"^^ `identity' and become `white'*.

      She "wanted things," she tells Irene, and clearly
      she means not only material goods but love and
      emotional comfort, as well, for she wants "to be
      a person and not a charity or a problem, or
      even a daughter of the indiscreet Ham" (159).

      The aunts' definition of "blackness" attempts
      to rob Clare of her humanity, so she must
      shed that

      "black"^^ `identity' to be human.

      To do so, she must literally turn
      `white'* by "passing",
      accepting the demands of assimilation to avoid
      the ramifications of what Joel Kovel refers to
      as the "Ham Myth of Expulsion" (79).

      Aphanisis threatens Clare in the novel when her
      "light" name (Clare means 'light') is supplanted by
      her dark name: "Nig," the uncanny appellation
      provided jokingly by her husband John Bellew,
      the racist ignorant of her African heritage. (9)

      He explains the nickname to her tea party
      guests, Gertrude and Irene, who also
      disguise their African American
      identities for Bellew's benefit:"

      'When we were first married, she was as
      'white' as - as - well as `white' as a lily.
      But I declare she's gettin'
      darker and darker.
      I tell her if she don't look out, she'll
      wake up one of these days and find
      she's turned into a nigger'" (171).

      Bellew's naming makes present the identity
      that Clare strives to hide (but it eventually
      makes Clare herself absent).(10)

      He explains to the three disguised "Negroes"
      precisely what "niggers" are:

      "I don't dislike them, I hate them ....
      They give me the creeps.
      The black scrimy devils ....
      And I read in the papers about them.
      Always robbing and killing people.
      And," he added darkly, "worse"' (172)

      Despite all its trappings of urbanity, this tea party
      becomes a microcosm of American racism:

      A

      `white'* male who exudes the "impression of latent
      physical power" (170) discourses upon the meaning
      of `nigger' while three African Americans wearing
      self-protective masks must silently listen,
      powerless to challenge his version of the truth.(11)

      Uncontested beliefs soon become accepted as "truth".

      With her temporary
      `white'* `identity' and
      enforced silence, Irene is in danger of
      internalizing Bellew's "truths" as a form
      of unconscious ideological assimilation.

      His views on "black scrimy devils" provoke in Irene
      an hysteria figured as uncontrollable laughter,
      which she at first attributes to the irony of the
      situation; however, the hysteria goes beyond
      an amused response to an absurd situation.

      It marks a loss of control, the beginning of a mental
      deterioration that plagues Irene throughout the novel.

      African origins here are tied to a false
      but nonetheless powerful definition, one that
      is shared by the
      `white'* world depicted in the novel.

      When Bellew pronounces the casual" 'Hello, Nig'
      "(170), he dredges up the memories of Clare's
      childhood humiliations and creates for Irene an
      anxiety about possible humiliations, humiliations
      intimated by his public proclamation of exclusion:"

      'No niggers in my family.
      Never have been and never will be' "(171). (12)

      This sentence - Bellew's reiteration of Noah's curse-
      causes the nearly implacable Clare an unhappiness
      she betrays in an expression "so dark and deep
      and unfathomable" as though in "the eyes of
      some creature utterly strange and apart" (172).

      Although the scene at the tea party, along with the
      rest of the novel, is narrated in the third person,
      the narrative consciousness is Irene's.

      The use of the word creature appears innocent in
      this context, but later the word creature resurfaces
      in the narrative in an overtly negative
      sense, revealing how Irene has already
      aligned herself with the
      `white'* racist
      signification embodied by John Bellew.

      At the breakfast table in her own New York home,
      Irene recounts to her husband Brian her secret
      humiliation at Clare's party and her refusal
      ever to suffer such humiliation again:" '...

      I'm really not such an idiot that I don't
      realize that if a man calls me a nigger,
      it's his fault the first time, but mine if
      he has the opportunity to do it again'" (184).

      Within a few paragraphs of this confession,
      the maid enters to serve breakfast;
      again, the perspective is Irene's:

      "Zulena, a small mahogany-coloured creature,
      brought in the grapefruit" (184).

      In spite of Irene's admission of the
      humiliation of being called a "nigger,"
      the narrative consciousness that reflects
      her own performs a gesture of dehumanization
      in describing the maid as a "mahogany-coloured
      creature" - for
      `coloured'** connotes "creature"
      at the depths of Irene's unconscious.

      The unselfconscious use of dehumanizing
      language to describe dark-skinned or
      economically disadvantaged African Americans
      indicates the triumph of racist signification in
      Irene's own thinking, a signification that will
      eventually demand her obliteration, as well.

      The invocation of "nigger," "nig," "creature,"
      "boy," and other racial slurs results in the
      aphanisis of the subject, for the meanings
      assigned these words eclipse the being
      of the "racial" subject so named.

      Lacan refers to this eclipse as the "fading of
      the subject" behind the signifier (Four 208),
      and this "fading" is manifested in the
      fainting that plagues Irene at both the
      beginning and the end of the novel.

      In Part One of the novel, recounting
      the circumstances of Clare and
      Irene's reunion in Chicago ,

      Irene sees a man fall to the pavement in
      "an inert heap" under "a brutal staring sun":
      as the man dead, or only faint?
      someone asked her.
      But Irene didn't know and
      didn't try to discover ....
      Suddenly she was aware that the
      whole street had a wobbly look,
      and realized she was about to faint.
      With a quick perception of the need
      for immediate safety, she lifted a
      wavering hand in the direction of a
      cab parked directly in front of her.
      The perspiring driver jumped
      out and guided her to his car.
      He helped, almost lifted her in.
      She sank down on the
      hot leather seat.(146-47)

      The anonymous man's collapse is answered by
      Irene's own fainting and "sinking down" in the cab.

      Unaware of Irene's ... heritage, the cab
      driver takes her to the exclusive Drayton Hotel.

      From the misery of August heat, Irene then moves
      to the oppressive atmosphere of segregation, for
      at the Drayton, she knows, the discovery of her
      African American identity would lead to her expulsion.

      With her acute consciousness of the racially
      hostile environment, Irene becomes aware
      of the intent stare of the woman seated nearby.

      After assuring herself that her clothes and
      make-up are not mussed, Irene experiences
      "a small inner disturbance, odious and hatefully
      familiar" as she assumes that the piercing
      gaze is attributable to her racial origin:

      "Did that woman, could that woman,
      somehow know that here before her very
      eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a "Negro"?"

      With this prospect of being "discovered,"
      Irene's fear escalates, not because she is
      "ashamed of being a "Negro"," she thinks,
      but because "being ejected from any place,
      even in the polite and tactful way in which the
      Drayton would probably do it, ...disturbed her" (150).

      The fainting that brings her to the Drayton in the first
      place creates the possibility of an even more violent
      form of "disappearance," the forced exit required
      by the Jim Crow policy of the
      `white'* world.

      Irene discovers with relief that the intent gaze
      is the friendly one of Clare, a fellow "passer,"
      but the relief is short-lived; her original fainting
      and the fear of expulsion reach fruition at the end
      of the novel when Irene faints a second time,
      in response to a far more violent expulsion.

      In describing the narrative voice of Passing,
      Jacquelyn McLendon speaks of "the disguised 'I''."

      Although told in the third person, the narrative is
      "personal" because it is exclusively Irene's and
      thus could easily be told in the first person; this
      "disguised I," however, stresses Irene's repression
      and reinforces the theme of "passing" as
      disguise in the novel (McLendon 159).

      McLendon's insights on the "disguised I" suggest
      another concern of the novel, the problematic I.

      The first person would be inappropriate for
      Irene's story because the I as an empowered,
      integrated subject position eludes Irene.

      She always defines herself in relation to the
      desire of the Other, and thus an unmediated
      representation of her voice would be
      incongruent with her essential lack.

      Desire is a symptom of lack, so Irene's
      desire for security throughout
      Passing
      reveals the instability of the I.

      She equates her faintness with a "need for immediate
      safety" (147) and realizes "that, to her, security
      was the most important and desired thing in life ....

      She wanted only to be tranquil" (235).

      As her propensity for fainting
      demonstrates, she experiences

      "the menace of impermanence" (229),

      which she attributes variously to Brian's
      desire to move to Brazil and to Clare's
      disruption of her household (187, 229).

      In effect, her sense of permanence,
      her conception of herself as a stable,
      integrated/, is always in jeopardy, plagued
      as she is by a tense apprehension of doom,
      even in Chicago before Clare reenters her life.

      This tension is symptomatic; it signifies
      the inevitability of disintegrating subjectivity.

      Because Irene experiences a
      problematic I, she seeks an
      idealized image to represent herself.

      In "The Mirror Stage," Lacan discusses the
      role of the idealized image in subjectivity.

      The infant first identifies herself as "I," as
      subject, after seeing her image in the mirror.

      This image is unified and masterful
      and therefore represents
      "the mental permanence of the I"
      for the subject (2).

      As Lacan further suggests, the assumption
      of the idealized image always involves
      meconnaissance, or misrecognition,
      because the image is not the self (6).

      Early in
      Passing, Irene adopts Clare as her
      idealized image, and that meconnaissance
      tellingly transpires before the mirror.

      Some critics stress the fact that key
      scenes between Clare and Irene happen
      in Irene's bedroom,(13) but they fail to
      note more precisely that these scenes
      take place while Irene sits at her
      dressing table, before her mirror.

      The place where Irene applies make-up is
      indeed a far more intimate space than her bed.

      In the first of these scenes,
      Clare arrives uninvited after Irene
      has refused to answer her letters.

      After telling Zulena to admit Clare, Irene,

      "at the mirror ... dusted a little powder on
      her nose and brushed out her hair" (193).

      While she performs her hasty toilet, she
      rehearses the rebuff she intends to give Clare:

      But that was as far as she got in her rehearsal.

      For Clare had come softly into the
      room without knocking, and before
      Irene could greet her, had
      dropped a kiss on her dark curls.

      Looking at the woman before her,
      Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable
      onrush of affectionate feeling.

      Reaching out, she grasped Clare's
      two hands in her own and cried
      with something like awe in her voice:

      "Dear God! But aren't you lovely, Clare!" (194).

      If the mirror were not implicitly present in the
      scene and if there were no elision of identities,
      the "kiss," the "inexplicable onrush of
      affectionate feeling," and Irene's expression
      of awe might all be read exclusively as signs
      of an erotic attraction between two women.

      However, Irene is looking in the mirror
      when Clare enters, and the mirror's
      presence makes ambiguous the
      phrase looking at the woman before her.

      Is that woman Clare or Irene herself?

      Moreover, Irene's reaction to Clare's
      entrance reiterates the Lacanian
      infant's "jubilant assumption" of her
      mirror image ("Mirror Stage" 2), for
      like the mirror-stage infant, Irene reaches
      out to the image and exclaims with joy.

      Her "awed" exclamation" 'Dear God!
      But aren't you lovely, Clare!'" indicates
      that she sees in Clare an image superior
      to the one she nervously fussed over
      before Clare's entrance and therefore
      more fitting to represent the "mental
      permanence of the I" (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 2).

      As if to stress the identification between
      the two, Clare even seats herself
      in Irene's "favourite chair" (194).

      While Irene's reaction includes erotic
      overtones, it also contains narcissistic ones.

      The scene confirms the oscillation between
      Irene's "desire for Clare and identification
      with her" that Helena Michie notes (151).

      Irene sees in Clare an "image of her futile
      searching" for permanence (Passing 200),
      and as the novel continues, she has difficulty
      separating "individuals from the race,
      herself from Clare Kendry" (227).(14)

      As Irene realizes that she cannot "master"
      Clare, the identification between the two
      women becomes more problematic. (15)

      The beautiful, idealized

      `white'* image is denied
      Irene when she begins to suspect that Clare
      is trying to seduce her husband Brian and that
      the two plan to betray and abandon her.

      When this suspicion crystallizes, also
      before the mirror, Irene experiences
      a temporary eclipse of being:

      "The face in the mirror vanished from
      her sight, blotted out by this thing which
      had so suddenly flashed across her
      groping mind" (217; emphasis added).

      When the face finally reappears in
      the mirror, it is "her dark-white face"
      (no longer `purely white'), one which
      she meets not with joy but with "a
      kind of ridiculing contempt" (218).

      Later in the novel, when Irene and Clare
      meet before the mirror for the last time,
      Irene experiences fear and guilt over her
      sin of omission;she knows but fails to tell
      Clare that Bellew; having seen Irene out
      with the brown-skinned Felise Freeland,
      probably suspects Clare's racial identity.

      "Irene passed a hand over her
      eyes to shut out the accusing
      face in the glass before her.

      With one corner of her mind she
      wondered how long she had looked
      like that, drawn and haggard
      and-yes, frightened" (233).

      As Irene becomes more and more
      incapable of controlling either Clare
      or herself, she experiences a diminution
      of the "loveliness" in the mirror.

      The image is no longer one of mastery,
      but one of impotence and fear.

      Bellew's encounter with Irene and Felise
      Freeland points to another problematic
      aspect of Clare as Irene's idealized image.

      The mirroring between Clare and Irene
      is to some degree reciprocal,
      so that Irene also "mirrors" Clare.

      Clare herself is apparently aware of the ways
      in which other women reflect and re-present
      her image throughout the novel as she
      carefully chooses the women who
      surround her in her husband's presence:

      The tea in Chicago is limited to her "passable"
      friends Irene and Gertrude, and she adamantly
      refuses to employ

      "black"^^ servants.

      But when Bellew perceives Felise as
      Irene's dark mirror, he in turn "recognizes"
      Clare, too, reflected in Felise's face:

      But the smile faded at once.

      Surprise, incredulity, and
      -was it understanding?
      - passed over his features.

      He had, Irene knew, become
      conscious of Felise, golden,
      with curly black Negro hair,
      whose arm was still linked in her own.

      She was sure, now, of the
      understanding in his face,
      as he looked at her again
      and then back at Felise.

      And displeasure.(226)

      Bellew's "understanding" is really
      a recognition of Clare's African American
      [ethnicity] through a complex chain of mirroring.

      The smile with which he greets Irene connotes
      his vision of Irene as a reflection of his

      `white'*
      wife, but that smile tellingly "fades" as he looks
      from Irene to Felise, whose tell-tale hair and
      skin mark her as African American and
      reveal all that Clare and Irene have
      anxiously concealed from him.

      This identification of Clare with Felise
      takes place primarily through Irene
      (who is literally "linked" to Felise when
      Bellew first spies them), but also through
      the adjective golden, which Larsen uses to
      describe both Clare and Felise (203, 226);
      golden is a sign whose meaning Bellew
      instantly reinterprets upon glimpsing
      Felise and her "Negro hair".

      She has, as she says, "queered" the
      passing game by presenting what
      Bellew views as a tainted image.

      His fading smile and "displeasure," inversions
      of the infant's jubilation before the mirror,
      foreshadow his eventual repudiation of Clare.

      In turn, Irene's response suggests
      the degree to which his desire still
      dominates their interaction:

      "Instinctively, at the first glance of
      recognition, her face had become
      a mask ....she gave him the cool
      appraising stare which she
      reserved for mashers ..." (226-27).

      In the face of Bellew's "displeasure," she dons
      the "mask" that represents a form of invisibility,
      while her cool stare (usually reserved for
      sexual aggressors) suggests the manipulation
      of herself as object of the Other's desire.

      In other words, anticipating Bellew's withdrawal
      of his offered hand - and his recognition - Irene
      preemptively refuses to grant him recognition.

      Like the Lacanian child who wishes to
      be the object of her parent's desire and
      so ponders the tantalizing possibility.

      "Can he lose me?" (Four 214-15;
      emphasis added),

      Irene here reverses the direction of the
      gaze and employs the possibility of
      her own loss or disappearance to
      manipulate Bellew's desire.(16)

      Irene begins to feel ambivalence about her
      African heritage, and that ambivalence is
      associated with Clare as Irene begins to wish

      "for the first time in her life, that she
      had not been born a Negro" (225).

      Irene is "on the verge of total
      mental disintegration" (Tate 143),
      and initially she projects her disintegration
      onto her double and idealized image,
      Clare, a projection that issues in
      what Jonathan Little refers to as
      the "imagery of fragmentation"
      associated with Clare (179).

      Although Clare represents Irene's ideal
      physical image, she maintains only a
      precarious hold on her own
      `white'* identity,
      as evidenced by her refusal to have
      "black"^^
      servants (who might "discover" her identity)
      or to give birth to another child because the

      "hellish strain" of anxiety about
      the child's coloring would be too
      much for her (Passing 168).

      When she says, "'Really,
      'Rene, I'm not safe'" (210),

      she means not only that she is dangerous
      because of the risks she takes but also that
      she is always already in danger of destruction.

      Fragmented things become metonymies for
      Clare, and since Clare is a version of Irene,
      they represent Irene herself, even when she
      is consciously performing the fragmentation.

      As Lacan demonstrates in "The Mirror Stage,"
      corporal integrity is fundamental to subjectivity,
      so we could conclude that corporal
      disintegration is a prelude to aphanisis,
      the subject's disappearance.

      The symbolic mutilation that Irene performs on
      Clare foreshadows aphanisis for both women.

      The first fragmentation involves Irene's
      destruction of letters from Clare at
      two different points in the narrative.

      From Irene's perspective, Clare's
      letters are always a little obtrusive;
      like Clare herself, her letters are

      "furtive, but yet in some peculiar,
      determined way a little flaunting,"
      "out of place and alien,"
      and "mysterious" (143).

      Significantly, both letters revive for Irene the
      memory of John Bellew's racist invective,
      along with the presence of Clare.

      The first of these is the note Clare sends Irene
      to thank her for attending the tea in Chicago .

      But the letter only reminds Irene of
      the humiliation of listening silently to
      Bellew's racist diatribe, so she destroys it:

      With an unusual methodicalness she tore
      the offending letter into tiny ragged squares
      that fluttered down and made a small heap
      in her black crepe de Chine lap.

      The destruction completed, she gathered
      them up, rose, and moved to the train's end.

      Standing there, she dropped them over
      railing and watched them scatter,
      on tracks, on cinders, on forlorn
      grass, in rills of dirty water. (178)

      In destroying the letter, an overture of
      friendship, Irene symbolically attempts
      to rid herself of Clare as "Nig".

      She tears it into "tiny ragged squares,"
      then scatters the pieces in a gesture of riddance,
      a forced disappearance of Clare's asserted presence,
      which brings with it John Bellew's hatred of "niggers".

      Irene then thinks that, if Clare shows up in person, she

      "had only to turn away her eyes,
      to refuse her recognition" (178).

      Unconsciously, she is mimicking the behavior of
      the
      `white'* racist, willing Clare's disappearance
      through a refusal to recognize.

      The second letter, which Irene receives in New York
      two years later, revives again the memory of shame,

      "bringing with them a clear, sharp
      remembrance, in which even now,
      after two years, humiliation, resentment,
      and rage were mingled" (145).

      Later, she

      "tear[s] the letter across" and
      flings "it into the scrap-basket" (191),

      acting out both her anger at Clare
      and the disintegration she feels
      with the memory of Bellew's hatred.

      The tearing of the two letters happens
      before Irene and Clare merge in the mirror.

      But after Irene identifies with Clare in the mirror and
      then loses that image after beginning to suspect
      Brian and Clare, Irene will act out another destruction
      of Clare, the smashing of the white china teacup.

      When she becomes enraged at seeing Brian
      apparently paying court to Clare at yet another
      tea party, Irene either drops or hurls the
      teacup to the ground with "a slight crash.

      On the floor at her feet lay the shattered cup.
      Dark stains dotted the bright rug.
      Spread .... Before her,
      Zulena gathered up
      the white fragments" (221).

      The broken teacup immediately suggests
      Irene's own disintegration or loss of
      control, but to cover her confusion,
      Irene tells Hugh Wentworth that she
      has broken the cup purposely, for it

      "was the ugliest thing ... the
      Confederates ever owned" (221-22).

      The seemingly offhand remark is deceptive,
      for the white teacup is yet another version of Clare,
      who has descended from the same
      `white'* ancestors
      and made her way in the world not through a direct
      route, but through a subterfuge and deception akin to
      the "underground" by which the teacup comes north.

      The broken teacup brings to
      Irene a realization that she

      "had only to break it" and
      be "rid of it forever" (222).

      Clearly the shattering of the teacup
      with its attendant "white fragments"
      foreshadows Clare's impending death.

      Clare's death occurs in the appropriately
      named "Finale" section of the novel, where
      all the elements of aphanisis converge as
      racist signification impacts literally on the body.

      The final chapter, the one in which Clare
      dies, begins tellingly with the Redfields'
      dinner-time discussion of lynching.

      Ted asks why

      `white'* "'only lynch `coloured'** people,'
      "and Brian responds," 'Because they hate 'em, son' "(231),
      echoing Bellew's declaration,"
      'I don't dislike [Negroes], I hate them'" (172).

      Brian's observations disconcert Irene,
      possibly reminding her of the humiliation
      of Clare's Chicago tea party two years
      earlier, and she upbraids Brian for
      speaking of the subject before their sons.

      Irene thinks she can insure her sons a
      happy childhood by keeping "the race
      problem" from them, but Brian knows better.

      He asks,

      "'What was the use of our trying to keep
      them from learning the word 'nigger'
      and its connotation?
      They found out, didn't they?
      And how?
      Because somebody called
      Junior a dirty nigger'" (231-32).

      As in the scene where he refuses to avoid discussing
      sex with Ted and Junior, he insists on telling his sons
      the facts of life, including the ugly fact of racism.

      This argument further establishes the disharmony in
      Irene's marriage, and it also sets the scene for
      Clare's death by emphasizing the extent of
      racism's infringement on African American lives.

      Virulent

      `white'* racism is not limited to the
      South or to the lyncher; school boys up
      north are taunted as "dirty niggers".

      With its shattered bodies and dehumanization,
      lynching is one connotation of nigger from which
      Irene tries in vain to protect her sons and herself.

      But as Clare's death reveals, the epithet nigger
      brings with it "the glorious body mutilated" (240),
      a mutilation inevitably preceding the
      disappearance that the word nigger invokes.

      When Bellew discovers his wife's secret Harlem
      life, he confronts her at the Freelands' party.

      The prophecy contained in his pet name for
      Clare - "Nig"- is fulfilled, and so will be the
      displacement of Clare by the signifier (the diminutive
      of nigger) that demands her disappearance.

      Bellew repeats the gesture performed by
      Junior's unnamed tormentor at school,
      for he calls Clare the very name revealed
      in the Redfields' dinner-table discussion

      " 'So you're a nigger,
      a damned dirty nigger!'" (238).

      The chain of events transpiring after this utterance
      has been hotly debated by the critics, (17)
      but we know with narrative certainty that the chain
      begins with Bellew's invocation of nigger and
      ends with Clare's plunge from the window,
      her body conspicuously absent from the scene
      by the time Irene descends to the street level.

      Whether Clare jumps or Irene pushes her, Bellew's

      "'So you're a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!'"

      inaugurates Clare's disappearance from the window.

      In the Lacanian version of aphanisis,
      the subject disappears behind the signifier
      in dialogue with the Other, always while trying to
      determine the desire of the Other with the question,

      "He is saying this to me, but what
      does he want?" (Lacan, Four 214).

      Frantz Fanon notes in turn that, for "black"^^
      subjects in dialogue with the
      `white'* Other,
      the answer must always be,

      "Turn `white'* or disappear" (100).

      To both women in Larsen's novel, Bellew's" 'damned
      dirty nigger'" implies his desire for Clare's expulsion.

      Thus Clare, who is denigrated in Bellew's mind
      for consorting with Negroes, must die, (18)
      even if Irene catalyzes that death:

      One moment Clare had been there, a vital
      glowing thing, like a flame in red and gold.

      The next she was gone.

      There was a gasp of horror, and above it a
      sound not quite human, like a beast in agony.

      "Nig! My God! Nig? (239)

      Clare's fall is a vanishing act, a sort
      of now-you-see-her-now-you-don't,
      where the signifier Nig seems literally
      to make Clare's body disappear in a
      high-stakes version of the infant's
      fort-da game described in Freud's
      Beyond the Pleasure Principle
      (13-15), for Clare is

      "... there ... gone" (239).

      Significantly, her disappearance is punctuated
      by Bellew's final, double invocation of Nig,
      her uncanny nickname; her destruction
      is commensurate with the racist
      meaning of that word.(19)

      As the bystanders try to determine what happened,
      Ralph Hazelton surmises that Clare" 'fainted, I guess'"
      (241), an assumption that on the surface seems to be
      a sexist stereotyping of women's responses to crises.

      Passing

      However, in Lacanian terms Hazelton is right,
      for Clare, like Irene, experiences a problematic
      subjectivity that leads to her fading,
      or aphanisis, in the narrative.

      Her death confirms the lethal relationship Lacan
      posits between signification and subjectivity
      since the word Nig, like the Lacanian signifier,

      "manifests itself ... in the murder
      of the thing" ("Function" 104).

      Bellew's interjection of "'damned dirty nigger' " -
      his response to Clare's "What am I to you?" - also
      reflects on Irene, for Clare is her idealized image.

      Although Irene has throughout the novel indulged her
      desire to tear and shatter Clare through displaced
      aggressions toward letters and teacups,
      Irene herself will shatter once Clare actually
      experiences corporal disintegration, for she cannot

      "separate ...herself from Clare Kendry" (227).

      After Clare has fallen to her death, Irene
      experiences nausea when she imagines
      that Clare might have survived.

      The nausea stems not only from "fear"
      (the belief of most critics who assume
      her guilty of Clare's murder), but from

      "the idea of the glorious body mutilated" (240).

      This "idea" is a manifestation of the corps
      morcele, the imaginary fragmented
      body whose emergence indicates

      "the aggressive disintegration" of
      the I constructed during the mirror
      stage (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 4)".

      The glorious body" is not exclusively Clare's, but
      a shared, idealized image of self; so its mutilation
      represents disintegration for both women.

      Thus Irene replicates Clare's death in a fainting spell
      mirroring the one that eventually led to her
      reunion with Clare two years earlier.

      After Clare falls, Irene slowly
      descends the stairs, grasping

      "the banister to save herself
      from pitching downwards ....
      How she managed to make the
      rest of the journey without fainting
      she never knew" (240). (20)

      In fact, when she does finally arrive
      on the scene, the others assume that

      "she had fainted or something like that" (241).

      Aphanisis is imminent for Irene, too,
      because the fainting that threatens her
      (and has threatened her throughout the novel)
      is now complicated by a "hideous trembling"
      and "quaking" that overtake her as the
      others question her about Clare's fall.

      As she tries to exculpate Bellew, her
      unstable subjectivity fractures:

      "'No, no!' she protested.
      'I'm quite certain that he didn't [push Clare].
      I was there, too.
      As close as he was.
      She just fell, before anybody could stop her.
      I -'" (242).

      Significantly, the utterance
      of the I undoes Irene:

      Her quaking knees gave way under her.
      She moaned and sank down, moaned again.
      Through the great heaviness that
      submerged and drowned her she was dimly
      conscious of strong arms lifting her up.

      Then everything was dark.(242)

    • multiracialbookclub
      [Passing] (Essay) Nella Larsen s Passing and The `Fading Subject -- by Neil Sullivan ... Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had
      Message 2 of 3 , Oct 18, 2006
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        Passing

        (Essay)
        Nella Larsen's 'Passing'
        and The `Fading' Subject


        -- by Neil Sullivan

        ... Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in
        her life, that she had not been born a "Negro".
        For the first time she suffered and rebelled because
        she was unable to disregard `the burden of race'.

        It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a
        woman, an individual, on one's own account,
        without having to suffer for the race as well.
        It was a brutality, and undeserved.

        Surely, no other people were so cursed
        as Ham's dark children. (Passing 225)

        Although many critics have accused Nella Larsen
        of using race as a pretext for examining other
        issues,(1)

        Passing (1929), her second novel,
        is profoundly concerned with "racial" `identity'.

        In "Toward a Black-Feminist Criticism," Barbara
        Smith cautions critics about the danger of ignoring
        "that the politics of sex as well as the politics of
        race and class are crucially interlocking factors
        in the works of
        "black"^^ women writers" (170).

        For Larsen, too, "race" is inextricable from the
        collateral issues --- including class, gender, sexuality,
        and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of `identity'.

        "Passing," of course, alludes to `the crossing of the
        color line' that was once so familiar in American
        narratives of "race," but in Larsen's novel the
        word also carries its colloquial meaning - death.

        Thus
        Passing's title, like the title of Larsen's earlier
        Quicksand, hints at the subject's disappearance
        in the narrative, or the possibility of aphanisis,
        which Jacques Lacan defines in 'The Four
        Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis' as the
        disappearance of the subject behind the signifier.

        For Irene Westover Red field and Clare Kendry
        Bellew, the "twin" protagonists of
        Passing,
        the obliterating signifier is `nigger', a word that
        comes to encapsulate their struggle with the
        conflicts of American racism and assimilation.

        The narrative representation of these conflicts
        also suggests at a symbolic level Larsen's
        repetition and working through of her own
        anxieties about the rejection she experienced
        as a result of her racial `identity'.

        Her `hazy' origins and almost traceless
        "disappearance" differentiate Larsen from the
        other authors of the Harlem Renaissance, but
        not from the characters of her own novels.

        Until the publication of the 1994 biography
        by Thadious Davis, Nella Larsen's life
        was `shrouded in silence'; not even
         the year of her birth was certain.(2)

        Davis 's project was "to remove the aura of mystery"
        from Larsen's life (xix), an aura that often resulted in
        critics' presentation of Larsen as inscrutable Other.(3)

        But with the details unearthed in her extensive
        research, Davis reveals that Nella Larsen
        was deeply scarred by the reality of racism;
        her seeking of celebrity as a writer was
        in fact a symptom of the need for recognition
        and validation, something which she
        never received as a child and only
        tenuously as a young adult (Davis 10).

        As the daughter of the Danish immigrant Marie
        Hansen and the African American Peter Walker,
        Larsen was already doubly
        marginalized in American society,
        but when her mother remarried a
        `white'* man (also a Danish immigrant),
        Larsen found herself so excluded from the family
        that her mother did not even report her existence
        to census takers in 1910 (Davis 27).(4)

        The Larsens orchestrated their dark daughter's
        absence from their Chicago home by sending her to
        the Fisk Normal School in Nashville when she was
        only fifteen, and when the money ran out a year later,
        Marie Larsen apparently asked the sixteen-year-old
        Nella (then Nellie) to make her own way in the world.

        Larsen vanished temporarily, resurfacing three years
        later at the Lincoln Training Hospital in New York City
        as a student nurse, where, according to Davis,
        she began her ascent into the
        "black"^^
        middle class all alone (66, 70-72).

        Larsen's childhood rejection was seemingly reiterated
        in her 1919 marriage to Elmer S. Imes, which
        ended in a much-publicized divorce in 1933.

        As Ann Allen Shockley explains, the deterioration of
        the marriage was accelerated by the overt antipathy
        felt by Larsen's light-skinned mother-in-law
        and, significantly, by Imes's indiscreet affair
        with Ethel Gilbert, a
        `white'* staff member at Fisk
        University , where Imes taught physics (438).

        "He liked
        `white'* women," several of Imes's friends
        remarked to Thadious Davis in explanation
        of his betrayal of Nella Larsen (362).

        It is hardly incidental in Larsen's construction and
        subsequent dissolution of `identity' that the rivals for
        her husband's affection were both
        `white'* women,
        and that she could therefore attribute the second
        major rejection in her emotional life to her
        inability to be `sufficiently
        `white'*'.(5)

        Although there were many problems in the
        Larsen-Imes union, the divorce contains the hint
        of another command to "turn
        `white'* or disappear,"
        the imperative that Frantz Fanon suggests
        is implicit in all interracial dialogue (100).

        In effect, the rejections by her family
        and by her husband, exacerbated by the
        "problem of authorship" stemming from
        charges of plagiarism in the "Sanctuary" affair
        ( Dearborn 56), destroyed the `identity' Larsen
        consciously cultivated during the 1920s, and
        provoked her disappearance from public life.(6)

        Perhaps because Larsen discovered Imes's
        affair with Ethel Gilbert during the composition
        of
        Passing ( Davis 324), her `desire for
        recognition' and `fear of rejection' surface in
        the characters Clare Kendry and Irene Red field.

        Passing

        In
        Passing, Irene and Clare are tyrannized by the
        Other's desire, and though their relationship is
        complicated by issues of gender and sexuality,
        the dynamics of
        `white'* racism and the demands
        of assimilation dictate the lives of the two women.

        `White'* racism ultimately defines their lives in the word
        `nigger', and that definition determines the limits
        of their lives; in other words, it over-determines
        their ends –---- narratively and otherwise.

        The need for recognition is paramount
        in the lives of Clare and Irene,
        just as it was in Larsen's own.

        Recognition is always bound to
        the Other's inscrutable desire, for
        "man's desire is the desire
        of the Other" (Lacan, Four 38).

        Thus, Irene accuses Clare -

        "exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting"
        - of a "deliberate courting of attention" (Passing 203),

        while she herself spends an inordinate amount
        of time dressing throughout the novel.

        Recognition requires an appearance of wealth and
        'whiteness' in the bourgeois milieu of Passing.

        Irene "passes" not by adopting a
        `white'* `identity'
        as Clare does, but by adopting
        `white'* "values",
        including
        `white'* standards of beauty.(7)

        Thus, Thadious Davis explains Irene's "attraction
        to Clare" as an "aesthetic attraction to `whiteness',"
        a "logical extension of her
        "black"^^
        bourgeoisie lifestyle and ideology" (326).

        While Clare claims Irene as her link to
        "blackness", Irene mediates her desire
        for `whiteness' through Clare.

        With her "ivory face under that bright hair"
        (Passing 161) and her marriage to a
        `white'* financier, Clare becomes Irene's
        vicarious connection to the
        `white'* world. (8)

        In dialogue, the subject must determine the desire
        of the Other, or as Ellie Ragland-Sullivan writes,
        the subject implicitly asks the Other,
        "What am I to/of you?" (48),
        a question that Irene asks not
        only of Clare, but through Clare.

        As I will argue, Clare becomes an image of Irene's self;
        Clare's definition as "nigger" in the eyes of John Bellew
        will then become Irene's definition of herself.

        When that meaning literally eclipses Clare's being,
        Irene, too, will suffer aphanisis, the disappearance
        of the subject behind the signifier.

        Before deciding to pass for
        `white'*, Clare
        lived an
        "black"^^ `identity', not as Irene does
        as a member of the African American middle
        class, but first as an impoverished daughter of
        an alcoholic janitor and then as the orphaned
        niece of two
        `white'* great-aunts who treat
        Clare as if they were ugly step-sisters
        in the Cinderella tale.

        Clare describes to Irene an upbringing
        commensurate with the ideology her Aunt
        Grace and Aunt Edna borrow directly from
        the slavery apologists of the Old South:

        "I was, it was true, expected to
        earn my keep by doing all the
        housework, and most of the washing.
        But do you realize, 'Rene, that if it
        hadn't been for them, I shouldn't
        have had a home in the world? ...

        Besides, to their notion, hard
        labour was good for me.
        I had Negro blood and they belonged
        to a generation that had written
        and read long articles headed:
        'Will the
        "blacks"^^ work?'
        Too, they weren't quite sure that the
        good God hadn't intended the sons
        and daughters of Ham to sweat because
        he had poked fun at old man Noah once
        when he had taken a drop too much.
        I remember the aunts telling me that
        that old drunkard had cursed Ham
        and his sons for all time". (15859)

        The aunts echo nineteenth-century paternalist
        pro-slavery arguments by pronouncing the
        curse of Ham upon Clare, assigning her
        a subservient position in the family, and
        intimating a moral degradation that only
        hard work and
        `white'* guidance can correct.

        In a rare moment, Clare confides to Irene that
        the economic and psychological impact of
        the aunts' beliefs drove her to discard her
        "black"^^ `identity' and become `white'*.

        She "wanted things," she tells Irene, and clearly
        she means not only material goods but love and
        emotional comfort, as well, for she wants "to be
        a person and not a charity or a problem, or
        even a daughter of the indiscreet Ham" (159).

        The aunts' definition of "blackness" attempts
        to rob Clare of her humanity, so she must
        shed that

        "black"^^ `identity' to be human.

        To do so, she must literally turn
        `white'* by "passing",
        accepting the demands of assimilation to avoid
        the ramifications of what Joel Kovel refers to
        as the "Ham Myth of Expulsion" (79).

        Aphanisis threatens Clare in the novel when her
        "light" name (Clare means 'light') is supplanted by
        her dark name: "Nig," the uncanny appellation
        provided jokingly by her husband John Bellew,
        the racist ignorant of her African heritage. (9)

        He explains the nickname to her tea party
        guests, Gertrude and Irene, who also
        disguise their African American
        identities for Bellew's benefit:"

        'When we were first married, she was as
        'white' as - as - well as `white' as a lily.
        But I declare she's gettin'
        darker and darker.
        I tell her if she don't look out, she'll
        wake up one of these days and find
        she's turned into a nigger'" (171).

        Bellew's naming makes present the identity
        that Clare strives to hide (but it eventually
        makes Clare herself absent).(10)

        He explains to the three disguised "Negroes"
        precisely what "niggers" are:

        "I don't dislike them, I hate them ....
        They give me the creeps.
        The black scrimy devils ....
        And I read in the papers about them.
        Always robbing and killing people.
        And," he added darkly, "worse"' (172)

        Despite all its trappings of urbanity, this tea party
        becomes a microcosm of American racism:

        A

        `white'* male who exudes the "impression of latent
        physical power" (170) discourses upon the meaning
        of `nigger' while three African Americans wearing
        self-protective masks must silently listen,
        powerless to challenge his version of the truth.(11)

        Uncontested beliefs soon become accepted as "truth".

        With her temporary
        `white'* `identity' and
        enforced silence, Irene is in danger of
        internalizing Bellew's "truths" as a form
        of unconscious ideological assimilation.

        His views on "black scrimy devils" provoke in Irene
        an hysteria figured as uncontrollable laughter,
        which she at first attributes to the irony of the
        situation; however, the hysteria goes beyond
        an amused response to an absurd situation.

        It marks a loss of control, the beginning of a mental
        deterioration that plagues Irene throughout the novel.

        African origins here are tied to a false
        but nonetheless powerful definition, one that
        is shared by the
        `white'* world depicted in the novel.

        When Bellew pronounces the casual" 'Hello, Nig'
        "(170), he dredges up the memories of Clare's
        childhood humiliations and creates for Irene an
        anxiety about possible humiliations, humiliations
        intimated by his public proclamation of exclusion:"

        'No niggers in my family.
        Never have been and never will be' "(171). (12)

        This sentence - Bellew's reiteration of Noah's curse-
        causes the nearly implacable Clare an unhappiness
        she betrays in an expression "so dark and deep
        and unfathomable" as though in "the eyes of
        some creature utterly strange and apart" (172).

        Although the scene at the tea party, along with the
        rest of the novel, is narrated in the third person,
        the narrative consciousness is Irene's.

        The use of the word creature appears innocent in
        this context, but later the word creature resurfaces
        in the narrative in an overtly negative
        sense, revealing how Irene has already
        aligned herself with the
        `white'* racist
        signification embodied by John Bellew.

        At the breakfast table in her own New York home,
        Irene recounts to her husband Brian her secret
        humiliation at Clare's party and her refusal
        ever to suffer such humiliation again:" '...

        I'm really not such an idiot that I don't
        realize that if a man calls me a nigger,
        it's his fault the first time, but mine if
        he has the opportunity to do it again'" (184).

        Within a few paragraphs of this confession,
        the maid enters to serve breakfast;
        again, the perspective is Irene's:

        "Zulena, a small mahogany-coloured creature,
        brought in the grapefruit" (184).

        In spite of Irene's admission of the
        humiliation of being called a "nigger,"
        the narrative consciousness that reflects
        her own performs a gesture of dehumanization
        in describing the maid as a "mahogany-coloured
        creature" - for
        `coloured'** connotes "creature"
        at the depths of Irene's unconscious.

        The unselfconscious use of dehumanizing
        language to describe dark-skinned or
        economically disadvantaged African Americans
        indicates the triumph of racist signification in
        Irene's own thinking, a signification that will
        eventually demand her obliteration, as well.

        The invocation of "nigger," "nig," "creature,"
        "boy," and other racial slurs results in the
        aphanisis of the subject, for the meanings
        assigned these words eclipse the being
        of the "racial" subject so named.

        Lacan refers to this eclipse as the "fading of
        the subject" behind the signifier (Four 208),
        and this "fading" is manifested in the
        fainting that plagues Irene at both the
        beginning and the end of the novel.

        In Part One of the novel, recounting
        the circumstances of Clare and
        Irene's reunion in Chicago ,

        Irene sees a man fall to the pavement in
        "an inert heap" under "a brutal staring sun":
        as the man dead, or only faint?
        someone asked her.
        But Irene didn't know and
        didn't try to discover ....
        Suddenly she was aware that the
        whole street had a wobbly look,
        and realized she was about to faint.
        With a quick perception of the need
        for immediate safety, she lifted a
        wavering hand in the direction of a
        cab parked directly in front of her.
        The perspiring driver jumped
        out and guided her to his car.
        He helped, almost lifted her in.
        She sank down on the
        hot leather seat.(146-47)

        The anonymous man's collapse is answered by
        Irene's own fainting and "sinking down" in the cab.

        Unaware of Irene's ... heritage, the cab
        driver takes her to the exclusive Drayton Hotel.

        From the misery of August heat, Irene then moves
        to the oppressive atmosphere of segregation, for
        at the Drayton, she knows, the discovery of her
        African American identity would lead to her expulsion.

        With her acute consciousness of the racially
        hostile environment, Irene becomes aware
        of the intent stare of the woman seated nearby.

        After assuring herself that her clothes and
        make-up are not mussed, Irene experiences
        "a small inner disturbance, odious and hatefully
        familiar" as she assumes that the piercing
        gaze is attributable to her racial origin:

        "Did that woman, could that woman,
        somehow know that here before her very
        eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a "Negro"?"

        With this prospect of being "discovered,"
        Irene's fear escalates, not because she is
        "ashamed of being a "Negro"," she thinks,
        but because "being ejected from any place,
        even in the polite and tactful way in which the
        Drayton would probably do it, ...disturbed her" (150).

        The fainting that brings her to the Drayton in the first
        place creates the possibility of an even more violent
        form of "disappearance," the forced exit required
        by the Jim Crow policy of the
        `white'* world.

        Irene discovers with relief that the intent gaze
        is the friendly one of Clare, a fellow "passer,"
        but the relief is short-lived; her original fainting
        and the fear of expulsion reach fruition at the end
        of the novel when Irene faints a second time,
        in response to a far more violent expulsion.

        In describing the narrative voice of Passing,
        Jacquelyn McLendon speaks of "the disguised 'I''."

        Although told in the third person, the narrative is
        "personal" because it is exclusively Irene's and
        thus could easily be told in the first person; this
        "disguised I," however, stresses Irene's repression
        and reinforces the theme of "passing" as
        disguise in the novel (McLendon 159).

        McLendon's insights on the "disguised I" suggest
        another concern of the novel, the problematic I.

        The first person would be inappropriate for
        Irene's story because the I as an empowered,
        integrated subject position eludes Irene.

        She always defines herself in relation to the
        desire of the Other, and thus an unmediated
        representation of her voice would be
        incongruent with her essential lack.

        Desire is a symptom of lack, so Irene's
        desire for security throughout
        Passing
        reveals the instability of the I.

        She equates her faintness with a "need for immediate
        safety" (147) and realizes "that, to her, security
        was the most important and desired thing in life ....

        She wanted only to be tranquil" (235).

        As her propensity for fainting
        demonstrates, she experiences

        "the menace of impermanence" (229),

        which she attributes variously to Brian's
        desire to move to Brazil and to Clare's
        disruption of her household (187, 229).

        In effect, her sense of permanence,
        her conception of herself as a stable,
        integrated/, is always in jeopardy, plagued
        as she is by a tense apprehension of doom,
        even in Chicago before Clare reenters her life.

        This tension is symptomatic; it signifies
        the inevitability of disintegrating subjectivity.

        Because Irene experiences a
        problematic I, she seeks an
        idealized image to represent herself.

        In "The Mirror Stage," Lacan discusses the
        role of the idealized image in subjectivity.

        The infant first identifies herself as "I," as
        subject, after seeing her image in the mirror.

        This image is unified and masterful
        and therefore represents
        "the mental permanence of the I"
        for the subject (2).

        As Lacan further suggests, the assumption
        of the idealized image always involves
        meconnaissance, or misrecognition,
        because the image is not the self (6).

        Early in
        Passing, Irene adopts Clare as her
        idealized image, and that meconnaissance
        tellingly transpires before the mirror.

        Some critics stress the fact that key
        scenes between Clare and Irene happen
        in Irene's bedroom,(13) but they fail to
        note more precisely that these scenes
        take place while Irene sits at her
        dressing table, before her mirror.

        The place where Irene applies make-up is
        indeed a far more intimate space than her bed.

        In the first of these scenes,
        Clare arrives uninvited after Irene
        has refused to answer her letters.

        After telling Zulena to admit Clare, Irene,

        "at the mirror ... dusted a little powder on
        her nose and brushed out her hair" (193).

        While she performs her hasty toilet, she
        rehearses the rebuff she intends to give Clare:

        But that was as far as she got in her rehearsal.

        For Clare had come softly into the
        room without knocking, and before
        Irene could greet her, had
        dropped a kiss on her dark curls.

        Looking at the woman before her,
        Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable
        onrush of affectionate feeling.

        Reaching out, she grasped Clare's
        two hands in her own and cried
        with something like awe in her voice:

        "Dear God! But aren't you lovely, Clare!" (194).

        If the mirror were not implicitly present in the
        scene and if there were no elision of identities,
        the "kiss," the "inexplicable onrush of
        affectionate feeling," and Irene's expression
        of awe might all be read exclusively as signs
        of an erotic attraction between two women.

        However, Irene is looking in the mirror
        when Clare enters, and the mirror's
        presence makes ambiguous the
        phrase looking at the woman before her.

        Is that woman Clare or Irene herself?

        Moreover, Irene's reaction to Clare's
        entrance reiterates the Lacanian
        infant's "jubilant assumption" of her
        mirror image ("Mirror Stage" 2), for
        like the mirror-stage infant, Irene reaches
        out to the image and exclaims with joy.

        Her "awed" exclamation" 'Dear God!
        But aren't you lovely, Clare!'" indicates
        that she sees in Clare an image superior
        to the one she nervously fussed over
        before Clare's entrance and therefore
        more fitting to represent the "mental
        permanence of the I" (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 2).

        As if to stress the identification between
        the two, Clare even seats herself
        in Irene's "favourite chair" (194).

        While Irene's reaction includes erotic
        overtones, it also contains narcissistic ones.

        The scene confirms the oscillation between
        Irene's "desire for Clare and identification
        with her" that Helena Michie notes (151).

        Irene sees in Clare an "image of her futile
        searching" for permanence (Passing 200),
        and as the novel continues, she has difficulty
        separating "individuals from the race,
        herself from Clare Kendry" (227).(14)

        As Irene realizes that she cannot "master"
        Clare, the identification between the two
        women becomes more problematic. (15)

        The beautiful, idealized

        `white'* image is denied
        Irene when she begins to suspect that Clare
        is trying to seduce her husband Brian and that
        the two plan to betray and abandon her.

        When this suspicion crystallizes, also
        before the mirror, Irene experiences
        a temporary eclipse of being:

        "The face in the mirror vanished from
        her sight, blotted out by this thing which
        had so suddenly flashed across her
        groping mind" (217; emphasis added).

        When the face finally reappears in
        the mirror, it is "her dark-white face"
        (no longer `purely white'), one which
        she meets not with joy but with "a
        kind of ridiculing contempt" (218).

        Later in the novel, when Irene and Clare
        meet before the mirror for the last time,
        Irene experiences fear and guilt over her
        sin of omission;she knows but fails to tell
        Clare that Bellew; having seen Irene out
        with the brown-skinned Felise Freeland,
        probably suspects Clare's racial identity.

        "Irene passed a hand over her
        eyes to shut out the accusing
        face in the glass before her.

        With one corner of her mind she
        wondered how long she had looked
        like that, drawn and haggard
        and-yes, frightened" (233).

        As Irene becomes more and more
        incapable of controlling either Clare
        or herself, she experiences a diminution
        of the "loveliness" in the mirror.

        The image is no longer one of mastery,
        but one of impotence and fear.

        Bellew's encounter with Irene and Felise
        Freeland points to another problematic
        aspect of Clare as Irene's idealized image.

        The mirroring between Clare and Irene
        is to some degree reciprocal,
        so that Irene also "mirrors" Clare.

        Clare herself is apparently aware of the ways
        in which other women reflect and re-present
        her image throughout the novel as she
        carefully chooses the women who
        surround her in her husband's presence:

        The tea in Chicago is limited to her "passable"
        friends Irene and Gertrude, and she adamantly
        refuses to employ

        "black"^^ servants.

        But when Bellew perceives Felise as
        Irene's dark mirror, he in turn "recognizes"
        Clare, too, reflected in Felise's face:

        But the smile faded at once.

        Surprise, incredulity, and
        -was it understanding?
        - passed over his features.

        He had, Irene knew, become
        conscious of Felise, golden,
        with curly black Negro hair,
        whose arm was still linked in her own.

        She was sure, now, of the
        understanding in his face,
        as he looked at her again
        and then back at Felise.

        And displeasure.(226)

        Bellew's "understanding" is really
        a recognition of Clare's African American
        [ethnicity] through a complex chain of mirroring.

        The smile with which he greets Irene connotes
        his vision of Irene as a reflection of his

        `white'*
        wife, but that smile tellingly "fades" as he looks
        from Irene to Felise, whose tell-tale hair and
        skin mark her as African American and
        reveal all that Clare and Irene have
        anxiously concealed from him.

        This identification of Clare with Felise
        takes place primarily through Irene
        (who is literally "linked" to Felise when
        Bellew first spies them), but also through
        the adjective golden, which Larsen uses to
        describe both Clare and Felise (203, 226);
        golden is a sign whose meaning Bellew
        instantly reinterprets upon glimpsing
        Felise and her "Negro hair".

        She has, as she says, "queered" the
        passing game by presenting what
        Bellew views as a tainted image.

        His fading smile and "displeasure," inversions
        of the infant's jubilation before the mirror,
        foreshadow his eventual repudiation of Clare.

        In turn, Irene's response suggests
        the degree to which his desire still
        dominates their interaction:

        "Instinctively, at the first glance of
        recognition, her face had become
        a mask ....she gave him the cool
        appraising stare which she
        reserved for mashers ..." (226-27).

        In the face of Bellew's "displeasure," she dons
        the "mask" that represents a form of invisibility,
        while her cool stare (usually reserved for
        sexual aggressors) suggests the manipulation
        of herself as object of the Other's desire.

        In other words, anticipating Bellew's withdrawal
        of his offered hand - and his recognition - Irene
        preemptively refuses to grant him recognition.

        Like the Lacanian child who wishes to
        be the object of her parent's desire and
        so ponders the tantalizing possibility.

        "Can he lose me?" (Four 214-15;
        emphasis added),

        Irene here reverses the direction of the
        gaze and employs the possibility of
        her own loss or disappearance to
        manipulate Bellew's desire.(16)

        Irene begins to feel ambivalence about her
        African heritage, and that ambivalence is
        associated with Clare as Irene begins to wish

        "for the first time in her life, that she
        had not been born a Negro" (225).

        Irene is "on the verge of total
        mental disintegration" (Tate 143),
        and initially she projects her disintegration
        onto her double and idealized image,
        Clare, a projection that issues in
        what Jonathan Little refers to as
        the "imagery of fragmentation"
        associated with Clare (179).

        Although Clare represents Irene's ideal
        physical image, she maintains only a
        precarious hold on her own
        `white'* identity,
        as evidenced by her refusal to have
        "black"^^
        servants (who might "discover" her identity)
        or to give birth to another child because the

        "hellish strain" of anxiety about
        the child's coloring would be too
        much for her (Passing 168).

        When she says, "'Really,
        'Rene, I'm not safe'" (210),

        she means not only that she is dangerous
        because of the risks she takes but also that
        she is always already in danger of destruction.

        Fragmented things become metonymies for
        Clare, and since Clare is a version of Irene,
        they represent Irene herself, even when she
        is consciously performing the fragmentation.

        As Lacan demonstrates in "The Mirror Stage,"
        corporal integrity is fundamental to subjectivity,
        so we could conclude that corporal
        disintegration is a prelude to aphanisis,
        the subject's disappearance.

        The symbolic mutilation that Irene performs on
        Clare foreshadows aphanisis for both women.

        The first fragmentation involves Irene's
        destruction of letters from Clare at
        two different points in the narrative.

        From Irene's perspective, Clare's
        letters are always a little obtrusive;
        like Clare herself, her letters are

        "furtive, but yet in some peculiar,
        determined way a little flaunting,"
        "out of place and alien,"
        and "mysterious" (143).

        Significantly, both letters revive for Irene the
        memory of John Bellew's racist invective,
        along with the presence of Clare.

        The first of these is the note Clare sends Irene
        to thank her for attending the tea in Chicago .

        But the letter only reminds Irene of
        the humiliation of listening silently to
        Bellew's racist diatribe, so she destroys it:

        With an unusual methodicalness she tore
        the offending letter into tiny ragged squares
        that fluttered down and made a small heap
        in her black crepe de Chine lap.

        The destruction completed, she gathered
        them up, rose, and moved to the train's end.

        Standing there, she dropped them over
        railing and watched them scatter,
        on tracks, on cinders, on forlorn
        grass, in rills of dirty water. (178)

        In destroying the letter, an overture of
        friendship, Irene symbolically attempts
        to rid herself of Clare as "Nig".

        She tears it into "tiny ragged squares,"
        then scatters the pieces in a gesture of riddance,
        a forced disappearance of Clare's asserted presence,
        which brings with it John Bellew's hatred of "niggers".

        Irene then thinks that, if Clare shows up in person, she

        "had only to turn away her eyes,
        to refuse her recognition" (178).

        Unconsciously, she is mimicking the behavior of
        the
        `white'* racist, willing Clare's disappearance
        through a refusal to recognize.

        The second letter, which Irene receives in New York
        two years later, revives again the memory of shame,

        "bringing with them a clear, sharp
        remembrance, in which even now,
        after two years, humiliation, resentment,
        and rage were mingled" (145).

        Later, she

        "tear[s] the letter across" and
        flings "it into the scrap-basket" (191),

        acting out both her anger at Clare
        and the disintegration she feels
        with the memory of Bellew's hatred.

        The tearing of the two letters happens
        before Irene and Clare merge in the mirror.

        But after Irene identifies with Clare in the mirror and
        then loses that image after beginning to suspect
        Brian and Clare, Irene will act out another destruction
        of Clare, the smashing of the white china teacup.

        When she becomes enraged at seeing Brian
        apparently paying court to Clare at yet another
        tea party, Irene either drops or hurls the
        teacup to the ground with "a slight crash.

        On the floor at her feet lay the shattered cup.
        Dark stains dotted the bright rug.
        Spread .... Before her,
        Zulena gathered up
        the white fragments" (221).

        The broken teacup immediately suggests
        Irene's own disintegration or loss of
        control, but to cover her confusion,
        Irene tells Hugh Wentworth that she
        has broken the cup purposely, for it

        "was the ugliest thing ... the
        Confederates ever owned" (221-22).

        The seemingly offhand remark is deceptive,
        for the white teacup is yet another version of Clare,
        who has descended from the same
        `white'* ancestors
        and made her way in the world not through a direct
        route, but through a subterfuge and deception akin to
        the "underground" by which the teacup comes north.

        The broken teacup brings to
        Irene a realization that she

        "had only to break it" and
        be "rid of it forever" (222).

        Clearly the shattering of the teacup
        with its attendant "white fragments"
        foreshadows Clare's impending death.

        Clare's death occurs in the appropriately
        named "Finale" section of the novel, where
        all the elements of aphanisis converge as
        racist signification impacts literally on the body.

        The final chapter, the one in which Clare
        dies, begins tellingly with the Redfields'
        dinner-time discussion of lynching.

        Ted asks why

        `white'* "'only lynch `coloured'** people,'
        "and Brian responds," 'Because they hate 'em, son' "(231),
        echoing Bellew's declaration,"
        'I don't dislike [Negroes], I hate them'" (172).

        Brian's observations disconcert Irene,
        possibly reminding her of the humiliation
        of Clare's Chicago tea party two years
        earlier, and she upbraids Brian for
        speaking of the subject before their sons.

        Irene thinks she can insure her sons a
        happy childhood by keeping "the race
        problem" from them, but Brian knows better.

        He asks,

        "'What was the use of our trying to keep
        them from learning the word 'nigger'
        and its connotation?
        They found out, didn't they?
        And how?
        Because somebody called
        Junior a dirty nigger'" (231-32).

        As in the scene where he refuses to avoid discussing
        sex with Ted and Junior, he insists on telling his sons
        the facts of life, including the ugly fact of racism.

        This argument further establishes the disharmony in
        Irene's marriage, and it also sets the scene for
        Clare's death by emphasizing the extent of
        racism's infringement on African American lives.

        Virulent

        `white'* racism is not limited to the
        South or to the lyncher; school boys up
        north are taunted as "dirty niggers".

        With its shattered bodies and dehumanization,
        lynching is one connotation of nigger from which
        Irene tries in vain to protect her sons and herself.

        But as Clare's death reveals, the epithet nigger
        brings with it "the glorious body mutilated" (240),
        a mutilation inevitably preceding the
        disappearance that the word nigger invokes.

        When Bellew discovers his wife's secret Harlem
        life, he confronts her at the Freelands' party.

        The prophecy contained in his pet name for
        Clare - "Nig"- is fulfilled, and so will be the
        displacement of Clare by the signifier (the diminutive
        of nigger) that demands her disappearance.

        Bellew repeats the gesture performed by
        Junior's unnamed tormentor at school,
        for he calls Clare the very name revealed
        in the Redfields' dinner-table discussion

        " 'So you're a nigger,
        a damned dirty nigger!'" (238).

        The chain of events transpiring after this utterance
        has been hotly debated by the critics, (17)
        but we know with narrative certainty that the chain
        begins with Bellew's invocation of nigger and
        ends with Clare's plunge from the window,
        her body conspicuously absent from the scene
        by the time Irene descends to the street level.

        Whether Clare jumps or Irene pushes her, Bellew's

        "'So you're a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!'"

        inaugurates Clare's disappearance from the window.

        In the Lacanian version of aphanisis,
        the subject disappears behind the signifier
        in dialogue with the Other, always while trying to
        determine the desire of the Other with the question,

        "He is saying this to me, but what
        does he want?" (Lacan, Four 214).

        Frantz Fanon notes in turn that, for "black"^^
        subjects in dialogue with the
        `white'* Other,
        the answer must always be,

        "Turn `white'* or disappear" (100).

        To both women in Larsen's novel, Bellew's" 'damned
        dirty nigger'" implies his desire for Clare's expulsion.

        Thus Clare, who is denigrated in Bellew's mind
        for consorting with Negroes, must die, (18)
        even if Irene catalyzes that death:

        One moment Clare had been there, a vital
        glowing thing, like a flame in red and gold.

        The next she was gone.

        There was a gasp of horror, and above it a
        sound not quite human, like a beast in agony.

        "Nig! My God! Nig? (239)

        Clare's fall is a vanishing act, a sort
        of now-you-see-her-now-you-don't,
        where the signifier Nig seems literally
        to make Clare's body disappear in a
        high-stakes version of the infant's
        fort-da game described in Freud's
        Beyond the Pleasure Principle
        (13-15), for Clare is

        "... there ... gone" (239).

        Significantly, her disappearance is punctuated
        by Bellew's final, double invocation of Nig,
        her uncanny nickname; her destruction
        is commensurate with the racist
        meaning of that word.(19)

        As the bystanders try to determine what happened,
        Ralph Hazelton surmises that Clare" 'fainted, I guess'"
        (241), an assumption that on the surface seems to be
        a sexist stereotyping of women's responses to crises.

        Passing

        However, in Lacanian terms Hazelton is right,
        for Clare, like Irene, experiences a problematic
        subjectivity that leads to her fading,
        or aphanisis, in the narrative.

        Her death confirms the lethal relationship Lacan
        posits between signification and subjectivity
        since the word Nig, like the Lacanian signifier,

        "manifests itself ... in the murder
        of the thing" ("Function" 104).

        Bellew's interjection of "'damned dirty nigger' " -
        his response to Clare's "What am I to you?" - also
        reflects on Irene, for Clare is her idealized image.

        Although Irene has throughout the novel indulged her
        desire to tear and shatter Clare through displaced
        aggressions toward letters and teacups,
        Irene herself will shatter once Clare actually
        experiences corporal disintegration, for she cannot

        "separate ...herself from Clare Kendry" (227).

        After Clare has fallen to her death, Irene
        experiences nausea when she imagines
        that Clare might have survived.

        The nausea stems not only from "fear"
        (the belief of most critics who assume
        her guilty of Clare's murder), but from

        "the idea of the glorious body mutilated" (240).

        This "idea" is a manifestation of the corps
        morcele, the imaginary fragmented
        body whose emergence indicates

        "the aggressive disintegration" of
        the I constructed during the mirror
        stage (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 4)".

        The glorious body" is not exclusively Clare's, but
        a shared, idealized image of self; so its mutilation
        represents disintegration for both women.

        Thus Irene replicates Clare's death in a fainting spell
        mirroring the one that eventually led to her
        reunion with Clare two years earlier.

        After Clare falls, Irene slowly
        descends the stairs, grasping

        "the banister to save herself
        from pitching downwards ....
        How she managed to make the
        rest of the journey without fainting
        she never knew" (240). (20)

        In fact, when she does finally arrive
        on the scene, the others assume that

        "she had fainted or something like that" (241).

        Aphanisis is imminent for Irene, too,
        because the fainting that threatens her
        (and has threatened her throughout the novel)
        is now complicated by a "hideous trembling"
        and "quaking" that overtake her as the
        others question her about Clare's fall.

        As she tries to exculpate Bellew, her
        unstable subjectivity fractures:

        "'No, no!' she protested.
        'I'm quite certain that he didn't [push Clare].
        I was there, too.
        As close as he was.
        She just fell, before anybody could stop her.
        I -'" (242).

        Significantly, the utterance
        of the I undoes Irene:

        Her quaking knees gave way under her.
        She moaned and sank down, moaned again.
        Through the great heaviness that
        submerged and drowned her she was dimly
        conscious of strong arms lifting her up.

        Then everything was dark.(242)

        Irene faints while uttering her last
        and most problematic word," 'I -'"
        (the incompletion of the utterance is
        indicated by Larsen's use of the long dash).

        Her

        (Message over 64 KB, truncated)

      • j s
        I just got a copy of this combined with Quicksand off of Amazon.com for about $3! multiracialbookclub wrote: (Essay) Nella Larsen s
        Message 3 of 3 , Oct 19, 2006
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          I just got a copy of this combined with Quicksand off of Amazon.com for about $3!

          multiracialbookclub <soaptalk@...> wrote:
          Passing

          (Essay)
          Nella Larsen's 'Passing'
          and The `Fading' Subject


          -- by Neil Sullivan
          ... Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in
          her life, that she had not been born a "Negro".
          For the first time she suffered and rebelled because
          she was unable to disregard `the burden of race'.

          It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a
          woman, an individual, on one's own account,
          without having to suffer for the race as well.
          It was a brutality, and undeserved.

          Surely, no other people were so cursed
          as Ham's dark children. (Passing 225)
          Although many critics have accused Nella Larsen
          of using race as a pretext for examining other
          issues,(1)
          Passing (1929), her second novel,
          is profoundly concerned with "racial" `identity'.

          In "Toward a Black-Feminist Criticism," Barbara
          Smith cautions critics about the danger of ignoring
          "that the politics of sex as well as the politics of
          race and class are crucially interlocking factors
          in the works of
          "black"^^ women writers" (170).

          For Larsen, too, "race" is inextricable from the
          collateral issues --- including class, gender, sexuality,
          and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of `identity'.

          "Passing," of course, alludes to `the crossing of the
          color line' that was once so familiar in American
          narratives of "race," but in Larsen's novel the
          word also carries its colloquial meaning - death.

          Thus
          Passing's title, like the title of Larsen's earlier
          Quicksand, hints at the subject's disappearance
          in the narrative, or the possibility of aphanisis,
          which Jacques Lacan defines in 'The Four
          Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis' as the
          disappearance of the subject behind the signifier.

          For Irene Westover Red field and Clare Kendry
          Bellew, the "twin" protagonists of
          Passing,
          the obliterating signifier is `nigger', a word that
          comes to encapsulate their struggle with the
          conflicts of American racism and assimilation.

          The narrative representation of these conflicts
          also suggests at a symbolic level Larsen's
          repetition and working through of her own
          anxieties about the rejection she experienced
          as a result of her racial `identity'.
          Her `hazy' origins and almost traceless
          "disappearance" differentiate Larsen from the
          other authors of the Harlem Renaissance, but
          not from the characters of her own novels.

          Until the publication of the 1994 biography
          by Thadious Davis, Nella Larsen's life
          was `shrouded in silence'; not even
           the year of her birth was certain.(2)
          Davis 's project was "to remove the aura of mystery"
          from Larsen's life (xix), an aura that often resulted in
          critics' presentation of Larsen as inscrutable Other.(3)
          But with the details unearthed in her extensive
          research, Davis reveals that Nella Larsen
          was deeply scarred by the reality of racism;
          her seeking of celebrity as a writer was
          in fact a symptom of the need for recognition
          and validation, something which she
          never received as a child and only
          tenuously as a young adult (Davis 10).
          As the daughter of the Danish immigrant Marie
          Hansen and the African American Peter Walker,
          Larsen was already doubly
          marginalized in American society,
          but when her mother remarried a
          `white'* man (also a Danish immigrant),
          Larsen found herself so excluded from the family
          that her mother did not even report her existence
          to census takers in 1910 (Davis 27).(4)

          The Larsens orchestrated their dark daughter's
          absence from their Chicago home by sending her to
          the Fisk Normal School in Nashville when she was
          only fifteen, and when the money ran out a year later,
          Marie Larsen apparently asked the sixteen-year- old
          Nella (then Nellie) to make her own way in the world.

          Larsen vanished temporarily, resurfacing three years
          later at the Lincoln Training Hospital in New York City
          as a student nurse, where, according to Davis,
          she began her ascent into the
          "black"^^
          middle class all alone (66, 70-72).

          Larsen's childhood rejection was seemingly reiterated
          in her 1919 marriage to Elmer S. Imes, which
          ended in a much-publicized divorce in 1933.

          As Ann Allen Shockley explains, the deterioration of
          the marriage was accelerated by the overt antipathy
          felt by Larsen's light-skinned mother-in-law
          and, significantly, by Imes's indiscreet affair
          with Ethel Gilbert, a
          `white'* staff member at Fisk
          University , where Imes taught physics (438).

          "He liked
          `white'* women," several of Imes's friends
          remarked to Thadious Davis in explanation
          of his betrayal of Nella Larsen (362).

          It is hardly incidental in Larsen's construction and
          subsequent dissolution of `identity' that the rivals for
          her husband's affection were both
          `white'* women,
          and that she could therefore attribute the second
          major rejection in her emotional life to her
          inability to be `sufficiently
          `white'*'.(5)

          Although there were many problems in the
          Larsen-Imes union, the divorce contains the hint
          of another command to "turn
          `white'* or disappear,"
          the imperative that Frantz Fanon suggests
          is implicit in all interracial dialogue (100).

          In effect, the rejections by her family
          and by her husband, exacerbated by the
          "problem of authorship" stemming from
          charges of plagiarism in the "Sanctuary" affair
          ( Dearborn 56), destroyed the `identity' Larsen
          consciously cultivated during the 1920s, and
          provoked her disappearance from public life.(6)
          Perhaps because Larsen discovered Imes's
          affair with Ethel Gilbert during the composition
          of
          Passing ( Davis 324), her `desire for
          recognition' and `fear of rejection' surface in
          the characters Clare Kendry and Irene Red field.

          Passing

          In
          Passing, Irene and Clare are tyrannized by the
          Other's desire, and though their relationship is
          complicated by issues of gender and sexuality,
          the dynamics of
          `white'* racism and the demands
          of assimilation dictate the lives of the two women.

          `White'* racism ultimately defines their lives in the word
          `nigger', and that definition determines the limits
          of their lives; in other words, it over-determines
          their ends –---- narratively and otherwise.

          The need for recognition is paramount
          in the lives of Clare and Irene,
          just as it was in Larsen's own.

          Recognition is always bound to
          the Other's inscrutable desire, for
          "man's desire is the desire
          of the Other" (Lacan, Four 38).

          Thus, Irene accuses Clare -
          "exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting"
          - of a "deliberate courting of attention" (Passing 203),
          while she herself spends an inordinate amount
          of time dressing throughout the novel.

          Recognition requires an appearance of wealth and
          'whiteness' in the bourgeois milieu of Passing.

          Irene "passes" not by adopting a
          `white'* `identity'
          as Clare does, but by adopting
          `white'* "values",
          including
          `white'* standards of beauty.(7)

          Thus, Thadious Davis explains Irene's "attraction
          to Clare" as an "aesthetic attraction to `whiteness', "
          a "logical extension of her
          "black"^^
          bourgeoisie lifestyle and ideology" (326).

          While Clare claims Irene as her link to
          "blackness", Irene mediates her desire
          for `whiteness' through Clare.

          With her "ivory face under that bright hair"
          (Passing 161) and her marriage to a
          `white'* financier, Clare becomes Irene's
          vicarious connection to the
          `white'* world. (8)

          In dialogue, the subject must determine the desire
          of the Other, or as Ellie Ragland-Sullivan writes,
          the subject implicitly asks the Other,
          "What am I to/of you?" (48),
          a question that Irene asks not
          only of Clare, but through Clare.

          As I will argue, Clare becomes an image of Irene's self;
          Clare's definition as "nigger" in the eyes of John Bellew
          will then become Irene's definition of herself.

          When that meaning literally eclipses Clare's being,
          Irene, too, will suffer aphanisis, the disappearance
          of the subject behind the signifier.

          Before deciding to pass for
          `white'*, Clare
          lived an
          "black"^^ `identity', not as Irene does
          as a member of the African American middle
          class, but first as an impoverished daughter of
          an alcoholic janitor and then as the orphaned
          niece of two
          `white'* great-aunts who treat
          Clare as if they were ugly step-sisters
          in the Cinderella tale.

          Clare describes to Irene an upbringing
          commensurate with the ideology her Aunt
          Grace and Aunt Edna borrow directly from
          the slavery apologists of the Old South:
          "I was, it was true, expected to
          earn my keep by doing all the
          housework, and most of the washing.
          But do you realize, 'Rene, that if it
          hadn't been for them, I shouldn't
          have had a home in the world? ...

          Besides, to their notion, hard
          labour was good for me.
          I had Negro blood and they belonged
          to a generation that had written
          and read long articles headed:
          'Will the
          "blacks"^^ work?'
          Too, they weren't quite sure that the
          good God hadn't intended the sons
          and daughters of Ham to sweat because
          he had poked fun at old man Noah once
          when he had taken a drop too much.
          I remember the aunts telling me that
          that old drunkard had cursed Ham
          and his sons for all time". (15859)

          The aunts echo nineteenth-century paternalist
          pro-slavery arguments by pronouncing the
          curse of Ham upon Clare, assigning her
          a subservient position in the family, and
          intimating a moral degradation that only
          hard work and
          `white'* guidance can correct.

          In a rare moment, Clare confides to Irene that
          the economic and psychological impact of
          the aunts' beliefs drove her to discard her
          "black"^^ `identity' and become `white'*.
          She "wanted things," she tells Irene, and clearly
          she means not only material goods but love and
          emotional comfort, as well, for she wants "to be
          a person and not a charity or a problem, or
          even a daughter of the indiscreet Ham" (159).

          The aunts' definition of "blackness" attempts
          to rob Clare of her humanity, so she must
          shed that
          "black"^^ `identity' to be human.

          To do so, she must literally turn
          `white'* by "passing",
          accepting the demands of assimilation to avoid
          the ramifications of what Joel Kovel refers to
          as the "Ham Myth of Expulsion" (79).

          Aphanisis threatens Clare in the novel when her
          "light" name (Clare means 'light') is supplanted by
          her dark name: "Nig," the uncanny appellation
          provided jokingly by her husband John Bellew,
          the racist ignorant of her African heritage. (9)
          He explains the nickname to her tea party
          guests, Gertrude and Irene, who also
          disguise their African American
          identities for Bellew's benefit:"
          'When we were first married, she was as
          'white' as - as - well as `white' as a lily.
          But I declare she's gettin'
          darker and darker.
          I tell her if she don't look out, she'll
          wake up one of these days and find
          she's turned into a nigger'" (171).
          Bellew's naming makes present the identity
          that Clare strives to hide (but it eventually
          makes Clare herself absent).(10)

          He explains to the three disguised "Negroes"
          precisely what "niggers" are:
          "I don't dislike them, I hate them ....
          They give me the creeps.
          The black scrimy devils ....
          And I read in the papers about them.
          Always robbing and killing people.
          And," he added darkly, "worse"' (172)
          Despite all its trappings of urbanity, this tea party
          becomes a microcosm of American racism:

          A
          `white'* male who exudes the "impression of latent
          physical power" (170) discourses upon the meaning
          of `nigger' while three African Americans wearing
          self-protective masks must silently listen,
          powerless to challenge his version of the truth.(11)

          Uncontested beliefs soon become accepted as "truth".

          With her temporary
          `white'* `identity' and
          enforced silence, Irene is in danger of
          internalizing Bellew's "truths" as a form
          of unconscious ideological assimilation.

          His views on "black scrimy devils" provoke in Irene
          an hysteria figured as uncontrollable laughter,
          which she at first attributes to the irony of the
          situation; however, the hysteria goes beyond
          an amused response to an absurd situation.

          It marks a loss of control, the beginning of a mental
          deterioration that plagues Irene throughout the novel.
          African origins here are tied to a false
          but nonetheless powerful definition, one that
          is shared by the
          `white'* world depicted in the novel.

          When Bellew pronounces the casual" 'Hello, Nig'
          "(170), he dredges up the memories of Clare's
          childhood humiliations and creates for Irene an
          anxiety about possible humiliations, humiliations
          intimated by his public proclamation of exclusion:"

          'No niggers in my family.
          Never have been and never will be' "(171). (12)
          This sentence - Bellew's reiteration of Noah's curse-
          causes the nearly implacable Clare an unhappiness
          she betrays in an expression "so dark and deep
          and unfathomable" as though in "the eyes of
          some creature utterly strange and apart" (172).

          Although the scene at the tea party, along with the
          rest of the novel, is narrated in the third person,
          the narrative consciousness is Irene's.

          The use of the word creature appears innocent in
          this context, but later the word creature resurfaces
          in the narrative in an overtly negative
          sense, revealing how Irene has already
          aligned herself with the
          `white'* racist
          signification embodied by John Bellew.

          At the breakfast table in her own New York home,
          Irene recounts to her husband Brian her secret
          humiliation at Clare's party and her refusal
          ever to suffer such humiliation again:" '...

          I'm really not such an idiot that I don't
          realize that if a man calls me a nigger,
          it's his fault the first time, but mine if
          he has the opportunity to do it again'" (184).

          Within a few paragraphs of this confession,
          the maid enters to serve breakfast;
          again, the perspective is Irene's:
          "Zulena, a small mahogany-coloured creature,
          brought in the grapefruit" (184).
          In spite of Irene's admission of the
          humiliation of being called a "nigger,"
          the narrative consciousness that reflects
          her own performs a gesture of dehumanization
          in describing the maid as a "mahogany-coloured
          creature" - for
          `coloured'** connotes "creature"
          at the depths of Irene's unconscious.

          The unselfconscious use of dehumanizing
          language to describe dark-skinned or
          economically disadvantaged African Americans
          indicates the triumph of racist signification in
          Irene's own thinking, a signification that will
          eventually demand her obliteration, as well.

          The invocation of "nigger," "nig," "creature,"
          "boy," and other racial slurs results in the
          aphanisis of the subject, for the meanings
          assigned these words eclipse the being
          of the "racial" subject so named.

          Lacan refers to this eclipse as the "fading of
          the subject" behind the signifier (Four 208),
          and this "fading" is manifested in the
          fainting that plagues Irene at both the
          beginning and the end of the novel.

          In Part One of the novel, recounting
          the circumstances of Clare and
          Irene's reunion in Chicago ,

          Irene sees a man fall to the pavement in
          "an inert heap" under "a brutal staring sun":
          as the man dead, or only faint?
          someone asked her.
          But Irene didn't know and
          didn't try to discover ....
          Suddenly she was aware that the
          whole street had a wobbly look,
          and realized she was about to faint.
          With a quick perception of the need
          for immediate safety, she lifted a
          wavering hand in the direction of a
          cab parked directly in front of her.
          The perspiring driver jumped
          out and guided her to his car.
          He helped, almost lifted her in.
          She sank down on the
          hot leather seat.(146-47)
          The anonymous man's collapse is answered by
          Irene's own fainting and "sinking down" in the cab.

          Unaware of Irene's ... heritage, the cab
          driver takes her to the exclusive Drayton Hotel.

          From the misery of August heat, Irene then moves
          to the oppressive atmosphere of segregation, for
          at the Drayton, she knows, the discovery of her
          African American identity would lead to her expulsion.

          With her acute consciousness of the racially
          hostile environment, Irene becomes aware
          of the intent stare of the woman seated nearby.

          After assuring herself that her clothes and
          make-up are not mussed, Irene experiences
          "a small inner disturbance, odious and hatefully
          familiar" as she assumes that the piercing
          gaze is attributable to her racial origin:
          "Did that woman, could that woman,
          somehow know that here before her very
          eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a "Negro"?"
          With this prospect of being "discovered, "
          Irene's fear escalates, not because she is
          "ashamed of being a "Negro"," she thinks,
          but because "being ejected from any place,
          even in the polite and tactful way in which the
          Drayton would probably do it, ...disturbed her" (150).

          The fainting that brings her to the Drayton in the first
          place creates the possibility of an even more violent
          form of "disappearance, " the forced exit required
          by the Jim Crow policy of the
          `white'* world.

          Irene discovers with relief that the intent gaze
          is the friendly one of Clare, a fellow "passer,"
          but the relief is short-lived; her original fainting
          and the fear of expulsion reach fruition at the end
          of the novel when Irene faints a second time,
          in response to a far more violent expulsion.

          In describing the narrative voice of Passing,
          Jacquelyn McLendon speaks of "the disguised 'I''."

          Although told in the third person, the narrative is
          "personal" because it is exclusively Irene's and
          thus could easily be told in the first person; this
          "disguised I," however, stresses Irene's repression
          and reinforces the theme of "passing" as
          disguise in the novel (McLendon 159).

          McLendon's insights on the "disguised I" suggest
          another concern of the novel, the problematic I.

          The first person would be inappropriate for
          Irene's story because the I as an empowered,
          integrated subject position eludes Irene.

          She always defines herself in relation to the
          desire of the Other, and thus an unmediated
          representation of her voice would be
          incongruent with her essential lack.

          Desire is a symptom of lack, so Irene's
          desire for security throughout
          Passing
          reveals the instability of the I.

          She equates her faintness with a "need for immediate
          safety" (147) and realizes "that, to her, security
          was the most important and desired thing in life ....

          She wanted only to be tranquil" (235).

          As her propensity for fainting
          demonstrates, she experiences
          "the menace of impermanence" (229),
          which she attributes variously to Brian's
          desire to move to Brazil and to Clare's
          disruption of her household (187, 229).

          In effect, her sense of permanence,
          her conception of herself as a stable,
          integrated/, is always in jeopardy, plagued
          as she is by a tense apprehension of doom,
          even in Chicago before Clare reenters her life.

          This tension is symptomatic; it signifies
          the inevitability of disintegrating subjectivity.

          Because Irene experiences a
          problematic I, she seeks an
          idealized image to represent herself.

          In "The Mirror Stage," Lacan discusses the
          role of the idealized image in subjectivity.

          The infant first identifies herself as "I," as
          subject, after seeing her image in the mirror.

          This image is unified and masterful
          and therefore represents
          "the mental permanence of the I"
          for the subject (2).

          As Lacan further suggests, the assumption
          of the idealized image always involves
          meconnaissance, or misrecognition,
          because the image is not the self (6).

          Early in
          Passing, Irene adopts Clare as her
          idealized image, and that meconnaissance
          tellingly transpires before the mirror.

          Some critics stress the fact that key
          scenes between Clare and Irene happen
          in Irene's bedroom,(13) but they fail to
          note more precisely that these scenes
          take place while Irene sits at her
          dressing table, before her mirror.

          The place where Irene applies make-up is
          indeed a far more intimate space than her bed.

          In the first of these scenes,
          Clare arrives uninvited after Irene
          has refused to answer her letters.

          After telling Zulena to admit Clare, Irene,
          "at the mirror ... dusted a little powder on
          her nose and brushed out her hair" (193).
          While she performs her hasty toilet, she
          rehearses the rebuff she intends to give Clare:

          But that was as far as she got in her rehearsal.

          For Clare had come softly into the
          room without knocking, and before
          Irene could greet her, had
          dropped a kiss on her dark curls.

          Looking at the woman before her,
          Irene Redfield had a sudden inexplicable
          onrush of affectionate feeling.

          Reaching out, she grasped Clare's
          two hands in her own and cried
          with something like awe in her voice:
          "Dear God! But aren't you lovely, Clare!" (194).
          If the mirror were not implicitly present in the
          scene and if there were no elision of identities,
          the "kiss," the "inexplicable onrush of
          affectionate feeling," and Irene's expression
          of awe might all be read exclusively as signs
          of an erotic attraction between two women.

          However, Irene is looking in the mirror
          when Clare enters, and the mirror's
          presence makes ambiguous the
          phrase looking at the woman before her.

          Is that woman Clare or Irene herself?

          Moreover, Irene's reaction to Clare's
          entrance reiterates the Lacanian
          infant's "jubilant assumption" of her
          mirror image ("Mirror Stage" 2), for
          like the mirror-stage infant, Irene reaches
          out to the image and exclaims with joy.

          Her "awed" exclamation" 'Dear God!
          But aren't you lovely, Clare!'" indicates
          that she sees in Clare an image superior
          to the one she nervously fussed over
          before Clare's entrance and therefore
          more fitting to represent the "mental
          permanence of the I" (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 2).

          As if to stress the identification between
          the two, Clare even seats herself
          in Irene's "favourite chair" (194).

          While Irene's reaction includes erotic
          overtones, it also contains narcissistic ones.

          The scene confirms the oscillation between
          Irene's "desire for Clare and identification
          with her" that Helena Michie notes (151).

          Irene sees in Clare an "image of her futile
          searching" for permanence (Passing 200),
          and as the novel continues, she has difficulty
          separating "individuals from the race,
          herself from Clare Kendry" (227).(14)

          As Irene realizes that she cannot "master"
          Clare, the identification between the two
          women becomes more problematic. (15)

          The beautiful, idealized
          `white'* image is denied
          Irene when she begins to suspect that Clare
          is trying to seduce her husband Brian and that
          the two plan to betray and abandon her.

          When this suspicion crystallizes, also
          before the mirror, Irene experiences
          a temporary eclipse of being:
          "The face in the mirror vanished from
          her sight, blotted out by this thing which
          had so suddenly flashed across her
          groping mind" (217; emphasis added).

          When the face finally reappears in
          the mirror, it is "her dark-white face"
          (no longer `purely white'), one which
          she meets not with joy but with "a
          kind of ridiculing contempt" (218).
          Later in the novel, when Irene and Clare
          meet before the mirror for the last time,
          Irene experiences fear and guilt over her
          sin of omission;she knows but fails to tell
          Clare that Bellew; having seen Irene out
          with the brown-skinned Felise Freeland,
          probably suspects Clare's racial identity.
          "Irene passed a hand over her
          eyes to shut out the accusing
          face in the glass before her.

          With one corner of her mind she
          wondered how long she had looked
          like that, drawn and haggard
          and-yes, frightened" (233).
          As Irene becomes more and more
          incapable of controlling either Clare
          or herself, she experiences a diminution
          of the "loveliness" in the mirror.

          The image is no longer one of mastery,
          but one of impotence and fear.

          Bellew's encounter with Irene and Felise
          Freeland points to another problematic
          aspect of Clare as Irene's idealized image.

          The mirroring between Clare and Irene
          is to some degree reciprocal,
          so that Irene also "mirrors" Clare.

          Clare herself is apparently aware of the ways
          in which other women reflect and re-present
          her image throughout the novel as she
          carefully chooses the women who
          surround her in her husband's presence:

          The tea in Chicago is limited to her "passable"
          friends Irene and Gertrude, and she adamantly
          refuses to employ
          "black"^^ servants.

          But when Bellew perceives Felise as
          Irene's dark mirror, he in turn "recognizes"
          Clare, too, reflected in Felise's face:
          But the smile faded at once.

          Surprise, incredulity, and
          -was it understanding?
          - passed over his features.

          He had, Irene knew, become
          conscious of Felise, golden,
          with curly black Negro hair,
          whose arm was still linked in her own.

          She was sure, now, of the
          understanding in his face,
          as he looked at her again
          and then back at Felise.

          And displeasure. (226)
          Bellew's "understanding" is really
          a recognition of Clare's African American
          [ethnicity] through a complex chain of mirroring.

          The smile with which he greets Irene connotes
          his vision of Irene as a reflection of his
          `white'*
          wife, but that smile tellingly "fades" as he looks
          from Irene to Felise, whose tell-tale hair and
          skin mark her as African American and
          reveal all that Clare and Irene have
          anxiously concealed from him.

          This identification of Clare with Felise
          takes place primarily through Irene
          (who is literally "linked" to Felise when
          Bellew first spies them), but also through
          the adjective golden, which Larsen uses to
          describe both Clare and Felise (203, 226);
          golden is a sign whose meaning Bellew
          instantly reinterprets upon glimpsing
          Felise and her "Negro hair".

          She has, as she says, "queered" the
          passing game by presenting what
          Bellew views as a tainted image.

          His fading smile and "displeasure, " inversions
          of the infant's jubilation before the mirror,
          foreshadow his eventual repudiation of Clare.

          In turn, Irene's response suggests
          the degree to which his desire still
          dominates their interaction:
          "Instinctively, at the first glance of
          recognition, her face had become
          a mask ....she gave him the cool
          appraising stare which she
          reserved for mashers ..." (226-27).
          In the face of Bellew's "displeasure, " she dons
          the "mask" that represents a form of invisibility,
          while her cool stare (usually reserved for
          sexual aggressors) suggests the manipulation
          of herself as object of the Other's desire.

          In other words, anticipating Bellew's withdrawal
          of his offered hand - and his recognition - Irene
          preemptively refuses to grant him recognition.

          Like the Lacanian child who wishes to
          be the object of her parent's desire and
          so ponders the tantalizing possibility.
          "Can he lose me?" (Four 214-15;
          emphasis added),
          Irene here reverses the direction of the
          gaze and employs the possibility of
          her own loss or disappearance to
          manipulate Bellew's desire.(16)

          Irene begins to feel ambivalence about her
          African heritage, and that ambivalence is
          associated with Clare as Irene begins to wish
          "for the first time in her life, that she
          had not been born a Negro" (225).
          Irene is "on the verge of total
          mental disintegration" (Tate 143),
          and initially she projects her disintegration
          onto her double and idealized image,
          Clare, a projection that issues in
          what Jonathan Little refers to as
          the "imagery of fragmentation"
          associated with Clare (179).

          Although Clare represents Irene's ideal
          physical image, she maintains only a
          precarious hold on her own
          `white'* identity,
          as evidenced by her refusal to have
          "black"^^
          servants (who might "discover" her identity)
          or to give birth to another child because the
          "hellish strain" of anxiety about
          the child's coloring would be too
          much for her (Passing 168).

          When she says, "'Really,
          'Rene, I'm not safe'" (210),
          she means not only that she is dangerous
          because of the risks she takes but also that
          she is always already in danger of destruction.

          Fragmented things become metonymies for
          Clare, and since Clare is a version of Irene,
          they represent Irene herself, even when she
          is consciously performing the fragmentation.

          As Lacan demonstrates in "The Mirror Stage,"
          corporal integrity is fundamental to subjectivity,
          so we could conclude that corporal
          disintegration is a prelude to aphanisis,
          the subject's disappearance.

          The symbolic mutilation that Irene performs on
          Clare foreshadows aphanisis for both women.

          The first fragmentation involves Irene's
          destruction of letters from Clare at
          two different points in the narrative.

          From Irene's perspective, Clare's
          letters are always a little obtrusive;
          like Clare herself, her letters are
          "furtive, but yet in some peculiar,
          determined way a little flaunting,"
          "out of place and alien,"
          and "mysterious" (143).
          Significantly, both letters revive for Irene the
          memory of John Bellew's racist invective,
          along with the presence of Clare.

          The first of these is the note Clare sends Irene
          to thank her for attending the tea in Chicago .

          But the letter only reminds Irene of
          the humiliation of listening silently to
          Bellew's racist diatribe, so she destroys it:
          With an unusual methodicalness she tore
          the offending letter into tiny ragged squares
          that fluttered down and made a small heap
          in her black crepe de Chine lap.

          The destruction completed, she gathered
          them up, rose, and moved to the train's end.

          Standing there, she dropped them over
          railing and watched them scatter,
          on tracks, on cinders, on forlorn
          grass, in rills of dirty water. (178)
          In destroying the letter, an overture of
          friendship, Irene symbolically attempts
          to rid herself of Clare as "Nig".

          She tears it into "tiny ragged squares,"
          then scatters the pieces in a gesture of riddance,
          a forced disappearance of Clare's asserted presence,
          which brings with it John Bellew's hatred of "niggers".

          Irene then thinks that, if Clare shows up in person, she
          "had only to turn away her eyes,
          to refuse her recognition" (178).
          Unconsciously, she is mimicking the behavior of
          the
          `white'* racist, willing Clare's disappearance
          through a refusal to recognize.

          The second letter, which Irene receives in New York
          two years later, revives again the memory of shame,
          "bringing with them a clear, sharp
          remembrance, in which even now,
          after two years, humiliation, resentment,
          and rage were mingled" (145).
          Later, she
          "tear[s] the letter across" and
          flings "it into the scrap-basket" (191),
          acting out both her anger at Clare
          and the disintegration she feels
          with the memory of Bellew's hatred.

          The tearing of the two letters happens
          before Irene and Clare merge in the mirror.

          But after Irene identifies with Clare in the mirror and
          then loses that image after beginning to suspect
          Brian and Clare, Irene will act out another destruction
          of Clare, the smashing of the white china teacup.

          When she becomes enraged at seeing Brian
          apparently paying court to Clare at yet another
          tea party, Irene either drops or hurls the
          teacup to the ground with "a slight crash.
          On the floor at her feet lay the shattered cup.
          Dark stains dotted the bright rug.
          Spread .... Before her,
          Zulena gathered up
          the white fragments" (221).
          The broken teacup immediately suggests
          Irene's own disintegration or loss of
          control, but to cover her confusion,
          Irene tells Hugh Wentworth that she
          has broken the cup purposely, for it
          "was the ugliest thing ... the
          Confederates ever owned" (221-22).
          The seemingly offhand remark is deceptive,
          for the white teacup is yet another version of Clare,
          who has descended from the same
          `white'* ancestors
          and made her way in the world not through a direct
          route, but through a subterfuge and deception akin to
          the "underground" by which the teacup comes north.

          The broken teacup brings to
          Irene a realization that she
          "had only to break it" and
          be "rid of it forever" (222).
          Clearly the shattering of the teacup
          with its attendant "white fragments"
          foreshadows Clare's impending death.

          Clare's death occurs in the appropriately
          named "Finale" section of the novel, where
          all the elements of aphanisis converge as
          racist signification impacts literally on the body.

          The final chapter, the one in which Clare
          dies, begins tellingly with the Redfields'
          dinner-time discussion of lynching.

          Ted asks why
          `white'* "'only lynch `coloured'** people,'
          "and Brian responds," 'Because they hate 'em, son' "(231),
          echoing Bellew's declaration, "
          'I don't dislike [Negroes], I hate them'" (172).

          Brian's observations disconcert Irene,
          possibly reminding her of the humiliation
          of Clare's Chicago tea party two years
          earlier, and she upbraids Brian for
          speaking of the subject before their sons.

          Irene thinks she can insure her sons a
          happy childhood by keeping "the race
          problem" from them, but Brian knows better.

          He asks,
          "'What was the use of our trying to keep
          them from learning the word 'nigger'
          and its connotation?
          They found out, didn't they?
          And how?
          Because somebody called
          Junior a dirty nigger'" (231-32).
          As in the scene where he refuses to avoid discussing
          sex with Ted and Junior, he insists on telling his sons
          the facts of life, including the ugly fact of racism.

          This argument further establishes the disharmony in
          Irene's marriage, and it also sets the scene for
          Clare's death by emphasizing the extent of
          racism's infringement on African American lives.

          Virulent
          `white'* racism is not limited to the
          South or to the lyncher; school boys up
          north are taunted as "dirty niggers".

          With its shattered bodies and dehumanization,
          lynching is one connotation of nigger from which
          Irene tries in vain to protect her sons and herself.

          But as Clare's death reveals, the epithet nigger
          brings with it "the glorious body mutilated" (240),
          a mutilation inevitably preceding the
          disappearance that the word nigger invokes.

          When Bellew discovers his wife's secret Harlem
          life, he confronts her at the Freelands' party.

          The prophecy contained in his pet name for
          Clare - "Nig"- is fulfilled, and so will be the
          displacement of Clare by the signifier (the diminutive
          of nigger) that demands her disappearance.

          Bellew repeats the gesture performed by
          Junior's unnamed tormentor at school,
          for he calls Clare the very name revealed
          in the Redfields' dinner-table discussion
          " 'So you're a nigger,
          a damned dirty nigger!'" (238).
          The chain of events transpiring after this utterance
          has been hotly debated by the critics, (17)
          but we know with narrative certainty that the chain
          begins with Bellew's invocation of nigger and
          ends with Clare's plunge from the window,
          her body conspicuously absent from the scene
          by the time Irene descends to the street level.

          Whether Clare jumps or Irene pushes her, Bellew's
          "'So you're a nigger, a damned dirty nigger!'"
          inaugurates Clare's disappearance from the window.

          In the Lacanian version of aphanisis,
          the subject disappears behind the signifier
          in dialogue with the Other, always while trying to
          determine the desire of the Other with the question,
          "He is saying this to me, but what
          does he want?" (Lacan, Four 214).
          Frantz Fanon notes in turn that, for "black"^^
          subjects in dialogue with the
          `white'* Other,
          the answer must always be,
          "Turn `white'* or disappear" (100).
          To both women in Larsen's novel, Bellew's" 'damned
          dirty nigger'" implies his desire for Clare's expulsion.

          Thus Clare, who is denigrated in Bellew's mind
          for consorting with Negroes, must die, (18)
          even if Irene catalyzes that death:

          One moment Clare had been there, a vital
          glowing thing, like a flame in red and gold.

          The next she was gone.

          There was a gasp of horror, and above it a
          sound not quite human, like a beast in agony.
          "Nig! My God! Nig? (239)
          Clare's fall is a vanishing act, a sort
          of now-you-see- her-now-you- don't,
          where the signifier Nig seems literally
          to make Clare's body disappear in a
          high-stakes version of the infant's
          fort-da game described in Freud's
          Beyond the Pleasure Principle
          (13-15), for Clare is
          "... there ... gone" (239).
          Significantly, her disappearance is punctuated
          by Bellew's final, double invocation of Nig,
          her uncanny nickname; her destruction
          is commensurate with the racist
          meaning of that word.(19)

          As the bystanders try to determine what happened,
          Ralph Hazelton surmises that Clare" 'fainted, I guess'"
          (241), an assumption that on the surface seems to be
          a sexist stereotyping of women's responses to crises.

          Passing

          However, in Lacanian terms Hazelton is right,
          for Clare, like Irene, experiences a problematic
          subjectivity that leads to her fading,
          or aphanisis, in the narrative.

          Her death confirms the lethal relationship Lacan
          posits between signification and subjectivity
          since the word Nig, like the Lacanian signifier,
          "manifests itself ... in the murder
          of the thing" ("Function" 104).
          Bellew's interjection of "'damned dirty nigger' " -
          his response to Clare's "What am I to you?" - also
          reflects on Irene, for Clare is her idealized image.

          Although Irene has throughout the novel indulged her
          desire to tear and shatter Clare through displaced
          aggressions toward letters and teacups,
          Irene herself will shatter once Clare actually
          experiences corporal disintegration, for she cannot
          "separate ...herself from Clare Kendry" (227).
          After Clare has fallen to her death, Irene
          experiences nausea when she imagines
          that Clare might have survived.

          The nausea stems not only from "fear"
          (the belief of most critics who assume
          her guilty of Clare's murder), but from
          "the idea of the glorious body mutilated" (240).
          This "idea" is a manifestation of the corps
          morcele, the imaginary fragmented
          body whose emergence indicates
          "the aggressive disintegration" of
          the I constructed during the mirror
          stage (Lacan, "Mirror Stage" 4)".
          The glorious body" is not exclusively Clare's, but
          a shared, idealized image of self; so its mutilation
          represents disintegration for both women.

          Thus Irene replicates Clare's death in a fainting spell
          mirroring the one that eventually led to her
          reunion with Clare two years earlier.

          After Clare falls, Irene slowly
          descends the stairs, grasping
          "the banister to save herself
          from pitching downwards ....
          How she managed to make the
          rest of the journey without fainting
          she never knew" (240). (20)
          In fact, when she does finally arrive
          on the scene, the others assume that
          "she had fainted or something like that" (241).
          Aphanisis is imminent for Irene, too,
          because the fainting that threatens her
          (and has threatened her throughout the novel)
          is now complicated by a "hideous trembling"
          and "quaking" that overtake her as the
          others question her about Clare's fall.

          As she tries to exculpate Bellew, her
          unstable subjectivity fractures:
          "'No, no!' she protested.
          'I'm quite certain that he didn't [push Clare].
          I was there, too.
          As close as he was.
          She just fell, before anybody could stop her.
          I -'" (242).
          Significantly, the utterance
          of the I undoes Irene:

          Her quaking knees gave way under her.
          She moaned a

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