Another View of Passing in Butler’s ‘Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytical Challenge’
Butler begins her essay by criticising Luce Irigaray’s claim in An Ethics of Sexual Difference that ‘the question of sexual difference is the question of our time’ (Butler, 167). Butler wonders whether this privileging of sexual difference puts a ‘taboo on homosexuality’ and she suggests that it works out of ‘a complex set of racial injunctions which operate in part through the taboo on miscegenation’ (167). Butler asks ‘how might we understand homosexuality and miscegenation to converge at and as constitutive outside of a normative heterosexuality that is at once the regulation of a racially pure reproduction’ (167)? Butler points to Marx’s comment that the ‘reproduction of the species’ emerges as ‘the reproduction of relations of reproduction’ or ‘the cathected site of a racialized version of the species in pursuit of hegemony through perpetuity, that requires and produces a normative heterosexuality in its service’ (167). In this view, heterosexuality simply pays service to hegemony and helps to perpetuate the status-quo.
Butler believes that it is important to consider how the areas of gender, race, sexuality and class intersect and to analyse cases where one factor cannot be examined without reference to one of the others. Butler wonders whether this might be the case in Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, and she directs us to a scene in which the heroine, Irene, (who sometimes, supposedly unconsciously, passes for white) walks downstairs in her house to find Clare (who continuously passes for white) being examined by Irene’s husband, Brian. Butler suggests that when Irene ‘finds Clare’ in this scene, ‘Brian […] appears to have found Clare as well’ and the result is that ‘Irene […] finds Clare, finds her beautiful, but at the same time finds Brian finding Clare beautiful as well’ (168). Butler notes that Irene’s exclamation of admiration for Clare’s appearance is stifled on finding Brian on the scene and she suggests that there is some confusion about ‘who desires whom’ (168). Butler wonders, who is finding who as they ‘mirror each other’s desire’ (169)? This is one scene in which Irene is unable to express her feelings – rather the omniscient narrator hints at them – and Butler notices that when Clare dies, even the narrator is silent.
Public speech and secret desire are themes in the book and Butler suggests that this ‘is linked with the larger question of the dangers of public exposure of both color [sic] and desire’ (169). Butler suggests that what is so fascinating about Clare is the way in which she both flaunts and hides in her passing. Because of Clare’s passing for white, Irene refuses to interact with her by meeting or letter and expresses ‘a moral objection’, but Irene herself engages in passing even if it is by accident. Butler suggests that the problem with Clare for Irene is that she ‘goes too far, passes as white not merely on occasion, but in her life, and in her marriage’ and this daring is sexual according to Butler as ‘Irene finds herself drawn by Clare, wanting to be her, but also wanting her’ (169). Butler argues that it is passing itself that is so seductive: ‘It is the changeability itself, the dream of metamorphosis, where the changeableness signifies a certain freedom, a class mobility afforded by whiteness that constitutes the power of that seduction’ (170).
Butler now begins to think about Clare’s white husband, Bellew, and the explosion of violence at the end of the book when Clare falls from the window with Irene standing conveniently near. The scene is precipitated by Bellew’s appearance at a Harlem party and his realisation that Clare is passing. Butler notes that for Bellew, Clare’s presence at the party ‘is sufficient to convince him that she is black’ (170). Butler suggests that this is because ‘[b]lackness is not primarily a visual mark […] because what can be seen, what qualifies as a visible marking, is a matter of being able to read a marked body in relation to unmarked bodies, where unmarked bodies constitute the currency of normative whiteness’ (170-171). It is only when Bellew associates Clare with blacks that she ‘becomes black’ and Butler notes that there is a presumption that ‘if he were to associate with blacks, the boundaries of his own whiteness, and surely that of his children, would no longer be easily fixed’ (171). However, Butler notes that even when Bellew is ignorant about Clare’s passing, he calls her ‘Nig’ and Butler concludes that ‘although he claims that he would never associate with African-Americans, he requires the association and its disavowal for an erotic satisfaction that is indistinguishable from his desire to display his own racial purity’ (172).
When Clare is revealed, she dies and it is unclear who was the culprit or was is suicide? Butler wants to consider this conundrum in psychoanalytical terms drawing together readings of the text through its historical context in the Harlem Renaissance and via ‘the psychological complexity of cross-identification and jealousy’ (173). Butler surveys some of these readings such as:
- Claudia Tate’s foregrounding of psychological ambiguity;
- Cheryl Wall’s elision of psychological ambiguity and race;
- and Deborah McDowell’s addition of homoeroticism to these other factors so that ‘the muteness of homosexuality converges in the story with the illegibility of Clare’s blackness’ (Butler, 175).
Butler gives some thought to language in Larsen’s text and she notes that the word, ‘queer’, is associated with ‘a longing to be freed of propriety’ and it ‘works as the exposure within language – an exposure that disrupts the repressive surface of language – of both sexuality and race’ (176). Queering is often ‘what upsets and exposes passing; it is the act by which the racially and sexually repressive surface of conversation is exploded, by rage, by sexuality, by an insistence on color [sic]’ (177). Recognition of passing can be the beginning of ‘erotic absorption’ as when Irene notices Clare staring at her when they are both passing and although at first, she finds the gaze to be ‘a kind of inspection, a threat of exposure which she returns first as scrutiny and distrust only then to find herself thoroughly seduced’ (177). Irene is uncertain about Clare because of her own ambivalent feelings in connection to race and sexuality, which later manifests itself when Irene convinces herself that Brian loves Clare and he becomes an instrument for her desire.
In thinking about the intersection between gender, race and sexuality, Butler challenges the assumption ‘that there is a relationship called “sexual difference” that is itself unmarked by race’ (181). Butler reads Larsen’s Passing as ‘a theorization of desire, displacement and jealous rage that has significant implications for rewriting psychoanalytic theory in ways that explicitly come to terms with race’ (182). Larsen’s final implication of Irene in Clare’s death seems to suggest a need to destroy the source of difference that would have exposed her in the public sphere: ‘Her passion for Clare had to be destroyed only because she could not find a viable place for her own sexuality to live’ (185).
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London: Routledge, 1993.
McDowell, Deborah. ‘ “That nameless… shameless impulse”: Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand’. Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory: Studies in Black American Literature. Ed. Joel Weixlmann and Houston A. Baker Jnr. Vol. 3. Greenwood: Penkeville Publishing Company, 1988.
Tate, Claudia. ‘Nella Larsen’s Passing A Problem of Interpretation’. Black Literature Review Forum. 14.4 (1980), 142 – 146.