Paranoid Interpretation, Desire’s Nonobject, and Nella Larsen’s “Passing”

Paranoid Interpretation, Desire’s Nonobject, and Nella Larsen’s “Passing”

PMLA (Publication of the Modern Language Association)
Volume 119, Number 2 (March, 2004)
pages 282-295

Brian Carr

Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) has occasioned a great deal of paranoid interpretation, in large part because the novel is about nothing. I use nothing in the sense of no thing or a non-object, both of which are irreducible to the familiar meaning of nothing as inconsequential or strictly nonexistent.’ In the framework of paranoid interpretation, desire and knowledge imaginarily coincide with an object much that everything, imagined to include nothing, becomes something. Paranoid interpretation is less a property of Passingthan a transactional dynamic between the novel and the critical work on it, a dynamic activated in large part by many critics’ “hateloving” attachment to Passing’scentral character, Irene Redfield. Reading Irene’s interpretations of her life as paranoid delusions, many critics have an inverted and corrective investment in her. As if to resolve yet sustain Irene’s wild interpretations, the contemporary scholarly archive on Passing is virtually unified in its belief that her paranoid apprehensions can be submitted to a proper reading that will furnish the positive knowledge Irene systematically misses.

Critics are not strictly wrong in their characterization of Irene as, in Deborah E. McDowell’s words, “clearly deluded” (xxvi). And yet, the fact that many critics work to procure for themselves the clarity they need to assign paranoid delusion to Irene leads one to wonder, how “deluded” are the critics? If paranoia, through delusion, converts nothing into something, the bulk of the critical work on Passing is in reach of paranoia, since the work, too, impulsively confounds something with nothing, truth with what at best can be only half told, desire with what Kaja Silvermanaptly calls its “impossible nonobject”(39). Critics often find that Irene’s delusional mentality and Larsen’s manifest text of racial passing and heterosexual jealousy collaborate to occlude a latent homosexuality, which neither Larson nor…

Tags: , ,