- Toward a Narratology of Passing:Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen's Passing
In one of his posthumously published essays Georges Bataille poses a question that we might borrow to consider the narratological and epistemological quandaries at the heart of Nella Larsen's telling of racial unbelonging in her 1929 novella, Passing. Bataille writes, "why must there be what I know? Why is it a necessity? . . . In this question is hidden—it doesn't appear at first—an extreme rupture, so deep that only the silence of ecstasy answers it" (109). Bataille queries the necessary binding of ontology and epistemology—that mysterious and what he calls "divine" strangeness that what and how we know, and the language we use to conceptualize the world, inevitably condition our ways of being. I want to suggest that Larsen's novella works its way toward some similar questions. What happens in 1920s Harlem when one's skin color does not announce a clearly decipherable racial genealogy? How does one know how to belong to a "race" when race itself is inordinately prone to the mutable semiotics of skin and the prejudices of its (always racially traversed) readers? How does "race" bind communities and ban its outlaws? Further, how do we discover the truth content of a story concerned with racial, sexual, and familial belonging whose heroine/anti-heroine, Irene Redfield—the figure with whom the omniscient narrator is most identified—develops relationships with both her husband, Brian, and her childhood friend, Clare Kendry, in conjunction with a severely limited (and possibly paranoid) epistemological frame?1 Must what Irene knows function as the limit of what we, as readers, know? In seeking to answer these questions, I want to propose that Passing still takes us to the largely inarticulable limits of both race and desire—how they mean, and how they function together—by performatively embedding confusions about the legibilities of race and desire within a commensurately riddled narration where none of its plot-lines or dominant preoccupations (with the ethics and allures of passing, with anxieties about an extramarital affair, or with the lesbian-erotic subtext) submit to a definitive reading. Instead, all of these polyvalent concerns co-exist in a matrix of meaning which suggestively proposes that an echolalic symmetry exists between broken sexual and racial epistemes and the tasks of their telling.
Critics, though, often want to insist that Passing can be read to produce very particular (often hierarchized) answers about the relative importance of its homoerotic, racial, and psychological concerns.2 Instead of pursuing a line of inquiry that would propose another variant on the ambiguities of the story, I want to suggest that part of why this novella continues to fascinate is because of its mise en abîme structure of indecipherability. The story draws us in so powerfully because Larsen's palimpsestic layering of race with desire's own signal unknowability approximates the enigmatic bind between knowledge and power [End Page 778] that animates the projects of both reading and telling. As if it were a detective story, just as we think we have discovered and joined all the pieces of its puzzle, Passing surprises us and asks us to double back and look again.3 The proliferation of interpretive possibilities within this short narration mimics the stress lines at play in twentieth- and twenty-first century American culture around what it means to inhabit African American-ness, or to know race, with Larsen insisting that sexual, racial, and psychic un-narratability together provoke us and draw us into a maze of epistemological unrest. Ultimately Larsen shows us that the vagaries of narration and interpretation are as prone to misrecognitions and mistakes as are race and desire; in other words, she reveals that race and desire are structured as forms of narration and are thus replete with potentially hazardous misreadings. In the process, Larsen offers a book that seems to "pass" for a readable document and yet ceaselessly withholds resolution on multiple levels at once.
Part of what Larsen achieves in her interrogation of modes of passing is a warning against sealed epistemologies or ethnologies. At base, Larsen conveys that perceptions of racial difference inevitably...