An Exhibition of Blind Spots in Good Morning, Midnight: Textual and Political Strategies That Operate in the Dark


Johanna O'Shea

This essay explores obfuscation and nonrecognition in Jean Rhys's 1939 novel, Good Morning, Midnight. The protagonist, Sasha Jansen, decries the fact that people in general do not think, she brings her own ability to think into question, and the text is filled with uncertainties.  Rhys’s depiction of the political realities of the late 1930s renders the world of the novel one in which a universal ‘I think’ cannot be presupposed. This essay focuses on the Exhibition and the years of Good Morning, Midnight: 1937, when it is set, and 1939 when it was published. It proposes that the text’s insistence on masking meaning and conveying uncertainties can be read as a response to the monumental unreality and violence of the spectacle of the 1937 World Exposition in Paris. This spectacle is yoked in the text to anti-Semitism in Germany and France in the late 1930s and Sasha’s gaze is read here as a refusal of the terms of representation which serve the realities of political persecution. The novel underscores the significance of what is not represented, and focusing on Sasha’s gaze at the Exhibition provides a positive if difficult way of reading her welcoming of the commis at the novel’s close. The blind spots in this novel affirm the necessity and potential of non-didactic art, refusing the delineated, direct message, and affirming art as that which must help us to not look away from the hard task of thinking.

Sasha and a Refiguring of the Deleuzian Image of Thought

In an essay on Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid and Michelle Cliff, Mary Lou Emery argues that these writers are invested in writing against the ‘European epistemology of the visual – sight as the dominant way of knowing’ (Emery 1997: 259).  Emery proposes that forms of representation predicated on the imagination as ‘image-making process’ are bound to ‘an image-producing and consuming global capitalism’ and seem ‘also inseparable historically from the "imperial eye" or "commanding gaze" of colonialist practice and discourse’ (261). She reads these Caribbean women writers as inscribing ‘counterdiscursive revisions’ of narrative devices which ‘figure' visuality. This revision - in which, for example, the device of ekphrasis is extended to ‘excess’, or its absence rendered a ‘significant present’ - serves to expose ‘the constitutive processes of the colonialist imagination’, and also creates ‘resistance to it, renewing vision for subversive and newly creative purpose’ (262). Extending and twisting this argument, I propose that Good Morning, Midnight presents a counterdiscursive refiguration of the lofty Image of thought as Deleuze describes it - in image composed of the presuppositions that attend a universal ‘I think’. This refiguration is foregrounded early in the text in Sasha’s encounter with her fascist tormentor, Mr Blank.  In assigning him this name Rhys is clearly parodying his inability to comprehend Sasha in a humane manner: there is a capitalised unthinking ‘Blank’ where his compassion should be. He derides Sasha’s nonsensical response to his demand and calls her a ‘helpless little fool’ (Good Morning, Midnight, 24),[1] but her nonsense and her inability to make sense of his mispronounced demand to find the cashier serve to make him see her and she becomes a visible irritant rather than remaining an invisible cog in his capitalist machine. Her nonsense serves to stall his business (his cheque is not delivered), and is her means of escape from the oppressive situation.  It is a refutation of the capitalist, imperialist ethic of mastery that he embodies and throughout the novel Sasha’s act of thinking is contrasted to established and fascist forms of thought.[2] Repeatedly Sasha encounters cliché and prejudice, and Rhys depicts Sasha’s ‘nonunitary subjectivity’ as a navigation through these things, a matter of surviving them and affirming a different act of thinking.[3]

In his chapter ‘The Image of thought’ in his 1968 work Difference and Repetition Gilles Deleuze argues that the concept of a Cogitatio natura universalis, a universal concept of ‘I think’, is a travesty of philosophy because it presupposes a certain ‘Image' of thought involving an upright nature on the part of thought, a good will on the part of the thinker, and the fact that everybody knows what it means to think – a common sense (Deleuze 2004: 166).[4] The problem with this Image of thought is that difference is always subordinated and represented ‘through the identity of the concept and the thinking subject’ (335).  As long as the Image of thought is presupposed thought will operate in terms of identity, opposition, analogy and resemblance, difference will be secondary, and the task of radical thought – that is to say, thinking differently – will remain shrouded.  The task is to restore difference to thought. Applying this argument to Rhys’s novel we can read Sasha as demonstrating a healthy scepticism about thinking in general, rather than as just being psychically impaired. There are good reasons for applying Deleuze’s philosophy to the fiction. Foremost is the fact that the novel presents a critique of identity, as does Rhys’s fiction in general.[5] All of Rhys's novels concern protagonists who are subjected to personal hostility and social oppression because of their difference in terms of gender, sexuality, race, age, class, economic and marital status. Rhys’s writing targets the devaluation and categorisation of difference that are principles of the social order.  Sasha repeatedly denounces respectable thought which operates in terms of an established ‘sentimental ballad’ and which she names cliché: ‘Everything in their whole bloody world is a cliché, Everything is born out of a cliché, rests on a cliché, survives by a cliché.  And they believe in the clichés’ (GMM, 36).  She understands the purpose of the myth of common sense which 'contributes the form of the Same' (DR: 169) to thought, and that the presupposition of the ‘“I think” is the most general principle of representation’ (DR: 174). She relates cruelty to people’s inability or refusal to think, most clearly in her Nietzschean challenge to everybody and no one: ‘Think – and have a bit of pity. That is, if you ever think, you apes, which I doubt’ (GMM, 88).  Most importantly, she is uncertain about her knowledge, perceptions, desires and her own ability and desire to think beyond cruel, base and stupid ‘structures of thought’ (DR: 189). The novel chronicles her attempt to think differently but it is also a register of her uncertainty, of ‘feeling [her] pulse, as it were, all the time. Am I disappointed? Am I vexed?’ (GMM, 128-9).  Sasha does not take as a given what is meant by ‘self, thinking, and being’ (DR: 164).  

In contrast to this Image of thought, Deleuze proposes that the act of thinking involves violence and the new because thinking is an encounter with that which is not yet established and which therefore cannot be recognized or thought, but can only be sensed: the ‘form of recognition has never sanctioned anything but the recognisable and the recognised; form will never inspire anything but conformities’ (DR: 170). Thinking the new, ‘in other words, difference – calls forth forces in thought which are not the forces of recognition, today or tomorrow, but the powers of a completely other model, from an unrecognised and unrecognisable terra incognita’ (DR: 172). Thinking involves an encounter with the limit of one’s faculties which forces thought – an encounter with what Deleuze calls nonrecognition. In Good Morning, Midnight a not recognizing, obfuscation and allusion occupy the place of the Exhibition’s space of ‘image making’ and indicate a way of reading the novel’s difficult final scene as an affirmative if violent encounter with nonrecognition.  

The Discrepant Realities of the Exhibition and the Refiguring of Dominant Visuality

Sasha’s utter uncertainty is more pronounced than that of Rhys’s other protagonists and this may indicate the pernicious propaganda which was a dominant discourse in Europe in the late 1930s.  Her uncertainty may be construed as the effect of being subjected to violent representations of reality which are clearly untrue and designed to mislead. An emphasis on visuality and representation works alongside Rhys's linguistic scepticism here and can be read as the author's response to the dominance of propaganda generally – the euphemistic language of patriarchal imperialism, capitalism and war - and certain facets of the text mark out the insidiousness of Nazi propaganda specifically. The most notable marker of propaganda in Good Morning, Midnight is the Exhibition which forms the background to the novel: it appears in the opening and closing pages - in Sasha’s dream and then when she and René visit it - and it is thematically linked to Sasha’s excruciating awareness of her tendency to make an exhibition of herself in public.  It is a symbolic site which carries a number of contrary significations.[6]  It is at once a spectral and spectacular construct for Sasha, supporting various psychic dichotomies such as desire and fear, reality and phantasy. Perhaps above all else the Exhibition signifies the ‘coexistence of discrepant realities’ which, according to Bill Schwarz, is the ‘principle object’ of Rhys’s narratives.  In Rhys’s fiction,

the inner subjective life of her protagonists never seems to be reconciled with the diktats of the given world.  Much of her inventiveness as a writer derives from her capacities to craft a narrative which in itself dramatises and makes evident the workings of these discrepant realities – social and subjective – in all their textured, phenomenological everydayness. 

(Schwarz 2003: 21-22) 

With uncharacteristic specificity Part Four places the time of Good Morning, Midnight as ‘late October, 1937’, which allows us to place the Exhibition as the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne – the world fair which took place from May 25th to November 25th 1937. The 1937 Exposition was deeply unreal and exhibited its unreality in dramatic fashion.  It took up the centre of Paris, displacing the ‘real’ city, and replacing it with structures that purported to realistically represent foreign cultures whilst omitting virtually all representation of French society as it was in 1937 – riven with political conflict.[7]  Its official aims accorded with one of the milder definitions of propaganda given by the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘An organization, scheme, or movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine, practice, etc.’. The Exposition did promote peace - albeit somewhat ironically, relegating the Star of Peace to the Place du Trocadéro outside the Exposition’s perimeters. The Exposition also and more elaborately promoted a ‘world view’ – an internationalism predicated on the illusion of  global cooperation, a supposedly universalist gaze which incorporated everyone, and a truly modern, ethnographic appreciation of ‘other’ cultures which manifested itself in a mania for classificatory systems and often quaint and Orientalist exhibitory practices.  It did so, however, against a background of an increasingly dominant xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment in French society which was at least partially concordant with the dramatic rise in French fascism in the late 1930s.[8]  Léon Blum’s Popular Front government gave central stage to the two totalitarian powers of Germany and the Soviet Union. These nations produced monumental pavilions that stood, dwarfing all the others, opposite each other at the base of the Trocadéro gardens in an ominous architectural confrontation, each competing to proclaim its own brand of totalitarianism the superior. This confrontation dominated the centre of the Exposition and the discourse surrounding it: situated on the Exposition's main axis, opposite the Eiffel Tower, it dominated the principle vista from the Palais de Chaillot - the view in Figure 1.  As Jess Issacharoff writes, it ‘is of particular importance that, though the exhibition proclaimed its mission as one of “peace and progress,” its most striking aspect was the aggressive physical standoff between the Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet pavilions’ (Issacharoff 2013: 113). A weak message of peace and a ‘world view’ formed the stage on which totalitarianism foreshadowed the disaster of the Second World War. The Exposition inadvertently laid out in visual terms the human propensity for self-deception, and our predisposition to accept (and enjoy) the discrepancy between reality and the image of reality with which we are confronted so long as we gain something in so doing. 

On the one hand the Exhibition in Good Morning, Midnight constitutes a metonymic figuration of Sasha’s subjective experience of discrepant realities and unreality, standing for this experience on a metropolitan scale, and giving public expression to this experience of discrepancy which is more commonly the relegated phenomenological experience of marginalised 'others'. On the other hand lies a curious textual fact which suggests something quite contrary. The Trocadéro, to which Sasha and René go in Part Four, is the site of the Palais de Chaillot; the 'promenade' on which they stand 'looking down' on the fountains must be the esplanade of the Palais, which was the main viewpoint of the Exposition: the Eiffel Tower flanked by the pavilions would be their illuminated nightime view. The fact that the text blanks out the sight of the totalitarian standoff seems like an authorial comment on the monumentality, the contrivance and the violent content of the dominant spectacle. This strange moment appears both as a willed blindness on Sasha’s part and a textual manoeuvre: the Exhibition is unnamed and there are no signs other than the date and the naming of the Trocadéro which give it either an identity or content. The fountains that preoccupy Sasha serve as a veil, distracting her from that which is either side of them, and distracting us from asking why Rhys has evacuated the scene of its explicitly political content. The text allows neither the reader nor the characters to see that which it wants us to see: the spectacle of totalitarianism and the sight of an event which demanded a willed self-delusion.  It presents a revision of the form of dominant visuality, exemplified by fascism, which dictates what is seen and imposes a vision that operates according to the logic of an 'imperial eye'. 


Figure 1: The view by day of the German and Soviet pavilions in Paris, 1937. The area they flank was, and still is, named Place de Varsovie. By permission of the Bureau International des Expositions.

Figure 2: The view of the Palais de Chaillot by night, 1937. The column behind, with the star on the top, was named the Peace Column (it does not exist anymore). By permission of the Bureau International des Expositions.

Sasha responds strangely to the Exhibition, being transfixed in a moment of aesthetic rapture by its ‘cold, empty’ beauty. There is an intense sense of isolation in Sasha’s response which nevertheless involves strong desire.  Despite and because of René’s company her encounter with the Exhibition is hers alone. She is spurred to go to it by René’s anti-Semitic remarks about Russians in Paris:  ‘Jews and poor whites’, says the gigolo, ‘The most boring people in the world. Terrible people’.  Sasha responds,

For some reason I am very vexed at this. I start wondering why I am there at all… I want to get away. I want to be out of the place […] I want to go by myself, to get into a taxi and drive along the street, to stand by myself and look down at the fountains in the cold light.

(GMM, 136-7)

When standing at the viewpoint she seems intensely gratified: ‘Cold, empty, beautiful - this is what I imagined, this is what I wanted’. Her rapture seems to depend not on the vision itself but on a correspondence between her inner existence and the Exhibition – on having imagined and desired correctly, and on having her desire fulfilled. The Exhibition appears as a surrogate for Sasha, standing in the place of a desired person.  Unlike René, with whom there is always discord, the Exhibition meets her desire.  Yet this is true only to the extent that she ‘imagined’ and ‘wanted’ cold, empty beauty.  Her disengagement with the scene and the sense of self-disengagement suggested by her lifeless imagination and desire is underscored by her detached assessment of one of the buildings: ‘The building is very fine,’ I say, in a schoolmistress’s voice’ (137).  This passage seems to present what Walter Benjamin described as the modern predicament of ‘self-alienation’ which fascism exploits.  Concluding his famous 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with which Rhys may have been familiar, Benjamin argues that fascism sees its ‘salvation’ in rendering politics aesthetic, giving the masses ‘not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves’ (Benjamin 2008: 1108).  For Benjamin, ‘all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war’ (1108). This may have been all too clear for the visitor to the 1937 Exposition, with its spectacle of the Soviet and German pavilions unequivocally presenting architecture and the art held within as ideological confrontation.  The vision would have convinced at least some visitors of the imminence of another war, and the threat posed to the world by the life of the Futurist slogan Benjamin cites at the end of his essay: ‘Fiat ars – pereat mundus’: Let art be created, let the world perish (1108).  It is likely that Rhys interpreted this spectacle as an image of violence when, according to her biographer Carole Angier, she visited Paris in November of 1937 (Angier 1990: 365). 

Growing up in Dominica Rhys witnessed various forms of entrenched social and cultural violence set against and speaking of the island’s violent history of slavery.[9] For Rhys, the rugged, volcanic geography of the island itself bespoke destruction as well as tremendous beauty. Rhys’s childhood in a society riven by racial discord surely trained her perception, and when she moved to Europe and started to write it was fiction depicting the cruelty and violence that forms the ‘underbelly of Western civilisation’ (Carr 1996: 19). She describes in her autobiography the moment in her childhood when she became aware of experiencing the ‘impersonal, implacable’ thing that is racial hatred:

They hate us. 

We are hated.

Not possible.

Yes it is possible and it is so.

(Smile Please, 49)

This passage describes the hostility and perhaps the paranoia that Rhys, a white Creole whose great-grandfather was a slave-owner, felt as a pupil in a predominantly black convent school. In Europe she encountered a new set of racial coordinates, and there is no reason to assume she was blind to anti-Semitism – the ‘impersonal, implacable’ hatred which formed the basis of German politics and which had also become such a significant part of French politics in the late 1930s. Rhys had many Jewish friends and, according to Angier, on her November 1937 trip Rhys visited Simon Segal, a Jewish artist friend who was apparently the model for Serge in Good Morning, Midnight. Serge is the figuration of the novel’s pervasive, if subtle, concern with anti-Semitism. The Exhibition Sasha and René visit in Part Four has a counterpart in the private exhibition Serge puts on for Sasha in Part Two. Significantly, the Paris Exposition extolling the principles of peace and global cooperation also had counterparts in two widely publicised anti-Semitic exhibitions held concurrently in Munich, to which Part Two of the novel seems to allude. 

In July 1937 the ‘Entartete Kunst’ (‘Degenerate Art’) exhibition opened, and was followed, in November, by a companion exhibition called ‘Der Ewige Jude’ (‘The Eternal Jew’). The former exhibition took as its target modern art generally, but conveyed its anti-Semitic message through the insistent association of Jews with other ‘inferior’ races and undesirable categories such as sickness, madness and Bolshevism. Serge’s art is notably, 'degenerately' modern: a debased, surreal subject matter – a banjo player in a gutter, a dwarf with balloons, prostitutes, urinoirs and gas tanks; and an aesthetic which, via the ‘four-breasted woman’, suggests Cubism (84, 90). Through Sasha the text offers a positive depiction of Serge.  She is moved by him, delights in his art and it proves her means to a rare moment of elation: ‘I am surrounded by the pictures […] Now the room expands and the iron band round my heart loosens. The miracle has happened. I am happy’ (83). In contrast Serge’s ‘friend’, Delmar, is the mouthpiece of anti-Semitism, deriding Serge with a series of insults which correspond accurately with the main terms of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda generally and the November exhibition in particular.  ‘Der Ewige Jude’ aimed to show with scientific accuracy the essential 'otherness' of Jews, purporting to reveal a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy, the self-interested and decadent characters of Jews and their tendency to live in squalid conditions.  Delmar accuses the artist of caring for nothing and nobody (57), says that Serge is ‘mad’ and lives in incredible filth (85); and concludes by declaring he has ‘had enough of these people of the extreme Left.  They have bad manners’ (86).  Sasha kisses Delmar once, problematically, when Serge leaves them alone: ‘Two loud, meaningless kisses, like a French general when he gives a decoration.  Nice boy…’ (82). Her response to Delmar’s tirade is weak and pessimistic: ‘Well, if he feels like that, what’s the use of arguing with him?...’ (86). Yet the text does not allow us to excuse this ‘friend’. Serge clearly stands for some sort of possibility, for Sasha and the world of the novel, and perhaps it is the anti-Semitic 'friend' who stands between Sasha and the possibility of a romance plot.[10]  The passage which introduces Serge flags up the date, the significance of Serge’s Jewish identity and the issue of representation as stereotype .  It seems to share Delmar’s caustic, stereotyping gaze, but I suggest it serves as something like a caricature of anti-Semitic caricature.  First Sasha tells us the historical moment: ‘Pull yourself together, dearie.  This is late October, 1937’ (76).  A few lines later she describes the studio and Serge:

a large, empty, cold room, with masks on the walls, two old armchairs and a straight-backed wooden chair on which is written ‘merde’. The answer, the final answer, to everything?

The friend is a Jew of about forty. He has that mocking look of the Jew, the look that can be so hateful, that can be so attractive, that can be so sad. 

(GMM, 76)

There are various historical and racial implications here and the year is important to all of them, as indicated by the question which suggests that humanity is coming to the endpoint of inquiry – the ‘final answer, to everything?’.  The reader may be led by this odd suggestion and the line that follows it to think of the ‘Jewish question’ which the Nazis sought to ‘solve’ and which was also of concern in France at that time.  The image of masks adorning studio walls (which could be a description of an art gallery) and the word ‘merde’ (shit) evoke the ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition.  The next verbal portrait seems to take Serge as its object, yet this ‘mocking look’ may refer equally to the verbal and visual images of German propaganda such as the posters that advertised the ‘Ewige Jude’ exhibition and the images it contained: images designed to mock Jews, to invoke hatred of them, and to attract the German public to Nazi ideology - images that are extremely sad. This reading may seem unduly stretched, but the novel is clearly concerned with the effect of the cruel gaze of the oppressor, exemplified by Sasha’s ongoing paranoia about being recognized as ‘la vieille’. This concern runs through all of Rhys’s fiction, constituting a primary focus.  Its manifestation in Wide Sargasso Sea is described by Kenneth Ramchand, drawing on Frantz Fanon’s term for the effect of decolonization on the colonizer, as Rhys’s inscription of the ‘terrified consciousness’ (1970).  We might read Sasha’s terrified consciousness in Good Morning, Midnight as speaking for those who are the subject of political persecution.  In Part One Sasha concludes her paranoid self-interrogation on the question, ‘What is she doing here, the stranger, the alien, the old one?’ (46) and the political inflection here is crucial, as is her natural identification with Serge. Delmar represents Serge in the sense of telling Sasha about the artist, and accusing him of being typical of ‘these people of the extreme Left’. In contrast, Sasha’s paranoia may be read as the empathetic and painful internalizing of the persecutions she sees.  Her paranoia about her appearance may be read symbolically as the refusal to represent those who suffer because their appearance is socially intolerable: the bald mother whose daughter cannot abide her show of trying on hats, the café worker whose underpaid labour must be contained within the walls of a stinking ‘coffin’ and, most significantly, the Russian Jew who has left his homeland, presumably because of his ‘strange’ and ‘alien’ identity, but who is still subject to a barely concealed anti-Semitism from his ‘friend’.  Perhaps we can understand Rhys’s termination of the Serge plot in the centre of the book as a symbolic extension of this refusal to represent the subject of political persecution. It may also, in a more sinister sense, stand for the worsening situation of Jews in Europe in 1937 and 1938. 

Returning to Sasha’s strange response to the spectacle of totalitarian confrontation we can perhaps now consider as central to the meaning of the passage Rhys’s experiences of violence, her perception of racial hatred, and the novel’s concern with the representation of Jews and other persecuted groups.  The fact that this textual concern and its relevance to the Exhibition is oblique makes it all the more effective, given the novel’s rejection of dominant visualities and epistemologies.  The spectacle of the Soviet and German pavilions did not just signify conflict between Stalinism and Hitler’s National Socialism and the likelihood of another World War. To those willing to perceive it, Albert Speer’s monument - on the top of which sat a statue of an eagle adorned with a swastika - figured racial hatred as political project, and its presence on the main axis of the Paris Exposition may have signalled, for Rhys, a sort of triumph over the city she so loved.[11] The evacuation of Sasha’s gaze suggests more than just self-alienation.  Unlike René who dislikes the Star of Peace and seems to delight in the style of conflict, thereby being a suitable citizen for the diktats of Benjaminian fascism, the absence in Sasha’s view from the Promenade suggests a refusal to see a politics of hatred made 'aesthetic’.  Balancing this focus on fascism the text’s refusal to address this spectacle directly also offers a refusal of the politicisation of art. Sasha’s aesthetic rapture can be read as not so much a delight in her own destruction as an opting out of the terms of representation on offer to her, binding as they do the aesthetic to the political, and both, here, to a virulent racial hatred.  It may be the text’s refusal to incorporate what cannot and should not be understood – Sasha’s paranoia forced to the nth degree and turned into a ‘cold, empty’ blindness which nevertheless has a symbolic, psychic and ethical function.  Deleuze writes,

recognition is insignificant only as a speculative model. It ceases to be so with regard to the ends which it serves and to which it leads us. What is recognised is not only an object but also the values attached to an object.

(DR: 171)

Sasha refuses to recognize the values of the spectacle’s politics. Turning to Deleuze's critique, we can read the blind spot in the place of the Exhibition as a denunciation of the three main elements of the Image of thought: the ‘image of a naturally upright thought, which knows what it means to think’, an ‘in principle natural common sense’, and a ‘transcendental model of recognition’ (DR: 170). Sasha’s detached ‘schoolmistress’s voice’ that underscores her nonunitary subjectivity, Delmar's and René’s anti-Semitism, René’s relegation of the Star of Peace to something ‘mesquin’ (meaning petty or mean), and the nature of the absent spectacle itself constitute Rhys’s modernist version of the denial of the first two elements. The world of this Exhibition allows no room for difference except as that which is at best secondary, relegated to categorised representations of the exotic ‘other’, and at worst that which is unacceptable for the totalitarian state. Recognition of any sort would be the adoption of an epistemology according to a model of dominant visuality and the denigration of difference. Sasha’s refusal to see the Exhibition is an almost laying bare of the identity-centered function of the third element, the model of recognition which ‘remains sovereign and defines the orientation of the philosophical analysis of what it means to think’ (DR: 171).  Her blindness is a refusal to orient her thought solely towards identity and opposition, analogy and resemblance.  There seems to be adequate reason to judge Sasha’s aesthetic response a philosophical one rather than as just the absence of her knowledge or thought, although this absence may perhaps, as in the episode with Mr Blank, form the condition of the act of thinking:

it is not a question of saying what few think and knowing what it means. On the contrary, it is a question of someone – if only one – with the necessary modesty not managing to know what everybody knows, and modestly denying what everybody is supposed to recognise.  Someone who neither allows himself to be represented nor wishes to represent anything. Not an individual endowed with a good will and a natural capacity for thought, but an individual full of ill will who does not manage to think, either naturally or conceptually.  Only such an individual is without presuppositions […] At the risk of playing the idiot, do so in the Russian manner: that of an underground man who recognises himself no more in the subjective presuppositions of a natural capacity for thought than in the objective presuppositions of a culture of the times, and lacks the compass with which to make a circle. 

(DR: 165-166) 

Apart from Deleuze’s insistence on a gendered ‘Russian idiot’ here, this passage describes Sasha’s position with accuracy: she has struck many critics as an idiot ‘full of ill will’. Unfortunately she also faces the unhappy, isolated and schizoid existence which is the preserve of the ‘underground man’. In the novel’s conclusion, however, Sasha’s final embrace of the commis shifts the text away from its critical orientation and towards an affirmation. On the final page we have not a ‘not managing to think’, but a violent and generative nonrecognition: we do not know – and there is no reason to think that Sasha does – what she is embracing in the commis.  He is a terrifying, faceless blank. If, as is generally agreed, the commis stands for fascism or some aspect of humankind’s inhumanity then there is no reason to read Sasha’s embrace in psychological terms alone.  Instead, using the previously encountered ‘blanks’ and following those critics who have read the novel as depicting a fascism internalised, we can perhaps model the closing episode as one in which the author affirms a blank at the very heart of her artistic vision.[12] Given the role of the Exhibition in the novel, it is likely that the blank in play at the end of Rhys’s novel concerns or occupies the presentation of Paris in Rhys’s imagination, and I suggest that Sasha's embrace can be read as a symbolic uncoupling from the ‘presuppositions of a culture of [Rhys’s] times’. If the Paris of Rhys’s past and imagination has now been occupied by a spectacle she will no longer recognize - has become somehow unthinkable - then Sasha's embrace of the terrible blank commis may be read as the affirmation of nonrecognition as the ‘work’ or ‘genitality’ of thought: thought ‘forced to think its central collapse, its fracture, its own natural “powerlessness” which is indistinguishable from its greatest power’ (DR: 184-5). 

A Blank Paris and the Nonrecognition of the Commis

The spectacle of the Exhibition is empty. There is a ‘blank’ where the ‘real’ Paris should be. Neither the Eiffel Tower and the Seine nor the temporary pavilions are seen. The city is hostile, people ‘fling themselves’ at Sasha, voices are like ‘uniforms’ and ‘weapons’ and she needs to wear ‘armour’ to protect herself (42-4). These are the conditions for Sasha in 1937 in a city which Rhys had loved when first there in 1919 and the early 1920s.  Recalling in old age her attraction to Paris in the 1920s Rhys described, in typically understated terms, 'a very interesting place': 'Whenever I had some money I’d shoot back to Paris. Paris sort of lifted you up. It’s pink, you know, not blue or yellow; there’s nothing like it anywhere else’ (Vreeland 2008: 210). There is nothing pink about the Paris in this novel.  Paying attention to the flashbacks and dream of Part One and following the logic of the naming of the fascistic English boss who has ‘bought up the whole show’ (17), we can consider the blank Exhibition as the figuration of a city whose ‘whole show’ has been ‘bought up’ by the rise of extreme politics - a situation that took form as spectacle in 1937 in Paris.    

A few pages into the novel Sasha addresses the city she’s returned to: ‘Paris is looking very nice tonight… You are looking very nice tonight, my beautiful, my darling, and oh what a bitch you can be!  But you didn’t kill me after all, did you?  And they couldn’t kill me either…’ (15).  The incipient violence here is a signal to the reader, as is the following reference to a moment thirteen years earlier when Enno and Sasha ‘waited for a couple of hours to see Anatole France’s funeral pass, because, Enno said, we mustn’t let such a great literary figure disappear without paying him the tribute of a last salute’ (15). The city did not kill Sasha, but the reference to the death of the writer who bears the nation’s name indicates that, conversely, Sasha might outlive its capital. Anatole France died in 1924 which is the year that Rhys’s literary career was launched with Ford Madox Ford’s publication of ‘Vienne’ in his December issue of the Transatlantic Review, which placed the newly named Rhys alongside luminaries such as Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Havelock Ellis (Angier 1990: 137).  In 1924 she adopted Ford’s suggested pen name and, in a number of senses, became Jean Rhys.  Paris was the centre of Rhys's world in the 1920s and the ‘centre’ of the art world of which she was a new member; it was her European surrogate home and the birthplace of her artistic identity. The spectacle of fascism, unreality and impending violence that occupied Paris in 1937, as well as the political conflict it made visible, may well have appeared to Rhys as the vision of the death of the old Paris and the promise of freedom, creativity and the life of the imagination for which it had stood.[13]  Paris was one of two places which served as both literary origin and inspiration for Rhys - the other being Dominica. ‘When I say write for love’, Rhys explained to Francis Wyndham in 1959, in relation to this 1939 novel ("Midnight") and not being able to reconcile writing for money, 

I mean there are two places for me.  Paris (or what it was to me) and Dominica, a most lovely and melancholy place where I was born […] Both these places or the thought of them make me want to write […] “Midnight” was Paris revisited for the last time.  The war killed it.

(Letters, 171)

The sad song (‘Gloomy Sunday’) on the first page of “Midnight” joins together in a poignant allusion the city in which Sasha hears it and the island on which Rhys grew up: Dominica, derived from the Latin for Sunday and named for the day on which Columbus first saw it, is yoked to Paris by the sad song, a ‘tribute’, perhaps, to both of the places Rhys most loved and to the fact that both were now somehow irrevocable.

These allusions to literary origins, to ‘my beautiful, my darling' Paris and to death in the novel’s opening pages suggest that the novel’s title has a personal resonance.  Obviously explicable in terms of Europe’s imminent descent into war, the title also suggests the author’s encounter with a besieged Paris: an encounter with that which is the place of creative identity and the source of creative lineage, but which has also become, for the artist, that which no longer holds and which manifests the dissolution of creativity. Sasha’s embrace of the commis may be Rhys’s affirmation of the necessary task of seeing and writing about the Paris she loved in the process of transforming from morning into midnight. She may not have wanted to see, and Sasha does not see at the Exhibition, she embraces René in the hallway in the dark, and she keeps her arm over her eyes whilst René is attacking her. On the final page, however, she needs to see.  She first envisions the return of a man: ‘I don’t need to look, I know’, she thinks. Yet really looking may be the writer’s only task, especially when the sight is difficult: the ‘difficult thing is the only worth while thing’, Rhys wrote in 1963 (Letters, 241). Accordingly, Sasha looks:

I take my arm away from my eyes.  It is the white dressing-gown.


I look straight into his eyes and despise another poor devil of a human being for the last time.  For the last time…

Then I put my arms round him and pull him down on to the bed, saying: 'Yes - yes - yes...'

(GMM, 159)

Her gaze at the commis makes sense as an encounter with nonrecognition, with that which cannot be thought, but which ‘perplexes’ the soul and ‘forces it to pose a problem’ (DR: 176).  A significant aspect of Good Morning, Midnight is that this perplexity does not just concern the protagonist: it is the novel's insistence and it concerns the reader, how we see, how we read and how we think.


Angier, Carole. 1990. Jean Rhys (London: André Deutsch)

Benjamin, Walter. 2008. 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' in Lawrence Rainey, ed., Modernism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 1095-1113

Braidotti, Rosi. 2011 (2nd edition). Nomadic Subjects: embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary culture (New York: Columbia University Press)

Britzolakis, Christina. 2007. ‘‘This way to the exhibition’: genealogies of urban spectacle in Jean Rhys's interwar fiction’, Textual Practice, 21/3: 457-482

Burns, Lorna. 2010. ‘Becoming-Bertha: Virtual Difference and Repetition in Postcolonial ‘Writing Back’, a Deleuzian Reading of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea’, Deleuze Studies, 4: 16-41

Camarasana, Linda. 2009. ‘Exhibitions and Repetitions: Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and the World of Paris, 1937’ in Robin Hackett, Freda Hauser, and Gay Wachman, eds., At Home and Abroad in the Empire: British Women Write in the 1930s (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press), pp. 51-70

Caron, Vicky. 2005, 20 April. ‘The Path to Vichy: Antisemitism in France in the 1930s’, J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Annual Lecture, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies, <> [accessed June 2014]

Carr, Helen. 1996.  Jean Rhys (Plymouth: Northcote House) — 2003. ‘Jean Rhys: West Indian Intellectual’ in Bill Schwarz, ed., West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp. 93-113

Deleuze, Gilles. 2004. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum)

Emery, Mary Lou. 1990. Jean Rhys at “World's End”: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile (Austin: University of Texas Press) — 1997. ‘Refiguring the Postcolonial Imagination: Tropes of Visuality in Writing by Rhys, Kincaid, and Cliff’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 16/2 (Autumn): 259-280 

Fiss, Karen. 2009. Grand Illusion: The Third Reich, the Paris Exposition, and the Cultural Seduction of France (London: University of Chicago Press)

Gregg, Veronica Marie. 1995. Jean Rhys’s Historical Imagination (London: University of North Carolina Press)

Herbert, James D. 1995. 'The View of the Trocadéro: The Real Subject of the Exposition Internationale, Paris, 1937', Assemblage, 26 (Apr): 94-112 ‘History of Expos’, Official Site of the Bureau International des Expositions <> [accessed 10 May 2014]

Holden, Kate. 1999. ‘Formations of Discipline and Manliness: Culture, politics and 1930s women's writing’, Journal of Gender Studies, 8/2: 141-157

Issacharoff, Jess. 2013. ‘“No Pride, No Name, No Face, No Country”:Jewishness and National Identity in Good Morning, Midnight’ in Mary Wilson, ed., Rhys Matters : New Critical Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 111-129

Linett, Maren Tova. 2007. Modernism, Feminism, and Jewishness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

O’Connor, Teresa F.. 1986. Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels (London: New York University Press)

Ramchand, Kenneth.  1970. The West Indian Novel and its Background (London: Faber and Faber)

Rhys, Jean. 1979. Smile Please (London: Andre Deutsch)

 — 1985. Letters 1931–1966, eds. Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: Penguin)

 — 2000. Good Morning, Midnight (London: Penguin)

Savory, Elaine. 1998. Jean Rhys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Schwarz, Bill. 2003. ‘Introduction: Crossing the Seas’ in Bill Schwarz, ed., West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp. 1-30

Vreeland, Elizabeth. 2008. ‘Jean Rhys: The Art of Fiction’ (1979) in Philip Gourevitch, ed., The Paris Review Interviews: Vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Canongate), pp. 195-214


[1] Page references are to the 2000 Penguin Classics edition and subsequent references to this text are given with the abbreviation GMM where necessary.

[2] This essay focuses on the manifestation of Nazism at the Exposition, but other forms of 1930s totalitarian politics feature in the text: Franco's brand of nationalism, for example, is a presence in this novel. I use the term fascism to refer to Nazism and also, following Holden (1999), to the political logics of supremacy, uniformity, rationalisation and domination which determine various oppressive systems and practices.

[3] I use the term ‘nonunitary subjectivity’ following Rosi Braidotti’s elaboration of Deleuze and Guttari’s concept of nomadism (2011).

[4] Page references are to the 2004 Continuum edition and subsequent references to this text are given with the abbreviation DR. 

[5] Various other aspects of Deleuze's philosophy suggest themselves in relation to this fiction, perhaps most notably his positive theory of repetition as yielding novelty which is useful for understanding Rhys’s textual repetition, such as the re-writing in Wide Sargasso Sea, as Lorna Burns has recently argued (2010).

[6] A predominant focus of recent criticism has been the novel's inscription of the intersection of capitalist and imperialist practices, patriarchy, fascism and modernist discourses - an intersection which seems to coalesce in the Exhibition, as explored, for example, by Christina Britzolakis (2007). Critics such as Helen Carr (1996 and see also the second edition, 2012), Mary Lou Emery (1990) and Elaine Savory (1998) have argued that the collapse of distinctions is a central principle of this fiction. 

[7] My information on the politics of the Exposition comes primarily from James D. Herbert (1995), Christina Britzolakis (2007), and Linda Camarasana (2009), and the accounts by Vicky Caron (2005) and Karen Fiss (2009) of the rise of fascism in France in the late 1930s. Other facts are taken from the Official Site of the Bureau International des Expositions.

[8] Caron gives an overview of the factors involved in this shift in social attitudes.  An undisputed factor is the weak French economy and the large influx of refugees and immigrants in the interwar years which, by the 1930s, was resulting in high competition for jobs. Less defined is the tendency of French politics in this period towards reactionary views, and the causes of the significant anti-Semitic backlash which resulted from the Jewish Léon Blum’s accession to power in 1936. Blum, the socialist prime minister of the Popular Front coalition, had a brief and fraught leadership, resigning a month after the Exposition’s inauguration and resorting to publishing a defence of his French nationality in a national newspaper (Caron 2005: 14).   

[9] This is the briefest of glosses of a complex issue. Rhys drew on her life for the material of her fiction, which is not to say the novels are simply autobiographical. The political and racial conflicts she experienced in Dominica found form in her novels, and the masks of carnival, and the obeah practiced by her nurse, both of which she found terrifying, were put to great use in her prose. Teresa O’Connor (1986) and Veronica Gregg (1995) present intricate accounts of the West Indian source material she used in her writing.  

[10] Most recent critical interpretations of Serge focus on the possibility that the hybridity of the character signifies.  For example, Issacharoff draws on Maren Linett’s model - in which Serge’s Jewish identity allows him to stand for an essentialised version of modernist and female alienation - and argues that he stands for the possibility of an anti-national community (Issacharoff 2013: 112). Issacharoff also relates Serge's art to the ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition.

[11] Although in 1937 only a symbolic triumph, within a little over a year after the novel was published in April 1939, Paris would submit to the German occupation.

[12] Carr (1996), Emery (1990: 144-172) and Holden (1999) all consider the issue of an internalised fascism in this novel.

[13] Helen Carr (2003) gives a detailed account of Rhys’s instinctive preference for France over England, and Angier’s biography details her years in Paris, and both are useful for understanding the loss that Rhys may have felt upon the decline of the city she loved in the late 1930s and, of course, its subsequent Nazi occupation in 1940.