I'm Completely Lost—an Island Floating Away Over the Horizon. Letter of Djuna Barnes To Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Christmas 1965[?]
In 1937, as most readers of Nightwood are aware, Djuna Barnes's friend and editor T. S. Eliot lent the prestige of his name to her novel, with a short preface. Though the famous poet-editor had been finicky and (in his own words) "lacking in imagination" during the editorial process, Eliot genuinely admired the power and integrity of Barnes's writing and supported the book as wholeheartedly as a man nicknamed "Possum" could manage. Barnes, for her part, was sincerely grateful for Eliot's help and for the tribute he rendered her. For the present-day reader, however, it is difficult to deny that something is amiss in Eliot's preface. One has the impression of true minds at cross-purposes; of incongruities between what Eliot says the book is and what the book, as read today, would seem to be. In recent criticism, indeed, Eliot's preface has been much maligned, either as representing a supposedly hegemonic "male modernism" or as seeming a kind of joke, the phlegmatic Eliot so far missing the point of Barnes's passionate prose as to be comical.
It is not my purpose here either to rehearse or refute the arguments against Eliot's reading of Nightwood . Nonetheless, I believe it is necessary to take Eliot's preface at its word, as a historically important "guide
for the perplexed" reader of Barnes, rather than dismiss it as mere "posturing," as does Barnes's biographer Phillip Herring. For it represents not just any response to Barnes's book but that of the single most influential figure in the modernist criticism of the 1930s and 1940s. For that reason alone the preface has an ineffaceable documentary value, as a striking testimony to the assumptions of that criticism in the face of a work that challenges modernist precepts. In his skittish engagement with Barnes's text, Eliot brings to light key concepts and expectations that any up-to-date reader of modernist writing would likely have shared with the author of "Prufrock" and "The Waste Land." Moreover, as Eliot himself underscores, his prefacing remarks are not simply an exemplary response to Barnes's book but a privileged one. He was aware that his preface could and would intervene between the book and its readers, steering them toward certain ways of understanding and protecting them from error. Eliot was acutely aware of the "priority" he had as editor and literary king maker, and here he adopts the posture of the celebrated author offering a critical introduction, to be read before the unaccommodating creative work it discusses. His editorial benevolence, however, extended to a bit of well-meant management of Night-wood's image. Wherever Barnes's extravagance threatened to slip the bonds of modernist discipline, Eliot preempted her errancy, shepherding her back with a cautionary wag of the finger toward the antechambers of the modern literary canon.
Eliot begins his preface with an almost obligatory gesture of humility before Barnes's work; its autonomy and self-sufficiency render anything that he might say not just superfluous but even "impertinent." Yet while he can add nothing to the work, he may clear up a few misunderstandings (misunderstanding for Eliot being, like sin for Augustine, purely privative in nature). Eliot thus seeks to preempt a number of "false" interpretations to which Barnes's otherwise autotelic text, minus his supplementary preface, might easily give rise. Eliot wastes no great time in preliminaries; he gets fight to work with a series of negative judgments, informing the reader what Barnes's book is not .
Nightwood , in Eliot's view, is not simply a sample of literary extravagance, a rhetorical display without the motivation of an equally rich content: "I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content." Following from this point, it is not "poetic prose" (xii). It is not a collocation of fragments but constitutes "a whole pattern" (xiii). This pattern is not merely imposed by a single "vital" character, Dr.
Matthew O'Connor, "alone in a gallery of dummies" (xiv); nor is it "simply a collection of individual portraits" (xiv). Finally, it is not "a psychopathic study" (xv). It is a moral and literary totality—a knot of destiny and chance most closely resembling Elizabethan tragedy (xvi).
Eliot is explicit about his concern to find in Nightwood "profounder significance" (xiv) than mere verbal pyrotechnics, fragmentary vignettes (however brilliant), or psychopathology would allow. He takes pains to reinforce the anthropomorphic metaphor that links textual devices to fictional persons; he insists that Barnes's characters are "alive," that their actions and sufferings have meaning. The supplement of the preface serves to ratify the formal synthesis that it will insist is already in the work (but difficult to discern, like the truth or the path of righteousness). Eliot pulls out a whole stock of modernist tropes for recuperating the "profounder significance" of texts that seem but a heap of broken images. Anticipating Roland Barthes's distinction of readerly and writerly texts, he appeals to the intransitive "written" quality of Nightwood , as opposed to the mere communicative discourse of journalism and naturalistic novels. Underlying its surface disjunctions is Nightwood's "prose rhythm" (xii), which lends it a powerful dramatic and musical unity. Dr. O'Connor does not overrun this unity but helps to constitute it, through his "deep humility," "hypersensitive awareness," and "desperate disinterestedness" (he has taken on an Eliotic face latterly). Through a careful composition of character and narrational personae, Barnes manages to ward off the dual danger of excessive interiority and exteriority; her figures are neither Hamlet with his problems nor the sketchy social ciphers of Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser.
Above all, Barnes avoids the impression of automatism—a perilous threat to fictional personhood. Barnes's characters are neither the puppets of her text (as is the case with the novels of Eliot's friend Wyndham Lewis) nor mere playthings of their own neuroses and perversions. They are free and alive, with significant passions and pains. Any suspicion of uncanniness in Barnes's characters is carefully dispelled by Eliot. In Nightwood's nocturnal gallery, he discovers the exact opposite of the uncanny romantic automaton, who reveals apparently human movements to be but mechanical operations. In Eliot's view, Barnes's reader is instead surprised to learn that what had seemed safely removed from life can unexpectedly seize hold of him: "Sometimes in a phrase the characters spring to life so suddenly that one is taken aback, as if one had touched a wax-work figure and discovered that it was a live policeman" (xiv).
Although tempting, it would be perverse to suggest that precisely because Eliot denies all this—the excesses of style, the incoherences of form, the mechanistic qualities of character in Nightwood —the very opposite must be true. On the contrary, while one would surely beg to differ with Eliot, his sensitivity to the problem points in Barnes's text is undeniable. It is as if his possum whiskers had twitched at each moment of interpretational or moral danger in Nightwood . He sensed, moreover, that a great deal was at stake in these points of difficulty: the formal unity of the work, the degree to which the characters manifest moral awareness, the accessibility of the text to a totalizing synthesis in reading or interpretation, the problem of verbal excess, the problem of psychopathology, the problem of character vitality and of the uncanny: If it were not possible to "rescue" the text from misunderstanding on these points (which, to fix the wriggling Eliot with a pin, are rather pervasive for a book of only 170 pages!); if it were not possible to recover the work's rhythmic unity, its writerly value, its moral cohesion, its disinterested awareness, its "whole pattern," then Nightwood might be lost. Lost to modernism, that is, to Eliot's symbolic and moral cosmos.
It is to this dangerous, and for Eliot, perceptible yet unthinkable possibility—that Barnes's work might have already moved in another symbolic order, "beyond rescue," beyond the redemptive ruses of modernist technique and aesthetic ideology—that I now turn.
Essential to Barnes's whole literary corpus is a certain "positionless" quality, its generic and categorial uncertainty and its correlative unsettling of literary historical oppositions like modernism and postmodernism. Barnes captured well her peculiar lack of place in Eliot's "ideal order" of tradition, when she referred to herself as "the most famous unknown in the world?' Eliot's concept of tradition stressed the continuity and wholeness of that order; it was ill-equipped to deal with centrifugal works like Barnes's that manifested (in Paul Mann's words) a "counterhistorical force, a force pitched against its conscription by this or that masterplot." Moreover, Barnes treated skeptically, even satirically, Eliot's recommended means for entering tradition's monumental corridor. Her works are indeed rife with images of the "surrender of self," "self-sacrifice," "extinction of personality," "depersonalization"—the privileged terms in Eliot's poetics of impersonality. Yet they
call in question the aesthetic payoff that was to result in compensation. The processes that for Eliot would make the artistic monument find their disenchanted corollaries in Barnes as shell shock, psychic regression, and rigor mortis.
Barnes employs literary techniques akin to and in part derived from Joyce's flamboyant displays of style, Eliot's borrowings from literary history, and Pound's thematic montage of fragments. Yet her use of these modernist techniques far exceeds what Craig Owens calls the "self-critical tendency of modernism"—its self-reflexive and ironic fore-grounding of the literary device—and approaches the "deconstructive impulse" Owens sees as characteristic of postmodernism. Barnes's extreme stylistic mannerism and runaway figural language obtrude through her ramshackle large-scale forms, hinting at the radical loss of boundaries, the promiscuous blurting of categories, the setting in play of the signifier often associated with later postmodernism.
Implicit in her deconstructive impulse is an attack on the redemptive or recuperative mission attributed to artistic form (and by extension, autonomous art as a social practice) by modernist writers and critics. As Owens writes:
Postmodernism neither brackets nor suspends the referent but works instead to problematize the activity of reference. When the postmodernist work speaks of itself, it is no longer to proclaim its autonomy, its self-sufficiency, its transcendence; rather, it is to narrate its own contingency, insufficiency, lack of transcendence. . . . [A]s such, its deconstructive thrust is aimed not only against the contemporary myths that furnish its subject matter, but also against the symbolic, totalizing impulse which characterizes modernist art.
While Owens means to celebrate the postmodernist jettisoning of modernist pretensions, the disenchantment of modernism's redemptive myth may, ultimately, prove more melancholy than liberating. Modernism met a crucial psychological and ideological need for artists and intellectuals. It invested the artwork and the labor of making art with a value independent of its actual social functionality in modern capitalist society. To lose faith in the modernist myth was to recognize that art no longer had an essential function; that it could offer no comprehensive answers to spiritual, sexual, or social problems. It was to realize that the arcadia of the text or painting was not significantly different from anywhere else. Art offered no secure position from which to oppose oneself to the rest of the social world.
Barnes knowingly adopts this disenchanted loss of position and consciously explores it as a thematic concern. It follows, in her view, from the contingency of social life. Women, and hence women writers, are especially affected, for the "very Condition of Woman is so subject to Hazard, so complex, and so grievous, that to place her at one Moment is but to displace her at the next." At the same time, however, it also reflects an ontological condition, that purgatorial state of earthly existence similar to that in which Beckett's clowns wobble and wander (Barnes's syntax here likewise resembles the comic grammatical displays in Beckett's Watt ). As she concludes about women's lot:
Some have it that they cannot do, have, be, think, act, get, give, go, come, fight in anyway. Others that they cannot do, have, be, think, act, get, give, go wrong in any way, others set them between two Stools saying that they can, yet cannot, that they have and have not, that they think yet think nothing, that they give and yet take, that they are both right and much wrong, that in fact, they swing between two Conditions like a Bell's Clapper, that can never be said to be anywhere, neither in the Centre, nor to the Side, for that which is always moving, is in no settled State long enough to be either damned or transfigured. (LA , 48)
Barnes's style in this and similar passages partakes of both the uncanni-ness of a writing-machine, cranking out variation after variation of the verb phrase, and a tottering giddiness provoking laughter at the sentence's mechanical fits and starts. Its manner no longer serves to highlight technical finesse as the mark of an author's mind and hand, working in concert to transfigure shards of experience into riches of aesthetic form. Instead, it evinces the overpowering of intention by systematic constraints, of individuating style by depersonalized structures of grammar. This bumpy ride through grammatical space threatens at any moment to careen out of the controlling hands of the author, sending the whole work into the ravine. It is only through a precarious shifting from space to space, style to style, that one fends off this perilous artistic fate.
Barnes also enacts this loss of definite position through her representation of character. In his Theory of the Novel , Georg Lukács designated the typical condition of the modern novelistic character, whose subjective state was irreparably dissonant with the objective world, as "transcendentally homeless." Out of this dissonance, from the trans-formative interactions of character and context, the novelistic narrative unfolds. The problem of Barnes's characters, however, is not modernist
alienation, the self's "transcendental homelessness" in the world. It is rather a danger reflecting the new context of mass politics, economic slump, and urban violence in the late twenties and thirties—that both self and world will be eclipsed within a pure, placeless immanence: chthonic nature, mythic terror, the id, death, the night at the end of history. Not the suffering of individuation, experienced as Lukácsian homelessness, but the seduction of indifferentiation, a recession into the background, is their burden as characters.
Such a condition does not impel narrative progression; their passion leads to no redemption. It engenders instead stasis and recurrence, the fixation of characters in compulsive rounds. Thus Barnes's Dr. O'Connor, who is intimate with the "night," the "sea" that holds the faceless "fish" of impersonal sexual encounters, is depicted as both petrified and indistinct in shape—"a sort of petropus of the twilight" (N, 78), as he puts it. O'Connor elsewhere says of himself that "he's been everywhere at the wrong time and has now become anonymous" (N , 71). As it approaches its extreme, then, the placelessness that afflicts Barnes's characters threatens to become spatial dissolution and, as in Beckett, to affect their capacity to be nominated as textual personae, characters. O'Connor's nocturnal nomadism, his being "everywhere at the wrong time," portends the condition of anonymity, just as Molloy's wanderings prefigure his still more profound disintegration into the "Unnameable."
An alternative figure for the return to immanence (to be discussed at length later) is that of decapitation , a total loss of conscious agency and complete corporeal automatism. Already in her early journalism, Barnes had associated decapitation with another traditional image of automatism, one used likewise by Lewis and Beckett: the puppet. This figure serves her satirical designs, by comically deflating the gravity of human passions and sorrows and by enacting scenes of cruelty on bodies that can experience no pain. In a story printed in the Morning Telegraph on 8 July 1917, Barnes meditates on the untragic character of marionettes:
They say to each other, "Madame, how do you do—it is an exceedingly delightful day, the Bois is sunny, let us take a stroll," and when the stroll has been accomplished the young swain finds nothing to regret in the discovery that his inamorata has returned minus a head. He looks at her coquettishly . . . and thereupon proceeds to adore her in her new condition without sorrow and without regret.
Their passions are always more violent than their retribution, their
beginnings more fatal than their end; for them the beginning is struggle, mighty raisings of hands and creaking of joints and flourishing of swords, but their deaths are only defeat, not tragedy.
In her mature fiction, Barnes's static, stylized characters gesture repeatedly toward their semblables in the puppet world. The majority of Barnes's characterization, it is true, takes place this side of anonymous or acephalic limit-experience. Yet as her doomed figures approach a point of indifference with their inanimate ground (in language or in represented space), any possibility for tragic uplift declines into a laughable pathos of defeat. In their sleepwalking and compulsive action, Barnes's characters mock the modernist appeal to disinterested awareness as a means of rescuing the "profounder significance" of their doings. Barnes herself offers no redemption to her characters, not even a tragic one, but allows only a deconstructive margin of difference from them to emerge in her text: a mortifying laugh that, in its shock, may momentarily arrest their fatal course.
In the late nineteenth century, a number of critics and historians have observed, the family and the traditional gender relations undergirding it became a central concern of authors working out their relation to modernity. Henry Adams, for example, wrote that the American man "could not run his machine and a woman too." The outcome of men's accelerated pursuit of modernity was that women strayed from their natural "axis": "The woman's force had counted as inertia of rotation, and her axis of rotation had been the cradle and the family. . . . [I]t was surely true that, if her force were to be diverted from its axis, it must find a new field, and the family must pay for it. So far as she succeeded, she must become sexless like the bees." Other artists, however, would draw on this same symbolic cluster to define a more positive relation to modernity. Thus Baudelaire, as Walter Benjamin notes, affirmed such "anti-natural" figures as the impotent male and the barren woman, as well as the androgyne, the lesbian, and the prostitute. Benjamin relates these figures to Baudelaire's affirmation of urban life: "The renunciation of the 'natural' should be dealt with first in relation to the metropolis as the subject of the poem."
Elsewhere Benjamin suggests a broader provenance for this revaluation of nonreproductive sexual forms: "The basic motif of Jugendstil is
that of the transfiguration of sterility. The body is depicted predominantly in those forms which precede sexual maturity. This thought is to be linked with that of the regressive interpretation of technology" (42-43). For Baudelaire, the figure of the lesbian is likewise a recognition of modernity and a protest against technology (39)- The modernity of lesbianism rests in its abstraction of love and elimination of woman's "natural" function of reproduction: "The Lesbian woman carries spiritualization (Vergeistigung ) into even the womb. There she plants the lily-banner of 'pure' love, which knows neither pregnancy nor family" (43). At the same time, however, Baudelaire refuses to recognize any relation between his lesbian figure and the emancipation of women in such public professions as journalism or in factory work. He thus gives "a purely sexual accent to this evolving tendency in women" (39).
On the leading edge of Anglo-American modernism, Gertrude Stein's family epic, The Making of Americans , for example, stylistically enacts the antinomy of family and modernity. Over the course of its hundreds of pages, Stein's new, experimental style emerges as the family's history dissipates its authority as a narrative source. In her retrospective lecture, "The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans," she likened—or perhaps attributed—this progressive radicalizing of style to an entropic slowing of the generational wheel: "In writing The Making of Americans [the years] rolled around less quickly. In writing A Long Gay Book, they did not roll around at all, and therefore it did not go on it led to Tender Buttons and many other things. It may even have led to war but that is of no importance."
Barnes's stylistic demolition of rigidly chronological genres like the chronicle (Ryder ) and the almanac (Ladies Almanack ) reveals an analogous confrontation between modernity and genealogically grounded duration. Like her symbolist and decadent forerunners and her modernist compeers, she also ambivalently embraces modernity through an ostentatious use of "anti-natural" figures, including the lesbian, the vampire, the nomadic Jew, the hermaphrodite, and the transvestite. Nevertheless, she dissipates any redemptive aura invested in these figures by earlier writers. In what follows, I discuss the implications of Barnes's engagement with issues of filiation and her "denaturing" of gender. I concentrate on her two major books preceding Nightwood, Ryder and Ladies Almanack , then discuss Nightwood in the latter half of the chapter.
Ryder , published in 1928, seems at first glance to suggest the neat filial order of the family chronicle, but it delivers nothing of the sort.
Instead, it presents a heterogeneous set of short texts, poached from a variety of period styles and genres and loosely organized around the irregular Ryder clan and its friends and neighbors. While the passage of time can be discerned through its discontinuous chapters, the narrative careens wildly between parable and bawdy tale, satire and homily, folk-talc and mock-epistle. Louis Kannenstine suggests that Ryder stages "the death of the social or domestic novel of generations that had dominated the nineteenth century." Yet while it is certainly true that Ryder dismantles the domestic novel's conventions, its formal principle lies ultimately neither with a modernist genealogical myth (as with Faulkner) nor with ironic, self-critical allusion to a traditional genre. Ryder is formally distinct from more integrated modernist works by its loose, "choric articulation"—the nonsymbolic couplings and breaks that make of the Ryder cosmos a "riant spaciousness," a hilarious machinery of conflicting desire and drives (see chapter 2 above).
Ryder's solidly patronymic title marks, one discovers by the fourth chapter, not paternal authority, but rather interruption and conscious rejection of patrilinearity. Wendell Ryder's mother, Sophia, "gave him no father's name but stayed by her own" (R , 17). One reason, so she claims, was that her son was conceived immaculately in a dream, when the astral body of Beethoven passed through her own—the birth of the grotesque out of the spirit of music. The other is "that she had learned to dislike John Peel," her husband of that time (R , 17). Resembling at once Barnes's own grandmother and Dame Evangeline Musset in Ladies Almanack , Sophia Ryder is a worldly and unconventional woman who has married several times; as her name indicates she "is wise to" the ways of men. Outside of the normative family, she plays the indulgent "Mother" to all—to her own prodigal son, Wendell, to the men from whom she begs money to support her brood, and to the fallen women she takes under her protecting wing. In her rejection of patriarchal authority and her affiliative conception of motherhood, Sophia embodies the decadence of filial genealogy and the rise of a new, independent womanhood. 
At the same time, however, she symbolizes a breakup of the ability of cultural tradition to provide bearings for the modern individual. The walls of her bedroom, on which she hangs pictures, prints, and eventually newspaper clippings, form the image of a historical process in which tradition is effaced and scattered by the rise of information. Barnes recounts in order the images matting Sophia's walls. First are the women
of history and culture she admires: George Eliot, Brontë, Elizabeth Stanton, Ouida, Catherine the Great, Beatrice Cenci, Lotta Crabtree, and several spirit-visitants identified only by allegorical epithets. Then the men she admires: a railroad magnate, Savonarola, a Samoan chief, Dante, and Oscar Wilde among them—free of any chronological succession and, in any case, hardly the model of a tight-knit family line! Then images of death and suffering, which include among pictures of torture, murder, and capital punishment that of pregnancy: "the filling of the belly, known as the Extreme Agony" (R , 13). At a certain point in her youth, these pictures began to be obscured by those of her Swedish lover, Alex, which eventually filled the whole wall. Barnes pauses here to comment:
Sophia's walls, like the telltale rings of the oak, gave up her conditions, as anyone might have discovered an they had taken a bucket of water to it, for she never removed, she covered over.
At forty these pictures were an inch deep, at sixty, a good two inches from the wall; the originals were, as she herself was, nothing erased but much submerged. (R , 13)
Barnes's metaphor of the slow-growing oak would seem to imply that Sophia is a deep source of tradition, surveying the longue durée of history. Yet as with modernity itself, each new fashion of her heart and intellect is discontinuous with the previous one, consigning it to her "heap of broken images." One can discern here a satirical depiction of technically reproduced memory analogous to Lewis's more elaborate gramophonic-cinematic "utopia," in which the family picnic can be reenacted on sound film, complete with bawling children and pesky mosquitoes, while political heroes of the past repeat their famous speeches; both Ryder and Time and Western Man appeared within a year of one another and offered a vision of history flattened into images and recomposed. The final stage of Sophia's image archive is reached when the cultural canon is definitively submerged by the tide of information, mass culture, and journalism:
Even Alex had gone, he, who had for so long held sway, slowly ebbed, and in his stead rose that last tide, clippings from newspapers. For in the end this was her court,—false prophet, false general, the pretty girl untimely raped, some woman aptly killed, some captain who claimed discovery of the North Pole, some Jack who had climbed a steeply top; all in a conglomerate juxtaposition, and under all, smiling in forlorn inevitability, Beatrice Cenci, Shakespeare and the Divine Dante. (R , 14)
Sophia's cultural canon ends in a Rauschenberg-like pastiche of degraded fragments, selected and arranged idiosyncratically, and connected only by their spatial contiguity.
On Sophia's wall, culture has itself become the idiosyncratic body Horkheimer and Adorno discuss in Dialectic of Enlightenment , which stiffens and is assimilated to its surroundings—as the gallery of photos has become like an oak tree in the forest of information. As I suggested in chapter z, however, this same mimetic assimilation to space is integral to the dynamics of laughter. Sophia's picture collection disaggregates images from their contextual and chronological position and reassembles them in a riotous, riant spaciousness. In a world where Savonarola lies down with Oscar Wilde—no postmillennial reconciliation of lion and lamb, only the everyday cosmos of technically reproducible images—the canon of culture has become salvageable only at the expense of making it subjectively configured, idiosyncratic, laughable.
Barnes leaves ironically unresolved the positive and negative aspects of Sophia's modernistic revolt. The ambivalence of Barnes's attitude to the freedom Sophia assumes is concentrated, above all, in the figure of Wendell. He is, she suggests, in more ways than just the biological, the dubious result of Sophia's choice· While casting himself as biblical patriarch and natural man, Wendell unwittingly embodies the indiscriminate release of productive forces that are part and parcel of the most advanced Americanism and technological modernity. Through Barnes's mocking pseudo-Chaucerian depiction of Wendell can be discerned a deformed representative of Max Weber's "Protestant Ethos," who justifies frugality by reference to religious calling. Likewise Barnes's black humor sets in contiguity images of baby making and meat-packing, natural propagation and slaughter for market:
Then Wendell worked his other wits as well . . .
How bread from bran he mightë roll and bake,
That child and cattle fodder from one bin,
For kine, he held, were kith, and infants kin.
And other ways he'd twist to save a coin;
While spendeth he most lavish of his loin
Most saving was of gold and silver bright,
. . . Thus he did preach:
"Store every sacking strong, for shirt and breech,
For hams come diapered as babes y-clout,
Yes, what y-ham wears in, y-babe wears out." ( R , 55)
Not for nothing was Ryder published on the brink of a worldwide depression; overproduction—of children, guns, or butter—must end in bankruptcy and violence. Yet Wendell's dearest wish is to reproduce himself indefinitely, perpetually remaking the world over in his image. As three incidents recounted in the late pages of Ryder clearly suggest, this multiplicative drive is self-consuming, holding the seeds of its own demise.
The first of these portentous incidents is recounted in the chapter entitled "Ryder—His Race." Barnes preludes her narration with a "treatise on carnivora," noting, "Of all carnivora man holds woman most dear" (R , 205). Juxtaposing women who are the object of men's love to women who devour the flesh of animals, Barnes employs a Rabelaisian technique for generating grotesque effects by crossing two distant semantic series. This "treatise" on carnivora prepares the defeat of Wendell's heroic propagation recounted later in the chapter, the "exposé of much nothing" (R , 205) in the barren body of the elderly Lady Bridesleep. It allegorizes the flaw in Wendell's narcissistic vision, in which—like the male modernist artist—he asserts his creative mastery while failing to recognize his total dependence on the women who surround him—mother, wives, daughters, and mistresses. This dependence leads him to "conquer" yet more women, which further gnaws away at his autonomy: a self-renewing yet self-defeating process. If Wendell is like an American Noah, presiding over the repopulation of a new world, then Barnes presents his women as hunkered down in the hold of the ark, polishing off the flesh of some irreplaceable species.
Wendell comes one day to Lady Terrance Bridesleep, proposing to sleep with her. She accepts: "Who was she at sixty that upon the turnspit of her attraction a man should baste and be a man for all that.>" (R, 208). Before the momentous event takes place, Wendell offers a weighty rationale for his sexual conquests:
I, my love, am to be Father of All Things. For this was I created, and to this will I cleave. Now this is the Race that shall be Ryder— those who can sing like the lark, coo like the dove, moo like the cow, buzz like the bee, cheep like the cricket, bark like the dog, mew like the cat, neigh like the stallion, roar like the bull, crow like the cock, bray like the ass, sob like the owl, bleat like the lamb, growl like the lion, whine like the seal, to say nothing of screeching like the parrots and all sundry cryings, wailings, belchings, gnashing, sighing, sobbing, screaming, such as one hears the world over, but from a thousand several throats. . . . Some shall be prophets, some sophists, some scoundrels, some virgins, some bawds, some priests, some
doxies, some vassals, some freemen, some slaves, some mongers, some pamphleteers, some eunuchs, some hermaphrodites, some nobles, some pussy-winks, some panders, some jades, some lawyers, some doctors, some presidents, some thieves; pro and con, for and against, though never one bourgeois or like to other men as we now know them, but at the fertile pitch of genius. (R , 210)
Like a manic Whitman, Wendell envisions a total and simultaneous mastery of all means of expression—an overcoming of the ordinary bourgeois existence in the fiat lux of genius. Here, more clearly than anywhere else in Ryder , Barnes satirically underscores the unhappy analogy of Wendell to the modernist artist, thrown back on the "fertility" of his own subjective invention.
In Lady Bridesleep, however, Wendell meets the exasperation of his design:
In the dawn, where Wendell lay crowing like a cock, and most extraordinarily pleased, Lady Terrance arose, and turned to him smiling. "What shall we call him?" inquired Wendell in huge pride.
"Nothing and Never," said Lady Terrance sweetly. "He shall accomplish all the others leave undone. You need No Child also, my good man, all fathers have one. On him you shall hang that part of your ambition too heavy for mortal. And now," she said to the maid, who answered her ring, "bring me the calf's head that you'll find on the ice." (R , 211)
Barnes returns to the image of carnivorous woman, devouring the world's creatures as they puncture the pride of men. Wendell must, in Lady Bridesleep, confront the allegorical representative of time and death—the oblivion against which his modernistic dream will founder. She presages the fate of his projected revolution of the word, as the multitudinous sounds of his "race" recede into a background of deathly silence. The chapter concludes with Wendell's stunned response, a rare spasm of reticence in this loquacious text bearing his name: "Wendell opened his mouth, but no sound came" (R , 211).
The other two incidents can be dealt with more briefly. In the chapter "Fine Bitches All, and Molly Dance," Barnes illustrates an inverted world, in which animals are strictly bred according to genealogical order while humans rut like the beasts of the field. Molly Dance, a dog breeder, is a female likeness of Wendell Ryder, with her numerous children, her sexual promiscuity, and her revisionary cosmology. She takes her pleasure as it comes and makes no attempt to determine the paternity of her children. Wendell, troubled by this loss of distinction, offers
her a figment of certainty: he will sire her next child, then she will know its father. Wendell, like the modernist artist, seeks, through his conscious act of creation, to reconstitute a symbolic order against the featureless face of chaos. Unfortunately for Wendell, his plans once again come to naught. For Molly reveals the power of female promiscuity to unravel the symbolic order of patrimony:
"Well," said Molly. . ., "how shall she, or I, or you, or another know but that Dan, the corner policeman, be he? For not two nights ago he had the same idea, and that only goes to show you," she added, "that one man's thoughts are not worth much more than another's." (R , 199)
Wendell, the would-be author of a homemade world, is reduced to an interchangeable part in a hetaeric, maternal cosmos.
Wendell's genealogical vision will, unbeknownst to him, suffer a third blow. In the chapter entitled, significantly, "Three Great Moments of History," Dr. Matthew O'Connor catches a boy who has stolen a jar of honey. He sits him down and treats him to a typically oblique O'Connor speech, which in its course brings up the name of Wendell Ryder. The boy reveals that he is one of Ryder's bastard children and that in reaction to his father's thoughtless promiscuity, he has foresworn having anything to do with women. The chapter ends with the implication that Matthew O'Connor will initiate the youth into gay love:
"This," said Doctor Matthew O'Connor, "changes the whole aspect of the argument. To love thy fellowmen is also a necessity." And with that he did gently put an arm around the lad as, with the other hand, he turned the pot right side up, to save what little there was left of a sweet matter. (R , 236)
As the tender eroticism of O'Connor's metaphorical righting the overturned honey pot conveys, this initiation is the afterimage of Wendell's mechanical (re)productivity.
Ryder ends on a note of impasse, with what, in spite of its pastoral setting, can be understood as the ironic revenge of modernity on the "creator" who too closely identifies himself with its innovative impulse. As Wendell's world crumbles around him—his mother dying, his wives preparing to leave him, his children turned against him, the money gone—he goes out into the night and sits in the fields amid the animals. The book ends with a mimetic regression, a collapse of the distinction between Wendell and his surroundings:
And everything and its shape became clear in the dark, by tens and tens they ranged, and lifted the lids and looked at him; in the air and in the trees and
on the earth and from under the earth, and regarded him long, and he forbore to hide his face. They seemed close ranged, and now they seemed far ranged, and they moved now near, now far, as a wave comes and goes, and they lifted their lids and regarded him, and spoke not in their many tongues, and they went a far way, and there was a little rest, and they came close, and there was none. Closing in about him nearer, and swinging out wide and from him far, and came in near and near, and as a wave, closed over him, and he drowned, and arose while he yet might go. And whom should he disappoint? (R , 242)
The extraordinary beauty of this ending, reminiscent of the pantheistic climax of Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Antony , should not obscure the satiric harshness of Barnes's conclusion: Wendell's complete identification of himself with the innovative impulse of modernism, his "perpetual extinction of personality" in the (pro)creative act, is literally realized in madness.
Ladies Almanack , which appeared contemporaneously with Ryder , takes up a number of the same themes and images, while likewise rummaging the ragbag of literary styles for its models. Presenting itself as "the book all ladies should carry" (LA , motto of the second illustration), Ladies Almanack combines a salacious roman à clef, satirizing the members of the lesbian salon of Barnes's friend Natalie Barney, with an experiment in literary parody. Barnes herself described it as "a mild satire on the somewhat shoddy 'loves' of present day Sapho's [sic ]." Each month of the "almanack" introduces a different character or mode of discourse, but the course of the "year" refers to the life span of the head "lads,," Dame Evangeline Musset (representing Natalie Barney, a grande dame of both lesbian and French modernist salon culture). In twelve months, it illustrates Dame Musset's various "rescue" missions out "upon that exceedingly thin ice to which it has pleased god, more and more to call frail woman, there so conducting herself that none were put to the chagrin of sinking for the third time!" (LA , frontispiece).
While the intersections with Ryder are numerous, there are significant differences between the two books. Most obvious is the shift from the largely male-centered cosmos of Ryder (however pseudopatronymic it might be) to the exclusively female world of Ladies Almanack . With this shift the focus changes from the family to lesbian affiliation and nonreproductive sexuality. Moreover, the books' publication took different forms. Whereas Ryder was issued under Barnes's own name by Horace Liveright, Ladies Almanack was privately printed with author-
ship attributed only to "A Lady of Fashion." Barnes's use of a pseudonym for Ladies Almanack can be plausibly explained by her uneasiness with being identified with Natalie Barney's lesbian salon and hence as a lesbian herself. Yet Barnes's particular choice of pseudonyms ("A Lady of Fashion") implies not just a dissimilating veil but also a tightly woven tissue of themes.
Fashion, as Baudelaire noted, is intimately connected with modernity and hence with the artworks of modernism. In his famous essay on Constantin Guys, "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire defined modern art as the distillation of fashion. The modern artist "makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory." Later in the same essay, Baudelaire takes up the question of fashion again, discovering in it a utopian impulse to improve on nature and everyday life: "Fashion should . . . be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-á-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation " (32-33)- For Apollinaire, a beloved figure among the pre-World War I expatriates in Paris, fashion had a close kinship to a new stylistic freedom in modernist writing. In a hilarious passage in The Poet Assassinated , the character Tristouse Ballerinette describes the year's fashion:
"This year," said Tristouse, "fashions are bizarre and common, simple and full of fantasy. Any material from nature's domain can now be introduced into the composition of women's clothes. . . . Fish bones are being worn a lot on hats. . . . Steel, wool, sandstone, and the file have made an abrupt entry into the vestmentary arts. . . . Feathers now decorate not only hats, but shoes, gloves, and next year they'll be on umbrellas. . . . Notice that they're beginning to dress in live animals. . . . Dresses embellished with coffee beans, cloves, cloves of garlic, onions, and bunches of raisins, these will be perfect for social calls. Fashion . . . no longer looks down on anything. It ennobles everything. It does for materials what the Romantics did for words."
Despite its humorous form, Apollinaire's "fashion report" asserts an important equation: modern literature's ability to incorporate the fanciful and bizarre alongside the common and even abject is akin to fashion's magical power to "ennoble everything."
Fashion does have its down side, however: it is short-lived. Nothing is more obsolete than last year's fashion, nothing more quaint than the
fashion of past decades. Similarly, modernism's absolute commitment to "the New" had as its corollary that yesterday's artistic rage could be tomorrow's old hat. Fashion binds together in one image the newest newness and its double, the always already obsolete. Its radiance and melancholy are the Janus face of modernity, and modernism reflects first one, then the other visage. In Ladies Almanack , "fashion" satirically refers to a modernist mode of enunciation, in which (as in Joyce and Pound) styles may be tried on as a lady tries on a dress. Moreover, Barnes is crucially concerned in this work to view lesbian community through the dual temporal optic of fashion: its modernistic aura of newness, its beauty and flamboyance; and its potential fragility and ephemerality. Lesbian community, like fashion, constitutes for Barnes the very scene of modernity.
Barnes suggests—in a rather backhanded way—that lesbianism has recently become fashionable, in the pejorative sense of "trendy." Thus Dame Musset (representing the senior Amazon Natalie Barney), whose very look bespeaks her immunity to fashion, complains:
"In my day," said Dame Musset, and at once the look of the Pope, which she carried about with her as a Habit waned a little, and there was seen to shine forth the Cunning of a Monk in Holy Orders, in some country too old for Tradition, "in my day I was a Pioneer and a Menace, it was not then as it is now, chic and pointless to a degree, but as daring as a Crusade, for where now it leaves a woman talkative, so that we have not a Secret among us, then it left her in Tears and Trepidation." (LA , 34)
Yet while Barnes may well take a swipe at the fashionable "ladies" of Barney's salon, she equally implicates the "lady of fashion" writing the book. For as part of the company of newcomers to this fashion, she is a betrayer of secrets, bearing the concomitant guilt of using community to make literature.
Barnes retains this ironic stance in representing Dame Musset's circle, expressing a deep ambivalence that goes beyond the barbed satire of the roman à clef. In a number of her positive traits—her openness, her freethinking, her frank sensuality, and her personal magnetism—Musset resembles both Sophia and Wendell Ryder. Her character suggests a possible synthesis of the best of their traits, an ideal of the modern character of which Sophia and Wendell were the damaged halves. I think the overall lighthearted tone of the book favors this view. Nevertheless, Barnes tempers her celebration with a sizable, if subtly presented, dose of skepticism. This can be seen in three aspects of the book.
The first is generic: the almanac format. As a calendar, it has a dual
temporal valency, referring on the one hand to the naturally regenerating cycles of nature, which renew the products of the past in the same form, on the other to the annual cycles of fashion, which obliterate them from memory. The passage of the year is either redemptive or catastrophic. Almanacs, moreover, tend to segment the year into a schedule of planting , to which other factors like weather are correlated. Yet given the affiliative nature of this community, the organic-generative connotations of that structuring of time stands in ironic tension with Barnes's implication, in a kind of sly genetic pun, that no seed will fall in this furrow. The implications of the almanac form waver back and forth between generativity and lack of issue, structure and destruction, continuity and the approach of a final end. The ambiguity of this generic allusion may then imply, as Barnes writes in her August chapter, that the satiric almanac offers no sure guidance, as it can represent "no settled State long enough to be either damned or transfigured" (LA , 48).
In addition to the popular and practical genre of the almanac, Ladies Almanack also has a clear relation to the tradition of pastoral literature. This, too, commonly made allegorical allusions to definite figures of the court, of literary and intellectual circles, or of coteries and salons. If Dame Musset's salon circle can be said to resemble a kind of idyllic pastoral community, then the specific literary analogy between Ladies Almanack and one evident model for Barnes's "pastoral," Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar , suggests a more melancholy outlook than the playful tone would at first glance suggest. The vulnerability of the closed community to historical mutability and death is a dominant theme of Spenser's pastoral and the genre as a whole. I am not, of course, arguing that Barnes is merely serving up an old pastoral chestnut but rather suggesting that she allows the allusion to pastoral to collide with and perspectivize her more lighthearted intentions.
She underscores her doubts, introduced by the generic vehicle, through the explicit comments of the character Patience Scalpel (by the "key," Mina Loy). Significantly, Scalpel brings up the question of reproduction , calling in question the self-sufficiency of an all-women community. After a tirade against pairing "like to like," she pauses and asks, "Are good Mothers to supply them with Luxuries in the next Generation; for they themselves will have no Shes, unless some Her puts them forth! Well I'm not the Woman for it! They well have to pluck where they may. My Daughters shall go amarrying!" (LA , 13). Only if some women continue to give birth, argues Scalpel, will Dame Musset find new "ladies" to take under her wing.
In a subtle manipulation of typographic space and image-text relation, however, Barnes divides Scalpel's "cutting" words and places an image of the child Evangeline Musset emerging birthlike from the space between Scalpel's words. Below the icon of Musset is a banner that reads "Thus Evangeline Began Her Career." The folds of the banner open out, yard, and in conjunction with the frontal view of the child and the white space between the two halves of the text, suggest an abstracted image of a woman's spread legs; either Musset is emerging from the vagina (figured by the shadows above her left side) or she forms its outline. Barnes offers here a myth of origin, in a catastrophic confrontation of the filiative and affiliative ideals. Mobilizing the ordinarily "margin" elements of graphic and typographic design against the senses of the text—a discourse, dominant both materially (in the book format) and ideologically (in the book's social context)—Barnes literally opens the space from which the lesbian heroine will emerge. To put it in a formula: the heroine of modernistic affiliative (lesbian) community is born from the literal rupture of the filiative discourse that Patience Scalpel represents.
In its depiction of the "making of a lesbian" as a parodic simulacrum of birth, however, Barnes's drawing also subtly illustrates Patience Scalpel's argument: this community's progeny exists only on paper, as works of literature and art. In fact, Barnes views lesbianism as peculiarly tied to a "textualization" of desire, the mediation of social relations through eroticized acts of writing and reading—of which Ladies Almanack is itself a prime example. Already in Ladies Almanack the various aspects of same-sex love are linked by analogy to different modes of reading. These modes of reading are delineated on a "horizontal" axis, along which there are qualitative differences, even contradictions: the different "months" of the calendar, representing as they do diverse figures in the Barney circle and diverse facets of lesbian community, and some presented by Barnes more positively than others. At the same time, Barnes also implies a "vertical" axis of reading, by overlaying her narrative line (the life of Dame Musset) on an abstract, spatialized grid (the calendar or zodiacal form, which allows side-by-side comparisons); her allegorical representations of stylized "ladies" on the referential allusions to a coterie; her textual depictions on the pictorial and typographical images. Each of these laminations may lead to conflicts of interpretation. Each new thickening of the text arrests the identifications of readers, blocking their curiosity to know "what lesbianism is," barring their investment of desire in "the" meaning of lesbian sociabil-
Starry Eyes aloft, where a Peewit was yet content to mate it hot among the Branches, making for himself a Covey in the olden Formula, "they love the striking Hour, nor would breed the Moments that go to it. Sluts !" she said pleasantly after a little thought, "Are good Mothers to supply them with luxuries in the next Generation; for they themselves will have no Shes, unless some Her puts them forth! Well I'm not the Woman for it! They well have to pluck where they may. My Daughters shall go amarrying!"
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ity, as if such a thing existed, in the singular. As I will suggest in the following section, Nightwood amplifies the analogy between lesbianism and reading and self-reflexively interrogates it, to the point of refusing the entanglements of textuality and desire, the costs of "reading" the other and of imputing meanings to her story.
Finally, and perhaps most subtly, Barnes also embeds temporal irony in the linguistic texture of the work. Obvious to any reader is the unusual, archaic diction of Ladies Almanack . What is perhaps less obvious is that the overwhelming majority of the truly arcane words—words for which the typical reader must appeal to the wisdom of the Oxford English Dictionary —refer to items of clothing or fabrics. Ensconced in Ladies Almanack are scores of uncommon words of "fashion" (along with many other familiar clothing terms). "Blister," "belcher," "tippet" (7), "dimity" (12), "bugles" (15), "riband" (19), "four-in-hand," "Busby" (31), "gusset" (43), "plackets" (47), "underkirtel" (66), "duvet" (67), and "snood" (69) are some of the more flamboyantly strange.
Barnes manages three things with this diction. She highlights the gendering of language through its reference to sex-specific spheres of social life. Since sewing, clothing, and fashion were traditionally women's spheres, the language that refers to them can be used as an exclusive code by women. To be a "lady of fashion" is, from this perspective, to be privy to secrets (the same ones that as a lady of fashion one must betray). At the same time, she suggests the temporal backdrop that shadows this community of women. For a number of these words, many of which refer to specialized Renaissance and nineteenth-century garments, must have been obscure even to Barnes's female contemporaries. These words are pointedly outmoded , designating fashions long past and forgotten, hence also evoking the temporal predicament of the "ladies of fashion," doomed to aging and mortality.
Finally, such words satirically conjure an analogy between extravagant rhetoric and grotesque display of the body. They suggest the body's prosthesis by strange, inanimate appendages (a metonymic substitution) and its deformation though aging, which renders its parts as ostentatiously unfunctional as arcane and outmoded words (a metaphoric substitution). As the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, the earliest use of the word prosthesis , in a 1553 book of rhetorics, had a grammatical and rhetorical sense: "The addition of a letter or syllable at the beginning of a word." An example from the nineteenth century, points to the normative bias against such apparently superfluous, non-standardized usage: " 'Prosthesis' belongs to a . . . class of terms . . . denoting arbitrary processes, whose intrusion into the realm of language should be viewed with . . . suspicion." In the context of standard, modern spelling, the extra "k" of "almanack" can be read as an exemplary instance of this phenomenon. Like the monocle sported by the Natalie Barney devotee Una Troubridge or the painter Romaine Brook's stylish top hat, this supplementary letter in the title announces a whole perverse body of linguistic excesses hidden between the cover of Barnes's little book, pointing ultimately to that "suspicious" excess of the female body when it is unbound from its reproductive functions and untamed by norms of filiative culture.
Barnes may have found inspiration for this figural-prosthetic conception of fashion in the flamboyant but increasingly pathetic figure of her Greenwich Village friend Baroness Elsa yon Freytag-Loringhoven (the baroness committed suicide in 1927, and Barnes unsuccessfully tried to edit her poetry and write her biography). In her sartorial sense, the baroness was a walking translation of the Apollinaire passage
quoted above. Summing up various accounts of her eccentric outfits, Steven Watson reports:
Her head was often shaved—or half-shaved—and then shellacked or painted vermillion. She alternately adorned her head with a coal scuttle, a French soldier's helmet, ice cream spoons, or even a lit birthday cake crowning a face smeared with yellow powder and black lipstick. Her wardrobe included a bolero jacket, a loud Scottish kilt, and a patchy fur coat, but these served merely as a base. An adept seamstress, she applied to her costume Kewpie dolls and stuffed birds, flattened tin cans, cigarette premiums, and chandelier pendants. On her bustle she installed an electric taillight. Friends of the baroness were often startled to find their own possessions turning up in her attire.
Yet if she embodied in real life the poetic miracle of Apollinaire's idea of fashion, the baroness also gave it a dadaistic spin, shifting the extravagances of fashion from a metaphor of the poetic qualities of the modern to a literal enactment of its underlying logic: the magical, and potentially monstrous, supplanting of the female body by things. The ribald humor of the baroness's fashion sense poised her sartorial gesture between a utopian celebration of the poetic transfiguration of the body and satiric protest over its reification as commodity and device, an ambiguity seen also in Hugo Bali's machine-man costumes in the dada nights at Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire, though with differently gendered overtones. In her very person, on the one hand, von Freytag-Loringhoven anticipated the profane illumination of the urban world, the technological interpenetration of body and image that Walter Benjamin celebrated at the end of his "Surrealism" essay. At the same time, however, an undeniable note of hysteria lurked in her gestures, rising at times to the pitch of madness. The very freedom of her poetic sense in reinventing her appearance revealed an underlying eclipse of the self, a will to self-extirpation that would be definitively consummated by her suicide. In his critique of surrealist freedom, Theodor Adorno aptly summed up the Janus face of that anarchistic revolt by which the baroness lived and died: "In the face of total reification, which throws it back upon itself and upon its protest, a subject that has become absolute, that has full control of itself and is free of all consideration of the empirical world, reveals itself to be inanimate, something virtually dead."
In Ladies Almanack , Barnes takes this double optic on fashion another step toward the cancellation of its utopian side. Unlike Apollinaire, who plays up the sheer formal inventiveness of the nearest fashion as the double of modernist art, Barnes treats the extravagance of
outmoded fashion as akin to a dismembered or grotesque body, reassembled pastichelike into the body of the beloved. Barnes's illustration for October, which comically literalizes the blazon of traditional love poetry, presents in turn the ideal single parts of the woman's body for praise: "The Eye Of The Scullion / The Legs Of Moll / Whose Buttocks Were A Girls / But The Hand Of Queen Ann / The Breasts of Haughty," reads the caption from top to bottom and left to right. The textual context, however, is Dame Musset's complaint that women's body's are put together by chance, not assembled piecemeal as would, in her view, be ideal:
"Oh monstrous Pot!" she sighed, "oh heinous Potter, oh refined, refined, refined Joke, that once smashed to bits it must go a go-going, and when once concocted must eternally be another's Whim! We should be able to order our Ladies as we would, and not as they come. Could any haphazard be as choice as I could pick and prefer, if this Dearing were left scattered about at Leg-counter and Head-rack?" (LA , 67)
It is from the clash of two connotative fields—dismemberment and desire—that Barnes's satiric image emerges. A further sense of "a lady of fashion" suggests itself here, its genitive taken in the strongest sense: the idealized lady constructed by desire is wholly "of" fashion, fashioned out of corporeal pieces, themselves individually fashioned in excess of any unified body, then fitted and bought like items of designer wear from "Leg-counter" and "Head-rack?'
Barnes's gesture is ambiguous. Playfully, she asserts an aesthetics and erotics of lesbian love. Yet by framing all-women community in the language of fashion, the idiom of the lady of fashion who has authored and illustrated the text, she also registers its somber predicament. Barnes confronts the positive affiliative relation, which reflects modernity's welcome erosion of patriarchal, filiative authority, with the melancholy time-consciousness that is modernity's shadow. This time-consciousness is registered above all in images of the fragile, mortal, idiosyncratic female body, denatured by cosmetic and technical pros-theses and subject to satiric deformation and dismemberment.
Of Barnes's four major works—Ryder, Ladies Almanack, Nightwood, and The Antiphon —it is undoubtedly Nightwood that has attracted the most critical commentary, as well as popular readership. Its subject mat-
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her is closely, even passionately linked to Barnes's biographical situation, her lesbian love relation with Thelma Wood and her friendships and enmities in the Paris expatriate circles. The autobiographical component of the work has become even more evident as an important body of unpublished materials, especially Barnes's letters to Thelma Wood and Emily Coleman and the earlier drafts of the novel, has become more generally known. In themselves, these are fascinating reading, and they have shed crucial light on the nature of a powerful but recalcitrant masterpiece of late modernist fiction. The recent publication of Herring's solidly researched biography of Barnes, which replaces Andrew Field's flawed and dubiously speculative one, and Cheryl Plumb's new edition of Nightwood , which restores deleted passages and offers much
additional information about the text, will surely reinforce the appeal of (auto)biographical readings of Barnes's novel.
While the role of Barnes's personal experiences and the history of the text are of undeniable importance in the genesis of Nightwood , however, it nonetheless remains an open question whether such a "contextual" approach represents the best way of coming to terms with the work. Better put, the central questions of Nightwood may be what pertinence biographical facts have as context for its text and whether its text does not, by its nature, connect with its context in an unconventional way, perhaps only "representational" in a very specific and limited measure. Barnes's book, with all its difficulties and peculiarities, poses in a particularly intense way problems of reading that to a greater or lesser extent pervade any literary work: the divergence of authorial intention and a reader's interpretation; the mutability of interpretations as new facts about the author and new concerns emerge on the horizon of reading; and perhaps most important here, the divergent status of a text as an artifact of authorial labor and as the basis for a reader's production of meanings, the necessary shift in register between the genesis of a text and its reception. While some books may attempt to conceal or mitigate such issues of reading, others exacerbate them to the point where they can be ignored only at the cost of serious misunderstanding; Nightwood is certainly one of the latter. Barnes herself, moreover, actively invites reflection on the status of reading by giving it a central role in the passion play of her characters: their actions are mediated by prewritten scripts of various sorts, and they are caught up in interpreting and misinterpreting stories and in elaborating them further according to their own designs and desires. At the heart of her composition of Nightwood , then, Barnes self-consciously explores problems of interpretation, desire, and identification in reading or listening to stories, which cannot help but represent a comment on how her own readers should approach the book before them.
In light of these considerations, I want to argue for a reading of Nightwood that sets aside the biographical approach and takes up the problems of interpretation posed by the book as central, not just to its "literary" meaning, but also to its political and historical implications. The potential "illegibility" of the world is not simply a metafictional game for Barnes, nor is it a contingent obscurity that might be cleared up if only one had more personal documents with which to construct the autobiographical "subtext" of the story; it is an anguishing historical problem, which, I will argue, is the central issue of the book. In a more
polemical vein, I would go further and claim that the biographicalcontextualist impulse in criticism of Nightwood fails to attend to this problem, displacing problems of reading onto problems of research, reducing the hermeneutic predicaments of the work to a problem of access to documents. In emphasizing represented acts of speech as the point where the text's historical nature can be made explicit by "restoring" the documentary background to literary figures, such an approach elides the rhetorical act that Barnes's book as a whole, in its troubling lack of coherence and legibility, performed in its historical situation. This global "speech act" of the book as a whole is every bit as historical as those individually represented speech acts, which may correspond to documentary data; the book's "speech," however, may be as much determined by the refusal, resistance, parodic deformation, and misprision of context as by translation and representation of it. Furthermore, the rhetorical complexities of Barnes's relation to events and experience, which make Nightwood so apparently hermetic, are essential to understanding even those singular experiences represented within the book's diegetic frame; for these narrated experiences are themselves deeply marked by Barnes's doubts about the possibility of representing experience as such. The counterhistorical thrust of the work, ultimately, constitutes a more profound, if more mediated, address to Barnes's historical situation than any immediately reconstructible correspondence with documentary evidence.
Within its primarily comic-satiric frame, Ladies Almanack already anticipates the more somber reaches of Barnes's masterpiece, Nightwood (1936). Nightwood , however, would push Barnes's melancholy awareness of loss and her flamboyantly disfigured imagery toward a new extreme: the progressive breakdown of character, the disintegration of the indices of "self" in fiction. Nightwood's plot line boils down to a few spare events: a baron of Jewish descent (Felix Volkbein) meets a young women (Robin Vote) in the company of an unlicensed doctor (Matthew O'Connor), who is soon also revealed to be a transvestite. The baron and Robin marry, have a honeymoon, and conceive a child, whom the baron wants to carry forth his family line. The child causes Robin great suffering in labor, and her resentment about the experience spells the end of the marriage; the child, meanwhile, is a feeble half-idiot. Robin meets her next partner, Nora Flood, at a circus, and they live together
happily for a while. Robin begins to wander, and Nora stays home alone or follows Robin from bar to bar as she makes her night treks. Finally, Robin is taken over by another woman, Jenny Petherbridge, who takes Robin back to America with her. The exposition of these events, however, takes up only a limited part of the book. The events are told and retold, varied and interpreted, in several different contexts and in the voices of a variety of characters. It is, in fact, in this enormous excess of narration over episode that the "modernist" aspect of Nightwood lies.
None of Barnes's major works, from Ryder to the post-World War II verse drama The Antiphon , reveals much concern for large-scale form, plotting, or character development in a conventional sense. Notable instead are their rich stylization of sentence and luxuriant proliferations of trope. As Phillip Herring suggests on the basis of manuscript evidence and personal testimonies, Barnes had "no editorial skills" and "little clear sense of what was and was not digressive or irrelevant"; she arranged chapters in piles on the floor, with only tentative and improvised ideas for the large-scale form of the book. The ultimate "form" of her works is a montage of fragments, partly overlapping and in a contingent order. It is held together as much by its consistency of style and figural language as by its plotting or even character voice. Indeed, the endless succession of images often tends to work against character development, since it renders the voices uniform, as, for example, in the long exchanges between Nora and the doctor in the fifth chapter, "Watchman, What of the Night?"—a veritable battle of lapidary witticisms, sinewy metaphors, and operatically wrought anecdotes.
Barnes's modernist predecessors had long before begun to turn the screw of irony in order to evade identification of the author's perspective with the literary conventions employed, the events represented, and the limited perspectives of the characters in the work. As such, this evasion already implied a loss of faith in the ability, of fictional form to encompass and reconcile the contradictions represented there. The modernist gambit, however, was to situate this loss within the horizons of the work, to fold it back into the narrative premises of the story, most often by filtering events through a narrating figure, internal observer, or "stream of consciousness." Elaborate narration, as evidence of a labor of consciousness struggling to comprehend and represent experienced events, took on central prominence, often (as in Henry James or Joseph Conrad) taking on equal or greater importance than the narrated events themselves. By masterfully juggling the partial perspectives of narrators and ironically exposing these narrators' shortcomings, modernist
authors could balance conflicting demands for formal cohesion and fidelity to a bewildering modern world. Appearances could be saved, as the contradictions of life were transfigured into the complexities of literary form.
These contradictions are, however, particularly daunting in Barnes's novel. For framing the melodramatic plot about the fated love relation of Nora Flood and Robin Vote, and in my view, rivaling it for importance, is the pathetic "disqualification" of all characters, both major and minor (Plumb in N , xvii). At its most basic level, this "disqualification" has a social meaning, referring to the exclusion or estrangement of the characters from sexual, racial, and occupational norms. The circus performer, the Jew, the declassed or faux aristocrat, and the homosexual are among the most prominent of the alienated "types" that form the backdrop for the lesbian drama of Nora and Robin. If the term "disqualification" is taken literally, however, it yields a further, still more radical meaning: the progressive loss of qualities as such. Like her Austrian contemporary Robert Musil, Barnes sets out to depict a recent social development, the reciprocal appearance of a derealized social world and the "disqualified" characters appropriate to it, the emergence of a new type of social being, the "man without qualities." In Nightwood , however, the space of this disqualification is not explicitly the rationalized world of technology and collective power but its shadowy afterimage in the irrational realm of sleep and "night":
"I used to think," Nora said, "that people just went to sleep, or if they did not go to sleep, that they were themselves, but now," she lit a cigarette and her hands trembled, "now I see that the night does something to a person's identity, even when asleep."
"Ah!" exclaimed the doctor. "Let a man lay himself down in the Great Bed and his 'identity' is no longer his own, his 'trust' is not with him, and his 'willingness' is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous?' (N , 70)
The ontological uncertainty of this world, its dispossession of meanings and identities, faces the writer with a peculiar challenge.
Barnes's attempt to meet this challenge, in fact, pushed the resources of modernist narration to the point of exasperation. For precisely here was the weak link in modernist aesthetic ideology: the investment of narration with the task of "saving" the meaning of "disqualified" events and materials. As Vincent Pecora argues, the metaphor of "rescue" through form became increasingly untenable as literary modernism developed:
"It is the vain attempt at a rescue . . . of some notion of self as form that is modern narrative's founding contradiction." In relation to Nightwood , one can specify this metaphor of rescue in two domains, critical to the unfolding of the book itself: rescue as a problem of plot and of interpretation. The problem of rescue, generally speaking, lends Nightwood what little plot it has: How should the characters act to "save" themselves and each other from self-destruction? Will Nora be able to pull Robin out of her downward spiral? Will Dr. O'Connor be able to console Nora? Will his religious faith save Dr. O'Connor from his profound loneliness? Robin makes this dimension of "rescue" explicit, when she hurls it as an accusation at Nora in the streets of Paris; bending over an old whore to whom she has given money, Robin points to Nora and says, "These women—they are all like her. . . . They are all good—they all want to save us" (N , 120). Matthew O'Connor, likewise, recognizes his role as saving his friends, which torments him because of his inadequacy to the task: "! was doing well enough . . . until you kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes; and here I sit . . . laboring to comfort you. Am I supposed to render up my paradise—that splendid acclimation—for the comfort of weeping women and howling boys?" (N, 126-127). Yet "rescue" also has a hermeneutic dimension in Barnes's book, insofar as her characters' interpretations of the events, their interminable hashing over of the same stories in various versions, all but supplant the plot, which is quite limited in scope. Here the crucial questions become: How can the seemingly pointless sufferings of the characters be viewed as meaningful.> How can one salvage meaning from failed relationships (i.e., through genealogy, through memory, through religion, as frameworks for reading and understanding lived experience)?
The interpretational dilemmas of the characters are shared by the reader of Barnes's novel. The reader becomes an arbiter between conflicting versions and evaluations of the story made by the different characters, in their attempts to secure its meaning for their own interpretive frame. Seen otherwise, the characters and their version of events function as internal ciphers of the problems of reading posed by the book as a whole; they subsist as allegories of the struggle to invest the book with "personal" meanings, to struggle against the implications of automatism and textual excess, in order to lend anthropomorphic "person-hood" to a textual ensemble and differentiate out of a mass of prose a few individualized images of voice and body. In this light, too, a crucial distinction exists between Nightwood and earlier works of modernist writing. For in Nightwood , the excess of narration over narrated event is
comprehended by no overarching symbolic unity, however loose, whether that be provided by a "mythic" or literary analogue (as was Ulysses , for example), a guiding allegorical image (the journey to the lighthouse and the painting in To the Lighthouse ), or a dominant psychological agent (as in James's or Conrad's narrative involutions). The basic metaphor of Barnes's book, "Night," is significant only for its negativity, its absence of definite meaning; "wood," too, is the archetypal space of error and the undoing of identity. Both are effective as metaphor primarily in resisting understanding, in scattering the self in an indefinite space. The "night," as its interpreter and spokesman Dr. O'Connor suggests, can only be "comprehended" improperly, through a violent allegorization, a dressing up of "the unknowable in the garments of the known" (N , 114), an ostentatiously false figuration akin to his own cross-dressing, to foray into the shadowy spaces of Paris's public urinals.
Significantly, then, in her treatment of "rescue"—both as an issue of plot and as a problem of interpretation—Barnes consistently emphasizes failures of rescue, the futility of redemptive strategies in keeping her characters together, whole, and credibly personlike. She meticulously explores the strategies of redemption employed by her major characters, Felix, Nora, Jenny, and Dr. O'Connor, in each case systematically demolishing them in turn. As readers, we are led to witness the spectacle of these figures' progressive disintegration, as they lapse one by one into compulsive repetition, bestial regression, and madness. By handling her characters in this way, however, Barnes also undercuts the interpretive ground of the reader, who sought in the characters allegorical clues about how to understand the book as whole: as an allegory of historical decline (Felix), as the tragedy or purgatory of desire (Nora), as regression and animal atavism (Robin), as sin and earthly trial (Dr. O'Connor). The reader is left to choose between the flawed positions of unmoored characters, only partly realized, or to "identify" with an acephalic vacancy presiding over the whole.
The actions of each of Nightwood's major characters signify a particular strategy for redeeming their loss of stable ground and for orienting themselves within the dim, featureless present. These strategies, moreover, are directly linked to ways of appropriating and using stories, both
orally recounted and textually preserved. Thus, they function as self-reflexive markers of particular types of reading. Specifically, they cast a satiric light on the entanglements of individual desire with processes of reading, which come forth especially in the identification of a character's personhood with a text of a particular type. Obviously, since at least Cervantes's Don Quixote , the integuments of reading and subjectivity have been the stuff of self-conscious fiction. Barnes, however, offers a particularly negative version of this theme, since she offers little in the way of compensation for the skepticism her procedure implies, whether in the form of ethical insight (as evoked by the rich interplay of Don Quixote's mad desire and the gritty reality from which it escapes) or of ludic pleasure (as with much metafiction from Tristram Shandy to Mulligan Stew ).
"Count" Felix Volkbein, for example, wants to reconstruct, through an aesthetically guided montage of fragments, a valid historical tradition based on filial lineage (a strategy akin to Wendell Ryder's foiled attempt to reconstitute patrilinearity with Molly Dance). Surrounding himself with portraits, texts of history, and theatricalized rehearsals of rituals, Felix attempts to create an aesthetic simulacrum of an aristocratic genealogy. He chooses Robin Vote as the means by which he can carry out his plan, for as an American, in Felix's view, she is without determinate history. "With an American," Felix says to Dr. O'Connor, "anything can be done" (N , 37). Robin is a blank sheet for the text he hopes to write upon her body—his son, his lineage, and ultimately, the whole history of European nobility. Significantly, in courting her, he arrives at her apartment the first time "cart)ting two volumes on the life of the Bourbons" (N , 39). On their honeymoon in Vienna, Felix shows Robin his home city but is himself estranged from it. Even this experience is mediated by a text, for "his memory was confused and hazy, and he found himself repeating what he had read, for it was what he knew best" (N , 40).
Felix's marriage is destroyed by his blind attempt to identify, by fiat, his own situation with Robin with the preconstituted text of tradition, to interpolate the "unwritten" character of Robin into this collection of stories. The breakup of their marriage comes when Robin disowns their child and makes evident the failure of Felix's attempt to author his own story as the continuation of the historical genealogies:
As he came toward her, she said in a fury, "I didn't want him!" Raising her hand she struck him across the face.
He stepped away, he dropped his monocle and caught at it swinging, he took his breath backward. He waited a whole second, trying to appear casual. "You didn't want him," he said. He bent down pretending to disentangle his ribbon, "It seems I could not accomplish that." (N , 45)
His plans are definitively wrecked by the offspring of his short-lived marriage with Robin, the enfeebled son who shares Felix's father's name, Guido Volkbein. With this child, significantly, Barnes forecloses not just the filiative relation—the patronym—but also any affiliative compensation for its loss. Guido wishes to become a priest and wears on his chest the sign of the Virgin; but as Felix himself realizes, his son may very well die young or be unable to withstand the rigors of taking holy orders. In Guido, Felix's desire to participate in a superindividual tradition is foreclosed.
When Felix returns to the story in "Where the Tree Falls," some ten years after the extents with Robin in "La Somnambule," he has become an author on religious matters, writing long disquisitions on problems of Catholicism and sending them as letters to the pope. Transferring his shattered hopes for his son from the earthly to the spiritual aristocracy, Baron Volkbein still engages in futile acts of "authorship," a willful attempt to write himself into the fabric of history. To his letters, however, "Felix received no answer. He had expected none. He wrote to clear some doubt in his mind. He knew that in all probability the child would never be 'chosen.' If he were, the Baron hoped that it would be in Austria, among his own people, and to that end he finally decided to make his home in Vienna" (N , 92.).
Even when his genealogical dream has been foiled, Felix still clings to the redemptive scheme, recast in the form of a modernist iconoclasm. Thus in his parting dialogue with Dr. O'Connor, Felix offers a self-criticism of his past dealings with Robin. He had no clear idea of Robin, he admits, only an image. And an image is flawed in its partiality, its exclusion of time: "An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties" (N , 93). Felix goes on to suggest that on the basis of the image, we form a false conception of eternity, the eternal as the invariant. By breaking the image, or by accepting its shattering from without, or by viewing the image as perpetually to-be-shattered even in its present intactness, one discovers the meaning of the eternal. Felix's excursus on the image recalls Baudelaire's protomodernist poetics, in which the artist redeems flashes of eternal beauty and timeless value from the transitory, degraded, ugly constellations of the everyday modern world.
In his response, Dr. O'Connor seconds Felix's new aesthetic of "modern life," in which the momentary image and the enduring ruin converge. "Seek no further for calamity," O'Connor tells Felix, "you have it in your son" (N , 101). Yet to Nora, in the next chapter, O'Connor betrays his own lack of faith in this prescription. There he confesses the futility of Felix's efforts, describing him as "screaming up against tradition like a bat against a window-pane" (N , 127).
Nora Flood's redemptive strategy might be called "cataleptic," to employ a term used by Barnes to describe Robin's suspended, incomplete gestures (N , 61). She projects Robin into death, where she can be preserved against change: "To keep her . . . Nora knew now that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her" (N , 52). Yet to live with the "dead" Robin, Nora is forced to accommodate herself to a deathlike state—to become a night watcher, to dwell in dreams among her dead family members, and even, at the end of the "Night Watch" chapter, to simulate death throes: "Nora fell to her knees, so that her eyes were not withdrawn by her volition, but dropped from their orbit by the falling of her body. . . . She closed her eyes, and at that moment she knew an awful happiness. . . . [B]ut as she closed her eyes, Nora said 'Ah!' with the intolerable automatism of the last 'Ah!' in a body struck at the moment of its final breath" (N, 57). Moreover; in this petrification of Robin, Nora places her beloved in the terrible position of Poe's Mr. Valdemar, who out of his mesmeric trance pronounces "I am dead" and begs to sleep or be wakened. Nora recounts to the doctor how the end of her relationship with Robin happened. After a violent night and an early morning reconciliation, Robin falls into a deep sleep. Unable to bear such contradictions, Nora slaps Robin awake to tell her it's over. Like Mr. Valdemar, Robin flakes away before Nora's eyes: "I saw her come awake and turn befouled before me, she who had managed in that sleep to keep whole. . . . No rot had touched her until then, and there before my eyes I saw her corrupt all at once and withering, because I had struck her sleep away, and I went mad and I've been mad ever since" (N , 121). Here Barnes clearly connects the desire to redeem and a nihilism turned, as Friedrich Nietzsche saw, against life itself. The salvation of the beloved from time requires Nora first to bury her alive, then to witness the horrible cinema of her decay.
As with Felix's marriage, Nora's relationship with Robin serves Barnes as a site of reflection on the fatal nature of identification. Barnes draws a subtle parallel between the disappointed Felix and the bereft Nora, both lovers of Robin, in making them both writers of letters in
their final chapters. Whereas Felix is still, in his letters to the pope, playing out a spiritualized version of his aristocratic fantasies, Nora is still snared in the terminated plot line of her life with Robin. At the beginning of "Go Down, Matthew," years after Robin's departure with Jenny, Nora is writing a letter, presumably to Robin. Dr. O'Connor opens the chapter with a complaint, berating Nora for trying still to squeeze a meaning out of her tormented desire: " 'Can't you be quiet now?' the doctor said. He had come in late one afternoon to find Nora writing a letter. 'Can't you be done now, can't you give up, now be still, now that you know what the world is about, knowing it's about nothing?' " (N , 105). If we take this scene as a self-reflexive representation of authorship, then the doctor's complaint takes aim at Nora's inability to stop writing the same old story, to achieve closure; coming as it does in the last long chapter of a book whose plot was finished many pages earlier, it points toward Nightwood's own problem of closure. Nora had identified her own desire with "Robin," which wrote Robin into a personal myth, making her a figment of Nora's own desire: "have you ever loved someone and it became yourself?." (N , 126). In the end, she attempts to appropriate and understand her experience by repeating the actions of her created character, a further refolding of the scene of identification, a figurative reenactment of Robin's life. Nora looks for Robin in other girls, yet at the same time seeks to place herself in the position of Robin, the "debauchee." This double position bespeaks an identification that collapses the distinction of fiction and author, subject and object; as Nora confesses:
In the beginning, after Robin went away with Jenny to America, I searched for her in the ports. Not literally, in another way. . . . I sought Robin in Marseilles, in Tangier, in Naples, to understand her, to do away with my terror. I said to myself, I will do what she has done, I will love what she has loved, then I will find her again. At first it seemed that all I should have to do would be to become 'debauched,' to find the girls that she had loved; but I found that they were only little girls that she had forgotten. I haunted the cafés where Robin had lived her night life; I drank with the men, I danced with the women, but all I knew was that others had slept with my lover and my child. (N , 129)
Having objectified Robin as a "fiction" in her own mind and in her writing, Nora is then left with the dilemma of how to have done with the character she has created. Even the death of the real Robin would be no solution, since she has been so thoroughly supplanted by the fiction Nora had imposed on her: "Once, when she was sleeping, I wanted her
to die. Now that would stop nothing" (N , 108). Compelled, however, to mimic the acts of her own fictional creation, Nora loses her own sense of reality, adapting to a fictional cosmos of desire, a life without qualities. To live among the mind's living statues is to assimilate oneself to a night world, to repeat in a vacuum the hollow gestures of the dead.
Jenny Petherbridge would redeem by acquisition and collecting. The savagery of Barnes's depiction—seconded even by the normally benign Felix—requires little comment. Jenny embodies secondariness and compulsive repetition. Obsessed with possessing objects, she ends up being possessed by them. Thus, in the last chapter, when Robin lights a candle in a church, Jenny hurries in afterward, blows it out, and lights it again. In her intense desire to have Robin, she surrenders to the fascination of the least thing Robin has touched.
Barnes carefully underscores the close tie of Jenny's appropriation with a particular relation to language. Jenny's own storytelling is automatonlike; she reels off a narrative sequence like a gramophone:
Hovering, trembling, tip-toeing, she would unwind anecdote after anecdote in a light rapid lisping voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the 'every day' voice; but it never did. The stories were humorous, well told. She would smile, toss her hands up, widen her eyes; immediately everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story—the teller herself. (N , 59)
Jenny's crucial narrative role, as the woman who steals Robin from Nora, is connected by simile to Jenny's derivative use of speech: "As, from the solid archives of usage, she had stolen or appropriated the dignity of speech, so she appropriated the most passionate love that she knew, Nora's for Robin" (N , 60). Further reinforcing this connection, Barnes establishes that Jenny first comes to desire Robin not from seeing her but in hearing the story of Robin's passionate relationship with Nora: "Jenny knew about Nora immediately; to know Robin ten minutes was to know about Nora. Robin spoke of her in long, rambling, impassioned sentences. It had caught Jenny by the ear—she listened, and both loves seemed to be one and her own. From that moment the catastrophe was inevitable" (N , 61). Jenny was "caught by the ear," falling in love with a story. Her overweening identification, as an auditor-reader, with Robin's and Nora's tale indeed proves "catastrophic," for it not only sets in motion the dismal decline of Nora, Robin, and herself but also affects even Felix and Dr. O'Connor.
This appropriative identification, this blurring of reader and text, extends to Barnes's own text, in which Jenny's chapter, "The Squatter," recapitulates details of the previous chapter, "Night Watch," which was dominated by Nora. Thus Barnes subtly contaminates her description of Jenny in the chapter entitled "The Squatter," with Nora's mock death pang a few pages earlier. This association suggests that Jenny, in her attempt to supplant Nora with Robin, will be destined to carry the repetition to its completion and likewise suffer the torment of abandonment. Alluding to and echoing Nora's spasmodic collapse in the "Night Watch" chapter, Barnes writes of Jenny: "She frequently talked about something being the 'death of her,' and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it. The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; had she been forced to invent a vocabulary for herself, it would have been a vocabulary of two words, 'ah' and 'oh' " (N , 59). A network of resonances subsists between Nora, who collapses when she sees Jenny with Robin, and this apparently distinct, satirical description of Jenny herself. Nora, in suffering the likeness of death, speaks the words Jenny would speak were she to invent a vocabulary—the inarticulate vocables of "awful happiness" and "intolerable automatism"; expressions of laughter, weeping, and sexual pleasure. In turn Nora "dies" from the blow that would "be the death of" Jenny were she to suffer it herself. Not only does Barnes suggest a single external power overcoming these woman, breaking down their differences and assimilating them to the same depersonalized surroundings (the "nightwood"); she also robs Jenny's suffering of significance. Like all Jenny's other acquisitions, it is a linguistic simulacrum, a degraded copy of someone else's vocables. Nora possessed the original; Jenny is just a "squatter," sniffing around the expelled Robin.
Dr. O'Connor holds out a tenuous thread of religious salvation. That strategy, while perhaps the most humane and accommodating in the book, nevertheless proves a failure. For O'Connor finds himself unable to accommodate the fate of his friends and his own implication in their suffering within a Catholic moral paradigm, even one as paradox-rich as his own. Not only can he not really help them; he is forced to betray them in his perplexity. As a background voice in O'Connor's final drunken monologue remarks, the doctor is "always getting everyone into trouble by excusing them, because he can't excuse himself" (N , 134). His willingness to love and forgive his friends only puts the seal on their doom. The final horizon of Nightwood , as O'Connor confesses, is that of wordless suffering, "nothing, but wrath
and weeping" (N , 136). Poetry makes nothing happen, not even when it masquerades as religion.
O'Connor, however, plays another role, distinct from being a character among other characters, each with their own "solutions": he is a reader of the whole. As I noted in my introductory chapter, the condition of generalized mimetism—which blurs distinctions between the subject and the object, the real and the simulated, the figural and the literal—makes the "legibility" of events a crucial issue for modernist literature. At stake is ultimately the possibility of mastering the unspeakable through discourse: a central aspect, as I have suggested, of Anglo-American modernism's dominant strain. O'Connor, in his hermeneutic function, holds out a glimmer of hope in a mystical interpretation of the events, a reading in which the passion of suffering, written on the surface of the body of the sufferer, points to a deep, hidden truth. This mystical mode, in tension with its uncanny double, mimicking its operation on a surface without depth, is the last refuge of modernism's gesture of symbolic "rescue" in Nightwood .
In his essay "The Arts of Dying: Celibatory Machines," Michel de Certeau describes two modes of writing, the mystical and the celibatory. Both refer to a repertoire of techniques for transforming language and particular types of relations between language and meaning. Mystic discourse, de Certeau writes, is produced by a kind of "wounding, a labor of putting language to death." Such wounding
acts upon semantic formations. It infiltrates an order of discourse. It plays on meanings , throwing them off balance through the systematic use of oxy-morons and catachresis . . . and also through the systematic practice of "stooping to indecent similes," "carrying oneself to holy excess as though mad or deranged"; and through an "immodesty," whose goal is not to generate a surplus of meaning, but on the contrary to induce a de-fecfion of meaning in order to demonstrate the existence of an "off-stage" (ob-scene) in language. (160)
The rhetorical and lexical abuse of language creates a vocabulary that, de Certeau argues, has a reference point in the suffering body. Through a tearing of the surface of ordinary language a communication is set up with the hidden passions convulsing the flesh. "That interspace," he
concludes, "is the place where feelings injuring the body and paradoxes damaging the discourse have their immaterial meeting point" (160).
Is this invisible tangency between the body and language the goal of Barnes's tormented metaphors and paradoxes? Alan Singer has noted the way in which Barnes's strategies of figuration and the existence of her "characters" and "plots" are inextricable. In Nighwood , he claims, "the concept of character itself is altered by a catachrestic perspective." From this perspective, Barnes's characters would appear in the field of the text always already refracted through a language being "put to death." And the meaning produced by such a text would be a mystical one, akin to the "radiance" shining from the face of the tortured prisoner in Kafka's Penal Colony or Nora's own "awful happiness" at the end of "Night Watch," a sudden light thrown out in the exercise of joy before death.
In Speculum of the Other Woman , Luce Irigaray coins the neologism "La Mystérique" (summing up mystery, hysteria, and mysticism in a single feminine noun), to designate a particular form of mystical unknowledge, the undoing of predicative language and categories in a specifically female jouissance :
She is still darkness to herself through and through, nor does she understand the world surrounding her. In his undifferentiated blindness she will be able to achieve distinctness only by a certain number of cuts, severings. . . . [P]ain enables her to feel herself again and to gather her strength. This strength soon becomes exalted in such a flood of potency that she is taken to be possessed. Therefore she is condemned by confessors or inexperienced voyeurs who are horrified to see or hear her fall stricken to the ground, toss and turn, shriek, grunt, groan convulsively, stiffen, and then fall into a strange sleep.
This passage is of particular interest if overlaid on Nightwood's final chapter, "The Possessed," in which "the somnambule" Robin Vote falls to the ground in Nora's chapel and becomes like Nora's dog before collapsing. From Irigaray's perspective, Robin could be seen as possessed by "la mystérique," and her final metamorphosis—which has so horrified critics—would represent the acme of mystical ecstasy. Evident in Irigaray's description is the way in which "la mystérique" heightens the ambiguity of mystic signs to an absolute, which in turn thematizes the issue of hermeneutic perspective. From one view, "she"—"la mystérique"—is divine communication; from the other, abject breakdown and madness. This duality of perspective suggests a hermeneutic undecidability entailed, perhaps, by any radical disturbance of individual
subjectivity, and hence a crux of late modernist works that reflect such an experience of shock, disintegration, or loss. What I described earlier (with reference to the end of Ryder ) as mimetic assimilation—a partial surrender to death in the loss of difference from the surrounding—-in Irigaray's account takes on a more positive shading. Mimetic regression and the mystical intensifies of "joy before death" or the passions of "la mystérique" would be related ways of conceptualizing the potential volatility of the subject of late modernity.
Dr. O'Connor, in any case, is adept at reading mystical discourse, as a number of importantly placed anecdotes reveal. This discourse is a language of the body, its excretions and discharges the medium of its writing. From the perspective of this writing, O'Connor is able to offer a "rhetorical" critique of the American's relation to the body and flesh. The problem, he claims, is that the American mistakes the literal for the figural, taking the metaphor of washing one's sins clean as a matter of actual absterging of the body, as if cleanliness really were next to godliness: "We wash away our sense of sin, and what does that bath secure us? Sin, shining bright and hard. In what does a Latin bathe? True dust. We have made the literal error. We have used water, we are thus too sharply reminded" (N , 76). O'Connor goes on to compare the sheets of a European's bed, stained with the secretions and ejaculations of night, to the newspaper. If the newspaper is the record of the day, the filthy bed sheets are the record of the night (N , 76). One may read the writing of the body to discover the history of night, with its passions, its sufferings, its anonymity and crime. O'Connor's criticism of the "literal error" has as its correlate an implicit theory of reading, a hermeneutics of the night text written out of the body's depths. He recalls the corporeal discourse of classic mystic writing, with its sympathetic wounds and stigmata, its ecstasies and lassitudes, its sudden ebbs and flows of blood, mucus, and tears.
Other privileged media of mystical discourse are animals and children, probably because of their distance from propositional language. In his first appearance in Nightwood , for example, the doctor narrates a devastating war experience—an artillery attack "where the bombs began tearing the heart out of you"—through an anecdote about a cow he was holding onto in the dark: "! knew all at once that the tragedy of the beast can be two legs more awful than a man's. . . . [A] flash of lightning went by and I saw the cow turning her head straight back so her horns made two moons against her shoulders, the tears soused all over her great black eyes" (N , 19-20). He experienced in his own terror a
communication, a language of passion outside of language, passed from sufferer to sufferer: "I put my hand on the poor bitch of a cow and her hide was running water under my hand . . . jerking against my hand as if she wanted to go, standing still in one spot; and I thought, there are directions and speeds that no one has calculated, for believe it or not that cow had gone somewhere very fast that we didn't know of, and yet was still standing there" (N , 20). Whereas this early anecdote is part of one of O'Connor's monologues, he later uses a similar one—"the case of the horse who knew too much" (N , 96)—to answer Felix's question, why did Robin marry him? The manifest incoherence of this story as a response reveals the connection between Barnes's catachrestic language and O'Connor's habit of mystical interpretation. The only way O'Connor can answer Felix's question is to interpret Robin's bodily pain in bearing Guido as a mystical sign, a harbinger of the idiot-child's nearness to God.
O'Connor's propensity to mystical interpretation is also underscored by a strange, otherwise opaque detail in "Watchman, What of the Night?" O'Connor tells Nora that he considered stealing a few of Jenny's books, which, he says, "I would have spirited away if they hadn't been bound in calf—for I might steal the mind of Petronius, as wall I knew, but never the skin of a calf" (N , 87). Barnes distinguishes two modes of writing here, employed in her own text. Petronius represents, of course, traditional moral and social satire. The doctor can accept Petronius's "mind," since its satiric mockery serves an ethical end. But the calf skin, like a living page, is inscribed with a more sacrosanct writing, readable only by a mystically adept interpreter: the history of an individual creature's suffering unto death. If O'Connor can convincingly establish a transcendent meaning through mystical interpretation, he can offer the hope of escaping the amoral immanence of the late modernist's world: the purgatory of earthly life from which one can be neither damned nor saved.
O'Connor has a tremendous authority as the mystegogue of Nightwood . Yet Barnes also injects hints of doubt in her depiction of the doctor. Early on, she suggests that he may simply talk the loudest and longest and thus naturally get people's ear. And as is often remarked, he invents when he is uncertain what to say. Yet most important, Barnes places at the center of Nightwood a crucial instance where O'Connor fails to read the signs properly and proceeds to construct a version of events based on this misinterpretation. In "Watchman, What of the Night?" after much prevarication, O'Connor tells Nora the story of
how Jenny and Robin met at the opera. Yet we know from the previous chapter that Jenny and Robin had already been together a year before that night. O'Connor's mistaken construction of the story centers on his own guilt in the relationship of Robin and Jenny, his pitying of Jenny and hence betrayal of Nora. O'Connor's eagerness to allegorize these events on the basis of a misreading into his typical narrative of sin, suffering, and atonement raises doubts about the accuracy of his interpretations.
More than once, moreover, Barnes intimates that O'Connor is vulnerable to "decapitation"—symbolically registering her own text's susceptibility to a loss of hermeneutical agency. In his first appearance, with no apparent prompting from the context, O'Connor brings up "one thing that has always troubled me . . . this matter of the guillotine" (N , 20). He tells how he once met an executioner who "leaned forward and drew a finger across [my neck] and said, 'As much hair as thick as that makes it a little difficult,' and at that moment I got heart failure for the rest of my life" (N , 20). In "Go Down, Matthew," O'Connor tells Nora a story of a horse (a privileged image in his mystical interpretation) killed in the war and decapitated. This becomes for him a trope for the memory of something lost, for the phantom bond that subsists between the sign and its absent object:
Once in the war I saw a dead horse that had been lying against the ground. Time and the birds, and its own last concentration had removed the body a great way from the head. As I looked upon that head, my memory weighed for the lost body; and because of that missing quantity even heavier hung that head along the ground. So love, when it has gone, taking time with it, leaves a memory of its weight. (N , 108)
While O'Connor takes the detached head as a figure for the possibility of a memorial reconnection with its lost body, a reading of the head as the sign of the absent whole, the choice of images would appear to qualify this possibility. For the operation requires the interpretive labor of the doctor, who selectively chooses between plausible interpretations of the meaning of the "sign." The doctor here interprets the missing head as a metonymy of the absent body, thus as a figure of the unifying role of memory, rather than as a metaphor of his own lost head, as a figure of death or madness, the loss of the power to read and interpret at all. One interpretation of the mystical sign becomes the means by which O'Connor blinds himself to the possibility of other, less consolatory interpretations.
At the climax of his last conversation with Nora, O'Connor mockingly offers her decapitation as a solution to her dilemmas, in a figure that seems to irrupt out of his own fears: "Personally, if! could, I would instigate Meat-Axe Day, and out of the goodness of my heart I would whack your head off along with a couple of others. Every man should be allowed one day and a hatchet just to ease his heart" (N , 108). O' Connor speaks (ironically, of course) the language of the revolutionary Terrorist, the words of the Terror personified. But as Maurice Blanchot cogently remarks of the Terrorists, "The Terror they personify does not come from the death they inflict on others but from the death they inflict on themselves. . . . [T]heir thinking . . . has the freedom of a decapitated head." The decapitator has already surrendered his autonomy and assimilated himself to an implacable mechanical logic, as if he himself were already dead. Nora will shortly blurt out this very secret. To O'Connor she remarks, "You know what none of us know until we have died. You were dead in the beginning" (N , 125-126)
The irony of O'Connor's cruel comfort to Nora is that it betrays the strong fascination that headlessness, the instantaneous and total unburdening of thought, holds for him. As he tells a barman: "To think is to be sick" (N , 158). That fascination is also Barnes's, for the decapitation of O'Connor is a never fully realized figure for a radical emptying of Nightwood's figural depth, after which its language would continue to mimic the production of meaning in the absence of a reading, interpreting "head."
Barnes generally gives her text over to the mystical interpretations of O'Connor. What I want to suggest in conclusion is that Nightwood contains another possibility for reading, one that both entices and frightens Barnes but that in any case will repeatedly break through O'Connor's nearly encompassing commentary. In the interstices of O'Connor's interminable monologues, Barnes hints at a radically superficial mode of linguistic functioning that undercuts the ground of any "deep" interpretation like that which the doctor attempts. This second way of reading does not explicate the speech of desire, whether it express the heart's agony for an absent beloved or the soul's outcry before the absence of God; it rather explores the entanglement of language in automatisms of pleasure and pain. It retraces the surface circling and drift of signs, movements that produce derisive semblances of deeper meaning, mocking modernism's attempt to redeem the incoherent surface appearances by referring them to convulsed depths of thought and passion. The work of art, this superficial hermeneutics asserts, is not a
unique, suffering body but a self-deforming, self-restoring machine. I would call this way of reading Nightwood a Duchampian interpretation.
The Duchampian mode is, by late modernity at least, the inescapable satiric shadow of any modernistic appeal to depth. It haunts any appeal to the unsayable as the effect of a set of technical ruses, emptying out "the scriptural myth" by rendering its devices transparent. As de Certeau writes, referring to Franz Kafka, Marcel Duchamp, and Raymond Roussel:
Although derision and torture remain the mainsprings of narrative, they no longer depend on a belief that it is possible to gear into something "unsayable." The only roaming that takes place is within oneself, in the form of homophonous drifts, obscene metaphors, puns traversing the stratified meaning of a given sound, slips of the tongue—in short, the turns of phrase circumscribed by language.
Mystical discourse is an all-or-nothing gambit. In her shattering loss of subjectivity at the end of Nightwood , Robin is either experiencing divine metamorphosis (whether sublime or abject) or being convulsed in an automatism without agency. Either way, this concluding metamorphosis designates a limit-experience. But in the first case it would be a total communication, in the latter "the solitude of a discourse discoursing with itself" (161), locus solus .
In his study Duchamp's TRANS/Formers , Jean-François Lyotard proposes that Duchamp's compositional techniques are intended to produce "dissimulating metamorphoses" within the frames of his works:
But when Duchamp says: my Bride is a projection onto a plane surface of a tri-dimensional Bride, who, in turn, is the projection of a quadridimensional Bride, far from suggesting a construction en abîme , an abyss of signs each effacing itself before the next, he opens, on the contrary, a group of spaces where all these Brides, and others, will be present, whether visually or not: spaces of dissimulating metamorphoses. That is why he "talks machine" and "paints machine": the important thing being that figures of force should be transformed strangely.
With its uncanny communication between apparently unrelated scenes and seemingly distinct characters, Nightwood offers a striking analogy to the Duchampian Large Glass that Lyotard takes as his example. Barnes, like Duchamp, obsessively arranges structural partitions across which a dissymmetry plays. The most notable of her "simple machines" is the overall structure of the book itself, which divides in half with the sentence: "It was not long after this that Nora and Robin separated; a lit-
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tle later Jenny and Robin sailed for America" (N , 67). After this, with the notable exception of the brief last chapter, which unbalances the symmetry, the story is over; with the fifth chapter (of eight) the autopsy begins. Yet such partitional structures pervade the book, ranging from rudimentary versions like Matthew O'Connor's hilariously anguished exposure of his penis ("Tiny O'Toole") in church while beseeching God, "what is permanent of me, me or him?" (N , 111), to more complex assemblages.
The crucial scene that concludes the "Night Watch" chapter, Nora's death spasms upon seeing Robin in the garden with another woman, takes place at the windowsill, thus employing the same transparent partition and the same spatial division of above and below as Duchamp's cell-bate dance of bride and bachelors. Nora wakes and goes to the window, then sees "a double shadow falling from the statue, as if it were multiplying" (N , 56). In the first glimmer of dawn she catches "the light of Robin's eyes, the fear in them developing their luminosity until, by the intensity of their double regard, Robin's eyes and hers met." This specular symmetry is unsettled, however, when the body of another woman appears, presumably Jenny's. Barnes makes still more intricate the pattern of symmetries and dissymmetries with a further detail: the woman's head is turned down, "that the added eyes might not augment the illumination." The last clauses of the paragraph describe the woman's downward pressure on Robin: "her legs slackened in the hang of the embrace." Across the partitions, through the glass, and from below to above, the equilibrium of the system is suddenly broken, as if by the woman's weight on Robin. Yet it is Nora , up above, who is set in motion: "Unable to turn her eyes away, incapable of speech . . . Nora fell to her knees, so that her eyes were not withdrawn by her volition, but dropped from their orbit by the falling of her body" (N , 56). The scene ends with Nora closing her eyes and crying out " 'Ah!' with the intolerable automatism of the last 'Ah!' in a body struck at the moment of its final breath." The second clause syntactically literalizes the metaphor implied between Nora's "Ah!" and a death cry. As both sentence and chapter issue into silence and blank space, figural depth contracts to a disfigured tautology, as the two poles of the figure fatally merge in one impersonal syntactic device.
It could be argued that such a reading is willfully detached, and could only be made at a cruel distance from the moving portrayal of these women's experience. Only with a total lack of empathy could one not share Nora's pain, the assumption of which makes the architecture of
the "Night Watch" scene emotionally vivid. Indeed, were I to claim this interpretation as exclusive, such criticisms would be justified. I am arguing, however, that to any empathetic reading seeking Nightwood's "profounder significance," another reading clings, a shadow reading that Barnes allows us to glimpse in the mocking penumbra it casts, with its eyes turned down that they "might not augment the illumination" (N , 56). This second presence is desire's other, which derides its capacity to invest meaning in a world of things and bodies. The presence of this double warns against too close an identification of one's desire with another, the torment and fatality of such identification for both.
Barnes created characters that invite empathy, and one central character who perpetually invites us to empathize, as he himself does. Yet she also dramatized how deadly such a loss of distance can be. To deny the presence of this shadow, to stake one's reading of Nightwood on an identification with its characters or its stated outlook, is to miss the force of Barnes's interrogation of a fundamental mechanism of modernist art: its desperate appeal to desire, to the labor of negation, of torture and death, as a wellspring of meaning recoverable through discourse. Barnes poses to her readers the blasphemous, indecent question whether discursive representation of "desire"—erotic and theologic—might not simply be a ruse of domination; whether "meaning" is not a fiction elaborated to mask a diffuse and largely senseless violence.
Djuna Barnes began Ryder with a chapter entitled "Jesus Mundane." "By Way of Introduction"—not just to Ryder but to her whole career as a novelist—she offered a warning against the dangerous idea of "salvation," and against those who, like her high modernist elders and contemporaries, would set themselves up as its purveyors, purifiers of the language of the tribe:
Go not with fanatics who see beyond thee and thine . . . for such need thee not, nor see thee, nor know thy lamenting, so confounded are they with thy damnation and the damnation of thy offspring. . . . Alike are they distracted with thy salvation and the salvation of thy people. . . . Thy rendezvous is not with the Last Station, but with small comforts, like to apples in the hand, and small cups quenching, and words that go neither here nor there, but traffic with the outer ear, and gossip at the gates of thy insufficient agony. (R , 3)
Cutting against the grain of modernism's desire to bring to speech the wordless "depths" of meaning, Barnes admonishes her readers against
interpretation: "Reach not beyond the image" (3); "Bargain not in unknown figures" (4). Yet of course she writes for none other than modernist readers, for men and women constitutionally incapable of taking this advice. Before turning to the unhappy, laughable story of Ryder, she thus turns to her all-too-Ryderesque readers, and to herself perhaps, and pronounces: "These things are as the back of thy head to thee. Thou hast not seen them" (5).