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 The autobiographical component of the work has become even more evident as an important body of unpublished materials, especially Barnes's letters to Thelma Wood and Emily Coleman and the earlier drafts of the novel, has become more generally known.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.