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 .