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).