Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

NightwoodNightwood by Djuna Barnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

…Felix was astonished to find that the most touching flowers laid on the altar he had raised to his imagination were placed there by the people of the underworld…

There are so many novels I have not read that I don’t do a lot of re-reading. I read Nightwood (1936) in a rush about six years ago for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, however, and knew that I’d barely absorbed even the surface meaning of the novel’s dense verbal texture. So I revisited it in this 1995 scholarly edition from Dalkey Archive, which restores the cuts made to the novel’s ethnic and sexual content by its editor, T. S. Eliot, and boasts a full textual apparatus, explanatory annotations, and pages from Barnes’s typescript. This is a superb edition—well, except for the hardcover’s cheap and fragile glue binding—and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand this modernist masterpiece.

Nightwood’s plot, such as it is, is as follows: Felix Volkbein, a Viennese Jew passing as an aristocrat, is introduced to the mysterious Robin Vote by Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a talkative habitué of the Paris underworld. Felix and Robin marry and have a child, but Robin soon takes to haunting the night-world of Paris, where she meets Nora Flood. Despite Nora’s love for Robin, she again spends her nights out—a chapter title calls her “La Somnambule”—and her absence devastates Nora, who turns to Dr. O’Connor and his endless monologues for comfort. Soon, Robin takes up with Jenny Petherbridge, a nervous widow with a penchant for making others as miserable as she is in her shallow passion to be important. The novel ends with an infamously ambiguous scene in which Robin, having left Jenny’s house, enters a chapel where she grapples strangely with Nora’s dog.

(The narrative is putatively autobiographical, as it dramatizes Barnes’s troubled relationship with Thelma Wood—Barnes glossed the title’s meaning as “Nigh T. Wood”—as well as her encounters with one Dan Mahoney, the model for Dr. O’Connor. But I do not much care for biographical interpretations: whether a novelist writes directly from experience or makes everything up from scratch, the only question for criticism is, “Does it live on the page?”)

The novel’s motifs are the following: 1.) bowing or going down, i.e., social and sexual submission (or masochism), which the novel identifies in various ways with Jewish and gay people in general; 2.) the porous boundary between male and female identities, as several key characters are androgynous (Robin, who “looks like a boy,” and Felix’s male-identified mother) or transvestite or even, to use an anachronistic vocabulary, transgender (Dr. O’Connor); 3.) the equally porous boundary between human and animal, which sometimes joins the “go down” pattern (as in, “go down on all fours”); and 4.) the glory and the sorrow of the sexual underworld, the queer-Gothic urban pastoral summoned up by the novel’s mysterious title, the nightwood in which its characters move.

Aside from the doctor, the novel’s characters are rather static or heraldic or allegorical figures; they do not really have the spontaneous life of great fiction’s figures. And while the novel’s tone is wholly its own, it might be ungenerously described, at the conceptual level, as a set of footnotes to Ulysses.

But its prose is some of the best in English in the 20th century; a Gothic cathedral, complete with witty grotesques and severe saints, built of long hypotactic sentences. A sample, from when Felix first sees Robin:

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room (in the apprehension of which the walls have made their escape), thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseen dompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of wood-winds render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness.

The exception to the above description is in the doctor’s long speeches; he dominate the chapters he occupies, and speaks—from his bed, where he wears a Mary Pickford wig and a nightgown—for most of the thirty pages of the penultimate chapter, “Go Down, Matthew.” An extract from his more vital and extravagant rhetoric:

“My war brought me many things; let yours bring you as much. Life is not to be told, call it as loud as you like, it will not tell itself. No one will be much or little except in someone else’s mind, so be careful of the minds you get into, and remember Lady Macbeth, who had her mind in her hand. We can’t all be as safe as that.”

So what can all this mean? Some reflections below.


…the step of the wandering Jew is in every son.

“We have all become gay white negroes,” the British documentarian Adam Curtis once perhaps offensively complained, in protest against the widespread diffusion in the contemporary period of non-normative or subaltern social and sexual identities. Curtis traces this colonization by bohemia of mainstream society to Norman Mailer’s notorious essay on “The White Negro,” and he attacks it from the socialist left for distracting the working masses, or else compensating them, for their increasing economic exploitation under neoliberalism.

Barnes’s novel is set mostly in the sexual underworld of Paris. But it moves in on this bohemia from the outside; the novel begins with a chapter about Felix Volkbein, a Jewish man trying to pass in Viennese society as an aristocrat. The chapter title, “Bow Down,” refers to his deference to the social elite and traditional society he is trying to enter—though the phrase will later take on other connotations in this novel of erotic masochism. Barnes’s essayistic prose reflects at length on Jewish identity in modern Europe, a theme that seems distant from the concerns of the rest of the novel, a regrettable bout of fashionable prejudice in an otherwise radical queer novel. But Barnes’s intricate philo/anti-Semitic disquisition is central to Nightwood’s social vision, as Lara Trubowitz points out in Civil Antisemitism, Modernism, and British Culture, 1902-1939. Here is Barnes’s key paragraph:

In his search for the particular Comédie humaine Felix had come upon the odd. Conversant with edicts and laws, folk story and heresy, taster of rare wines, thumber of rarer books and old wives’ tales—tales of men who became holy and of beasts that became damned—read in all plans for fortifications and bridges, given pause by all graveyards on all roads, a pedant of many churches and castles, his mind dimly and reverently reverberated to Madame de Sevigné, Goethe, Loyola and Brantome. But Loyola sounded the deepest note, he was alone, apart and single. A race that has fled its generations from city to city has not found the necessary time for the accumulation of that toughness which produces ribaldry, nor, after the crucifixion of its ideas, enough forgetfulness in twenty centuries to create legend. It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the “collector” of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a “sign.” A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

This is admittedly opaque prose, but the logic seems to be the following: since the Christian has usurped the Jewish God and even scripture (by arrogating the Hebrew Bible, via typology, to the New Testament), “the Jew” is intellectually and spiritually outcast, having to piece together even his own tradition from the culture of a hostile society. But let us extrapolate from this: to the extent that “we”—the kind of people who would write or read a book like Nightwood—are also post- or non-Christian, we too are outcast and peregrine, assembling our spiritual universe from shards and fragments and hints. This is why Felix, in his search for the normative, comes nevertheless “upon the odd.”

Dr. Matthew Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor, an unlicensed gynecologist, devout Catholic Irish-American from San Francisco, gay cross-dresser, Great War veteran, and alcoholic, dominates the novel. He speaks in endless monologues. They are learned, lyrical, campy, and maudlin. He is described this way:

His fabrications seemed to be the framework of a forgotten, but imposing plan; some condition of life of which he was the sole surviving retainer. His manner was that of a servant of a defunct noble family, whose movements recall, though in a degraded form, those of a late master.

In other words, the way he walks and talks is the way modernist masterpieces (Ulysses, The Waste Land) work: it is a makeshift arrangement of language and behavior assembled from the remains of a vanishing social order, with its armature of myth and scripture barely holding up the chaos. But this condition—of making do with fragments of one’s own tradition—is also how Barnes describes the ordeal of European Jewry; thus, as Trubowitz points out, Barnes uses the figure of “the Jew” as a metonymy for all modern subjects, and for the style of modernism. This is certainly anti-Semitic in its cavalier disregard for Jewish people’s own experiences, traditions, and—given that she was writing in the 1930s—their peril; but Trubowitz calls it philo-Semitic too, in its identification of Jews with an endemic resistance to dominant culture.

The point, though, is that Barnes uses Jewish people, and queer people too (with whom she did not exactly identify, famously saying, “I wasn’t a lesbian, I just loved Thelma”), as a metonymy for the glamorous exile in the urban night woods that her novel evokes with such verbal splendor. “We are all gay white negroes” might be the novel’s motto. Does this make it a work of radicalism—or, as Curtis might object, of crypto-conservatism?

Barnes’s biographer, Phillip Herring, writes, “Barnes would seem to agree with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that human existence is suffering.” Conservatism is the natural political corollary to nihilist metaphysics, for if you believe we exist in a howling void, then you will recognize custom and tradition as the only proven shelters. The rebellion against the normative dominant, too, requires the persistence of the normative dominant for its self-definition; cultural radicalism tends to political conservatism, I have always thought. Indeed, despite Jane Marcus’s well-known and well-argued Bakhtinian reading of Nightwood as a revolutionary text in the female anti-fascist tradition, Barnes’s politics were not remotely of the left. In a letter quoted in Herring’s biography, Barnes complains about an old friend of hers having gone over the Marxists in the “red ‘30s,” the same period when she was forced to work for the WPA, an experience she despised:

He got like that in New York—its [sic] the style now—everyone (in the literary & artistic world) has now a notion that any artistic manifestation is is utterly worthless unless it is “in the Mass”—Filled with “Mass Consciousness”—whatever that is—I am, of course, being an Elizabethan—quite indifferent to the Mass, tho I do not doubt (much to my sorrow) that they will shortly be ruling the roost. What is the most annoying thing about Charles & all the others like him, is that they all take it as if it were something amazing & new a great big discovery—whereas its something the world has fought for 20 centuries, in one form or another—

A modernist anti-democrat, like her champion Eliot, Barnes sees the masses as perennial forces of conformity, enemies of art. This is not really surprising; what is surprising is that anybody ever wanted to identify bohemia—sexual and aesthetic—with the political left in the first place. The intention of its various partisans notwithstanding, the left has historically empowered the state and its centripetal agencies. The state, tolerating nothing outside itself, not only threatens to use the masses as justification for the cleansing of bohemia’s cruising-ground pissoirs and carnivalesque circuses, but, as I said above, it also extirpates the tradition against which bohemia necessarily defines itself. It razes the edifice of Christianity, brings the wandering Jew home, and abolishes the night in which Robin Vote and Dr. Matthew O’Connor sport like fauna in the forest. Even internally, bohemia is not democratic: it is, rather, an aristocracy of spirit. For these reasons, Nightwood is among the most reactionary of American classics, despite or even—what will confound the identity politics of today—because of its having nary a straight white male in its cast of characters.

As for Barnes and identity politics, Herring reports this remark, not very congruent with literary feminism today: “I think only two women have written books worth reading, Emily Brontë and myself.” (This oddly resembles Dylan Thomas’s assertion that Nightwood is one of the three greatest prose books ever written by a woman—though he did not name the other two!) On sexual identity, Dr. O’Connor sums up the nominalist and anti-essentialist attitudes of Foucault and Vidal in one memorably lamenting epigram: “You can lay a hundred bricks and not be called a brick-layer; but lay one boy and you are a bugger!”


“God, children know something they can’t tell, they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”

Leaving politics aside, I love Nightwood. No novel so beautifully and intelligently written can fall to be a landmark in the history of the form. In fact, it should probably be a model of the form. In his famous 1937 introduction to the American edition, T. S. Eliot writes:

In describing Nightwood for the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry.” This is well enough for the brevity of advertisement, but I am glad to take this opportunity to amplify it a little. 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. Unless the term “novel” has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes’s style is “poetic prose.” But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really “written.” They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.

I grant that Barnes sacrifices some of the vitality of less closely composed fictions; despite the novel’s late invocation of Dostoevsky in the final chapter’s title, “The Possessed,” Nightwood never creates the vertiginous sense that its characters are somehow alive in another world and capable of anything—the sense you get from Dostoevsky (or Tolstoy or Dickens or, each in her own way, both Brontës). The doctor is a partial exception; he really is like a Shakespearean character, a voluble nihilist like Hamlet or Edmund or Falstaff, one you wish to hear give an opinion on everything, but even his baroque intelligence is relatively static; he does not change or grow.

Is this a reasonable price to pay for taking up a challenge that Dostoevsky and the rest of the 19th-century masters didn’t have to face—the challenge, that is, of writing a novel that suitably differentiates itself from competing media? Every time I open a contemporary novel and feel I am reading an unproduced screenplay, I want to throw it down. Every time I go to write and find myself producing slangy, aimless dialogues that would require charismatic actors to be persuasive, I am disappointed in myself. Contemporary novels are not really written, Eliot said nearly a century ago, and it has only gotten worse. Maybe to really write them is a loss, an abdication of the novel’s great potential to create an inner theater, and Nightwood—more tableau than drama—does not quite disconfirm the hypothesis. But there are sentences, paragraphs, pages in it that I would love to have written, that I loved to read. I read this novel once to take an exam on it (the worst reason to read literature, surely) and then again to actually understand it; I would read it a third time for pure pleasure.



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