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Analysis of Djuna Barnes' "Nightwood"

Updated on January 14, 2013


Where do I begin or is their a beginning at all? Rather, doesn't the day slip into submission of the night seamlessly, as when darkness embraces dawn in overlapping folds—and we lumber in grogginess to our eight O' clock class with the hope that coffee may segment our sleep from our walking; tearing up the one for the sake of the other? If Nightwood is a dream and a wet one at that—which is to acknowledge its fluidity and the exchange of those fluids—would you find it appropriate to superimpose it onto a linear plot? That would be a great injustice to the novel and an even greater misunderstanding of the night, on par with looking “to the east for wisdom we shall not use—and to the sleeper for the secret we shall not find” (Barnes, pg. 95). If there is a plot its one of celestial revolution and one that we observe by the hibernation of the senses—the night. The plot, so to speak, is similar to the repeating chorus of a song, one that each verse remembers and revolves. In the realm of the 'dreaming' it is a sublime chant, a requiem composed of hymns that whisper Robins name for she is the crux to which the plot circumvents. “Love is death, come upon with passion; I know, that is why love is wisdom. I love her as one condemned to it” (Barnes, pg. 146). Such is the chorus,. and by no means a reduction, as such a universal statement with so many interwoven themes could never be a reduction.

This chorus is not merely a philosophical axiom detached as it were in hindsight, nor a wisdom after the fact, but something more which feeds the future, describing a kind of Sisyphean struggle that projects itself beyond the curtain. It's circumferential 'song' parallels a circumference of events best revealed by one of Matthew's prophetic lines: “Nora will leave that girl some day; but though those two are buried at opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both” (Barnes, pg. 111). The line I call the Chorus plays upon a Platonic philosophy. One can only love what they have not already possessed, thus the lover of wisdom insofar as he/she is its lover, is condemned to an endless pursuit with the fruit of its certain attainment found only in death. And a death to which Nora rushes head-long so that a pooch may sniff them out, corpse by distant corpse. “We die everyday, but to ourselves we die only at the end” (Barnes, pg.103). Robin is Nora's heart and if you'll excuse the cliché, her other half. This is the meaning behind the phrase 'dieing to ourselves', for becoming the Other in death is a completion and owning of oneself.

Traditionally we would say that the main character must be the one who is most involved with the action of the plot. Nightwood however, is not a novel meant to inform the reader of action, so it is inappropriate to gauge it in such terms. In fact, one might have more luck eating soup with a fork! “That's why she can't put herself in anothers place,' she herself is the only 'position'; so she resents it when you reproach her with what she had done. She knows she is innocent because she can't do anything in relation to anyone but herself” (Barnes, pg. 155). Just as Robin is the center of everyones life in the novel, she, by the very necessity of the plot, is the central position or better yet, the only position in her waking-dream. She is the pinnacle of an unobserved observer, a complete subjectivity and the “secure torment” (Barnes, pg. 160) of everyone else. “We will find no comfort until the night melts away; until the fury of the night rots out its fire” (Barnes, pg.92). Whereas the Doctor is the mystic caught between both realms—just as his sex is caught between both the feminine and the masculine—the boyish Robin is the non-possessable night which only he can glimpse. She is the torment of Felix embodied by their son Guido, “Mentally deficient and emotionally excessive; an addict to death; at ten” (Barnes, pg. 114) who clearly hasn’t fallen far from the tree but who securely remains the namesake of Felix's existence. Further, Robin torments the women by a secure separation. Nora is possessed by this women that can only love her in a drunken stupor, who regardless bears her soul incestuously. A wild women of the night's woods, whom all catastrophes run towards, whom Nora fails to tame; this unruly circus lioness and “purity's black backside” (Barnes, pg. 144), a fatal attraction to which she has fallen quite literally, in love. Nora and Robin are truly befitting of the axiom of what man truly desires: “to find someone who is so stupid that he can lie to her, or to love someone so much that she can lie to him” (Barnes, pg. 23). And Jenny, the grand and pathetic thief of life is tormented by the authenticity of Robin that she can't understand being herself merely the bearer of life’s segmented image. An amputation brought to the forefront of Jenny, stuck in her face where it cannot be disowned like a lost hand that the mind still remembers to which there are mental faculties set aside for. Indirectly Robin succeeds in ruining Dr. Matthew O'Connor as well, subjecting him to the tortures of others who come to him in a misery that no amount of his wisdom can resolve, but by attachment and miscalculation of the victims cries, he rots alongside them. “I love my neighbor. Like a rotten apple to a rotten apple's breast affixed we go down together, nor is there a hesitation in that decay, for when I sense such, there I apply the breast the firmer, that he may rot as quickly as I” (Barnes, pg. 163). Yet Robin is not merely the victomizer as the Doctor suggests to Nora: “Do you know which dies first, you or she? And which is the sorrier part, head or feet...Any man can look upon the head in death, but no man can look upon the feet” (Barnes, pg. 163). And again at the beginning of the novel if you keep in mind its ending when Robin is on all fours in violent ecstasy with Nora's dog: “I knew all at once that the tragedy of the beast can be two legs more awful than a man's” (Barnes, pg. 26).

In light or by the shadow of Robins enormously spanning death-chambers she still is not the main character of the story. Nor is the Doctor, whom we might think to be, as he does have the greatest share in dialogue. The truth is, there is no main character. And I will argue that not only is this essential to the post-modern image of the self, it is essential to the novel's basic theme and wisdom.

“Now I see that the night does something to a person's identity, even when asleep” (Barnes, pg. 87). Nightwood, speaking vaguely, is a tension between the day and the night, the world of awakening and the world of slumber and with that polarity in regards to personal identity, it is a tension between the existential-singularity (cogito) and the post-modern deconstruction of it's supposed autonomy. And of course one cannot speak of a dream-induced-heteronomy without the creeping taboo of polygamy, and by further connection the Oneness of God and the commandment against the infidelity of idolatry. But before that, I must explain. A deconstruction of the self is foremost a revolution in a traditional theory of time. A theory which conflates duration with simple locations in space, like with an alarm clock for example. Your alarm clock segments the fluidity of time into a succession of simply located and pure moments of space (the present that is now '11:45). Time is broken up and calculated into one singularity passing the next as if duration could be equated to stop-motion-animation, as if you could hold water in your hands without it seeping through the cracks. This traditional view of scientific time goes hand in hand with the notion of the existential-singularity for if we represent external reality in symbolic discontinuity we are likely to impose the same measure on our reflective consciousness.

It might seem at this point that I am appropriating too much when reading the novel, but this is exactly what Matthew O'Connor is speaking against with regard to the great enigma of the Other in Watchman, What of the Night. “We wake from our doings in a deep sweat for that they happened in a house without an address, in a street in no town, citizened with people with no names with which to deny them. Their very lack of identity makes them ourselves” (Barnes, pg. 94). He speaks to a loss of singularity, a loss of identity, the anonymity of location and the entanglement of inter-penetration. He is weary of the signifier (sign) that is assumed to represent the stagnate and concrete signified, as often deconstructionists are... “Yes, we who are full to the gorge with misery should look well around, doubting everything seen, done, spoken, precisely because we have a word for it, and not its alchemy” (Barnes, pg. 90). This is an expression of semiotics, specifically the relation between the signifier and the reality it signifies. When we name something we enclose it upon itself rendering it autonomous, further, in naming, we assume that the thing signified is not itself another divisible signifier caught in an endless chain of signification. For the Doctor, the 'proper-name' is a mistake that the dream-world reveals—a wisdom that is lost in misery when we dismount from bed as the ridding moon departs. By daylight our white-night has vanished! The very ineffable and inexplicable transmuting flux is lost by number once we have assumed it to be indivisible. “The American, what then? He separates the two[night/day] for fear of indignities, so that the mystery is cut in every cord” (Barnes, pg. 91). This is why there is no main character. Because “to think of the acorn it is necessary to become the tree” (Barnes, pg. 90) and every droplet of water becomes absorbed by the cloud or is compromised by the ocean. Of course one could object saying that although things are similar they are also distinct and that a night in Rome is not the same night in France. But why argue for a main character at all when to highlight one particular character would seem to be so counter intuitive to the novel's philosophy and post-modernism in general? All characters are equally alienated yet unable to exist on their own being so intimately connected by a fate that unravels merely by virtue of one-another.

This novel is by far to rich for thorough metabolism and I am still digesting, but before I move on to the second question I need to elaborate on what I meant by the taboo of polygamy. But for this the text nearly speaks for itself: “For the lover, it is the night into which his beloved goes, that destroys his heart; he wakes her suddenly, only to look the hyena in the face that is her smile...When she sleeps, is she not moving her leg aside for an unknown garrison?” (Barnes, pg. 94). As one safeguards the ego from annihilation one must safeguard with a possessive-hand their beloved from melting perimeters. The idea of faith in the early history of mankind was not used as the antithesis for atheism like it is today, for the pagan was the atheist and all who were faithful merely accepted the One and mighty God. There is no monogamy without faith and there is no Oneness in the bleeding pluralism of what primal thinking calls 'the dreaming'. What I am suggesting, I have only had the room to briefly mention. That is, the theme of matriarchy vs. patriarchy in Nightwood that is possibly the foundation for all other themes hitherto, yet too general here to elaborate on by its own account. Robin is the lioness seen where Nora first meets her at the circus. As man tries to control his nature, only to come to its knowing and fulfill its fate, Nora seeks to control Robin, the night-walker in the woods, to possess her exclusively. “All I knew was that others had slept with my lover and my child. For Robin is incest too; that is one of her powers. In her, past time records, and past time is relative to us all” (Barnes, pg. 166). It is by virtue of the night that the integrity of faith is forsaken. And it is no mere coincidence that the Doctor's room is degraded like a brothel, rather and more to the point, its co-inside-ness.


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