“I have been loved," she said, "by something strange, and it has forgotten me.”I keep encountering reluctance, on the part of some fans of Nightwood, to admit to any possible flaws in the book. Its faults are held up as virtues, a foolish critical error. I'm convinced that because Nightwood is an important text in the history of queer literature, some readers are afraid that any admission of artistic or technical weakness in the book will lead to a marginalization of it, to claims that Nightwood is not a very good book, or a failure best forgotten. These are political and social motivations, and refusing to admit the book's weaknesses only undermines claims regarding the book's strengths. But I've come neither to praise nor to bury Djuna Barnes' novel. Nightwood is a difficult little book that I find myself happy to have read.
Barnes was heavily influenced by the Expressionist movement of the 1920s, and Nightwood appears to be an Expressionist novel. That means it's primarily an internal novel, expressing the emotional states of the characters. It is not a story about people moving through the world; it is a story of the world moving within people. Expressionist art is a naked genre, an art of distorted reality and exposed nerves if you will. Many of the Expressionist writers I've read (e.g. Kafka, Brecht, Burroughs) lean heavily on absurdist comedy and something close to stream-of-consciousness technique, especially those writers coming in the wake of James Joyce*. All of this is to say that Barnes wrote a novel that relies minimally on plot (although one event is central to the novel, and things lead up to and fall away from that event), and maximizes the emotional experience of the characters.
“Oh," he cried. "A broken heart have you! I have falling arches, flying dandruff, a floating kidney, shattered nerves and a broken heart!”These emotional experiences are all, more or less, miserable. I'm still waiting for the Expressionist novel that exposes joy rather than despair. Maybe passages in Woolf aspire to that; I'll have to think about it. I am digressing, I see.
The important thing about Nightwood is that it interrogates ideas of human relationships, questioning their truthfulness (are relationships primarily transactional, bound up in ideas of self-satisfaction and possession?), and explores the idea that civilization is artifice and that were we all to follow our natural inclinations, humanity would be more, rather than less, like animals. Robin, the figure at the center of the story, actually descends to the emotional and behavioral level of a dog by the end of the book.
I note that the cover copy on almost every edition of the novel says something like,"Nightwood is the story of Robin Vote and those she destroys," but this description of Robin is a mischaracterization. Everyone she meets attempts to make Robin into a pet, unconsciously hoping for a loyal dog, and is dismayed when Robin strays. She cannot be tamed, but neither has she promised to become tame. She is only and always herself, an instinctual creature no lover--man or woman--can claim.This I think explains why Robin exists minimally on the page, a person discussed by others but rarely present in the drama: she is an animal, a natural force, not really a human involved in humanity's business. She allows Felix to marry her, bears him a son, and then wanders away, into the arms of a woman, and then a different woman, and then another woman. Everyone loves Robin, who loves no one, because love is not a concept she grasps. She is affectionate, like a stray dog who lets anyone feed and pet her and take her in for a night or two, moving on in the morning to someone else's porch. Barnes, maybe, is telling us that this is how all relationships are; we pretend otherwise. The love is delusion, but the pain is real. This is the eternal night in which we all live. The tragedy is not in being betrayed; it is in discovering that we cannot possess that which we desire.
“Robin told only a little of her life, but she kept repeating in one way or another her wish for a home, as if she were afraid she would be lost again, as if she were aware, without conscious knowledge, that she belonged to Nora, and that if Nora did not make it permanent by her own strength, she would forget.”This is the strong stuff that makes Nightwood a good book. I have lived too long in the modern world, I guess, to bat an eye over the queer elements of the novel. It's about a century too late for that angle to be a novelty, but I can see how the book must've been pretty surprising in 1936.
“The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a 'picture' forever arranged, is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear,stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey.I don't know what it means that T.S. Eliot's favorite element of the novel happens to be the thing I like the least: the speechy Dr. Matthew O'Conner. O'Connor (who is an unlicensed physician living in a Parisian garret, possibly making a living performing abortions for prostitutes, and in his private life an aging unhappy transvestite) is apparently based on a couple of people Barnes knew in real life, especially an acquaintance who was endlessly verbose, producing a stream of aphorisms and epigrams that Barnes would scribble down. O'Connor similarly goes on monologues that last for pages, roam widely through barely-connected subjects, and seem to be hardly at all reflective of what's actually going on around the doctor. He reminds me of several Shakespeare characters, say a cross between Jacques and Timon with aspirations of speaking Mercutio's speech about dreams from "Romeo and Juliet." Many critics (Eliot first among them) find O'Connor's monologues to be intensely poetic and full of art and movement. I find them, almost every paragraph and page, to be interminable, shallow, and pretentious. This is not deep thought, nor is it even mid-depth thought expressed in a particularly elevated style. A lot of it is mush, foamy fatty stuff that is meant to be read as white-hot ex tempore creativity. This reader is not fooled. There are terrific bits among the mush, but mostly, alas, it's mush and I don't see what Eliot found to be so impressed by. There is a sort of underdeveloped theme of Matthew-as-evangelist, speaker of the gospel of Godless night, teller of all mankind's tales but his own. This is an interesting idea that is buried beneath a lot of breathless and wandering non-poetry; all striving and no arrival. That may be the point, that life is inarticulate and chaotic, and that art is merely an attempt to pretend that reality has some kind of formal and recognizable shape, and that language cannot overcome its built-in limits to express the real. I don't know.
Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past; before her the structure of our head and jaws ache -- we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.”
“And once Father Lucas said to me, 'Be simple, Matthew, life is a simple book, and an open book, read and be simple as the beasts in the field; just being miserable isn't enough -- you've got to know how.' So I got to thinking and I said to myself, 'This is a terrible thing that Father Lucas has put on me -- be simple like the beasts and yet think and harm nobody.”I also want to say that Nightwood strikes me, in many ways, as a version of Proust's The Prisoner and the Fugitive, but without the comic irony. I suppose Proust's story of an escaped lover isn't original to him, either. Which is all fine.
“None of us suffers as much as we should, or loves as much as we say. Love is the first lie; wisdom the last.”
*I apologize for the "wake" pun there.