May 2012

Josh Zajdman

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Djuna Barnes's Nightwood

It's staggering to think that Nightwood, Djuna Barnes's astonishing masterwork, was published seventy-five years ago. For a book that doesn't reach two hundred pages, it inundates the reader with its keen emotive sense, bold stylistic choices, and controversial depictions of the ambiguities of, and questions raised by, gender, passion, hate, and finally, maybe, love. Though the line between love and obsession remains murky and unreliable. It's 182 pages of finely-wrought sensory overload. In her preface to the novel, Jeanette Winterson highlights the assumptive quality with which readers approach the novel. "More people have heard about it than read it. Reading it is mainly the preserve of academics and students."

This column, The Forgotten Twentieth Century, with this focus on Nightwood serving as its inauguration, is designed to reclaim texts from their musty and archival homes and, accordingly, their oft-misunderstood reputations. Moreover, the mission is to loudly proclaim their vibrancy and importance for readers today, as forgotten, but no less vital, literary works. Of great import to this column is the idea of promoting experience and engagement, rather than the assumption and categorization that seems to trail them. Winterson advocates for this approach in considering Nightwood, for it "is itself. It is its own created world, exotic and strange, and reading it is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined." This idea of an inner illumination in a sea of darkness is a powerful and easily traceable motif throughout the novel. Maybe even an easier point of entry. 

This autonomy Winterson writes of doesn't come at a cost but it does demand patience. Barnes was an astonishingly bold author writing during a chaotic, complex, and dysphoric time. Hers was "not the solid nineteenth-century world of narrative" but "the shifting, slipping, relative world of Einstein and the Modernists, the twin assault by science and art on what we thought we were sure of." In his introduction, T.S. Eliot also warns the reader of the novel's difficulty and expectations. "A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give." I beseech you to rise to the challenge and meet this novel's demands. At the heart of the novel, Barnes writes of a shared humanity. After all, hers "is a book for introverts, in that we are all introverts in our after-hours secrets and deepest loves."

Accordingly, we should all read this book. You needn't shroud yourself in darkness, or create a mood. Almost mystically, a careful reading of Nightwood results in a pleasant but unexpected mental experience. One disassociates from the world around you into that of Nora Flood, Robin Vote, and the friends and lovers whose lives they have ruined. It's truly unlike anything else you've read. Few novels allow you to inhabit lives, rooms, wounds, and loves in such a way. As both Eliot and Winterson point out, you must read it more than once. Yes, it's short, but what a punch it packs. Each page "open[s] a place that does not easily skin over."

Amidst the incredible characters and conflicts of Nightwood, each of the eight sections seems to offer up an overarching theme. A summation, of sorts, reflecting the travails, emotional or otherwise, of the characters. An attempt to understand the way people work. In the first section, "Bow Down," Dr. Matthew O'Connor (one of literature's most fascinating and confused characters) offers up the difference between legend and history.

Think of the stories that do not amount to much! That is, that are forgotten in spite of all man remembers (unless he remembers himself) merely because they befell him without distinction of office or title -- that's what we call legend and it's the best a poor man may do with his fate; the other... we call history, the best the high and mighty can do with theirs.

It's a terrific summation, and one that captures our epoch as much as Barnes's, if not more so. Both the lives of Nightwood's characters and those of Barnes's readers are the stuff of legend. However, a very real historical dilemma springs up. As the novel progresses, an interesting and troubling strain of racialized commentary begins.

The Irish may be as common as whale-shit -- excuse me -- on the bottom of the ocean -- forgive me -- but they do have imagination and... creative misery which comes from being smacked down by the devil, and lifted up again by the angels... But the Jew, what is he at his best? Never anything higher than a meddler -- pardon my wet glove -- a supreme and marvelous meddler often, but a meddler nonetheless.

This is what the Doctor refers to as meeting "spade to spade, in the same acre." This type of thinking was regrettably prevalent during Barnes's era, and still exists today, obviously. One wonders if she saw vitriol diminishing whatsoever when she wrote "To pay homage to our past is the only gesture that also includes a future." It appears not. This was the novel's most unsavory aspect, and while it preoccupies the first third, it diminishes as the novel progresses. This is not to say that it becomes more palatable, but allows one to see it as the "mad strip of the inappropriate that runs through creation."  

The third section, "Night Watch," is a sort of pivot for the novel's main plot, if you will -- namely, the relationship between Nora Flood and Robin Vote. From a thematic standpoint, this section is one of the novel's most disturbing. One gets a sense of the complexity and inherent ugliness of the obsessive and unbearably passionate involvement of Nora and Robin. Immediately after this section ends, the reader is introduced to "The Squatter" -- Jenny Petherbridge. Now the emphasis switches. One sees the amount of damage caused by Robin Vote as the second half of the novel begins. Leaving husband and child behind, she has driven two women to madness. And, in an especially wonderful sleight of hand, each of the disparate characters come toward one another in strange, unexpected ways. Which at this point in the novel may actually be perfectly normal, expected, if not conventional, ways, means, and methods that are being exhibited. You'll find that your perspective switches readily and regularly. Remember, there is no limit to what occurs in this little world of a novel.

In the most disturbing section of the novel, "Watchman, What of the Night?", a heartbroken and lonely Nora Flood pays a visit to Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O' Connor. Nora realizes that nighttime is the darkest for many reasons, "that the night does something to a person's identity, even when asleep." Beseeching him to tell  "everything you know about the night," the chapter functions as an incredible consideration of humanity, and its desperation. It's virtually a monologue and continually put me in mind of functioning as a dark corollary to Proust's pre-madeleine reconsideration of the bedtime ritual. Thoughts like this become commonplace:

We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it. 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.

This is just one of the dark, glimmering, philosophical jewels that Barnes presents fully formed and buffed to a patient reader. The rest of the novel, probably the last third, is unrelenting in its power and devastating. At the risk of spoiling any of the novel's many pleasures, it's best to leave off. One could imagine people critiquing the novel, and the brave, wonderful, Djuna Barnes responding via the words of Dr. O'Connor. "Oh, it's a grand bad story, and who says I'm a betrayer? I say, tell the story of the world to the world!" That's what Nightwood is, and that is what Nightwood does.