Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Backwards Ventriloquy: The Historical Uncanny in Barnes's Nightwood

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Backwards Ventriloquy: The Historical Uncanny in Barnes's Nightwood

Article excerpt

  Not those who had seen him last, but me who had seen him best, as if
  my memory of him were himself; and because you forget Robin the best,
  it's to you she turns.
  --The doctor to Nora, Nightwood (152)

In the midst of the baroque, the haphazard, the seemingly gratuitous flourishes of Dr. Matthew O'Connor, Nightwood foists upon its reader a set of propositions about same-sex love that could be understood as some of the most wretchedly homophobic in the canon of modernist literature. While the novel does not allow O'Connor's monologues the status of truth or even the slightest guarantee of reliability, Nightwood never contests what he has to say about the "invert"; rather, it bolsters his insights with a course of events that he foretells. That we can read O'Connor, like the narrative itself, as a parody of the search for authenticity, an allegory repeatedly undermining its own drive to explanation, does not exonerate Djuna Barnes from serious charges of homophobia (not to mention anti-Semitism and other problems): in her travesty of the truth quest, Barnes replaces any longed-for naturalness with prosthesis, a move that ultimately allies the "perverse" with garish spectacles of lifelessness, impotency, and inadequacy. (1) There are dolls standing in for the children lesbian couples cannot have and paintings portraying ancestors who never existed. In a peculiarly vivid displacement, the word Desdemona tattooed on a black circus performer's penis spells out for all to see the sexual threat that the performer poses to racist society, but that spelling out renders the threat void: the offending object, naughtily visible but forever flaccid, is the sign of its own impotence (16). (2) Yet these displays serve an aesthetic purpose, deploying homophobia, misogyny, and racism as the means to something else entirely: the apprehension of the uncanny, the enactment of a perversity just beyond what language can symbolize. This something else has a role to play in history, not as representation but as an instigator, a rupture in causality, an unrecuperable figure that absconds from the scene.

I contend that Lacanian psychoanalysis offers a more compelling way to read Nightwood than the nostalgic and restitutive approaches offered by Jane Marcus and Victoria L. Smith, among others. Nostalgia would eulogize, holding tight to a lost otherness, while Barnes's novel celebrates that alterity's escape. Historical narrative that omits the unconscious--that closes the gaps, quiets disruption, and stops slippage--shuts itself to the mechanisms of social change. Committed to continuism, insisting that we can identify and thereby register the lost object, such narration either disallows the otherness that we cannot name or offers no means to acknowledge it. In Read My Desire, Joan Copjec criticizes such contemporary historicist modes for reducing "society to its indwelling network of relations of power and knowledge" (6). (3) Historical explanations that reject the psychoanalytic concept of desire collapse society into its relations, failing to register the element that disrupts the self-reflexive closure of the system. Such self-enclosed relations, wherein everything can be named, nothing escapes, and power always meets a corresponding resistance, cannot account for what Copjec describes as "the pockets of empty, inarticulable desire that bear the burden of proof of society's externality to itself" (14). Nightwood is an historical fiction bedecked with emptiness, its excesses of articulation contorting the cause-and-effect linearity of chronological history--the straight face of narrative realism--with unaccountable laughter.

The uncanny is Freud's name for the irruption of the unconscious into social reality. Mladen Dolar asserts that "ideology basically consists of a social attempt to integrate the uncanny, to make it bearable, to assign it a place" (19). It is precisely such a place that Nightwood rejects, whether located in the masochistic comforts of mourning or in the affirmations of settled identity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.