Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Intemperate Time: Queer(ing) Temporality and Narrative in Nightwood

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Intemperate Time: Queer(ing) Temporality and Narrative in Nightwood

Article excerpt

Djuna Barnes' 1936 novel Nightwood has an episodic, if not fragmentary narrative arc, including a tireless deferral of telos. Rhetorically discontinuous, it seems to delight in a play of surfaces, rather than in achieving character and plot cohesion. If these features appear unremarkable in a modernist (con)text, Joseph Frank (1945) suggests that Barnes' narrative abandons a principle of verisimilitude which modernist works such as James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927) continue to cultivate.1 Nightwood evokes a love of artifice, detail, and decay, redolent of a Decadent sensibility. These aesthetic strategies, in concert, betoken a twisted - or queer2 - relationship to time, all the more significant given the centrality of 'deviant', queer sexuality to Decadent art - a movement still endemic in Barnes' milieu when Nightwood was composed (Carlston, 1998, pp. 46, 49). In a letter to Emily Coleman, who was instrumental in Nightwoods publication, Barnes explains that it 'is not a novel ... there is no continuity of life in it, only high spots and poetry' (quoted in Barnes, 1995, p. x). Yet, such 'continuity of life' is itself secured through narrative. As I argue throughout this article, Nightwood presents a reciprocal, albeit uneven, construction of normative modes of being, and normative, novelistic conceptions of narrative. Thus, we achieve, as Nightwoods Nora Flood tries to do in her conversations with Dr Matthew O'Connor, a coherent idea of our subjectivity and relationality through a process of narrativising. In this way, we aestheticise life in order, perhaps, to make sense of it.

Yet within some novels, particular aesthetics come to be so naturalised as to offer a semblance of objectivity. The Bildungsroman suggests itself here, in view of its insistence upon, its very title stressing, 'straight' development - a teleological maturation through one's formative years, often culminating in 'adulthood'. Such 'straight' aesthetics coincide with linear, reproductive time, and promise continuity through heterosexual monogamous relationality. In contradistinction, Nightwood offers a non-coincidence between narrative patterning and linear time, as narrative spills over or moves sideways. Barnes' voluptuous narration of a circus performance in this novel - lingering, circling, and embracing lateral development - leads Elizabeth Pochoda to argue that 'the [circus] ring itself contains all time at once - there is movement but no progress' (1976, p. 188; my emphasis). But why must 'progress' be restricted to forward movement, as Pochoda's claim implies, or measured according to linear time? What of the relationalities and subjectivities - akin to the artifice, repetition, and performance in Nightwooďs circus - that are not consonant with linear time, but with those temporalities by which queers live?

In this article, I therefore investigate how Barnes' queer manipulations of narrative may be understood to restyle temporality.3 I argue that the interstices she creates through syntactical and narrative contortion offer Nightwooďs characters various spatiotemporalities - existences in both space and time - in which to relate differently, or queerly. I draw on the work of Elizabeth Freeman, who suggests that 'a hiccup in sequential time' within visual texts opens up relational possibilities (2010, p. 3). Freeman's argument is indebted to theorists such as Judith Roof (2016), who demonstrate how 'straight' time, reproduction, marriage, and other constituents of heteronormativity map onto narrative time. A disruption of such a narrative's forward thrust at once denaturalises it and allows us to imagine novel ways of being (and being together). Indeed 'queer time', broadly construed, disturbs the linear, teleological paradigm of temporality. It exposes the dubious motivations of the norm(ative), along with its ahistorical impulses. Hayden White addresses this ideological freight and resonance of narrative too, when he observes that any congruence between narrative and 'life' or narrative and 'history' is not so much 'natural', as a marker of power (1987, p. …

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