UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Bow Down: Art, History, and Subjectivity in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

Bow Down: Art, History, and Subjectivity in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

By Soo Hyun Hwang

Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Nightwood is a novel that resists easy interpretation or categorization, much like the times it was born out of. Seizing on the complication between subject and object in Barnes’s moment of modernity, the novel tentatively offers the motif of bodily imagery as an alternative mode of constructing the subjective self, cautiously arguing for a sort of self-objectification. The body is offered as a sign, but this also absolves the self of any semiotic and thus historical responsibility. However, just as Nightwood lauds the redemptive qualities of this modality of art, the fundamental ambiguity of the text also seems to suggest the loss of humanity itself as the cost of this rejection of subjective historicity. This paper examines how Nightwood attempts to negotiate the relationship between history and modern subjectivity specifically through the modality of art. In doing so, the paper develops an argument about how the novel problematizes the meaning and value of objects, and the sorts of relationships the modern subject is invited to entertain with them. The essay articulates its central problematic by drawing on Walter Benjamin’s and Giorgio Agamben’s writings on the ontology of the work of art. In particular, it engages Benjamin’s claims regarding the destruction of what he calls the “aura” of the artwork and its ambivalent—at once alienating and emancipatory—potential. The paper’s treatment of these well-known reflections on the destruction of aura in modernity is enriched through references to Agamben’s attempts to contextualize those claims within a more developed genealogy of the alienation of aesthetics from life, namely with the rise of the museum and the doctrine of the autonomy of art.

 

Introduction

In 1936, American expatriate Djuna Barnes published her third novel, Nightwood. Written during the summers of 1932 and 1933, it was heavily autobiographical, drawing on her life in Paris in the 1920s. The protagonist of the novel lived in a flat on the Rue du Cherche-Midi, a block away from Barnes’s actual apartment on the Rue Saint-Romain. Less than two miles away was an apartment at 10 Rue Dombasle, where the German philosopher Walter Benjamin would live from 1938 to 1940, notably working on The Arcades Project and publishing the last version of the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Although there is no evidence to suggest that the two authors ever met during their time in Paris, the majority of their creative activity happened around the same time in the same place, dealing with similar themes regarding the shifting role of art and its relation to modern identity.

In his essay[1] “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”[2] Benjamin posits that with developments in techniques of mass reproduction of artwork, what he terms the “aura” of art has been destroyed. Auratic artwork derives an aesthetic authority over its copies and the viewer from its “unique existence in a particular place” (253). Anytime someone travels to a museum or cathedral to view the art in its “here and now” (253), they participate in a kind of pilgrimage that acknowledges the work of art as a unique and singular artifact, locating the value of art in itself. The work of art thus becomes an object of impenetrable contemplation, gaining physical and emotional distance from the viewer and producing their alienation.

However, according to Benjamin “technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual” (256). With modernity came a reintroduction of a new mode of art into private spaces as cheap, mass produced prints provided people with the opportunity to furnish their homes with artwork created for the purpose of mass distribution from the outset. The logic of reproduction overrides even the authority of the first, ‘original’ work as “the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility” (256). The example that Benjamin gives is of photographic plates, of which “one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (256). Unlike the auratic artwork, which generates value through distance from the viewer, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction gains value in its closeness to the viewer. Its value is in exhibition, in the way that it seeks out and influences its audience, as art becomes increasingly designed with mass production and mass reception in mind. Technological reproducibility destroys the aura altogether, even that of the original, and the question of authenticity no longer becomes the prime concern of art.

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin traces the rising tension between auratic objects and mass produced, non-auratic objects to the 1900s and the emergence of the figure of the “Privatmann,” the private man. Benjamin identifies the rise of the private man with the rise of the intérieur in 2nd Empire France and links this phenomenon back to the increasingly rigid divide between private and public spheres of life. Thus, within the bourgeois conception of work and life, “for the private individual, places of dwelling are for the first time opposed to places of work. The former come to constitute the interior. Its complement is the office.”[3] Fleeing from the alienation generated by the modern urban experience, modern man turns to his home as a space separated from the public realm. He asserts aesthetic and emotional control over his own living room, filling it with rare objects and trinkets, personalizing the intérieur in order to make it his own, as opposed to the open spaces of the public realm. However, this increasing privatization of interior spaces also makes it so that the individual is sequestered, enclosed within the demarcated space of the home. According to Benjamin, “the interior is not just the universe of the private individual; it is also his étui,”[4] or case, a box that, molded to the shape of a person, encloses and simultaneously separates him from the world outside the domestic interior.

Nightwood most significantly explores the intersection of themes of art, history, and subjectivity in relation to public and private spaces. I argue that Nightwood outlines five distinct models that negotiate the relationship between history and modern identity. The novel especially focuses on the motif of the home, examining how the private interiority of a domestic space may be transformed into a space of exhibition, making it public. These hybrid spaces are furnished by what the novel terms “fossils” of history, which suppress aesthetic value and utility, instead privileging historical significance. In these spaces, the novel sees that objects overwhelm, command, and generate compulsive behavior. The auratic object thus produces the alienation of its collector, the subject.

As a complement to this conception of relating to objects, the novel instead positions the body itself as dwelling and tentatively offers the motif of bodily imagery, a mode of reception in which the subject becomes the object, as a solution to the problem of alienation posited by the auratic object. Here, history is inscribed directly onto the body, and the body of the subject is thus presented to the spectator as a readily legible object. In the moment of passivity of the image of the body, the spectator is presented with the seductive possibility of an apparently unmediated connection to history. Such a connection is, of course, illusory. The subject in becoming the object dissolves into the image, but at the same time eludes the control of the spectator by seeking refuge in the image. The novel identifies the redemptive potential of this moment of self-fossilization and perhaps offers a counterpoint to Benjamin’s understanding of alienation, which sees carnage and mass destruction as a final result of the total alienation of the body from the subject. Even so, just as it proposes the subject-become-object mode of art as a potential solution to the issue of alienation, the novel’s fundamental ambiguity suggests that a loss of humanity itself is the ultimate cost of this compromise.

 

I.

The modern museum as a public institution is something that only begins to emerge around the late 1800s. The museum as is understood in the contemporary sense is an institutionalized attempt to house history in the condensed form of material artifacts, isolated from the ravages of normal time or history. Historical artifacts in museums produce an alienation because they have essentially been removed from their specific context in space and time and placed exactly in front of us. The artifact appears in front of the viewer as if transported from its time and place of origin. Its occupancy of other spaces and times is partially occluded. Giorgio Agamben, in The Man Without Content (1970),[5] identifies the puzzling nature of this jump, writing that “our aesthetic perspective on art…makes it appear normal to us that the painting should go immediately from the hands of the artist to a hall in the museum of contemporary art” (33). The significance of the artwork’s seemingly spontaneous presentation (often a product, or complication, of processes and discourses not limited to colonialism, Orientalism, primitivism, …) is also occluded by virtue of its presentation. According to Agamben, “we believe, then, that we have finally secured for art its most authentic reality, but when we try to grasp it, it draws back and leaves us empty-handed” (33). The collector collapses aesthetic value and utility into semiotic significance (historicity) in the artifact, and the artifact collapses the collector into itself.

Nightwood uses the space of the home to identify several models of relation to objects, centered primarily around an understanding of the way certain objects are collected and housed within the home, as well as what purpose they serve to the inhabitants themselves. The first model of relation resembles the logic of the museum, where objects are removed from their historical points of origin and placed on display. Artifacts are seen to condense and demonstrate a history that extends past simply the object and its collector, and in this model both the artifact itself and the collector are surpassed by the suggestion of a greater historical significance in the object. On the other hand, the second model identifies a relationship with objects that privileges artifacts based on a personal emotional history. This modality of relating to objects sees disparate and unrelated, often commonplace items and trinkets, curated together based on an entirely personal affinity. This space also aligns with what Walter Benjamin identifies as the 2nd Empire intérieur of the Privatmann, as it simultaneously distinguishes itself from the outside through this personalization and serves to enclose its inhabitant within the space itself. In sharp contrast, the novel eventually posits two models that explore how the complications that stem from a relationship to objects and commodities may be subverted entirely within the context of the dwelling.

Set in Paris in the 1920s, Nightwood chronicles the lives and inner workings of an eclectic group of characters that closely mirrors Djuna Barnes’s own social circle during her life in Paris. Most notably the novel focuses on the tumultuous romance between the characters of Robin Vote and Nora Flood, roughly based on Djuna Barnes’s similarly troubled relationship with artist Thelma Wood. The novel is equally notable for a dense prose style that features a preponderance of objects and their descriptions, which almost outnumbers that of the characters themselves. The novel advances its principle models of relation to objects in the context of the three homes of Hedvig and Guido Volkbein, Nora Flood and Robin Vote, and Jenny Petherbridge. Although Nightwood is set in Paris in the 1920s, it begins in Austria in the 1880s with the description of the birth of Felix Volkbein, born to a Viennese woman and an Italian Jewish man of fabricated aristocratic descent. The House of Volkbein emerges from the narrative like a Gothic dwelling, a house that “large, dark and imposing, became a fantastic museum of [Hedvig and Guido’s] encounter” (7). Indeed, the description of the house reads much more like that of an actual museum than of a domestic space. Just as the museum gathers into one place objects with wildly differing origins and histories, Hedvig and Guido also curate within the space of their house a disjointed collection of art objects and artifacts that span a wide range of temporal and spatial origins. The fireplace is framed by “impressive copies of the Medici shield and, beside them, the Austrian bird,” the drawing room decorated with a “thick dragon’s-blood pile of rugs from Madrid,” and the windows curtained in “native velvets and stuffs from Tunis” (8). These objects are not simply commonplace furnishings, but “impressive” artifacts that hold within them the suggestion of both aesthetic and historical authority: what Walter Benjamin terms the “aura,” and what makes these objects irreproducible and therefore unique artifacts, rather than common objects.

Although the novel offers an extensive visual description of the house moving from hallway to room in thorough architectural detail, its inhabitants are almost nowhere to be found. Although they may have been the original orchestrators of the house’s design, the text makes it seem as if the house has a life of its own independent of its inhabitants, evident in the sweeping movement of the “long rococo halls, giddy with plush and whorled designs in gold” (8) to the “panels of oak that reared themselves above the long table and up to the curving ceiling” (9). Most uncanny is the way the house is “peopled with Roman fragments, white and disassociated” (8). The description of the marble denizens of the museum-house is truly eerie. Long after its original inhabitants are dead and buried what remains is “a runner’s leg, the chilly half-turned head of a matron stricken at the bosom, the blind bold sockets of the eyes given a pupil by every shifting so that what they looked upon was an act of the sun” (8). That Nightwood begins with Hedvig’s death among these objects is significant:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating a race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein – a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken. Turning upon this field, which shook to the clatter of morning horses in the street beyond, with the splendor of a general saluting the flag, she named him Felix, thrust him from her, and died. (3)

The unusually protracted momentum of this passage is achieved by the separation of subject, object, and verb. The subject (Hedvig Volkbein) is separated from its verb (“gave birth”) by an expanse of descriptive imagery, and once again from its object (“a son”) by another series of descriptions that continue after the completion of the action. Just as Hedvig is physically overshadowed by her massive canopied bed she is also semantically obscured by all of the heavy description it produces. Severed from her verb, Hedvig is consumed by her surroundings. The drawn out construction of this passage effectively minimizes, or rather conceals, Hedvig as the subject and instead confuses her as part of the description. Enveloped by the Hapsburg eagle and stamped onto her family coat of arms amid a sea of rich fabric, she becomes part of the tableau vivant, a mere composite sign of other signs: the Austrian empire, European nobility in decline, the perpetuation of the Jewish race. The objects that surround her are charged with a brimming historical potential that swamp her and ultimately leave her drowning and dead. In the space of the museum home, Hedvig and Guido are absorbed into the background, overwhelmed by the sheer force of the historicity contained in their home.

In Nightwood, the house becomes a space of memorialization. Overstuffed with rare objects and trinkets like Benjamin’s 2nd Empire intérieurs, the house, through objects, alienates its inhabitants. Any effort to crystallize a singular historical moment in the form of an object imbibes it with an auratic authority over the viewer. The distance created between the object and viewer thus results in the viewer’s alienation. The “fossils” (61) that furnish Guido and Hedvig’s home suggest a kind of death; the very attempt to sustain and preserve an experience by petrifying it consequently destroys it and thereby makes it entirely inaccessible.

Just as Guido and Hedvig attempt to memorialize their encounter within their house, Nora and Robin fill their apartment with a collection of objects and artifacts from the circus, which was the space of their first encounter. However, the main difference is that while Hedvig and Guido transform the space of their house into what is closer to a ‘true’ museum, where objects are given an alienated historical authority via their precise displacement from history, Nora’s home is much more similar in nature to the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of wonder, that Giorgio Agamben identifies as a precursor to the modern museum.

However, in Man Without Content, Agamben draws a distinction between the Wunderkammer and the modern museum despite the apparent visual similarity of the spatial arrangement of both spaces, stating instead that “it would be vain to seek an analogous foundation for the gallery” in the Wunderkammer (31). According to Agamben, within the space of the Wunderkammer, “individual objects seem to find their meaning only side by side with others, between the walls of a room in which the scholar could measure at every moment the boundaries of the universe,” the arrangement of which would appear to the collector himself as a replication of the macrocosm in its “harmonious confusion” (30). But while it seems that the work of art hanging inside the gallery, too, “[has] no reality” outside of the wall to which it is confined, Agamben points out that “enclosed by the vivid colors of its walls, [the gallery] rests in itself like a perfectly self-sufficient world where the canvases resemble the sleeping princess of the fairy tale” (31). The Wunderkammer is a space that has its motives in “its living and immediate unity with the great world of divine creation” (31) while the museum, on the other hand, makes it so that, within, art “has now built its own world for itself,” the consequence being that art, in its accumulation of “metaphysical and monetary value” within the atemporal space of the museum, will eventually “dissolve the concrete space of the work” (33). While Agamben’s assessment does not necessarily privilege the Wunderkammer over the museum as a mode of collecting or relating to art, it does identify a key difference between the unfolding of these two modalities. The Wunderkammer is understood as the singular product of a personal curiosity and intent inherent to the collector. The interior of the cabinet of wonder is curated according to a highly individual organizing principle. At the same time, as showpieces they were meant to satisfy both the collector’s personal taste as well as the collector’s desire to impress spectators. Thus, the space of the Wunderkammer confuses private and public by opening up to the spectator what was conceived as a private interior, unlike the museum, which is both conceived of and used as a public exhibition space.

Echoing the statues of the Volkbein house, Nora and Robin’s apartment is also occupied by “a fountain figure, a tall granite woman bending forward…as if to warn a child who goes incautiously” rather than its intended inhabitants (61). The stifling materiality of the house is to be expected in a space where “every object in the garden, every item in the house, every word they spoke, attested to their mutual love, the combining of their humours” (61). In this space, even their verbal utterances are rendered object and fossil; we are not given the content of these utterances, only their abstracted semiotic significance. If traces of Guido and Hedvig could be found within the architecture of the Volkbein house, no such trace of Nora and Robin can be found in their apartment, which is so full of the specificity of “circus chairs, wooden horses brought from a ring of an old merry-go-round, venetian chandeliers from the Flea Fair, stage-drops from Munich, ecclesiastical hangings from Rome, a spinet from England, and a miscellaneous collection of music boxes” that no space remains for anything else, even its would-be inhabitants (61).

The material and emotional clutter of the house directly affects Nora, who “suffered from the personality of the house” (61). The house that Nora tries to make a home is instead transformed into a museum, the material object summation of the couples’ shared experiences. Nora finds herself immobilized in her own house, unable to disturb any of the objects and moving with “soft and careful movements” as if, should the objects be disturbed from their original place, Robin “might lose the scent of home” (61). The novel makes it clear that Nora’s fears are at their core “unreasoning”; however, this is not necessarily a comment on the logic of her anxiety but more a comment on her confusion between home and museum, what is essentially “the punishment of those who collect their lives together” (61).

In a dream sequence, Nora finds herself before her grandmother’s room “set with all the belongings of her grandmother” (67). Just as her own house is filled with the material artifacts of her encounter with Robin, her grandmother’s room is furnished with “portraits of her great-uncle, Llewellyn…faded pale carpets, curtains that resembled fabled columns from their time in stillness” (68). Despite the fact that the room in Nora’s dream is “the absolute opposite of any known room her grandmother had ever moved or lived in,” it is nevertheless “saturated with the lost presence of her grandmother” (68). The contrast of “an expansive, decaying splendour” set against the essential desertion of the space, as “bereft as the nest of a bird which will not return” reveals the futility of Nora’s parallel endeavor to create within the space of her house both a memorial and a home (67).

 

II.

These models of relation to objects pose a paradox in that attempts to assert or express subjectivity through objects end up alienating the subject itself. Nightwood presents a radically different way of understanding subjectivity through objects in the character of Jenny Petherbridge. Guido, Hedvig, and Nora are curators in their own right; their houses are furnished with a carefully curated selection of objects from their history. Jenny Petherbridge is on the other hand a squatter, a thief, and a collector, not a curator, of objects that are stolen history. In its scathing and thorough catalogue of the interior of Jenny Petherbridge’s home, the novel establishes it not as an interior nor a public exhibition, but as a sort of liminal space that functions only to physically house her loot. No one can intrude upon a space that is from the outset wholly open; in that way, there is no enclosed space to speak of, no actual place to intrude upon. The novel makes it clear that “no one could intrude upon her because there was no place for intrusion” (74).

Nightwood further draws a distinction between Jenny Petherbridge’s home and the quasi-museum houses of Nora Flood and the Volkbeins through descriptions of the home itself. Nora is able to situate her house within a spatial and cultural history. Before falling into her hands, the house had “been in the same family two hundred years. It had its own burial ground, and a decaying chapel in which stood in tens and tens of mouldering psalm books, laid down some fifty years gone in a flurry of forgiveness and absolution” (50). Similarly, the novel locates the Volkbein residence within the space of Vienna of 1880 as “a house in the Inner City, to the north overlooking the Prater” (7), fixing it firmly within a specific socioeconomic history. On the other hand, Jenny Petherbridge’s home, never accorded the same pedigree, does not really emerge as grounded within any space or any time.

Nightwood describes her house as “teeming with second-hand dealings with life” (72). All of Jenny Petherbridge’s possessions are “first-hand plunder,” from “someone else’s marriage ring…on her finger” to the books in her library, which were “other people’s selections” (72). Much like Nora, who finds herself unable to truly inhabit the space of her home, Jenny similarly “[lives] among her own things like a visitor to a room kept ‘exactly as it was when–’” (72). But while Nora disappears into the clutter of her house, Jenny is unable to do even that. The ‘when’ of “exactly as it was when” is unknown to her. The past is an abstraction to Jenny Petherbridge, because the historicity of the objects she collects is anonymous. It originates from a “someone else” that is lost both to the spectator and to Jenny Petherbridge. Instead of being consumed by the history of her possessions, Jenny’s theft plucks the object from its place within history and severs all historical semiotic significance it has, real or manufactured. When Jenny Petherbridge tells a story, “everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story”—Jenny herself (73). But this is a loss that cannot be recuperated; each object is a fossil of a stolen history that conceals itself in its alienation from its origin.

The object produces Jenny’s alienation via its own alienation. Even as she assumes ownership of these objects, pointing them out, for instance, as “my virgin from Palma,” her thievery alienates her from actual ownership (72). Her own “quivering uncertainty,” produced by the anonymous historicity of her stolen possessions, makes it so that the object recedes “into a distance of uncertainty, so that it was almost impossible for the onlooker to see them at all” (72). There is no link between the collector and the object; completely alienated from its own history, the object recedes into the distance. Jenny Petherbridge is not simply a squatter in the spatial sense, living among stolen objects, but also in the temporal sense. The novel describes in detail her “continual rapacity for other people’s fact; absorbing time, she held herself responsible for historic characters” (74). She occupies always someone else’s history, living in the accumulation of a stolen temporality. But as long as she ‘squats’ in someone else’s time Jenny Petherbridge is unable to occupy her own, completely alienated from even herself, with no “sense of humour or peace of rest” (72). Because she is unable to “let her time alone” she is at the same time unable to “be a part of it” (74).

Nightwood is relentless in its character assassination of Jenny Petherbridge. Married four times, “each husband had wasted away and died; she had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavor to make them historical; they could not survive it” (71). Jenny’s attempt to force historicity is confined not only to objects; just as Hedvig succumbs to the historical weight of her surroundings, so do Jenny’s husbands. In this endeavor, Jenny Petherbridge herself is reduced to a mere repetitive and futile, animal existence, and in this way is punished by the novel.

For the novel, historicity means a sort of ‘rightful,’ ultimately claimable and traceable lineage. As it sets up different models of relating to objects, the novel also establishes a clear relationship between personal identity and ownership of objects. The collector makes themselves legible through and by the collection of disparate objects. Reiterated in a simplified formula, objects are given historical meaning through their collection, their historicity displaced back onto the collector. Thus, for all the novel cautions against this attempt to simultaneously house and force history into the private space of the home, an even bigger sin is the one committed by Jenny. Her usurpation of the historical, originary ownership of objects, along with her attempt to assume ownership of these objects by way of labelling them “hers,” destroys the coherence of collection posited by the novel.

More precisely, Jenny Petherbridge destroys what Walter Benjamin identifies as the ‘auratic’ value of objects. Her repossession ruptures the object’s historical continuity and thus authority; stolen from its original owner, and its original coherence lost, the object is rendered alienated and tainted. When Walter Benjamin speaks of the aura, it is to identify an authority in the original work of art that sets it apart from its mechanical reproductions, or copies. According to Benjamin, the artwork’s authority comes from “its unique existence in a particular place” (253)—an authority that is closely tied to a ritual value that stems ultimately from historical tradition. Although Benjamin does not directly link ownership itself to the aura of an artwork, when he asserts that “changes of ownership are part of a tradition which can be traced only from the standpoint of the original from its present location” (253), it does suggest that there is a strong link between ‘legitimate,’ or traceable and identifiable changes in ownership with historical authority, and thus what strongly opposes an object’s authenticity or reproducibility.

Although Nightwood identifies the problematic of the collector’s mode of relating to objects in its previous criticism of Hedvig Volkbein and Nora Flood, the novel’s punishment of Jenny Petherbridge actually seems to suggest a much more conservative ethics. Despite the novel’s advocating for a shift away from the ritualization and historicization of objects, its treatment of Jenny Petherbridge shows that it is still tied up in the ‘normal’ conventions relating ownership and authenticity, perhaps demonstrating the limitations of this kind of object ethics. Because Jenny simply possesses rather than owns, the novel punishes her by putting her in her place, making it impossible for her to recover herself through ‘her’ objects.

 

III.

The novel’s treatment of the homes of Hedvig Volkbein, Nora Flood, and Jenny Petherbridge focuses on the ways in which each character constructs and inhabits interior spaces in relation to objects and artifacts. In all of these modalities of relating to objects, however, great emphasis is placed on the auratic value of objects, whether it be by privileging the aura over other aesthetic and utilitarian characteristics, or through an examination of the consequences of a complete destruction of the continuity of the auratic object. In all of these modalities of relation, an emphasis on the object itself is seen to destroy the private interiority of the space of the home as objects take on through their “auratic existence” a ritualistic quality, transforming the space of the home into instead a public exhibition space.

In contrast, the novel offers in its description of the character Doctor O’Connor’s flat the only instance of a home that remains free of the aura of objects; unlike other characters, whose tendency is to gravitate towards aesthetically unique and personal objects, O’Connor’s home is furnished according to utility alone. While his room is “so small that it was just possible to walk sideways up to the bed” (85), he chooses to “occupy [his room] with the utmost abandon” (84). Unlike the carefully supervised construction of the Volkbein house or the detailed curation of Nora and Robin’s apartment, there is little order or meaning to his possessions. O’Connor “dazzles” through the “disorder” of his room (84). Upon entering his room Nora Flood finds “a pile of medical books, and volumes of a miscellaneous order, … a rusty pair of forceps, a broken scalpel…ribands, stockings, ladies’ underclothing and an abdominal brace” (84-85). Such is the confusion of his room that the instruments of his professional life mingle with the accessories of his personal life. The utter chaos of the room makes it difficult to grasp at meaning or coherence within the context of its clutter, which itself is cobbled together with no particular principle of organization, certainly unlike a museum or the carefully curated space of the Wunderkammer. Unlike Nora, who buckles under the weight of meaning accumulated by the objects of her house, O’Connor’s room seems instead to suffer from his personality, every object seemingly “battling its own compression” (85). Each object is denuded of its auratic quality and stripped of aesthetic and historical uniqueness or singularity.

Other characters stand apart from their dwellings, either disappearing into the clutter of the house or stepping gingerly around each painstakingly chosen object so as not to disturb its place and its meaning as a “symbol” of history, a fossil. Unlike Hedvig or Nora, who are unable to inhabit their houses, O’Connor “occupies” his room. Nora’s description of O’Connor’s room and his possessions is almost entirely devoid of visual detail. She notes “a very small barred window…a maple dresser…half a dozen odd instruments that she could not place, a catheter, some twenty perfume bottles, almost empty, pomades, creams, rouges, powder boxes and puffs” (85). In stark contrast to the lush visual detail of Hedvig and Guido’s home, Nora’s description minimally catalogues the objects within the space of his room. O’Connor’s occupancy of this space is evident, from the “almost empty” bottles of perfume to the “half-open drawers” of his chiffonier and a swill-pail at the head of his bed, “brimming with abominations” (85). The objects in his room are not artifacts, but possessions that are chosen for a utility that is exhausted through continuous use.

The novel offers O’Connor’s room as an alternative spatial model of relating to objects that seemingly prevents the subject’s alienation through a total suppression of the aura of objects. Even so, while this appears to solve one problem, it actually opens up the possibility of a different kind of vulnerability. Most notably, Nora finds O’Connor actually inhabiting the space of his house, discovering him amidst the “heavy and dirty linen sheets” of his bed where he “lay…in a woman’s flannel nightgown” (85). Although Nora initially subordinates the doctor to her gaze in this moment of vulnerability, glancing over his “head, with its over-large black eyes…framed in the golden semi-circle of a wig with long pendent curls…heavily rouged and his lashes painted” (85), the moment is shattered in the “second’s duration as she opened the door; in the next, the doctor [snatches] the wig from his head, and sinking down in the bed [draws] the sheets up over his breast” (86). This moment is as traumatizing for Nora as it is for the doctor, with Nora continuing her business “as quickly as she could recover herself” (86). In contrast to the space of the house-become-museum, O’Connor’s room is an enclosed space of complete and total interiority, an interiority which is ruptured by Nora’s arrival. So while in the space of O’Connor’s room there is no material historicity to collapse or be collapsed into, O’Connor’s occupancy of precisely that space nevertheless ensures that he is vulnerable to its rupture.

 

IV.

Nightwood identifies a crucial failing in all of these models of relating to objects. The collector-collected paradigm, if we may call it that, necessarily brings the complication of alienation. The alienating nature of the work of art in the space of the museum, according to Agamben, arises when the “concrete space of the work of art dissolves, and what the spectator sees in it is no longer something that he can immediately find again in his consciousness as his highest truth” (36). Alienated from its prior context, displaced from its provenance, the work of art produces the alienation of its collector. As Agamben puts it, “the spectator sees himself as other in the work of art” (37). Despite the fact of his giving the object the impetus of historicity, the object as it relates to the collector makes it so that the collector may recover only and barely his own self through an absolute alienation. In Nightwood’s transposition of the museum onto the home as a space in which this relationship unfolds, the home’s status as both space and dwelling is prioritized. Nightwood’s residents relate not only to the objects housed within the space of the home, but also the dwelling itself as an object, a sort of fusion object that serves as a non-cohesive composite of all of the compressed historicity of the novel’s object fascination.

But even more central to the image of the home and of the dwelling, chief among objects, is the physical body of the individual. Understanding and relating to the body itself as an object and product of history is indeed a modality of relating to objects that the text zeroes in on, perhaps as a way of yielding a more ethically fruitful model than the initial exploration of the collector-collected dichotomy. Nightwood offers the model of bodily imagery as a tentative mode of recuperating agency lost among objects. Instead of negotiating a relationship to history through objects, bodily imagery inscribes history onto the literal self. In this manner the subject is able to assume both the subject and object position at the same time, through the moment of its own presentation as object. The novel seems to offer this as a solution to the problems posed by objects, because bodily imagery instead collapses the distance between the object and its spectator, thereby appearing to resolve the immediacy of alienation.

The novel’s main exploration of bodily imagery, however, proves to be highly problematic at first glance. Through Doctor O’Connor, the novel produces a voyeuristic description of the body of Nikka, a black circus performer. Characterized by racist imagery that capitalizes on the stereotype of the primitive and savage black man, Nikka is quite literally rendered a painting: “tattooed from head to heel with all the ameublement of depravity,” the body of Nikka becomes a work of visual art, identified by O’Connor as “a sight to see” (19). Much like Hedvig, who succumbs to the ekphrastic description of her surroundings and is “offered as a ‘sign’” (13) to the onlooker, Nikka’s body too is frozen in the moment of action as he “[crouches] all over the arena without a stitch on” (19). The potential for movement (“crouching”) is arrested by O’Connor’s digressive speech, which immediately continues onto description rather than action:

There he was, crouching all over the arena without a stitch on, except an ill-concealed loin-cloth all abulge as if with a deep-sea catch, tattooed from head to heel with all the ameublement of depravity! Garlanded with rosebuds and hackwork of the devil – was he a sight to see! (19)

The body of Nikka is presented as an art object and spectacle, and thus opens itself up to interpretation by the spectator as a collection of symbols and signs. The images inscribed on his body are not simply described as they are but contain an invitation to interpret, to ‘read’ according to the body’s symbolic configurations. In detailing aspects of Nikka’s presentation such as his bulging loincloth, the novel offers a suggestion of the stereotype of the threatening sexuality of the black man, underscored by O’Connor’s pointed confirmation “(it’s said) at a stretch it spelled Desdemona” (19) and embellished by the image of a “bird…carrying a streamer on which was incised, ‘Garde tout!’” (20). As immediately as he offers this threat O’Connor nullifies it, confiding in his audience that “in spite of all that has been said about the black boys” Nikka is in fact impotent and “couldn’t have done a thing” if he had been in a gig-mill full of women (19). The irony is in O’Connor’s confidence (“‘I know what I am talking about’”) that Nikka’s sexual proclivities lie elsewhere, most likely with men (19).

Despite the apparent concreteness of the presentation of Nikka’s body as a coherent visual image, O’Connor’s reported speech and factual ambiguity reveal the disjointedness and the incompleteness of visual description. O’Connor’s extended ekphrastic description of Nikka’s tattoos is at its core hearsay and therefore inherently unreliable. He swears, “‘I give you my word’” in describing the lettering across Nikka’s knees (19). He is unsure whether the word on the side of Nikka’s body is that uttered by King Henry the Seventh when he “called for a goblet of water (or was it water?)” (19). Over the vinework on the legs is “believe it or not and [he] shouldn’t” “a terse account in early monkish script – called by some people indecent, by others Gothic – of the really deplorable condition of Paris before hygiene was introduced” (20).

While the extended description certainly invites the spectator to participate in the deciphering of the imagery of the body on display, the novel reminds us that any such deciphering can only be conducted at arm’s length from the actual image. When O’Connor asks “why all this barbarity,” Nikka answers that he “loved beauty and would have it about him” (20). Despite the seeming ease with which O’Connor is able to ‘read’ the body of Nikka, the actual imagery of his tattoos is devoid of any meaning or value other than the aesthetic. The suggestive, and therefore threatening, presentation of his body as an image of a multitude of categories (black, male, virile, colonial subject, savage) is then negated, the locus of meaning displaced back onto the spectator.

Any attempt to force coherence from the multitude of images adorning Nikka’s body is immediately identified as an inherent fabrication, compounded by the literal positioning of his body as a circus spectacle. The “depravity” that O’Connor identifies in Nikka’s tattoos is therefore not an actual part of the imagery but a layer of meaning added by the spectator, just as the “early monkish script” of Nikka’s legs can just as easily be “indecent” as it can be “Gothic” depending on the eye of the beholder. The semiotic confusion of Nikka’s bodily imagery collapses historicity into aesthetics.

O’Connor’s description of Nikka starts with an account of action, of Nikka “crouching all over the arena without a stitch on” (19). Unlike the arrested momentum of Hedvig, O’Connor’s account of the bodily imagery of Nikka is not truly a moment in which the subject is presented “forever arranged” (40). Hedvig is forever arranged through the separation of her subject position from verb and object. Consumed by the drawn-out description of surrounding imagery, her actions are exhausted of kinetic potential and fall flat. Nikka’s verb is by contrast non-finite. As he is crouching, he is described in perpetual motion. He immediately presents himself as the imagery, and through his tattoos he is able to present himself as object while simultaneously occupying the subject position. The slipperiness of Nikka’s body, described in constant motion and confusing the boundaries between subject and object, is what allows him to escape the relentless tendency of the novel to attempt to read, interpret, codify, and co-opt the imagery of the body frozen in time. Only through the rendering of his body as image does Nikka resist control, remaining “half public, half private” (19).

Even so, while one may say that Nikka escapes control through the image of his body, the ethics of this modality of relating to the body itself poses an inherent problem. The ‘slipperiness’ of the imagery and the confusion of meaning contained in the visual representations of his tattoos glance over rather than elaborating. So while it may be possible to recover the self through the total emptying out of meaning in visual symbolism, the problem is precisely in this emptiness. The myriad of tattoos that adorn Nikka’s body are complicated by the associations that they engender because they are inscribed onto the body of a black man—who, presented in the moment of preparing to fight a bear, is a perfect pictorial representation of “barbarity” itself. Doctor O’Connor’s story, which is essentially a firsthand account become secondhand by his own embellishments, makes it so that the novel is absolved of responsibility. There is the suggestion of meaning, but in the suggestion of so many and so evidently contradictory meanings, the complex racist and colonial history contained within the actual body of the black performer is obscured and never left to fully develop or rise to the surface, so to speak. So while Nikka’s presentation seems to present a moment in which subjectivity is exercised through a deliberate self-objectification, the novel’s co-opting of the primitivist stance is ultimately frustrating because it presents a suggestive and deeply problematic image as a solution to the problem of alienation, and in doing so hollows out meaning and prevents further, more complex discourse.

Felix’s account of the trapeze artist the Duchess of Broadback (Frau Mann) offers another example of how the self may be recovered through a sort of simplification of bodily imagery, but in this case the novel examines the visual cohesiveness of the body on display. Perhaps notable is the fact that the novel, however extensively it deals with the space of the circus and the circus spectacle, offers no detailed description of its performers save that of Nikka and Frau Mann. If Nikka escapes the objectifying gaze of Doctor O’Connor by “[dazzling] his own estrangement” (14) as does Felix, the Duchess of Broadback evades control through complete and total camouflage.

When Felix observes that “[Frau Mann’s] trade – the trapeze – seemed to have preserved her,” he is quite mistaken (14). It is movement that is caught within the body of Frau Mann and not the other way around. In her legs is “the specialized tension common to aerial workers,” in her wrists “something of the bar, the tan bark in her walk” (15). The equipment of her trade disappears into the description of her body, “the bulge in the groin where she took the bar, one foot caught in the flex of the calf…as solid, specialized and as polished as oak” (16), just as her costume blends into her skin:

She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume: a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow, low in the back and ruffled over and under the arms, faded with the reek of her three-a-day control, red tights, laced boots – one somehow felt that it ran through her as the design runs through hard holiday candies. (16)

Nikka is naked save for the thin guise of a loincloth covering his modesty; he is both literally and figuratively completely exposed to the spectator. Frau Mann is completely covered. Felix blends together the description of her skin and her costume, starting his observation with one and finishing with another. There is a level of uncertainty in the description, marking the confusion between the body of Frau Mann and her costume. Her skin “[seems]” to take on the pattern of her costume; and it “somehow [feels]” that the striping of her bodice runs through Frau Mann as a whole. Confirming the illusion, Felix notes that “the stuff of the tights was no longer a covering, it was herself” (16). Her costume becomes her armor, preventing the spectator from viewing her as a “sign.” The body is presented as one singular image (rather than multiple, as is the case with Nikka) while at that moment the self hides behind that image and is thus rendered invulnerable to control; the spectator, unable to ‘see’ Frau Mann, is unable to decipher her. The sexually suggestive imagery dominating O’Connor’s description of Nikka is placed in stark contrast with Felix’s observation of the Duchess’ apparent sexlessness (as if her name were not enough). She is literally enseamed in her costume, “the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The needle that had made one the property of the child made the other the property of no man” (16). With Nikka there is only the performer, the performance of savagery a fabrication. With Frau Mann there is only the performance, her affected “coquetries” the illusion (15). Frau Mann herself produces an alienation because the visual surface of her body is wholly coherent yet at the same time wholly Other; rendered a sexless doll, Frau Mann does not yield to any deciphering.

 

V.

Nightwood identifies in Robin an extreme example of this modality of the body as art, or the presentation of the self as art and image. Robin herself is rarely present throughout the text, at least in the sense of her own presencing. The novel offers two instances of her unmediated speech, and she moves through the novel via the anecdotes and recollections of other characters. Robin is defined in the text as a somnambule, a sleepwalker who is neither asleep nor awake but in the strange middle state of active or performative unconsciousness. She is actually seldom depicted conscious; the moment of her introduction is one in which Robin herself is absent. Asleep and initially concealed behind the greenery of her room, she is discovered by Felix:

On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers…half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick-lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face. (37-38)

Nikka escapes control through the semiotic confusion of the imagery inscribed onto his body, and Frau Mann does so through a kind of camouflage in which the self is hidden via the presentation of the body itself as a coherent yet alienating image. And yet, even as they manage to escape control by offering themselves as ‘bait’ in the image of the body, what remains is the conscious offering up of the self. The logic of bodily imagery as a redemptive modality of art requires that one assert agency by giving up agency. The self once rendered image does not carry the historical responsibility of its objectification; that is entirely the prerogative of the spectator, the subject actually doing the objectification. However, the chief problematic is in this prior rendering of image: ultimately both Nikka and Frau Mann are complicit in the actual moment that makes their objectification possible, and are thus implicated. Robin, on the other hand, is not complicit in this moment of discovery because she is entirely absent from it. The burden of the gaze of the spectator as an objectifying force bounces back to the spectator himself because Robin is not present to receive it. What exists is solely the image of Robin and not her self. She is a “young woman” and a “her,” a composite of head, legs, face, and hands, but even in her “threatened consciousness” she does not awake to emerge as a whole. In her total passivity, she implicates the spectator and only the spectator. Felix recognizes his own vulnerability when stumbling upon Robin, “out of delicacy, stepped behind the palms” as to remove his own gaze from her image (39).

As an image that exists as such, Robin offers for the spectator the incredibly alluring possibility of total and direct contact with history—an unmediated experience of the past that in the case of Nikka and Frau Mann is rendered impossible due to their self-implication in their passivity:

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. 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. (41)

The image of Robin, which is not presented nor arranged but simply there, by virtue of its being merely that, houses at the same time her absence, and Robin emerges only via this absence. She appears almost as if an imprint of an image, so that “thinking of her, visualizing her, was an extreme act of the will; to recall her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details” (45). Only in her absence does, or can, she appear. Paradoxically, in this state Robin is not a danger to herself. Rather she is for the spectator, or the “contemplative mind” the “chiefest danger.” While the complete passivity of the image literally transforms Robin into object, her total passivity nullifies her inherent historicity so that when the spectator attempts to perceive her, the image of Robin returns only the image of the spectator himself. The “forgotten experience” that the pictorial arrangement of Robin returns is but an “image,” a “mirage.”

The seductive possibility of unmediated and actual contact with the “the blood on the lips of our forefathers” is but the pure possibility of that moment of connection. The potentiality of the in-between moment between non-contact and contact is what is charged in the image, the “hoof raised in the economy of fear.” What is given is always the horizon, but it is a promise of the past that is in the future, as a new present. So while the promise is given, its fulfillment is not possible, but the mere feeling of the possibility of a direct relationship to the past is what makes the image of Robin dangerous; it is the “trepidation” of knowing that, per first contact with history itself, something that is spatially, temporally, existentially completely Other, one will perhaps wither away as Jenny Petherbridge’s husbands or disappear into the clutter of the space of the museum just as Nora does.

While, for the spectator, Robin—or rather the totally passive image of Robin—offers the bare potential of direct communion with history, the cost of passivity for Robin herself is her own humanity. At the end of the novel, Nora stumbles upon Robin in front of an altar, having followed her dog into a chapel, engaged in a strange imitative struggle. As she slides down onto all fours like the dog, she becomes like the dog but also becomes the dog itself; the confusion of the sequence makes it impossible to distinguish which one imitates the other. Thus Robin completes her total transformation into beast:

Robin began going down. Sliding down she went; down, her hair swinging, her arms held out, and the dog stood there, rearing back, his forelegs slanting; his paws trembling under the trembling of his rump, his hackle standing; his mouth open, his tongue slung sideways over his sharp bright teeth; whining and waiting. And down she went, until her head swung against his; on all fours now, dragging her knees…Then she began to bark also, crawling after him – barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching. The dog began to cry then, running with her, head-on with her head, as if to circumvent her; soft and slow his feet went padding. He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees. (178-180)

In her very name is the suggestion of a prior affinity with animality, but it is in secondhand descriptions of Robin that this is most evident. Matthew O’Connor’s account of Robin identifies a “sort of fluid blue under her skin, as if the hide of time had been stripped from her…the temples like those of young beasts cutting horns” (143). The image of the horn calls back to “the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees” (41), thus making the eternal wedding Robin’s own. Rendered image, Robin occupies at once no time and all time: in the present, the future as a promise of the past, and the past as a reflection of the spectator’s present. In the timelessness of her presencing, she is stripped not only of the ‘hide of time,’ but also her own humanity. Felix’s notation that her eyes, “faintly clear and timeless behind the lids” resembled the eyes of an animal, “the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye” suggests an inherent beastliness in Robin (41). She is “beast turning human” rather than human turning beast; instead of a post-facto loss of humanity, Nightwood suggests that her animality comes prior to her humanity. As the “infected carrier of the past” Robin carries within her the possibility of history just as animals do, as individual species-beings that abstract into a single, temporally continuous species that contains not only the past but also futurity. ■

 

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Notes

[1] There are several existing versions of Benjamin’s essay that were published between 1935 and 1939. The version referenced in this paper is the latest version, published in 1939 following significant revisions. For a detailed analysis of the difference between the available versions of this essay, see Miriam Bratu Hansen’s “Room-for-Play: Benjamin’s Gamble with Cinema.” October, vol. 109, 2004, pp. 3–45.

[2] “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 4: 1938-1940, by W. Benjamin et al., Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 251–270.

[3] Benjamin, Walter. “Paris, die Hauptstadt des XIX. Jahrhunderts,” Das Passagen-Werk, Vol. 1 (Frankfurt-Am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1983) 52. “Für den Privatmann tritt erstmals der Lebensraum in Gegensatz zu der Arbeitsstätte. Der erste konstutiert sich im Interieur. Das Kontor ist sein Komplement.”

[4] Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland, Harvard University Press, 1999. pp 8-9.

[5] Agamben, Giorgio. The Man Without Content. Translated by Georgia Albert, Stanford University Press, 1999.