In-between states: twilight horror in Jean Rhys' After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie & Djuna Barnes' Nightwood.
The twilight zone, both literally and figuratively, can be a valuable trope in literary analysis. Not only does it denote a temporality hinging on the borderline of night and day--a phase before dawn and after sunset, together with the varying intervals in between light and darkness--but it also marks a spatiality, a zone or threshold between opposing tendencies. It is a transitional area, a site of contradiction, where binary opposites such as life/death and light/dark coalesce (or are allowed to co-exist) at the same time as they undergo fission. In other words, this borderline area of the twilight zone is the site of a dialectics between binary opposites, a dialectics which can incorporate two opposing values and blur their distinctive boundaries.
Nothing is what it seems in the twilight zone. It is a hazy region where one signifier can easily slip into its opposite, or bear onto itself several signifieds. That it is a space of indeterminacy, which harbors a rupturing of signifier from the signified, lends it particularly well, in my view, to textual figuration. The very space where twilight occurs--the borderline or horizon where earth and sky meet--can be metaphorized as textual space. The text is the provisional and recurrent meeting place of earth and sky, the material with the ephemeral. It signals the conjuncture of conscious and unconscious processes that went into its making, and constantly initiates the gap between word and meaning, signifier and signified(s).
In the twilight zone of the text, this rupturing of signifier from the signified is a dynamic (and violent) process which, as we have seen, occurs on the border of twilight. This twilight border is comparable to Julia Kristeva's "thetic phase," a textual and psychical boundary which signals rupture and opens out onto desire. According to Kristeva, the thetic phase "posits the gap between the signifier and the signified as an opening up toward every desire but also every act, including the very jouissance that exceeds them" (Kristeva 42).
This "jouissance," a residual trace or remainder which both implodes into the text and exceeds it, occurs on the borderline which marks the rupture of signifier and signified. It is something which cannot be accurately defined: it eludes--and even exceeds--definition. As Shari Benstock notes in Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre, jouissance "exceeds the limits of any definition: it goes beyond sexual pleasure, beyond pleasure itself, and can tip over into pain and psychic dissolution" (16). I read jouissance as a discharge of energy, an excessive pleasure or orgasmic bliss intimately linked with loss and even death. As Lacan notes in Ecrits: A Selection, the body is capable of experiencing this jouissance through erogenous zones as loss, "Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image" (353). (1)
Similarly, the orgasm of jouissance hinges as much on death as it does on loss; for one can very easily lose oneself in its throes, in that spasmic rush or engorgement of blood to the genitals which, at the critical moment, leads to separation and ejection of fluids from self. (2) Jouissance, then, occurs at the crucial boundary between the body's surfaces or orifices and the outer world. It is that which lies beyond--beyond physical representations, and leaves behind its residual trace. In short, this residue of jouissance "escapes representative forms" and "signals (uncannily) the threshold where identity recedes, where subjectivity vanishes, where the sign and object are traversed" (Benstock 40).
As I have already mentioned, this threshold or liminal space, where identity is lost and where "sign and object are traversed," harks back to that twilight zone which forecloses the single possibility of any stable one-to-one correspondence of signifier and signified, word and thing. The twilight zone, then, is endowed with polysemy. It is a space of indeterminacy marked by its own liminality and transience. As such, I have suggested that it is a spatio-temporal space which can form a useful backdrop against which to read certain texts.
Two such texts have recently come to my attention which (according to my view) bear several aspects of this twilight zone. Jean Rhys' After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and Djuna Barnes' Nightwood exhibit a striking tendency towards polysemic indeterminacy, a tendency which is especially typified in the female heroines Julia Martin and Robin Vote, respectively.
To begin with, both Robin and Julia are "borderline" characters. They are positioned in between antitheses, neither material nor ephemeral, occupying the categorical position of neither human, beast or ghost, but participating in all of them, and achieving, through their state of "in-betweenness" a plurality which goes beyond even classification. Furthermore, that this "in-between state" characterizes them both is evinced from the very start; the very first label or marker which is meant to define them--their name--echoes an unsettling conjoining of the natural element with the human and the cultural. As Sandra M. Gilbert remarks of Robin Vote in Costumes of the Mind: Transvestism as Metaphor in Modern Literature, "[her] first name connects her with nature and [her] last name associates her with the triumphs of the women's movement and the voting powers of the sacred" (Gilbert 216). Similarly, Betsy Berry in her "'Between dog and wolf': Jean Rhys' version of naturalism in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" notes how Julia's last name associates her with the martin, which Berry connects with the bird, but which can also denote an ape, the martin monkey.
This conjoining of human with bird has an unsettling effect, to say the least. Not only does it blur the boundaries between bird and human, but it is also reminiscent of the fearful flesh-eating sirens in Greek mythology--half-woman, half-bird--who lured sailors on to their destruction. Arguably, this mythologizing tendency in both texts has a depersonalizing--even dehumanizing--effect, robbing both Julia and Robin of their subjectivity, their human agency. The doctor tells Nora, for instance, that she has made Robin into "a legend" (Barnes 113), and she is recurrently described as indifferent to her fate, or "as if [her] life held no volition" (38), "as if she had no will" (69). When Felix asks to marry her, she nonchalantly accepts. In a similar vein, Julia seems to leave her fate either in the hands of others or to mere chance: "If a taxi hoots before I count three, I'll go to London. If not, I won't" (Rhys 44).
On the whole, the natural and animal imagery strikingly abounds in both texts. Berry observes that After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, "contains at least fifty references to creatures and beasts," many of them directly or indirectly associated with Julia. She is referred to as "the strange creature" very early in the text (29), and her landlady casually dismisses her as leading "the life of a dog" (9). When she conveys her past experiences to Mr. Horsfield she recalls the "beastly feeling" (mentioned twice on the same page) she underwent after realizing the ephemerality of her life, "floating away from [her] like smoke" (41). Robin, too, is described very early on as possessing "the [untamed] iris of wild beasts," her presence having the effect of conjuring to the mind "the vision of an eland ... 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" (33-4). Later on, Dr. Matthew O'Connor refers to her as "outside the 'human type'--a wild thing caught in a woman's skin, monstrously alone, monstrously vain" (131).
Robin Vote and Julia Martin are "caught" in between worlds. They both occupy a liminal space between man and beast, nature and culture. Yet that is not the only liminal space they seem to occupy. What is particularly striking is that they both lie on the threshold, at the very brink, between life and death, encompassing them both and yet beyond them. They are like shadows or ghosts, a figure neither dead nor living that can traverse both worlds (of life and afterlife). Mr. Mackenzie refers to Julia as lacking "the instinct of self-preservation" (20), and she is as "pale as a ghost" (22). (3) Sylvie Maurel in her book Jean Rhys has an interesting chapter on After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie where she identifies Julia's crossing of the Channel as representative of her ability to traverse the regions both of life and death in a kind of life-in-death: "The Channel, then, is a combination of the Lethe and of the Acheron. Crossing it means both to come out of oblivion, to plunge into active time, and to enter the kingdom of the dead and of a shapeless temporality" (42-3). This "shapeless temporality" is reminiscent of Robin also, who seems "newly ancient" (Barnes 38) and "like a new shadow" (131). To the doctor she appears "as if the hide of time had been stripped from her" (121, emphasis mine), a witty simile which not only points to Robin's apparent imperviousness to time but also has a Darwinian echo to it.
Moreover, that Robin and Julia seem so ghostly and insubstantial is in keeping with their lack of a personal, concrete history. As Sylvie Maurel very aptly points out, Julia's biography is extremely vague and disconnected. She is almost like a tabula rasa and Maurel metaphorically creates the linkage between Julia's face and a blank page to illustrate this: "[Julia's] face is hardly described. Julia is a virgin page on which she writes her own text" (32). When Julia tells Mr. Horsfield that she tried in the past to tell her story to the sculptor Ruth, what she ends up telling her seems so unreal as to be almost unbelievable: "But I knew when she spoke that she didn't believe a word" (Rhys 40). Along similar lines, Nora says of Robin: "All the time I didn't believe her life was as it was" (Barnes 131).
Moreover, Robin is often linked with death, which knows no temporal boundaries. She is "eaten [sic] death returning," and she must be eaten that "we [may] put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers" (34). When this is coupled with her husband Felix's belief that she is constantly preoccupied with "something not yet in history," and that "she seemed to be listening to the echo of some foray in the blood, that had no known setting" (40), there is the gathering impression that Robin encompasses both past and future at once. As Nora points out: "In her, past-time records, and past time is relative to us all" (141).
In the final analysis, next to nothing is known of Robin's past. Her history, or rather her-story, seems to begin after Felix and the doctor, and later on Nora, discover her, and even then the reader is mostly given glimpses of who she might be through the other characters. They all attempt to categorize--and eventually assimilate--her. To Felix she represents "a figure of doom" and "an enigma" (37, 40). For Nora she is a primitive force, the source of incredible powers. She is "the "forbidden" that engenders debauchery, even incest: "For Robin is incest too, that is one of her powers" (141). Jenny associates her with witchcraft, accusing her "of a 'sensuous communion with unclean spirits'" (151), whilst to the doctor she is "the unknowable" (123), to which he assigns, like Jenny, powers of sorcery and "witch-fire" (121).
What ultimately emerges from all these attempts at definitive classification is precisely the inability to positively classify Robin. She cannot be "read" with any accuracy. Her face, upon which others try to inscribe taxonomic determinacy, is as blank as Julia's. As a result, "she triggers off hermeneutic activity and makes positive 'labeling' impossible" (Maurel 30). Like Julia, who is "at once too obvious and too obscure" (Rhys 20), she eludes definition. Therefore, since she cannot be fitly categorized, she becomes a witch in the same way that Julia becomes for Mackenzie "a dangerous person" (Rhys 26), a ghost which comes back to "haunt" him again and again (21).
As Maurel aptly points out, "Julia is a deviation from accepted paradigms, inviting those who come across her into a disquieting experience of defamiliarization" (46, italics mine). Her ghostly body cannot be assimilated by others around her and she wavers between unreality and truth, life and death, since the ghost is an "absent" signifier, always floating "in-between" worlds. As Rosemary Jackson points out in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, the ghost represents "the return of the dead as the undead," and, as such, it has the capacity to "disrupt the crucial defining line which separates "real" life from the "unreality" of death" (69). The ghost has no representative form in real life--it is unreal, unfamiliar, and yet so close to us because it signals our own mortality. It is the ultimate signifier of the "uncanny." (4)
Freud in his article "The 'Uncanny'" uncovers several meanings of the term uncanny. In the beginning he gives a very loose definition; the uncanny "is undoubtedly related to what is frightening--to what arouses dread and horror" (339). He later refines this definition: "the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar" (340). What is of especial interest is that Freud not only gives a comprehensive list of translations of the uncanny, but also locates two semantic levels at work in the term. The German lexeme for the uncanny is das Unheimlich. But "Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich, the un-negated form" (347). Heimlich is ambivalent in itself because it can refer to everything which is intimate or familiar, but also to something obscure, unknowable and potentially dangerous--all that is "withdrawn from knowledge [and] unconscious" (346). (5) Once heimlich becomes unheimlich then the obscure, all that was meant to lie in the region of the unknown, is brought to light.
As Freud notes, the uncanny harks back to repressed reality and unconscious desires and fears. It is "nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression" (363-64). Furthermore, it is extremely telling that Freud should establish death as undergoing the highest degree of repression in the human mind. The uncanny is experienced "in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts" (364).
Death is the death of life, the extinction of the self; to constantly repress the "primitive fear" of death is to struggle for survival (365). If death is not repressed by the self and "comes to light," then it must mean the self has perished. As Cixous says of death, it is "signifier without signified ... absolute secret, absolute newness, which should stay hidden, for if it is manifested to me, it means I am dead: only the dead know the secret of death" (qtd. in Jackson 69). And Robin is death incarnate in Nightwood. She cannot be overcome: "she who is eaten death returning" (34).
It is particularly interesting--perhaps even illuminating--to read Robin in this light. Yet if she really is death, then how are we to account for the attraction she holds for the other characters, especially Felix and Nora? A closer examination of the text may shed some light on this question. If indeed Robin is the physical representative of that eternal "enigma" of death which plagues man, signaling ultimate destruction in the flesh, then Felix's representation of her as "a figure of doom" (37) acquires added potency. Interestingly enough, this enigma of ineluctable doom, what Robin ultimately represents, holds an increasing fascination for Felix, who would (ironically) give up his life to unravel the mystery. Robin not only has "a sort of odour of memory" for him that he would like to dredge up from some past time, but she is also "like a person who has come from some place that we have forgotten and would give our life to recall" (106, my emphasis). For Robin is the key to the past (and future), holding "the secret of time" in her very hands (109). As for Nora, she sets out to discover that very "secret" of which Felix speaks. If Robin really is death incarnate, then that would readily account for the insect imagery used to trace Nora's movements in looking for her. As Nora vertiginously looks for Robin, she is described as a moth that instinctively flies to its own death. Like a moth to a flame goes the old saying. And indeed, Nora's movements are like those of the moth that "by his very entanglement with the heat that shall be his extinction is associated with flame as a component part of its function" (54).
The choice of the word "function" here is extremely important. To begin with, the fascination with death--the fundamental desire to draw towards it and discover its "secret"--is certainly not a new concept. Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle formulates the notion of a biologically determined "death drive" that urges organic life to return to a state of quiescence, where inner chemical tensions are reduced to nil: "the life process of the individual leads for internal reasons to an abolition of chemical tensions, that is to say, to death" (261). (6) That this is a biological necessity is predicated on the adequation of biological function to instrumentality: that is, death is necessarily carried back to the very level of biologism." (7) Death is irreversible, a biological necessity which is both inevitable and desired.
This desire for death as biological necessity is also posited by Lacan in Ecrits, where for him the subject is defined both biologically and historically by his being-for-death. Taking Freud's theories a step further, Lacan identifies this endless desire for death as a necessary consequence of the initiation of language: "Thus the symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing, and this death constitutes in the subject the etemalization of his desire" (114). In other words, only death, the return to a state before symbols and language, can satiate the "eternal desire for the nonrelationship of zero, where identity is meaningless" (Lacan, qtd. in Jackson 77). As Jackson aptly points out, death blurs boundaries. It is "the arrival at a point of absolute unity of self and other, subject and object" (77).
Interestingly enough, this conflation of self and other is strongly reminiscent of Nora's identification with Robin. As Nora points out, Robin is not just the object of her desire, but her alter ego as well: "She is myself. What am I to do?" (Nightwood 115). (8) I and not-I, self and other, become one through Nora's desire for undifferentiation. Yet what is this desire for undifferentiation if it is not the desire for death, where "the limit between subject and object is effaced [and] things slide into one another" (Jackson 50)?
Moreover, when Carolyn Allen speaks of a "double subjectivity" in Nightwood her arguments do not preclude the possibility of reading this "doubling" activity as a gesture towards death. As Freud notes in "The 'Uncanny'" the doubling of self, although originally intended as "an insurance against the destruction of the ego," finally has the opposite effect: "From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death" (357). For if the double is to be integrated into the self, the only way to maintain it there is to actually kill the self, and thus make both self and "double" internal/eternal: "To keep her ... Nora knew now that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her. Death went with them, together and alone" (52).
In my view, although Allen carefully delineates the sexual politics of Nightwood, and fervently asserts sexual difference in homosexual relations, her reading explicitly fails to register what I would call "the erotics of death." Nora is obsessed with Robin and, by extension, death (even if she struggles to keep her desires at bay). What is more, she explicitly places herself "in the center of eroticism and death" when she speaks to the doctor, drawing attention to the fact that love and death are linked through "memory." When she recalls having once seen a young girl, most probably a prostitute, lying near a bed, she fantasizes how "in that bed Robin should have put me down. In that bed we would have forgotten our lives in the extremity of memory" (142, my emphasis). Undoubtedly, Robin is the one who can "put [Nora] down" to her death. The sexual undertones are certainly there. Possibly Allen refrains from tackling the question of what I would call "death-in-sex" because of the added danger of delegating lesbian sexual acts to a process of sterility--since lesbians cannot reproduce through coitus--and hence death.
The explicit linkage of sex to death, then, is all too clear. And it does not only occur in Nightwood. Although After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie does not display the same degree of obsession with death, Mackenzie also recollects, like Nora, a similar desire for self-extinction. Whilst eating at a restaurant, he remembers a letter he once wrote to Julia, which begins: "I would like to put my throat under your feet" (21). At the same time as he recollects this, Julia unwittingly enters the restaurant, and the "helpless" Mackenzie (22) can do nothing but feel a curious constriction of the throat, a response which appears to be an almost pathetic recasting of his long-established desire to leave himself at Julia's mercy, unconsciously fulfilled as "his collar felt too tight for him" (25). In order to overcome this violent fantasy which destabilizes his orderly life, Mackenzie attempts to casually dismiss Julia and suture the signifier with the signified, the gap which Julia's presence lays painfully bare.
Interestingly enough, Berry reads this scene less in terms of rupture than as a blurring of gender boundaries. For her, Mackenzie "assume[s] temporarily the debased feminine position of the dependent and powerless," an idealized position which is projected as the sexual fantasy to be dominated.
The unsettling of gender boundaries, however, comes out most forcefully in Nightwood. It is there that conventional masculine/feminine positions break down. The doctor identifies himself as a boy who is also "the last woman left in this world" (90), while Robin is both a mother and a childish boy. She is "both Woman-who-reproduces and boy-who-plays-with-soldiers" (Allen 28). Both she and the doctor cross-dress and subvert gender distinctions. Robin wears "boy's trousers" (152), while the doctor pampers himself with rouge and is wearing "a woman's flannel nightgown" in his intercourse with Nora (71).
For Barnes, cross-dressing has a subversive value, but it can also initiate a move towards "the androgynous wholeness and holiness of prehistory" (Gilbert 217). As Gilbert remarks, Barnes saw a redemptive quality "in the symbolic chaos of transvestism." What emerges out of this chaos is the prehistoric wholeness of gender. As Carolyn Allen very aptly points out, "clothes mark [the] move away from boundaries of gender identity toward an ambiguous center, 'neither one and half the other' as Matthew O'Connor says in Nightwood" (Allen 194). What Barnes heralds is the potentiality for a new space, beyond distinctions--a space where there is complete undifferentiation. Yet this space is hardly new. It harks back to a supposed primitive time when there was man, woman and a combination of both. "The original human nature was not like the present, but different. In the first place, the sexes were originally three in number, not two as they are now; there was man, woman, and the union of the two" (Plato, qtd. in Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" 263).
The intrusion of a third term, a third sex, is underscored by the doctor in his conversation with Nora. He identifies with a third sex that is both sexed and sexless, at the same time neither one nor the other, which "contains life but resembles the doll" (Barnes 134). As such, he has no fixed habitation. He is "the uninhabited angel." The religious undertones are all too clear. Arguably, the notion of an "uninhabited angel" is also reminiscent of the religious fantasy of transgressive fallen angels who fall out from heaven, Satan being the first one who is cast out. Such a reading would tie in very well with Nora's subsequent comments, which follow the doctor's tirade. After he identifies himself with the uninhabited angel, Nora bursts out with: "Perhaps, Matthew, there are devils? Who knows if there are devils? Perhaps they have set foot in the uninhabited" (134).
Yet this religious reading implies that the cross-dressing doctor is immoral and satanic, a proposition which apparently goes against Barnes' aim to accentuate the redemptive power of transvestism. Inevitably, however, such a reading cannot be overlooked. For the cross-dressing doctor goes so far as to identify himself and Robin with evil. He claims to be "the god of darkness" (114), and links Robin with witchery. How is it, then, that Barnes could attribute such supremacy to transvestism and yet vilify one of its primary exponents? And, likewise, why is Robin depicted as a sorceress with dark, uncanny powers?
What I would suggest is that it is only through Barnes' revisiting and (Gothic) reworking of stereotyped notions of gender that "the symbolic chaos of transvestism" can let loose its subversive power. Although "not in itself a socially subversive activity," fantastic, virtually Gothic representations of angels, devils and witches will "disturb 'rules' of artistic representation and literature's reproduction of the 'real'" (Jackson 14). Through fiction Barnes can symbolically achieve an unsettling of accepted ways of seeing, since what the I/eye sees is only relative. The constant shifting of states of perception is all that is needed to implode any fixed notions of gender and sexuality.
Paulina Palmer in Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions registers the subversive power of Gothic fiction. Although her reading specifically focuses on the connection between Gothic imagery and representations of lesbianism, her interpretation emphasizes the transgressive power in Barnes' grotesque depiction of Robin. Robin is seen as "being described in terms of witchcraft, inhabiting a transgressive, twilight world of lesbian eroticism, and reveling in the abject role of outcast that society assigns to her" (41).
In my view, what is particularly intriguing idea is precisely the dynamics inherent in the "transgressive, twilight world" Palmer describes. This world is not static; it is constantly engaging in a dialogue with fantasy and fiction--with what is real and how it is perceived and/or imagined--and "shifting the relations between them through its indeterminacy" (Jackson 35). In the twilight world of perception, the only thing certain is indeterminacy.
As Maurel says of the twilight zone, one of its aspects is that it "plays with the notion of irreversibility" and introduces both "chance and unpredictability" (45). This aspect of unpredictability is especially marked in the two female heroines, Julia and Robin. "Julia is a fundamentally unpredictable character" whose (re)actions "simply cannot be accounted for" (Maurel 45-6). On one occasion, for instance, she baffles Mr. Horsfield by letting out a terrific scream when he overtakes her on the stairs. Robin, too, mystifies others with her actions. Felix, for example, cannot understand why Robin should have ever married him: "It has placed me in the dark for the rest of my life" (Barnes 101).
Certainly, the inability to definitively label Robin and Julia--or any of their whimsical movements--is likely to leave the other characters "in the dark." Yet the dark is "a fearful dimension" (Barnes 73). What the I/eye cannot know or assimilate--the unnamable--is liable to induce horror and fear. As the doctor very fittingly says of twilight, its very constitution banks on fear: "The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up" (72). Since fear is just a mere permutation of desire, it stands to reason that what is most desired is also that which is most feared. And what can be more fearful than unknowable death?
Thus, we have come full circle. Life and death, desire and fear, the familiar and the unknown, are merely inverse images of each other, each reflecting the other to achieve wholeness. The contradictory site or literal trope where reflection occurs, where object and image unite and disunite, is none other than the twilight zone, the indeterminate zone that stands both for univocity and polysemy all at once and blurs distinctive boundaries of signification.
A main consequence of this blurriness is the crucial (and effectual) effacement of the distinction between reality and fiction. "Everything becomes equivocal, blurred, 'double,' out of focus" (Jackson 49). This is first and foremost corroborated by the characters themselves, who are multiple, metamorphic, even unreal. Julia, for instance (in perhaps what may have been an epiphanic moment both for her and the reader), catches a glimpse of her own ambiguous, structural position in between fiction and fact when she sees a reproduction of a painting by Amedeo Modigliani on the wall. At first, this painting "of a woman lying on a couch, a woman with a lovely, lovely body" simply stares at her "blankly," only to become more vivid as she continues to look at it: "it was as if you were looking at a real woman, a live woman" (Rhys 40). At last, this "real" woman not only comes to life for her, but also actually becomes her, the eternalized version of "all that matters of [her]" (41). As she stands there "like a ghost" of an empty, ambiguous signifier, the picture claims to grant her real, physical agency. It marks her ambiguous status of life-in-death and confers her with a haunting power to signify, and what she ultimately signifies is projected as enigmatic and multiple.
Nightwood, in a strangely similar scene which recounts the multiplicity of Robin's character, also sees the vivid intermingling of reality and fantasy, albeit it is true that here the language is more powerful and hallucinatory, almost schizoid in its evocation of the scene in question. This scene describes a dream of Nora's where Robin is "disfigured and eternalized by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain." Once Nora wakes "in the faint light of dawn" and looks out of her window, she sees Robin, "a double shadow falling from the statue, as if it were multiplying" (57). Oddly enough, the statue seems alive, as alive as the picture in which Julia sees her own fragmented multiplicity. Thus Robin becomes "like an old statue in a garden" (37). What renders the scene's evocative power is the dynamic play of light (Nora wakes at dawn) and shadow, the blurry adequation and merging of inanimate forms with the animate such that they become indistinguishable one from the other. To Nora, what ultimately constitutes reality is mediated, with Robin, as the object of her analysis, acting the part of a signifier that elusively slides from one signified onto another in this process of mediation.
As I have already suggested, the inability to "fix" this signifier with any defining accuracy opens out directly onto a twilight zone that encompasses not only black and white but also varying shades of in-between gray. Since the process of accurately fixing the signifier is conspicuous in Western philosophy, as a practice which is rigidly maintained to ensure some kind of logical cohesion and stability within the signifying and institutional systems (social, intellectual, and so forth), this inability to determine the signifier with any precision threatens to undermine the whole system of how things are perceived and understood, a result which can only lead to "chaos" and uncanny horror. What I propose, therefore, is that both Nightwood and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie do in fact exhibit just such an uncanny horror in their evocation of Robin and Julia respectively, who function as ambiguous signifiers that fail, for the most part, to be assimilated in both texts.
Since the twilight zone signals what is most horrific and unpredictable, the twilight zone figuration is arguably at its most prominent toward the ending of both texts. Indeed, both Nightwood and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie are marked by their ambiguous, indeterminate endings which border very nearly on uncanny horror. Especially in Nightwood, and in the last chapter adequately entitled "The Possessed," Robin's final and violent metamorphosis in the chapel into a dog is reminiscent of the myth of lycanthropy. In a supernatural twist, Robin drags herself "on all fours" and violently changes shape before she lashes out at the dog:
And down she went, until her head swung against his; on all fours now, dragging her knees. The veins stood out in her neck, under her ears, swelled in her arms, and wide and throbbing rose up on her fingers as she moved forward. (Barnes 152)
Frenetically, Robin starts to bark until she finally collapses beside the dog's body. Since the barking occurs near the altar, before a figure of the Virgin, Gilbert argues that "Robin actually does become a kind of sacred Dog, a reversed God (or Goddess) of the third sex, parodically barking before a conventional statuette of the Madonna" (216). It is unfortunate that Gilbert fails to elucidate the implications of her argument further. If Robin does indeed become a kind of sacred Dog/ God, then her representative form is highly reminiscent of the Egyptian god Anubis, part dog and part man, who carried off the souls of the dead to the underworld for cleansing. If this is so, then Nora's fall against the chapel door toward the very end of the novel could be read as her ultimate fall into death. In a similar vein, Robin's parodic barking at the Virgin Mother can be read as a lethal travesty of Nora and her "mothering" capabilities. (9) The doctor tells Nora: "You almost caught hold of her (Robin), but she put you cleverly away by making you the Madonna" (132, my emphasis). Whatever the case, the final image of Robin as the bringer of doom seems to resonate powerfully.
In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, on the other hand, Julia is less a bringer of doom than a foreshadower of it. Although the novel also ends with an animal image, Julia does not exactly metamorphose into a dog, but stands uncannily in a world "full of grey shadows," in the twilight hour "between dog and wolf, as they say" (Rhys 138). This in-betweenness refers back to the indeterminacy which governs any attempts to characterize Julia. Although arguably there is the potentiality for metamorphosis, Julia is left hanging between worlds. "She stands somewhere between semantic fullness and indeterminacy, 'between dog and wolf'" (Maurel 49).
There are several interesting readings of the novel's ending. As Berry notes, in the phrase "between wolf and dog, as they say" (my emphasis), the pronominal "appears to point specifically to the French, who use the idiom to describe an in-between time--before day turns to night." It is the dangerous hour of twilight where anything can happen. The expression "entre chien et loup" is an old one; it was probably first used to describe the interval at dusk during which French shepherds would leave their flocks to be tended by others through the night. (10) As Berry remarks, this is "an implicitly dangerous period for the sheep, who for a time are without a shepherd."
Similarly, Thomas Staley interprets this period between wolf and dog as a kind of "shapeless temporality" which smacks of some older world, "in which the characters 'have been to the human well and have seen dust instead of their reflections'"(qtd. in Berry). (11) For Arnold Davidson, on the other hand, the twilight ending is somewhat more optimistic. Since Julia has been financially provided for by Mackenzie "the hour of the wolf has not yet arrived," the wolf referring "to the finally untamable aspects of life, to the mother howling and dying as an animal" (Davidson 91-2). One is reminded, perhaps, of that proverbial phrase about "keeping the wolf from the door." Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the ending--like the rest of the novel--speaks "to the forever blurred boundary between "civilization" and "savagery" (Berry). That is, there is a gap between tamed dog and savage wolf which cannot be bridged, a blurry gap that is constantly shifting.
This gap, which opens out onto an intense jouissance or desire, has the added effect of bringing Robin and Julia into closer proximity with several characters. For they represent the unnamable and the unknown, and what is unknown is essentially desired, both consciously and unconsciously. "Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable" (Lacan, qtd. in Benstock 11). So Robin and Julia represent "nothing nameable." Yet that is not all they represent. They are real manifestations of the twilight horror inherent in all of us. As T.S. Eliot points out in his Preface to Nightwood, "we find [Robin] quite real without quite understanding the means [that have] made her so" (xii). That means is only established precisely because Robin, and Julia too, speak to us of our very real liminality--even our own mortality. Without clearly demarcating the boundaries between reality and fiction into a binary schema, I would suggest that Robin and Julia are both "alien" and yet so strangely familiar, and that they breathe into the text an intense vitality and dynamic life force, "full of sound and fury" as they both sing "the still, sad music of humanity." (12)
Allen, Carolyn J. "Sexual Narrative in the Fiction of Djuna Barnes." Sexual Practice, Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. Eds. Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993. 184-98. Print.
Allen, Carolyn. "The Erotics of Nurture." Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. 21-45. Print.
Barnes, Djuna, Nightwood. London: Faber and Faber, 2001. Print.
Benstock, Shari. "The Law of the Phallus (as) The Law of Genre." Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre. Norman, OK: U Oklahoma P, 1991. 3-22. Print.
Berry, Betsy. "'Between dog and wolf': Jean Rhys' version of naturalism in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" Literature Online. Web. 12 December 2003.
Davidson, Arnold E. "The Art and Economics of Destitution in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie." Jean Rhys. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. 76-92. Print.
Eliot, T.S. Preface. Nightwood. By Djuna Barnes. London: Faber and Faber, 2001. Print.
Fletcher, John. "Introduction: Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Other." Essays on Otherness. By Jean Laplanche. London: Routledge, 1999. 1-51. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." The Essentials of Psychoanalysis: The Definitive Collection of Freud's Writing. Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin Books, 1991. 218-68. Print.
--"The 'Uncanny.'" Art and Literature. Ed. Albert Dickson. Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin Books, 1990. 336-76. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M. Costumes of the Mind: Transvestism as Metaphor in Modern Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1982. Print.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. "Revolution in Poetic Language." The Portable Kristeva. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: Columbia Press, 2002. 27-92. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Laplanche, Jean. "Introduction: Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Other." Essays on Otherness. Ed. John Fletcher. London: Routledge, 1999. 1-51. Print.
Laplanche, Jean. "Why the Death Drive?" Life & Death in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985. 103-126. Print.
Maurel, Sylvie. "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie: 'Between Dog and Wolf.'" Jean Rhys. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. 27-50. Print.
Palmer, Paulina. Lesbian Gothic: Transgressive Fictions. London: Cassell, 1999. Print.
Rhys, Jean. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1971. Print.
UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH
(1) In this chapter Lacan posits a masculine, phallic jouissance and one which is Other to it. Both are played off against each other through a complex economy of lack and desire set in motion by the phallus, the predominant signifier for Lacan. Since the phallus is desired by both sexes, it "embod[ies] jouissance in the dialectic of desire," a structural position constantly sought for (353). Along similar lines, Freud in his seminal essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) also stipulates the dominance of the pleasure principle, which Lacan drew upon for his theory of jouissance.
(2) It is telling in this instance that the French identify orgasm with "la petite mort."
(3) Arnold E. Davidson notes how Julia is a ghost "haunting her quarters and her own empty existence" (78).
(4) The choice of the word "uncanny" here is not accidental. Helene Cixous refers to it as "a relational signifier ... for the uncanny is in effect composite, it infiltrates itself in between things, in the interstices, it asserts a gap where one would like to be assured of unity" (qtd. in Jackson 68). The gap which Cixous refers to, which is basically the gap between signifier and signified, is especially relevant for my analysis of Robin and Julia, who both exhibit features of the uncanny through their very position of in-betweenness and liminality.
(5) It is worthy to note how heimlich denotes both the familiar and the unknown, and how one meaning does not foreclose the other. Opposites can very easily merge in the world of the uncanny.
(6) At this point it is perhaps not unworthy to mention that I have deliberately employed the term "death drive" as opposed to "death instinct," the term employed by Strachey in translating Freud's work. As John Fletcher points out in his introduction to Jean Laplanche's work, it is unfortunate that Strachey should have used the term "instinct" rather than "drive" in his translation. Freud used the word Trieb, which translates roughly as drive and is not the same as Instinkt (24). The instinct has a fixed aim, i.e. that of self-preservation, whereas the drive has a variable aim and a sequence of vicissitudes (25).
(7) For a fuller discussion and critique of this carrying back of the death drive to the level of biology, together with the relevant problems this gives rise to, see Laplanche, Jean. "Why the Death Drive?" Life & Death in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.
(8) In Following Djuna, Carolyn Allen has an interesting chapter entitled "The Erotics of Nurture," where she provides a different reading than mine here; she reads Nora's remark less in terms of narcissistic self-enclosure, i.e. that the self holistically absorbs into itself its object of desire, than as a grounding of "double subjectivity" and difference. She does this because of the dangerous tendency to obliterate identity in same-sex relations: "I stress this layering of differences in Nightwood's erotics between women because lesbian relationships are conventionally described as self-enclosing, and in danger of fusion even in contemporary lesbian communities" (32).
(9) Carolyn Allen in "The Erotics of Nurture" emphasizes the stifling effect of Nora's mothering on Robin. She argues quite convincingly that the Madonna is "the specific cultural Mother whom Nora comes to see as the figure of her downfall" (35). Unfortunately, however, her reading is based on the common and mistaken assumption that it is Robin who leaves Nora. On the contrary, it is Nora who ends their relationship after Robin lies about her to Jenny: "I said, 'It is over--I can't go on. You have always lied to me, and you have denied me to her. I can't stand it any more'" (128).
(10) See the ending of Berry's essay, and in particular note 34. There is obviously also the fact that in the dusk it is dangerously difficult to distinguish between a dog and a wolf.
(11) See note 33 of Berry's text.
(12) Taken from William Shakespeare's Macbeth and William Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," respectively.
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|Publication:||Journal of Caribbean Literatures|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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