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The "beast turning human": constructions of the "primitive" in 'Nightwood.' (Djuna Barnes)

In The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford notes that in the early part of the twentieth century, a distinctly modernist aesthetic developed in close proximity to ethnography. Like ethnography, this aesthetic valued "fragments, curious collections, [and] unexpected juxtapositions"; like ethnography, it worked to "provoke manifestations of extraordinary realities drawn from the domains of the erotic, the exotic, and the unconscious" 118).(1) Both modernist and ethnographic practices found the Other, whether accessible in dreams, fetishes, or "primitive" cultures, of primary interest. In fact, many modernist texts drew directly upon the objects of ethnographic study - the West's "primitive" Others - in order to evoke the unfamiliar, the exotic, and the erotic.(2) Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, situated in the midst of the historical moment Clifford describes, is just such a text. In pursuing an aesthetic that values the unfamiliar and the strange, Nightwood connects the dominant culture's Others with the primitive": Nightwood's conception and articulation of the primitive is drawn from Western ways of processing cultural and individual differences.

To use the "primitive" as a conceptual tool for articulating difference is, of course, problematic.(3) To name the Other as primitive is to participate in a particular kind of cultural and discursive work wherein the (white, Western) speaker is inscribed as standard, normative, and "civilized." In this process the speaker's own assumptions and experiences become measures against which difference is conceptualized, contained, and devalued. While any use of the primitive recalls such practices, which have had tremendous power in shaping the West's relations to its Others, I intend my use of it here to keep in focus but not replicate this process of demonizing the Other and idealizing the self. Following such cultural critics as Marianna Torgovnick, I do not mean to suggest that the primitive refers to or describes anything real "out there" in the world. Rather, to an unusual extent, the primitive is contentless. It does not describe anything in the world: it reveals instead our own, sometimes unconscious, interests.(4)

Consequently, discursive constructions of the primitive are extraordinarily malleable, adaptable to whatever it is a given discourse makes the primitive signify at particular moments and in specific contexts. Powerful and seductive, discourses that shape the dominant culture's sense of the primitive inscribe its Others - those who differ from its norm by virtue, say, of their ethnicity, gender, or sexuality - in various ways but in ways that serve the interests of the dominant culture. For instance, depending upon the needs of the moment, these Others might be figured as childlike. Or they might be seen as reflections of the dominant culture's untamed selves - sexually out of control, irrational, violent, and dangerous. If anything, constructions of the primitive are various and inexact. But inexact though they may be, such constructions have been influential and powerful in the Western popular imagination, and have been used to refer to both non-western cultures and subordinate groups within the West.

Representations of a primitive otherness, figured in exotic, erotic, and often ethnic terms, perineate Nightwood The opening pages, for instance, recall an episode in which Jews are forced to run for the amusement of a Christian populace, with "the very Pope himself shaken down from his hold on heaven with the laughter of a man who forgoes his angels that he may recapture the beast" (2). While it is hard to tell who is more primitive in this passage, Christian or Jew, the Pope has the "hold on heaven," which inscribes a privileging of Christianity. For these Christians, the Jew is an alien Other they define themselves against and who enables them to express their own violent impulses. In addition, one of the earliest stories Matthew O'Connor tells is of Nikka, the black circus performer who, "tattooed from head to heel ... used to fight the bear in the Cirque de Paris" (16). As Jane Marcus has suggested, Nikka's role "is that of the savage male battling the beast for the thrill of an effete audience" (223-24). Finally, when we first encounter Robin Vote, she is asleep, surrounded by "exotic palms and cut flowers" (which are actually described as carnivorous). Robin seems, like the subject of a painting by Rousseau, "to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room" (34-35). In fact, she is described as "beast turning human" (37). Jews, Africans, and women are thus positioned very early in Nightwood as exotic outsiders by virtue of their associations with the primitive.

Recent critics who have examined Barnes's use of these outsiders argue that with and through representations of Jews, Africans, and lesbians, Nightwood resists anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic ideologies. But in linking together various categories of difference, these critics construct metadynamics that work to subsume all aspects of difference, a move that enables them to make attractive claims about Nightwood's politics. For example, in "Laughing at Leviticus: Nightwood as Woman's Circus Epic," Jane Marcus maintains that "Barnes' portraits of the abject constitute a political case, a kind of feminist-anarchist call for freedom from fascism" (221). Here Marcus conflates distinct figures in one unified body: she sees "the body of the Other-the black, lesbian, transvestite, or Jew - presented as a text in the novel, a book of communal resistances of underworld outsiders to domination" (221). Because blacks, lesbians, transvestites, and Jews are figured here as sharing a unified and resisting body, differences among and between them are eclipsed.(5) Similarly, in Women of the Left Bank, Shari Benstock unites Nightwood's various outsiders by pointing out that all would be targeted by the Nazis. And it's true that Felix (Jews), the circus people ("misfits and monstrosities"), Nora and Robin (lesbians), and Matthew O'Connor (transvestite doctor with dubious medical credentials) do constitute outsiders who would "become Hitler's Untermenschen, those who [would] be eliminated in the production of his master race" (425-26). Benstock pushes the similarity among these groups even further by claiming that the "inhabitants of the night world instinctively recognize their compatriots" (426). While she uses the way Felix seeks out the circus people to articulate this claim, Felix's action functions metaphorically for what is presumed to be true of the other cultural outsiders as well.

What I hope to do here is complicate our understanding of the cultural work representations of the primitive in Nightwood perform. While unifying the exotic and erotic outsiders who populate the text enables Marcus and Benstock to construct appealing arguments about the progressive nature of Nightwood's politics, to conceptualize blacks, lesbians, and Jews in ways that elide significant differences among and between them is problematic.(6) Moreover, if Nightwood identifies with all of the outsiders it associates with the primitive, it represents different kinds of outsiders differently. And these differences have implications - not necessarily attractive ones - for readings of the text's politics.

One of the most distinctive ways Nightwood articulates the primitive is by drawing on evolutionary distinctions between self and other. Western culture has historically assumed that other societies are developing - or need to develop in order to progress-toward its norms. Freud expresses one form of this evolutionary paradigm in Totem and Taboo when he states that the primitive is a "necessary stage of development through which every race has passed" (29). In a reflection of such global assumptions at the local level, Nightwood conceptualizes Robin's difference in terms of an evolutionary progression, as we can see in the following passage:

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. . . .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. (37)

By associating Robin with such images of savagery and cannibalism, the text connects her with the primitive and adopts for its own purposes the popular notion that so-called primitive peoples exist at a lower point on an evolutionary scale. Those observing Robin - Felix, Matthew, the narrative voice, the reader - are all implied by the first-person plural we" in the passage. It separates us from her. And while this passage is spoken by the unidentified third-person speaker, both Matthew and Nora will position Robin in similar ways. Robin, Matthew claims, is "outside the |human type' - a wild thing caught in a woman's skin" (146), while Nora asserts that "Robin is incest.... In her, past-time records, and past time is relative to us all" (156-57). Robin is associated with an imagined primitive, precultural past from which we've all descended, and she exists as a living record of our cultural prehistory. Moreover, she offers us access to whatever aspects of ourselves we might ordinarily distance or repress.

Barnes gives Robin tremendous power by affiliating her with the primitive, for it is a move that draws upon cultural discourses which have had and continue to have enormous imaginative power in the West. One of the most influential purveyors of these discourses of the primitive was, of course, Freud, who charted a "dark continent" within each individual and whose theories of subjectivity locate within each one of us a conflict between powerful forces figured as primitive and the more tenuous forces of civilization. Personifying the unconscious and the instinctual, Robin seems more primitive than the other central figures in Nightwood, despite the fact that they too are cultural outsiders who to varying degrees transgress normative ways of being in the world. While lesbians are cast as Other to, and as "inverts" within, the dominant culture, Robin's otherness is not exclusively linked to a lesbian sexuality: Robin is represented differently from Nora or Jenny Petherbridge, who are also women who love women. Robin is absent, distanced from us as readers, in ways the others are not. We see her through their perspectives alone: she does not represent herself to us. It is this distance, I think, that intensifies her power in the text as a primitive figure. It is necessary that Robin be distanced so that she can function as such a compelling presence, closer to instinct than to reason and available for appropriation from any number of perspectives, including our own. She can be whatever we want her to be: mysterious, erotic, infantile, dangerous.

For Nora, Robin is both self and other. In an attempt to describe lesbian passion to Matthew O'Connor, Nora asserts "A man is another person - a woman is yourself . . . on her mouth you kiss your own" (143). Nora equates Robin with herself and wants to construct Robin in her own image. But she also shows signs of being aware of the disfigurement such a desire entails. When reflecting on her first dream, Nora realizes that - at least in the dream - she has imposed her own needs and interpretations on both her grandmother and Robin. She perceives that in the dream her grandmother is "|drawn upon' as a prehistoric ruin is drawn upon, symbolizing her life out of her life" (63). Nora's comparison of her grandmother to a prehistoric ruin that is "drawn upon" demonstrates her awareness that she is making her grandmother signify in ways that make sense only within Nora's own psychic economy. Indeed, she "draws upon" her grandmother in at least two interrelated ways: Nora draws upon her grandmother in the sense that she realizes that the psychic significance of Robin is related to the place of her grandmother in her life - Nora reaches back into or draws upon her past in order to help make sense of her present. She also draws upon her grandmother in the present by inscribing or constructing an image of the grandmother in her own terms. Similarly, Nora perceives that in the dream something is "being done to Robin": Robin is "disfigured and eternalized by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain" (63).

It is here that the text makes its most explicit challenge to its own authority to make use of the primitive. Robin represents what cannot be known: she resists Nora's formulations. By having Nora recognize that her own understanding of Robin is not equivalent to Robin, the text undermines the idea that the lesbian Other can be adequately represented. And this is the point I wish to emphasize, for Nora's language shows an awareness that to use the primitive to imagine the Other is to disfigure that Other. Robin is "eternalized by the hieroglyphics" Nora imposes on her: it is a process in which Robin remains unknown and Nora reveals herself. It is a textual moment that undermines the legitimacy of Nora's attempts to make Robin what Nora wants her to be.

If in Nora's dream Robin is "drawn upon" and disfigured by hieroglyphics, Nikka's black body is literally inscribed by the culture that oppresses him. This is a distinction that, although both Robin and Nikka are subjected to the narrative gaze that permeates the novel, points to significant differences between them. Robin's otherness, her lesbian sexuality and her refusal or inability to be contained by either the dominant cultural codes or those that Nora and Jenny would impose on her, is not determined solely or primarily by her body. When we first encounter Robin sleeping, although her body "exhales" a scent that suggests "a sleep incautious and entire" (34), her body itself does not establish her difference in the fixed, definitive way that Nikka's black skin does. Rather, it is the junglelike atmosphere surrounding her that most emphatically encourages the spectator to correlate her with the primitive. While a few pages later something about her suggests the beast turning human, whatever that indefinite something may be, it is neither exclusively physical nor entirely clear. In fact, it's impossible to say precisely what it is. Nikka, however, is immediately, visibly, and irreversibly marked because his skin is black. "Now I am thinking," Matthew O'Connor tells us, "of Nikka, the nigger who used to fight the bear in the Cirque de Paris" (15-16). Because Nikka is black, he is understood to be distinct and alien because of how he appears, not - like Robin - because of whom he loves or what he does. What casts him as a cultural Other is not only emphatically specular, it's essentialized and fixed.(7)

Nikka is used to represent a savage and eroticized barbarity for a white audience, primarily because he is black but also because his body is tattooed. The fact that he fights the bear merely reinforces an otherness that would prevail even if he did not. To emphasize his physical difference, his body is displayed: he crouches naked except for "an ill-concealed loin-cloth all abulge as if with a deep-sea catch" (16). Some of the writing on his body is blatantly sexual: when erect, his penis is said to spell Desdemona, and together his knees say "I can" (although Matthew claims he cannot, "in spite of all that has been said about the black boys" [16]). Other images on Nikka's body are more degenerate: his backside recalls "the really deplorable condition of Paris before hygiene was introduced, and nature had its way up to the knees" (17). What Matthew terms barbarous, Nikka is said to find beautiful, which even further positions him as primitive Other, depraved, and degenerate. He is incapable of perceiving "real" beauty: what he considers beautiful seems monstrous.

Nikka excites his audience by reminding it of a world that it imagines as violent, mysterious, and sexual-alien yet subject. In Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, Phyllis Rose cites an unnamed reviewer of the Revue Negre, a show in which Josephine Baker performed in Paris in the mid-1920s. This reviewer could just as easily be writing a reaction to Nikka:

Our romanticism ... is desperate for renewal and escape. But unknown lands are rare. Alas, we can no longer roam over maps of the world with unexplored corners. We have to appease our taste for the unknown by exploring within ourselves the lands we haven't penetrated. We lean on our own unconscious and our dreams. As for reality, we like it exotic. These blacks feed our double taste for exoticism and mystery .... We are charmed and upset by them, and most satisfied when they mix something upsetting in with their enchantments. (23)

This reviewer's words point toward the kinds of cultural attitudes Barnes puts into circulation - at least for white Western readers - with her representation of Nikka, the black man who fights the bear. His performance blurs boundaries between man and beast: it positions Nikka in the culture's post-Darwinian liminal zone and allows his audience - presumably comprised of people not unlike the reviewer cited above-the pleasure and hoffor of considering the stability of the boundaries separating man and beast. In short, Nikka is represented in a way calculated to upset but also to satisfy the people in his audience. He is upsetting to the extent that his performance leads them to recognize their connection with him: if Nikka is depraved and bestial, then those who view him might well be depraved and bestial as well. At the same time, because he is black they are offered the pleasure and satisfaction of distance: they do not have to admit to a strong connection between themselves and this black performer. Moreover, any erotic or exotic danger he represents is muted even as it is intensified by the inscriptions of Western culture on his body. Through such writing, Nikka is - to a great extent - captive and contained.

But if the writing on Nikka's body suggests captivity and containment, it at the same time positions him beyond the bounds of Western culture. The inscriptions and images that decorate his body do mark the extent to which the West has exerted its power over the Other - in this case the body of the black man. Nikka's capture is not complete: in his appropriation of these Western cultural signifiers, Nikka stands in the text as a figure who exerts an agency that is not predetermined.(8) Although Nikka embodies what is, from a Western perspective, rather monstrous, his use of Western signs to produce his own "meaning" suggests that he is not - or not entirely - appropriated or contained. Like Robin, Nikka exists elsewhere, in a place his audience can neither see nor comprehend. But whereas Nora's discourse recognizes that Robin cannot be entirely contained, neither Matthew's nor the text's discourse acknowledges that the same is true of Nikka.

Nikka contributes to a pattern of racial imagery in Nightwood that helps articulate its representations of the primitive as degraded and degenerate yet compelling. "There's something evil in me," Nora cries to Matthew, "that loves evil and degradation - purity's black backside!" (135). Nora's words recall the image of Nikka's backside and connect it with evil and degradation: the text uses the black body to imagine and articulate purity and its opposite because for Western white people this is how the black male body has been symbolically used. And while it may be true that Nightwood endorses Matthew's view that "A man is whole only when he takes into account his shadow as well as himself" (119), in order to image this process it uses the black body as Other, as a representation of what a man - presumably a white man - needs to be made whole.

So there are significant similarities and differences between the ways Barnes aligns Nikka and Robin with the primitive. Both are eroticized; both are used to suggest a human subjectivity existing at a lower evolutionary stage. But Robin's body is not displayed naked in the way Nikka's is, and there's no counterpoint to the ways Matthew O'Connor's discourse positions Nikka, whereas Nora does question her construction of Robin. Robin and Nikka are also linked by the writing-figurative in Robin's case, literal in Nikka's - on their bodies. Jane Marcus has argued that in describing the writing on Nikka's body, Matthew O'connor exposes the myth of the fascist projection of savage sexuality on to the black man. . . . The black man's body is a text of Western culture's historical projections and myths about race" (224-25). I would agree that Nikka can be seen as a text of such projections and myths; what is less clear is whether the text undertakes a critique of such projections. I would argue that the text is more ambivalent, at least about some of its outsiders, than Marcus suggests: it's true that the description of the writing on Nikka's body makes some readers conscious of how the black body has historically been used. But I think this awareness is most appropriately located in the reader, not - as is the case with Nora's figuring of Robin - in the discourse of the text.(9)

Like Robin and Nikka, Nightwood's Jews function as primitive Others - figures from whom the narrative voice distinguishes both itself and its implied audience. Again and again, the narrative insists that a Jew is not one of "us." When describing Felix's tendency to bow his head, the narrative voice tells us that it is "a bow very common to us when in the presence of this people" (8, my emphasis). Even more troubling is the way the opening passage questions the "advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people" (1). Not only is Felix's birth questionable simply because he is a Jew, the suspicions one might have about another Jewish birth are called "well-founded" (1). It's significant that the year is 1880 (the beginning of one of the decades that would see a rise of anti-Semitism) and that the place is Vienna (the city to which many Eastern European Jews fled to escape persecution).(10) Such contextualizing reinforces an idea of Jewishness that is conceived in racial rather than cultural terms, and this representation is hardly neutral.

Many critics and readers have stumbled over the question of anti-Semitism in Nightwood - not only in the published text but in additional sections of the manuscript that were cut by T. S. Eliot (see Marcus 229). Generally, those who have taken up the text's anti-Semitism explicitly have tried to find ways to get around or diffuse it. Noting Kenneth Burke's comment that Nightwood is not political and has nothing to do with the Nazis, Jane Marcus suggests that "Burke's discomfort with the seeming anti-Semitism of Nightwood is understandable" (229, my emphasis). In this comment is reassurance for the troubled reader: Nightwood isn't really anti-Semitic, it just seems to be. And the reason Marcus offers - a reason echoed by Shari Benstock in Women of the Left Bank - is that Barnes "identifies with all outsiders." Nightwood "triumphs over its own anti-Semitism" when we realize that its characters "were all to perish in the Holocaust" (Marcus 229). This argument has considerable appeal, but it's not entirely convincing. It does not sufficiently address or respond to the ways Jews are represented or how these representations differ from the other outsiders who populate the text.

The use of Jews to represent degeneration positions Nightwood directly in the context of early twentieth-century European racial politics.(11) As Phyllis Rose points out, "|Degeneracy' was the rallying cry for attacks on blacks and Jews alike from early in the century straight through the Third Reich, a code word giving access to early twentieth-century racism.... Degeneration was the ... underside of Darwinian thought. For if it was possible for the race to evolve from ape to man, to grow ever more civilized, it must also be possible for the race to deteriorate" (33). While Nikka's black body suggests a more primitive state of being, imaging bestial savagery for his audience, Barnes's representations of Jews are not aligned with this kind of wild, sexualized savagery. And yet each generation embodies a movement toward degeneration that is also figured as primitive and that culminates with the younger Guido. This younger Guido is said to be unlike other children because he is not savage. He is, however, "Mentally deficient and emotionally excessive, an addict to death" (107). Moreover, he has a genuine innocence that, according to Matthew, recalls Robin's attempts to "make an innocence for herself; a fearful sort of primitive innocence" (117, my emphasis). Such an innocence is fearful because, at least in the world of the text, to be "utterly innocent" is to be "utterly unknown, particularly to oneself" (138). Similarly, a primitive innocence suggests a precultural, prerational, unself-conscious condition. If Guido is not savage because he's not cruel, his complete lack of self-knowledge (a lack his desire to enter the church makes clear, since it is an impossibility: Felix expects - and receives - no answer from the Pope when he inquires on Guido's behalf) connects him (and perhaps his father and grandfather as well) to the unknown, the undeveloped, and a different kind of primitive than we have seen in Robin and Nikka.(12)

Thus, while Jews are represented in racial terms, as is Nikka, and have not evolved to the level of the dominant culture, as is the case with both Nikka and Robin, Nightwood represents Jews differently from Africans or lesbians. This difference results not only from the genealogical degeneration we witness in the course of the narrative, but also from the way that in its portrayals of Jews Nightwood inverts the eroticism it associates with both Robin and Nikka. Jews are not eroticized. Judith Lee has pointed out that Barnes's representations of Guido and Felix parody conventional notions of masculinity (209-11). But even more than parodying masculinity, the male Jewish body is portrayed as the antithesis of desire. Felix's father, Guido, "had been small, rotund, and haughtily timid, his stomach protruding slightly in an upward jutting slope that brought into prominence the buttons of his waistcoat and trousers, marking the exact centre of his body with the obstetric line seen on fruits-the inevitable arc produced by heavy rounds of burgundy, schlagsahne, and beer" (1). Guido wants to pass as a Christian, a wish that makes him "dislocated and comic" and leads his wife to move "toward him in recoil" (3). Felix is described as "heavier than his father and taller." We're told that "His hair began too far back on his forehead" (8). His mouth is, paradoxically, "sensuous from lack of desire" (8). Further, he is said to be "racially incapable of abandon" (38). These descriptions work to construct Jews not only as parodies of masculinity but as sexually undesirable, even physically distasteful. As is the case with Nikka, Nightwood's representations of Jews draw upon racial discourses operative outside the text. Indeed, in early twentieth-century Europe, in contrast to the way the black body signified an erotic Other, anti-Semitic propaganda portrayed Jews as swarming insects and rats, an undifferentiated mass that it would be well to exterminate (Torgovnick 199).

Because the Jewish body is not eroticized, Jews do not contribute to the haunting, exotic, compelling aspect of the primitive Nightwood so powerfully maps. Rather, Jews are consistently positioned as comic and pathetic outsiders who try to become Christians but who just can't quite seem to get it right, no matter what they do. And so we witness all three generations attempt what is, in Nightwood's terms, impossible. Moreover, despite the fact that Felix's mother is a Christian, the text insists his most meaningful identity is as a Jew. And although Felix and Robin (who is also a Christian) produce a child, Guido, who is technically one quarter Jewish, the text processes him as a Jew as well. Whether one is or is not Jewish is not determined by the individual: it is something the text insists is decided for the individual. It is not a choice, not an act of self-definition, but rather an essential identity that cannot be chosen or rejected. Thus, to be born with any Jewish "blood" is to remain a Jew forever.(13)

To conclude, Barnes populates Nightwood with the dominant culture's Others, all of whom were targeted by the Nazis, all of whom are associated with the primitive, and all of whom contribute to the exotic intrigue of the night world Barnes represents. But at the same time, these primitive Others signify differently both in the text itself and in the cultural discourses Barnes draws upon: lesbians are represented differently. from blacks or Jews; blacks differently from lesbians or Jews; and Jews differently from blacks or lesbians. Furthermore, it seems to me that the text deploys existing and oppressive discourses of the primitive and portrays blacks and Jews as primitive in order to provide an especially compelling backdrop for Robin and Nora. Indeed, although theirs is not the only narrative, Nightwood takes shape in and around Nora and Robin's love. The text does not use Robin or lesbian sexuality in order to produce a comparable context for blacks or Jews: the lesbian content is primary.

Moreover, the text does not challenge its discursive projections onto racial or ethnic difference in the way it poses a direct challenge to Nora's projections of herself onto Robin. This contrast suggests that Nightwood does not identify equally with all its cultural outsiders: rather, it identifies primarily with Nora and Robin. While this observation is hardly new, recognizing the differences between the various primitive Others who populate Nightwood also changes our understanding of the lesbian content by revealing its "political unconscious." For to recognize these differences is to see that, as an integral part of the process of both defining and privileging lesbian sexuality, the text opens up its space for lesbian identities in relation to - and to a great extent at the expense of - essentialized African and Jewish identities.

In this textual landscape populated by the dominant culture's Others, blacks and Jews are situated as the white lesbian's Others. Lesbian sexuality is categorically distinct from ethnic or racial difference: the discourses Barnes employs preclude any intersection or overlap. Obviously there's no reason, generally speaking, why a textual figure could not be both black and lesbian, or Jewish and lesbian. Yet because of the particular ways Nightwood represents blacks and Jews, neither Robin nor Nora could be black or Jewish without radically altering the ways in which both lesbian sexuality and racial/ethnic differences signify within the text. Even though lesbians, blacks, and Jews are all associated with the primitive, Nightwood resists making lesbian sexuality an essentialized identity and aligns it with the erotic. In contrast, it essentializes both black difference (with its specular alterity to the white European subject) and Jewish difference (by correlating it with an anti-eroticism rooted in physical distaste and repugnance). In short, the categories are mutually exclusive. One of the things a focus on differences between Nightwood's marginalized Others enables us to see is that the text does not represent lesbian love or passion in a general or generic way: rather, it depicts love between women who are - and must be, according to the logic of the text - of a particular race and ethnicity.


(1) Clifford calls this modernist aesthetic "surrealism," but he does not use the word in its narrowest sense. As he points out, his "broad use of the term roughly coincides with Susan Sontag's (1977) view of surrealism as a pervasive-perhaps dominant - modern sensibility" (118 n1). (2) While an interest in the primitive is apparent in the work of many modern writers and artists, I'm thinking in particular of Conrad, Lawrence, Forster, and Stein. (3) Thus far I've put the term "primitive" in quotation marks to highlight its complicated status in relation to what it is supposed to describe. While hereafter I will not use quotation marks, all uses of the term are self-conscious. (4) In Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, Torgovnick writes: "to study the primitive brings us always back to ourselves, which we reveal in the act of defining the Other.... The real secret of the primitive in this century has often been the same secret as always: the primitive can be . . . whatever Euro-Americans want it to be. It tells us what we want it to tell us" (9). (5) I want to note that Marcus insists on the importance of recognizing difference: her intention in this essay is to participate in the revisionist effort "to read race, class, and gender back into the discussion" of modernism (222). Moreover, the essay concludes with the assertion that "the human condition is a sister- and brotherhood of difference, and ... ideologies that seek to erase those differences and define only themselves as human are indescribably dangerous" (250). Still, the distinctions the essay insists upon get elided because Marcus focuses on how these various outsiders function in resistance to domination. (6) One could add other categories, such as transvestites, to this list as well. But in this paper I will focus on lesbians, blacks, and Jews. I also want to point out here that while Barnes invokes "race" in her representation of Nikka, "race" is as problematic a category of analysis as the primitive itself. It's not meaningful: physical differences among people exist, but distinct "races" with essentially different natures do not. It's also important to note that significant problems arise when differences among members of these groups are elided. I'm thinking in particular of early feminism's blindness to the concerns and experiences of women of color (see Hull, Bell, and Smith). One could make the same point with respect to cultural assumptions that a simple, straightforward connection exists between gender and sexuality (see Rubin and Butler). In both cases, using gender as the privileged category of analysis obscures important differences within genders. (7) Although Robin is not a public spectacle in the way Nikka is, some of the female circus performers in the text do function as specular objects. Princess Nadja, for instance, recognizes the intensity of Felix's gaze: she is "as certain of the justice of his eye as she would have been of the linear justice of a Rops, knowing that Felix tabulated precisely the tense capability of her spine with its lashing curve swinging into the hard compact cleft of her rump, as angrily and as beautifully as the more obvious tail of her lion" (12). Not only is Princess Nadja the object of Felix's gaze, she is connected - as Nikka is - with a "wild" animal. And just as Nikka's black skin suggests his specular quality, Frau Mann's circus costume has become her skin: "The stuff of her tights was no longer a covering, it was herself; the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll" (13). As trapeze artist, Frau Mann is, like Nikka, the object of the audience's gaze, but unlike Nikka she is not eroticized. But despite these similarities, which exist owing to the work these women have chosen to perform, a significant difference remains. Had these women chosen other occupations, they would not be objectified as they are, whereas Nikka's black skin would mark him no matter what he does. (8) For further discussions of postcolonial agency, see Trin, Spivak, and Bhabha. (9) I realize that I'm making a distinction here that some may find problematic. I don't mean to oversimplify the complex relationship between reader and text. I do, however, wish to underscore the difference between Nora's awareness (an awareness that is not consistently present - Nora struggles throughout the text with the fact that Robin does not conform to what Nora wants her to be) and Matthew's unself-conscious use of racial discourses. (10) As Torgovnick notes, "Anti-Semitism emerged as a movement in Austria after 1860, peaked in the 1880s, again around 1900, and once again after the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. During the first three periods, large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe entered Vienna" (282 n1). (11) While degeneration is not equivalent to the primitive, it traverses the space between the civilized and the primitive. And it is not confined to blacks and Jews. Jenny Petherbridge, for instance, with her collection of tiny ivory and jade elephants, embodies the "tension of the accident that made the beast the human endeavour" (67), which suggests her own movement - or possible movement - towards degeneration. In any case, her position as civilized white woman is precarious and unstable. And Nora is said to be "immune from her own descent" (51), although "Looking at her, foreigners remembered ... children's heads ... looking in fright out of small windows, where in the dark another race crouched in ambush" (50-51). What interests me about this description of Nora is the way Barnes uses race to figure "civilized" children's fears. While Nora remains protected in her own mind from degeneracy, she's not as safe as she thinks. So there's a connection between her and the more degenerate figures (such as Nikka). They circulate around her as potential threats to her complacency. Note too the way in which the image of "another race" is used in the passage cited above to inscribe the racial Other as a source of fear. (12) While this childlike innocence characterizes Guido, it does not describe all children in Nightwood The little girl Sylvia, for instance, falls in love with Robin: as Felix recounts the story to Matthew, Robin had loved the child for a while (at one point she keeps waking her up to find out if she loved her [115]). Later, when Robin shows no sign of remembering their mutual attachment, the child is filled with shame - a shame which seems to suggest a premature sexual or erotic experience. This is another way in which Robin is linked with Nora's grandmother, since there's a suggestion that the grandmother elicited forbidden feelings from Nora as well. (13) My discussion here about how Jews are represented in Nightwood is much broader than my discussion in the paper I delivered at the Barnes Conference at the University of Maryland in October 1992. My inclusion of this particular point - that Jews cannot choose not to be Jews in Nightwood - is the result of my thinking about the subject after listening to Meryl Altman's paper, "A Book of Repulsive Jews?"


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Author:Kaivola, Karen
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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