Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

"Dressing the unknown in garments of the known": Djuna Barnes and the illusion of readability

Margaret Gillespie

Temps: 2008-10-25  11:25  – 12:00
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


"If 1 should put [it] into words [...] it would be incomprehensible" says one of the character's in Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1936) of the novel's central protagonist, Robin Vote. It is a feeling that may be readily shared by many a reader who attempts with any seriousness to apprehend this "notoriously difficult" late modernist text.
Yet Nightwood may initially surprise as a choice for a study into modernist unreadability. Not only does the work stand as a relatively recent addition to the centre stage of the modernist canon, attracting significant academic interest from the 70s onwards, but also the minimal plot and sketchy character development of the novel have frequently been salvaged by critics keen to gloss the text in reassuringly (auto)biographical terms; such readings, whilst contributing importantly to feminist literary history of the interwar years, have neglected and obscured the radicalism of Nightwood's underlying premises, the end of representation and the absence of meaning.
Early New Critical & proto-New Critical readings, starting with T.S. Eliot's 1936 introduction to the novel (predicting it "would appeal primarily to readers of poetry") proved more open to Nightwood's discursively experimental style; at the same time however they eschewed passing all but the most cursory comment on its subversive subject matter--a murky underworld entirely peopled by sexual deviants, circus freaks and other marginal figures. It was this content that would lend the novel immediate demi-monde "cult" status whilst simultaneously assuring it would remain literally unread by many others.
Granted, one of the most salient aspects of Barnes's work is an elaborate, errant, excessive, highly figural discourse which flaunts its own artifice, delimiting a space of unreality, whose baroque proliferation of signifiers perform a travesty of signification, suggesting indeed that "pure language is the real subject" of the work" (Kaup, 98). Yet both the verbal body of the text and the sexual and racial others that Nightwood vainly seeks to narrativize reside outside "the domain of cultural intelligibility" ; the "creatures of the Night" exist precisely, only, in the failure of their representation through language --the garment of the known-- whilst Robin Vote, archetypal Other, convincingly stands as an emblematic embodiment of Modernist unreadability, challenging the authority of the language she resists.