In 1936, the American writer and stunt–reporter Djuna Barnes publishes her magnificient post–breakup novel Nightwood, which queers the sexual politics of Charles Darwin’s writings on sexual selection and evolution to explore sexuality, inheritance and gender performativity.
Nightwood both implicitly and explicitly portrays non–heteronormative identities and sexualities as not only atavistic and pre–lingual, but also supreme states of being which humans naturally devolve to with time and each new generation in a Darwinian march of the species towards LGBT.
Nightwood recuperates Darwin’s legacy from from the clasps of Barnes’s contemporaries, namely the sexologist Dr Krafft-Ebing, who writes same–sex desire to be a degenerative and genetically inherited ‘sexual inversion’. The difference in opinion between Barnes and Krafft–Ebing is ever so slight: in both writers, the progression towards queerness is degenerative, but with the added exception of it being in Barnes a desireable and inevitable process bringing humanity closer to its true authentic form. If you think of Barnes as a queer D.H Lawrence, this subtlety becomes much clearer to understand.
Nightwood describes human beings as possessing a kind of racial memory of a lost gay past, set prior to civilization, which we have all forgotten but only partially so. In Barnes, LGBT characters, like the Northern gamekeeper of D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, are those who have not completely broken ties with humanity’s wonderful ancestral queer past.
Responding to a growing problematic societal interest in degeneration theory and more broadly speaking sexology, as well as a generalised societal shift in sexual behaviour, Nightwood refurbishes Charles Darwin’s hetero–normative ideas on sexual selection – concepts Barnes modernises, articulating as she does a very current conception of desire, sexual orientation, and gender.
‘Am I to blame if I’ve turned up this time as I shouldn’t have been’, asks Matthew, the woefully eloquent and astonishingly modern transwoman of Barnes’s magnum opus. ‘It was a high soprano I wanted’, Matthew tells us, ‘and deep corn curls to my bum, with a womb as big as the king’s kettle, and a bosom as high as the bowsprit of a fishing schooner’.
Matthew’s experience of gender dysphoria is terrible and explored both very openly and lyrically by Barnes. A self-advertised ‘bearded lady’, Matthew assumes the identity of a pedantic male doctor during the day and only returns to her true form in the evenings when the anonymity of her room and the darkness of the night propell her – and the other characters – to give in to her truth and raw natural impulses.
In Nightwood, gender is ‘a skin about a wind’, but a skin nonetheless characters like Matthew like to dress up. The circus performer Frau Mann, for instance, a demi-monde and trapezist, quite literally merges with her costume.‘She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume’, writes Barnes about the performer, ‘a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow, low in the back’. Fascinatingly, in her interaction with the barre, Frau Mann is able to perform her birth sex away, as the cloth of her circus bodysuits flattens and removes her vagina. ‘The stuff of the 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’.
Very little actually happens in Nightwood. We follow in the footsteps of the alluring vagabond Robin sneaking in a vague apercu of the mysterious androgyne as she crosses continents and embarks on a string of romantic relationships that always for some reason or another reach a tragic and premature conclusion. The final chapter, set in the forest near her former lover Nora’s home, narrates Robin’s devolution to her authentic primal animal self. We see Robin whispering to the animals, sleeping on the forest floor, crawling in the mud, kissing Nora’s dog and gradually reaching a higher state of being.
Robin belongs to what Barnes calls ‘the third sex’. She is neither fully female, male, nor human. She is ‘a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin’once vividly described as being ‘sort of fluid blue under her skin, as if the hide of time had been stripped from her, and with it, all transactions with knowledge. A sort of first attention; a face that will age only under the perpetual blows of childhood’.
Essentially, Robin is both young and old. She only ages into youth; that is to say, with each page, Robin grows younger, but she only experiences a very old sort of youth – a youth that is genetically pre-determined and which harks back to the sacred moment in time before civilization robbed its first breath.
Parallel to the devolution talk, a lot of Nightwood is concerned with sexual partners behaving towards each other as ‘animals’ – and this motif, of course, raises fascinating issues related to human qua animal consciousness and eco-criticism. The trope of the sexual predator versus its prey features quite extensively in Nightwood.
From Spencer to Gower to H.D. to Shakespeare, the dialectical relationship has a long and rich literary history predating Darwin. Typically, in both prose and poetry the predator is the male narrator and its prey its female object of desire. The predator observes its voiceless prey from afar, describes it in great detail, and procedes to intrude its personal space in order to seduce or rape it. Of course, this is a context Barnes is very much aware of. Nightwood in fact completely reverses the trope, as it explores exclusively lesbian desire through the lens of sexual violence, jealousy, romantic suffering and the special rapport formed between the predator and its prey.
Robin, Nora, and Jenny all form a part of Barnes’s Parisian Sapphic love triangle and have their parts to play in the theatre of animal love and betrayal, with Robin and Jenny both being archetypical predators and Nora an unassuming prey.
In a letter to her editor, Barnes writes about her former lover, the sensual androgyne, painter and sculptor Thelma Wood: ‘I did not mean that I was terrified of the evil in Thelma when I said I had a right to be terrified of her, that did not terrify me for a long time, because I thought she was not evil. I am still of the opinion (would take too long to go into it if my book does not show what I mean)’.
Barnes and Thelma’s tumultuous relationship is at the backdrop of much of Robin and Nora’s affair in the novel, and the question of Thelma Wood’s wickedness extends to Robin. Is Robin ‘evil’ or is she in fact a predator entangled with her series of preys and her own instincts, conforming to the duties prescribed to her by the natural order of life?
When Robin first appears, she is explicitly compared to a wild predatory animal held captive in a salon estranged from her natural habitat. ‘Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau’, writes Barnes, Robin ’seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseen dompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of woodwinds render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness’.
Henri Rousseau’s Primitivist paintings are often of jungle scenes located in fantasized ‘exotic’ countries imagined from Rousseau’s Paris residence and inspried by his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes. Paintings such as Rousseau’s ‘Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest’ displace and relocate the tamed and familiar, as emblematised in the figure of the woman in western dress, in unfamiliar primitive environments.
While the woman in Victorian dress of Rousseau’s painting is set free to roam among the foliage to discover the different crevices and parts of her mind and memories, Robin carries her primitivism within herself. Her subsequent woodland renaissance is essentially her caving in to her own ‘wilderness’. It is Robin’s interiority finally reaching out to meet the outside.
Wonderfully, Nightwood contends that all human beings would be able to access Robin’s higher state of being – were we not so out of touch with nature and our environment. This tragic loss, we made up for and replaced with arbitrary codes and measures of gender and sexuality.
But, redemptively, ‘the trees are better’, Barnes writes, ‘and grass is better, and animals are all right and the birds in the air are fine. And everything we do is decent when the mind begins to forge–the design of life; and good when we have the spirits of all people who cast a shadow a long way beyond what they are, and for the beasts that walk out of the darkness alone’