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The Centrifugal Tendencies of Nightwood

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The Ethical Heart of Djuna Barnes

There is no doubt among current criticism of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood that it is a masterfully written piece, subversive in its own right, and triumphantly poetic in its images and imagery of modern suffering and pain—both physical and emotional. There is, however, some discrepancy over the legacy of the novel and of the central, although not necessarily main, character of Robin Vote. Early criticisms (Kanenstine, et. al.) fail to relate the obscenity and depravity of the novel beyond much more than a fitful outburst of a child. Later critics (Allen, Marcus) priviledge and praise the obscene and bawdy body humor of the text and as such begin to see it, rightfully so, as the politically subversive text it is—but with its failing coming at the end scene where Robin, on all fours, appears to dance with Nora's dog in what is usually considered the most depraved and unredeeming moment of the book. It is my hope to continue the positive work of more recent critics in unlocking Nightwood from the canon of obscurity and abject depravity as it rests in the canon of marginality—perhaps where pseudo-champion T. S. Eliot thought it should be all along, but where, ironically enough, it is perhaps at its most powerful—by moving beyond the (homo)sexual politics of the text to show that Barnes' work is not so much about the betrayal of two woman lovers, one of whom is considered by some “inhuman” and bestial—culminating in the utterly depraved but absolutely redeeming scene at the end. I suggest that while indeed encompassing what many critics would herald as feminist arguments championing lesbian love and desire, Barnes situates the text in a broader political spectrum by showing what is possible with a new view of human social and sexual relations. She does this by mocking what is, forcing us to consider with each sardonic slap in the face if how we are is how we ought to be. In an extremely politically subversive move, she uses characters that are “of the night,” that are dark and abject and she presents them as a sort of norm, as if the Aryans and the Anglophiles missing from the print of the text aren't always already there, already between the sheets of each page, slapped and laughed at, as Barnes is derisively vying not just for change, but for a total shift in the power structures of the global forces occupying the history of the text.