Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues21Modernism and the Obscene“Obscene and touching”–the tainte...

Modernism and the Obscene

“Obscene and touching”–the tainted aesthetic of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

Margaret Gillespie


A number of scholars have viewed obscenity in Djuna Barnes’s writing as primarily a question of eluding institutional and societal constraints. Her novel Nightwood (1936) was partially bowdlerized at editorial stage to avoid censorship on account of its male homosexual content. But obscenity also lies elsewhere in the novel, in the figuring of the author’s probably incestuous childhood liaison with her grandmother. It is a relationship which haunts the narrative, constituting a form of collusion with, and witness to, the past and one with which the reader becomes unwittingly complicit.

Top of page

Full text

Introduction: Barnes scholarship and the question of obscenity

  • 1 Leigh Gilmore’s comparison of the publication histories of The Well of Loneliness and Nightwood “pu (...)
  • 2 Of Eliot’s preface and editorial cuts to Nightwood, Cheryl Plumb notes “It may not have been the te (...)
  • 3 For Monika Faltejskova, Eliot’s editing of Nightwood constituted primarily “a case of personal cens (...)
  • 4 “When we think of the provocative work of Anglo-American literary modernism, the famous trials of J (...)
  • 5 T.S. Eliot predicted people would find it “tedious […] because they will not understand it” (Herrin (...)
  • 6 Barnes’s true feelings regarding T.S. Eliot’s editing of Nightwood and his oblique, obfuscating pre (...)

1A number of scholars (Gilmore 1994,1 Plumb 1995,2 Faltejskova 20103) have viewed obscenity in Djuna Barnes’s writing as primarily a question of eluding institutional and societal constraints where her censored modernist peers famously failed.4 The author’s Ladies Almanack (1928), a bawdy chapbook celebrating American heiress Natalie Barney’s lesbian coterie, for instance, was privately printed as a limited edition and covertly hawked on the streets of Paris. Such was the linguistic opacity of the once-performed play, The Antiphon (1958), written in arcane Shakespearean-style verse, that its disturbing theme—a father’s sexual abuse of his daughter—went largely unnoticed.5 The novel Ryder (1928), a “female Tom Jones” (Caselli 197) in the novelist’s own words, and Nightwood (1936), loosely based on Barnes’s ill-fated Parisian love affair with silverpoint artist Thelma Wood, were both partially “sanitized” at editorial stage to avoid censorship, with or without the novelist’s assent.6

  • 7 For instance in “Bow Down,” the first chapter of the novel when O’Connor recounts the life of King (...)

2One of T.S. Eliot’s key concerns, in his role as editor for Nightwood, published in London by the highly respectable Faber and Faber in 1936, was that the novel would suffer the same fate as Ulysses, be judged obscene, go to court and be banned (Blake 153). Eliot’s misgivings were certainly not without foundation for a text that in the words of Jane Marcus “flaunt [s] every possible taboo from the excretory to the sexual and […] invent [s] taboos uncatalogued even by Freud” (Marcus 2004: 102). The publisher took a number of precautionary steps, “robing” the novel in a drab and worthy introduction—the discursive equivalent of “pale grey,” as one contemporary reviewer aptly observed (Potter 173), and excising explicit references to homosexuality. Terms like “fairy,” “faggot” and “queen” (Faltejskova 95) as well as many of the cross-dressing protagonist Matthew O’Connor’s, saucier same-sex tales and escapades were removed.7 Earlier in the editorial process, Emily Coleman, Barnes’s friend and de facto literary agent, also convinced her to cut lines referring to O’Connor’s flannel nightgown as “not only the womanly, but the incestuous garment,” claiming the lines were “meaningless” (Hollis 245).

3Yet as Diane Chisolm has rightly observed, the bounds of legal discourse are just one benchmark by which obscenity may be judged: “obscene art may be legalized by new court rulings and/or legitimized by a body of liberal taste and still retain the power to shock” (Chisolm 169). Eliot was successful in publishing Nightwood, but even after partial bowdlerization, it still remained “considerably more sexually explicit” than most books previously published in the United Kingdom (Potter 173). Reading Nightwood through Sade and the surrealists among others, Chisolm showcases its transgressive potential which she argues deploys “a vast battery of obscene materials” to irreverently assail the regimented norms of legal, sexological and theological discourse to figure a mise-en-texte of the “‘obscene’ frame of speech in which any unbecoming sexuality must be lived and thought” (Chisolm 195, 172). For Rachel Potter, Nightwood’s obscene “bodies, minds and words” are significant in highlighting a shift in the inter-war cultural climate and the demise of moral censoriousness, occasioning a veritable sea change in the parameters of what would constitute literary value and novelistic form (Potter 174).

4My focus and interest here, however, lie less in the “flaunted,” manifest, obscenity of Nightwood than in the notion of the obscene as an issue of problematic visibility within the text. Returning to the twin etymological origins of the term, the Latin obscaenus meaning “from or with filth, ill-omened or abominable,” and the Greek ob skene, meaning “off-stage, not fit to be seen on-stage” (McKay 80), I propose to explore not only what “filth” or “abomination” the narrative openly reveals, but what it also conceals within its discomfiting poetics. More specifically, drawing on the interface between literature and trauma theory, I will discuss how a text like Nightwood may function as a conduit, enabling the textual enactment of the repressed/ob-scene memory of abominable/obscene traumatic experience. This is not to suggest a reading of the narrative as biographical mapping. Central to my thesis is the notion that traumatic memories cannot be accessed directly but paradoxically come into being only through the process of testimony—in Barnes’s case, the creative process that is then offered up to the reader as witness. But how is this “ob-scene obscene” figured in the narrative? Is there a discernable poetics, or even ethics, of the obscene? My exploration will open, by way of example, with a reading of Nightwood’s unsettling final chapter, which offers an instance of both manifest and latent obscenity. We will go on to see how the character of Robin Vote functions within the logic of the narrative to encode traumatic memory, and more specifically the trauma of incest. This will lead us to reflect upon the interplay of incest, traumatic memory and modernist textuality before offering a series of readings towards the definition of a poetics of the “ob-scene obscene” in Nightwood and asking whether the creative act may have an ethical role to play in healing an authorial voice possessed by its traumatic past.

Nightwood: the unsettling final chapter

  • 8 Note in the margin of the manuscript. As Faltejskova explains, “Barnes fought against this change f (...)

5As he revised Nightwood prior to publication, Eliot had also initially been keen to suppress the novel’s controversial final coda chapter, “The Possessed,” set in a decaying chapel where the female character Robin Vote fights with a dog belonging to her former lover Nora, before collapsing into tears and bringing the dog down with her (Caselli 181). The manuscripts of the last versions of Nightwood show that even though the chapter was finally retained, Eliot was still considering replacing the expression “obscene” in the final paragraph by the more innocuous “unclean”—a recommendation Barnes refused to follow, wryly dismissing it as an “example of T.S. Eliot’s ‘lack of imagination’”8:

Then she began to bark also, crawling after him—barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching. Crouching, the dog began to run with her, head-on with her head, as if to circumvent her; soft and slow his feet went padding. He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees. (139)

  • 9 “The dog and the chapel as well as other aspects of Nightwood and the circumstances of its publicat (...)
  • 10 “Where these critics differ from earlier accounts of the scene is in their careful articulations of (...)

6The meaning of the passage was apparently obvious to Barnes herself—“Let the reader make up his own mind if hes [sic] not an idiot he’ll know” she commented (Plumb 1995: xv)—and it has prompted clear responses from some critics. In his 1975 assessment for instance, Robert Nadeau had no qualms in pronouncing the passage “strangely beautiful in spite of the fact that the action described would be considered obscene by almost any standard” (Nadeau 160, my emphasis). More recently, Teresa de Lauretis has described it as “shocking in its unequivocal simulation of a sexual act from frenzied crescendo to failed orgasmic release” (De Lauretis 121). Yet the scene has largely invited a “critical silence” (Blake 161) on the part of scholars, and those who have chosen to comment on the ending have tended to either stand pruriently back, viewing it as a dystopian descent into bestiality, or to offer oblique or abstract appraisals of its possible meaning. Kannenstine’s 1977 monograph on Barnes, Duality and Damnation, for instance, refers to “a bizarre ritualistic ceremony with the beast which brings her down to its level” (Kannenstine 94, my emphasis) and Jane Marcus retreats behind the cover of allusion referring simply to “the novel’s controversial last scene with the dog” (Marcus 1984: 154). Avoiding the sexual question altogether, Donna Gerstenberger has interpreted the ending as a postmodern riff on The Waste Land (Gerstenberger 39)9 while Erin Carlston sees it as an “ironic rebuttal of fascism” (Carlston 79); many twenty-first-century scholars have pursued Gerstenberger’s and Carlston’s less literal approach, reading the passage through the lens of queer theory or the posthuman (Blake 162).10

7My own unease around this passage comes from elsewhere and is rooted in the oxymoron—“obscene and touching”—with which the narrative voice glosses the episode. The expression points to an unresolved tension between a doting, sentimental gaze on the one hand (“touching”) and a moral abomination on the other (“obscene”), and seems to invite the reader to be at once charmed and yet troubled by the spectacle conjured up before their eyes—that “strangely beautiful” scene in Robert Nadeau’s words. In her comparative study of the publishing fates of Nightwood and Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian Bildungsroman The Well of Loneliness (1928), Leigh Gilmore posits obscenity as “constitutive of, rather than corollary to modernism,” because legal discourse was necessarily imbricated within the emerging sexological and literary innovations of the period (Gilmore 604). A literary work deemed likely to encourage criminalized sexual practices would thus be obscene in the eyes of the law; hence the accessible, realist narrative of The Well was judged obscene by the courts on account of its alleged potential to corrupt innocent or ignorant minds (612). Conversely, Eliot’s introduction to Nightwood, flagging the novel as more “poetic” and therefore elusive, successfully pre-empted censorship by presenting “‘deviance’ as […] a matter of literary style” (623). Yet here in this particular passage, it is the narrative itself which foregrounds its own obscenity, inviting the reader to apprehend it as such and begging the question of what precisely it is that makes it so. Certainly the Robin-dog dyad is discomfiting because it collapses the binary between human and bestial, civilized and uncivilized, pure and impure, conjuring up a tableau that “would be considered obscene by almost any standard.” But the passage also unsettles, I would argue, because of the disarming disparity, or dislocation, between style and content—an uneasy combination of seemingly artless language describing an all-but-innocent event. Eschewing the reassurance of “innocently mimetic writing,” as Daniela Caselli has argued with regard to the author’s journalistic pieces, Barnes offers us a tainted aesthetic with which we become an unwitting accomplice (Caselli 23). In other words, it is also in the poetics of the writing (the very quality that saved Nightwood from censorship), that the obscene is to be located.

An encounter with incest

  • 11 T.S. Eliot used this phrase in his 1919 essay “Hamlet and his problems” to describe “a set of objec (...)

8One reading, I would contend, of this jarring juxtaposition of the “touching” and “beautiful” and the “shocking” and “obscene,” of juvenile candor and adult sexual knowledge, is that the narrative is figuring here the trauma of incest, the trace of which runs through much of the author’s work as both subtext/thematic and as trope. The etymology of the term is helpful in understanding how it may be figured in a literary text. As Jane M. Ford reminds us, the “incest taboo […] derives […] from man’s limitations and boundaries, separating him from the animal world wherein most sexual activity is indiscriminate […] the derivation of the word ‘incest’ supports this, coming as it does from the Latin incestum or ‘unchaste’” (Ford 5). Following Ford’s argument through, the chapel scene in Nightwood may be viewed not simply as an overtly sexual encounter between man and beast, as Nadeau and de Lauretis read it, but rather as the “objective correlative”—to borrow T.S. Eliot’s famous term—or metaphorical reconfiguration, of an incestuous coupling.11

  • 12 Herring is one of the many scholars who refer to Wood as “the counterpart of Robin in Nightwood” (H (...)

9Readings of Nightwood commonly offer a biographical mapping that parallels the failed lesbian love affair of Nora and Robin and Barnes’s own liaison with silverpoint artist Thelma Wood.12 But the novel also engages with far earlier experiences—Barnes’s relationship with Zadel Barnes Gustafson, her paternal grandmother, a relationship which the figure of Robin obliquely revisits. Evoking the emotions that the writing of Nightwood had aroused, Barnes commented in a letter to Emily Coleman in 1936:

I am up to my neck here in my lost life—Thelma & Thelma only—& my youth—way back in the beginning when she has no part in it & yet she is cause of my remembrance of it. (Plumb 1993, 158)

10This comment strikingly underlines the near-physical hold the past has on the author, suggesting she might simply be engulfed (“up to my neck”) or “possessed” by it, as Cathy Caruth has said of the experience of trauma (Caruth 5), an impression the use of the present tense to describe the past underscores. Equally significant is the fact that the memory of Barnes’s ex-lover is tenacious precisely because she has come to signify childhood experiences that long preceded her (“way back in the beginning when she has no part in it”) and points to something other than herself. More explicitly, writer Chester Page’s memoirs have related a conversation where the novelist told him she had “fallen in love with Thelma Wood because she resembled her grandmother” (120).

11From this perspective, the novel’s ending scene should not then be viewed as the culminating demonstration of Robin’s moral and sexual degeneracy, and thus the direct representation of an obscene act, but rather the metaphorical transposition of earlier “unchaste” or “unclean” relationships (to recall Eliot’s uncannily prescient interpretation) that continue to haunt, or “possess,” writer and writing, as they underscore the complex dyad of Nora and Robin. Earlier passages in the narrative would also seem to back up this interpretation. One such is when the heartbroken Nora tells how she sought out her lover “in Marseilles, in Tangier, in Naples, to understand her, to do away with [her] terror”:

I haunted the cafés where Robin had lived her night life; I drank with the men, I danced with the women, but all I knew was that others had slept with my lover and my child. For Robin is incest too, that is one of her powers. In her, past-time records, and past time is relative to us all. Yet not being the family she is more present than the family. A relative is in the foreground only when it is born, when it suffers and when it dies, unless it becomes one’s lover, then, it must be everything, as Robin was, yet not as much as she, for she was like a relative found in a lost generation. (D. Barnes 1995, 129)

12Not only does Nora, in a disturbing conflation of the maternal and the sexual, describe Robin as “my lover and my child,” but she also explains that Robin’s attraction lies in the fact that she is “incest,” which is “one of her powers,” “like a relative found in another generation,” adding that relatives who become lovers “are everything.” The curious expression “Robin is incest” underscores the metaphorical function her character seems to be playing as a “formula” for the repressed experience of incest. Strikingly, the boundaries between victim and perpetrator are blurred: probity holds no sway. Robin is both “child and lover,” yet a source of “terror” and “power” because she signifies incest; although she is not a blood relation she is yet “more present than the family.” It is a textual practice, which, in Caselli’s words, constitutes “a form of collusion with the past, which, far from nostalgically pure, is tainting and compromising” (Caselli 2009, 197); for Diane Chisolm, the narrative “imagines an erotic decrepitude beyond good and evil” (186), suggesting how obscenity, and incest in particular, may participate in modernism’s rethinking of aesthetic and ethical value.

Incest and trauma in literary modernism

  • 13 According to biographer Andrew Field, Barnes undertook analysis in the 1938 with Antonia White’s (...)

13If incest has long haunted literary texts as a perennial thematic element since Greek tragedy, it attained a particular significance in the modernist period with Sigmund Freud’s invocation of Oedipus to explain normal sexual development. Barnes was more than familiar with Freud’s writing13 and Nightwood stands among a plethora of modernist texts turning their attention to incest as narrative topos or poetic trope, and of which Lolita, Finnegan’s Wake, and The Making of Americans would be salient examples. The modernist text’s engagement with incest does not content itself with plotline. From a formal point of view, as Jen Shelton has observed, the power relations at play in the incest dynamic, and the question of narrative (un) reliability (whose story is to be believed, the adult’s or the child’s?) are also central to much modernist writing:

Just as victims of incest, narratively disabled by the stories allotted to them by culture […] must find a way to tell a story they understand to be true, so too must certain experimental texts seek out narrative modes that contest the conservatism of existing narratives. (Shelton 30)

14Moreover, such are the ambiguous and conflicting emotions generated by the experience of incest—the will to recount, and the inability to do so out of a sense of “filial duty to love and respect” (Shelton 5), or quite simply because the memory has been repressed—that the conventional linear testimonial form predicated on the revelation of truth is inadequate. The experience of trauma, as Cathy Caruth has argued, does not manifest itself directly in narrative, but emerges in “radical disruption and gaps” because “it is the fundamental dislocation implied by all traumatic experience that is both its testimony to the event and to the impossibility of its direct access” (Caruth 4, 9). For Julie Taylor, “many of the characteristics of trauma—its tendencies towards unknowability and unrepresentability for instance—are compatible with the epistemological and representational uncertainties […] of Barnes’s work” (Taylor 8). Like modernist writing, traumatic memory, with its emphasis on symbolic representation, “tells without telling,” articulating an experience that cannot be voiced explicitly, or has not been consciously processed (E. Barnes 2). Literature, as Elizabeth Barnes argues, has the potential less to relate traumatic experience than to stand in for that experience, or as Dori Laub has argued, offer the possibility of “the displacement of traumatic experience onto myth, stories, and so forth and […] a means for its realization, through the witnessing of trauma by listeners/readers” (Laub 57). For while historical evidence of an event may exist, no real knowledge of it exists until the event is “witnessed”—that is until someone has become cognizant of it:

Since trauma by definition precludes the possibility of the subject experiencing the shocking event, the trauma victim is unable to bear witness to what happened to him/her. Thus someone else— a listener or a reader— must serve as a witness (E. Barnes 2)

15“Let the reader decide,” Barnes’s take on the interpretation of the chapel scene in Nightwood analysed above, would seem to echo this theory, also supported by Caruth, that “the history of a trauma can only take place through the listening of another” (Caruth 11). In correspondence with Coleman, Barnes writes of her dislike of “parading” the “innermost secret,” preferring for it to be “expos [ed] in art” and “given to the reader, the eye,” as a form of “initiation,” a comment that similarly suggests how traumatic memory cannot be accessed directly, but “is brought into the world through the artistic process and the reader’s witnessing” (Taylor 9).

Barnes: childhood abuse

16Notwithstanding the inappropriateness of any hermeneutic enterprise that would search to elucidate an “innermost secret” or biographical origin or truth, the Barnes Papers, held at the McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland offer a rich source of archival material that has enabled scholars to gain some sense of the sexual violence Barnes was confronted with in her early years and which makes its belated, oblique (re) appearance in her writing. Mary Lynn Broe for instance refers to a succession of traumatic events, including “the father’s attempted rape, his ‘virginal sacrifice’ of the daughter, then his brutal barter of his daughter-bride” at the age of sixteen to Percy Faulkner, his mistress’s brother—a sort of step-uncle—and a man over three times Djuna’s age (Broe 56).

17These events are both told and not told, on-scene and ob-scene in the linguistically opaque, mock-Elizabethan narratives of Ryder and The Antiphon, with trauma theory offering a possibly entry into these hermetic texts. Thus, where T.S. Eliot had been dismissive of The Antiphon’s obscurity and apparent inaccessibility, predicting that audiences would find it “tedious […] because they [would] not understand it” (Herring 1995: 276), Julie Taylor invites us to reconsider “the perverse anachronism and allusiveness” of the play through the prism of traumatic experience, viewing Barnes’s “literary repetitions and restagings” as a dramatization of the role of audience or reader as witness where “affective and narrative ambivalence” have a key role to play (Taylor 38, 39).

18The same traumatic event also features in the second draft of Nightwood, in pages that were discarded before publication and which appear to relate the circumstances of adolescent Djuna’s “marriage” ceremony to Percy Faulkner, as well as hinting at earlier incidents of abuse. In this instance, though, instead of the bewilderingly recondite style of Ryder and The Antiphon, the reader faces a text of disconcerting simplicity:

And then I had a lover and a doll, and because he was a man who had held me on his knee when I was a child, and because I had a doll and ate caramels, and looked up at him and said ‘yes’, he couldn’t bear it. He thiught [sic] perhaps, that he was bored, but it was something else; he was an old man then […] (D. Barnes 1995, 299)

19The reader’s attention may be drawn to a number of elements: the disarmingly naïve rendering with its the childlike syntax and accumulative use of the conjunction “and,” flat tone and meager lexicon. This formal innocence, is however, sharply undercut by the shocking pairing of “a lover and a doll,” hinting at an unspeakable event. Barnes’s narrative mode here is redolent of Gertrude Stein, whose The Making of Americans contains a similar, stylistically guileless passage. In Stein’s text, the reader witnesses a sexually abusive father admonishing his daughter for her provocative behavior in public. Here too, discomfit is caused by artless tone, lexical and syntactical simplicity and relentless repetition that are singularly at odds with unutterable experience, itself maintained ob/scene and imperfectly articulated through euphemism:

It happens very often that a man does something, that a man has something in him and he does a thing again and again in his living. There was a man who was always writing to his daughter that she should not do things that were wrong that would disgrace him, she should not do such things and in every letter that he wrote to her he told her she should not do such things, that he was her father and was giving good moral advice to her and always he wrote to her in every letter that she should not do things that she should not do anything that would disgrace him. He wrote this in every letter he wrote to her, he wrote very nicely to her, he wrote often enough to her and in every letter he wrote to her that she should not do anything that was a disgraceful thing for her to be doing and then once she wrote back to him that he had not any right to write moral things in letters to her, that he had taught her that he had shown her that he had commenced in her the doing the things that would disgrace her […]. (Stein 488-499)

20The epistolary nature of the exchange brings into sharp relief the daughter-victim’s entrapment within the terms of a paternal discourse from which there is no “outside,” but in Barnes’s text too, it seems impossible to escape the internal logic of the traumatic event, which imposes the terms of its own apprehension:

[…] I had said, “No, I will marry you in my heart but I will not marry you in church.” Because that was a big new ideal my father had in his head. Then I remembered the ceremony beside the Christmas tree, when my father and my grandmother stood by, and my mother by the door in her apron, crying and thinking God knows what; and he put a ring on my finger and I kissed him. Before that, it must have been two hours, I had gone down on the floor and hugged my grandmother by her knees, dropping my head down, saying, ‘Don’t let it happen, and she said “It had to happen.” (D. Barnes 1995, 300)

21While a number of family members are present, they seem to have surrendered agency, as if numbed by what Dori Laub has termed, in another context of trauma, “the contaminating power of the event” (Laub 66): “‘it had to happen’” as the grandmother says. And perhaps the most unsettling of bystanders is indeed the figure of the collusive grandmother, to whom the narrator turns vainly for help: not only is their power relation clearly underscored by the granddaughter’s lowly position (“hugged my grandmother by the knees”), but the grandmother is also clearly figured as the upholder of patriarchy, “incest’s first cousin” in the words of Jan Shelton (Shelton 2), standing by with the father and blatantly ignoring the mother’s distress.

Zadel Barnes Gustafson: sexual initiator

22Documents held in Djuna Barnes Collection at the McKeldin Library, University of Maryland suggest that Zadel Barnes, Djuna Barnes’s paternal grandmother not only displayed complicity with her son’s abusive behavior, but herself actively participated in her granddaughter’s sexual initiation. Sexually explicit correspondence between Barnes and Zadel indicate that the author was also victim of another, far rarer, form of incest for much of her childhood. Written over a period of eighteen years, the first dating from when Djuna was six, the letters, “obscene and touching” in their way, reveal the grandmother’s “conflated efforts to nurture and exploit” her granddaughter: “practical advice on groceries and chores; lavish endearments that seem carefully designed to manipulate; and a regressive, highly euphemistic language that expresses her erotic desire for her granddaughter” (Dalton 121). One letter, for instance, addressed to “Dear Snickerbits” from the Grand Union Hotel in New York, Zadel ends with the humdrum news about an ongoing embroidery project: “I went to Indian beadwork store and did all the bead, thread and needle job, also, yesterday” (Barnes Gustafson, 7 September 1909). However, this is immediately juxtaposed with a caricature of Zadel, skirted, but featuring taut outstretched breasts and the comment “Deys’ stretched orful!,” the fake-unschooled vernacular discourse functioning to downplay the blatant sexual content of the message.

23The ambiguous nature of Djuna’s responses to Zadel also comes across in correspondence. Through Zelda’s prism, Djuna is portrayed as enamored. In one letter dating from April of the same year for instance, Zadel revels in the affection her granddaughter has lavished on her in her previous exchange: “What! Did you really write “My Ownest Licious Grandmother” Lors! Yer orter seen me livellin’ with amazement and joy XXX” (Barnes Gustafson, April 1909). However, the only letter in the collection from Djuna and written in response to accusations from Zadel that she did not write enough, expresses deeply conflicted emotions, marked by a mixture of rage, despair and fear which is swiftly followed by a declaration of affection, suggesting the self-censuring power of the “filial duty to love and respect,” identified by Shelton, which make it so difficult for incest victims to tell après coup, is already in place much earlier. Writing of another experience of trauma, the Holocaust, Dori Laub has exposed how its perpetrators “brutally imposed upon their victims a delusional ideology whose grandiose coercive pressure totally excluded and eliminated the possibility of an unviolated, unencumbered, and thus sane point of view” (Laub 1995, 66). Reading the correspondence between Barnes and her grandmother, one is struck by the ambivalent status of the coded language employed, indicative both of the complicity born of a secret shared, and yet also pointing to a mode of discursive entrapment outside of which it is impossible for the granddaughter to evolve. Anger is both articulated and rendered powerless by its juxtaposition with a metonymical, sexualized terms of address: “You is a nasty Pink Tops” writes the young Djuna alluding to her grandmother’s aroused nipples

Feb 26/09
Dear Pink Top Pebblums and Grandmother:-
Imagine my feelings when the mail brought nothing from you, for me!! This is the way I looked immediately. You is a nasty Pink Tops and Grandmother Flitch and I hate you—oh no I don’t I love yer! ha! ha!

“Bits and pieces of memory”

24References to a grandmother figure in a series of dreams experienced by Nora in Nightwood convey similarly ambivalent emotions, underscored by the confused, uncertain status of what the protagonist perceives and, this in a narrative already-flagged-as-unreal because a dream; the fact that the grandmother herself is initially evoked in absentia via the description of her room, a room which is categorically not her grandmother’s—“the absolute opposite”—and yet somehow exudes the memory of her, only adds to this constitutive indeterminacy, telling without telling, revealing and screening, offering “bits and pieces” of traumatic memory not yet assimilated into full cognition (Felman 16):

This dream that now had all its parts, had the former quality of never really having been her grandmother’s room. She herself did not seem to be there in person, nor able to give an invitation. She had wanted to put her hands on something in this room to prove it; the dream had never permitted her to do so. This chamber, that had never been her grandmother’s, which was, on the contrary, the absolute opposite of any known room her grandmother had ever moved or lived in, was nevertheless saturated with the lost presence of her grandmother who seemed in the continual process of leaving it. (D. Barnes 1995, 55-56).

25“Eschew [ing] ‘truth’ in favor of a symbolic experience (E. Barnes 2), it is the very form or “architecture” of the dream which goes on to conjure up the grandmother as an inescapable—albeit initially benign and ethereal—presence: “the architecture of the dream had rebuilt her everlasting and continuous, flowing away in a long gown of soft folds and chin laces” (56). However, as Nora goes deeper into her dream the tone changes to become swiftly rife with contradictory sentiments and precautionary qualifications as the grandmother figure makes her appearance:

With this figure of her grandmother, who was not entirely her recalled grandmother, went one of her childhood, when she had run into her at the corner of the house—the grandmother who, for some unknown reason, was dressed as a man, wearing a billycock and a corked moustache, ridiculous and plump with a leer of love, “My little sweetheart!”—her grandmother “drawn upon” as a prehistoric ruin is drawn upon, symbolizing her life out of her life, and which now appeared to Nora as something being done to Robin, Robin disfigured by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain. (56)

26The lecherous connotations of the “plump with leer of love” and the phallic double entendre of “billycock” (hat) mark the grandmother’s sexual appetite as virile, predatory and menacing, but there is also something unmistakably grotesque about the cross-dressing garb, redolent of a circus ringmaster controlling his troupe of freaks and animals; given the significance of the circus motif in the novel, this implied comparison would seem to point to the centrality of the grandmother figure in the narrative as a whole, an absent presence running through the text. The polysemy of “drawn upon” testifies to the text’s attempts to conceal or erase the grandmother as it takes its inspiration from her memory. The grandmother appears as a (albeit) crumbling mythological nexus or “prehistoric ruin” and establishes the incestuous relation as the cornerstone of all desire within the novel. The unsettling branding of the incest narrative onto Robin at the end of the passage stands an act of mutilation that is all but innocent (“Robin disfigured by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain”). Robin is, as the narrative voice states earlier, “the infected carrier of the past” who not only stirs incestuous desire in Nora because she resembles her abusive grandmother, but also, disturbingly, arouses the reader’s own sexual appetite, eroticizing our own ties of kinship and drawing us into the narrative’s matrix:

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 blood on the lips of our forefathers (36)

Conclusion: Tainted aesthetics

27An unpublished notebook entry in which Barnes poses the plaintive question “I have yet to be forgiven for being abused?” (Plumb 1992, 158) provides some indication of the hold which childhood trauma continued to maintain over the writer well into adulthood and long after the publication of Nightwood, as she continued to attempt to capture its complexities, yet remained “possessed”, in its sway. The desire for pardon that Barnes’s question voices suggests a sense of guilt, as if she were somehow in collusion with its abomination, its obscenity. Yet for the author, who compared the writing process to an open “bleeding wound” that must not heal, and a “place” not to be “betrayed,” the “affective force of traumatic memory” (Taylor 47, 9) is also a powerful source of inspiration, which is to be kept ob-scene, and upon which the writing will compulsively and obliquely draw, as if its aesthetic were somehow “tainted” by the traumatic experience.

28The image of an open or gaping wound is suggestive of the “gaps” and “disruption” that Caruth identifies as being constitutive of traumatic experience, as it is of the narrative modes we would typically associate with the modernist text, and which we have identified in the passages from Nightwood analysed above. In particular, we gain sense of incest trauma forming an absent presence running through the text, encoded in the trope of Robin its metaphorical incarnation (“Robin is incest”) and appearing grotesquely in the richly figurative grandmother dream sequence. But the poetics of the “ob-scene obscene” may also be discerned in that unsettling combination of innocence and experience, of the “touching” and the “obscene,” incongruence of naïve form and corrupt content where I would argue, the traumatic event occurs as symptom.

29What of the position of the reader-witness? Whereas some narratives of incest survival celebrate the victim’s story, setting up a clear moral hierarchy and establishing a narrative of recovery and deliverance, Barnes’s modernist writing denies her reader-witness such ethical comfort, initiating them into a text that is the “illegitimate offspring” (Caselli 203) of an incestuous coupling.

Top of page


Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood, the Original Version and Related Drafts. Ed. Cheryl J. Plumb. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.

Barnes, Elizabeth (ed.), Incest and the Literary Imagination. Gainesville, Fl.: Florida University Press, 2002.

Blake, Elizabeth. “Obscene Hungers: Eating and Enjoying Nightwood and Ulysses.” The Comparatist, 39 (2015): 153-170.

Broe, Mary Lynn. “My Art Belongs to Daddy: Incest as Exile, The Textual Economics of Hayford Hall.” In Women’s Writing in Exile. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe & Angela Ingram. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. 41-86.

Carlston, Erin G. Thinking Fascism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Caruth, Cathy (ed. & introd.) Trauma and Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995.

Caselli, Daniela. Improper Modernism. Djuna Barnes’s Bewildering Corpus. Farnham, Surrey, UK & Burlington, VT., USA: Ashgate, 2009.

Chisholm, Diane. “Obscene Modernism: Eros Noir and the Profane Illumination of Djuna Barnes.” American Literature, 69.1, (1997): 167-206.

DeSalvo, Louise A. “‘To Make Her Mutton at Sixteen’: Rape, Incest, and Child Abuse in The Antiphon. In Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. 300-315.

---. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. New York: Ballentine, 1990.

Doane, Janice & Devon Hodges. Telling Incest: Narratives of Dangerous Remembering from Stein to Sapphire. Ann Arbor, Michigan UP, 2001.

Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and his Problems”. 1919. In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1998. 55-59.

Faltejskova, Monika. Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot and the Gender Dynamics of Modernism. Tracing Nightwood. New York & Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2010.

Felman Shoshana & Dori Laub. Crises of Witnessing in literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

---. “Education and Crisis or the Vicissitues of Teaching.” In Trauma, Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995: 13-60.

Field, Andrew. The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. New York, G.P. Putnam’s 1983.

Ford, Jane M. Patriarchy and Incest from Shakespeare to Joyce. Gainesville, Fl.: Florida University Press, 1998.

Gerstenberger, Donna. “Modern (Post) Modern: Djuna Barnes among the Others.” Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13 (1993): 33-40.

Gilmore, Leigh. “Obscenity, Modernity, Identity: Legalizing The Well of Loneliness and Nightwood.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 4.4 (1994): 603-624.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness (1928). New York: Covici & Friede, 1932.

Herring, Phillip. Djuna: The Life and Works of Djuna Barnes. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Hollis, Catherine. “No Marriage in Heaven. Editorial Resurrection in Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood.” Text, 3 (2000): 233-249.

Kannenstine, Louis F. The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation. New York: New York University Press, 1977.

Laub, Dori. “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle”. InTrauma, Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995: 61-75.

Lauretis de, Teresa. Nightwood and the “Terror of Uncertain Signs”, Critical Inquiry, 34.2 S2 (2008): 117-129.

Marcus, Jane. “Laughing at Leviticus: Nightwood as Woman’s Circus Epic?” Cultural Critique 13 (1989): 143-190.

---. Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

McKay, Carolyn. “Murder Ob/Scene: The Seen, Unseen and Ob/scene in Murder Trials,” Law Text Culture 14 (2010): 79-93.

Page, Chester. Memoirs of a Charmed New York Life, Lincoln, NE.: Universe, 2007.

Plumb, Cheryl J. “Revising Nightwood: ‘A Kind of Glee of Despair’,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (1993): 149–159.

---. “Introduction.” In Djuna Barnes. Nightwood, the Original Version and Related Drafts. Ed. Cheryl J. Plumb. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995. xxii-xxiv.

Potter, Rachel. Obscene Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Scott, Bonnie Kime. Refiguring Modernism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Shelton, Jen. Modernism and the Narrative Structure of Incest. Gainsville, Fl.: Florida University Press, 2006.

Sherbert, Gary. “Hieroglyphics of Sleep and Pain.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. 30.3 (2003): 117-145.

Stein, Gertrude. The Making of Americans, Normal, Il.: Dalkey Archive, 1995.

Taylor, Julie. Djuna Barnes and Affective Modernism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Top of page


1 Leigh Gilmore’s comparison of the publication histories of The Well of Loneliness and Nightwood “pursue[s] the ‘non-case’ of Nightwood, a novel that evaded the censor” (614). She interprets T.S. Eliot’s bland and universalizing preface, as well as his cutting of explicit references to male homosexuality as a strategical move to escape the fate that had befallen Radclyffe Hall’s novel, which fell foul of British obscenity law and was banned in 1929.

2 Of Eliot’s preface and editorial cuts to Nightwood, Cheryl Plumb notes “It may not have been the text that [Barnes] had hoped would be published, but she could live with compromise, given her fears that it would not be published” (Plumb 1995, xxiv).

3 For Monika Faltejskova, Eliot’s editing of Nightwood constituted primarily “a case of personal censorship” (92).

4 “When we think of the provocative work of Anglo-American literary modernism, the famous trials of James Joyce’sUlysses, D. H. Lawrences Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and William Burrough's Naked Lunch come immediately to mind (Chisolm 167-168).

5 T.S. Eliot predicted people would find it “tedious […] because they will not understand it” (Herring 276).

6 Barnes’s true feelings regarding T.S. Eliot’s editing of Nightwood and his oblique, obfuscating preface remain unclear. She both claimed that he had “missed the mark” and that his introduction was “an unheard of honour” (Faltejskova 112, 111). She also mocked the primness of his emendations: “of Eliot’s changing ‘bugger’ to ‘boys,’ Barnes exclaimed, ‘Imagine trying to wake Eliot up!’” (Plumb 1995, xxii). As for Ryder, Barnes won a “small victory” when she successfully obliged the publisher, Boni and Liveright, to print ellipses where portions of the text had been removed: “in this way, the ellipses would serve as traces of censorship; they would indicate an absence in the text and censoring hand” (Gilmore 614).

7 For instance in “Bow Down,” the first chapter of the novel when O’Connor recounts the life of King Ludwig of Bavaria who had “had everything but a woman and a lace collar—and I wouldn’t be too sure about the lace collar” or when he is caught masturbating in public and appositely imprisoned in “Marie Antoinette’s very cell—she, like O’Connor, being a “blasphemed queen”. These passages are restored in Cheryl Plumb’s 1995 edition of the novel (D. Barnes 1995, 23-28).

8 Note in the margin of the manuscript. As Faltejskova explains, “Barnes fought against this change for she inserted it back into the proof and saw that the published version had the original phrasing” (98).

9 “The dog and the chapel as well as other aspects of Nightwood and the circumstances of its publication compel us to think of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the poem that made Eliot the self-constructed high-priest of modernism: but while the cultural anthropologists may be tempted to say that these are the same bones and the same ruins, one has only to think of the way in which the dog and the chapel perilous function in Eliot’s poem to know that Barnes’s project differs fundamentally in its intention and orientation” (39).

10 “Where these critics differ from earlier accounts of the scene is in their careful articulations of the complexity, ambivalence, and potential for pleasure inherent in shame, and in their sense that becoming bestial might be a movement that is meaningfully queer, functioning as a renunciation of the social or a withdrawal from the category of the human” (Blake 162-163).

11 T.S. Eliot used this phrase in his 1919 essay “Hamlet and his problems” to describe “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” that the poet feels and hopes to evoke in the reader (Eliot 58).

12 Herring is one of the many scholars who refer to Wood as “the counterpart of Robin in Nightwood” (Herring 158).

13 According to biographer Andrew Field, Barnes undertook analysis in the 1938 with Antonia White’s psychiatrist Alexis Carrell, butthe analysis was short lived, perhaps because Barnes knew her Freud too well” (Field 211).

Top of page


Electronic reference

Margaret Gillespie, ““Obscene and touching”–the tainted aesthetic of Djuna Barnes’s NightwoodMiranda [Online], 21 | 2020, Online since 09 October 2020, connection on 18 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Margaret Gillespie

Maîtresse de conférences
University of Franche Comté

By this author

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search