First published in 1934 and intermittently ignored for years, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood presents the search for meaning through narrative as both a futile and entirely necessary endeavor. Though T.S. Eliot championed the novel as “a great achievement of style,” the text’s recalcitrant content—filled with monologues, digressions, and metaphysical wanderings—has eluded critics for decades. This paper argues that, rather than domesticate Nightwood to our critical commitments, we would do well to consider the text’s meaning as a constantly shifting process. Resting in this confusion, I argue, opens up possibilities for considering the kind of passionate critique Rita Felski, in The Limits of Critique, argues has been subsumed by more suspicious-minded ones. In particular, I argue that Nightwood’s Dr. Matthew O’Connor, who feels that he was, in a previous life, “possibly a girl in Marseilles thumping the dock with a sailor” and narrates over a third of the book, is the text’s central figure (97). Sometimes presented as a man in woman’s clothing, sometimes described as a woman in the body of a man, Dr. O’Connor’s shifting gender echoes the shifting process of meaning-making in the text. Building from Eva Hayward’s formulation of “trans” as a movement-related preposition (synonymous with bridging, across, through, as opposed to stable), I argue that Dr. O’Connor allows readers to view gender instead as part of “(our) ongoing process of materialization” (Hayward, quoted in Striker and Whittle 182). This paper is guided by several questions: What does a feral—neither wild nor domesticated and marked by shifting affiliations—reading practice look like? If we defer meaning and embrace confusion in our reading practices, what are we left with? How does Nightwood resist meaning-making and what can it show us about our theoretical commitments, particularly related to gender and queer studies?
Lauren Benjamin is a PhD candidate in the departments of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her work focuses on the intersections of race, gender, and species in modernist literature.
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