restricted access Vision and Inversion in Nightwood
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 279-305

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Vision and Inversion in Nightwood

Jean Gallagher


I am not a critic. To me, criticism is so often nothing more than the eye garrulously denouncing the shape of the peephole that gives access to hidden treasure.

--Djuna Barnes, "The Songs of Synge"

In 1917, twenty years before the publication of Nightwood, Djuna Barnes characterized criticism as mistakenly concerning itself with the visual aperture rather than the ostensible object of vision. However, Barnes's 1936 novel suggests that despite this early disavowal of the critical act, Nightwood does indeed offer a critique not only of "the shape of the peephole" but of the entire "peephole" model of seeing that plays such an important role in the visual culture of modernity, especially through the technologies of vision associated with the camera. This critique of the "peephole" is accomplished through the novel's representation of what Barnes called the "peculiarly sexed" body (qtd. in Plumb 230) and its construction of the reader's relation to that body. In its turn from representing women within heterosexual contexts to representing same-sex desire and transgendered subjects, Nightwood repeatedly [End Page 279] attempts to unsettle its readers from a position outside the visual field and to locate them instead within a circumscribed visual field shared with the variously gendered and sexualized bodies that inhabit the novel.

Several readers of Nightwood have identified the novel's narrator and, by extension, its reader as viewers at a peephole, particularly the viewfinder of a camera or the voyeur's keyhole. Carolyn Allen uses the film camera to describe Barnes's narrative technique of placing the reader "at one remove," observing that Barnes's frequent use of "a verb of observation in the passive voice," such as "he had been seen," allows Nightwood's reader to "see [. . .] the characters at a distance, much as if a camera were filming a scene from an anonymous but personal viewpoint" ("Dressing" 110). Dianne Chisholm has recently claimed that Nightwood posits a privileged, disembodied spectator, both "omniscient" and voyeuristic: "with Barnes's omniscient third-person narrator we enter the various chambres á coucher of her characters, tuning into their most intimate negotiations as if playing the role of voyeur-voyants" (180). My reading of Nightwood points toward a different model of the reading-viewing subject. While the novel begins by offering its readers a detached viewing position--reminiscent of the voyeur at the keyhole, the photographer at the camera's viewfinder, or the spectator of classical cinema--this model of the observer at the peephole is subsequently and repeatedly challenged throughout the text. 1

Nightwood's challenge to the voyeuristic "peephole" model of vision is accomplished through its use of two contrasting but often overlapping sexological tropes for same-sex desire, "inversion" and "homosexuality." 2 Developed as a medical category, "inversion" came to represent a range of sexual practices and gendered subject positions, including same-sex love relations, cross-dressing, androgyny, and transsexual desires. Nightwood's Dr. O'Connor identifies the condition as that of "the girl who should have been a boy and the boy who should have been a girl" (148) or "the prince-princess in point lace--neither once and half the other" (136). 3 My suggestion is that in its representation of the "inverted" characters of Robin Vote and Dr. O'Connor, Nightwood also attempts to model an "inverted" observer who is, as the etymology of the word suggests, "turned in" to the novel's visual field rather than occupying a privileged, transcendent, voyeuristic position outside of it, suggesting how, in Kaja Silverman's words, the eye might be [End Page 280] "shown to look not from a site exterior to the field of vision, but from one fully inside" (142). However, the text also gestures toward the somewhat later concept of "homosexuality," which depends not on the notion of mixing or crossing genders within an individual subject but rather on the radical separation of genders. Sexologists developing the discourse of "homosexuality" emphasized the "sameness between partners," creating "a permanent avenue of potential slippage [. . .] between...