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  • Ghost Words:Nightwood’s Cryptic Imperatives
  • Lheisa Dustin (bio)

Contrary to many critics who read in Nightwood’s form and content an uncompromising resistance to clarity and explication, I argue that the syntax and form of Nightwood’s language and fictional scenes must be separated from their content to allow the novel’s subtly encrypted meanings to emerge. Words such as “wolf” and “go down” or “bow down,” though they appear in surreptitious forms and within the discourses of race and class (Felix), gender and sexuality (Robin, O’Connor, Nora), and species (Robin), haunt Nightwood’s language and narrative, seemingly influencing character behavior and, consequently, the action of the novel. I read psychoanalysts Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s theory of “cryptophoria” through Jacques Lacan’s discussion of “disavowal” to draw from Nightwood a cryptic, yet insistent, presentation of the novel’s explicit and implicit secrets.1 Not only Nora, but also Robin, Felix, O’Connor, and Nightwood’s language itself, are all haunted by what Abraham and Torok call “psychic crypts” and “phantoms”: internalized love objects and the secret, affect-charged words associated with them.2 In fact, the behavior of Nightwood’s characters, the novel’s suspended images, and evocative word choices; its unclear and indirect style may also invoke the author’s own, similarly encrypted, secrets.

Djuna Barnes wrote Nightwood largely while living in Greenwich Village and Hayford Hall, England, but we can see from the notes she took during her prolonged breakup with Thelma Wood that she began the novel in Paris between 1927 and 1931. Nightwood’s five main characters (Felix Volkbein, Matthew O’Connor, Robin Vote, Nora Flood, and Jenny Petherbridge) live and love primarily in Paris, although some wander to Vienna and America toward the novel’s end. It has long been accepted that the novel is a roman à clef and that the character Robin is based on Thelma Wood, the love of Barnes’s life; Nora on Barnes; O’Connor on Dan Mahoney, Barnes’s drinking buddy; and Jenny [End Page 109] Petherbridge on Henriette Metcalf, who supplanted Barnes as Thelma’s partner.3 Their portraits are far from mimetic, however; rather, they stage, with slight variations, Barnes’s personal ghosts. The characters’ ghosts spring from the unspeakable parts of their family histories—the parts that they cannot communicate to others directly because they transgress taboos of race, gender, and sexuality. Though each character’s ghost has a distinguishable cause, each has a similar effect on the character that it haunts and comes to possess. These effects, iterated in Nightwood’s syntax, character behavior, and scenes, suggest the ghosts’ common origin and gesture persistently toward a single intrapsychically preserved object of the libido: a shameful love and secret, and the words that give it half-life. My research suggests that this preserved object may be the strangely sexualized relationship that Barnes had with her grandmother, Zadel Barnes Gustafson, a mother figure with whom she shared a bed for fifteen years.4 In this manner, Barnes’s work may be read to invoke not only its own secrets but also, perhaps, the author’s own history.

In Nightwood, haunting signals the simultaneous presence and absence of the love object to the subject, who in psychoanalytic terms, disavows (simultaneously affirms and denies, includes and excludes) the object.5 Nightwood’s frequent spectral tropes suggest the ghosts of rapacious and loved family members, of unspeakable scenes, and, by extension, of nation and gender. These ghosts are embedded in, and staged by, its language and characters. Both text and characters constantly cite “crypts” and “phantoms” but never clearly expose the meanings that they cite. Barnes visually depicts both this paradoxical double movement of disavowal, and the disavowed content, in a gesture distinctive to her characters, images, animals, and objects—a movement, descent, or departure that is paradoxically motionless.

A psychic phantom may be socially functional if it is adopted as a conventional behavior (Shell, 176). In Nightwood, phantoms are literarily functional: the social fabric of the novel presents a collective staging of love and loss.6 Ghosts of lost loves animate the characters’ behavior in relation to phantasmatic institutional power (the nobility, the military, the church...


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pp. 109-135
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