Cow-time, derivative movement, and Robin’s cataleptic calm

“To pay homage to our past is the only gesture that also includes the future” (43)

All of the characters in Nightwood have a strange relationship to the past. Felix’s entire life is organized around (much like his father) a nostalgia for Europe’s aristocracy. The narrator says the “Jew once more becomes the ‘collector’ of his own past” (13) and “Felix had that sense of peace that formerly he had experienced only in museums” (14), describing why Felix enjoyed the circus people because “The circus was a loved thing that he could never touch, therefore never know” (15), like museums. The circus and the museum. Assemblages. Mysterious, removed. One is chaotic, one is organized. When Felix and Robin begin their courtship, they spend almost all their time in museums and Robin reminds Felix of a “figurehead in a museum, which though static, no longer roosting on its cutwater, seemed yet to be going against the wind” (41). Compare this to the cow: “I thought, there are directions and speeds that no one has calculated, for believe it or not that cow had gone somewhere very fast that we didn’t know it, and yet was still standing there” (26). These things/Things have movement within, movement that is not across space, but in time, perhaps in the space of their bodies in which there are more bodies. This is the movement of fragmentation, the movement at the level of the fragment, a derivative time’s derivative movement, a more radical sensation of “the moving parts.”

Importantly in that quote about Robin as figurehead, there’s a semicolon that continues: “as if this girl were the converging halves of a broken fate, setting face, in sleep, toward itself in time, as an image and its reflection in a lake seemed parted only by the hesitation in the hour” (41).

Nora is described as “an early Christian” because she “believes in the word.” The narrator says, “There is a gap in ‘world pain’ through which the singular falls continually and forever; a body falling in observable space, deprived of the privacy of disappearance; as if privacy, moving relentlessly away, by the very sustaining power of its withdrawal kept the body eternally moving downward, but in one place, and perpetually before the eye. Such a singular was Nora. There was some derangement in her equilibrium that kept her immune from her own descent” (56-7)

Nora also has “large, protruding, and clear” eyes with a “mirrorless look of polished metals which report not so much the object as the movement of the object” (57).

Robin is compared continuously to an animal or a child, an image of inconsequence, of backwardness – the narrator even says she had a “way back” look about her. Her clothing is also “of a period that [Felix] could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient” (46, my emphasis).

“Robin prepared herself for her child with her only power: a stubborn cataleptic calm, conceiving herself pregnant before she was; and, strangely aware of some lost land in herself, she took to going out” (49, my emphasis).

Felix also wants to have a child/Child, a son specifically, in order to have a son (lineage) who would “feel as he felt about ‘the great past'” (42). The doctor says, “The modern child has nothing left to hold to, or, to put it better, he has nothing to hold with. We are adhering to life now with our last muscle–the heart” (43).

Anachronism and Nightwood’s atavism

“The anachronism named as ahistorical is not bound, in other words, to an essentially conservative work of identification and self-affirmation; it need not project cherished values backward or repeat what we already know” (139)
“Anachronism and chronology have no essential political valence, though neither is innocent of ideology, and the shifting relations between them are fraught with political consequences. Anachronism may appear as a trauma, like a glimpse of the Lacanian Real, or as a nostalgic consolation in the Imaginary mode. While instances of backwardness may run against the heteronormative grain, they may also sustain straightening forms of cultural discipline. Nonetheless, this study is at heart an argument against straight time, the naturalized chronology bound in innumerable ways to the enforcement of other properties. If straight time promises the clarity of a single path, anachronism recalls Freud’s and Derrida’s methodological and political attention to undecidability. It reminds us that history is always ahistorical, progress is inextricable from backwardness, and that the time lines of the past live on in today’s difficult conversations” (xv-xvi)
“Indeed, like the Lacanian Real, anachronism has a contradictory ontology, structured by the prohibition of the impossible: it cannot exist, but it must also be prevented, punished, or expelled” (xiv)
“The vision of futurity promoted by white, heteronormative culture requires the threat of the past that atavistically persists in the person of abject subjects” (x)
atavistic |ˌatəˈvistik|
adjective
relating to or characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral : atavistic fears and instincts.
DERIVATIVES
atavism |ˈatəˌvizəm| |ˈødəˈvɪzəm| |ˈatəvɪz(ə)m| noun
atavistically |-tik(ə)lē| |ˈˈødəˈvɪstək(ə)li| |-ˈvɪstɪk(ə)li| adverb
ORIGIN late 19th cent.: based on Latin atavus ‘forefather,’ via French atavisme, + -ic .
“Such a woman is an infected carrier of the past: 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 the blood on the lips of our forefathers.”
Robin is “such a woman,” who is also “becoming animal,” or growing backwards, un-growing in evolutionary theory. She’s infected, so the past is a disease, “contagious,” as Valerie Rohy points out. Rohy says nineteenth-century sexology saw “homosexuality as a regression both in individual development (to immature stages) and in human history (to savage societies or vanished cultures). Both views imagine arrested development as contagious: it is not just that time stops for the others but that the other–the ‘primitive,’ savage, or homosexual–wields the power to stop time for all the world” (x). Robin carries the infectious past or backwardness with her and when we encounter her, our surfaces, the contours of our embodiment as delineated by a kind of humanity she is not afforded, we experience a painful longing. Importantly, the encounter is expressed as “before,” the double meaning here – to stand before someone, to come before.

before |biˈfôr|

preposition, conjunction, & adverb

1 during the period of time preceding (a particular event, date, or time)

2 in front of

• [ prep. ] in front of and required to answer to (a court of law, tribunal, or other authority)

3 in preference to; with a higher priority than

I used to read this as Robin having eaten death and returning, but this passage actually says she is the eaten death returning, a kind of vomited or digested or chewed death, a death gone into the body and turning it around, perhaps returning in the body or out of the body, but a death that has returned to the present, to the living, and elicits a desire in the living to consume it: “we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.” Who eats death? Why does the “we” feel they could eat eaten death returning? Isn’t eating eaten death redundant? Why participate? The important “she who is eaten death returning” is in a clause, so it could be left out of the sentence and have it read: “we feel that we could eat her for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.” By eating eaten death that is before us, we come in intimate proximity to the blood on the lips of the ancients. Why do the forefathers have blood on their lips? Are they animate or inanimate? Why would a person want to be nearer to the forefathers?

We could also read it like this: when we are standing in front of, standing in judgment to eaten-death-returning’s authority, we become endowed with the capacity to consume into the body, possess in the body eaten-death-returning which is the life, the blood, of the “lips” of those before us, lips suggesting an intimacy with the Father. The encounter with Robin is a traumatic encounter with the Real because she is the queer remainder in many ways, the same remainder in the Thing that makes an object a Thing. Robin is Thingified, always becoming object and thus turns the inanimate (the corpses of the forefathers) animate. That which is dying is able to make dead or non-living alive. The vitality shifts in the field. By coming into proximity with Robin, by consuming and possessing her our bodies we are able to almost kiss (face to face, face to lips) the blood (sacrifice, proof of life, violence of almost or actual death) of those inanimate corpses of those before us.

She who is eaten death returning

“The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a ‘picture’ forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger… Such a woman is an infected carrier of the past: 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 the blood on the lips of our forefathers.

“Something of this emotion came over Felix, but being racially incapable of abandon, he felt that he was looking upon a figurehead in a museum, which though static, no longer roosting on its cutwater, seemed yet to be going against the wind; as if this girl were the converging halves of a broken fate, setting face, in sleep, towards itself in time, as an image and its reflection in a lake seemed parted only by the hesitation of the hour” (Barnes 41).

“She was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden, that symbolizes the weather through which it has endured, and is not so much the work of man as the work of wind and rain and the herd of the seasons, and though formed in man’s image is a figure of doom. Because of this, Felix found her presence painful, and yet a happiness. Thinking of her, visualizing her, was an extreme act of will; to recall her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details” (Barnes 45).

“He felt that her attention, somehow in spite of him, had already been taken by something not yet in history” (Barnes 48).

“Looking from the long windows one saw a fountain figure, a tall granite woman bending forward with lifted head; one hand was held over the pelvic round as if to warn a child who goes incautiously” (Barnes 61)

“In the passage of their lives together every object in the garden, every item in the house, every word they spoke, attested to their mutual love, the combining of their humours… such was the museum of their encounter” (Barnes 61)

“When the time came that Nora was alone must of the night and part of the day, she suffered from the personality of the house, the punishment of those who collect their lives together… Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the ‘findings’ in a tomb. As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves. In Nora’s heart lay the fossil of Robin… Thus the body of Robin could never be unloved, corrupt or put away. Robin was now beyond timely changes, except in the blood that animated her” (Barnes 61-2).

“To keep her (in Robin there was this tragic longing to be kept, knowing herself astray) Nora knew now that there was no way but death. In death Robin would belong to her. Death went with them, together and alone; and with the torment and catastrophe, thoughts of resurrection, the second duel” (Barnes 63).

“Only the impossible lasts forever; with time, it is made accessible. Robin’s love and mine was always impossible and loving each other, we no longer love. Yet we love each other like death” (148)

“We give death to a child when we give it a doll – it’s the effigy and the shroud; when a woman gives it to a woman, it is the life they cannot have, it is their child, sacred and profane; so when I saw that other doll–” Nora could not go on (151)

“Do you think that Robin had no right to fight you with her only weapon? She saw in you that fearful eye that would make her a target forever. Have not girls done as much for the doll?–the doll–yes, target of things past and to come? The last doll, given to age, is the girl who should have been a boy, and the boy who should have been a girl! The love of that last doll was foreshadowed in that love of the first. The doll and the immature have something right about them, the doll because it resembles but does not contain life, and the third sex because it contains life but resembles the doll” (157)

“… and because you forget Robin the best, it’s to you she turns. She comes trembling, and defiant, and belligerent, all right–that you may give her back to herself again as you have forgotten her–you are the only one strong enough to have listened to the prosecution, your life; and to have built back the amazing defence, your heart!” (162)

“It’s why she wants to be loved and left alone, all at the same time. She would kill the world to get at herself if the world were in the way, and it is in the way. A shadow was falling on her–mine–and it was driving her out of her wits.’ She began to walk again. ‘I have been loved,’ she said, ‘by something strange, and it has forgotten me.’ Her eyes were fixed and she seemed to be talking to herself. ‘It was me made her hair stand on end because I loved her. She turned bitter because I made her fate colossal. She wanted darkness in her mind–to throw a shadow over what she was powerless to alter–her dissolute life, her life at night; and I, I dashed it down. We will never have it out now,’ Nor said. ‘It’s too late. There is no last reckoning for those who have loved too long, so for me there is no end. Only I can’t, I can’t wait for ever!’ she said frantically. ‘I can’t live without my heart!'” (Barnes 165)

Matthew: “And I myself wish I’d never had a button up my middle–for what I’ve done and what I’ve not done all goes back to that–to be recognized, a gem should lie in a wide open field; but I’m all aglitter in the underbrush! If you don’t want to suffer you should tear yourself apart” (174)

Untimely Matter and the Handkerchief

“If you take a handkerchief and spread it out in order to iron it, you can see in it certain fixed distances and proximities. If you sketch a circle in one area, you can mark out nearby points and measure far-off distances. Then take the same handkerchief and crumple it, by putting it in your pocket. Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed. If, further, you tear it in certain places, two points that were close can become very distant… As we experience time — as much as in our inner sense as externally in nature, as much as le temps of history as le temps of weather — it resembles this crumpled version much more than the flat, overly simplified one.” – Michel Serres

(Quoted in Jonathan Gil Harris’ “Untimely Matter” essay, section 22)

“Hold his head like a bowl picked up in the dark”

Between Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus and cyborg theory, we’ve learned that we’re more connected to our things than we like to think. This scholarship suggests the sum of our parts includes just about everything, including the inanimate. Humanness seems to be more nuanced than aliveness. In thinking about life and death as defining characteristics of the human, I cannot help but bring queer theory into the conversation. As Lee Edelman argues in No Future, what is queer is anti-future. The queer is disease, decay, and loss. The queer is a stop, a lack of continuous genealogies. One of the many fears described in homophobic rhetoric is that queerness is itself a contagion and that its end result will be the death of humankind as each child (symbol of the future) grows into a non-reproducing body. Queer moves away from the future or fails to move at all, which is a problem for social structures and epistemologies that demand progression.

But what about all the things? All the things we desire, to which we relate, build our lives around and with, all the things with which we identify and move or fail to move our lives? These things can’t reproduce either. They aren’t alive but they aren’t dead. They don’t exist on our timeline because our timeline is based on “the circle of life” of which they have no part except in relation to us.

Things seem to exist in an entirely different time frame than we do, though they still operate, perhaps because of our relationship to them, in a combination of past/present/future. Souvenirs hold the past, often our own and someone else’s past. Gifts tend to reflect the giver or sometimes ourselves. Even the items that seem to mean the least – those of utility – tend to “live” in some kind of time: the chair at your desk, your iPhone, etc. Various items even change our able-bodiedness, such as wheelchairs and glasses.

This project is similar to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, which argues against Edelman’s critique of the child as a symbol of futurity because of children’s relationship to temporality and growth. This project argues objects are necessarily queer and furthermore, they queer us and queer our sense of time.

Peter Schwenger points out that if we only exist in relation to others, including other objects, we must consider the role objects play in our lives and how we organize (or disorganize) narratives around them. He points out that we want to possess objects partly because we want them for their own sake but also because we want to be objects. He uses Mrs. Ramsay and the lighthouse as an example from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay considers how we turn to objects when we are alone (in contrast to Marx saying all objects are necessarily alienating) and the feeling of pure stillness they provide can be such a comfort. In fact, Woolf’s language suggests we can find a strange kind of death in objects that is pleasurable. Again, death here is used for lack of a better term because objects are not dead. In their lack of animation, we are able to experience the pleasure of death. When pairing Schwenger with Walter Benjamin’s theory of mimesis, we can see how we can move across the spectrum of animation – from stilling ourselves in our relations to objects to animating objects through our own imitation of them. Our relationship to objects greatly changes our understanding of what it means to be human and the kind of value we place on life, death, and genealogical structures of social progression and ways of knowing.

The gothic content and baroque style of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood predictably emphasizes death and excess. Barnes uses an excess of metaphors that put humans and the inanimate into (in)direct relation to one another in ways that might help us think through interventions in queer studies, non-linear temporality, and thing theory.