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|
relating to or characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral : atavistic fears and instincts.
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.