A Modernist Interpretation of Tiresias in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-16-10


Djuna Barnes' novel "Nightwood" published in 1936 is one of the most prominent novels not only among the writer's works but also of the modernism era and modernist literature in general. The introduction to "Nightwood" was written by Thomas Stearns Eliot, who discovered Barnes’ text and supported its publishing. In the introduction, which is no less important than the work itself, Eliot emphasizes the poetic nature of the text and entrusts its reading to readers who are proficient in poetry and able to fully appreciate it. The novel is dedicated to American expatriate Peggy Guggenheim, famous for collecting works of art, and John Ferrar Holms, a British literary critic.

The novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, revolves around the lives of its characters, whose symbolic and associative suggestiveness allows reading the text not only in relevance to a specific era but also from the perspective of different time periods– from the ancient period to modern times. The writer disregards the temporal distance by using mythical schemes and creating fantastic environment, in which the symbolism of the decoration as well as the characters' body imagesand each gesture plays a significant role. Subsequently, the characters go through both imaginative and spatial paths to find, adapt to, or forget their particular identity. Even though the action takes place in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and America, the Barnesian quest mythos seems to be a path of the mind rather than a spatial one. On the mysticism and phantasmagoria of the characters of "Nightwood", Joseph Frank notes that Dj. Barnes did not attempt to make her creations look like living human beings, but instead, she demanded that we accept them the way they were (Frank, 1945).

The central character of the novel, Matthew O'Connor, is a symbolic figure of mythological Tiresias. The first thing we learn about him is that his interest in gynecology took him halfway around the world - “The man was Dr. Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman from the Barbary Coast (Pacific Street, San Francisco), whose interest in gynecology had driven him half around the world”[Barnes, 1980 :243]. The unlicensed doctor quietly does what he loves and enjoys popularity in Parisian society. His hypnotic power is the only salvation for melancholic patients and the characters of the novel. Matthew O'Connor's constant communication with representatives of different eras points to his timeless, eternal existence. The doctor can simultaneously address the resurrected Lazarus and the goddess Diana. Through the connection with Lazarus, he points to his own experience, which involves seeing both the dead and the living. The mention of Diana emphasizes Matthew's feminine nature and parodies the goddess of childbirth in the form of an unlicensed doctor. The surname of the character is related to the opera "The Lily of Killarney", which the main character himself mentions of; the protagonist of the operais Eily O'Connor.Julius Benedict's opera, whose libretto is based on the play “The Colleen Bawn”  by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, tells the story of an injustice inflicted on young Eily: she fails to gain trust of the man she loves and is doomed due to some kind of misunderstanding. By using the girl's last name, Dj. Barnes parodies the melodramatic plot of the late 19th century, and Eily, a symbol of innocence and tenderness, is transformed through the early 20th century Tiresiasian nature of Matthew. It is worth noting that "Lily of Killarney" is mentioned in Chapters 6 and 13 of J. Joyce's Ulysses when Leopold Bloom attends a funeral but at the end of the tiring day, he watches women on the beach [Joyce, 2013]. Like with Barnes, with J. Joyce, the purpose of the opera is to confront concepts and reveal contrasts. Matthew considers the dismemberment of a person to be the only way out of suffering, an example of which is Maria Carolina of Austria, the representative of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty, whose mention in the text is by no means accidental. O'Connor attributes his pain to a tragic fate, a childless princess suffering from epilepsy. Dismemberment is an unfavorable action to savehimself, because, as he states, "but I’m all in one piece" [Barnes, 1980 p. 361]. He then takes us back to Shakespeare’s era by recalling ablack, circus performer Nikka with "Desdemona" tattooed on his genitals. According to Jane Marcus, by mentioning the long nametattooed on a genital, the author mocks the commonly accepted stereotype of the violent and over-sexualized Black people [Marcus, 1989]. Parallel to "Othello", Matthew equates his suffering with Desdemona's pain, because she was also betrayedby men forher innocence. At the same time, the doctor can perceive the age of Catherine the Great, the age of Saxon rule, and explain it all simply - “The reason I’m so remarkable is that I remember everyone even when they are not about it” [Barnes, 1980: 360].

His memory holds Father Lucas, whomhe abhors even more because of the duty imposed on him - to live as simply as an animal and not to harm anyone. He was the priest who was abusing Matthew while he was waiting for salvation. Through contrasts, DJ. Barnes presents with all the intensity the suffering of the character, who turns into the doctor hiding like a beast. He no longer waits for salvation and goes to church to masturbate. And his thinking covers all temporal and spatial dimensions, which simply parodies life. It is important to note that at the end of chapter 7, the author mentions the former priest who is tasked with taking the drunken Matthew home. The former priest is associated with Father Lucas, who may have become a victim of debauchery and, like Matthew, also took refuge in Paris. It is also noteworthy that two years after the publication of the novel, Matthew O'Connor's character became a source of inspiration for Dylan Thomas. Researcher Gene Montague believes that in Dylan's poem - "How Shall My Animal" –there are manystriking allusions to Barnes' character. Like Matthew, the narrator of the poem suffers from impotence. They express their pain with the following words: "...my bowels turned turtle..." [Barnes], "The bowels turned turtle" [Dylan]. Both Dylan's "A bush plumed with flames" and the title of chapter 7 -"Go Down, Matthew" are associated with Moses [Montague, 1968].

The text is replete with O'Connor's monologues. He attracts and captivates everyone around him with his speech because the endless nightly conversations have a great impact on the characters who are constantly searching for or striving to escape themselves. It should be noted that the characters perceive him differently: for Felix, Matthew is a mere liar, although he can never refuse to talk to him; for Nora, he is the only means of survival, as she is convinced he is the only one to have answers to all questions. As for Robin, none of the episodes reveal her attitude towards the doctor, although it is only she who uses his professional help. She does not treat him as an unusual being but as the most natural creature in the world.

The attitudes presented in the novel reflect on people's views on clairvoyants. The only purpose of the modernist embodiment of the prophet Tiresias is to speak, in order to prevent those around him as well as himself, from thinking - the synonym of unbearable suffering in the given text. Matthew’s thoughts and ideas are often paradoxical, which produces the high poetics mentioned by T.S. Eliot in the preface to the novel. Matthew O'Connor's prophetic streak and gender ambiguity bring to mind the story of Evangeline Musset, the main character of “Ladies Almanack”, published in 1927. The prototype of the protagonist of the text is American expatriate Natalie Clifford Barney. Evangeline is born a woman, although“…she had been developed in the Womb of her most gentle Mother to be a Boy" [Barnes, 2016:7]. Evangeline rejects her female gender and lives like a man. This is an incisive blow for her father; her mother disappears altogether from the text. The doctor is also upset  to see that his parent is disappointed with him, because,while Evangeline's father is dissatisfied with his child’s masculine behavior, Matthew's father is embarrassed by his son's incompetence in the war and feminine conduct. The text does not mention whether Evangeline has only female genitals or is a hermaphrodite. However, it contains a reference to emasculation, which she categorically denies. Matthew and Evangeline share a talent for managing people and effective talking. In the salon set up for women, Musset seems to be a saint, who should, like Matthew O'Connor, put the people coming on the "right" path. Besides, by owning a salon, Musset is associated withZadel Barnes, and is related to Sophia Ryder and Nora Flood in literary context. It is worth noting that the author places her next to the statue of Venus, the patron goddess of heterosexual love. This fact suggests her ironic attitude towards the current situation.

While visiting Nora, O'Connor himself emphasizes the essence of a clairvoyant in him from time immemorial - "You see that you can ask me anything" [Barnes, 1961:295]. The quote hasthe same emotional and meaningful significanceas the words that Tiresias said to Odysseus - "Move back from the trench and turn aside your blade so I may drink the blood, and prophesy truth to you" [Homer, 1975:179]. Like Tiresias living in the land of spirits and the barren land, theParisian gynecologist knows how the characters’ story will end. His vague predictions gradually become true as the story unfolds. The reader quickly forgets the illogical propositions, but after they come true, numerous hints already heard here and there easily come to mind. We witness how the circle closes between O'Connor and the storyline. His first prophecy about the mental weakness of the last born of the aristocracy is voiced when it is still unclear for the reader whether Felix will marry Robin. And the words come true after the birth of Guido with mental problems. Accordingly, the prophecy comes true and Guido with no prospect of reproduction becomes the last offspring of the Volkbeins. There is another important prophecy at the end of the fifth chapter - "...and I screamed and thought: “Nora will leave that girl some day: but though these two are buried at the opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both”[Barnes, 1980: 362]. The mention of the dog makes the statement even more ambiguous. It is only in the last chapter when its true meaning becomes clear: Robin and Nora, living in different parts of the world, meet each other precisely with the help of a dog, which appears as a medium and a source of radiance for Vote. Thus, Vote manages to reveal the animal instincts embedded in him and ends the story in an ecstatic state.

Nora's seeing the doctor in a female nightgown reveals a hidden side of the character. This contrast gives us reason to think that Matthew's identity reflects the alternation of day and night. Mixed medical instruments, cosmetics and women's clothes are symbols of unconscious desires, which the doctor expressesonly at night. Julie Goodspeed Chadwick explains the possibility of this nocturnal manifestation as follows: “It is not synonymous with freedom, but “night” is the time when aberrant characters who do not conform to social, or “daytime” norms can act with more impunity " [Goodspeed-Chadwick, 2011:37]. While talking to Nora, O'Connor repeatedly emphasizes the significance of the night both in human life and in the historical context: “Listen! Do things look in the ten and twelve of noon as they look in the dark?” “Take history at night, have you ever thought of that, now? Was it at night that Sodom became Gomorrah? It was at night, I swear!” [Barnes, 1980: 300]. He blames the night not only for the tragedy of Sodom and Gomorrah, but also for the misfortune of Melissa and Periander. According to Herodotus, Periander killed his wife and raped her corpse. In order to revealnecrophilia, Melissa's ghost returned when her husband wanted to find a lost item. As Vivien J. Gray writeswith regards to the trustworthinessof Herodotus' narration and the woman, “His dead wife Melissa appeared but refused to reveal its whereabouts and said that she was cold, since her funeral clothing had not been burned with her. The proof of the truth of what she said was her reference to the loaves that Periander put in a cold oven” [Gray, 1996: 378]. O'Connor is better aware of the true nature of his personality than anyone else in his surroundings, and is convinced the daylight is his punishment as in the daytime he has to live and behave as he is supposed to. The doctor's, as of a mythological creature’s, nightly transformation can be viewed as an example of the mythological ability of theriantrophy or metamorphosis. Metamorphosis in mythology implies turning a man into an animal at night, while the 20th century Tiresias is a mixture of possibilities and uses the night to change his sex.His sincere desire  is revealed in an exaggerated form of stereotypical female characteristics peculiar for transvestites: “It was a high soprano I wanted, and deep corn curls to my bum, with a womb as big as the king’s kettle, and a bosom as high as the bowsprit of a fishing schooner” [Barnes, 1980:304]. Susana Martinez explains Matthew's desires as follows: “What O’Connor wants is not a female body, but the signifiers of femaleness” [Martins, 1999: 113]. Matthew's dreams make it clear why gynecology became so important to him. The profession was the only way for him to study the state of the body, for which he craved every night. The pleasure deriving from being close to women can be viewed as a kind of revenge on the part of the doctor. Children deliveredwith his hands are doomed to suffer or never even make it to birth. This is due to the unrealized desire to have a child: "... no matter what I may be doing, in my heart is the wish for children and knitting" [Barnes, 1980: 304].

O'Connor's confusion of prince and princess in the text serves to create confusion overthe personality. During the conversation with Nora, he mentions that love for a homosexual (invert) originates in childhood when fairy tales are intensively read – “Who is the lost girl, if not a prince? The prince on the white horse we have always been looking for” [Barnes, 1980:340]. The "lost girl" in this case is a homosexual woman who finds herself and becomes a "prince", and the search for the prince on a horseback leads to the fact that he turns out to be a woman instead of aman. If Dj. Barnes refers to female homosexuality as "Prince", she calls the same condition of the man in the same paragraph as "Prince-Princess", which in this case indicates the androgyny of the man. Here it is worth noting another vague opinion expressed by Matthew - "…in the girl it is the Prince and in the boy it is the girl that makes a prince a prince - and not a man” [Barnes, 1980:340], which Andrea Harris explains as follows:“If this were a symmetrical chiasmic reversal, the phrase would read, “In the girl it is the prince, and in the boy it is the princess. ”Yet this version of phrase is impossible because Matthew has removed the princess from the model entirely because the princess signifies not just femininity but the transvestite’s version of femininity, and transvestites are a special case of inverts” [Harris, 1994: 246]. According to the problem raised in the text, there is also a male gender in any woman, which pushes her to be "princely" and it is not only her feminine origin that participates in this. The same happens in case of a man: the feminine gender in him creates the look of a "princess" or, taking into account the androgynous origin, he remains a "prince-princess". According to Dj. Barnes, the replacement of male gender identity by a female cannot be given a specific name, hence the words "prince", "third gender" and "doll" are used to denote it.The doctor develops a similar idea on the example of dolls, which appear to us as the embodiment of the third gender, because they have both male and female faces - 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” [Barnes, 1980:348]. Based on these considerations, both sexes equally have both hermaphroditic and androgynous origins, which determines their further development. In this case, it is of utmost importance which gender you lean towards (regardless of your physical condition). However, according to Barnes, living with one particular gender does not mean ultimately suppressing the other, because it is the latter that is the determining force for the development of the first.

The character withthe Tiresiasian essence, Matthew O'Connor, has become a symbolic figure of both prehistoricism and modernism. The union of the prophet and the psychologist in a transsexual, and mythologically hermaphrodite creature created the timeless hero free from geographical and sexual identity. He understands best the impossibility of escaping from the circle of eternity and the infinity of his own suffering. Matthew O'Connor is the pillar of the characters and the driving force behind their actions, as he is the only one who knows the beginning and the end of thestory, which is full of vanity.



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ოდისეა. თბილისი, ნაკადული.
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