English 638: Critical Theory
17 May 2010
Final Paper/ Nightwood
For Who could ev’r learn to Love a Beast?
In the darkness of the night there are unexplainable events that occur in one’s mind that either are forgotten as soon as one wakes up or they haunt them with confusion. What do they mean? What are they trying to say? And why do they not make any sense? The unconscious comes into play as inner truths are revealed yet not entirely understood. The unconscious becomes extremely difficult, disfigured and almost mutated into another language of images. The mind becomes the most difficult element to comprehend even when it is one’s own, so one can only speculate and try to analyze their thoughts. Robin Vote, in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, represents the bazaar unconscious that remains misunderstood in a separate language of images. She appears mostly at night where she wanders through the streets in search of no one, while Nora is trying to catch or connect with her. However, like the unconscious, she is unattainable and only an image of one’s mind. She is not filled with words, like the Doctor, Mathew O’Connor, but filled with deeper meaning of her actions. She does not use valuable words of comfort, like the Doctor, but she reveals alarming secrets or shocking truths. Robin attracts people with her primitive innocence and her horrid strangeness. The last scene of Nightwood sets up the unconscious to communicate with Nora’s dog. Through sounds and movements the goal of communication is won from Robin to Nora. With Robin’s openness to lesbian relationships of her own, and her willingness to abandon her son, as well as her cross-dressing to abandon gender lines, she rejects all norms set to society. Not only does she reject the norms, but she also rejects the day, the rituals that are planned and structured. She rejects language and communication with others and above all she rejects the will to love any other than herself. Therefore, the last scene of the novel is able to conclude Robin Vote as the unconscious, her actions, her lack of speech, her presence only at night and her primitive innocence to share communication with Nora’s dog. Robin, as the unconscious, cannot love because it sets limitations to herself. Even Nora looses capability to love Robin, because she is incapable of loving the ambiguous. Since she cannot see Robin, only images of her, the love is lost or never attained. Love then becomes a narcissist event, in which the lover creates images of the beloved and beauty is no longer a miracle to the mind, but its own creation.
Felix describes Robin as an artificial jungle with earthly textured skin. She is seen among “a confusion of potted-plants” (Barnes 34). The image of the night is even incorporated into the observation of Robin as well as the “threatened consciousness” (Barnes 34) when she turns her head. The unconscious is present in the first description of Robin, in which the image of her among the artificial jungle is confusing and reminded of the night as well as the defenseless consciousness. The Baron’s relationship with Robin is based on his observations of her. She does not show any affection or connections with him. Her character only speaks a few times, so all Felix can do to try and understand her is by observing her actions. One of Felix’s most significant observations is Robin’s hands and eyes. He notices a pathetic glare in her eyes, but as he watches her he discovers that her hands take the place of her vision. Felix compares her to a blind person that sees more with their fingers that they forget more in their minds. The consciousness of her mind is disregarded and ignored, as she is able to interact solely with her actions.
However, because Robin only expresses herself through her body language and actions the Baron can only make assumptions to how she is feeling and what she desires. “I never did have a really clear idea of her at any time. I had an image of her, but that is not the same thing. An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties” (Barnes 111). An image then results from a person’s imagination, so that the mind can create a mental representation of the object or person in their mind. This relates back to the first description of Robin among an artificial jungle, in which it is possible that the narrator has created the setting from imagination. Felix is able to learn a great deal about Robin through other people, but the more he learns about her the more confused he becomes. He is unable to have a clear depiction of her like the other people present in his life. Robin does express that she does not want to be a mother therefore that is the only concrete emotion that he can be sure she wants. The only time he restricts her is by her pregnancy, for that time that she must be bound to her body and the creature inside of her. The pull that she feels is enough for her to escape from Felix and their child, Guido. Once she feels her restraints Robin will go to any lengths to escape from her surroundings.
Nora even sees Robin as an image that only moves to express thought instead of speaking. The innermost feelings become so complex that the person whose mind is sending symbols cannot even understand them. Philip Rieff discusses Freud’s interpretations of dreams and symbolism in his critical essay “The Tactics of Interpretation”. “But, as Freud defines it, symbolism is unconscious language” (Rieff 52). The unconscious becomes the part of the mind, in which symbolism sprouts from. Rieff continues to state symbolism therefore cannot be fully interpreted by the conscious mind, and if perhaps it were to gain the information that linked the accurate meaning to symbolism then the unconscious would soon vanish. The mind would no longer be as complex and complicated if images and symbols that the unconscious projected could be easily understood. When Nora looks into Robin’s eyes she cannot see her reflection. Robin’s stare is not upon people or it is not the way people stare and observe. Her eyes “which report not so much the object as the movement of the object” (Barnes 52) are not looking for words of affection. She is observing people’s motions and movements, and their words. She has found a new way to communicate with them, in a language she can only fully comprehend. However, Jenny is able to connect with her in certain aspects, in which there is a beast in her that takes over her personality and where all passion is lost. Therefore, Robin can communicate through actions, like their first encounter when they wrestled with each other in front of the Doctor and the young girl at nighttime. Jenny does not fear the truth, or the night where the unconscious appears. In Harold Bloom’s “Introduction” to Modern Critical Interpretations: Sigmund Freud’s the Interpretation of Dreams, he states that “It was for Freud that dream-interpretation proved the royal road to the Unconscious” (Bloom 2). She is able to accept and not fear the evil truths about herself and does not mind expressing the beast inside of her. Unlike the other main characters in the novel, she chooses to show all aspects of herself, and so the Doctor and Nora judge her.
Although Nora and the Doctor are revealed at night, behind close quarters they cannot accept the honest truths about other people, so they turn to valuable words of comfort. The Doctor comforts Nora by telling her, “The heart of the jealous knows the best and the most satisfying love, that of the other’s bed, where the rival perfects the lover’s imperfections” (Barnes 88). Nora can be comforted by knowing that because she is jealous or paranoid of Robin’s whereabouts and strange behaviors, she feels the best parts of love. The Doctor is able to state the truths that people may have difficult time facing by complementing their actions and desires. Therefore, instead of Nora focusing on the harsh truths about herself, the Doctor puts emphasis on life’s many complications. By generalizing Nora’s problems to a broader scope, it becomes easier to cope with, since she is not alone in her misery.
“Robin was outside the ‘human type’—wild thing caught in a woman’s skin” (Barnes 146). She is not a complete part of a human being, more so a single part of the mind. She is the part that is much too complicated to comprehend or fully recognize and understand. Robin represents the part of the mind that has no limits to its behavior. Therefore, she is trapped inside a woman’s skin that symbolizes the night. She is only active at night, but yet she has no sense of direction to how the night will go. Robin is a night flaneur, she only interacts with people at night and she wonders the streets through the darkness. Robin cannot explain where she is going or what will take place in the course of the night. The night flaneur is similar to a dream-like state in which the mind has no direction or control over its actions.
Robin appears at night, revealing only the bazaar. There is nothing normal about her. Her presence is strange and awkward, her behaviors are animalistic, like the circus performers, and she cannot communicate properly with other people. It is almost as if the unconscious has not developed properly with the modern times. In Meredith Anne Skura’s critical essay, “Literature as Dream: Mode of Representation”, she connects Freud’s analysis and interpretations of the unconscious mind to literature. “Freud claimed that dreams differ from waking life by discarding mature meaning and motives in their regression, but the source of the dream’s unique quality is rather the way it makes us uncertain about meaning and motive, playing each one against a more primitive, regressed counterpart” (Skura 124). Skura uses Freud’s interpretation of the unconscious to explain why dreams then become confusing to the wakened dreamer. When the dreamer awakes he cannot completely recreate the dream in his mind accurately. Therefore, the dream becomes confusing and disfigured to the wakened dreamer. It has refused to age with time and remains primitive and childlike. “A dream, in the Freudian view, is thus a belated text, an inadequate commentary upon a missing poem. Its plot is probably irrelevant; what matters is some protruding element, some image that seems hardly to belong to the text” (Bloom 5). Robin, as the unconscious, although fascinating to observe, can be pathetic due to her lack of development. Skura explores the childlike behavior of the unconscious mind, and connects it back to a child’s reorientation of the conventional world. As a child goes from picture books to books with words, he must learn to make the proper connections with words and their meanings. As the child develops and learns certain methods of understanding, the process to make those specific connections is forgotten. Skura reminds the reader that the mind functions in that manner when there are “moments of alienation, disorientation, and sleepiness” (Skura 127). The reader is not confident whether Robin is unsure of the rules to the society, because the narrator never reaches into Robin’s thoughts. Since she exudes a childlike presence and keeps a primitive innocence to her, it seems as though the mind has not yet developed well enough to understand it. Skura uses Freud’s interpretation of dreams to describe a primitive way of thinking that occurs in the unconscious mind. “The dreamer has actually gone back to a primitive way of seeing and representing the world, to a time when feelings were part of the landscape…This reversion is not denial of reality but a return to a mode of thinking in which wish, fear, and other subjective, emotionally tinged views have not been distinguished from reality” (Skura 125). If these certain modes of thinking have not been separated from society, than like Robin the mind will express its primitive way without the worry of being criticized.
Nora and Felix do not acknowledge Robin’s complexity of communication and the various images she exudes. Their fear of her as well as the dog’s fear can be her beast-like characteristics. The last scene conveys her savagery. She does not hold back any urges of behavior. Nothing is hidden about her, but she cannot speak her mind, only express herself.
The world is ultimately wanting. Robin is refusing to take her place in the world, to grow up, pursue a family and work. Robin is afraid to commit and is only in love with herself. She indulges in fantasies of connection and enjoys the spectacle of feelings. The Doctor advises Nora that “(Robin) knows she is innocent because she can’t do anything in relation to anyone but herself” (Barnes 146). By doing this, Robin never has to surrender to Nora or Jenny.
All the elements of the last scene with Robin and Nora’s dog are able to portray the unconsciousness. The scene is set at night where the unconscious or Robin is present, in the woods among the darkness. “As she had frightened the woods into silence by her breathing, the barking of the dog brought her up, rigid and still” (Barnes 168). Robin’s presence is able to keep the darkness fearful of the mind; the darkness in which Nora is apart of and that haunts her throughout the night. The barking of the dog is his instinct of an intruder and a fear that there is something unknown present in the darkness of the woods. Nora sees Robin in her boy trousers, which can represent the strangeness of the unconscious not bound by gender or prejudices. Robin is able to communicate with Nora’s dog by getting down on all fours and she is able to transform her image. Anything is possible in the mind, the bazaar is created, the strangeness is eluded, boundaries vanish and confusion breaks through. Karen Kaivola states in her critical essay, “The ‘beast turning human’: constructions of the ‘primitive’ in Nightwood” that the primitive reveals the unconscious. She uses Freud’s unconscious and the instinctual to portray Robin as an imaged primitive, pre-cultural past that she proclaims humans have descended from. Robin’s detachment allows for the reader to be identify her in any such way like erotic or dangerous (Kaivola 172). Like the unconscious, this scene is not fully understood. Therefore, it is an image that the reader can take in and make it his own, by analyzing and interpreting it. Like the unconscious, anything can occur to create a deeper meaning that can never be fully understood. “There is a civil war in the human psyche, so that the Unconscious and not nature or the state is what most inescapably threatens each of us” (Bloom 3). Like the unconscious, one fears a power that it holds, for the human mind is constantly curious about the truth and its meaning.
Although it sets us apart from animals our mind or stream of consciousness can be animalistic, and not be able to communicate with words. One’s mind while asleep, cannot be controlled, and can only send images in pieces that are jumbled and fragmented. Therefore, Robin can only be a distorted image. She can be beautiful, mesmerizing, innocent, and peculiar but she is only the way the viewer chooses to see her. Felix explains to the Doctor that he feels Robin needs to be given permission to live and if she is not given it, she will make a fearful primitive innocence for herself. The unconsciousness cannot survive without the minds wanting to know the truth; they must sink down deep into evil in order to discover true honesty. “Don’t I know that the only way to know evil is through truth?” (Barnes 138). The unconsciousness cannot survive without human consciousness hiding certain aspects of the psyche. If there were no truths to be told or no images left to be analyzed than the unconsciousness no longer would need to exist. The mind would reveal good and evil, and both the normal and strange, and even both the beautiful and grotesque. However, the mind works like day and night, in which certain aspects are revealed during the day that are planned and organized, and the abnormality of a person’s mind at night. “She would kill the world to get at herself if the world were in the way. A shadow was falling on her—mine—and it was driving her out of her wits“(Barnes 155). This is Nora’s way of trying to understand Robin or understand the unconscious that she fears. Robin cannot bear being around people that expect her to return her love. Robin’s child, Guido, expects her to love him unconditionally, naturally like any baby, so Robin escapes from a love like that. Similarly with Nora, Robin allows her to fall in love with her primitive innocence, but Nora cannot expect love in return. Being in love and showing that love, requires restrictions and to put aside selfishness. The mind without a path or structure cannot have limits or boundaries, so Robin, as the unconscious, cannot love due to the limits that are created. Although Robin is incapable of loving those that want love in return, she has a power over them. It is her strangeness that scares them, but yet lures them in, wanting them to know more.
In Jessica Benjamin’s book, The Bonds of Love, she defines true love in the sense that both people in a relationship reciprocate mutual respect to one another. Benjamin argues that “Domination is a twisting of the bonds of love. Benjamin states that “Domination does not repress the desire for recognition; rather, it enlists and transforms it” (219). Benjamin goes on to state that the person in the relationship that wants the power to dominate over the other creates an absence where the lover should be. So, the void that is created can be filled “with fantasy material in which the other appears so dangerous or so weak—or both—that he threatens the self and must be controlled” (Benjamin 220). Even though Nora tries to love Robin, her love remains selfish. She does not just love Robin for who she is. Instead, she follows Robin around at night and demands happiness from her. She tries to mold Robin into her lover and attempts to nurture Robin for the child that she perceives her as. “‘I thought I loved her for her sake, and I found it was for my own’” (Barnes 151). Nora is not able to love someone that she tries to change. Love is a far more complicated and sacred thing, and Nora is not able to love because too many selfish emotions are in the way. In accordance to Benjamin, Nora becomes the dominator in the relationship, as she tries to control and restrict Robin. Nora has created a vision of the lover she sees Robin to be, and therefore she feels Robin is an ailing child that needs to be controlled. “Robin is not in your life, you are in her dream, you’ll never get out of it,” the Doctor said to Nora (Barnes 146). Nora remains in the unconscious. Robin keeps the people that she interacts with in her dreams because she is always in a state of the unconscious. Hence, Robin can never love anyone that is merely in her mind, because then it would be a love created by the mind, in her dreams. Robin would only find what she is looking for because it would come from her own psychic residue. Nora or any other character cannot fall in love with Robin, but they can be fascinated and fearful of her behaviors since she is someone that cannot be seen entirely, solely through images. Therefore, Nora can never know the ambiguity of Robin; she can only look toward valuable words from the Doctor to help comfort her through the unconscious.
In conclusion, Robin remains an image in people’s minds because there are constant uncertainties about her. She represents the Freudian unconscious, in which she appears at night as a flaneur, having no direction to where she is going. Robin expresses the bazaar with her cross-dressing, her lesbian relationships, her animalistic behavior and her rejection of being a mother. The last scene portrays the unconscious, in which the reader can only make assumptions and try to analyze the deeper meaning of Robin and Nora’s dog. However, love is not possible in this situation. Robin is incapable of loving anyone because that would involve limitations to her lifestyle. And finally, Nora cannot love the beast that she is drawn to in the darkness of the night, since she cannot see and accept the grotesque truth of the unconscious. The curse is placed upon them, until they can step outside their fears of the night that haunts their savage minds. The question remains, will the spell be broken, for who could ev’r learn to love a Beast?
Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New York: New Directions, 1937. Print.
Benjamin, Jessica. Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination.
New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Bloom, Harold. Introduction. Modern Critical Interpretations: Sigmund Freud’s The
Interpretation of Dreams. Ed. Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 1-7.
Kaivola, Karen. "The 'beast Turning Human': Constructions of the 'Primitive' in Nightwood." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.3 (1993): 172-85. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 1 May 2010.
Rieff, Philip. “The Tactics of Interpretation”. Modern Critical Interpretations: Sigmund Freud’s
The Interpretation of Dreams. Ed. Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Skura, Meredith Anne. “Literature as Dream: Mode of Representation”. Modern Critical
Interpretations: Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Ed. Bloom. New York:
Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.119-127.