115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Have I been simple like an animal, God, or have I been thinking?”: The Dissolution of Human Identity in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Kimberly Honda, City College of San Francisco

While scholars have explored Nightwood's upheaval of long held categories of gender identity, few investigate the way the novel disrupts the tenuous divide between humanity and animality. While the disavowal of such rigid structures is often figured as freeing, what is truly tragic about Nightwood is the characters’ realization that no one is free from the symbolic order that demands strict adherence to the category of human.



Near Nightwood’s climax, Dr. Mathew O’Connor exclaims this prayer in the midst of a chapter long harangue: “ ‘it is I, my Lord, who know there’s beauty in any permanent mistake like me. Haven’t I said it so? But,’ I says, ‘I’m not able to stay permanent unless you help me’.” The Doctor, like the other characters of Djuna Barnes’ 1937 dizzying novel, is desperate to make his human identity fixed, stable, or “permanent.” In attempting to create these unchanging selfhoods, the characters fight what the novel ultimately reveals, that human identities are mutable social constructions. 

In this essay, I turn to Judith Butler’s theories about identity to define this “permanence.” For Butler, who is “permanently troubled by identity categories,” gender is not a stable set of characteristics that are essentially tied to biological sex; gender, rather, is a “string of [iterative] performances.” While Butler applies these theories to gender specifically, I argue Nightwood extends them to human identity more generally. The novel seeks to establish “the human self” as also a “string of iterative performances” that is actually a social production. 

No character is Nightwood succeeds in the desired calcification of their human selves. This is most poignantly seen in the novel’s final moment where both Robin and a dog are crouched on all fours; language and animal sounds are inverted as Robin barks and the dog cries. I am interested in paying closer attention to the metaphors of night and day found throughout the novel. I argue that the night, figured as the time when “custom” is “evacuated,” is the space where the illusion of fixed humanity dissolves, and the day becomes a metaphor for the space that maintains the human identification. 

The stunting of what Carrie Rohman calls non-identity, a refusal to adhere to strict hegemonic binaries, the identity of the night, is what truly makes the novel frightening. For, the novel does not represent the disavowal of human identity as freeing or liberating, but as scary and dangerous. Nightwood is truly a tragedy, in that we see our world as made up of illusory divisions, but because of this no one prospers: those who have fluid identities have no place in, and are punished by, the symbolic paradigm, while those who buy into the formation of human selves live at odds with nature. In Judith Butler’s words, “This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.”