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The Beast Turning Human: A Closer Look at JML 46.4

By Cory Austin Knudson, author of “Animality and the Limits of Discourse in Djuna Barnes and Georges Bataille,” Journal of Modern Literature 46.4, available on Project Muse, FREE for a limited time.

When I first encountered Nightwood in college, I thought it was the most frustrating book I’d ever read. Though it is now book I’ve reread more than any other, the frustration remains, but my attitude toward that frustration has changed. I’m in good company. In her study of the novel, “Nightwood and the ‘Terror of Uncertain Signs,’” Teresa de Lauretis laments, “I approached this text a number of times over the years … the narrative anchorage eluded me, was too weak or too dispersed; the chain of signifiers would not halt, would not find a resting point where meaning could temporarily congeal” (118).

While Nightwood at its core centers on several characters’ thwarted attempts to win over, or even understand, the peripatetic and mysterious Robin Vote, the novel’s rhetorical density and intense allusiveness have made it a perennial Gordian knot for critics. Attempts to unravel or slice through it have tested readers’ hermeneutic skills (and patience) since its publication. I would submit that any reader who attempts to assign to or divine from Nightwood any stable, communicable meaning will inevitably come up short against the novel’s own warning: “You have been unwise enough to make a formula; you have dressed the unknowable in the garments of the known” (Barnes 114). For her part, de Lauretis relates that it took a long time to accept what she calls “the traumatic process of misreading—not looking for the plot, that is, for narrative or referential meaning, but going instead with the figural movement of the text and acquiescing to the otherness in it, the ‘inhuman’ element of language” (118). It is in this “inhuman” context that Georges Bataille’s concept of “animality” helped me consider that enigmatic quality of Nightwood’s language in a new and interesting way.

Throughout Nightwood, there is an insistent thematic intertwinement among Robin, animal beings, and animality in general. Robin’s avian name embodies this intertwinement from the start, and Barnes introduces her as “beast turning human” (36). Later, Robin shares a strangely charged gaze with a lion through bars of its cage (49); still later, she is described as touching animals in the same manner as she would touch herself while “speaking in a low voice” to them (136-7). Finally, there is the final scene of the novel, where Robin engages in a mystifying interaction with a dog that may resemble dance, combat, pantomime, sex, ritual transcendence, or mutual degradation, depending on one’s reading. Throughout, it is as if Robin is privy to some occult form of communication with animals that lies beyond or behind the symbolic. Robin’s resistance to human modalities of connection and communication may even mark her as belonging to a post-, non-, or inhuman order of being.

It is striking how much the character of Robin embodies Georges Bataille’s notion of “animality,” a concept sketched in the introductory chapter to Theory of Religion. Bataille attempts to delineate the structure of that modality of communication that lies beyond or behind the symbolic: an anti-linguistic “immediacy or immanence” (Théorie de la religion 219) that he associates with animal minds, as opposed to human, mediate consciousness that is extended through time and depends on the construction of meaning through what he elsewhere calls “discourse” (c.f. L’Expérience intérieure 217). While studying this connection between two expressions of the terminal frustration of referential meaning—Bataille’s theoretical concept of “animality” and Barnes’s artistic rendering of inhuman-being—I noticed a shared intellectual provenance and a similar reaction against a certain strain of nineteenth-century speciesism that deserved closer consideration.

In teasing out the threads of this unexpected connection, I came to a deeper understanding of the role of animality in Barnes’s works as well as its undertheorized place in the landscape of Bataille’s thought. My article, “Animality and the Limits of Discourse in Djuna Barnes and Georges Bataille” is an attempt to track these discoveries and provide an argument for the central role of literature generally and what I call “animal poetics” specifically in the articulation of a form of bestial expression that, according to Barnes and Bataille, emerges from the breakdown of the human symbolic economy.

Pairing Barnes and Bataille allowed for a way to confront the “unknown” without “dressing it in the garments of the known.” This way of contending with their work and drawing out the implications thereof has not resolved my frustration with Barnes’s writing, but brought a new understanding of the nature of that frustration, and a new appreciation of it. This has made me “[acquiesce] to the otherness” in Nightwood, as de Lauretis says, and move with rather than against “the ‘inhuman’ element of language.”

Works Cited

  • Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood: The Original Version and Related Drafts. 1936. Edited by Cheryl J. Plumb. Dalkey Archives, 1964.
  • Bataille, Georges. L’Expérience intérieure. Gallimard, 1954.
  • —. Théorie de la religion. Œuvres complètes, vol. 7. Gallimard, 1976 (1974), pp. 281-2.
  • de Lauretis, Teresa. “Nightwood and the ‘Terror of Uncertain Signs.’” Critical Inquiry, vol. 34, supplement, 2008, pp. 117-129.

CORY AUSTIN KNUDSON ([email protected]) is an independent scholar from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He held a visiting position in comparative literature at Eckerd College after earning his doctorate in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania in 2022. His current work takes place at the intersection of death studies, modernism, continental thought, and the environmental humanities. His co-translation, with Tomas Elliott, of Georges Bataille’s preliminary manuscript to The Accursed Share, entitled The Limit of the Useful, was published in February 2023 by MIT Press.

Half-human, half-animal hybrid fantasy painting courtesy of Adobe Stock Images.