Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In John Addington Symonds’ 1883 treatise on sexual inversion, A Problem in Greek Ethics, the critic recounts the comic theory of sexual differentiation and sexual orientation found in the myth of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium

There were originally human beings of three sexes: men, the offspring of the sun; women, the offspring of the earth; hermaphrodites, the offspring of the moon. They were round with two faces, four hands, four feet, and two sets of reproductive organs apiece…Zeus, on account of the insolence and vigour of these primitive creatures, sliced them into halves. Since that time, the halves of each sort have always striven to unite with their corresponding halves, and have found some satisfaction in carnal congress…. (Symonds, Project Gutenberg) 

Djuna Barnes prominently invokes the same myth in her 1936 novel, Nightwood, a Gothicizing account of the social self-construction and erotic entanglements of a group of Berlin-based expatriates, pseudo-aristocrats, and performers centered around the boyish girl Robin Vote. Beginning as the somnambulist bride of Felix Volkbein, a baron with a false lineage concealing Jewish origins, Robin develops a progressively ‘deviant’ relationship to the world around her, entering formative lesbian relationships with Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge and displaying violent outbursts and hallucinations. Midway through the novel, Robin and her first female lover, Nora Flood, “[look] into each other’s faces, their two heads in their four hands so strained together that the space dividing them seemed to be thrusting them apart,” restaging the Aristophanes myth (Barnes, 63). However, where Symonds uses the myth to buttress his historical claims about the equal valuation of homosexual and heterosexual passion in classical antiquity, Nightwood diagrams the way in which this sexual doubling structures modern relationships of desire and allows for the proliferation of assemblagic modes of gender representation. Using a sequence of female androgynes, Barnes reveals the defamiliarization of the body and its various affective situations as a necessary precondition for the production of marginal gender. Félix Guattari’s analysis of sexual performativity as an analytical model informs the place of this marginal gender in the range of heterosexual and homosexual romances throughout the novel and the way in which erotic experience facilitates the defamiliarization of the body. Moreover, Guattari’s model clarifies how these relations reveal the tension between the pursuit of social legitimacy and the liberation of desire. In this context, Barnes foregrounds the way in which the creative possibilities of both androgyny and homosexual desire are contingent upon the preservation of their non-reproductive aspect. Hence, Nightwood reveals both the radical potential and threat the double poses in the production of subjective alterity.1

Throughout Nightwood, Barnes represents female androgyny through the ironic accentuation of the body. Although its more theatrical variants will be discussed momentarily, it is important to address the purest manifestation of this accentuation in Robin Votes’ “born somnambul[ism]” (Barnes, 38). Introducing Robin while she is sleeping, Barnes immediately gives signifying precedence to the opaque, manneristic “flesh” Felix Volkbein initially registers. This precedence is consistently affirmed by Volkbein’s analysis of her as “a ‘picture’ forever arranged,” Nora’s poetic conception of Robin as a “fossil and intaglio,” and the numerous comparisons drawn between her, “statue[s],” and “doll[s]” (Barnes, 41, 45, 62, 70, 75-76, 157). Here, the living subject is repeatedly substituted for an inanimate proxy, suggesting the emphatic tendency of Robin’s body and the alienation it makes her vulnerable to. In an interview with George Stambolian, Félix Guattari posits that “…each time the body is emphasized in a situation—by dancers, by homosexuals, etc.—something breaks with the dominant semiotics that crush these semiotics of the body” (Guattari, 143). Husserl’s phenomenological account of death as the moment in which the material body (Körper) eclipses the living, subjective body (Leib) further clarifies the way in which this breakage occurs through Robin.2 In her wakeful sleep, which Barnes associates with “decay,” “deteriorations,” and “her annihilation,” Robin’s material body superposes her living body (Barnes, 153). Yet, insofar as Robin naturally appears as a “tall girl with the body of a boy,” this pure physicality establishes her constitution outside of the sexual norm (Barnes, 45). Felix’s first impression of Robin as “heavy and disheveled,” with a “broad” “frame” beneath her flesh (Robin’s “broad shoulders” will be emphasized throughout the novel), and garbed in “white flannel trousers” immediately foregrounds this deviation (Barnes, 45, 58). The semiotics of the body revert the semiotics of the “feathers,” “heavy brocaded gown,” and “heavy silk” skirts that envelop it, repulsing the feminine personae of wife or mother the latter might encode (Barnes, 38, 45, 50). Rather than a sexually mature woman, Robin appears as the “meet of a child and desperado” (Barnes, 38). 

In “Bow Down,” the novel’s opening section, Robin’s alienation is predicated by a series of women whose material affects derange them from their body’s “natural” feminine expressivity and repulse the advent of adult sexual differentiation. The most representative instance of sexual dissimulation in the early novel is Barnes’ representation of Frau Mann/the Duchess of Broadback, the trapeze artist whom Felix Volkbein meets during his time among the circus people. At a basic level, Barnes inscribes the Duchess’ sexual alterity through dualized onomastic puns; in each of her titles, the masculine title offsets its feminine surname and endows the figure with a dimorphic tension in a purely nominal sense. More salient, however, is the way in which this tension is concentrated in her body’s “muscular and localized coquetries” (Barnes, 15). Barnes associates the Duchess’ masculinizing attributes to her enmeshment with the materiality of her trade. Her “muscular[ity]” and “heav[iness]” in comparison to “the women who stay upon the ground” derive from her physical assimilation of and by her equipment—there is “something of the bar…in her wrists, the tan bark in her walk” (Barnes, 15).3 Importantly, the re-codification of her gender lies not so much in the discrete connotations of her instruments, but in the mutually-transformative contact between them. This process of mutual discovery is clarified by Merleau-Ponty’s description of the relationship between an organ and an organist. According to him, as the organist familiarizes himself with and uses the organ “he sizes up the instrument with his body, he incorporates its directions and dimensions,” while in turn, this engagement reveals the limitations and perimeters of the organist’s own body and musical practice (Merleau-Ponty, 146). The “expressive space” created by this process of mutual discovery exceeds the physical relationship between the organ and the organist’s body as both suffuse and mingle within the literal and signifying (musical) environment (Merleau-Ponty, 146-47). In this sense, the Duchess’ affective integration of her equipment allows her to create a new representational space removed from rather than opposed to the definitional category of womanhood.4 

This subjective dilation reaches its apex and is inverted in the Duchess’ imbrication with the harlequin costume whose pattern seems to “run through her” and become her “skin” and whose tights which become “no longer a covering [but simply the Duchess] herself” (Barnes, 16). Similarly to her double identity, which she, like her circus compatriots, dons “merely to dazzle boys about town, to make [her] public life…mysterious and perplexing,” affecting the trapeze costume as a second skin allows her to contravene the determinism of her body by rendering it doubly uncanny (Barnes, 14). While the costume’s low-back, “ruffle[s],” “laced boots,” and skin-tight fit would seem to conform the Duchess to a sort of quintessentially feminine pin-up typology, such sartorial effects are doubly defamiliarized by the genital paradox her garments produce: at once, the overtly phallic “bulge in the groin” appears “when she t[akes] the bar” and “the span of her tightly stitched crotch [is] so much her flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll” (Barnes, 16). The assemblage constituted by the Duchess’ costume and her bodily engagement with the bar focalize her physicality outside of the “dominant semiotics” that dictate gender regularization and the production of heterosexual subjects; instead, unsettled by the simulation of both masculinity and sexlessness, the Duchess is able to forestall the crystallizing effects of sexual maturity and thus “seem[s] to have [been] preserved” (Barnes, 15). Felix’s insinuation that the obviation and closure of her genitals achieved by the crotch seam “ma[kes] her the property of no man” confirms the sexually retardant quality of the Duchess’ androgynous self-representation and indicates its orientation towards non-heterosexual modes of desire (Barnes, 16). In this way, Barnes uses the Duchess as a prefiguration of Robin’s more passive androgyny by presenting the way in which this ontological condition can also be performatively engendered. 

Of “great strength and military beauty,” Hedvig Volkbein functions as the literary primogenitor of this mode of ambiguous and non-reproductive sexual affect (Barnes, 1). If the Duchess’ destabilization of gender fixity comes from the way in which her equipment extends, distorts, and preserves her body, then Barnes’ interpolation of Hedvig through martial masculine personae accomplishes the same functions. With “the same bearing [and] the same though more condensed power of the hand” as an officer, her very orientation towards the world reflexively re-signifies the typically feminine scenes she projects into (Barnes, 6). While playing the piano, she renders the romantic waltz “with the masterly stroke of a man,” “execut[ing] its demands in dueling manner,” and when she dances, the magnification of her “gay” and “deep-bosomed” form by her “staccato and trained heels,” her “shoulders [which are] as conscious at the tips as those which carry the braid and tassel of promotion,” and “cold[ly] vigilant” “sentry”-like head defamiliarizes the space itself, transforming the “dance floor” into a “tactical maneuver” (Barnes, 7). Although technically reproducing the scenes of feminine performativity matured in 18th and 19th century drawing-rooms and ballrooms, Hedvig physically converts them to opportunities for corresponding masculine performance. The physical hyperbole of her body compounds the way it is spectacularized within these normative scenes, yet deforms the dynamics of gendered spectatorship it typically dictates; although the action still centers her as an object of desire, this desirability is not contingent upon her successful performance of feminine ideals. Rather than simply invert the gender binary, Hedvig allows the two modes of performance to superimpose each other, their interaction spawning a third, unsettled, yet enticing form of sexual representation—as Barnes would put it, this third term is the “massive chic” she “personif[ies]” despite her deviation (Barnes, 7).5 

However, like the Duchess, in order to maintain this sexual alterity, Hedvig forestalls the confirmation of her sexual maturity by displacing her maternity. Barnes situates her husband as the primary locus of this displacement, inciting a deformation of his gender that supplements and parallels her own. From the outset, although unbeknownst to Hedvig, their relationship is premised on a series of conversions that dislocate Guido Volkbein as the paterfamilias: Hedvig’s legitimate pedigree as a descendant of the “House of Hapsburg” attracts Guido precisely because he believes it will ameliorate his own forged genealogy. Although he does not officially convert, he circumvents contemporary marital doctrine forbidding the intermarriage of Jews and Christians by sublimating his Jewishness before “the promise that hung at the Christian belt of Hedvig,” this image in itself clarifying Hedvig’s phallic domination (Barnes, 5). Barnes also physically inculcates this inversion of the marital role as Guido “tries to be one with [Hedvig]…by imitating her goose step” (Barnes, 6). In this way, Hedvig’s baroque performance of masculinity reciprocally enforces and reveals the artifice of her husband’s ostensibly naturalized gender performance as this “step by him adopted became dislocated and comic” (Barnes, 6). Guido functions as the deficient double through which Hedvig’s manliness is comparatively affirmed. Rather than facilitating a union with Hedvig, his self-alienation thus foregrounds their difference. Yet, it is precisely because of this difference that Hedvig is able to use him to discharge her inconsonant maternal identity. Although Barnes makes it clear that Guido’s effeminacy predates his marriage, it is salient that the image of Guido’s “stomach protruding slightly in an upward jutting slope” marked by his waistcoat buttons with “the obstetric lines seen on fruits” directly rejoins the initial scene of parturition reconstituted by Hedvig “with the gross splendor of a general saluting the flag” as a sort of battle “field” animated by the diegetic “clatter of morning horses in the street beyond” (Barnes, 3-4). Barnes thus uses Guido’s sexual deviation to compensatorily exhibit the maternity that Hedvig’s androgyny suppresses.In this sense, Guido ironically achieves a limited form of the likeness with his bride that he seeks, but only on semi-lesbic terms through their contingently distorted representations of femininity. Guattari clarifies the way in which this seeming submission also functions as a corresponding means of liberating male desire, arguing that “in order to become a body…[men] are obliged to beg [their] sexual partners to transform [them] a bit into a woman or a homosexual” (Guattari, 144). While Guido’s desire for Hedvig bespeaks of his fetishistic pursuit and, later, a mere “homage” or “genuflexion” to nobility—that is, according to Guattari, a distinctly phallic cathexis of the act of possession—it is in the process of this pursuit that such desire begins to reflexively re-signify his body. 

Robin and Nora’s relationship demonstrates the way in which this uncanny desire can also threaten to recapitulate the dominant semiotics it ostensibly resists. Barnes’ invocation of the Aristophanes myth and Nora’s repeated attestations to the pair’s self sameness (“She is myself,” Nora tells O’Connor in one instance during their conference in “Watchman, What of the Night?”) would seem to frame their relationship along the lines of mutual liberation, wherein each woman is able to transcend the limits of her own subjectivity through the other (Barnes, 65). However, Nora consistently conceptualizes their relationship in patriarchal terms as one of possession and procreation. On the one hand, Nora takes the fact of their duality as an unequal mutilation. Unlike in the Aristophanes myth, Robin is not an equivalent totality to, but a subordinate part of Nora—an “amputated hand” of which she has been robbed and must recover by force (Barnes, 63-64). Of course, it is exactly the disparity between Robin’s simultaneous totality and ambiguity and Nora’s constant state of “diminish[ment]” and “eternal mov[ement] downwards” which motivates Nora’s desire to possess her lover, and so, recoup a measure of her wholeness (Barnes, 57). As O’Connor advises Nora, her “love…for the invert” is predicated on a “miscalculated longing” for the standard romance of childhood to be reconciled within a single individual: whether “boy or girl,” the invert coheres the “girl lost” and “Prince found” (Barnes, 145). Insofar as the ambivalent representation of the androgyne rectifies “the living lie of our centuries,” she becomes a panacea for adult disillusionment and instability. As Nora acknowledges, “And I, who want power, chose a girl who resembles a boy” (Barnes 146). Yet, this symbolic function also demands a regulation of the polyvalent signification that Robin’s androgyny permits. For instance, Nora and Robin’s house together initially “attest[s] to their mutual love, the combining of their humours,” and thus materializes the way in which Robin’s androgyny permits a mode of desire in which the boundary between the subjective and the objective position is unsettled, or as Guattari writes, the “distinctions between persons, organs, material flow and semiotic flows” are not recognized (Barnes, 71; Guattari, 142). Yet, when Robin’s unfamiliar songs and nighttime wanderings reveal the “echo of her unknown life” that “[Nora] herself had no part in,” Nora responds by reterritorializing the domestic space, “disturbing nothing” out of “an unreasoning fear” that “if she disarranged anything Robin might lose a sense of home” (Barnes, 71). Here, Nora reacts against the destabilization necessitated by this desubjectifying mode of desire by attempting to re-entrench the boundaries it transgresses through the privatization of the domestic space where the couple is “alone” and “apart from the world” (Barnes, 72). However, as Guattari writes, “Fantasies of form, fantasies of expression” such as the simulation of the bourgeois marriage that Nora attempts to sustain “become in effect microfascistic crystallizations” (Guattari, 156). In this sense, the focalization of Nora’s desire on Robin perverts the liberatory semiotics of the body the latter’s somnambulance permits; the “flow” enabled between Nora and Robin threatens to become itself fixed as a “power formation” (Guattari, 156). Indeed, Nora’s conviction that “[t]o keep her…there was not way but death” and that “in death Robin would belong to her” dictates a total semiotic reversal: the free signifier of the sleeping body becomes the absolutely foreclosed signifer of the corpse whose power Nora can finally capture (Barnes, 62-63). In this sense, Nora’s desire maps Guattari’s allusion to the possibility of “the feminine relation itself… los[ing] the semiotics of the body and becoming phallocentric” (Guattari, 143). 

Moreover, formally reproducing the conjugal “testimony” of the Volkbein’s home, the “museum of [Nora and Robin’s] encounter” established on the rue du Cherche-Midi regrounds the disruptive quality of their lesbianism within the scenario of the heterosexual marriage (Barnes, 61). Similarly, she revokes the emancipatory sexlessness of the doll Robin gives her by re-encoding it as a symbol of lesbian reproductive tragedy: “When a woman gives a [doll] to a woman, it is the life they cannot have, it is their child, sacred and profane” (Barnes, 142). Arguably, given Robin’s open disavowal of her biological son, her destruction of the pet object towards the end of the novel, and the poetic language with which the same experience of reproductive futility with Jenny is described (“two halves of a movement that had, as sculpture the beauty and absurdity of a desire that is in flower but that can have no burgeoning”), the doll functions less so as a symbolic lament of their doomed progeny than as yet another proxy whose fixity allows for Robin’s corresponding flux (Barnes, 75, 157). Indeed, as O’Connor suggests, the doll in fact functions as a means of simultaneously satisfying and repulsing the enclosure of Nora’s desire as it, like Robin’s sleeping body, “resembles but does not contain life” and hence offers Nora a surrogate libidinal locus (Barnes, 157). In this way, Barnes inscribes the limitations of the transformative desire abounding in Nightwood and underscores its susceptibility to being re-mastered by dominant semiotic systems. 

Throughout Nightwood, Djuna Barnes thereby uses feminine androgyny as a field to investigate the interstices of subjective performance, imitation, and queer desire. The centrality and expansiveness of the body and its doubles throughout the novel disclose the paradoxes of marginal self-representation and pose complications to modern liberal gender schema which naturalize and neutralize radical sexual identities by conforming them to familiar cis- and hetero modes of self-representation and being in the world (i.e. the gay nuclear family or the increasing expectation that transgender people will undergo gender-conforming surgery and reproduce cis-gender sexual and aesthetic personae). However, the corresponding emphasis Barnes places on the non-reproductive and “immature” aspects of the androgynous identity also raises questions about what a mode of gender ambiguity beyond the paragon of the child might look like. As some of Guattari’s closing remarks helpfully prompt: “There is only one sexuality, it is neither masculine, nor feminine, nor infantile; it is something that is ultimately flow, body” (Guattari, 143). With this in mind, Nightwood can perhaps be taken as a primer for dismantling these limiting categories and locating these moments of flowing and embodied desire. 

Works Cited

  • Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New Directions, 2006.
  • Guattari, Félix. Interviewed by George Stambolian. “A Liberation of Desire.” In Soft Subversions, edited by Sylvère Lotringer and translated by Chet Wiener and Emily Wittman, 141-157. Semiotext(e), 2009. 
  • Heinämaa, Sara. “The many senses of death: Phenomenological insights into human mortality.” Death and mortality: From individual to communal perspectives, edited by Outi Hokula, Sara Heinämaa, and Sami Pihlström, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, 2015, pp. 100-117. 
  • Husserl, Edmund. Die Lebenswelt. Ausgelungen der vorgebenen Welt und ihrer Konstitution (Husserliana XXXIX), edited by Rochus Sowa. Springer, 2008. 
  • Husserl, Edmund. Grenzproblem der Phänomenologie. Analysen des Unbewusstseins und der Instinckte. Metaphysik. Späte Ethik (Texte aus dem Nachlass 1908-1937) (Husserliana XLII), edited by Rochus Sowa and Thomas Vongehr. Springer, 2013. 
    Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by D.A. Landes. Hoboken, Taylor and Francis, 2012.  
  • Symonds, John Addington. A Problem in Greek Ethics. Project Gutenberg, 1903, first published 1883, April 17, 2010,
  • Toronyai, Gábor. “On the Personal, Intersubjective, and Metaphysical Senses of Death: An Inquiry into Edmund Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenologic Approach to Death.” Husserl Studies, vol. 40, 2023, pp. 67-88

[1] Our consideration of the double will encompass both the self produced through reproduction (the child) and the self recognized in or constructed through the Other (the doppelgänger or twin).

[2] Here, I follow Heinämaa (102-104) and Toronyai’s (70-71) account of the distinct experiences of the body proposed in Husserl’s Idea I. Interestingly, as Toronyai’s analysis highlights, Husserl correlates death with “‘birth,’ ‘sleep,’ ‘dreamless sleep,’ ‘fainting,’ ‘early childhood development,’ ‘animal animality,’ and ‘the other self’” as “limit problems” to the descriptive phenomenological approach (Husserl qtd., 156-66; 1-81; Toronyai, 70). Although a full exploration of the “limit phenomena” in Nightwood is outside of the scope of the current analysis, it may provide a helpful framework for future inquiry into the novel.

[3] The inversion Barnes’ represents also extends into the Duchess’ physical relations to space; while her profession would imply an avian weightlessness, she is instead endowed with the gravity of the earthbound.

[4] Indeed, although Felix doubts the Duchess’ sexual cachet on the basis of her masculinity, he admits that the trapeze “g[ives] her, in a way, a certain charm” and describes her body in highly sensualized terms (Barnes, 15). Despite being discounted from traditional metrics of female value (namely, sexual appeal and beauty), she retains a non-masculine form of desirability.

[5] Of course, this portrait of womanhood is also entangled with ethnic stereotypes concerning the militarism of Germanic and Austrian peoples; however, Barnes arguably uses this stereotype as a means of reinforcing the clash of masculinity and femininity within Hedvig’s person.

[6] The androgynous suppression of Hedvig’s maternity is clarified by her death during childbirth. Her androgyny cannot cohere with the sexual maturity that would be confirmed by her motherhood. Hence, almost immediately after the birth of her son determinately reclassifies her as ‘mother,’ she perishes.

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