Art’s Revenge upon Intellect: Reading Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood beside Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’

4 August 2020

Nimaya Lemal, Keble College, Oxford, and Middlebury College

Despite its provocative title, Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964) does not renounce artistic interpretation wholesale. The interpretation at fault, for Sontag, is that which ‘digs “behind”the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one’, excavating elements for application within an analytical theory.[1]This ‘curious project for transforming a text’, she writes, essentially ‘translate[s]’ the work, a process which undercuts the integrity of the work itself.[2]Sontag’s essay rejects ‘that a work of art is its content’, yet she does not necessarily prescribe formalism, despite what some readers have suggested.[3]Her critique lies specifically with interpretative approaches that bypass form because they are content-focused, and hence engage in translational (usurping) analysis.[4]Sontag does advocate for alternative critical action, however. Throughout the essay, Sontag speaks to a kind of interpretation that is, at its core, ‘sensual’, ‘erotic’, and/or ‘loving’ in appreciation of a work’s form and beyond.[5]She closes her essay with the line: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’[6]

In critiquing ‘the modern style of interpretation’, Sontag asserts that abstract painting and pop-art are instances of art endeavoring to become ‘uninterpretable’, either with ‘blatant’ content or ‘form at the expense of content’.[7]This assessment of modern art comes as an example of art reacting to interpretation, specifically interpretation that excludes the sensual, emotive experience of reading. In this way, Sontag’s essay anticipates the later emerging field of affect theory. Let us pause on this question of avant-garde, ‘uninterpretable’ art. This article considers an example of avant-garde literature through the lens of Sontag’s essay and specifically challenges Sontag’s portrayal of avant-garde art as ‘against’interpretation, a position which does, perhaps unfairly, suggest it to be ‘on the run’ from interpretation.[8]

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936) might be seen as belonging to the category of abstract, ‘uninterpretable’ works; as T.S. Elliot writes in his 1936 introduction to Nightwood, ‘this book […] is extremely difficult to describe’.[9]Jeanette Winterson’s preface in 2006 similarly asserts that ‘The language is not about conveying information’; ‘there is much more to this book than its story, which is slight, or even its characters, who are magnificent tricks of the light’.[10]Indeed, Nightwood’s plot is meager. Its protagonists flit in and out of the story’s spotlight, major arcs are abstracted and overall development is infrequent.[11]For instance, Robin’s kidnapping, probably the story’s most dramatic event, receives little follow up or resolution. If Nightwood may be considered in the context of the avant-garde art that Sontag discusses, it could be seen as resisting content-based interpretation in part by its lack of emphasis on plot.

As unfruitful as contemplating its plot might be, trying to pin down Nightwood’s characters proves equally so. Felix (neither particularly happy nor lucky) is a baron with falsified ancestry, a Jew who wavers between Judaism and Christianity. The narrator addresses Frau Mann—if the name weren’t enough—as a Duchess of Broadback and a trapeze artist. At one point, “Duchess” appears in quotation marks.[12]Nightwood‘s women are both feminine and masculine, animal and human. Its central doctor is not a licensed physician. As the Duchess aptly puts it, ‘Am I what I say? Are you? Is the doctor?’.[13]Barnes’s multi-classification of characters in Nightwood complicates their application— or ‘translat[ion]’, to use Sontag’s phrase — to a literary theory. The sheer number of attributions given to this cast of characters results in ambiguous identities; the more we know of anyone the less we can get hold of them.

At the level of language, we find a similar phenomenon. Barnes writes of Robin that her body’s perfume was ‘earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry […] one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface”.[14]Barnes takes us often beneath the visible surface, using smell, sound, touch — even expectation, through phrases such as‘one expects to hear’in this description of Robin — as she likens characters to images and sensations.[15]With such descriptors of Barnes’ characters, the reader may find that they fail, and progressively so, to categorize the charactersin any one way. And yet, because these depictions are sense-based, Barnes ensures that the characters are knowable, and very much so.

Sontag’s essay asks how we, as interpreters, might approach works like Nightwood. We have touched upon some of the difficulties of getting hold of Nightwood through its plot or cast list. Looking to Nightwood’s form, we find it to be just as ambiguous, but far more pronounced. T. S. Eliot proposes that Nightwood is close to poetry.[16]In addition to the plentitude of description and characterization, Nightwood’s actual wording is earthy and extravagant, the verbs powerful, the descriptive sentences bursting their bounds. Such a form is hard to overlook, particularly in conjunction with the limited plot. Furthermore, the ample similes and metaphors result in a text where no singular likeness holds much weight. Like Felix, Nightwood’s form appears to cling to ‘titles’ but not necessarily to define parameters, rather, ‘to dazzle [its] own estrangement’.[17]With Nightwood, the interpretive method of combing for representational properties seems almost foolish.

Such a form relays information, but it is rarely straightforward. Barnes’s descriptors can appear conflicting, although not necessarily random or disjointed. Nightwood is full of patterns. For instance, the depiction of Hedvig ‘moving toward [Guido] in recoil’ is echoed later in the image of ‘a lover suffering the violence of the overlapping of the permission to bestow a last embrace, and its withdrawal’.[18]Themes, such as the joining of beast and human, and symbols such as the female hand, also recur. Such repetition tantalizes the interpreter, yet the sheer amount of depiction withholds clarity. Without reductive claims to madness or nonsense, conclusions on Nightwood and its elements are difficult to draw. Such claims are not unheard of; T. S. Eliot’s introduction addresses an early review of Nightwood which declared it ‘a horrid sideshow of freaks’ — an interpretation that, Eliot argues, is ‘not only to miss the point, but to confirm our wills and harden our hearts in an inveterate sin of pride.’[19]Moreover, we might see such a meager interpretation as the result of bypassing Nightwood’s form, and subjecting the text to a predominantly content-based angle of analysis.

It is important to clarify that Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ suggests that avant-gardism in content and form, as Nightwood displays, is an example of art ‘against’ or ‘on the run’ from interpretation. Nightwood‘s slim plot, multi-characterization, and copious description certainly complicate content ‘translation’ to the ‘elaborate systems’ of customary literary interpretation, particularly that of Marxism and psychoanalytic theory.[20]But Nightwood also takes a form that is prominent in its own right, partly because it contrasts the limited plot, but also because it uses tactile, sensuous, and erotic writing. Even as we see Barnes’ novel resisting what Sontag calls the ‘modern style of interpretation’, we can also see it encouraging its interpreter to embrace a sensuous approach to reading. Nightwood, too, asks its audience to ‘recover our senses’.[21]

Sontag asserts that the modern style of interpretation has become a ‘revenge of the intellect upon art’, and yet with her essay we might see Nightwood and similar works as instances of art taking its own revenge upon intellect.[22]The two texts, although separated by almost thirty years, similarly challenge hermeneutical convention. Sontag’s argument frames texts like Nightwood (and her own essay) as works that celebrate but exceed their formalist aspects in order to provoke their audiences to alternative, sensory-based interpretation. In this strain, both texts predate and yet sit well in the context of affect theory. More than being ‘against interpretation’, Nightwood might be read, through the lens of Sontag’s appeal, as a work abetting readers in the retrieval of the affective experience of reading. If such art be considered ‘on the run’, then it has also built the road and invited its interpreters to join chase.


[1]Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’, Shifter Magazine (2015) <>, p. 4.

[2]Ibid., pp, 3; 5.

[3]Sontag, p. 2; See ‘Sontag’s pathological formalism’in Koppen, Randi, ‘Formalism and the Return to the Body: Stein’s and Fornes’s Aesthetic of Significant Form’, New Literary History, 28: 4 (1997), p. 797; and‘Susan Sontag was far from arguing against formalist criticism…her only complaint was that it wasn’t formalist enough’in Michaels, Walter Benn, ‘Against Formalism: The Autonomous Text in Legal and Literary Interpretation’, Poetics Today, 1: 1/2 (1979), p. 23. Although Sontag does write that the best criticism ‘dissolves considerations of content into those of form,’the essay does not, in fact, rest its argument upon the difference between content and form—a distinction Sontag explicitly describes as ‘illusion’ (Sontag, p. 7). Moreover, her argument makes clear that any ‘translating’approach to understanding a work, even a formalist one, would be problematic.

[4]Sontag, p. 8.

[5]Ibid., pp. 4; 10; 9.

[6]Ibid., p. 10.

[7]Ibid., pp. 7; 4; 7.

[8]Ibid., p. 7.

[9]T. S. Eliot, ‘Introduction’ to Nightwood (London:Faber & Faber, 1936), p. 4.

[10]Jeanette Winterson, ‘Preface’ to Nightwood (New York:New Directions, 2006), p. 11.

[11]Georgette Fleischer,‘Djuna Barnes and T. S. Eliot: The Politics And Poetics Of Nightwood’, Studies in the Novel, 30: 3 (1998), pp. 405–437.

[12]Barnes, pp. 26; 27; 35.

[13]Ibid., p. 43.

[14]Barnes, pp. 55-6.

[15]Ibid., p. 56.

[16]Eliot, ‘Introduction’, p. 4.

[17]Ibid., p. 25.

[18]Ibid., pp. 12; 50.

[19]Eliot, p. 1.

[20]See: ‘The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation’ (Sontag, p. 4).

[21]Sontag, p. 10.

[22]Ibid., p. 4.

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