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Fixations: Reading Nightwood and the Domestic

26 February 2021

Elodie Barnes

‘When the time came that Nora was alone most of the night and part of the day….she went about disturbing nothing; then she became aware that her soft and careful movements were the outcome of an unreasonable fear – if she disarranged anything Robin might become confused – might lose the scent of home.’

*

I’ve become obsessed with a small glass vase that sits on the coffee table next to the lamp. Phoenician glass. I brought it back from Israel, from a time when travel was still possible and borders were still open. It’s coloured, this vase, and when it catches the light it glows as if it’s on fire from within. Lightning striking the desert. Sunset over the sand. Sometimes I think the desert must be inside it, that if I look in the right light I’ll see dunes and crags and rolling emptiness all the way to the sea. If I move it, the vista will shimmer and crack. If I don’t move it, the world stays intact. 

The first quote above is taken from Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. The second is from my journal last year. Paraphrased, or adapted from my journal. Or made up entirely. In these days – that might be days or could be nights – it’s easy to bend reality. 

But it’s true to say I fixated on the vase. Just as Nora fixated on the items in the apartment she shared with Robin on the rue du Cherche-Midi, in a vain attempt to hold existence still, so I held onto the vase when it felt as if the walls of my flat were rippling and the floorboards were turning to quicksand. A tiny thing suddenly became important out of all proportion, but we all need these points, these spots that don’t move. Usually they’re bigger and more relevant. A person, maybe, or a job. A house. A favourite travel destination. We join the dots together and call it a life. But usually we only realise it when everything starts to shift. Suddenly there are fewer dots than before. The threads that we have drawn between them unweave themselves before our eyes. We hold onto whatever we can to steady ourselves. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. 

What makes things that once seemed solid reveal themselves to be so precarious? 

The betrayal of a lover. Death. A world turned inside out. 

*

Suddenly, I want to go clubbing. I hate clubbing. I want rammed pubs with sweaty bodies. I want the touch of a stranger. Conversations that last until 5am. Night air. Too much wine. The emptiness and echo of the last métro home, the sense of time shifting underground, the anticipation of knowing that I could emerge anywhere in any time. 

I’ve grown to hate these four walls. It’s not a nice feeling. 

I’m not losing my mind but my senses. My ears no longer pick up unfamiliar sounds. My nose and tongue and skin are forgetting what it’s like, the all-enveloping air of a new city where the stars and the sun hang just slightly differently, and the earth beneath my feet seems slanted but thrillingly so. My heart no longer skips at the different languages that veil the same words. How to jolt myself back to life? 

I long to be able to leave, simply in order to come back and love home again. 

Nightwood has always seemed to me to be as much about a strange kind of domesticity as it is about the underworld; as much about home and what is found there as about the streets outside. As a character, Robin is something of a mystery. She barely says two words for herself; the ‘two spirits working in her, love and anonymity’, were a deliberate ploy by Barnes to make her seem beyond the world she existed in, un-fixed in time and space.[1] She appears as a somnambule, a creature of the night, but we don’t see her in the bars and cafés that we know she frequents. We only see her shadow, pursued by Nora.

Yet we know that she chose their apartment. We know that, between them, she and Nora amassed a collection of objects with which to fill and decorate their rooms – circus chairs and wooden horses, music boxes, ecclesiastical hangings and cushions – all as much in Robin’s taste as Nora’s. We hear her singing, her voice echoing between its walls. We watch her preparing to go out, curling her hair and anointing her skin with cold cream. We feel her intimately, not just because of Nora’s love but because the domestic here is so private, a view into their own cloistered world. 

We already know it shatters. We already know too well the cycle that will eventually spiral out of control; that of leaving and returning and leaving again, grief and reconciliation and grief that ultimately swallows everything. We know that their domestic defences are useless, really, because the person that returns is never quite the same as the person who left. The force of longing for something we don’t have can be like floodwater. It swamps. It transforms. It pulls in different directions: for Robin there is the longing to leave, and the subsequent longing for home. There cannot be one without the other and neither one satisfies, not for very long. Perhaps this is partly what Robin was looking for with every journey beyond those walls; the fleeting, perfect moment of joy, when desire for the new gives way to love of the old, or vice versa. But a relationship demands more solidity. It asks that the dots two people draw, together, don’t move so far that they get lost. 

Nora is never able to hold Robin. Her attempts to do so take her beyond the house into the streets of Paris, of Naples, of Marseilles and Tangiers, desperate to find something to cling to. There is nothing. The only fixed points their love had were pieces of furniture. 

*

I’m still looking at the vase. It emits a heat, I think, a glimmer of sun that was trapped and is starting to force its way out. So many memories in one object. (This is more Yellow Wallpaper than Nightwood.) Still, I wonder. Out of all of my pasts held in that vase, which is the past? Which is the thread still hanging, that I must use to fix new points for myself when all of this is over? 


Sources:

[1]Letter to Emily Coleman, November 8th 1935. Held at the Djuna Barnes Archive at the University of Maryland.

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