Kleist’s Cycle of Consciousness: Modeling Identity in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Heinrich von KleistIn “On the Marionette Theatre,” Heinrich von Kleist sets up a helpful model for the variations of consciousness, providing a cycle that shows the continuum between unconsciousness and all-consciousness. In this philosophical essay, Kleist encounters a puppet master who insists that puppets are more graceful than human dancers can ever be. Intrigued by his bold assertion, Kliest asks the man to elaborate and the man explains that the inanimate “can never be guilty of affectation.” He begins with the anecdote of a youth who loses his natural grace after consciously trying to recreate the graceful gesture in which he inadvertently evoked a statue of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot. Ending with a tale of how a bear effortlessly and intuitively bests him despite his skill in fencing, the puppet master concludes:

“We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

With the parting words of the puppet master, Kliest establishes a cycle of consciousness in which the average person is thought to fall in the middle of the cycle, at the point of self-consciousness but shy of all-consciousness. Many beings, however, fall elsewhere on the continuum, from those who are less conscious, resembling children or even animals, to those who are more aware than most. While reaching that midpoint of the cycle, becoming self-conscious and acquiring an identity, is considered a normal and necessary stage of human development, it is also a painful place to be. Indeed, as an awkward no-man’s land of sorts between the ignorant bliss of unconsciousness and the transcendent joy of all-consciousness, human self-consciousness can be downright agonizing. Robin of Barnes’ Nightwood represents one attempt at liberation from the human dilemma of self-consciousness: regression. Robin, strangely devoid of identity and self-consciousness, actively resists self-identification, regressing instead into unconsciousness.

Robin’s lack of identity and self-consciousness is revealed in part by Barnes’ repeated comparisons of her to boys and animals, both of which are illustrated in Kleist’s continuum as intermediaries between completely unconscious inanimate objects and the typical self-conscious human being. Notably, despite being a grown woman, she is compared not to men but to boys, revealing that the comparison is directed not just at her sexuality and mannerisms as a bisexual/lesbian but also at her level of consciousness. She is referred to frequently as being clothed in “boyish trousers” and Nora, when speaking of her love for Robin, says “And I, who want power, chose a girl who resembles a boy” (98). That Robin is described in terms of girls and boys instead of as “a woman who resembles a man” highlights that her consciousness is closer to the level of children than that of normally self-conscious adults. She is also described in terms of animals, which are even less conscious than children. Her animalistic nature is so apparent that her husband Felix sees even behind her closed lids “the long, unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye” (41). This description reveals Robin as not only animal-like but distinctly untamed and unaccustomed to the human. Barnes recapitulates the idea of Robin as being somewhere between animal and human consciousness by observing that “sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human” (41).

Djuna Barnes NightwoodIn her first description of Robin, however, Barnes goes even further in highlighting Robin’s lack of identity and self-consciousness by describing her not in terms of boys or animals but of vegetation, the type of life closest to complete unconsciousness. The first description of her in the novel shows her unconscious “on a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms, and cut flowers” (37). Not only is she surrounded by vegetation, but she herself is described as plant-like: “the perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth flesh, fungi” and “her flesh was the texture of plant life” (38). Her resemblance to the plants that surround her suggests that she is similarly unconscious. To emphasize her lack of consciousness, Barnes describes her as not merely sleeping but entirely abandoned to slumber. She is so far removed from conscious, waking life that as if “she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire” and “sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface” (38).  She is so unaware of herself that she cannot live out an identity, a startling reality that is foreshadowed by the fact that she is not introduced by any title or name but merely as “the young woman” (42). Indeed, she is not named until, several pages later, others feel the need to identify her; “pinching the chasseur, the doctor inquired the girls name. ‘Mademoiselle Robin Vote,’ the chasseur answered” (42). That the doctor pinches the chasseur reveals just how eager, even desperate he is, to impose a recognizable identity on the nameless vegetative being before him.

Indeed, the doctor isn’t the only one desperate to drive Robin into self-consciousness; Felix, Nora and Jenny all try to make her aware of herself. Robin, however, is as determined to remain as unconscious as possible as the main people in her life are to awaken her. When Felix and the Doctor’s forcibly wake her from the deep sleep she is first shown in by throwing water on her face, she involuntarily awakes briefly and then immediately goes back to sleep: “a series of almost invisible shudders wrinkled her skin as the water dripped from her lashes, over her mouth and on to the bed. A spasm of waking moved upward from some deep-shocked realm, and she opened her eyes. Instantly, she tried to get to her feet. She said, ‘I was all right,’ and fell back into the pose of her annihilation” (39). Barnes’ characteristically allusive language emphasizes in few words the involuntary nature of this forced awakening. The imagery of the “almost invisible shudders [that]wrinkled her skin” and the “spasm of waking” and even her attempt to “instantly” stand up all evoke  a reflexive, knee-jerk reaction rather than a willful, albeit reluctant, choice. Robin’s declaration that she “was all right” suggests not only annoyance at having been awoken but also the possibility that now that she is conscious she no longer feels “all right.” Furthermore, that she “fell back into the pose of her annihilation” suggests an immediate attempt to return to sleep, revealing her eagerness to return to unconsciousness, while the unusual choice of the word annihilation to describe sleep reveals it not just as rest but a forceful destruction of consciousness.  Robin shows her distaste for being thrust into awareness once again when Norah attempts to shield her from a pair of lascivious hands at a bar. Indeed, so furious is she at having been made aware of what she wished to do freely and unconsciously that she exclaims to Norah “with a furious panting breath, ‘You are a devil! You make everything dirty!’” (152).

Robin ultimately finds the liberation she wants by reverting completely to a subconscious state. The ending, though enigmatic, can be clarified in one interpretation as a final, stubborn rejection on Robin’s part of all human identity and consciousness. In the days leading up to her final showdown with Nora’s dog, Robin distances herself increasingly from a sense of identity and consciousness. More aimless than ever, she doesn’t even go out with the purpose of getting drunk. Instead she simply goes out to wander “without design,” “taking trains into different parts of the country” and “going into many out-of-the-way churches” (176). More than ever, there is a “desperate anonymity” in her actions and words (177).

Djuna Barnes NightwoodRobin also behaves increasingly like an animal. In an apparent attempt to discover the essence of animals in order to better emulate them, she grabs “those that came near [her]…straining their fur back until their eyes were narrowed and their teeth bare, her own teeth showing as if her hand were upon her own neck” (177). In her confrontation with Nora’s dog, Robin begins by mirroring the dog’s posture: “and down she went, until her head swung against his; on all fours now, dragging her knees” (179). She escalates her emulation of the dog by mimicking its actions as well as “she began to bark also, crawling after him” until they both collapse together in exhaustion (179). This final scene is a baffling one that can be clarified when interpreted as Robin’s the ultimate renunciation of her identity as she regresses completely into an animal state of unconsciousness.

Uncannily void of identity and self-consciousness to begin with, Robin fits neatly into the sub-human section of Kleist’s continuum, her position here reflected by continued comparisons to children, animals, and even vegetation. Often shown asleep or drunk, Robin actively resists others’ attempts to drive her into self-consciousness and identity and ultimately regresses completely into an animal state of unconsciousness. While Robin’s methods appear to give her the solace she longs for, it remains unclear whether her final state is a desirable one. One must whether wonder the puppet master was right; was Robin’s rejection of consciousness—and with it, humanity—a return to grace or a tragic fall? Perhaps the more dignified path to grace lies not in rejecting consciousness but in boldly broadening it in an attempt to reach all-consciousness, in closing the circle rather than retracing one’s steps.



One response to “Kleist’s Cycle of Consciousness: Modeling Identity in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

  1. Pingback: What’s Here/Queer/Modernist: Weekly Reads #2 | queer modernisms·

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