Morbid Vitalism: Death, Decadence, and Spinozism in Barnes's Nightwood.

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Author: Tim Clarke
Date: June 2021
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 67, Issue 2)
Publisher: Hofstra University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,974 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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In 1936, after a difficult period of revision, Djuna Barnes published Nightwood, her second novel. Its ornate, digressive prose style, its eccentric cast of characters, and its thematic interest in mortality, frustrated desire, and homosexual love have long marked the novel as a particularly rich contribution to modernist fiction. Nightwood continues to be a fertile text for scholars exploring the intersections between literary modernism and destabilized subjectivity (Miller 1999), affect (Nieland 2008), sexuality (Glavey 2009), and gender (Faltejskova 2010). As scholars turn increasingly toward modernism's debts to the Aesthetic and Decadent movements of the fin de siecle following studies like Heather Love's Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007) and Vincent Sherry's Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (2014), Barnes criticism has focused more intently on Barnes's own Decadent investments, such as her personal affinity for figures like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. This article intervenes in modernist studies and in Barnes criticism in the context of Nightwood's absorption of Decadent literature's fascination with morbidity--with sickness, decay, weakness, degeneration, and death. I suggest that we should reread this Decadent element of Barnes's novel in light of the widely overlooked fact that Barnes read the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, apparently for the first time, during a phase of crucial and extensive revisions to the novel's manuscript (Herring 1995: 219). (1)

I argue that reading Nightwood through Barnes's encounter with Spinoza foregrounds a key ethical question that has not been a focal point of much recent criticism, though it animates much of the novel--the problem of how to live in the face of the despair of death. How might we live so that our joys depend neither on transcending nor capitulating to despair? I argue that, for Barnes, Spinoza's philosophy offers a narrow path between these alternatives that leads toward what I term a "morbid vitalism." This concept names a difficult, paradoxical practice of living that recognizes the immanence of death to life and finds joy in this immanence, in the intimacy between life and death and between ascendancy and decline. This position is vitalist insofar as it recognizes an impersonal vital principle--an all-suffusing, ongoing process of creation and emergence. At the same time, it is a "weak," entropic, or morbid theory of life that locates the processual emergence of the new in the decomposition of what comes before. (2) In Barnes's morbid vitalism, death remains an immanent, generative condition of life, and the progressive decomposition of what lives is itself the motor of the processes of vital composition. This entropic or death-suffused conception of life that I locate in Barnes emerges in the context of a host of affectively polarized discourses circulating in high and popular culture throughout North America and Europe in the interwar years. These discourses, including remembrances of the mass death of the Great War, Decadent anxieties about heredity, and popular scientific discourses about spiritualism, psychical research, and public health, framed modern life in affective terms that privileged either hope or despair. Reading Nightwood within...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A666097722