Randa K Dubnick, The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language and Cubism, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983) p. 431Ironically Stein’s intention in writing Tender Buttons was to capture immediate experience as consciousness grapples with it; but there have been many problems in reading the book. One difficulty caused by the text is the disjunction of the two axes of language, which makes it almost impossible to read the work for conventional discursive content. This problem leads to yet another problem: the effort of trying to figure out or reconstruct the content not only exhausts readers but overdistances them from the work itself. Such effort is futile anyway, for Tender Buttons demands to be dealt with on its own terms.
(Randa Dubnick, The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language and Cubism.)
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood, (London: Faber, 2007) p. xxi2In trying to anticipate a reader’s misdirections, one is in danger of provoking him to some other misunderstanding unforeseen.
(TS Eliot, introduction to Nightwood.)
There is a voice which particularly asserts itself when attempting to write critically about works such as Tender Buttons and Nightwood, works which seem to invite exactly the sort of attention that their internal workings frustrate. It is the voice which says ‘seems to’ and ‘perhaps’ and which always doubts, always issues caveats so as not to be held accountable for things which could be said but of course, one would not be so bold as to say them. There are few instances in which one can be proved actually wrong when writing about literature. Our impetus is to go into the text and pull out the nuggets of potential truth, to act as miners mining for mirrors, to show how things work and reflect, to find the skeletons and their muscles and tendons and what makes them move and how we, acting as the puppeteers, shunt it all along. The good reader wants to find the clever things. The good reader wants to hold up the clever things to their vast mind of words and find concordances and patterns and show a way in which all the things might fit together and make a new whole or access beyond the language. But how do I know what is there and what is not? How to mask the fact, the central indisputable fact, that I am not Gertrude Stein or Djuna Barnes and that even if I were, I probably wouldn’t know precisely what my work was doing in every mind, in every field of language? And this is the voice which goes through and makes excuses and worries about doing justice, what is justice, how can there ever be justice. Who uses all the big words. Who thinks and refutes, thinks and refutes, in such quick oscillation that it is a wonder anything gets written at all. When something is finally on the page, it must agree with itself. It must make an argument. For the thinking, or for the refutation of it. (is it indisputable? is that really our impetus? have I overdone this already?) But there is the other voice, who looks at what has been written here and says
To hell with that.
None of this is going to reveal anything about the matter at hand, the text. Which does whatever it does because it does and I happen to be reading it and so what if it isn’t about mathematics really I think it’s all a case of mathematics at heart. Or you will never drag anything out of that pit which any other half decent miner with a dictionary and a knowledge of Shakespeare or the Bible or whatever couldn’t hoik up eventually.
But that would imply that there is less value in work which is not about you, which doesn’t need you to be specifically yourself, the person behind the reading voice. The adoption of this antithetical and arrogant standpoint is going to produce criticism which is precisely that, antithetical and arrogant. And aren’t I – aren’t we supposed to be writing about modernism?
Who wants to say clever things anyway. Someone else can say the clever things. It’s either a self-generating process or it’s not. It’s either mining which goes further into the core and it’s infinite down there the more that gets hacked out of it, or it’s mining where there’s only a certain amount of stuff to drag up really and only a finite amount of work and we’ve got to try and keep the numbers down so we can all get paid in the end, justify the labour of the future labourers by giving them something to do. This is a problem of mathematics.
And to hell with anyone who says otherwise?
To hell with them. Yes. We can embrace it. Our own affective response, it’s as valid as any other and I don’t mind what they say against it, I don’t mind about being wrong, I haven’t tried it yet. What happens if you’re wrong. Why are we not allowed to risk that. Why so many maybes and dainty blushes in front of the great men. Look, all you need to be able to do is justify it. To hell with them. Even the text is saying it.
Randa K Dubnick, The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language and Cubism, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983) p. 433BUT WHAT AM I TO DO?
But what am I to do?
A process of explanation has been carried out but the question has not been answered. I am looking for information which can help me find the co-ordinates of point R and you have given me a doll.
But what am I to do?
What action is there to be taken?
But what am I to do?
Seeing the potential paths of action and inaction, and being currently in the null state, with all the possible consequences I can think of laid out before me, which should I choose to risk?
But what am I to do?
Where is the necessity of myself figured in all of this? Does the system require a self as input or is it a self-generative loop, a dance of language, a sum in which R can be whatever she wants to me but she will always be multiplied by 0.
But what am I to do?
The necessity, of finding the co-ordinates of point R looms at an unknown fixed location in the future, some point in time where an action shall be demanded, where we come to an affective pitch where there is no such thing as inaction, not even stillness, which is a resistance in itself. Which can no longer be borne or ignored. Which I can no longer bear or ignore (perhaps this is the point of me being here) which demands an action, which demands.
But what am I to do?
But what is this action? How does it become an action? Can a thing move itself through sheer desperation? What is the process, what is the first step, what is any first step that could be taken in order to start finding information related to the precise location of point R? We don’t even know how the axes are labelled. With an axe.
But what am I to do?
And without this mark? There is no sincere need. Well, what am I to do. What could I possibly do. No, there is an impetus, there is wanting. Instead of disavowal there is responsibility, and that is mine (at the second) and yours (in a second) and seriously, what can be done, where can I start, what demands it?
Starting again. Teresa de Lauretis proposes that the ‘queer text’ might describe a text Teresa de Lauretis, ‘Queer Texts, Bad Habits, and the Issue of a Future’ in GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, 17.2-3 (2011), pp. 244-54‘that not only works against narrativity, the generic progression of narrative towards closure and the fulfilment of meaning, but also pointedly disrupts the referentiality of language and the referentiality of images… “the language of reality”.’ De Lauretis also emphasises Ibid.5‘sexuality as an unmanageable excess of affect that can find expression only in a figural, oracular language’ as central to thinking of Nightwood as a queer text.
Figural, oracular. Circumnavigation of what we cannot touch. Like stumbling through the dark and meeting nothing but finding at least a pattern to move in. As I have said before. Oracular is round like an orange ocular lacuna. Dracula. Figural an oral fig. The toothy mouth floating round the coast, never meeting it. That is language.
One narrative running through Nightwood, particularly in the chapters ‘Watchman, What of the Night’ and ‘Go Down, Matthew’, is the process by which Nora Flood learns how to talk – not merely how to speak, but how to think through language to reach new visionary possibilities of understanding. She does not arrive in the company of the doctor with a fully-formed idea of how to talk, or even with a recognition that this is what she is missing, but comes to it over the course of two jumpy, confusing conversations. In the first, ‘Watchman’ chapter, her speech is mostly in the form of questions rather than statements, and with a recursive, restricted vocabulary centred on ‘but’ and ‘what’. The statements she does make in this chapter are not epiphanic declarations of realised truth, but acknowledgements of lacking. Nightwood, p. 726‘I used to think that people just went to sleep, or if they did go to sleep, that they were themselves, but now… now I see that the night does something to a person’s identity, even when asleep.’ She sees only that there are further unseen layers of knowledge to be investigated, and as the doctor’s relentless talk progresses, fades into a Nightwood, p. 947‘rigid silence’ which embarrasses the doctor but does not halt his speech.
‘Act so’, Stein tells us. Gertrude Stein, ‘Tender Buttons’, in Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903-1932 (New York: The Library of America, 1998) p. 344 (the beginning of ‘Rooms’)8‘Act so that there is no use in a center.’ Tender Buttons, p. 3459‘The truth has come. There is a disturbance.’ Oscillating in the conditions, we slice off their sameness. Act in a space and feel what isn’t. Tender Buttons, p. 34810‘Is there an exchange, is there a resemblance.’ There is or there is not. We know that something is happening when we are doing something and it is happening. Act so. Talking acting. Tender Buttons, p. 35011‘Why is there a difference between one window and another, why is there a difference, because the curtain is shorter’. No question marks on this one. Why does the shorter curtain make a difference. What do we see through the different windows. Is it parallax, like eyes. Is it the difference of night and time. Are we getting to a deeper uncertainty?
Nora must learn to act in speech, rather than follow the necessities of conversational response. She realises this in her second long encounter with Matthew, first Nightwood, p. 11612‘speaking in a voice that she tried to make steady’, then declaring Nightwood, p. 11713‘I don’t know how to talk, and I’ve got to. I’ve got to talk to somebody. I can’t live this way.’ Walking around the room, acting in a space, moving ‘mechanically’, Nora is bubbling with an excess of affect and looking for a language; one which cannot come from outside and be affirmed with an ecstatic Nightwood, p. 8514‘Yes!’ but which tends outward, frothing and roiling in ‘mortal agony’ which the doctor’s words alone cannot neutralise. The excess of affect is an excruciating pressure. I speak, the doctor says, to people like you, Nightwood, p. 12215‘to stop them from rolling about, and drawing up their feet, and screaming, with their eyes staring over their knuckles with misery which they are trying to keep off, saying “Say something, doctor, for the love of God!”’ This is the violence of misery which demands the balm of language.
So what is unspoken is unendurable. What can be so deeply known as to be unknown, to be unbindable, to unbind the words from the things, is true madness or the root of vision. We cannot speak as we are for we are beside ourselves. Only when language is the floating mouth and not the index finger can we know. To know even the depth of our own lack. The pit in the heart in the mouth.
(Do you mean the text, or yourself?)
Yourself too. Isn’t it the very same problem. Or are we acting so. I have read too much Gertrude Stein and I am floating round the coast of things. The feeling of needing to speak and act in words, it’s my very favourite.
But is the balm of language merely a substitute for the community which is denied to the queer, troubled subject? Susan J Hubert reads the dialogue between Nora and the doctor as a Susan J Hubert, ‘The Word Separated from the Thing: Nightwood’s Political Aesthetic’, in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 1 (2004), p.4016‘non-conversation, [which] dramatizes the failure of communication and perhaps the impossibility of true human connection,’ yet also posits that the text’s modernist experiments with language and form, separations of ‘word and thing’ and ‘eschewing the language of rationality’ come out of the necessities of finding a way to express that which is forbidden by culture, and impossible to express in language itself. But perhaps the conversations between Nora and the doctor are not ‘failures’ so much as re-prioritised modes of communication.
Not a confessional, not a conversation, not an exchange of direct symbols, not a struggle to mean, not a search for signifiers, not an excavation for truth, but a parallel motion like dancers at night, following each other in movement, coming closer, flailing wilder, kicking higher, drawing darker.
Perhaps. One of the recurring tropes in writing about Nightwood is that the doctor’s speech is impotent and inactive – as in Laura J. Veltman’s essay:
Laura J Veltman, ‘”The Bible Lies the One Way, but the Night-gown the Other”: Dr. Matthew O’Connor, Confession and Gender in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, in Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 49, Number 2, (Summer 2003), p.22017As “the wrong man doing nothing much” other than continually talking, Matthew’s speech, rather than transforming sex into discourse, instead renders him as a figure of paralysis. The logos is always deferred; language, sex, gender, cannot be essentialised in the way the confessional suggests, in that we always circle the truth rather than capturing that which God is “keeping hushed”.
And also in TS Eliot’s introduction:
Nightwood (Introduction) p. xix18[the doctor] perceives at once that the only thing he can do for [Nora] – the only way to ‘save the situation’ – is to talk torrentially, even though she hardly takes in anything he says, but reverts again and again to her obsession. It is his revulsion against the strain of squeezing himself dry for other people, and getting no sustenance in return, that sends him raving at the end.
The danger here is that of believing the doctor’s own words and frustration about his inability to act in the world – it is a self-declared rather than demonstrated impotence. He shouts Nightwood, p. 8019‘I’m tired of this tirade’ and proclaims himself a Nightwood, pp. 146-720‘worn out’, ‘damned’ ‘coward’. If you were to ask the doctor if he was a failure, would that not be the gist of the resulting rant? But inability to act in the world of proper society does not mean inability to act in the world per se: as it is only through contact with the doctor’s mode of speech that Nora can come close to expressing the unendurable intensity of her pain. Her ‘reverting again and again to her obsession’ is surely the point, the previously unspoken making movements in language.
Our language is never just the one of us speaking and the other listening and weighing up the evidence of the utterance and responding in the expectation of logical progression. I’d be bored to death. Our language is never so straight. You must read us not as we are but as the symbols of an action. As designating. What is queerness if not a game we play with meaning, or what could it be. It’s much more fun that way. Circling the truth is fun. Learning how to speak is necessary and fun. Tender Buttons, p. 33121Or there is no delight, and no mathematics. And what is circling if not a flirtation with the centre.
The strange, circuitous mode of conversation which peppers Nightwood could in no way be described as efficient – but efficiency is not a priority of the queer text. The imagist, minimalist ideal of Ezra Pound is not the only way of doing modernism. Equally, Eliot’s reading of the doctor’s ‘raving’ as driven by anger at ‘squeezing himself dry and getting nothing in return’ is somewhat flawed when speaking of characters who demonstrate a complete disinterest in the measure for measure of society, and it is strange to take Dr O’Connor on his word about this when he is raving at the other denizens of the café. He is squeezing himself dry, getting nothing in return, and that is precisely the point; it is not something he abandons outside of the one on one confessional space, it is the only way he can express himself. Why should anyone want to be efficient? What precisely is waste?
The whole thing could be condensed, really. But what is there for us in that? Our time is not your time. Our time is ours. And it’s not money, or at any rate it’s not our money. If I get your ear I’m going to bend it a good few degrees. What interest do we have in efficiency, we who despair and are despaired of. What do we have to gain, we who do not set the measurements. What do we have but a constant mathematics and a little time and thankyou so very much for listening. Thankyou so very much. To hell with it all.
Once Nora starts to inhabit her language, starts making statements and stops asking questions, she moves from the language of ‘but’ and ‘what?’ to the language of ‘and’ and ‘why’ – why without a question mark, why as in ‘I know why’, ‘this is why’. She recounts visions of what there is. She has Nightwood, p. 14222‘stood in the centre of eroticism and death’, but it is only in learning to talk of it that she can occupy that, find the power in it, and send the doctor staggering out into the street. It is not enough for something to have happened; it is the fact of transformation into a flood of language that lets it move things. A language of Flood.
Nightwood, p. 14223Not a saint at all, but a fixed dismay. Suffering bodies are affect and affect is the body suffering. Or something like that. Locating the fixed point in space so that I might move it with my concentrated horror, it takes contortions, and as I have mentioned before, mathematics. None of these words are correct. Tender Buttons, p. 321 (Objects)24The kind of show is made by squeezing.
We squeeze to make a show. Tender Buttons, p. 319 (A Chair)25‘Practice measurement, practice the sign that means that really means a necessary betrayal, in showing that there is wearing.’ Given all that I have said so far, what does this line say? I have said signs and measurements and practice are mathematical, and that meaning and showing and wearing are non-consequential demonstrations. I might also have said, practice is a ritual or repetition without direct need of exacting force or accuracy, like when potatoes or chickens are described again and again, or like when Nora Flood asks the same question, but what am I to do?
We squeeze to make this show. There is a kind of violence in dissecting the text, in displaying parts outside of the whole. What I have woven is a raggy arras over perfectly good poetry. What I have woven is all going around me, but isn’t it always.
Let us consider what is not just said in words but in bodies, as they are words too. The attempt to know Robin Vote, to understand her aggressive passivity, is mathematical. Robin and Jenny present ‘two halves of a movement… [without] the fundamental condition for completion’. These are not equal halves.
Nightwood, p. 62-326Jenny leaning far over the table, Robin far back, her legs thrust under her, to balance the whole backward incline of the body, and Jenny so far forward that she had to catch her small legs in the back rung of the chair, ankle out and toe in, not to pitch forward onto the table.
We might express this relationship in the following form (with relation to the diagram above):
Assume that there are two angles, x and R, in which R = the angle of intention pertaining to Robin Vote and x = the action of another.
x + R = 180 degrees
R < x
R < 90 degrees
R > 0
In the mathematical expression, there is no indication of causality. We might also add that the person setting the value for the x term is not aware of the shape of the diagram. We might also add the (non-mathematical) specification that deviation from 90 degrees represents work, physical discomfort and effort. This can be observed from the actions taken by both bodies to avoid toppling. It seems as if, in this case, Jenny is the aggressor and Robin moving backwards to accommodate, purely passively, but there is a violence in this: she will not permit comfort or stability, she simply allows her counterparts to destroy and exhaust themselves in the pursuit. Nor will she allow the total to be anything other than a straight line. In many of the descriptions of Robin she is tilted in some fashion, slouched, draped or collapsing, as her suitors Nightwood, p. 5527‘bend forward’. The greatest tension in this equation is in the rare encounters with Nora in which Nightwood, p. 5228‘they would fall into an agonised embrace, looking into each other’s face, their two heads in their four hands, so strained together that the space that divided them seemed to be thrusting them apart’. The excess of affect, of ‘insurmountable grief,’ creates a tangible pressure against the mathematics of the situation, without conquering it: and it is Robin who breaks each embrace.
You never take it seriously. How come you can’t seem to stand it? Why do you always break off laughing, with some joke or movement. Is it shame. Are you ashamed of us. Are you. Is it because you want to be able to count the occurrences enough that the numbers will vanish. And you can say that was legitimate. that was proven.
The centre of things is not the pivot point between the two lines – it is incidental to the truth of things, which is a far stranger equation and possibly multi-dimensional or scratched into the side of a Klein bottle. But it does seem that there is a recurring motif (or a focus on my part) of circular motions around un-defined centres, when thinking about how queer texts work, and how voices and language work in queer texts. Is this the mechanism or technique by which Stein and Barnes frustrate attempts to read meaning into their works? Is this yet another example of a reader falling into a trap of their own creation? There are fundamental risks involved in approaching ‘permeably difficult’ texts, which are not solvable, directly obscure, or even resistant in the usual sense of presenting resistances to reading, which can at least be felt. You can read your JH Prynne or your Keston Sutherland or countless other poetry blokes and dig down through etymology and come up with something that has a form, and be sure that someone will be impressed. You can find the clever thing. The really difficult problem is the text which lets you pass through it as a ghost, though you weren’t a ghost beforehand, so it has done something to you.
Tender Buttons, p. 33129A sentence of a vagueness that is violence is authority and a mission and stumbling and also certainly also a prison. Calmness, calm is beside the plate and in way in. There is no turn in terror. There is no volume in sound. Why do I feel like I’m being told off.
How can we grasp a thing like Tender Buttons without tearing it apart? How can it possibly be improved by our amateur explanations? Surely, when faced with a text that is so brazenly itself, the only role that criticism can fulfil is to point to it and say ‘there it is, that’s Tender Buttons there.’ There is a violence in quotation.
Quotation is the sincerest form of battery. And then this is imitation, or something like it. I wonder if that hurts too.
How can we grasp a thing like Tender Buttons without it tearing us apart? How can we possibly keep a straight face when we’re being wrenched into dimensions?
Is that actually what is happening? Because these sound like excuses. It’s not that meaning is lacking it’s not that there is no limit it’s not totally out of absolutes it’s not one of those infinities that’s bigger than others it’s simple infinitesimals, it’s all there, you’re just trying to prove that you’ve done a day’s digging and got into deeper uncertainties. What is the difference between 7 minus 7 and 589 minus 589. Depends who you ask. Dubnick, Structure of Obscurity, p. 4330But it’s all perfectly idle.
Second guessing and self-doubt are symptoms of the encounter with the queer text.
Are you 100 percent sure about any of this?
We, as readers, must learn a new way of reading, a new mode of encountering speech – not flailing at direct understandings but moving in tandem with the language, until we fall into some sort of step, some sort of harmonics, just as Nora Flood does in the company of Matthew O’Connor.
The queer text has a mouth which is a trap and the closer you inspect it the wider it gets. I’m sorry. It’s all very dramatic, isn’t it. It’s a self defence mechanism. Act so. Act so that there is no reason, and also every reason, for anything. Do a couple of motifs. Get meta. Get more meta than that. Da capo ad nauseam.
But what am I to do?
But what am I to do?
We (and Nora) are explicitly warned by the doctor that searching for truth might be a ‘miscalculated longing’- Nightwood, p. 12331‘There is no truth, and you have set it between you; you have been unwise enough to make a formula; you have dressed the unknowable in the garments of the known.’ What must be done instead is dressing the supposedly known in the garments of the unknowable, or undressing it altogether, so that it can be encountered as it might be, rather than as is assumed.
But what am I to do?
The action to be taken is the performance of action, any action, for the sake of experiment, for the sake of doing so.
But what am I to do?
We need not risk any particular possibility when reading the queer text, because it is the potential and the permeability and the action it has upon the reader that matters, or at least we hope so. We could do anything. We could do nothing. But there is no true self-preservation, there are no motionless actions.
But what am I to do?
The necessity of myself is the necessity of anyone is the necessity of the wrong system. It will happen without you and will not happen without you. Your motion or non-motion is up to you. There is a centre or there probably isn’t a centre but you can only act so.
But what am I to do?
What shall happen has done so already, in some form. We are bursting with affect, we are always bursting, sometimes worse than usual. There is nothing to do but learn to speak or writhe on the floor howling or gnashing yourself out of human thought. It is unbearable. It is really rather exciting.
But what am I to do?
Stillness is hurt, quiet is hurt, hurt is numb and speaking acting. A thing can be or do harm. If it has a centre you will never find it. If it has a language, it will never speak. Reach outward very very sadly, one foot, in front of the other.
But what am I to do?
Is the mark a lie or is it survival? There must be a drive to know? There must be responsibility? There must be a need? I think I have done what I can and anything else is blood for no reason. The question mark is a state change, like the night, which is fading to this unspeakable loss.
17. Laura J Veltman, ‘”The Bible Lies the One Way, but the Night-gown the Other”: Dr. Matthew O’Connor, Confession and Gender in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, in Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 49, Number 2, (Summer 2003), p.220 ^
Barnes, Djuna, Nightwood, (London: Faber, 2007)
de Lauretis, Teresa, ‘Queer Texts, Bad Habits, and the Issue of a Future’ in GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, 17.2-3 (2011)
Dubnick, Randa K, The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language and Cubism, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983)
Hubert, Susan J, ‘The Word Separated from the Thing: Nightwood’s Political Aesthetic’, in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 1 (2004)
Setz, Cathryn, ‘”The Great Djuna”: Two Decades of Barnes Studies, 1993-2013’, in Literature Compass, vol. 11 issue 6 (June 2014)
Stein, Gertrude, ‘Tender Buttons’, in Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903-1932 (New York: The Library of America, 1998)
Veltman, Laura J, ‘”The Bible Lies the One Way, but the Night-gown the Other”: Dr. Matthew O’Connor, Confession and Gender in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, in Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 49, Number 2, (Summer 2003)