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Drama Queens on Parade,
By A Customer
This review is from: Nightwood (Hardcover)
In Nightwood there is a purposeful distortion of biographical facts. The past is based on self-deception and self-forgetfulness. The characters speak about their identity as if it were something they are trying to lose by constantly forgetting and reformulating who they are. Felix begins the novel with a past that is admitted to be one based upon deceit. Instead of trying to clarify it, he is compelled to associate with men and women of the theatre who have assumed titles that are equally false. By absorbing himself in this community of carnival freaks, he is able to relieve himself of the need to technically defend the presentation of his identity and he is able to more fully believe in the illusion himself. It is apparent that his assumed identity is no less true than the one that has been given to him through inheritance. An implied assertion is made through his actions that an understanding of identity cannot be achieved by either historical or self-evaluative means. The reaction, then, is to cast the notion of one's own identity out away from oneself as something to be created externally. This effect is illuminated upon in Dr. O'Connor's speech about the continual process of the night: Let a man lay himself down in the Great Bed and his ' identity' is no longer his own, his 'trust' is not with him, and his 'willingness' is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous. He sleeps in a Town of Darkness, member of a secret brotherhood. He neither knows himself nor his outriders; he berserks a fearful dimension and dismounts, miraculously, in bed! By giving oneself over to the "Night", you dispel with the responsibility for your own identity. It is a space of anonymity that can be used to escape from identity because it becomes something completely outside of the self. The suggestion is that this is a process that people are a continual participant in. It is a necessary ritual performed in order to not only to escape what identity is understood to be, but to escape false layers of identity as well. To 'berserk a fearful dimension' is to be rid of the aspects of identity that are used as props to cover what is really unknown about identity. Consequently, the greatest fear of anyone in Nightwood would be the discovery of any certain facts about themselves and, more importantly, their own remembrance of their actual identities. Yet, this is unlikely to happen to any of the characters because they have subjected themselves to enough 'Nights' to never remember themselves again. The result is that the reader is left in a labyrinth of each character's creation where they may open any one door to find another display, but no certainty because the true identity of the character has been irretrievably lost.
Barnes's elliptical descriptions of her characters create a sense that she knows as little about the characters in their narration as the reader knows reading of them. This is not a failure to properly think out the characters, but a condition intentionally created to blur the character's past and relinquish control of the character's enactment of their identity. The authorial descriptions of the characters are largely metaphorical, but as the identities of the characters become more layered the descriptions become more actual than metaphorical. An example is the description of the Duchess of Broadback (Frau Mann): She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume: a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow, low in the back and ruffled over and under the arms, faded with the reek of her three-a-day control, red tights, laced boots-one somehow felt they ran through her as the design runs through hard holiday candies, and the bulge in the groin where she took the bar, one foot caught in the flex of the calf, was as solid, specialized and as polished as oak. The stuff of the tights was no longer a covering, it was herself; the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The metaphor becomes more than an artistic way to relate the characters to reality. The characters absorb them and they transform into the thing described. This creates a space where the distinction between stage and reality is also blurred and the character can thus create a reality built on their own terms. Frau Mann's erased sexual being can now choose to assume the identity of a male or female. Reality and performance become inextricable linked to each other. The absorbed descriptions of the characters create a distance between the author and character so that the characters create their own identities to perform. In this way the characters are given as much creative freedom as the author. Just as the author's imagination in the creation of the story is limitless, so is the character's scope of their identity. Thus they are able to perform as they like while giving and withholding bits of their own identity.
The purpose for performing identity originates in the character's belief that there is something essential about their identity that does not work within the social mode they inhabit. In Nightwood characters are revealed to be Jewish, homosexual and transgendered. They have all found ways to express facets of these parts of their identity in ways that are safe within the community they inhabit. Because the character's past is obscured, there is no concrete sense of the identities they abandoned or the circumstances under which it did not fit into a set of social norms. Doctor O'Connor's physical identity does not coincide with his belief of what his essential identity is and so he must create a sense of being through words and by dwelling in places that are uninhibited by social norms. The creation of an identity that is closer to the self is based upon a dismantlement and reconstruction of identity.