Saturday, December 20, 2014

Taking David Foster Wallace's English 170R: Class #5 (Nightwood pp. 84-End)

So it might seem I'm falling behind but I actually recorded this class a week ago and am just getting around to putting it up. I will admit that it took me a couple extra days to finish my minipaper, though. (Also, I have the sinking suspicion I would be failing these minipapers, as I feel they aren't very good and might not even fulfill the "page-long" requirement. Oh well.) This class discussion goes long because I'm joined by two friends, Rebecca and Jeff. Nightwood is Rebecca's favorite book and she had a lot of insightful things to say about it. Everything she says is probably worth a listen.

Before we get to my minipaper, a couple of things: Soundcloud has a 180 minute upload limit so I'm having to delete some of the earlier discussions. I'll be saving them and probably posting them to YouTube at the conclusion of the class and sticking all the minipapers and stuff in a tab on the blog. Also the next book is Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and I'll be doing the first class for that tomorrow and wrapping that up on Monday since I won't have any time immediately before and after Christmas. Luckily it's pretty short.

Nightwood discussion: https://soundcloud.com/dhsayer/20141213_110029-mp3

Nightwood minipaper:

   Those attempting a critical assessment of the themes in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood are confronted with an embarrassment of riches. There are myriad thematic elements at play, and many ways to discuss them and the unusual ways they manifest in the novel.
   Even the simplest discussion of the book would be incomplete without addressing the style of the writing, which oftentimes only faintly resembles prose. It is, as T.S. Eliot mentions in his introduction, a highly poetic language, packed with imagery and allusive signifiers. Even the basic task of identifying the protagonist requires more unpacking than would be required in a traditional narrative. The book begins with the family history of Felix Volkbein, though he comes in and out of the narrative as the story progresses. Robin Vote seems to be the cynosure around which the other characters revolve, though she is arguably the least developed character in terms of actual description on the page. She remains somewhat elusive, as even the people around her admit that they “never did have a really clear idea of her at any time.” [pg. 119]
   We see Robin mostly through the eyes of the other characters, and her arc consists in large part of the various interactions she has with them. This is of a piece with the theme of duality that weaves through the book. There are numerous couplings as Robin goes from one partner to the next, and other characters come together in lengthy commiseration. The novel’s structure is akin to that of a dance between two people, with partners spinning off together for a while before trading partners. Each section of the book seems to concentrate on these one-on-one interactions. There are also references to characters being shadows of one another, as well as mirror images. In that space between two characters—the words they toss back and forth, often without registering what the other is saying—is where both of them are elucidated, to the reader if not to each other.
  The book is very plotted, but the events are described obliquely. If poetry is the art of creating effect without the use of explicit language, then a lot of Nightwood’s passages qualify as such. Relationships form and crumble in the course of the story, but these are carried out in unusual ways. We are as likely to read about a courtship involving rage and a lashing out as we are to read about a breakup that has components of weird tenderness. Take the meeting between Nora and Robin, for example. They meet at a circus where Robin has a mysterious confrontation with a lioness. The animal regards Robin through the bars, “her eyes flowed in tears that never reached the surface.” After that encounter Nora and Robin form a relationship whose bond seems contingent on— or at least somehow connected to—this face-to-face Robin had with an animal, an interaction that is unclear and open to interpretation, though one does not doubt the impact of the event in the same way that one would place great importance on a traditional dramatic event (a catastrophe, a mutually witnessed tragedy, etc.) in the bonding of two characters in a regular narrative. This is a way of saying that in Nightwood you find the basic conceits of the conventions of traditional narrative (character development, behavior tied to and explained by dramatic events, peripeteia) done in a poetic, indirect way, but being just as impactful as those conventions would be in a traditional narrative. It allows the novel to represent those things found in a good narrative but also retain its oblique stylization.

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