Nightwood’s Unspeakable Losses: The Failure of Translation

Geneviève Robichaud

“In history I am the unreadable, the shadow, the void”

Louise Cotnoir


This essay on Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood argues that, in the novel’s poetic language, one finds an aporetic structure akin to the failure of translation – translation because, in the traversal of any body into the space of the other, there is always some remnant that lags (or drags) behind. The failure of translation, then, we shall argue, is like a wound that, like a viscous fluid, exudes unspeakable losses. It is no wonder that Nightwood has often been described as melancholic, pearl-lined – it is filled to the brim with the ineffable echoes of loss and the lineages of the outcasts.


“One has, I am now certain, to be a little mad to see into the past or the future, to be a little abridged of life to know life, the obscure life” (Barnes 130).


In Writing and Madness, Soshana Felman writes:

If the ‘failure of translation’ between languages is in some sense radically irreducible, what is at stake in the passage from one language to another is less translation in itself than the translation of oneself – into the otherness of languages. To speak about madness is to speak about the difference between languages: to import into one language the strangeness of another; to unsettle the decisions language has prescribed to us so that, somewhere between languages, will emerge the freedom to speak. (19)

The idea of ‘the freedom to speak’ is particularly amplified in relation to Barnes’s Nightwood, especially if we consider that the novel is written in a language that is overwhelmingly its own:

We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own misery […] We are created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it. Yes, we who are full to the gorge with misery should look well around, doubting everything seen, done, spoken, precisely because we have a word for it, and not its alchemy. (90)

Decadent, melancholic, ornamental, lascivious even, the capaciousness of Nightwood’s prose registers what, in more constraining discourses (especially those that uphold the status quo), gets elided (like the unbounded alchemy of the previous example, for instance), and what gets censured in the violent containment of ‘the word.’ Put another way, these elisions stand-in for what falls outside the dominant discourse – a discourse which is also poised in the novel as the porousness of ‘truth’ or ‘history’:

‘We may all be nature’s noblemen [explains the doctor] but think of the stories that do not amount to much! That is, that are forgotten in spite of all man remembers (unless he remembers himself) merely because they befell him without distinction of office or title – that’s what we call legend and it’s the best a poor man may do with his fate; the other […] we call history, the best the high and mighty can do with theirs. Legend is unexpurgated, but history, because of its actors, is deflowered.’ (18)

The prose is, to borrow a phrase from Barnes, “analogous to the displacement in the fluids of the oyster, that must cover its itch with a pearl” (40). But what is that itch, exactly?


“Maybe the basic tenet of writing from […] a feminist consciousness is simply expressing that which cannot be absorbed into [male] processions” (Scott 42). In other words, it is a “feminist consciousness [that] frame[s] this movement toward the excessive” (42).


The idea of the inassimilable is crucial to our discussion, for it gestures to those moments in the novel where the language “bears us hard up against the boundaries of the communicative function, allows us to push further, to break past it”” (Moure 53). It is in those untransmittable moments – like Felix’s lineage for instance – that the freedom to speak (instead of being spoken for) arises: “[t]here’s something missing and whole about the Baron Felix,” notes the doctor (29). But what these inassimilable qualities also point to is the resistance they pose to “strict boundaries within certain categories of thought and feeling” (Moure 51). We shall call these subversions the ‘failure of translation.’

Returning to our earlier quote by Felman, and to that which is at stake in the freedom to speak, we discover not simply the imbrications of a passage from one state to another, but we also find in its wake the remains of one’s attempt to translate one’s self as subject – or subjecte, as Louise Cotnoir articulates it. The question the novel poses in relation to subjectivity, however, is far more complex than simply wondering how one comes to represent one’s self in language; by populating its pages with the ‘lesser-thans’ Nightwood asks that we consider how for “the détraqués, the paupers; their good is incommunicable, outwitted, being the rudiment of life that has developed, as in man’s body are found evidences of lost needs” (57). “Discourse, then, has to be questioned, turned over,” writes Moure, “or it shores up what is, for [her], an oppression and silencing of others” (52).

Whether the passage granted by translation and its subsequent failure is a temporal one, or a porous quality of the writing itself, Nightwood, Victoria Smith suggests, “is a story beside(s) itself: it narrates something besides its overt narrative and tells itself through stories that stand beside the narrated events” (195). The result is one that is syncopatious, and which Nathanaël, after Catherine Clément, outlines as “a moment of absence, of retreat, disappearance, removal, to a here, not here, there somewhere, unaccountable, but for which we are, must be, accountable, somehow, somewhere” (9). In syncope, something (time, consciousness) is eclipsed; “Soudain, le temps bascule,” writes Clément (11):

Le sujet, dit le médecin, est inerte, pâle, sans connaissance […] On gifle, on fait respirer des sels. Quand elles reviennent à elles, leur premier mot sera: ‘Où suis-je?’ Et puisque l’on est à soi revenu, personne ne songe à demander où l’on était passé. La vraie question serait plutôt: ‘Où étais-je?’ Mais non; au retour, après la syncope c’est le monde réel qui, subitement, semble étranger. (11-12)

Strangely, in Nightwood, we find a scene that is oddly reminiscent of the one described by Clément. It is, in fact, the scene where we are introduced to Robin. The passage is worth quoting at length:

On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly over-sung by the notes of unseen birds, which seemed to have been forgotten – left without the usual silencing cover, which, like cloaks on funeral urns, are cast over their cages at night by good housewives – half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled […] The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface […] as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations – the troubling structure of the born somnanbule, who lives in two worlds […]. (37-38)

Not only is this chapter entitled “Somnanbule,” as if to invoke the image of one who straddles two worlds, but our initial encounter with Robin Vote, “she was an enigma” (48), is consistently mediated by the objects in the room that overshadow her. Put another way, there is a kind of play or reciprocity between surfaces, one that threatens to contaminate several realities, to erase difference. As Victoria Smith points out, Robin herself is both metonym and metaphor: “Each description of Robin is a displacement; she signals desire in that she becomes nothing more than a series of metaphors and metonymies” (200) – “he felt that we was looking upon a figurehead in a museum […] as if this girl were the converging halves of a broken fate […] as an image and its reflection in a lake seem parted only by the hesitation in the hour” (Barnes 41). In their dissolution, Nightwood’s sentences act so as to inscribe everything while simultaneously threatening to render that inscription illegible. But accessibility here is not the issue, and according to Moure, “the accessible is merely a way of reading” (54):

The accessible, by not questioning reading and language, ends up simply leading us to comfort. This is the real escapism, for it uses our energy in a way that is static, that changes or reveals nothing […] it isolates itself. It fails to recognize those it oppresses, or where its memories are. (Moure 54-55)

By making us continually aware of its excess, whether it’s because of its ornamental language, its bawdy humour, or its melancholia and poetic nature, Nightwood forces us, as readers, to notice language. In so doing, we are, according to Moure, “better equipped to take off the blinders we are constantly acquiring. The process of shedding blinders is continual” (54).

Writing by itself, however, “cannot put the body back together,” Louise Cotnoir reminds us, “it is too subject to the progression of details” (115). And in that “progression of detail” Barnes’s long sentences test another kind of body – that of the sentence’s limits and its breakability.


Whenever I speak woman, it is nightmarish. It’s as if someone put all the atrocities of all the wars in one photograph. And night falls right in the middle of the page where the questions of writing me, integrating me, going through my life, becoming my own objective, posit themselves as extravagant reflections. (Cotnoir 114)


A corollary exists between the language of Nightwood’s disintegrative state, and that of the over-exposed photograph. The analogy of the photograph might be extremely useful here in thinking about what is elided in representation: who/what is in, is out. “The photographic fixation with fixity is likely an expression of disappointment,” Nathanaël writes. “The photograph is concerned primarily with what disappears from view. In this it is a near perfect expression of desire” (Sisyphus 105). The moment where the aperture, which is also called a shutter, lets too much light in is also the moment where we witness the decay of the image. In photography, the over-exposed image is blackened in the process of its over-exposure. The excess turns the image into nothingness. For example, Nathanaël argues:

Prolonged development processes will reveal the ostensibly endless latent images contained in a single frame of film. In theory, one could expose an image ad infinitum, culling from the celluloid more and more infinite detail. But we know from a photographer such a Josef Koudelka, who practices a very sensitive   relationship to time, that excessive development will produce a pitch black photograph – one could imagine this as the absolute, the most complete photograph, in which the intricate detail produces a solid, impenetrable mesh of opacity. (“A Conversation” np)

In Barnes’s text, we find a similar opacity. It is precisely in its disruption of limits, even of the intelligible, that we see enacted in the language of Nightwood a kind of vigilation for those bodies that are rendered invisible in other (hi)stories:

‘The almost fossilized state of our recollection is attested to by our murderers and those who read every detail of crime with a passionate and hot interest,’ the doctor continued. ‘It is only by such extreme measures that the average man can remember something long ago; truly, not that he remembers, but that crime itself is the door to an accumulation, a way to lay hands on the shudder of a past that is still vibrating.’ (126)

What is interesting about the term vigil is that beyond signifying a “nocturnal devotion,” which is incredibly fitting for our purposes, it also comes to stand in for what remains unsaid: “The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; had she been forced to invent a vocabulary for herself, it would have been a vocabulary of two words, ‘ah’ and ‘oh'” (73). As Smith points out,

The awful fate seems simply a narrative of loss – certainly not the exclusive domain of lesbians. Yet neither the narrative nor the loss is simple. For within Barnes’s difficult and thickly brocaded narrative is wrapped a loss not only of a   lover but also of something more elusive and less recognizable. The narrative shapes itself around a blank space, an absence, that outlines a loss of access to history, to language, and to representation in general for those consigned to the margins of culture because of their gender, sexuality, religion, or color – an awful fate indeed. (194-195)

What we find illuminating about Smith’s reading is that instead of focusing on what is obvious, the narrative excess, she reads into that excess a kind of inversion, a suppression of sorts:

The complexity, even opacity, of Barnes’s writing – enables us to see the outlines, the shadows, the psyches of those people, particularly Jews, lesbians,   and male homosexuals, that have been previously unremarked, unspoken and unaccounted for…her public display of private loves and losses – are, paradoxically, recuperations of those losses. (195)

While Smith makes it her task to focus on “those unspeakable losses” that govern Barnes’s radical style, “[t]here are only confusions […] confusions and defeated anxieties” (25), our own task rereads those unspeakables as iterations of the untranslatable or the failure of translation qua desire. We use this idea of the failure of translation in relation to desire to suggest, after Nathanaël (reading Freud), that “[d]esire is the expression of loss’s desire to salvage itself” (N 34). “The desire to translate,” Nathanaël continues, “to translate oneself, is a desire to come into being in another form, through a language that might be able to hold what eludes the translator, of text, of self (this, at any rate, is the ideal)” (21). What we are arguing for, then, is the idea that the inscribed loss in desire produces, even at a furtive glance, a melancholic shard that sticks out of the prose like a piece of glass:

all her life she has been subject to the feeling of ‘removal’ […] having a conviction that she is somehow reduced, she sets about collecting a destiny – and for her, the sole destiny is love […] her present is always someone else’s past, jerked out and dangling. (105)


“To explode, to shatter [1] dominant and ossified representations, and at the same time propose something there where everything asserts that there is nothing” (Cotnoir 112).


Like photography’s misleading truth claim, especially as it pertains to fixity, we find in (the madness of) Nightwood’s language the (nocturnal) ‘obscurity of repression’. [2] All the sadness of the past and the present spring forth as the characters are found “sidestepping into historical space” (Scott 41). The traversal of any body into the space of translation always drags some remnant behind. Perhaps this explains why Nightwood’s prose is already too full and overflowing – like a leaky body. The image of the leak is apt, conjuring fluidity but also the exposure (photographic pun intended) of secret information. It is this idea of leakiness, which many have described as melancholia that imbibes Nightwood’s prose with a kind of vigilation – a devotion to all things nocturnal, obscure. The failure of translation, then, that trickle of information seeping out like a wound, is linked to the idea of vigil, especially given that its sap mostly consists of bits and pieces, fragments, and unspeakable losses that mark the characters in both visible and invisible ways.

[1] I cannot help but read shatter as “shutter” also.

[2] I am borrowing the term from Nathanaël. Though her words are taken out of context here, they could not be more apt to describe the reflex of Nightwood’s language.

Works Cited

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New York: New Direction Press, 2006. Print.

Clément. Catherine.  La syncope : philosophie du ravissement. Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle, 1990. Print.

Cotnoir, Louise. “Dreams for Human Brains.” Theory, A Sunday. Trans. Erica Weitzman. Brooklyn: Belladonna*, 2013. 110-123. Print.

Felman, Shoshana. Writing and Madness. Trans. Martha Noel Evans, Shoshana Felman & Brian Massuni. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Language, The Unknown. Trans. Anne M. Menke. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. Print.

Moure, Erín. My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice. Edmonton: Newest Press, 2009. Print.

Nathanaël [Stephens, Nathalie], At Alberta. Toronto: BookThug, 2008. Print.

—. “A Conversation with Nathanaël.” Lemon Hound. Vol. 3. (Feb 14th, 2013). Web. 05 April. 2014.

—. Sisyphus Outdone. Callicoon: Nightboat, 2012. Print.

Scott, Gail. “A Feminist at the Carnival.” Theory, A Sunday. Brooklyn: Belladonna*, 2013. 37-52. Print.

Smith, Victoria L. “A Story Beside(s) Itself: The Language of Loss in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” 
PMLA. Vol.114: 2 (March 1999). Web. 05 April. 2014.

Winterson, Janet. “Preface.” Nightwood. New York: New Direction Press, 2006. ix-xvi. Print.