Waxing Ornamental: Reading a Poetics of Excess in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood are both peculiar artifacts of literary modernism. Published in 1928 and 1937 respectively, both works present unique styles that are, in many ways, anti-modernist yet avant-garde. In Woolf’s oeuvre, Orlando stands out as an unusually accessible work in terms of style, lacking radically experimental formal techniques and employing many fantasy-like narrative elements. The plot of the novel traverses a time period of over three centuries, and its main character inexplicably transforms from a man into a woman halfway through the narrative. Likewise, Barnes’s compositional style in Nightwood anachronistically draws upon fin de siècle decadence, producing a narrative that often feels painfully stuck in its own crafted temporality. This results in a prose that slowly drags the reader along through the inebriated dialogue of Doctor O’Connor and the ill-fated love affair of Nora Flood and Robin Vote. Aside from these textual idiosyncrasies, the singularity of Woolf and Barnes as literary figures is unavoidable: the former, at the time of Orlando’s publication, was already a well-established pioneer of modernist experimentation, and the latter figured more as a journalist-turned-modernist, largely due to T.S. Eliot’s stamp of approval in his introduction to Nightwood. Thus, considering both the positionalities of Woolf and Barnes within the greater scheme of modernism and the many prevailing definitions of literary modernism as a movement embracing the new, the experimental, and the difficult, there is something about these two works that pushes back against the modernist canon to which they supposedly belong.

In this thesis, I will propose that a poetics of excess at the heart of both Orlando and Nightwood enables these texts to resist the domesticating impulse of institutional modernism. Although the concept of excess figures into my readings of Orlando and Nightwood in numerous ways, I will maintain that, like the “detail” or “ornament” outlined in Naomi Schor’s Reading in Detail, excess “is inevitably bound up with the feminine, when it is not the pathological—two notions Western culture has throughout its history had a great deal of trouble distinguishing” (Schor 49). A brief list of adjectives often associated with excess or the excessive supports this claim. Ornate, flowery, sensual, slushy, frilly, fluffy, extravagant, gushing, and unrestrained—among many other terms—all signify femininity and, by proxy, other forms of sexual, racial, and cultural otherness. Within this framework of excess encoded as “a modernism of marginality” (Marcus 223), I will argue that the excessive and ornamental styles found in Orlando and Nightwood reveal how the past bleeds into modern conceptions of the present (or presence) and how certain abject bodies expose the inherent violence of modern progress and its rejection of the “unfit.” Furthermore, I will discuss how the excesses of modernism found in these two texts are at once haunting and liberating, as they lay bare modernism’s exclusion of the ugly and the messy while still allowing their authors to inscribe alternatives to common modernist timelines and ideologies, including the displacement of faith and fantasy with science and reason, the championing of impersonality, and the economy of literary representation accompanying the culmination of the machine age.

In my introductory chapter, I will begin with a historical account of the cultural era that played a role in producing Orlando and Nightwood. I will attempt to trace the ways in which central streams of modernism—i.e. those institutionalized by Pound, Eliot, Lewis, and the like—constructed themselves against the notion of excess. In the process, I will foreground the associations of excess with the previously mentioned kinds of otherness, such as feminine, queer, and racialized subjectivities. Thus, for instance, in response to Pound’s instruction, “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something” (201), I respond with the following set of questions: What makes a word superfluous? What constitutes the assumed “center” beyond which the “superfluous word” extends? And what is this something that modernist verse and prose should reveal? In exploring tentative answers to these questions within the context of various literary and aesthetic theories—including Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque and Eliot’s “impersonal” theory of poetry—I hope to illustrate how Orlando and Nightwood reach outward toward the margins of modernism’s representational possibilities, recuperating these margins as a means of resistance to modernism’s central or core tenets.

The bulk of my thesis will consist of close readings of Orlando and Nightwood. In my second chapter—a part of which I have submitted along with this proposal—I will read the texts of Woolf and Barnes as bodies themselves with various formal and stylistic excesses that come across as protrusions, mutations, or aberrations. At the same time, I will emphasize bodily representations within the texts that are crucial to the notion of excess. Turning to a more formal critique, my third chapter will treat excess in terms of a “narration of ornamentation” prevalent in both Orlando and Nightwood. This section will rely upon critical and theoretical texts in order to establish a prevailing cultural attitude, particularly in modernist strains of literary and artistic thinking, toward the excesses of ornamentation. For example, I will draw on Monika Kaup’s notion of the “neobaroque” in Barnes’s work, which she describes as “the precise antithesis of the spare, austere, economical style of modernist functionalism” (67). Additionally, I will examine cultural theory concerned with modernity and materiality, such as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Adolf Loos’s numerous essays on fashion, morality, and civilization, which will help contextualize my reading. Finally, my fourth chapter will consider the excess of temporality in both Orlando and Nightwood. The former narrates, without logical explanation, the life of its protagonist over a time period of some three hundred years, while the latter portrays, beginning in 1880, three generations of the Volkbein family—a family with a distressing relation to the past, anchored within the figure of the Jew. Stylistically, both novels draw on what T.S. Eliot, in his introduction to Nightwood, refers to as “a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy” (xxii). These works, thus, have a peculiar relation to the past that gestures toward historical excess, a kind of spectral presence that distorts and challenges conventional notions of modern time and progress.

Throughout my thesis, and particularly reflected in my concluding chapter, I hope to further develop a theory of how reading excess allows one to better understand the very constructed nature of this concept. Woolf’s Orlando and Barnes’s Nightwood are unique in that they are both simultaneously inside and outside, central and peripheral, good and bad (in many senses of the word), which allows for a unique approach to the concept of excess. If we maintain that excess is inextricably tied to femininity via a number of aesthetic, social, and cultural discourses, then perhaps contributing to the development of a theoretical framework for reading excess will elucidate the fallibility and instability of canonical prescriptions as well as the interstices that exist between the center and the margins of historical modernism. In line with Lesley Higgins, my project will attempt to demonstrate “that it is inappropriate to assume that the modernism of Eliot, Pound, Joyce—and their legions of dedicated critics and scholars—is simply a recipe to which we add ‘women writers,’ stir, and voilà, produce a new and improved canonical soup” (Higgins 4). If anything, I hope to illuminate how elements of Orlando and Nightwood that seem “anti-modernist” to contemporary readers are, in fact, “anti-modernist,” but in a self-aware, deeply critical way that should be understood as against certain elements of male modernist orthodoxy, rather than regressive, backward, or even exclusionary.

Works Cited

Eliot, T.S. Introduction. Nightwood. By Djuna Barnes. 1937. New York: New Directions Books, 2006. Print.

Marcus, Jane. “Laughing at Leviticus: Nightwood as Woman’s Circus Epic.” Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Print

Higgins, Lesley. The Modernist Cult of Ugliness: Aesthetic and Gender Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

Kaup, Monika. Neobaroque in the Americas: Alternative Modernities in Literature, Visual Art, and Film. New World Studies, University of Virginia Press, 2012. Kindle file.

Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts By an Imagiste.” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 1.6 (1913): 200-6. The Modernist Journals Project. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.

Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. Taylor & Francis, 2006. Kindle file.