“Robin was outside the ‘human type’—a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin, monstrously alone, monstrously vain”
Barnes, Djuna, and T. S. Eliot. Nightwood. New York: New Directions, 1961. Print. 155.
One of the biggest themes explored in not only Nightwood, but also The Beast in the Jungle, Cane, and Untouchable is being “outside” of the norm when it comes to identity. Marcher is not like anyone else when it comes to love. He does not show it, understand it, or really ever feel it. In the end, he is forced to question his life and identity. In Cane, the story of Bona and Paul focuses on the same idea of identity where Paul is extremely confused with who he is and ultimately loses Bona. This is where we see a fragmentation of identity. Untouchable creates a separation in society due to identity because they were seen as outsiders, as “outside the ‘human type'” as this quote from Nightwood states.
“She prayed, and her prayer was monstrous because in it there was no margin left for damnation or forgiveness, for praise or for blame-for those who cannot conceive a bargain cannot be saved or damned. She could not offer herself up; she only told of herself in a preoccupation that was its own predicament.” (51)
Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New Directions, 1937. Print
Throughout some of the novels we have read as a class, the theme of religion is a prominent feature. Questioning, invoking, pleading, or simply referencing God or a “higher power” plays an important role in these novels and the development of their respective characters. The early twentieth century in the United States was marked by social reform, The Great Depression, which not only rocked the world reawakened the Social Gospel as well. These were desperate times and many were either turning toward religion, or away from it. While Joyce and Barnes can be seen as the marker for a pre-and-post Great Depression novel looks like they have the unique characteristic of knowing each other. Despite the two decades separating the publication of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and Djuna Barnes Nightwood, Stephen Dedalus (post-renunciation of the Church) and Robin Vote have striking similarities. Stephen writes in his journal, “Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life!” (213). Stephen is not begging God for a successful journey, or even saying a prayer at all, amen is stated at the end of a prayer and literally means “so be it” indicating that his life is no longer in the hands of God but rather to be “forged in the smithy of my soul”. Robin Vote (as stated above) prays but does not “offer herself up” like a lamb to slaughter. She is simply trying to make sense of a “preoccupation that was also its own predicament” (51).
Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jean Toomer’s Cane also grapple and contemplate the role of God and religion from the experience of Black America in the South. In Toomer’s “Cotton Song” the verse goes as follows, “God’s body’s got a soul, Bodies likes to roll the soul, Cant blame God if we don’t roll, Come, brother, roll. roll!” (13) This concept of a “rolling soul” is directly evoked in Hurston’s novel as well, “Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine” (86). In Cane, the poems often seen as prayer-like. In “Conversation”, the “African Guardian of the Souls” yields to “a white-faced sardonic god-“, (17). Again this feeling can be seen in Hurston’s novel where she writes, “The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God” (151). The questioning of God, not only in who but why, and how binds these four novels together. The ability of God to shape the lives of these characters (or not) brings up questions never asked before. Depending on the character’s acceptance or rejection of a Higher Power (and perhaps the authors’ own experience and beliefs) allowed for a religious critique in the early 20th century that turned the idea of God as absolute truth into God as something to be questioned, and perhaps, that’s not such a bad thing after all.
“Money burns the pocket, pocket hurts,
Bootleggers in silken shirts,
Ballooned, zooming Cadillacs,
Whizzing, whizzing down the street-car tracks.”
Toomer, Jean. “Kabnis.” Cane. New York: Liveright, 2011.Print
“Becky was the white woman who had two negro sons. She’s dead; they’re gone away. The pines whisper to Jesus. The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound.”
Toomer, Jean. “Becky.” Cane. New York: Liveright, 2011. Web.
“Dorris dances. She forgets her tricks. She dances
Glorious songs are the muscles of her limbs.
And her singing is of canebrake loves and mangrove feastings.
The walls press in, singing. Flesh of a throbbing body, they press close to John and Dorris. They close them in. John’s heart beats tensely against her dancing body. Walls press his mind within his heart. And then, the shaft of light goes out the window high above him. John’s mind sweeps up to follow it. Mind pulls him upward into dream. Dorris dances…”
Toomer, Jean. “Theater.” Cane. New York: Liveright, 2011. 71. Print.
This moment between Dorris and John is connected to other moments in the text through its motif of the “canebrake” and the “mangrove.” In particular, the “canebrake” connects Dorris to the character of Louisa in “Blood-Burning Moon” and highlights their common relationships to white men in positions of power.
“White folks feed it cause their looks are words. Niggers, black niggers feed it cause theyre evil an their looks are words. Yallar niggers feed it. This whole damn bloated purple country feeds it cause its goin down t hell in a holy avalanche of words. I want t feed th soul – I know what that is; th preachers don’t – but I’ve got t feed it. I wish t God some lynchin white man ud stick his knife through it an pin it to a tree. Am pin it to a tree. You hear me? That’s a wish f y, you little snot-nosed pups who’ve been makin fun of me, an fakin that I’m weak. Me, Ralph Kabnis weak. Ha.” (152)
Toomer, Jean. “Kabnis.” Cane. New York: Liveright, 2011. 152. Print.
“Ralph Kabnis, propped on his bed, tries to read. To read himself to sleep. An oil lamp on a hair near his elbow burns unsteadily. The cabin room is spaced fantastically about it. Whitewashed hearth and chimney, black with sooty saw-teeth.”
Toomer, Jean. “Kabnis.” Cane. New York: Liveright, 2011. 111. Print.
Ralph tries “to read himself to sleep” to immerse himself in a story that is not his own. The unsteadily burning lamp is like his life, and his mind, always on edge. He recognizes that his room is whitewashed physically, as his society is whitewashed with white people in charge. His own life is tainted with “black… sooty-saw teeth.” Even he perceives blackness as being bad. This says a lot about how his mind has been whitewashed.
“White lights, or as now, the pink lights of the Crimson Gardens gave a glow and immediacy to white faces. The pleasure of it, equal to that of love or dream, of seeing this. Art and Bona and Helen? He’d look. They were wonderfully flushed and beautiful. Not for himself; because they were. Distantly. Who were they, anyway? God, if he knew them. He’d come in with them. Of that he was sure. Come where? Into life? Yes. No. Into the Crimson Gardens. A part of life. A carbon bubble.”
Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Liveright, 2011), 102.
Focusing on Paul’s observations of the lighting in the room and the “white faces” around him, Toomer illustrates Paul’s realization that he, aside from the man at the door, is the only black person in the room. Writing that Art, Helen, and Bona are beautiful not for just Paul, but “because they were,” Toomer points that Paul, aware of his racial difference, finds white standards of beauty and his exclusion from it to be fact. Paul is with them only “distantly” because their whiteness excludes him from actually being a part of their group. The series of questions and the contradiction of the “Yes” and “No” reflect Paul’s insecurities of fitting into the party setting. And if the Crimson Gardens is a “part of life” or a “carbon bubble,” then Paul’s lack of belonging and awareness of difference are characteristic of his everyday life and of rest of the text as well.