Despair and morbid vitality in Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood” and Reed Morn’s “Talented Parasite”


Keywords: affect, modernist literature, gender, sexuality, Djuna Barnes, Reed Morn

This article focuses on American writer Djuna Barnes’s novel “Nightwood” (1936) and Estonian writer Reed Morn’s novel “The Talented Parasite” (Andekas parasiit, 1927). Specifically, the article analyses how the two novels represent bodies, affects and materiality, relying on the notion of affective modernism (Taylor 2012). English-language modernist texts have been frequently portrayed as aiming for impersonality and the rejection of emotions and sentiment. Authors like Julie Taylor have challenged this assumption, demonstrating the presence of emotions, drives and sensations in modernist texts. New research on modernism has shown modernist texts both portraying and theorizing bodies (Watts et al. 2019), discussing the relationship between the human and the non-human (Ryan 2015) as well as the Anthropocene (Adkins 2022). This article focuses on affects and senses, in particular the way affects move between bodies, being simultaneously creative and disruptive (Taylor 2012: 1). Both authors analyzed here employ affective ambivalence (Taylor 2012: 2). The article uses Tim Clarke’s (2021) concept of morbid vitalism to analyse how the two novels engage with a central problem of modernity: how to live in the context of despair. This question is viewed from a gendered perspective. The article builds on Taylor’s and Clarke’s analysis of Barnes, enriching their interpretations with insights from other scholars to bring the notion of affective modernism into the study of Estonian literature.

The analysis shows that Barnes’s novel provides an excellent example of morbid vitalism, showing recognizable affective tensions between life and death, felt especially keenly in the social margins where gender trouble does not permit characters to identify with normative social fantasies. Marginality becomes a privilege that permits the characters to see the contradictions in ideologies promising coherent subjecthood and to create modes of being that are oriented towards death while remaining open to the presence of others. The morbidity of Morn’s novel does not come to a similar understanding of affects and embodiment or embrace the vital potential of morbidity. “Nightwood” challenges the binary gender system, while “The Talented Parasite” fails to break out of the culturally prescribed internalized misogyny.

However, both novels test the boundaries of affective modernism. Women writers faced the especially difficult task of finding ways of writing about bodies and emotions without being criticized for dated sentimentality. Both texts provide new modes of affective writing, in which the body is present in the text, but not subjected to stereotypical emotional regimes. Barnes is bolder in her project. Morn, despite the pessimism of her final conclusion, addresses the same range of questions about representing the affects created by living outside of social expectation. Barnes does not grant a happy ending to her freak dandies, but affords them considerable vitality. Morn’s conclusion is pessimistic: the marginal can escape only into death. Both novels pose the question of how to live with despair and both conclude that the only answer can be found in affective ambivalence.


Raili Marling (b. 1973), PhD, University of Tartu, Professor of English Studies (Lossi 3, 51003 Tartu), raili.marling@ut.ee


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