Nightwood: “Bow Down”

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“Bow Down”
Barnes initially gave her novel the title Bow Down, and, later, Anatomy of the Night. In 1935, she introduced Nightwood as a potential title (ix). After some debate over which name to use, it fell to T. S. Eliot to decide. Philip Herring comments that Eliot “rejected the alternative title ‘Anatomy of Night,’ [sic] preferring Nightwood because he ‘wanted “something brief and mysterious giving no clue whatever to the contents’” (223). “Bow Down” became the title of the book’s opening chapter.

The would-be title, The Anatomy of the Night, mirrors the title of one of Barnes’s favorite works, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Moreover, the novel evokes Robert Burton’s discursive, tangent-filled, discussion of melancholy, a disease common to all as it “is the character of Mortality” (125). While common to all, melancholy poses a threat when it becomes a habit and, therefore, “a serious ailment, a chronick or continuate disease. . .it will hardly be removed” (127).

Barnes’s first biographer, Andrew Field, notes that Bow Down is the name of “an ‘old folk opera’ about a man’s simultaneous courtship of two sisters” (qtd. in Plumb 212).

“Early in 1880 . . . .”  Nightwood opens in Vienna, Austria

inner stadt i491935a

Hedvig  A Scandinavian variation of the German “Hedwig” that  evokes the bellicose: “hadu” meaning “contention” and “wg” denoting “war.”

Volkbein  “people’s foot” or “people’s bone”

“The bifucated wings of the House of Hapsburg”

Imperial_Coat_of_Arms_of_the_Empire_of_Austria_(1815).svgHapsburg  (Habsburg) Royal dynasty established in the fifteenth century. Their palace, the Hofburg, is located in Vienna.

By 1880, the Hapsburgs controlled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Emperor (or Kaiser) Franz Joseph I was married to a noted beauty, Elisabeth of Bavaria, and was father to Crown Prince Rudolf, who would die with his mistress in a double-suicide in 1889 at Mayerling.

Side  Upon Rudolf’s death, his uncle, the Archduke Karl Ludwig, became the dynastic heir. He stepped aside so that his son, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, might inherit the title. Ferdinand’s assassination contributed to the onset of WWI.

The go-between for the Crown Prince and his lover, Mary Vetsera, was his cousin, Countess Marie Larisch. T. S. Eliot quoted a conversation he’d held with Larisch in The Waste Land:

And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

“The Volkbein arms” Heraldry adopted by Guido Volkbein (cf. page 8 of New Directions edition)

Felix  Son of Hedvig and Guido. The name means “happy” or “lucky.”

Guido  “I lead,” “I guide.”  Guido’s Italian first name and German surname suggests the lack of a specific heritage or community, thereby evoking the novel’s ideas on rootlessness and isolation

Guido is Jewish and “of Italian descent.”

Some readers suggest that the first chapter’s emphasis on the Volkbeins is Barnes’s attempt to obscure gay and lesbian content (Abraham 199). [1] However, evidence suggests that Barnes developed Nightwood from a proposed work of historical fiction about a Viennese “Court Jew.” In late 1930, Barnes applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in order “To visit Austria, Vienna, to make a study of pre-war conditions, intrigues, and relations then existing between the Jews and the Court, tracing the interweaving between the two, for a book in progress whose chief figure is an Austrian Jew” (qtd. in Trubowitz 311, Plumb vii-viii).

Although Guido has married an Austrian woman, in 1880, the time of the novel’s opening, Viennese law forbade marriages between Jews and Christians: “for a mixed couple to marry, one of the partners had to convert either to the religion of the other or to the neutral category, Konfessionslos, ‘without religious affiliation’” (Rozenblit 128).

“burgundy, schlagsahne, and beer” Granted, a bit obvious, but Guido, “a gourmet and a dandy,” enjoys his wines, whipped cream, and ale.

“Racial memories”  Refers to then-current psychological theories:  such memories are elements of the collective unconscious through which we instinctively “know” the ancient past.

In a 1922 lecture, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology in Poetry,” Carl Jung defines the collective unconscious as “a sphere of unconscious mythology whose primordial images are the inheritance of all mankind . . . . a potentiality handed down to us from primordial times in the specific form of mnemonic images or inherited in the anatomical structure of the brain” (Jung 80). There are no inborn ideas, but there are inborn possibilities of ideas . . . . a priori ideas, as it were, the existence of which cannot be ascertained except from their effects” (80-81). In 1932 essay on Pablo Picasso, Jung praised the artist’s abilities to evoke “memories of the blood” that, if recalled, might “restor[e] the whole man” (140). It is arguable whether Nightwood’s evocations of “blood” or “racial” memories”  offer any restorative effect.

The Prater  Vienna’s grand park, the Prater, is located in the city zone known as Leopoldstadt.

“the exquisite handkerchief of yellow and black linen”  The handkerchiefs represent the “Jew badge,” a medieval method of differentiating between Christians and Jews, which the Nazis appropriated and mandated  in 1939.  The primary motivation of this edict lay in the prevention of accidental sexual relationships between “Jews and Saracens” and Christians (Kisch 111).

Pietro Barbo  A Venetian elected Pope in 1464. He took the name of Paul II.

Monsignori  (pl Monsignor): 1. Chiefly with capital initial. An honorific title of, or form of address to, a Roman Catholic of ecclesiastical rank, as a prelate, archbishop, etc., indicating a distinction bestowed by the Pope, sometimes in conjunction with an office. 2. A churchman holding this status; a person entitled to be addressed as ‘Monsignor’ (OED)

“The ordinance of 1468”  Pietro Barbo instigated the races as an element of the winter festival of Saturnalia in 1466 (Kertzer 74). Plumb notes the discrepancy in Barnes’s dating of the event in 1468, and suggests that the 1466 races “appear to be the ordinance that Barnes refers to, though the dates are not exact” (Plumb 212). Hanrahan further questions how Barnes arrived at 1468 and claims that “No explanation has ever been proposed for the enigmatic date of the ordinance, which corresponds to no recognizable historical referent” (36). Please see the longer entry here for a more detailed discussion and sourcing of Barnes’s reference.

Piazza Montanara” Area of Rome, “on the very confines of the Ghetto” (Story 409). The location of an open market attended by the peasantry.

“Roba vecchia!”  “Old things,” presumably, items for sale at the Pizza Montanara market.

“Guido died against that wall…” cf. “God’s chosen walk close to the wall” (Barnes 19).

Genuflexion   a. The action of kneeling or bending the knee, esp. in worship.  b. Surg. A forcible bending of the knee as a curative measure in popliteal aneurysm (OED)

“Guido had lived as all Jews do”  A reference to the historical treatment of the Jewish people who, often exiled, ghettoized, and victimized, were branded as “Other” See A History of the Jews, by Abram Leon Sachar (a copy of which belonged to Barnes) for detailed accounts.

Barony  1. The domain of a baron  3. The rank or dignity of baron; the office of Baron of the Exchequer; baronship. 4. The tenure by which a baron held of his superior; military or other ‘honourable’ tenure (OED).

Baron  1. Hist. Originally, one who held, by military or other honourable service, from the king or other superior; afterwards restricted to the former or king’s barons, and at length mostly applied to the greater of these (the Great Barons) who personally attended the Great Council, or, from the time of Henry III, were summoned by writ to Parliament; hence, a lord of Parliament, a noble, a peer. 2 a. A specific order or rank, being the lowest grade of nobility.From the earliest period we find baron distinguished from earl, as the designation of an untitled military tenant; the name may be considered to have itself become a title, as distinct from a description of feudal relationship or of parliamentary privilege, with the creation of barons by patent, which began in the reign of Richard II.  2 b. A magnate in commerce, finance, or the like; a great merchant in a certain commodity, usu. defined by a qualifying word, as beef baron, coal baron. (Cf. king n. 6a) orig. U.S. (OED).

“He adopted the sign of the cross”  At the time of the novel’s opening, Viennese law forbade marriages between Jews and Christians: “for a mixed couple to marry, one of the partners had to convert either to the religion of the other or to the neutral category, Konfessionslos, ‘without religious affiliation’” (Rozenblit 128). The law also points toward the trend for assimilation amongst Jewish Austrians.

Coat of Arms  The coat of arms is described a few pages later, “[i]nto the middle of each desk silver-headed brads had been hammered to form a lion, a bear, a ram, a dove, and in their midst a flaming torch. The design was executed under the supervision of Guido who, thinking on the instant, claimed it as the Volkbein field, though it turned out to be a bit of heraldry long since in decline beneath the papal frown” (Barnes 8).

“One branch of his family had bloomed in Rome” See Nightwood’s earlier reference to the Roman races. See also the comparison of Guido to “certain flowers”

“Her goose-step of a stride”   Goose-step:  Mil.  a. An elementary drill in which the recruit is taught to balance his body on either leg alternately, and swing the other backwards and forwards.  b. A balance step, practised esp. by various armies in marching on ceremonial parades, in which the legs are alternately advanced without bending the knees (OED).

  • Although armies throughout Europe and the East used the Goose-step to varying degrees, the march is most keenly identified with the Prussian military (Davies).

“A house in the Inner City”  The Inner City (Innere Stadt) was a privileged area of Vienna that “housed many aristocrats, and [which] became the home of the richest Viennese” (Rozenblit 73).

The Volkbein home “overlook[s] the Prater, and, essentially, the site of the Viennese ghetto. Vienna’s grand park, the Prater, is located in the zone known as Leopoldstadt, which made up a large part of the ghetto in the seventeenth century. In the 1920s, Jewish writer Joseph Roth wrote that the Leopoldstadt, the home of “immigrant Jewry,” acted as “a sort of voluntary ghetto” (Roth 55).

The Inner City, Vienna


[1] Jane Marcus, for example, asserts that “the ‘political unconscious’ of Nightwood is located in its supposedly irrelevant first chapter, meant to disguise its existence as a lesbian novel” (229).

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