Aryan Mundus and Sexual Inversion: Eliot's Edition of Nightwood

Vandenburg, Margaret

Despite its notorious sexual politics, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood gained considerable literary respectability when T. S. Eliot endorsed the first American edition with his Introduction. The presiding dean of Modernist letters at Faber and Faber in London, Eliot could distinguish even obscure writers with a single stroke of his editorial pen. Though his decision to publish Djuna Barnes's wildly subversive Nightwood suggests that an antic disposition lurked beneath his studied propriety, he expurgated several of the manuscript's most transgressive episodes, thus diminishing the redemptive role of sexual inversion in the novel. Eliot admits in his Introduction that “it took me, with this book, some time to come to an appreciation of its meaning as a whole”, but his editorial deletions indicate he overlooked the symbolic significance of inversion as the antithesis of Aryan essentialism in the manuscript. With uncanny prescience, Nightwood forecasts the nightmare of Nazi genocide and gendercide, creating a Parisian underground of expatriate inverts in exile from the deadly cultural “hygiene” of fascism. Analysis of the deleted manuscript passages restores the full force of Barnes's antifascist polemic in which inversion ultimately wins the day.


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English (Barnard College)
Cambridge University Press
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January 29, 2015