This essay frames Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Nightwood as an attempt to overcome an impasse between the discourses of hope and the discourses of despair in an interwar period in many ways preoccupied with questions of mortality. Synthesizing Decadent aesthetics and elements of Spinoza’s vitalist philosophy, Barnes produces a “morbid vitalism,” exemplified by Dr. Matthew O’Connor, by which life and death are conceived as variant expressions of a single force, and the subject is modeled as an assemblage of affects, impersonal but inherently social, that can be understood primarily through its pursuit of what Jack Halberstam has called “generative models of failure.” In exploring this mode of subjectivity, Barnes seeks to undermine a host of ostensible oppositions (hope and fear, ascendence and decadence, success and failure, morbidity and vitality), opening up a conceptual and affective space for thinking through—if not necessarily beyond—the ubiquity of despair in twentieth-century modernity. Ultimately, morbid vitalism points a way toward a broader conversation between life-oriented modernist scholarship on vitalism and affect, on the one hand, and ongoing inquiries into the relationship among death, Decadence, and modernism, on the other.

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