(edited and with an introduction by G.C. Guirl-Stearley, The Missouri Review, Volume 22, Number 3, 1999, pp. 105-146)
I took out pages [that] seem to be stories of the Doctor. However good they may be in themselves I know they will irritate Eliot…I don’t think anyone will risk it. It [Nightwood]is too peculiar a book.
I shall see that the book is published, if I live. . . .If human art can draw blood out of a stone, I will draw interest from Eliot for this book.
Anyone with an ounce of creative talent—and many who have none at all—falls in love with your book, because they love the “light” in it so that they forget what form it is in.
I do feel though that Eliot is the man who might risk it. Ifs just a question if writing so utterly different from his own kind, and having a lack which, to him, with his passionate longing for order, seems the worst lack any writing can have, CAN prevail on him, when it is that of genius. Barker agreed with me that if Eliot got the mss. of Moby Dick he would be likely to reject it.
It [Barker’s book] is not profound, in a human way, like yours.
I don’t think you could ever be happy, as I am. It is not your nature. Your book is the result of the most dreadful suffering.
Certainly were you passionately in love with asceticism that would be another thing, if you wanted to be and had been a nun, and your whole passion was turned in that way, and your renunciation of the body was your largest passion and love, then I should say that you were now backsliding, but even so, I would have to say that considering the intensity of that back- sliding there must be something missing in your relation to God.
–November 22, 1935. DB
I believe that what you most feel that you must do, no matter what the consequences, and if it damns you to Hell, then Hell is your home. Fanatics, and prophets, and lovers and poets all know their home when they find it, you have not found yours, so you are still turning and turning…
The older I get the less able I seem to be to take anything emotional, literally on the flat of my back for two days, and still a week later depressed and low in spirits and weak feeling physically.
He [Muffin, a.k.a. Peter Neagoe, Barnes’ lover] says that now he has mailed back Nightwood to me he begins to see “what it is, really splendid. Generally writers write books, yours is born. That everybody who reads it should have different opinions about it is like when people stand before a newborn child and try to fathom its soul and its future. And the measure they have is their own size.”
Probably it is a reaction from all the trouble now in the world, the coming war, apparently war all over the place, the smell of death is already hanging in the clothes of the nations, and why, what sort of people would we all be if not depressed, and a strong sense of futility over every impulse to create. Create, what for? A schoolteacher said the other day that she could barely get through her hours for depression, she could not take any pleasure in teaching children who were destined for cannon fodder. Can you blame her?
(Tho I still can’t say I love the Jenny chapter [of Nightwood] yet).
I was reading the gospel according to St. John today, and I was struck with the saying of Jesus “I have no witness” (tho he was surrounded), it’s always so with anyone who knows something that others do not; for this they disbelieve in very truth, and for this they stone and put to death; nor can one blame them, because what they do not know they fear, and what they fear they call evil, so have they been taught. Perhaps there is no good and evil after all, only a lack of knowledge; because of this God (or whatever it is we call God, can forgive, because he sees far beyond us, as the artist sees beyond the commoner).
Really the world is (to my sight) a place filled with terrible and awful people. Then they say my writing is strange and mad. Why, great heaven, any life truly written in fact the least life, is simply appalling. Literature, and the child’s lie told at the mother’s knee is the only stan- dard and decent life, as it is called, no man’s such in full truth and laid bare. I begin to feel like Rimbaud, I am about to the point where I don’t even care to try to write about it anymore.
–December 12, 1935. EHC
Of course I think of the book [Nightwood] as “myself” which is exactly what it is UNTIL IT IS PUBLISHED.
But on the radio they said he [Dr. Carrel] raised a furor because he spoke of putting men to sleep for years (what can that be) and about memory of past time and future sight in people. Other doctors roared “nonsense” they would.
I did not mean that I was terrified of the evil in Thelma when I said I had a right to be terrified of her, that did not terrify me for a long time, because I thought she was not evil. I am still of the opinion (would take too long to go into it if my book [Nightwood] does not show what I mean). I was terrified of losing her, thafs what I mean.
I can not imagine spending years writing fiction, things made up entirely out of thin air, and without a foundation in some emotion, as Muffin does (it’s what’s the matter with most of them I believe, but then, think of all the writers who have written forty odd books). Perhaps Muffin is right when he says my book was born, not written. A good book from a woman seems to be pretty much like childbed, which makes me sick to think of, men can scatter books all over the place like their seed.
–December 14, 1935. DB
I told him I simply had to have a fatal illness, as that was, paradoxically enough, now my only hope. He asked why, I told him, “that I may be so doomed that I will write my last and best book.”
The Christian religion was of value because it was love of man and a myth, unreachable God in heaven made it what it has been to man for centuries, Marx is all very lovely, but it is only a dream bent on worldly hope, and immediate need, if it came to pass, (as it well may) that will be a biological change but not a spiritual, for the spirit grows, not only on ten dollars a day, but on the inconceivable, conceived by the artist at his highest point, and is still there to be apprehended above his greatest effort and feeling.
…if you think that the bums in the park are there only because of lack of money you have muffed the whole great skeleton of the past, and have shelved the problem of man’s psychology. Money is a very great part of man’s environmental tragedy, but it is not all, and that all is what the artist must strive to find; nearly all of you rest on too easy a tabulation; just, as I believe, Freud, Jung and the rest are of little importance, because they now have a canned and labeled precept for every action, having, as it were commercialized the findings of the intuitive artists, like Dostoevsky—and the minute you succumb to that, it is only a thank you ma’am on the road to knowledge.
To begin with, as I said, when Charles said that what we needed was Marx and a “clean slate,” I have no love for a “clean slate” it’s exactly what’s wrong with this damned country, we began with too clean a slate, we even killed off the few writings on that slate, which were the Indians, and what a pretty mess we have made of it. Ifs precisely the clean slate that frightens me about this country. Charles said “all right, what are your ideals then, you believe in good and evil, you like suffering and its outer side, riches, you Uke black and white, you are in other words a GANGSTER!” I answered that I was afraid that I did like good and evil, that I was, admittedly, a complete egoist, I was only interested in beauty, art and religion…
We condemn God, saying why has he planted evil in the world, if he is all powerful and all perfection, but what do we know of his design?
–January 10th, 1936. DB
How terribly true my last words in my book [Nightwood] are, now “nothing but wrath and weeping;” in art one stops short of it by the dramatic curve which cuts the cord at the right moment, as for instance, when Muffin said he has taken her back, I should have, had I been a play, shown him the door forever. But in life we dangle on, lose our tragedy in wrath and weeping, wrath for what has happened, weeping for the loss of it.
Well, I suppose I’ll be a sharp old lady with two canes, a thousand black cats and the children will draw a witches circle about me, I can’t say about my hut, as I shan’t have one.
–February 17th, 1936. DB