April 28, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureShort Takes/Mixed Tape

“Can’t You Rest Now?”: Nightwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Madness

I have a theory: the ending of Season 7, Episode 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Beneath You”) was inspired by Djuna Barnes’s queer modernist novel Nightwood (1936). I know it sounds a little farfetched, but hear me out. At its core, Nightwood is about the toxic relationship between Nora Flood, an American woman who runs a “paupers” salon, and Robin Vote, a “somnambule” who prowls the night and ruins everyone she loves. Even after the break-up, Nora writes letters to Robin, driving herself mad with love, until finally her friend, Dr. Matthew O’Toole, asks, “Can’t you rest now?” Meaning: this is pointless; can’t you give up? But Nora cannot. Their relationship is so fraught that both women are drawn inexorably back to each other. At the end of Nightwood, after following her dog across her property, Nora finds Robin in a chapel. At the end of “Beneath You,” Buffy also finds Spike in a chapel at night. Unbeknownst to the slayer, the vampire got his soul back in a desperate attempt to make her happy and win her love. But now his soul is driving him mad. He walks around the chapel, crazed, and drapes himself over a wooden cross, allowing it to burn him. As his flesh smokes, he says, “Can we rest now, Buffy? Can we rest?”

Spike’s question has haunted me ever since I first watched this episode of Buffy. “Can we rest now?” Not “Can we go home now?” Not “Can we please stop hurting each other?” Not even “Aren’t you tired of all this?” No. “Can we rest now?” A difference of a few letters from the line Matthew speaks in Nightwood. Without knowing for sure whether Joss Whedon (who reportedly rewrote and reshot the church scene after the original version was filmed) had ever read Djuna Barnes, I can’t say that the final scene of “Beneath You” was in fact taken from Nightwood (that’s why I’m calling it a “theory;” don’t sue me). And yet, the similarities are striking. It seems like an impossible coincidence—one that calls into question whether there are any original stories left to tell—but, then again, when you boil the two plots down to their most essential elements, you wind up with this: toxic relationship drives one lover to madness. “Beneath You,” which originally aired in 2002, introduces new elements to the story, setting it in a dark, fantastical world where hellmouths open under high schools and vampires embark on quests to win back their souls, but the change in setting, character, and tone doesn’t alter the fundamental plot or the theme of love becoming a form of madness. It’s a story we know all too well. Sometimes from personal experience.

When I first watched “Beneath You,” I was 23-years-old (late, I know). At that time, I was in love with the wrong person, but more importantly it had become a habit—perhaps even a defining trait—falling in love with the wrong person. Like so many young queer women, I made the mistake of falling for a straight woman. Repeatedly. I blame this, in part, on the usual suspects: the oppression that keeps LGBT youth in the closet and made me one of two out queer women in my high school; the social conditioning that equates beauty with the heteronormative, Hollywood ideal of femininity, thus making straight women confusingly desirable; the deep self-loathing that has driven women better than myself to the masochistic love of the unattainable. At times, I even blamed Nightwood for teaching me at an early age that true love is destructive; that it drives you mad; that unless you walk the streets at night, weeping, twisting yourself into knots as you devise more and more convoluted ways to forgive your love their terrible, cruel behavior, then you can’t really say you’re in love. I read that book too young. I grew up asking myself: am I Robin or am I Nora? For a time, in graduate school, I drank enough and was disastrous enough to wake up one day and think, my God, I’m Robin. But in truth I’ve always been the Nora of my relationships: the one who can’t rest, who worries her friends, who writes a million emails.

Or at least I was until recently. Now, at 28, I’m at last in the headspace to know that this is not the kind of love I value in my personal life. In art, on paper, onscreen, it’s still just as dynamic as ever; but for myself I need something else. A quieter kind of madness, perhaps. In searching for an example of this quiet madness, I keep returning to Imagine Me & You, a lesbian romcom about a blushing bride, Rachel, who falls in love with a florist she meets at her wedding. Clever editing clues the audience in to love at first sight, but Rachel doesn’t realize that’s what it is, not at first. She tries to be friends with Luce. She invites her to dinner. Tries to set her up with a man. It’s charming and light and not at all mad. And yet, when it comes time to admit her love, she tells her husband: “I went crazy, Heck. I went crazy for someone, and it wasn’t you.” On my first viewing, I thought to myself, Crazy? Their affair had seemed fairly tame. A bit of DDR and kissing on a bed of roses. None of the weeping and wailing I had come to associate with love. In that moment, as Rachel confessed the truth to herself, madness sounded like sadness, like saying goodbye even when you know it will hurt. That’s something Nora, Robin, and Spike were never capable of, and something I’m still learning to do. I’m dating someone now, an unfailingly kind poet who has never read Nightwood. She loves Imagine Me & You, though. In part because it has a happy ending.