Djuna Barnes Essay - Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 4)

Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 4)

Barnes, Djuna 1892–

An American novelist, dramatist, and short story writer, Djuna Barnes is best known for her novel Nightwood. (See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 8, 11, 29 and 127.)

In Nightwood the nostalgia of transient details becomes transmuted to an anguish in whose crepuscular heaving objects lose their literal, narrative base of reference to become pure metaphors, at once freer and less fictional than in other novels…. It is no disparagement to the vision of this novel to say, with T. S. Eliot, that it exists at the margin of its genre and of another, poetry. Literal or not, the metaphors still extend the characters who handle them or name them…. The splintered narrative, the striking exfoliation of unliteral detail, exist here in a hypertrophy reminiscent of Ulysses; and its characters, like those of Ulysses, tend to petrify into types, to twist, through the style, into grotesques more distorted than those of Winesburg, Ohio.

Albert Cook, in his The Meaning of Fiction (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1960 by Albert Cook), Wayne State University Press, 1960, p. 126.

Djuna Barnes, who belonged to what Gertrude Stein called "the lost generation," wrote very different plays at the beginning and end of her writing career…. As melodramatic as O'Neill's early shockers …, Barnes' plays did not eventually lead her toward her own experience, as did those of O'Neill….

It is impossible to consider [her early] plays seriously, in their modish poses and pseudo-poetic dialogue. The sure touch of Barnes' novels seems to come from some other mind. But nearly four decades after these dubious plays, Djuna Barnes again turned to drama. Still melodrama in that the emotion seems to exceed the vehicle, the dialogue of that vehicle is distinctive—different from anything else written by Djuna Barnes, and different from any other play of the twentieth century.

The title Antiphon (1958) suggests an archaic and static form, for an antiphon is a verse reply, as in an antiphonic hymn. Elizabethan in phrasing, the drama is antiphonal in several scenes; that is to say, a verse speech calls forth its immediate reply, rather than fitting into an overall action. Though the verse of The Antiphon is archaic, setting and plot are relatively modern—the one recalling Eliot and the other Yeats. Like Eliot's Family Reunion, The Antiphon is set in an English country house; curiously, the date of production of Family Reunion is the date within The Antiphon—1939, the beginning of World War II. The war is the play's present, but the characters are mired in the past, as in Yeats' Purgatory. In both plays, a woman has betrayed her aristocratic heritage by lust for a commoner….

The heavily imaged verse embraces all three acts of [The Antiphon] but the theatrical mood of each act is different….

[Matter] extracted from manner betrays The Antiphon more than most plays. The seventeenth-century speech reflects the theme, carrying conviction of the Burley past. Djuna Barnes' lines tease with echoes of Webster and Tourneur, and yet the idiom is original. In Yeats' Purgatory we have the Old Man's word that "Great people lived and died in this house." But in Barnes' Antiphon the language imposes those people upon us.

As in her novel Nightwood, Djuna Barnes makes some effort to differentiate the speech of the several characters…. In spite of differences, all six characters utter free pentameters, freer images, and the two women use a syntax that is perhaps too convoluted to be understood in the theater.

Unlike T. S. Eliot, who forced his verse into the mold of modern conversational prose, Djuna Barnes resolutely resurrects techniques of Elizabethan drama—soliloquy, aside, catalogue, pun, and above all metaphor. At its worst, the imagery swallows denotative sense…. More often, though, the imagery concentrates paragraphs of dialogue….

There are few sustained threads of imagery, but these few are significant. Miranda is often a voyager or traveler; Augusta is both hunted and hunter….

The dialogue of The Antiphon is astonishing. As drama, The Antiphon has many flaws: Jack Blow's opening exposition is obscure; descriptions are gratuitous of Augusta's sister Elvira and of Titus' mother Victoria. Even the coupling of Miranda's ruin with a Paris ruined by war is skillful in its horror rather than organic in its link. Too often, connotations muffle denotations; sound buries sense. In spite of these serious faults, however, The Antiphon contains extraordinarily rich diction and varied rhythms. For literary accomplishment, the play begs comparison with Eliot or Yeats. But unlike their plays, The Antiphon has not yet—1970—tempted theatermen. Which implies its own critique of the play, or of the theater.

Ruby Cohn, "Djuna Barnes," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 207-11.

[Nightwood] as a whole is deeply concerned with the perception, memory, and association of its characters and their consequent behavior. It draws heavily on images from nature, childhood, and religion, both in portraying the present and past of the characters. In the passage [concerning] … the doctor and his room, and the question, "tell me everything you know about the night" all suggest not only psychological but also religious significance. Specifically, there is the suggestion of a rite of initiation at a sacred time and in a sacred space.

Traditionally, religions require the initiate to undergo symbolic torment, suffering, and death. His death, in turn, signifies his return to the womb, to his creator, and thence to rebirth and a higher plane of awareness. Nora, indeed, fulfills these requirements of the initiate, albeit on a psychological plane….

Thus far we have considered Nightwood as a novel concerned with pyschology—that is, portraying the memory, perception, symbols, dreams, myths, fantasies, and behavior of its characters—saturated with religious allusions. The novel draws the structure of its conflict from a conception of the mind in tension; historically and individually created in unknown, unknowable circumstances akin to concepts of Dionysian darkness, chaos, and formlessness, yet shaped unconsciously by a fusion of actual memory and given religious-cultural myths. By these the characters perceive and act in the Apollonian world of form. The central myth is the religious myth of rebirth, a myth which, however consciously lost in a character, still resides, a dark force of the unconscious but dimly perceived. In short, Nightwood draws a parallel between certain historically recognized myths and certain personal myths in much the same fashion as certain contemporary psychologists. This is not to say, however, that Barnes and Jung share the same point of view towards this phenomenon nor that their objectives are parallel.

The characters are repeatedly defined by religious allusions….

The religious references are themselves linked to the basic religious longing to be other than what one is; the individual is lost, unfulfilled. In religion this longing is played out by creation of sacred space, time, and rituals which are recreations of the divine acts of creation and so promise to unite the human with the divine from which he came. In both psychology and religion, the natural earthly counterpart to Edenic existence and identification with God is the child's experience of the mother. She represents security, power, and unity experienced by the child when he is consciously undifferentiated from the mother. In the womb is the sacred time and space and the most sacred rite of personal experience. Both religion and psychology share the symbol of the mother, the archetype of a greater identity the offspring cannot know, yet longs to know again. But, in religion and psychology, the mother and God both have a dual nature, great and terrible, because they define our mortality. The wish to return, the longing to transcend, demands an undifferentiated consciousness which can only be experienced in death. Thus the longing for the ideal becomes the longing for death. Nightwood uses these concepts.

The novel presents characters who act out their unconscious personal myth in terms of given cultural and religious myths. Essentially, they believe, as religious man does, that the practice of certain rituals or exercises will give them knowledge and power to unite with the forces of control, defying death and transcending their situation, the human predicament. The novel sets out the abundance and appeal of symbols that represent this belief, while ironically undermining it. In the circus, wild beasts are controlled and made to conform to human wishes. Further, humans not only have power to control nature, but to defy its laws. Frau Mann, the trapeze artist, presents the illusion that the human being can achieve a surreal existence, united with form that defies gravity and death…. Likewise, the "man of magic" moves through "a series of 'honesties'" (p. 35) to give the illusion of impossibility achieved, the illusion of form created out of nothing. The opera and theater present actors who seem to function on their own, but in fact are directed by unseen instructions. Their music is the wedding of the Dionysian and Apollonian, giving form to the formless, fusing meaning with sound. The church presents the most central symbol. The impersonality of the Roman Catholic rituals suggests that one is in contact not merely with men but with God. Behind its form and ritual it promises a true, ultimate form by which we were created and which we may obtain. God may be witnessed in human form, Christ, and he, our salvation, was delivered to earth through a virgin, divinely exempt from the human condition. O'Connor says of the Catholic church, it "is the girl that you love so much that she can lie to you" (p. 20). The novel sets this myth as complement to childhood remembrance so that the characters confuse or infuse their own birth with the myth of sacred creation and hopes of salvation….

At first, Robin does not seem to connect the sex act with pregnancy. As a representation of unconsciousness, she connects conception with divine creation, turning to the Catholic church and the image of Virgin Mary, losing herself in wandering. The church, then, represents the divine wish, but the wandering is the profane, degraded, and bestial. Robin, who has the "iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye" (p. 37), desires the divine, but in the form of a beast. In this the novel suggests the universal unconscious wish of human procreation if the beast may be taken to serve as an image of human form. Instead, Robin experiences only pain, a sense of loss, a "lost land," the coming of consciousness, all represented by Guido, the child, neither beast nor divine, but an image of suffering and arrested physical and mental development.

Thus, Robin has tricked Felix, but has herself been tricked, to which she responds by attempting to lose herself, in "love and anonymity" (p. 55)….

To the end that he may not be deceived or tricked by existence, as he feels he has been in being born in male form, [O'Connor] practices a religion of withdrawal from the world. Yet his very attempts to imitate Christ as healer and divine draw him into involvement and action which his prophetic powers see as inevitably leading to evil. Knowledge becomes then not power to overcome a condition, but only heightened awareness of it…. Hence, the doctor's bedtime transvestitism becomes an emblematic gesture of the novel's theme: that love is an act of the self reaching toward an unconscious myth of one's past in an effort to create one's self anew, to be born again. O'Connor represents man's sincere attempts to raise his self-love to a higher level only to face the unconquerable limitations of his human existence. O'Connor's chief symbol of this is the body itself….

A vast range of imagery is bound together and drives the principle theme. The range and depth of Barnes's style, its imagery and motifs, have hardly been pricked here, nor have all the existential implications been dealt with. Yet it is enough to enable a return to the initially presented, psychological moment, Nora's "sensation of a thought." One can now review the complex concentration of images and theme suggested by the childhood remembrance of a fairytale in the mind of Nora.

The story of Little Red Riding Hood, of course, involves the young girl of that name who goes to deliver cookies to her grandmother and meets, instead, a wolf masquerading as her grandmother, with an appetite for Red Riding Hood herself. That children "like" this scene suggests the child's affinity for the power and amoral, unconscious mind of the beast. But this affinity exists in adulthood also, where it is disciplined consciously in moral terms….

The beast in grandmother's clothes represents both the unconscious unity of the child's mind and its degradation, the profanity that Nora is succumbing to in an attempt to achieve her own myth of nobility, even as in her dream Robin moves further away the more passionately Nora summons her. Yet, the wolf is there to devour Nora, in so far as she is identified with Riding Hood, and this suggests the process of being "eaten away." Behind the profanity of this desire ultimately lies death, and the loss of self sought after in life.

To continue probing these associations, Nora and Robin are transferring predicaments. Nora, by trying to unite with Robin, is abandoning the cultural myths and going into chaos. Robin is developing a myth of Nora as creator, awakening consciousness endowed with divinity. This Robin acts out in her confusion: Nora becomes the Virgin Mary, the divine exemption from the human predicament, yet fated to take on suffering. Nora's dog is then taken by Robin for herself, that which is unconscious and without myth and with which Robin attempts to unite, to devour, as it were. Robin's final act, that concludes the book, completes the imagery of the sort of atavism that lies behind the myth of rebirth as acted out in the cultural and love aspirations of the characters. Finally, what does the fairytale indicate O'Connor's fate to be? He himself, as the wolf, is longing to taste of innocence. But when confronted with Nora, he is "extremely put out, having expected someone else" (p. 80). For O'Connor, innocence will never come, but only the human predicament, Nora. And so long as only the human predicament presents itself, his appetite for salvation is chained to the evil of that situation….

The novel expresses the old phrase that life is a comedy to the intellect but a tragedy for the emotions. It is a universal theme, but one which few but the invert [experience], deprived of even the illusive reflection of himself, of the potential future of the child, and confronted with his profound alienation even from himself.

Edward Gunn, "Myth and Style in Djuna Barnes's 'Nightwood'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1973–74, pp. 545-55.