Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 11)
Barnes, Djuna 1892–
An American novelist, dramatist, short story writer, poet, and journalist, Barnes has been as highly unconventional and independent in literature as in lifestyle. She has drawn much of her fiction from her bohemian background, but has colored it surrealistically. Her works are filled with the abnormal, the alienated, the grotesque, and often evoke a nightmarish horror. Their scope, however, extends to portray larger themes of human suffering and alienation. Barnes's style is elegant and lucid, mingling black comedy and satire with the richness of Elizabethan prose and French Modernist poetry. Her attention to rhythm and word sounds has brought T. S. Eliot to say of Nightwood that "only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Also trained as an artist, Barnes has illustrated several of her own books, including Ryder and The Ladies' Almanack. Nightwood is generally considered her major work. (See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 4, 8, 29 and 127.)
Robert L. Nadeau
[Nightwood] has attracted a small circle of admirers who have been awed by Barnes's extraordinary ability to infuse macabre or grotesque subject matter with haunting beauty, but the general consensus seems to be, with a few notable exceptions, that an excessive lack of verisimilitude makes it something less than a masterpiece. Nightwood has not yet been recognized as a truly great piece of American fiction simply because we have failed to fully appreciate the fact that it does not depict human interaction on the level of conscious, waking existence. It is rather a dream world in which the embattled forces of the human personality take the form of characters representing aspects of that personality at different levels of its functioning. (p. 159)
Barnes's treatment of character seems quite consistent with Freud's conception of the nature of the three divisions in our mental life [ego, superego, and id]. She does not present us with allegorical figures who take on "all" the characteristics of one mode of functioning, but rather with representatives of the interior workings of the human mind at different points along the continuum of psychic experience. (pp. 159-60)
The parallels between Barnes's characterization of Robin and Freud's description of the dynamics of the interior life on the level of the id are simply too extensive to ignore. The id, which Freud associated with the more vestigial portion of...
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[Nightwood] is most often remembered for its high reputation with writers like T. S. Eliot. Apart from this sort of recognition it is examined either as a cache of modernism or, because it is rather tangled and obscure, it is sometimes rewarded with an extravagant explication de texte. In short, it has not been much appreciated by critics while among novelists, notably Hawkes and Pynchon, it resonates. Hawkes picks up on the blighted landscape and the fictive detachment which allows Barnes to make comedy of violence, and Pynchon parodies her style in V while attending closely to her view of history as a bowdlerized version of human damnation. (p. 179)
Throughout Nightwood the theme of de-evolution or of bowing down ("Bow Down" is the title of the first section and was originally meant to be the title for the whole book) has implications for the act of writing. The book itself moves backward. Beginning with an amusing historical flourish in its famous first sentence it eventually turns its back on history, on faith in coherent expression, and finally on words themselves. The novel bows down before its own impotence to express truth; its author wrote no successors. (pp. 179-80)
[The] celebrated obscurities of Nightwood would be less troublesome if readers would take hold of the novel by the handle of its wit, for it is a tremendously funny book in a desperately surgical sort of way....
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