Study Guide

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes Essay - Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 11)

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 the brain's anatomy, is the place where man's primitive instincts originate. It also functions as a kind of psychic energizer which compels the individual to take action. It is, says Freud, "a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement," and has "no organization and no unified will, only an impulsion to obtain satisfaction for the instinctual needs, in accordance with the pleasure principle." Analytical or logical thought cannot occur in the id because the "laws of logic—above all, the law of contradiction—do not hold for processes in the id."… The last of the parallels hardly needs mentioning—sexual desire is the overt manifestation of an instinctual need which the id seeks uncompromisingly to gratify. (p. 160)

Felix's unremitting efforts to...

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Elizabeth Pochoda

[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. Its only warmth and capacity to move us after every conventional response has been cut away arise paradoxically from the ashes of its wit, but this is not so surprising since it is paradox in general which holds the book together as much as it is paradox which leaves it in tatters at the end. Paradox and contradiction are wit…. [The witty dissection of honesty and hoax is done] in the novel at large over and over again until actions of every sort are reduced to their initial hoax. Only then is sympathy allowable. The apparently touching love story of Robin and Nora is also a kind of hoaxing, and we are not permitted to weep with Nora over her loss. Once the bloodthirsty nature of such love is uncovered we are allowed the sympathy appropriate to such an inevitable delusion.

Nor is the novel itself immune to the paradox of honesty and hoax. Here is the description of Felix watching the [doctor's] theft of [Robin's] money: "With a tension in his stomach, such as one suffers when watching an acrobat leaving the virtuosity of his safety in a mad unravelling whirl into probable death, Felix watched the hand descend, take up the note, and disappear into the limbo of the doctor's pocket."… The aspiration, transcendence, and risk which inevitably accompany our more venal acts are here in this language. And what of this style which soars with breathtaking virtuosity at the same time that it is yoked to a tawdry deed? It is sublimely out of whack with its subject matter…. What is most impressive in this writing is also most gratuitous. The style has usually been taken straight when in fact it is deliberately and gorgeously overambitious; it strives to dazzle onlookers in the manner of circus people, whom Barnes describes elsewhere as knowing "that skill is never so amazing as when it seems inappropriate."… We shall see more instances of the celebrated style making nothing or as near to nothing as it can of itself. Only by doing so, by assigning the novel's best effects to the inappropriate, is the novelist free to indulge in beautiful writing. (pp. 180-81)

[The horror which has turned all gesture to hoaxing and all style to jocular masquerade] is the unspoken groundwork for some unpleasant comedy, and by leaving it unnamed reinvests it with the enormous impact it deserves. O'Connor's monologues do center on the unnameable atrocity, and their obscurity is partially the result of the notion that the horror is so pervasive that it can and must be taken for granted; it is too large for naming and too well known to need it. But Miss Barnes's early stories are not nearly so reticent about the specific nature of these dark truths of existence, and while the stories are less convincing for that reason, they are at the same time a useful shortcut in talking about the ideas which underlie Nightwood. (p. 182)

[An example is "The Doctors," in which] the nightmare landscape and its horrors are the result of some terrible impertinence, or "impudence," to use the word that occurs to [the protagonist] Katrina Silverstaff…. This is the impudence corrected by the text of Ecclesiastes 3 verses 18 and 19, a text which "dogs" the pages of Nightwood: "I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts./For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts … so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast; for all is vanity." The impudence of vivisection stands in small for all the acts of estrangement and violation committed in the name of human nature (as something distinct from and above the bestial).

The impudence is arbitrary, unwarranted, and hideous, but it is not until we get to Nightwood that Miss Barnes's art rescues it from the melodrama of [her stories] by recognizing that above all the human impertinence is ultimately comic because ultimately futile. It is not simply that Nightwood engages and satirizes a world, but it has … found a way for satire and the apocalypse to merge so that even the novel must bow down and acknowledge the impertinence of prophesying doom. It does indeed assume the prophetic role in reverse, scraping away at all pretensions. What begins as a joke at the expense of the characters' personal styles ends by swallowing the novel as well. (pp. 182-83)


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