Djuna Barnes 1892–1982
(Also wrote under pseudonym of Lydia Steptoe) American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, and journalist.
Barnes is often linked with the modernists of the first half of the twentieth century. She shared the primary ideals of modernism—to revivify language, to express the unconscious mind and the alienation of the modern individual, and to reject the modes of realism. Barnes stressed image and symbol in her works, rather than realistic or naturalistic description, as a means of achieving her objectives. She also employed disordered chronological development, black humor, and a poetic prose style. Through these methods, together with her nightmarish view of existence, her works often exhibit surreal and Gothic qualities. Some critics consider Barnes a "one-book author" with a reputation based on Nightwood (1936), a novel of disputed significance. However, an enthusiastic following of writers, readers, and critics have sustained both popular and academic interest in this novel and, to a lesser extent, her other works as well.
As a young woman, Barnes contributed feature articles, short stories, poems, and illustrations to important literary periodicals and New York-based newspapers. Many of her early stories were collected in 1982 in the volume Smoke and Other Early Stories. Her most noted short stories, are collected in the volume Spillway (1962). Barnes traveled to Paris in the early 1920s and became acquainted with many expatriate writers residing there, including James Joyce, whom Barnes interviewed for Vanity Fair magazine and whom she has acknowledged as a major influence on her work. Her picaresque novel Ryder (1928) reflects the influence of Joyce, particularly his novel Ulysses, in its experiments with language and structure. The novel met with a generally warm critical reception.
The haunting Nightwood, however, is considered Barnes's finest achievement. In his introduction to the novel, T. S. Eliot maintained that the rich prose of Nightwood would be appreciated primarily by "sensibilities trained on poetry." Eliot also stated that the novel's unrelenting accumulation of horrific events evinces "a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy." The prose style of Nightwood, which is characterized by intense lyricism, has been cited by some critics as providing the novel with a coalescence that the disjointed narrative defies. In depicting the anguish of several characters who lack distinct sexual, spiritual, and social identities, Barnes used dreams, animals, and nocturnal images as metaphors for their unconscious and irrational obsessions. The novel's comic depictions of terrifying events represents an early manifestation of black humor. While such critics as Edwin Muir, Alfred Kazin, and Kenneth Burke have praised the strength and exuberance of Nightwood's prose, other critics have questioned its effectiveness. Leslie Fiedler, for instance, termed the language "oddly skewed."
Barnes published only sporadically after Nightwood, declaring in one interview that that work had drained much of her creative energy. Of her later works, The Antiphon (1958), a drama in verse, is generally deemed most important. This play employs poetic dialogue in the Elizabethan and Jacobean tra-ditions, although the setting of the play is contemporary. While some critics praised Barnes for carrying on the efforts of Eliot and W. B. Yeats to revive verse drama, many others contended that the meaning of the play was obscured by its language. This difference of opinion characterizes the general response to virtually all of Barnes's work. She has prompted both acclaim and disdain for her daring methods and for her bleak, fragmented depiction of modern existence.
(See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 4, 8, 11 and 127.)
One is liable to expect other people to see, on their first reading of a book, all that one has come to perceive in the course of a developing intimacy with it. I have read Nightwood a number of times, in manuscript, in proof, and after publication. What one can do for other readers—assuming that if you read this preface at all you will read it first—is to trace the more significant phases of one's own appreciation of it. For it took me, with this book, some time to come to an appreciation of its meaning as a whole.
In describing Nightwood for the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would "appeal primarily to readers of poetry."… I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term "novel" has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes's style is "poetic prose." But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really "written." They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it. Miss Barnes's prose has the prose rhythm that is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse. This prose rhythm may be more or less complex or elaborate, according to the purposes of the writer; but whether simple or complex, it is what raises the matter to be communicated, to the first intensity.
When I first read the book I found the opening movement rather slow and dragging, until the appearance of the doctor. And throughout the first reading, I was under the impression that it was the doctor alone who gave the book its vitality; and I believed the final chapter to be superfluous. I am now convinced that the final chapter is essential, both dramatically and musically. It was notable, however, that as the other characters, on repeated reading, became alive for me, and while the focus shifted, the figure of the doctor was by no means diminished. On the contrary, he came to take on a different and more profound importance when seen as a constituent of a whole pattern. He ceased to be like the brilliant actor in an otherwise unpersuasively performed play for whose re-entrance one impatiently waits. However in actual life such a character might seem to engross conversation, quench reciprocity, and blanket less voluble people; in the book his role is nothing of the kind. At first we...
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Mr. Eliot is right when he says of ["Nightwood"] that it is "really 'written'" [see excerpt above]. It is too consistently "written" for quotations to mean much, nor does any sentence contain the whole. Yet if Mr. Eliot is also right in the analogy he suggests with poetry, the book can be searched for good "lines." And they are easily found. Some of them are witty
She defiled the very meaning of personality in her passion to be a person….
And some of them are pretty in a tremendous way:
"We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality."…
But the poetry of which Mr. Eliot must have been speaking will be found on a third level, as far removed from these as the poetry of our time is from mere wit, mere charm. On Miss Barnes's third level a special state of consciousness is constructed and a very special sort of thing is said. When Mr. Eliot writes of "Nightwood" that "only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it," he means, of course, modern poetry. Sensibilities trained on Horace and Pope, or even on Homer and Shakespeare, would make nothing of it at all. For those poets in their various ways accepted the world and trusted the commonplace; whereas this one stares away from her in a rigor of horror, probing distance with fixed eyes in the hope that it will yield a niche...
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Miss Barnes is one of those few writers whose thought and expression become more felicitous, the more painful the theme she is dealing with; [in Nightwood] she resembles Webster and Baudelaire. There is no trace of a hopeful or even a hopeinspiring philosophy in her book: her vision is purely tragic, with that leavening of sardonic wit which comes from long familiarity with tragedy: the almost professional note which one also finds in Webster and Baudelaire, but which, though a source of pleasure in itself, does not alleviate in the least the force of the tragic emotion. Miss Barnes's prose is the only prose by a living writer which can be compared with that of Joyce, and in one point it is superior to his: in...
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Recently Time magazine, pernicious as ever, dismissed the Selected Writings of Djuna Barnes by saying that the best of her work, Nightwood, offered little more than "the mysterioso effect that hides no mystery," and even Leslie Fiedler has described Djuna Barnes' vision of evil as effete. Yet all her myth and fear are mightily to be envied. Surely there is unpardonable distinction in this kind of writing, a certain incorrigible assumption of a prophetic role in reverse, when the most baffling of unsympathetic attitudes is turned upon the grudges, guilts, and renunciations harbored in the tangled seepage of our earliest recollections and originations. It is like quarreling at the moment of...
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To the audience which has received Nightwood with admiration, Miss Barnes' long play in verse [The Antiphon] seems a strange concoction: in subject it is wholly modern, but in conception and execution no more modern than Maxwell Anderson's period pieces in verse.
The Antiphon is set in 1939 (during the war) in the English ancestral halls of the Burley family, and the exterior reminders of a world at war become a metaphor for the interior war within the characters as well as between the sexes and between generations. The play seems to owe a strong debt to W. B. Yeats' Purgatory in particular and to many of Yeats' other plays in general (e.g., The Player Queen). As in...
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A Book, published in 1923, is a collection of twelve stories, three one-act plays, eleven poems, and a half-dozen pencil portraits…. A Night Among the Horses and Other Stories (1929) is a reprint of A Book with the addition of three stories….
All of the material in A Book reflects the American milieu, and the stories added to A Night are presented against a European background. This change reflects Miss Barnes's nineyears' residence in Europe prior to the 1929 publication of A Night Among the Horses; and this circumstance is of more than biographical importance since setting matters a great deal in Barnes's work. The characters in A Book are...
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Passages of The Antiphon and all of [Miss Barnes's] few recently published poems seem both in and out of time. They project the modern sense of despair and disillusionment that the 1920s left to successive generations of writers, while they continue to sustain the note of generalized or universal misery of Doctor O'Connor's monologues in Nightwood. Their lines are intensely worked and tightly constructed into complex units that stand firmly on their own ground, independent and resistant to ultimate breakdown or exhaustion by analysis. These highly formal late writings are evidence of their author's self-effacement, of a willful depersonalization of voice through which the work stands independent of its...
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Whatever the techniques—traditional or experimental—Barnes's work is concerned with ways of being reconciled to life's random misfortunes. In the stories of Spillway there is often an emotional "spillway" that rechannelizes feelings of helplessness and isolation. Its specific form may not be pleasurable, yet still it exists as an alternative to the completely isolated personality. For some characters who are whirled about by stimuli they never quite understand, the spillway is passivity or acquiescence, while for others it is a private fantasy, endless travel, or psychological regression. Whatever the case, the suffering begins with detachment from origins.
At the very least, the...
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"Smoke: And Other Early Stories" [a collection of Barnes's earliest writing, published in 1982] doesn't contain any major work and so is probably not the best place to begin reading Barnes. But for those who know her writing the early stories will give fascinating glimpses of the way a light style evolved into the high and tragic manner of "Nightwood."
The main strength of the early stories lies in their sharp and comic cameo portraits and Barnes's witty, if somewhat forced, side comments. (pp. 9, 30)
The closest analogy I can think of to Barnes's manner in some of these stories is that of Ronald Firbank. Barnes has a superb but peculiar sense of humor, as when she writes, "for...
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Here [in Smoke and Other Early Stories] are fourteen stories, startlingly strange, cranky even, but also as raw and exciting as swigs of poteen….
What in their compelling way these stories do is to mythicize cosmopolis, in its most audacious and grotesque modern manifestation, as the urbs of New York, New York. Even the tiny clutch of these fictions that are about Europe and country people, or about a century other than our own, read like modern New York fiction in potential: as if all earlier times and all other places were to be lived only as shadows of that coming Molochian real. Characteristically, when the Polish farmer Pontos marries off his daughter Theeg—she of the inherited silver...
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