Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 29)
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.)
T. S. Eliot
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...
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Mark Van Doren
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 its richness in exact and vivid imagery entirely without that prettiness which so readily creeps into an Irish style. There is not in her use of language, as there is in Joyce's, the faint suggestion of a possible distinction between the thing said and the way in which it is said, the feeling that one could have said it in another way if one had liked. A style which is inevitable and inventive at the same time is the most powerful of all styles; for it both removes our opposition to it and takes us with its novelty. Miss Barnes has this gift of style. Her imagination is sensuous and intellectual; drawn from hidden, and reinforced by worldly knowledge. Whether her book should be called a novel is hard to say; it is more a vicarious...
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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 temptation. Or it is like working a few tangerines on a speedily driven lathe. Djuna Barnes is one of the "old poets," and there is no denying the certain balance of this [writer] … upon the high wire of the present. She has moved; she has gone out on a limb of light and indefinite sexuality and there remains unshakeable. She has freewheeled the push bicycle into the cool air.
Djuna Barnes, Flannery O'Connor, Nathanael West—at least these three disparate American writers may be said to come together in that rare climate of pure and immoral creation—are very nearly alone in their uses of wit, their comic treatments of violence and their extreme detachment. If the true purpose of the novel is to assume a significant...
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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 Purgatory, the scene of Barnes' play is a compelled if somewhat unwilling return to the ancestral home, the place where many of the difficulties of the present were begot. And as in Yeats' play, much of the present action seems to be defined by a sexual conflict in the past arising from the indignities suffered by an aristocratic mother from a pleasure-loving father (who is, in both cases, of a lower class—in Yeats' play, a groom; in Barnes', an American). The past in both plays provides the source of a neurotic sexual hatred in the present, and both end with death that falls short of resolution.
Yet Yeats' fine play, one of the last on which he worked after some forty years' experimentation in an actual...
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James B. Scott
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 frequently immigrants to America, and even those who are not have names suggestive of their European origins Many are Russians; some are a mixture of Jewish and European strains. They have heavily ethnic names…. (p. 22)
These names reveal something of the author's purpose, for her characters' expatriated condition offers a natural symbol for man's essential aloneness. This same principle of using expatriated characters to suggest aloneness or alienation is continued in the European stories added to A Night Among the Horses. (p. 23)
The style of her stories is remarkably consistent. Naturalistic techniques are used throughout, but they are imposed upon an existential point of view. For want of a better...
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Louis F. Kannenstine
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 creator. In addition, they shun contemporary literary trends to such a degree that they seem at times to exist outside of the modern age. Rather than be seen as a representative author of her time, Miss Barnes would appear to prefer to join those anonymous writers of the past whose often fragmented works survive on the basis of their genius and lasting pertinence. It is not the least of many paradoxes in her work that the act of depersonalization has resulted in a notable particularity. (p. xvii)
Louis F. Kannenstine, in his The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1977 by New York University), New York University Press,...
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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 protagonists of the stories are perennial travelers, and usually they are emigrants or expatriates. Madame von Bartmann in "Aller et Retour" was born in Russia but lives in Paris while her husband, a German, raises their daughter in Nice. She returns "home" when her husband dies, but two months later is back in Paris, leaving the daughter behind. Katya, the young narrator of "Cassation," is also Russian but has lived in Berlin for three years and plans to settle in Paris…. These protean personalities, determined by the shifting locations, are both fragile and fragmentary. If each new setting generates a new self, the traveler can never be sure of who he was, who he is, and who he will become, to say nothing of his total number of personality...
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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 extra decoration she had removed her earrings."
There are stray sentences in the early stories that might belong to drafts for "Nightwood": "The difference between the bow of the bourgeois and the aristocrat is, in the one, the face muscles are lazy and permit the cheeks to fall forward, giving the face a sullen, ill-arranged look—while in the other, the face remains intact, even though you swing him feet first from a gibbet."…
"Creatures in an Alphabet" [also published in 1982] is an extremely slight work done from a bestiary she had toyed with but not completed in the 1960's. She lived to read the proofs. The book is a rather sad end to a long literary career in which Barnes reappeared like a strange...
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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 eyelashes, the visions of mother earth, the crippled feet a ritualized object in helpless little boots, on a litter littered with cakes and wine—the farmer does so in a story entitled "The Head of Babylon". For what Djuna Barnes goes after relentlessly, even among those indeterminate Polish fields, are the flawed enticements offered by Old Testament Daniel's image of apocalyptic Babylon—its head and breast of precious metals, its feet of clay. In other words she is infatuated by those Babylonian frissons of dread and delight which she is not alone in siting in the New York she knew.
The denizens of Djuna Barnes's "modern Babylon" are the poor employed of lower Manhattan, the sellers and buyers of lottery...
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