Djuna Barnes Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 3) - Essay

Barnes, Djuna (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barnes, Djuna 1892–

Djuna Barnes is an American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. The haunted, nightmare quality of her fiction has reminded readers of work by Kafka and Céline. She is best known for her novel Nightwood. (See also, Djuna Barnes Criticism and volumes 8, 11, 29 and 127.)

[The Antiphon] by the author of Nightwood, Ryder, and A Night Among the Horses, is a play, and written in verse; beyond this, not easy to characterize. To me, it seems to combine under extreme pressure several elements distinctive in a good deal of work which defines for us the term "modern," and these might be outlined under the following heads:

  1. An art of serious parody.
  2. A breaking-up of surfaces; destruction of the conventional sequences and coherencies of "plot"; a return to something of the "insanity" of Greek tragedy, if you will take a fairer sample of Greek tragedy than is provided by the few popular works (Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex, Antigone) conformable to nineteenth-century ideas on this theme.
  3. Treatment of language as an independent value….

The Antiphon is a play almost without a literal level to its action; allegory, moral and anagoge are made to emerge as by a kind of Cubist handling from the shattered reflexions of "story." I find this richness sometimes confusing (no more confusing, really, than I find Hecuba or The Bacchae), and am still mighty hesitant about such understanding as two readings have produced….

[The] extreme violence and dense compaction of the words is constantly taking us away from immediate action, away from narrative, away from the solidity of things ordered, and involving us instead in a dimension specifically poetic rather than dramatic, a complicated vast web of relation in which the threads are spun among dissolving objects, as if you were to have constellations without stars. This is how Shakespeare tends to work at moments of the greatest intensity; save that with Shakespeare you have always the feeling of being anchored to solidity in the action. Miss Barnes works this way all the time, and her handling of the style seems in consequence to be sometimes hysterically strained….

How The Antiphon will do on the stage I don't feel qualified to say. The first act is exciting, especially as being our introduction to a language and rhetoric not often heard in our theater, but we form no judgment of it alone; all is expectation. The second act seems very long and sometimes turgid. But the third I found immensely moving. Altogether the work compels a deep attention; it rides over its faults heroically, speaking to us with a lonely and sometimes savage nobility. In a world full of angry young men writing their manifestoes in favor of decorum, it is heartening to hear again the old prophetic voice talking audacities.

Howard Nemerov, "A Response to the Antiphon" (originally published in Northwest Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1958), in his Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1972, pp. 66-70.

Some of Miss Barnes' profundities are pseudo-profundities, and her rhetoric occasionally falls into bathos. The [ending of Nightwood] is not an adequate catharsis for the pity and terror that the book evokes…. Nightwood is not such a fully achieved tragedy as Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, but Miss Lonelyhearts is the only comparable work of our time. In the years since the 30s we have had nothing to equal those two great cries of pain, in their combination of emotional power and formal artistry. The writers who have copied Djuna Barnes—Truman Capote, William Goyen, and so many others—have her surface without her depth. In Nightwood, at least, she produced a masterpiece.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Wash of the World," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 58-62.

Overshadowed by the greater writers and literary showmen of her time, Djuna Barnes remains a lonely and obscure figure,… known to the literary world in general as the author of one work, Nightwood, an experimental novel published in 1937 and highly praised by T. S. Eliot and by Edwin Muir, among others.

The rambling form of the novel—called fugal or symphonic by its admirers—in which the focus moves from one to another of the main characters, resting for a third of its bulk on the homosexual gynecologist O'Connor, whose only experience is vicarious, in conjunction with the lavish symbolic settings, has invited comparison with Joyce's Ulysses. In her earlier novel, Ryder, which besides a shifting narrative focus and iconic settings has parodies of Chaucer, Sterne, and apparently the English Bible, the influence of Joyce is even more evident. It seems clear, however, that although Miss Barnes adopts some of Joyce's devices, her sense of organic function, or form, in a long work is simply insufficient to assimilate them. Instead of a carefully unfolded epiphany she presents a chain reaction of firecrackers popping, helter-skelter, in a dozen directions. Still, the encomiums of Eliot are not wholly unfounded. In parts of Nightwood, and even in some passages of Ryder, she exhibits truly remarkable gifts of imaginative projection and language. If her eloquence is occasionally specious, it is also at times powerful and accurate. Eliot saw in Nightwood's pervading burden of evil "a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy" …; more like, I should say, the vision of the Jacobean decadence: Ford, Tourneur, and some of Webster.

In the short stories, where there is less temptation to empty bombast, the vision of depersonalization, of loss of identity, of "horror and doom," comes through with greater clarity. Because the vision is not so extreme as in Nightwood, the characters are generally not so extremely psychopathic; repulsive as many of them are, they still retain enough of common humanity to awaken pity, if not full sympathy….

In addition to the bizarre and destructive relationship of man and woman, echoed in other stories and in Nightwood, "A Night among the Horses" introduces two interrelated motifs of estrangement that appear again and again in the writings of Djuna Barnes; the symbols of the doll and the mindless, peaceful animal.

Of the two, the doll is least ambiguous, for it is one of the manifestations of human beings with the soul removed. Lifeless, mechanical, grotesque, the dolls buzz along spreading misery to those who mistake them for persons. Freda Buckler, Moydia of "The Grande Malade," Addie in "The Rabbit," the idiot child of "Cassation," and Robin Vote, Jenny Petherbridge, and Frau Mann in Nightwood are all characteristically dolls. The sexlessness of the doll, as is evident in the activities of Miss Barnes's doll-women, is no warranty that the doll will not participate in sexual experience, but merely that the experience will not be meaningful….

Animals and animal imagery are not so simply evil, and the ambivalence with which Miss Barnes treats her beasts (of whatever genus) indicates perhaps the most profound tension in all her writing. For although reviewers and commentators on all her books dwell upon her "sympathy with the beats" and her yearning to be absorbed into their simple world, this half-truth distorts more than it makes clear. While it is obvious in "A Night among the Horses" that the horses are a more noble choice of life than their mistress, it is also obvious that their life is an impossible life for the man. Trying to join them he is only monstrous.

A more subtle and extended treatment of the problem occurs in "The Rabbit," in which the bovine Armenian, Amietiev, "timid," "gentle," though he has always felt a kinship with the cows and ducks of his farm and has taken pleasure in contemplation of them, is goaded into killing "something" by the avaricious and cruel Addie…. He does not wish to kill, yet he can think of no other way to be a hero….

The apparent longing for the freedom and peace of the beasts is nowhere more in evidence than in the novel Ryder, and Miss Barnes's inability to come to terms with its difficulties is one of the main causes of the novel's failure. In Nightwood, on the other hand, she attempts a full development of the person who lives in the beast world in her characterization of Robin Vote, "beast turning to human … the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth."…

Like the doll, the beast represents an impasse in the individuation of Miss Barnes's characters. Because they are unable to reconcile their instinctive and violent revulsion against any intrusion upon the perfectly autonomous self with their equally strong and instinctive need for love, they remain outside human provenance, dangerous to themselves and to others, estranged.

This symbolism of animals and dolls, recurrent as it is in Miss Barnes's stories and novels, directs attention to her constant concern with the idea that becoming human is paradoxically all but impossible for people….

Although most of the stories do not extend to the compass of "Spillway" and "The Doctors," they all explore the estrangement and terror of life without love, and since none of the characters can accept traditional responses and relationships instead of love, only emptiness is left…. The world developed by Djuna Barnes is a very full fictional realization of the desolate, depersonalized images of T. S. Eliot's Preludes. What is missing, significantly, is "The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing." Suffering there is in plenty, gentleness, in nothing.

Most of the stories are told by a noncommital omniscient narrator who shows herself only in the quality of her descriptions; she tells nothing directly; even summary is accomplished by skillful accumulation of details. In the few stories with a first-person narrator—"Cassation," "The Grande Malade," "Dusie,"—the narrator's detachment has the added horror of coming from one involved in the action. Shocking, remote, the stories nonetheless have all the power a unified vision and superbly controlled prose can give. When they fail it is often merely from overstrain.

Unlike the novels and the long play, where the writing, as Alfred Kazin observed in his review of Nightwood, "has occasionally … an intensity that is only verbal: long after the idea or emotion has been exhausted, the tone is sustained," the stories maintain correspondence between matter and manner. Along with the novels, they have their being outside society and historical milieu, and indeed the vacuum that surrounds them is responsible for not a little of their impact. While we may feel that Miss Barnes's conception of man is narrow and at times even shallow, the evidence of much contemporary history compels us to admit its appalling veracity.

Suzanne C. Ferguson, "Djuna Barnes's Short Stories: An Estrangement of the Heart," in The Southern Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 26-41.

Nightwood contains violations of virtually every tenet of "good novel-writing." The characters are unbelievable. The plot relates little more than the theft of one person's lover by another. The only "action" takes place at several incoherently and incompletely described parties. Instead of action, this book contains long passages of heavily metaphorical, stylized prose and immensely long "unrealistic" conversations. Yet, through the heightened intensity of its language, which is the medium for the restricted perspective, and through the adroit structuring of its disjunct elements, Nightwood leaves the reader with a coherent and powerful impression of spiritual agony. The unified quality of this impression results from certain stable and consistent elements among the portions that are juxtaposed. First, all the characters are suffering because of the selfishness of their conceptions of love. Second, love is, in each case, given a specific religious dimension by Miss Barnes's careful identifications of the Baron with Judaism, Nora with Calvinism, and the doctor with Roman Catholicism. Expatriation is another life condition that is shared by Miss Barnes's characters and is revealed by their drifting from one European capital to another, and from Europe to America and back again. This motif is focused upon Felix, who is an incarnation of the eternally Wandering Jew. Finally, the uniform style that is used in each section, regardless of which character is being treated, tends to endow the elements of the structure with homogeneity.

There are two additional factors that give this "classically" disjunct work its ultimate impression of unity and universality. The first is the novel's spatial model, the "nightwood" which is haunted by those who search for love but misconceive its nature. The nightwood is necessarily time-less and without any definite location in space. If one is lost in it, pursuing his salvation, it hardly matters whether he is in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, or New England, or whether it is 1987 or 1937. The second unifying factor, one that helps to enclose and restrict the point of view and, therefore, to heighten the book's intensity, is the use of the Tiresias-like doctor, Matthew O'Connor, as a central sensibility who undergoes all, interprets it as he must, and yet suffers everything that the others suffer because of his role as scapegoat and prophet. The perspective of Nightwood is, thus, at once limited and universal. It is limited to the spiritual aspects of love and suffering, but this condensation of the subject serves effectively to enlarge its universal significance.

Sharon Spencer, in her Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1971 by New York University), New York University Press, 1971, pp. 42-3.