DJUNA BARNES – ‘‘The Garbo of Literature’
Like Henry James, Djuna Barnes was an American expatriate who, almost fifty years after the Master, acquired a taste for Paris, the city that became the Muse for a succession of American writers, providing a rich cultural cream to the thin milk of their New World heritage. Deborah Parsons notes: ‘Barnes presents a Jamesian contrast between the profane, sensual and amoral culture of urban Europe and the puritanical, provincial and hypocritical paralysis of America.’1
The world that Djuna Barnes creates in her fiction is an old world in the later stages of decay, a Romantic hinterland where characters exist in essence, and the weight of history is in conflict with their animal nature. The arcane and outlandish people that pass through Barnes’s writing are echoes of her own social milieu, which, like Nora Flood’s ‘pauper’s salon’ (described in Barnes’s cult novella ‘Nightwood’), was inhabited by ‘poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love…Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine.’2 The inner secrets of Barnes’s stories and the strange way her characters think and speak are linked to her own curious background.
Photographed by Man Ray (see below), admired by T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett, friends with James Joyce, patronised by ‘art addict’ Peggy Guggenheim, Djuna Barnes was brilliant, beautiful and bisexual. Born in America in 1892, she was brought up in an unconventional family set-up where the sleeping arrangements were extremely bizarre. Her dilettante father attempted to keep two wives and many offspring on the same premises, a farm that was owned by Djuna’s grandmother Zadel Barnes Gustafson, who also lived there. Zadel, an unorthodox figure in the hey-day of the 1870s, was a journalist, poet, women’s rights activist and spirit medium; she also became the guiding light in Djuna’s education. Zadel pursued a philosophy of free love that was all-embracing. Mary Lynn Broe writes: ‘Her [Djuna’s] bond with her grandmother was an extraordinary one, full of cross-generational eroticism, sexual complicities, and empowering professional legacies.’3 Zadel’s pet name for Djuna was Snickerbits, and she wrote letters to the young girl describing fantasies of the pleasure of being in bed together, illustrated by drawings of breasts, euphemistically referred to as ‘cuddlers’.
Although the details are not too clear, and references have to be gleaned from Barnes’s play ‘The Antiphon’, it appears she was persuaded to have sex at seventeen either with her father, or with the brother of her father’s second wife, Percy Faulkner. She married the 52-year-old Faulkner; this misconceived union lasted two months. Eventually the pressure of an extended family under the same roof forced Djuna, her brothers and her mother to move from the Long Island Farm into the Bronx. This provoked a sense of betrayal for Barnes that is a theme of her later autobiographical expositions.
Barnes moved to Greenwich Village, studied art at the Pratt Institute, and became well regarded for her experimental and impressionistic interviews in publications such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Barnes called these her ‘lighter endeavours’ to pay the rent for that ‘room of her own,’ but they signal her surreal and radical style. One of the remarkable people Barnes became acquainted with was Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, 4 whom she describes alighting from a cab in ‘How the Villagers Amuse Themselves’:
…with seventy black and purple anklets clanking about her secular feet, a foreign postage stamp – cancelled – perched upon her cheek; a wig of purple and gold caught roguishly up with strands from a cable once used to moor importations from far Cathay; red trousers – and catch the subtle, dusty perfume blown back from her – an ancient human notebook on which has been written all the follies of a past generation.
Creatively diverse, Barnes made her literary debut as a poet, and sketched irreverent Beardsley-like drawings, such as this illustration from ‘The Book of Repulsive Women and other poems’:
Barnes’s illustration for her poem ‘Twilight of the Illicit’
Rebecca Loncraine, in her 2003 introduction to an expanded collection of these poems, or ‘rhythms’, as Barnes referred to them, argues that ‘Barnes wants to repulse but also attract the reader with deliberately unnerving imagery.’ Subversive repetition of the word ‘repulsive’ also unsettles: are these women ‘repulsive’ because they repel the patriarchal stronghold, in both senses of the word? Or, as in the poem, ‘Seen from the “L”’, are they ‘repulsive’ because they speak the unspeakable, with lips that ‘bloom vivid and repulsive / As the truth’? There is a contradictory coding to the meaning of ‘repulsive’ that allows deeply equivocal meaning.
Loncraine notes Barnes’s obsession with death-in-life: ‘Throughout her poetry, she is preoccupied with images of the body, and especially of corpses. Her poems present live bodies as decaying flesh, while corpses have a perverse vitality. Her muse is a dead woman.’5
They brought her in, a shattered small
With a little bruisèd body like
A startled moon;
And all the subtle symphonies of her
A twilight rune.
They gave her hurried shoves this way
Her body shock-abbreviated
As a city cat.
She lay out listlessly like some small mug
Of beer gone flat.6
Barnes was known for her variant subtexts, yet has always remained reluctant to be exclusively associated with lesbian literature, fearing it would detract from her work as art. At the same time, her work reeks of controversial sexuality. Broe notes:
Barnes’s plays, stories, and early newspaper essays interrogate conventional or public sexual ideologies, as well as forms of romantic and domestic comedy…Barnes alone among the “new women” playwrights dared to introduce vampirism, incest and various radical sexual ideologies in her work.7
When Barnes arrived in Paris in the 1920s and joined up with the artistic ex-pat set she claimed she’d had nineteen lovers and that women were better in bed than men. She socialised with a crowd of cultural eccentrics at Natalie Clifford Barney’s Belle-Epoque-type salon, where a tree grew up through the middle of the room. Barnes parodies this lesbian milieu in ‘Ladies Almanack’, written in mock Elizabethan English, with illustrations in a primitive, pre-Renaissance style. Susan Sniader Lanser, in her introduction to the 1992 re-issue, writes:
This book which its author came to dismiss as a ‘slight satiric wigging’ unfit to stand among her ‘serious works’ is now recognised as both a brilliant modernist achievement and the boldest of a body of writings produced by and about the lesbian society that flourished in Paris between the turn of the century and the Second World War.8
Originally written and published for fun under the nom de plume ‘A Lady of Fashion’, ‘Ladies Almanack’ lays out its wisdom month by month. The opening paragraph for May – ‘hath 31 days’ – reads:
Sweet May stood putting on her last venereal Touches while Patience Scalpel held forth in that divine and ethereal Voice for which she was noted, the Voice of one whose Ankles are nibbled by the Cherubs, while amid the Rugs Dame Musset brought Doll Furious to a certainty.9
Snaider asks, ‘is the book a light parody or a bitter attack? Is it a celebration or a condemnation of Barney and her community?’10 Barnes’s perverse and elaborate prose obscures, once again allowing for divergent readings.
Barnes’s most famous book, ‘Nightwood’, is described by Broe as ‘the great art novel of the twentieth century – a kind of epistemological romp on the figural plane.’11 Barnes creates a dream-like universe of exquisite suffering, peopled with faded European nobility, outcasts of dubious background and a cross-dressing Irish doctor. Tyrus Miller writes: ‘The basic metaphor of Barnes’s book, “Night,” is significant only for its negativity, its absence of definite meaning; “wood,” too, is the archetypal space of error and the undoing of identity.’12 The night is the favourite topic of Dr O’Connor, ‘whose interest in gynaecology had driven him half around the world,’ and in the chapter Watchman, What of the Night he holds forth in a torrent of brilliant monologues:
Well, I, doctor Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor, will tell you how the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the nightgown the other. The Night, “Beware of that dark door!”13
Barnes’s vision is disturbing in ‘Nightwood’; Robin Vote, the mysterious girl-child so loved by Nora Flood, is described as ‘disfigured and eternalised by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain’. Like a somnambulist, she roams across the world and abandons all who love her. Through the loss of animal innocence, Nightwood exemplifies the paradox of nature: although human consciousness longs for transcendence it is doomed through guilt and ‘the odour of memory’. Anticipating Angela Carter (as well as with puppet and circus imagery), Barnes alludes to the radical idea of an animal nature in mankind that existed before Judeo-Christianity attempted to repress the savage elements of Nature. There is much haunting of churches, and the final controversial scene, where Robin goes down in front of Nora’s dog, takes place in a ‘decaying chapel’ in front of a ‘contrived altar’. 14
The patronage and admiration of T.S. Eliot enabled the publication of ‘Nightwood’. In his forward, Eliot describes Barnes’s writing as ‘the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy’. It is hard to pin down Barnes’s oeuvre. Literary theorists are agreed that she inhabits a slippery space situated somewhere between Decadence and Modernism, at the same time embracing Late Modernism, and even managing to fit the bill as a postmodernist. Miller, noting Barnes’s ‘positionless’ quality, writes:
Barnes’s extreme stylistic mannerism and runaway figural language obtrude through her ramshackle large-scale forms, hinting at the radical loss of boundaries, the promiscuous blurring of categories, the setting in play of the signifier often associated with later postmodernism.15
Barnes’s prose has an abstract quality due to the linguistic patterning and poetic imagery. Here is the first appearance of Robin Vote, who has fainted in her room:
On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly oversung by the notes of unseen birds, which seemed to have been forgotten…lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face.
The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water – as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations – the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds – meet of child and desperado.16
‘Nightwood’ is also Barnes’s way of telling the story of her anguished love for Thelma Wood, a tall young sculptress who looked great in slacks. Emily Coleman, poet and writer, one of Djuna’s closest friends, wrote in her diary: ‘Peggy [Guggenheim] said Thelma made her think of pale, dead flesh, but Djuna thought her paleness was of life. Djuna believes her to be a wonderful wild creature, with much evil in her, but all that evil is romanticized.’
Thelma Wood, having broken Barnes’s heart and moved on to the wealthy and overpowering Henriette Metcalf (a friend of Colette), did not take kindly to recognising herself in print as Robin Vote. She knocked Barnes down and threw a cup of tea over her. ‘That book has ruined my life,’ she told Barnes. Grieved, Barnes rationalised that at least out of her broken heart she had created a book, and in doing so had attempted to purge her misery. However, there was another twist, for Barnes found that the fiction tried to turn itself into fact:
I want to live in the Hôtel Récamier, where, in my book, Robin lived, though Thelma never put her foot, in reality, over its steps. I haunt the Place St Sulpice now, because I’ve made it in my book into my life – as if my life had really been there… I love what I have invented as much as that which fate gave me – a great danger for the writer perhaps… I come to love my invention more – so am able, perhaps, to put Thelma aside, because now she is not Robin.’
Barnes was much admired by other ‘modern’ writers of the early twentieth century. Anaïs Nin, whose diaries would later become important documents to the new feminism of the seventies, said Djuna Barnes meant more to her than Virginia Woolf:
The reading of Nightwood finally crystallized my aspirations towards poetic prose in the novel. I read it in the thirties and wrote Djuna Barnes a letter which she did not answer. I admired her from afar when she sat at the Dôme.17 She looked handsome in her tailored suit and red hair, but I never dared approach her.
Samuel Beckett took acquaintances to a certain café that Barnes frequented, where an erratic overhead water closet in the toilet was liable to drench the unwary, partly, as Deirdre Bair writers, ‘to show them the demented toilet and to let them know that Djuna Barnes was his friend.’18
As the years went by Barnes took to heavy drinking to dull the failure of romance. It took twenty years before she conquered the demon and relinquished alcoholism. She tried to kill herself twice, and spent the end of her days reclusively in Greenwich Village. She could be seen out walking, a tall spare figure, held very erect, in a neat black costume with a polka-dot blouse, a fur hat on her head and carrying a silver-headed ebony walking stick. Many notable admirers of her talent sent her financial help, including Beckett, who donated part of his royalties from ‘Waiting for Godot’ to her. Acolytes who knocked at Barnes’s door were generally turned away; she was suspicious of anyone other than trusted friends. Towards the end, she preferred the company of men to women, and reacted contemptuously against the sapphist sisterhood. ‘I was never a lesbian,’ she insisted, ‘I only loved Thelma Wood.’
In 1967 Barnes wrote to Natalie Barney, ‘I am the most famous unknown of the century.’ Over the years she has become the darling of feminist literary scholars; she has been deconstructed, put together again, read this way and that, even popularised on ‘Woman’s House’. Homage is paid to her exquisitely subversive language, such a rich mixture for decoding. Indeed, Barnes’s place in the pantheon of academia is assured.
1 Parsons, Deborah, 2003. ‘Barnes’s Hilarious Sorrow: Nightwood’ in Djuna Barnes, Northcote House.
2 Barnes, Djuna, 1996. Nightwood, The Faber Library.
3 Broe, Mary Lynn, 1990. ‘Djuna Barnes’ in Scott, Bonnie Kime, ed., The Gender of Modernism, Indiana University Press.
4 In 1921, Man Ray and Marchel Duchamp made a film with Baroness Elsa, in which she shaves her pubic hair.
5 Loncraine, Rebecca, 2003. ‘Introduction’ to The Book of Repulsive Women and other poems, Fyfield Books.
6 Book of Repulsive Women, Fyfield Books.
7 Wroe, ibid.
8 Snaider Lanser, Susan, 1992. ‘Introduction’ to Ladies Almanack, New York U.P.
9 Barnes, Djuna, 1992. Ladies Almanack, New York University Press.
10 Snaider, ibid.
11 Barnes, Djuna, 1996. Nightwood, The Faber Library.
12 Miller, Tyrus, 1999. Late Modernism, University of California Press.
15 Miller, ibid.
17 Café du Dôme, one of the famous cafés of Montparnasse.
18 Bair, Deirdre, 1990. Samuel Beckett, Vintage.