Printer Friendly

"I just loved Thelma": Djuna Barnes and the construction of bisexuality.

When asked about her sexuality, Djuna Barnes is reported to have answered, "I'm not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma."' Given Barnes's apparent uneasiness with categorization, it is perhaps not surprising that readers of her work are divided over whether she is best read as a lesbian or as a homophobic writer. In particular, critics have debated whether Ladies Almanack celebrates or attacks lesbians. But the current move to include the identity "bisexual" within queer politics may provide a new way of approaching these questions. Although Barnes never identified herself as bisexual, her position was fluid throughout her life and from book to book.

Moreover, there are some intriguing similarities between characterizations of Barnes's writing and recent characterizations of bisexuality. Critics interested in the sexuality manifest in Barnes's works, and activists concerned with the place of bisexuality in queer politics, seem both to have been working from similar ideas about form, content, and the production of meaning. Because of the stylistic complexity of Barnes's works, it can sometimes be useful to translate those texts into more easily comprehensible summaries, finding a linear narrative of a young girl's development in Ryder, for instance, or an autobiographical correlative for the incest narrative in The Antiphon. To rest with these translations, however, can be to accept an implicit division of form and content, to posit form as the container or the disguise of content or meaning. But as I will argue, Barnes's presentations of sexuality posit meaning not as contained in a stable form, but as produced by a vibrant interplay of varied forms.

The discussion of Barnes's sexuality, as well as of the sexuality of her work, has gravitated toward dichotomous positions. In 1973 Bertha Harris celebrated Barnes as a lesbian role model; in 1984 Tee Coffine described Barnes as homophobic.(2) Ladies Almanack, in particular, has been characterized by Susan Sniader Lanser as the work of an insider to the lesbian Natalie Barney circle, and by Karla Jay as the "venomous" work of an outsider.(3) Like much of the critical commentary on Barnes's work, these discussions tend to assume a division between form and content. In such views, Barnes was really a lesbian, but denied this true identity because of homophobia. Similarly, Catharine Stimpson has described Barnes's style as "evasive," Marie Ponsot has called its charms "superficial," and Louise DeSalvo has found in Barnes's work a style "which simultaneously masks and reveals."(4) What is masked or evaded, revealed or hidden beneath a superficial style is apparently the true identity of the text, the real story, the content.

Yet Barnes insisted, in a notebook entry, that "The truth is how you say it, and to be |one's self' is the most shocking custom of all."(5) The ironic stance of Ladies Almanack, in particular, illustrates that unity of matter and manner. "July," for example, consists of a complaint about the excesses of women's love language to each other, "the Means by which she puts her Heart from her Mouth to her Sleeve, and from her Sleeve into Rhetorick, and from that into the Ear of her beloved."(6) The chapter thus suggests a double disdain for the idea of being "one's self' both in its critique of an earnest, humorless sincerity, a "witless" pouring out of one's heart, and in its elaboration of the lengthy route the heart actually takes through mouth, sleeve, and rhetoric.

The chapter ends: "twittering so loud upon the Wire that one cannot hear the Message. And yet!" (46). The narrator's complaint implicitly includes the love letter of her own text: ornate, elaborate, Barnes's style might seem to obscure a clear message. And yet the irony of the chapter's complaint depends upon its sly ostentation. To omit the "And yet!" or to translate it into a direct statement would obscure precisely the "Humor" that the chapter critiques women's love letters for lacking. The "truth" of the chapter lies precisely in how it is written.

Further, the quotation marks Barnes places around "one's self' call our attention to the discursive status of this construct. Being "one's self' is a performance; the pose of sincerity can become a way of shocking others. For Barnes, then, one chooses the role one plays, and while the pose of sincerity or identity may be useful, there is no stable identity outside these roles. As a discursive construct, "one's self' exists only in a larger context, an exchange with present interlocutors or future readers.

If Barnes's work repeatedly warns us away from dichotomizing its form and content in service of arguments that it is "really" lesbian or homophobic, then we need other ways of discussing the sexuality manifest in that work. Recent bisexual activism and consequent public discussions on bisexual identity make available conceptual tools useful in mediating debates on the sexuality of Barnes and her work. Barnes herself is known to have been sexually involved with both men and women, and by some accounts loved men as well as women. In that sense, the most apt identification of Barnes would be bisexual.

There are, of course, multiple ways of understanding bisexuality. It can be characterized and critiqued in ways that divide form and content, preserving the analogous binarism of heterosexual and homosexual, or queer and straight. Yet if bisexual positioning is understood as one way of acknowledging the complexity of sexuality-of the interplay of desire, fantasy, behavior, social affiliation, emotional connection - then it serves as a challenge to essentializing dichotomies, a challenge also evident in Barnes's works.

Some arguments both "for" and "against" including bisexuality in queer movement can fall prey to problems of the same form/content divisions that vex accounts of Barnes's writing. Anxious lesbians and gay men insist that bisexuals are really just not out of the closet; earnest bisexuals claim that sex between bi men and bi women is nonetheless queer.(7) But both of these positions neglect the production of meaning in ongoing social discourses.

If the truth is how you say it, then bisexuals are not just stuck on the threshold of the closet. If being "one's self' is a "custom," then it is not simply the declaration of an individual monad free of culture and context. Some queer observers have been rightly skeptical of the way the bisexual label can be used to reinterpret queer figures in heterocentric ways. As Rebecca Ripley notes, the "idea that anybody is essentially, basically, really gay doesn't go down easily with straight Americans. They'd rather think that everybody is bi and therefore |partially straight.'"(8) In a September 1992 Nation review, for instance, Charlotte Innes critiques recent representations of Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Harold Nicolson that have glorified the Sackville-West - Nicolson marriage at the expense of their same-sex relationships, and that have thus obscured as well as recapitulated the impact of homophobia on their stories. Identifying a writer as lesbian, or celebrating a lesbian text, can help provide the conceptual leverage needed to break free of such heterocentric readings.

But ideas about who or what is a lesbian or a lesbian text are as culturally and historically specific as are the dangerous uses to which a bisexual identification can be put. Indeed, if "to be |one's self' is the most shocking custom of all," we would do well to keep in mind the risks entailed in any essentializing claims to authenticity of identity, even as we keep in sight the more palpable dangers entailed in presenting a self that for many still has the power to be shocking.

The distinction I am drawing here between a critical approach based on questions of identity and one moving toward increasingly textured understandings of sexuality can also be understood as a distinction between lesbian-feminist and queer theory. Anti-foundationalist, queer theory moves through poststructuralist articulations of the construction of subjectivity by diverse systems of power. Thus, whereas lesbian-feminist theory postulates an unproblematic continuity between the terms on either side of its hyphen, queer theory, in contrast, disarticulates sexual and gender politics. Yet while queer theory promises a movement beyond identity politics, the queer movement is pulled back to questions of identity by immediate political battles.

Opposition to the recent spate of measures that would block or rescind legal recognition of gay and lesbian rights has tended to crystallize around appeals to the idea of a genetic basis for sexual identity. Like arguments for the "real" content of a literary work, this genetic argument presumes an unchanging, essential identity. It has presumably had the tactical value of reassuring straight parents that gays in the schools are not going to be recruiting their children, and indeed of assuring all heterosexuals that their sexual identities are secure. Yet the genetic account of sexual identity has precluded the possibility of arguing that it would be OK to choose one's sexual identity if one felt such a choice was possible, and has excluded from public discourse the possibility of arguing that heterosexuality, too, is a constructed institution rather than a biological inevitability.

These exclusions of choice and of construction constitute an exclusion of bisexuality, which is frequently associated with the possibility of choosing one's sexuality. One lesbian-identified woman reports in an interview with Dvora Zipkin, "I suppose in some kind of pure sexual sense, I am bisexual. . . . it really does feel like a choice. I know that choice is a bad word in queer circles these days, but I think there's a lot of choice involved in our sexual identity."(9) Bisexual activists also frequently stress the experience of sexual identity as fluid rather than fixed, the product of ongoing social construction rather than of a roll of the genetic dice. Amanda Udis-Kessler notes that "Constructionism . . . [posits] that everyone has, if not the experience of living a bisexual life, at least the potential to do so" and "that one's sexuality is not necessarily firmly set at age five, or even at age fifty."(10) Indeed, the public emergence of bisexuality as an issue in queer movement is partly a result of prominent lesbians like writer Jan Clausen becoming involved with men. The woman who writes under the name "Eridani" states that she uses the word "bisexual" as "shorthand for not having a sexual orientation.'"(11) The term bisexuality," then, despite its nominal stability, still points toward a more flexible and finely grained understanding of all sexuality. While the polarization of political positions for or against legal measures is inevitable, the polarization of available sexualities into homosexual or heterosexual is not, and indeed misses the full shape of the construction of female sexuality in Barnes's works.

In Ladies Almanack, Evangeline Musset, "developed in the Womb of her most gentle Mother to be a Boy" (7), approximates the sexological accounts, dominant in the twenties, of female homosexuality as innate gender inversion - the precursor to the genetic argument, as it were. But Saint Musset's role as evangelist for the sect demonstrates that she can win converts. Indeed, the ease with which she comes to do so suggests the historical variability of women loving women. "In my day," said Dame Musset . . . "I was a Pioneer and a Menace, it was not then as it is now, chic and pointless to a degree, but as daring as a Crusade What joy has the missionary, . . . when all the Heathen greet her with Glory Halleluja! before she opens her Mouth, and with an Amen! before she shuts it!" (34)

While Musset's comments might indicate that some opponents of lesbian and gay rights are correct in their suspicions that social acceptance of same-sex eroticism can lead to more of it, her dismay at its newly chic status is differently motivated. Despite her disappointment at the ease of her recent seductions, however, the text does not confirm the view of her Crusade as "pointless." The frontispiece to the text depicts Dame Musset "out upon that exceeding thin ice to which it has pleased God, more and more, to call frail woman, there so conducting herself that none were put to the chagrin of sinking for the third time!" One of the drowning women appears to be drowning with a man, and Dame Musset's salvation of women from the frigid waters of heterosexual relations appears both heroic and, as the caption informs us, "endearing."

Think now of the narrator of the Buffalo Oral History Project who pointed out that in the 1940s "There was a great difference in looks between a lesbian and her girl."(12) The comment calls our attention to a range of positions historically available to women who have been retrospectively recast as uniformly "lesbian." Think of Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn in The Well of Loneliness. Think of Thelma Wood calling herself "Simon" when writing to Barnes." Is the lesbian's girl a lesbian? Is Stephen's? Is "Simon'"s? Well, no, not exactly. But to describe her as somehow "really" heterosexual would seem equally to miss the point.

That the category "lesbian" was not always defined, understood, and experienced as it is today should remind us that sexual identity is culturally constructed and historically variable. There may be more value in making use of any formulations that challenge heterosexism and heterocentrism than in determining what constitutes a "real" lesbian identity or in pursuing dichotomized debates about Barnes's relation to the closet. Even if a work enacts patterns of what we would today recognize as homophobia, even if its representation of same-sex desire is less complete or complex than some readers would prefer, still it may offer its queer audience considerable readerly pleasures and powers. Thus, for example, the catalytic node of what Barnes called "the Proustian chronicle" is a chapter that, as Eve Sedgwick points out, most readers find reductive and sentimental, and that invites as well as repels what Sedgwick calls "the by now authentically banal exposure of Proust's narrator as a closeted homosexual."(14)

Barnes's 1972 foreword to Ladies Almanack describes the work as Neap-tide to the Proustian chronicle, gleanings from the shores of Mytilene, glimpses of its novitiates, its rising "saints" and priestesses," and thereon to such aptitude and insouciance that they took to gaming and to swapping that "other" of the mystery, the anomaly that calls the hidden name. (3)

The description of this almanac of female same-sex eroticism as "gleanings from the shores of Mytilene" alludes of course to Sappho, who represents, as Susan Gubar observes, "all the lesbian artists whose work" has been lost or misread, and more specifically to the Sappho whose legend provided the background for the relationship between Renee Vivien and Natalie Barney, who traveled together to Mytilene." Embracing lesbianism as a kind of geographical identity, moreover, seems to put in question essentializing models of sexual inversion or innate sexuality. If, as we learn later in Ladies Almanack, "The very Condition of Woman is so subject to Hazard, so complex, and so grievous, that to place her at one Moment is but to displace her at the next" (55), then perhaps any Woman might choose to displace herself to the shores of Mytilene. Asking Richard Aldington to publish Ladies Almanack, Natalie Barney wrote to him that "All ladies fit to figure in such an almanack should of course be eager to have a copy, and all gentlemen disapproving of them. Then the public might, with a little judicious treatment, include those lingering on the border of such islands and those eager to be feffied across."'i The idea of sapphic sexuality as a location suggests that it may be understood as a position, a perspective from which one might critique the whole map of sexuality as it is currently drawn.

Barnes's "Foreword" also calls into question the borders of that map. Shari Benstock identifies "that |other' of the mystery" with the Lacanian Other and with the "woman of man's dreams."(17) But its relation of apposition with "the anomaly that calls the hidden name" seems to connect it with "the love that dare not speak its name." The anomalous other," then, seems rather to be the figure Matthew O'Connor and Nora Flood in Barnes's Nightwood discuss as "the third sex," the invert who, like Evangeline Musset, is born that way. But then who is gaining "aptitude and insouciance" and doing the "gaming" and "swapping"? In the "Foreword," as in the text, Barnes's presentation of the residents of Mytilene is broadly inclusive.

Even in Nightwood, which seems to deploy the geneticist model of the "third sex" more fully than does Ladies Almanack, definitions of the content of sexuality are uncertain. Though Nora and the Doctor discuss Robin as an exemplum of the third sex, it is Robin who marries and has a child. Nora, in contrast, is not discussed as a member of the "third sex," though she is the only major female character whose only sexual relationship in the book is with another woman. Thus Nightwood, too, indicates the explanatory limits of essentialist, identity-based models of sexuality. If Robin "has come from some place that we have forgotten and would give our life to recall," perhaps she's come from Mytilene."

If the emergence of bisexuality as a description of sexual identity helps put into question essentialist, genetic models that permitted an analogy between sexual and racial identity, Barnes's partially constructionist model in Ladies Almanack opens up the possibility of another politically useful analogy. The language of "saints," "priestesses," and "novitiates" might remind us that religious freedom is also a civil right. Beliefs, like desires, cannot be chosen by a simple act of will, but they may change and evolve. Not everyone has a religious vocation, of course, but then, as Eridani suggests, not everyone has a sexual orientation, either.

The discussion of the sexuality manifest in Barnes's life and works has, of course, not been entirely dichotomous or always rested with a division of form and content. Those critics who have attended most closely to the finely grained presentation of female sexuality in Barnes's work and who have examined the ways that it produces meaning have pointed the most fruitful directions for Barnes scholarship. Frances Doughty, for instance, suggests the "issue is not whether Barnes was a lesbian or a heterosexual, but that she was neither."(19) Carolyn Allen notes that the biographical record reveals Barnes's assertion that she was not a lesbian, she "just loved Thelma," but observes that some of Barnes's works remain "classics of lesbian imagination" nonetheless.(20) In these views, Barnes becomes a lesbian writer, and might arguably become a bisexual writer, not because of what she or her writings really did or said, but because of their apprehension by critics and other readers for whom Barnes provides productive critiques of compulsory heterosexuality and generative imaginings of alternative sexualities.


(1) Andrew Field, Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes (New York: Putnam, 1983), 37. (2) Cited in Carolyn Allen, "Writing Toward Nightwood: Djuna Barnes' Seduction Stories," in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 54. (3) Lanser, "Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire," in Broe, 156-68; Karla Jay, "The Outsider among the Expatriates: Djuna Barnes' Satire on the Ladies of the Almanack," in Broe, 186. (4) Stimpson, "Afterword," in Broe, 371; Ponsot, "A Reader's Ryder," Broe, 94; DeSalvo, "|To Make Her Mutton at Sixteen': Rape, Incest, and Child Abuse in The Antiphon," Broe, 301. (5) Barnes, quoted in Broe, front jacket flap. (6) Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanack (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 43; hereafter cited parenthetically. (7) Ara Wilson, "Just Add Water: Searching for the Bisexual Politic," Out/look: National Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 4.4 (Spring 1992): 27. (8) "The Language of Desire: Sexuality, Identity and Language," in Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Reba Weise (Seattle: Seal Press, 1992), 95. (9) "Why Bi?" in Weise, 59. (10) "Bisexuality in an Essentialist World," in Bisexuality: A Reader and Sourcebook, ed. Thomas Geller (Ojai, CA: Times Change Press, 1990), 58. (11) "Is Sexual Orientation a Secondary Sex Characteristic?" in Weise, 174. (12) Quoted in Madeline D. Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, "Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York, 1940-1960," in Unequal Sisters: A Multi-Cultural Reader in U.S. Women's History, ed. Ellen Carol Dubois and Vicki L. Ruiz (New York: Routledge, 1990), 388. (13) Cited in Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 256. (14) Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 223. (15) "Sapphistries," in The Lesbian issue: Essays from "Signs," ed. Estelle B. Freedman et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 94, 95-96. (16) Cited in Benstock, 249. (17) Benstock, 247. (18) Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 1946), 118. (19) "Gilt on Cardboard: Djuna Barnes as Illustrator of Her Life and Work," in Broe, 149. (20) Allen, in Broe, 54.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Djuna Barnes; Thelma Wood
Author:Michel, Frann
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:Barnes being "beast familiar": representation on the margins of modernism.
Next Article:"This mysterious and migratory jewelry": satire and feminine in Djuna Barnes's "The Terrorists." (Djuna Barnes)

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters