Printer Friendly

"Lullaby for a lady's lady": Lesbian identity in 'Ladies Almanack.' (Djuna Barnes)

Now as a wonder worker, Dame Musset was perhaps at her very best when, carrying a pole and muff, and sporting an endearing tippet, she stepped out upon that exceding 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!(1)

This inscription and its accompanying imagery pose several interpretive problems for the reader of Djuna Barnes's little book of 1928, Ladies Almanack. Various critics have debated the meaning of the images: does the crude masculinization of Dame Musset, the phallic pole she extends to the drowning women, replicate dangerous stereotypes of lesbians promulgated by a male psychoanalytic establishment,(2) or does the alternation of "pole" and "muff," top hat and petticoat serve as visual proof of the undecidability of the text, its "feminine writing"?(3) Few of these critical stances discuss the significance for lesbian sexuality of the cultural context within which this set of images is located, the "thin ice" on which Dame Musset appears to be balancing while others fall through.(4) It is my opinion that Barnes herself is aware of this "thin ice," this particularly fragile moment of nascent lesbian identity.

As Foucault describes it, at the end of the nineteenth century there is a shift from an emphasis on homosexual acts to an emphasis on homosexual identities. In the case of women, this new "lesbian identity" is itself a product of the anxieties surrounding changes in the status of women, changes which include but are not limited to the shift in the production and control of bourgeois white women and their sexuality from the family to the public sphere, the increasing demand for careers for women outside the home, and the flowering of women's education, all of which are tied in some way to the need of industrial capitalism to produce new kinds of regulated individuals. Because of these transformations, the supposed centrality of the private mother-daughter relationship is replaced by more public, more dangerous, perhaps even "unnatural" relations between women: teacher and student, older teacher and younger teacher, nurse and head nurse, novice and initiate, missionary and convert. As others have documented, sexology and psychoanalysis arise in direct response to the threats posed by these kinds of "modern" relationships. In their attempts to regulate women's sexuality, these discourses produce what is perhaps the first codification of a modern lesbian identity.(5) In this paper, I will argue that Ladies Almanack constitutes both an intervention into and an example of this process.

The Almanack is full of allusions to cultural spaces in which middle-class American and British women are allowed to leave the private sphere of the home for the public sphere of the boarding school, college, war effort, and perhaps, by the twenties, the salon. For example, Dame Musset's designation as "the Grand Red Cross" (6), obviously a reference to Spenser's knight, also invokes another more recent cultural register, the "wonder worker" women ambulance drivers of the First World War, who exchanged the restrictions of the domestic sphere for the thrill of the war effort and of the many other women with whom they worked.(6)

The use of slang terms for women, such as the nickname "Old Girl" in the phrase "My Love she is an Old Girl, out of Fashion" (15), plays off the vernacular of both the women's boarding schools and the women's colleges, which in 1928 were still fairly recent developments. Similarly, Evangeline Musset's first name itself hints at her higher purpose, and she is a parody of the religious women who formed independent sisterhoods in the nineteenth century.(7) Instead of converting women to Christ, however, Musset converts them to lesbianism.

In its witty encoding of such allusions, Ladies Almanack intervenes into the debates surrounding the effects of these newfound freedoms on women and specifically on women's sexuality. It exploits societal fears implicit in the cautionary writings of the time, and made explicit in sexology and psychoanalysis, in order to reclaim what the heterosexist culture at large considers to be the "unnatural" relations between women, relations which produce unexpected and often disruptive effects.(8) In so doing the text creates what I will call a theory of "queer reproduction," and it asserts that, through instruction and seduction, queers reproduce other queers.

I use the term "queer reproduction" in order to reclaim the idea that gays and lesbians can, through a variety of means, reproduce, or, as it is referred to in homophobic terms, recruit. I believe that throughout the twentieth century, gay, lesbian, and queer sexualities have been transmitted and nurtured within specific cultural contexts by other gays and lesbians. As Sue Ellen Case explains, queers, considered "unnatural" because their sexuality does not produce children, have long been linked by a homophobic culture to sterility and death.(9) Ladies Almanack positions itself in direct response to this cultural stereotype when it imagines different fantasies of queer reproduction which wrestle the production/ reproduction of individuals away from the heterosexual family, the church, and the state.

The most obvious example in the Almanack of what I am describing is the fantasy of the creation of the "woman with a difference" who springs out of an egg. Barnes writes, "This is the part about Heaven that has never been told" (24), and goes on to describe how the angels and the signs from the zodiac join forces to reproduce a lesbian. We are told that they were "all gathered together, so close that they were not recognizable, one from the other" (26), lending the impression of some kind of literal mass production. And the drawing, with its confusion of wings, reenforces this image. Collective production then becomes collective reproduction, as the section ends with this description: "After this the Angels parted, and on the Face of each was the Mother look. Why was that?" (26). In this image, Barnes wrestles not only reproduction but the idea of mothering from their heterosexual context, and rewrites them to include what can happen in various lesbian spaces, perhaps even the Parisian salon.

Perhaps the most controversial and the most compelling queer mother/ lover is Dame Evangeline Musset. In order to discuss her function within the text, however, I must address what I call the nagging question of her pole. Rather than read her as simply a reinscription of sexology's stereotypes of lesbian penis envy, I read Musset as both a figure of Barnes's appropriation of the phallic and a representation of possibilities for the (re)productive power of lesbian desire. Through Musset, Barnes co-opts the phallus and denaturalizes its relation to actual penises, at the same time separating it from a strictly masculine and heterosexist context. In so doing, her strategy most closely resembles what sex radical Susie Bright has playfully termed "lesbian cock consciousness,"(10) and what Judith Butler has recently theorized in her essay appropriately entitled "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary." In this piece, which is an attempt both to deconstruct and historicize the psychoanalytic reification of both the phallus and its relation to patriarchal authority and compulsory heterosexuality, Butler challenges the reader to "Consider that |having' the Phallus can be symbolized by an arm, a tongue, a hand (or two), a knee, a thigh, a pelvic bone, an array of purposefully instrumentalized body-like things." She goes on to say: "If a lesbian |has' [the phallus], it is also clear that she does not |have' it in the traditional sense; her activity furthers a crisis in the sense of what it means to |have' one at all. The phantasmatic status of |having' is redelineated, rendered transferable, substitutable, plastic; and the eroticism produced within such an exchange depends on the displacement from the traditional masculinist contexts as well as the critical redeployment of its central figures of power."(11)

This emphasis on the transferability of the phallus resembles very much Barnes's strategy. And in the midst of Patience Scalpel's heterosexist monologue, the connection between this phallic plasticity and queer reproduction is made explicit. As Scalpel proclaims: "In my time ... Women came to enough trouble by lying abed with the Father of their Children. What then in this good Year of our Lord has paired them like to like, with never a Beard between them, layer for layer, were one to unpack them to the very Ticking? ... Are good Mothers to supply them with Luxuries in the next Generation; for they themselves will have no Shes, unless some Her puts them forth! ... They well have to pluck where they may. My Daughters shall go amarrying!" (12-13). While Patience Scalpel enunciates precisely the stereotype of queer sexuality, that homosexuality itself is not regenerative but requires the labor of heterosexuality in part because it is based on sameness, layer for layer, like to like, thus lacking "the difference" that produces children, the division of her last few sentences by the crude phallic drawing of a doll-like young Dame Musset calls into question the legitimacy of Scalpel's words. A picture, heavily outlined, of a blunt, stodgy Evangeline penetrates Scalpel's text. If we weren't already taken in by the parody, this dildoesque figure, with its caption "Thus Evangeline began her career," implies that in fact another kind of queer reproduction will take place, one based on recruitment and seduction. Not only will more Evangelines be born to unsuspecting "good mothers" but Musset's prowess at providing pleasure for women, literalized in the phallicism of her body, disrupts this heterosexist fantasy and disputes the idea that only fathers can lie with women and make children. Musset's body, like the pole she extends in the frontispiece, offers alternatives to women, other kinds of eroticized differences, in order to insure that they will not be "put to the chagrin of sinking for the third time!" Furthermore, the use of the word career, loaded as it was (and still is) with anxieties around women's place outside the sphere of the heterosexual family, should also not be missed. Barnes revalues the effects of modernization and the modern on women, effects bemoaned by someone like D. H. Lawrence, who in his famous representation of lesbian love makes "modern" a euphemism for lesbian. He writes in 1915 in The Rainbow: "Suddenly Ursula found a queer awareness existed between herself and her class-mistress, Miss Inger. The latter was a rather beautiful woman of twenty-eight, a fearless-seeming clean type of modern girl whose very independence betrays her sorrow."(12) The use of the term "modern girl" reappears in Ladies Almanack, in a passage that clearly responds to Lawrence's representations of the predatory lesbian. We are introduced to Massie Tuck-and-Frill, who is simultaneously represented as both a prophet and a prurient midwife, one who gets pleasure from peeking up other women's skirts, ostensibly in her search for signs of life. As her quest is described: "though she found nothing ever requiring Attention, nor any small Voice saying |Where am I?' she still cherished a fond Delusion that in one Way or another, the Pretties would yet whelp a little Sweet .... |For,' as she said, |Creation has ever been too Marvellous for us to doubt of it now and though the Medieval way is still thought good enough, what is to prevent some modern Girl from rising from the Couch of a Girl as modern, with something new in her Mind?'" (22). Here the fantasy/prophecy of queer reproduction is made perfectly explicit. Modern girls spring from other modern girls. This emphasis on the modern also hooks into another set of cultural anxieties, those around mass production and "unnatural" reproduction. Like the hundreds of copies churned out by the factories, lesbian sexuality becomes a form of modern "unnatural production," one whose circulation cannot be easily regulated.(13)

Finally, this scene of unnatural reproduction is also linked to writing. Like the woman implied by Barnes's pseudonym, Masie Tuck-and-Frill is a "lady of fashion,"(14) as well as a prophet of self-fashioning, and she explicitly connects the production of lesbians with aesthetic endeavor: "|A Feather,' she said, |might accomplish it, or a Song rightly sung, or an Exclamation said in the right Place, or a Trifle done in the right Spirit, and then you would have need of me indeed!' and here she began to sing the first Lullaby ever cast for a Girl's Girl should she one day become a Mother" (22). Here fashion, writing, and lesbian (re)production are explicitly linked: a feather may be the perfect trimming for a hat, one which changes one's appearance just enough to give her a new sense of identity, or it may be a pen, which invokes the act of writing. A song may be the perfect catalyst for a girl to become a Girl's Girl or a Lady's Lady, that is, a lesbian, in which case the songwriter becomes either a lesbian midwife, who helps nurture the effects of the song, or a Mother, not a mother ensconced within the heterosexual family, but a new queer mother whose writing is her form of queer reproduction.

Thus, Barnes is also commenting on the power of writing or representation itself in the production of certain kinds of individuals. Critics have consistently gestured toward the ways in which the Almanack can be read in terms of the possibilities for identity and identification that it offers its readers. It is my sense that Ladies Almanack is a book with a specific purpose in mind for its readers: to establish an "imagined community" of lesbian practices and identities into which others can be recruited.(15)

So far in my discussion I have focused on the potentially liberatory effects of this co-optation of the rhetoric, imagery, and practice of conversion and recruitment for the purposes of establishing lesbian identities. One word I have not employed, but one which deserves mention here, however, is "conquest." Numerous references to Dame Musset's imperial adventures, including those which repeat racial and ethnic stereotypes, recur throughout Ladies Almanack (e.g., 34-36). These references serve as a caution to the reader. As Bertha Harris has so astutely noted, the effects of Barnes's lesbian nationalism are double-edged. Harris explains that even as she identifies strongly, necessarily, almost completely with the lesbian scene of Paris in the twenties, she feels that even her body is excluded from it because of its class and difference.(16) Thus, albeit for somewhat different reasons, I agree with Karla Jay's critique of Ladies Almanack's "reductionist vision of lesbianism."(17) There are problems with any kind of conversion, no matter how pleasant.

The recent explosion of new queer publications, called "queerzines," produce and reproduce possibilities for theorizing and representing gay, lesbian, and queer identities. These homemade publications bear a striking resemblance to Barnes's project. While these 'zines have become central to debates about the dangers of queer nationalism, even their strongest critics allow that they deploy ingenious strategies for the proliferation of lesbian and gay identities. It is exciting to imagine that like the "bold young women" "merrily and effectively hawk[ing]" copies of Ladies Almanack "along the Left Bank,"(18) any lesbian with access to a Xerox machine can engage in a practice of mass "unnatural" reproduction. I think Djuna Barnes would have approved.


(1) Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanack (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992), frontispiece; hereafter cited parenthetically. (2) Karla Jay, "The Outsider among the Expatriates: Djuna Barnes' Satire on the Ladies of the Almanack," in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 184-93. (3) For examples of this strategy, see Susan Sniader Lanser, "Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire," in Silence and Power, 156-68, and Frann Michel, "All Women Are Not Women All: Ladies Almanack and Feminine Writing," Silence and Power, 170-83. (4) One very interesting exception to this is Julie L. Abraham's "|Woman, Remember You': Djuna Barnes and History," Silence and Power, 252-68. (5) See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (London: Penguin, 1978); Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985); Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men (New York: William Morrow, 1981); George Chauncey, Jr., "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptuality of Female Deviance," Salmagundi 58-59 (Fall 1982-Winter 1983); Nancy Sahli, "Smashing: Women's Relationships Before the Fall," Chrysalis 8 (1979): 17-22. (6) It is interesting to note that Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas all drove ambulances during WWI. (7) See Vicinus for a discussion of these women. (8) For one example of this type of cautionary writing, see Scouting for Girls (New York: The Girl Scouts of America, 1927). (9) Sue Ellen Case, "Tracking the Vampire," Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3.2 (1991): 1-20. (10) Susie Bright, during audience discussion, Harvard Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference, 31 October 1992. (11) Judith Butler, "The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary," Differences 4.1 (1992): 162. (12) D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (New York: Penguin, 1981), 336. (13) For an in-depth discussion of "unnatural production" and its relation to modern industrial capitalism (but not its relation to queer sexuality), see Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992). (14) Barnes's own pseudonym, which she had also used when writing features for Vanity Fair. (15) I take this use of the term "imagined communities," originally coined by Benedict Anderson in his book imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), from Cindy Patton's reclaiming of it in relation to communities of lesbians in "Unmediated Lust? The Improbable Space of Lesbian Desires," in Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, ed. Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser (London: Pandora, 1991), 233-40. (16) Bertha Harris, "The More Profound Nationality of Their Lesbianism: Lesbian Society in Paris in the 1920s," Amazon Expedition: A Lesbian Feminist Anthology, ed. Phyllis Birkby, et al. (New York: Times Change Press, 1973), 77-88. (17) Jay, Silence and Power, 193. (18) Andrew Field, Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), 125.
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
Author:Kent, Kathryn R.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:Spectacular confessions: "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed." (essay) (Djuna Barnes)
Next Article:'Ryder' as contraception: Barnes v. the reproduction of mothering.

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