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"This mysterious and migratory jewelry": satire and feminine in Djuna Barnes's "The Terrorists." (Djuna Barnes)

Djuna Barnes has said, "We would teach man with a joke."(1) Barnes's "jokes," however, catch everyone in their psychosexual-textual crossfire, leaving no social or psychic position unchallenged. While the humor in her writings often displays an affinity with the broad, physical comedy of vaudeville, a humor keyed to the visual register through stereotypic contrasts in her characters' appearance and behavior, Barnes's satiric didacticism is both complex and unsettling in its ambiguities. Her satire is sharply double-edged. Through both structure and theme, her writings establish self-consciously structured oppositions between male and female, bourgeois and working class, artist and audience, only to parodically collapse or dissolve the bounds of those differences. Thus, that which she would "teach" can be read only in the implied margins of her many "parodic inversions."(2)

Barnes's representations of gender and class structures lie at the heart of her work. Her characters, as others have remarked, "are often types,"(3) representative of a given social or psychic position. Yet these stereotypical positions often prove unstable or illusory when taken to their exaggerated extremes.(4) Her satiric writings thus function to critique rather than support the ideology of difference articulated through the binarisms of Western metaphysical thought. Whether or not the diffuse implications of her parodic inversions were fully considered, her satiric writings intimate what Lacanian-Derridean discourses have identified as the fraudulent workings of the phallocracy through which, nevertheless, our individual - and always gendered - subjectivities are constituted. Reading these sites of rupture or disorder, those places where differences break down and parodic oppositions dissolve - in other words, reading the feminine - provides a broader understanding of the subversive complexities of her satire.

This essay focuses on one of Barnes's satiric newspaper tales of 1913-1919, "The Terrorists," reprinted in the collection Smoke and Other Early Stories (1982). Journalistic writings - perhaps due to associations with sensationalism and quick cash - are notorious for their exclusion from the literary canon, and Barnes's newspaper tales prove no exception. Yet these ambiguous early fictions, written in Barnes's youth for financial remuneration when first on her own in New York City, contain much of interest for those concerned with exploring the gender/genre divide. Indeed, as a marginalized story within a marginalized genre of a marginalized writer, "The Terrorists" serves as a particularly intriguing locus for examining the status of the feminine in patriarchy.

The feminine can be understood as the subjugated second term of any binary opposition in a symbolic system that takes the phallus as its primary signifier. "The Terrorists" satirizes the subjugated status of the feminine through its themes and structuring devices even as its (non) status in the modernist canon repeats this marginalization. "The Terorists" textually apposes Pilaat Korb, a drunken poet and would-be revolutionary, with a nameless woman of bourgeois origins designated simply as "Pilaat's wife."(5) The story employs third-person narration to describe their bohemian life together in Greenwich Village. Korb agitates against middle-class oppression while his wife, who appears to be the sole wage-earner, clears tables at a local cafe for " |the pigs,' the smug and respectable who brought their wives and children to dine" (161).

In this brief and formally sophisticated tale, the two characters superficially adhere to stereotypically discrete masculine and feminine positions, both through a narrative structure that grants Korb first appearance in the text, more and significantly longer speeches, and a proper name, and through a narrative content that consistently represents "Pilaat's wife" as the physical and intellectual diminutive of her husband. Yet despite her deferred appearance in the text, a description of her thoughts and behavior concludes the story; although Korb's speech heavily dominates the dialogue, ultimately more is revealed about her history and inner nature than his. If she imitates her husband, he, "thinking that she was expressing herself" (162), parodically imitates her imitation of him.

Yet it would be misleading to suggest that the feminine position supersedes that of the masculine in this ambiguous story; both positions are satirized through the odd mirroring relation that binds these two characters even as it signals their exaggerated differences. Thus the gap-toothed smile of the chain-smoking wife is as comically parodic as Korb's redveined and watering eyes (159-160). The parodic inversions function so that neither position carries implied authority. At the same time, although narrative structure and content initially suggest that Pilaat and "Pilaat's wife" adhere to discrete masculine and feminine positions, ultimately Barnes subverts this apparent representation of absolute sexual difference to provide a striking example, not of the subjugation of the feminine under phallic law, but rather of the tacit and necessary failure of that law. Like the "mysterious and migratory jewelry" described in "The Terrorists" as possessing a will of its own, beyond the control of either Korb, his wife, or his wife's bourgeois family, the feminine proves elusively and disruptively indeterminate.

"The Terrorists" possesses a crystalline structure that underscores the dyadic imaginary relation that binds Pilaat Korb and his wife. The opening, which focuses exclusively on Korb, mirrors the conclusion, which focuses on Korb's wife. They parodically mirror one another in their opposing physical characteristics as well. Thus she is "frail" (160) and "delicate" (161) - the "little wife" (163) - and he, "robust" (159) with an "indomitable digestion" (159); she is very young" (160), and he, "a man of fifty odd" (159). His hair is "long" (159), while hers is "cut short" (161); he loves "clean shirts" (160), and she wears "loose and dirty blouses smeared with paint and oil" (161).

These polarities, which signal her subordinated status by making her the physical diminutive of her husband, are further reinforced by the narrator's pointed omission of her given name. Without a name, she stereotypically stands in for all women, who lose their name through marriage and thus possess no authorized speaking position within the symbolic. While Korb is a published poet, his wife partakes of this authority only by carrying his poems with her and "reading them aloud or studying them nonchalantly" (161). When she reads the poems, it is then Korb who speaks through her. Even when "Pilaat's wife" is given her own rare lines of dialogue, the narrator suggests that her words mimic the learned rhetoric of her revolutionist husband: "She said |we' with that intonation used by agitators" (162). Thus she, a parodic mirror for all female subjects in patriarchy, equivocally speaks "in a mode of masquerade, in imitation of the masculine, phallic subject."(6)

Yet if the self-consciously structured oppositions in "The Terrorists" suggest that Korb and his wife double one another as two halves of one whole or unified self, as complementary masculine and feminine polarities, other textual details surface that subvert this illusive complementarity predicated on feminine lack. In "The Terrorists," absolute sexual difference, as well as any concept of absolute class difference, constantly threatens to dissolve upon close examination. For if hers is the voice of masquerade, his voice threatens to disappear altogether: "He no longer wrote poetry or plays, nor did he keep up his connection with a paper which he had started, and which spoke harshly of all things" (163). In this story, the artist figure is a fraud; the macho working-class terrorist, a man domesticated by "too many clean shirts in youth" (160), is unable to free himself from bourgeois desires. Insofar as the (illusion of) masculine speaking subjectivity, as many have argued, is predicated upon the power to control or direct the gaze via pen or camera, his inability to continue writing suggests his symbolic castration.

While she imitates her husband in both speech and gesture, he, when inciting his working-class companions to revolutionary action, "would then end up leaning far back as his wife did when she copied him, thinking that she was expressing herself' (162). Unwittingly, they imitate each other as they pursue the illusions of gendered speaking subjectivity. For both men and women, entry into the symbolic and language through the mirror stage entails tacit acceptance of those illusions - to do otherwise, as Shari Benstock explains, is "to risk exclusion from language in psychosis."(7) Nevertheless, while the masculine subject inherits the authority to speak and act with the father's name, it is after all an empty or false inheritance. In actuality, the masculine subject has received nothing tangible. Consequently, Korb comically looks to his wife for guidance in self-expression even as she occupies herself in copying him.

Barnes's parodic and destabilizing inversions continue. Thus, from "his early love of the people" (159), Pilaat Korb comes to despise the "sad, shabby hearts" of the working class as "pitifully weak" (160): "Had Pilaat come from a less cleanly family, he would have loved [the people] very strongly and gently to the end. But he had been comforted and maimed in his conceptions and his fellow love by too many clean shirts in youth. He still longed to correct things, but he wanted to correct them as one cleans up a floor" (160; italics mine). Indeed, his nickname "Terrorist" derives not from revolutionary activities in support of the working class, but rather from the shouting that "began to awe those of his own group" and led them "when he made a gesture of pity" to raise "their arms to protect themselves" (160).

All of Korb's shouting only serves to underscore his fear of his own powerlessness and feminization, a fear any recognition of which he must repress and displace by terrorizing his working-class peers and dominating his wife. He cannot outshout, however, the castrating implications of the narrator's reminder that he has been "maimed" in his "conceptions and fellow love by too many clean shirts in youth." The reader sees what Korb cannot: that Korb's "maimed" and castrated status indirectly equals the diminished position of his wife within the social order. Despite the apparent absence of a middle ground between his "clean shirts" and her "dirty blouses," those "clean shirts" link him to bourgeois attitudes beyond his conscious control, and are themselves strikingly associated with the domestic and the feminine.

Just as Korb desperately feigns the masculine position, his wife "deliberately set[s] about annihilating her own soul and her own delicate, sensitive, and keen insight" (161) in stereotypic complicity with the demands of the feminine. Still, insofar as "Pilaat's wife" possesses something to "annihilate" that is indefinable and outside observable reality - "insight," a "soul" - her characterization resists patriarchy's construction of woman as image. Her compliance with the feminine role, moreover, is always marked by an underlying current of comic resistance. She reads Korb's obscure poems aloud not because she enjoys them, but because "she wanted to puzzle the strangers" (161). Her efforts at self-erasure are equally calculated: "She liked to be the center of whispers, for then she could be impersonal and forget herself without any danger of falling into obscurity" (161).

The narrator mentions that the townspeople nicknamed Pilaat's wife "Joan d'Arc" (160). Although this nickname is dismissively attributed to "a certain pale loveliness about the frail oblong of her face" (160), the allusion recalls a revolutionary female military genius who-albeit with grim reprisal - defies the limits of gender and class to effect social change. The townspeople's nickname stands in marked contrast to the pet diminutives through which Korb effects to contain her: he calls her "Little One" and "Sniffle Snuffle" (164).

Her character lies somewhere between the "unresolved clash"(8) of alternatives suggested by her various nicknames. Even the narrator is confused by her ambiguous status. On the one hand, the narrator says of this twenty-seven-year-old: "After all, she was only a little girl who, because she was interested, thought that she must assume fury, and because she was too lazy to dress her hair after the fashion, cut it off" (164). This suggests that her revolutionary "fury" and masculine affects - the "heavy boots" (161), the cropped hair - are but the masquerading of a "little girl." On the other hand, in the succeeding line the narrator adds: "Yet there was something strange about Pilaat's wife. She did not like the society of silly and vain women, and she did turn most naturally to such men as her husband moved among" (164).

If there is "something strange" about Pilaat's wife, something unfixed and undefinable, there is something equally strange about the "mysterious and migratory jewelry" (165) she inherits from her bourgeois parents. A traditional symbol of the feminine, these "gems and silvers" (165) also represent the shackles of the dominant social order from which she has affected to escape. Her parents, "respectable people" with "vain ideas" of "a marriage of money" (164) for their daughter, recall the "smug and respectable" "pigs" she waits on at the cafe. The jewelry, however, which they had given to their daughter "when they had their first ambitions in the way of a well-to-do doctor" (164) as a future son-in-law, appears to possess its possessors, rather than the other way around. For it is they "who had been dropped in successive generations into the midst of old and tarnished jewelry comprising the family splendor"
(164). In a manner that parallels Korb's (failed) efforts to master
and displace "feminine" weakness, Barnes's use of passive voice indicates

that the family has little control over the jewelry, which, inverting the usual order of things, appears to have inherited them.

Pilaat's wife attempts to thwart the constraints of gender and class by refusing the "marriage of money" of her parent's ambition and immediately pawning the family jewelry. But just as her pawned jewels inexplicably keep returning to her in the text, the demands of the symbolic register are not something she can escape. As Jacqueline Rose explains in Feminine Sexuality, the symbolic demands that the subject line up under the door marked "Gentlemen" or the door marked "Ladies" - even though this positioning is temporary, constantly renegotiated within the psyche, subjectivity is always gendered.(9) Thus, in one scene, when she tosses the jewels aside saying, "I'm tired of supporting them" 165) - and with them, the constraints of the feminine position - it is Korb who fatefully returns them to her, in effect pressuring her back under the sign for the ladies' room door. An earlier passage, however, emphasizes the unconscious aspect of her relation to the jewels through that recurrrent use of passive voice: "this jewelry would come back, piece by piece, and appear on her wrist or about her neck or upon her ears, and at such times she drew a little aside from her husband and his friends, and would sit dreaming in a corner" (164-65).

Korb also exhibits ambivalence about the jewels, the sight of which "always put him into a passion either of avarice or contempt" (165). Again recalling the manner in which the feminine becomes "the site of disorder that the system must posit and repudiate in order to achieve its (illusion of) coherence" (Benstock 6), Korb concurrently both desires and despises that which he can neither control nor entirely eschew. The jewels invoke his ambiguous relation to the bourgeoisie, whom he despises and yet, occasionally, emulates, as well as his ambiguous relation to the feminine. Hence his distress. In one moment he "demand[s] that the jewels be cleared away with the rest of the |rubbish' " only, in the next, to lay claim to them again, "swearing ... that he was being treated like a man |who had not come honestly by his decorations' " (165). His need to repress recognition of this contradictory, fraudulent position then sends him "off into a melancholy reverie," speechless, to drink "innumerable bottles of wine" (165).

Korb's conflict becomes most explicit when, in a drunken rage, this self-described "man of force" (166) genders nature female and then fantasizes her rape and ultimate annihilation: "How she would shiver, how she would implore. But I should have no mercy. No, not even when she got upon her knees and wept at my feet and covered them with her insufferable tears. . . . I would laugh aloud, and shake her by those horrible, ample shoulders of hers, and would cry out to her, Now die, die; we do not care!'" (167). Longing for a sense of control over feminine disorder, he rails against time itself, which demands-against his masculinist desire to uphold the law of the phallus and see the world and his relation to it in terms of simple oppositions - that life be lived "on the prescribed gradual plan" (163).

The passage of time serves as the continual reminder of his own feminizing weakness, of his own mortality. As he says, "we are weak, miserable creatures, and we leave to nature all the tearing down of the scenery, and to her we leave all the building up of the same scenery next year and the year after for interminable and tireless and wearisome years" (167). If the feminized "plan of nature" can be ripped to pieces (167), then, as he says, "We shall never be connected with you any longer as the outcome of your whims. We are set free - thus" (168; italics mine).

His conception, however, of what it would mean to be "set free" from nature's "whims" falls far short of this (impossible) desire to tear the veil of the symbolic with "the Imaginary fictions it constructs" (Benstock 195), and enter the Real. Perhaps recognizing the impossibility, perhaps just too drunk to notice, in lieu of the absolute destruction of nature, and with "her," time and death itself, Korb and his friends settle for the decision to attack the town's bourgeoisie. To this end, they "collect things that would do as missiles" (168) - comic symbols of supplementary phallic power in the form of chair legs and paperweights - and plan their onslaught for dawn.

Through all this masculine mayhem, Pilaat's wife sleeps, "her hand over her bracelets" (169), which have mysteriously appeared encircling her wrist once again, rather like manacles binding her to "The Law that declares . . . woman must submit to the phallic order, fraudulent though it may be" (Benstock 7). When she awakes, it is midday, and the men lie asleep about her on the floor, having "moved away from those things that they had collected as weapons. They had rolled onto them, and they found that they hurt and were uncomfortable" (169). While the men lie in their drunken stupor, the picture of passive impotence, the story concludes with Pilaat's wife as she smiles, "contemplates one or two new phrases she would use in relation to life," and places "Pilaat's book in her pocket" (170), preparing to go out. A moment rife with unresolved contradictions, it suggests that while she continues to exist only "in relation" to the masculinist order, unable to escape the symbolic, with "its dream of a totalizing structure, which goes by the name of patriarchy" (Benstock 194), she nevertheless puts language, masculine discourse, in her pocket and carries it away with her, for an instant the "thief of language."(10) Meanwhile, the men's illusion of phallic power and control is shown to be just that, a hilarious illusion - and an illusion that hurts and is uncomfortable when conscious boundaries are momentarily collapsed in sleep.


(1) Djuna Barnes, "Just Getting the Breaks: Donald Ogden Stewart Confides the Secret of World Success," Theatre Guild Magazine 7 (April 1930), 36. (2) Frank Palmeri, Satire in Narrative: Petronius, Swift, Gibbon, Melville, and Pynchon (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 4. Palmeri's excellent discussion of narrative satire, while focusing only on male satirists, takes a Bakhtinian approach and contributes many new insights on the genre. (3) Cheryl Plumb, Fancy's Craft: Art and Identity in the Early Works of Djuna Bames (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1986), 13. See also Douglas Messerli's introduction to Smoke and Other Early Stories (College Park, MD: Sun & Moon, 1982), 10. (4) In this vein, Nancy J. Levine says that in Barnes's early writings she "clearly itches to force the complacent to acknowledge their affinity with anomalous, marginal people." See "|Bringing Milkshakes to Bulldogs': The Early Journalism of Djuna Barnes," in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Bames, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale: Southen Illinois University Press, 1991), 34. To extrapolate further, however, insofar as Barnes underscores the complacent's affinity with the marginal, she also portrays the marginal as bound by the psycho-social structures and attitudes of the dominant or complacent. (5) Djuna Barnes, "The Terrorists," in Smoke and Other Early Stories, 164. All further references will be included in the text. ("The Terrorists" first appeared in the New York Sunday Morning Telegraph, 30 September 1917.) (6) Elizabeth A. Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (London: Routledge, 1990), 72. (7) Shari Benstock, Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 7; hereafter cited parenthetically. (8) Palmeri, 8. (9) Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchell, eds. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne (New York: Norton, 1982), 42. (10) Alicia Ostriker, "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 315.
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Author:Schneider, Lissa
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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