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Djuna Barnes's mystery in Morocco: making the most of little.

Djuna Barnes would seem in most ways to be an ideal subject for a biography. First of all, she lived a fascinating life. She did important things, she knew important people, she lived in exotic places. Second, she provided a record of that life, both in her fiction and in her extensive personal correspondence. (It helps too that many of her friends were comparably logocentric.) And third, she presents "problems" to the biographer, questions that are difficult to answer but that also seem extraordinarily suggestive, questions that guarantee new ground to be uncovered and new centers around which to construct a personality. One of Emily Dickinson's poems begins "The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise." Djuna Barnes was never one to be despised.

The major problems for her would-be biographers are fairly well-known. There is, for instance, the question of why Barnes, at the apparent height of her creative power, should suddenly withdraw from life and writing, turning herself, in her own description, into a kind of Trappist monk. Or there is the question of whether or not she was sexually abused by her father, or whether or not she was married and how many times, or what exactly happened during her relationship with Thelma Wood. These, moreover, are just the beginning. The more one learns about Barnes, the more the questions seem to proliferate.

One of the minor mysteries is a problem that this would-be biographer first stumbled upon while examining the Emily Coleman papers at the University of Delaware. I was reading a letter Barnes had written Coleman on 30 August 1935, one of the long and sometimes delightful, sometimes painful, letters that Barnes then wrote Coleman, usually in response to the always incredibly long and often less delightful letters that Emily wrote her. Emily's letters picked at and probed every scab and sore spot she could find on her own psyche. Barnes's were usually more gossipy and if they told of troubles, told of physical troubles. (The particular physical "trouble" in this letter was that Barnes felt she was fat, having gone from 118 pounds to 140 pounds, even though, as she also complained in the letter, her poverty prevented her from eating breakfast.) But she also occasionally revealed herself in ways that she never did to any other correspondent. In this letter, for instance, along with news of friends, including the sad news that Dan Mahoney (the model for Matthew O'Connor in Nightwood) had cancer of the stomach, and worrying about Nightwood, which was still called Bow Down then, there was a peculiar passage in which Barnes claimed, apropos of nothing in particular, that she should have been the "Madame" of a poorhouse where drink would be passed out to the men while she, "like a carrion crow," would take notes from the balcony on what they said. This thought then led her to think of writing as scavenging and to wonder what exactly had turned her into a scavenger, into someone at home in the night. "Thelma?" she wondered. "Dan?" "Or Morocco?" She then concluded, "All my horrors have been good."(1)

Thelma Wood and Dan Mahoney were familiar to me even at that point in my research: Djuna had lived with Thelma for ten years in Paris and claimed that she was the one significant love of her life; Mahoney was a friend from essentially the same period. The conjunction of them with horrors was not new either. But the allusion to Morocco was less clear, and therefore intriguing. It became still more intriguing when I discovered two more references to Morocco in later letters, both making the same point. In the first; after telling Emily that her praise for and help with Nightwood during the past year had saved her mind, Barnes wrote: "I thought I was dead and done for. I thought the same, in a different way, in Tangier, and behold, here I still am, and trying another book."(2) A little later in the same letter, while talking about Emily's attitude toward bullfights, Barnes wrote further: "I should see one, a bull fight, just because I don't want to, it's the way we learn anything - like Morocco." A few sentences later still she added, "So you are right, no one should go through a horror unless they can make something of it." "Everything horrible seems to be the chief value," she reiterated in a letter from 20 March 1936. "Look what I learned with Morocco and other horrors."

That something had happened in Morocco, something horrible, was now fairly clear, and that alone made it interesting. (Of course, Barnes's insistence that she had learned something important from the experience made it more interesting - and potentially significant - still.) The question was what had happened. In the remainder of the Delaware letters there were no further clues, not even to when the what might have happened. But when I looked back at the notes that I had taken while examining the huge Barnes collection at the University of Maryland I found several references that were suggestive. The first was in a letter from her mother dated 12 February 1926, which congratulated Djuna on finding a house "to suit your peculiar needs." "But how about insects, dear," the letter went on. "Africa swarms with every kind of ugly bug and vile reptile. ..." Another letter to her mother sent in April confirmed that Djuna was indeed in Africa(3) a squib in the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, dated 27 April 1926, that mentioned that Djuna Barnes had just returned from Africa was further confirmation still), and there was finally a daybook entry from 7 April, which suggested that Thelma was then in Algiers and a photograph, supposedly taken in March, that showed Thelma and Djuna together. But that was the end of the trail. No mention of Morocco. No mention of horrors. No solution to the problem. At best, in fact, there was only another small problem. In the same daybook, Barnes wrote on 28 April: "My new lover is not much to look at cross eyed but I think he's grand - he has such innocent teeth. ..." She also referred several times to a mysterious Harry, in entries going forward as far as late July. Was this truly mention of a new lover, or just a stab at the beginning of a story? And who was Harry? And what, for heaven's sake, were innocent teeth? There remained, meanwhile, only three other references to Morocco in the material. One was in an October 1934 letter from Charles Henri Ford, a man who would eventually be a novelist, a poet, an editor, a photographer, and a filmmaker, and who had been a friend (and, occasionally, nurse and lover) of Barnes since at least 1930. He answered, vaguely, a question about Tangier that Barnes had, for reasons unknown, apparently asked him. The second item was three typed pages of notes on Tangier, written in 1930, giving a brief history and description of the place, also for reasons unknown. And the third was an article on Arab marriage, published in Cosmopolitan in 1934. Although what it described was far from ideal, it seemed to reveal nothing about Barnes's personal horror.

Fortunately, there were still other sources. Letters from Barnes to Ezra Pound, Edmund Wilson, Gertrude Stein, and Robert McAlmon were at Yale. Other letters, mostly to Charles Henri Ford, were at the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. And there were also secondary sources, books or articles by and about her friends, which turned out to provide several interesting clues. Jacqueline Weld's biography of Barnes's friend Peggy Guggenheim, for instance, mentioned that Barnes, after a summer with Guggenheim and other friends, had left for Tangier in the fall of 1932, the manuscript of Nightwood tucked neatly under her arm.(4) Parker Tyler, in his biography of Charles Henri Ford's lover Pawel Tchelitchew (the search for answers can sometimes carry one rather far afield), provided more information. He said that Ford had gone to Tangier with a lady friend sometime after the summer of 1932, but that she had "lost her heart" to another while there. Ford therefore had invited Barnes to join him, which she did, a romance had sprung up between them, and the two had eventually moved back to Paris together. This, Tyler said, occurred in midsummer of 1932, after "rats ate the poor lady's clothes" in Tangier.(5) (The denouement, for those interested, was that Ford soon became re-interested in Tchelitchew and moved in with him in the fall of 1933.)

The problem with Tyler's story, aside from his vagueness about dates, was that he provided no documentation, but his account was corroborated somewhat by Paul Bowles's version of the story in his autobiography, Without Stopping. He too claimed that Ford invited Barnes, although he said that before her arrival Ford was with a couple, not a woman (the story gets murkier; the sexual arithmetic starts to become higher mathematics). He added that Ford and Barnes stayed at first at his house, a house he used only to work in, with the understanding that they would always be out by 1:30 in the afternoon, but that they soon moved to a house a few hundred feet away, where they lived Moroccan-style (in other words, on the floor). Bowles also mentioned that Djuna liked to appear at a cafe in Tangier wearing blue, purple, and green makeup, and to startle patrons and passersby with an impromptu imitation of the painter Sir Francis Rose.(6)

This was a certain amount, except that it still didn't answer what had happened, or even exactly when. The when became clearer when I learned that Bowles was not in Tangier in the fall of 1932, when Weld had Barnes there, but was there in the spring of 1933.(7) As for the what, Andrew Field in his biography of Barnes provided the first explanation I had seen, an explanation fully as startling as Djuna Barnes must have been in her blue, purple, and green makeup. He agreed that Ford and Barnes were in Tangier together in early 1933, although he had them living in three houses, not two, the third being a splendid two-level house overlooking the bay and built around a magnificent inner court-yard dominated by a giant fig tree. It was in this house, according to Field, that Barnes realized that at the age of forty-one she was pregnant. The father, still according to Field, was not the obvious suspect, Charles Henri Ford, although Ford did propose to Barnes that they have the child together. Rather, it was the French painter Jean Oberle, with whom Barnes had supposedly had an affair in late 1932. Once she learned that she was pregnant, Field concluded, Barnes and Ford left Morocco for Paris, where Barnes had an abortion.(8)

Although I would have felt more comfortable with Field's story if he had provided a few footnotes to explain how he had learned it (instead, he only mentioned a letter from Barnes to Mina Loy, and hinted at interviews with Ford, Janet Flanner, and perhaps another, as he described her, "expatriate, lesbian lady"), the events he described were certainly disturbing enough to justify Barnes's later reaction. The mystery was close to solution, I thought, until I examined the letters from Yale and Texas. The Yale letters included one from Barnes to Robert McAlmon, dated 22 April 1933, and sent from Tangier; leaving out the possibility of some inexplicable subterfuge, that took care of the when, although the letter was still vague about the what. "|Goings' with me are fairly lousy just at the moment," Barnes began. She then said that she had been in Tangier for about a month, and described the place as "not particularly amusing, nor comfortable, nor so cheap considering what one gets for it." Nevertheless, she was planning to stay, working on her book on the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (a friend from Barnes's Greenwich Village days), until July, if she could afford it.

Except for mentioning that she was depressed because "everyone seems to be dying" (she was thinking particularly of the death of a former lover, and perhaps husband, Courtenay Lemon, on 2 April, and of Hart Crane's recent suicide), Barnes gave no further hints in this letter about her condition. But four letters in the Texas collection, all to Charles Henri Ford, fleshed out the story a bit more. The first to mention Tangier was sent in September 1933 from on board the ship Augustus which Barnes was taking back to America. It said simply, "Three days out nearing that awful Tanger, which I had hope of never seeing again," and was signed, "Always, D." The second, sent a month later from New York, was short and concluded: "I miss Europe like the devil! No one here as poor, apparently, as they have an idea they are; at least to me, who survived Tanger, it looks like God's left foot." The third sounded the same note. Again she mentioned the "rumors" of people starving in the gutters, something she had not seen, she said, and again she contrasted this supposed poverty with what she had experienced in Morocco: "... [S]o I am contented," she concluded. "In fact I am so contented with nothing since I've been back - having had so much less in Morocco - that everyone thinks I am a little mad. ..."(9)

Finally, in the fourth letter, from July 1934, Barnes asked Ford a series of questions about Morocco, for a story she said she was writing about Tangier. (This was the letter to which I had read the answer, way back at the beginning of my search.) She could, it seemed, remember none of the details she needed, causing her to lament: "My God, what a condition I must have been in, was in."

So where does that leave one? The discrepancies between Field's conclusions and these letters are clear. The problem the letters suggest is squalor, not sex. Even the tone Barnes adopts with Ford is surprisingly casual, given the presumed circumstances. But there is nothing definitive, nothing that would either prove or disprove that Barnes had an abortion, that would solve, for now and forever, the mystery of what exactly happened in Morocco. Of course, a few options still remain. One might talk with Charles Henri Ford. One might find still other letters. One might consult a Ouija board.

Or ... one might accept the mystery as a mystery and go on from there. A few conclusions are, after all, possible, even at this stage. It seems clear, for instance, after looking so closely at this minor problem, that there are no minor problems. Everything connects, as E. M. Forster might have said: begin with Morocco and whatever happened there, look for links to other events in Barnes's life, and you can end up almost anywhere. You can go back to Thelma Wood, who on the one hand led to Charles Henri Ford (and Morocco), and on the other led to Nightwood, which Barnes just happened to begin rewriting immediately after returning from Morocco, even though she had announced to McAlmon in April that it was finished. You can also go back, given the coincidence of his dying at just this time, to Courtenay Lemon, the supposed husband, who followed from Percy Faulkner, another supposed husband, who followed from Wald Barnes, father and supposed abuser. Or, if you prefer, you can go forward, from Charles Henri Ford (and perhaps Oberle) to Peter Neagoe to Scudder Middleton to Silas Glossup, a litany of failed loves. Or you can connect the horror of Morocco with the horrors that were still to come, particularly the breakdown of 1939, that was followed by the return to America and the self-imposed isolation that would extend for the rest of Djuna Barnes's life.

Another conclusion, only slightly more speculative, is that the questions that arise so frequently about Djuna Barnes, questions like what happened in Morocco, may themselves be answers. The mysteries, without being solved themselves, could in fact provide the key to understanding Djuna Barnes. There is no doubt, after all, that the mysteries are not just historical accidents. Barnes's later-life dislike of biographers and their questions (not to mention what she called "idiot children working on Ph.D.'s"(10)) is legendary. "Biographies sadden me," she wrote to Willa Muir in 1967. "Expositions write us away, commentaries have killed us all."(11) To stop the carnage, she made it a point never to help those who wanted to write about her or even about people she knew or had known. (At the same time, interestingly, she was often curious about these works. She inevitably demanded to see books about her before they were published; she also seems to have checked the indices of books about friends and in at least one case penciled in her name where it should have been.(12)) On several occasions she describes in letters a day spent destroying notes and letters.(13) She spent a good part of one autumn trying (unsuccessfully, as it turned out, which is how we know she tried) to retrieve her letters from Emily Coleman so she could destroy them.(14) And if all else failed, she simply changed the record. Her insistence to Hank O'Neal at the end of her life that she had never lived with Charles Henri Ford is just one example of this.(15)

As Barnes grew older, her addiction to obfuscation also grew, but her reticence actually started long before biographers began their presumptuous probing. Margaret Anderson claims that the Barnes she knew in the twenties would never talk and would never allow herself to be talked to, that she was in fact "not on speaking terms with her own psyche."(16) John Holms, who met Barnes at Hayford Hall in 1932, thought much the same, and even Emily Coleman, to whom Barnes eventually revealed so much, began by complaining constantly in her diary that Barnes would not talk about herself, would not write about herself, would not be honest even with herself. "There's a vacuum in her head,"(17) she said then, although she later amended her opinion. Djuna Barnes, one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century, could think, she decided. She just wasn't willing to express what she thought.

Of course, part of this was probably Barnes keeping herself for herself. Like Kafka, she was her own best subject, particularly as she progressed as a writer. (It is ironic that both Kafka and Barnes, although obsessed with privacy, at one point considered writing their life stories, although neither did.(18)) No matter how often or how profoundly she explored her life in her fiction, however, Barnes made sure that she revealed as little as possible as obscurely as possible, at least on the surface. Her procedure when writing Nightwood (as far as we can tell from the manuscripts that survive, at any rate) is representative. With each draft, she pared more scenes and more details. The novel became shorter and, perhaps more to the point, the story became more muted, more implicit. To put it another way, Barnes, by making her art more obvious, made herself less obvious. That she eventually, in editing the manuscript, had the "help" of T. S. Eliot, himself no stranger to hiding behind a text, is (depending on one's perspective) just one more historical accident, one more irony, or one more complication to add to the plot.

So where does that leave one, I ask yet again. The pattern that emerges is clear, I think: Barnes was someone who spent, not just the last years of her life, but nearly all of it, obfuscating her own past. The result is that what we know, what she lets us know, may very well be the least important things about her. Perhaps, to return to our beginning, the questions, the events she tried to conceal from others, that she may even, whether consciously or unconsciously, have tried to conceal from herself, are the real answers. If, despite the vast amount of material available to help us understand her, Djuna Barnes remains an especially elusive prey, a pleasure to pursue certainly, but also a constant warning of the limitations of biography, of the care that must be taken in trying to track her, perhaps the better strategy is to look at what we don't know, to create what might be called a biography of gaps. After all, as Barnes herself is always there to remind us: "Facts? Where are facts? Who remembers a life, even his own?"(19)


(1) All quotations from the copyrighted letters of Djuna Barnes are used with the permission of the Authors League Fund. The letters I have quoted are housed in four main collections: The Barnes Papers at McKeldin Library, University of Maryland at College Park; The Emily Holmes Coleman Papers at the University of Delaware; The Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin; The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. I wish to thank all of them for their assistance, and especially Dr. Blanche Ebeling-Koning at Maryland and Timothy Murray at Delaware. (2) Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 8 November 1935. (3) Djuna Barnes to Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, 7 April 1926. (4) Jacqueline Weld, Peggy, the Wayward Guggenheim (New York: Dutton, 1986), 97. (5) Parker Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pawel Tchelitchew (London: Hammond, Hammond, 1961), 356, 358. (6) Paul Bowles, Without Stopping (New York: Ecco Press, 1985), 165-66. (7) Michelle Green, The Dream at the End of the World (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 6. (8) Andrew Field, Djuna (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), 165-66. (9) Djuna Barnes to Charles Henri Ford, 16 December 1933, Ford Papers. (10) Djuna Barnes to Natalie Barney, 28 March 1967, Barnes Papers. (11) Djuna Barnes to Willa Muir, 23 January 1967, Barnes Papers (12) Djuna Barnes's personal library included a copy of Peter Butter's biography of Edwin Muir in which she had thus altered the index. (13) See, for instance, Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 6 November 1950, Barnes Papers. (14) Letters from Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 22 October, 9 November, 11 December 1967, Bames Papers. (15) Hank O'Neal, "Life is painful, nasty and short ..." (New York: Paragon House, 1990), 152. (16) Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years' War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971), 181. (17) Emily Coleman's diary, 2 December 1932, 210, Coleman Papers. (18) "See, for instance, Djuna Barnes to Emily Coleman, 8 September 1936, Coleman Papers. (19) Djuna Barnes to Louis Sheaffer, 9 July 1962, Barnes Papers.
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Title Annotation:Djuna Barnes
Author:Mailloux, Peter
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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