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Modern (post) modern: Djuna Barnes among the others.

My title is meant to indicate the difficulty of locating Djuna Barnes within those periodic, cultural, and artifactual constructions so dear to the academic heart, and I hope the "post" in the title, embraced on either side by a hovering parenthesis, has a free-floating quality about it that denies attachment to anything except itself, with room enough for Barnes's work to rest - resistive as it is to resting anywhere and to satisfying our desire for order, our need to authenticate our own period. Barnes clearly shares time and space with those we call our British and American modernist writers, a definition that has been increasingly generalized with the circulation of descriptive notions of postmodernism. What Barnes does not share is a clear adherence to some central tenets of modernism, even given modernism's shifting critical constructions.

We are told, with variations of emphasis, that modernist writers (Eliot and Joyce, for example, and more recently Woolf) seek in myth a coherence that contemporary culture and history no longer afford them, that for the modernists art alone survives the death of God, that the individual consciousness of the artist constructs the only reality interesting and trustworthy enough to warrant attention. We are also led to believe now from our postmodern perspective that the modernists were delusional in their claims of a break with history, that nostalgia is everywhere in their work if one is willing to see it, that they are seldom free from a sense of belatedness, that even as they reject the past they betray themselves with the unreconstructed notion that progress, still defined by humanistic values, including the primacy and power of art, is possible. Epistemology, in short, is still important to the modernists, an epistemology many post-modernists replace with an emphasis on ontology, which is an emphasis that seems central to an understanding of Barnes's work.(1) For even though Barnes moved in space and time among the others in what we call the modernist enterprise, it seems to me that the work she left is mostly unmarked by the outlines of periods and movements and provides a good case for healthy skepticism about the whole project of codifying.

If one is willing to see Freud's influence in general as central to the modernist project as it has been defined, it is clear, even in the early work, that reading Barnes's fiction takes one so far out of traditional and cultural formulations about narrative exchange that the reader begins to understand what it would mean if Sophocles' and Freud's Oedipus had met a sphinx who didn't speak Greek. For the point of Ur-narratives and their formulations, it seems, is to ask questions precisely because answers are assuredly knowable within an inscribed theory of knowledge, and in a language which is reliable because, like the form of the riddle exchange itself, its capacities satisfy the cultural demands of the hearer and teller, the buyer and seller alike - a cultural demand that reflects the hegemonic order, which for master narratives is unrelentingly patriarchal.

When Teresa de Lauretis reprints Muriel Rukeyser's prose poem "Myth" as the conclusion to her chapter "Desire in Narrative" in Alice Doesn't, it is to read the elided side of the story, to remind us that the oedipal narrative is constructed on the basis of patriarchal desire. Oedipus in his old age runs into the Sphinx again and gets an unexpected answer as to why, although he had solved the riddle, he still bedded his mother. The Sphinx's answer makes a turn on Oedipus's failure to understand that the word man does not automatically include woman, as he claims with hindsight to have thought.

Oedipus said, . . . "Why didn't I recognize my mother?" "You gave the wrong answer," said the Sphinx. . . . "When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered Man. You didn't say anything about woman." "When you say Man," said Oedipus, "You include women too. Everyone knows that." She said, "That's what you think."i

The problem, it seems, in Rukeyser's delightful version, is a wrong answer based on the limitations of patriarchal linguistic expectations. Yet what is startling in much of Barnes's work is a refusal that makes this telling of Oedipus's second encounter with the Sphinx seem still too conventional, and that is the refusal of the basic convention of the riddle exchange itself. An attack on the assumptions of the narrative cultural exchange in which knowledge, a correct answer to human behavior and meaning, is presumed to be the reasonable and predictable product of the right combinations of desire, presence, and epistemology, underlies much of Barnes's fiction. Even the early stories make it clear that Barnes does read the hidden danger in the idea of epistemological progress. She makes it clear that to enter into the convention of the riddle form is to acknowledge and accept the underlying worldview that it serves.

An extraordinary number of Barnes's early stories and plays turn on what seems at first to be the traditional issue of a desire for knowledge and the power it confers. The resulting contest between her characters almost always has a sexual dimension to it, which is represented primarily as frustration, a failure of meaningful connection much like that in Gertrude Stein's Melanctha. The inadequacy of fulfilling or even sufficiently representing communal gender norms echoes and predicts the failure of the communally sanctioned riddle exchange, which is built on notions of culturally appropriate gender positions as well as on the predictability of useful questions and answers - a process sanctioned by the idea of an evolving human capacity to understand and read meaning which extends, with few exceptions, across the history of Western literature and thought - from Aristotle to Eliot and beyond. This evolutionary process leads in traditional narrative practice to some kind of change, a promise of growth in response to knowledge in the character(s) if not the universe. And this process is precisely the kind of exchange (whose value is sanctified by the exchange of another currency) that Freud taught us to know as psychoanalysis.

Barnes's play To the Dogs, published in her first collection, A Book,(3) is an early deconstruction of the possibility of meaningful exchange. The play has only two characters and begins with the woman, Helena, positioned with her back to the proscenium arch, and it also ends with her deliberately repositioning her back to the audience with a clear message about the exclusion of their (and our) traditional expectations. The male character in the play has come on a mission of sexual conquest, assuming that meaning, for himself at least, is available in union with another. Helena, who is a bit of a sibyl as well as a too-wise sphinx, quickly disabuses him of this notion. Incredulity follows rejection: "Who are you?" Helena responds, "I am a woman . . . who is not in need." His response is culturally conditioned: "You're horrible!" A woman who is not in need is monstrous by definition, for she refuses to be seduced by the terms of conventional exchange. Although Storm, the male character, is not one of Barnes's sexually indeterminant males (she stresses his "decidedly masculine" nature in her description of the characters), he is never in control in the one-act play precisely because Helena, the mysterious woman, has a knowledge of the way in which desire leads toward death rather than toward the gratification and integration of the ego that he seeks. He leaves much reduced in stature, but not much wiser. Helena, whose name invokes Helen of Troy - woman as the site of enactments of rituals of masculinity - has refused every conversational and emotional transaction he has offered. And she is exhausted. Their exchange has had sexual overtones, but it has not led to satisfaction of any kind.

Satisfaction is not a response available to Barnes's readers, especially those who have been conditioned by the traditionally received modernist canon. Barnes's refusal to sanction the convention of the riddle exchange is one point at which the difference between Barnes and the majority of modernist writers is clear. And this is a difference with a telling significance. Even Eliot's The Waste Land enacts a narrative quest for knowledge in which the necessity for understanding how to ask the right question is embedded. Readers who follow Eliot's footnote to Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance learn that the first task of the grail quester is the formulation of the right question and the knowledge that it needs to be asked, a necessity which, because it acknowledges the correct forms, will be answered by an amelioration.(4) Weston traces the ways in which the relevant questions and responses change over time in various versions of the grail legend, and it is precisely the fact that Weston's comparative work weaves a narrative sanctioned by history which is part of the attraction for Eliot. Eliot's own poem is a search for the overriding formulation significant and relevant to the modern situation, and his quest is answered by clues from the past as well as by what the thunder said.

Whatever acknowledgment modernists of Barnes's generation made of the difficulty of making history relevant or trustworthy in their own times, their distrust never seems to have extended to the traditional forms of history (or myth) - which, like Oedipus's encounter with the Sphinx, are essentially conservative and patriarchal in their interests. Freud himself, in spite of the radical nature of his project, reinscribes the historical form, ensuring that the oedipal story, and its embedded forms and assumptions, will become a modernist icon. Psychoanalysis, of course, is itself a narrative form which depends on the capacity to recognize the questions which, when formulated, often have the capacity to produce relevant answers and the power to generate progressive understanding and subsequent change.

Thus history unimpeded by modernist skepticism continues to construct itself within a realm in which, even though a failure to understand one of the terms of the riddle may lead to blindness (as it does for Oedipus), insight inevitably follows to redress the failure and provide a central metaphor for progress and knowledge, once the riddle exchange is joined. Barnes's work, on the other hand, seeks to escape the nexus of patriarchy, epistemology, and the idea of the progressive nature and form of knowledge by simply refusing the legitimacy of the claims made for the riddle exchange, thereby deconstructing a central aspect of traditional narrative and relentlessly interrogating readerly expectations.

The same concern that we have seen in To the Dogs is repeated with variation in a number of stories in Barnes's first collection. In "A Boy Asks a Question of a Lady," an adolescent boy comes to seek knowledge from an actress, "a lady of mystery," who summers in his country town. The question has to do with his older brother's sexual maturation, which the boy does not understand. Her answer to him is to think of the animals, of how "your questions, my answers" would mean nothing to them. Again, but with gentleness this time, the petitioner is told to leave it alone: "Just as it is. The calf is born, she lies in the sun; she waits for the end. That is dignity. . . . In the end you will know nothing" (218).

In other stories, like "Katerina Silverstaff' (retitled "The Doctors" for the Spillway collection(5)), the desire for knowledge leads only to death - both of desire and of the body - as it does in "A Night among the Horses." A woman of higher social status tries an experiment in social climbing as she undertakes to raise a stableman into her circle by teaching him about the Borgias. When he finally sees the destructive nature of the enterprise and tries to return to the world of horses, he is trampled to death in his tuxedo because the horses no longer know him.

One story that involves a long and telling exchange appears first as "Beyond the End" in A Book to later become, with some changes, the title story of Spillway in 1962. In this story Julie Anspacher returns after five years to her home and husband from a sanitarium to which she had gone to die. She is far from cured, and she is no longer just a wife, for she has given birth to a daughter in the sanitarium - a tubercular child whose cough echoes her mother's, mocking the desire to leave an existence beyond oneself. Julie Anspacher returns after five years' absence with the knowledge that "all is lost from the beginning, if we only knew it - always" (88).

The first question Julie's husband, Paytor, raises is the obvious one about the child's paternity. As his name suggests, he is inscribed into a patriarchal order, which cannot allow him to understand the irrelevance of his question to a dying woman. He tries to make the event of the child meaningful by reading it as evidence of a rejection of himself. Julie cannot give him an answer that makes sense of his question, positioned as it is. He asks her then if she feels no horror at what she has done. Again, her answer does not enter into the terms of his cultural economy. "No, I don't feel horror-horror must include conflict, and I have none; I am alien to life, I am lost in still water." The inquisition continues: "Have you a religion, Julie?" She replies that she has tried to "believe in something external and enveloping. . . . It won't do; I lose it. . . ." He tries to argue then that because of her essential biology, because a woman can have children, she should have answers: "The very fact that a woman can do so preposterous a thing as have a child ought to give her prophecy" (94).

Julie has come home with her child, she tells Paytor in response to yet another question, not to turn his world topsy-turvy, but to make one last attempt to reenter the familiar world that claims to read meaning, design, into human life and relationships. She comes to seek an answer from her husband:

"I thought, Paytor may know -"

"Know what?"

"Division. I thought, he will be able to divide me against myself. Personally I don't feel divided; I seem to be a sane and balanced whole, but hopelessly estranged. So I said to myself, Paytor will see where the design divides and departs, though all the time I was making no bargain, I wasn't thinking of any system - well, in other words, I wanted to be set wrong." (95)

It is only through a culturally sanctioned "right" answer, which will involve her division into the duality demanded of the female subject, that Julie has a hope of finding anything resembling community, but Paytor, for whom the questioner and the question fall outside his sense of order, can only promise that perhaps if he tries he can, like God, in the future give her a "beginning at least." He climbs up to the shooting loft "where he practiced aim on the concentric circles of his targets," and the story ends with an ambiguous shot, which may or may not be the answer.

It is hard not to notice that children do not thrive in Barnes's fiction. The tubercular daughter of "Spillway" has siblings in many other stories ranging from a stillborn child to adolescents - yet most of them are marked for death or by madness. The gender of the stillborn child in "Smoke" is never known. Even its human status is denied by the doctor: "A baby isn't a corpse. . . . It's an interrupted plan."(6) As in much of the rest of Barnes's literary cosmology, the general progressive plan of human generation goes badly awry in this story; the "iron" of the older generations thins out in the succeeding ones until it becomes, like the birth of the baby, a puff of smoke. The mother of the child, the last Lief, who dies along with the child, is never seen by the reader as an expectant mother. The unwitting reader is told only that "She had been ill a good deal that Spring, and in the Fall she had terrible headaches. In the Winter months she took to her bed, and early in May the doctor was summoned" (129). The crisis in her illness is the birth labor which comes to nothing. If this child is part of a plan, the plan promises no articulation, fruition, cause for celebration.

The children who do survive in Barnes's short fiction are for the most part sickly-physically weak or suffering some kind of dementia - not so distant cousins to Guido of Nightwood. Barnes's portrayal of children makes Virginia Woolf's, even though Woolf s young characters are traumatized in various ways, seem positively idyllic. Woolf's children and adolescents are constructed in an effort to flesh out the cultural meaning, however unsatisfactory, of the present, to understand and thereby undermine the programmatic perpetuation of patriarchal values. Whether or not we agree on what the event means, some of Woolf's children do reach the lighthouse, and they are a part of a historiography that Barnes rejects altogether. In fact, it is difficult to find nostalgia in a writer who makes children most often seem incidental, mere ephemeral accidents of copulation, at best pawns in a world of adult desires. It goes without saying that to deconstruct notions of childhood and children is to deconstruct a positivistic or progressive view of history, generation, and the future.

The language of Barnes's short stories is straightforward, bare, and serviceable, especially when compared to that of Barnes's other work, particularly Nightwood or The Antiphon. The questions asked are the same, however, and the quest for answers has the same result. Dr. O'Connor is related to Tiresias, of course, in the male-female connection, but, for all his bravado, in his frustration and his sorrow, he is also related to Barnes's female figures, modern sibyls or sphinxes, who carry the burden of knowing the futility of the idea that profit can result from the riddle exchange. O'Connor is exhausted after his night with Nora, in which he has tried to answer her questions, in which he has pushed her to some understanding, but no answers. Language, the narrative enterprise itself, which he has pushed to the limits, is also exhausted, exposed as inadequate, leaving only "nothing, but wrath and weeping!"(7)

With O'Connor's silencing, the last chapter of Nightwood begins with the straightforward prose of the short stories, stripped here even of direct discourse. The only sound in the silent woods is of Nora's dog barking, the only light in the dark night is made by the candles Robin has on her makeshift altar in the decaying family chapel of Nora's Protestant ancestors. Not only is there no speech in the concluding pages of Nightwood, no questions or answers, the characters themselves are removed from the realm of normative narrative expectations of subjective consciousness and cultural being. Nora, at the moment of recognition, hits the door-jamb, and falls, surely unconscious, to the floor; Robin at the same moment "began going down" to begin her circling on all fours with the dog into a world in which human speech is not possible. Barking, laughing, crying, she finally gives up, as does the dog. So the novel ends with this tableau, which mocks the desperation of O'Connor's explanatory powers, the promises contained in the idea of quests, chapels, altars, madonnas, the sacrificial gesture of toys and flowers - all emblematic gestures of a desire for cultural meaning. Even the dog, the animal tamed to respond to human expectations, is disoriented when its own trained sense of narrative order is affronted.

The dog and the chapel as well as other aspects of Nightwood and the circumstances of its publication compel us to think of Eliot's The Waste Land, the poem that made Eliot the self-constructed high priest of modernism; but while the cultural anthropologist may be tempted to say that these are the same bones and the same ruins, one has only to think of the way in which the dog and the chapel perilous function in Eliot's poem to know that Barnes's project differs fundamentally in its intention and orientation. What Robin knows, what brings her laughter and her tears, is beyond language, beyond a consciousness that we know in no other way than its organization into the explanatory power we call narrative transactions. No wonder, then, that readers and critics alike have tried to force the ending of the novel into some kind of transaction, which I, perhaps, cannot avoid doing now, even as I deny its appropriateness.

The suggestion that Robin and the dog copulate, evidence of which is nowhere in the text and which Barnes denied and hated,(8) has to do, I think, with our need to substitute an action for the speech that the scene denies-a symbolic action which finally reunites Robin with her bestial side, and heals, ironically, the division or the incompleteness or the contradiction inherent in the beast turning human. The need to make Robin whole in understandable terms in this grotesque fashion is a need to believe that there is an articulable, if unexpected, answer to the riddle of her being, of love, and of possession. It is too much to ask, it seems, considering all the ways in which we would have to run against the grain of Western culture, to remember the lady's answer to the boy when he asks, "And I'm not to try to make anything out of all this?" She replies, "Leave it alone. . . . In the end you will know nothing. That will be the death of you" (A Book, 218).

This suggestion is a far cry from Eliot's shanti at the end of The Waste Land, which invokes a historically recuperative answer to what has been, after all, a version of the traditional quest, an answer which embodies in language a peace which passes understanding and promises a substitution of one order for another. If this is the paradigm for the modernist project, then Barnes is excluded, since her narratives question its basic terms. Yet the fault may be ours: in our haste to tidy up the past, perhaps we need to acknowledge that our expectations have been generated by our own desires. A vision of modernism that could truly include Barnes (and Stein, and others) might lead us to question our basic constructions of modernism. It might provide us with a more accurate (if less neat) vision of cultural reality.


(1) See, for example among others, Astradeur Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977); Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1988); Brian McHale, Postmodern Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987); Richard Poirer, The Renewal of Literature (New York: Random House, 1987); and the introduction to Yeats and Postmodernism, ed. Leonard Orr (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991). (2) Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 157. Muriel Rukeyser's poem appears in The Collected Poems (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978), 498. (3) A Book (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923); hereafter cited parenthetically. (4) From Ritual to Romance (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1957). (5) Spillway (London: Faber, 1962); hereafter cited parenthetically. (6) Smoke and Other Early Stories, ed. Douglas Messerli (College Park, MD: Sun & Moon Press, 1982), 130; hereafter cited parenthetically. (7) Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 1946), 166. (8) In his "Reminiscences" Hank O'Neal records an exchange he had with Barnes on this subject: "Out of the blue she asked me, |Do you remember the ending of Nightwood?' I replied that I did. She then became very upset because of the way some people interpret this part of the book. People say Robin is making love to the dog. This is nonsense. There was nothing like that in her mind when she wrote the scene" (Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991], 353).
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Title Annotation:Djuna Barnes
Author:Gerstenberger, Donna
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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