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It is precisely Barnes's relation to literary tradition that so troubles assessments of her work: readers do not know where to "place" her. . . . Although well respected by her contemporaries, Barnes's work has fallen prey to the same set of received notions that until very recently informed studies of Gertrude Stein: both women have been chastised for being significantly different from their Paris colleagues and for failing to master the Modernist enterprise. (Benstock 242-3)
It only seems appropriate that I begin with this quotation from Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank because it immediately situates the critical problem that my own project hopes to illuminate: how to begin to approach Barnes's eccentric work within a historical context and how to make sense of the implications of such eccentricities given that context. Her work, even within the diverse body of eccentric modernist texts, stands apart in its uniqueness. Like many modernist texts (i.e. Toomer's Cane, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, and much of Stein's work), Barnes's work is difficult to categorize. Unlike other modernist texts, however, Barnes's work challenges genre through its mixing of both linguistic and visual representation. For example, in texts such as Ladies Almanack and The Book of Repulsive Women, Barnes uses both text and drawings to depict female sexuality. It is this shifting between modes of representation that will be the emphasis of my project. Through an examination of both her textual and visual art forms, I will argue that Barnes was experimenting in different ways than her contemporaries, ways that radically challenged understandings of gender, identity, and sexuality by suggesting that these categories are unstable, ever-shifting entities. One of the most important elements in this experimentation was her performance: through her shifts between forms and genres, Barnes mimics and performs the very instabilities that she represents in those art forms. Much like the fin-de-siècle Decadents with whom she is often linked, Barnes makes central the trope of transition in her shifts between genres.
Indeed, Djuna Barnes's work is grounded in decadence, and a brief examination of this tradition will help situate her work. French and English fin-de-siècle writers and artists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Max Beerbohm, and Aubrey Beardsley all used a decadent style in their works. Though many critics point to the difficulty in defining decadence, they do agree that the style has distinguishing characteristics:
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a scorn for contemporary society and its mores; an interest in the artificial, the morbid, the perverse; a search for novelty and the exploration of the dark underside of experience; a sadness of sorts and a measure of unwholesomeness; sensuality and self-indulgence followed by dissatisfaction and ennui; a tendency to stress form and to slight content; use of imagery that springs from art rather than from nature; a finical glorification of all the arts; the complete and wholehearted acceptance of art for art's sake. (Cevasco 33-4)
These themes of morbidity, darkness, and self-indulgence can be easily seen in one of the Decadents' most important visual artists and one to whom Barnes is most often compared, Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley did illustrations for many different books, perhaps most notably for Oscar Wilde's Salome, as well as the popular and controversial decadent magazine The Yellow Book. He continues to be recognized for the dramatically stark representations in his work:
Central to Beardsley's art is its colourlessness, its dependence on the simple polarity of black and white. Matched with this is a second opposition which the starkness of the colour range forces on to the viewer, the opposition between representation and design. One of the disquieting things about Beardsley's art, quite apart from the looks on the faces of the people and the associations of various images, is a purely technical one, the movement between representation and decoration, between the object and the design based on that object and the lines that make up the design. (Thornton 183)
Beardsley's technique as well as his representations are characteristic of decadent themes of artificiality, decay, perversity, and sensuality.
But decadence is more than just these themes; even more central to its philosophy is the process, the change, the transition. Though many scholars discuss the historical transition surrounding the fin-de-siècle and relate the centrality of this transition to the decadent movement, few scholars examine the dynamic role of transition within the characteristics of decadence. David Weir complicates traditional understandings of decadence by emphasizing the centrality of transition in its philosophy:
Decadence is transition, a drama of unsettled aesthetics, and the mixture of literary tendencies constituting that transition is at once within and without tradition and convention. . . . Decadence, then, is less a period of transition than a dynamics of transition. . . . To again invoke the organic metaphor at the root of decadence, what is crucial about the notion of decay is not so much the change from a greater to a lesser state, but the changing itself. (14-15, 20)
Thus, decadence itself is an ever-shifting presence which embraces the process of change and transformation. Perhaps one of the reasons why scholars have had so much difficulty defining the term may be that "the paradoxical nature of decadence and its resistance to definition are among the most important elements of its meaning" (Weir 2). For the moment an image is described, it is already transforming into another. Therefore, decadent art is performative in that it plays out its own transitionality and ambiguity as a constant process:
the pain, tension, and irresolution of Decadent art are not simply willful but result from its transitional, ambiguous nature. No state is permanent; all is open to rearrangement. Life is a form of art but one that can never be completed. Decadent art balances between linearity and spatiality, between explicitness and suggestion, between harmony and discord, between tradition and innovation, between story and image. Hence many of its topoi emphasize ambivalence-sphinxes with their mixed bodies and dangerous mysteries, hermaphrodites, beautiful but evil women, and so forth. (Reed 17)
For all of its ambivalent depictions of women, though, the decadent tradition remained highly misogynistic. Women were understood to be linked to the natural world, not the artistic one, so the woman artist continued to create a dilemma for male decadents. In fact, in 1893 Edmond de Goncourt famously announced "I believe that, if there were an autopsy made of women of original talent, like Madame Sand, Madame Viardot, etc., their genitals would be found similar to those of a man, their clitorises somewhat like our penises" (Becker and Philips 309). Woman was understood to be a naturally occurring phenomenon, so to many of the male decadents, the existence of a woman writer implied biological difference. Similarly, Elaine Showalter discusses this biological understanding of woman:
The anti-feminist stance in decadence stressed women's "profound incapacity to achieve access to spiritual and artistic realms. Viewed like this, woman becomes the ball and chain preventing the artist from escaping the triviality of the everyday world." In decadent writing, women are seen as bound to Nature and the material world because they are more physical than men, more body than spirit. They appear as objects of value only when they are aestheticised as corpses or phallicised as femmes fatales. (Showalter x)
Though decadent philosophy evokes complex conceptions of transitional representations, it typically relies upon stable binary categories of gender, making Barnes's use of the decadent tradition an interesting choice for her texts and artwork.
Using a style dramatically similar to Beardsley's, Barnes evokes the decadent tradition, yet challenges its assumptions about gender through her depictions of female sexuality and desire. She differs from male fin-de-siècle decadents by re-imagining women's representations in this typically misogynistic form. For example, in The Book of Repulsive Women, Barnes focuses each of her poems and drawings on a female subject. In her first drawing, one can immediately recognize the similarities to Beardsley's work. The drawing is split horizontally through the center by a straight black line, which forms the base of a triangular blackness that draws the eye to the upper left area, its hypotenuse curvaceously sloping downward to the center-right edge of the drawing. Hundreds of tiny particles curve and spiral along the edge of this smooth line. The lower half of the drawing is mostly white space, except for a disproportionately large oval shape that a woman dangles from her fingers and the seeping black ribbons on the lower left side of the page that run from the base of the black triangle.
The eye is drawn to the center-right of the picture where the smooth, straight line of the woman's arm gracefully falls. The arm extends downward, the fingers curling in cruciform around the handle of the large oval shape-perhaps a lantern, a purse, an ornament-as the woman looks up to the sky at a dark opening. Stars and cosmic dust spill from the opening. Also coming out of the dark, circular opening is a white face with cat-like whiskers, appearing non-human and otherworldly. The face resembles a porcelain mask. The folds of the circular pattern on the woman's clothing suggest that she is sitting, knees to chest, though the majority of her body is devoid of an outline. Only the upturned face, partially covered by her striped hat, and the lower third of her arm, including her curved fingers is outlined against the white background. The entire drawing is full of smooth curves and circular spirals except for a few black, brick-like rectangles that line the bottom of the black center. The drastic black/white distinction of the upper background creates a yin/yang effect, emphasizing the boundary between the mountainous blackness and the cosmic whiteness in which the woman sits. The drawing is decadent, emphasizing the extremes of opposites, the elegance and fashion of the woman, and the whimsical fancy of her aspirations. It is provocative and sexual, as the graceful woman appears hypnotized by the magic that spills from the dark, wondrous opening above her.
This drawing precedes Barnes's poem "From Fifth Avenue Up" in which she depicts a woman "beneath some hard / Capricious star- / Spreading its light a little / Over far" (1-4). The movement of the first stanza is much like the upward, aspiring gaze of the woman in the drawing: the poem contemplates "Someday" in the future when "We'll know you for the woman / That you are" (5-6). The poem proceeds to depict the sexuality and decadence of the woman and her surroundings: "We'd strain to touch those lang'rous / Length of thighs; / And hear your short sharp modern / Babylonic cries" (15-18). The sexuality depicted in touching long thighs and hearing luxurious cries is subtle here, compared to its climax in the sixth stanza:
See you sagging down with bulging
Hair to sip,
The dappled damp from some vague
Your soft saliva, loosed
With orgy, drip. (31-36)
The diction alludes to the heaviness of desire (she is "sagging down"); furthermore, it is "soft," "damp," ambiguously and deliberately oral and vaginal at once. Barnes uses this decadent ambiguity to transition continuously between potential parts of the body: "bulging Hair" could refer to her head and/or her genitals, "Under lip" could refer to a mouth and/or a vulva. Taking this ambiguity even further, Barnes creates an interesting shift in the next stanza, however, as these sexual descriptions of the oral exploration of the body become maternal:
Once we'd not have called this
When leaning above your mother's
Spleen you drew
Your mouth across her breast as
Trick musicians do. (37-42)
In this stanza, the woman who has seemingly been engaged in highly sexualized activity is now described in the act of breastfeeding. Barnes uses the decadents' emphasis on transition to transform a sexual activity into a maternal one. The ambiguity remains, though, as the child gets pleasure (as well as nourishment) from the mother's breast, playing it as though she were a "trick musician," slang for a harmonica player.
The final stanza further cultivates this ambiguity between maternal and sexual descriptions of the body:
Plunging grandly out to fall
Upon your face.
With your belly bulging stately
Into space. (43-48)
Here, the poem ends with her birth; she is the "naked-female-baby" coming out from the womb. The juxtaposition of this birth with the lesbian sexuality of the sixth stanza seems ironic, since it reminds us that lesbian sex is not reproductive, yet remains inseparable from maternal language and imagery. Characteristic of decadence, it is constantly shifting, yet unlike the fin-de-siècle tradition, it celebrates the creative power of woman as both maternal and sexual.
Interestingly, when returning to the drawing after reading the poem, different images become visible. The woman, who at first appeared to be sitting, knees to chest, now looks as though she is ready to give birth, and the oval she grasps seems rather womb-like, the black shading on its outer surface indicating the potential for a fetus within. The black ribbons in the lower left quadrant of the picture resemble roots or menstrual flow. Thus, because Barnes draws upon the ever-shifting characteristics of decadence in both her drawing and her poem, she creates a dialogue between the two that further emphasizes the dialectic relationship present in her different art forms.
Though there are many similarities between the drawing and the poem, the correspondence can hardly be called one-to-one. In the first edition of the Bruno Chap Book version, the drawings were placed together at the back of the book, after the poems. A more recent edition by Bern Boyle recognized the relevancy of the drawings and the poems and thus placed them together, since many of the drawings appeared to be sized in accordance with various poems. Editor of the most recent edition, Douglass Messerli, in the absence of hard evidence that suggested this original intention, felt most comfortable placing poems on facing pages with the poetry. He comments on his different associations between poem and drawing, noting that he deliberately aligns different drawings and poems in the current edition (8-9). In his note preceding the current text, Messerli discusses the difficulty and controversy over the editorial choices and revisions made in this edition.
This debate makes readers self-conscious of their constant shifting between Barnes's various forms. To segregate the genres from each other feels artificial, yet to align specific representations with others seems a bit arbitrary when all of them emphasize many similar themes with distinctly diverse images and methods. Messerli points to this complexity as he claims
Barnes's writing is almost all inextricably connected with her art. The vast majority of the interviews, essays on theatre and other journalistic pieces, the novel Ryder, the collection of short stories, A Book, and her Ladies Almanack were all published side by side with her art. . . . One might go far as to say that Barnes's literary method is, in fact, an "emblematic" one, in that her writing generally relies on visual elements that supplement, intensify, and clarify aspects of the language. What critics such as Joseph Frank have described as "momentary stops" in the narrative action are actually related to this emblematic method of writing, wherein Barnes visualizes (with art or words) the moral or psychological condition of her characters before representing them in action. (8)
Though Messerli's claim that Barnes utilizes "visual elements that supplement, intensify, and clarify aspects of the language" is helpful, he still seems to hold to traditional distinctions between the visual and textual works. Labeling Barnes's work as "emblematic" situates her within a specific literary tradition in which emblems were used to represent larger ideas and concepts: "the essence of the term 'emblematic' lies in such a detailed pictorial and allegorical presentation of ideas, and the pleasure of the reader lay in identifying the significant details and correlating them with the moral doctrines taught in the accompanying poem" (Freeman 19). Like Barnes's work, the "emblem" often made use of both visual and textual forms in the hopes that this combination of forms would make the intended message more explicitly clear to the audience:
For by using two signals, the visual and the verbal, the medium offers the artist and the reader extreme precision of statement and a richly layered response. Visual memory is made to affect reception of a new visual impression. Allusion to or echo of emblem can be used as a shorthand for complex ideas, and, indeed, the formulation of those ideas in emblematic form can deeply affect the way they can be discussed. (Moseley 28)
Though Barnes does share some stylistic similarities with this tradition, especially in the parodies of pre-Renaissance art she includes in Ladies Almanack, calling her style "emblematic" ignores the complex dialogue that occurs between her art and text. Though we can make connections between her art and text, her visual images do not simply "correlate" with their accompanying poem; in fact, we cannot even identify an "accompanying poem" without making some dangerous assumptions. What seems quite radical in Barnes's work is the constant dialectic movement between her various forms-the ways they both inform and contradict each other, raise questions and leave silences, connect with and remain apart from each other, and placing her within the emblematic tradition ignores this complexity.
Still, much of Barnes's work in Ladies Almanack immediately resembles work in the emblematic tradition. Her drawing for the month of March uses pre-Renaissance style, a black and white sketch with only two planes. In each of the four quadrants of the picture are clouds with a face in the middle, blowing wind toward the center. These four gusts of wind, represented crudely by several straight lines coming out of each mouth, draw the eye to the center of the picture where a large banner floats above two female figures. The banner appropriately reads, "Windy March." In an oval in the middle of the banner is a drawing of a white glove surrounded by stars. Below the banner stand the two figures, one drawn a bit larger than the other, indicating that she is in the foreground. The eye is drawn first to the right hand she rests upon her cheek and then to her outstretched left arm with which she holds a white glove that she smacks upon the bared buttocks of the female figure in the background. The background figure has her head turned toward the viewer even though she is standing backwards. An unrealistically large bow sits atop her bared buttocks. She has her eyes closed as she is spanked with the white glove. Two swords lay upon the ground near the women.
In the story that follows the drawing, the third-person omniscient narrator tells of two British women, Lady Buck-and-Balk and Tilly-Tweed-In-Blood, who visit Dame Musset, the protagonist of Ladies Almanack. The two women, presumably depicted in the drawing, discuss the need for same-sex marriage in order to uphold appropriate morals:
Just because woman falls, in this Age, to Woman, does that mean that we are not to recognize Morals? What has England done to legalize these Passions? Nothing! Should she not be brought to Task, that never once through her gloomy Weather have two dear Doves been seen approaching in their bridal Laces, to pace, in stately Splendor up the Altar Aisle, there to be United in Similarity, under mutual Vows of Loving, Honouring, and Obeying, while the One and the Other fumble in that nice Temerity, for the equal gold Bands that shall make of one a Wife, and the other a Bride? (19)
The use of stylized eighteenth-century typesetting along with the discussion of same-sex marriages creates a playful irony. Using archaic style to depict the radical topics of lesbian desires, roles, and commitments creates a humor that is only intensified by the relationship between the drawing and the text. The irony of the juxtaposition of the drawing and the text lies in the women's call for traditional morals and roles in the text and their desire for violent sexuality in the drawing. The effects of the irreconcilability of these two scenarios are twofold: the discrepancy gives the work a playful humor while also challenging the definitions and classification of categories such as gender and sexuality. The dialogue between these two forms raises radical questions such as: what constitutes female desire and sexuality? What roles do women play in lesbian relationships? What defines moral behavior? The shifting between the two depictions suggests that these questions can never be answered satisfactorily in one context. Similarly, Frann Michel comments on Ladies Almanack's tendency to resist such classification:
[Ladies Almanack] thus raises the problem of definition or classification, yet it presents the problem of classification as itself only one possibility (other's don't care about it), thus demonstrating that it is a constructed problem, a problem of received definitions and not necessary to women even if constitutive of lesbian experience. (179)
In other words, Barnes's text raises the question of whether or not a stable definition of lesbian experience can exist, and through her ever-moving shifts between text and artwork performs the impossibility of such a definition.
For Michel, it is this cyclical deconstructive process that Ladies Almanack performs at every turn that she believes ultimately makes it a radically subversive text. This notion of the subversive potential of performance echoes the theoretical work of Judith Butler in her groundbreaking text, Gender Trouble, in which Butler provides her readers with provocative new ways of understanding gender. For example, she reveals the instability of the concept of gender: "Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts" (140). This repetition of acts, like Barnes's repetition of shifts between different art forms, becomes performative: "Just as bodily surfaces are enacted as the natural, so these surfaces can become the site of a dissonant and denaturalized performance that reveals the performative status of the natural itself" (Butler 146). As Butler suggests, Barnes's personality was also a site for performance. She challenged daily her colleagues expectations for what a lesbian could be or look like or listen to. Barnes was always a performer, even getting herself involved in experimental theater. Because she performed her identity so regularly, she made it nearly impossible to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic performances, as photographs, correspondences, and interviews demonstrate.
One of Barnes's more obvious performances occurs in an interview of her, conducted by Guido Bruno, the publisher of The Book of Repulsive Women. When asking Barnes why her work appears so morbid, she replies
"Morbid? . . . You make me laugh. This life I write and draw and portray is life as it is, and therefore you call it morbid. Look at my life. Look at the life around me. Where is this beauty that I am supposed to miss? The nice episodes that others depict? Is not everything morbid? I mean the life of people stripped of their masks. Where are the relieving features?" (Barnes, Interviews 386)
Barnes suggests here that the struggle, decay, and disillusionment that she portrays in much of her work comes from her own life experience-from life "as it is." Because she has openly lived such a radical life as an out lesbian, as an experimental writer and artist-in other words, as a person "stripped of [her] masks," so to speak-she comments openly on the difficulty and dissatisfaction that can result when one inhabits such marginalized spaces. Stunned by what he considers to be her cynicism, Bruno rationalizes this response as a result of her "pessimistic moods," ignoring the complex sentiment behind her suggestion. She has, indeed, had much joy in her life, he demands, to which she zealously responds,
"Joy! Is this what you call joy? When we are desperate, doing the first best thing, throwing ourselves at someone for whom we really do not care, and trying to forget ever after by repeating the same folly? In between times we work and talk. Laugh at intervals. . . . Joy? I have had none in my twenty-six years" (386)
Though this last statement seems deliberately hyperbolic, Barnes holds fast to her claim that her art reflects the life experiences she has had, rather than reflecting an artificial dissatisfaction and morbidity for its own sake. Still, Bruno complicates this understanding of Barnes's response:
You have never met Djuna. The picture reproduced on this page is a self-portrait. She insists that it looks like her real self. I think it is contemptibly bad. Not a shadow of likeness. There isn't a bit of that slovenly doggedness in the real Djuna. Red cheeks. Auburn hair. Gray eyes, ever sparkling with delight and mischief. Fantastic earrings in her ears, picturesquely dressed, ever ready to live and to be merry: that's the real Djuna as she walks down Fifth Avenue, or sips her black coffee, a cigarette in hand, in the Cafe Lafayette. Her morbidity is not a pose. It is as sincere as she is herself. (386-88)
He insists he can and does know the "real" Djuna and that this Djuna is not the one represented in her responses to his questions, not the one represented in her self-portrait which she insists looks like her "real self"; in fact, he suggests that the "real" Djuna is not anything even close to these representations: "not a shadow of likeness." He goes on to give his authoritative version of the "real" Djuna, the one his readers are supposed to believe. Interestingly, though, the contradictions between different versions of the said "real" Djuna create an important dilemma: Bruno's need to locate a "real" Djuna points to the difficulty in accomplishing such a task. It would naive and irresponsible to accept Barnes's version of her "real self" simply because she is the famous author and she says so, just as it would be naive and irresponsible to accept Bruno's version because he is the author of the interview. The very contradiction points to the lack of one satisfactory version of Djuna and begs the question: how can we ever know the "real" Djuna? Perhaps the dialogue between of all of these versions, Bruno's verbal descriptions, Barnes's interview answers, and her self-portrait, gives us the fullest sense of the "real" Djuna-if there is one that we can ever know. Like her shifts between visual and textual art, Barnes most likely occupies the space between these options, or rather, the space opened up by the possibility of all of these options existing at once. The radical potential of her work and her very existence lies in its performance. We see Barnes hover between each of these dimensions and settle most comfortably in the complexity of all of the possibilities.
Margaret Bockting also sees radical potential in Barnes's refusal to submit to binary categories and definitions:
by establishing connections between supposedly distinct categories . . . [Barnes] attempted to overturn familiar modes of perception, coercing readers to re-think dualistic conceptions. Comparing her work with that of other modernists may reveal that she was one of the most radical, subversive writers of the early 20th century, encouraging us to consider in turn what both creative writers and feminist theorists of the late 20th century may be able to learn from Barnes's subtle tactics for defying patriarchal structures and strictures. She refuses to represent aggression and discipline as characteristics that belong "naturally," exclusively, or even necessarily to individuals who are biologically male, just as she refuses to portray nurturing and intuition as traits manifested solely or even most frequently in women. Though far from utopian, her interpretation of androgyny is psychologically liberating-for both readers and authors. (36)
Barnes writes about the difficulties in defining gender, sexuality, and identity and radically uses her shifts between forms to perform the very dilemmas she highlights in her content. In other words, her technique performs the complexity of her content with an accuracy that couldn't be achieved through a more traditional and stable genre. Coming full circle back to Benstock's quotation about the difficulty in "placing" Barnes in a literary historical context, I believe that Djuna Barnes would relish in this contradiction. For even her role in the literary canon performs her attempt to embody all possibilities in her work. She remains underappreciated and celebrated, deficient and vastly superior: a sweet complexity Barnes would swallow whole.
Barnes, Djuna. The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings. 1915. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon, 1994.
Interviews. Ed. Alyce Barry. Washington, DC: Sun and Moon, 1985.
Ladies Almanack: showing their Signs and their tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers. 1928. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992.
Becker, George J. and Edith Philips, ed. and trans. Paris and the Arts, 1851-1896: From the Goncourt "Journal." Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1971.
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