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literature

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Barnes, Djuna (1892-1982)  

American novelist Djuna Barnes sought new forms of self-representation of lesbians in the face of society's compulsory heterosexuality.

Barnes was born on June 12, 1892, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, the daughter of an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Chappell, and an unsuccessful American writer, Wald Barnes. "Barnes" is the birth name of her paternal grandmother, Zadel Barnes Gustafson, a feminist writer, spiritualist, and journalist who helped educate her and who inspired the character Sophia in her semiautobiographical novel Ryder (1928).

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The complex network of family relationships produced by her father's bigamy and the experience of being "given" in marriage in 1909 to her father's second wife's brother influence both Ryder and the later family drama The Antiphon (1958).

Barnes left home almost immediately after the marriage and around 1912 arrived in Greenwich Village, where she supported herself by writing feature stories and local color sketches for several New York dailies. In a few of the sketches, using what Monique Wittig has characterized as her "out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye perception," Barnes captures the same-sex desire encoded in the accoutrements and cultivated eccentricities of the Villagers.

A number of the articles she wrote for Vanity Fair and other magazines over the next twenty years verge on a camp sensibility; among the titles are "How the Woman in Love Should Dress" and "What Is Good Form in Dying? In Which a Dozen Dainty Deaths Are Suggested for Daring Damsels."

During the 1910s, Barnes had several affairs with men and may have been involved sexually with women. The lesbian subtexts of her poetry and short stories of the period, particularly The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (1915) and "Paprika Johnson" (1915), suggest such involvement. And she clearly felt a profound love for the poet Mary Pyne who died in 1919 and to whom she dedicated a cycle of poems in A Book (1923).

In 1920, Barnes moved to Paris, where she lived for most of the decade with her lover, the sculptress and silverpoint artist Thelma Wood. In Paris, Barnes found both an international writing community and a dynamic lesbian community. Ladies Almanack (1928), which she printed and sold privately, is a playful satire of this community and the first text in which Barnes's lesbian imagination directs her literary project.

The digressions on philosophy, Christianity, sexology, and other discourses of social regulation are held together loosely by the story of Dame Musset's (Natalie Barney's) quest to rescue damsels in various degrees of sexual distress. Barnes subtly mocks the aristocratic pretensions of Barney and her entourage in the same way she had mocked the Villagers' leisured preoccupation with the latest cause célèbre in her New York journalism. In both cases, she speaks from the position of a working woman with limited access to the privilege of the community of which she is a part.

A few critics have read Ladies Almanack as an attack on Barney and suggested that Barnes's anatomy of the lesbian body never really frees itself from heterosexist representations. Barnes's strategy of subversively repeating those representations in order to expose their consequences in the lives of women inevitably runs the risk of such a reading.

In her comments on The Book of Repulsive Women, Quebec writer Nicole Brossard recognizes the productive contradictions of Barnes's strategy of subversive repetition: Are the women repulsive in their resignation to their role as "still-lifes," she asks along with Barnes, or are they repulsive because they carry on their lips truths that confront the patriarchal lie at work in their faces and in their flesh?

In 1931, after her break with Wood, Barnes left Paris and spent several years in England. There, at Peggy Guggenheim's rented country manor, Hayford Hall, in the company of writers Emily Coleman and Antonia White, and critic John Ferrar Holms, she wrote her best-known work, Nightwood (1936). The novel dramatizes Barnes's need to write about her love for Wood in a number of ways, notably in Nora Flood's struggle to tell her story to the aging transvestite, Doctor Matthew O'Connor, and in her obsessive letter writing to her former lover, Robin Vote.

Robin, a character whose constant movement thwarts the attempts of other characters to possess her, is a figure of desire. Barnes withholds any stable representation of Robin, leaving the configurations of desire as open as possible. In the words of the novel, Robin is moving toward "something not yet in history." Matthew compares Robin to the androgynous princes and princesses of fairy tales who are "neither one and half the other." This metaphor not only uncovers lesbian subtexts hidden in Western culture but also disturbs the binary models of gender that inform the theories of sexologists from Magnus Hirschfeld to Havelock Ellis.

Barnes's style in Nightwood emerges from Symbolist and Decadent aesthetics. The text's elaborately worked surface, its string of nonevents, its endless detailing of decor and costume, and its cast of exuberant "degenerates" takes the practices and preoccupations of these movements to an extreme. The text, like its writer, is overwrought. The surplus of detail and ornament signals the difficulty of bringing a sexual relationship between two women to literary representation.

At the same time, the novel's exclusive focus on sexually and socially marginalized figures makes their experience the rule rather than the exception; without apologies, the side-show becomes the main act. Lillian Faderman and others have expressed concern that Nightwood simply reproduces images of lesbians drawn by male Symbolists and Decadents. However, read in the light of Barnes's own analysis in Ladies Almanack, the tragedy and despair of her lesbian characters are not the result of a pathological condition. Rather they are the lived effects of compulsory heterosexuality and of the will to control a character such as Robin.

Barnes returned to New York in 1939 where she lived, chronically ill and relatively poor, until her death in 1982. She grew increasingly resistant to lesbian interest in her work and its place in a tradition of lesbian writing. "I am not a lesbian," she insisted in the 1970s, "I just loved Thelma." However, given that in 1936, she had been able to write, "Please do not think of it--I was not offended in the least to be thought lesbian--it's simply that I'm very reticent about my personal life," her later denial may say more about differences in what it means to identify oneself as lesbian at different historical moments than about Barnes's sexuality.

Wittig suggests that Barnes "dreaded that lesbians should make her their writer, and that by doing this they should reduce her work to one dimension." She wanted to be remembered for Nightwood and The Antiphon rather than for The Book of Repulsive Women or Ladies Almanack, works she was happy to see out of print.

Nevertheless, a number of contemporary lesbian writers and theorists--among them Nicole Brossard, Michèle Causse (French translator of Ladies Almanack), Teresa de Lauretis, Elizabeth Meese, and Monique Wittig--have found in Barnes's work an important example of how to make the effects of the heterosexual contract visible and, at the same time, to allow lesbians new forms of self-representation in society and culture.

Lianne Moyes

     

 
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Djuna Barnes in 1905.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Allen, Carolyn. Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Broe, Mary Lynn. "Djuna Barnes." The Gender of Modernism. Bonnie Kime Scott, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 1-45.

_____, ed. Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Brossard, Nicole. "Djuna Barnes: De Profil Moderne." Mon héroine. Montréal: Remue-ménage, 1981. 189-214.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Field, Andrew. Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. "Introduction." Ladies Almanack. New York: New York University Press, 1992. xv-li.

Meese, Elizabeth. (sem)erotics theorizing lesbian: writing. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

O'Neal, Hank. "Life is painful, nasty and short--in my case it has only been painful and nasty": An informal memoir. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Moyes, Lianne  
    Entry Title: Barnes, Djuna  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 13, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/barnes_d.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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