Gertrude Stein on Djuna Barnes

Gertrude Stein on Djuna Barnes
Gertrude Stein on Djuna Barnes

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Djuna Barnes was a bohemian in her youth and a recluse in her later years, she was a woman who owned herself.
She grew up in Cornwall-on-Hudson where she had an unusual childhood; her father was a bigamist, and it was said by some biographers to have been sexually abused by her grandmother.
She moved to New York City when she was 18 years old. There she attended art schools, wrote poetry and began writing for newspapers and magazines. Her journalism chronicling the odd arcana of pre-1914 New York, is now considered a minor classic of feminist nonfiction writing,
Like Hemingway, she moved to Paris in the 1920s and made her living as a journalist.
She lived in Paris for a decade – from 1921 to 1931. These were tumultuous years. She lived with the sculptor and artist Thelma Wood, a “tall, handsome, hard-drinking woman” who was the source of much turmoil in Barnes’ life. Like Nora in Nightwood, Barnes spent a fair amount of time pursuing her elusive partner. Barnes writes of the relationship as follows: “I must have been very young at twenty nine when I met her! Much younger than her nineteen, for her years were aged in sensuality and its consequent need of craft – I was a (truly) virgin yokel looking for lost sheep, and mistook her wolf’s blood.”
Her relationship with Thelma provided the basis for Nightwood, the novel that would establish her as one of the most important modernist writers of the century.
Of all the great writers and artists in our circle here, she is probably closest to Carrington in her sensibilities.
Unlike me, she was somewhat asocial. Even though she and Thelma were part of the lesbian expatriate community in Paris, Djuna kept more or less to herself. She was known for her independence of spirit and quick wit.
Unlike Hemingway, Barnes painted the dark side of Paris – the grotesque, carnivalesque underworld of the city.
Like Carrington, she combined transgressive material with wit and dark humor.
She returned to the Village in the early 1940s. She lived the life of a recluse on Patchin Place, not far from The New School. For those of you who are familiar with the area, you might take a literary walking tour and visit Barnes’ and e.e. cummings’ houses on Patchin Place. This is one of the many wonderful New York spots to find literary inspiration…
Nightwood is a modernist masterpiece. It is Barnes’ most important work.tUnlike Hemingway, Barnes paints the underside of Paris – and the Parisian underworld is a carnivalesque and grotesque one. The work traces the lives of five interlocking characters, characters who are seeking, suffering, and full of pathos.
In the Introduction, T.S. Eliot comments on the poetic quality of Barnes’ style, claiming that the novel would “ ‘appeal primarily to readers of poetry’…. Miss Barnes’s prose has the prose rhythm that is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse” He concludes by emphasizing the work’s simultaneous qualities of beauty and horror: “What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy”
The novel appeared in 1936 to mixed reviews. It was the height of the Depression and people wanted socially relevant fiction. Moreover, the novel was disturbing and original without being a blockbuster or appearing to bring news about a particular place milieu, or generation—the only way usually such an avant-garde book as this does well commercially. For some, the work had universal significance, capturing the innate suffering of human existence. In a 1936 review, the great Scottish poet and translator Edwin Muir wrote that Nightwood was “an undeniable work of genius.”
Others found the work to be morally questionable, a decadent work capturing the decadent lifestyle of a select few. In a 1937 review, for example, Philip Rahv writes: “It is not the doom of a world reeling to its destruction that Miss Barnes expresses, but those minute shudders of decadence developed in certain small in-grown cliques of intellectuals and their patrons, cliques in which the reciprocal workings of social decay and sexual perversion have destroyed all response to genuine values and actual things”. This indicated why Barnes was excluded from the canonical modernism which included Hemingway and to some extent Stein but not Barnes–she was excluded for ‘moral’ reasons that were, for all Modernism’s vaunted sense of liberation from the past, essentially Victorian.
Barnes has the curious status of being known and unknown. She is considered one of the most important modernist writers, yet she remains somewhat obscure and not often sampled on the undergraduate syllabus (much like our dear Leonora Carrington). In a letter to Natalie Barney in 1963, Barnes declared herself “the most famous unknown of the century!”: “There is not a person in the literary world who has not heard of, read and some stolen from Nightwood. The paradox that in spite of all the critical work flooding the press since 1936, not more than three or four have mentioned my name. I am the most famous unknown of the century!”
Towards the end of her long life (she lived until 1982) Barnes became the object of feminist admiration, and many scholars would come to her house on Patchin Place. When the term ‘lesbian’ was used of Barnes by one of these researchers, however, Barnes reposted. “Lesbian? Who said I am lesbian? I just loved Thelma [the original for Robin in Nightwood]." Though this has not stopped people from characterizing Barnes relationships with women as lesbian, it should remind us that the 1920s were a different historical era that did not have the vocabulary to discuss gender and sexuality as we do today and may well have understood at least some things differently. The comment also reminds us how simply convulsive the Robin-Nora relationship was and how its contingent yet passionate force is at the heart of Barnes’s novel.
And so, my friends, you see why our work here is important. It is up to us to recognize and resuscitate the great minds of the period. With this in mind, let’s give the text the attention it deserves…
Nightwood II
Nightwood is set mainly in Paris: Paris of the night.
Nightwood’s Paris is not the City of Lights, but the City of Darkness. It is a labyrinthian world of shadows and hidden corners, of excess and loneliness and distress.
Barnes’ style has been considered a mixture of the gothic and the decadent.
Like Carrington’s “The Debutante,” Nightwood employs black humor But Barnes’ humor is even darker than Carrington’s. It provokes a laughter that makes you want to cry.
We may consider, for example, Felix’s obsequiousness: he dresses in part for evening and in part for day, and he bows slightly to anyone of importance, including streets, cafés and buildings. This portrait is funny and sad at the same time.
What are some other examples of black humor?
Because of the authorial distance, it is difficult for the reader to identify with the characters. The characters are drawn “objectively” but a bit like caricatures.
The elusive figure of Robin Vote provides the pivot point for the narrative. Robin abandons both Felix and Nora, and the latter turn to the Doctor for solace and wisdom.
The novel’s major characters are:
Dr. Matthew O’Connor: an ambisexual Irish doctor of dubious reputation whose lies contains fundamental truths.
Felix Volkbein; the “wandering Jew” who marries Robin and has a child (Guido) with her.
Nora Flood: an American journalist who falls in love with Robin.
Robin Vote: a wandering soul who abandons Felix, Nora and Jenny. Robin is portrayed as animalistic and vampiric.
Jenny Petherbridge: a thief or squatter who has been widowed four times and who steals Robin from Nora.
Nightwood has been considered a “study in abjection Abjection, as defined by the psychological theorist Julia Kristeva, is that taboo part of ourselves we exclude, aspects of the self that are cast out of the social world. The leitmotif of Nightwood is “going down” (bowing, submission, the night, night life, etc.).
In this way, it celebrates or normalizes the grotesque.
The grotesque
Grotesque genres include the comic, the fantastic and the gothic.
Grotesque themes are those that threaten our sense of humanity and order and that portend confusion and chaos, such as the Plague, the Dance of Death, and the Apocalypse.
Unlike the classical body, with its smooth surfaces and rounded contours, the grotesque body is all about excess: protruding eyes and noses, liquids and bodily fluids, hyperbole and exaggeration, and all that happens on the borders between the body and the world: eating, drinking, eliminating, copulation.
Nightwood has been considered “a Rabelaisian comic
Nightwood is a dangerous novel because the whole social order of the novel is “impure.”
The world is turned upside down for the carnival, the circus, the night world of unconventional sexuality and happenings.
Consider the theme of the circus/the carnivalesque
– Nora’s and Robin’s meeting at the circus
– The doctor’s stories of “freaks,” such as Mademoiselle Basquette, who was “damned from the waist down.”
– Felix’s comfort in the circus
To what extent are the characters “freaks” and outsiders?
To what extent do they play roles and assume false titles like the circus figures?
To what extent is the world of Nightwood the world of the circus?
In this text, Felix is drawn as a caricature of the “wandering Jew”
He is the quintessential parvenu (newcomer) who adopts false titles and false airs.
Consider the following passages:
On Felix’s father, Guido, who claimed to be a baron and adopted the sign of the cross:
He was “the sum total of what is the Jew…. Guido had lived as all Jews do, who, cut off from their people by accident or choice, find that they must inhabit a world whose constituents, being alien, force the mind to succumb to an imaginary populace”
On Felix, who called himself Baron Volkbein and was obsessed with “Old Europe”:
What had formed Felix from the date of his birth to his coming to thirty was unknown to the world, for the step of the wandering Jew is in every son. No matter where and when you meet him you feel that he has come from some place – no matter from what place he has come — some country that he has devoured rather than resided in, some secret land that he has been nourished on but cannot inherit, for the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere.
Felix was at home only in the circus, where he was surrounded by other princess, barons, kings, and duchesses: “ Felix clung to his title to dazzle his own estrangement. It brought them together”.
Is this a right-wing text or is it radical and subversive? Are we meant to mock Felix’s obsession with old aristocratic titles or emulate it on a lower frequency as part of our admiration for the storied and archival European?
There is a critical divide concerning the political import of the text.
Some consider the representation of Felix to be an anti-Semitic one that perpetuates dangerous stereotypes.
Others consider it a humane portrait of the plight of the Jews, one group of outsiders in this novel of outsiders (lesbians, transvestites, circus performers, etc.). By this reading, the novel is anti-fascist, privileging the outsider and undermining all notions of purity (racial, social, etc.). All the characters are exiles of one kind or another – American, Irish, Austrian, Jewish.

In this paradigm, the fact that Felix is depicted as a Jew is even somewhat accidental, as what really matters is that he aspires after Central European privilege. On the other hand, however, the Nazis were in power and the anti-Jewish laws were already taking effect when Barnes wrote the book, so she could not have depicted this character without having been in some way conscious of the situation under the Nazi regime.
Nightwood plays with gender/sexuality on multiple levels. Once Robin begins to have affairs with women, she becomes very much a ‘male’ figure. Robin ruthlessly exploits Nora and then discards her. but there is love in the relationship and even some hope, as Nora’s own loyalty to Robin is an admirable emotion, even if Robin is using her. With Jenny, it is simply a match between two users, and there is nothing romantic or affirmative about it. Nora is sad to have been abandoned by Robin, but not sorry to not be involved in that sort of relationship. The revenge and retribution she pursues is fueled by a sense of the moral calamity of their relationship, which fuels Eliot’s sense that, despite its transgressions, Nightwood in the end is a book that affirms some sort of moral clarity.
In “Watchman, What of the Night?,” the doctor is found cross-dressing: in bed in a woman’s flannel nightgown wearing a wig with long curls, like the wolf in Red Riding Hood .
He calls himself a “the bearded lady” and “the Old Woman who lives in the closet:”
…am I to blame if I’ ve turned up this time as I shouldn’t have been, when it was a high soprano I wanted, and deep corn curls to my bum, with a womb as big as the king’s kettle, and a bosom as high as the bowsprit of a fishing schooner?…. I’ve given my destiny away by garrulity … for, no matter what I may be doing, in my heart is the wish for children and knitting. God, I never asked better than to boil some good man’s potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months by the calendar “
What is the significance of the Doctor’s alter ego in the novel?
How does the novel compare to “The Debutante”? Consider hybridity, passing and masking.
The doctor seems to flamboyantly and uninhibitedly cross-dress and transgress gender norms; it seems to be part of the largeness of his personality.
Lesbianism or “Sapphic modernism”
Consider the following ways in which lesbianism is portrayed in the novel.
The “invert”:
Nora chooses a girl, Robin, who resembles a boy. Far from ‘lesbianism’ as such, a woman choosing a woman over a man, Nora seems to be struggling for a certain confounding of fixed gender identities.
The Doctor asks: “…what is this love we have for the invert, boy or girl?”.
The “third sex”
The doll is a recurrent figure in the novel. The doll scene, when Robin raises her doll up to smash it, echoes the way in which she raised up her own child.
On the symbol of the doll: Nora says, “…when a woman gives [a doll] to a woman, it is the life they cannot have, it is their child, sacred and profane” . This resembles the transitional object in D. W Winnicott’s psychoanalytic theories, in which an object takes on an aura that expresses the subjectivity of the child who handles it.
On the “third sex,” the Doctor asserts: “The last doll … is the girl who should have been a boy, and the boy who should have been a girl…. the third sex … contains life but resembles the doll .
Nora says of Robin: “She is myself. What am I to do?”
Nora says to the Doctor: “…a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own”
Is this narcissism or an attempt at self-discovery? Is Robin her mirror or her soul mate?
What do you think of the representation of lesbianism in the novel?
The Doctor tells Nora to “go down.” What does he mean by this? What is he suggesting? Is this abjection? Is it humiliating or redemptive?
What is the significance of the ending of the novel?
Nightwood has been considered a “modernism of marginality.”
It brings together marginalized groups: Jews, lesbians, transvestites.
By focusing on the outside (the circus), the underside (the abject/the grotesque, Barnes suggests that the rejected and the extreme may be both the crucible for a new terror and the foundation for a new moral clarity amid modernity. Hitler had already sponsored his racist Olympic Games and the Spanish Civil War had already begun the growing threat of Fascist domination by intersecting the fates of European Jews with those of American lesbians and a remarkable Irish transvestite named Matthew O’Connor, who T. S. Eliot called the most “brilliant creation in Modernist literature.”
How is lesbianism portrayed in Nightwood, particularly in Nora’s account of her love for Robin?
The narrative revolves around the elusive figure of Robin Vote, who abandons both her husband Felix (and their child) and her lover Nora. Robin is a wandering figure, one who spends her nights drifting through the labyrinth of the Parisian underworld. How would you characterize Robin Vote? Is she a Parisian type? A vampiric figure who preys sexually on the inhabitants of Paris at night? What is she seeking?
The story revolves more fundamentally around the metaphysical insights of “Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante O’Connor,” the quack doctor, the “bearded lady,” the mystical seer. What is the role of the doctor in the text? Why do the characters turn to him?

Felix is portrayed in this novel as as a stereotypical wandering Jew, a depiction that has troubled readers and divided critics. Do you think the text’s portrait of Felix and his heritage is anti reactionary? Or is it somehow radical and subversive? What links Jews, lesbians, transvestites and circus performers in the novel? Is this anti-semitic and reactionary? Or is it somehow radical and subversive? What links Jews, lesbians, transvestites and circus performers in the novel?

In what ways is this text a study in abjection, that is a study of those taboo parts of ourselves we exclude, or those parts of the self the social world excludes? What is the relevance of the circus in the novel? How does the figure of the “circus freak” serve as a larger metaphor in the text?

What new picture of 1920s Paris does this novel provide? How does it differ from the Paris of Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, and Ernest Hemingway?
• Nightwood is a very strange yet captivating text. Beginning with the theme of dark humor, the way everything was described created a wacky, almost silly image that was also somewhat depressing. For instance, Guido was described to be one of the “military men, who seem to breathe from the inside out, smelling of gunpowder and horse flesh, lethargic yet prepared for participation in a war not yet scheduled” (p. 6). The image this description invokes is cartoonish, yet the goofy image is also cast over with a dark shadow, which is evident in the idea of hopeless men waiting to go to a war that doesn’t exist yet and that they don’t even believe in. Throughout the book, polarities in the descriptions made Nightwood distinctly unsettling.

The darkness of the Paris is Nightwood is also different from the Paris in Hemingway and Stein’s writings. Unlike Hemingway and Stein’s world of artists and seekers, the Paris depicted in Nightwood was entirely the underbelly of lost souls and dark alleys, which was shown through the caricatures of socially unaccepted roles, such as the Jew, Lesbian, etc. However, Hemingway and Stein did describe the “lost generation” which is comparable to Nightwood’s theme of the “circus freak” because both portray outsiders and people who are lost.



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