"Reading Djuna Barnes is like reading a foreign language, which you understand."

Marianne Moore

THE DOVE: There are enough people preventing things, aren't there?
VERA: Yes -- that's why you frighten me.
THE DOVE: Because I let everything go on, as far as it can go?
VERA: Yes, because you disturb nothing.
THE DOVE: I see.
VERA: You never meddle --
THE DOVE: No, I never meddle.
VERA: You don't even observe as other people do, you don't watch. Why, if I were to come up to you, wringing my hands saying, "Amelia has shot herself," I don't believe you would stand up.
THE DOVE: No, I don't suppose I would, but I would do something for all that.
VERA: What?
THE DOVE: I should want to be very sure you wrung your hands as much as possible, and that Amelia had gotten all there was to get out of the bullet before she died.

-- Djuna Barnes, At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays, Sun & Moon Classics

Djuna Barnes did everything in her power to escape likeability, and she had power to spare. As a result, her work (other than Nightwood, a lucky recipient of the T. S. Eliot Seal of Approval) has been more or less invisible for decades. But over the past few years Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press have brought Barnes back into print, including her two oddest books, Ryder and Ladies Almanack, both originally published in 1928.

Attempts at making Barnes critically acceptable have usually ended in liberal gridlock. An independent woman who wrote about the lesbian community? Yes, but also a community-rejecting misogynist whose first publication was called The Book of Repulsive Women. An early spokesperson for survivors of childhood abuse? Well, she survived childhood, true, and she spoke about her family; past that things get fuzzy -- and, more embarrassingly, the fuzziness seems deliberate and unapologetic.

Barnes's work remains incompatable with socially-relevant interpretation. In the Fall 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, an article which finds the gloriously strong female role model of grandmother Zadel Barnes in virtually all Barnes's work is immediately followed by an article which finds the trauma of sexual abuse by grandmother Zadel Barnes in virtually all Barnes's work. No wonder academics get petulant and biographers stick to gossip. Even posthumously she snubs us.

Barnes's reply to a questionnaire sent by The Little Review to "the artists of the world":

I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public.

Barnes was supremely capable of journalism: her gonzo New York City exploits and her later high-society interviews were successful sources of income. But Barnes's fiction, drama, and poetry are antijournalistic; Barnes doesn't mean them to be reducible to anything more satisfactory than themselves. And they aren't, which is why they remain unsatisfactory to most readers. Barnes is opaque but at the same time blatantly unconcerned with softening her message. From the beginning, this insistence on difficulty for uncraven motives has annoyed critics who prefer smoke which can be tracked to a simple flame or two.

She writes fantastically not to flatter or to escape, but because realistic writing can't deal with experiences which lie outside the fictional shared world of Realism. Realism enforces supposedly well-understood identity categories within which a few in-depth "individual" portraits can be carefully drawn. But these "individuals" can only exist in a mundane world of stereotypes. In a non-realist world with no privileged point of view, characters become mysteriously flat. Barnes as author is an outsider, and the reader's locked outside with her.

Barnes uses allegorical techniques and other anachronisms not for their original purpose and not out of nostalgia, but because the alien must express itself outside time to be comprehensible as alien at all. Barnes not only dislocates time stylistically, by refusing to write "contemporary" prose, but also narratively, by collapsing temporal progression into a series of tableaux. She freezes mortally dangerous situations in disdain, all the better to polish them.

Literature, that area of the library which contains "primary sources" to be read for their own sake, is our easiest access to the alien of other cultures and times and to the individual, a single voice speaking for the sake of speech. Djuna Barnes meant to write literature, and so she wrote the alien.

Or the other way round, if you prefer: she meant to write the alien, and so she wrote literature. Causality is suspect when dealing with the associative development of the ego, "kneeling at the parent knee, in all ages, all times and all bindings, becoming what books make of a child."

"The truth is how you say it, and to be 'one's self' is the most shocking custom of all." - Djuna Barnes

Copyright 1996 Ray Davis, except for excerpts from the art of Djuna Barnes