. . . Barbellion

. . .

Blogging W. N. P. Barbellion

My confessions are shameless. I confess, but do not repent. The fact is, my confessions are prompted, not by ethical motives, but intellectual. The confessions are to me the interesting records of a self-investigator.

. . .

What I like is Joyce's candour and verisimilitude. I have tried that, but it's no good. The publishers rejected two splendid entries about prostitutes and other stuff. That is why I think, in truth, 100,000 copies will not be sold. My diary is too unpleasant for popularity. It is my passion for taking folk by the nose and giving them a wigging, my fierce contempt for every kind of complacency. Stephen Daedalus. Butler started the fashion with Edward Pontifex. Then there is Wells' George Ponderevo. Pontifex is a good name.

. . .

Of course the novelists are behind the naturalists in the recording of minutiæ: Edmund Selous and Julian Huxley and others have set down the life of some species of bird in exhaustive detail every flip of the tail, every peck preceding the grand drama of courtship and mating.

- W. N. P. Barbellion, A Last Diary

In March 1919, The Journal of a Disappointed Man by "W. N. P. Barbellion" was published. As promised, the absurdly pseudonymed author seemed disappointed and male; also brilliant, autodidactic, obsessive, explicit, self-lacerating, and dead.

The blend of naturalist and Naturalism naturally appealed to H. G. Wells. The blend of conventional tragedy and titillating dirt appealed to a larger audience. And "Barbellion"'s disappointment struck an introductory chord with those more fortunate members of his generation who'd survive to call themselves "Lost".

The book was therefore a success.

It was also a puzzle. The presumable source material wasn't presented raw; it had clearly been labored over. But the result was far from flattering, and hardly as sensitive to family feelings as one would expect from an executor.

Some doubted its veracity (as I've doubted Plain Layne and Belle de Jour). Speculation centered on Wells as the author. Again, unlikely. Although the book's power was cumulative and structural, that thudding, cyclic, organic, and anticlimactic structure matched no existing model of the novel.

Later in 1919, the controversy was somewhat settled when a second "Barbellion" book appeared: Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains, an awkward assemblage of odds and ends with a forward by the author's brother. Some pretense of disguise was maintained the forward was signed only "H. R. C." but the scientific papers reprinted there were little harder to trace than a domain registration would be these days.

The next year a slim sequel to the Journal appeared, a Last Diary in which the protagonist, undead without comment, quickly went on to die again. No further resurrection was forthcoming.

* * *

Maybe you've guessed where this is heading?

Barbellion's books anticipate (and epitomize) a kind of contemporary writing not my kind, certainly, but a kind I like. Pepys wrote only for himself (if that), Pooter and Dedalus and Pontifex had the benefit of being fictional, Kafka and Powell and Musil were principally known for other work, Anaïs Nin comes closer, I suppose, but sprawls....

If Barbellion is the first English writer to consider short chronologically arranged excruciating self-revelations his lifework, serialization seems an appropriate approach. I plan to post regular entries to the hideously named Barbellionblog. (Dating can only be approximate in some cases.) As each book comes fully online, I'll repackage it in its original form at the Repress. For now, I leave you with the first page of the first volume:

‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the
race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the
strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet
riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour
to men of skill; but time and chance
happeneth to them all. For man
also knoweth not his time; as the
fishes that are taken in an evil
net, and as the birds that are
caught in the snare; so are
the sons of men snared in
an evil time, when it
falleth suddenly
upon them.’

. . .


For my rubber check, the best pure poetry to be found in the Peter Bells of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Reynolds is the latter's

He is rurally related;
Peter Bell hath country cousins,
(He had once a worthy mother)
Bells and Peters by the dozens,
But Peter Bell he hath no brother.
Not a brother owneth he,
Peter Bell he hath no brother,
His mother had no other son,
No other son e’er call’d her mother;
Peter Bell hath brother none.

More parody: two songs by Phoebe Cary, and the acidulously Keatsian "Ode on a Jar of Pickles".

In other news of Repression, this piercing cry from W. N. P. Barbellion:

Zoology is all I want. Why won’t Life leave me alone?


Re Phoebe: As Archer Taylor put it, The evening is the time to braise the day.

. . .


(Pumped out for the sake of The Valve)
The use of the essay, for example, a kind expressing liberal interest at first, began with Humanism in the sixteenth century; and one of its forms, the miscellaneous familiar essay, ceased to be popular after the crisis of Humanism in the 1930s.
- Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature

At 9 PM on Saturday June 18, the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley is showing a revisionist Western from 1972, Dirty Little Billy. All later muddy streets seem thin in comparison: puddled with New Age puke or John Ford horsepiss. Given its timing, a few of the Billy demythologizers may have benefited from personal experience of frontier communes.

Was the movie intended as history or satire? To some extent, whether you're mocking or creating is decided later, by who notices what and how they respond. Artmaking is largely about being distracted from your original purpose; sometimes you even wake up in a new neighborhood. If you want to explain Robert Browning's influence on Ezra Pound, you could start worse than with a Browning parody like "The Cock and The Bull":

I shoved the timber ope wi’ my omoplat;
And in vestibulo, i’ the lobby to-wit,
(Iacobi Facciolati’s rendering, sir,) ...

That's a recent addition to an ongoing retrospective of a Century of Imitation, along with Calverley's "Proverbial Philosophy":

A maiden’s heart is as champagne, ever aspiring and struggling upwards,
And it needed that its motions be checked by the silvered cork of Propriety:
He that can afford the price, his be the precious treasure,
Let him drink deeply of its sweetness, nor grumble if it tasteth of the cork.

Also Thomas Hood Jr.'s Poe, worthied by its expiring exclamation!, and Swinburne's "The Person of the House", which literalizes Victorian reticence as "That Only a Mother" later literalized pulp science fiction reticence and to similar effect, as well as another online copy of Swinburne's magnificent "Nephelidia".

In other serialization news, Paul Kerschen has just begun serializing a free translation of Franz Kafka's diaries, alongside the original German. And if you aren't already following the lifework of W. N. P. Barbellion, 1910 is the year his journal completes its transition from dissection of other species to vivisection of our own. As the few remaining years go by and he consults and reconsults his own archives, we'll see Barbellion develop a craving for precursors or peers. He'll read Portrait of an Artist and decide he and James Joyce have struck the same vein independently. Later still he'll excitedly decide he's just like Marie Bashkirtseff.... "Is there one who understands me?"

But once your isolating eccentricity does turn out to be a community, new issues arise. I believe Djuna Barnes said everything worth saying about surveys: "I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public." Yet since Mr. Waggish is a compatriot to whom I owe the deepest respect, if Mr. Waggish requests something, I must assume Mr. Waggish has good reason, and therefore:

Total number of books I've owned: I buy books because of not always having had access to a good library ("I will never go stupid again!"), but I winnow them because of moving fairly often in the past, but I still want to re-read more books each year so the collection does grow, and because I've lived in one place with access to a good library for a while I've been buying fewer books but unread bought books are piling up. So maybe four times the number of books I have now? Roughly. Within a factor of ten.
Last book I bought: It was a group. A translation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, the new Hans Christian Andersen translation, Ron Silliman's Under Albany, and Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness.
Last book I read: This must mean what I'm in the midst of reading since the next query is the "Last book I finished"? Mostly right now Kinds of Literature by Alastair Fowler.

It's free of nonsense, and, for all its easy style, extremely concise: virtually every page of this library volume is mostly underlined, the table of contents bears a jot by each chapter title, and I found there a improvised torn-paper bookmark with the scrawled note "BUY WHOLE BOOK?" (It's out of print, of course.) Two-thirds of the way through and Fowler's heroic attempt to revive the form of the Anatomy became a worthwhile drama of its own.

In 1982, I would've argued against Fowler's low opinion of the works recovered by feminist critics, but, hey, by 2005, I bet he might argue against himself. I'm possibly more skeptical that something fixedly "literary" can be found in all the works that drift in or out of literature, but that disagreement means less in practice than I thought at first. I may know a bit more about contemporary American genres, but that's to be expected; Fowler is sensible with the parts he knows, and he has a far wider and more detailed grasp of literary history than my autodidacticism has managed. His biggest difficulty may be the usual academic one of distance from working artists. Genre doesn't just happen between books; it's also a way for the author to feel less lonely for a bit (before feeling betrayed). Publishing isn't just to make money; it's also to make contact (before getting an unlisted number).

Fowler's book was recommended to me by Wendy Walker. If Wendy Walker is a new name to you, for the love of god, drop that copy of Emma Brown and hie ya. I'd like to tell you how I came to get a book recommendation from Wendy Walker. I commuted daily between Nashua NH and Cambridge MA, and I read something about Samuel R. Delany appearing at some convention between, so I stopped there. Formal emphasis was placed on the most ambitious class of science fiction and fantasy, but participants also included small press publishers, readers of contemporary poetry, and listeners to contemporary music. Our conversations were intriguing enough to bring me back the next day. I kept in touch with some of the people I met that weekend, and one of them, Don Keller, kept suggesting I write down some of what I spun in conversation. I started doing so, and the practice eventually became habitual.

Wendy Walker's work is sui generis. But some genres are friendlier towards the sui than others. Her novel The Secret Service seemed to me one of the great books to be found in the 1990s, but who would find it? I browsed shelves randomly and was fortunate enough to live by shelves which included Sun & Moon Press, most of whose other contemporary authors were poets poets I admired, but whom I knew to be a sadly insular group. I gave copies to friends, recommended it, and wrote about it. Independently, so did Henry Wessells and Elizabeth Willey. Walker's cult was small but fervent, and, fearing that neither the writer nor her publisher had any clue as to its existence, I dropped him a note to suggest that an audience awaited.

The note was passed along. In a few weeks, Wendy Walker will be attending that uniquely ambitious conference in Massachussetts. It's a small world.

Or a big sign.

. . .

92 years ago, Mr. Barbellion looked at a newspaper.

It happens sometimes.


I have absolutely no idea what this means, but my bunker is well-stocked and well-armed all the same.

Yes, that should fix things right up....

. . .

Higham Robert Osbourne

Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942)

  1. Breaking the Code through Prosody, Part 2:

    BLACKIE: ... And this is my associate, The Runt.


    THE RUNT: [MOLTO PRESTO] Gee, I wish I could think of a good comeback.

  2. Jessie Arnold's and Victor Travers's finest moment:


    BLACKIE: I love this program, don't you? [EXITS LEFT]

    WOMAN: Why... yes! Yes, I do!

    MAN: Who was that?

    WOMAN: I don't know, I never saw him before.

    . . . several shots later . . .


    THE RUNT: Oh! Pardon us! [EXITS LEFT]

    MANLEDER: Excuse me! [EXITS LEFT]

    MAN: And who was that?

    WOMAN: Why, I never saw them before either.

    MAN: ... I liked the first one better.


Received September 5, 2007:

I have visited your site 248 times

If they were all in the last three weeks, I'm truly sorry and I take full irresponsibility.

Barbellion's been posting pretty much every day but then he's not working....

a dog came into town one day his christian name was runt

. . .

When life makes you a lemon, give lemonade

SPOILER WARNING, but I felt Barbellion finished the Journal properly. (And capped it with the best hiatus announcement in proto-blogging history.) Exclamations and expletives aside, odds are high that "Self-disgust" will be my last thought as well. Although of course one tries to avoid directly addressing a topic that forces polite bystanders to dredge up ineffective protests: it's dull and egocentric and even deadlier to conversation than say dreams or SAT scores or incomes.

The need to not quite express oneself leads I guess to writing but that hardly settles how much is not quite enough. Witness the "careers" of Barbellion or Henry Adams or Jean Eustache or so many others.... Three days ago for example I finished Dickinson's Misery despite the title. (Its true name is Dickinson's Genre. Virginia Walker Jackson justifies "Misery" as a generic metonym, like "Stars" or "Trillion Year" on a book about science fiction , but "Arch Playfulness" marks the same genre just as well, so tush.) While its argumentation may be knotty, it's not the usual loopy; anyway, the real joy's in the archival contextualizations and complications which re-establish Dickinson as unknowable: an Open and therefore Shut Case.

Yesterday for another example I finished an iffy novel by B. S. Johnson, an experiment marred by sloppy procedure, a eulogy uninterested in its subject, instead that imitable B. S. Johnson self-loathing, very understandable too, or "surprisingly accessible" as the critics say, it's the Malcolm Lowry problem, ha, he follows on Joyce and Beckett, but without the grasping or the distancing, we're flipping pages in his head, a fine fat one, still no room to breathe, we know how that ends.

Back to me though, about eighteen years ago for example I emerged upon a new plateau of despair and not long after began to write and then to publish. The triggers are clear enough; the motives are questionable. Just a week ago for example while I was in a frenzy of fatuous blundering the question arose. I have two pat answers and this being a social occasion I deployed the social one: I write to meet people. Now clearly that's false: I wrote before I met people, I write without meeting people, if these are advertisements for myself then they're the sort of ads that never mention what the product does. No, the primary motive must be my other pat answer, to get verbal structures "out of my head." But as I commented to Mr. Waggish ten days ago "out" is a vague word, and what I mean by the pat answer I used I guess is that meeting people is the only reward I receive from writing, which in turn determines the particular type of "out" I'm in: commercial writing pays too little, an academic position would make me go Stanford, and the thrill of seeing my name in print lasts thirty seconds to be followed by years of sore regret over my inability to edit the bylined piece, the unnecessary expense for readers who won't like it, and the unlikelihood of it ever reaching readers who will. Not that I don't suffer sore regret after meeting people but, you know, it's by far the best of the lot.

In conclusion then, The Unfortunates is another, Dickinson's Misery is good, Barbellion is better, and give me a call.


Call?! I'll see you and raise you!
next time I'm in California, I will.

Holy crap, it works!

. . .

candour and verisimilitude

- for David Collard, with gratitude

"W. N. P. Barbellion" claimed instant fellowship with (what he lived long enough to read of) James Joyce. They shared pride and poverty, compulsive truth-telling, retreats into silence, and a sense of exile.

More particularly they were both intellectually ambitious provincials stuck on the periphery of longue durée cultural shifts.

Bruce Cummings was born to be a naturalist in the grand old tradition, devoting his passions and skills to the present-to-hand reality of plants, beasts, and earth on the ground. He should've sailed on the Beagle or explicated the ecology of the English countryside, but such escapades had already become a gentleman-scholar's game and would soon become the niche of pop-science writers like Barbellion's champion H. G. Wells. "Real" working-class science instead took place in urban offices and urban labs for the greater profit of industry or government.

Although I sense a leap in energy and happiness whenever Cummings returned to the countryside, he never himself described that dichotomy in so many words. Instead, like other brilliant articulate failures, he redirected himself from his first vocation to literature. He would still observe, analyze, and describe, but specimens would be human and he would be first on the dissection table.

James Joyce faced similar blockages but his vocations were spiritual and literary from the start, and due to whatever combination of history, capability, and opportunity Joyce became more explicitly aware of his dilemma, formed vaster ambitions, and lived to fulfill them.

We have no way to know where Cummings would've gone next, or if he would have been able to publish even one book without the sales hook of his early death. On the other hand, would Joyce be remembered if he'd died at Cummings's age, with only Chamber Music to his name? At the very least, Cummings's publications provide a unique testament of Dedalus-in-progress, drowned before flight, as I reckon most members of the extended Dedalus clan have been.

More particularly still, they share a certain attitude.

Embodied/embedded/naturalist philosophers and scientists, much as I love 'em, often speak of human experience in ways which would (thoughtlessly for the most part, sincerely for the horrifying part) dismiss the blind, the deaf, the pained, the frail, the immobilized, the illiterate, or the starving as not-really-human. (Other philosophers seem willing to dismiss any non-philosopher, no matter what shape they're in, as subhuman, so it may just come with the territory.) Those philosophers, theologians, and mystics who do admit the existence of suffering also tend to deny the existence of anything else, with sweet nothing our only transcendence.

In literature there's a minor muscular-secular-hedonist tradition, viz. that hearty medico buck Oliver Gogarty, but from Rochester through Zola what's labeled Naturalism leans grim and nihilist. Early critics received Joyce's first books (and Barbellion's Journal) accordingly, sometimes awarding them extra-naturalistic points for having come straight from the whoreson's mouth of a native informant. (Richard Wright's helpfully titled Native Son would be a later example of such critical reception.) And it's true that Joyce and Cummings, like Flaubert and Ibsen, were to varying extents out for revenge.

They were not, however, out for nothingness, and desperate though their circumstances might be, their works were above all else lively: liveliness was their chief defense. Flaubert and Ibsen had violently and despairingly alternated between Romantic/Naturalist inflationary/deflationary antitheses; learning from their examples, Joyce achieved a bizarrely cheering synthesis, and reconstructed the incarnate spirituality of the Church as inspirited carnality.

As for Barbellion, naming his posthumous-to-be collection Enjoying Life exhibited a sense of humor but not sarcasm. He did "enjoy life," and dutifully recording his own disgust, pain, and hopelessness was another method of enjoyment.

Most particularly they were drawn to a certain technique whereby enforced isolation, quotidian (if not downright nauseating) realism, and defiant vibrancy might merge.

Barbellion on Joyce's Portrait: "He gives the flow of the boy's consciousness rather the trickle of one thing after another.... It is difficult to do. I've tried it in this Journal and failed."

Deliberate production of personality-tinted-or-tainted discourse is at least as old as classical rhetoric. "Stream of consciousness" is only its most recent technique, and in a way the most limited.

As Barbellion noticed, it's also misnamed. What it transcribes isn't a stream, or consciousness, and definitely not silently meditative abstraction staring into an abyss of unframed dust-free mirror, but an inner monologue. Whereas William James wanted to emphasize continuity, linear speech is forced to present one damned blessed word after another. Memories can't be conveyed without a hint of obsession; nonverbal perceptions can't be conveyed without a hint of focus.

Most crucially, an inner monologue takes place in solitude, when the only thing hopping is our antsy brain. Like poetry, it makes nothing happen. Engaging in dialogue with company or trying to learn a novel practice or becoming absorbed in almost anything other than our unlovely self forces (and allows) us to drop the burden of our inner chatter. Which doesn't mean our book has to stop: although the only time you talk to yourself is when you're not talking to anyone else, the only time you reveal yourself is always. If the "stream" is interrupted, we can simply flip to free indirect discourse (personality-tinctured third-person-limited) or drama (a report of direct speech) or narrative with a heavy tincture of narrator (that tried-and-true device common to Swift's satires, nineteenth-century dialect comedy, and the "Nausicaa" and "Eumaeus" episodes of Ulysses).

Given those limitations, a journal or diary is a natural home for inner monologue. Similarly, Joyce's "stream of consciousness" is tailored to the occasion of Ulysses, a day of excruciatingly extended emotional isolation for both male leads, and suits Molly only once she's trapped by insomnia in the dead of night.

But within those limitations, the inner monologue has a peculiar strength: it makes nothing happen. In the midst of sweet-fuck-all it spills a past, a present, alertness, misunderstandings, hopes, vexations, half-quotes, dumb jokes, old clothes, an embedded life dragging world and culture along in its rat's-nest-tangle. In either fiction or journal, no matter how dismal the life might objectively appear (as if there were anything objective about it), it exhibits a liveliness worth living.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.