The Eccentric Work of Djuna BarnesIt 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-siecle 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-siecle 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: