"This Mysterious and Migratory Jewelry": Satire and Feminine in Djuna Barnes's "The Terrorists." (Djuna Barnes)

Article excerpt

Djuna Barnes has said, "We would teach man with a joke."(1) Barnes's "jokes," however, catch everyone in their psychosexual-textual crossfire, leaving no social or psychic position unchallenged. While the humor in her writings often displays an affinity with the broad, physical comedy of vaudeville, a humor keyed to the visual register through stereotypic contrasts in her characters' appearance and behavior, Barnes's satiric didacticism is both complex and unsettling in its ambiguities. Her satire is sharply double-edged. Through both structure and theme, her writings establish self-consciously structured oppositions between male and female, bourgeois and working class, artist and audience, only to parodically collapse or dissolve the bounds of those differences. Thus, that which she would "teach" can be read only in the implied margins of her many "parodic inversions."(2)

Barnes's representations of gender and class structures lie at the heart of her work. Her characters, as others have remarked, "are often types,"(3) representative of a given social or psychic position. Yet these stereotypical positions often prove unstable or illusory when taken to their exaggerated extremes.(4) Her satiric writings thus function to critique rather than support the ideology of difference articulated through the binarisms of Western metaphysical thought. Whether or not the diffuse implications of her parodic inversions were fully considered, her satiric writings intimate what Lacanian-Derridean discourses have identified as the fraudulent workings of the phallocracy through which, nevertheless, our individual - and always gendered - subjectivities are constituted. Reading these sites of rupture or disorder, those places where differences break down and parodic oppositions dissolve - in other words, reading the feminine - provides a broader understanding of the subversive complexities of her satire.

This essay focuses on one of Barnes's satiric newspaper tales of 1913-1919, "The Terrorists," reprinted in the collection Smoke and Other Early Stories (1982). Journalistic writings - perhaps due to associations with sensationalism and quick cash - are notorious for their exclusion from the literary canon, and Barnes's newspaper tales prove no exception. Yet these ambiguous early fictions, written in Barnes's youth for financial remuneration when first on her own in New York City, contain much of interest for those concerned with exploring the gender/genre divide. Indeed, as a marginalized story within a marginalized genre of a marginalized writer, "The Terrorists" serves as a particularly intriguing locus for examining the status of the feminine in patriarchy.

The feminine can be understood as the subjugated second term of any binary opposition in a symbolic system that takes the phallus as its primary signifier. "The Terrorists" satirizes the subjugated status of the feminine through its themes and structuring devices even as its (non) status in the modernist canon repeats this marginalization. "The Terorists" textually apposes Pilaat Korb, a drunken poet and would-be revolutionary, with a nameless woman of bourgeois origins designated simply as "Pilaat's wife."(5) The story employs third-person narration to describe their bohemian life together in Greenwich Village. Korb agitates against middle-class oppression while his wife, who appears to be the sole wage-earner, clears tables at a local cafe for " |the pigs,' the smug and respectable who brought their wives and children to dine" (161).

In this brief and formally sophisticated tale, the two characters superficially adhere to stereotypically discrete masculine and feminine positions, both through a narrative structure that grants Korb first appearance in the text, more and significantly longer speeches, and a proper name, and through a narrative content that consistently represents "Pilaat's wife" as the physical and intellectual diminutive of her husband. …