Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Troubling the "Master's Voice": Djuna Barnes's Pictorial Strategies

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Troubling the "Master's Voice": Djuna Barnes's Pictorial Strategies

Article excerpt

As both a visual and verbal artist, Djuna Barnes demands a dual literacy. Focusing on differences between The Book of Repulsive Women (1915) and Ryder (1928), this essay explores the way that she came to an understanding of how the "illustration" might best function as a means of engaging and destabilizing the reader.

Just as in a patriarchal system women are conventionally perceived as "handmaidens" to the male, so the visual component of a text has traditionally been viewed as an adjunct to the verbal component - which in turn has also been seen as the "master's voice" with respect to the reader of the work. In the past couple of decades, however, just as reader-response theorists have questioned the authority of the text, so critics have begun to question whether the "image" in an illustrated text is as passive or verbally mimetic as was thought, with both types of revisioning coming together in a critique of the binarist ideology which underwrote the old order. It is not difficult, therefore, to see why feminist critics have taken a particular interest in this kind of subversiveness, or why doubling and troubling the relation between image and text should have been a hallmark of early radical 20th-century women writers.

Among these pioneering modernists, one who is increasingly emerging as a key figure is Djuna Barnes. Born in New York in 1892 to one of literary history's most unconventional families, Barnes grew up in a home which included a bigamist father and the wife and children of this liaison. At age 18, she married the 52-year-old brother of her father's "second wife" - a marriage that lasted only a brief summer. In 1921, having by then established herself as a freelance journalist, Barnes accepted an assignment from McCall's and headed to Paris. From this point on she traveled much of Europe, often in the company of heavy-drinking, hard-living men and women, and by 1940 she had herself become an alcoholic, dependent upon friends for financial support. Upon returning to the United States, she settled in Greenwich Village, where she separated herself from her many former friends and acquaintances, and where in 1982 she died - isolated and embittered. Although during her lifetime Barnes published a considerable number of texts, most were critically ignored, and her literary reputation was largely restricted to Nightwood (1936) - in many ways an autobiographical novel about her love affair with the artist Thelma Wood.

In recent years, however, this situation has changed dramatically; not only have many of Barnes's works been reprinted but she herself has become the focus of a number of critical studies, including a full-scale biography. Yet what still needs further attention, as I see it, is the role that the visual plays in her works. More than being a "difficult" writer - encoding esoteric or topical references in an avant-garde and frequently satiric manner - Barnes was also a sophisticated graphic artist. Indeed, two of her most controversial books featured her own "illustrations" - The Book of Repulsive Women (1915) and Ryder (1928). What also makes these two works so instructive is the difference in the nature of the illustrations and how they are used. Thus my purpose in the following essay is twofold: generally, I wish to argue that interaction of word and image in these texts is a central component of Barnes's radical feminism; specifically, by contrasting these works I wish to explore the way that Barnes came to an understanding of how "illustration" might best function as a means of engaging and destabilizing the reader - here arguing that, ironically, she found the surrealistic methods she used in the earlier Book of Repulsive Women less effective than the more traditional techniques that she used in the later Ryder.

Originally published by Guido Bruno as part of his chapbook series, The Book of Repulsive Women contains eight poems and five illustrations. Because the graphics are placed at the end of the "rhythms" (as Barnes called her poems), they seem to function in conventional fashion as little more than a decorative and silent afterward. …

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