Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

`Tendency to Precocity' and `Childish Uncertainties' of a `Virago at Fourteen': Djuna Barnes's `the Diary of a Dangerous Child'

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

`Tendency to Precocity' and `Childish Uncertainties' of a `Virago at Fourteen': Djuna Barnes's `the Diary of a Dangerous Child'

Article excerpt

Philip Herring's introduction to his edition of Djuna Barnes's Collected Stories (1) claims that `there is a quality of strangeness in a typical Barnesean story' (p. 7), adding that the characters of these short stories `are largely opaque to our scrutiny' (p. 8), and that Barnes is often `indelicate' and `insensitive' (p. 10), occasionally even `comically inept' (p. 12). Just when all this begins to sound slightly off putting for an introduction to a volume that presents itself as having collected these stories `for the first time', the Barnes persona is evoked. The negative critical judgements are tempered by reassuring comments on the author's ignorance and revitalized by hinting at her angst. `Despite Djuna Barnes's skill at portraying the agony which she herself felt, few American writers of the century could be described as less politically correct or more insensitive to the nuances of racial stereotyping than Djuna Barnes, but this was a function more of ignorance than mean-spiritedness' (p. 8; my italics). From his higher moral ground, the omniscient narrator suggests a link between the `odd mental states, sexual repression, and inexplicable behaviour of Barnes's walking wounded' and `Djuna Barnes's own sense of privacy [which] seemed paradoxically to affect her ability or willingness to reveal the psychological motivation of her characters' (p. 8). The textual strangeness is coloured by dark biographical shades.

`Murkiness' pervades Herring's account of these texts; even the stories defined as `most successful', such as `Spillway' (1919), `evoke a metaphysical complexity that remains murky at the end' (p. 15). `Mother', however, is `superior to many' not only because it is `basically a slice of life', but also because `no murky metaphysical question rises to the surface to smile like a Cheshire cat' (p. 16). At the opposite end of the spectrum, `Cassation' (1925), published originally as `A Little Girl Tells a Story to a Lady', is `one of the stranger, murkier stories' (p. 19). The reference to the Cheshire cat ascribes a childish, teasing, and whimsical quality to the insubstantial and unnecessary obscurity of most Barnes's stories, while a biographical root hinting at Barnes's lesbianism is grafted onto the story of seduction told by the `little girl' in `Cassation'. (2)

In this article, I would like to investigate how the notion of child works on the one hand in Barnes criticism and, on the other, in the short story `The Diary of a Dangerous Child'. (3) The quoted passages from Herring can work as an example of how the child pervades Barnes criticism in unexplored ways. The latent `murkiness' of some stories is associated with a disturbing whimsicality, unnecessary and yet disquieting, while the most overt `murkiness' is declared as belonging to the little girl's narrative of seduction.

Seduction pervades Barnes criticism. Barnes is not simply the `most famous unknown of the century', (4) she also is the seductress of the avant garde: `With her aloof good looks, her superb confidence and wit she captured the avant garde'. (5) I have analysed elsewhere how the Barnes persona has been canonized as `the Garbo of letters' (6) and how the constantly evoked textual murkiness, opacity, and seductive elusiveness are reproduced in biographical narratives. (7) Once located in the realm of `the real', these shadowy traits not only become a source of unending speculation, but are also transformed into a resource for explaining the previously lamented textual opacity. Murky texts are those in which a muddy bottom has surfaced, clouding the clear waters of the rational exercise of critical reading. When murkiness is instead located in allegedly non-textual biographical `reality', then the muddy waters become either the turbulent and fascinating source of subversive anti-patriarchal activities or the destructive force at the bottom of an art of despair. …

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