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Fixations: Reading Nightwood and the Domestic

26 February 2021

Elodie Barnes

‘When the time came that Nora was alone most of the night and part of the day….she went about disturbing nothing; then she became aware that her soft and careful movements were the outcome of an unreasonable fear – if she disarranged anything Robin might become confused – might lose the scent of home.’ Continue reading “Fixations: Reading Nightwood and the Domestic”

Art’s Revenge upon Intellect: Reading Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood beside Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’

4 August 2020

Nimaya Lemal, Keble College, Oxford, and Middlebury College

Despite its provocative title, Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964) does not renounce artistic interpretation wholesale. The interpretation at fault, for Sontag, is that which ‘digs “behind”the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one’, excavating elements for application within an analytical theory.[1]This ‘curious project for transforming a text’, she writes, essentially ‘translate[s]’ the work, a process which undercuts the integrity of the work itself.[2]Sontag’s essay rejects ‘that a work of art is its content’, yet she does not necessarily prescribe formalism, despite what some readers have suggested.[3]Her critique lies specifically with interpretative approaches that bypass form because they are content-focused, and hence engage in translational (usurping) analysis.[4]Sontag does advocate for alternative critical action, however. Throughout the essay, Sontag speaks to a kind of interpretation that is, at its core, ‘sensual’, ‘erotic’, and/or ‘loving’ in appreciation of a work’s form and beyond.[5]She closes her essay with the line: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’[6] Continue reading “Art’s Revenge upon Intellect: Reading Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood beside Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’”

Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic

Aaron Pugh, University of Kent

1 June 2020

Michael Davidson, Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

In Invalid Modernism, Michael Davidson compellingly situates disability at the heart of what he terms ‘the missing body of the aesthetic’ in modernist art and literature. In this study, Davidson produces a sweeping and persuasive survey that reveals a litany of bodies and minds which, he suggests, could no longer be contained, reduced or marginalised within ‘normative versions of national, gendered or racialised identity’ (p. 12). Davidson develops an intersectional statement of intent which repositions disability as being, not an extension, but a constitutive element of a varied range of modernist texts. Supplemented by close readings of canonical modernists such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, F. T. Marinetti and Virginia Woolf, Dadaist and Surrealist aesthetic interventions, as well as a selection of experimental contemporary texts, Davidson resolutely constructs a study that expertly demonstrates ‘the various ways in which disability is an absent presence in the theory and practice of cultural production’ (p. 141). Continue reading “Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic”

Gender and Sexuality in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Kirsty Hewitt, University of Glasgow

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936) presents fascinating portrayals of inversion and same-sex desire, veering away from traditional heterosexual relationships and expected societal heteronormativity. Barnes turned to the new form of modernism to better show the displacement of her unusual, sexually fluid characters, and to have a greater freedom in expressing identities which deviated from the norm.[1] Any woman who did try to exercise her sexuality, be it heterosexual or otherwise, was up against societal obstacles. As the world moved into the twentieth century, women came to finally be recognised from a political stance, but wider society was still compartmentalised into a male-dominated hierarchy.[2] The ability to place oneself into the categories of male and female was also changing; the movement of sexology had defined ‘inversion’, and many different sexualities had been created, along with a wealth of fetishisms.[3] Reading from a modern-day perspective, one will almost inevitably take into account recent transgender and ‘queer’ theories, the ideas of which, at the time of Barnes’ writing, were groundbreaking.

Continue reading “Gender and Sexuality in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood”

Book Review: Shattered Objects

Peter Adkins, University of Kent

Elizabeth Pender and Cathryn Setz, eds, Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes’s Modernism (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019)

Shattered Objects is an apt title for this new collection of essays on Djuna Barnes. Taken from a 1935 letter that Barnes wrote to friend and fellow writer Emily Holmes Coleman, in which she asserted that ‘[t]here is always more surface to a shattered object than a whole object’ and that ‘the surfaces of a fragment are less “cheering”’ (p. 1), it offers, as editors Elizabeth Pender and Cathryn Setz point out, a good metaphor for an oeuvre that has often been seen to resist organic unity. Barnes, whose first publication was in 1911 and last in 1982, authored a body of writing that, thanks its sheer breadth, variety, and difficulty, offers an excess of surfaces and fragments. Yet, the image of the shattered object also offers a fitting symbol for Barnes criticism. As Tyrus Miller argues in his contribution to the volume, while Nightwood (1936) has surely ‘crossed the threshold of full canonization in modernist studies’ (p. 162), other works, such as her first novel Ryder (1928), have remained of peripheral interest even to critics working on her. As such, while Nightwood has steadily seen its critical stock rising from the 1980s onwards—both within modernist studies but also, as Julie Taylor shows in her chapter, within a twentieth-century canon of gay, lesbian and queer literature—Barnes’s wider achievements have been only partially and intermittently the subject of attention. Indeed, while a handful of monographs[1] have done much in the last fifteen-years to challenge the perception of Barnes as a one-hit wonder, it is nonetheless the case that criticism on Barnes has generally remained fragmentary and selective, not yet coalescing into a recognisable field that we might safely call ‘Barnes studies’.

Continue reading “Book Review: Shattered Objects”

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