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January 18, 1947 - Image 10

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1947-01-18

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Page Ten


"a sincere experiment". .. Jeannette Haien

By Djuna Barnes
was first published in 1937, but now,
reprinted by New Classics, and prefaced
by an enthusiastic introduction by T. S.
Eliot, it is beginning to receive the criti-
cal attention it deserves. It is possible
that one reason for this delayed re-
sponse is that Miss Barnes' book does
not fall into any of the clearly defin-
able traditions in the modern novel, for,
while it is symbolic, it is iot Cabell's
symbolism, or Joyce's. Unlike Cabell,
Miss Barnes puts her character in the
recognizably realistic background of
Paris, Austria and America, not in some
far-away Poictesme. In Joyce, the sym-
bols accuniulatively come out in the
characters, while Miss Barnes' charac-
ters are a part of the symbol she wants
to effect.
The symbols in NIGHTWOOD have
meaning on various levels, some of
which are: religion, with an implied
conflict between Protestantism and
Catholicism; morality, in terms of spirit
and the flesh (or animal and moral
man); love; sex; tradition;-all as
shown in the motivations and compul-
sions of characters who, possessing none
of the garments of conventionality, roar
through misery to doom.
In this novel, there is no narrative in
the usual sense of characters as they
relate themselves to plot and plot-pro-
gression. If the story is anything, it is
that of the central character's deprav-
ity, but it has no movement or vitality,
no progress, because that depravity is
'made so explicit at the beginning of
the book that it has no room in which to
grow. It is like an orchestra which as-
pires to a crescendo while playing for-
tissimo! That degeneration evolves from
the actual thing into a symbol, and this
is a weakening technique rather than
an affirmative or strengthening one. Add
to this the fact that there is no real in-
dividualization of characters: one can-
not distinguish between dialogue in the
mouths of the characters (they all talk
alike) and Miss Barnes at her brilliant
best. The entire book appears more and
more to be only a means of exploiting
an unusual style. The care Miss Barnes
gives to details never becomes a touch-
stone for the whole. As a result, those
details remain mere abstractions, inter-
esting but unrelated, floating about
without integration or incorporion
into realistic life and realistic living. ,
Whatever narrative the book possesses
exists as a hanger for Miss Barnes' style.
Mr. Eliot finds the book a great stylistic
achievement, in beauty of phrasing and
in the "brilliance of wit and characteri-
zation, a quality of horror very nearly re-
lated to that of Elizabethan tragedy."
He says further that it will appeal pri-
marily to readers of poetry, that "only
sensibilities trained on poetry can
wholly appreciate it." When it is con-
sidered how close Miss Barnes' prose is,
in sound and style, to that of the meta-
physical poets', in its love of paradox
and its preoccupation with the turnings
of a phrase, idea and image, Mr. Eliot's
enthusiasm is better understood.
My main. disagreement with Mr.
Elliot's thorough enthusiasm is on the
matter of the author's style. The prose
is alive but too highly self-conscious. It
occasionally has the tone of philosophi-
cal works or poetry which appear in cer-
tain vanguard periodicals. Each sen-
tence is a desperate stylization, a thing
turned upon itself, and paradoxes com-
ing in such multiple profusion cease to
be interesting after a while-only getting
in the way of the narrative and crip-
pling a smooth movement of ideas. The
metaphysical technique is such a dan-
gerous one and so easily leads to ex-
cesses that even the most successful of
its exponents, such as Donne, Herbert,

Cowley and Crashaw can be accused of
vitiating the, technique occasionally-
but Miss Barnes does not even have it
in initial control.
There are six characters in the novel
--all bewitched, but unlike magicians
and aesthetes, they don't believe them-
selves saved because they are, at all
times, oppressed by a sense of futility.
The dramatis personae are; Dr. Mat-
thew O'Conner; Robin Vote Volkbein;
Baron Felix Volkbein; Nora Flood; Jen-
ny Petherbridge, and Guido, the child
of Robin and Felix. The Doctor, des-
perately objective yet fired . with hu-
mility, is the central character, the ver-
bal protagonist, a fantastic psychologist
capable of divining and defining the se-
crets in the souls of others as well as in
his own. His brilliant monologues, al-
ways on the periphery of horror and
gloom are like the chant of a Greek
chorus. He describes himself as "a doc-
tor and a collector and a talker of Lat-
in, and a sort of petropus of the twi-
light and a physognomist that can't be
flustered by the wrong feature on the

selfish and devouring, driving Robin
away to Jenny Petherbridge, "The
Squatter," and together the two of them
journey to America.
Jenny covets only what other people
desire. Robin leaves her and takes to
wandering again, mysteriously, seeming
to be only half-human. "Sometimes
she slept on a bench in a decaying
chapel. Sometimes she slept in the
wood,-wandering without design," un-
til at the end of the book, everyone hav-
ing failed her, she reverts to the animal
state in the symbolism of a dog. The
writing here is justifiably grotesque, en-
hancing a mood of overpowering doom.
Only in her child, Guido, does the
innocent and religious part of her char-
acter come out: her Catholicism pro-
duced him, but his in'nocence is all that
he is and all that he possesses, for be-
ing both a weakling and a misfit, he
cannot function in the world. "As time
passed it became increasingly evident
that the child, if born to anything, had
been born to holy decay."
The predominant note in NIGHT-

Lady of Lowlands
Lady of lowlands let me loose hawks
hawks and swift swallows over your acres
plant lupine and cedar in the sweet soil of your soul
let me bring wind to bear, split you with thunder
send maniac horses through meadows of moon
lady of lowlands let me be dawnlight
dawnlight and wind -
lady of lowlands let me plant lupine
lupine and tall cedar in the sweet soil of your soul
-Harold V. Witt

mal bull's eye of that which had a
moment before been a buoyant and
showy bosom, by dragging time out
(for a lover knows two times, that
which he is given and that which
he must make) so Felix was aston-
ished to find that the most touch-
ing flowers laid on the altar he had
raised to his imagination were plac-
ed there by the people of the under-
world, and that the reddest was
to be the rose of the doctor."
When a writer deals with the con-
figurated turmoil of memory and pro-
phecy, the irrmcoverable, the deep and
honest inward visions that make a nar-
rative at once real and fantastic, subtle-
ties and nuances will inevitably abound,
but they should be controlled, enhanc-
ing, but never distracting. The in
dividually fashioned, grotesque world
underlying conventional sanity is cha-
otic enough when barely suggested,
without taking marginal ideas and ex-
alting them as the core: too many subt-
leties soon begin to intrude on one
another's privacy!
Miss Barnes allows Dr. O'Conner to
talk in the style of those writers whom
he is fond of quoting: Montaigne, Don-
ne, Cibber and Taylor. Certain things
he says are even Shakespearian in tone:
"Ho, nocturnal hag, whimpering on
the thorn ...
"There is no pure sorrow. Why? It is
bedfellow to lungs, lights, bones, guts
and gall!"
And then there will come the wrench-
ing to say things in a paradoxical sense:
"And didn't I eat a page, and tear a
page-and then think of Jenny with-
out a comma to eat..)'
"No one could intrude upon her be-
cause there was no place for intru-
sion. She defiled the very meaning of
personality in her passion to be a per-
In a serious passage, to come upon a
phrase such as the following, jars one
out of thoughtfulness and a mood of
seriousness into a state of laughter,
at a time when humor is not intended:
"But-if you think that is all of the
night, you're crazy! Gloom, bring the
The very best writing is in the chap-
ter, "Watchman, What of the Nigt?"
Here the Doctor explores all the facets
of the darkness:
"Listen! Do things look in the ten
and twelve of noon as they look in the
dark? Is the hand, the face, in fact,
the same face and hand and foot seen
by the sun? For now the hand lies in
a shadow; it's beauties and deformities
are in a smoke-there is a sickle of
doubt across the cheek bone thrown
by the hat's brim, so there is half a face
to be peered back into speculation. A
leaf of darkness has fallen under the
chin and lies deep upon the arches of
the eyes; the eyes themselves have
changed their color. The very mother's
head you swore in the dock is a heavier
head, crowned with ponderable hair.
And what of the sleep of animals?
The great sleep of the elephant, and
the fine thin sleep of the bird?"
In view of the subject matter and
technique employed in NIGHTWOOIf
it is interesting to note the company
it keeps in the NEW CLASSICS SER-
IES' list: "A Season In Hell" (Rim-
baud); "Three Lives" (Stein); "Exiles"
(Joyce); "Amerika" (Kafka); all books
with a fairly unique approach, and in
some cases an unusual technique which
places language in a new light. I don't
feel that NIGHTWOOD will achieve
the recognition and esteem accorded
the other books. It does not quite pass
from brilliant professional writing to
become a part of human faculty. But
it has integrity of purpose: it is a sin-
cere experiment in creation.

right face." Miss Barnes has drawn him
well,, with vitality and consistency. He
becomes recriminatory toward the end
of the book, losing his objectivity and
entering the drama, tripping, against
his will onto the inner-stage until he,
too, is lost in the general holocaust.
The key character is Robin Vote Volk-
bein, for she touches everyone in the
story, creating catastrophe on all sides.
She is amoral and partly symbolic of
mankind, (of the world) in her animal
depravity and desire for moral inno-
cence. When we first meet her, she is
in a somnambulistic state, shadowy,
fantastic, "a beast turning human," en-
dowed with great energy, desperate, re-
pentant. It is with her conversion to
Catholicism that the religious theme
first comes into prominence.
Baron Felix Volkbein, lover of the
past, is symbolic of the Wandering Jew
and a general rootlessness, a man at
once apprehensive and eager, reticent
and forward: living by circumlocution!
"When Felix's name was mentioned,
three or more persons would swear to
having seen him the week before in
three different countries simultaneous-
ly." He marries Robin, planning to
create with her children in the image
of his incredible hopes. Robin has one
child, Guido, whom she leaves with the
Baron, meanwhile fleeing to Nora Flood.
Nora is morally the finest character
in the book. She is partly symbolic of
a type of Protestant humanitarian, lov-
ing and self-sacrificing, but fatally sen-
timental. She is described by the Doc-
tor as "a good, poor thing." Seeing her
one day, he noted, "There goes a re-
ligious woman without the joy and safe-
ty of the Catholic faith . . ." (Here ap-
pears again the implied concept that
Catholicism can cope with evil and
tragedy better than Protestantism.)
Nora's love for Robin finally bcomes

WOOD is one of bitterness. One would
believe, were one to take Dr. O'Connor's
monologues seriously, that all mankind
exists on a pendulum which swings con-
tinually amidst chaos, and counts off
life as lavish wastefulness, wild gaiety,
terrifying energy, at times almost mad-
ness. The characters exist in flux, in
the turnings of events not created by
them, there being no question of Will,
but only an obedience to chance and
the whim of Fate. An analogy can be
made to the existentialistic philosophy
current in France in the groups of
Camus and Jean-Paul Satre. One finds
a similar futility and despair in the
writings of Henry Miller and Anais
Nin. It is the inevitable result of chaos
and war: a revulsion of the present and
a denial of the past. It is asking every
reader to become a Patagonian, so com-
pletely does it deny the rational func-
tion of art in society, that being the
moulding of outer things into sym-
pathy with inner values.
Too much is attempted in a single
stunming up: the effect is not that of
profundity; but only of pretentiousness.
One feels that Miss Barnes includes
more than she really understands, so
that she appears to be working with
emotive philosophical perceptions rather
than with ideas. Here is a fairly typical
"As the altar of a church would
present but a barren stylization but
for the uncalculated offerings of
the confused and humble; as the
corsage of a woman is made sud-
denly martial and sorrowful by the
rose thrust among the more decor-
ous blooms by the hand of a lover
suffering the violence of the over-
lapping of the permission to bestow
a last embrace, and its withdrawal,
making a vanishing and infinitesi-

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