Friday, June 12, 2009


"Reading Djuna Barnes is like reading a foreign language, which you understand."
- Marianne Moore

"I am not what I thought I was, a good man doing wrong, but a wrong man doing nothing much,..." nightwood

mac miller had brought another third rate poet to new college campus for a reading. to give you an idea of the kind of poet mac was, these hacks he brought to campus treated HIM like a hack. this guy's name was bin ramke & i hated everything about him, his mincing affectations & smug condescension. he was one of the new breed of what i called "intellectual" poets, college educated in writing programs where he'd impressed another college educated teacher who'd arranged for his publication. amazingly(to me, at the time)he'd been published, several times. he was there at new college to read from his new book. it was based on the "cult novel," as he put it, nightwood, by a woman w/the exotic name djuna barnes. i hadn't heard of her or it before. what i DID know was that i didn't particularly care for a poet stealing characters & ideas from an established novel & using them for the basis of an entire book of poems. once i heard the poems & his affected reading of them, i KNEW i didn't like the idea.

i headed for the campus bookstore the next day & ordered the book. it came in a couple of weeks & though my revulsion from that night of poetry had subsided, i was eager to read this "unknown" classic. i found myself reading the novel feverishly in one sitting. then i immediately re-read it to make sure it sustained its potency. it did. while her debt to joyce was clear on the second time around, that didn't undermine the power of the narrative, the concision of her characterizations. furthermore, it had the draw of the "subculture" that i've always found intoxicating.

while the high diva drama of the various lesbian affairs can get a little overwrought at times, most of it rings true. the underlying pathos of a group of characters brought together because of their various flaws & needs, each flaw feeding another's needs & each need attracting another's flaws, is convoluted & undeniably human. her deus ex machina, the character dr matthew o'connor, operates as a kind of nexus for all the neuroses(a transvestite abortionist, the good doctor has many demons of his own to deal with)at work in the novel & is a stunning creation of authorial genius. initially, keeping himself as far back from whatever actions(mostly all emotional manipulation)occur in the narrative, the sheer irrational behavior & damning consequences that follow pull him in(again, emotionally)& wreck his impervious aloofness. "now, nothing but rage & weeping," he sobs in our last moment w/his great character.

while this novel has been saddled w/the "lesbian" or "gay" label, it works on many more levels than that pigeonhole implies. i've always maintained that decadence is simply a rational system's premises taken to their logical conclusion(eg, where oscar wilde took pater or where hitler took wagner or where hegel took kant). the cul de sacs each character runs blindly into in nightwood are simply what happens when individuals are allowed to pursue their own goals outside of ANY form of social constraints. as freud pointed out, outside of the social, thanatos(the death instinct)rules & the individual will find its own path to destruction(think of oshima's in the realm of the senses here). while nightwood's characters seem to inhabit a subculture which, by definition, should contain some rules for behavior, they are in fact free floating particles within a larger, less benevolent, world. since they don't fit anywhere, they're really nowhere at all.

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