Reading questions: Stein, Barnes; Dean, Wittig

Overarching questions for the class session on Tim Dean, Stein, and Barnes:  How can we define “transgression” in terms of eroticism and in terms of style, and how do Barnes’ and Stein’s writings “queer” language for their own ends? What are their own ends, respectively?

Tim Dean article:

Identify main points, have them handy to point to in class.  Think about how Dean’s points might be useful or limited tools to explore and explain Stein’s and Barnes’s transgressions.

Stein, “Composition as Explanation”:

You will soon notice that Stein has a unique writing style, and that the quick conveying of information is not her goal here.  Try to pin down (with examples as you read):

1. what is different and unique about this style?  Note specific instances where the writing style makes you stumble or stop, and try to say what it is that is unusual there.  Try to come up with a list of “typical” unusual moves the language makes, e.g. with regard to the syntax, ideas, causal logic, audience (the way it addresses the reader), rhetorical or other purpose … etc. (be as specific as you can be in thinking about this: collect passages as examples).

2. As a reader, what is your main difficulty and perhaps frustration or amusement as you read this text?

3.  Are there any discernible arguments or specific points that Stein seems to make here?  What are they?  Collect passages/sentences/ideas that seem to form the core.

4. What role does repetition play, and how do you think it may be related to the subject of the essay?

5. What role does playfulness play?  What demands does this type of writing make on a reader, and why may Stein have chosen to write this way (feel free to speculate)?

6. In class on Monday, you’ll get a lot more information about Stein’s life and context, but suffice it to say that she was a queer writer and artist who was central figure within a whole avant-garde artistic and homosexual community.  She also took her work extremely seriously.  How does her writing style “queer” literary and linguistic convention, in your eyes?  Can we think of a specific style as “queer”?  How “queer” is hers?

7. What does the essay have to say about the subject of beauty?  How does that compare to other discourses of beauty and queerness we’ve encountered, e.g. Wilde’s or Kuzmin’s?

Stein, “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?”  (voluntary reading)

Compare this essay to Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”–writing style, main points or arguments, complementary or contradictory moments to the first essay?

Barnes, The Book of Repulsive Women excerpts (make sure you read the introduction):

These are complex and sometimes impenetrable-seeming poems, but the major interest we’ll have in them revolves around their presentation of women’s bodies, femininity, sexuality, death.  Please mark imagery to this effect that strikes you.  We won’t be able to discuss all poems in detail, but pick one you find very important for this topic (even if you don’t fully understand it–that’s completely fine).  How are bodies, especially female bodies, portrayed in these poems?  How is femininity portrayed and to some extent disrupted here?  Why is this called the book of repulsive women, and what purpose might that title serve?

Barnes, The Ladies Almanack excerpts:

Look up “almanack” and take some notes; look up some biographical information on Djuna Barnes online, especially her relations with the natalie Barney circle in Paris, to which this book speaks and for which it was written (lots od in-jokes here that scholars are still debating). Why give this book this title and this specific form (ironic)?  Note the lesbian allusions and imagery here (where–text and images)?  What may have been the purpose of this book?  See especially the opening (and author’s note).

“Dame Evangeline Musset” = Natalie Barney; “Patience Scalpel” = Mina Loy.  Look up online who Barney and Loy were.  Also, look closely at the illustrations and especially at the intro section (before January): where are the lesbian allusions here, and how are they presented?  Remember this was written for the Paris salon people around Barney, who LOVED it. It became a lesbian underground classic. Can you see why, point to which features may have made it such a darling to this circle?

Here is some helpful context on Barnes, from Bonnie Kime Scott’s article “Transforming the Novel” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers (ed. by Maren Tova Linett, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.25-26:

“Also successful in the evasion of the sexuality police was Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), whose comic depiction of Natalie Barney’s lesbian salon in Ladies Almanack (1928), distributed by friends in Paris, was beneath the censors’ radar.  At the time, Barnes lived in Paris with silverpoint artist Thelma Wood in a troubled lesbian relationship that would inspire her best-known novel, Nightwood (1936) […].  An admirer of Joyce and Eliot, whose work she reviewed, Barnes blended many genres, including the art of illustration, poetry, participatory journalism, plays, and short stories, as well as novels.  The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), a pamphlet published while she was living in Greenwich Village, included sketches, poetry, and stories.  This and short stories collected as  A Book (1923) set the precedent for writing on the margins of society, including immigrant cultures and the demimonde.  American folktale traditions connect her with the writing of African American novelist and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston.  Barnes took delight in antique books an literary forms, whether fifteenth-century drawings or Chaucerian language, which gave her license for bawdiness.  Her texts and illustrations probe the genitalia and engage in erotic imagery.  Barnes’s aphorisms and esoteric language yield multiple understandings.  An incest survivor, Barnes engaged traumas of sexuality as well as war.  Her family history lies behind the novel Ryder.”

Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman”:
What are the main points?  Do you agree/disagree, and why?  Does this article seem dated to you, or does it still have relevance for our class and the subjects we study?
FINALLY, any more thoughts on what may connect Barnes and Stein under the rubric of queer style and representation?  What does each of these writers be most concerned with (in the texts that we read)?  What light does each of them shed (or what questions does each of them raise) about the innovative possibilities or challenges for representing “queerness” in literature?

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Filed under Reading questions, Week 6: Stein, Barnes, Dean, Wittig

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