Category Archives: Week 6: Stein, Barnes, Dean, Wittig

Djuna Barnes – Portraits

The subjects of some of Barnes’s most moving poetry seem somehow dimmed or crushed by life. The dead prostitute in “Six Carried Her Away,” the cabaret dancer in “To a Cabaret Dancer,” and the woman in “Twilight of the Illicit,” to name just three examples, all become drained and destroyed by time. The language evokes simultaneous themes of violence and excess. The poem, “Twilight of the Illicit,” for example, paints a picture of manufactured decline – a kind of unmaking through self-creation. Descriptions like “great ghastly loops of gold/Snared in your ears/ Your dying hair hand-beaten” stress the way the subject of the poem has artificially altered herself (19). “Snared” gives the heavy earrings the feel of a bear trap, and “dying hair hand-beaten” uses violent language to equate the use of hair products with a slow death. The organic and the artificial combine in this poem to show us a woman who has destroyed herself through physical attention, neglecting the “sweeter gifts” that might have nourished instead of drained her body (20).

“To a Cabaret Dancer” describes a woman who might at first have searched for these “sweeter gifts” but learned through her experience to be cynical and focus on more exterior pleasures. “A thousand lights had smitten her/Into this thing” suggests that outside forces have changed her from a woman into something less human and more objectified (21). Unlike in “Twilight of the Illicit,” in “To a Cabaret Dancer” we get to see a glimpse of the before-picture. We get to see that though this cabaret dancer has “found life only passion wide” and “ceased to search” – that her desires and self-hood have narrowed significantly, she was not always this way (21). She “looked between the lights and wine” (21). She believed once that something more than destructive performance was available to her.

As a reader, I’m left to wonder how much of this destruction is inevitable for these women. I find myself sinking into Barnes’s intricate descriptions of the body tied up in endless exploitation and decay. Is this a statement on the plight of women around her, that they are trapped in lives (of vice, solitude, or both) that destroy them?

I wrote this poem while thinking about these themes, and also about my own mother, who seems in many ways to be destroyed by the violence she’s experienced and witnessed over the years. She tells me that we women just have to expect violence, that we’re vulnerable, that it’s the way the world is. I don’t want to accept that, but I also want to view her (occasionally incomprehensible) behavior with compassion.

Pearls heavy round her neck & in her ears,

eyes wide, rose mouth a thin and vivid gash,

arms empty of all flowers and frightened birds –

their bloodied feathers stuck to the window glass,

their bodies bloody mounds of rising breath,

crushed by a barrier they never saw.

This woman. Gentleness. Her quavering hands

harsh with a terror elegant and raw.



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Personal God

Personal God

Creeds of a kind we’ve always had

To crouch by our dim fireside.

And here some gossiping wench arose

And the worth of some good name died

Yea, the whole stale world went rocking

To the sting of her poisoned heels,

As a sky-car mangles the stars

For lack of the guiding wheels.

Though all of us sin most fully

When hushed in our neighbourly sweats,

Yet sometimes a man goes empty

For the urge of things, and forgets.

We stick to the same old pattern,

All daubed and kissed and marred,

But I’ll use my own gray plaster

And I’ll build me a personal God.

I’ll breathe out his flaccid belly,

I’ll cup out his sightless eyes,

I’ll sob in the labour bending,

As I handle his plastic thighs.

And he shall be rash of judgment,

And slow in the use of the rod.

My God shall giggle in spite of himself,

In the way of a personal God.

He shall heed no other’s message;

He shall follow no dusty path;

He’ll believe in no written pity;

Nor yet in a written wrath;

He’ll breed no circle of platters

Nor take root in your yearly fees;

He’ll ask no patient toll of tears

Nor the terrible toll of the knees.

So, when all of you flock to your fancy,

The God that is always the same,

My God shall halt and be human

And his judgment shall halt and be lame

Yea, the devil came down your pass,

Blown in on the strength of the breeze,

And because your Gods were duplicates

He shattered you on his knees.

I’ll work my clay as I find it,

All hushed as it lies in the sod,

And he shall be built for better or worse

In the way of a Personal God.

· From The Book of Repulsive Women and other poems, some previously unpublished, by Djuna Barnes (Carcanet/Fyfield)

One of our first class discussions focused on how the identity of the author impacts our view of the piece.  The Picture of Dorian Gray is read in classes like ours, simply because the author was “queer.”  I will explicate this poem, and discuss its meaning for me as a queer woman.

This blog post is a loose explication of this poem, written by someone we assume to be a “queer” author, (“queer” in quotations, because even today we haven’t managed to quite figure out what that word means) and explicated by someone who is queer.  I don’t pretend to know the true meaning behind Barnes’ words, and I don’t know if her sexual identity and this poem are linked.

When Professor Dierkes-Thrun first told us that all blog posts would be anonymous, I raised my eyebrows a bit.  First of all, the idea of having a blog for a Comparative Literature class seemed to be a stretch, but then to give people the cover of anonymity-that was a stretch I was not willing to make.  I think that if one has something that needs to be said, one shouldn’t be afraid to put a name to it.  As long as no one’s life is in danger, what was the big deal?

And then I read this poem.

I feel I will be able to be more honest in this poem’s explication because my name is not attached to it, than if it were.  And I hope our readers, wherever in the world they are, will read this poem and my interpretation of it and forgive my conjectures about Barnes identity and references to my own.

The first line that struck me in this poem was, “But I’ll use my own gray plaster/ And I’ll build me a personal God.”  As someone who grew up in a homogenous culture, where everyone belonged to the same faith, it wasn’t until I left for college that it occurred to me that I could start exploring and creating my own spirituality, much like I was uncovering my sexuality.

“And he shall be rash of judgment,/ And slow in the use of the rod.”  This line caused me to feel a sort of kinship with Barnes.  “Was she upset by tales of a wrathful God as well?” I thought to myself.

Continuing on, the line “My God shall halt and be human/ And his judgment shall halt and be lame” further underscored my newly found kinship with Barnes.  She lived in Greenwich Village before Stonewall, and her defined God is one who is fallible, human and approachable.

The final two lines, “And he shall be built for better or worse/ In the way of a Personal God” reflects my own personal ideas about religion, and creating it “for better or worse.”  By using those words, Barnes implies her relationship to her own personal creator is one wherein she is married to her spirituality.  Good times, bad times-she’s made her choice.

With this poem, Barnes reflects a current trend in the LGBTQ community.  We create our community, relationships outside of a heteronormative world and our own spirituality.

As a community, we do not have to define what “queer” means.  For each other, our authors or even ourselves.  Queer literature, and our interpretation of it is one we create. Poems like this create the needed space to discuss our own personal experiences and create a dialogue with the rest of our community.

-Dublin Bound

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Two Women on the Beach

Two Women on the Beach by Pablo Picasso

They carve them up with shapes,

With with oil paints and scrapes

To show how a body here escapes,

The image of a dame.

She’s sat in sand with bodies bare,

Next to woman’s skin so fair

And although neither seem to care,

The two have lost their name.

Her body forfeits feminine grace,

And curvature of tender face

To be forever dead in space

Where artists choose their worth.

And those who see them in the frame,

Reject their shapes with not much shame,

But still they praise the painter’s fame,

For he gave “she” new birth.

So now the critics praise their form,

In the midst of cubists’ norm;

See that here figures do transform

What is alive to dead.

Portraits last all years through

And immortality the subject knew,

Was something here so very true,

Because he took her to the bed.

So women together artistically lie,

‘Neath pure oceanic sky,

And are left beautiful there to die,

But in paintings lift their head.

In history of patriarchal ages

Leaving acts to Shakesperian stages,

She still clandestinely engages,

In a dialogue with “one.”‘

For together they are caught in time,

In the art form of too-rigid a line,

Where queer love is a solid crime

for two women ‘neath the sun.

Represented as transgressive and crude,

By all those who by now have viewed

Their simple scene and by choice conclude

the sculpted she-story is done.


We recently studied a selection of poem from The Book of Repulsive Women by Djuna Barnes, and one of the most haunting poems, I felt, was “Six Carried Her Away.” The poem strings together ideas of death, exploitation, nature, and eroticism. It also has a very rhythm, patterned rhyme scheme. The rhythm of the poem makes it feel a bit like a funeral march, while makes sense since it follows the story of a girl being buried after her death. I was very intrigued with the way death and femininity were tied together in this poem and wanted to try out using the rhyme for myself.

Therefore, I wrote this poem inspired by the Picasso portrait at the top of this post. I think that my poem is not anywhere near as good as Barnes, for one main reason because hers is a linear and mine is just a scattering of ideas.  However, I attempted to take the connection between femininity and death that Barnes constructed and applied it to the profanation of woman in art. Particularly, I was thinking about Picasso’s treatment of women during the cubist movement (which I have mentioned before in this post and felt was relevant since both Barnes and Picasso were composing at the same time). I wanted to suggest that there is a sort of violence revealed in the way Picasso took the woman form and cut it up into an element of his design. At the same time, I wanted to suggest that the way he “carved” up (which I meant to suggest a sort of death) these forms is what made them immortal (they still live on in art).

I also wanted to base the poem off of this painting because it is two nude women on a beach, which could suggest queerness. The painting then showcases a sort of queerness in subject and form. The painting also is an example of the artistic treatment of woman by man, and it is certainly not a flattering portrayal of femininity—few of Picasso’s works were. Moreover, I wanted to get across the idea that much of the history of women is sculpted by men. These two women would likely have been forgotten in history had it not been for a male artist validating their artistic work.

In all, this poem is an attempt to piece together some ideas on femininity and queerness is treated (or perhaps exploited) artistically with a tone and rhyme scheme similar to Djuna Barnes’ poem. I hope you enjoy it!


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Urban Renewal

This past week, we covered so much ground that I decided to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, searching for a thread that ties together transgression, Stein and Barnes. The unifying theme seems to be one of testing and redefining the boundaries that make up societal conventions and/or one’s identity. In Tim Dean’s article, he explores taboos and the crossing of internally and externally established limits. Stein’s lecture pushes us to ponder the queer and the avant-garde in her attempt at redefining language style and grappling with the queer identity. The Ladies’ Almanack and poems by Barnes show her escaping the gender binary, striking down and rebuilding the traditional views of femininity. The purposes and consequences of pushing these limits or deconstructing and reconstructing values are interesting and worth exploring.

Taboos are collective conscious ideas that set restrictions on what we deem acceptable human behavior. Some taboos have an obvious reason for existing, for example incest; our gut instinct to view incestuous relationships as perverse is beneficial in the context of biological evolution ad creating genetic diversity. Others, such as the open discussion of homosexuality and queer identity, began as taboos, but as society changed, so did its status as a forbidden topic.  Can it be said then that there are two general types of taboos; those that evoke a strong gut reaction and thus cannot be changed easily and those that can evolve along with the societies that implement them? Is it possible to take a taboo of the former type and, by pushing the limits via transgression, shape it into the latter? Is that the purpose of transgression – to make taboos into non-taboos? Or is it that by turning taboos on their heads (i.e. into socially acceptable subjects or actions), we are forced to contemplate why these internal or external limits exist in the first place? Does this contemplation lead to progress? What is progress? So many questions that are difficult to answer.

Though the boundaries that Stein and Barnes explore in their writings are not “extreme” enough to be deemed truly taboo, they do play around with the idea of deconstructing and reconstructing societal conventions – an act that is taken to the extremes in transgression. What is the purpose of such actions? It can be said that the stretching of such boundaries establishes a new set of values that redefines or creates identity. By using such a unique style of writing with its circular character and content, Stein grapples with establishing a queer identity through reconstructing language. The feeling of being afloat and unable to pin things down to understand or interpret them completely reflects the elusiveness of such an identity, and yet the initial impenetrability of Stein’s writing establishes a clear boundary between her (queer) style and what was regarded as the norm. In her poems, Barnes intersperses traditional views of femininity with images of the repulsive aspects of the body and death, creating new ideas about the body and escaping the discourse of femininity based solely on beauty and the femme fatale. She tears apart the existing images of “woman” and puts them back together in a rearrangement, thus rewriting the female identity. By first destroying and then rebuilding limits, internal or external, Stein and Barnes establish new identities and compel us to contemplate why those limits existed as they were before we questioned them – even though it does not mean we need to accept their redefinitions of these limits.

Such reconstruction of boundaries can be seen in many aspects of society – not always tied to sexuality, bodily functions, eating habits, literature, etc. The best example that comes to mind is John Cage’s revolutionary composition entitled 4’33” (pronounced “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds”) in which the performer does not play their instrument for the duration of the piece – throughout all three movements. By composing a piece that consists of the sounds of the environment that the audience hears during its performance, Cage deconstructs what we recognize as music and reconstructs a new set of values, thus creating a new identity for music. Whether or not we accept his redefinitions of the limits that define music, Cage’s composition compels us to evaluate our personal or societal restrictions on what is accepted as “music” – and perhaps that is the purpose and consequence of transgression and reconstructing taboos: to contemplate, assess and maybe redefine the accepted norm. Whether or not such redefinitions count as progress is another discussion altogether and it remains to be explored.


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Composing Composition and Explaining Explanation

composition (n.)  late 14c., “action of combining,” also “manner in which a thing is composed,” from Old French composicion (13c., Modern French composition) “composition, make-up, literary work, agreement, settlement,” from Latin compositionem (nom. compositio) “a putting together, connecting, arranging,” noun of action from pp. stem ofcomponere (see composite). Meaning “art of constructing sentences” is from 1550s; that of “literary production” (often also “writing exercise for students”) is from c.1600. Printing sense is 1832; meaning “arrangement of parts in a picture” is from 1706.

explanation (n.) late 14c., from Latin explanationem (nom. explanatio), noun of action from pp. stem of explanare “to make plain or clear, explain,” literally “make level, flatten,” fromex- “out” (see ex-) + planus “flat” (see plane (n.1)).

I now put together the parts that compose Composition as Explanation by explaining how explaining composes or puts parts together. Gertrude Stein originally delivered this essay as a lecture at Cambridge and Oxford University on June 4 and 7, 1926, and it is necessary to keep this fact in mind in order to order our understanding of the essay’s order. We note the essential semantic connection linking (putting together) the Ancient Greek words taxis (order) and oikonomia (economy), and both terms gradual denotative expansion from strictly the realm of the oikos (the house, domestic sphere) to also the realm of rhetoric; as Giorgio Agamben notes in The Kingdom and the Glory, oikonomia in a rhetorical context “designates the ordered arrangement of the material of an oration or a treatise” (Agamben 2011a, 19). But this meaning is in fact a part of the “gradual analogical extension outside its original limits” of “the semantic sphere of the term oikonomia” by means of an “‘administrative’ paradigm” (18-9) characterized by “an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense”, but that instead “implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order (taxis) of the different parts of the oikos” (17-8). This functional order should be understood in conjunction with the Aristotelian doctrine (for the administrative-economic paradigm appears primarily in Aristotle) according to which each entity is endowed with a particular telos (an end, fulfillment, or reason for existing). The activity whose successful exercise results in the obtaining of this telos is that entity’s ergon (characteristic work, task, or function). An oikonomia concerns an ergon not particular to a science, but rather one related to “a non-epistemic knowledge that should be assessed only in the context of the aims that they pursue, even if, in themselves, they may appear to be inconsistent with the good” (19). We may then speak of an oikonomia of Stein’s essay, that is, the apparatus within it that ensures it achieves its goal, its telos, its reason for existing. But it is not of course not at all clear what Stein intends to accomplish reading this text to those members of the “academies” that she elliptically references (Stein 407).

It may be that Stein intends to communicate a certain compositional paradigm itself found in the lecture she delivers. I argue that composition is in fact the very oikonomia whose attainment results in a text—and more specifically a lecture—attaining its telos, that is, successfully explaining. This is the importance of the text’s educational setting—and so I have educated you by putting together (composing) what composing is with the manner in which Stein composes her Composition. Because this is what I now do. Because “[b]eginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series” (408). Because even though order must happen and it does because I have ordered and waited before unordering we can still disturb “time-sense” (407). This is after what was before but now that after is before this now. Do you see that language is anaphora I mean or a type of expression whose reference depends upon another referential element and see how my italics (and I refer to the previous italics) refer back to the word anaphora which I attempt to render not an object but a sign because every sign refers to an object and we always want to refer to signs themselves without making them objects but just pure signifying but we can’t ever do that we can only show language because “the logical form, that is, the form of reality” (Wittgenstein 2.18) which is also “the form of representation” (2.181) and as we have said:

Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the propositions.

That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot represent.

That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.

The propositions show the logical form of reality.

They exhibit it. (4.121)

Stein achieves “the time of the composition”, that is, “a continuous present a beginning again and again and again and again, it was a series it was a list it was a similarity and everything different it was a distribution and an equilibration” (Stein 411) by writing as she does by suspending the denotative function of language and letting it show itself it shows its anaphora its referential character its italics its quotation marks its time and this is her disruption of the economy her rendering it inoperative and bucking the institutional nature of the academy she is addressing and “by this I mean this” (407).

And so she has a constant beginning, a continuous present, and uses everything, for she does not exhaust language in a particular meaning that is necessary and sacred and held for all time but opens it up to change and pure power not power for a particular outcome or telos but instead she gets the telos of composition itself she explains it by just showing that words can signify and not signifying that fact but showing it because signification is forever presupposed but shows. “And now to begin as if to begin. Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here.” (409) We understand composition after the fact after we can tell a story about it and make a history of it and give it a determinate meaning and a specific use and actualize it and leave it in energeia fulfilling its historical or causal or necessary ergon but so how can we get it just in dunamis how can we write not a particular thing but writing itself how can we write writing how can we explain composition? It seems so hard because its always presupposed and we are not there yet but will be one day (and paradise is not yet) but if we live in the present by beginning again and again, having a continuous present, and using everything, then we are able to show artistic creation and how it can be anything because we just look at what just happened and continue and simply explain and that is oikonomia but it is real and not endless completed rendered inoperative and language simply is and it shows itself and it’s all and we must live in language we must live in the time of the composition of composition itself not of that composition or this composition or any particular one composition but composition all on its own.

“Now that is all.” (411)

But while it is for Gertrude it is not for us for we must attach ourselves to language and risk ourselves in it and indulge in that experience of language that we might label oath but reappropriate it, we can engage in philosophy which is “constitutively a critique of the oath: that is, it puts in question the sacramental bond that links the human being to language, without for that reason simply speaking haphazardly, falling into the vanity of speech” (Agamben 2011b, 72). But this is the danger of Gertrude for while we cannot know all that happened we can say that absent who she was the fact that she did what she did during World War II is something with which we must reckon for although she gives us a paradigm for that messianic time characterized by the as not (that Agamben describes in The Time That Remains) in which something like zoē aiōnios could inhere at the center, eternal life as a glorious ineffable life that says nothing but language itself in which dogmas are ridden of and history is experienced and made to flash before our eyes but we must rid ourselves of past oaths past paradigms and create new ones by creating and beginning everywhere and using everything and this constant present.


*Note: “Agamben 2011a” refers to The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, while “Agamben 2011b” refers to The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath.

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A mother’s love

Pure love

Pure desire.



Clean, Natural.

Once upon a time a man

Once upon a time a woman

“live(d)” and were forgot.

“love(d)” and were immortal?

Once upon a time a mother

Once upon a time a daughter

“die(d)” and were remembered

lived, live, loved and were

Abnormal, dirty






This week I was intrigued by Tim Dean’s article on transgression, The Erotics of Transgression.  It immediately inspires the question what is transgression.  He touched upon certain taboos that are disturbing to most people.  Does engaging in an act that is considered taboo transgressive?  In this poem I touched upon an act that in most cultures would be considered taboo.  It is a relationship between mother and daughter that goes beyond socially acceptable limits.  It is not a relationship that is often talked about perhaps as much as a father’s abuse of a daughter or son.  What happens, however, when the relationship is not an abusive one but a mutually agreed upon and mutually enjoyable one?  A love between a mother and daughter that is too intimate becomes dirty and sinful perhaps, nonetheless part of transgression and taboo is the fact that it is desired by some or it would not be a taboo.  Additionally, what Dean discusses is a kind of breakaway from the ordinary when something is transgressive.  A part of the perhaps intended purpose of transgressive art is to go beyond the limit.  Going beyond this limit in a way then makes the act or art new and in a way immortal because of its originality.  Unlike the relationship between the man and woman that is natural and has been taking place since the beginning, a trangressive relationship creates the new limit and thus is important.

-Basil Hallward

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The Ladies’ Almanack

The Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes foretells a story that’s thought to be created as a ‘mocking’ of the society in which Barnes lived within at the time, Paris. The story is centered on Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon and depicts the lesbian social circle that sprawled itself around such parts. The Ladies Almanack has been thoroughly debated amongst readers, even today, as no-one really knows whether this book was a malevolent strike at those within her lesbian circle inside Paris or if it was written for a light-hearted, playful tease at those she surrounds herself with daily.

Within Barnes time period, being an ‘invert’ or lesbian was seen as a morally wrong and looked down upon concept. Because of this, The Ladies Almanack, in my opinion, would’ve provided those that were considered ‘immoral’ a somewhat backbone as it openly conveys lesbianism and is written depicting lesbianism an empowering force. This would have propelled Barnes as a somewhat icon to those that were inverted as the book doesn’t convey a story of suffering per say, like The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, but instead, provided readers with a more ‘human’ experience of inside jokes and humor, things that propel normalcy and thus lacks the focus on common societal exclusion that homosexuals generally experienced within such a time.

The notion of female empowerment is very prominent within the piece by the way in which Barnes has illustrated a seemingly ‘utopian’ world for herself and her readers conveying woman as the ‘centerpiece’ and neglecting the need for men sexually or as a life companion. Such feminist portrayals can be identified within the images that Barnes has illustrated herself within the story. Although the exact interpretation of these images is somewhat ambiguous, they definitely radiate a tone of female supremacy within their content, shape and form. A prominent display of such feminism can be viewed within the illustration on the front cover of the book. The image depicts what seems to be a single male leading a female infantry into battle. I am unsure if this was the original front cover of the book as Barnes saw it to be, but for it be the front cover of the version that we are reading in class, sends an automatic statement of fighting for a cause and pushing the stereotypic gender roles. It also envisages a type of movement, perhaps woman going into battle against the world? Overall, the image depicts a taste of what the plot is centered around before the reader has even opened the book itself.

Although the book seems to normalize lesbianism, what I found interesting was how Barnes appears to pinpoint how homosexuality is something that is deemed immoral because it goes against the biological framework of reproduction, something that we as humans are ‘supposed’ to have an instinctive drive to uphold, “Love in Man is Fear of Fear. Love in Woman is Hope without Hope. Man fears all that can be taken from him, a Women’s Love includes that, and then Lies down beside it. A man’s love is built to fit Nature…” [11]. This quote seems to represent this, as it insinuates the underlying moral, defining love as a choice and why people make a conscious decision to pursue love in a heterosexual manner.

The Ladies Almanack really places a spectacle on the world and society through Barnes’s pair of eyes. What is great about this novel, and rare, is how Barnes seems to propel the notion of female empowerment, however is still able to withhold a level of intimacy through the ‘personal digs’ at her ‘friends’, digs that make outsiders seem nothing but prying onlookers. This combination is why such a story is viewed as fascinating as it is and contributes as to why Barnes was and is still considered a prominent figure in literary history.



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