James Gifford: Death and Djuna Barnes
Articles » March 2002

Djuna Barnes and Otto Rank shared Paris in the 1930’s, and from this link in both time and place, I suggest that their works contain a shared preoccupation with the inter-related themes of the cognizance of mortality, human sexuality and metaphysical speculation; however, past this connection of place it is difficult to establish an explicit interaction or mutual awareness between the two, despite moving in the same social circles. Nonetheless, Rank--like Barnes--was deeply involved in the salon and arts community in Paris from 1926 to 1935 through both his own practice and the salon of the analyst René Allendy, “meeting such notables as Antonin Artaud” (Baur 50). This involvement is further emphasized through the contemporary French and English translations of his Art and Artist (1932) and Seelunglaube und Psychologie (1930) that attracted many artists. Of particular note, due to his explicit influence on their works, are Henry Miller, “Anaïs Nin, Carl Rakosi, and Miriam Waddington” (“Otto Rank”)--and quite possibly Djuna Barnes. If such a link could be made, it would necessitate a refreshing reading of Nightwood through Rankian analysis, where many of the seemingly discontinuous aspects of the novel might be viewed as belonging to the same single motivation. Despite the absence of a necessity for such a reading, I propose that reading an author while incorporating a spatial and temporal contemporary is seldom without rewards. Moreover, such a reading gives a theoretical justification for the intimately interlocked question of the ‘night’ with the sexual and mortal preoccupations of Barnes’ novel (justification being equally unnecessary for art as it for theoretical engagements). I will go forward under the assumption that this reading is appropriate, either for as yet uncertain, but possible, biographical reasons, and under the more general suggestion that a psychoanalytic and existential focus applies equally well to the preoccupations of the artwork as it does to the preoccupations of individuals. Whether the reader finds this article to be an elucidation of Rank using Barnes as example, or an examination of Barnes using Rank’s analysis depends on the reader’s acceptance of this circumstantial link or opinions on whether biography must even intrude on theory. As I anticipate disagreeing readers, I leave this determination indeterminate.

Nightwood often confuses new readers with its richness of language and variety of images. If, however, the reader provisionally accepts the principle human anxiety as the awareness of mortality, then the centrality of death in Barnes’ novel can provide a locus for this sometimes-confusing range images. Likewise, such an anxiety model was posited by Rank during his break from the Freudian circle in the late 1920’s and the early 30’s. The general outline of this model is now supported by empiric work in Terror Management Theory , which is outside the scope of this paper, but I will note that it was also this model that drove Rank to move away from the Viennese psychoanalytic community, to Paris. Despite their differences, Rank and Barnes, in my reading, share this core attribution of mortality-awareness to human self-consciousness. In the sense that a death-awareness is intrinsic in self-reflexivity and is contrary to the ego that predicates this awareness, I argue that Rank and Barnes are linked by their shared focus on the centrality of mortality as a human anxiety and awareness. This is a proposition that I will support through an analysis of the texts and a demonstration of sympathies to early existential analysis.

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James Gifford (gifford@ualberta.ca -- www.ualberta.ca/~gifford) is a Ph.D.
student in the Department of English at the University of Alberta, where he
is researching problems of knowledge in the novels of Lawrence Durrell and
Henry Miller. A very active performer of chamber music and opera, his
academic research interests generally include philosophy in the novel,
reader response, existential approaches to psychoanalysis, and the
twentieth-century novel. James is also a founding editor for the graduate
journal AGORA, which is based at the University of Alberta. He will lecture
on postcolonial theory at the Durrell School of Corfu in 2002 and is on the
conference committee for the International Lawrence Durrell Society's On
Miracle Ground XII, scheduled for May 2002, Ottawa, Canada.

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