Djuna Barnes’s best novel, Nightwood, has both gained and suffered from a double readership since its publication in 1936. Both serious students of modernist narrative and lesbians have loved and hated it; few people are neutral about Barnes. Academic critics have worried about the book’s “cult following,” while lesbian readers have giggled at apolitical New Critics who couldn’t see the lesbian tree for the metaphorical forest of their own theorizing. And readings informed by gay and lesbian politics have been troubled, too, by the book’s “darkness,” its discourses of perversity, the absence of a stable, “gay-positive” central vision. Carolyn Allen’s sensible new book, Following Djuna, does Barnes, and lesbian criticism generally, a valuable service in bringing together the two sorts of readings, reminding us that some people are both lesbians and serious lovers of serious and complicated texts.
Allen traces a particular strand or “genealogy” in twentieth-century lesbian literature, a “Djuna Barnes tradition” by contrast to the legacy of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Other writers—Bertha Harris, Jeanette Winterson, and Rebecca Brown are discussed in detail, Monique Wittig and Nicole Brossard in passing—explicitly acknowledge Barnes’s influence in bringing them to lesbian writing and/or return to Barnes’s central thematic and stylistic preoccupations. Hall, concerned primarily with delineating and defending (a particular version of) lesbian identity, produced a perfectly conventional linear plotted novel of nineteenth-century bourgeois realism, a key ancestor to the lesbian pulps of the 1950s and 1960s and also to currently popular lesbian genre fiction (especially coming-out stories and romances of the Naiad Press type). By contrast, the texts Allen takes up are complicated, [End Page 474] textually experimental, playful, modernist or postmodernist, multiply narrated, epistemologically unstable, and unsettling. Nightwood and the other texts deal less with lesbian identity than with what Allen calls “erotics between women,” in part by “opening up the dark places”: loss of a lover, power dynamics between women, “the excess of desire occasioned by fictions of memory.”
Allen argues (in part implicitly) for the continuing importance and fruitfulness of this strand of work: the later texts, and her own work on them, “enact an erotics of reading”—texts “seduce and inform,” provoke us to our own “performances” of their “scripts,” and construct, or at least sketch, a community, one based on real shared experience rather than utopic visions of the wanderground: “lesbian erotics are only partially about conscious victories and romantic sunsets. They are also about conscious and unconscious struggle, circulations of power, failures of nerve, and fear of loss, always in the context of a hostile public.” Allen follows Monique Wittig in praising Barnes for “universalizing” the female, and the lesbian, point of view (chiefly in Ladies Almanack), silently taking it as the center point, the norm. Her own text does this as well, but in a rather open-ended way, since she is not committed to any particular “reification” of lesbian identity. In this way, she is able to combine the insights of recent queer theory with a continuing focus on lesbian specificity and visibility—a rare trick.
In individual readings of Nightwood, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and Written on the Body, and Rebecca Brown’s The Terrible Girls, Allen describes how lesbian narratives of loss both draw on and interrupt/deconstruct/revise prevailing cultural fictions of desire, particularly psychoanalytic ones. Nightwood itself, she says, works with Freudian versions of “the erotics of nurture” in exploring the mother/daughter dynamics of Nora’s relation to Robin and also with Freud’s ideas of “primary and secondary narcissism”: where a pejorative version of this would see lesbian relations as doomed by the “embodied similarity” of same sex lovers, Allen sees Nora rewriting “sameness” as “resemblance” or “doubled subjectivity.” All these narratives, she argues, themselves “produce theory”: for example, Nightwood operates palimpsestically, so that “layering Nora’s narrative over Freud’s writes a lesbian story in the gaps of a canonical text.”
In The Passion, Allen sees Winterson “speak[ing] with and against cultural discourses on risk”—the...