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Criticism 44.2 (2002) 161-185

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"Well of Course, I Used to Be Absolutely Gorgeous Dear":
The Female Interviewer as Subject/Object in Djuna Barnes's Journalism

Nancy Bombaci

The reason that there is something "nasty" about them (the Jews) is because they have been thought nasty. . . . In 1945 I had to view thousands of feet of film from Buchenwald and other concentration camps. My first reaction was horror, but after some hours I found myself fascinated by the dream-like insensibility of those walking skeletons and the inhuman beauty of the marmorial dead, attenuated by famine and disease to the shapes of modern sculpture.

Djuna Barnes, 1962 letter 1

Djuna Barnes was a woman who was not afraid to look, but she felt profound ambivalence about being looked at. In her life and throughout her oeuvre, she unabashedly appropriated the prerogative of the fetishistic gaze associated with the masculine observer. Yet as her comment on film footage from Buchenwald indicates, her unflinching fascination with these lurid images suggests a potentially anti-Semitic desensitization to the historical reality of Jews dying in the Holocaust. The question as to whether Barnes's blunt and often grotesque descriptions of Jews is based on an anti-Semitic objectification or on a desire to expose and condemn such racism has been a frequent subject of contemporary work on Barnes, most of which tends to praise her for her identification with racial and cultural difference. 2 In this vein, Nancy J. Levine and Marian Urquilla describe Barnes's disturbing representation of concentration camp imagery in her later journals as a "polyvalent use of 'the abject' head on," comparable to Julia Kristeva's exploration of similar images in Powers of Horror (1982) (Levine and Urquilla). 3 From this perspective, Barnes is neither merely engaging in aesthetic fetishization, nor is she perversely reveling in the suffering of Jews, but instead is exposing her identification with those who have [End Page 161] been condemned for their "deviant" identities associated with racial and sexual difference.

While Barnes's motives for representing the grotesque differ significantly from those who hate and fear forms of deviance, she seems unaware that the very act of objectifying the images from Buchenwald has anti-Semitic implications. This obliviousness is peculiar in Barnes since she usually displays an acute understanding of the stakes involved in the act of looking. Yet, an artist, Barnes did not merely want to be an embodiment of difference, but she wanted to see it from the vantage point of one who will engage in the act of representation. For this reason, she frequently explores and appropriates a subject position associated with male spectatorship—a vantage point based on a tendency to fetishize and objectify. As we will see, she frequently attempts to experience the roles of both the feminized spectacle that carries unconscious associations with castration anxiety and the masculinized gaze that tries to control it.

In her classic essay on male spectatorship, Laura Mulvey emphasizes that paradoxically, the spectacle of female beauty always retains associations with castration anxiety, although the woman's role as fetishized object is to alleviate this fear. 4 Until her retreat from public view in the middle of her life, Barnes often engaged in a seductive and ironic spectacle that courted the male gaze. In the 1970s, Barnes told an interviewer, "Well of course, I used to be absolutely gorgeous dear." 5 Aware of her considerable charms, Barnes often used her seductive powers as a female spectacle, while simultaneously functioning as a masculine spectator. The fact that Freud deemed woman, the castrated other, as incapable of fetishizing has not deterred feminist theorists from exploring and debating the paradox of the female fetishist—a subject position that Barnes especially embodies through her authorial perspective when taking the role of interviewer in her journalistic work, and in her final novel, Nightwood. 6

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Before Barnes wrote her formidable experimental works of fiction, she was forced by financial necessity to engage in a more commercial literary endeavor. From 1913...


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