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  • Nations and the Night: Excremental History in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood
  • Catherine Whitley (bio)

In James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, history as an excremental production determines the construction of national and personal identity. In both novels, history itself is figured as a waste product, ejected by the peristalsis of a nation’s forward movement in time. 1 Joyce’s novel influenced Barnes’s stylistically, as both authors put forth their alternative histories in prose marked by stylistic excesses that offer a plethora of signification, meanings in excess of the reader’s ability to digest them. Stylistic excess is connected in both writers to an attempt to make a place for themselves in their writing; Barnes hated some aspects of America (especially its seeming lack of culture and its commercialism) 2 and lived her most productive years as an expatriate, while Joyce the exile tried to reinvent Ireland in his works. In his book Joyce comments on the emergent Irish nation, while in hers Barnes compares Americans and Europeans; for both authors, a character’s relationship to excrement defines that character’s relationship to his or her country and that country’s history. The characters who embrace coprophilia in these two novels, recognizing history’s shitty nature as a means to “make their mark” or relate their own dirty tales, are Shem the Penman and Biddy the hen in Finnegans Wake and Dr. Matthew O’Connor and Nora in Nightwood. Joyce’s themes also influenced Barnes’, since in their last novels both Joyce and Barnes connect excrement and history to questions of nationality and identity. Each transforms his/her personal history into the history of a nation in prose that challenges personal and gender identities, stressing the constructed nature of history, identity, and narrative. [End Page 81]

Statements concerning the amount and nature of influence that James Joyce’s works had on the works of Djuna Barnes must remain ultimately speculative. A fairly strong case can be made for at least some degree of influence, however; Barnes knew and admired Joyce and his work, and at the very least certain passages in her works seem to echo his stylistically. Barnes’ awe for Joyce’s work was and is well known. According to Burton Rascoe’s 1929 account, after Ulysses began to be published serially in the Little Review, Barnes was heard to declare: “‘I shall never write another line. . . . Who has the nerve to after that?’” 3 Barnes’ famous interview with Joyce, first published in Vanity Fair in April 1922, is highly flattering; she mentions having read all of Joyce’s works published to date (including Exiles and Chamber Music, as well as Dubliners, Portrait, and the notorious Ulysses), and she finally intimates that in Joyce “Ireland has created her man.” 4 Barnes claims in this interview to have talked with Joyce “many times,” sometimes alone and sometimes en famille, of subjects including religion, music, artists, and Ireland. 5 Barnes, who later in life often proved solipsistic, actively pursued this friendship for more than a decade; for example, on one occasion in the early 1930s she drank most of the night with Joyce and Mina Loy, while on another occasion several years later she had tea with him in Paris. 6 Her fondness and respect for Joyce apparently never waned; Hank O’Neal, who was Barnes’s friend in the last years of her life, claims that she “held [Joyce’s] writing in the highest regard,” to the point of forgoing the disparaging remarks that she typically aimed at other writers.7 This regard was apparently returned; in a gesture that speaks of his friendship for his fellow writer, Joyce made a present to Barnes of a copy of the proofs of Ulysses, one that contained annotations in his own handwriting.8 This prized possession, inscribed “‘To Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Paris 16 February 1922,’” she sold during a time of poverty for one hundred twenty-five [End Page 82] dollars.9

Barnes did, of course, continue to write after the publication of Ulysses; Ladies Almanack was (privately) published in 1928, Ryder also appeared in 1928, and Faber & Faber published Nightwood...

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