- Repulsive Modernism:Djuna Barnes' The Book of Repulsive Women"
"The only exact knowledge there is," said Anatole France, "is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books." And indeed, if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.(Benjamin, "Unpacking my Library," Illuminations 60)
In 1952, Djuna Barnes wrote to Margaret Anderson, who had asked to reprint some early work of hers:
I feel it is a grave disservice to letters to reissue merely because one may have a name for later work or for the unfortunately praised earlier work,—or for the purpose of nostalgia or "history" which might more happily be left interred. (Djuna Barnes to Margaret Anderson, 30.4.52)1
As one of the more famous shut-ins of the modernist movement, Barnes sometimes wished a similar fate for her early publications. She interprets the function of reissue as a doubly negative one: "to reissue merely because one may have a name for later work or for the unfortunately praised earlier work"; the authorial name becomes in Barnes's words "a name for later work", a prolepsis. Reissue suggests "merely" the fortuity of a lack of symmetry between text and its author, a relationship whose negotiation is routed through and thus collapsed with the principle of textual intermediation variously embodied by the publisher, editor, and public.
Barnes opts, with irony, for the language of death; the "grave disservice" puns on the trope of text as corpse, an abject object which can only speak of history as vicissitude. The metaphorics of the dead text charge the lack of [End Page 118] symmetry of the relationship between author and text with the profitable function of instituting the agency of the "living" author. Textual desuetude is reread to instantiate authorial vitality: a useful institution of agency for the author whose texts threaten to have a healthier life in the public sphere than she does.2 In fact, in her own practice Barnes was singularly adept at creating and perpetuating texts whose bodies spoke of change, and she was responsible for the republication of numerous texts which charted the diversity of history through careful rewriting; Barnes preferred the reissue of texts she had herself sedulously revised.3 Barnes's notorious labor of revision, which provided the occupation of her post-expatriate years in New York, structurally stands to her writing, and in particular her poetry, as an attempt to erase the degree zero of the moment of publication.4 This erasure was effected through two principal strategies: the total revision that resists any abiding resemblance between drafts and the act of revision as an act of endless deferral, a structure perhaps more familiar to any writer. If the pseudo-historical proposition embedded in Anderson's request is that the disinterred text resemble its earlier public sphere manifestation—look the same as it used to—Barnes is at odds, in various ways, with this proposition. In her work, as it were, nothing looks the same as it used to.
Barnes's sharp note to Anderson mentions "the unfortunately praised earlier work," an oblique aside that may be traced to a similar moment of disinterrment which had occurred three years previously: the republication of her 1915 chapbook, The Book of Repulsive Women, in 1949. In Barnes's sixteen pages of vita, prepared for Who's Who, she simply leaves The Book of Repulsive Women out of her list of publications (Series 1, Box 1, Djuna Barnes-vita). Barnes wrote to its new publisher, Oscar Baron:
you do not have my permission for this publication [. . .] I categorically forbid you to make such publication, and [. . .] if you proceed with such publication it will be at your own risk and peril.(Djuna Barnes to Alicat Bookshop 13.10.48)
The republication of The Book of Repulsive Women, a text Barnes specifically wished to repress within her writing career, is a return of the repressed that mimics in the sphere of publication the text's own representations of literary history and its figurative returns, a representation that poses such returns as deadening.
[. . .] I most certainly do not...