As an archetypal coping mechanism, the story is a composite of renegade “whos” that forever escape us—that dwell in the conceptual hell of exile. Focusing specifically on its multidimensional potential (be it visual, virtual, audio-visual, or textual) to tell without telling, I argue that the process of telling depends on the renegade aesthetic whereby the very presentation of the story transforms presence, the ‘who’ of the telling into a renegade absence. In this paper, I bring together theories of potentiality by Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben to theorize the renegade vision as illuminate-blinding the artist’s clandestine awareness by the very shards of her own (not) seeing. I relate this theorization to Djuna Barnes, the Bohemian modernist turned recluse, whose work relies on a juxtaposition of various media (music, drawings, performance, and text) to deploy and simultaneously evade the complex modalities of psychological and physical exile that map the aesthetic collisions of storytelling and the renegade elisions to teach us what one of Djuna Barnes’s characters describes as ‘the interminable discipline of learning to stand everything’ (Barnes 1997: 277).
Excurse into the Beginning of Beginnings: The Raw Story
Inundated with the clichés of disasters, we are confronted with formulaic narratives of things we can and cannot tell. Stuck in this recipe hell, we feed on others’ stories. Like Odysseus, we pave our lives with stories to get home, to make a re-turn, concerned that this return is never quite the same turn; always a different story. A story as an ultimate turncoat whose inside and outside are unfixed, unstable, and never quite out or in. As I stare at the blank page or canvas, all I see is this recipe hell of uncooked stories: the hidden grotto of secrets, narratives, and worries. Like Dante’s Pilgrim, I have entered a ‘dark wood’ without quite knowing, addressing the Poet: ‘Poet, I beg you, in the name of God, that God you never knew, save me from this evil place and worse’ (Inferno, Canto I; Dante 1971: 71,); this eternal darkness; this recipe hell. As Dante suggests, the only way out of the wilderness is perhaps by way of a different path: a story. But what is the story if not a renegade, escaping her own darkness only to come upon the burden of what is and will be the unbearable lightness of her being.
Breathing life into hidden stories and all the whos dwelling in the cocoons of our unacknowledged selves is the ultimate prerogative of art. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines art as ‘concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being…neither with things that are, or come into being, by necessity, nor with things that do so in accordance with nature’ (Aristotle 1958: 227). While Aristotle aligns art with the ethical imperative, with the ‘desire for good,’ his own emphasis on what ‘may come into being’ discloses a certain turncoat quality of the aesthetic process, the quality that relies on ‘contriving’ the aspects of being that are hidden from the way ‘things are or come into being by necessity’ (227). In this paper, I am specifically concerned with the creative process as a renegade act, but also as an act of subtraction or flaying, be it theoretical, practical, or metaphysical. What fascinates me about the hidden stories is the way they make their entrance known in a renegade manner, in a slightly unethical mode that is paradoxically very much a part of, or in, ethics, and hence in-ethical rather than unethical.
Indeed, as Djuna Barnes insists in her 1982 poem ‘Rite of Spring’, perhaps it is the fate of man that ‘he cannot purge his body of its theme’ (qtd in Herring & Stutman, 2005; 145). Desperate to voice and give life to his theme, the storyteller is first and foremost a renegade artist, a foreigner who, as Barnes so poignantly says in one of her articles, is a ‘better scholar of nature or a better liar—a scholarly man of unscholarly moments. He has the secret of unalloyed happiness and unalloyed pain,’ but he also has the ‘recognition of both, acceptance of both…’ (1989: 235). It is this recognition that, as Alain Badiou (2005a) suggests, ‘art is the appearance of an unfounded or nondiscursive truth, a truth that is exhausted in its being-there,’ that, in the constant consummation of stories as media, media as texts, in this intersection where truth and untruth, the visible and invisible, ‘every poetic truth leaves at its own center what it does not have the power to bring into presence’ (2005a: 2). I argue that, in this creative performance, the ‘storyness’ of a story is the story’s potentiality to stage a re-turn, a way back to ourselves, the exiled renegades hiding within: the non-artists of an artist, the artists of a non-artist.
For centuries, storytelling has played an important role in helping us make sense of sadness and incomprehensible events, allowing us to turn the lens not only on others, but first and foremost (and what we often forget) upon ourselves. I suggest that, as an archetypal coping mechanism, the story is a composite of renegade whos that forever escape us—that are never quite here for the taking. They dwell in exile, the conceptual hell of an elsewhere. If as Bartoloni (2008) says, exile is not about leaving, but the inability to leave (the memory of a place or mnemonic trace), our attachment to storytelling can be viewed primarily as an attachment to the hidden potentialities of stories we cannot tell, to bodies we cannot embody. Focusing specifically on its multidimensional potential (be it visual, audio-visual, or textual) to tell without telling, I argue that the aesthetic process of telling depends on the ‘renegade in-ethics’ of representation whereby the very presentation of the story transforms presence, the ‘who’ of the telling, into a renegade absence that simultaneously unfolds as the anticipated futurity of the presence-to-be. In what follows, I bring together theories of potentiality by Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben with my own theorization of the hidden as a renegade vision that illuminate-blinds the artist’s clandestine awareness by the very shards of her own (not) seeing.
In the first part of the paper, I explore my own creative struggle with the renegade process of telling from the initial vision to its visual and textual manifestation. In other words, this paper is in many ways reflective of the coming to life of a process that spans academic and creative discourses about art as philosophy, philosophy as art, a process that, in my case, often performs yet broaches the renegade in the poetic and visual form. In the second part, I discuss its practical applications, particularly in relation to theory and my research on Djuna Barnes, the Bohemian modernist turned recluse, whose work relies on a juxtaposition of various media (music, drawings, performance, and text) to deploy the complex modalities of psychological and physical exile that map the aesthetic collisions of storytelling and the renegade elisions to teach us what Julie Anspacher, one of Djuna Barnes’s short story characters, describes as ‘the interminable discipline of learning to stand everything’ (Barnes, 1997: 277).
Before I go on addressing some of these modalities, it might be useful to elucidate the three concepts which frame and, perhaps at the same time, escape my presentation. When I speak of the ‘renegade aesthetic’, what I have in mind is the denotative meaning of the renegade as an apostate whose in-ethic inheres in the symbolic meaning of ‘passing over’, a sort of deliberate transposition.1 This transposition happens on several levels: during the creative process, in what could be called the artness of the artist’s art, but also in the critic’s theorizing on the subject of the artist and the art. The process alone suggests that perhaps we might be all just con-artists. This transposition, in fact, goes very well with the renegade’s politics of hiding, keeping out of sight while simultaneously being vigilantly present.
The unfolding of the creative process then also inevitably depends on what in music is called ‘passing over’ or ‘silent sounding’ where ‘hidden consecutives are passed over rather than sounded’ (OED). I perform such passing over in my reluctance to embrace Gilles Deleuze’s notion of becomings, which Deleuze in his work with Félix Guattari defines as ‘modes of individuation proceeding neither by form or by the subject’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1989: 507). This is an apostasy of sorts, particularly since for the past ten years I have been a staunch Deleuzian. Instead, I work with the theories of potentiality as defined by Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou whose work re-presents an interesting return to metaphysics, something Deleuze refuses and prevents through his persistent emphasis on the nomadic war machine ‘sweeping everything in its path’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1989: 585).
While Deleuze depends on the notion of the middle, the rhizomic in-between to rescue the individuation process from the void which he aligns with chaos as Wahl (2008) suggests,2 both Badiou and Agamben associate the void with creative acts, their potentialities and non-potentialities, something that strikes a chord particularly as I find myself drawn to the practice not just theory of art. Drawing on Aristotle, Agamben (1999) describes potentiality as ‘not simply the potential to do this or that thing but potential not-do, potential not to pass into actuality’ (180). The recognition of one’s non-potentiality is what represents freedom for Agamben and, by extension, the very definition of artistic production as a ‘new infinite content, a new light…by means of precise and finite summarization’ for Badiou (2005 a: 2). I argue that, what potentiality survives is the individuation process itself, the Deleuzian rhizomic madness that remains hooked on the very notion of identity as individuation. The renegade aesthetic returns us to the formless form that is by default a form, no matter how primal or incomplete, which is a kind of ‘subtraction,’ to use Badiou’s (2005) terms, or ‘privation’ as Agamben (1994) puts it, a synthesis rather than a limit that must be exceeded.3
When I was invited to contribute to Hidden Stories, my first reaction was: but I am not an artist. Immediately, I was reminded of my students who upon joining my Women’s Studies classes feel the need to declare what they are not: in this case, ‘I am taking this course, but I am not a feminist.’ To this day, I am mesmerized by the need or desire to define what one is not while performing this not-beingness in the medium we claim not to use or not to be a part of. So when I say I am not an artist, I am interested, fascinated even, by the need to declare my own non-potentiality. As an exile, I rely on art for survival, but my participation in it, my creative productions, as it were, have always been somewhat accidental. And yet, as I utter these words, I realize that while I might be, to use Barnes’s words, a ‘scholar of unscholarly moments,’ I am also ‘a much better liar’ than I thought (New York 1989: 235). In exile—be it psychological, physical, or transdisciplinary, one becomes increasingly aware of one’s beingness as it were. No matter how wrenched from its familiarity, there is a coming to a certain recognition that multiplicity is perhaps all there is, a swirl of images marking yesterdays and glossing tomorrows—never quite here in the present. But it is in the persistent swirling of such glosses that most exiles, like renegade artists, are returned to or confronted by what Bartolini (2008) calls their ‘naked self’ (81).
It is this nakedness that brings on humility not only towards others, but also towards the ‘multiple of multiples’ of oneself, to use Badiou’s words (2005: 29). My life, complicated by the stories my parents and grandparents have not been able to tell or say, by different forms of historical trauma, and my sense of displacement have turned creativity to a vital act of renegade transposition, bringing me face to face with my own non-potentiality, with my being the naughtof a non-artist, particularly as an academic. In other words, simple doodling, painting, or poem-making (I purposely say ‘making’) become ways or means to account for what Agamben calls ‘an absolute writing that no one writes, a potential to be written, which is written by its own potential not to be written’ (1999: 253). For Agamben, the obscurity of invention is formative in creation; as he says, it is ‘letting something, from Nothing, be’ (253). As Arthur Koestler cogently notes in The Act of Creation, this primeval act of creation begins ‘where language ends’ (1964: 177), where the pictorial takes over the conceptual, but also helps re-present what otherwise would remain ‘hidden from the eye by the blinkers of habit’ (120). It is therefore not surprising that, more often than not, art is the exile’s ekphrasis: a renegade form of existence that persistently runs away with the multiplicities it strives to covet while simultaneously providing a way of reconnecting with the exile’s inner world of runaway whos.
Excurse into Renegade Art: The Recipe for an (Un)Cooked Story
In critical scholarship, however, this inward turn tends to generate suspicion as a surreptitious yet deliberate form of biographical apostasy whose so-called untranslatability thwarts any hope of sublimation. Such an approach pervades the critical literature on Djuna Barnes, the modernist artist, journalist, short story writer, novelist, poet, and playwright. Conversely, her work continues to escape and fascinate critics who are often caught between her complex biography, her creative versatility, and what is frequently described as her ‘unintelligible’ and ‘impenetrable’ art (Casseli, 2009: 3) that points to the ‘crisis of representation’ (Jonsson, 2006: 275).
In the Barnes scholarship, the crisis has been generally aligned with the autobiographical traces pervading her work (see e.g., Kannestine 1977; Broe 1991). Although more recently, critics (Grobel 2004; Warren 2008; Casseli 2009) have started pondering the intertextual quality of Barnes’s work, the emphasis remains on the ways in which intertextual references become a testament to the author’s biographical and artistic inauthenticity, reflecting the liabilities of representation and gender relations at the dawn of the twentieth century. In her 2009 study, Daniella Casseli, for instance, sets out to delve into what she calls Barnes’s ‘[counterfeit] secrecy’ through a detailed reading of Barnes’s personal letters and biography (34), arguing that Barnes produces work that is out of step with modernism (i.e. ‘anachronistic’ and ‘improper’ as she puts it) and in which ‘meaning cannot be transcended, stories need to be narrated again and again’ (Casseli, 2009: 12). Interestingly, if there is a common thread running through Barnes’s oeuvre, it is the determination to acknowledge the renegade mentality of art while accounting for its non-potential of being to be.
However, this non-potential is not to be confused with the Levinasian ‘other’ or alterity that exceeds representation or with ‘the ethical as non-conceptual’ as suggested in Jonsson’s (2006) reading of Barnes’s Nightwood (since even anti-representation and non-conceptuality are a form of representation), nor with an ‘aesthetic of ineffability in which naming erases the object of representation’, as proposed by Casseli (2009: 45). Instead, the ineffable and the named delineate the kind of renegade relationship that lies at the heart of modernist ethics and is in alignment with what Badiou refers to as the ‘multiple of the multiple as one, as adding by subtraction’ (Wahl 2008: xviii). In Barnes’s work, it is the subtraction, the discipline of honing excess that transforms art-making into a poetically philosophical imperative.
Born in 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson to a family of artists, Barnes was exposed from early on to both the productive and the destructive aspects of the creative process: her father was a musician, painter, writer, and a free thinker; her mother was a violinist, and her grandmother Zadel Barnes, the major influence on Barnes, was a well-respected journalist for the Home Journal andSpringfield Republican, also a writer and poet. When her parents divorced in 1912 and her mother moved with the children to New York, Barnes was forced to quit her studies at Pratt Institute and at the Arts Students League in New York, where she initially took up drawing and illustration, and instead support her family through writing. She started freelancing as a journalist for newspapers like New York Press, New York Morning Telegraph, Dial, Vanity Fair, andMcCall’s while also writing one-act plays and poetry. By the 1920s, she made a name for herself among the artistic circle in Greenwich Village and was sent out by McCall’s to Paris to write articles about the American expatriate Bohemia. It was in Paris that Barnes came to her own as a writer, living the life of a Bohemian artist only to make an exile’s return to New York and remain a recluse writing poetry in her one-bedroom apartment on Patchin Street.4
In what follows, I am specifically interested in exploring the ways in which Barnes mediates her sense of psychological and physical exile through her returns to specific media: ink drawing, poetry, prose, and theatre. Although Barnes is perhaps most known for her novel, Nightwood(1937), most of her prose writings from Ladies Almanac (1928), Ryder (1928), to Nightwood(1937), have a poetic quality which also pervades her early journalism, plays, and short stories to her tragic drama titled evocatively, The Antiphon (1956). Throughout her career, Barnes returns to the poetic genre, perhaps not so much to ‘hide’ or evade her biographical trivia as is often suggested by critics (e.g., Casseli 2009; Warren 2008), but rather to explore the exile’s renegade sensibilities where poetry initiates a whole series of ideational sublimations. This initiation can be viewed in Badiou’s terms as a ‘philosophical exposition’ (2008: 47). Such philosophical exposition, as Barnes’s work shows, however cannot be realized in the visual, verbal, or musical forms alone, but rather through their delicate synthesis by moving in and out of other media (genres and forms) whereby formal limitations are inevitably challenged.
Generic and formal synthesis as a philosophical reflection on life is endemic of modernist art. Marsden Hartley, one of Barnes’s close friends, for instance substantiates this notion in his 1921 treatise on art titled Adventures in the Arts, where he insists on the artist’s responsibility to capture the ‘being’ of ‘life as Idea’ through an ‘absolute synthesis of art, movement, language’ (1921: 8; 253). Barnes’s fiction, short stories and journalism, one-act plays, and The Antiphonoften unfold as dramatic visualizations of poetic sensibilities that highlight the complex dialectic of stillness and movement lying at the heart of modernist aesthetics. If as Hartley (1921) suggests, ‘it is necessary for everyone to poeticize his sensations in order to comprehend them’ (8), then Barnes’s frequent escape to poetry provides space for contemplating the life as an idea whose potentialities and non-potentialities come to life in other media: theatre in particular, although the merging of poetic and theatrical traces remains a constant feature of Barnes’s renegade aesthetic pervading both her fiction and journalism.
Undeniably, one of the prerogatives of modernists like Barnes was to make it ‘new,’ to produce art that embodies the multiple of multiples, the potentiality and non-potentiality of being, as pure form, hence the preoccupation with multiple perspectives and the use of visual and auditory arts like painting and music to ‘dwell, so to speak, beside one’s reality,’ to put it in Agamben’s words, a process that delineates intricate healing and hiding not to so much as a concealment, but as a beating, a lashing of one’s habits of (un)seeing or seeing poorly (Agamben 1994: 56). In this context, Barnes’s use of multiple media to express the subject of the creative process has nothing to do with excess per se, but rather with what she refers to as the ‘interminable discipline to stand everything’ (Barnes, 1997: 277). To stand everything for Barnes is not to revel in excess (although paradoxically her archaic language was often viewed as anything but excessive; see e.g., Kannestine 1977; Warren 2008; Casseli 2009). By contrast, it is to represent by poetic and indiscriminately disciplined subtraction.
As an artist, Barnes subscribed to the belief that ‘with the correct artist we contemplate life, with the poetic artist we make a new one’ (quoted. in Plumb 1995: xi). Each poem, story, drawing, and play underwent series of rigorous revisions where excess was eliminated, while new additions had been made to be further subtracted. In his memoirs of Barnes, Hank O’Neal bemoans Barnes’s persistent and perhaps somewhat excessive rewriting (1990: 85). ‘It was not unusual to find the same poem with any number of titles or the same title for any number of poems’ (O’Neal 1990: 85). Nightwood, for instance, was cut from almost 670 to 170 pages to accommodate publishers who felt it contained ‘only high spots of poetry’ (Plumb 1995: x). With four major rewrites spanning the first draft written in 1937 to its final 1956 version, The Antiphon was subjected to a similarly agonizing process of revision and subtraction (see Curry 1996: 286).This subtraction is evident in Barnes’s use of poetic and often archaic language as a way of pairing down ideas to a single image, but also in her reliance on trans- and inter-mediality rather than pure intertextuality. In what follows, I am not interested in tracing Barnes’s artistic and textual influences as most critics who have written on the intertextual quality of Barnes’s work have done. Instead, I consider the ways in which the transposition of the poetic image through the multiple mixing of genres connotes Barnes’s ‘interminable discipline of learning to stand everything’ as life’s inevitable apostasy.
I rely here on Werner Wolf’s definition of intermediality as highlighting ‘cross-medial intersemantic relations’ where the movement from one medium to another serves as a ‘means of foregrounding meta-aesthetic ideas’ by musicalizing, visualizing, but also dramatizing the ‘text’ or medium in question (1999: 49). In this context, Barnes’s intermediality inheres in the renegade politics it simultaneously hones down, rubbing its nose, so to speak, in its own thinking of not being seen: highlighting what Koestler calls the ‘blinkers of habit’ as the man’s ultimate hubris (1964: 108). 5 Barnes’s playful rendering of the subject as a composite of renegade whosis indicative of the modernist emphasis on the artistic synthesis as what Agamben calls a ‘perpetual emerging out of the nothingness of expression’ (1994: 56).
In her journalism and in The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (1915), Barnes signals this emergence in her use of black and white ink drawings highlighting the non-potentiality of potentiality that illuminate-blinds as a meditation on the life-death dialectic through the visualization and musicalization of the poetic. Wolf, for instance, speaks of the ‘intermedial drive’ of modernism citing ‘musicalized painting’ of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, or George Braques wherein intermediality provides a space for philosophical self-reflection (1999: 43). While studies by Rothenberg (1990) and Jamison (1993) have commented on the psychology of colour used by artists, black and white often being associated with survivors of a severe trauma or depression (as in Tchelichev, Modigliani’s hallmark use of black outlines and earth tones, Picasso’s blue period, etc.), others (e.g., Gombrich 2000; Koestler 1963) link the black-and-white outlining to the modernist fascination with non-Western art, particularly with the Chinese technique of expressing through the absence of brush and ink (Koestler 1963; p. 208).
Viewed as reflective of Barnes’s preoccupation with the gaze and female sexuality, Barnes’s ink drawings have been mostly dismissed as frivolous copies of Aubrey Beardsley’s decadent fin-de-siècle style (Herring 1995; Warren 2008; Casseli 2009). Casseli (2009), for instance, describes Barnes’s illustrations as unoriginal expressions that ‘point elsewhere: outside the text’ towards a ‘spectacular decadent femininity’ associated with postmodernity rather than the ‘modernist shock of the new’ (70).6 I suggest however that Barnes’s ink drawings call attention to the intermedial series as dependent on the finality of the form to ‘render visible all that which, for media and commerce, and so for everyone but from another viewpoint, does not exist’ (Badiou, 2004: 148). To put it differently, instead of pointing outside the form, they instigate a turn inward to figure the formless being of idea as a philosophical contemplation where the ‘new’ emerges from within the very dialectic of seeing and its (non)potentialities.
In The Book of Repulsive Women, the intermedial dialectic is perhaps best encapsulated in the poetic rhythm and illustration titled ‘The Cabaret Dancer’ where the regular rhythm of the ababrhyming quatrains is mediated by a visual irregularity of cutting the black and white line to indicate the cabaret dancer’s subtracting of her subjectivity as she ‘cease[s] to search, and grow[s] wise’ (Barnes, 2003: 21; line 11). The combination of visual and verbal representation of dance specifically highlights what Badiou (2005) calls ‘the very spacing of thought’ whereby the dancing body becomes a ‘thought body,’ a ‘pure emergence’ (64).
The pure emergence sublimates as the non-potentiality of seeing through the ‘leaving out’ technique, but also through the dancer’s closed eyes and her body split into spheres, a kind of vanishing that is at the same time a form of subtraction that simultaneously forecloses the idea as pure event, to use Badiou’s terms. The closed eyes here symbolize an inner vision, a technique revered by Picasso’s great rival, Modigliani, who emphasized that his subjects ‘see even though I have chosen not to draw their pupils’ (qtd. in Meyers, 2006: 160). Nonetheless, the emphasis on blindness as a way of seeing constitutes an important trope of modernist art where blank eyes, as in Picasso’s early paintings Bust of a Man and Woman with Joined Hands (1907) or Modigliani’s portraits of Hanska Zborowska (1919), Jeanne Héburterne with Great Hat (1918), or Lunia Czekowska (1919), become symbolic not so much of the capitalist spectacle as is often suggested by critics, but rather of the artist’s inner vision (Meyers 2006: 160). Viewed in this context, Barnes’s illustration, like an optical illusion, unfolds as a dance of closed eyes: in other words, as stillness in movement, as a disciplined restraint whose potential ‘lies in its capacity to manifest the secret slowness of the fast’ (Badiou, 2005a: 60).
In its emphasis on the potentiality of seeing as illuminating movement and/or blinding stillness, ‘The Cabaret Dancer’ presents a concatenation of mediated forms wherein the visualized poetic rhythm creates a space where the artistic and philosophical synthesis participates in a meta-aesthetic reflection on the dialectic of life and death, movement and stillness, fleetingness and permanence—all of which are important staples of modernist art. In the poem and its visualization, dance gives way to singing as reflected in the accompanying poetic ditty where the dancer is ‘smitten by a thousand lights [other eyes] into this thing/Life had taken her and given her one place to sing’: again, the juxtaposition of light and dark, the dark as the site of creative non-potential ‘whos’ of the potentiality to sing (here the renegade in-ethics surfaces through singing, making the hidden sound rather than speak while it is simultaneously being honed down by the rhyming of ‘thing’ and ‘sing’). A similar effect is generated in the last stanza of the poem where movement through space is juxtaposed with stillness as a killing time for the ‘songless soul’:
Until her songless soul admits
Time comes to kill:
You pay her price and wonder why
You need her still. (Barnes 1915 : 22, lines 38-42)
Yet at the same time, without the dancing image as an idea occupying the free space of imagination, the coming to being of a poem as a new life could not and would not happen. In other words, the making of the ‘new’ relies on the renegade produced by the drama of intermedial transposition. To put it differently, if ‘dance is what suspends time within space’ as Badiou (2005a) suggests (62), then the visual and verbal representation of the dancer inevitably kills the mobility of the idea as pure thought as it becomes a named event, a poem that gives way to a ‘theatre of most intimate defections’ (Badiou, 2005a: 32).
Such dramatic ideation also pervades Barnes’s Ladies’ Almanac (1928), a mock roman à clef,whose poetic quality flays the creative act as a process webbed with melancholy yet prefaced by a ‘light giggling, dancing Fancy’ and kind of ‘misplac[ing] of the eye’ which is necessary for going ‘a long way into the matter [into the I]’ (Barnes, 1928: 27); conversely, into what Bartoloni (2008) calls the ‘naked self’ (81). The descent into the matter can be viewed in Badiou’s terms as the avowal of the ‘new’ as event that is ‘never anything beside its own disappearance’ (2005: 61). Conversely, the new surfaces as misplacement, auguring what Agamben (1999) calls ‘facing one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s incapacity’ (182). As Barnes reminds us in Ladies Almanac (1922), the new is succeeded by a sudden ‘[c]hill…and Restlessness at Night, or unaccountable Tabulation of unimportant Objects’ (Barnes, 1992: 28).
The unaccountability of the tabulation process is reflected in Barnes’s general output. From short stories to novels and plays, there is a consistent leaning towards the poetic subtraction, a kind of flaying or hiding (in the sense of beating) and overturning of the form to account for the event as a multiple of multiples or what I call renegade whos: ‘ideas,’ to quote Badiou (2005), ‘that as such are no longer retained in any bond’ (59). The multiple of the event sublimates in Barnes’s work as an exercise in disciplined excess where for ideas to be free of ‘any bond’, the ‘theater of most intimate defections’ (Badiou, 2005: 32) must be honed down, exiled, as it were, through the performance of a synthesized poesis whereby the renegade whos of non-mimetic arts like poetry and dance are presented mimetically as coming-to-being in their theatrical (yet temporary) embodiments.
In his work on intermediality, Kattenbelt (2000) defines theatre as ‘the paradigm of all arts, and hypermedium that incorporates all arts and media’ (29). In his terms, theatre is ‘the art of presence’ (Kattenbelt, 2000: 29) that allows for a presentation of descent into rawness: the recipe hell of an uncooked story as it were. While poetry speaks to the non-potentialities of thought, that is the rawness of the ‘story,’ theatre aspires to its embodiment no matter how brief or temporary. The transmedial process then allows a certain continuity of reflection whereby poetry opens a space for philosophical reflection that theatre fills by providing an opportunity to glimpse its potential actualizations in an embodied, albeit temporary form (Badiou 2005). As Badiou (2005) emphasizes,
in the text of the poem, the theatre idea is incomplete. This is because it is held in a sort of eternity. The theatre-idea comes forth in the (brief) time of its performance, of its representation (2005: 73).
In other words, while poetry allows Barnes to point to the renegade quality of the creative process, theatre enables her to stage its potentialities and at the same time expose its renegade aesthetic by flaying the very whos it so desperately strives to bring to life. Written in blank verse, Barnes’s last play, The Antiphon (1956) is not only a family revenge drama, but also a response to the exile’s ultimate drama: her reliance on an out-of-phrase as a way to ‘fare forward’ (Barnes, 1956: 15; Act I). As Jack says to Miranda: ‘Slow scampering time has picked the locks/And your credit thrown the key away! Still you fare forward, hapless voyager/I think you’ve told me something short’ (Barnes, 1956: 15; Act I).
In The Antiphon, such an apostasy and treachery must be punished by death of both the daughter and her mother, a death foreclosed by her brother’s statement ‘the expatriate’s/the same as traitor’ (Act I, p. 63). At the heart of the play is a much needed encounter between the mother and daughter staged by Miranda’s coachman/brother, Jeremy alias Jack Blow who brings them together to face their ‘discontent’ (Act III, p. 118). Having lived an unhappy family life, Augusta is bitter towards her ‘distinguished but failing’ Bohemian daughter who left for Europe to pursue her artistic career, but is now forced to make her exile’s return due to the war sweeping through Europe (Act I, p. 7). They meet in transit in Burley Hall, her mother’s former (English) home and estate, where, after many years of silence and estrangement, they finally confront each other. Indeed, if philosophy comes to life ‘within the field of theatre’ as Puchner (2006: 46) suggests, then the actualization of the mother-daughter encounter can be interpreted as bringing forward the philosophical question of being and inethics (the two women’s relationship to the world, to each other, but also with themselves) while simultaneously calling attention to the formal process of staging the mother-daughter’s antiphon (their double response) as a rhetorical device. Such ‘laying bare of the device’ is not only endemic of modernist theatre as Gruber (2000) suggests (182), but also highlights the transmediality of the creative process (Wolf, 1999: 49).
The third act of The Antiphon performs this reflection through Jack Blow’s attempt to bring Miranda and Augusta to some form of compromise, exposing the double entendre of the dramaturgical process itself as Jack’s staging of the mother-daughter antiphon generates yet another level of antiphonic potentialities that are actualized yet inevitably caught in their non-potential. Instead of reaching a common understanding by way of a rational yet compassionate exchange of grievances, the women kill each other in the dialoguing process Jack instigates. Although not necessarily intended or anticipated, their deaths nonetheless provide a symbolic resolution by means of a poetic synthesis whereby their ‘fadged up ends of discontent’ (Act III, p. 118) are sublimated through the staging of the actualized non-potential of the mother-daughter’s inability and unwillingness to acknowledge the other’s perspective. The actualized non-potential is represented by the ‘double’ death of the mother and daughter whose physical (albeit mimetically dead) bodies perform the dialectic of disembodiment as embodiment whereby the ‘hour of uncreate’ (Act III, p. 127) concurrently represents the hour of (staged and performed) dramaturgical creation.7 In this way, Barnes not only enacts the renegade ideation as a subtraction of sorts, but also puts it in relation to the potentiality the finitude inscribed in the ending inevitably connotes as the very climax of the play is hijacked by Jack Blow who leaves the stage pondering ‘the hour of the uncreate’ while Augusta’s brother Burley watches in silence (Act III, p. 127).
If as Badiou (2005) suggests, ‘every poetic truth leaves at its own centre what it does not have the power to bring into presence’ (23), then Barnes’s antiphon inevitably returns us to the uncooked story as the poetry of the ‘uncreate,’ but also brings forth the drama of poetry as philosophy on stage. Barnes’s Aristotelian vision of poetry as ‘more philosophic and of great import than history’ (Aristotle, 1958: 353) sublimates at the end of the play where we are returned to the naked or raw material of self and non-self, art and non-art, potentiality and non-potentiality as Jack Blow runs away with, or quite literally blows the ending, leaving us cheekily with a ‘jack’ for thought.
Given the complexity of its philosophical and (deeply modernist) schema, Barnes’s play received mostly mixed reviews in the 1950s press (e.g., see Herring 1995; Casseli 2009). T.S. Eliot who rigorously edited the script was not enthusiastic about the play and subjected it to merciless cutting to which Barnes responded with a letter begging Tom to ‘take mercy on the author who has been twenty months in fairly gruesome sense of tension’ (qtd. in Curry, 1991: 286). Nonetheless, perhaps the harrowing process of writing and staging the play is what speaks to its true poetically philosophical genius, which lies in its staging of non-potentialities of being while simultaneously highlighting the possibility of sublimation through art that (un)creates. The process of (un)creating is an attempt to present the rawness in the new light as an art that, as Agamben (1994) says, ‘does not die, but having become a self-annihilating nothing, eternally survives itself’ (56), not as a testament to the limits of representation, but rather in its paring down or subtraction, to use Badiou’s words. Such paring down is crucial to Barnes’s aesthetics. As early as in 1931, she voices her aesthetic philosophy in the Theatre Guild Magazine as contingent on restraint. She says:
I like my human experience served up with a little silence and restraint. Silence makes experience go further, and when it does die, gives it that dignity common to a thing one had touched and not ravished. (qtd in Herring 1995: xvii).
The artistic survival for Barnes then has nothing to do with the subject or the process of individuation per se, but rather with the intention of moving into (rather than beyond) oneself as a multiple of multiples, what Bartolini (2008) calls ‘naked self,’ to the realm of a mystical sense of imagination, Plato’s divine hell. This is perhaps best encapsulated in Barnes’s poem ‘The Personal God’ where the shifting from ‘we’, ‘he’ to an all-seeing ‘eye’/I unfolds as an incantation of the multiple of multiples, but also as a genesis of the creative process:
…I’ll work my clay as I find it, All hushed as it lies in the sod, And he shall be built for better or worse In the way of a Personal God.
The meaning of the ‘sod’ here not only connotes the soil as nothingness from which something will be, but also refers to the mystical sense associated with the Talmudic notion of paradise, the non-potentiality of hell, or so-called Pardes, which as Agamben reminds us consists of 4 consonants: PRDS; peshat referring to literal sense, ramez to allegorical sense, derasha(Talmudic interpretation), and Sod (mystical sense) (1999: 199), bringing us full circle to the renegade who turns whichever way to find his way, letting something, out of nothing, be. However, the God, as Barnes reminds us, will be a ‘giggling, personal God’ that does not bemoan the complexity of Sod, but whose ‘giggle’ gloats in the act of its own flagrant apostasy.
For more than half a century, we have associated the renegade aesthetic with the crisis of representation, the death of the subject, and the impotence of language to expose the hidden, with the otherness of the other, with an erasure or cleaving: in other words, with a rupture, or in Deleuzean terms, with a nomadic war machine that destroys everything in its path. Viewed in this context, intermediality is often viewed as an inevitable product of this crisis, as a mechanism of excess that undoes itself. But instead of glorying in this critical crypt of the dead, I have been suggesting a different turn. As I have set out to explore the intermedial, performative character of storytelling, I stubbornly propose that this crisis of which we speak, that we so much depend on, is in fact a way of bringing forth the act of poesis as a renegade, as a promise of apostasy, the necessity of form qu? form, what Badiou (2005) calls ‘purity as an idea that as such is no longer retained in any bond’ (59). Consequently, the renegade’s idea is free of bonds not because it has been exceeded or purged. By contrast, its freedom lies in the disciplined subtraction of the form which safeguards it against excess which destroys. If as Djuna Barnes puts it, ‘man cannot purge his body of its theme’ (Herring & Stutman, 2005: 145), then art not only teaches us the ‘interminable discipline to stand anything’ (Barnes, 1997: 277), but also reveals that in its renegade quality lies the story’s cooked potential: the hell’s paradise and Eden’s ultimate hell.
(1.) See The Oxford English Dictionary for the definition of the renegade as a ‘deserter, a turncoat, a traitor,’ but also a ‘rebel’ and an ‘apostate’ who relies on movement and/as transformation.
(2.) For more details, see François Wahl’s (2008) introduction to Alain Badiou’s (2008)Conditions, in which Wahl provides an interesting comparison between Deleuze’s conceptualization of void as chaos (i.e. a negative, singular force) and Badiou’s emphasis on its creative potential.
(3.) Both Casseli (2009) and Jonsson (2006) work with the concept of the limit. Here I distinguish myself from Casseli’s emphasis on the ‘ineffable’ whereby any form of naming performs a kind of erasure that eradicates the ‘object of representation’ (2009: 45), as well as from Jonsson’s eloquent interpretation of Nightwood where she draws on Levinas, highlighting Barnes’s novel as pondering the ‘crisis of representation’ and the unrepresentability of saying or accounting for a ‘meaning not yet available’ (275). On the contrary, I see the renegade aesthetics as a metaphysical (not necessarily verbal) naming that adds by subtraction where, in Badiou’s and Agamben’s sense, potentiality is deployed as already being there, as always having been there, echoing Koestler’s notion that the invisible is a result of habitual thinking. As Gombrich emphasizes, since we cannot ‘see all things at the same time’ (2000: 238), ‘we are not aware of the ambiguity as such… It is through the act of ‘switching’ [in this case, the use of mixed media] that we find that different shapes can be projected into the same outline’ (238).
(4.) For further biographical details, see Philip Herring (1995). Djuna Barnes: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes (New York: Viking) and Hank O’Neil (1990). Life Is Painful, Nasty, and Short…In My Case It Has Only Been Painful & Nasty: Djuna Barnes: An Informal Memoir(New York: Paragon House)
(5.) While critical studies of Barnes’s intertextual references (e.g., Warren 2008; Casseli 2009) have provided new insights into her work, such approaches often end up focusing more on tracing the origin of Barnes’s so-called textual influences than her work and its multifarious contributions to modernist art.
(6.) Barnes’s critics (e.g., Kannestine 1977; Herring 1997; Casseli 2009) generally dismiss her visual art as unoriginal imitations of Aubrey Beardsley’s decadent style, which was viewed as the hallmark of advertising, newspaper, and magazine industry not only in Europe, but mainly in America. Beardsley’s friend Arthur Symons, for instance, commented on the theatricality and commercial aspect of Beardsley’s drawings and satirical cartoons (Elliott, 1995: x). While artists like Picasso, Modigliani, Kandinsky, and Albert Pinker Ryder were among the many influences, what Barnes seems to have in common with Beardsley’s style are the black and white spaces, decorative dotting, and patterning which in Beardsley’s case was very much influenced by medieval arts, Greek pottery, and the japonesques as Elliot has suggested (1995: xv).
(7.) This ‘doubling’ here reflects what Puchner calls the theatre’s ‘double allegiance’ to mediation and mimesis (2002: 521).
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