“- thy life and the lives that thou begettest, and the lives that shall spring from them, world without end -” (Ryder 3)
The biblical image is a repeated element in Djuna Barnes’s writing. It emerges in her style, in her usage of metaphors, in her drawings, in her narrative. In Ryder she describes Wendell Ryder as a god of his own making, father to as many children as he is able to conceive, creator of (and self-proclaimed lord and master to) his own race – Ryder. The before, during, and after of making off-spring is one of the more prominent topics of the quilt-like novel; the relationships of parents, children, step-family-members, and in-laws – it is all a family matter. And a matter of Barnes’s own family, as well.
In Ladies Almanack the biblical is forced into farce once again as the condemned take over the world and an Amazon-like tribe of women is producing its next generation through seduction of
“such Girls, as in their Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most, lament Cruelly, be it Itch of Palm, or Quarters most horribly burning, which do oft occure in the Spring of the Year, or at those Times when they do sit upon warm and cozy Material, such as Fur, or thick and Oriental Rugs, […] or who sit upon Stoves, whence it is know that one such flew up with an “Ah my God! What a World it is for a Girl indeed, be she ever so well brought to such a yelping Pitch and so undo her that she runs hither and thither seeking some Simple of Unguent which shall allay her Pain! And why is it no Philosopher of whatever Sort, has discovered, amid the nice Herbage of his Garden, one that will content that Part, but that from the day that we were indifferent Matter, to this wherein we are Imperial Personages of thedivine human Race, no thing so solaces it as other Parts as inflamed, or with the Consolation every Woman has at her Finger Tips, or at the very Hang of her Tongue?” (Ladies Almanack 2)
Traditional conception is not an option but the Almanack never worries about a shortage of lesbians (be it in the present or future) – the predominant impression is one of mass-, and even over-production – as Barnes creates a society void of men and a distorting mirror of the expatriate modernist salon of Natalie Clifford Barney in Paris during the 1920s and 30s.
Both novels – published the same year – overindulge in producing off-spring and often through unconventional means. And as they were both published within the same, and probably written in successive years one could argue that one continues or extends the other while the biblical element hints at a creation that might (or might not) surpass the Christian genesis.
A big part of the not very clearly structured narrative of Ryder follows Wendell Ryder, son of Sophia, husband to Amelia – and eventually Kate-Careless – and father to a number of legitimate and illegitimate childrren. He is not the first man of his family to have many children but he is the first one to build a philosophy around reproduction. At the core of his philosophy is the desire to be „Father of All Things.“ (210) Father may be seen here as a synonym for god, and this is how he likes to see himself, also. In consequence, Ryder can be seen as Ryder’s bible. And this comparison is quite accurate if you substitute the human race for the race of Ryder: there are stories – moral observations – about people who are “touched” by Ryder, there are fables and parables, and the introduction, „Jesus Mundane,“ has the tone of the ten commandments to it. Ryder’s world is indeed his world, he created it and he sees himself as master to it. The narrative, though, does repeatedly mock his status. While Amelia seems a good and submissive wife most of his mistresses are much more independent and free-thinking. After he tries, for example, to establish some regularity into Molly Dance’s life, so that she might know at least the father to her next born, she tells him that Dan, the policeman, had the same idea two days earlier. And after the child is born, Wendell displays his insecurity by asking Dr. O’Connor if the baby looks like him. Wendell is made man, again, and a weak one at that. At the end of the novel he says of himself “In the end […] I shall have no children. I have unfathered myself.” (239) It is the only time, he seems to feel remorse for his follies and regrets getting Amelia and Kate-Careless into a polygamous relationship. But up until this point, his philosophy is the cornerstone of his thinking and living. Hisviews are supported by his mother:
“You are a lover of women, you commit them to children, you lust openly and sweetly like,“ she added firmly, „the beast of the field, because you are nature, all of you,…“ (238)
Nature, yet again, is a substitute for God and the way Sophia lets him commit himself to his desires – by taking care of him and his family financially – is probably at the core of his illusions about himself.
But it can be discussed that these are illusions Sophia and Wendell share. If Wendell is to be „Father of All Things“ then Sophia is „Mother“ – there is an incestuous element in this and its not the only one throughout the novel. Some of their shared illusions manifest themselves in the chapter “Sophia Tells Wendell How He Was Conceived.” According to Sophia, Wendell has no father, she was impregnated by the spiritual appearance of Beethoven in a dream. Through this she tells her son that he is not only begot by the spirit of a genius but also that he is superior to other men by being conceived without a father. Here, he appears as Jesus (maybe this is where the introduction comes to play as Wendell could easily be seen as a “Jesus Mundane,” a Jesus, therefore, that does not display wonders but lives as selfish and dependent of others as he possibly can, making him again more human than he cares to be) and as she tells this story at a crucial point in his life – “when he reached the years of discretion” (36) – he never forgets it and “suffers” from it all his life. But iin a way, so does his mother. She is under the constant delusion that Wendell is a genius, that he is god-like and should follow his divine calling. And she supports him.
She also creates a network of influential sons and daughters, not by birth but by the guilt-ridden bonds she ties around them. Her „off-spring“ pays a price for the priviledge of calling her “mother” and they have to give to her so that she can keep giving to Wendell. Surprisingly enough, Sophia is the one woman who has born only three sons herself – and the youngest of them died. Her mother had 14 children, Amelia’s mother had 12, Amelia had five (with a possible sixth on the way), Kate-Careless only had three, as well, but seemed eager to have more (for her revenge and out of addiction as she claims in „Wendell Discusses Himself With His Mother“). With all the multiple mothers inhabiting Ryder one might think that a positive picture of motherhood and reproduction is displayed, but this is not the case; on the contrary: mothers (all but Sophia and Molly Dance) become mad, vengeful creatures. Sophia’s mother tells her daughter never to let a man touch her, and Amelia repeats this warning to her daughter, Julie, with almost the same words. While the men of the novel stride around like creators of mankind, most of the women regret having had intercourse and detest giving birth.As Amelia puts it to her daughter, Julie: “So take warning by my size and don’t let a man touch you, for their touching never ends, and screaming oneself into a mother is no pleasure at all.” (95) Still, Julie immitates her mother’s state as she lies in bed with a doll, screaming “Wendell! Wendell!” (95) while her brother, Timothy, plays father to the doll. The whole chapter (“Amelia and Kate Taken to Bed”) is highly charged with incestuous tension, sexual abuse and infidelity. And as Wendell proves incapable of dealing with the women he has impregnated – and the daughter who may have been sexually abused by him at the age of ten – Dr. Matthew O’Connor proves to be the perfect mid-wife and delivers Amelia’s baby – which is black. The picture of conception and reproduction as it is given of the Ryder family – those who are living in “Bulls’-Ease” – is a painful one, at least for the women.
Molly Dance – another of Wendell’s many lovers – seems to be the exception. This exception is explained by her profession, as she breeds dogs. Reproduction for her is a way of survival – her pure-bred dogs sell for a high price, and her sons are all thieves and pickpockets. While she is not very discriminate when it comes to lovers and who is going to father her children – it is said, that all her children (already ten in number before she met Wendell) have different fathers – she takes care that the bitches in her stock do not breed outside their own race, because “when a dog goes wrong, you can tell it in an instant.” (192)
While everybody else is constantly conceiving, giving birth or at least thinking about procreation, there is one who is merely a tool in the big picture of reproduction: Dr. Matthew O’Connor. But he, too, it can be argued is marking children as his own through the story of Ryder. Like the women in the Ladies Almanack he is not to use traditional heterosexual means to do so, but by bringing children into the world he often “take[s] more trouble with them than [their] own,” (123) as Molly Dance puts it not very delicately and calls him “father […] in spirit” (123) to the infants he helps bringing into the world. For the women in his domain he is indeed the perfect father-figure but that is not how he sees himself. He rather fills the place of mid-wife and maybe fatherly friend to the older chidren, as can be seen in “Dr. Matthew O’Connor and the Children.”
In Ladies Almanack
In the “Zodiac,” a chapter in the Ladies Almanack that follows the month of March, Djuna Barnes constitutes a part of the Christian myth “that has never been told.” It is the birth of “the first Woman born with a Difference,” in other words a lesbian, by a corrobaration of “all the Angels, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, all.” As this birth is placed after “the Fall of Satan” it is possible that it even preceded the creation of Adam which would make a lesbian the first human being “born”. Still, she is not the standard, she is “born with a Difference,” once because she is not created in His likeness, but also because she hatched from an egg. It seems that God has not consented to her creation and thus she is an early outcast (much like Satan) of the Genesis – or rather Djuna Barnes’s interpretation of the Genesis. (13)
The creation mythof this first lesbian legitimizes the existence of a different kind and places the beginning of lesbian existence outside the psychological theories of Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud which had been widely read and accepted by the time Barnes wrote the Almanack. Still, Barnes ackowledges their work by making her heroine, Dame Musset, a “sexual invert,” “for she had been developed in the Womb of her most gentle Mother to be a Boy.” (2) Barnes resists, however, making Musset a shame-faced confessor to psychoanalyses; her heroine enjoys life and makes others enjoy it with her as she “was so much in Demand, and so wide famed for her Genius up by Hand, and so noted and esteemed for her Slips of the Toungue that it finally brought her into the Hall of Fame.” (3) The presentation of a number of lesbian “types” also defies Ellis and Freud’s teachings. In her article “‘A Nose-Length in the Matter’: Sexology and Lesbian Desire in Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack” Christine Berni states:
“In opposition to this medical regularization, the lesbian bodies that populate Ladies Almanack resist sexological and socially hegemonic categories and successfully complicate theorizations of lesbianism as an inversion, that is, as an innate masculinity complex.” Likewise, in Freudian terms, portraits of same-sex desire in Barnes’s text escape inscription within psychoanalytic developmental narratives that cast lesbianism as regression to infantile relations. (Berni 83-84)
A lesbian is not a woman trapped in a pre-oedipal phase, she is “[v]irtually everyone […]: vixens, hussies, athletes, virgins.” (Sniader-Lanser 43)
And midwives. Barnes presents herself (impersonated in the novella by Masie Tuck-and-Frill) as one who is willing to help if the impossible might occur and lesbian love may bring forth a baby. She prophesies that “[a] Feather […] might accomplish it, or a Song rightly sung, or an Exclamation said in the right Place, or a Trifle done in the right Spirit, and then you would have need of me indeed!” (10) Barnes uses heterosexist mythology here and turns it onto lesbianism almost as if to say: it works for them, why should it not work for us? A poem, a song, a declaration of love have often been the beginning of something that nine month later would call itself another human being and as she points out: “For […] Creation has ever been too Marvellous to doubt of it now.” (10) Therefore she places lesbian love within Godly “Creation,” with the same possibilities heterosexual love has (stangely enough, artificial insemination did prove her right).
Patience Scalpel seemingly picks up the heterosexual argument asking if “good mothers [are] to supply them [lesbians] with Luxuries in the next Generation, for they themselves will have no Shes, unles some Her puts them forth!” (5-6) What is striking in her argument is the absence of a “he” and she confirms this absence by exclaiming “My daughters shall go amarrying!” (6, emphasis mine). Barnes is very ambivalent about men and their contribution to reproduction in Ladies Almanack. This is not only pronounced in the (almost complete) absence of men within the narrative but also in reference to gender for although Evangeline Musset’s sexual prowess is obvious it is not obviously gendered. While the partriarch is dismembered (the first lesbian being born without the interference of God; Musset defying her father who seems to stand as impersonation of Freudian theories), Musset herself is captured in Barnes’s drawings as a “dildoesque figure” (Kent 125) and holding a pole in the frontispiece with which she saves women from the “chagrin of sinking for the third time” (as quoted in Kent 126). The phallus is alive and well in Barnes’s narrative but it seems to be outlived by the tongue as the ultimate satisfyer of sexual needs in women and the most eloquent tool of seduction. And Musset indulges in this practice most willingly and with striking results, even after her death.
In November – which is also the November of Musset’s life – Barnes’s heroine thinks it is time to be more aggressive about spreading “wisdom” and starts recruiting girls. But the women she encounters are not so easily convinced yet come to her in their own time and suddenly “ten Girls [she] had tried vainly for but a month gone, were all tearing at [her] shutters” (42).
In her book Making Girls Into Women – American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity, Kathryn Kent argues that there is yet another form of lesbian reproduction linked to Barnes’s novella: recruitment through reading. Kent argues that through the reading of certain books – among them the Ladies Almanack – young women were presented with protolesbian (her expression) types they could identify with. The problem with the Ladies Almanack on this premise is that it was not only written for an audience that was already aware of these types (having inspired them) but that publication was so limited that one can hardly speak of “recruitment.” Of course, today the Ladies Almanack is easily accessible but it is hardly the text adolescent girls – confused about their sexuality – would pick up.
Ryder and Ladies Almanack are both biographical texts; the former is dealing with Djuna Barnes’s childhood and adolescence the latter with her expatriate life in Paris during the 1920s. If we stick to the timeline expressed in the books it would follow that Ladies Almanack was written after Ryder (I am conscious of the gap in time in her life that is left out) but there is also evidence within the text that affirms this notion. In Ryder Dr. Matthew O’Connor is telling one of Wendell’s many children about “the Three Great Moments of History,” (Ryder 227) in Ladies Almanack Doll Furious is telling Dame Musset of “the forth great Moment of History (having undoubtedly heard of the other three)” (Ladies Almanack 22), continuing not only what O’Connor had thought complete but expressing the conviction that the other three moments are known not only to Musset but also the reader – and herself.
The narrative evolves chronically from Ryder to Ladies Almanack but there are other indicators that the reader is observing an advancement. After her fight with Kate in “They Do Not Much Agree” Amellia consents that “Between cause, which is you, and effect, which is I, I do seem to see reason, and I’ve always held that, like a babe, it was born from between two women!” (Ryder 148). This text is not concerned with “reason” but with the “babe” that is born between two women. Amelia is referring to the mother and the mid-wife, of course, but “what is to prevent some modern Girl from rising from the Couch of a Girl as modern, with something new in her Mind?” (Ladies Almanack 10). The mid-wife in Ryder is Matthew O’Connor, a gay man with a transgender personality – male-to-female. And he is also the one who is telling about the “three moments of history.” The mid-wife in Ladies Almanack is Masie Tuck-and-Frill who is the alter ego of Djuna Barnes.
The narration of Ryder – as I have already pointed out – is mocking Wendell as a wannabe-God, as a “Jesus Mundane” and a failure at providing for his family. Male creation has shipwrecked; at the end Wendell asks himself whom he should disappoint now, knowing that it cannot be helped. Ryder turns genderroles upsight-down, it mocks male dominance – and male writing by twisting forms of partriarchal story-telling.
In Ladies Almanack men are mostly absent; there are some remains of male inheritance but even Patience Scalpel puts their labor into the past when she says “In my time […] Women came to enough trouble by lying abed with the Father of their Children” (Ladies Almanack 5, emphasis mine). Women are still having babies but fathers seem to become extinct – while Barnes’s writing “adopts a host of patriarchal forms and combines them in uneasy parody” (Sniader-Lansing, 40) She turns these forms – “the saint’s life, the ode, the prayer, the love song, the allegory, classical mythology, and Sacred Scripture” (Sniader-Lansing, 40) – into a Ladies Almanack making women the center of her writing, her narrative, her society, her everything until the day “some modern Girl [rises] from the Couch of a Girl as modern, with something new in her Mind.” (Ladies Almanack 10) This “new” might be a baby, it might be something else.
Creation is not exclusively linked to procreation, especially female creation. Sophia is an avid writer, Amelia exchanges letters with her sister, and many of the women portrait in Ladies Almanack – most of them, actually – were writers. Conclusively, with all the progress within Ryder and Ladies Almanack toward a female society, female procreation, female writing one could argue that Djuna Barnes – probably together with some of the women from Natalie Barney’s salon – might have been looking for or creating a “female language,” an “écriture feminine.” But creating a female language born out of male language, an evolutionary language out of a language that has fulfilled its purpose and is now (or will soon) be useless – much like the men in her narrative from Ryder through Ladies Almanack.
Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack.Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004
—, Ryder. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990
Berni, Christine. “‘A Nose-Length into the Matter’: Sexology and Lesbian Desire in Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 20.3 (1999): 83-107.
Kent, Kathryn R.. Making Girls into Women – American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003
Sniader-Lansing, Susan. “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Language of Celebration,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 4.3 (Autumn, 1979): 39-46.