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Beyond Difference: History, Affect, and Djuna Barnes's New Modernist Subject

Taylor, J.V. (2010) Beyond Difference: History, Affect, and Djuna Barnes's New Modernist Subject. PhD thesis, University of York.

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Abstract

This thesis examines the role of affect, subjectivity, and intertextuality in the major works of Djuna Barnes (1892-1982). I propose a theory of Barnes’s modernist textuality based on the traumatic structure of belated understanding; specifically, I consider how remembering trauma involves a re-enactment and witnessing of something that, paradoxically, did not exist prior to that re-enactment and witnessing. This structural logic provides a suggestive metaphor for Barnes’s performative re-iterations of literary history that have been diversely categorized as parody, pastiche, and satire. I suggest that Barnes is a modernist ‘witness’ whose performance of literary history enables us to see that history as if for the first time. This structure of witnessing, dependent on a notion of non-dichotomous difference, exceeds the affective dimensions of the traumatic scenario and can even, I argue, be used to describe Barnes’s understanding of happiness and the pleasure of the modernist reader. My thesis contributes to the critical understanding of how modernism may be conceived in terms other than a simple repudiation or continuation of literary history. Barnes’s witnessing includes literary history in its broadest sense, as she performs the histories often rejected by high modernists for their engagement with bodies and feelings and their association with a feminized mass culture, such as the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century. Chapter 1 examines traumatic testimony and witnessing in Barnes’s 1958 play, The Antiphon. I consider how Barnes engages ideas of theatricality, ritual, and ‘antiphony’ to capture the performative and affectively complex nature of traumatic memory. I consider how Barnes’s emphasis on the importance of the witness figure relates to her own ‘initiated’ readership of the literature of the past. In Chapter 2 I consider Barnes’s representation of the affective ambivalence of childhood trauma, and her equally ambivalent treatment of the figure of the abusive father, in her 1928 novel, Ryder. I also suggest that, through Ryder, Barnes ‘witnesses’ the sentimental tradition, allowing us to see its full complexity and richness. In Chapter 3 I discuss the ambivalent role of shame in Nightwood (1936), using Silvan Tomkins’s theory of the structural dependence of shame on initial positive affect. I observe the traces of pleasure within scenes of shame in the novel, consider the text’s embarrassing place in the modernist canon, and suggest that the novel might be regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’ of modernism. In Chapter 4 I consider the radically ubiquitous happiness of Ladies Almanack (1928). I suggest that the Almanack challenges Roland Barthes’s theories in The Pleasure of the Text by suggesting that happiness does not depend on novelty but can be understood as a dynamic reiteration of the past in the present. I also argue that Barnes turns to the logic of commodity and fashion culture to find a language for the pleasures of modernist textuality.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of York > English and Related Literature (York)
Depositing User: Ms J V Taylor
Date Deposited: 28 Jun 2010 12:41
Last Modified: 08 Aug 2013 08:44
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/908

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