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Towards Gothic Modernism

  • Avril Horner
  • Sue Zlosnik

Abstract

Both George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894) and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) focus on Paris as an arena in which identities in process can be played out. As a quintessentially ‘modern’ European city, Paris became, from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, associated with metamorphosis and experimentation. It is thus an appropriate setting for the plots of these two novels which, in their depiction of gender, national identity, urban space and a godless world, indicate a movement into the late phase of modernity. However, whereas du Maurier’s text anticipates the vital importance of such issues for the twentieth century (despite setting them back in time in the 1850s), Barnes’s novel deals with their outcome on the eve of the Second World War. Both texts use Gothic tropes and devices to represent the anxieties associated with twentieth-century Europe; both use the comic Gothic turn as a means of engaging with such anxieties in a more ambivalent manner than ‘horror’ Gothic; both are written on the cusp of important social, political and cultural historical moments; both present the city space as a place of liberation in its embrace of the flâneur and the bohemian.

Keywords

Late Modernity Ambiguous Representation City Space Conventional Society Terminal Decline 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Neil R. Davison, ‘“The Jew” as Homme/Femme-Fatale: Jewish (Art)ifice, Trilby and Dreyfus’, Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, and Society 8, 2–3 (2002), p. 75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1936; London: Faber & Faber, 1985), p. 12. All page references, which will hereafter appear in the text, are to this edition.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Jane Marcus, ‘Laughing at Leviticus: Nightwood as Woman’s Circus Epic’ in M.L. Broe (ed.), Silence and Power: A Re-evaluation of Djuna Barnes (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), pp. 221–250 for a reading of the novel that sees it as exploring the political unconscious of the rise of fascism. Marcus uses Kristevan theory to make her case but she does not discuss the novel’s Gothic qualities. Interestingly, however, she does note a Hoffmannesque element in Nightwood, which might well derive from Barnes’s reading of Huysmans’s Against Nature (A Rebours), in which the Olympia of Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ is invoked.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For a fascinating study of mesmerism in the nineteenth century, see Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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  6. 6.
    Dennis Denisoff, ‘“Men of My Own Sex”: Genius, Sexuality, and George du Maurier’s Artists’ in Richard Dellamora (ed.), Victorian Sexual Dissidence (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 153.Google Scholar
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    George du Maurier, Trilby (1894; London: J.M. Dent, 1992), p. 253 (all page references, which will appear hereafter in the text, are to this edition).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 63–69 for an account of Dracula’s literary antecedents. Interestingly, Neil R. Davison sees echoes of the vampire in the figure of Svengali: ‘The Jewish homme/femme fatale now becomes something akin to the lesbian vampire, examining Trilby’s mouth, tongue and chest cavity as seemingly metaphors for the vagina, clitoris, and womb’ (‘“The Jew” as Homme/Femme-Fatale’, p. 95).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Trilby’s reception is well documented in J.L. and J.B. Gilder, Trilbyana (New York: Critic Company, 1895) and in Edward L. Purcell, ‘Trilby and Trilby-mania: The Beginning of the Best-Seller System’, Journal of Popular Culture (Summer 1977), pp. 62–76. Daniel Pick speculates as to whether it was ‘the novel’s complicity with anti-semitism, the charm of its picture of Bohemia, its fascination with mesmerism, or the mournful and melancholic rendition of a lost Paris’ which made it so popular in ‘Powers of Suggestion: Svengali and the Fin-de-Siècle’ in Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus (eds), Modernity, Culture and ‘the Jew’ (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), p. 119.Google Scholar
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    Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 130.Google Scholar
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  14. 13.
    Elaine Showalter (ed.), Introduction to Trilby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. xvii.Google Scholar
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    Elaine Showalter (ed.), Trilby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. xxii.Google Scholar
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    Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 13–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 86.Google Scholar
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    Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 16. It is worth noting here that the representation of mesmerism and the unconscious in Trilby resonates interestingly with Freudian thought. In 1892, Freud brought out a translation of Bernheim’s study of hypnosis and in the same year began to incorporate hypnosis into his treatment of ‘hysterical’ women patients. However, rather than absorbing mesmerism into the discourse of psychoanalytic enquiry as does Freud, du Maurier uses it to represent the artistic Other, identifying it as unheimlich, simultaneously acknowledging, as does Freud’s work, the untapped powers of the unconscious in the creation of art.Google Scholar
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    Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 377.Google Scholar
  24. 37.
    Richard Kelly notes that by the 1890s du Maurier had espoused an ‘aggressive agnosticism’ which found its most explicit form in didactic attacks on Christianity in the novels, especially in The Martian (Richard Kelly, The Art of George du Maurier, [Hants: Scolar, 1996], p. 22).Google Scholar
  25. 38.
    Elaine Showalter (ed.), Trilby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. xv.Google Scholar
  26. 42.
    According to Philip Herring, Barnes had read Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit in the early 1930s. See Philip Herring, The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes (New York: Viking, 1995), p. 219. Interestingly, Jane Marcus notes that the Times Literary Supplement review of Nightwood likened its ‘sickness of the soul’ to that of Celine’s experimental novel (‘Mousemeat’ in Mary Lynn Broe (ed.), Silence and Power: A Re-Evaluation of Djuna Barnes [Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 1991]), p. 196. For a more detailed discussion of Barnes’s debts to French literature, especially Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror and Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit,Google Scholar
  27. see Avril Horner, ‘“A Detour of Filthiness”: French fiction and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood’ in A. Horner (ed.), European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760–1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 230–250.Google Scholar
  28. 44.
    There has, however, been some critical resistance to seeing Nightwood as a Gothic work. Bonnie Kime Scott notes that the novel ‘has been called, alternatively, surrealistic, Eliotic, Dantesque, fugal, Elizabethan, baroque, even gothic’ (our italics) and Diane Chisholm argues for the novel’s debts to surrealism rather than the Gothic tradition. See, respectively, Bonnie Kime Scott (ed.), The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 23Google Scholar
  29. and Diane Chisholm, ‘Obscene Modernism: Eros Noir and the Profane Illumination of Djuna Barnes’, American Literature, Vol. 69, No. 1 (March 1997), especially p. 185. This refusal to acknowledge the strong Gothic legacy evident within Nightwood perhaps derives from a too limited conception of the Gothic genre.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 46.
    Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 4.Google Scholar
  31. 47.
    Nora’s recollections of her grandmother are clearly based on Djuna Barnes’s memories of her unusually close relationship with her own grandmother, Zadel Barnes. For documentation (and two different readings) of this relationship, see Phillip Herring, ‘Zadel Barnes: Journalist’ and Anne B. Dalton, “This is Obscene”: Female Voyeurism, Sexual Abuse, and Maternal Power in The Dove’, both in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Fall 1993), pp. 107–116 and 117–139, respectively.Google Scholar
  32. 49.
    As Janet Wolff points out, in the early twentieth-century artistic communities of Paris, such as Montparnasse, ‘an active lesbian subculture produced its own gender inversion, in terms of behaviour and dress’, which allowed for the subversion of conventional bourgeois codes of behaviour. Janet Wolff, ‘The Artist and the Flâneur: Rodin, Rilke and Gwen John in Paris’ in Keith Tester (ed.), The Flâneur (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 126.Google Scholar
  33. 50.
    While Jane Marcus is no doubt right to suggest in her article, ‘Laughing at Leviticus’, that the depiction of the circus as well as the opera in Nightwood indicates Barnes’s Rabelaisian spirit and her desire to embrace low as well as high culture, it is worth remembering that there is in French art, as Nicholas White points out in his introduction to J.-K. Huysman’s Against Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), a tradition of representing circus performers as objects of (sometimes forbidden) desire (as in the work of Degas, Rops and Seurat), which Barnes — well read in French art and literature — clearly exploited.Google Scholar
  34. 51.
    The quotation is from T.W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 42Google Scholar
  35. and is cited in David Frisby, ‘The Flâneur in Social Theory’ in Keith Tester (ed.), The Flâneur (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 91.Google Scholar
  36. 53.
    Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900–1940 (London: Virago Press, 1987, 1994).Google Scholar
  37. 54.
    See Charles Baudelaire, ‘The painter of Modern Life’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne (1863; Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1964).Google Scholar
  38. 55.
    Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1973), p. 36.Google Scholar
  39. 56.
    Cited in Rob Shields, ‘Fancy footwork: Walter Benjamin’s notes on flânerie’ in Keith Tester (ed.), The Flâneur (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 62.Google Scholar
  40. 59.
    See Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, ‘Strolling in the Dark: Gothic Flânerie in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood’ in Andrew Smith and Jeff Wallaces (eds), Gothic Modernisms (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 78–94 for a fuller discussion of this aspect of Barnes’s novel.Google Scholar
  41. 60.
    Nancy J. Levine and Marian Urquilla, introduction to The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Special Issue on Djuna Barnes ed. Levine and Urquilla Vol. 13, No. 3 (Fall 1993), p. 9.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Avril M. Horner and Susan H. Zlosnik 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Avril Horner
  • Sue Zlosnik

There are no affiliations available

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