Essential to Barnes's whole literary corpus is a certain "positionless" quality, its generic and categorial uncertainty and its correlative unsettling of literary historical oppositions like modernism and postmodernism. Barnes captured well her peculiar lack of place in Eliot's "ideal order" of tradition, when she referred to herself as "the most famous unknown in the world?' Eliot's concept of tradition stressed the continuity and wholeness of that order; it was ill-equipped to deal with centrifugal works like Barnes's that manifested (in Paul Mann's words) a "counterhistorical force, a force pitched against its conscription by this or that masterplot." Moreover, Barnes treated skeptically, even satirically, Eliot's recommended means for entering tradition's monumental corridor. Her works are indeed rife with images of the "surrender of self," "self-sacrifice," "extinction of personality," "depersonalization"—the privileged terms in Eliot's poetics of impersonality. Yet they
call in question the aesthetic payoff that was to result in compensation. The processes that for Eliot would make the artistic monument find their disenchanted corollaries in Barnes as shell shock, psychic regression, and rigor mortis.
Barnes employs literary techniques akin to and in part derived from Joyce's flamboyant displays of style, Eliot's borrowings from literary history, and Pound's thematic montage of fragments. Yet her use of these modernist techniques far exceeds what Craig Owens calls the "self-critical tendency of modernism"—its self-reflexive and ironic fore-grounding of the literary device—and approaches the "deconstructive impulse" Owens sees as characteristic of postmodernism. Barnes's extreme stylistic mannerism and runaway figural language obtrude through her ramshackle large-scale forms, hinting at the radical loss of boundaries, the promiscuous blurting of categories, the setting in play of the signifier often associated with later postmodernism.
Implicit in her deconstructive impulse is an attack on the redemptive or recuperative mission attributed to artistic form (and by extension, autonomous art as a social practice) by modernist writers and critics. As Owens writes:
Postmodernism neither brackets nor suspends the referent but works instead to problematize the activity of reference. When the postmodernist work speaks of itself, it is no longer to proclaim its autonomy, its self-sufficiency, its transcendence; rather, it is to narrate its own contingency, insufficiency, lack of transcendence. . . . [A]s such, its deconstructive thrust is aimed not only against the contemporary myths that furnish its subject matter, but also against the symbolic, totalizing impulse which characterizes modernist art.
While Owens means to celebrate the postmodernist jettisoning of modernist pretensions, the disenchantment of modernism's redemptive myth may, ultimately, prove more melancholy than liberating. Modernism met a crucial psychological and ideological need for artists and intellectuals. It invested the artwork and the labor of making art with a value independent of its actual social functionality in modern capitalist society. To lose faith in the modernist myth was to recognize that art no longer had an essential function; that it could offer no comprehensive answers to spiritual, sexual, or social problems. It was to realize that the arcadia of the text or painting was not significantly different from anywhere else. Art offered no secure position from which to oppose oneself to the rest of the social world.
Barnes knowingly adopts this disenchanted loss of position and consciously explores it as a thematic concern. It follows, in her view, from the contingency of social life. Women, and hence women writers, are especially affected, for the "very Condition of Woman is so subject to Hazard, so complex, and so grievous, that to place her at one Moment is but to displace her at the next." At the same time, however, it also reflects an ontological condition, that purgatorial state of earthly existence similar to that in which Beckett's clowns wobble and wander (Barnes's syntax here likewise resembles the comic grammatical displays in Beckett's Watt ). As she concludes about women's lot:
Some have it that they cannot do, have, be, think, act, get, give, go, come, fight in anyway. Others that they cannot do, have, be, think, act, get, give, go wrong in any way, others set them between two Stools saying that they can, yet cannot, that they have and have not, that they think yet think nothing, that they give and yet take, that they are both right and much wrong, that in fact, they swing between two Conditions like a Bell's Clapper, that can never be said to be anywhere, neither in the Centre, nor to the Side, for that which is always moving, is in no settled State long enough to be either damned or transfigured. (LA , 48)
Barnes's style in this and similar passages partakes of both the uncanni-ness of a writing-machine, cranking out variation after variation of the verb phrase, and a tottering giddiness provoking laughter at the sentence's mechanical fits and starts. Its manner no longer serves to highlight technical finesse as the mark of an author's mind and hand, working in concert to transfigure shards of experience into riches of aesthetic form. Instead, it evinces the overpowering of intention by systematic constraints, of individuating style by depersonalized structures of grammar. This bumpy ride through grammatical space threatens at any moment to careen out of the controlling hands of the author, sending the whole work into the ravine. It is only through a precarious shifting from space to space, style to style, that one fends off this perilous artistic fate.
Barnes also enacts this loss of definite position through her representation of character. In his Theory of the Novel , Georg Lukács designated the typical condition of the modern novelistic character, whose subjective state was irreparably dissonant with the objective world, as "transcendentally homeless." Out of this dissonance, from the trans-formative interactions of character and context, the novelistic narrative unfolds. The problem of Barnes's characters, however, is not modernist
alienation, the self's "transcendental homelessness" in the world. It is rather a danger reflecting the new context of mass politics, economic slump, and urban violence in the late twenties and thirties—that both self and world will be eclipsed within a pure, placeless immanence: chthonic nature, mythic terror, the id, death, the night at the end of history. Not the suffering of individuation, experienced as Lukácsian homelessness, but the seduction of indifferentiation, a recession into the background, is their burden as characters.
Such a condition does not impel narrative progression; their passion leads to no redemption. It engenders instead stasis and recurrence, the fixation of characters in compulsive rounds. Thus Barnes's Dr. O'Connor, who is intimate with the "night," the "sea" that holds the faceless "fish" of impersonal sexual encounters, is depicted as both petrified and indistinct in shape—"a sort of petropus of the twilight" (N, 78), as he puts it. O'Connor elsewhere says of himself that "he's been everywhere at the wrong time and has now become anonymous" (N , 71). As it approaches its extreme, then, the placelessness that afflicts Barnes's characters threatens to become spatial dissolution and, as in Beckett, to affect their capacity to be nominated as textual personae, characters. O'Connor's nocturnal nomadism, his being "everywhere at the wrong time," portends the condition of anonymity, just as Molloy's wanderings prefigure his still more profound disintegration into the "Unnameable."
An alternative figure for the return to immanence (to be discussed at length later) is that of decapitation , a total loss of conscious agency and complete corporeal automatism. Already in her early journalism, Barnes had associated decapitation with another traditional image of automatism, one used likewise by Lewis and Beckett: the puppet. This figure serves her satirical designs, by comically deflating the gravity of human passions and sorrows and by enacting scenes of cruelty on bodies that can experience no pain. In a story printed in the Morning Telegraph on 8 July 1917, Barnes meditates on the untragic character of marionettes:
They say to each other, "Madame, how do you do—it is an exceedingly delightful day, the Bois is sunny, let us take a stroll," and when the stroll has been accomplished the young swain finds nothing to regret in the discovery that his inamorata has returned minus a head. He looks at her coquettishly . . . and thereupon proceeds to adore her in her new condition without sorrow and without regret.
Their passions are always more violent than their retribution, their
beginnings more fatal than their end; for them the beginning is struggle, mighty raisings of hands and creaking of joints and flourishing of swords, but their deaths are only defeat, not tragedy.
In her mature fiction, Barnes's static, stylized characters gesture repeatedly toward their semblables in the puppet world. The majority of Barnes's characterization, it is true, takes place this side of anonymous or acephalic limit-experience. Yet as her doomed figures approach a point of indifference with their inanimate ground (in language or in represented space), any possibility for tragic uplift declines into a laughable pathos of defeat. In their sleepwalking and compulsive action, Barnes's characters mock the modernist appeal to disinterested awareness as a means of rescuing the "profounder significance" of their doings. Barnes herself offers no redemption to her characters, not even a tragic one, but allows only a deconstructive margin of difference from them to emerge in her text: a mortifying laugh that, in its shock, may momentarily arrest their fatal course.