Ryder is a multi-voiced, multi-faceted novel, a roman à clef by Djuna Barnes about her trauma, her family, her polygamist, free-loving father, her scamming, enabling grandmother, her sexual abuse as a child, and female oppression. “It covers fifty years of history of the Ryder family: Sophia Grieve Ryder, like Zadel a former salon hostess fallen into poverty; her idle son Wendell; his wife Amelia; his resident mistress Kate-Careless; and their children. Barnes herself appears as Wendell and Amelia’s daughter Julie.” (Wiki)
Ryder functions as a set of Matryoshka Dolls, the Russian Dolls. Each layer nests, and masks what I think is the heart of the story, Julie. Each layer moving inward, towards the center, towards Chapter 24: “Julie Becomes What She Has Read.”
The fantastic range of styles and voices may be merely a fan dance to distract the reader from the passages concerning sexuality and sexual abuse, or the plot in general.
As mentioned, Julie is based on Barnes, but the reader is only given little bits about her, creating a tremendous amount of distance between us and the character. And in 24, it is the only time we are given a Ryder event without a beginning.
If we are to look at Ryder with a psychoanalytic lens, we can uncover the language of a traumatized child, forced to fragment and flower her prose in order to censor the content, not only from the censors, but possibly from herself. These fragmented pieces, clipped memories, which she fled from, reoccur in her mind in an emotional order, a hierarchy of impact versus a hierarchy of time.
The subject of rape gets an entire chapter. “Rape Re-pining”. To pine is to suffer a physical decline from a broken heart, but to re-pine denotes some form of hope squeezed in between each occurrence of loss. Possibly meaning, multiple rapes. And when the specific sentences are closely looked at, deconstructed, the mystery of Wendell and Julie’s sexual congress could be extracted from the text.
(Within the parentheses are my interpretations, more interpretations like this below.)
“Yesterday (the previous chapter, “Wendell is Born”) swung upon the Pasture Gate (A reference to the Garden of Eden, a child’s genitalia) with Knowledge (Sophia is Greek for knowledge) no-where (to protect her as she tried to in Ch. 24), yet is now, to-day, no better than her mother (Amelia, whom Wendell clearly sleeps with).”
Assuming that Barnes is unveiling a scene of molestation within 24, the child Julie is faced with a contradiction, she must repress or she will go mad, and she must emotionally and intellectually deal with this, speak about it, or she will die. And in order for her to accomplish this, she splits herself and becomes Arabella Lynn, who’s destined for death, but then she also safely remains Julie. Barnes is using dream sequences to dramatize how the trauma of molestation results in a splitting off and disassociation within Julie’s psyche.
Julie also does this psychic trick with her father, who is split into God and Dog. And though in the end these two symbols seem to be interchangeable, the idea is to protect the good father from contamination from the bad.
To further this feeling of dislocation, Julie dislocates the reader, makes them feel ashamed at their confusion and anger towards the break with unexpected relationship between reader and text.
But this feeling of dislocation is not reserved for Julie’s chapters alone. Because the book is wrapped in veils, in layers, the reader is constantly kept at arm’s length.
The novel opens with a Biblical opus. Genesis. The Father was there from the beginning. To a child, the parents, the family and the home are the child’s only world they know. Just as in “The Coming of Kate-Careless, a Rude Chapter,” Wendell appears to his family, to Kate, naked, astride the opening to his log’s cabin second floor, his three legs form the Holy Trinity, the tripod over the trapdoor, as he says: “Look that you may know your destiny!” From the Bible to bawdy folklore.
Ryder incorporates the sermon, anecdote, tall tale, riddling, fable, elegy, dream, epitaph, vision, parable, tirade, bedtime story, lullaby, satiric couplet, parallel structuring, ghost story, debate, sentia or aphorism, and emblem or epitome activated as epiphany.
These stylistic juxtapositions, bring about an intense irony, one that unfathers the Father, questions the allotted gender roles, and turns the traditional values of the patriarchy on its head.
Ryder was written during a time when the social construction of motherhood was deteriorating, and the ideas of mothers and child bearing were in transition. Excessive childbearing was thought to be an epidemic. 23,000 women died through childbearing in 1918 alone. Just as Sophia’s mother did, and as Amelia threatened. In 1920 Margaret Sanger published Woman and the New Race, which presents the revolt of women against sex servitude; urging the benefits of limiting reproduction by voluntary motherhood. As a result, American women who married in the 20’s produced fewer children than those marrying in any decade between the 1880’s and the 1950’s. Because Julie Ryder is the only character that changes, thinks outside of the family, she serves as a sketch for the contemporary female in revolt, one who questions the traditional roles of Mother and Father assumed so self-consciously by Wendell and Sophia.
To do this, Barnes must bring the idealized Mother and Father down to earth. She must represent these archetypes as they are, their grotesque bodies, back down to the womb and the tomb. Barnes does this by epitomizing eating and shitting, sex and pregnancy, childbirth and physical decay. This puts the body in direct opposition to the classical canon of literature, the canon that Barnes is parodying.
In chapters like “What Kate Was Not” when Kate pours her chamber pot onto a police officer, or when Dr. Matthew O’Connor pontificates on his profession and his desires, “staring down into and up through the cavities and openings and fissures and entrances of my fellowman, and following some, and continuing others, and increasing many, and them swelling and opening and contracting and pinching like the tides of the sea, and me a mortal like the sea with my ebb and flow, and my good heart, and my thundering parts and my appetites and my hungers.”
This is Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the Carnivalesque. It refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the hegemony though humor and chaos. Named because during the Annual Feast of Fools, every rite and article of the Church, no matter how sacred, was celebrated in mockery.
Barnes was always a lover of the spectacle, of the carnival and the underbelly of society, and I’m suggesting that she’s setting out to do exactly this within her prose by taking the power of the father, be it Wendell, or God, or a conflation of the two, and subverting it by bringing down the idealized sexuality of the female body to the womb/tomb metaphor.
For Bakhtin, such images convey a sense of life in a vital, holistic relation to the world. Each character would then be fully open, an incomplete body, never a closed and complete unit, but in constant connection with the earth, within its process of change and renewal. Just as Amelia talks about in the A-Dunging chapter.
This also coincides with Wendell’s desires to break down the barriers between human and animal, celebrating the abundance and fertility of the earth itself, but this is a utopian ideal. To Barnes, for the woman, the emphasis falls on decay, pain, debasement and death.
The contradictory images of birth and death, and sexuality and childbirth are concentrated in Wendell’s story of Thingumbob. The female gives herself in love and undergoes birthing and death within the same moment.
The illustration of the beast and his bride, illuminate Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque. The beast is conglomerate animal, extending from the clouds, from above, from ideals, while the female is one with the earth. He is upon her, her which is predominantly a woman body, but with ten breasts and hooves instead of feet. There is then emphasis on the maternal breasts, ten breasts, ten babies, and there is a de-emphasis on the individuality of the woman, who has no face, no eyes, no feet, and as Sophia places a great emphasis on feet: “large feet and small feet have played a great part on the history of man.”
Together, the beast, and his bride convey the porous quality of the grotesque body. He as the rain, she as the harvest, tied to the earth, part of the renewal cycle which betrays the woman, using their bodies for pleasure, maternity, physical suffering, and death.
Barnes’ language is modernism at its best: gorgeous, pregnant, obscured, and alienated: Joycian, if Joyce were a woman. Both richly veiled and devastatingly deep, it’s down right shocking that she’s isn’t more well known.
Anaïs Nin writes to Djuna, “I have to tell you of the great, deep beauty of your Nightwood . . . . A woman rarely writes as a woman, as she feels, but you have.”
Here, below, is what I think Nin means when she says this. Here, below, are more examples of the genius behind Barnes’ layered prose.
Again, within the parentheses are my interpretations.
“Arabella Lynn, coming down the cold and pillared (death by phallus) stair, past (skips) the potted, odiferous, cyclomen (A Cyclamen Woman is one who has too frequent and too profuse of menstruation with the flow of black, clotted blood.)” 132
“Yet no sooner is Arabella laid beneath the unthinking sod than the thunders roll! The rain bursts in all its fury! … The heavens crack asunder, and the valleys are inundated! The fig tree fattens on the rain, and the fruit is whelmed.” 136.
“So Danae endured, the beautiful,
to change the glad daylight for brass-bound walls,
And in that chamber secret as the grave
She lived a prisoner. Yet to her came
Zeus in the golden rain.” -Greek Mythology
“Did I not her de-riding me?” 138
Deride. To insult. To not ride. To not be ridden. Not Ryder.
Which can only be a response to “Not I, not I, not I.”