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Modernity and Other Nocturnal Distempers


Self-published in 1928, the annus mirabilis of queer modernism, Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack is a landmark of sapphic modernity. As Susan S. Lanser notes in her introduction to a 1992 edition of Barnes’s idiosyncratic almanac, the text’s “lesbian cosmology” constitutes a radical revision of “Western culture, creating alternatives to patriarchal ritual, dogma, and myth.”[1] A portrait of the lesbian coterie loosely organized around Natalie Barney—“a mild satire on the somewhat shoddy ‘loves’ of present day Sapho’s [sic],” as Barnes would later describe the book—Ladies Almanack celebrates as well as satirizes a spectrum of queer forms of affiliation that upend normative expectations not only about gender and sexuality but about politics, history, and aesthetics as well. Indeed, although Barnes’s book falls outside the chronological purview of her recent The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830, Lanser’s earlier readings of Ladies Almanack would seem to serve as the perfect coda for her ambitious thesis that modernity, rather than consolidating a heteronormative and patriarchal order, might also be “read as the emergence of the sapphic as an epistemic plausibility.”[2] Of course, as relevant as Barnes’s modernist text might be to this argument, it is nonetheless worth considering the century that separates Barney’s Left Bank salon from the end of Lanser’s history of the sexuality of history. The year 1928, which saw not only the publication of the Almanack but also Barnes’s ribald and briefly best-selling novel Ryder, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, marks a revolutionary turning point in the representation of same-sex desire, but also belongs within the longue durée of the modern’s sapphic episteme. Ladies Almanack is at once an early example of late modernism and a late example of the early modern.

Which is perhaps just to say that it is a perfect example of queer modernism. Indeed, we might well wonder how much of the Almanack’s belatedness should be attributed to the queerness of Barnes’s book and how much to its modernism. One answer would suggest that this temporal paradox in fact marks the point at which sexual and aesthetic categories converge. As Heather Love notes, a perhaps surprising development in modernist studies over the past decades has been the way that queer modernism and modernism have come to seem nearly synonymous.[3] There are, of course, numerous reasons for this overlap, but one of the most compelling is the one we might call the badness paradigm, the widespread commitment to recalcitrant refusal of the here and now visible throughout the work of otherwise quite disparate figures. Refusing to accept modernity is often the chief way to be modernist; there are few things so modern as backwardness. It is, Love reminds us “a feature of even the most forward-looking modernist literature.”[4] As Vincent Sherry has argued, a crucial strain of modernism is “constituted by a still shockingly novel consciousness of backwardness,” a consciousness reflected in the persistent influence of decadence, degeneration, and decay—all terms, of course, shrouded by connotations of queerness.[5] Lee Edelman and others have underscored the way that same-sex desire, in its apparent refusal of reproductive futurity, poses an obstacle if not an outright threat to any progressive teleology.[6] Queerness is, in this sense, constitutively anti-modern, an insistent reminder that the promise of a brighter tomorrow is a ruse. Divorced from the deferrals of reproductive futurity, sexuality is consigned to the stratum of nature and biology, the irrational and inscrutable forces that resist the Enlightenment heroism of modernity. And yet, from Baudelaire’s damned women onwards, queer and marginalized figures have embodied the revolutionary energy of modernity even as they have been locked out of its promise.[7]

Is it necessary to untangle such recursive quandaries? As students of queer modernism do we need a working definition of queer modernity? Confusions about the queerness of modern and the modernity of queer might after all be seen as corroborations of Fredric Jameson’s axiomatic insistence that modernity is less a concept than a narrative category, a way of telling a certain kind of story.[8] The field of modernist studies has become, in part under the influence of queer and other forms of marginalized scholarship, far less invested in resolving these definitional paradoxes. And yet the stakes involved in the different stories that different visions of modernity unfold are worth considering. One story might narrate sexual modernity as a story about the consolidation of the hetero/homo binary, a story that is animated in no small degree by homophobia and the epistemology of the closet. Another might recount a more optimistic account of rights and freedoms expanding unevenly. A related story might simply equate sexual modernity and the sprawling dominion of global capital. These different stories all suggest different modernisms, as can be seen if one surveys recent criticism. Thus, as Hiram Pérez has recently argued, “gay modernity” is imbricated, even in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with forms of normalization and homonationalism, even as the same imperial dynamics create the conditions of possibility for the “queer modernities” that Fiona I. B. Ngô traces in the forms of metaphoric and literal migration animating the imaginations of the Jazz Age.[9] It is not simply that modernity is a concept without any specific ideological content, or that there are in fact multiple competing modernities. Instead there seems to be something about the sexuality of modernity that propagates these dichotomies, veering between the hyper- and the anti-social and promising a break with the past even as it binds us more fully to history.

One of the ways we might approach queer modernism would be by taking the particular paradoxes of modernist aesthetics as a an attempt to relate to the impossible contradictions of sexual modernity–at once backward and avant-garde, emblematic and yet excluded. Reading Barnes in conjunction with Lanser we see the productive (but still painful) tensions that arise from the sapphic as a mode of queerness at once revolutionary and retrograde, a contradiction that makes queerness the nucleus of debates about the very meaning of modernity.  During the years covered in Lanser’s The Sexuality of History, stretching from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the sapphic had “repeatedly presented itself as modern even when it has entangled itself in ancient tropes.” This “recurrent novelty,” at once always and yet never modern, is a demonstration of “the degree to which sapphic subjects continued to confound epistemic assumptions and yet kept demanding attention because modernity could not set their logic aside. This perverse inability of the social imaginary to resolve or reject the sapphic signals its complex potential to mark both social upheaval and social harmony” (245). The sapphic is an irresolvable problem for modernity because it seems to both belong and to be excluded from its internal logics. It is important that Lanser finds in the modern the emergence not only of the possibility of the sapphic, but of its plausibility (a word that shares a root with applause), its emergence as a logic, as a form of reason and reasonableness. Queerness is not simply an obstacle to the modern’s imagination of the social, it also promises, at least in theory, forms of association and affiliation that may in fact be emblematic of the very structure of modernity itself.

The complicated history Lanser uncovers would seem to require a very peculiar aesthetic, a fact that helps explain the willful anachronism that marks both the form and content of Barnes’s curious book. At first glance, an almanac, an artifact devoted to the natural world and to the collective, often anonymous wisdom of tradition, hardly appears revolutionary. Or, rather, it is a document invested in all the wrong sorts of revolutions: the epicycles of the zodiac, the turning of the seasons. Along with its archaic spelling, the book’s full title advertises its commitment to forms of temporality that do not fit in with the frenetic momentum of the modern: Ladies Almanack, showing their Signs and their tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers. Pointing back to the eighteenth-century publication The Ladies’ Diary; or, Woman’s Almanack, the title aligns Barnes with cycles and repetitions, with the natural world, associations that have long been, according to Rita Felski, the backdrop against which accounts of modernity as masculine, heroic, and rational have defined themselves.[10] Even beyond its calendrical structure and antiquated title, the book is oriented toward the distant past, aping the prose of early modern texts like Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and illustrated with images hand-copied and traced from L'Imagerie Populaire, an omnibus of woodcuts that had themselves been copied and recopied for centuries. Ladies Almanack goes out of its way, in other words, to make the revolutionary “emergence of the sapphic” appear as old-fashioned as possible. This belatedness might be taken as a confirmation of the argument that women and same-sex desire both stand outside the modern. But on the level of its form the book also insists that queer social arrangements like those of the Barney circle have always in fact been a part of the history of the modern.

“February,” an early section of the book, announces, “This be a Love Letter for a Present, and when she is Catched, what shall I do with her?”[11] This initial confession and quandary sets up what seems like a standard instance of that core modernist dilemma, one framed in specifically aesthetic and Baudelairean terms: how to capture the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent, how to make it new (a motto that even Ezra Pound stole from an ancient washbasin).[12] But the narrator goes on to suggest that her aesthetic dilemma is extra-aesthetic as well, identifying this present as “an Old Girl, out of Fashion,” a woman whose sexual experience presents “a very Parcel of Perplexities! Shall one stumble on a Nuance that twenty Centuries have not pounced upon, yea worried and made a Kill of?” (Barnes, Ladies Almanack, 14–15). Despite the modernist’s revolutionary bluster, the present is already old-fashioned. And yet its age and experience makes it that much harder to please. New pleasures are hard to come by, and it seems that the narrator’s sole possible amorous offering is the work of her imagination. For the artist of modern life, catching the present in all of its nuance is nearly unthinkable but all the more urgent because it is a task driven by an erotic imperative. “Love hath been too long a time,” the text bemoans, insisting with a seemingly anti-modern despair that there is nothing new under the sheets (15).

This dilemma is at the heart of Barnes’s relation to the modern. As Tyrus Miller explains in his seminal account, Ladies Almanack stages a confrontation between a positive vision of “modernity’s welcome erosion of patriarchal, filiative authority” and “the melancholy time-consciousness that is modernity’s shadow.”[13] The ambivalence of Barnes’s work leaves open the question of whether this melancholia is the shadow or the substance of modernity. Her anatomy of nocturnal distempers, here as in Nightwood, resists the distinction between rationality and embodiment underwriting conceptions of modernity that oppose it to nature and its cycles—including the repetitions, insistent drives, and compulsions of sexuality. Her work resonates instead with accounts that see these alternative forces as intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the modern. Dana Seitler, for instance, insists that “modernity is an atavism,” by its very nature a way not only of relating to the future but to its ancestral pasts, pasts especially likely to manifest their presence through the embodied experience of the sexual.[14] As Jennifer Fleissner explains in her account of the gender and sexuality of literary naturalism, the modern transformation of nature into an -ism works to precipitate a characteristic literary structure that might also be seen throughout Barnes’s oeuvre as well: “neither the steep arc of decline nor that of triumph, but rather by an ongoing, nonlinear, repetitive motion—back and forth, around and around, on and on—that has the distinctive effect of seeming also like a stuckness in place.”[15] Fleissner’s point is that, if one shifts one’s view away from the standard, surprisingly sentimental masculinist accounts of modernity, these stories of stuckness come into focus as being endemically modern.

Such stuckness might be seen as characteristic of a major strand of queer modernism. The frenetic immobility of such narratives is certainly visible throughout Barnes’s career, manifesting itself in relation to her depictions of sexuality and embodiment with particular force in the ekphrastic rhetoric of still-motion that structures Nightwood.[16] Beset not only by the torments of desire but also by the impossible impositions of public fascination and phobia, the lesbians of Ladies Almanack are pinioned in just this sort of excruciating in-betweenness:

Some have it that they cannot do, have, be think, act, get, give, go come, right 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 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 damned or transfigured. (48)

The sapphic seems to be defined as an object of continual argument. This combination of excitement and disapproval structures the relation between queerness and modernity, explaining that the lesbian can be, as Walter Benjamin contends, the “heroine of modernity” and yet still remain consigned to purgatory.[17] “It is this, perhaps,” the almanac concludes, “that has made them too fine for Hell and too swift for Heaven” (Barnes, Ladies Almanack, 48).

Ladies Almanack closes amidst the pentacostal fire of this predicament with the December death of the book’s patron saint (and Barney avatar), Evangeline Musset. As Kathryn R. Kent argues, Barnes’s book is a meditation on the mass reproduction of the lesbian as an identity category, and Evangeline’s evangelism is made especially evident with her death.[18] In preparation for her parting, Musset proclaims, “‘Now I leave behind me, to those who shall follow, I Much mistake my Prowess in these ripe Days of my Life . . . many Mourners of many Races and many Tempers, and as they loved me differently in Life so I would have them plan differently for me in Death” (82). After her death, scores of mourners mark her funeral with whatever rites seem to them most appropriate—some with burial, some with fire, some with every manner of lamentation:

And so it was that they hurried on and laid her in the Earth of a little Village, and then they put her deep, and Women who had not told their Husbands everything, joined them. And there was veiled Face downcast, and bare Face upturned, and some lamenting sideways and some forward, and some who struck their Hands together, and some who carried them one on one. (84)

When her body is finally set aflame on its funeral pyre, all is immolated but her tongue—“and this flamed, and would not suffer Ash.” Into her own afterlife, her tongue thus lives on to delight her followers: “the sounds of Skirts swirled in haste, and the Patter of much running in feet, but Senorita Fly-About came down upon that Urn first, and beatitude played and flickered upon her Face, and from under her Skirts a slow smoke issued though no thing burned” (84). Musset’s funereal rites read as an ecstatic and eroticized anticipation of Auden’s lingual elegy for Yeats, in which “the death of the poet was kept from his poems” by “mourning tongues.” As an instrument of cunnilingus as well as confession, however, the tongue signifies a kind of poetry that absolutely makes things happen. As Lanser explains, Musset’s apotheosis is a reclamation of both the lesbian body and the lesbian voice (“Speaking in Tongues,” 165).

The concluding altar of Ladies Alamanack is thus a confirmation of Elizabeth Freeman’s brilliant reading of Nightwood, which sees Barnes as revitalizing the corporeality of the sacraments, resisting a history of sexuality organized chiefly around confession. Freeman rewrites the negativity and pessimism of Nightwood through the lens of the sacramental, insisting that what Barnes offers is a queerness defined not by the so-called antisocial thesis but rather something much more akin to a “hypersocial thesis grounded in Baptism and the Eucharist as figures for a radically corporealized relationality, an inhabitation by and for the Other.”[19] Barnes reaches back into premodern time in order to revivify modes of relating to other people and other bodies in ways that obviate interpersonal and temporal boundaries.  On the one hand this project might be taken to be distinctively antimodern, but on the other the drive to recuperate these counterhistories is itself a distinctively modern possibility. “Preoccupation with tradition and interpretation of tradition as an age-old ritual is,” as Svetlana Boym reminds us, “a distinctively modern phenomenon, born out of anxiety about the vanishing past.”[20]

The fact that we cannot say whether the text is modern or antimodern, whether it celebrates the forms of sociability it sketches or skewers them, or whether it is promoting or pillorying its queerness is thus ultimately proof that the text is in fact queer and modern. Indeed, the modernity of Ladies Alamanack might ultimately rest with its epistemological uncertainty. As an apparent (though contested) roman à clef, the text seems to offer insider knowledge of an exclusive coterie. But of course, Barnes’s willful eccentricity of language and form refuse such knowledge, making the book a beautiful example of the anti-hermeneutic modernism Scott Herring identifies running throughout Barnes’s work. Along similar lines, Daniela Caselli argues that Ladies Almanack flirts with secrecy not in order to titillate but to call attention to the ways its readers are implicated in its own distempers, producing an improper modernism that offers no consoling certainties about whether its project is revolutionary or not. Such modernism is queer in the specific sense that it refuses specification, it taunts readers’ possibly prurient desires for sexual knowledge and classifications. “The closer critics examine such works,” Herring explains, “the less the texts reveal and the more they annoy.”[21]

Works like Barnes’s thus ultimately underscore one of the most important implications of paying attention to the sexuality of modernity: the way that such an attention necessitates an examination of the way that doing the history of sexuality is inevitably to be a part of that history, shaped in ineluctable ways by our own desires and identifications, our own vexed relation to what we want from history. Explaining her tenacious fascination with Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Eve Sedgwick suggests that “[t]he jokes that stick in people’s minds are the ones they don’t quite get.”[22] This might explain the ambiguous and confounding power of Barnes’s sexuality of history. “The problem with Ladies Almanack,” Caselli admits, “is that one laughs, but one is not quite sure what one is laughing about.”[23] Sedgwick’s point about Foucault is that his book is animated by a “charismatic rhetorical force” that promises an escape that its own argument makes impossible (Touching Feeling, 11). The joke, in other words, is mostly on queer theorists, who cannot help but become entangled in the rhetoric of the repressive hypothesis. The legacy of this entanglement is central to the history of sexuality, and no one describes and enacts this paradox better than Barnes, whose modernism is queer in its always sometimes never being modern.


[1] Susan Sniader Lanser, “Introduction to Djuna Barnes,” Ladies Almanack (New York: New York University Press, 1992), xxxix. See also, Susan Sniader Lanser, “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire,” in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 156–69.

[2] Susan S. Lanser, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 5.

[3] Heather Love, “Introduction: Modernism at Night,” PMLA 124, no. 3 (2009): 744–48, 744.

[4] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 6.

[5] Vincent Sherry, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 92.

[6] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[7] See Love, Feeling Backward and Elisa Glick, Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009).

[8] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2002).

[9] See, among many other possible examples of alternative and potentially contradictory accounts of queer modernity: Hiram Pérez, A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire (New York: New York University Press, 2015); and Fiona I. B Ngô, Imperial Blues: Geographies of Race and Sex in Jazz Age New York (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[10] Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[11] Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanack (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 14.

[12] Michael North, Novelty: A History of the New (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 164.

[13] Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 144.

[14] Dana Seitler, Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 1.

[15] Jennifer L. Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 9.

[16] I discuss this stuckness at work in Nightwood in Brian Glavey, The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality, and Queer Ekphrasis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 49–77.

[17] Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” in Selected Writings, vol. 4: 1938–1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 3–92, 56.

[18] Kathryn R. Kent, Making Girls into Women: American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[19] Elizabeth Freeman, “Sacra/Mentality in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood,” American Literature 86, no. 4 (2014): 737–65, 744.

[20] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 19.

[21] Scott Herring, Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 21.

[22] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 9.

[23] Daniela Caselli, Improper Modernism: Djuna Barnes’s Bewildering Corpus (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2009), 39.