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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: October 2014

Afterword - Barnes and Beckett, Petropi of the Twilight

Summary

“Sometimes in a phrase the characters spring to life so suddenly that one is taken aback,” T. S. Eliot writes in his introduction to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), “as if one had touched a wax-work figure and discovered that it was a live policeman.” Eliot’s point is reiterated in this description of one of Barnes’s many characters, Count Onatario Altamonte: “‘The living statues,’ she said, ‘He simply adores them’” (N, 13). If the puppet impersonating the human provides an image of the poetics of decadence, so the artificial, post-natural, aftermath imaginary of its historical understanding is demonstrated extensively in this novel and centrally in the biographical fiction of her protagonist. In a family lineage of dubious (the German patronymic originates in “a Jew of Italian descent”) but ever declining title, Baron Felix Volkbein is a figure “born to holy decay” (N, 1, 107). He lives in the backward-oriented fantasy of his aristocratic background, centering a representation of the remnant temporality that provides for the poetic tempos as well as imaginative narratives in literary decadence. The repetition that fades in the poems of Swinburne and Rossetti, of Pound and of Eliot too, shows in the dissipating strength of the family name, whose doubtful origin also recalls the degraded state of originality itself in the attitudes and practices of decadent writing.

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