In Ghost Words and Invisible Giants, Lheisa Dustin engages psychoanalytic theory to describe the “language of suffering” of iconic modernist authors H.D. and Djuna Barnes, tracing disconnection, psychic splitting, and virulent thought patterns in creative works that have usually been read as intentionally enigmatic. Dustin imbricates Barnes and H.D.’s sense of tenuous psychic boundaries with others – parent figures, otherworldly and divine beings, and ambivalent or malignant love objects – in their creative brilliance, suggesting that the writers’ works stage – and also help manage – their psychic suffering in language in which signifier (the sound or image of the word) and signified (what it means) are radically disconnected. The cryptic and ineffable styles of these texts thus involve attempts to embody the meanings that cannot be expressed through language. Dustin reads two of H.D.’s later works as examples of language that does not differentiate words, thoughts, and people from one another, and instead tries to include everything in its formulations of meaning. However, H.D., she argues, also seeks an end to this mental proliferation– an end that she associates with the hallucinatory return of difference as such. In contrast, Dustin reads two novels by Barnes as invoking and denying childhood secrets through the use of fetishized words. To supplement her psychoanalytic readings, Dustin considers the authors’ familial and romantic histories and their broader social involvements or noninvolvement (for instance, H.D.’s Occultist practices and psychoanalytic sessions, Barnes’s fascination with spectacle and her later reclusion), rendering a detailed and compelling analysis of the forces at play beneath enigmatic, “difficult” modernist literary works. Read in this light, the spectral and otherworldly figures and strange patterns of expression appearing in H.D.’s and Barnes’s writing, and perhaps much or our writing, signal the traumatic content that it tries to negate.
Lheisa Dustin is an independent scholar.
Chapter 1: “Now it will soon be over”: Apocalyptic Closure in The Sword Went Out to Sea
Chapter 2: How phrase or how frame the problem?” Helen in Egypt’s Formless Question
Chapter 3: “Which is the holier?” Ryder’s (W)holes
Chapter 4: Ghost Words: Nightwood’s Cryptic Imperatives
In her bold and compelling Ghost Words and Invisible Giants, Lheisa Dustin provides both a systematic Lacanian reading of some of the most baffling texts of modernism, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Ryder, H. D.’s The Sword went out to Sea and Helen in Egypt, and an eloquent critical language aware of their proximity with psychosis and trauma—a capacious and non-dogmatic language capable of situating H.D. next to Freud’s President Schreber or of unraveling Barnes’s tangle of images haunted by transgenerational ghosts. Plumbed in its foreclosed crypts and deepest abysses, modernism opens up under the impact of a transsexualist jouissance verging on mysticism.
Lheisa Dustin draws on Lacanian theory, Buddhist thought and feminist scholarship to offer densely argued interpretations of work by H.D. and Djuna Barnes. Focusing particularly on the two women’s challenging use of language, Ghost Words and Invisible Giants acknowledges academic and spiritual sources while suggesting fresh ways of making sense of enigmatic linguistic tendencies and patterns. This study will be of particular interest to readers in literary modernism, spirituality and psychoanalytic theory.
Lheisa Dustin's brilliant, original study of H.D. and Barnes is much more than a work of literary scholarship. It is a penetrating investigation of the language of suffering, drawing from and making connections between modernist literature, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, Buddhist and Advaita philosophy and practice. A rich and moving book.
This work is beautifully written, carefully thought out. Scholarly and penetrating, it regards suffering with a steady, compassionate eye, letting visionary poets’ madness be just ordinary. In letting literary madness be, Dustin offers lively, textured, and illuminating readings of daunting modernist texts, and a new and important approach to the constellated issues of spirituality, the visionary, and the mad. A meticulously argued and compelling approach to modernist use of language based on attention to asymbolic modes of meaning.