For this letter to be successful, I’m afraid that I must wield an enormous amount of candor and very little of its opposite number, discretion. One thing must be known from the start: I don’t think you were very nice. This opinion isn’t a condemnation.
You’d agree, I’m confident, if you could, that pleasantness in women is overrated. I’m equally happy to dispense with the intellectually suspect idea that one must like someone to appreciate or respect their creativity. Mentors and Muses do not belong on pedestals, gleaming under truth-bending rays of light. The perfection of character is not only unnecessary; it is a hindrance to the real business at hand. Making art is a human endeavor, and human we must remain if we are to be successful.
I am grateful for your troublesome qualities. I praise your irascibility and contemptuousness with the same breath that I accept my severity and selfishness.
“A man is whole only when he takes into account his shadow as well as himself–and what is a man’s shadow but his upright astonishment?” you wrote.
Djuna: rebel-creative, giver of few damns, loud master of your peculiar voice. You insisted on making things-words, drawings, scenes-when polite women kept those impulses to themselves. Polite you were not! Hallelujah! A hundred years on, and The Book of Repulsive Women still makes people uncomfortable. You knew that it wasn’t your job to soothe the sensibilities or intellects of readers or to keep their cheeks blush-free. You fought for the truth of your creativity, even when that truth was polarizing, weird, ugly, shameful. You fought for the truth of your creativity because anything less would have been a lie. And what astonishingly beautiful words you used in doing so.
There is something faintly frightening about you, even after the removal of death and the passing of decades. It keeps the most ardent admirer on their toes. You’re not quite safe literary company. Where is the warmth, the coziness, the illusion? I’ve never seen someone reading one of your books in public, on a bus or park bench. I know they do; they must. It is comforting to think that your word-mayhem is being unleashed into someone’s consciousness at this moment. Perhaps they are across the world, or just across the street. You push a reader to the limits. You push me, too. The stony coldness of the grave hasn’t softened anything.
I spend a substantial amount of time writing about rather obscure dead people, most of them women. Dead writers, dead artists, dead actors, dead muses. Dead, dead, dead. Like you, yet so utterly unlike you. Djuna, your bitterness disguised a zest for experience and a fearless demand for artistic expression. Life was not easy for you, but it was long. It was long, but it was not without reward: Ryder, Ladies Almanack, Nightwood, Creatures in an Alphabet.
As a writer, you’ve taught me a couple of fine lessons. One: Write what needs to be written, however odd. Anything else is a conjurer’s smokescreen. Two: It’s okay to make people uncomfortable. This knowledge is pure freedom. When I listen to my authentic writing voice, I feel its essential weirdness. It comes from my brain, of course, but also stirs deep within the belly. This voice, my voice, bellows forth from veins and organs and pores. This voice, my voice, whispers from bits of wrinkled skin and broken bones and torn fingernails. This voice, my voice, sees the world through open eyes. Eyes that were opened, in part, by you. Thank you.
P.S.-It’s thoroughly appropriate that you would probably hate this letter. I like that.