Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 16 • Winter 2005 • Featured Lodestar Writer • Interview

The Confessions of Helen Westley

Djuna Barnes

Helen Westley

"Hello, is this Miss Barnes?"


"This is Helen Westley."

"Ah, how do you do?"

"I want to be interviewed again."

"Very well; I shall meet you at three-thirty at the Brevoort."

I am there at three-thirty precisely. I order something "with a cherry in it" and await the appearance of the strange person of the Washington Square Players; and soon she appears, walking easily and wearing another of those adored, secondhand gowns; a secondhand book is under her arm, and she smiles, showing her thirty-two perfect teeth.

"Tout passe, mon ami," she murmurs as she takes the seat before me, shaking her earrings and thrusting the book upon the table. It is Murray's History of Greek Literature, and she knows it looks well.

"Dusty books," she begins, as she orders oatmeal (which of course can't be ordered at this hour), "are my one real passion. New books are like young girls -- fit for nothing. A secondhand book is like a person who has traveled; it is only when a book has been handled by several persons and has become dirty that it's fit for contemplation. You feel that it has graduated, that it has something larger and more cosmopolitan about it -- oh, well!" She began to laugh. "Ah, to be young and beautiful! Now, I am beautiful and you are young; I can never be again what you are, and you in all probability will never be what I am, so after all I have the advantage of you -- no oatmeal? How perfectly preposterous! Very well, bring me a highball.

To continue: to be young, to be beautiful -- how mournful, how sad, how ironical. When I was young I was full of dreams of love, of passion, of idealism, of green, green youth. People called me interesting, but they were a little afraid of me. It is simple enough: I was too eager, too full of curiosity, too vital -- too unlovely. Now --," she stretched her thin, long hand out and finished, "-- now I am terribly interesting, terribly original, very talented, beautiful, as I said, but -- I am no longer a child. Now I have repose; now I can wait, now I can reflect; now I am capable of youth, but not capable of a few years -- that is the pitiful thing."

"Some advice for young actors would come in here very nicely."

"There isn't any advice. You might as well tell a child to be fifty years old when born. You can't advise, you can only tell of your own case -- and anyway, if we are honest, our own case always interests us much more than the affairs of others.

"Well, I shall die as I was born -- very thoughtful, full of ennui. That is the one great quality. Ah, Buddhism, China, Persia -- races of ennui, not races of men. The history of the world has been one not of conquest, as supposed; it has been one of ennui. Why do we fall in love? Because we are filled with ennui. Why do we fall and break our limbs? Because of ennui. Why do we fall ill and remain unconscious for hours? Ennui, my dear. Ennui sends us to our death; ennui sends us to the battlefields; ennui sends us through the world, and ennui takes us out of it. If this were not so, do you suppose for a moment that we would permit ourselves to fall in love once we had heard of its effects? Do you presume to imagine that we would fight in battle, knowing well death awaited us, if it were not for ennui? The only mistake we make is not to submit to ennui. We struggle against the term, but not against the fact. The greatest people have been oppressed by it. To fall, my dear, is to submit to gravity, to let go, and all the so-called great events of history have been a series of falls. Napoleon climbed only because he understood the value of a greater fall over a lesser fall; that's the real incentive to ambitions of all kinds. In five years I shall be a very famous and wonderful actress, in all probability. I know the value of a long fall; I am a super-ennuian, if I might coin a new word."

"A little faster with your youth, Helen."

"To me Boston is my youth. I went there to study oratory. I felt sure that recitations were my forte. Then I made my first appearance before a Brooklyn city club. I remember to this day the polite and frozen faces in the front rows and the general air of pity that permeated the whole place. I was in despair -- and right in the middle of 'The brave house of Tarquin shall suffer wrongs no more,' I knew that I had made my first and last appearance before any audience of that kind under such ambitions. Then I was thinking, feeling. I married; I put my youth behind me at an early age because youth is the age when thinking and feeling have their largest hold, and I wanted to be doing."

"Advice here."

"Well, I should advise young, aspiring women to live their lives first, to get through with their emotional training soon, and to do their thinking and reading. Then, afterward, comes the time for calm, unemotional observation -- a snake --"

"A little too early for the snake, I think."

"No; by all means, let the snake enter here. What is the fascination in contemplating a snake?"

"Well, what?"

"The snake -- ergo -- there you have it -- you philosophize about life, you muddle with your paints, your tapestries and your incense. And so young America, as young France or young Germany did before it, dries up -- that part of these countries that indulged in this alone, I mean to say. Oscar Wilde and a few minor poets and poseurs got away with it, but in the end the lesser artificials lose all their knack. Their deftness leaves them with nothing but facility, and felicity is gone forever. Now, go to the snake, a little more Baudelairean and Wildeish than anyone can be, and you find that the snake, after all, is like, is change, and in all its moods is a little more remarkable than such artists can ever be. I say, go to life, study life. Sit on a sidewalk and contemplate the sewer, the billposters, the street cleaners, the pedestrians, anything -- but go there before you go to Chinatown to buy embroidery."

"Do you often sit on the sidewalk, Miss Westley?"

"I do. If doctors would prescribe sidewalks instead of pills and hot water, how much better off we should be."

"Really, you have a dirt complex, as Freud would say."

"Yes, a dirt complex. Isn't dirt really wonderful? That sounds like Hermione, but I mean it. She says those things because she is so neat and tidy and smug, and I say it because I am dingy and broad-minded and remarkable and subtle."

"Can you face real trouble?"

"Absolutely. Give me despair, and I am at my best. Give me sorrow, and only then are my shoulders worthy of me -- at renouncing, for instance. Where have I learned this trick of the half-turned shoulder, the cold, drooping eyes? Through sorrows and difficulties. There's nothing like it for developing the figure and making one supple; it's better than dancing or swimming. Oh, yes, I can face all things."

"How do you take death?"

"My dear, place a corpse in front of me, and then -- and then only -- do I touch my divine height of splendid simplicity. I say, 'Toute passe -- did she die well?' If the answer is, 'No, she died very badly, and without hauteur and finesse,' I say, 'Permit me one moment, that I may disapprove of her.' If the answer is, 'Verily, she passed as calmly and as genteelly as a lady laying down her gloves,' I shall say with a gesture, 'Pass on; she has nothing further to learn.'"

"And joys, how do you react to them?"

"I laugh a little, looking around to see that no one else laughs a little better."

"You are a clever woman, Miss Westley."

"I am, but only within the past years -- three or five -- have I come to my real self. Apropos of that, poverty is a terrible thing."

"In what way?"

"It hangs before one's soul like a black curtain and behind one's body another equally black, throwing the one into obscurity and the other into relief. That is very bad for the formation of a personality."

"Then you suffered it?"

"Oh, yes. I did not grow under that. Not until I knew for certain where my next meal would come from could I give myself up to ignoring that next meal; I could think of other things."

"What do you think of the theatres in America?"

"I think that our greatest hope lies in the little theatre, though, of course, the regular theater is improving. The little theatre does give a person a certain impetus, however. An unknown actor has a better chance, as has an unknown playwright, for the simple reason that in the little theatre movement an actor does not have to star and a playwright is only one of three or four other playwrights on a bill -- making the risk of failure nothing of great importance, as it is when the whole evening is given over to just the one performance."

"I see."

"And then there is my future -- you want to hear about that, don't you?"

"Yes, I think I know what is in the future for you."

"Do you really?" Here Helen Westley turned her strange eyes on me.

"Oh yes. You say you were born in Brooklyn -- good, you will return to Brooklyn."

"Do you consider that my future? How horrible!"

"Not so fast. Brooklyn is only the beginning of your future; I am positively certain that you will take to wearing shawls and comforting yourself with hot water bottles."

"More horrible and more horrible!"

"Exactly, but that is not all -- in the end you will return to that same thing that you had your beginning in -- religion. Am I right?"

"Yes, you are right. But it will not be the usual religion; it will be something oriental and mystic."

"Probably one has to suit one's religions to one's complexion, and yours is oriental."

"Thank you, you are probably right again. Yes, religion, but it will be something Chinese -- perhaps Buddhism -- or any religion that has the occult turn to it. Religion is the only practical end for me."

"You see, I knew it."

"You have your moments."

"Thank you. What started you originally on this stage career -- I mean after you had married and were beginning to bring up a family?"

"I don't know. Probably it was the easiest thing for me to do. I had acted, so I returned to acting. Perhaps this is not the great thing I was cut for; the next five years will tell."

"What else have you in mind?"

"Well, I am taking up the study of English. I may be a great writer like the Russians, or perhaps an artist or a thinker -- you can never tell. I took out a book on mental derangements from the library, but everyone in it seemed so natural that I gave it up. I believe too heartily in the vanity of all things to take up such a thought permanently -- but it serves to pass the time, and it gives one a cultivated sensation while going through with it. Then I have other habits -- chocolate almonds for instance -- and you have probably noticed my oatmeal passion."

"Yes, I noticed that long ago when someone pointed to you and hissed, 'Vampire' -- I thought it very funny."

"It isn't funny at all, that's where you young people make a mistake. You think vampires have to smoke cigarettes and drink absinthe and live on larks' tongues, whereas vampirism thrives on oatmeal. I wouldn't be a bit surprised but that it has its very roots in oatmeal and wheats and such nourishing things; after all, one has to be pretty vital to vampire one's life to a close. You can't do it on nothing."

"That was merely a trap -- then you do consider yourself a vampire?"

"What do you call a vampire?"

"Anyone who can break a habit easier than acquire one."

"Then I am indeed a vampire."

"Very well, multiplication always adds up to a vampire anyway."

"Really, Djuna, you are sort of clever, aren't you?"

"I am only a little less conceited than you yourself, Helen."

She burst out laughing. "We are a funny couple to be sitting here talking a lot of nonsense, aren't we?"

"We are."

"Well, let's stop it."

"We can't, not yet; I have at least three more pages to fill."

"Have you been making notes?"

"I don't have to. My memory always makes a paragraph out of a note automatically."

"What shall we talk about now?"

"Anything you like."

"Suppose you describe me, and finish the article in that way."

"You would love that, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, but you have done it already two or three times, so I suppose I can't expect it again. Waiter, the check please."

"I often wonder if you are contented."

"There you go. That's the trouble with you all. What is contentment, what is happiness? I admit the existence of nothing except ennui, and that only gets us back to the beginning of our story."

"Contemplation and that sort of thing?"

"That's just it -- let the world go by and watch it going, that's all. We take it too seriously. After it is all over and the procession has passed, there remains just exactly what remains after a carnival: a little more dust, a broken bottle or two, and some colored confetti. Is it for that you worry until your hair is gray and you lie down in death? Oh, how vain, how vain."

"Yet I have heard you crying because you had lost a handkerchief."

"Because I wished to wave adieu to the procession with it, that's all."

"And have you now come to the end of all you have to say? Think well, for I shall never again write you up for any paper in the world -- this is your last chance."

A look akin to horror crept into Helen Westley's eyes.

"You don't mean that?"

"I do."

She remained silent for a moment only, then smiling amiably she said: "Impossible! You will run out of material sooner or later -- then enter Helen again." She leaned back comfortably, crossing her feet -- terrible zebra spat upon zebra spat.

Sitting thus she contemplated herself for a while silently in the mirror.

"Do you know," she said suddenly, "I am really the original for The Sphinx. Am I not like some rare exotic marble, for ages standing in an ancient, desolate mood, overlooking some fathomless desert?"

"Perhaps, yes, if you don't let you eyes wander down until they rest upon those horrible spats."

"Don't you like them? I got them for thirty cents on Second Avenue -- by the way, that gives me a lead on a little further advice. More people should dress from the secondhand clothiers than do; you can have the wardrobe of a lady for the pittance of a waitress."

"My dear Helen, you are the only woman in the world who can wear them and still be asked out. You are Time clothed in Age."

"Yet I am really a young woman."

"That is your big mistake: you are ten thousand years old and make an idiot of yourself by being thirty-odd. For you to be thirty-odd is an impertinence -- and a slander. You probably knew Columbus when he was contemplating the great discovery, and doubtless you gave him some valuable information as to location and worth of the said country."

"Yes," she said slowly, "I am really wonderful."

"When you laugh you are like a Mephistophelian lizard -- very uncanny."

"Like a cloak model -- very exclusive." She laughed again, drawing on impossible large and yellow gloves.

"I have only one complaint to make," she finished, reaching for an old worn umbrella. "That is this: the theatrical profession for one of my facial attainments is hardly all it should be in the way of accessibility. I am too far away from the public, they can't appreciate my full value. Every line, every muscle of my countenance is worthy of study. Yes, I shall have to take up something confidential with the public, that as they lean forward to say, 'Would you really advise this or that?' they will become acquainted with the peculiar worth of my extraordinary and individual features. Adieu."

Stepping easily out into the avenue, she hailed a passing carriage and seating herself, leaned back, gazing with pale strange eyes into the descending dusk.

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes was born on the 12th of June 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. She began her career as a reporter and illustrator for magazines, under pseudonyms such as Lydia Steptoe, and Gunga Duhl, the Pen Performer. In the 1920s she lived in Paris with her lover, the sculptor and silverpoint artist, Thelma Wood. She was a member of the influential coterie of mostly lesbian women that included Natalie Barney and Janet Flanner. Although she wrote many plays, short stories, and poems, she is best known for her novel Nightwood, written in 1936.

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