In the author’s note for her 1930 novel The One Who is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife, Natalie Clifford Barney writes: “For years I have been haunted by the idea that I should orchestrate those inner voices which sometimes speak to us in unison, and so compose a novel, not so much with the people about us, as with those within ourselves, for have we not several selves and cannot a story arise from their conflicts and harmonies?” Culminating in one of her few works in her native English tongue, this American ex-patriate’s “haunting” of multiple selves serves as a model to conceptualize an identity and lifestyle that had as of then not been granted an adequate discourse to describe it. As an unapologetic lesbian writer, Natalie Clifford Barney and her Parisian salon from the turn of the century well into the 60’s defied the heteronormative conventions of her era. She dared to write explicit love poems to women so as to ward off the “nuisance” of male admirers, she promiscuously romanced the great lesbian writers of her time from Liane de Pougy to Djuna Barnes, she created an alternative academie des femmes against the male dominated academie francaise to promote female authors, and she hosted theatricals based on Sapphic rituals in her own home garden.
For Barney, these “multiple selves” stand in for an identity that blurs the lines between masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual and penetrates to the depths of the human psyche and soul where desire is multi-form and multi-directional. As a literary project, The One Who is Legion embodies Barney’s vision of the erotic possibilities of a psyche and society unmoored from the constraints of binary categories and stable, self-same identities. In the aforementioned author’s note, Barney outlines the basic plot of the symbolist novel: “A.D., a being having committed suicide, is replaced by a sponsor, who carries on the broken life, with all the human feelings assumed with the flesh, until, having endured to the end in A.D.’s stead, the composite or legion is disbanded by the One, who remains supreme”. Barney’s summary of her novel is as confusing as the novel itself. The novel not only evades a sense of a stable plot or characterization, but it purposefully leaves the genders, sexualities, and even the number of individuals inhabiting singular bodies ambiguous. The “One”, the name Barney gives the spirit that resurrects and relives AD’s life on earth is in fact a legion of selves inhabiting a single body that refer to the body as “we”. The novel reads more like an extended prose poem, choosing to explore detours of philosophical musings and poetic contemplations rather than telling a linear or consistent narrative.
(read more at The Qouch)