Donald Barthelme

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PeterJ. Longleigh, Jr. (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme's Snow White," in Critique, Vol. II, No. 3, 1969, pp. 30-4.

[In the following essay, Longleigh provides an analysis of Barthelme's treatment of the title character as an anti-heroine in Snow White.]

As an archetypal heroine (counterpart of the anti-hero, as defined in recent criticism), Donald Barthelme's title character in Snow White is a significant example of the play of light and darkness at the heart of modern value systems. Very important is an analytic penetration into this character, for she may stand for each of us, time and flesh being like all things relative. She is a character of flux and stasis, a semi-virginal anti-heroine who is in the end revirginized in a daring apotheosis. In her we are at the nexus of the tumultuous symbolic Other, as in the last chapters of Moby-Dick, or the dream symbolism of The Tempest. Indeed, one begins to understand in the work of the seven (sic) little men, as they wash buildings, that the underside of Snow White is Soot Black. This is, perhaps, one of the first ambiguous paradoxes of the book. For instance, the group narrator (cleverly evidencing certain traits) says:

"Then we were out to wash the buildings. Clean buildings to fill your eyes with sunlight, and your heart with the idea that man is perfectable. Also they are good places to look at girls from, those high, swaying wooden platforms."

Notice the teasing duality of motive. One recalls the skeptical analyses of cause-and-effect not only in Wittgenstein's lectures at Cambridge in 1938, but also Hume's Enquiries, as well as in his better-known Treatise. Why, after all, do we act?

Donald Barthelme invites much insightful interplay of idea and dialogue. The more one brings to this tale, as one takes away, too.

Indeed, like other modernists, Barthelme aspires to pure intuition, unsullied by the older incumbrances. To get to the higher realities, one must now dispense with the lower conveniences. One must take the Kierkegaardian leap into Faith which transcends the ethical and aesthetic art forms of past eras. The result may seem to some of the more uninitiated, strange; but a true artiste knows that, epiphany-wise, he may have to wait for fit audience though few. Barthelme's fictions invite what may be the ultimate in reading and criticism: a peering into the deeper abysses of the feminine which might evade the more conventional verbal forms. One might describe it as a kind of Kierkegaardian dread on the verge of an Aristotelian catharsis.

Motive and emotion are also inter-twined in this tale of social criticism and psychology. We learn that "BILL IS TIRED OF SNOW WHITE NOW. BUT HE CANNOT TELL HER." This is a sentiment that rings true. Faced with a similar dilemma, anybody would linger on the threshold. One would not go to the shower. One would hope she will catch on.

But the female psychology, acidly etched by Barthelme, is different. Confronted with the silent language of the male, Snow White shouts: "OH I WISH THERE WERE SOME WORDS IN THE WORLD THAT WERE NOT THE WORDS I ALWAYS HEAR." Barthelme raises linguistic and epistemological questions with little effort. Language and knowledge seem the topoi, as it were, of the book, for Barthelme seems to transcend orderliness, passing into an almost mystical fire of obscurity, summed up in that further remark of the cumulative narrator who speaks for "we": "BUT ALSO PAY ATTENTION TO THE BUILDINGS, GRAY AND NOBLE IN THEIR FALSE ARCHITECTURE AND CLADDING…. HEIGH-HO ." We must attend to the grace and...

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humor of the book; also to its structure and cladding, its form, its elaboration of themes—even its denial for form! After all, as we know, when nothing is significant, everything is significant, even the denial of that statement, in the existential dimension of human anguish. A study of the mono-mythic perceptions in the novel might be fruitful.

The philosophical theme of the novel is suggested variously. First in the romantic, pathetic, so poignant cry: "'BUT WHOM AM I TO LOVE?' SNOW WHITE ASKED HESITANTLY. BECAUSE SHE ALREADY LOVED US, IN A WAY, BUT IT WASN'T ENOUGH. STILL, SHE WAS SLIGHTLY ASHAMED." Who to love! Barthelme is a novelist in the great tradition of the heart-rending query. That remarkable speech just quoted introduces the underside of love which is shame. The beautiful and the ugly, strange and familiar, under and over: all are part of the great Unity Barthelme hauntingly depicts in his stories and in this novel which positively approaches the unspeakable. (Compare the negative approach in the novels of Samuel Beckett.)

Notice that the anti-heroine is named "Snow White." Yet she writes "a dirty poem four pages long." That a Snow White woman could write a four-page dirty poem was, needless to say, unthinkable during the Victorian epoch; and the myth of pure woman is exploded in this vibrantly styled novel. That Snow White would not let the little men read the dirty poem is a further insight into the feminine mystique. Barthelme's anti-heroine is the epitome. Why wouldn't she let them look at it? We are never told; but the motive is obvious. The poem was her ace in the hole, too much for the little men. Snow White exclaims: "I AM TIRED OF BEING JUST A HOUSEWIFE." This is the trauma of so many women in our time. The inner emasculation leads to outer protest; but notice that the outward protest is spoken silently—a stunning insight. In this novel, modern psychology, philosophy, and linguistics interact in a setting which Barthelme calls "This ball of half-truths, the earth."

Social criticism has, of course, been grist for the novel's mill ever since its inception. Consider the form and function of Don Quixote, the thought and theme of Tom Jones, the significance and sorrow of Great Expectations, the depth and desperation of Crime and Punishment, and the colorful insights of James Baldwin. Half-truths are the stuff human wisdom is made of. That the earth is a "ball of half-truths" is itself a half-truth. But to purge the half-truth is to complete the half-truth, giving it its essential nature via an enthymeme of the Absurd.

Having questioned profundities such as language, love, and the duties of a housewife, Snow White drops her hair out the window as she asks the ultimate question: "WHICH PRINCE?" thus raising the philosophical problem of verification. She utters this question while "brushing her teeth." The oral fixation is, of course, of utmost import. (An artist selects details like that.)

But before we go further into the psychological analysis of the anti-heroine in flux and stasis, we must consider the overall narrator, so that we understand the tale, continuum-wise. The plural narrator is, frankly, an embodiment of the universal unconscious, presented in the particularized form of seven little men, prototypes of the seven types of racio-universal unconsciousness. In the middle distance, the fictional shading becomes enchanting, as the Sisyphus-like labor of the narrators, cleaning buildings that grow always dingy in the expanding waste-land civilization, indicates the importance of ritual cleansing. Often the libidinal sector of the unconscious symbolism comes to the fore, as in Snow White's hanging her hair out of the window. The darker impulses of her collective unconscious are symbolized by the blackness of her hair. One might mention Harry Levin's The Power of Blackness; but more important is our realization that she hangs her HAIR out at the window, and that blackness grows from the HEAD of Snow White. Thus from the rational part springs the symbol of the libidinous part. Yet her skin is snow white. SNOW, mark you! If we examine the color symbolism of the novel in this light, we notice that as Snow White melts, the colors grey, as black of hair and white of skin start to merge into what T. S. Eliot called an "objective correlative."

Reviewing Ulysses, Eliot insighted that "In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him." And now magnificently Mr. Barthelme has selected his controlling myth, underpinning the contemporary tale with this great archetypal vision, like a figure in the carpet, or rug.

The mythic import of beauty (Snow White) versus the beast (Jane), of the One finding happiness with the Many, and of that life being transcended when finally another One (the Prince) unites the implicit divisiveness of the Seven, as One coalesces with One. The number symbolism paradoxically mounts as the numbers themselves grow less. This upward trend is suggested early in the tale by the little men's cry of "HEIGH-HO"!

The Prince is thus a Christ Figure: by waking Snow-White-Eve, he promises redemption (i.e Love), giving the Little Men (Mankind!) a hope for a better tomorrow. So Eve becomes Mary, and is taken to his castle by the Christ-Prince who may or may not also be a Fisher King. Notice that Barthelme has many scenes laid in the shower, superbly introducing the water symbolism.

One of the burning issues in the book is whether or not Snow White has a Castration Complex. The issue is never discussed in the novel, of course. Barthelme uses images, rather than abstractions. Notice that Snow White lives in a world of men. She seems incapable of renunciation and ideal-formation which might resolve her conflicts over the female component in her overall makeup. Secondary Narcissism is the logical outcome. Thus we see that Snow White is having sublimated homosexual relations with the little men.

If we undertake retrospective analysis, we suddenly recognize the similarity of Barthelme's vision to that of Sophocles, who also dealt with profound psychological states. For indeed, though Oedipus goes blind, Barthelme makes Snow White visible. And though in Oedipus at Colonus the hero is reported to have gone underground (compare Ralph Elision's Invisible Man), in Snow White the anti-heroine is subsumed into the heavens, revirginized. What could be a more compelling end?


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Donald Barthelme 1931–1989

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Lily McNeil) American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and author of books for children.

The following entry presents an overview of criticism on Barthelme's works through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 13, 23, 46, and 59.

A preeminent writer of experimental fiction, Barthelme created humorous and often unsettling stories by juxtaposing incongruous elements of contemporary language and culture. His prose has been described as a verbal collage in which words are intended to function as objects and are intentionally stripped of meaning by their unlikely combinations. Barthelme's writing is characterized by the absence of traditional plot and character development, disjointed syntax and dialogue, parodies of jargon and cliché, and a humor, according to Thomas M. Leitch, that arises "from a contrast between outrageous premises and deadpan presentation." His work contains allusions to literature, philosophy, art, film, and popular culture, and considers such themes as the ability of language to express thought and emotion, the function of art and the role of the artist in society, the complications of sexuality, the frailty and transience of human relationships, and the fragmentary nature of reality.

Biographical Information

Barthelme was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised in Houston, Texas, where his father became established as an innovative architect. While sharing his father's respect for visual art and architecture, Barthelme developed a strong interest in literature. After serving as editor for a literary journal published by the University of Texas, and as a journalist and a museum director, Barthelme traveled to New York City in the early 1960s where he edited Location, a short-lived arts and literary journal. During a great portion of his life, Barthelme made his home in Greenwich Village, often strolling around the area, observing the goings-on and finding material he could rework in his fiction.

Major Works

Barthelme's first stories appeared in literary periodicals dur-ing the early 1960s. In these works, many of which were first published in the New Yorker and subsequently collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), City Life (1971), and Sadness (1972), Barthelme incorporates advertising slogans, comic-book captions, catalogue descriptions, and jacket blurbs from records and books into a style that features verbal puns, non sequiturs, and fractured dialogue and narrative. Barthelme's first novel, Snow While (1967), is a darkly comic and erotic parody of the popular fairy tale. It is set in contemporary Greenwich Village, and the title character is an attractive yet unsatisfied young woman who shares an apartment with seven men. Composed largely of fragmented episodes in which undistinguishable characters attempt to express themselves in jargonistic and often nonsensical speech, Snow White has commonly been interpreted as an examination of the failure of language and the inability of literature to transcend or transform contemporary reality. In his second novel, The Dead Father, a surrealistic, mock-epic account of the Dead Father's journey to his grave and his burial by his son and a cast of disreputable characters, Barthelme weaves mythological, biblical, and literary allusions to create a story, according to Hilton Kramer, that lends "a sense of mystery and complexity and a certain decorative appeal to what … is actually a rather simple fantasy of filial revenge." In his third novel, Paradise (1986), Barthelme uses spare, formalistic prose marked by both a sense of playfulness and sorrow to relate the story of Simon, a fifty-three-year-old architect recently separated from his wife and teenage daughter, who is sharing his New York City flat with three women. The accounts of Simon's exotic and often erotic experiences with his housemates are interspersed with sections of revealing dialogue involving Simon and what appears to be either his psychologist or his alter ego. In addition to his works for adults, Barthelme authored a children's book, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: or, The Hithering Thithering Djinn (1971), which received the National Book Award for children's literature. Sixty Stories (1981) contains a selection of his short fiction as well as miscellaneous prose pieces and an excerpt from The Dead Father, Barthelme also adapted his novel Snow White and seven stories from Great Days for the stage.

Critical Reception

The unconventional nature of Barthelme's work has provoked extensive critical debate. His detractors perceive in his work a destructive impulse to subvert language and culture and an emphasis on despair and irrationalism. These critics claim that he offers no remedies for the ills of contemporary life that he documents and that he refuses to convey order, firm values, and meaning. On the other hand, Barthelme enjoyed widespread critical acclaim during his lifetime and was particularly praised as a stylist who offered vital and regenerative qualities to literature. Several critics have commended him as an insightful satirist who exposed pretentious ideas and purported to answer life's mysteries. Of his numerous works, Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts; City Life; and Sadness contain some of Barthelme's best-known and most highly praised stories. Although some critics expressed concern over the monotonous tone and the apparent meaninglessness of many of the pieces, most praised Barthelme's inventiveness and technical skill. Some critics faulted Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) for Barthelme's idiosyncratic use of literary devices, but others noted the presence of hope in many of the pieces as well as an uncharacteristic willingness by Barthelme to confront and reflect emotions. The Dead Father is often considered one of Barthelme's most sustained and cohesive narrative works. William Peden has stated: "Beneath the clowning and the cutting-and-pasting and the ransacking of archives, Barthelme is a conventional moralist, alternately attracted, amused, and appalled by what he sees as the sickness of his times, by its dullness and insipidity, by its indifference to art and things of the imagination, by its affronts to individual life and dignity."

Neil Schmitz (essay date Fall 1971)

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SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme and the Emergence of Modern Satire," in The Minnesota Review, No. 1, Fall, 1971, pp. 109-18.

[In the following essay, Schmitz examines Barthelme's satirical treatment of language in his works.]

"Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness," declares the narrator of "Title" in John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. "I despise what we have come to; I loathe our loathesome loathing, our place our time our situation, our loathesome art, this ditto necessary story." Still another narrator, the teller of "Life-Story." punches his way irately through the convolute form of his text and plucks the reader into complicity. "The reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard, it's you I'm addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous fiction. You've read me this far, then? Even this far? For what discreditable motive?" There is unhappily no violence in the accusation. The voyeur peering intently into the fiction simply discovers another voyeur glaring back at him. The shameful act in which both are caught is the jaded experience of a decadent literature, an old domesticated habit that keeps them from the pleasures of tennis and love. Barth's narrators are not lost in deep Dostoyevskian wells of self-consciousness, they are enmeshed in the process of composition, entangled in their syntax, and thus their voices seem curiously dehumanized. There is no person apart from the writer writing, no drama apart from the question (constantly posed) of whether the writing is valid. It is Literature, not the villainy of the self, that stalks Barth through Lost in the Funhouse—the spectre of stale familiarity, this "ditto necessary story." The language of fiction has become its rhetoric, certain words in certain places. Narrative unfolds through cranking turns of predictable plots and is invariably inlaid with indicative motifs and symbolic patterns. It is not in a private funhouse that the modern writer engages his reader but in a public museum, a museum in which even the most blasphemous screams are swallowed up by the echoes of former obscenities uttered decades and periods past. Roland Barthes has written eloquently about this institution in Writing Degree Zero, the "ritual language" of the "great traditional writing."

Other writers have thought they could exorcise this sacred writing only by dislocating it. They have therefore undermined literary language, they have ceaselessly exploded the ever-renewed husk of cliches, of habits, of the formal past of the writer; in a chaos of forms and a wilderness of words they hoped they would achieve an object wholly delivered of History, and find again the freshness of a pristine state of language. But such upheavals end up by leaving their own tracks and creating their own laws. The threat of becoming a Fine Art is a fate which hangs over any language not based exclusively on the speech of society. In a perpetual flight from a disorderly syntax, the disintegration of language can only lead to the silence of writing.

It is the issue of this silence, a silence Barth interminably invokes in Lost in the Funhouse, that Donald Barthelme has made one of the central comic themes in his fiction. "Oh I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear," Snow White complains in Barthelme's satiric version of the fairy tale. And there is Edgar, the hapless fabulist of "The Dolt" who has twice failed the National Writers' Examination and with whom Barthelme sympathizes. "I myself have this problem. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin." Although the fly-leaf on the jacket of City Life, his most recent anthology of fiction, ominously announces that "he is working on a novel," Barthelme has consistently treated the novel as an artifact, a fossilized object. In Come Back, Dr. Caligari there is a formulary roman de societé with all the interstitial packing removed, the connective tissue gone. "Will You Tell Me?" moves through two generations in several pages. Barthelme's primary tense is the present. Edgar's problem in "The Dolt" is not just with his attempt to render the alien experience of the Blazacian conte; it has to do also with his inability to grasp the preterit. The eight-foot son who bursts into the apartment clad in a serape woven of transistor radios, each tuned into a different station, thrusts back the immediate Edgar has sought fruitlessly to abandon. The emptiness of the novel and the irrelevance of traditional writing is a given in Barthelme's fiction. The writing schools and correspondence courses in which so many of his characters are futilely enrolled, Snow White's droll transcript from Beaver College, and Tolstoy as artifact in "At the Tolstoy Museum," variously record that declaration. "At the Tolstoy Museum" is filled with visual puns that underscore the historicity of Tolstoy, his status as a specimen, the antiquarian nature of the novel. An engraving of the Anna-Vronsky pavilion depicts the coldly formalistic temple of the novel with the architect's intersecting lines concentering on Vronsky holding Anna in a climactic swoon—creatures caught on the grid of plot, a spider-web of diverse themes. The embodiment of the nineteenth-century novelist, Tolstoy is an overwhelming iconic presence: "some thirty thousand pictures" of him line the walls of the museum which is multitudinously chambered according to genre. In brief, he is the enshrined maître of college courses on the novel, but his meaning is ambiguous (his outline that of a distant mountain range), and Barthelme concludes his tour in a state of diffidence. Is the novel dead? a Barthelmian interrogator asks in "The Explanation," and the Barthelmian respondent replies, yes. But that is not the primary issue in "The Explanation," it is an aside. The central problem is technology, the machine and warm-blooded humanity. As an occasion, the death of the novel barely impinges on the problems of living in the modern world. It is only Snow White out of Beaver College, well-rounded in her fatuous egocentrism, who agonizes about silence, who moves in a state of anesthesia through a prolix world of brilliant objects and provocative events.

Barthelme, then, has chosen a mode of writing that enables him to escape the labyrinth in which Barth finds himself enclosed. His language is richly (and ironically) idiomatic. The words and phrases that spill in tumult through his prose are drawn not just from the diction of the literary modernist but erupt as well from the contemporary socio-political lexicon, the codes employed by the mass media, and from all the articulating objects with which the individual surrounds himself. As Richard Schickel has helpfully suggested, the structural principle of Barthelme's fiction is collage. History (as it is forming) pours into this fiction. Barthelme does not arrest and decipher the flow of words and things by straining them through the serial development of traditional narration, forcing them into categories and linear progression, the structure of deliberating thought. They have, as it were, their own specific gravities. They are found, not created, and in their contrast and/or cohesion yield manifold meaning. The narrator in Barthelme's fiction is typically attentive to the thisness of the world. If he lapses into revery or meditation, his attention is invariably brought back to the whirl of phenomena about him, by the pull of the object, whether a girl's thigh or an issue of Newsweek. "Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing ribald whole," Barthelme writes in "The Indian Uprising."

By displacing the value of linear structure, Barthelme necessarily dislocates the centrality of characterization. There are no densely conceived protagonists in his fiction, no Burlingames or Jacob Horners caught in endless copulatory talk with Ebenezer Cookes or Joe Morgans, describing the split self, the brink of nonbeing. It is the quality of situations, not points of view, that Barthelme presents. The names of his characters are often whimsical or simply letters. Anonymous and ephemeral, they exhibit themselves through their language, and they speak generally an urbanized post-baccalaureate jargon. It is what they have read, which books and magazines, and what they have seen, which movies and exhibitions, that defines their posture in the world. If Barthelme wishes to convict a character, he does not enter the closet of the individual's consciousness, but rather catches him downstairs in the act of speaking and choosing, packaging his experience in clichés. The stories dealing with Edward and Pia in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, stories in which Barthelme reverses the priorities of narrative selection, are exemplary. Disjunctive stacks of abrupt sentences methodically record the random movement and banal talk of the two deracinated lovers. What is customarily left out of such romances is here scrupulously presented. It is the dramatic that is sardonically cramped within the text. "Edward felt sick. He had been reading Time and Newsweek. It was Thursday. Pia said to Edward that he was the only person she had ever loved for this long. 'How long is it?' Edward asked. It was seven months. Edward cashed a check at American Express. The girl gave him green-and-blue Scandinavian money. Edward was pleased." In "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," which appears in the same volume, Barthelme again, but with much greater concentration, brings dead prose into contact with live flesh. The journalistic profile which seeks to humanize the great man by revealing the trivial and the intimate succeeds only in declaring the one-dimensional enormity of the figure's self-consciousness, an ego that has rigorously stylized behavior into a series of gestures. Yet this same Kennedy, master of the stock response, humorlessly quotes Poulet at the end of the piece, Poulet on the Marivaudian man "born anew" in each instant of experience, constantly "overtaken by events." It is a scathing picture of the human surface.

For all the brevity of his pieces and the slenderness of his volumes, Barthelme thus seems more prolific than Barth who has produced gargantuan tomes—prolific in the sense of his engagement, his interests and topics. Where Barth appears confined in an interior monologue, Barthelme seems to be dancing in the phenomena! world, to have commenced a turn from the current metafictional modes of writing toward the "living languages" that emanate from the world moving in time outside the province of literary tradition. "Before his eyes." Barthes observes of the modern writer, "the world of society now exists as a veritable Nature, and this Nature speaks, elaborating living languages from which the writer is excluded: on the contrary, History puts in his hands a decorative and compromising instrument, a writing inherited from a previous and different History, for which he is not responsible and yet which is the only one he can use." What one finds in Lost in the Funhouse is the weight of the compromised instrument, Alexandrian ingenuity. "It is an exasperating fact," Richard Poirier complains in The Performing Self, "that it takes such a lot of time, a part of one's life, to discover in some of the most demanding of contemporary literature that its creators are as anxious to turn you off as to turn you on, that they want to show not the decisiveness but rather the triviality of literary structuring." Indeed Barth's experimentation, his attempt to free himself from the coils of the Novel, has tended to be typographical, print-oriented. His professed movement back toward the oral tradition has moved him past Lenny Bruce and Mark Twain into ingeniously academic versions of the Homeric tales. In "The Menelaiad" we are still clenched by the teller, a teller obsessed with the telling, immured in his artifice. "Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice" is the subtitle of Lost in the Funhouse, but the transference causes no qualitative change in the substance of the language. The voice remains cerebral and literary, whether seen or heard.

Yet if Barthelme's innovative strategies—the summary abandonment of plot, his dismissal of traditional forms and ironic embrace of the "world of society" in all its flux and waste—have managed to release him from the masochistic circularity of Lost in the Funhouse, the question of what his revised form and renovated language achieves, apart from stylistic liberation, remains. In the early stories collected in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, for example, the sophistication of Barthelme's irony often seems spent on slight themes, his use of the surrealistic fable little more than stylistic legerdemain, verbal slapstick. It is only in the later volume, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, and in Snow White, where Barthelme begins to deal with the problems of defining a linguistic and philosophical perspective, that his style and an emergent satiric vision converge, words and things coalescing to form the "rushing ribald whole" of the brilliantly conceived collage, "The Indian Uprising." "All this," Gertrude Stein wrote of a carafe in Tender Buttons, "and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling." In "The Indian Uprising" Barthelme seems to have mastered in his own way the sense of that earlier experiment in attending to objects. Only here the separations of space that enabled Gertrude Stein to go calmly from roast beef to malachite, unravelling the word-chains latent in them, have vanished; everything is intensely politicized, charged with "unordered" meanings that paradoxically resemble.

Simply put, "The Indian Uprising" is a manifestation, the cruelest of Happenings. With the insane coolness of a TV commentator, Barthelme's narrator renders a Vietnamized world lurching toward an apocalypse by juxtaposing in quick flashes all its profuse objects, events and language, bringing them into collisions which reveal in wreckage their historical sources, their contemporary analogies. "Red men in waves like people scattering in a square startled by something tragic or a sudden, loud noise accumulated against the barricades we had made of window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors), wine in demijohns, and robes." The passage begins by evoking the famous St. Petersburg photograph of the massacre through which the nineteenth century poured its failure into the twentieth. Yet it is not Russians who flee within the venerable frame but Comanches (or Algerians or South Vietnamese), and we are ostensibly in New York or Philadelphia except that all the streets and squares have been renamed: Boulevard Mark Clark, Rue Chester Nimitz, Patton Place, Skinny Wainwrighl Square. "Do you know Fauré's 'Dolly'?" a character asks, leading his quotidien life amidst the violence, this phantasmagoria of a student revolt, race riot and exemplary revolution. The images and the dialogue are saturated with signification (both comic and terrifying) and our apprehension of them is at once immediate and complex. Barthelme continues: "I analyzed the composition of the barricade nearest me and found two ashtrays, ceramic, one dark brown and one dark brown with an orange blur at the lip." He then enumerates the other articles stacked there: bottles of wine and sherry, "a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wrought-iron legs," blankets and pillows, corkscrews and can openers, "a woven straw basket," ceramic plates and cups, "a yellow-and-purple poster; a Yugoslavian carved flute, wood, dark brown; and other items." In brief, the emptied insides of shopping plazas, import stores and middle class apartments.

The "woven straw basket" wedged into the barricade, grotesque in its jarred familiarity, describes distance, not essence. It exists with the pregnant solitude of Jasper Johns' flag or Andy Warhol's cans of soups, neutral and amodal, yet profoundly socio-political. In Antonioni's Zabriskie Point these objects, the same objects strewn throughout Barthelme's fiction, do a ballet at the end of the film and are by far the most interesting characters in the movie. Stacked in piles, the garbage of a trashed civilization, they are in "The Indian Uprising" the only constant and veritable things to be noted. Which side are you on? the narrator cries after a friend at one point in the piece, and the question is left hanging. There are no sides, the loyalties of class and race have become confused, ideological politics do not exist, a Hobbesian jungle thrives in the streets. It is only the enduring junk that clarifies "The Indian Uprising," looming in those barricades like horrid totem poles.

Like Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock (which Snow White resembles in technique and theme), Barthelme disorganizes the familiar by inserting it into an imposing framework and reveals with stunning clarity the substance of its value. The careful recording of Snow White's courses in the liberal arts at Beaver College is similar to Pope's "Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billetdoux." Both styles are crowded with nouns, with catalogues, with mock-inflations of the banal. In Barthelme's case, however, the discernment is genially democratic. The hems and haws of discourse, both written and spoken, are given their due. One of the dwarfs in Snow White, the manufacturer of plastic buffalo humps, compares his product to the parenthetical fill stuffed into syntax. "It's that we want to be on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon, the everted sphere of the future, and that's why we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may be seen as a model of the trash phenomenon." The iconic dime-store basket and the stereotypical expression are similarly situated in Barthelme's prose. They are before us, as though screened, discretely filling the space of our attention, and in motion, not from A to B, but instant, seized first by the eye and only latterly designated and grouped. If Barth is the teller who shapes our mental reconstruction of an experience, building line by line, event by event, thought by thought, Barthelme is the cinéaste addressing the eye, investing our field of vision.

In short, Barthelme plunges us into a Bachelardian sphere of experience, a luminous phenomenological world in which the objects of everyday life (and those disposable units of speech) are all charged with significance, and yet it is a world that does not glow with Bachelard's humanism. The characters in Barthelme's fiction inhabit this minefield of meaning with little sense of its potent nature.

Then Snow White cleaned the gas range. She removed the pans beneath the burners and grates and washed them thoroughly in hot suds. Then she rinsed them in clear water and dried them with paper towels. Using washing soda and a stiff brush, she cleansed the burners, paying particular attention to the gas orifices, through which the gas flows. She cleaned out the ports with a hairpin, rinsed them thoroughly and dried them with paper towels. Then she returned the drip tray, the burners and grates to their proper positions and lit each burner to make sure it was working. Then she washed the insides of the broiler compartment with a cloth wrung out in the warm suds, with just a bit of ammonia to help cut the grease.

Barthelme goes on, meticulously following the movement and the object until the stove is done and Snow White moves on to "piano care." In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard's housewife (decidedly not a Barthelmian "horsewife") becomes a poetic shaman doing the same job Snow White mechanically executes.

The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenemonology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions. It even dominates memory. How wonderful it is to really become once more the inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when a poet rubs a piece of furniture—even vicariously—when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything he touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object's human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household.

In Snow White it is the satirist who rubs the object. Through the reverberative friction of diverse languages (in "The Report" the jargons of a hardware man and a software man, technician and humanist, are brilliantly contrasted) and the disjunctive tension between narcotized consciousness and the explosive object, Barthelme establishes the method of his satire. Jane's letter to Mr. Quistgaard in Snow White, a name she has plucked at random from the telephone book, epitomizes Barthelme's relationship to his reader, a relationship he has examined with increasing seriousness. Jane warns Quistgaard of a "threatening situation."

You and I, Mr. Quistgaard, are not in the same universe of discourse. You may not have been aware of it previously, but the fact of the matter is, that we are not. We exist in different universes of discourse. Now it may have appeared to you, prior to your receipt of this letter, that the universe of discourse in which you existed, and puttered about, was in all ways adequate and satisfactory. It may never have crossed your mind to think that other universes of discourse from your own existed, with people in them, discoursing. You may have, in a commonsense way, regarded your own u. of d. as a plenum, filled to the brim with discourse. You may have felt that what already existed was a sufficiency. People like you often do. That is certainly one way of regarding it, if fat self-satisfied complacency is your aim. But I say unto you, Mr. Quistgaard, that even a plenum can leak.

Yet given the detonation of Mr. Quistgaard's u. of d., what is the full import of Jane's cunning note? Clearly the "threatening situation" is the possibility of Mr. Quistgaard's liberation, his sudden awareness of new and strange horizons. But on the other hand, Mr. Quistgaard could as easily be delivered over to the nausea of experiencing the absurd, of seeing words and things crazily fly apart. If the satirist explodes one's familiar universe of discourse, his prosaic sanity, does he then reconstitute another more ample universe simply by endowing his reader with an ironic attitude toward all structures of vision and speech? The emergent anomie that Pope cursed in the awful figure of Dulness fills Barthelme with the same horror; in Snow White it is blague, but where Pope had Augustan verities to sustain his malice toward the eighteenth-century version of the "trash phenomenon," Barthelme has none. Jane is not a particularly desirable character. In an early fable, "A Shower of Gold," the protagonist, a minor artist beset by the commercialism of his age, finally advises: "Don't be reconciled. Turn off your television sets … cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism." Then, somewhat plaintively, he asks: "How can you be alienated without first having been connected?" It is a hard question. What is left of Shakespearian or Augustan or Wordsworthian Nature? The artist will imagine it.

In Snow White Barthelme's sense of his art is strikingly more complex, though the irrepressible levity remains. Near the end of the book there appears in boldface isolated on the page an aphorism: "ANATHEMATIZATION OF THE WORLD IS NOT AN ADEQUATE RESPONSE TO THE WORLD." Yet the world Snow White inhabits is rigorously anathematized. Barthelme does not emerge from the novella encouraging his readers, like Norman O. Brown at the anti-climactic end of Life Against Death, to practice a little more phenomenology, a little more other-awareness to go along with the self-awareness. Snow White ends with the unbroken continuance of stupidity straggling forward. Barthelme manifests Snow White's attenuated consciousness forcefully, rebukes it with the unassailable dignity of shower-curtains and yellow pajamas, but he has less success with the pervading issue of good and evil in the novella. The translation of the fairy tale into mock-fairy tale subtly reverses the moral sides. It is Jane and Hogo de Bergerac, villainess and villain, who are finally sympathetic, who cut through the tedious angst of the Dwarfs and Snow White's indulgent ennui with the acidic simplicity of their desires, the "vileness" of their realism. An aging and cynical brute, Hogo is fundamentally a well-integrated Hobbesian who proceeds on the assumption that in this life, this war of desires, it is every man for himself. Jane has the moral clarity of a Borgia. So Barthelme leaves it. Paul, the sophomoric prince, drinks the poison intended for Snow White, dies and is buried. Life goes on, a suffocating urban life. Alternatives are shut like doors at the conclusion. Hogo joins the firm owned and operated by the Seven Dwarfs. "The moment I inject discourse from my u. of d. into your u. of d.," Jane writes to Mr. Quistgaard, "the yourness of yours is diluted. The more I inject, the more you dilute. Soon you will be presiding over an empty plenum, or rather, since that is a contradiction in terms, over a former plenum, in terms of yourness." Since Jane's u. of d. is itself intolerable, the triumph if Pyrrhic. The aphoism, ANATHEMATIZATION OF THE WORLD IS NOT AN ADEQUATE RESPONSE TO THE WORLD, thus exists as a frail thesis.

Barthelme returns to this problem, the negativity of his satire, in City Life, his most recent volume. "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" begins with a Barthelmian respondent explaining to an interrogator how he annihilated a situation, his discomfort in a rented house filled with games and recreational devices, by subjecting the "shuffleboard sticks, the barbells, balls of all kinds" to an ironic perception. Taking as his text Kierkegaard's The Concept of Irony, the respondent then confronts himself in this performance. Irony explodes the object, he relates, deprives it of its reality and leaves a space in which the ironist establishes his subjective freedom. Yet the tonic of that freedom leads the ironist to direct his irony against the whole of existence and he then tumbles into estrangement and poetry. The poetic work (Schlegel's Lucinde) fills the void the ironist has created by destroying the historical actuality with a "higher actuality," the realm of imaginative truth. "But what is wanted," the respondent continues, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, "is not a victory over the world but a reconciliation." Barthelme whirls through this gloss, but his grasp is firm—firmly paradoxical. Kierkegaard, it is argued, belabors Schlegel from a narrow viewpoint, taking up Lucinde only because it is didactic. He neglects or overlooks its "objecthood." Yet the defense of Schlegel, it soon appears, is a screen behind which the respondent seeks ironically to annihilate Kierkegaard and therein he impales himself on Kierkegaard's point. The discourse of the satirist invariably shatters the object and the new actuality he creates is at best "a comment upon a former actuality rather than a new actuality." What remains is an emptied plenum, a zero.

Yet the "objecthood" of "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" also remains. Barthelme's meditation on the destructive nature of irony is framed by manifestations: the girl on the train, the round of her thigh appearing and the humorous evocation of desire, and then again another girl caressing her breasts, a trip to Central Park, a remembered dream, dinner and conversation, a touching anecdote about the suffering of Louis Pasteur. Irony distinguishes, ascertains value, does not destroy. The ironist who believes he has the "magical power" to make objects cringe and disappear puts himself within the pale of his irony. The paraphrase of Kierkegaard is rammed home in short hard sentences, but its declarative intellectuality is subsumed fore and aft by the variegated plenum of experience, by the constant stream of relationship to things, speech, people and art. It is this consciousness, always slipping away from the fixed locus of the abstract, this plastic consciousness which attends so uniquely and diversely to the world, that Barthelme ultimately celebrates. For it is the discourse of that attuned consciousness that is at once his subject and his morality. There is no place where one can break into "The Sentence," since this Barthelmian sentence has properly no beginning or end. It is "aiming for the bottom," Barthelme tells us, but where the bottom of the page is, this page or some other page, no one knows, and so it simply proceeds, simply is, enjoys being, goes forward engaging itself and the world outside it. It reminds us, Barthelme suggests, that "the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones". It also reminds us that even as the blague and the "brain damage" of contemporary life seem everywhere, "brain damage covering everything like an unbreakable lease," the imagination, artificer of the best sentences, continues to pose its choices: to be or not to be. The Phantom of the Opera, offered a "normal" life through plastic surgery and psychological rehabilitation, will decline.

Principal Works

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Come Back, Dr. Caligari (short stories) 1964Snow White (novel) 1967; first published in the New YorkerUnspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (short stories) 1968City Life (short stories) 1970The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or, The Hithering Thithering Djinn (juvenilia) 1971Sadness (short stories) 1972The Dead Father (novel) 1975Great Days (short stories) 1979Sixty Stories (short stories) 1981Overnight to Many Distant Cities (short stories) 1983Paradise (novel) 1986Forty Stories (short stories) 1987The Teachings of Don B.: The Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme (satire, fables, short stories, and dramas) 1992

Donald Barthelme with Larry McCaffery (interview date 1982)

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SOURCE: "An interview with Donald Barthelme," in Partisan Review, Vol. 49, No. 2, 1982, pp. 184-93.

[In the following interview, Barthelme discusses his life, his literary influences, his views on language and literature, and his works.]

[McCaffery:] You've published two novels, but most of your work has been in short fiction.

[Barthelme:] Novels take me a long time; short fiction provides a kind of immediate gratification—the relationship of sketches to battle paintings. Over a period of years I can have a dozen bad ideas for novels, some of which I actually invest a certain amount of time in. Some of these false starts yield short pieces: most don't. The first story in Sadness—"La Critique de la Vie Quotidienne"—is salvage.

Do stories typically begin for you by landing on you, like the dog in"Falling Dog"?

Well, for about four days I've been writing what amounts to nonsense. And then suddenly I come across an interesting sentence—or at least interesting to me: "It is not clear that Arthur Byte was wearing his black corduroy suit when he set fire to the Yale Art and Architecture Building in the spring of 1968." I don't know what follows from this sentence; I'm hoping it may develop into something. I did know someone who was at Yale teaching in the architecture department at the time of that notorious fire; I'm not sure if the date was 1968, I'd have to check. I don't believe they ever found out who set it; I certainly have no idea. But I'm positing a someone and hoping that tragic additional material may accumulate around that sentence.

At the end of your story"Sentence,"your narrator says that the sentence is "a structure to be treasured for its weaknesses, as opposed to the strength of stones." Am I right in assuming that one of the things that interests you most about the sentence as an object is precisely its "treasured weaknesses"?

I look for a particular kind of sentence, perhaps more often the awkward than the beautiful. A back-broken sentence is interesting. Any sentence that begins with the phrase, "It is not clear that …," is clearly clumsy, but preparing itself for greatness of a kind. It's a way of backing into a story—of getting past the reader's hard-won armor. Then a process of accretion occurs, like barnacles growing on a wreck or a rock. I'd rather have a wreck than a ship that sails. Things attach themselves to wrecks; strange fish find your wreck or rock to be a good feeding ground. After a while you've got a situation with possibilities.

Have you ever studied philosophy of language in any kind of systematic way?

No. I spent two years in the Army in the middle of my undergraduate days at Houston. When I came back to the university, which must have been about 1955, there was a new man—Maurice Natanson—teaching a course titled "Sociology and Literature" that sounded good. I enrolled, and he talked about Kafka and Kleist and George Herbert Mead. I wasn't a particularly acute or productive student of philosophy, but in that and subsequent classes, I got acquainted with people Mauri was interested in: Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and company.

You were originally interested in journalism, weren't you?

It seemed clear that the way to become a writer was to go to work for a newspaper, as Hemingway had done—then, if you were lucky, you might write fiction. I don't think anybody believes that anymore. But I went to work for a newspaper while I was still a sophomore and went back to the newspaper when I got out of the Army. I was really very happy there—thought I was in high cotton.

By the late fifties, when you became editor of the Forum, you were obviously already interested a great deal in parody and satire as literary forms. What so attracted you to this type of writing?

People like S. J. Perelman and E. B. White—people who could do certain amazing things in prose. Perelman was the first true American surrealist—ranking with the best in the world surrealist movement—and West was another. Also, Wolcott Gibbs—all those New Yorker writers. And Hemingway as parodist, like in The Torrents of Spring.

Somewhere along the line you got involved as a director of an art museum. How did that come about?

A peculiar happenstance. I was entrusted with a small museum for a couple of years—the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. They had just lost the director, didn't have a prospect, and I'd been on the board. They asked me to fill in temporarily, which I did for a while, and then they made me director—probably more fun than anything I've done before or since. For two years I mounted shows and developed programs in music, theater, and film. In consequence, I met Harold Rosenberg in 1962. At that time Harold had in mind starting a new magazine, which he and Thomas B. Hess would edit. They needed someone to be the managing editor—that is, someone to put out the magazine—and they hired me.

This was the now-legendary magazine, Location?

Yes. It was meant to be not just an art magazine, but an art-and-literary magazine. We were able to publish some wonderful material—some early Gass, some of John Ashbery's work, Kenneth Koch's stuff. It was supposed to be a quarterly, but in fact we published only two issues. Tom and Harold were not worried about putting the magazine out on time and certainly never put any pressure on me. We waited until we had enough decent stuff for a good issue. That experience was a great pleasure—listening to Tom and Harold talk. But getting back to the museum, it was a very small place. My responsibility was to put some good shows together, mildly didactic, modestly informative. So I had to study quite a lot very fast to be able to do this—to make intelligent or useful shows. Luckily, I've always gotten along well with painters and sculptors, mostly by virtue of not asking the wrong questions of them.

It's been my experience that asking a painter what his work "means" is considered to be in bad taste. This seems to hold true for writers as well.

It's a separate study, "How to manifest intelligent sympathy while not saying very much." The early sixties were, as you know, an explosive period in American art, and I learned on the job, nervously. Just being in the studio teaches you something. I'll give you an example: when we were doing Location I went over to Rauschenberg's studio on tower Broadway with Rudy Burkhardt, the photographer, to take some pictures. Rauschenberg was doing silk-screen pieces, and the tonality of these things was gray—very, very gray. I looked out the windows and they were dirty, very much the tonality of the pictures. So I asked Rudy to get some shots of the windows, and we ran one of them with the paintings. They were very much New York lower Broadway windows. A footnote.

Your narrator in"See the Moon?"comments enviously at one point about the "fantastic metaphysical advantage" possessed by painters. What is he referring to?

The physicality of the medium—there's a physicality of color, of an object present before the spectator, which painters don't have to project by means of words. I can peel the label off that bottle of beer you're drinking and glue it to the canvas and it's there. This sort of thing is of course what Dos Passos did in the Newsreels, what Joyce did in various ways. I suppose the theater has the possibility of doing this in the most immediate way. I'm on the stage, and I suddenly climb down into the pit and kick you in the knee. That's not like writing about kicking you in the knee, it's not like painting you being kicked in the knee, because you have a pain in the knee. This sounds a bit aggressive, forgive me.

Another aspect of painting that seems relevant to your fiction is the surrealist practice of juxtaposing two elements—different sorts of language—for certain kinds of effects in fiction or poetry.

It's a principle of construction. This can be terribly easy and can become cheapo surrealism, mechanically linking contradictions. Take Duchamp's phrase, in reference to The Bride and the Bachelors, that the Bride "warmly refuses" her suitors. The phrase is very nice, but you can see how it could become a formula.

How do you avoid falling into this trap in your own work?

I think you stare at the sentence for a long time. The better elements are retained, and the worse fall out of the manuscript.

There is a tendency in the painting of this century to explore itself, its own medium—the nature of paint, colors, shapes, and lines, rather than attempting to reproduce or comment on something outside itself. This tendency seems relevant not only to your work, but also to that of several other important writers of the past fifteen years. Is this a fair analogy?

It is. I also think that painting—in the sixties but especially in the seventies—really pioneered for us all the things that it is not necessary to do. Under the aegis of exploring itself, exploring its own means or the medium, painting really did a lot of dumb things that showed poets and prose writers what might usefully not be done. I'm thinking mostly of conceptual art, which seems to me a bit sterile. Concrete poetry is an example of something that is, for me, not very nourishing, though it can be said to be explorative in the way that a lot of conceptual art is explorative. I can see why in some sense it had to be done. But perhaps not twice.

What about some of the "New-New-Novelists" in France—Pinget, Sollers, Baudry, LeClezio? They seem to be trying to push fiction to the same limits of abstraction that conceptual artists have pushed toward.

Of a work like Butor's Mobile, after a time there's nothing more you can say than "I like it" or "I don't like it"—the stupidest of comments. A more refined version is "I know this is good, but I still don't like it." And I think that this is a fair comment. There are more récherché examples of this kind of thing. Triquarterly did an issue a while back, entitled "In the Wake of the Wake," featuring several gallant Frenchmen whose work I'd seen in scattered places. The emphasis was towards "pure abstraction." For me this is a problem since they get further and further away from the common reader. I understand the impulse—towards the condition of music—but as a common reader I demand that this be done in masterly fashion or not at all. Mallarmé is perhaps the extreme, along with Gertrude Stein. I admire them both. But I don't have any great enthusiasm for fiction about fiction. Critics, of course, have been searching for a term that would describe fiction after the great period of modernism—"postmodernism," "metafiction," "surfiction," and "super-fiction." The last two are terrible. I suppose "postmodernism" is the least ugly and most descriptive.

What do you think about Philip Roth's famous suggestion back in the early sixties that reality was outstripping fiction's ability to amaze us?

I do think something happened in fiction about that time but I'd locate it differently. I think writers got past being intimidated by Joyce. Maybe the reality that Roth was talking about was instrumental in this recognition, but I think people realized that one didn't have to repeat Joyce (if that were even possible), but could use aspects of his achievement.

One of your most evident abilities is your gift at mimicking a wide range of styles, jargons, and lingoes. Where do these voices come from?

I listen to people talk, and I read. I doubt that there has ever been more jargon and cant of various professions and semiprofessions than there is today. I remember being amazed when I was in basic training, which was back in the early fifties, that people could make sentences in which the word fucking was used three times or even five times.

How did your relationship with the New Yorker begin?

I sent them something in the mail and they accepted it. Agented probably by a nine-cent stamp. Also, once in a while when I was low on cash I'd write something for certain strange magazines—the names I don't even remember. Names like Dasher and Thug. I do remember picking up five hundred bucks or something per piece. I did that a few times. Kind of gory, or even Gorey, fiction.

Have any of these things ever resurfaced?

No. Nor shall they ever.

It wasn't long before the New Yorker began publishing a story of yours almost every month. You didn't develop a specific understanding with them about regularly accepting your work?

I had moved to New York to work with Tom and Harold doing Location, and since I was only working hall-lime on the magazine, I had more time to write fiction. I had and have what they call a first-reading agreement.

Have you had a specific editor working with you at the New Yorker?

Yes, Roger Angell.

Do your stories usually require much in the way of editing?

Roger makes very few changes. If he and the magazine don't like a piece that I've written, they'll turn it down. The magazine sometimes turns down a piece I don't think should be turned down—but what else can I think? Roger is a wonderful editor, and if he objects to something in a story, he's probably right. He's very sensitive about the editing process, which makes it a pleasure.

Do you see yourself working out of some kind of New Yorker tradition?

The magazine in recent years has been very catholic. Anybody who publishes Singer, Merwin, Lem, Updike, Borges, and Marquez has got to be said to be various in terms of taste. Plus Grace Paley and Susan Sontag and Ann Beattie, and who knows who else.

I've noticed that in your last few books you seem to have dropped the interest in typographical or graphic play that was so evident in City Life and Guilty Pleasures. What got you interested in this sort of thing in the first place?

I think I was trying to be a painter, in some small way. Probably a yearning for something not properly the domain of writers. Maybe I was distracted by the things painters can do. I had an ambition toward something that maybe fiction can't do—an immediate impact—a beautifully realized whole that can be taken in at a glance and yet still be studied for a long time. Flannery O'Connor says, very sourly, very wittily, that she doesn't like anything that looks funny on the page. I know what she's talking about, but on the other hand, I'm intrigued by things that look funny on the page. But then there was the flood of concrete poetry, which devalued looking funny on the page.

I recall a comment of yours that you not only enjoyed doing layout work but that you could cheerfully become a typographer. Did you do all your own visual work?

They're mostly very simple collages, Ernst rather than Schwitters.

Have you tried your own hand at drawing?

Can't draw a lick.

At the end of the title story in City Life, Ramona comments about life's invitations "down many muddy roads" that she accepted: "What was the alternative?" I find a similar passivity in many of your characters—an inability to change their lot. Does this tendency spring from a personal sense of resignation about things or are you trying to suggest something more fundamental about modern man's relationship to the world?

The quotation you mention possibly has more to do with the great world than with me. In writing about the two girls in "City Life" who come to the city, I noticed that their choices, which seem to be infinite, are not so open-ended. I don't think this spirit of resignation, as you call it, has to do with any personal passivity; it's more a sociological observation. One attempts to write about the way contemporary life is lived by most people. In a more reportorial fiction, one would of necessity seek out more "active" protagonists—the mode requires it, in order to make the book or story work. In a mixed mode, some reportage and some play (which also makes its own observations), you might be relieved of this restriction. Contemporary life engenders, even enforces, passivity, as does television. Have you ever tried to reason with a Convenience Card money machine? Asked for napkin rings in an Amtrak snack-bar car? Of course you don't. Still, the horizon of memory enters in, you attempt to register change, the color of this moment as opposed to the past or what you know of it.

In The Dead Father, yon deal with the notion that we're all dragging around behind us the corpses of our fathers, as well as the past in general.

Worse: dragging these ahead of us. I have several younger brothers, among them my brother Frederick, who is also a writer. After The Dead Father came out, he telephoned and said, "I'm working on a new novel." I said, "What's it called?" and he said, "The Dead Brother."

Was"A Manual for Sons"originally conceived as being a part of the novel? It seems like a marvellous set piece.

Originally it was distributed throughout the book as a kind of seasoning, but in time it became clear that it should be one long section. My German publisher, Siegfried Unseld, said rather sternly to me one evening, "Isn't this a digression?" I said, "Yes, it is." He was absolutely right, in technical terms.

In The Dead Father, and more recently in Great Days, you strip the narrative almost completely of the old-fashioned means of story development. In fact, by the time we get to the stories in Great Days, what we find are simply voices interacting with one another.

In The Dead Father, there are four or five passages in which the two principal women talk to each other, or talk against each other, or over each other's heads, or between each other's legs—passages which were possible because there is a fairly strong narrative line surrounding them. It's questionable whether such things can be made to fly without the support of a controlling narrative.

Was Beckett an influence in this recent form of experimentation?

Beckett has been a great influence, which I think is clear. But the effort is not to write like Beckett. You can't do Beckett all over again anymore than you can do Joyce again. That would waste everyone's time.

Have you ever tried writing poetry, as such?

No, too difficult. I can't do it. A very tough discipline, to be attempted by saints or Villons.

We've talked about the influence of painting on your work. What about the cinema?

I was bombarded with film from, let us say, my sixth year right up to yesterday, when I saw Wiseman's Basic Training. There has to have been an effect, including the effect of teaching me what waste is. As with painting, film has shown us what not to pursue. The movies provide a whole set of stock situations, emotions, and responses that can be played against. They inflect contemporary language, and one uses this.

Your fiction has often drawn materials from the realm of pop culture—Snow White, Batman, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong, and so forth. What do you find useful in this kind of material?

Relatively few of my stories have to do with pop culture, a very small percentage, really. What's attractive about this kind of thing is the given—you have to do very little establishing, and can get right to the variations. The usefulness of the Snow White story is that everybody knows it, and it can be played against. The presence of the seven men made possible a "we" narration that offered some tactical opportunities—there's a sort of generalized narrator, a group spokesman who could be any one of the seven. Every small change in the story is momentous when everybody knows the story backwards; possibly I wasn't as bold in making these changes as I should have been.

It's very obvious in Snow White—and in nearly all your fiction—that you distrust the impulse to "go beneath the surface" of your characters and events.

If you mean doing psychological studies of some kind, no, I'm not so interested. "Going beneath the surface" has all sorts of positive-sounding associations, as if you were a Cousteau of the heart. I'm not sure there isn't just as much to be seen if you remain a student of the surfaces.

What function do the lists that appear in your work serve?

Litanies, incantations, have a certain richness per se. They also provide stability in what is often a volatile environment, something to tie onto, like an almanac or a telephone book. And discoveries—a list of meter maids in any given city will give you a Glory Hercules.

Who are some of the contemporary writers you find most interesting?

Along with the South Americans, who everyone agrees are doing very well, I think the Germans: Peter Handke, Max Frisch, certainly Grass, Thomas Bernhard, who did Correction. I think the Americans are doing very well. The French perhaps less so.

Raymond Federman says that while Samuel Beckett had devised a means of taking the world away from the contemporary writer, Garcia Marquez has shown writers a way to reconnect themselves with the world.

I don't agree with Ray that that's what Beckett has done; the Marquez portion of the comment seems more appropriate. I think they've both opened things up, in different ways. Marquez provided an answer to the question of what was possible after Beckett—not the only answer, but a large and significant one. Robert Coover, among American writers, seems to be doing something parallel, with good results.

Do you feel that New York City has helped shape your sensibility over the years?

I think my sensibility was pretty well put together before I came here. Although I've now lived here close to twenty years, I've also lived in other places in the meantime—Copenhagen for a year, Paris, Tokyo. I like cities. But this is a tiny corner of New York, very like a real village village. Once I was walking down Seventh Avenue with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, we'd just finished lunch, and we bumped into my daughter, who was then about eight. I introduced them, and she went home and told her mother she'd just met Hans Christian Andersen. And in a way she had.

Do you see any changes having taken place in your approach to writing over the past twenty years?

Certainly fewer jokes, perhaps fewer words.

Further Reading

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Evans, Walter. "Comanches and Civilization in Donald Barthelme's 'The Indian Uprising.'" Arizona Quarterly 42, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 45-52.

Provides an analysis of the short story "The Indian Uprising."

Meisel, Perry. "Mapping Barthelme's 'Paraguay.'" In Fragments: Incompletion and Discontinuity, pp. 129-38, guest editor, Lawrence D. Kritzman, and general editor, Jeanine Parisier Plottel, New York: New York Literary Forum, 1981.

Examines the short story "Paraguay."

Robertson, Mary. "Postmodern Realism: Discourse As Antihero in Donald Barthelme's 'Brain Damage.'" In Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. pp. 124-39, edited by Richard F. Patteson, New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 1992.

Studies the connection between technique and meaning in Barthelme's works.

Stevick, Philip. "Ridiculous Words." The Gettysburg Review 3, No. 4 (Autumn 1990): 738-43.

Surveys Barthelme's particular method of using language to create comic fiction.

Trussler, Michael. "Metamorphosis and Possession: An Investigation into the Interchapters of Overnight to Many Distant Cities." Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme. pp. 196-207, edited by Richard F. Patteson, New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 1992.

Explains how the stories in Overnight to Many Distant Cities defy "possession by the reader."

Upton, Lee. "Failed Artists in Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories." Critique 26, No. 1 (Fall 1984): 11-17.

Delineates the theme of the failed artist within the narratives collected in Sixty Stories.

Jochen Achilles (essay date Spring 1982)

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SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme's Aesthetic of Inversion: Caligari's Come-Back as Caligari's Leave-Taking," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring. 1982, pp. 105-20.

[In the following essay, Achilles traces Barthelme's use of elements from the German film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari in his works, examines various other themes employed by Barthelme, and notes some sources from which the author has extracted ideas for his writings.]

At first glance the title of Donald Barthelme's first collection of short stories, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, appears somewhat enigmatic—even menacing if considered outside the context of the meeting of the Toledo Medical Society described in Barthelme's "Up, Aloft in the Air," Where Dr. Caligari meets such other worthies as Dr. Scholl, Dr. Mabuse and Dr. Melmoth. Caligari makes his original appearance in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), one of the earliest German horror films and now a famous paradigm of the genre. In several respects this film can be regarded as a paradigm of important aspects of Barthelme's fiction too. In his seminal study of the German Film, From Caligari to Hitler (1947), Siegfried Kracauer gives an interpretation of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari that emphasizes features that are also recognizable in Barthelme's prose. [It is not unlikely that Barthelme's reference to Dr. Caligari is influenced not only by the film, but also by Siegfried Kracauer's book. Barthelme's interest in the history and styles of the film becomes manifest in several of his stories. Yet it is not the intention of this essay to trace such potential influences. This article tries, rather, to demonstrate that modifications of structural features central to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari recur in Barthelme's works and it tries to describe the nature of these modifications.]


The film's reality is as used up and second-hand as the "trash phenomenon" Barthelme keeps depicting and satirizing in all its aspects. During the course of the film Dr. Caligari, a psychiatrist who uses one of his patients as a medium and who leads this patient through hypnosis into a series of heinous crimes, models himself on an eighteenth century Italian showman and murderer of the same name. He had read about this obscure Italian in an old tome later discovered among his belongings, and it is in light of this discovery that Caligari's atrocious deeds reveal themselves as attempts to reenact and to verify a report of past events.

A number of Barthelme's stories and both his novels reveal ironic variations of various models, too. Many of these are provided by film. In "Hiding Man" the narrator continually reflects on his own experiences in terms of scenes from the numerous horror films he has seen. In "Me and Miss Mandible" the overgrown narrator's female classmates try to make up for their lack of experience with the other sex by a voracious consumption of magazine reports on the love life of movie stars. This precocious approach to sex leads to the adoption of these prefabricated patterns as standards of behavior. In "The Indian Uprising" scenes from a film and from real life merge and in "The Captured Woman" the title figure insists that the events she is involved in are part of a film. "A Film" is a satire on film production and "L'Lapse" is a parodic imitation of a film script by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Barthelme's "nostalgia for the terms of the fairy tale," which finds expression in "The Glass Mountain," "Departures," "The Dragon," and most prominently in Snow White, as well as his reliance on traditional and popular myths in "The Joker's Greatest Triumph," "A Shower of Gold," "The Party," and The Dead Father are further indications of the derivative quality of his works. "The Phantom of the Opera's Friend," "Daumier," and "The Question Party" are in part founded on literary sources; "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" is based on a philosophical one. Even the medium of Barthelme's art, his language, brims with linguistic patterns derived from all sorts of jargons and resounds with the hollowness of standardized phraseology.

In addition to the preoccupation with exemplars of behavior and expression, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and Barthelme's oeuvre share an ambivalent attitude towards these exemplars. The film expresses this ambivalence by embedding the story proper, the unmasking of the renowned psychiatrist Caligari as an insane murderer, in a framing story which inverts the film's message. The framing story presents Francis, the 'central intelligence' of the story proper who discloses Caligari's secret machinations, as the raving inmate of Caligari's lunatic asylum. Francis's revelations of Caligari's crimes turn out to be nothing but so mans symptoms of his mental illness, which Caligari gladly promises to cure. As Caligari's crimes take place in Francis's imagination only, Francis's version of the case, the denunciation of illegitimate authority, is transformed into Caligari's final vindication and into the glorification of authority as such.

Kracauer elucidates the political implication of this basic ambiguity. He sees the relation between Caligari and his medium as an analogy of the relation between authoritarian political leaders and a passive and pliable population ready to be hypnotized. The condemnation of such leadership as irrational and tyrannical, which is implied in Francis's version of the story, is undermined by its presentation as frantic babbling. The film, produced in the pre-fascistera, wavers between the warning against the unthinking adherence to leaders whose charisma seems only to veil thinly their morally rotten core and the fear of the chaos that may ensue if all leadership is abolished. On the one hand, Caligari may be seen as "a premonition of Hitler"; on the other hand, the film suggests that the total absence of any authorities and ordering forces may entail anarchy and chaos. The "seemingly unavoidable alternative of tyranny or chaos" stands at the very heart of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.

In a wider sense, this alternative stands in the center of Barthelme's writing too. Barthelme continually probes into the justifiability not only of political authority but also of all kinds of metaphysical, ethical and aesthetic values. He thereby exposes the contemporary dilemma of the pervasive need for guide lines and normative concepts on the one hand and of their questionable legitimacy on the other. Like one of the characters in his story "The Leap" Barthelme, too, is an "incorrigibly double-minded man". This instability finds expression in his technique of inversion, which establishes one version of an event or situation only to undercut it immediately. Several modes of this technique are distinguishable in Barthelme's oeuvre.


The most obvious of these modes is the reversal of life-roles—e.g., the inversion of the parent-child-relationship including grotesque contortions of bodily size that are vaguely reminiscent of Swift's Gulliver and Carroll's Alice. The reversal of life roles also occurs in the shape of the wholesale rejection of and desperate flight from the life one has led and the institutions and events that have molded it. Consider the title figure of Barthelme's first collected story "Florence Green Is 81," who has lived through the fascist era which Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari foreshadows, and who wants to escape her and her generation's history. She wishes to go somewhere where Quemoy, Matsu and Berlin do not represent focuses of political tension, where Lake Hurst and Buchenwald are not names connected with destruction and death, where novels do not glorify unquestioning submission to military authorities as the narrator's novel. The Children's Army, seems to do. In short Florence Green wants to go "somewhere where everything is different."

Burligame, the narrator and protagonist of "Hiding Man," actually goes. The story, set in a cinema while the science-fiction shocker "Attack of the Puppet People" is on show, is a parable of the hardship and even violence a rearrangement of one's life may involve. Burligame tries to hide from his clerical education and its hypocritical moral standards, but he has to learn that the only effective way to rid himself of his obsessions is not to run away from them, but to destroy them. It dawns on him that there is a connection between his religious past and his fascination by horror films. Both religion and horror films supply, whether sacred or demoniacal, variants of authority one has to sacrifice one's identity to. Selfhood can only be restored by unrelenting opposition to such authorities and by the destruction of the hierarchical structures they are based on. Burligame defeats his fellow moviegoer and persecutor, the negro Bane-Hipkiss, who turns out to be a white episcopal envoy in disguise, just as humankind defeats the Puppet People in the film they have both been watching. He shakes off the yoke of his guilt-ridden past, of a morality which he had very early begun to regard as false but which for a very long time still had a grip on him. Thus he changes his life-role completely and acquires a new self-confidence. But his actions still unconsciously and perhaps unavoidably follow the pattern of the film described in the story. It is hardly possible to become entirely independent.

In "Me and Miss Mandible," the idea to relive one's life is transformed into a literal fact. Joseph, a thirty-five-year-old ex-soldier and ex-claims adjuster for an insurance company finds himself back in sixth form. He is reduced to the social status of an eleven-year-old schoolboy although he retains his former intellectual and sexual capacity. As in the previous story, inversion also works on several levels in "Me and Miss Mandible." Not only does Joseph revert to child status, but his teacher. Miss Mandible, also appears to him like a child. On the other hand, one of his infant classmates reminds him "of the wife I had in my former role." This confusion of roles and blurring of distinctions is an indication of Joseph's ability to see through the artificiality of such roles and distinctions: "The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love." Joseph's re-education does not lead to the desired heightened adaptability to the rules he was not able to follow in his former life-role, but rather to an increasing awareness of the arbitrariness of these rules. Joseph begins to understand that the social patterns of school education, army, insurance company, and marriage have no validation beyond their sheer existence and self-perpetuation. There is no substantial moral reason not to ignore these patterns except the pragmatic consideration that one is punished for the refusal to fulfill one's role within them. Joseph cannot accept this. He cannot bring himself to confuse "authority with life itself" any more. He breaks the rules once again when he begins an illicit love affair with his teacher that leads to his expulsion from the school and, one must assume, from the orderly conventional life this school prepares for.

Contrary to Caligari's example. Florence Green, Burligame, and Joseph refuse to model themselves on the patterns that seem to have engulfed them. Instead, they try to break away from those patterns and to reorganize their lives autonomously. Contrary to the reactionary use of inversion in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, which rehabilitates Caligari and re-establishes his authority, the technique of inversion functions in an emancipatory manner in Barthelme's writing as it forms the turning point from dependence on conventional norms to freedom. In other words, Barthelme inverts the function inversion has in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.

In two later stories and in his second novel, The Dead Father (1975), Barthelme concentrates on a particular variant of the reversal of life-roles, the inversion of the father-child relationship that manifests itself in the dwindling power of the fathers, the increasing independence of the children, and grotesque distortions of bodily size. In "A Picture History of the War," Kellerman "runs through the park at noon with his naked father slung under one arm". In vain does the father endlessly reminisce about the battles he claims to have fought as a general from antiquity down to World War II. He has to relinquish forever his position as a military leader and, like Joseph, finds himself "folded into a schoolchild's desk, sitting in the front row" with his own son as his condescending teacher.

One of the three strands of plot in "Views of My Father Weeping" resumes this reduction of a father figure to the status of a little boy who plays with his water pistol, crayons, and dolls. The other two strands emphasize the difficulties involved in dispossessing a father of his paternal prerogatives. One of the two finds the narrator, who desperately tries not to feel guilty, in submission before a groundlessly weeping father figure. The third one analyzes the narrator's vain attempts to clarify the circumstances of his father's death. All three together give ample proof of the contradictory emotions involved in a son's relation to his father. The narrator cannot refrain from trying to find out who is responsible for his father's fatal accident, although (or even because) he once tried to shoot him himself. As an appropriate expression of the narrator's wavering between rivalry and sympathy, compassion, guilt and hate, the story ends with an "Etc.", which is indicative of the ongoing struggle between the admiration for authorities and the urge to overthrow them.

In The Dead Father Barthelme brings this struggle to an end. The Dead Father's absurdly huge size, symbolic of his former might, is of no avail against his children's conspiracy to change the status quo. His son Thomas retrieves his hitherto repressed oedipal feelings of murderous hatred and gradually divests the Dead Father of his insignia until he is finally as helpless as a child again. Not his biological death, but the dissolution of his fatherly power is the aim of the expedition that organizes the novel's plot. The burial of the Dead Father at the end of the book is an image of the achievement of what "A Manual for Sons," which Thomas and Julie read with interest, recommends: "Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least 'turned down' in this generation—by the combined efforts of all of us together." In "A Picture History of the War" Kellerman's father had appeared as the universal embodiment of military leadership through his participation in so many historical battles, but in this novel the Dead Father has emerged as the incarnation of patriarchal dominion from Jahwe and Laios down to present political leaders by manifold biblical, mythological and literary references. The dissolution of fatherhood advocated in The Dead Father therefore appears as a signal for the general decomposition of authorities and hierarchies.

"At the Tolstoy Museum" demonstrates that Barthelme's antiauthoritarian criticism does not spare literary father figures. The literally oppressing outline of the museum, which "suggests that it is about to fall on you", is mockingly described as an architectural expression of Tolstoy's overpowering "moral authority." The impression conveyed by the many Tolstoy portraits that line the walls of the museum, furthermore, is much like "committing a small crime and being discovered at it by your father." These awe-inspiring aspects of the museum are lost on the narrator. They cannot induce him to pay homage to Tolstoy's genius. He attempts, instead, to push Tolstoy from his pedestal. Both the title of the Tolstoy article he quotes, "'Who Should Teach Whom to Write, We the Peasant Children or the Peasant Children Us?,'" and the Tolstoy story he reads about the three hermits who teach a bishop that there are more ways to heaven than the one sanctioned by the Church again illustrate the relativity of norms and values. They are restatements of Joseph's persistent and wondering question in "Me and Miss Mandible," "Who decides?" As in "Views of My Father Weeping," the insight into the unjustifiability of authority is again accompanied by weeping, depression, and sadness.

What is new in "At the Tolstoy Museum" is the fact that the standards thus questioned are aesthetic as well as moral and metaphysical. Although Tolstoy is primarily presented as a moral authority, he is obviously a literary one too, and, if only by implication, the story raises the question whether a contemporary writer can find artistic models for his own work in the museum of world literature. It also raises another even more complicated string of interrelated questions: Does a writer not unavoidably make a claim to authority if he presents well-made stories to his readers? Does he not willy-nilly establish a variant of the parent-child or teacher-pupil relationship with his readers for the simple reason that he actively shapes and the reader only passively receives what he has to say? Given the one-way communication between writer and reader and given the anti-authoritarian intentions of the writer, how are the two reconcilable?


Barthelme tries to answer both questions, and thus his works assume a self-reflective quality. The first question concerning models for one's own writing receives a predictably negative answer. This answer consists in the revocation of artistic options Barthelme practices in many works. Comparable to Eliot and Joyce in this respect, furthermore, Barthelme considers myths and fairy tales as elements that may furnish otherwise amorphous tales with structural coherence. But contrary to these modernist mythotherapists, Barthelme unavoidably demonstrates the obsolescence and invalidity of such mythical or legendary patterns.

In Barthelme's first novel, Snow White (1967), all of the three fairy tale motifs the novel is founded upon prove abortive. Behind Paul's miserable outward appearance no heroic prince conceals himself as in the fairy tale of the Frog Prince. Therefore Snow White comments disappointedly: "Paul is frog. He is frog through and through … pure frog." By letting her hair hang out of the window Snow White attempts to overcome her isolation from more impressive men than the seven dwarfs who "only add up to the equivalent of about two real men." But this conscious imitation of the Rapunzel motif does not lead to the desired result. She has to acknowledge that the world is not "civilized enough to supply the correct ending to the story." The Snow White plot of the novel ends accordingly. The prince figure is killed by a poisoned drink originally meant for Snow White herself. The novel thus revokes the conciliatory solutions of its fairy tale sources. It has turned against itself the principle of retraction by which it has been dominated from Snow White's complaint about the used-upness of words or her poem on loss or Paul's palinode "to retract everything" to the dissolution of semantic references and syntactic structures or even to the suspension of all judgments and explanations.

The revocation of the hope for happiness fairy tales engender recurs in several short stories. On top of "The Glass Mountain" the narrator does not find "the beautiful enchanted symbol" (City Life) he is in search of in order to leave behind permanently the shabby urban scene he has climbed up from. What he does find is "only a beautiful princess" devoid of the magic and the "layers of meaning" that used to supply fairy tales with the power to transcend reality. With resignation, he throws the princess down from the glass mountain back into the streets crowded with jeering people, cars, faeces and cut-down trees, the remnants of the enchanted forest. One of the episodes in "Departures" departs from its own fabulous quality and offers this negation at the end: "This is not really how it went. I am fantasizing" (Sadness). "The Dragon" in Guilty Pleasures similarly suffers from suicidal tendencies caused by the feeling of his own meaninglessness which has not left him since the thirteenth century. The only remedy contemporary society has to offer him is the status of "endangered species."

Not only do mythical and legendary models prove inapplicable to contemporary reality since the historical conditions of their validity cannot be reproduced, the position of the artist as such is also in danger of becoming untenable as society tends to occupy and to integrate every artistic vantage-ground which used to allow for its criticism. In "A Shower of Gold" the painter and sculptor Hank Peterson discovers that TV-shows are now premised on the absurdity of human existence, a diagnosis of life that not so very long ago used to belong to the exclusive qualms of esoteric circles. In addition, Peterson's barber lectures him on existentialist philosophy and rounds his speech off by an extremely pessimistic quotation from Pascal. To Peterson's edification, this quotation is again thrown at him a little later by one of three California girls who have by chance managed to gain access to his loft. These episodes put together, Peterson finds himself cornered by a society that seems to have decided to absorb the most radical judgments on human nature as matters of course.

The upshot is that Peterson's position as artist is subjected to an ironic inversion. If in former times the philistine was despised by the cultural elite, it is now the artist who is almost bullied into apologizing for not being sufficiently interested in absurdity by Miss Arbor, the talkmaster of the TV-show he wishes to participate in for financial reasons. The limits of this avantgarde consciousness turned mass consciousness only come in sight when it interferes with economic or political interests as in the case of Peterson's dealer Jean-Claude who, for the sake of better saleability, wishes to saw one of Peterson's pictures in two and in the case of the President and his men who, for obscure reasons, actually do destroy the sculpture Peterson is working on and most of his studio equipment into the bargain. These limits also come in sight when Peterson's TV-speech against alienation appears so subversive to the program officials that they desperately try to turn him off. The truth the artist Peterson hesitatingly and uncertainly gropes after proves strong enough in the end to penetrate the cocksure pseudo-radicalism of TV-society.

In "Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916" reality not only absorbs art as in "A Shower of Gold," but it actually becomes a work of art. Both Klee and the members of the Secret Police who watch over his actions fear official reprimands because one of the three aeroplanes Klee is responsible for has disappeared unnoticed. With "his painter's skill which resembles not a little that of the forger" Klee manipulates the manifest and the Secret Police manipulate their report so that the third aeroplane appears to have never existed. In analogy to the production of a work of art, they produce the reality they desire and thus give one more proof of the fictional nature of reality, which has been exposed by many postmodern writers from Borges and Nabokov to Barth and Sukenick. Ironically, the same "painter's skill" that creates the delusion others take for reality also preserves the truth of the matter: out of sheer aesthetic curiosity Klee spontaneously draws a sketch of the flatcar and the loose wrapping from which the aircraft disappeared.

The inversion of the mimetic relation between art and reality is complete in "A Shower of Gold" and "Engineer-Private Paul Klee." On the one hand reality appears either as a hysterical performance by the Theatre of the Absurd or as the delusive product of an artistic imagination directed by highly subjective interests. On the other hand Peterson's desperate confession and Klee's disinterested sketch remain as artistic residues of a reality that is what it seems. Reality turns into an imitation of stock artistic styles and techniques, whereas only an art that is uncontaminated by social convention and personal interests is able to retain a sense of what is real.

The poetological parable "And Then" suggests in a different manner that art must not be deprived of its spontaneity and autonomy. At the beginning of the story, the narrator's problem seems to be strictly poetological. Similar to Edgar, the writer-to-be in "The Dolt," he is unable to finish the anecdote he is trying to tell his visitor. A link is missing in the sequence of events. His reflections on how to go on with his anecdote gradually acquaint the reader with the narrative situation. The apparent poetological problem of how to give coherence to an anecdote reveals itself as depending upon a far less abstract personal problem. By means of the anecdote the narrator wants to convince his visitor, a police sergeant who happens to have married the narrator's mother and who has arrived with two colleagues and his newly wed wife to take away the narrator's harpsichord, to leave him the harpsichord and to annul his marriage. The narrator's real problem consists in his belief that it is possible to reach these ends by literary means, that a story can be invented which will solve his difficulties for him:

I wondered … what kind of 'and then' I could contrive which might satisfy all the particulars of the case, which might redeliver to me my mother, retain to me my harpsichord, and rid me of these others, in their uniforms.

It is characteristic of Barthelme that all the narrator can think of as a continuation of his anecdote is a children's story, which, of course, furthers his ends as little as any other sequel that he might contrive.

Beyond the rejection of mythical and legendary patterns as structural models for contemporary story-telling in Snow White, "The Glass Mountain," "Departures," and "The Dragon" and beyond the inversion of the relation between art and reality in "A Shower of Gold" and "Engineer-Private Paul Klee," Barthelme denies the possibility of changing or even influencing reality by artistic means in "And Them." In this story, the shift from its poetological to its existential aspect drastically demonstrates that the power of the story-teller ends precisely where his story ends. By means of the stimulation of a narrator-listener situation within the story, Barthelme reminds his readers that what he confronts them with are only stories. This obviously refers back to the questions raised in connection with the discussion of "At the Tolstoy Museum," i.e. the question of the authority stories can claim for themselves on the strength of being works of art and the concomitant question of their appropriate reception.


The structure of Barthelme's writing discourages any attempt to extrapolate political, moral or aesthetic judgments from it. Barthelme's position as a writer is as far removed as possible from that of the seer. He does not want his readers to accept his works submissively as sources of wisdom. He rather forces the reader to think for himself. Barthelme's stories emancipate the reader from the authority he consciously or unconsciously attributes to the text he is reading. In other words, Barthelme directs his anti-authoritarian impulse against his own writing.

He does so by means of the two most prominent and most frequently analyzed features of his works, his pervasive irony and his disruptive technique of collage and fragmentation that make it impossible for the reader both to take at face value what he reads and to smoothly imbibe the stories' contents without interruption. He does so, too, by less conspicuous sudden shifts of perspective that produce totally different valuations of identical situations. They recall the shift from Francis's to Caligari's point of view in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari that changes the meaning of the film completely. In "And Then" the transference of the narrator's problem from the poetological to the existential level changes the story's meaning quite similarly. Variations of this technique are noticeable in several other stories.

"Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel," the second story in City Life (1970) that is based on the interview pattern of a sequence of questions and answers, begins with the description of a scene in a railway compartment that bursts with subdued erotic potential. Precisely at the point when the reader's mind begins to wallow in sexual fantasies that anticipate the continuation of the very slowly developing situation, the promising narrative is interrupted by the questioner's comment: "That's a very common fantasy." This remark explains the initially puzzling first sentence of the story: "I use the girl on the train a lot." The luscious episode reveals itself as nothing but one of its narrator's strategies to overcome his sexual tensions. The reader's disappointed expectations teach him not to confide too easily in the veracity of what is presented him. The reader implied in "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" is the suspicious reader.

In "Daumier" changes of perspective are psychologically motivated, too. The story consists of episodes from the life of Daumier and two "self-transplants" that he constructs in order to pacify his insatiable self. These surrogates seem to exist independently of him. An interesting identity problem arises when emotions of the original self intermingle with those of one of the surrogates: "I then noticed that I had become rather fond—fond to a fault—of a person in the life of my surrogate…. I began to wonder how I could get her out of his life and into my own." When he has achieved this transference and has thus secured a new female companion for his authentic self, his insatiability is miraculously, though only temporarily, cured. For the time being Daumier does not need his surrogates any more, but he knows that his happiness will not last. Therefore he carefully wraps them up and stores them away in a drawer together with the other members of the scenarios his transplants were involved in.

In "Daumier" the desire to change one's life-role is not treated as seriously as in some of Barthelme's earlier stories. The roles of musketeer, westerner and debonair optimist Daumier's surrogates take pains to fulfill are too ridiculous or fantastic not to be seen through as cliches at first glance. They are Daumier's pastime, a distraction, not a serious alternative. "Daumier" is a surrealist comment on the inescapability of self-stylization that the reader can appreciate because he is carefully initiated into Daumier's schizoid way of maintaining his psychic stability. Changing levels of reality and shifts of perspective in the different episodes do not take the reader by surprise as they do in "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel."

A more puzzling situation again arises in "The Phantom of the Opera's Friend," a first person narration by the title figure about his vain attempts to impel his friend to give up his phantom existence and to begin a normal life. Suddenly, half way through the story, the perspective changes to third person and the reader is informed that "Gaston Leroux was tired of writing The Phantom of the Opera." Leroux prefers to postpone finishing The Phantom of the Opera and decides to begin a new work instead. After this interlude, the first person narration is resumed as if nothing had happened.

What has happened resembles Francis's detection of the volume on the original eighteenth century Italian magician Caligari among his psychiatrist's books. Barthelme's story reveals its source, the novel Le Fantome de l'Opera (1910) by the French author of psychological romances and detective stories Gaston Leroux. The unexpected and abrupt changes of focus from the situation of the phantom to that of its original creator and back again heighten the reader's awareness that what he reads is dependent upon several mediators. The interdependence of their perspectives remind him of the relativity of each individual perspective, of the unattainability of objective presentation and of the probability that a story has been told before. This function of multiperspectivity is diametrically opposed to its use in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. The manner in which Francis's and Caligari's mutually exclusive views are presented force the reader to reject the one as false and to accept the other as true. The authority of one perspective is played out against the other, whereas in "The Phantom of the Opera's Friend" absolute claims to truth are generally undermined.

Like "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" and "And Then," "What to Do Next" simulates a narrator-listener situation. A person who apparently needs advice is recommended by an authoritative voice to lose himself "in the song of the instructions, in the precise, detailed balm of having had solved … that most difficult of problems, what to do next". The instructions lecture him on all aspects of his life until they finally absorb him:

"We have therefore decided to make you a part of the instructions themselves—something other people must complete, or go through, before they reach their individual niches, or thrones, or whatever kind of plateau makes them, at least for the time being, happy."

This changes the communicative situation significantly. As the addressee turns into a part of the address, he quits the field for the reader who suddenly realizes that he belongs to the "other people" the instructions appeal to, i.e., that he is their real addressee. Yet it is precisely this identification with the situation of being lectured on what to do next which discloses to the reader the repressive nature of the situation. Is the reader to become part of the instructions, too? This would mean that he, too, is ready to submit to any authoritative voice that chooses to give him directions and that he, too, decides to become a model of self-sacrifice. Inversely this means that he has to react like Burligame in "Hiding Man" if he wants to retain his selfhood. He has to reject instructions from outside and to instruct himself. By the sudden shift from figural to reader perspective the story reveals its hidden meaning, which amounts to a revocation of what it pretends to provide—advice on how to live.

"The Discovery," another story in Amateurs (1976), exploits the discrepancy between figural and reader perspective in a less complex manner but with a similar result. The discoveries the characters in the story and the readers of the story make are diametrically opposed. The discovery of the characters consists in their consensus on the dullness of one of them, whereas the reader has a quite contrary impression. It is the character who is unanimously pronounced dull who passes the only mildly funny and intelligent remark in the whole story. By the endless repetition of trite remarks and stock phrases all the others go into an orgy of dullness without even noticing it.

In "What to Do Next" and "The Discovery" Barthelme again employs shifts of perspective not to establish authority but to subvert it. He teaches the reader that he has every reason to confront with distrust what is presented to him as authoritative and/or authorial truths.


Barthelme's aesthetic of inversion, the reversal of life roles, the revocation of artistic options and the relativity of perspectives, is prefigured by the derivative nature of events and the changes of perspective in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. But Barthelme does not simply imitate this film as Caligari copies his Italian forerunner. He applies the technique of inversion he takes over from the film to the film's own message and thus denounces the authoritarian principle the film vindicates. In Barthelme's fiction Caligari only comes back to take his leave for good.

The question remains why he comes back at all. The other side of the coin of Barthelme's wholesale dismissal of authorities and his total rejection of models of behavior and expression is disorientation and incoherence. Although Barthelme does not seem to believe in the possibility either of validating the legendary and mythical structures that underlie his fiction or of justifying the numerous father figures who populate it, his art would come to nothing were it not for these structures and figures. Barthelme depends upon the "trash phenomenon" not because he wants to transfigure it in the way Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari whitewashes Caligari, but simply "because it's all there is".

In "Nothing: A Preliminary Account" Barthelme explains the epistemological implications of this situation. He points out that the aim of apprehending nothingness and the only means there is to reach this aim are mutually exclusive. All one can do to approach nothing is to make a list of what nothing is not. In other words, a list of everything. If the list were complete, nothing would remain. But obviously it is impossible to achieve this:

And even if we were able, with much labor, to exhaust the possibilities, get it all inscribed, name everything nothing is not, down to the last rogue atom, the one that rolled behind the door, and had thoughtfully included ourselves, the makers of the list, on the list—the list itself would remain. Who's got a match?

This dilemma adequately describes the dilemma of Barthelme's own fiction. The story betrays its poetological significance if it is seen as another manifestation of Barthelme's aesthetic of inversion. Contrary to the search for nothing in "Nothing: A Preliminary Account" Barthelme is, like the dwarfs in Snow White and the angels in "On Angels," in search of a new principle. But all the cultural, social, and historical phenomena he examines in the course of this search prove deceptive and false. There are not substantial moral authorities or structural patterns on which life and art can be built. All that is found is trash. The search for something proves as hopeless as the search for nothing and yet it is the only task Barthelme regards as worth his while. Precisely because it is insoluble "the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives." Each individual story is only "A Preliminary Account" of this search for authority resulting in the negation of authority.

Robert A. Morace (essay date Fall 1984)

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SOURCE: "Donald Barthelme's Snow White: The Novel, the Critics, and the Culture," in Critique, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall, 1984, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Morace analyzes Snow White as a work of experimental fiction.]

Delight in formal experimentation is one characteristic of much of our contemporary American fiction. Another, either explicit in the choice of subject matter or implicit in the narrative treatment, is the scornful criticism of the popular culture and its audience. While the former has received considerable attention from critics, the latter has more often been cited as a given than discussed in any detail. Perhaps the reason for this reticence lies not so much with the critics as with the writers themselves, who prefer to deride the popular culture rather than to analyze it or their basic assumptions about it. In the peremptory words of William Gass, "This muck cripples consciousness" [Fiction and the Figures of Life, Nonpareil Books, 1978]. Gass, appropriately, is presently writing a novel he hopes will be so good no one will publish it. Other writers associated with the new fiction, such as Jerzy Kosinski, attack the mass culture reductively, while still others, Robert Coover and Ishmael Reed for example, resort to caricature (not without good reason). Kurt Vonnegut is both more sympathetic and, in his way, more analytic. But the most important exception to the general rule is, I believe, Donald Barthelme, especially in his curious little novel Snow White.

The very unconventionality of this oddly mimetic book has obscured for many readers the degree to which it serves as a remarkably detailed, and in some ways even melancholy, critique of the reductive linguistic democracy of the contemporary American mass culture. To those already disposed towards innovative fiction, Snow White's being "stylistically appropriate" [Jack Shadoian, "Notes on Donald Barthelme's Snow White," Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1970] and "a remarkably entertaining performance" [Albert J. Guerard, "Notes on the rhetoric of anti-realistic fiction," Triquarterly, Spring, 1974] are sufficient to ensure its worth. To those who wonder where-have-all-the-Tolstoys-gone, Snow White is merely slick and self-indulgent. Neither view does justice to the complexity, as distinct from the technical proficiency, of Barthelme's writing, which at least to some readers is very clearly the work of a "conventional moralist". More to the point, when Tony Tanner compared Barthelme's fiction to the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, he in effect set the stage for what has emerged as the single most important question for readers of Snow White: to what extent is the novel a surrender to the contemporary culture or a criticism of it? For the more tradition-minded reader, the answer is simple. According to John Gardner, Barthelme "reflects his doubting and anxious age because he is, himself, an extreme example of it," one whose only advice is "better to be disillusioned than deluded." Gerald Graff goes a step further. Although in his ambivalent and even contradictory remarks on the novel, Graff does admit that Barthelme's style parodies empty language—language as gesture rather than language as communication—and acknowledges that Snow White is "finally a form of cultural statement," he criticizes what he considers the author's "irreverent stance toward his work" and "the novel's inability to transcend the solipsism of subjectivity and language…." In sum, the novel does not entirely succeed in playing the "adversary role" prescribed by Graff because Barthelme "lacks a sufficient sense of objective reality" and therefore does not fully resolve what Graff identifies as "the writer's problem": "to find a standpoint from which to represent the diffuse, intransigent material of contemporary experience without surrendering critical perspective to it."

The tendency to read Snow White as a sign of an ethically bankrupt age rather than as a critique of it culminates in Christopher Lasch's controversial study, The Culture of Narcissism. Those characteristics Lasch associates with pathological narcissism—"dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings … pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous self-deprecatory humor … intense fear of old age and death, altered sense of time, fascination with celebrity, fear of competition, decline of the play spirit, deteriorating relations between men and women"—these are the same characteristics noticeable throughout Snow White, as Lasch himself acknowledges. In what ways then has Barthelme failed? In Lasch's view, Barthelme's perfunctory ironic humor and refusal to present himself as an authority evidence the fact that he "waives the right to be taken seriously." Moreover, Lasch charges, in their fiction Barthelme, Vonnegut, and other innovative contemporary writers have abdicated their responsibility to provide psychologically and socially useful fantasies for their readers, readers who then turn to the escapist fantasies of the popular culture, which, Lasch says, are not only not psychologically useful but also socially dangerous in that they tend to increase the individual's dissatisfaction without suggesting to him viable ways to improve his condition.

In order to understand just how mistaken is the view held by Gardner, Graff, and Lasch, it is necessary to examine the specific ways in which Barthelme analyzes in his novel the language used in today's society. For the most part, however, Barthelme's supporters have been as quick as Gardner or Lasch to deny the presence of any content, ethical or otherwise, in Barthelme's work. Ronald Sukenick, for example, views Barthelme as the exemplar of the non-representational, improvisational, opaque "Bossa Nova" fiction that, according to Sukenick, began sweeping the country in the late 1960s. By opacity, Sukenick means that the fiction and the experience of reading the fiction exist solely "in and for" themselves; moreover, "opacity implies that we should direct our attention to the surface of the work, and such techniques as graphics and typographical variation, in calling the reader's attention to the technological reality of the book, are useful in keeping his mind on that surface instead of undermining it with profundities." Although Barthelme does draw the reader's attention to the surface of Snow White, he does so chiefly in order to show the ways in which language and explanations mediate between self and experience and to make clear that the result of this mediation, in the contemporary culture at least, is the cheapening or perversion of words, experiences, values, and people. Unlike his surface-loving characters, Barthelme penetrates his novel's various surfaces—of character, of clichéd language, of printed page—in order to expose the melancholy absence of any deeper, humanizing meaning (the very "profundities" Sukenick wishes to exclude). It is the dwarfs, not their author, who love books that require them to do nothing more than read, or experience, the words printed on the page, the way a jaded traveler reads the print on a timetable. Barthelme dives beneath these surfaces—not so deeply as Melville perhaps, or at least not in the same ways—in order to expose the plastic (no longer pasteboard) mask of dwarf language and culture. Thus, to call Barthelme a "very bossanova writer," as Sukenick does, or an "action writer" whose aim, according to Jerome Klinkowitz [in The Practice of Fiction in America: Writers from Hawthorne to the Present], is "to create a new work, which exists as an object in space, not in discursive commentary on the linear elements that form it," only serves to emphasize the significant formal innovativeness of the fiction at the expense of what Gardner would term its "moral" content. More importantly, Sukenick's formulation invites and indeed almost makes plausible the misguided criticism of Graff and Lasch, who argue for a literature in which the author presents this "moral" content to the reader directly, perhaps (considering Graff's praise of Mr. Sammler's Planet) even didactically.

A few reviewers and critics have managed to avoid this either/or approach to Barthelme's disconcerting little novel and have made at least passing mention of his critique of the language of the contemporary culture, but only one, William Stott [in "Donald Barthelme and the Death of Fiction," Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies], has attempted to define its specific nature. Stott persuasively argues that Barthelme's "stories are about what happens to fiction in a non-fiction world [a world in which "the facts of life" are supplied primarily by non-fiction], or—to put it another way—what happens to private values when all facts are treated as public." What happens is that private values can no longer be maintained because they have been supplemented by "non-fiction's public definitions." One effect of this cultural change is the perversion of private expression, and another is the devaluation of significant historical acts.

The method of radical devaluation noted by Stott is at the heart of Barthelme's critique of American mass culture in Snow White. The method is decidedly not "genially democratic," as one sympathetic critic has claimed [Neil Schmitz, "Donald Barthelme and the Emergence of Modern Satire," Minnesota Review, Vol. 1, 1972]. Rather, it is precisely the reverse of what Pearl Bell finds so abhorrent in his fiction. Bell flatly asserts that Barthelme's stories do

not pretend to any ideas, comic or otherwise, about the "trash phenomenon"—the steadily mounting detritus of words and things that forms Barthelme's image of American life—but are composed of the trash itself…. What could be more perfectly expressive of contempt for the ordering intellect, for the authority of culture, for any discriminatory distinctions between the multitudinous and the valuable—if all men are equal, all things are also equal—than a writer whose works consist almost entirely, or so he likes to claim, of the raw sewage of spontaneous expression.

To a degree it is true that "Barthelme operates by a law of equivalence according to which nothing is intrinsically more interesting than anything else," as Gerald Graff has claimed, but this method is a criticism of, not, as Graff and Lasch have charged, a surrender to, the contemporary culture. What we find in Snow White is, in fact, Barthelme's tracing of that leveling tendency which Tocqueville recognized as a danger inherent in a democracy. The purposely anonymous society sketched in the novel (one can hardly say "depicted") is characterized not merely by a reductive political equality but more importantly by a radical and insidious democratization of language—a linguistic democracy in which any word can be substituted for any other word, in which all utterances are equally empty gestures produced as if just so many plastic buffalo humps, and in which the hollowness of the mass culture is reflected in the hollowness of the characters' language and in the general "failure of the imagination" of a culture given entirely over to the mindless consumption of ideas as well as goods. Such a world Donald Barthelme neither surrenders to nor endorses.

Snow White is, among other things, a one hundred-and-eighty-page verbal vaudeville show (itself a kind of theatrical collage) in which the form of the jokes often constitutes the author's critique of dwarf culture. In all speech, says Dan, one of Snow White's seven dwarf lovers, there is always "some other word that would do as well,… or maybe a number of them." Promiscuous as the novel's characters may be, it is their linguistic promiscuity which titillates the reader. Incongruities abound, obscure and archaic words appear as often as contemporary slang, and literally anything can be obscene: consider Snow White's sexually loaded plea for "more perturbation!" and the "pornographic pastry" which, alas, is not "poignant." And, of course, just the reverse can happen: a "cathouse" mentioned several times turns out to be a house for cats. Similarly, anything can be a dead metaphor. Characters are frequently "left sucking the mop" or finding "the red meat on the rug." One character becomes "a sack of timidities"; others worship "the almighty penny." Filled with a dread induced in part by introductory courses in philosophy and psychology, they have no difficulty coming up with such existential aphorisms as "The Inmitten-ness, of the Lumpwelt is a turning toward misery."

"Give me the odd linguistic trip, stutter and fall, and I will be content," says dwarf Bill; and early in the story Snow White laments, "Oh I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear." Both complaints are, in one sense at least, foolish, as Barthelme's fantastically inventive word-play makes clear. Whether such crippled imaginations as theirs can successfully struggle against the usurping, homogenizing culture which dwarfs them and make the Barthelmean leap of language is, however, more than just a little suspect. The Snow White who, apparently not having taken a course in modern poetry at Beaver College, has never before heard the expression "murder and create" is nonetheless writing "a dirty great poem" about "loss." Given the would-be poet's lack of both a tradition and an individual talent, the reader may find "the President's war on poetry" a rather gratuitous undertaking. The dwarfs have certainly already surrendered, as the mixing of metaphors in the following passage attests:

Of course we had hoped that he [Paul] would take up his sword as part of the Presidents war on poetry. The time is ripe for that. The root causes of poetry have been studied and studied. And now that we know that pockets of poetry still exist in our great country, especially in the large urban centers, we ought to be able to wash it out totally in one generation, if we put our backs into it.

In addition to the swords, wars, ripenings, roots, pockets, and washings, the speaker's moribund recitation of political jargon and his unknowing allusions evidence Barthelme's critical stance towards the culture's junk heap approach to language and history, the debased contemporary version of Ruskin's storehouse.

Freed at last and entirely from that retrospection flailed by Emerson in Nature, that trash civilization in Snow White is marked not by the Emersonian injunction "Build therefore your own world" but instead by the inability to discriminate as to either words or values. The dwarfs ponder the bon mots of Apollinaire and LaGuardia with equal deliberation, and Snow White lavishes equal attention on the cleaning of the books, oven, and piano (in that order) and includes in her catch-all list of princes the historical Pericles, the contemporary Charlie, the literary Hal, the comic-strip Valiant, and the Madison Avenue Matchabelli. The omnivorous dwarfs read novels aloud and in their entirety, even the "outer part where the author is praised and the price quoted," while the prince-figure Paul is torn between acting heroically and eating a "duck-with-blue-cheese sandwich." Worse yet is the narrator's unconscious and incongruous juxtaposition of the emotional and the anatomical in this passage: "At the horror show Hubert put his hand in Snow White's lap. A shy and tentative gesture. She let it lay there. It was warm there; that is where the vulva is." Such are the fruits of what Barthelme's narrator calls "the democratization of education" and Christopher Lasch terms "the mindless eclecticism" of today's brand of higher education. This radical and entirely reductive equality is applied not merely to words, including names, but to people as well who, as a result, are often confused with and reduced to the level of objects, future trash, as in the novel's opening sentence, which begins, "She is a tall dark beauty containing a great many beauty spots …" Even when, on rare occasions, Snow White becomes uncomfortable with this kind of language, she is only able to substitute one form of it for another. Looking at herself in a mirror, she decides to

take stock. These breasts, my own, still stand delicately away from the trunk, as they are supposed to do. And the trunk itself is not unappealing. In fact trunk is a rather mean word for the main part of this assemblage of felicities. The cream-of-wheat belly! The stunning arse, in the rococco mirror! And then the especially good legs, including the important knees. I have nothing but praise for this delicious assortment.

Unwilling to be a cadaverous "trunk," Snow White prefers to think of herself, unwittingly of course, as a hot breakfast cereal and a Whitman's sampler.

Another way in which language is used by these unreflective consumers is as a means of deflecting from problems at hand. Just as most of the characters turn to drinking at one point or another, all of them turn to language as a means of escape. Troubled by their deteriorating relationship with Snow White, the dwarfs busy themselves with a description of a room's interior decor; Edward transforms their problem into a sermon on the "horsewife," and Dan decides it is not really Snow White that troubles them but the red towel she wears. The best and funniest example of deflection is the dwarfs' "situation report":

"She still sits there in the window, dangling down her long black hair black as ebony. The crowds have thinned somewhat. Our letters have been returned unopened. The shower curtain initiative has not produced notable results. She is, I would say, aware of it, but has not reacted either positively or negatively. We have asked an expert in to assess it as to timbre, pitch, mood and key. He should be here tomorrow. To make sure we have the right sort of shower curtain. We have returned the red towels to Bloomingdale's." At this point everybody looked at Dan, who vomited. "Bill's yellow crêpe-paper pajamas have been taken away from him and burned. He ruined that night for all of us, you know that." At this point everybody looked at Bill who was absent. He was tending the vats. "Bill's new brown monkscloth pajamas, made for him by Paul, should be here next month. The grade of pork ears we are using in the Baby Ding Sam Dew is not capable of meeting U.S. Govt. standards, or indeed, any standards. Our man in Hong Kong assures us however that the next shipment will be superior. Sales nationwide are brisk, brisk, brisk. Texas Instruments is down four points. Control data is up four points. The pound is weakening. The cow is calving. The cactus wants watering. The new building is abuilding with leases covering 45 percent of the rentable space already in hand. The weather tomorrow, fair and warmer."

The comic deflection evident in this passage serves a serious purpose. Like the questionnaire Barthelme inserts into his novel, the purpose of which is not, as Christopher Lesch believes, "to demolish the reader's confidence in the author," the situation report suggests the extent to which the Age of Journalism that Kierkegaard predicted a century and a half ago has come to pass: the age of quick information (not wisdom) and skimmed surfaces. Small wonder that the dwarfs find in digression so effective a means of evading the problem Snow White poses and of achieving the promise of better days to come. Barthelme's reader is delighted, but at the same time dismayed and provoked, by the ludicrous literal-mindedness of the characters in the situation report and, for example, the "interrupted screw" and "bat theory of child-raising" passages. This same journalistic literal-mindedness leads to the explanatory overkill evident on virtually every page of the novel, including the first. There the reader is told not only of Snow White's "many beauty spots" but also, in the driest, most mechanically repetitive language possible, where these beauty spots appear, and just in case the reader sill has not gotten the picture, the narrator appends that picture, a diagram showing the position, "more or less," of each of the spots. Such explanations are similar to the reading preferences of the dwarfs, who like

books that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of "sense" of what is going on. This "sense" is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves—looking at them and so arriving at a feeling not of satisfaction exactly, that is too much to expect, but of having "completed" them.

Both the reading and the explanations take time, fill up time, thus creating the illusion of completeness and understanding. And too they resemble those empty, usually verbal gestures sprinkled throughout the story: seasoning for Barthelme's readers but more of the word-bog for his dwarfish characters who are at once the victims and the perpetrators of such linguistic absurdities as Jane's signing her threatening letter to Mr. Quistgaard "Yours faithfully" or a conversation in which "somebody had said something we hadn't heard…. Then Bill said something…. Other people said other things…. But Bill had something else to say." With conversations such as these can Vonnegut's verbal shrug, "so it goes," be far away?

"I just don't like your world," says Snow White at one point, "a world in which such things can happen." Just what these "things" may be Snow White never makes clear, or perhaps never can make clear, given that increase int he "blanketing effect of ordinary language" which parallels an increase in the "trash phenomenon" in Snow White's world. The triumph of this "blanketing effect" will restore the dwarfs to their longed-for state of "equanimity for all" and will put an end to Snow White's complaint: "Oh why does fate give us alternatives to annoy and frustrate ourselves with?" But it will do so only at a price: the loss of their linguistic and (thinking of Orwell's equation) political freedom, including the freedom to choose the extraordinary possibilities of language rather than accept the blanketed language of dwarf culture. The triumph of the blanketing effect will result in a society even more tasteless and unprincely than the one found in the novel where it is believed that "It must be all right if it is ordinary," a society already deafened by amplified but meaningless sound and inundated by trash, a society of over-heating "electric wastebaskets" and "the democratization of education," a society where the individual (or what remains of the individual) is subjected to public scrutiny, where "vatricide" is the "crime of crimes" and blanketing the song of songs, and where there is heard the novels' melancholy refrain, "the problem remained."

"Language," George Steiner has noted [in After Babel], "is the main instrument of man's refusal to accept the world as it is." The ultimate linguistic democracy of Snow White, however, is characterized not by any such active refusal but instead by passive acceptance, indiscriminate consumption, and echolalia ("I have not been able to imagine anything better," says Snow White; "I have not been able to imagine anything better" reads the next sentence). The result is indeed a "failure of imagination" or, more specifically, a sadly reductive democracy in which all words, things, or people, emotions, and values are finally equal—that is to say, equally worthless, equally insignificant and interchangeable, equally dehumanized and dehumanizing. Such "muck" does indeed cripple consciousness. Much to his credit, Donald Barthelme does not turn away from the contemporary mass culture, nor does he scornfully and condescendingly belittle it. As one aphoristic chapter near the very end of the novel warns, "ANATHEMIZATION OF THE WORLD IS NOT AN ADEQUATE RESPONSE TO THE WORLD." For the characters in the novel, this means the uncritical acceptance ("Heigh Ho") of their situation. For Barthelme it means something quite different. Snow White is not a book "crippled by the absence of a subject," as Morris Dickstein has said [in Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties], but instead a fiction that is very much about a crippled culture, a book that uses parody and various innovative techniques to analyze the texture of contemporary life. The character who admits, "But to say what I have said, gentlemen, is to say nothing at all," speaks for himself and his dwarfish kind but not at all for his author, whose purpose is to clarify the relationship between the state of the society and state of its language. Clearly and inventively, Donald Barthelme's novel suggests that in a dwarf culture of plastic buffalo humps, religious sciences, hair initiatives, unemployed princes, "hurlments," attractively packaged jars of Chinese baby food, dreck and blague, one well-aimed joke is worth considerably more than a thousand words from the collective mouth of Bill, Dan, Edward, Hubert, Henry, and Clem.

Lance Olsen (essay date November 1986)

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SOURCE: "Linguistic Pratfalls in Barthelme," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 69-77.

[In the following essay, Olsen illustrates how Barthelme transforms elements of physical comedy into linguistic humor in his works.]

Why does language subvert me, subvert my seniority, my medals, my oldness, whenever it gets a chance? What does language have against me—me that has been good to it, respecting its little peculiarities and nicilosities, for sixty years.

            Donald Barthelme (Unspeakable Practices)

A critical commonplace: absurdity, parody, irony, burlesque, farce, satire, and so on abound at the stratum of events in Donald Barthelme's projects. In "The Joker's Greatest Triumph," a spoof on our superchic cartoonish consumer society, for instance, Batman is stunned and finally unmasked while his friend—or perhaps lover?—Fredric Brown looks on horrified, and Robin, who is supposed to be away at Andover doing poorly in French, swoops out of the Gotham City sky in a backup Batplane (this society has two of everything) as a kind of comic book deus ex machina; conscious again, our superhero undertakes a textual analysis of the arch villain by paraphrasing Mark Schorer's biography of Sinclair Lewis.

Another critical commonplace: often the fantastic mis-location of events in Barthelme's fictions is overshadowed by the discourse that shapes it. In fact, it is not infrequently that nothing much happens in his works. Two people sit in an underground missile silo and watch each other in "Game." A doctor contemplates his best friend's wife while spinning on a piano stool in "Alice." A ludicrous lyrical philosopher contemplates Sartrean absence for four pages in "Nothing: A Preliminary Account." And since the middle of the last decade Barthelme has constituted his pieces more and more out of pure dialogue devoid of traditional tags that let us know who is speaking, and where, and why, thereby undercutting what Robbe-Grillet has somewhat misleadingly dubbed the Balzacian mode of fiction. Barthelme's pieces point to themselves as artificial and deliberate modes of discourse, flag their self-reflexivity, and to this extent participate in what has come for better or worse to be known as postmodernism, along with works by writers such as Handke in Germany, Calvino in Italy, Butor in France, Cabrera Infante in Latin America, and Gaddis in the United States. According to Norman Holland, in the works of those writers, "the arts take as their subject matter the relationship between the work of art and its artist or between the work of art and its audience. It is as though we changed the subject matter of our arts from something behind the canvas to the canvas itself and now to the space between the canvas and us." Interest, then, no longer falls on the modern and premodern quest for a transcendental signified, some ultimate realm of truth, some eventual coherence, some over there that in the end helps define, articulate, unify, and make intelligible the here. Rather, interest falls on the signifier and its relationship both to the writer and reader. Interest falls on the linguistic game in the texts, the lexical play on the page.

What is not a critical commonplace, and what so far has not received any critical attention, is that such verbal frolic in Barthelme's projects carries with it affinities to the cinematic slapstick of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Keaton, and so on. [Though I should not want to suggest a simple cause-and-effect relationship between Barthelme's film interests and his fiction, I should point out that Barthelme is well acquainted with the knockabout falls and fastspeed chases that were the mainstay of comic films from 1912 onward. As a child growing up in Texas, he attended movies habitually. As the editor of Cougar, the college newpaper at the University of Houston, he often reviewed films from 1950 to 1951. When he turned reporter for the Houston Post, he reviewed a wide range of cultural events, including cinematic ones. And since the mid-sixties he has turned out a number of essays on the current cinema for the New Yorker. He has also acknowledged the profound effect film has had on contemporary consciousness, hence suggesting link between film and fiction generally. He has argued that, just as modern painters had to reinvent painting because of the discovery of photography, so contemporary writers have had to reinvent writing because of the discovery of film—both, I assume, because of the new subject matter and the fragmentary, short-scened, high-paced, surface-oriented form.] But what is important here is that the situational has transfigured into the discursive. That is, sight-gags have metamorphosed into language-gags. Barthelme takes the dislocation that is, according to Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud, Bergson, and others, at the core of comedy, plucks it out of the domain of events and plugs it into the domain of discourse. He presents the reader with the knockabout falls and futile chases of a language trying to remain on its own two feet and catch up with some kind of steady, clear meaning. His language wears outrageously ill-fitting words that bump and thump over themselves, ineffectually pursuing a center, careering off cliffs of significance into ridiculousness. As a result, a brand of linguistic illegality arises. The dogma of lexical and tonal consistency collapses. Verbal banana peels undermine the self-confident syntax of an earlier mode of writing and slip up the tidy control every sentence once wanted over itself.

To accomplish this, Barthelme often plays around with what the structuralists and Barthelme himself in Snow White call "universes of discourse"—areas of vocabulary that refer to specific spheres of experience in a unique way. Rather than interesting himself in consistent universes of discourse, as did to some extent moderns such as Thomas Mann, Proust, and Conrad, and the so-called realists such as Flaubert, George Eliot, and Tolstoy, Barthelme concerns himself with stylistic deformity and the inherent incongruities of language it assumes. Thus he sets up one sector of vocabulary (thereby generating certain reader expectations about the linguistic unit's level of usage, social register, inflection, and so on) only immediately to insert another or several others (thereby shattering those expectations). Consequently, the original sector of vocabulary takes a dive.

By this point it is probably time for some examples—and they occur at all linguistic strata from the sentence to the text as a whole. To begin small and subtle, an instance from one of Barthelme's bestknown and frequently anthologized fictions, "The Glass Mountain": "The sidewalks were full of dogshit in brilliant colors: ocher, burnt umber, Mars yellow, sienna, viridian, ivory black, rose madder". The verbal splay! takes place as the text brings together the word "dogshit" (from the universe of discourse of street talk) with the lyrical and precise list of "brilliant colors" (from the lexical field of the eloquent artist). The prosaic with its two hard syllables topples the poetic with its exquisite cluster of diverse and pleasingly smooth sounds: o-cher, bur-nt, um-ber, Mars yel-low, si-en-na, viri-dian, i-vory bla-ck, rose ma-dder. Soon it becomes apparent that the sentence is not about the description of feces, but about the description of feces. In other words, it is a sentence about sentences, about writing, about creating art, just as the story as a whole, where the poetic of the fairy-tale genre slips on the prosaic of corpse piles, drug addicts shooting up in doorways, endlessly unfulfilled desire, is about the artist's climb toward a transcendental signified and the final realization that reaching such an absolute is never "plausible, not at all, not for a moment."

A more pronounced pratfall occurs in "Alice," the internal record of an obstetrician's longing for his best friend's wife: "I want to fornicate with Alice but it is a doomed project fornicating with Alice there are obstacles impediments preclusions estoppels I will exhaust them for you what a gas cruel deprivements SECTION SEVEN moral ambiguities SECTION NINETEEN Alice's thighs are like SECTION TWENTY-ONE." This is a Beckettian "sentence," reminiscent of those in How It Is—and Barthelme is always nodding in the Irishman's direction—a clump of words whose pacing is jagged and clunky. Because of its lack of punctuation, it is in its very structure a sentence prone to trip over its own feet, "a doomed project." On top of this, it destroys any momentum it may have gained by switching universes of discourse three-fourths of the way through. Words like "fornicate," "project," "impediments," "preclusions," and "estoppels" are from the linguistic field of law. They possess an exact and unemotional charge. But as the sentence turns into the homestretch, it hits a linguistic banana peel, a unit from another universe. "What a gas" overthrows the authority of the first three-fourths of the sentence and sends it into a messy skid where it does a comic softshoe between the language of desire and legalese: "cruel" / "deprivements"; "Alice's thighs are like" / "SECTION TWENTY-ONE." Incongruity wells up as the dogma of the litigious factual tone—another kind of absolutism—skids on the perplexity of longing.

The same sort of interplay takes place at the level of paragraph and even passage, as in the following from The Dead Father:

The Dead Father was slaying, in a grove of music and musicians. First he slew a harpist and then a performer upon the serpent and also a banger upon the rattle and also a blower of the Persian trumpet and one upon the Indian trumpet and one upon the Hebrew trumpet and one upon the Roman trumpet and one upon the Chinese trumpet of copper-covered wood … and during a rest period he slew four buzzers and a shawmist and one blower upon the water jar … and then whanging his sword this way and that the Dead Father slew a cittern plucker … and two score of finger cymbal clinkers … and a sansa pusher and a manipulator of the guilded ball.

The Dead Father resting with his two hands on the hilt of his sword, which was planted in the red and steaming earth.

My anger, he said proudly.

Then the Dead Father sheathing his sword pulled from his trousers his ancient prick and pissed upon the dead artists, severally and together, to the best of his ability—four minutes, or one pint.

At the outset the tone of the passage is biblical. The repetition of the "he slew" and "upon the" formula echoes the universe of epic catalogues. "Hilt of his sword," "planted in the red and steaming earth," "my anger, he said," "sheathing his sword," and "severally and together" all cue the reader to expect more elevated language of heroic legend whose center is a figure of imposing stature. But long before the end of the first passage a hint ("whanging," "clinkers") appears that the conventional contract between reader and writer may be tenuous at best. And, of course, verbal slapstick sounds through loud and clear with the introduction of "prick," "pissed," and "four minutes, or one pint"—all from the universe of contemporary slang. The verbal planes shift, teeter, and tumble. Just as one of the impulses of the text as a whole is to subvert traditional notions of the quest and romance by implanting them with anachronisms, characters that are difficult to distinguish, structures from painting, theater, cartoons, and so forth, the language of the text subverts traditional notions of the quest and romance by implanting them with a plethora of lexical fields that refuse the gravity of such traditional ideal visions. The only real quest here seems to be for different forms of linguistic frolic, different ways of making language career off the cliff.

A second instance of how this slapstick of language works at the level of passage comes from "A Shower of Gold" (Sixty Stories), the story of Peterson, a sculptor who lives in a hyper-educated age and who decides to go on a television program called "Who Am I?" to earn some extra money. Here his barber and lay analyst, Kitchen, talks about Peterson's relationship to the President, who has just burst into the sculptor's apartment and beaten him up:

"It's essentially a kind of I-Thou relationship, if you know what I mean. You got to handle it with full awareness of its implications. In the end one experiences only oneself, Nietzsche said. When you're angry with the President, what you experience is self-as-angry-with-the-President. When things are okay between you and him, what you experience is self-as-swinging-with-the-President. Well and good. But … you want the relationship to be such that what you experience is the-President-as-swinging-with-you. You want his reality, get it? So that you can break out of the hell of solipsism. How about a little more off the sides?"

Peterson's is the story about how television has become the contemporary art form—a form that slams us with thousands of information bits every evening, all popularized and anesthetized, so that in the end our consciousness is shaped by them. In this way, the above passage becomes a microcosm of the text. A number of lexical fields struggle and stumble over each other: psychology ("handle it," "full awareness of the implications"), philosophy ("I-Thou relationship," "one experiences only oneself," "hell of solipsism"), breezy hip American ("a kind of," "if you know what I mean," "you got to," "things are okay," "self-as-swinging-with-the-President," "well and good"), and even the language of barbershops ("a little more off the sides"). Freud, Buber, Sartre, and Nietzsche slide on the banana peel of a hip haircutter. The languages of psychology and philosophy are reduced to the level of psychobabble of the jazz musician and the barber (or is it the other way around?).

Both of Barthelme's novels, Snow White and The Dead Father, generate the same kind of discursive clash. Only this time it not only occurs at the strata of sentence and passage, but at that of the text as a whole. Both projects are collage novels, texts constructed as fragments. And the essence of fragmentary form is mutilation—a sign of impossibility, jammed expectations, narrative incongruity. And mutilation is the essence of the postmodern, a mode of consciousness whose basic impulse is to dismantle and deconstruct. For this reason, it is interesting to note that Barthelme, like Kafka, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Cortázar, and a great number of other postmodern writers, finds it inconceivable to produce extended unified fictions that through their structure try to persuade us that our lives are parts of an interlocking, beautifully sculpted whole. Kafka, in many ways the father of what has come to be called the postmodern, could not complete any of the novels he began. Borges turns out short stories exclusively. The scant length of Robbe-Grillet's works is achieved only through frequent repetition of a few scenes. Cortázar writes a book called Hopscotch whose small parts one can literally shuffle around as one chooses. And Barthelme fashions short short "stories" and defaced "novels."

In Snow White the reader comes upon a multitude of lexical fields bumbling into each other. The discursive universes of social science, philosophy, business, technology, politics, academics, and advertising misstep on those of comic books, television cartoons, hip lingo, film, songs, and fairy-tales. And in addition to most of these, The Dead Father includes those from medicine, engineering, the thesaurus, the Bible, cliché, the logician, mathematics, Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot, romance, epic, and the "how-to" manual. Just as Snow White à la Barthelme finds it impossible to devise a steady and coherent identity for herself since for her existence is an uninterpretable and inadequate script, so the text finds it impossible to commit to a steady and coherent genre or language. The same is true of the Dead Father who has so many identities that in the end he has none. He is both alive and dead, both mythic and comic, an omnipresent authority and a dismembered god, omnipotent and finally impotent, Orpheus, Zeus, Prometheus, Oedipus, Lear, the Fisher King, and on and on. Again, his personality is that of the text itself; both struggle for a pure literary identity only to be bulldozed into rubble.

Such examples serve to raise the next question: so what? What does the presence of all this discursive slapstick do in the projects we have been examining? First, it cuts language loose from its moorings. Words themselves fall under erasure. This marks the moment of radical skepticism in Western culture that Jacques Derrida points to when language itself is "invaded by the universal problematic; that [moment] in which, in absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse … when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and interplay of signification ad infinitum." In other words, language turns relative. Unfixed, it drifts among a multiplicity of "meanings." Any attempt at a stable linguistic "significance" decomposes into an infinite freeplay that refuses truth. Barthelme's pieces realize, as does the narrator of "Me and Miss Mandible," that "signs are signs, and some of them are lies". And since one does not know which are not lies, it follows that, as Peterson in "A Shower of Gold" knows, "possibilities … proliferate and escalate all around us." Hence the reader is asked to become partial prevaricator of the texts he reads, asked to frolic in a freeplay where, as Snow White knows, "my nourishment is refined from the ongoing circus of the mind in motion. Give me the odd linguistic trip, stutter and fall, and I will be content."

Moreover, the existence of discursive slapstick in the texts does not only interrogate our notions of language. It also interrogates that to which the words try to point—our culture. With respect to this Leonard Lutwack in his discussion of the form of the novel [in "Mixed and Uniform Prose Styles in the Novel," in Theory of the Novel] distinguishes between two modes of presentation in fiction: uniform style and mixed style. Texts employing the former—Lutwack cites Pamela and The Ambassadors as examples—signal the presence of a writer's conviction (after all, our narrative strategies always register our metaphysical strategies) about a single, unambiguous coherent view of reality. Lutwack writes: "A uniform style is assimilative in that it helps to create under a single aspect of language a single vision of the multiplicity of reality; it is a bond between author and reader, insuring that no different adjustment to language and viewpoint will be demanded from the reader than that established at the outset." On the other hand, texts that employ a mixed style—Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Gravity's Rainbow, and Barthelme's pieces, for instance—signal the presence of a writer's lack of conviction about a single, unambiguous, coherent view of reality. Indeed, it may signal a writer who revels in refusing a compensatory and stable vision. It may revel in multiplicity. Again, Lutwack: "A mixture of styles has the effect of making the reader pass through a succession of contradictory and ambiguous attitudes; it offers no sure stylistic norm by which the reader may orient himself permanently to the fiction and to the point of view of the author." In other words, not only the vocabularies but the value systems they signify are shown to be both viable and arbitrary. The presentation of mixed-style projects—particularly those where the mix occurs at the level of the sentence—thereby becomes a mode of decenterment, demystification, detotalization, delegitimation.

By employing it, Barthelme enters into the mode of consciousness that Nabokov, Pynchon, Beckett, and other postmodern writers whose projects refuse centricism, total intelligibility, closure, and absolute "significance" inhabit; theirs is an impulse to go around "deconstructing dreams like nobody's business". They represent, on the one hand, the negative drive toward disruptions of human systems, of Cartesian reason, of humanist art and all it exemplifies. They are suspicious of our belief in the shared speech, the shared values and the shared perception that, we would like to believe, form our culture, but which are in fact fictions that exist, as the narrator of "Me and Miss Mandible" points out, only as part of the "debris of our civilization" and the "vast junkyard" of our planet. At the same time, however, and equally if paradoxically as important, they represent a positive drive that disorients the law of mimesis, affirms touchingly, wittily, and wonderfully the power of the human imagination, and leaves us in a state of eternal weightlessness where nothing will ever be in its final place.

Caryn James (review date 25 October 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of Forty Stories, in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1987, pp. 14-15.

[In the following review, James offers a positive appraisal of Forty Stories.]

In one of the best, most typical Donald Barthelme stories, a show is staged in an abandoned palazzo. Among descriptions of performing grave robbers, tax evaders and trapeze artists, one sentence jumps out like a crucial clue to this volume of Forty Stories. "Some things appear to be wonders in the beginning, but when you become familiar with them, are not wonderful at all," worries the narrator of "The Flight of Pigeons From the Palace." Versions of that fear may haunt the reader of this selection from nearly 20 years as well: How will Mr. Barthelme's iconoclastic stories hold up after he has shattered the icons of character and plot? Will reading these now-familiar, fantastic tales resemble an adult's visit to the circus, where the magician's tricks are far less wondrous than they once seemed?

The comforting rediscovery to be found in Forty Stories is that Mr. Barthelme was always more than a first-rate circus performer. Even in stories from the 1970's (more than half of this collection), he is not content to stand on his head so we can see the world differently. His funny, ludicrous tales follow the emotional logic of a dream, and as he tells them no slice-of-life could seem more substantial. St. Anthony moves to a middle-class suburb; a genius uses "a green Sears toolbox" as a briefcase. In daylight, on the printed page, these cockeyed scenarios evoke nervous laughter, for dreams too often reveal the distilled, uncensored truth. Gossips say St. Anthony put his hand on a young woman's knee. The genius "is a drunk."

In creating these strange conjunction Mr. Barthelme does not play nonsense games, and does not force his imagination to mold neat little symbols. His stories have substance because he locates his characters—from unnamed narrators, to a generic "play-wright" to Paul Klee and Goethe—in the precise place where the weight of history intrudes on the present where desire meets imagination. That is the spot where they live, and often it is a place Mr. Barthelme must invent. He is especially fond of made-up museums.

In "The Educational Experience," students are guided through exhibits that include a bird's lung and a gas turbine. The teacher-narrator describes the tour: "The students looked at each other with secret smiles. Rotten of them to conceal their feelings … The invitation to indulge in emotion at the expense of rational analysis already constitutes a political act, as per our phoncon of 11/9/75. We came to a booth where the lessons of 1914 were taught. There were some wild strawberries there, in the pool of blood, and someone was playing the piano, softly, in the pool of blood, and the Fisher King was fishing, hopelessly, in the pool of blood. The pool is a popular meeting place for younger people but we aren't younger anymore so we hurried on." As the narrator's brusqueness swiftly gives way to lyricism, we are pulled toward the forbidden, politicized emotion.

"At the Tolstoy Museum," certainly among Mr. Barthelme's finest stories, is a comic and touching romp that starts by emphasizing the sentimental pull of the past and ends by stating the confusion of the present. "At the Tolstoy Museum we sat and wept. Paper streamers came out of our eyes," the narrator begins. "The guards at the Tolstoy Museum carry buckets in which there are stacks of clean white pocket handkerchiefs…. Even the bare title of a Tolstoy work, with its burden of love, can induce weeping." Mr. Barthelme succesfully weaves illustrations into the story; we can see this museum. Identical portraits of Tolstoy look out at us from facing pages, but in one of them a tiny figure of Napolean stares up at the giant face. A woman faints in a man's arms in an architectural drawing of "The Anna-Vronsky Pavilion." Still, the "burden of love" Tolstoy's words carry is a thorny problem, and at the story's end the narrator isn't sure whether he's glad Tolstoy existed or not.

Mr. Barthelme's most resonant stories end with such unresolved questions, or with images that will not allow themselves to be explained. "Visitors" is a rather conventional work about a man named Bishop. He stays up all night looking after his daughter, who is ill, and thinking about a failed love affair. Suddenly, the story ends with an image that distills questions about how we love and get on with life. From his window, Bishop often sees the "two old ladies" in the apartment behind his "having breakfast by candlelight. He can never figure out whether they are terminally romantic or whether, rather, they're trying to save electricity." Who are these women? What are they to one another, and how do they live? They are haunting figures precisely because Mr. Barthelme will not say; but like his strongest characters they live in a moment of heightened reality, containing the extremes of endless romance and penny-pinching practicality (both of which are probably terminal).

The creeping realism in "Visitors" marks it as a work from the 80's. It is, in fact, one of seven stories taken from Mr. Barthelme's 1983 volume, Overnight to Many Distant Cities. Nine more of the Forty Stories have not appeared in collections. Most of these fairly recent works are of a piece with Mr. Barthelme's 1986 novel, Paradise, which anchors its hero's sexual fantasies in the fairly mundane reality of his family life and work. "Construction" is a deft meditation by a businessman confused about "the long-range plan," and the mystery of a colleague named Helen; next to Mr. Barthelme's at his ambiguous best, though, the story feels too pat when the narrator comes out and asks, "Why am I doing this?" The most memorable recent work is still the least realistic. "Bluebeard," for example, is a gleeful retelling of the legend. Set in 1910, the story piles reversal on reversal until the tormented wife enters Bluebeard's secret chamber and faints "with rage and disappointment" at the silly vision—it involves Coco Chanel—only Donald Barthelme could have imagined.

Collections such as Forty Stories are, of course, uneven by nature. Many of the best Barthelme works were included in Sixty Stories in 1981. And a few tales in the new volume show Mr. Barthelme at his most glib. "Porcupines at the University" is a mere cartoon, dated by its references to the Sonny and Cher show. By contrast, though, it reveals how very well almost all these stories have aged.

Forty Stories also suggests why Mr. Barthelme cannot be easily classified. His playful fiction does not deeply resemble the extravagant work of John Barth or Robert Coover; at his most realistic, he's a far cry from John Updike; and he is much more than the fractured flip side of minimalism. Donald Barthelme is the author who discovers small, bizarre conjunctions that make enormous sense and offers them in a voice that remains uniquely rewarding and often sounds ageless.

Patrick O'Donnell (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Living Arrangements: On Donald Barthelme's Paradise," in Critical Essays on Donald Barthelme, edited by Richard F. Patteson, G. K. Hall, 1992. pp. 208-16.

[In the following essay, O'Donnell illustrates how Barthelme comments on various aspects of contemporary life and society in Paradise.]

      Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be       The blood of paradise? And shall the earth       Seem all of paradise that we shall know?       The sky will be much friendlier then than now,       A part of labor and a part of pain,       And next in glory to enduring love,       Not this dividing and indifferent blue.                   —Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning"

Donald Barthelme's third novel. Paradise (1986), is, perhaps, his least-read and most disregarded work. Poorly received by many reviewers, it appears to be Barthelme's failed attempt to write in a more traditional novelistic mode. Even at that, its status as a novel remains questionable, as it is, conceivably, a patchwork of more recognizably Barthelmean short fictions (such as the exchanges between the protagonist, Simon, and his physician scattered throughout Paradise, and collated in the story "Basil from Her Garden" previously published in the New Yorker) cobbled together to form a series of interrelated vignettes of uneven intensity and quality. In Paradise, there is, ostensibly, a more conventional narrative situation than can be found in Snow White or The Dead Father. Here, those familiar bourgeois subjects of the traditional novel—middle age, adultery, marriage, and domesticity—are at issue, and the autobiographical elements of the novel are foregrounded (Simon is a Philadelphia architect; he has experienced a failed marriage and is recently divorced; he is taking a sabbatical from marriage in Manhattan) while its fabulistic qualities are largely confined to Simon's dreams. And while the major events of Paradise may arise from the projection of a male fantasy (three beautiful young women, looking for a temporary residence, move in with Simon for eight months), there is such a lack of causality in this "utopian" vision as to intimate the careless, unmotivated, ironic "realism" we associate with Woody Allen's representations of contemporary heterosexuality. The "paradise" of Simon's ménage à quatre is as ordinary as one could imagine, as the novel consists largely of whimsical, everyday conversations between Simon and the women, scenes of cooking, concerns about housecleaning, and so on. Yet, despite its somewhat unexpected nature, this ignored novel reflects upon certain formal issues that rejoin Barthelme's important, characteristic concern with "living arrangements" in postmodern society—a concern that reveals his profound skepticism regarding the permanence of human relations matched by a desire for order and continuity in an environment where order and repression are equals.

As these preliminary comments indicate, Paradise may be regarded as a compilation of Barthelmean forms (the "Q and A" dialogue, the minimally absurdist dream, vignettes of domesticity cast within the fantasy framework of one man living with three beautiful women) that problematizes "form" itself, converting it into one of the novel's primary subjects. Charles Molesworth has commented that the "typical" Barthelme protagonist "values form over substance, but he is also often defeated by his inability to deal properly with form"; this condition, Molesworth argues, arises from a "longing for the fugitive" that signals "an existential ethos, an awareness that all human desire for permanency remains condemned to frustration, and that to institutionalize means to destroy, though not to do so is to face the same result."

In Paradise, Simon's trade, on the one hand, and his current "lifestyle," on the other—which involves both the extrapolation and undermining of male fantasy—places him solidly in the middle of the dilemma Molesworth describes. As an architect, Simon values structure, repetition, symmetry, yet as "a tattered coat upon a stick," he recognizes that the preservation of form which architecture represents is analogous to the mummification of life, to death. Trapped within an entropic body ("Getting old, Simon. Not so limber, dear friend, time for the bone factory? The little blue van. Your hands are covered with pepperoni. Your knees predict your face. Your back stabs you, on the left side, twice a day. The belly's been discussed. The soul's shrinking to a microdot. We're ordering your rocking chair, size 42″), Simon has "settled for being a competent, sometimes inventive architect with a tragic sense of brick." For him, the resistant medium of his art assumes tragic form because of its permanence—a form that will "stand" (unlike the body) the mock the transitoriness of human corporeality, but one that does not "live."

The paradox of his occupation bespeaks the paradox of his life, where the cyclical and formal features of existence—often perceived as the guarantors of continuance and renewal—have become, in their "institutionalization," the signs of paralysis and advancing death. Marriage, Simon says, is an "architectural problem": "If we could live in separate houses, and visit each other when we felt particularly gay," as if gaiety could be "housed" in any manner. Jazz, his favorite kind of music and, here, as throughout Barthelme's fiction, representing the grafting of improvisation and spontaneity to mercurial form, is important to Simon both because of its rich singularity (in individual musicians) and its historicity or genealogy as a national resource:

He's listening to one of his three radios, this one a brutish black Proton with an outboard second speaker. The announcer is talking about drummers. "Cozy Cole comes straight our of Chick Webb," he says. Simon nods in agreement. "Big Sid Catlett. Zutty Singleton, Dave Tough. To go even further back, Baby Dodds. All this before we get to Krupa and Buddy Rich." Simon taxes his memory in an attempt to extract from it the names of ten additional drummers. Louis Bellson. Shelly Manne. Panama Francis. Jo Jones, of course. Kenny Clarke. Elvin Jones. Barrett Deems. Mel Lewis, Charlie Persip. Joe Morello. Next, twenty bass players. Our nation is rich in talent, he thinks.

Simon notes that individual architectural styles, when periodized, can be easily incorporated into larger cycles of fashion and design: "[The glass block] had been popular in the 30s, considered a design cliche in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, and presented itself again in the 80s, fresh as new dung." In each of these instances—marriage, jazz, architecture—Simon maintains an ironic attachment to form or structure—house, genealogy, architectural material. He seems to recognize that the phenomenological "content" of these forms—the gaiety of human relationships; the noise of jazz; the transparency of glass blocks—can only be manifested through some kind of formal arrangement or contextualization, but at the same time, he detests their reduction into mere cliché or formula when they are institutionalized, historicized. In the end, it may be "history" that Simon implicitly fears, or at least that sense of history that reveals itself when one has lived long enough: history as mere repetition where, in the domestic sphere (the realm of Barthelme's fiction), routine patterns of habit, form, and convention are all that survive in the long run. Yet, to reassert the paradox, this is a kind of history that Simon also desires, as his avid pursuit of jazz genealogies and naming would suggest—a history of successions, styles, and orders that can be labeled, variously, as "paternal" or "authorial."

In some sense, Paradise is the portrayal of a projected alternative to this paradoxical condition: it is fantasy given shape and substance, but the "materials" of the male fantasy that Paradise engages suborns its teleology, which includes bringing desire into the realm of domestic order and, thereby, potentially ensuring its continuance and renewal. For Simon and the three women he temporarily lives with (Anne, Dore, and Veronica), there is a kind of rough symmetry to the network of relationships they create as they casually establish the domestic rituals of cooking, conversing, intercourse. In the novel, the trio of women take on a number of stereotyped roles, in a sense, tripling the quantity of the fantasy and "perfecting" it: three mistresses, three graces, three wives. At first, to Simon, it seems (as the women put it to him) like "hog heaven," or the best of both worlds: both guilt-free sexuality and the opportunity to experience the multiplicity of desire, and the calming ordinariness of household order. Indeed, the melding of the libidinous and the symmetrical, desire and domesticity, is so pervasive in Simon's view that his descriptions of his roommates' eroticism often take on, in their variety, the qualities of repetition and banality we usually associate with the quotidian, not the exotic: "White underwear with golden skin. Acres and acres of it. Was it golden? Conventionally described as golden. The color of white birch stained with polyure-thane…. Dressed women, half-dressed women, quarter-dressed women"; or,

Dore is brusque upon awakening, Anne cheerful as a zinnia. Veronica frequently comes to the breakfast table … pale with enthusiasm, for Lohengrin or oyster mushrooms or Pierre Trudeau. They're so lovely that his head whips around when one of them enters the room, exactly in the way one notices a strange woman in the crowd and can't avoid, can't physically avoid, loud and outrageous staring. My senses are being systematically dérégled, he thinks, forgive me, Rimbaud. Dore is relatively tall, Anne not so tall (but they are all tall), Veronica again the middle term. Breasts waver and dip and sway from side to side under t-shirts with messages so much of the moment that Simon doesn't understand a tenth of them …

In this portrayal of breakfast in paradise, the erotic is made symmetrical and sensuality made routine, banal, as contemporary commonplaces—incomprehensible to Simon because of "the generation gap"—mark for him both the women's voluptuousness and his own advancing age.

This conception of a male utopia, in essence, exists as a recapitulation of those orders and anxieties that, implicitly, and however temporarily, should have been transcended and subsumed in the figuration of paradise. When a major component of this male erotic fantasy—the multiple combinations and exchangeability of female sexual partners—is viewed for its repetitions and symmetries, when sensuality reminds Simon of his own anachronicity, then "paradise" must be regarded as a desire for order over desire, even if that architecture has the consequence of "instituting" fantasy. In other terms, the true end of male desire which Paradise reveals is not the entropy of libidinous expression but design, pattern, "author"-ity.

The "Q and A" conversations between Simon and his physician—conversations between men largely focused on the female subjects of "paradise"—and Simon's fairly ordinary dreams, reveal most clearly the lineaments of his provisional Eden. Alan Wilde (reading "Basil From Her Garden") has characterized the conversations, where "Q" is the physician and "A" is Simon, in this manner: "For Q transcendence implies an ordering of the world (as well as a removal from it), a ridding it … of everything that makes life uneven, unpredictable and recalcitrant, whereas for A it is a matter of coming to terms with guilt, anxiety, and thoughts of inadequacy in the world, as it is and as it offers itself to consciousness." However true this may be of the positions taken by Q and A at a certain point in the dialogue, as often happens in Barthelme's Socratic conversations, the interlocutors often exchange positions so that the different views exchanged by Simon and the physician, taken together, articulate the paradox of Simon's dilemma, which, again, is the authorial desire to give form to fantasy or to the world "as it offers itself to consciousness."

In their penultimate conversation, Q spins out a fantasy in which he imagines he is "in Pest Control." He visualizes himself in an immaculate outfit meticulously fumigating the house of "a young wife in jeans and a pink flannel shirt worn outside the jeans." In explicit detail, he imagines the orderly furnishings of the house and his role in maintaining its cleanliness. Finally, "the young wife escorts me to the door, and, in parting, pins a silver medal on my chest and kisses me on both cheeks. Pest Control!" If, as is often the case in Barthelme's stories. Q and A can be seen to make up the self-questioning aspects of a single identity—"a central speaking voice or subject, with a weak sense of identity, constantly seeking refuge in fantasy, word-play or self-pity, endlessly playing games of delusion which barely conceal a terror of failure, loss and disintegration"—thenQ's Pest Control fantasy can stand as an extreme version of Simon's obsession with domestic order, even in the midst of paradise. What constitutes this order? Fastidious attention to detail and the arrangement of physical objects in the world ("I do the study, spraying behing the master's heavy desk on which there is an open copy of the Columbia Encyclopedia, he's been looking up the Seven Years War, 1756–63, yellow highlighting there, and behind the forty five inch RCA television"); ritualistic movement through space ("I point the nozzle of the hose at the baseboards and begin to spray. I spray alongside the refrigerator, alongside the gas range, under the sink, and behind the kitchen table. Next, I move to the bathrooms, pumping and spraying"); logical supposition based upon empirical evidence ("Finally I spray the laundry room with its big white washer and dryer, and behind the folding table stacked with sheets and towels already folded. Who folds? I surmise that she folds. Unless one of the older children, pressed into service. In my experience they are unlikely to fold. Maybe the au pair"). Simon longs for the Newtonian world of the eighteenth-century rationalist, but as this vision and his dreams suggest, this is an order which both "includes" a barely repressed version of a cliched male sexual fantasy ("pumping and spraying"; "a young wife"), along with the implicit forcefulness or violence that seems to inevitably accompany it ("The master bedroom requires just touches, like perfume behind the ears, short bursts in her closet which must avoid the two dozen pair of shoes there and in his closet which contains six to eight long guns in canvas cases").

In his dreams. Simon reiterates the dialectic of control and disorder, cleanliness and pestilence in situations where the "irrationality" of personal assault and the outbreak of violence form continual threats to the installments of dream and dreamer. After the women have left him (the novel is cast in the mode of recollection), Simon begins to dream

with new intensity. He dreamed that he was a slave on a leper island, required to clean the latrines and pile up dirty-white shell for the roads, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrowful, then rake the shell smooth and jump up and down on it until it was packed solid. The lepers did not allow him to wear shoes, only white athletic socks, and he had a difficult time finding a pair that matched. The leper, a man who seemed to be named Al, embraced him repeatedly and tried repeatedly to spit in his mouth.

In this ironic "nightmare," Simon is a comic Sisyphus condemned to sanitize (make sane?) a world of physical decrepitude, and to be continually confronted with the passion and violence of that world's chief embodiment. Simon confesses to Q that he seems to be suffering from an abnormally distended succession of nightmares, most of which seems to involve his inability to put his clothes on correctly or (as in the dream of the leper island) to find his socks. He often has more than one dream a night and recalls them as seemingly unrelated scenes or vignettes: "In the first dream he was grabbed by three or four cops for firing a chrome .45 randomly in the street…. In the second dream he awoke sitting on a lounge in a hotel lobby wearing pants and shoes but bare-chested…. He couldn't find a shirt. His mother came out of a closet and asked him to be a little quieter." In such dreams, where maintaining control is the central issue, Simon negotiates the "logic" of the anxieties that beset him, which is also the logic he uses in projecting "paradise." Living in a world where random or planned violence threatens to burst forth, and where Simon fears his bodily erosion, literally, loss of command over bodily functions (intimated by dreams about his inability to clothe himself), the solution—to project a daytime vision where domestic order and eros commingle, the wild energy and gaiety of the latter harnessed to the comforting rituals and institutions of the former—seems self-evident.

Yet what Simon's seemingly casual, unplanned living arrangements exclude or repress, and what his dreams clearly suggest is that the ends of "paradise"—the forestalling of the dissolution of (male) corporeal identity, the maintenance of rational order and control over one's "space," the fantasy of eternal potency—include the means of violence. Like all of Barthelme's fiction, Paradise is humorous, ironic, parodic; yet there is a strong undertow of violence in the novel that gives it a more "sociological" dimension, especially in its depictions of violence toward or the abuse of women. Dore bears a scar from a knife wound administered by a former husband who cut her in the act of "'explaining himself.'" For unknown reasons, a complete stranger—a Vietnam veteran—walks up to Veronica in a market and slaps her; moreover, Anne reveals to Simon that Veronica "got knocked around a lot as a kind," a series of events Veronica herself typifies: "'He used a rolled up newspaper … what you'd use on a dog. Only he put his back into it, when I was twelve and thirteen and fourteen.'" At one point, Simon witnesses two men beating up a female cop. Simon recounts, or projects, other scenes of violence amidst his recollections of paradise: his wife's Caesarean ("The doctor's name was Zernike and he had a pair of large dull-steel forceps inside the birth canal and was grappling for purchase. The instrument looked to Simon, who knew something of the weight and force of tools, capable of shattering the baby's head in an instant"); his own imagined vulnerability with the women ("Q: These women spread out before you like lotus blossoms…. A: More like anthills. Splendid, stinging anthills…. Q: The ants are plunging toothpicks into your scrotum, as it were. As they withdraw the toothpicks, little pieces of flesh like shreds of ground beef adhere to the toothpicks. A: Very much like that. How did you know?"). In all of these instances except the last (which is the projection, not the realization of an anxiety) the enforcers or victims of what might be termed "male cultural institutions" are behind the violence: fathers, husbands, ex-soldiers, and doctors seem to be responsible for the inflictions of force upon female subjects in Paradise.

Perhaps it might be argued, as Simon implicitly argues to himself, that he offers the three women a safe, if temporary, haven from a violent, hostile "reality": in return, they offer him erotic renewal and good conversation. But as I have suggested, the very installment of "paradise"—its formation—rests upon the sanitizing or repression of those elements of force, violence, or culturally perceived eroticism that are part of its constitution, and which, fended off, return in dream and recollection. What is forestalled in paradise?

Simon was a way-station, a bed-and-breakfast, a youth hostel, a staging area, a C-141 with the jumpers of the 82nd Airborne lined up at the door. There was no place in the world for these women that he loved, no good place. They could join the underemployed half-crazed demi-poor, or they could be wives, those were the choices. The universities offered another path but one they were not likely to take. The universities were something Simon believed in (of course! he was a beneficiary) but there was among the women an animus toward the process that would probably never be overcome, not only inpatience but a real loathing, whose source he did not really understand.

These beautiful, tall, "perfect" women are the products of desire, and their choices are limited to marginalization or institutionalization within the very cultural organizations (marriage, the university) that either articulate them as "permanent," domestic objects of desire or, as Simon realizes in the case of the university, are intimately linked to the militarism that is simply the most highly organized form of violence that has threatened them in other male cultural institutions: "Simon had opposed the Vietnam War in all possible ways short of self-immolation but could not deny that it was a war constructed by people who had labored through Psychology I, II, III, and IV and Main Currents of Western Thought." Simon's paradise is no haven at all from this bleak future for, as we have seen, it reproduces the women as the locus of cultural order, on the one hand, and organized eroticism (i.e., prostitution) on the other. Nor is it a haven for Simon himself, however joyful and gay its separate banalized moments, since the events that take place within paradise serve as a constant reminder of his mortality, the artificial (domesticated, structured) and, thus, impermanent form of his own identity. As in the case with architecture, Simon's paradise is ultimately an agonized quest for permanent form using imperfect, time-bound, culture-bound and culturally constrained materials.

In Paradise, Barthelme reveals most fully his acknowledgment that the modernist aesthetic quest for form matched with the attempt to maintain the identity of the artist is inflected with certain social and political consequences that comply with prevailing orders. Indeed, much of his fiction is an attempt to break down or break up the connection between form and identity that conservative modernism assumed to be innocent of these consequences. In Paradise, we see that he confronts the two dominating impulses of the modern (and, since he is careful to identify it in terms of gender in this novel, male) psyche: rational singularity of form and erotic multiplicity. These impulses can only be "managed" through banalization or force threatening to become violent, specifically in Paradise, violence toward women largely promulgated through social agency. Here, the preservation of male identity or the defense against anxieties about its dissolution seems to demand the continuance of the status quo disguised as erotic festival, vacation from marriage. In Paradise, what might be nostalgically termed man's individual freedom is played out within the confinements of the institutional orders that dictate both the nature of desire and legitimate its often violent deployments. As Vincent Pecora has argued, the autonomous self in modernist narrative, seeking absolute freedom from all social and cultural orders, ends up reduplicating them as part of "the nature of identity": "the discourse of the autonomous individual … is historically made possible by the reifications of consciousness produced in a capitalist market economy; but the unerring tendency of that discourse, even in its self-critical attempts to break through the mystifications circumscribing it, is a reproduction within consciousness of the division and organization of economic life that only increases its susceptibility to manipulation and control by monopolistic or authoritarian administration." Thus Simon, in his recounting, naively reinstitutes domestic order in the household even as he indulges in the fantasy of sexual freedom in a realm dominated, if only numerically, by women. As much as Barthelme's oeuvre resists and critiques this state of affairs, it also—in its fascination with material productions, its concern with the breakdown or continuance of identity, and its paradoxically continuous use and deconstruction of received generic forms—partakes of it.

Paradise, then, stands as Barthelme's most extensive reflection on the state of art and the artist in postmodern culture. It is a book about mortality: not one that, as do the lines from Stevens' "Sunday Morning," celebrate the permanent impermanence of life as our only parousia, but one that limns the conditions of our mortal existence as historical beings. The artist seeks to escape these conditions, but his art remakes them, even, and especially, when it comes to Utopias. Barthelme's distinctly antiutopian sky is not indifferent—for that would be to attribute to it something beyond ourselves—but it is a dividing blue, in that, for him, what occurs "down here" is of our own doing, the extension of our own desire for order and control. With characteristic irony, he asks in Paradise, "but what else could we do, given our models of heaven"?

James Marcus (review date 6 December 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of The Teachings of Don B., in The New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1992, p. 30.

[In the following review, Marcus offers a commendatory assessment of The Teachings of Don B.]

At a glance, this collection of material by Donald Barthelme—who died of cancer in 1989, at the age of 58—might be mistaken for a bit of valedictory barrel-scraping. In fact, it's nothing of the kind.

Culled from a variety of sources, including his signed and unsigned contributions to The New Yorker, the pieces in The Teachings of Don B." (most of which have never' previously been collected) offer a superb cross section of what Thomas Pynchon, in his live introduction, calls Barthelmismo. The author's straight parodies—of Michelangelo Antonioni, or Carlos Castaneda or Bret Easton Ellis—are expert and amusing. Yet Barthelme's art was pre-eminently one of surprises, darting from satire to lyricism to poker-faced banality in a single paragraph, and the most effective pieces here keep jumping genres in midstream.

"The Angry Young Man," for instance, begins as a satirical profile of the British Literary Rebel, late 1950's model, complete with "brown corduroy pants, black turtleneck sweater, work shoes, coonskin cap, glass of porter in right hand." Soon, however, it segues into a meditation on the ineffectual nature of anger itself: "As your gaze is fixed upon something immediately in front of you—the object of your anger, for example—history makes a slight, almost imperceptible slither: or shudder, in a direction of its own choice. The distinguishing mark of this direction is that it is not the one that you had anticipated." As in much of Barthelme's work, comedy is undergirded with resignation.

A similar quick change takes place in "Swallowing." The piece opens with a denunciation of American politics in the early 1970's: "The American people have swallowed a lot in the last four years…. We have swallowed electric bugs, laundered money, quite a handsome amount of grain moving about in mysterious ways, a war more shameful than can be imagined, much else."

After a paragraph, however, Barthelme swerves into a shaggy dog story about a 4,000-pound Gouda cheese at the New York World's Fair. Recounting a jurisdictional squabble over who would dispose of "the enormous fromage," the author provides a delicious parody of political rhetoric. And surely no one has hit upon a more peculiar objective correlative for our national indigestion of the Watergate era.

But here and there, despite the efforts of the book's editor. Kim Herzinger, Barthelme nods. In the three plays that make up the last 100 pages of the book ("The Friends of the Family," "The Conservatory" and "Snow White"), his quicksilver shifts in tone and diction can sometimes fall flat. Taken as a whole, though, The Teachings of Don B. is a small education in laughter, melancholy and the English language.

Michael Zeitlin (essay dale Summer 1993)

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SOURCE: "Father-Murder and Father-Rescue: The Post-Freudian Allegories of Donald Barthelme," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 182-203.

[In the following essay, Zeitlin studies the role of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory in Barthelme's works.]

Here is another absurd dream about a dead father.

         Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

For a good many of his critics Donald Barthelme represents American postmodernism at its formally self-conscious and experimental best. There is no reason to deny Barthelme's brilliance as an inventor of forms, but I believe we insufficiently appreciate the nature and scope of his achievement insofar as we continue to stress technique over substance, structure over content, signifiers over signifieds, language "itself" over the materials—texts, ideas, realities—it represents and transforms. In the prevailing discussions of Barthelme the valorization of form and technique entails the virtual annulment of "content" and "meaning" as usable concepts of literary analysis. As Jerome Klinkowitz has provocatively put it recently, in Barthelme "signs (and not meanings) are what are read." An associated and equally widespread critical notion about Barthelme's discourse is that, lacking a central meaning or stable subject, Barthelme's characteristic tale forms itself out of the fragments and junk of our contemporary civilization—"the refuse of our culture, our post-Gutenberg heap"—whose random components are pasted together in a manner akin to dadaist collage. The meaning of the apparently contingent arrangement of figures, if bewildering in its peculiar manifestation, is all too clear in its overall import: such narrative disorder must be taken as signifying a predominating cultural disorder and hence, in the memorable words of Walter Benjamin, "a crisis in perception itself". Since contemporary existence is bereft of large-scale spiritual and metaphorical coherence, Barthelme's stories appropriately have no traditional beginnings, middles, or ends; they make no conventionally logical transitions between events and, in being irreducible or untotalizable, refrain from giving us a sentimental or fraudulently coherent picture of the world. Hence the foregrounding of Barthelme's technique and his most quoted dictum. "Fragments are the only forms I trust" ("See the Moon?"). Or as one early critic explained, "We perceive in fragments, live in fragments, are no doubt dying by fragments; should we not, then, write in fragments, emphasizing thereby the strange disjunctions, the even stranger juxtapositions, that are part of the everyday experience of modern life?"

Of course we've encountered this kind of argument before, but if in refracting "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy" Barthelme's narratives imply a potent critique of "contemporary history", the characteristic critical gesture turns from assessing the substance of that critique toward valorizing form and experimentation, and so toward celebrating, as Barthelme's greatest achievement, the production of a prodigious readerly vertigo. In the words of Maurice Couturier and Régis Durand, "All [of Barthelme's linguistic] devices stagger our imagination, baffle our intelligence, and eventually induce us to evolve our private interpretation, no matter how extravagant it may be, to escape the tension and embarrassment". Any private interpretation, however, must fall—fortunately, for these critics—into the Slough of Indeterminacy, despite the positivistic aspirations of even the most sophisticated and scientific of semiotic analyses: "the prime lesson that can be drawn from this linguistic analysis, which emulates Barthelme's own research, is that language has a life of its own which no amount of scientific investigation can ever hope to describe or comprehend" (Couturier and Durand; emphasis added). That is to say, if Barthelme's "appealing nonsense … flouts all our learned discourses [and] cannot be reduced to tame structures," then "indeterminacy," "undecidability," and other celebrated variations on the "endless freeplay of signification" must hold unchallenged sway over the world of Barthelme criticism, dissolving in the ubiquitous metatheme of "writing itself" any interpretive project interested in grasping a further meaning out of the sequence of printed signifiers on the page. As Charles Molesworth has articulated the predominating view of Barthelme's art:

We can easily enough identify Barthelme as a writer of metafiction … as one who writes less obviously about the traditional subjects—love, fame, death—than about the conventions of writing itself.


There is little overt sense that Barthelme wants to engage psychological or social questions of great import in a manner of high seriousness.


For Barthelme the highest success is not if the story strikes us as true, but rather if it shows us how it works.

The overall purpose of my discussion here, then, is to probe for ways of moving beyond the prevailing insistence on "formal questions" as the only ones worth asking about Barthelme's fiction; to see whether we can acknowledge—even celebrate—the "structural function" of the sign without suppressing its power of representing the kinds of social and psychological realities that one encounters in a narrative like The Dead Father; and to locate Barthelme's narrative experiments with reference to a literary and cultural context that promises to illuminate the organizational principles inherent in the apparent disorder of his literary surfaces.

I take as one among many possible starting points the following premise: that as a highly self-conscious and sophisticated postmodernist, Donald Barthelme not only knew about Freud but read many of his major texts; that through a process of absorption, assimilation, and transfiguration, psychoanalysis came to take up a central presence in Barthelme's narrative discourse; and that there were important personal as well as artistic reasons (if the distinction is an intelligible one in Barthelme's case) for his interest in psychoanalysis. If the premise is true, then as a strict matter of literary criticism and cultural history, a decent if not detailed familiarity with psychoanalytic texts is indispensable to an understanding of the essential ideas, purposes, and strategies of Barthelme's cardinal narratives. That is to say, one of my goals in this essay, borrowing the words of Fredric Jameson (and hyperbole aside), is

to enlarge the conception of the literary text itself, so that its … psychoanalytic … and social resonances might become audible (and describable) within that experience of literary language and aesthetic form to which I remain committed. (The stereotypical characterization of such enlargement as reductive remains a never-ending source of hilarity).

To proceed then: In "Views of My Father Weeping," "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," and The Dead Father, Barthelme rereads and rewrites some central narratives of classical psychoanalysts as they appear in the writings of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalyst contemporary, Karl Abraham. In Barthelme, in other words, postmodern must also mean post-Freudian; identifiable "thought structures," "phantasies," "wish-creations," and typical patterns, as they are isolated and defined in the classical psychoanalytic literature, guide Barthelme to the kind of personal and intertextual material with which he works, influence his modes of wit and humor, and frame the narrative problems that generate that remarkable variety of experimental solutions to which the critics have rightly pointed. Appreciating Barthelme's revisionary project opens the way to seeing his fragmentary discourse as less a refraction of postmodern disarray than as an effect of a more or less disguised and intensely polemical dialogue with modernism's foremost "cartographers of the mind" and theorists of the father-son relation—fathers and sons are Barthelme's flood subject, after all.

"Views of My Father Weeping": Barthelme/Freud/Abraham

Jerome Klinkowitz has observantly noted that "Views of My Father Weeping" "puts Barthelme straight on the road to The Dead Father," but reading this tale within the context of psychoanalysis it unmistakably draws upon, I reject the notion that with the opening two sentences of the short story Barthelme "starts with a fresh slate in a realm of writerly action never yet inscribed." In one of its major aspects, Barthelme's story is a deliberate fictional recasting of Karl Abraham's classic psychoanalytic essay "Father-Murder and Father-Rescue in the Fantasies of Neurotics" (1922), which is itself a psychoanalytic elaboration of the Oedipus myth as it occurs in Sophocles and then, decisively, in Freud. "Views of My Father Weeping," that is to say, is an intertextual discourse par excellence, announcing its troubled affiliation with Abraham's essay in its opening gambit:

An aristocrat was riding down the street in his carriage. He ran over my father….

I stood in the square where my father was killed and asked people passing by if they had seen, or knew of anyone who had seen, the incident. At the same time I fell the effort was wasted. Even if I found the man whose carriage had done the job, what would I say to him? "You killed my father." "Yes," the aristocrat would say, "but he ran right in under the legs of the horses. My man tried to stop but it happened too quickly. There was nothing anyone could do." Then perhaps he would offer me a purse full of money.

(emphasis added)

This is a splendidly ironical amplification and reversal of the fantasy (or "wish-creation") as described in Abraham's essay:

In the fantasy I have in mind the patient imagines he is walking along a street. He unexpectedly sees coming towards him at a terrific pace a carriage in which is sitting the king (or another highly placed personage). He instantly seizes the horses by the reins and brings the carriage to a standstill, thus saving the king from the risk of death.

In Oedipus the King, of course, the son kills the father:

Making my way toward this triple crossroad I began to see a herald, then a brace of colts drawing a wagon, and mounted on the bench … a man, just as you've described him, coming face-to-face, and the one in the lead and the old man himself were about to thrust me off the road—brute force—and the one shouldering me aside, the driver, I strike him in anger!—and the old man, watching me coming up along his wheels—he brings down his prod, two prongs straight at my head! I paid him back with interest! Short work, by god—with one blow of the staff in this right hand I knock him out of his high seat, roll him out of the wagon, sprawling headlong—I killed them all—every mother's son!

(ellipsis in original)

In Abraham's report, the son rescues the father; however, Abraham furnishes us with a standard piece of psychoanalytic logic with which to link the two narratives: "Freud pointed out that the tendency to rescue the father is chiefly the expression of an impulse of defiance on the son's part"; and where there is defiance, the way is opened to the most heinous of "unspeakable practices, unnatural acts" (the title, of course, of Barthelme's 1968 short story collection), namely parricide, "the principal and primal crime of humanity as well as of the individual" (Freud, "Dostoevsky and Parricide"). Where in Abraham the father is rescued, that rescue is a screen for a darker impulse which, "inadmissible to consciousness," is disguised and transfigured into its opposite: only thus can it "evade the censorship" and press its way into the light. As a highly charged symbolic "complex" of emotions and ideas, "the rescue," when subjected to the ineluctable hermeneutic impulse of Freudian psychoanalysis, can be made to reveal the original parricidal impulse it screens within itself.

With such standard psychoanalytic logic in mind, let's turn to Barthelme's revision. Here the son (the central subject of the "My" of the title, that is, the narrator, dreamer, witness—let's call him "Oedipus"—who in Abraham's narrative is the prototype of the figure who rushes forth to seize the reins of the runaway horses) suddenly and without explanation becomes the father who is run over by "an aristocrat" with whom the son seeks but never achieves rapprochement, or more: as he muses at the outset, "perhaps he will offer me a purse full of money"; or, as the logic of the story shows, fusing family romance into the structure of the unfolding oedipal fantasy, perhaps he has a beautiful daughter whom he'll invite me to marry (when he arrives at the aristocrat's abode he finds "a dark-haired, beautiful girl, quite young, who said nothing and looked at no one"); or, continuing to paraphrase the barely disguised "underthoughts" of the narrative, perhaps he will acknowledge me as his son and love me.

At first glance, one might be tempted simply to view Barthelme's revision—or should we say condensation and displacement—of Abraham's narrative as his way of refusing the blandishments of the always already established Freudian oedipal fantasy. Indeed at that level it works as a notably transgressive and parodic gesture of narrative self-assertion. But if we believe there is something more at play here (for in Barthelme it is invariably wrong to assume that there are no large-scale patterns of thought which draw into conceptual coherence the complex display of the signifiers), we need to enter more fully into the game of interpretation. We must attempt "a construction."

Let us note, then, that Barthelme's revision begins by undoing Abraham's strategy of displacement and reversal, returning us to the archaic and proscribed impulse of Oedipus the King which "lies beneath" the manifest screen of the pseudorescue as reported in Abraham. But there is a crucial difference between Barthelme's version and the one whose genealogy connects Sophocles, Freud, and Abraham: in the originary version, the figure "Oedipus" rushes toward the carriage with the intention of murdering (or rescuing) and succeeds in that action; in Barthelme's revision, the running figure who would "seize the horses by the reins" is himself run over and killed; moreover, that figure is no longer the son (as the structure of the scene would demand) but the father. How, in other words, did the father become displaced out of his seat in the carriage to be killed in the son's place?

Clearly, with this radical displacement and audacious reversal we are still in the "constellation of the Oedipus dream", whose intention, the killing of the father, is, if anything, intensified. But so too is the problem of agency: where in the prior version the son is unmistakably responsible for the crime, Barthelme's sleight-of-hand revision has covered the son's role in a fog of unknowing. No simple exchange of positions appears to have taken place, for the son is not in the driver's seat of the carriage where we might expect to find him; instead he is only a passive, after-the-fact witness to the crime. Despite this normally airtight alibi, he still bears some mysterious sense of guilt, for he lets slip the telltale clue: "I had been notified by the police, who came to my room and fetched me to the scene of the accident." Naturally, as Barthelme surely intends, "the police" may be taken as a standard form of the "projection" of what psychoanalysis calls the "proscriptive agency." In taking up residence in the individual psyche, that agency is more commonly designated as the superego, the force which observes, judges, and punishes the self and, in so doing, reinforces what the conversationalists in Barthelme's brilliant tale "Daumier" call "a deep and abiding sense of personal worthlessness."

The son, as it were, is guilty "by definition." But the problem at the level of the tale's plot is still why the son would feel guilty if he was not "directly" involved in what is generally being described as an "accident" but which he himself treats as a terrible "crime." A clue from Freud may be helpful in this regard: "It is a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime; psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done" (Freud, "Dostoevsky"). Certainly, once arrived at "the scene," the son takes a rather keen interest in what he finds: "I bent over my father, whose chest was crushed, and laid my cheek against his. His cheek was cold. I smelled no liquor but blood from his mouth stained the collar of my coat." The focus of the problem must accordingly shift, then, to the question of who it was who was "driving" (literally, symbolically, emotionally, imaginatively, and so forth) the chariot. And indeed the tale is structured, in one of its principal narrative vectors, which runs in a linear and progressive fashion, as the tracking down of a mystery. The son, like Nathaniel Hawthorne's young Robin Molineux, sets out in search of his (would-be) kinsman, a "highly placed personage" who not only lies behind some strange and mysterious crime but will also be subjected to a terrible public debasement (in Barthelme's tale the drunken, deranged, and pathetic father is the aristocrat's inevitable psychical counterpart). And like young Molineux's, the son's "subject of inquiry" leads inexorably towards a rude confrontation with his own unsuspected complicity in the patriarch's undoing. What is more difficult to understand, however, is the son's motivation in "Views of My Father Weeping" for undertaking his quest toward the revelation of what must be a terrible secret, the identity of the one responsible for the father's death. That secret once revealed, will the son want to avenge the killing? Establish his affiliation with the one who "did the job"? Rescue the aristocrat from the rage of the demented father? Kill the aristocrat himself in a repetition of the founding crime of the narrative? Marry into the family? And so on. (Remember, quoting Emily Dickinson, "This was a dream," and so we need to alter radically any sense of psychical temporality and causality that might reduce "the subject's history to a linear determinism envisaging nothing but the action of the past upon the present".)

It is this psychic tangle of contradictory and coexisting impulses that finds its "objective correlative" in the disturbances of the tale's narrative structure, in all the ways in which that would-be steady and linear progress toward the discovery of a secret is radically disrupted by a succession of fragmentary and absurd views of weeping and pathetic fathers. With respect to that perennial "Barthelme problem," the apparent disorganization of his literary "surfaces," let us immediately grant the conspicuous fact that those surfaces seldom unfold in a purely regular (chronological or otherwise) order. Rather, one encounters a persistent interference with the narrative's progressive flow, not only by means of "flashbacks," "fantasies," and subjective "countercurrents" of imagery (such shameless metaphors and anthropomorphisms tend to remain remarkably relevant), but also through spatial divisions (the notorious fragments) and an achronological arrangement of the blocks of narrative themselves. Within these blocks there are also rapid shifts of attention and frequent ellipses, substantial gaps in narrative continuity which must signify something beyond simply themselves. The point would not necessarily be to naturalize such phenomena as the effects of some particular character's "repression," let alone as the disfunctioning of the author's fragmented or schizoid psyche, but to recognize the analogy of the dreamwork according to which the narrative as a whole appears to behave. In the imaginative "work" of narrative discourse, the disruption of surfaces is an effect of "the evasion of the censorship"; it is also a signature of the impact of guilt and repression on the sequence of memory and on the construction and reconstruction of what is remembered. To borrow a line from Jacques Lacan, in Barthelme's narrative discourse "the amnesia of repression is one of the most lively forms of memory." That is to say, Barthelme's "experimentation in narrative structure" is fully a part of what psychoanalysis would call the emotional "deep material" of the story, suggesting a historically specific (that is, Freudian and modernist) conception of the modes and structures of fantasy, memory, and repression that problematize the coherent telling of any psychosexual history, psychological allegory, or postmodernist refraction and amplification of such traditional narrative forms. If Barthelme then gives us a postmodernist mimesis of "modernist" repression, the formally self-conscious and parodic terms with which he does so are fully responsive to the dramatic, psychological, and intertextual contexts of his narrative.

Klinkowitz is therefore acutely observant when he notes that Barthelme's narratives tend to bring about a "shift of both writerly and readerly energy from the depth of meaning to the surface of signification." But I think he misreads the import of that phenomenon when he concludes that "the surface of signification" is the place to which Barthelme wants us to confine our attention, or further, that the surface "indeed is where the business of being human takes place." Take as an example this crucial passage from the story:

I remember once we were out on the ranch shooting peccadillos (result of a meeting, on the plains of the West, of the collared peccary and the ninebanded armadillo). My father shot and missed. He wept. This weeping resembles that weeping.

Critics of Klinkowitz's persuasion, interested in the way in which the text "shift[s] … attention from thought to words" or "transfer[s] … attention from the depths of meaning to the texture of surface," will naturally be drawn to the linguistic play of the passage. But clearly, in the context of the story, that play is a kind of diversionary tactic ("see how playful, clever, and postmodern I'm being") transferring our attention away from the underlying parricidal theme which one may infer from the undisguised "content" of the passage, that is, the father's humiliation. The meaning of that humiliation comes closer to "the real story," one which is "beneath the surface" only in the sense that its thematic, ideational, and symbolic complexities are precisely what the conspicuous play on "peccadillo" attempts to divert our attention away from. If Barthelme sometimes "ask[s] his readers to look away from the previously central concerns of character and plot in order to sense the more subtle aspects of his art," those subtle aspects of his art do not prevent its central obsessive concerns from existing, and so from demanding our closest attention. In fact, this might be identified as a cardinal principle of his art, or at least precisely its point: the shifting of attention away from "central concerns" is a gambit, a ruse, and a deflection; it is also a manifest invitation to reverse the trend of the narrative's centrifugal force, and so to read from the sign on the surface to the ruling ideas "beneath" it—the conceptual and intertextual organizational principles that structure the disposition of the signifiers throughout the narrative as a whole. When in the presence of the literary act of condensation and displacement, it is best to recognize it for the "defense" that it is and attempt to undo, imaginatively, its effects: one might then be taken to a place where an equally important part of "the real business of being human takes place."

Having made this polemical excursion, we are now in a better position to return to the narrative's "code of action" and follow its complex, devious, though inexorable path to the lair of "the aristocrat." As we have already noted, that path is bestrewn with multiple, fragmentary, and pathetic images of weeping fathers, and so the picture of a fundamental ambivalence emerges more clearly. On the one hand there is the aristocrat, Abraham's "highly placed personage," the exalted figure out of Freudian family romance ("A count! I had selected a man of very high rank indeed to put my question to" ["Views"]) whose idealization may be read as a defense against latent or repressed hostile impulses. On the other hand there is his lowly "real life" counterpart, the sheer frequency of whose reiteration in the narrative is an index of the intensity of that hostility. No aristocrat, king, or prince, the son's father appears in the narrative as a mailman, insurance salesman, child, and fool, as a weeping and pathetic figure exposed again and again in scenes of humiliation, feminization, failure:

I entered the shop and made inquiries. "It was your father, eh? He was bloody clumsy if you ask me…. If your father hadn't been drunk—."


He is fatherly. The gray in the head. The puff in the face. The droop in the shoulders. The flab on the gut. Tears falling. Tears falling. Tears falling. Tears falling. More tears.


My father has written on the white wall with his crayons.


My father is looking at himself in a mirror. He is wearing a large hat (straw) on which there are a number of blue and yellow plastic jonquils. He says: "How do I look?"

Suffused by a tone of derision and ridicule, the immoderate and exaggerated features of these passages are at the heart of the psychoanalytic notion of "the absurd," which in the process of imaginative unfolding (be it dream or artistic production) is an effect of the censorship as it contends with irrepressible thoughts of a disrespectful kind. In "Views of My Father Weeping," the debasement of the father is in this sense an act of imagination preparatory to his more complete undoing at the level of "plot," which may be taken as indicating the realm of "motility" or the "place" where imaginary impulses are "acted out." If "ambivalence … prepares us for the possibility of the father being subjected to a debasement", then debasement leads to the possibility of the father's murder, the ruling fantasy which presses into its service the narrative's general modes of derision and violence. One hardly needs a carriage—in Barthelme, death and mortification of the patriarch are simply inevitable effects of narrative discourse itself:

He was dragged, you know. The carriage dragged him about forty feet.


The heavy wheels of the carriage passed over him (I felt two quite distinct thumps), his body caught upon a projection under the boot, and he was dragged some forty feet, over the cobblestones … nor could any human agency have stopped them.

Despite this last disclaimer we may still feel impelled to pin the "accident" on some one person, preferably someone as much like the son as possible but sufficiently different so as to be in no danger of being taken literally for the son himself. Barthelme accomplishes the necessary doubling with a neat trick of plot. A little girl to whom the son had given some candy now for five crowns gives him a crucial piece of information to help him in his search: "The coachman's name is Lars Bang." The sounding of the strange name conjures up an uncanny effect: "When I heard this name, which in its sound and appearance is rude, vulgar, not unlike my own name, I was seized with repugnance." Bang is a figure, in other words, who comes to us, perhaps directly, from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson," where "repugnance" is also an effect of one part of the self's horrible recognition of its vulgar, "low class" other half. The son, in other words, has been there in the driver's seat all along: it was he, Lars Bang, the doppelgänger as Self, whose negotiation of the carriage actually "did the job."

But if we feel we have "solved" the mystery we are again thwarted, for even Lars Bang seems to have a convincing alibi, so complex, tenacious, and devious are the mechanisms of the son's defenses. In Bang's oral account of "the accident" one encounters a steady and inexorable displacement of blame from any active intention, purpose, or responsibility. Listening to his exculpatory discourse, one is surely meant to be alert to the signatures of "unconscious agency" and thus to the obvious fraudulence and bad faith of his alibi:

we found ourselves set upon by an elderly man, thoroughly drunk, who flung himself at my lead pair and began cutting at their legs with a switch, in the most vicious manner imaginable…. At this renewed attack the horses, frightened out of their wits, jerked the reins from my hands, and ran headlong over your father, who fell beneath their hooves.

The heavy wheels of the carriage passed over him (I felt two quite distinct thumps), his body caught upon a projection under the boot, and he was dragged some forty feet, over the cobblestones. I was attempting, with all my might, merely to hang on to the box, for, having taken the bit between their teeth, the horses were in no mood to tarry: nor could any human agency have stopped them. We flew down the street …

(emphasis added; second ellipsis Barthelme's)

The emphasis on the passive quality of his role takes us into the domain of the self's internal foreign territory, the place where blind, murderous force is disowned and denied even as it has its day in the realm of motility. As Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, "when conscious purposive ideas are abandoned, concealed purposive ideas assume control of the current of ideas" and thus of the action. Besides, as Barthelme knew if Lars Bang didn't, scape-goating the horses is an old and transparent psychoanalytic ploy:

The ego's relation to the id might be compared with that of a rider to his horse. The horse supplies the locomotive energy, while the rider has the privilege of deciding on the goal and of guiding the powerful animal's movement. But only too often there arises between the ego and the id the not precisely ideal situation of the rider being obliged to guide the horse along the path by which it itself wants to go.

To sum up, in Barthelme's intensification of the ultimately fatal import inherent in Abraham's "wish-creation," he completes a prior narrative that, in the words of Harold Bloom [in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry], "failed to go far enough." He does so by going back to the latent Sophoclean significance which, inherent in Abraham's report, enters "Views of My Father Weeping" like an eruption of the archaic into the ironically self-conscious but still dark and troubled heart of American postmodernism. But by completing that modernist narrative, Barthelme clearly has succeeded only in raising the stakes of the dangerous game of "father-murder and father-rescue," not, of course, in winning it. Yes, "the father" has been run over, but from the position reserved for the son within the structure of the prototypical oedipal scene; that is, in this narrative of simultaneous, contradictory, and yet also complementary investments of "subject positions" within a psychical structure, the son runs out to "save" the father but is murdered by him instead. Or, transferring that dramatized relation to the narrative's mimesis of a "psychic level" of experience, the son kills the father in fantasy but is left to be ravaged forevermore by guilty dreams—or views—of weeping and pathetic fathers (the last world of the story is "etc."). After all, who is this dead and weeping father but the father-in-the-son, the imago of the father whom the son loves, hates, fears, and wishes to become but also not to become himself. Barthelme's version of the myth, then, is darker even than Sophocles': Barthelme's son is denied his oedipal victory, dying the thousand deaths of remorse before he gets anywhere close to Jocasta or to solving the mystery of the roots of his own existence.

Robert Kennedy Saved/The Dead Father Bulldozed

A second major example of what may be placed under the sign of "psychoanalytic intertextuality" indicates just how pervasive and deep-going in Barthelme's art is the complex of ideas involving the rescue/murder of the father. "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," Freud's essay, "A Special Type of Object Choice Made by Men" (1910), and The Dead Father illustrate the dialectical relation of the theme and press into bold, self-conscious articulation the shaping narrative forces which in "Views of My Father Weeping" remain latent though no less purposive and consequential in their effects. "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" ends with a scene of striking oneiric intensity:

K. Saved from Drowning

K. in the water. His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword are on the shore. He retains his mask. His hands beat the surface of the water which tears and rips about him. The white foam, the green depths. I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of the water. He has missed it. No, it appears that he has it. His right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him. I am on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock. K. now has both hands on the line. I pull him out of the water. He stands now on the bank, gasping.

"Thank you."

Barthelme's explication de texte may be found in his masterwork, his manual for sons, The Dead Father:

On the rescue of fathers….

… When you have rescued a father from whatever terrible threat menaces him, then you feel, for a moment, that you are the father and he is not. For a moment. This is the only moment in your life you will feel this way.

Here Barthelme is following and reiterating the original Freudian explication of the rescue fantasy: "All [the son's] instincts, those of tenderness, gratitude, lustfulness, defiance and independence, find satisfaction in the single wish to be his own father". Freud's explanation is worth quoting at greater length:

It is as though the boy's defiance were to make him say: "I want nothing from my father; I will give him back all I have cost him." He then forms the phantasy of rescuing his father from danger and saving his life; in this way he puts his account square with him. This phantasy is commonly enough displaced on to the emperor, king or some other great man; after being thus distorted it becomes admissible to consciousness, and may even be made use of by creative writers. In its application to a boy's father it is the defiant meaning in the idea of rescuing which is by far the most important.

The Dead Father makes clear the defiant meaning at the root of the rescue fantasy. Indeed the entire book is structured as an ambiguous rescue/murder of the father: a band of sons and a couple of daughters are dragging the dead father, who is attached to a cable, across a barren, elemental (or is it simply cardboard?) landscape, in the direction of the Golden Fleece (or is it simply a deep pit in the ground and a view of a raised skirt at the end?). The Dead Father is dead, we are told, because "We want the Dead Father to be dead. We sit with tears in our eyes wanting the Dead Father to be dead." But the Dead Father is dead only "in a sense": he is a human being, a granite monument, a gigantic "supermale with horns, tail, and a big penis snake" (as Freud might describe the Great Father Serpent); a strange, majestic, awe-inspiring object; a pathetic, dangerous, infantile, and paralytic old man: a figure who comes apart; a voice that takes up residence inside one's head. But in all of his manifestations he must be defeated, displaced, gotten beyond. With Freud we should conclude that "the insistence with which [The Dead Father] exhibited its absurdities could only be taken as indicating the presence in the dream-thoughts of a particularly embittered and passionate polemic". In the classical Freudian dynamic model, absurdity implies the activity of a vigilant censorship on the watch to repress derisive (or parricidal) dream thoughts. The signs of the struggle emerge as the immoderate and exaggerated features of the dream production. But in the imaginative process of Barthelme's The Dead Father, the censorship fails again and again, for the principle of corpse-baiting is built into the very structure of Barthelme's fictional vision, where it becomes the principal form of narrative action: the Dead Father is berated, tied up, teased, tortured, hacked, rudely addressed. In Barthelme's hyperbolic construction of the dead father, the "particularly embittered and passionate polemic" may be taken as generating those warping effects which, as we have seen in "Views of My Father Weeping," emerge as narrative "absurdity" and its various modes of derision.

What is it about the Dead Father that invites so much animus? A silly question.

Can you tell us … what that hussar had done? The one we saw hanged by the neck from the tree back down the road a bit.

Disobeyed a ukase, said the Dead Father. I forget which ukase.

Oh, said Thomas.

Nobody disobeys a ukase of mine, said the Dead Father. He chuckled.

Smug, isn't he, said Julie.

A bit smug, said Thomas.

A bit, the Dead Father said.

With the Dead Father in his wrath we recognize "a great narcissist" who "regards any interference as an act of lèse majesté" in response to which he demands "(like the Draconian code) that any such crime shall receive the one form of punishment which admits of no degrees".

Hence, presumably, the importance of the fool's cap in Barthelme, which hardly conceals the signatures of the father's discipline and the son's resentment:

Thomas pulled an orange fool's cap tipped with silver bells from his knapsack.

To think that I have worn this abomination, or its mate, since I was sixteen.

Sixteen to sixty-five, so says the law, said the Dead Father….

And had I been caught out-of-doors without it, my ears cut off, said Thomas. What a notion. What an imagination…. But remember there was a time when he was slicing people's ears off with a wood chisel. Two-inch blade.

However, it is well to be reminded by Ernst Kris that

When we laugh at the fool, we never forget that in his comic fancy dress, with bladder and cap, he still carries crown and scepter, symbols of kingship. And is it not possible that the freedom exploited by the fool is a direct inheritance from the omnipotence of his demonic predecessor?

With "His orange tights, orange boots, silver belt buckle with rubies, white Sabatini shirt. His clear and true gold-rimmed spectacles," Barthelme's Thomas, the Dead Father's son, is the archetype of the fool as parricide: we mustn't forget that he ends up with the Dead Father's watch, belt buckle, sword, passport, and power and presides at his funeral.

But does he ever free himself of the remorse, self-doubt, and other residual effects of the father's power? The father has taken up permanent residence in the son's soul, intertwining himself with the son's own most intimate definition of self. In Freud's darkest musings on the subject, the superego is guilt-producing, sadistic, obscene, and savage, the pure agency of the death instinct. Barthelme's version is characteristically more clinical, philosophical, resigned:

you must deal with the memory of a father. Often that memory is more potent than the living presence of a father, is an inner voice commanding, haranguing, yes-ing and no-ing—a binary code, yes no yes no yes no yes no, governing your every, your slightest movement, mental or physical. At what point do you become yourself? Never, wholly, you are always partly him. That privileged position in your inner ear is his last "perk" and no father has ever passed it by.

Hence the need for the fantasy, allowing a temporary and symbolic victory over an indomitable adversary, even if, in turn, that victory generates the soul-killing and son-directed waves of remorse. Is there, then, any way out of this vicious circle? Better let Barthelme, who has thought longer and deeper on these issues than any American writer since Hawthorne, give the glimmer of hope:

Patricide is a bad idea, first because it is contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father's every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide!—a member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere.

Carl D. Malmgren (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "Exhumation: The Dead Father," in Narrative Turns and Minor Genres in Postmodernism, edited by Theo D'haen and Hans Bertens, Rodopi, 1995, pp. 25-40.

[In the following essay, Malmgren presents a detailed, thorough examination of The Dead Father.]

PRETEXT: Our presentation consists of two kinds of commentaries:

LECT: Readings—descriptive, analytic, interpretive—of the Barthelmean corpus and the Barthelmean text.

IDIOLECT: Countertexts, in which Barthelme is unfair to Malmgren.

The autopsy itself unfolds in three stages, each with several reading operations, as follows:

I. The Barthelmean Corpus

1. Impure Text

2. Collage

3. Fragments

II. The Corpse of The Dead Father: Partial Anatomy

4. The Body

5. Blazon

6. The Mute Text

III. The Dead Father: Identifying the Corpse

7. Examining the Corpse

8. Mythification

9. Overdetermination

10. Totalization

11. Totalization Revisited

12. Resurrection: The Live Father

I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.

                                —Barthelme, "The Dolt"

I. The Barthelmean Corpus: Overview (See Dead Father)

A. LECT 1. Impure Texts

For matters of classification, heuristic rather than absolute, we can distinguish between two tendencies or inclinations in postmodern fiction, based upon the criterion of inclusion or exclusion, The exclusive postmodern text turns hermetically inward, brooding obsessively on its own processes and strategies. For it narrativity is a curse of self-consciousness; the writer, as Barth notes in Lost in the Funhouse, is "committed to the pen for life." This fiction sees the separation between Art and Life as irreconcilable. It aspires to the condition of silence, longs for textual suicide, but is forced to go on, spinning out texts for nothing. The inclusive, or "impure," postmodern text, on the other hand, turns itself outward towards Life and gleefully appropriates the discourses in which it finds itself situated. Using techniques of collage, paste-up, and parody, this text undertakes the "murdering" of competing texts. The impure text celebrates, and even adds to, the din created by culture. The Barthelmean corpus is, for the most part, "impure." What we see only intermittently operative in The Dead Father is the dominant feature in his other work—the attempt, through structure, typography, parody, and graphics, to appropriate various "universes of discourse" (Snow White) in order to open art to life, to locate the text in something outside itself. This form of postmodernism is not necessarily hostile toward bourgeois and popular culture; it tends to collaborate with its environment. At the same time, the principle of inclusion allows the impure text to pre-empt, subvert, or co-opt the discourses it incorporates, The impulse to assemble, synthesize, or appropriate should thus be seen as a defense mechanism against the proliferation of language systems, information, cultural noise. Borrowing from Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, we can say that Barthelme attempts to EAT culture and language before they EAT him. This might be termed the carnivorization of discourse.

LECT 2: Collage

In an early interview, Barthelme is reported to have said that collage is the "central principle" of twentieth-century art. Collage is a basic strategy of impure art, at once a way of replicating the feel of twentieth-century experience and a way of dealing with the tension between Art and Life. According to Harold Rosenberg, collage is both a child of technology and a form born of reservations about the absolute separation of Art from Life; collage, he says, "appropriates the external world;" the object in collage straddles two realms, suspended, as it were, between its extratextual reality and its formal location within an artistic whole. These observations apply to the Barthelmean collage. We might, however, distinguish between modernist and postmodernist collage in terms of their epistemological assumptions. Modernist collage is informed by a metaphysic of totality:

For the modernists collage is a way of getting at the true meaning of reality; the depth of it; it is an implicit statement about the inadequacy of linear approaches to the human situation…. Underneath the modernists' rejection of linearity, however, there is the belief that what seems fragmented is indeed imbued with a higher cohesiveness invisible to the distracted modern man. Collage in modernist fiction, in other words, is a tribute to the higher order of reality and as such there is in modernist art the faith that the surface fragments can be reconstituted into a total whole.

Modernist collage juxtaposes heterogeneous "bits" of reality in order to capture the shape of the twentieth-century—its texture, its centrifugality—and at the same time to circumscribe a trace of a totality (as in Dos Passos's USA). Postmodernist collage is much less ambitious; it dispenses with any such metaphysical baggage. The surface reality is not informed—charged with depth, quizzicality, the possibility of reconstitution. What Robbe-Grillet asserts about the world obtains for the collage: it is "neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply." For the modernists collage is a means to an end; for the postmodernists it is both means and end. As Ronald Sukenick says in 98.6, "Interruption. Discontinuity. Imperfection. It can't be helped…. This novel is based on The Mosaic Law the law of mosaics or how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes."

IDIOLECT 1: Barthelme, interview in The New Fiction

Ktinkowitz: In Richard Schickel's New York Times Magazine piece last year, you were reported as saying that "The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century in ail media." Would you care to expand and perhaps tell me how it specifically applies to fiction?

Barthelme: I was probably wrong …

LECT 3: Fragments

A character in an early Barthelmean text says "Fragments are the only form I trust." Some critics, assuming this to be an essential tenet of Barthelme's aesthetic, have taken him to task for it:

"Fragments are the only forms I trust." This from a writer of arguable genius, whose works reflect the anxiety he himself must feel, in book after book, that his brain is all fragments…. But. There is a point at which Wilde's remark comes horribly true, that life will imitate art. And who then is in charge, who believed himself cleverly impotent, who supposed he had abandoned all conscious design?

                                   —Joyce Carol Oates

To an extent, especially as regards certain short fictions such as "Views of My Father Weeping," fragmentation and its syntactic equivalent, parataxis, are basic Barthelmean strategies, ways of subverting conscious design, of resisting totalization. Together they work to undermine teleology and continuity. In The Dead Father we can see these principles at work especially in the dialogues of Julie and Emma where we are forced to "look at the parts separately," to "get an exploded view." It should be noted that Barthelmean fragments frequently consist of the flotsam and jetsam of exploded language systems, of linguistic trash. By using linguistic refuse as his collagistic unit and incorporating it undigested, in discrete fragments, Barthelme in effect "trashes" his collage, placing himself "on the leading edge of this trash phenomenon".

IDIOLECT 2: News Release, from The New Fiction



Trust 'Misplaced,' Author Declares




Will Seek 'Wholes' in Future. He Says




New York, June 24 (A&P)—Donald Barthelme, 41-year-old writer and well-known fragmentist, said today that he no longer trusted fragments. He added that although he had once been "very fond" of fragments, he had found them to be "finally untrustworthy."

The author, looking tense and drawn after what was described as "considerable thought." made his dramatic late-night announcement at a Sixth Avenue laundromat press conference, from which the press was excluded.

Sources close to the soap machine said, however, that the agonizing reappraisal, which took place before their eyes, required only four minutes.

"Fragments fall apart a lot," Barthelme said. Use of antelope blood as a bonding agent had not proved …

II. The Corpse of The Dead Father: Partial Anatomy

LECT 4: The Body

Much of the above does not seem to apply to The Dead Father, which is for the most part novelistic, with distinct and individuated characters rendered in transparent language; identifiable, if surrealistic, topoi; a univocal, if laconic, narration; and, most important, an irreversible and teleological plot. The novel tends to unravel, however, if we look at its elements carefully. The plot, for example, is open to divergent, and conflicting, categorizations, depending upon the characters' perspectives. From the point of view of the Dead Father, the company is embarked upon the most traditional of actions—a Quest for an Object of Desire, the Golden Fleece. The Fleece signifies rebirth for the Dead Father: "When I douse myself in its great yellow electricity," he says, "then I will be revivified." The company, on the other hand, is undertaking an anti-Quest; its goal is to get rid of an Object of Loathing. For Thomas and the others the journey can only end in the ultimate act of dispossession, Death. Rebirth and Death; Quest and Anti-Quest: the plot effectively cancels itself out. The master trope for the macrotext is thus chiasmus (just as it is for the microtext: "Dead, but still with us, still with us but dead"). Chiasmus derives from the Greek lette chi or X and signifies a figure which has been marked by that letter. The Dead Father, of course, is just such a textual figure, insofar as it culminates in a crossing-out, an elimination. The eponymous hero of the novel, the Dead Father, is literally a marked man; the overview of the march designates him with an x. Indeed, his very name enacts a figural chiasmus. His basic attributes, as he frequently reminds the troupe, are creating ("fathering") and destroying ("slaying"). The Dead Father thus occupies the empty site where that which creates is slain. And it's hardly necessary to remark that X marks the spot where one digs a hole in order to cover/discover/uncover an Object of Value. The plot and characterization of the text are thus tainted with cross-purposes; a known entity is converted into an unknown quantity (an X). The same can finally be said of the discourse of the text, which alternates between two extremes, noise and silence, the one shown to be a simple transform of the other, the two together creating cacography.

LECT 5: The Blazon

One aspect of the noisy text is the blazon. We borrow the term from Roland Barthes who uses it in S/Z to refer to a device of the classic or realist text—the inventory, or the attempt to "capture" a predicate (Barthes uses the example of Beauty) through a systematic and exhaustive enumeration of its parts, attributes, characteristics. The blazon tries to capture "reality" in the lists of language, in a network of linguistic nets (just as Melville tries to catch a whale in the whaling chapters of Moby Dick). In The Dead Father Barthelme supplies the reader with a number of blazons: the inventory of the musicians and animals slain by the Dead Father; the inventory of the progeny from the Dead Father's affair with Tulla; the inventory of the types of fathers. Barthes argues that "as a genre, the blazon expresses the belief that a complete inventory can produce a total body, as if the extremity of enumeration could devise a new category, that of totality." But Barthelme's lists are hardly classical: "First he slew a snowshoe rabbit cleaving it in twain with a single blow and then he slew a spiny anteater and then he slew two rusty numbats and then whirling the great blade round and round his head he slew a wallaby and a lemur and a trio of oukaris and a spider monkey and a common squid." Here, in the noisy text, the inventory is over-totalized; there is an information overload. The list draws attention to itself as simply that, a device; what is (em)bodied here is not reality but discourse itself, its infinite lexicon, its noisiness. Related to this device is Barthelme's treatment of the telling detail, the bit of superfluous information that in the classic text serves to reinforce the mimetic contract. The telling detail, Barthes claims, gives the "effect of the real" ("l'effet de reel"), linking the fiction to reality and validating the text. In the noisy text, the significant detail is blatantly overdone (e.g., "Small gifts to the children: a power motor, a Blendor"). It is so incredible, so incongruous, that it serves to countersignify; the material becomes simply the lexical. The detail's incongruity, its implausibility, its excess, subvert the reality effect, rupturing the continuity between fictional and real worlds.

LECT 6: The Mute Text

In order to subvert its novelistic identity, The Dead Father takes the basic elements of fiction—description, narration, dialogue—and transforms them, essentially by so impoverishing them, minimalizing them, as to impart to them an empty, automatic, formulaic, banal quality. The code of description becomes a silent list of lonely nouns: "The countryside. Flowers. Creeping snowberry. The road with dust. The sweat popping from little sweat glands. The line of the cable." The narration is similarly muted: "Edmund claims the first dance. No that is for the Dead father. Happiness of the Dead Father." Can the omniscience of the last enunciation be any more laconic, any more muted? Dialogue in the mute text invariably reverts to cliché ("Till the cows come home, said the Dead Father, so much are we on each others' wavelengths") or becomes mere babble. The dialogues of Emma and Julie typify this process. Barthelme has referred to them as "collections of non sequiturs, intended … to provide a kind of counter-narration to the main narration." They represent a form of countercommunication—prattle, chatter—a kind of noise, interfering with the narrative transmission. They are "printed circuits reprinting themselves," meant to leave the reader with "a boiled brain and a burnt one." Together all the minimalistic features of the text, in their mutedness, serve paradoxically a noise function. It is, the text tells us, a "matter of paring down to a supportable minimum," but that minimum disrupts narrative continuity and momentum. The minimalized features act as narrative static, create a blanketing effect, serving at last to blank the text's blank.

III. The Dead Father: Identifying the Corpse

LECT 7: Examining the Corpse

The key figure here, the one to be exhumed if only so that we can finally lay him to rest, is of course the eponymous hero—he who, as the text frequently reminds us, has been "at work ceaselessly night and day for the good of all." At a generalized level we can say that he represents any hegemonic belief system—at one time or another he comes to embody all the systems of authority that Western culture has enshrined: God, King, Reason, History, State. In psychoanalytic terms he is the very source of that which creates and structures reality, the parent/father. His is the voice of religion, as when he delivers the "tongue-lashing" of the Biblical patriarch. His is the voice of science, as when he gives a speech to the men ("Quite extraordinary, said Emma, what did it mean? Thank you, said the Dead Father. It meant I made a speech"). He incorporates machine technology in his multi-purpose wooden leg. He enacts laws, issues ukases, and, when he is offended, dispenses punishment: "I award punishment. Punishment is a thing I am good at." Fathers are also teachers; they "teach much that is of value. Much that is not."

LECT 8: Mythific(a)tion

Certainly the most obvious level of signification for the Dead Father, in terms of overcoding, is the mythic. At first Julie thinks Thomas has an exaggerated view of the Dead Father's stature, but she soon changes her mind. "I apologize for saying you were perpetuating myths," Julie says to him. "I am beginning to come round to your opinion." The Dead Father occupies a plethora of positions in the mythological pantheon, including those of:

  1. the Christian God the Father, Christ (doubting Thomas, Luke his steward).
  2. the Hellenic Zeus, because of his anthropomorphic incarnation, his volatile temper, and his shape-shifting (turning into a haircut to seduce Tulla); also Orpheus, because of his journey to the Underworld and his eventual dismemberment.
  3. a Norse god, because of the "twilight of the gods" motif.
  4. the Indian Great Father Serpent ("I like him. said the Dead Father").
  5. the Medieval Dying God/Fisher King
  6. a Vegetation Deity, because he is the "one who keeps the corn popping from the fine green fields."
  7. the Freudian Primal Father, against whom the sons rebel.

We might add to this list specific mythic narremes, such as the quest for the golden fleece, the seduction accomplished via metamorphosis, the descent to the underworld, the ritual of dismemberment, and the consumption of one's offspring ("And the worst was their blue jeans, my meals course after course of improperly laundered blue jeans, T-shirts, saris, Thom McAns. I suppose I could have hired someone to peel them for me first"). In many of these mythic echoes and parallels (not to mention literary antecedents such as Anchises and Lear), the Dead Father represents the ritualized god who must be dismembered and sacrificed but who retains authority and creates morality, culture, society.

LECT 9: Overdetermination

The weight, the pressure, the force that these mythic parallels exert is dissipated, perhaps even annihilated, at the local level by the way in which they are parodied or undercut in the act of being presented. The irony of the discourse deflates the mythic intention, converting kings into pretenders. Clearly Barthelme is not using myth in the same way that Eliot claimed Joyce was, "as a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." At the global level of the macrotext we can say that the system of mythical references is overdetermined. Christine Brooke-Rose defines overdetermination in literature as follows:

A code is over-determined when its information (narrative, ironic, hermeneutic, symbolic, etc.) is too clear, overencoded, recurring beyond purely informational need. The reader is then in one sense also over-encoded, and does in fact sometimes appear in the text, dramatized, like an extra character: the "Dear Reader." But in another sense he is treated as a kind of fool who has to be told everything, a subcritical (hypo-crite) reader.

The Dead Father as mythic father archetype is so systematically over-determined and thoroughly thematized that this reading subverts itself by being too easy, too available, ultimately banal. By being oversaid, it "goes without saying." Such a reading is not only parodied and subverted by the irony of the discourse, it is also so overcoded as to be hypocritical, beneath understanding.

LECT 10: Totalization

All of the features and readings I have discussed up to this point share a common ground—a resistance to totalization. The discourse of The Dead Father refuses to contain or circumscribe its fictional world within sustained and stable structures of signifieds. The postmodernist text presupposes the world to be chaotic and contingent and, in a kind of "cheerful nihilism", abandons the notion of totalization, of supplying a univocal, coherent, comprehensive "take" on that world. Postmodernist fiction is content to project a field of signifiers that float freely or cancel each other out. A case in point in The Dead Father is the signifier 23. There are twenty-three characters in the troupe, twenty-three chapters in the novel, twenty-three sections in "The Manual for Sons," twenty-three types of fathers (including the dead father). The number seems loaded with significance but finally fails to signify; it is simply a prime number, indivisable, without factors. Similarly the reader is invited to see Emma (M-A) as a mother figure but cannot really make anything of the equation. In other places the text turns on itself, acting out a semantic textermination: "[the Dead Father] controls what Thomas is thinking, what Thomas has always thought, what Thomas will ever think, with exceptions." In this world both anxiety and signification are free-floating, and we find ourselves lost in the fun house of the signifier.

LECT 11: Totalization Revisited

And yet this Barthelmean text is finally so readily recuperable, so available to "translation," so easily naturalized and domesticated that it risks becoming that modernist bête noire, allegory. In one of Barthelme's short stories, "Nothing: A Preliminary Account," a character responds to his project, the task of defining nothing, in the following way: "How joyous, the notion that, try as we may, we cannot do other than fail and fail absolutely, and the task will remain always before us, like a meaning for our lives." The Dead Father draws us onward and upward to a place where we can give it a proper name; it forces us to undertake the Sisyphean task before us, like a meaning for our lives. Interpretation crowds interpretation, as the Dead Father becomes omnisignificant.

We see in his lineaments, for example, the literary tradition in whose shadow Barthelme writes, with respect to whom he suffers no small anxiety of influence—those masters of meaning, the great modernists. There are several places at which the text invites this particular interpretive move. The Dead Father embodies the drive for meaning: "You take my meaning. We had no choice." And yet he resists final naming, preferring the teasing pleasure of ambiguity: "Having it both ways is a thing I like"; "Has it both ways does he? In this as in everything." The Dead Father is literally and figuratively a Yeatsian marmoreal "monument of its own magnificence": "Fathers are like blocks of marble, giant cubes, highly polished, with veins and seams, placed squarely in your path. They block your path. They cannot be climbed over, neither can they be slithered past. They are the 'past.'" Indeed, the penultimate chapter transforms the Dead Father into the biggest block of them all, a reincarnation of Joyce's Wakian Allfather, that blockhead AndI, obsessed with the sense of an ending and the sound of pitterpatter. In this chapter sound and sense conflate as pitterpatter becomes Pitterpatter: he who pits the pater.

Again and again, the novel invites this kind of totalized reading. The Dead Father seems finally connected to our innate need to discover meaning; he is the motor that drives our meaning-making machinery. We hear his voice as "the shudder of an enormous machine which is humanity tirelessly undertaking to create meaning without which it would no longer be human". His gender accentuates for us the "masculine profile of metaphysical hegemony". Moving to a higher level of generalization, we can say that the "father is the embodiment of all forces and desires which require of persons and cultures alike to totalize experience". He is the personification of order and coherence, the avatar of totalizing passion, the meaning we seek and the control we seek to escape. He is always already dead but still with us, still with us but dead, and even a dead father is dangerous.

Fatherhood is thus not only one of those metanarratives which serve to legitimate knowledge and culture, it is the very source—the wellspring, the engine—of such narratives. Given the postmodern "incredulity toward metanarratives", and at the same time the inescapability of the metanarrative drive, there remains but one solution, which the "Manual for Sons" spells out for us: "Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in an attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him…. Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least 'turned down' in this generation—by the combined efforts of all of us together." Turning down fatherhood—putting it to bed, reducing its volume (muting its phonocentrism), refusing to dance with it, repudiating it—in this way we can serve as the Manual's author's namesakes and begin to scatter the pater.

IDIOLECT 3: Barthelme, Snow White

This sense is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves—looking at them and so arriving at a feeling not of satisfaction exactly, that is too much to expect, but of having read them, of having "completed" them.

LECT 12: Resurrection: The Live Father

Naming is a way of exerting power. As Toni Morrison remarks in Beloved, the power of naming belongs to the master, and the act of naming represents an assertion of mastery. By naming the significations of The Dead Father, by identifying its thematic strings, we convert it into an object of knowledge—something to be owned, commanded, commandeered. Knowledge of the text means power over it. Knowing the text, we have mastered the text; we have made it our property by giving it our properties. In so doing, however, we have inevitably succumbed to the text's logic; we have assumed patriarchal privilege, we have slipped into the role of the father. The text informs us that "the key idea, in fatherhood, is 'responsibility,'" and, almost unwittingly, we have played the part of responsible critics. All the more reason then that we remind ourselves that getting rid of the Dead Father must needs be a "rehearsal," something which we must do over and over again, playfully, in order to get it right. For there lurks within each of us our own dead father, and in this postmodern moment he is dead but still with us, still with us but dead.

IDIOLECT 4: Barthelme, "Brain Damage"

Some people feel that you should tell the truth, but those people are impious and wrong, and if you listen to what they say, you will be tragically unhappy all your life.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 June 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, in Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1997, pp. 843-44.

[The following is a negative assessment of Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme.]

What Thomas Pynchon called "Barthelmismo" is somewhat lacking in [Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme] the second posthumous collection edited by Herzinger of Barthelme's miscellaneous writings, which here includes film and book reviews, art catalog essays, and New Yorker pieces.

"Barthelme Takes On Task of Almost Deciphering His Fiction" ran the New York Times headline when Barthelme delivered a lecture for New York University's Writer at Work series. That headline could equally well describe many of these abbreviated critical pieces and not wholly forthcoming interviews. The often-reprinted "Not-Knowing" (1982) is a spirited, idiosyncratic analysis of creativity—the search for an adequate rendering of the world's "messiness"—as well as a playful, sometimes self-parodying literary performance piece. The essay contains a short "letter to a literary critic" expressing condolences on the demise of Postmodernism, which Barthelme recycled into an unsigned piece for his favorite publication, the New Yorker. Barthelme's many other pieces for the magazine waver lamely between its characteristic wryness and his own fabulist flair, though there is one happy, humorous piece that purports to answer a Writer's Digest questionnaire about his drinking habits. Barthelme also tried his hand at film criticism for the New Yorker in 1979, but his reviews of Truffaut, Herzog, and Bertolucci are surprisingly heavy going, as are his writings on abstract expressionists and contemporary architecture. Editor Herzinger (English/Univ. of Southern Mississippi) has also included a number of interviews with Barthelme, of widely varying quality. The longest interview, a radio serial chat from 1975–76, seems dated and pretentious (e.g.: "I would not say that Snow White predicts the Manson case"); the most stimulating is actually the transcript of a 1975 symposium with his peers William Gass, Grace Paley, and Walker Percy.

Though John Barth calls this a "booksworth of encores" in his introduction, many of the pieces seem to be merely magazine outtakes and literary b-sides.


Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 1)


Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 13)