Donald Barthelme | Critical Essay by Neil Schmitz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Donald Barthelme.
This section contains 4,739 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Neil Schmitz

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.

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