Donald Barthelme | Critical Essay by Jochen Achilles

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Donald Barthelme.
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Critical Essay by Jochen Achilles

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.

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