Donald Barthelme | Critical Essay by Robert A. Morace

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Donald Barthelme.
This section contains 4,017 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Robert A. Morace

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.

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