Donald Barthelme | Critical Essay by Lance Olsen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Donald Barthelme.
This section contains 3,372 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lance Olsen

Critical Essay by Lance Olsen

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

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

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

            Donald Barthelme (Unspeakable Practices)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My anger, he said proudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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