Donald Barthelme | Critical Essay by Lance Olsen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Donald Barthelme.
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Critical Essay by Carl D. Malmgren

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

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

PRETEXT: Our presentation consists of two kinds of commentaries:

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

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

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

I. The Barthelmean Corpus

1. Impure Text

2. Collage

3. Fragments

II. The Corpse of The Dead Father: Partial Anatomy

4. The Body

5. Blazon

6. The Mute Text

III. The Dead Father: Identifying the Corpse

7. Examining the Corpse

8. Mythification

9. Overdetermination

10. Totalization

11. Totalization Revisited

12. Resurrection: The Live Father

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

                                —Barthelme, "The Dolt"

I. the Barthelmean Corpus: Overview (see Dead Father)

A. LECT 1. Impure Texts

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

LECT 2: Collage

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

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

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

IDIOLECT 1: Barthelme, interview in The New Fiction

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

Barthelme: I was probably wrong …

LECT 3: Fragments

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

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

                                   —Joyce Carol Oates

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

IDIOLECT 2: News Release, from The New Fiction

WRITER CONFESSES THAT HE NO LONGER TRUSTS FRAGMENTS

..…

Trust 'Misplaced,' Author Declares

..…

DISCUSSED DECISION WITH DAUGHTER, SIX

..…

Will Seek 'Wholes' in Future. He Says

..…

CLOSING TIME IN GARDENS OF WEST WILL BE EXTENDED, SCRIVENER STATES

..…

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

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

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

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

Ii. the Corpse of the Dead Father: Partial Anatomy

LECT 4: The Body

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

LECT 5: The Blazon

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

LECT 6: The Mute Text

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

Iii. the Dead Father: Identifying the Corpse

LECT 7: Examining the Corpse

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

LECT 8: Mythific(a)tion

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

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

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

LECT 9: Overdetermination

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

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

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

LECT 10: Totalization

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

LECT 11: Totalization Revisited

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

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

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

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

IDIOLECT 3: Barthelme, Snow White

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

LECT 12: Resurrection: The Live Father

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

IDIOLECT 4: Barthelme, "Brain Damage"

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

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