Sunday, July 7, 2013

Donald Barthelme

We're due for a Donald Barthelme revival. Or at least I was, because of passages like this (from an interview with Charles Ruas and Judith Serman, 1975):

BARTHELME: [On teaching creative writing] About the only thing I give them [the students] in the way of general pronouncements is that I forbid them absolutely to use weather in any form. ... Weather, weather. Thunderstorms, rain. 

I say, "This is an entirely artificial prohibition and as soon as you leave my class you can use all of the weather you want. But for this space of time, weather is verboten." 

That immediately gets rid of a lot of really bad writing.

RUAS: Why, because --

BARTHELME: -- Because it's so easy to use weather as the equivalent of an emotion, and you know --

RUAS: -- And Shakespeare's already done it better than anyone else can.

BARTHELME: Yes, and one very good student, at the start of this semester, said, "What, no weather? What would Lear be without weather?"

And I said, "The exception to this rule is if you write Lear."


My favorite quotations from Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews:
  • “There’s nothing more rewarding than than a fresh set of problems.”
  • “There’s nothing so beautiful as having a very difficult problem.”
  • “Beckett’s work is an embarrassment to the Void.”
  • “To quote Karl Kraus, ‘A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.’”
  • “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.”

Most people probably encounter Barthelme in a classroom, which is unfortunate, especially if he is taught as part of the post-modern crowd, which of course he is (part of it, and taught that way). His fiction may be of the 1960s & 1970s, but his influence (and potential influences) span backwards and forwards in time.

Not-Knowing begins with two substantial essays, "After Joyce" and "Not-Knowing," which establish Bartheleme's bona fides as a Modernist and a Texan. His father was an architect and high on the intellectual curve for his time. Barthelme's interviews and essays show his deep immersion in aesthetic debates from visual art, to buildings, to books. While he may have picked up some avant garde tendencies from his father, his pater didn't appreciate Donald's sense of humour, or the advent of the "post-" prefix.

What one senses in all of this is the primal conflict, perhaps best illustrated by noting the title of what of Barthelme's novels, The Dead Father.

"Not enough emotion" and "too many jokes" were what Barthelme considered the weaknesses of his fiction. We might identify here instead an anxiety to simply be himself. But what was that?

Barthelme situates his work, like Joyce (and his other oft cited influence, Gertrude Stein) in the perpetual state of becoming. Or as he calls it, Not-Knowing: "The not-knowing is not simple, because it's hedged with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives."

There is also the ongoing argument with those who don't "get it," those content to be hip to be square.

Barthelme quotes Kenneth Burke (from "The Calling of the Tune"):

For the greater the dissociation and discontinuity developed by the artist in an otherworldly art that leaves the things to Ceaser to take care of themselves, the greater becomes the artist's dependence upon some ruler who will accept the responsibility for doing the world's "dirty work."

Puzzle that one out for a moment, before reading Barthelme's response:

This description of the artist turning his back on the community to pursue his "otherworldly" projects (whereupon the community promptly falls apart) is a familiar one, accepted even by some artists. Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and the other writers of the transition school (Burke mentions them specifically) are seen as deserters, creating their own worlds, which are thought to have nothing to do with the larger world. The picture is, I think, entirely incorrect. ...

Burke's strictures raise the sticky question of what art is "about" and the mysterious shift that takes place as son as one says that art is not about something but is something. In saying that the writer creates "dissociation and discontinuity" rather than merely describing a previously existing dissociation and discontinuity (the key word is "developed"), Burke notices that with Joyce and Stein the literary work becomes an object in the world rather than a text or a commentary upon the world -- a crucial change in status which was also taking place in painting. With Joyce, and to a lesser degree with Gertrude Stein, fiction altered its placement in the world in a movement so radical that its consequences have yet to be assimilated.


Barthelme wrote that in 1964, just when the Sixties were becoming the Sixties. He then went on to become one of the leading literary innovators of his generation. His short stories and novels kept up the beat. The times were a-changing. At least, so it seemed for a while. They don't really change. They just modulate within a frequency. (What frequency, Kenneth?)

Check on the podcast by The New Yorker: Chris Adrian reads “The Indian Uprising,” by Donald Barthelme, and discusses it with fiction editor, Deborah Treisman.


As much as Barthelme was on his period, part of what we mean by literary influence is that the artist was ahead of her time. I think this is true of Barthelme. There is much (too much) "knowingness" in  the 21st century, despite all of the quakes, wars, economic and environmental meltdowns. And I don't just mean Dubya's "you're with us or agin us." So-called progressives can be just as closed-minded as the ultra-dumb, I mean, -right.

"Dissociation and discontinuity developed by the artist"? In the interviews Barthelme repeatedly asserts that he's a "realist." Amen to that. He's also a language-magician and an idea-jerking philosopher (joker, midnight toker).

BARTHELME: I say it's realism, bearing in mind Harold Rosenberg's wicked remark that realism is one of the fifty-seven varieties of decoration.

We're talking about art, people.

Repeat after me. Donald Barthelme revival. Donald Barthelme revival.

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