Sunday, March 01, 2009

Quote of the Day: Donald Barthelme

"Had I decided to go into the conceptual-art business, I could turn out railroad cars of that stuff every day."
That's the late avant garde writer Donald Barthelme (1931-1989). Louis Menand profiles him in the New Yorker on the occasion of a new biography, a profile that serves as an excellent introduction to postmodernism.

While Barthelme's anti-conceptual art sentiment may be familiar to many (isn't the "I could do that" reaction the most common one to contemporary art? My father and I had it when we saw an Arman exhibit at a museum; we entertained fleeting fantasies of becoming famous for half-assed assemblages), his own work may elicit the same response.

Barthelme used sentences to form collages, which made for stories that bounced around and didn't flow like a normal narrative. Louis Menand writes in the New Yorker:
"The illogic, the apparent absurdity, of a Rauschenberg collage or a Barthelme story makes people impatient, because it seems to violate ordinary habits of perception and understanding. But we experience the arbitrary juxtaposition of radically disparate materials every day, when we look at the front page of a newspaper."
But how does a writer create such collages using only sentences? The visual artist, Menand points out, has many more materials at his or her disposal.

One has to wonder at Barthelme's process. Some of his stories were mercifully short. One, called Wrote a Letter... (about 525 words) has just that quality of done-in-rail-road-car-sized-quantities aspect that Barthelme hated so much in conceptual visual art. What was he thinking? At least this one's coherent. Others are deliberately messy. He said once,
"The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it's being poorly done."
But how do you read this shit then? Where's the reward? Do you treat it like poetry and concentrate on the way it's written and the words that are chosen? Do you focus on the overall structure and let the bits and parts go blurry? Is there any understanding one can expect to reach if one were to really give it a lot of attention?

Take his story The Rise of Capitalism. Go ahead and click through, read it, it's 1,500 words long. For the impatient, here's a passage I chose arbitrarily:
Meanwhile Marta is getting angry. "Rupert," she says, "you are no better than a damn dawg! A plain dawg has more sensibility than you, when it comes to a woman's heart!" I try to explain that it is not my fault but capitalism's. She will have none of it. "I stand behind the capitalistic system," Martha says. "It has given us everything we have -- the streets, the parks, the great avenues and boulevards, the promenades and malls -- and other things, too, that I can't think of right now." But what has the market been doing? I scan the list of the fifteen Most Loved Stocks:

Occident Pet 983,100 28 5/8 + 3 ¾ 
Natomas 912,300 58 3/8 + 18 ½

What chagrin! Why wasn't I into Natomas, as into a fine garment, that will win you social credit when you wear it to the ball? I am not rich again this morning! I put my head between Marta's breasts, to hide my shame.
For some of it, it's as if someone were reading to me from random pieces of paper lying on my desk. Reading to me in funny voices with dramatic pauses. It can be entertaining when I recognize a voice or a snippet or a way of talking. But then I hear a cliche and he loses me for the next 100 words. It's not like the sound collage of great free jazz, where you're so disoriented that every note keeps your mind alert, keeps you wondering what sound you'll hear next and how you can attach to the previous and the next. But maybe that's what it's supposed to be. (Barthelme loved jazz.)

Would watching more or less television help me understand, or at least follow, these stories better? (Barthelme hated television.)

I don't trust some of the phrases in the stories after I read from Menand that Barthelme would insert tiny bits of, say, Hemingway into them. I did an internet search for the following suspect phrase and came up empty:
"Well, Azalea," I say, sitting in the best chair, "what has happened to you since my last visit?"
Art like this -- be it music, painting, or fiction -- can be alienating. It can make smart people secretly wonder if they're as smart as they thought they were. It can be, for some, an exclusive club that you may as well just join, faking it. "Sure I like jazz, doesn't everyone?"

I don't know about you, but I get much more out of reading about Donald Barthelme than I do from reading Donald Barthelme. This is because art like Barthelme's takes the ideas behind art to their logical and then absurd ends. They are self-conscious critiques of mediums and ways of looking, and not pretty pictures.

But this is an argument that has been going on for decades, and will probably continue for more. Some critics attack the sort of experimental fiction that Barthelme practiced by pitting it against the mighty television: writers should make their fiction accessible because they are losing audience share to TV, and that isn't good. This argument is a fallacy. Don't compare vegetables to cake.

Jess Row summed up the debate as waged between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus in Slate in 2005:
Writers like Gaddis, Franzen argues, are "Status" authors, who see themselves (again, in the modernist mold) as obligated only to their art, and who for the most part ignore the interests and desires of the reader. With some reluctance, Franzen places himself in an opposing camp: "Contract" authors, who place a high value on the relationship between narrator and reader, who primarily see the novel as a device for social and cultural communication, and who take human life (rather than, say, language or ideas per se) as the ultimate subject of their fiction.
At least that's Franzen's side of it. I would reluctantly put myself in the Franzen camp, and then take the typical liberal out by saying, "Hey, isn't there room for all of us here?"

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