One morning in a recent year, a year not too long ago—the year 1887, to be precise—a young girl named Mathilda awoke, stretched, yawned, scratched, and got out of bed.
“What shall I do this morning?” she asked herself. “I think I shall go hooping. This looks like good hooping weather.”
When she went out into the back yard, hoop in hand, she was amazed to discover that a mysterious Chinese house, only six feet high, had grown there overnight.
Mathilda was disappointed. She had wanted a fire engine. Even though it wasn’t Christmas or her birthday or the day after a day on which she had been particularly good, she had hoped—just a faint, hazy hope—that when she went outside this morning a sparkling red fire engine would be standing there.
“Well, a mysterious Chinese house is better than nothing,” she said to herself. “I suppose I’d better go inside and see what strange things happen to me there. Of course this house is rather small. I’m not even sure I can get inside the door.”
At these words the mysterious Chinese house began to grow and grow. It grew and grew until it was nine feet tall, and sprouted a Chinese weather vane on top. And there was plenty of room to go through the door.
“Plenty of room to go through the door now,” Mathilda reflected. “There’s absolutely nothing to prevent me from going inside. Nothing except those strange noises I hear there.”
From inside the Chinese house came strange noises indeed—growls, howls, the whispering of elephants, the trumpeting of djinn.
“I’m not scared,” Mathilda said. “Very few people are as brave as me.” And she walked through the door.
The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or The Hithering Thithering Djinn (1971).
LeDuff’s argument (in Shock Art #37) that an image, once floated on the international art-sea, is a fish that anyone may grab with impunity, and make it his own, would not persuade an oyster. Questions of primacy are not to be scumbled in this way, which, had he been writing from a European perspective, he would understand, and be ashamed. The brutality of the American rape of the world’s exhibition spaces and organs of art-information has distanciated his senses. The historical aspects have been adequately trodden by others, but there is one category yet to be entertained—that of the psychological. The fact that LeDuff is replicated in every museum, in every journal, that one cannot turn one’s gaze without bumping into this raw plethora, LeDuff, LeDuff, LeDuff (whereas poor Bruno, the true progenitor, is eating the tops of bunches of carrots)—what has this done to LeDuff himself? It has turned him into a dead artist, but the corpse yet bounces in its grave, calling attention toward itself in the most unseemly manner. But truth cannot be swallowed forever. When the real story of low optical stimulus is indited, Bruno will be rectified.
“Letters to the Editore”, Guilty Pleasures (1974).
I am never needlessly obscure—I am needfully obscure, when I am obscure.
as quoted by Tracy Daugherty in an interview, Splice Today, 2 Sept 2009.
It is not true that Kafka wanted Brod to burn his manuscripts after his death. Rather it is the case that Kafka was on fire to be published...rushed to the postbox day after day...ate with editors...intrigued for favorable notices...read the Writer’s Digest...consorted with critics...autographed napkins...made himself available to librarians...spoke on the radio...
praragraph deleted from “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”, in Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (2009), p. 335.
Oh, there is nothing better than intelligent conversation except thrashing about in bed with a naked girl and Egmont Light Italic.
"Florence Green is 81".
His examiner...said severely: "Baskerville, you blank round, discursiveness is not literature." "The aim of literature," Baskerville replied grandly, "is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart."
"Florence Green is 81".
"The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love."
"Me and Miss Mandible".
[picket sign] COGITO ERGO NOTHING!....[casual passerby:] "Cogito ergo your ass"....
"Marie, Marie, Hold On Tight".
"It's true," Carl said, "with a kind of merde-y inner truth which shines forth as the objective correlative of what actually did happen, back home."
“What makes The Joker tick I wonder?” Fredric said. “I mean what are his real motivations?”
“Consider him at any level of conduct,” Bruce said slowly, “in the home, on the street, in interpersonal relations, in jail—always there is an extraordinary contradiction. He is dirty and compulsively neat, aloof and desperately gregarious, enthusiastic and sullen, generous and stingy, a snappy dresser and a scarecrow, a gentleman and a boor, given to extremes of happiness and despair, singularly well able to apply himself and capable of frittering away a lifetime in trivial pursuits, decorous and unseemly, kind and cruel, tolerant yet open to the most outrageous varieties of bigotry, a great friend and an implacable enemy, a lover and abominator of women, sweet-spoken and foul-mouthed, a rake and a puritan, swelling with hubris and haunted by inferiority, outcast and social climber, felon and philanthropist, barbarian and patron of the arts, enamored of novelty and solidly conservative, philosopher and fool, Republican and Democrat, large of soul and unbearably petty, distant and brimming with friendly impulses, an inveterate liar and astonishingly strict with petty cash, adventurous and timid, imaginative and stolid, malignly destructive and a planter of trees on Arbor Day—I tell you frankly, the man is a mess.”
“That’s extremely well said Bruce,” Fredric stated. “I think you’ve given a very thoughtful analysis.”
“I was paraphrasing what Mark Schorer said about Sinclair Lewis,” Bruce replied.
“The Joker’s Greatest Triumph”.
That night a tall foreign-looking man with a switchblade big as a butcherknife open in his hand walked into the loft without knocking and said “Good evening, Mr. Peterson, I am the cat-piano player, is there anything you’d particularly like to hear?” “Cat-piano?” Peterson said, gasping, shrinking from the knife. “What are you talking about? What do you want?” A biography of Nolde slid from his lap to the ﬂoor. “The cat-piano,” said the visitor, “is an instrument of the devil, a diabolical instrument. You needn’t sweat quite so much,” he added, sounding aggrieved. Peterson tried to be brave. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Let me explain,” the tall foreign-looking man said graciously. “The keyboard consists of eight cats—the octave—encased in the body of the instrument in such a way that only their heads and forepaws protrude. The player presses upon the appropriate paws, and the appropriate cats respond—with a kind of shriek. There is also provision made for pulling their tails. A tail-puller, or perhaps I should say a tail player” (he smiled a disingenuous smile) “is stationed at the rear of the instrument, where the tails are. At the correct moment the tail-puller pulls the correct tail. The tail-note is of course quite different from the paw-note and produces sounds in the upper registers. Have you ever seen such an instrument, Mr. Peterson?” “No, and I don’t believe it exists,” Peterson said heroically. “There is an excellent early seventeenth-century engraving by Franz van der Wyngaert, Mr. Peterson, in which a cat-piano appears. Played, as it happens, by a man with a wooden leg. You will observe my own leg.” The cat-piano player hoisted his trousers and a leglike contraption of wood, metal and plastic appeared. “And now, would you like to make a request? ‘The Martyrdom of St. Sabastian’? The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ overture? ‘Holiday for Strings’?” “But why—” Peterson began. “The kitten is crying for milk, Mr. Peterson. And whenever a kitten cries, the cat-piano plays.” “But it’s not my kitten,” Peterson said reasonably. “It’s just a kitten that wished itself on me. I’ve been trying to give it away. I’m not sure it’s still around. I haven’t seen it since the day before yesterday.” The kitten appeared, looked at Peterson reproachfully, and then rubbed itself against the cat-piano player’s mechanical leg. “Wait a minute!” Peterson exclaimed. “This thing is rigged! That cat hasn’t been here in two days. What do you want from me? What am I supposed to do?” “Choices, Mr. Peterson, choices. You chose that kitten as a way of encountering that which you are not, that is to say, kitten. An effort on the part of the pour-soi to—” “But it chose me!” Peterson cried, “the door was open and the ﬁrst thing I knew it was lying in my bed, under the Army blanket. I didn’t have anything to do with it!” The cat-piano player repeated his disingenuous smile. “Yes, Mr. Peterson, I know, I know. Things are done to you, it is all a gigantic conspiracy. I’ve heard the story a hundred times. The kitten is here, is it not? The kitten is weeping, is it not?” Peterson looked at the kitten, which was crying huge tigerish tears into its empty dish. “Listen Mr. Peterson,” the cat-piano player said, “listen!” The blade of his immense knife jumped back into the handle with a thwack! and the hideous music began.
“Try to be a man about whom nothing is known,” our father said, when we were young. Our father said several other interesting things, but we have forgotten what they were. “Keep quiet,” he said. That we remember. He wished more quiet. One tends to want that, in a National Park. Our father was a man about whom nothing was known. Nothing is known about him still. He gave us the recipes. He was not very interesting. A tree is more interesting. A suitcase is more interesting. A canned good is more interesting. When we sing the father hymn, we notice that he was not very interesting. The words of the hymn notice it. It is explictly commented upon, in the text.
No man's plenum, Mr. Quistgaard, is impervious to the awl of God's will.
The new thing, a great banality in white, off-white and poor-white, leaned up against the wall. “Interesting,” we said. “It’s poor,” Snow White said. “Poor, poor.” “Yes,” Paul said,” one of my poorer things I think.” “Not so poor of course as yesterday’s, poorer on the other hand than some,” she said. “Yes,” Paul said, “it has some of the qualities of poorness.” “Especially poor in the lower left-hand corner,” she said. “Yes,” Paul said, “I would go so far as to hurl it into the marketplace.” “They’re getting poorer,” she said. “Poorer and poorer,” Paul said with satisfaction, “descending to unexplored depths of poorness where no human intelligence has ever been.” … “Sublimely poor,” she murmured. “Wallpaper,” he said.
“Sometimes I see signs on walls saying Kill the Rich,” Clem said. “And sometimes Kill the Rich has been crossed out and Harm the Rich written underneath. A clear gain for civilization I would say. And the one that says Jean-Paul Sartre Is a Fartre. Something going on there, you must admit. Dim ﬂicker of something. ...”
We 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 read them, of having “completed” them.
"Take me home," Snow White said. "Take me home instantly. If there is anything worse than being home, it is being out."
“How old are you Hogo.” “Thirty-five Jane. A not unpleasant age to be.” “You don’t mind then. That you are not young.” “It has its buggy aspects as what does not?” “You don’t mind then that you are sagging in the direction of death.” “No, Jane.”
[Snow White talking to herself] “... No wonder we who are twenty-two don’t trust anybody over twelve. That is where you find people who know the score, under twelve. I think I will go out and speak to some eleven-year-olds, now, to refresh myself. Now or soon.”
“All right lad this is what we want with you. Your mission is this: to go out into the world and pull down all those election posters. Let’s get all those ugly faces off our streets and out of our elective offices. We are not going to vote any more, no matter how often they come around with their sound trucks and statesmanlike gestures. Pull down the sound trucks. Pull down the outstretched arms. To hell with the whole business. Voting has turned out to be a damned impertinence. They never do what we want them to do anyhow. And when they do what we want them to do, they don’t do it well. To hell with them. We are going to save up all our votes for the next twenty years and spend them all at one time. Maybe by that day there will be some Rabelaisian figure worth spending them on. ...”
ANATHEMATIZATION OF THE WORLD IS NOT AN ADEQUATE RESPONSE TO THE WORLD.
—On the dedication page of the rebellion, we see the words “To Clementine”. A fine sentiment, miscellaneous organ music next, and, turning several pages, massed orange flags at the head of the column. This will not be easy, but neither will it be hard. Good will is everywhere, and the lighthearted song of the gondoliers is heard in the distance.
—Yes, success is everything. Morally important as well as useful in a practical way.
—What have the rebels captured thus far? One zoo, not our best zoo, and a cemetery. The rebels have entered the cages of the tamer animals and are playing with them, gently.
—Things can get better, and in my opinion will.
—Their Graves Registration procedures are scrupulous—accurate and fair.
—There’s more to it than playing guitars and clapping along. Although that frequently gets people in the mood.
—Their methods are direct, not subtle. Dissolution, leaching, sandblasting, cracking and melting of fireproof doors, condemnation, water damage, slide presentations, clamps and buckles.
—And skepticism, although absolutely necessary, leads to not very much.
“The Crisis”, opening
The present goal of the individual in group enterprises is to avoid dominance; leadership is felt to be a character disorder.
As a magician works with the unique compressibility of doves, finding some, losing others in the same silk foulard, so the rebels fold scratchy, relaxed meanings into their smallest actions.
Self-criticism sessions were held, but these produced more criticism than could usefully be absorbed or accomodated.
William I’m sorry I let my brother hoist you up the mast in that crappy jury-rigged bosun’s chair while everybody laughed! William I’m sorry I could build better fires than you could! I’m sorry my stack of Christmas cards was always bigger than yours! … William I’m sorry I invented bop jogging which you couldn’t do! I’m sorry I loved Antigua! I’m sorry my mind wandered when you talked about the army! I’m sorry I was superior in argument! I’m sorry you slit open my bicycle tires looking for incriminating letters that you didn’t find! You’ll never find them! … William! I’m sorry I looked at Sam but he was so handsome, so handsome, who could not! I’m sorry I slept with Sam! I’m sorry about the library books! I’m sorry about Pete! I’m sorry I never played the guitar you gave me! I’m sorry I married you and I’ll never so it again!
—What did you do today?
—Went to the grocery store and Xeroxed a box of English muffins, two pounds of ground veal and an apple. In flagrant violation of the Copyright Act.
—You had your nap, I remember that—
—I had my nap.
—Lunch, I remember that, there was lunch, slept with Susie after lunch, then your nap, woke up, right?, went Xeroxing, right?, read a book not a whole book but part of a book—
—Talked to Happy on the telephone saw the seven o’clock news did not wash dishes want to clean up some of this mess?
—If one does nothing but listen to the new music, everything else drifts, frays. Did Odysseus feel this way when he and Diomedes decided to steal Athene’s statue from the Trojans, so that they would become dejected and lose the war? I don’t think so, but who is to know what effect the new music of that remote time had on its hearers?
—Or how it compares to the new music of this time?
—One can only conjecture.
“The New Music”, opening
—Is it permitted to differ with Kierkegaard?
—Not only permitted but necessary. If you love him.
—There’s a thing the children say.
—What do the children say?
—They say: Will you always love me?
—Will you always remember me?
—Will you remember me a year from now?
—Yes, I will.
—Will you remember me two years from now?
—Yes, I will.
—Will you remember me five years from now?
—Yes, I will.
Do they lie? Fervently. Do they steal? Only silver and gold. Do they remember? I am in constant touch. Hardly a day passes. The children. Some can’t spell, still. Took a walk in the light-manufacturing district, where everything’s been converted. Lots of little shops, wine bars. Saw some strange things. Saw a group of square steel plates arranged on a floor. Very interesting. Saw a Man Mountain Dean dressed in heavenly blue. Wild, chewing children. They were small. Petite. Out of scale. They came and went. Doors banging. They were of different sexes but wore similar clothes. Wandered away, then they wandered back. They’re vague, you know, they tell you things in a vague way. Asked me to leave, said they’d had enough. Enough what? I asked. Enough of my lip, they said. Although the truth was that I had visited upon them only the palest of apothegms—the one about the salt losing its savor, the one about the fowls of the air.
Went for a walk, whistling. Saw a throne in a window. I said: What chair is this? Is it the one great Ferdinand sat in, when he sent the ships to find the Indies? The seat is frayed. Hardly a day passes without an announcement of some kind of marriage, a pregnancy, a cancer, a rebirth. Sometimes they drift in from the Yukon and other far places, come in and sit down at the kitchen table, want a glass of milk and a peanut-butter-and-jelly, I oblige, for old times’ sake. Sent me the schedule for the Little League soccer teams, they’re all named after cars, the Mustangs vs. the Mavericks, the Chargers vs. the Impalas. Something funny about that. My son. Slept with What’s-Her-Name, they said, while she was asleep, I don’t think that’s fair. Prone and helpless in the glare of the headlights. They went away, then they came back, at Christmas and Eastertide, had quite a full table, maybe a dozen in all including all the little...partners they’d picked up on their travels....
Snatch them baldheaded, slap their teeth out. Little starved faces four feet from the screen, you’d speak to them in a loud, commanding voice, get not even a twitch. Use of the preemptive splint, not everyone knows about it. The world reminds us of its power, again and again and again. Going along minding your own business, and suddenly an act of God, right there in front of you. Great falls of snow and bursting birds. Getting guilty, letting it all slide. Sown here and there like little...petunias, one planted in Old Lyme, one in Fairbanks, one in Tempe. Alleged that he slept with her while she was asleep, I can see it, under certain circumstances. You may wink, but not at another person. You may wink only at pigeons. You may pound in your tent pegs, pitch your tent, gather wood for the fire, form the hush puppies. They seek to return? Back to the nest? The warm arms? The ineffable smells? Not on your tintype. Well, I think that’s a little harsh. Think that’s a little harsh do you? Yes, harsh. Harsh. Well that’s a sketch, that is, that’s a tin-plated sketch— They write and telephone. Short of cash? Give us a call, all inquiries handled with the utmost confidentiality. They call constantly, they’re calling still, saying williwaw, williwaw—
Naked girls with the heads of Marx and Malraux prone and helpless in the glare of the headlights, tried to give them a little joie de vivre but maybe it didn’t take, their constant bickering and smallness, it’s like a stroke of lightning, the world reminds you of its power, tracheotomies right and left, I am spinning, my pretty child, don’t scratch, pick up your feet, the long nights, spent most of my time listening, this is a test of the system, this is only a test.
"Is that true," I asked, "that song?"
"It is a metaphor," said Mrs. Davis, "it has metaphorical truth."
"And the end of the mechanical age," I said, "is that a metaphor?"
"The end of the mechanical age," said Mrs. Davis, "is in my judgment an actuality straining to become a metaphor. One must wish it luck, I suppose. One must cheer it on. Intellectual rigor demands that we give these damned metaphors every chance, even if they are inimical to personal well-being and comfort. We have a duty to understand everything, whether we like it or not–a duty I would scant if I could." At that moment the water jumped into the boat and sank us.
"At The End Of The Mechanical Age".
The center will not hold if it has been spot-welded by an operator whose deepest concern is not with the weld but with his lottery ticket.
"At The End Of The Mechanical Age".
"Will you be wanting to contest the divorce?" I asked Mrs. Davis.
"I should think not," she said calmly, "although I suppose on of us should, for the fun of the thing. An uncontested divorce always seems to me contrary to the spirit of divorce."
"At The End Of The Mechanical Age".
Where is my daddy? asked the emerald. My da?
Moll dropped a glass, which shattered.
Yes, said the emerald, amn’t I supposed to have one?
He’s not here.
Noticed that, said the emerald.
I’m never sure what you know and what you don’t know.
I ask in true perplexity.
He was Deus Lunus. The moon god. Sometimes thought of as the man in the moon.
Bosh! said the emerald. I don’t believe it.
Do you believe I’m your mother?
Do you believe you’re an emerald?
I am an emerald.
Used to be, said Moll, women wouldn’t drink from a glass into which the moon had shone. For fear of getting knocked up.
Surely this is a superstition?
Hoo, hoo, said Moll. I like superstition.
I thought the moon was female.
Don’t be culture-bound. It’s been female in some cultures at some times, and in others, not.
What did it feel like? The experience.
Not a proper subject for discussion with a child.
The emerald sulking. Green looks here and there.
Well it wasn’t the worst. Wasn’t the worst. I had an orgasm that lasted three hours. I judge that not the worst.
Tell me, said the emerald, what are diamonds like?
I know little of diamonds, said Moll.
Is a diamond better than an emerald?
Apples and oranges I would say.
Would you have preferred a diamond?
Diamond-hard, said the emerald, that’s an expression I’ve encountered.
Diamonds are a little ordinary. Decent, yes. Quiet, yes. But gray. Give me step-cut zircons, square-shaped spodumenes, jasper, sardonyx, bloodstones, Baltic amber, cursed opals, peridots of your own hue, the padparadscha sapphire, yellow chrysoberyls, the shifty tourmaline, cabochons... But best of all, an emerald.
But what is the meaning of the emerald? asked Lily. I mean overall? If you can say.
I have some notions, said Moll. You may credit them or not.
It means, one, that the gods are not yet done with us.
Gods not yet done with us.
The gods are still trafficking with us and making interventions of this kind and that kind and are not dormant or dead as has often been proclaimed by dummies.
Still trafficking. Not dead.
Just as in former times a demon might enter a nun on a piece of lettuce she was eating so even in these times a simple Mailgram might be the thin edge of the wedge.
Thin edge of the wedge.
Two, the world may congratulate itself that desire can still be raised in the dulled hearts of the citizens by the rumor of an emerald.
Desire or cupidity?
I do not distinguish among the desires, we have referees for that, but he who covets not at all is a lump and I do not wish to have him to dinner.
Positive attitude toward desire.
Yes. Three, I do not know what this Stone portends, whether it portends for the better or portends for the worse or merely portends a bubbling of the in-between but you are in any case rescued from the sickliness of same and a small offering in the hat on the hall table would not be ill regarded.
And what now? said the emerald. What now, beautiful mother?
We resume the scrabble for existence, said Moll. We resume the scrabble for existence, in the sweet of the here and now.
My wife wants a dog. She already has a baby. The baby’s almost two. My wife says that the baby wants the dog.
My wife has been wanting a dog for a long time. I have had to be the one to tell her that she couldn’t have one. But now the baby wants a dog, my wife says. This may be true. The baby is very close to my wife. They go around together all the time, clutching each other tightly. I ask the baby, who is a girl, “Whose girl are you? Are you Daddy’s girl?” The baby says, “Momma,” and she doesn’t just say it once, she says it repeatedly, “Momma momma momma.” I don’t see why I should buy a hundred-dollar dog for that damn baby.
I didn’t go to church because I was a black sheep. There were five children in my family and the males rotated the position of black sheep among us, the oldest one being the black sheep for a while while he was in his DWI period or whatever and then getting grayer as he maybe got a job or was in the service and then finally becoming a white sheep when he got married and had a grandchild. My sister was never a black sheep because she was a girl.
The actors feel that the music played before the curtain rises will put the audience in the wrong mood. The playwright suggests that the (purposefully lugubrious) music be played at twice-speed. This peps it up somewhat while retaining its essentially dark and gloomy character. The actors listen carefully, and are pleased.
People always like to hear that they’re under stress, makes them feel better. You can imagine what they’d feel if they were told they weren’t under stress.
“See there! It’s Launcelot!”
“How swiftly he goes!”
“As if enchafed by a fiend!”
“The splendid muscles of his horse move rhythmically under the drenchèd skin of same!”
“By Jesu, he is in a vast hurry!”
But now he pulls up the horse and sits for a moment, lost in thought!”
“Now he wags his great head in daffish fashion!”
“He reins the horse about and puts the golden spurs to her!”
But that is the direction from which he larely came with such excess of speed!”
“No, it’s slightly different! It’s at an angle of about fifteen degrees to the first!”
“This breakbone pace will soon unhorse him!”
“Not Launcelot! Launcelot is the greatest horseman in the realm!”
“Look you! Launcelot and his horse have plunged into a deep mire!”
“He’s thrown! The horse is down!”
“Now the horse struggles to his feet! But Launcelot’s still on the ground! Perhaps he’s broken something!”
“No, he’s up, he inspects his horse, he leaps into the saddle, he reins about once again— Now he rides off furiously in still another way!”
“He burns the ground in his careening!”
“It’s as if he hears beams a-bugling from every quarter of the compass!”
“His responsibilities are grave and many!”
“Look here, there is another knight in Launcelot’s path the twain have fewtered their spears they hurtle fast together the knight who is not Sir Launcelot is shocked out of the saddle he rises in the air turning end over end—”
“Launcelot wallops on doesn’t even stop to smite the fellow’s head off but pounds ever more fiercely toward a distant goal—”
“I’m losing sight of him, his figure dwindles and grows small!”
“I can see him still, getting smaller and smaller in the remote distance!”
“True dragons are Danish and speak Danish, a tongue that the Danes themselves describe as less a language than a throat disease. To attract a dragon, one chains a naked maiden to a rock. The maiden must be chained to the rock in such a way that every part of her is visible to the dragon. Many famous paintings demonstrate the technique; Ingres’s Angelica Saved by Ruggiero is an example. After the dragon has inspected your maiden to its heart’s content, you issue one of the conventional formal challenges, in Danish—’Jeg udfordre dig til ridderlig camp’ is the way one usually puts it—and then the fight begins.”
“Why, if I may ask, are you called the Blue Knight?”
“I am thought to be melancholy.”
“On what evidence?”
“Just my temperament, I suppose. I’ve always been rather melancholy, even as a child. Spent a lot of time plucking at the counterpane, as it were. It grew worse as I grew older. Also, I published a book. It was called On the Impossibility of Paradise.”
“What was the argument?”
“I argued that the idea of a former paradise, which had been lost and might be regained either in this world or in the next, did not square with my experience.”
“Yes. I wasn’t happy even in the womb. The womb, for me, was far from a paradise. I remember distinctly. My mother was a very modern person—advanced, don’t you know. Fond of Alban Berg, the Wozzeck man. Not only was I forced repeatedly to listen to Wozzeck, in the womb, but also to Lulu, which is even worse, from the fetal point of view. These horrors aside, there was the poetry of Wyndham Lewis, proprietor of Blast. Blast was the name of his magazine. Can you imagine calling your magazine Blast? Going to crack consciousness wide open, he was. These tidderly-push artists and their conceits—the poetry was of a piece. I had to listen to it. In the womb. In addition, there were certain odd substances entering the bloodstream—do you know what Kif is?”
“Better thus. In sum, my womb time was quite hellish, and upon being expelled I found the larger arena not much of an improvement. I don’t mean to complain, of course,I’m just trying to suggest—”
“No, no,” said Sir Roger. “Say on. Isupposen we should be doing search-and-destroy, but your remarks are of the greatest interest to me.”
“Good of you,” said the Blue Knight. “The basic contradiction I located or felt I had located was in terms of dramatic values. Paradise, the Fall, and the return to Paradise—it’s not a story. It’s too symmetrical. There are no twists. Just Paradise, zip, Fall, zip, and Paradise again, zip. And I had a very strong feeling, an intuition if you will, that even if Paradise were regained it would have music by Milhaud and frescoes by the Italian Futurists.”
“My readers,” said Pillsbury, “need, nay, require reassurance as to whether the throne is, in this century, still a viable institution.”
“King,” said Arthur, “king, king, king. Fundamentally an absurd idea, that one chap has better blood than another chap. Has to do with dogs, dog breeding, really, dogs and horses. Oh, it’s no great thing to be a king. On the other hand, I’ve never not been a king, so I’ve no idea what that’s like. Might be quite grand. The pleasure of being inconspicuous, a fudge in the crowd. Can’t imagine it.
“Can’t imagine what it would be like to be a churl. The country’s full of them, yet I have no idea how they think. It’s not good for a king to have no idea how people think. By the same token, the people have no idea how I think. When I address them, it’s in the language of a proclamation, isn’t it? And the language of a proclamation is hardly cozy, is it? I could even be witty, and the people would never know. Pity.
“In the same universe of discourse,” said Arthur, “the question of leadership, with accompanying subsections, such as statesmanship, generalship, gamesmanship, rabble-rousing, and the like. The king’s sceptre, the marshal’s baton, the conductor’s baton, the physician’s caduceus, the magician’s wand—a stick of some kind, with which one must animate a mass. In your case, Mr. Pillsbury, a pencil. But one must know how to operate the stick, eh? One can’t just wave the damned thing around to no purpose. All in the wrist, eh, Mr. Pillsbury?”
“In this connection, mention must be made of the burden of taxation. I mean the burden on the king. One has to decide some very tricky things. How much a chap’s income should one take, morally speaking? Of course one’s first inclination is to take it all and be done with it. But studies have shown that if you take every last groat—and I’m not saying it isn’t a neat solution and that the individual’s not grateful, more or less, for not having to fill out all those tedious forms—you deincentivize him. He stacks arms, to use a military figure, and you lose in the long run. The amount of taxation you can get away with must be nicely judged.
“Not entirely irrelevant in this context is the problem of ermine. Do you know how dear ermine is? One poor devil’s taxes for a whole year will hardly buy one ermine tail, and one rich devil’s taxes for a whole year won’t get you a fully trimmed robe. I wonder that one sees ermine at all nowadays. Yet if you appear in public on a state occasion with nutria or something trimming your robe, they say that you’re skimping on the pomp, the public’s bought-and-paid-for pomp. Well, enough about ermine. It’s crossed my mind to start up a flock or whatever it is of my own, but one can’t do everything, and I’ve never got around to it.
“Next, one must ensure that the population is properly intoxicated,” said Arthur. “Anciently, the cry was Mead for my men! Nowadays it’s more a matter of seeing to it that there are sufficient licensed premises and that such are adequately supplied by the breweries, that the movement of grain and hops to these from the farmers is unimpeded, and that the flow of revenues to the crown from each of the points at which we take our little nip is not lost to us through inspectatorial ineptitude. I never touch the stuff myself, except perhaps in the heat of battle, when a hogshead of brandy might be broached under especially trying circumstances, but your average walking-about citizen becomes extremely churlish when denied his booze, and it’s a thing the ruler does well to keep in view.”
“I smell fennel,” Launcelot said. “That reminds me, I should tell you I have discovered a specific for maims. You take salt, good-quality river mud, and bee urine, and slather it on the maim and hold it there for two days. Works like a charm. Gathering the bee urine is a bit of a bore.”
“Shouldness is being flouted here,” said Launcelot. “Shouldness is perhaps self-explanatory, but I have never seen it adequately dealt with, either in print or in the lecture hall. When that huntress got me in the bum with an arrow, it was an offense to shouldness. It shouldn’t have gone that way. I told the story to Sir Roger, and now he never tires of telling it, tells it to everyone who comes down the pike. That a knight of the Round Table could be pierced in that way by a female has a significance quite apart from the ludicrous. It’s in the realm of those things which should not happen—a category which holds much philosophical interest, as anyone who has ever looked into anomaletics will recognize. The insult to my dignity was not nearly so grave as the insult to shouldness.”
The Teachings of Don. B: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme (1992)Edit
“How does one conquer fear, Don B.?”
“One takes a frog and sews it to one’s shoe,” he said.
“The left or the right?”
Don B. gave me a pitying look.
“Well, you’d look mighty funny going down the street with only one frog sewed to your shoes, wouldn’t you?" he said. “One frog on each shoe.”
“The Teachings of Don B.: A Yankee Way of Knowledge”, pp. 7–8.
My deranged mother has written another book. This one is called The Bough and is even worse that the others. I refer not to its quality—it exhibits the usual “coruscating wit” and “penetrating social observation”—but to the extent to which it utilizes, as a kind of mulch pile, the lives of her children.
“The Author”, opening; p. 45.
When I was hired they showed me my desk, an old beat-up scarred wooden desk, and they told me that it had been O. Henry’s desk when O. Henry worked for the paper, as he had at one time. And I readily believed it. I could see the place where O. Henry had savagely stabbed the desk with his pen in pursuit of a slimy adjective just out of reach, and a kind of bashed-in-looking place where O. Henry had beaten his poor genius head on the desk in frustration over not being able to capture the noun leaping like a fawn just out of reach... So I sat down at the desk and I too began to chase those devils, the dancy nouns and come-hither adjectives, what joy.
“Return”, p. 55.
At last it is time to speak the truth about Thanksgiving. The truth is this: it is not a really great holiday. Consider the imagery. Dried cornhusks hanging on the door! Terrible wine! Cranberry jelly in little bowls of extremely doubtful provenance which everyone is required to handle with the greatest of care! Consider the participants, the merrymakers. Men and women (also children) who have survived passably well through the years, mainly as a result of living at considerable distances from their dear parents and beloved siblings, who on this feast of feasts must apparently forgather (as if beckoned by an aberrant Fairy Godmother), usually by circuitous routes, through heavy traffic, at a common meeting place, where the very moods, distempers, and obtrusive personal habits that have kept them happily apart since adulthood are then and there encouraged to slowly ferment beneath the cornhusks, and gradually rise with the aid of the terrible wine, and finally burst forth out of control under the stimulus of the cranberry jelly! No, it is a mockery of a holiday. For instance: Thank You, O Lord, for what we are about to receive. This is surely not a gala concept. There are no presents, unless one counts Aunt Bertha’s sweet rolls a present, which no one does. There is precious little in the way of costumery: miniature plastic turkeys and those witless Pilgrim hats. There is no sex. Indeed, Thanksgiving is the one day of the year (a fact known to everybody) when all thoughts of sex completely vanish, evaporating from apartments, houses, condominiums, and mobile homes like steam from a bathroom mirror.
“At Last, It Is Time...”, opening; pp. 58–59.
“These games are marvelous,” Amanda said. “I like them especially because they are so meaningless and boring, and trivial. These qualities, once regarded as less than desirable, are now everywhere enthroned as the key elements in our psychological lives, as reflected in the art of the period as well as—”
“Games Are the Enemies of Beauty, Truth, and Sleep, Amanda Said”, p. 77.
“The Continental Congress resolved that your famous plainneff and modefty would be ill ferved were it known that a houfe for your horfe was paid for from the public purfe.”
“An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware”, p. 80.
We had a conversation the other day with Ming the Merciless, one of the preeminent villains of modern times, whose half-century-long struggle with his opposite number, Flash Gordon, has helped generations of Americans conceptualize the fearsome enchantments of space. We caught up with the veteran malefactor at the Volney, where he greeted us in a turquise-and-gold dressing gown, a black skullcap setting off his striking yellowish pallor. We immediately put our foot in it by addressing him as ”Mr. Ming”
“I don’t want to be stuffy,” he said pleasantly, “but that’s Emperor Ming, if you don’t mind. ...”
“Ming”, p. 93, opening
“Being merciless, while not exactly easy, is finally a job like any other. It’s theater. It’s got nothing to do with my private life. Still, sometimes when I used to yell at my kids, I wondered if I was maybe...putting a little too much into it. They’re grown now, so the question is moot. They seem OK. Roderick is at Harvard and Betsy is married and has a couple of kids of her own.”
“Ming”, p. 94.
Who among us is not thinking about divorce, except for a few tiny-minded stick-in-the-muds who don’t count?
“Heliotrope”, p. 106.
The ultimate meaning of the angry young man is not known. What is known is the shape of his greatest fear—that all of his efforts, from learning to speak to learning to write, to write well, to write badly, to write angrily, from learning to despise to learning to abominate, to abominate well, to abominate badly, to abominate abominably, to rant, to fulminate, to shout down the sea, to age, to age graefully, to age awkwardly, to age at all, to think, to regret, to list himself in the newspapers under “Lost and Found”, might culminate precisely in this: a roaring, raging, crazy mad passionate bibliography.
“The Angry Young Man”, p. 111.
People who had, in the past, suffered from technophobia suffered even more. Others took other positions. Things were not so bad. Things could be worse. Worse things could be imagined. Worse things had been endured and triumphed over, in the past. This was not the worst. The worst was yet to come.
“A Nation of Wheels”, p. 131.
Poignance is all.
“Wasteland! (Mr. Lionel Bart’s Notes in Exegesis of His Latest Musical Project)”, p. 206.
A t that moment, a Colonel of Sanitation came striding by, in his green uniform. “You there!” he cried. “Ho, dragon, stop and patter for a bit. Quickly, quickly—haven’t got all day! There are Mr. Goodbar wrappers in the streets still, after all my efforts, and the efforts of my men, day in day out—people, people, if we could just do something about the people, then perhaps an end to the endlessness. One could go home of a Friday night, and wipe the brow, and doff the uniform, and thank God for a day well squandered. But you—you have a strange aspect. What kind of a thing are you? Are you disposable? Biodegradable? Ordinary citizen out for a stroll? Looking for work? Member of a conspiracy? Vegetable? Mineral? Two-valued? Hostile to the national interest of the Department of Sanitation? Thrill-crazed kid? Objet d’art? Circus in town?”
“The Dragon”, p. 216.
MAGGIE: Did you have a good time?
HILDA: The affair ran the usual course. Fever, boredom, trapped.
MAGGIE: Hot, rinse, spin dry.
“The Conservatory” [play], p. 292.
HENRY: Now it is necessary to court her, and win her, and put on this clean dressing gown, and cut my various nails, and drink something that will kill the millions of germs in my mouth, and say something flattering, and be witty and bonny, and hale and kinky, all just to ease this wrinkle in the groin. It seems a high price.
“Snow White” [play], p. 309.
BILL: … We are what we have been told about ourselves. We are the sum of the messages we have received. The true messages. The false messages.
Then I Thomas son of Titus took thought with myself about what measures might be taken against the threat. I devised then in my mind many fine punishments of the first water for anyone who might dare trifle with our enterprise in any way great or small. On the first day the trifler will be hung well wrapped with strong cords upside down from a flagpole at a height of twenty stories. On the second day the trifler will be turned right side up and rehung from the same syaff, so as to empty the blood from his head and prepare him for the third day. On the third day the trifler will be unwrapped and attended by a licensed D.D.S., who will extract every other tooth from the top part of his jaw and every other tooth from the bottom part of his jaw, the extractions to be mismatching according to the blueprints supplied. On the fourth day the trifler will be given hard things to eat. On the fifth day the trifler will be comforted with soft fine garments and flagons and the love of lithesome women so as to make the shock of the sixth day the more severe. On the sixth day the trifler will be confined alone in a small room with the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. On the seventh day the trifler will be pricked with nettles. On the eight day the trifler will be slid naked down a thousand-foot razor blade to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. On the ninth day the trifler will be sewn together by children. On the tenth day...
“Flying to America”.
I keep wondering if, say, there is intelligent life on other planets, the scientists argue that something like two percent of the other planets have the conditions, the physical conditions, to support life in the way it happened here, did Christ visit each and every planet, go through the same routine, the Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and so on...
“Basil From Her Garden”.
I obey the Commandments, the sensible ones. Where they don’t know what they’re talking about I ignore them. I keep thinking about the story of the two old women in church listening to the priest discoursing on the dynamics of the married state. At the end of the sermon one turns to the other and says, “I wish I knew as little about it as he does.”
“Basil From Her Garden”.
Instant gratification is not as good as that gratification which comes dripping slow, over the sere seasons.
Out for a walk I was, wanted to clear my head, I’d been drinking the night before, tequila mostly, a bit of lime juice, one lime per bottle, or four limes in all, by the end of the evening. I was feeling poorly, I had asked for help with the tequila, but no one came, all sent regrets, busy elsewhere, prior engagement, don’t go out after dark anymore, that sort of thing, allergic to rats, that sort of thing. I could not blame them. My brother sent regrets, from his room behind the kitchen, stuffy bastard, nose in a book probably, or playing his drums, the jackass, fraternity is not among his talents.
So I wandered out, in the cool of the morning, fell down a time or two, that was to be expected, reached the whorehouse district without other difficulty but they’d all gone to bed, banged my head on a door or two but no one answered, that was to be expected, it was 7 or thereabouts, fresh, cool, and golden. And I said why not the graveyard? and could think of no compelling contrary argument, and went there, and tumbled into an open grave, and broke a leg.
It was a new grave, having been readied the previous day for a 10 A.M. ceremonial, I say 10 A.M. because that was the hour at which they discovered me. They fished me out and took me in a van to a hospital where a young man cut straight up my trouser leg with shears, not knowing I suppose that I had no other trousers, and then did the necessary with the plaster and canvas or whatever it is, and hung the finished product from a sort of slingshot affair above the bed. Double spiral break, he said, very nasty, and asked the date of my birth and what authority I belonged to, city, county, state or federal, and I told him, as best as I could remember. And thus I found myself, for three months and ten days, at the mercy of my brother Manfred, for whom pig is perhaps too soft, or sweet, a word.
“Manfred”, opening; Kim Herzinger, p. 329: “In February 1976, The New York Times Magazine ran the beginning of a yet-unnamed story written by Barthelme. Readers were invited, in Barthelme’s own words, ‘to complete it in no more than 750 words...as an experiment in literary collaboration.’ Barthelme hoped that the entries would be ‘serious, rather than parodies or burlesques.’ He added, ‘I have done the easiest part, the beginning; you are asked to provide the terrifying middle and the subtle, uncomparably beautiful ending. God be with you.’ The ‘terrifying middle’ and ‘incomparably beautiful ending’ were provided by Karen Shaw, for which she won $250. … ...the final version was published in The New York Times Magazine on April 18, 1976”.
As Jules Renard said, no matter how much care an author takes to write as few books as possible, there will be people who haven’t heard of some of them.
One of the U.S.'s most stylish and original satirists. He translates the chipped teacups, navel lint, prattle and random states of life into even rows of words that twitter, bong, flash, and glow...
Time, blurbed on the back cover of the paperback of The Dead Father (1976).
Donald Barthelme has accomplished the work that the New Journalists are not competent to do. In a single story he is able to include more of the taste of the times than there is in the collected works of Wolfe, Breslin, Talese & Co. The difference lies in Barthelme’s ability to compress, almost to transistorize the world, and then make his miniatures real again by virtue of his talent for language.
Earl Shorris, “Donald Barthelme’s Illustrated Wordy-Gurdy”, Harper’s, January 1973, p. 92.
Barthelme isn’t easy, and he frequently fails, but he’s written some of the best stories of the last twenty years.
Walter Clemons reviewing Sixty Stories, “Barthelme the Scrivener”, Newsweek, 12 Oct 1981, p. 100.
"The Balloon" is a Donald Barthelme story. … In a 1996 Salon interview, David [Foster Wallace] told Laura Miller it was "the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer."
David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace (2010), p. 313.
In The New York Times Book Review, John Romano recalled “the excitement caused among readers” at the appearance of Don’s first stories in the 1960s. “There just weren’t then, as there aren’t now, very many stories published that you wanted to call your friends up and read aloud from; and Barthelme gave us more than a few.”
Tracy Daugherty, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (2009), p. 441.
“How come you write the way you do?” an apprentice writer in my Johns Hopkins workshop once disingenuously asked Donald Barthelme, who was visiting. Without missing a beat, Donald replied, “Because Samuel Beckett was already writing the way he does.”
Asked another, likewise disingenuosly, “How can we become better writers than we are?”
“For starters," DB advised, “read through the whole history of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics up through last semester. That might help.”
“But Coach Barth has already advised us to read all of literature, from Gilgamesh up through last semester....”
“That, too,” Donald affirmed, and turned on that shrewd Amish-farmer-from-West-Eleventh-Street twinkle of his. “You’re probably wasting time on things like eating and sleeping. Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature. Also art. Plus politics and a few other things. The history of everything.”
John Barth, introduction to Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews (1997), p. xi.
Barthelme is neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin. He shields his blue eyes behind rimless glasses. He has red hair and a beard and dresses conservatively. He lives quietly in a floor-through walk-up on West 11th Street with his third wife, a Danish girl named Birgit, and his 4-year-old daughter, for whom he has made a most interesting pull-toy out of found objects. He is handy with carpenter’s tools. His manuscripts arrive at The New Yorker very neatly typed. He works in the morning and is often seen walking around the Village of an afternoon. His social life has been described as “incredibly commonplace”. ...He is known to grow quite restless confronted by the quiet of a country weekend. He is likely to become “aggressively silent” at large gatherings of literary people, but he is also a talkative and loyal intimate.
Richard Schickel, “Freaked Out on Barthelme”, The New York Times Magazine, 16 August 1970.