I stayed up late last night to finish Tracy Daugherty's "page-turner" of a literary biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man (Picador, 2009).
I've never read a biography about an artist so unknown to me. How could one of the most important writers of 20th century fiction elude a voracious reader? Barthelme, one of the most acclaimed short story writers from the 60's through his death (at 58) in 1989, never appeared in my cultural sights. Daugherty's book entered that radar late last year following glowing reviews in the New York Times Book Review and at least one other publication to which I pay heed. My curiosity was aroused enough to buy a collection of Barthelme stories. As one of his critics put it, Barthelme wrote "the most haunting book anyone ever chuckled over."
I imagine if someone plopped down into the middle of one of my pieces, they might find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Barthelme's style has been described as "opaque," his post-modernism compartmentalized as "difficult." He bemoaned the "loss of reference" in modern life.
I want writing to awaken the senses and stimulate the imagination. I want to read and write language that makes connections and invites exploration. I want to foster discovery and engender adventure. Sometimes those references are obscure. What is unfamiliar is too easily dismissed. The road less traveled is easier to ignore.
In an interview Barthelme corrected the idea of the avant-garde being necessarily distant or removed from the mainstream.
"The function of the advance guard in military terms is exactly that of the rear guard, to protect the main body."
Facing the mess the 20th century was, the modern artist could engage or escape. Those who chose the former route are not usually found in Disney or Hollywood.
"Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art."
His writing is compact, compressed, and full of surprises. Traditional narrative and character-development take back seats to innovative form and a style peppered with irony. He wanted his "tone in certain places to be a drone, to get the feeling of the language pushing ahead ahead but uninflected."
His answer to the "difficulty" noted above is engagement on the part of the participant. "The reader [or listener, viewer, etc] reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it up to his ear to hear the roaring within." Daniel Barenboim makes similar observations in his advocacy for active participation with modern music. I am listening to Boulez in their honor.
Barthelme reinvigorates language in his pithy "stories," his sparseness concentrating their impact. Less is indeed more where Barthelme is concerned. He relished "when the sentences suddenly explode or go to hell."
Daugherty summarizes Barthelme's view of art's role in post-modern life:
"Rather than content--an explanation of something--art's value lies in the fact that it offers forms for our experiences."
And as great artists from Michelangelo to Picasso and Beckett to Barthelme have found, the right form forms its own (objective) meaning and creates a space in which (subjective) meaning can be experienced.
In the essay Not-Knowing (the title of a posthumous collection of non-fiction, also quoted below), he writes about this.
"The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they're allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven't yet encountered."
Substitute "notes" or "colors" for the words, and his observation applies to music and painting. Yes!
Such "combinatorial agility" can be dizzying. Literally. Barthelme was "interested in intoxication, in dazzling the mind." One of his strengths as a teacher was the exacting standards to which he held his creative writing students. "Your mind is constantly capable of surprising you if you work it hard enough."
And therein lies the rub hinted at above. The "loss of reference." The "impoverishment" of culture. The relentless march of technology. The frenetic pace demanded by consumerism. All these factors enforce a "theft of complexity" according to DB. "Theft of complexity from the reader" and in a catch-22 for the artist, "theft of the reader from the writer."
Again, he is not praising difficulty for its own sake. We prophets for the life of the mind and pride of place for "high" culture know that art "mediates access to our deepest experience" (as another of Don's critics wrote).
Life is complex, and the factors I decry above do not make me a technophobe or philistine (though I may be both). I simply choose engagement over escape. Artists like Barthelme help "vivify our plight even if they do not clarify its outcome."
One of his short pieces is a characteristically witty, insightful and piquantly brief acceptance speech on winning the National Book Award for Children's Literature [sic].
"Writing for children, like talking to them, is full of mysteries. I have a child, a six-year old, and I assure you I approach her with a copy of Mr Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity held firmly in my right hand. If I ask her which two types of cereal she prefers for breakfast, I invariably find upon presenting the bowl that I have misread the instructions--that it was the other kind she wanted. In the same way it is quite conceivable to me that I may have written the wrong book--some other book was what was wanted. One does the best one can. I must point out that television has affected the situation enormously. My pictures don't move. What's wrong with them?"
I'm reminded of a dream last night that involved a tennis match, travels, and the difficult decision of what to eat for breakfast. I wish Don were around to turn it into a story. The mysteries of the unconscious shaped by the imagination into art.
"The difficulty is to manage a book worth watching. The problem, as I say, is full of mysteries, but mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them. That is perhaps one of the reasons why we have children."
Barthelme sired two children, yet left many more in his stories, still flowering through the garden of his creative imagination.