Life[ edit ] Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia in His father and mother were fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania. In , as a student, he wrote his first articles for the Houston Post. Two years later, Barthelme was drafted into the U. Once back, he continued his studies at the University of Houston studying philosophy. Although he continued to take classes until , he never received a degree.
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Barthelme begins with a definition of a writer as a professional not-knower: The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives… He then considers the essential problems of the serious writer: Problems are a comfort.
Let me cite three such difficulties that I take to be important, all having to do with language. This remains a ground theme, as potent, problematically, today as it was a century ago. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.
Even conjunctions must be inspected carefully. The lack of nuance in news today is something I lament frequently. Where once we could put spurious quotes in the paper and attribute them to Ambrose Bierce and be fairly sure that enough readers would get the joke to make the joke worthwhile, from the point of view of both reader and writer, no such common ground now exists.
When one adds the ferocious appropriation of high culture by commercial culture — it takes, by my estimate, about forty-five minutes for any given novelty in art to travel from the Mary Boone Gallery on West Broadway to the display windows of Henri Bendel on Fifty-seventh Street — one begins to appreciate the seductions of silence.
Sebastian absorbing in his tattered breast the arrows of the zeitgeist, this changes not very much the traditional view of the artist. But it does license a very great deal of critical imperialism. Deconstruction is an enterprise that announces its intentions with startling candor. Any work of art depends upon a complex series of interdependences. I would argue that in the competing methodologies of contemporary criticism, many of them quite rich in implications, a sort of tyranny of great expectations obtains, a rage for final explanations, a refusal to allow a work that mystery which is essential to it.
I hope I am not myself engaging in mystification if I say, not that the attempt should not be made, but that the mystery exists. I see no immediate way out of the paradox — tear a mystery to tatters and you have tatters, not mystery — I merely note it and pass on. With his unmistakable intellectual agility, Barthelme then considers the interplay between the physical, the verbal, and the metaphoric, and the necessary messiness of teasing those apart: Let us discuss the condition of my desk.
It is messy, mildly messy. The messiness is both physical coffee cups, cigarette ash and spiritual unpaid bills, unwritten novels. The emotional life of the man who sits at the desk is also messy — I am in love with a set of twins, Hilda and Heidi, and in a fit of enthusiasm I have joined the Bolivian army.
The apartment in which the desk is located seems to have been sublet from Moonbeam McSwine. In the streets outside the apartment melting snow has revealed a choice assortment of decaying et cetera. How do I render all this messiness, and if I succeed, what have I done? We do not mistake the words the taste of chocolate for the taste of chocolate itself, but neither do we miss the tease in taste, the shock in chocolate.
Words have halos, patinas, overhangs, echoes. The word halo, for instance, may invoke St. The word overhang reminds us that we have, hanging over us, a dinner date with St. Hilarius, that crashing bore. It could be argued that computers can do this sort of thing for us, with critic-computers monitoring their output. When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.
But, artists will respond in such a way as to make art impossible for the computer. The prior history of words is one of the aspects of language the world uses to smuggle itself into the work. If words can be contaminated by the world, they can also carry with them into the work trace elements of world which can be used in a positive sense.
We must allow ourselves the advantages of our disadvantages. Conceding that constraints often enlarge rather than limit our creativity , Barthelme considers style: Style is not much a matter of choice.
Rather it is both a response to constraint and a seizing of opportunity. Very often a constraint is an opportunity. Because consciousness … is always consciousness of something, art thinks ever of the world, cannot not think of the world, could not turn its back on the world even if it wished to. The problems I mentioned earlier, as well as others not taken up, enforce complexity. But did she also dislike anything that looked funny on the wall?
If so, a severe deprivation. Art cannot remain in one place. A certain amount of movement, up, down, across, even a gallop toward the past, is a necessary precondition. Style enables us to speak, to imagine again.
The fact is not challenged, but understood, momentarily, in a new way. We can quarrel with the world, constructively no one alive has quarreled with the world more extensively or splendidly than Beckett.
The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension. It takes me hundreds of hours a month to research and compose, and thousands of dollars to sustain.
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Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews (Paperback)
Barthelme begins with a definition of a writer as a professional not-knower: The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives… He then considers the essential problems of the serious writer: Problems are a comfort. Let me cite three such difficulties that I take to be important, all having to do with language. This remains a ground theme, as potent, problematically, today as it was a century ago.
Knowing where to start can sometimes be confusing. Do we go back to the very beginning or do we jump in with the action. The key word is know. You need the information to put all the pieces together. At least not all of it.
Donald Barthelme, Toby Olson number