Not Barthelme’s finest, but hey. An illustrated artifact, very much of its era.
Not Barthelme’s finest, but hey. An illustrated artifact, very much of its era.
Hey buddy what’s your name?
My name is Tope. What’s your name?
My name is Sallywag. You after the emerald?
Yeah I’m after the emerald you after the emerald too?
I am. What are you going to do with it if you get it?
Cut it up into little emeralds. What are you going to do with it?
I was thinking of solid emerald armchairs. For the rich.
That’s an idea. What’s your name, you?
You after the emerald?
Sure as shootin’.
How you going to get in?
Blast. That’s going to make a lot of noise isn’t it?
You think it’s a bad idea?
Well…What’s your name, you there?
You after the emerald?
Right as rain. What’s more, I got a plan.
Can we see it?
No it’s my plan I can’t be showing it to every—
Okay okay. What’s that guy’s name behind you?
My name is Sometimes.
You here about the emerald, Sometimes?
I surely am.
Have you got an approach?
Tunneling. I’ve took some test borings. Looks like a stone cinch.
If this is the right place.
You think this may not be the right place?
The last three places haven’t been the right place.
You tryin’ to bring me down?
Why would I want to do that? What’s that guy’s name, the one with the shades?
My name is Brother. Who are all these people?
Businessmen. What do you think of the general situation, Brother?
I think it’s crowded. This is my pal, Wednesday.
What say, Wednesday. After the emerald, I presume?
Thought we’d have a go.
Two heads better than one, that the idea?
What are you going to do with the emerald, if you get it?
Facet. Facet and facet and facet.
Patricide: Patricide is a bad idea, first because it is contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide! — member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere. Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him. The enormities go with the job, but close study will allow you to perform the job less well than it has previously been done, thus moving toward a golden age of decency, quiet, and calmed fevers. Your contribution will not be a small one, but “small” is one of the concepts that you should shoot for. If your father was a captain in Battery D, then content yourself with a corporalship in the same battery. Do not attend the annual reunions. Do not drink beer or sing songs at the reunions. Begin by whispering, in front of a mirror, for thirty minutes a day. Then tie your hands behind your back for thirty minutes a day, or get someone else to do this for you. Then, choose one of your most deeply held beliefs, such as the belief that your honors and awards have something to do with you, and abjure it. Friends will help you abjure it, and can be telephoned if you begin to backslide. You see the pattern, put it into practice. Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least “turned down” in this generation — by the combined efforts of all of us together.
From Donald Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father.
I was preparing a meal for Celeste-a meal of a certain elegance, as when arrivals or other rites of passage are to be celebrated.
First off there were Saltines of the very best quality and of a special crispness, squareness, and flatness, obtained at great personal sacrifice by making representations to the National Biscuit Company through its authorized nuncios in my vicinity. Upon these was spread with a hand lavish and not sitting Todd’s Liver Pate, the same having been robbed from geese and other famous animals and properly adulterated with cereals and other well-chosen extenders and the whole delicately spiced with calcium propionate to retard spoilage. Next there were rare cheese products from Wisconsin wrapped in gold foil in exquisite tints with interesting printings thereon, including some very artful representations of cows, the same being clearly in the best of health and good humor. Next there were dips of all kinds including clam, bacon with horseradish, onion soup with sour cream, and the like, which only my long acquaintance with some very high-up members of the Borden company allowed to grace my table. Next there were Fritos curved and golden to the number of 224 (approx.), or the full contents of the bursting 53c bag. Next there were Frozen Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of a richness beyond description, these wrested away from an establishment catering only to the nobility, the higher clergy, and certain selected commoners generally agreed to be comers in their particular areas of commonality, calcium propionate added to retard spoilage. In addition there were Mixed Nuts assembled at great expense by the Planters concern from divers strange climes and hanging gardens, each nut delicately dusted with a salt that has no peer. Furthermore there were cough drops of the manufacture of the firm of Smith Fils, brown and savory and served in a bowl once the property of Brann the Iconoclast. Next there were young tender green olives into which ripe red pimentos had been cunningly thrust by underpaid Portuguese, real and true handwork every step of the way. In addition there were pearl onions meticulously separated from their nonstandard fellows by a machine that had caused the Board of Directors of the S&W concern endless sleepless nights and had passed its field trails just in time to contribute to the repast I am describing. Additionally there were gherkins whose just fame needs no further words from me. Following these appeared certain cream cheeses of Philadelphia origin wrapped in costly silver foil, the like of which a pasha could not have afforded in the dear dead days. Following were Mock Ortolans Manques made of the very best soybean aggregate, the like of which could not be found on the most sophisticated tables of Paris, London and Rome. The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs.
“What is all this?” asked sweet Celeste, waving her hands in the air. “Where is the food?”
“You do not recognize a meal spiritually prepared,” I said, hurt in the self-love.
“We will be very happy together,” she said. “I cook.”
Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas. Another day, another dollar. Each man is valued at what he will bring in the marketplace. Meaning has been drained from work and assigned instead to remuneration. Unemployment obliterates the world of the unemployed individual. Cultural underdevelopment of the worker, as a technique of domination, is found everywhere under late capitalism. Authentic self-domination by individuals is thwarted. The false consciousness created and catered to by mass culture perpetuates ignorance and powerlessness. Strands of raven hair floating on the surface of the Ganges . . . Why can’t they clean up the Ganges? If the wealthy capitalists who operate the Ganges wig factories could be forced to install sieves, at the mouths of their plants . . . And now the sacred Ganges is choked with hair, and the river no longer knows where to put its flow, and the moonlight on the Ganges is swallowed by the hair, and the water darkens. By Vishnu! This is an intolerable situation! Shouldn’t something be done about it?
Charles and Jacques were still talking to Hector Guimard, the former trombone player.
– Yours is not a modern problem, Jacques said. The problem today is not angst but lack of angst.
– Wait a minute, Jacques. Although I myself believe that there is nothing wrong with being a trombone player, I can understand Hector’s feeling. I know a painter who feels the same way about being a painter. Every morning he gets up, brushes his teeth, and stands before the empty canvas. A terrible feeling of being de trop comes over him. So he goes to the corner and buys the Times, at the corner newsstand. He comes back home and reads the Times. During the period in which he’s coupled with the Times he is all right. But soon the Times is exhausted. The empty canvas remains. So (usually) he makes a mark on it, some kind of mark that is not what he means. That is, any old mark, just to have something on the canvas. Then he is profoundly depressed because what is there is not what he meant. And it’s time for lunch. He goes out and buys a pastrami sandwich at the deli. He comes back and eats the sandwich meanwhile regarding the canvas with the wrong mark on it out of the corner of his eye. During the afternoon, he paints out the mark of the morning. This affords him a measure of satisfaction. The balance of the the afternoon is spent in deciding whether or not to venture another mark. The new mark, if one is ventured, will also, inevitably, be misconceived. He ventures it. It is misconceived. It is, in fact, the worst kind of vulgarity. He paints out the second mark. Anxiety accumulates. However, the canvas is now, in and of itself, because of the wrong moves and painting out, becoming rather interesting looking. He goes to the A&P and buys a TV Mexican dinner and many bottles of Carta Blanca. He comes back to his loft and eats the Mexican dinner and drinks a couple of Carta Blancas, sitting in front of his canvas. The canvas is, for one thing, no longer empty. Friends drop in and congratulate him on having a not-empty canvas. He begins feeling better. A something has been wrested from the nothing. The quality of the something is still at issue–he is by no means home free. And of course all of painting– the whole art– has moved on somewhere else, it’s not where his head is, and he knows that, but nevertheless he–
– How does this apply to trombone playing? Hector asked.
– I had the connection in my mind when I began, Charles said.
– As Goethe said, theory is gray, but the golden tree of life is green.
From Donald Barthelme’s short story “City Life.”
Sure–okay, sure, you’ve seen this before (or maybe not), I know I have (I’ve even posted it before). But today is D. Barthelme’s birthday (he’s dead of course), and I’ve read or reread (or, more accurately read) most of his stuff (sans The King, which I’ve been saving) over the past year. Anyway, this here list comes via Kevin Moffett who got it off DB’s former student, Padgett Powell, when he (that is Moffett) was finishing up at my alma mater, the University of Gators (where Powell continues to teach today, having replaced Harry Crews, RIP). Anyway (again with that transition!), check out Moffett’s original share-piece at The Believer; he describes Gainesville’s Friends of the Library Sale, which was always fun. I got a copy of John Barth’s Chimera there (on the list, natch), among other books, but I didn’t get any Barthelme. I’ve read 31 of the 81 books on the list (this includes fantastically awarding myself the “Samuel Beckett entire” entry but hell man I think it’s been counted as one work here (at least by Moffett?), which maybe it should be but no I haven’t read all of Beckett but hell I’ve read a lot, if not enough, but anyway (again!)–31).
1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.
2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.
3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).
4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.
6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.
7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).
8. These books are:
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
Middle C by William H. Gass
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish
Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark
The majority of Donald Barthelme.
9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).
10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.
by Donald Barthelme
The death of God left the angels in a strange position. They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was,”What are angels?”
New to questioning, unaccustomed to terror, unskilled in aloneness, the angels (we assume) fell into despair.
The question of what angels “are” has a considerable history. Swedenborg, for example, talked to a great many angels and faithfully recorded what they told him. Angels look like human beings, Swedenborg says. “That angels are human forms, or men, has been seen by me a thousand times.” And again:”From all my experience, which is now of many years, I am able to state that angels are wholly men in form, having faces, eyes, ears, bodies, arms, hands, and feet…” But a man cannot see angels with his bodily eyes, only with the eyes of the spirit.
Swedenborg has a great deal more to say about angels, all of the highest interest: that no angel is ever permitted to stand behind another and look at the back of his head, for this would disturb the influx of good and truth from the Lord; that angels have the east, where the Lord is seen as a sun, always before their eyes; and that angels are clothed according to their intelligence. “Some of the most intelligent have garments that blaze as if with flame, others have garments that glisten as if with light; the less intelligent have garments that are glistening white or white without the effulgence; and the still less intelligent have garments of various colors. But the angels of the inmost heaven are not clothed.”
All of this (presumably) no longer obtains.
Gustav Davidson, in his useful Dictionary of Angels, has brought together much of what is known about them. Their names are called: the angel Elubatel, the angel Friagne, the angel Gaap, the angel Hatiphas (genius of finery), the angel Murmur (a fallen angel), the angel Mqttro, the angel Or, the angel Rash, the angel Sandalphon (taller than a five hundred years’ jouney on foot), the angel Smat. Davidson distinguishes categories: Angels of Quaking, who surround the heavenly throune, Masters of Howling and Lords of Shouting, whose work is praise; messengers, mediators, watchers, warners. Davidson’s Dictionary is a very large book; his bibliography lists more than eleven hundred items.
The former angelic consciousness has been most beautifully described by Joseph Lyons (in a paper titles The Psychology of Angels published in 1957). Each angel, Lyons says, knows all that there is to know about himself and every ohter angel. “No angel could ever ask a question, because questioning proceeds out of situation of not knowing, and of being in some way aware of not knowing. An angel cannot be curious; he has nothing to be curious about. He cannot wonder. Knowing all that there is to know, the world of possible knowledge must appear to him as as ordered set of facts which is completely behind him, completely fixed and certain and within his grasp…”
But this, too, no longer obtains.
It is a curiosity of writing about angels that, very often, one turns outto be writing about men. The themes are twinned. Thus one finally learns that Lyons, for example, is really writing not about angels but about schizophrenics–thinking about men by invoking angels. And this holds true of much other writing on the subject– a point, we may assume, that was not lost on the angels when they began considering their new relation to the cosmos, when the analogues (is an angel more like a quetzal or more like a man? or more like music?) were being handed about.
We may frther assume that some attempt was made at self-definition by function. An angel is what he does. Thus it was necessary to investigate possible new roles (you are reminded that this is impure speculation). After the lamentation had gone on for hundreds and hundreds of whatever the angels use for time, an angel proposed that lamentation be the function of angels eternally, as adoration was formerly. The mode of lamentation would be silence, in contrast to the unceasing chanting of Glorias that had been their former employment. But it is not in the nature of angels to be silent.
A counterproposal was that the angels affirm chaos. There were to be five great proofs of the existence of chaos, of which the first was the abscence of God. The other four could surely be located. The work of definition and explication could, if done nicely enough, occupy the angels forever, as the contrary work has occupied human theologians. But there is not much enthusiasm for chaos among the angels.
The most serious because most radical proposal considered by the angels was refusal –that they would remove themselves from being, not be. The tremendous dignity that would accrue to the angels by this act was felt to be a manifestation of spiritual pride. Refusal was refused.
There were other suggestions, more subptle and complicated, less so, none overwhelmingly attractive.
I saw a famous angel on television; his garments glistened as if with light. He talked about the situation of angels now. Angels, he said are like men in some ways. The problem of adoration is felt to be central. He said that for a time the angels had tried adoring each other, as we do, but had found it, finally, “not enough.” He said they are continuing to search for a new principle.
“The King of Jazz”
Well, I’m the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone. Hasn’t been a ‘bone man been king of jazz for many years. But now that Spicy MacLammermoor, the old king, is dead, I guess I’m it. Maybe I better play a few notes out of this window here, to reassure myself.
“Wow!” said somebody standing on the sidewalk. “Did you hear that?”
“I did,” said his companion.
“Can you distinguish our great homemade American jazz performers, each from the other?”
“Used to could.”
“Then who was that playing?”
“Sounds like Hokie Mokie to me. Those few but perfectly selected notes have the real epiphanic glow.”
“The real epiphanic glow, such as is obtained only by artists of the caliber of Hokie Mokie, who’s from Pass Christian, Mississippi. He’s the king of jazz, now that Spicy MacLammermoor is gone.”
Hokie Mokie put his trombone in its case and went to a gig. At the gig everyone fell back before him, bowing.
“Hi Bucky! Hit Zoot! Hi Freddie! Hi George! Hi Thad! Hi Roy! Hi Dexter! Hi Jo! Hi Willie! Hi Greens!”
“What we gonna play, Hokie? You the king of jazz now, you gotta decide.”
“How ’bout ‘Smoke’?”
“Wow!” everybody said. “Did you hear that? Hokie Mokie can just knock a fella out, just the way he pronounces a word. What an intonation on that boy! God Almighty!”
Two remaining (late period) Donald Barthelme novels I haven’t read.
The King is a first edition paperback (with an author photo on the whole back cover—very odd) illustrated by the wonderful Barry Moser.
“The Policemen’s Ball”
by Donald Barthelme
Horace, a policeman, was making Rock Cornish Game Hens for a special supper. The Game Hens are frozen solid, Horace thought. He was wearing his blue uniform pants.
Inside the Game Hens were the giblets in a plastic bag. Using his needlenose pliers Horace extracted the frozen giblets from the interior of the birds. Tonight is the night of the Policemen’s Ball, Horace thought. We will dance the night away. But first, these Game Hens must go into a three-hundred-and-fifty-degree oven.
Horace shined his black dress shoes. Would Margot “put out” tonight? On this night of nights? Well, if she didn’t– Horace regarded the necks of the birds which had been torn asunder by the pliers. No, he reflected, that is not a proper thought. Because I am a member of the force. I must try to keep my hatred under control. I must try to be an example for the rest of the people. Because if they can’t trust us. . .the blue men. . .
In the dark, outside the Policemen’s Ball, the horrors waited for Horace and Margot.
Margot was alone. Her roommates were in Provincetown for the weekend. She put pearl-colored lacquer on her nails to match the pearl of her new-bought gown. Police colonels and generals will be there, she thought. The Pendragon of the Police himself. Whirling past the dais, I will glance upward. The pearl of my eyes meeting the steel gray of high rank.
Margot got into a cab and went over to Horace’s place. The cabdriver was thinking: A nice-looking piece. I could love her.
Horace removed the birds from the oven. He slipped little gold frills, which has been included in the package, over the ends of the drumsticks. Then he uncorked the wine, thinking: This is a town without pity, this town. For those whose voices lack the crack of authority. Luckily the uniform. . . Why won’t she surrender her person? Does she think she can resist the force? The force of the force?
“These birds are delicious.”
Driving Horace and Margot smoothly to the Armory, the new cabdriver thought about basketball.
Why do they always applaud the man who makes the shot?
Why don’t they applaud the ball?
It’s the ball that actually goes into the net.
The man doesn’t go into the net.
Never have I seen a man going into the net.
Twenty thousand policemen of all grades attended the annual fete. The scene was Camelot, with gay colors and burgees. The interior of the Armory had been roofed with lavish tenting. Police colonels and generals looked down on the dark uniforms, white gloves, silvery ball gowns.
“Horace, not now. This scene is so brilliant. I want to remember it.”
Horace thought: It? Not me?
The Pendragon spoke. “I ask you to be reasonable with the citizens. They pay our salaries after all. I know they are difficult sometimes, obtuse sometimes, even criminal sometimes, as we often run across in our line of work. But I ask you despite all to be reasonable. I know it is hard. I know it is not easy. I know that for instance when you see a big car, a ’70 Biscayne hardtop, cutting around a corner at a pretty fair clip, with three in the front and three in the back, and they are all mixed up, ages and sexes and colors, your natural impulse is to– I know your first thought is, All those people! Together! And your second thought is, Force! But I must ask you in the name of force itself to be restrained. For force, that great principle, is most honored in the breach and the observance. And that is where you men are, in the breach. You are fine men, the finest. You are Americans. So for the sake of America, be careful. Be reasonable. Be slow. In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost. And now I would like to introduce Vercingetorix, leader of the firemen, who brings us a few words of congratulation from that fine body of men.”
Waves of applause for the Pendragon filled the tented area.
“He is a handsome older man,” Margot said.
“He was born in a Western state and advanced to his present position through raw merit,” Horace told her.
The government of Czechoslovakia sent observers to the Policemen’s Ball. “Our police are not enough happy,” Colonel-General Cepicky explained. “We seek ways to improve them. This is a way. It may not be the best of all possible ways, but. . . Also I like to drink the official whiskey! It makes me gay!”
A bartender thought: Who is that yellow-haired girl in the pearl costume? She is stacked.
The mood of the Ball changed. The dancing was more serious now. Margot’s eyes sparkled from the jorums of champagne she had drunk. She felt Horace’s delicately Game Hen-flavored breath on her cheek. I will give him what he wants, she decided. Tonight. His heroism deserves it. He stands between us and them. He represents what is best in society: decency, order, safety, strength, sirens, smoke. No, he does not represent smoke. Great billowing oily black clouds. That Vercingetorix has a noble look. With whom is Vercingetorix dancing, at present?
The horrors waited outside patiently. Even policemen, the horrors thought. We get even policemen, in the end.
In Horace’s apartment, a gold frill was placed on a pearl toe.
The horrors had moved outside Horace’s apartment. Not even policemen and their ladies are safe, the horrors thought. No one is safe. Safety does not exist. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
“The Captured Woman” by Donald Barthelme
The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.
I shoot four rolls of 35 mm. and then go off very happily to the darkroom. . .
I bring back the contacts and we go over them together. She circles half a dozen with a grease pencil — pictures of herself staring. She does not circle pictures of herself smiling, although there are several very good ones. When I bring her back prints (still wet) she says they are not big enough.
“Not big enough?”
“Can you make enlargements?”
“How big can you make them?”
“The largest paper I have is twenty-four by thirty-six.”
The very large prints are hung around her room with pushpins.
“I want them in the other rooms too.”
“The staring ones?”
“Whichever ones you wish.”
I make more prints using the smiling negatives. (I also shoot another half dozen rolls.)
Soon the house is full of her portraits, she is everywhere.
The main difficulty with the book business is that a book is two kinds of objects. You have, on the one hand, a thing that a reasonable and prudent man might decide is a book. You have on the other hand an object which looks very much like a book, feels very much like a book, but is in actuality a bucket of peanut butter covered with a thin layer of chocolate sauce. These things are sold in the same way. The latter seems to sell better, for some mysterious reason, than the former. A good example of this that I ran into recently is a book called The First Time, which apparently has to do with accounts of initial sexual experiences of either eminent or reasonably well-known people. This, I would say, is a bucket of peanut butter. Actually, they missed. They should have done a book called The Last Time, which would not only be funnier but more poignant. The idea is copyrighted, by the way. Take notes.
From remarks Donald Barthelme delivered at a 1975 conference at the Library of Congress. Published in Tracy Daugherty’s book Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme.