I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality | Donald Barthelme

INTERVIEWER

What about the moral responsibility of the artist? I take it that you are a responsible artist (as opposed, say, to X, Y, and Z), but all is irony, comic distortion, foreign voices, fragmentation. Where in all this evasion of the straightforward does responsibility display itself?

BARTHELME

It’s not the straightforward that’s being evaded but the too true. I might fix your eye firmly and announce, “Thou shalt not mess around with thy neighbor’s wife.” You might then nod and say to yourself, Quite so. We might then lunch at the local chili parlor and say scurrilous things about X, Y, and Z. But it will not have escaped your notice that my statement has hardly enlarged your cosmos, that I’ve been, in the largest sense, responsible to neither art, life, nor adultery.

I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality in that each attempts to engage the problematic rather than to present a proposition to which all reasonable men must agree. The engagement might be very small, a word modifying another word, the substitution of “mess around” for “covet,” which undresses adultery a bit. I think the paraphrasable content in art is rather slight—“tiny,” as de Kooning puts it. The way things are done is crucial, as the inflection of a voice is crucial. The change of emphasis from the what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not at all superficial, it’s an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one. You don’t get, following this path, a moral universe set out in ten propositions, but we already have that. And the attempt is sufficiently skeptical about itself. In this century there’s been much stress placed not upon what we know but on knowing that our methods are themselves questionable—our Song of Songs is the Uncertainty Principle.

Also, it’s entirely possible to fail to understand or actively misunderstand what an artist is doing. I remember going through a very large Barnett Newman show years ago with Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg, we used to go to shows after long lunches, those wicked lunches, which are no more, and I walked through the show like a certifiable idiot, couldn’t understand their enthusiasm. I admired the boldness, the color and so on but inwardly I was muttering, Wallpaper, wallpaper, very fine wallpaper but wallpaper. I was wrong, didn’t get the core of Newman’s enterprise, what Tom called Newman’s effort toward the sublime. Later I began to understand. One doesn’t take in Proust or Canada on the basis of a single visit.

To return to your question: If I looked you straight in the eye and said, “The beauty of women makes of adultery a serious and painful duty,” then we’d have the beginning of a useful statement.

From Donald Barthelme’s 1981 interview in The Paris Review. The interlocutor is J.D. O’Hara. Read the full interview here.

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