Max Ernst’s illustration for Leonora Carrington’s 1939 collection The Oval Lady.
From Donald Barthelme’s 1970 short story “A Nation of Wheels.” Collected in 1974’s Guilty Pleasures.
A page of Donald Barthelme’s story “The Expedition.” From 1974’s Guilty Pleasures. Read “The Expedition” here.
One out of several humiliating features about writing fiction for a living is that here after all is just about everybody else, all along the capitalist spectrum from piano movers to systems analysts, cheerfully selling their bodies or body parts according to time-honored custom and usage, while it’s only writers, out at the fringes of the entertainment sector, wretched and despised, who are obliged, more intimately and painfully, actually to sell their dreams, yes, dreams these days you’ll find are every bit as commoditized as any pork bellies there on the financial page. To be upbeat about it, though, in most cases it doesn’t present much moral problem, since dreams seldom make it through into print with anything like the original production values anyway. Even if you do good recovery, learning to write legibly in the dark and so forth, there’s still the matter of getting it down in words that can bring back even a little of the clarity and sweep, the intensity of emotion, the transcendent weirdness of the primary experience. So it’s a safe bet that most writers’ dreams, maybe even including the best ones, manage to stay untranslated and private after all.
Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight “reality.” What he called his “secret vice” of “cutting up and pasting together pictures” bears an analogy, at least, to what is supposed to go on in dreams, where images from the public domain are said likewise to combine in unique, private, and, with luck, spiritually useful ways. How exactly Barthelme then got this into print, or for that matter pictorial, form, kept the transitions flowing the way he did and so on, is way too mysterious for me, though out of guild solidarity I probably wouldn’t share it even if I did know. The effect each time, at any rate, is to put us in the presence of something already eerily familiar … to remind us that we have lived in these visionary cities and haunted forests, that the ancient faces we gaze into are faces we know.
From Thomas Pynchon’s introduction to The Teachings of Don B. The introduction was republished yesterday in The Paris Review in a version that omits the first two paragraphs. You can read the full version of Thomas Pynchon’s essay on Donald Barthelme at ThomasPynchon.com.
The School of Vanity, 1967 by Jane Graverol (1909-1984)
Mass II by Seth Clark
A Chronicle of Drifting, 1949 by Kansuke Yamamoto (1914-87)
Check out the Peabody Essex Museum’s marvelous interactive exhibit Navigating the Imagination, which lets you view (and play with) the works of artist Joseph Cornell. The images here come from a 1911 textbook that Cornell transformed into a magical book object, full of illustrations, collages, quotes, and cut outs (you can peruse the entire book).
Bonus: Make your own Word Tower in the “Crystal Cage” machine. Here’s mine; I used snips from open tabs on my browser (two pieces from Gaddis and a Nietzsche):