Donald Barthelme’s “Not-Knowing” is Half the Battle

I know, “’Not-Knowing’ is half the battle” is probably the worst GI Joe pun imaginable. Sorry, and what’s done is done. (Stick around, too, because it won’t be my last.) But also I say, where there is a horrible GI Joe pun, there is often much in the way of truth. You will have to judge this for yourself, but I’m going to attempt to bring meaning to my bold statement. It’s the least I can do for Donald Barthelme, who wrote and spoke as thoughtfully on the subject of postmodernism and the past / present / future role of literature as anyone I’ve heretofore encountered.

Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing” is extremely useful to all who are concerned with the very apparent challenges of a writer’s craft, and of getting from point A (no story) to point B (a created story). Moreover, the selfsame titled book — a collection of essays, short works, interviews and reviews compiled posthumously by its editor Kim Herzinger and, ostensibly, the Barthelme Estate — covers a pretty sprawling range of territory, although considering the author that shouldn’t be very surprising. Barthelme cared a great deal about “doing his homework” as one interviewer refers to his noticeable propensity to pore over all sorts of research material.

What I find especially unusual about Donald Barthelme is his willingness in seemingly all of his interviews, or at least those made available in “Not-Knowing,” to elaborate when answering questions in anything but the somewhat common, boilerplate authorial way you tend to expect.

He also answers questions with a modest candor that seems strikingly absent from most others I’ve read, which is not a criticism I reserve strictly for the authorial realm. With Barthelme there is no evasion, it seems. Here for example is a question and answer that I think succinctly covers both of the aspects of what I admire about his answering style (the question is put forth by J.D. O’Hara):

You keep up in philosophy and psychology, do you not?
Not really. I have a very mercantile approach, I read whatever I think might be useful, might start something. I read other writers to discover what they do well; that helps me, reminds me why I got into this peculiar business in the first place. It’s most unsystematic.

Ok, so fine he uses the phrase “It’s most unsystematic” and you could say that’s a smidgen pretentious sounding, but other than a smidgen of pretentiousness, which I think might be unavoidable to the whole artistic endeavor and so forth, Barthelme is pretty well-reasoned and open. I would think that could be difficult for a writer of his renown. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s easier to be modest when you’ve achieved something significant with your writing. I don’t know. Not for me to speculate on. I like the exchange, the above exchange and the others to be found in his various interviews, which I will no doubt quote more of them before this post is done.

Take for example Barthelme’s answer to the question of the moral responsibility of the artist. This is tricky territory, which I think is something most people who read for stuff like subtext will agree. And I think Barthelme replies with a very non-copout opinion, which is:

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.

It’s frustrating to read authors dither or flat-out deny that their work should be interpreted as making a statement — pro or con — with regard to a given moral issue. Of course Barthelme doesn’t come right out and admit he’s inclined to make a pro or con moral statement, either, but what he does do is say that I am not the objective eye in the sky, watching but not acting. In effect, by the very nature of my presenting this morality in my work I’m acknowledging it as being problematic, as a condition worth addressing and perhaps declaratively condemning or failing that, then allowing for the possibility that it could be condemned (as you who read may see fit to react). The word is probably “engagement.” In the same interview, prior to the above cited quote, Barthelme invoked the words of Karl Klaus, who said, “a writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” I can’t decide to what degree I believe that comment is accurate but I do like where Barthelme goes with it, which I think fits his attitude regarding the role of morality in an author’s work. He says:

There’s also an element of reportage, the description of new situations or conditions, but that’s pretty much a matter of identifying them rather than talking about solutions. Baudelaire noticing that the boulevards of Paris were no longer a means of getting from here to there but had become more like theater lobbies, places to be, and writing about that. The search is for a question that will generate light and heat.

That last part about what will “generate light and heat” strikes me as most profound and insightful. Where is there substance in the life of a given society at any moment in its existence? The writer must determine this, draw it out to the best of his or her ability. I think that is true. You’re free to disagree, as always.

In another interview Barthelme remarks about the TV news (a far different thing in the ’80s from what it is today, but his thought is still relevant and probably will continue to be for the foreseeable future) and what is most troublesome about the way in which it is culled and delivered, saying, “I think there the problem is because of time. Both in gathering the news and in presenting it, you get a very thin, rather than rich, version of events.” According to Barthelme, concerning the trend of the 1980’s Reagan administration to release information to the media that was ambiguous in its meaning — which is a trend that continues to be true today, even post-George W. Bush, though Obama’s administration is more forthcoming than those others— the question that must be asked in any situation where our government fails to be transparent is the same, if for no other reason than its directness:

‘What do you mean?’ is a question that can be repeated indefinitely, until you finally locate the meaning — if there is a meaning to be located.

It’s a shame we lost Barthelme at the early age of 58.