Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme

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Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme (1997) is a collection of essays and interviews with Donald Barthelme.



  • The question so often asked of modern painting, “What is it?”, contains more than the dull skepticism of the man who is not going to have the wool pulled over his eyes. It speaks of a fundamental placement in relation to the work, that of a voyager in the world coming upon a strange object. The reader reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it to his ear to hear the roaring within. It is characteristic of the object that it does not declare itself all at once, in a rush of pleasant naïveté. Joyce enforces the way in which Finnegans Wake is to be read. He conceived the reading to be a lifetime project, the book remaining always there, like the landscape surrounding the reader’s home or the buildings bounding the reader’s apartment. The book remains problematic, unexhausted.
    • “After Joyce” (1964), p. 4
  • I do not think it say that Governor Rockefeller, standing among his Míros and de Koonings, is worked upon by them, and if they do not make a Democrat or a Socialist of him they at least alter the character of his Republicanism. Considered in this light, Soviet hostility to “formalist” art becomes more intelligible, as does the antipathy of senators, mayors, and chairmen of building committees. In the same way, Joyce’s book works its radicalizing will upon all men in all countries, even upon those who do not read it and will never read it.
    • “After Joyce” (1964), p. 5
  • Finnegans Wake is not a work which encourages emulation. Ezra Pound announced early on that in those portions of it that he had read, the rewards were not worth the decipherment. Writers borrow Joyce’s myth-patterning or stream-of-consciousness and regard Wake as a monument or an obsession, in any case something that does not have to be repeated.
    • “After Joyce” (1964), p. 6
  • Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. 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.
    • “Not-Knowing” ( 1987), p. 15
  • When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.
    • “Not-Knowing” (1987), p. 22
  • The Women’s House of Detention was the place where they used to store women arrested for prostitution, mostly. The thing I remember about it best, aside from its social inutility and hideousness, is that one time a pal of mine [Grace Paley] who was in the anti-war activist business got situated there because she had sat down in front of an Armed Forces Day parade. And stopped it, for a while. Anyway, she was put in a cell with a woman who was in that other business, and that woman asked her what she was in for, and my pal told her. And the other woman immediately rushed to the cell door and yelled at the turnkey, “Get these fucking housewives outta here!”
    • “Here in the Village”, p. 28
  • ...St. Vincent’s emergency room is one of my favorite emergency rooms in the whole world. I know it well, from the time I accidentally stabbed myself in the chest with an X-Acto knife (paltry two stitches), and the time our former babysitter got raped, and the time my daughter ate the roach poison and I went down there, carrying kid and can, and the Poison Control Center there said, “Mister, that stuff don’t even bother the roaches—they just get high on it, is all.”
    • “Here in the Village”, p. 29
  • Every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful. I agree that this is a highly specialized enterprise, akin to the manufacture of merkins, say—but it’s what I do. Probably I have missed the point of the literature business entirely.
    • “ On ‘Paraguay’ ”, p. 57
  • ...there is a realm of possible knowledge which can be reached by artists, which is not susceptible of mathematical verification but which is true. This is sometimes spoken as the ineffable. If there is any word I detest in the language, this would be it, but the fact that it exists, the word ineffable, is suspicious in that it suggests that there might be something that is ineffable. And I believe that that’s the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it...
    • “A Symposium on Fiction”, p. 65
  • To say that the publishing world is not interested in literature is to overstate it. They are extremely interested in it, they just don’t want to publish it, you see. Publishers are brave, as brave as the famous diving horses of Atlantic City, but they’re increasingly owned by conglomerates, businesses which have nothing to do with publishing, and these companies demand a certain profit out of their publishing divisions. They take very few risks and they publish an enormous number of things which look like books, sort of feel like books, but in reality are buckets of peanut butter with a layer of whipped cream on top.
    • “A Symposium on Fiction”, pp. 67–68
  • I have said this too many times to make it interesting even to myself, but the principle of collage is one of the central principles of art in this century and it seems also to me to be one of the central principles of literature.
    • “A Symposium on Fiction”, p. 76
  • Beckett’s pessimism makes Greene’s pessimism look amateurish.
    • “The Tired Terror of Graham Greene” [a review of The Comedians], p. 89
  • ...he wouldn’t know what to do with a moral if handed one by the archangel Michael on a flaming sword.
    • “The Earth as an Overturned Bowl”, p. 105
  • Charm, as Goethe said, is the dead green bug on the golden leaf of occasion.
    • “Parachutes in the Trees” [a review of the film Soldier of Orange], p. 111; cf. “Conversations with Goethe” in Overnight to Many Distant Cities
  • We are all engaged in looting the past. (Only the greatest geniuses manage to steal from the future.)
    • “The Emerging Figure”, p. 168
  • Any fool can cry wolf; to cry sheep is inspired, the work of a subtle, contradancing mind.
    • Jim Love Up to Now: An Introduction”, p. 173
  • “Humor is the great alternative to psychosis,” Gregory Bateson has remarked. It is clear that there was no comedy before the Fall, no one cracking jokes in Eden; there was no need. Holy books, Baudelaire points out, never laugh. The perfection they envision, should the Way be followed exquisitely and completely, robs humor of its necessity, its ground. In the earthly paradise, Baudelaire writes, “as no trouble afflicted him, man’s countenance was simple and smooth, and the laughter that now shakes the nations never distorted the features of his face.” Less perfect times are likely to produce a great many jokes, variously inflected; thus, the Twentieth Century staggers toward its close in a blizzard of one-liners.
    • Jim Love Up to Now: An Introduction”, p. 173
  • Like all artists, Love has a multiplicity of fathers, including those fathers who nip in for a night and are never heard from again, leaving a half-remembered image with no name to put to it.
    • Jim Love Up to Now: An Introduction”, p. 174
  • In the contemplation of nudes, we congratulate ourselves upon the beauty of which human beings are capable. They reassure us about ourselves, about Being. We are a little lower than the angels, true, but notice that we can get along without that suspect radiance, equal parts paint and literature, on which the angels lean so heavily. The human body is, or can be, a sufficiency.
    • “Nudes: An Introduction to Exquisite Creatures”, opening; p. 178
  • Rauschenberg’s problem how to be bad for thirty years or more. To sustain a high level of misbehavior over a third of a century is not the easiest of tasks. The German writer Heimeto von Doderer put it this way: “One begins by breaking windows. Then one comes a window oneself.”
    • “Being Bad”, p. 184
  • MTV has severely compromised surrealism, perhaps ruined it forever...
    • “Being Bad”, p. 184
  • The difficulty here is not producing mere run-of-the-mill outrageousnous, but the nature of the transformational process by which aspects of the world are made over into art. How to prevent the ugly (what we have agreed to call ugly) from becoming, in some sense, beautiful (what we now agree to call beautiful) over time, thus losing the electrical charge which made the artist choose it in the first place? You can’t. But there are strategies of delay. Céline, with the aid of some truly revolting politics, managed to remain a monster almost to the end.
    • “Being Bad”, p. 184
  • One of the pleasures of art is that it enables the mind to move in unanticipated directions, to make connections that may be in some sense errors but are fruitful nonetheless.
    • “Reifications”, p. 188
  • Originality is the last refuge of a hero...
    • “On the Level of Desire”, p. 190
  • Art is always aimed (like a rifle, if you wish) at the middle class. The working class has its own culture and will have no truck with fanciness of any kind. The upper class owns the world and thus needs know no more about the world than is necessary for its orderly exploitation. The notion that art cuts across class boundaries to stir the hearts of hoe hand and Morgan alike is, at best, a fiction useful to the artist, his Hail Mary. It is the poor puzzled bourgeoisie that is sufficiently uncertain, sufficiently hopeful, to pay attention to art. It follows (as the night the day) that the bourgeoisie should get it in the neck.
    • “On the Level of Desire”, p. 194
  • [Sherrie] Levine is an artist for a dreadfully confused time. (We are always congratulating ourselves on our madness.)
    • "On the Level of Desire", p. 195


  • JEROME KLINKOWITZ: [posing a question suggested by Carl Krampf] When you improvise, do you think of the chord changes or the melody?
    DONALD BARTHELME: Both. This is an interesting question which I’m unable to answer adequately. If the melody is the skeleton of the particular object, then the chord changes are its wardrobe, its changes of clothes. I tend to pay rather more attention to the latter than to the former. All I want is just a trace of skeleton—three bones from which the rest may be reasoned out.
    • “Interview with Jerome Klinkowitz”, p. 200
  • There were five children. In the late thirties my father built a house for us, something not too dissimilar to Mies’s Tugendhat house. It was wonderful to live in but strange to see on the Texas prairie. On Sundays people used to park their cars out on the street and stare. We had a routine, the family, on Sundays. We used to get up from Sunday dinner, if enough cars had parked, and run out in front of the house in a sort of chorus line, doing high kicks.
    • “Interview with Jerome Klinkowitz”, p. 200
  • I enjoy doing layout—problems of design. I could very cheerfully be a typographer.
    • “Interview with Jerome Klinkowitz”, p. 201
  • JEROME KLINKOWITZ: Do you have any favorite comedians, and reasons for liking them?
    DONALD BARTHELME: The government.
    • “Interview with Jerome Klinkowitz”, p. 205
  • one reads more and more and more you get more fathers in your hierarchy of fathers. And then, after summoning twenty or thirty fathers, perhaps you are born, or perhaps you are not born.
    • “Interview with Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman”, p. 212
  • I certainly don’t write to exclude anyone.
    • "Interview with Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman”, p. 213
  • I think that the effort is to reach a realm of meaning that is not quite sayable. You stay away from what can be said and you try to reach what can’t quite be said. Yet it is nevertheless meaningful. And there is such a realm and it is very difficult to talk about. It’s not quite nonverbal, but that comes fairly close.
    • “Interview with Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman”, p. 214
  • One of the beautiful things about words is that you can put words together which in isolation mean nothing, or mean only what the dictionary says they mean, and you put them together and you get extraordinary effects.
    • “Interview with Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman”, p. 214
  • It is well to be simple once in a while.
    • “Interview with Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman”, p. 234
  • I look for a particular kind of sentence, perhaps more often the awkward than the beautiful. A broke-back sentence is interesting. Any sentence that begins with the phrase, “It is not clear that...” is clearly clumsy but preparing itself for greatness of a kind. A way of backing into a story—of getting past the reader’s hardwon armor.
    • “Interview with Larry McCaferry”, p. 262
  • LARRY MCCAFERRY: Like a lot of painters in this century, you seem to enjoy lifting things out of the world, in this case words or phrases, and then...
    DONALD BARTHELME: And then, sung to and Simonized, they’re thrown into the mesh.
    • “Interview with Larry McCaffery”, p. 265
  • LARRY MCCAFFERY: Do you recall the germinating idea for The Dead Father?
    DONALD BARTHELME: A matter of having a father and being a father.
    MCCAFFERY: In some basic sense the book deals with the notion that we’re all dragging around behind us the corpses of our fathers, as well as the past in general.
    BARTHELME: Worse—dragging these ahead of us. I have several younger brothers, among them my brother Frederick, who is also a writer. After The Dead Father came out, he telephoned and said, “I’m working on a new novel.” I said, “What’s it called?” and he said “The Dead Brother.” You have to admire the generational wit there.
    • “Interview with Larry McCaffery”, p. 270
  • There’s always the tension between losing an audience and doing the odd things you might want to try. The effort is always to make what you write nourishing or useful to readers. You do cut out some readers by idiosyncrasies of form. I regret this.
    • “Interview with Larry McCaffery”, p. 271
  • J.D. O’HARA: You don’t...believe in entropy?
    DONALD BARTHELME: Entropy belongs to Pynchon. I read recently that somebody had come forward with evidence that the process is not irreversible. There is abroad a distinct feeling that everything’s getting worse... I don’t think we have the sociological index that would allow us to measure this in any meaningful way, but the feeling is there as a cultural fact. I feel entropy—Kraus on backache is a favorite text around here.
    O’HARA: Do you see anything getting better—art, for instance?
    BARTHELME: I don’t think you can talk about progress in art—improvement, but not progress. You can speak of a point on a line for the purpose of locating things, but it’s a horizontal line, not a vertical one. Similarly the notion of an avant-garde is a bit off. The function of the advance guard in military terms is exactly that of the rear guard, to protect the main body, which translates as the status quo. You can speak of political progress, social progress, of course—you may not see much of it, but it can be talked about.
    • “Interview with J.D. O’Hara”, pp. 276–277
  • 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.
    • “Interview with J.D. O’Hara”, p. 285
  • Beckett’s work is an embarrassment to the Void.
    • “Interview with J.D. O’Hara”, p. 286
  • DONALD BARTHELME: Kidding Father was an activity that took seven of us to do, and there were only six of us. Putting Father down was the main family sport.
    JO BRANS: Is there any particular reason for the number of fathers in your work who are being done away with in one form or another? I’m thinking of The Dead Father. Using a father and beating him—is there anything autobiographical...?
    BARTHELME: Well, not directly. The relation is the universal problem. You remember, I think in Gertrude Stein there’s a story about the guy who seizes his father by the hair and drags him out of the house into the orchard, and a certain point the father who is being dragged says, “Stop, stop. In my time I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
    • “Interview with Jo Brans”, p. 294
  • DONALD BARTHELME: ...I think there are two devices that have clearly had an enormous impact on language. One is television. I don’t wish to blame television for all the faults of the world, but it has had a vulgarizing effect. The other is the telephone, because we don’t write letters anymore. I don’t write letters—I don’t even write business letters. I call up on the telephone. When people don’t write letters, language deteriorates.
    JO BRANS: Do you keep a journal?
    BARTHELME: I keep a workbook with stray pieces of paper with things written on them. A kind of mulch pile.
    • “Interview with Jo Brans”, p. 297
  • DONALD BARTHELME: ...I was trying to make fiction that was like certain kinds of modern painting. You know, tending toward the abstract. But it’s really very dicey in fiction, because if you get too abstract it just looks like fog, for example.
    JO BRANS: Words, after all, have referents. They mean something—colors don’t.
    BARTHELME: Not in the same way. So, the project is next to impossible, which is what makes it interesting. There’s nothing so beautiful as having a very difficult problem. It gives purpose to life. And to work. I’m still worrying with it.
    • “Interview with Jo Brans”, p. 298
  • ...I haven’t seen a government I’ve liked yet.
    • “Interview with Jo Brans”, p. 304
  • DONALD BARTHELME [of “post-modernist” fiction]: I say it’s realism, bearing on mind Harold Rosenberg’s wicked remark that realism is one of fifty-seven varieties of decoration.
    BOBBIE ROE: What about the term “experimental”, which is often applied to your work?
    BARTHELME: It’s not quite a hostile remark, but it does contain within it the notion of the failed experiment. Something like “Bone Bubbles” was, yes, an experiment and although I wouldn’t suggest it was wholly successful, I thought it worth publishing. It’s something I do along with a number of other things.
    • “Interview with Bobbie Roe”, p. 316
  • BOBBIE ROE: A few years ago, you seemed worried that perhaps a lack of emotion was a weakness in your stories.
    DONALD BARTHELME: A constant worry. I’m still worried. I tell my students that one of the things readers want, and deserve, is a certain amount of blood on the floor. I don’t always produce it. Probably a function of being more interested in other parts of the process.
    • “Interview with Bobbie Roe”, p. 317
  • Americans have political problems that they don’t recognize as political. The impoverishment of the country by the arms race is a good example. Money spent on arms is, among other things, useless money in terms of the economy because it’s stored. It’s in nerve gas, aircraft carriers, the Stealth bomber. I gave a reading at the University of Alabama a couple of years ago, and on the way to the campus we passed an airfield packed with military aircraft, trillions of dollars’ worth of planes stacked up there, National Guard stuff, not even first-line stuff. The cost, the weight of this, is not understood by most Americans. They don’t know where their money’s going. They know they’re pressed for money and that their school systems are being eighty-sixed by national accrediting organizations, but they don’t connect this to that National Guard elephant graveyard. Black people think that they’re poor because they’re black and the white folks control the money. This is true, but black folks are damaged more by lousy economic policy than by racism.
    • “Interview with Bobbie Roe”, pp. 317–318
  • BOBBIE ROE: Is the new generation of writers more concerned than their predecessors with politics, economics, and social class?
    DONALD BARTHELME: I think that there are lowered expectations, not æsthetic expectations for the work, but lowered expectations in terms of life. My generation, perhaps foolishly, expected, even demanded, that life be wonderful and magical and then tried to make it so by writing in a rather complex way. It seems now quite an eccentric demand.
    • “Interview with Bobbie Roe”, p. 319