Sadness (short stories)

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Sadness (1972) is a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme.


  • At night I drank and my hostility came roaring out if its cave like a jet-assisted banshee.
    • “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”
  • I looked at her then to see if I could discern traces of what I had seen in the beginning. There were traces but only traces. Vestiges. Hints of a formerly intact mystery never to be returned to its original wholeness. “I know what you’re doing,” she said, “you are touring the ruins.”
    • “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”
  • His assistants cluster about him. He is severe with them, demanding, punctilious, but this is for their own ultimate benefit. He devises hideously difficult problems, or complicates their work with sudden oblique comments that open whole new areas of investigation—yawning chasms under their feet. It is as if he wishes to place them in situations where only failure is possible. But failure, too, is a part of mental life. "I will make you failure-proof," he says jokingly. His assistants pale.
    • "The Genius"
  • But now a green Railway Express truck arrives at his door. It contains a field of stainless-steel tulips, courtesy of the Mayor and City Council of Houston, Texas. The genius signs the receipt, smiling...
    • “The Genius”; variant ending, from Forty Stories (1987): "But now a brown UPS truck arrives at his door. It contains a ceremonial sword (with inscription) forged in Toledo, courtesy of the Mayor and City Council of Toledo, Spain. The genius whips the blade about in the midmorning air, signing the receipt with his other hand..."
  • Perpetua sat on the couch in her new apartment smoking dope with a handsome bassoon player. A few cats walked around.
    “Our art contributes nothing to the the revolution,” the bassoon player said. “We cosmetize reality.”
    “We are trustees of Form,” Perpetua said.
    “It is hard to make the revolution with a bassoon,” the bassoon player said.
    “Sabotage?” Perpetua suggested.
    “Sabotage would get me fired,” her companion replied. “The sabotage would be confused with ineptness any way.”
    I am tired of talking about the revolution, Perpetua thought.
    “Go away,” she said. The bassoon player put on his black raincoat and left.
    It is wonderful to be able to tell them to go away, she reflected. Then she said aloud, “Go away. Go away. Go away.”
    • “Perpetua"
  • Perpetua went to her mother’s house for Christmas. Her mother was cooking the eighty-seventh turkey of her life. “God damn this turkey!” Perpetua’s mother shouted. “If anyone knew how I hate, loathe, and despise turkeys. If I had known that I would cook eighty-seven separate and distinct turkeys in my life, I would have split forty-four years ago. I would have been long gone for the tall timber.”
    Perpetua’s mother showed her a handsome new leather coat. “Tanned in the bile of matricides,” her mother said, with a meaningful look.
    • “Perpetua”
  • I went to a party and corrected a pronunciation. The man whose voice I had adjusted fell back into the kitchen. I praised a Bonnard. It was not a Bonnard. My new glasses, I explained, and I’m terribly sorry, but significant variations elude me, vodka exhausts me, I was young once, essential services are being maintained.
    • “The Party”, opening
  • ...what an artist does, is fail. Any reading of the literature... (I mean the literature of artistic creation), however summary, will persuade you instantly that the paradigmatic artistic experience is that of failure. The actualization fails to meet, equal, the intuition. There is something “out there” which cannot be brought “here”. This is standard. I don’t mean bad artists, I mean good artists. There is no such thing as a “successful artist” (except, of course, in worldly terms).
    • “The Sandman”
  • (Parenthetically, the problem of analysts sleeping with their patients is well known and I understand that Susan has been routinely seducing you—a reflex, she can’t help it—throughout the analysis. I understand that there is a new splinter group of therapists, behaviorists of some kind, who take this to be some kind of ethic? Is this true? Does this mean that they do it only when they want to, or whether they want to or not? At a dinner party the other evening a lady analyst was saying that three cases of this kind had recently come to her attention and she seemed to think that this was rather a lot. The problem of maintaining mentorship is, as we know, not easy. I think you have done very well in this regard, and God knows it must have been difficult, given those skirts Susan wears that unbutton up to the crotch and which she routinely leaves unbuttoned to the third button.)
    Am I wandering too much for you? Bear with me. The world is waiting for the sunrise.
    • “The Sandman”
  • He says: “Sunday the day of rest and worship is hated by all classes of men in every country to which the Word has been carried. Hatred of Sunday in London approaches one hundred percent. Hatred of Sunday in Rio produces suicides. Hatred of Sunday in Madrid is only appeased by the ritual slaughter of large black animals, in rings. Hatred of Sunday in Munich is the stuff of legend. Hatred of Sunday in Sydney in considered by the knowledgeable to be hatred of Sunday at its most exquisite.”
    • “The Cathechist”
  • ”Would you say, originally, that you had a vocation? Heard a call?”
    “I heard many things. Screams. Suites for unaccompanied cello. I did not hear a call.”
    “Nevertheless I went to the clerical-equipment store and purchased a summer cassock and a winter cassock. The summer cassock has short sleeves. I purchased a black hat.”
    • “The Catechist”
  • We recruited fools for the show. We had spots for a number of fools (and in the big all-fool number that occurs immediately after the second act, some specialties). But fools are hard to find. Usually they don’t like to admit it. We settled for gowks, gulls, mooncalfs. A few babies, boobies, sillies, simps. A barmie was engaged, along with certain dumdums and beefheads. A noodle. When you see them all wandering around, under the colored lights, gibbering and performing miracles, you are surprised.
    • “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace”
  • In the summer of the show, grave robbers appeared in the show. Famous graves were robbed, before your eyes. Winding-sheets were unwound and things best forgotten were remembered. Sad themes were played by the band, bereft of its mind by the death of its tradition. In the soft evening of the show, a troupe of agoutis performed tax evasion atop tall, swaying yellow poles. Before your eyes.
    • “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace”
  • I am not rich again this morning! I put my head between Marta’s breasts, to hide my shame.
    • “The Rise of Capitalism”
  • Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas.
    • “The Rise of Capitalism”
  • As a flower moves toward the florist, women move toward men who are not good for them. Self-actualization is not to be achieved in terms of another person, but you don’t know that, when you begin.
    • “The Rise of Capitalism”
  • The imminent heat-death of the universe is not a bad thing, because it is a long way off.
    • “The Rise of Capitalism”
  • Then Daumier looked at Celeste and saw that the legs on her were as strong and sweet-shaped as ampersands and the buttocks on her were as pretty as two pictures and the waist on her was as neat and incurved as the waist of a fiddle and the shoulders on her were as tempting as sex crimes and the hair on her was as long and black as Lent and the movement of the whole was honey, and he sank into a swoon.
    • “Daumier”