Saturday, January 29

Q&A: Donald Barthelme chases down a deep one--

J. D. O'Hara: 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 straight-
forward 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 at lunch at the
local chili parlor 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, respon-
sible 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 en-
gagement might 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 crucial. The change of em-
phasis 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 uni-
verse set out in ten propositions, but we already have that. And
the attempt is sufficiently skeptical about itself. In this century
there's much stress placed not upon what we know but on
knowing that our methods are themselves questionable--our
Song of Song is the Uncertainty Principle.

Also, it's entirely possible to fail to understand or actively mis-
understand 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.

--Donald Barthelme interviewed by J. D. O'Hara, 1981
in Donald Barthelme, Not-Knowing: The Essays and
[New York: Random House, 1997]

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