Here in London, Modernism is very big right now. It’s in the air. There are conferences and festivals. People talk about––maybe even listen to––Shoenberg and Stravinski. And Wagner! Well, not everyone. Mainly the kind of people who hang out in the London Review of Books café or spend their weekends in the Southbank Centre, itself a temple of Modernism. These are people, I suppose, who find the media-soaked present distasteful and yearn for a more intellectual past. Or whatever. Maybe this is just part of the so-called Postmodern Condition. The perpetual look back seems to have fixed itself on Modernism for now. If, as Jean-François Lyotard proclaimed, Postmodernism by a feat of acrobatic logic precedes Modernism, then we’re in some sort of bizarre periodic Möbius strip. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are whole trusts and endowments earmarked for the promotion of Modernism in the Postmodern age. And maybe it’s not just London. New York seems to be into “New Sincerity” right now, whatever that is. But what about Ghent, or Taipei, or Perth? Is Modernism big in Perth? The point is: here in London, Modernism is big right now. And where there’s Modernism, there are fathers, Oedipal and otherwise.
An abundance of fathers always makes me think of the American writer Donald Barthelme, who was raised by Modernism. Or on Modernism. Certainly in Modernism. In his words, he and his siblings “were enveloped in Modernism.” He grew up in a mid-century modern house designed by his architect-father, Donald Barthelme Sr., on the outskirts of Houston. (Is Modernism big in Houston right now?) Interiors of the house were featured in Architectural Forum. His experience, that is, the experience of being the son of a prominent Modernist architect, was circumscribed by design; the world could be improved through good design. But this depended on a restricted sense of the world. Later, in one of those highly scripted Paris Review interviews, Barthelme hinted that something about the project of Modernist architecture, and by implication his father’s worldview, wasn’t living up to its promises: “The Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and his followers, Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers, Le Corbusier, all envisioned not just great buildings but an architecture that would engender a radical improvement in human existence. The buildings were to act on society, change it in positive ways. None of this happened and in fact a not insignificant totalitarian bent manifested itself.”
Barthelme’s fiction is full of fathers, both literal and symbolic (but of course the literal ones are also symbolic). His novel The Dead Father is, if not his most overt, certainly his most sustained paternal text, in that it is both about fathers and a father in its own right. I’ll try to explain. In the 60s and 70s, when Barthelme was regularly contributing to the New Yorker, he was extremely popular and often copied. His bibliography has a bizarre section of works falsely attributed to him. This is especially amusing considering Barthelme’s own various appropriations of material and style: rewritings of Snow White and Sabatini’s Captain Blood, Beckettian dialogues, a chapter of The Dead Father written in a Joycean language, etc. This all combined into what Thomas Pynchon called “Barthelismo”—pastiche begetting pastiche.
It’s difficult to say what The Dead Father is. Some critics have posited that the novel, in which a giant dead (but not dead) father with a mechanical leg is dragged through various sparse landscapes and finally buried, is a portrayal of the decline of Modernism and the apotheosis of Postmodernism. You can only read the novel this way if you ignore most of what’s in it. It baits such a reading, snares it, shows it its own stupidity. Where Lyotard’s formulations of the dialogic between Modernism and Postmodernism gets into trouble for its logical paradox,1 Barthelme can dance around logic with narrative and laugh (presumably) while critics try to fix meaning. He’s running around pulling everyone’s chairs out from underneath their arses.
In the same year The Dead Father was published, the New Yorker printed one of Barthelme’s numerous unattributed contributions to the Notes and Comments section of the magazine, this one a farcical “Letter to a literary critic.” Almost any line of the letter captures the ironic unraveling of the modern/postmodern paradigm, but take this one at random: “The death of a movement is a natural part of life, as was understood so well by the partisans of Naturalism, which is dead.” Equally amusing are his suggestions for the name of the next movement, like the “New Newness” or the “Post-New.” This is typical of Barthelme. He presents you with what looks like a stable surface on which you can neatly set the “meaning,” and then he flips the table. For some reason I am prone to these kinds of dinner party disaster metaphors, which feel tame next to Barthelme’s humorous moribundity. “Murderinging is not correct, said the Dead Father. The sacred and noble Father should not be mudereded. Never. Absolutely not.”
Behind all of these fathers is a parade of other fathers; ego ideals, rivals, obstacles, inheritance––all the things fathers are in addition to being fathers. No one would be surprised to find Freud in the lineup.2 But his biggest father (very much alive while Barthelme was writing and even outliving him by about 5 months) was Samuel Beckett.
If this essay were made out of bricks, you would not peer at the bricks wondering, “what do these bricks mean?” Or maybe you would. I shouldn’t assume. And anyway, words are not bricks, are they. Beckett––who does not believe that things like words and paint and other “expressive media” are actually capable of expression, but are rather a sort of construction material––has built out of his words a bloody great big roadblock. No detour indicated. And further on, we know, is yet another roadblock, one built by the man whose shoes Beckett once literally wore.
Over the course of his “Three Dialogues” with Georges Duthuit, Beckett insists on the paradox of a simultaneously necessary and impossible compulsion to express:
D.––What other plane can there be for the maker?
B.––Logically none. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.
D.––And preferring what?
B.––The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
The painter Bram van Velde was the first, according to Beckett, to confront this contradiction and do the only possible thing: not paint, or rather paint without expression. But the compulsion never seems to go away. The statement is collapsed into the famous “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” that concludes The Unnameable.
In a way, though, metaphors of literary paternity are inevitably misleading. The lion in the road, the obstacle, the anxiety of influence, etc., are all figures of prohibition. Does reading Beckett prohibit you from writing like Beckett? Or does it compel you toward some form of imitation? Pierre Menard could hardly have written Don Quixote without Cervantes having already written it. Hunter S. Thompson claimed to have developed his style by typing and retyping The Great Gatsby. Imagine what transcribing portions of Finnegan’s Wake must have done to Beckett’s. By choosing your literary fathers, by allowing them to adopt you, you take up the family business. Lord knows you’ll do things differently when you’re in charge, but you’re not going to turn a funeral home into a water park, are you? For a generation of writers that was kicked off by William Gaddis’ tome on artistic plagiarism and Brion Gysin and William Burroughs’s cut-ups, fathers were not prohibitive but rather a vast decaying material waiting for reinvigoration.
In 1941, when The Flowers of Tarbes was published, Jean Paulhan was already suspicious, as many writers and critics including Barthelme would later be, of the possibility of newness. In fact, he labeled as a “terrorist” anyone who perpetuated the fallacy that language could outrace its own ossification into cliché. The terror arises from the irreconcilable facts of our irrepressible desire to use words to express or convey meaning on the one hand, and of the absolute impossibility of doing so on the other.3 Since there is no question of neutralizing the source of this terror, Paulhan says that the only thing to do is to turn it against itself. The very clichés he has been berating for their stupidity, for their lack of meaning, become the material for his solution. By virtue of their emptiness, they do not trick us into imagining that they can express. They are purely rhetorical and plainly indicate their rhetorical capacity. Rather than spending words and breath trying to achieve and transcribe clarity of thought, Paulhan thinks we should focus on the impurities of self-reflexivity and the restrictions that writing puts on the free play of the mind. Remember all the great ideas you had that were ruined by trying to write them down. In fact, I had this all worked out in my head, but now that I’m obliged write it down I’m finding it difficult. Shelley once called this the dying embers of inspiration, but Paulhan claims that the problem inheres in the nature of linguistic mediation. Lieux communs, or “commonplaces,” in spite of their distasteful un-literariness, free us from the very terror they inspire by making their inexpressiveness explicit.
But if Beckett is right about the expressive compulsion, this knowledge doesn’t fully resolve things. I have no idea if Beckett read Paulhan, but his fiction and drama are full of lieux communs and formulaic phrases, words that are merely words. Barthelme has similarly taken up the mantle of indicating the materiality of words. Slogan-chanting abounds. There are dialogues made up entirely of clichés positioned paratactically so that no possible meaning can be extracted.
Inching by dying by.
Not bad not serious.
It was the damnedest thing.
It was the damnedest thing.
Old Danish saying.
Repetition is reality.
Does this mean that Beckett’s inheritance, passed to Barthelme in attenuated form, is simply the meaninglessness of writing? No no, it’s not as bad as all that.
The father is only father in relation to his son; and the son is a son only in relation to his father. Why can’t fatherhood extend in the opposite direction, the way Lyotard has reversed the relationship between Modernism and Postmodernism? I started reading Joyce and Beckett because I was reading Barthelme, so for me the lineage runs backwards. Barthelme the son has shaped the way I read his literary fathers; has, in this sense, fathered his fathers. What is fathered is, not texts per se, but certainly the engagement with texts. For example, you read Molloy and are constantly confronted with the instability of the narrative: Molloy’s distrust of his memory, his inability to describe his village without other villages to compare it to (i.e. the impossibility of description without differentiation), the disconnect between words and things, and the general obstruction of the smooth functioning of language at every point. The implication is not so much that we’ve been building the wrong things––an airplane out of bricks?––but that we’re looking at them the wrong way: instead of enjoying the strange wonder of a brick airplane, we are just frustrated at its inability to fly. The 19th century epistolary novel suddenly becomes a fantastic experiment in indicating the materiality of the text. Walton’s arctic letters in Frankenstein (speaking of fathers!) are not valuable because of their expressiveness or their ability to capture the scene; they are an indication of a reality mediated by words, just as the monster’s reality is mediated by the words he finds in Paradise Lost.
Barthelme’s relationship with his own father was no less complicated. Donald Sr. and Donald Jr. were both held up as apogees of their designated periods. According to Jr.’s biography, the relationship was as contentious as it was enriching. But biographies are made out of words, and there are more interesting words to be found on the subject. There is a book within a book in The Dead Father, found by the wandering troupe. A Manual For Sons: Translated from the English by Peter Scatterpatter. No author is named. An amazing document, really. Instead of writing this essay I should have simply reprinted it in full—but, you know, copyright law, etc. The text is full of ideology-busting wisdom: no son can truly be a father (what father is not also a son?); in order to find a father he must first be decisively lost. The manual concludes with advice for the son whose father has just died. “Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least ‘turned down’ in this generation––by the combined efforts of all of us together.”
Near the end of The Dead Father we finally meet a mother. After tailing the dead father-dragging caravan at a mysterious distance, she approaches on horseback. She is given a shopping list and rides off, presumably for the shop. This is neither what it looks like nor not what it looks like. These archaic housewives show up in funny places in Barthelme’s work. They are foils to the paternal authority, the authority that depends on a subservient housewife in order to enforce itself. The other female characters, patriarchy-smashers of a sort, take the piss out of it. Sometimes the actual piss, as when the Dead Father slays an orchestra and then pisses on the dead musicians. “Impressive, said Julie, had they not been pure cardboard.” Julie is, along with Thomas, one of the Dead Father’s would-be successors, and this is another narrative that is problematized throughout the novel: the decline of a patriarchal society––with which Modernism is certainly associated––and the rise of a new gender dynamic. But not without resistance: it is Thomas who sends Mother to the shop. Relinquishing patriarchal authority is not as simple as burying the Dead Father.
But no, perhaps I’m mistaken.
1 In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard describes postmodernism as the end of metanarratives, but this assigns a metanarrative to postmodernism itself. Oops!
2 For Freud a dead father is the most powerful leader figure. He has transcended the external parameters of authority and has entered the very ego of whomever he dominates. Guilt. In the Western Christian tradition we have been spared the onerous, and frankly illegal, task of patricide. Christianity has provided lots of dead fathers.
3 French theorists seem to have a unique insight into this problem: Foucault has a nightmare in which he can’t read; Blanchot wonders whether there might not be something more sinister hidden behind Paulhan’s linguistic musings.