Father-murder and father-rescue: the post-Freudian allegories of Donald Barthelme.
by Michael Zeitlin

For a good many of his critics Donald Barthelme represents American postmodernism at its formally self-conscious and experimental best. There is no reason to deny Barthelme's brilliance as an inventor of forms, but I believe we insufficiently appreciate the nature and scope of his achievement insofar as we continue to stress technique over substance, structure over content, signifiers over signifieds, language "itself" over the materials - texts, ideas, realities - it represents and transforms. In the prevailing discussions of Barthelme the valorization of form and technique entails the virtual annulment of "content" and "meaning" as usable concepts of literary analysis. As Jerome Klinkowitz has provocatively put it recently, in Barthelme "signs (and not meanings) are what are read"(24). An associated and equally widespread critical notion about Barthelme's discourse is that, lacking a central meaning or stable subject, Barthelme's characteristic tale forms itself out of the fragments and junk of our contemporary civilization - "the refuse of our culture, our post-Gutenberg heap" (Molesworth 1) - whose random components are pasted together in a manner akin to dadaist collage. The meaning of the apparently contingent arrangement of figures, if bewildering in its peculiar manifestation, is all too clear in its overall import: such narrative disorder must be taken as signifying a predominating cultural disorder and hence, in the memorable words of Walter Benjamin, "a crisis in perception itself" (189). Since contemporary existence is bereft of large-scale spiritual and metaphorical coherence, Barthelme's stories appropriately have no traditional beginnings, middles, or ends; they make no conventionally logical transitions between events and, in being irreducible or untotalizable, refrain from giving us a sentimental or fraudulently coherent picture of the world. Hence the foregrounding of Barthelme's technique and his most quoted dictum, "Fragments are the only forms I trust" ("See the Moon?" 107). Or as one early critic explained, "We perceive in fragments, live in fragments, are no doubt dying by fragments; should we not, then, write in fragments, emphasizing thereby the strange disjunctions, the even stranger juxtapositions, that are part of the everyday experience of modern life?" (Schickel 14).(1)

Of course we've encountered this kind of argument before, but if in refracting "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy" Barthelme's narratives imply a potent critique of "contemporary history" (Eliot 177), the characteristic critical gesture turns from assessing the substance of that critique toward valorizing form and experimentation, and so toward celebrating, as Barthelme's greatest achievement, the production of a prodigious readerly vertigo. In the words of Maurice Couturier and Regis Durand, "All [of Barthelme's linguistic] devices stagger our imagination, baffle our intelligence, and eventually induce us to evolve our private interpretation, no matter how extravagant it may be, to escape the tension and embarrassment" (17). Any private interpretation, however, must fall - fortunately, for these critics - into the Slough of Indeterminacy, despite the positivistic aspirations of even the most sophisticated and scientific of semiotic analyses: "the prime lesson that can be drawn from this linguistic analysis, which emulates Barthelme's own research, is that language has a life of its own which no amount of scientific investigation can ever hope to describe or comprehend" (Couturier and Durand 23; emphasis added). That is to say, if Barthelme's "appealing nonsense . . . flouts all our learned discourses [and] cannot be reduced to tame structures" (23), then "indeterminacy," "undecidability," and other celebrated variations on the "endless freeplay of signification" must hold unchallenged sway over the world of Barthelme criticism, dissolving in the ubiquitous metatheme of "writing itself" any interpretive project interested in grasping a further meaning out of the sequence of printed signifiers on the page. As Charles Molesworth has articulated the predominating view of Barthelme's art:

We can easily enough identify Barthelme as a writer of metafiction ... as one who writes less obviously about the traditional subjects - love, fame, death - than about the conventions of writing itself. (1)

There is little overt sense that Barthelme wants to engage psychological or social questions of great import in a manner of high seriousness. (4)

For Barthelme the highest success is not if the story strikes us as true, but rather if it shows us how it works.(2)

The overall purpose of my discussion here, then, is to probe for ways of moving beyond the prevailing insistence on "formal questions" as the only ones worth asking about Barthelme's fiction; to see whether we can acknowledge - even celebrate - the "structural function" of the sign without suppressing its power of representing the kinds of social and psychological realities that one encounters in a narrative like The Dead Father; and to locate Barthelme's narrative experiments with reference to a literary and cultural context that promises to illuminate the organizational principles inherent in the apparent disorder of his literary surfaces.

I take as one among many possible starting points the following premise: that as a highly self-conscious and sophisticated postmodernist, Donald Barthelme not only knew about Freud but read many of his major texts; that through a process of absorption, assimilation, and transfiguration, psychoanalysis came to take up a central presence in Barthelme's narrative discourse; and that there were important personal as well as artistic reasons (if the distinction is an intelligible one in Barthelme's case) for his interest in psychoanalysis. If the premise is true, then as a strict matter of literary criticism and cultural history, a decent if not detailed familiarity with psychoanalytic texts is indispensable to an understanding of the essential ideas, purposes, and strategies of Barthelme's cardinal narratives. That is to say, one of my goals in this essay, borrowing the words of Fredric Jameson (and hyperbole aside), is

to enlarge the conception of the literary text itself, so that its ... psychoanalytic ... and social resonances might become audible (and describable) within that experience of literary language and aesthetic form to which I remain committed. (The stereotypical characterization of such enlargement as reductive remains a never-ending source of hilarity). (xxvii)

To proceed then: In "Views of My Father Weeping," "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," and The Dead Father, Barthelme rereads and rewrites some central narratives of classical psychoanalysis as they appear in the writings of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalyst contemporary, Karl Abraham. In Barthelme, in other words, postmodern must also mean post-Freudian; identifiable "thought structures," "phantasies," "wish-creations," and typical patterns, as they are isolated and defined in the classical psychoanalytic literature, guide Barthelme to the kind of personal and intertextual material with which he works, influence his modes of wit and humor, and frame the narrative problems that generate that remarkable variety of experimental solutions to which the critics have rightly pointed. Appreciating Barthelme's revisionary project opens the way to seeing his fragmentary discourse as less a refraction of postmodern disarray than as an effect of a more or less disguised and intensely polemical dialogue with modernism's foremost "cartographers of the mind" and theorists of the father-son relation - fathers and sons are Barthelme's flood subject, after all.(3)

"Views of My Father Weeping": Barthelme/Freud/Abraham

Jerome Klinkowitz has observantly noted that "Views of My Father Weeping" "puts Barthelme straight on the road to The Dead Father" (Barthelme 55), but reading this tale within the context of psychoanalysis it unmistakably draws upon, I reject the notion that with the opening two sentences of the short story Barthelme "starts with a fresh slate in a realm of writerly action never yet inscribed" (56). In one of its major aspects, Barthelme's story is a deliberate fictional recasting of Karl Abraham's classic psychoanalytic essay "Father-Murder and Father-Rescue in the Fantasies of Neurotics" (1922), which is itself a psychoanalytic elaboration of the Oedipus myth as it occurs in Sophocles and then, decisively, in Freud. "Views of My Father Weeping," that is to say, is an intertextual discourse par excellence, announcing its troubled affiliation with Abraham's essay in its opening gambit:

An aristocrat was riding down the street in his carriage. He ran over my father...

I stood in the square where my father was killed and asked people passing by if they had seen, or knew of anyone who had seen, the incident. At the same time I felt the effort was wasted. Even if I found the man whose carriage had done the job, what would I say to him? "You killed my father." "Yes," the aristocrat would say, "but he ran right in under the legs of the horses. My man tried to stop but it happened too quickly. There was nothing anyone could do." Then perhaps he would offer me a purse full of money.

(115-16; emphasis added)

This is a splendidly ironical amplification and reversal of the fantasy (or "wish-creation") as described in Abraham's essay:

In the fantasy I have in mind the patient imagines he is walking along a street. He unexpectedly sees coming towards him at a terrific pace a carriage in which is sitting the king (or another highly placed personage). He instantly seizes the horses by the reins and brings the carriage to a standstill, thus saving the king from the risk of death. (335)

In Oedipus the King, of course, the son kills the father:

Making my way toward this triple crossroad I began to see a herald, then a brace of colts drawing a wagon, and mounted on the bench ... a man, just as you've described him, coming face-to-face, and the one in the lead and the old man himself were about to thrust me off the road - brute force - and the one shouldering me aside, the driver, I strike him in anger! - and the old man, watching me coming up along his wheels - he brings down his prod, two prongs straight at my head! I paid him back with interest! Short work, by god - with one blow of the staff in this right hand I knock him out of his high seat, roll him out of the wagon, sprawling headlong - I killed them all- every mother's son!

(206.884-99; ellipsis in original)

In Abraham's report, the son rescues the father; however, Abraham furnishes us with a standard piece of psychoanalytic logic with which to link the two narratives: Freud pointed out that the tendency to rescue the father is chiefly the expression of an impulse of defiance on the son's part" (334); and where there is defiance, the way is opened to the most heinous of unspeakable practices, unnatural acts" (the title, of course, of Barthelme's 1968 short story collection), namely parricide, "the principal and primal crime of humanity as well as of the individual" (Freud, "Dostoevsky and Parricide" 183). Where in Abraham the father is rescued, that rescue is a screen for a darker impulse which, inadmissible to consciousness," is disguised and transfigured into its opposite: only thus can it "evade the censorship" and press its way into the light. As a highly charged symbolic "complex" of emotions and ideas, "the rescue," when subjected to the ineluctable hermeneutic impulse of Freudian psychoanalysis, can be made to reveal the original parricidal impulse it screens within itself.

With such standard psychoanalytic logic in mind, let's turn to Barthelme's revision. Here the son (the central subject of the "My" of the title, that is, the narrator, dreamer, witness - let's call him "Oedipus" - who in Abraham's narrative is the prototype of the figure who rushes forth to seize the reins of the runaway horses) suddenly and without explanation becomes the father who is run over by "an aristocrat" with whom the son seeks but never achieves rapprochement, or more: as he muses at the outset, "perhaps he will offer me a purse full of money"; or, as the logic of the story shows, fusing family romance into the structure of the unfolding oedipal fantasy, perhaps he has a beautiful daughter whom he'll invite me to marry (when he arrives at the aristocrat's abode he finds "a darkhaired, beautiful girl, quite young, who said nothing and looked at no one" [124]); or, continuing to paraphrase the barely disguised "underthoughts" of the narrative, perhaps he will acknowledge me as his son and love me.(4)

At first glance, one might be tempted simply to view Barthelme's revision - or should we say condensation and displacement - of Abrahams narrative as his way of refusing the blandishments of the always already established Freudian oedipal fantasy. Indeed at that level it works as a notably transgressive and parodic gesture of narrative self-assertion. But ff we believe there is something more at play here (for in Barthelme it is invariably wrong to assume that there are no large-scale patterns of thought which draw into conceptual coherence the complex display of the signifiers), we need to enter more fully into the game of interpretation. We must attempt "a construction."

Let us note, then, that Barthelme's revision begins by undoing Abraham's strategy of displacement and reversal, returning us to the archaic and proscribed impulse of Oedipus the King which "lies beneath" the manifest screen of the pseudorescue as reported in Abraham. But there is a crucial difference between Barthelme's version and the one whose genealogy connects Sophocles, Freud, and Abraham: in the originary version, the figure "Oedipus" rushes toward the carriage with the intention of murdering (or rescuing) and succeeds in that action; in Barthelme's revision, the running figure who would "seize the horses by the reins" is himself run over and killed; moreover, that figure is no longer the son (as the structure of the scene would demand) but the father. How, in other words, did the father become displaced out of his seat in the carriage to be killed in the son's place?

Clearly, with this radical displacement and audacious reversal we are still in the "constellation of the Oedipus dream" (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams 399n), whose intention, the killing of the father, is, if anything, intensified. But so too is the problem of agency: where in the prior version the son is unmistakably responsible for the crime, Barthelme's sleight-of-hand revision has covered the son's role in a fog of unknowing. No simple exchange of positions appears to have taken place, for the son is not in the driver's seat of the carriage where we might expect to find him; instead he is only a passive, after-the-fact witness to the crime. Despite this normally airtight alibi, he still bears some mysterious sense of guilt, for he lets slip the telltale clue: "I had been notified by the police, who came to my room and fetched me to the scene of the accident" (117). Naturally, as Barthelme surely intends, "the police" may be taken as a standard form of the "projection" of what psychoanalysis calls the "proscriptive agency." In taking up residence in the individual psyche, that agency is more commonly designated as the superego, the force which observes, judges, and punishes the self and, in so doing, reinforces what the conversationalists in Barthelme's brilliant tale "Daumier" call "a deep and abiding sense of personal worthlessness" (222).

The son, as it were, is guilty by definition." But the problem at the level of the tale's plot is still why the son would feel guilty if he was not "directly" involved in what is generally being described as an "accident" but which he himself treats as a terrible "crime." A clue from Freud may be helpful in this regard: "It is a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime; psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done" (Freud, "Dostoevsky" 189). Certainly, once arrived at "the scene," the son takes a rather keen interest in what he finds: "I bent over my father, whose chest was crushed, and laid my cheek against his. His cheek was cold. I smelled no liquor but blood from his mouth stained the collar of my coat" (117-18). The focus of the problem must accordingly shift, then, to the question of who it was who was "driving" literally symbolically, emotionally, imaginatively, and so forth) the chariot. And indeed the tale is structured, in one of its principal narrative vectors, which runs in a linear and progressive fashion, as the tracking down of a mystery. The son, like Nathaniel Hawthorne's young Robin Molineux, sets out in search of his (would-be) kinsman, a "highly placed personage" who not only lies behind some strange and mysterious crime but will also be subjected to a terrible public debasement (in Barthelme's tale the drunken, deranged, and pathetic father is the aristocrat's inevitable psychical counterpart). And like young Molineux's, the son's "subject of inquiry" (Hawthorne 50) leads inexorably toward a rude confrontation with his own unsuspected complicity in the patriarch's undoing. What is more difficult to understand, however, is the son's motivation in Views of My Father Weeping" for undertaking his quest toward the revelation of what must be a terrible secret, the identity of the one responsible for the father's death. That secret once revealed, will the son want to avenge the killing? Establish his affiliation with the one who "did the job"? Rescue the aristocrat from the rage of the demented father? Kill the aristocrat himself in a repetition of the founding crime of the narrative? Marry into the family? And so on. (Remember, quoting Emily Dickinson, "This was a dream," and so we need to alter radically any sense of psychical temporality and causality that might reduce "the subject's history to a linear determinism envisaging nothing but the action of the past upon the present" [Laplanche and Pontalis 112].)

It is this psychic tangle of contradictory and coexisting impulses that finds its objective correlative" in the disturbances of the tale's narrative structure, in all the ways in which that would-be steady and linear progress toward the discovery of a secret is radically disrupted by a succession of fragmentary and absurd views of weeping and pathetic fathers. With respect to that perennial "Barthelme problem," the apparent disorganization of his literary "surfaces," let us immediately grant the conspicuous fact that those surfaces seldom unfold in a purely regular (chronological or otherwise) order. Rather, one encounters a persistent interference with the narrative's progressive flow, not only by means of flashbacks," "fantasies," and subjective "countercurrents" of imagery (such shameless metaphors and anthropomorphisms tend to remain remarkably relevant), but also through spatial divisions (the notorious fragments) and an achronological arrangement of the blocks of narrative themselves. Within these blocks there are also rapid shifts of attention and frequent ellipses, substantial gaps in narrative continuity which must signify something beyond simply themselves. The point would not necessarily be to naturalize such phenomena as the effects of some particular character's "repression," let alone as the disfunctioning of the author's fragmented or schizoid psyche, but to recognize the analogy of the dreamwork according to which the narrative as a whole appears to behave. In the imaginative "work" of narrative discourse, the disruption of surfaces is an effect of "the evasion of the censorship"; it is also a signature of the impact of guilt and repression on the sequence of memory and on the construction and reconstruction of what is remembered. To borrow a line from Jacques Lacan, in Barthelme's narrative discourse "the amnesia of repression is one of the most lively forms of memory" (52). That is to say, Barthelme's "experimentation in narrative structure" is fully a part of what psychoanalysis would call the emotional deep material" of the story, suggesting a historically specific (that is, Freudian and modernist) conception of the modes and structures of fantasy, memory, and repression that problematize the coherent telling of any psychosexual history, psychological allegory, or postmodernist refraction and amplification of such traditional narrative forms. If Barthelme then gives us a postmodernist mimesis of "modernist" repression, the formally self-conscious and parodic terms with which he does so are fully responsive to the dramatic, psychological, and intertextual contexts of his narrative.(5)

Klinkowitz is therefore acutely observant when he notes that Barthelme's narratives tend to bring about a shift of both writerly and readerly energy from the depth of meaning to the surface of signification" (28). But I think he misreads the import of that phenomenon when he concludes that "the surface of signification" is the place to which Barthelme wants us to confine our attention, or further, that the surface -indeed is where the business of being human takes place" (28). Take as an example this crucial passage from the story:

I remember once we were out on the ranch shooting peccadillos (result of a meeting, on the plains of the West, of the collared peccary and the nine-banded armadillo). My father shot and missed. He wept. This weeping resembles that weeping. (116)

Critics of Klinkowitz's persuasion, interested in the way in which the text "shift[s] . . . attention from thought to words" (23) or "transfer[s] . . . attention from the depths of meaning to the texture of surface" (42), will naturally be drawn to the linguistic play of the passage. But clearly, in the context of the story that play is a kind of diversionary tactic ("see how playful, clever, and postmodern I'm being") transferring our attention away from the underlying parricidal theme which one may infer from the undisguised "content" of the passage, that is, the father's humiliation. The meaning of that humiliation comes closer to "the real story," one which is "beneath the surface" only in the sense that its thematic, ideational, and symbolic complexities are precisely what the conspicuous play on "peccadillo" attempts to divert our attention away from. If Barthelme sometimes "ask[s] his readers to look away from the previously central concerns of character and plot in order to sense the more subtle aspects of his art" (Klinkowitz 20), those subtle aspects of his art do not prevent its central obsessive concerns from existing, and so from demanding our closest attention. In fact, this might be identified as a cardinal principle of his art, or at least precisely its point: the shifting of attention away from "central concerns" is a gambit, a ruse, and a deflection; it is also a manifest invitation to reverse the trend of the narrative's centrifugal force, and so to read from the sign on the surface to the ruling ideas "beneath" it - the conceptual and intertextual organizational principles that structure the disposition of the signifiers throughout the narrative as a whole. When in the presence of the literary act of condensation and displacement, it is best to recognize it for the "defense" that it is and attempt to undo, imaginatively, its effects: one might then be taken to a place where an equally important part of "the real business of being human takes place."

Having made this polemical excursion, we are now in a better position to return to the narrative's "code of action" and follow its complex, devious, though inexorable path to the lair of "the aristocrat." As we have already noted, that path is bestrewn with multiple, fragmentary, and pathetic images of weeping fathers, and so the picture of a fundamental ambivalence emerges more clearly. On the me hand there is the aristocrat, Abraham's "highly placed personage," the exalted figure out of Freudian family romance ("A count! I had selected a man of very high rank indeed to put my question to" ["Views" 124]) whose idealization may be read as a defense against latent or repressed hostile impulses. On the other hand there is his lowly "real life" counterpart, the sheer frequency of whose reiteration in the narrative is an index of the intensity of that hostility. No aristocrat, king, or prince, the son's father appears in the narrative as a mailman, insurance salesman, child, and fool, as a weeping and pathetic figure exposed again and again in scenes of humiliation, feminization, failure:

I entered the shop and made inquiries. "It was your father, eh? He was bloody clumsy if you ask me.... If your father hadn't been drunk - ." (117)

He is fatherly. The gray in the head. The puff in the face. The droop in the shoulders. The flab on the gut. Tears falling. Tears falling. Tears falling. Tears falling. More tears. (118)

My father has written on the white wall with his crayons. (120)

My father is looking at himself in a mirror. He is wearing a large hat (straw) on which there are a number of blue and yellow plastic jonquils. He says: "How do I look?"(6) (123)

Suffused by a tone of derision and ridicule, the immoderate and exaggerated features of these passages are at the heart of the psychoanalytic notion of "the absurd," which in the process of imaginative unfolding (be it dream or artistic production) is an effect of the censorship as it contends with irrepressible thoughts of a disrespectful kind. In "Views of My Father Weeping," the debasement of the father is in this sense an act of imagination preparatory to his more complete undoing at the level of "plot," which may be taken as indicating the realm of "motility" or the "place" where imaginary impulses are "acted out." If "ambivalence . . . prepares us for the possibility of the father being subjected to a debasement" (Freud, "Demonological Neurosis" 87), then debasement leads to the possibility of the father's murder, the ruling fantasy which presses into its service the narrative's general modes of derision and violence. One hardly needs a carriage - in Barthelme, death and mortification of the patriarch are simply inevitable effects of narrative discourse itself:

He was dragged, you know. The carriage dragged him about forty feet. (118)

The heavy wheels of the carriage passed over him (I felt two quite distinct thumps), his body caught upon a projection under the boot, and he was dragged some forty feet, over the cobblestones.... nor could any human agency have stopped them.(7) (125)

Despite this last disclaimer we may still feel impelled to pin the "accident" on some one person, preferably someone as much like the son as possible but sufficiently different so as to be in no danger of being taken literally for the son himself. Barthelme accomplishes the necessary doubling with a neat trick of plot. A little girl to whom the son had given some candy now for five crowns gives him a crucial piece of information to help him in his search: "The coachman's name is Lars Bang." The sounding of the strange name conjures up an uncanny effect: "When I heard this name, which in its sound and appearance is rude, vulgar, not unlike my own name, I was seized with repugnance" (120). Bang is a figure, in other words, who comes to us, perhaps directly, from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson," where "repugnance" is also an effect of one part of the self's horrible recognition of its vulgar, "low class" other half.(8) The son, in other words, has been there in the driver's seat all along: it was he, Lars Bang, the doppelganger as Self, whose negotiation of the carriage actually "did the job."

But if we feel we have "solved" the mystery we are again thwarted, for even Lars Bang seems to have a convincing alibi, so complex, tenacious, and devious are the mechanisms of the son's defenses. In Bang's oral account of "the accident" one encounters a steady and inexorable displacement of blame from any active intention, purpose, or responsibility. Listening to his exculpatory discourse, one is surely meant to be alert to the signatures of "unconscious agency" and thus to the obvious fraudulence and bad faith of his alibi:

we found ourselves set upon by an elderly man, thoroughly drunk, who flung himself at my lead pair and began cutting at their legs with a switch, in the most vicious manner imaginable.... At this renewed attack the horses, frightened out of their wits, jerked the reins from my hands, and ran headlong over your father, who fell beneath their hooves. The heavy wheels of the carriage passed over him (I felt two quite distinct thumps), his body caught upon a projection under the boot, and he was dragged some forty feet, over the cobblestones. I was attempting, with all my might, merely to hang on to the box, for having taken the bit between their teeth, the horses were in no mood to tarry; nor could any human agency have stopped them. We flew down the street . . . (125; emphasis added; second ellipsis Barthelme's)

The emphasis on the passive quality of his role takes us into the domain of the self's internal foreign territory, the place where blind, murderous force is disowned and denied even as it has its day in the realm of motility. As Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, "when conscious purposive ideas are abandoned, concealed purposive ideas assume control of the current of ideas" (531) and thus of the action. Besides, as Barthelme knew if Lars Bang didn't, scape-goating the horses is an old and transparent psychoanalytic ploy:

The ego's relation to the id might be compared with that of a rider to his horse. The horse supplies the locomotive energy, while the rider has the privilege of deciding on the goal and of guiding the powerful animal's movement. But only too often there arises between the ego and the id the not precisely ideal situation of the rider being obliged to guide the horse along the path by which it itself wants to go. (Freud, "Dissection" 77)

To sum up, in Barthelme's intensification of the ultimately fatal import inherent in Abraham's " wish-creation," he completes a prior narrative that, in the words of Harold Bloom, "failed to go far enough" (14). He does so by going back to the latent Sophoclean significance which, inherent in Abraham's report, enters "Views of My Father Weeping" like an eruption of the archaic into the ironically self-conscious but still dark and troubled heart of American postmodernism. But by completing that modernist narrative, Barthelme clearly has succeeded only in raising the stakes of the dangerous game of "father-murder and father-rescue," not, of course, in winning it. Yes, "the father" has been run over, but from the position reserved for the son within the structure of the prototypical oedipal scene; that is, in this narrative of simultaneous, contradictory, and yet also complementary investments of "subject positions" within a psychical structure, the son runs out to "save" the father but is murdered by him instead. Or, transferring that dramatized relation to the narrative's mimesis of a "psychic level" of experience, the son kills the father in fantasy but is left to be ravaged forevermore by guilty dreams - or views - of weeping and pathetic fathers (the last word of the story is "etc."). After all, who is this dead and weeping father but the father-in-the-son, the imago of the father whom the son loves, hates, fears, and wishes to become but also not to become himself.(9) Barthelme's version of the myth, then, is darker even than Sophocles': Barthelme's son is denied his oedipal victory, dying the thousand deaths of remorse before he gets anywhere close to Jocasta or to solving the mystery of the roots of his own existence.

Robert Kennedy Saved/The Dead Father Bulldozed

A second major example of what may be placed under the sign of "psychoanalytic intertextuality" indicates just how pervasive and deepgoing in Barthelme's art is the complex of ideas involving the rescue/murder of the father. "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning," Freud's essay, "A Special Type of Object Choice Made by Men" (1910), and The Dead Father illustrate the dialectical relation of the theme and press into bold, self-conscious articulation the shaping narrative forces which in "Views of My Father Weeping" remain latent though no less purposive and consequential in their effects. "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" ends with a scene of striking oneiric intensity:

K. Saved from Drowning

K. in the water. His flat black hat, his black cape, his sword are on the shore. He retains his mask. His hands beat the surface of the water which tears and rips about him. The white foam, the green depths. I throw a line, the coils leaping out over the surface of the water. He has missed it. No, it appears that he has it. His right hand (sword arm) grasps the line that I have thrown him. I am on the bank, the rope wound round my waist, braced against a rock. K. now has both hands on the line. I pull him out of the water. He stands now on the bank, gasping.

"Thank you."


Barthelme's explication de texte may be found in his masterwork, his manual for sons, The Dead Father:

On the rescue of fathers. . . .

. . . When you have rescued a father from whatever terrible threat menaces him, then you feel, for a moment, that you are the father and he is not. For a moment. This is the only moment in your life you will feel this way. (138-39)

Here Barthelme is following and reiterating the original Freudian explication of the rescue fantasy: "All [the sons] instincts, those of tenderness, gratitude, lustfulness, defiance and independence, find satisfaction in the single wish to be his own father" ("Special Type" 173). Freud's explanation is worth quoting at greater length:

It is as though the boy's defiance were to make him say: "I want nothing from my father; I will give him back all I have cost him." He then forms the phantasy of rescuing his father from danger and saving his life; in this way he puts his account square with him. This phantasy is commonly enough displaced on to the emperor, king or some other great man; after being thus distorted it becomes admissible to consciousness, and may even be made use of by creative writers. In its application to a boy's father it is the defiant meaning in the idea of rescuing which is by far the most important.(10) (172-73)

The Dead Father makes clear the defiant meaning at the root of the rescue fantasy. Indeed the entire book is structured as an ambiguous rescue/murder of the father: a band of sons and a couple of daughters are dragging the dead father, who is attached to a cable, across a barren, elemental (or is it simply cardboard?) landscape, in the direction of the Golden Fleece (or is it simply a deep pit in the ground and a view of a raised skirt at the end?). The Dead Father is dead, we are told, because We want the Dead Father to be dead. We sit with tears in our eyes wanting the Dead Father to be dead" (5).

But the Dead Father is dead only "in a sense": he is a human being, a granite monument, a gigantic "super-male with horns, tail, and a big penis snake" (as Freud might describe the Great Father Serpent ["Demonological Neurosis" 90]); a strange, majestic, awe-inspiring object; a pathetic, dangerous, infantile, and paralytic old man; a figure who comes apart; a voice that takes up residence inside one's head. But in all of his manifestations he must be defeated, displaced, gotten beyond. With Freud we should conclude that "the insistence with which [The Dead Father] exhibited its absurdities could only be taken as indicating the presence in the dream-thoughts of a particularly embittered and passionate polemic" (Interpretation of Dreams 436). In the classical Freudian dynamic model, absurdity implies the activity of a vigilant censorship on the watch to repress derisive (or parricidal) dream thoughts. The signs of the struggle emerge as the immoderate and exaggerated features of the dream production. But in the imaginative process of Barthelme's The Dead Father, the censorship fails again and again, for the principle of corpse-baiting is built into the very structure of Barthelme's fictional vision, where it becomes the principal form of narrative action: the Dead Father is berated, tied up, teased, tortured, hacked, rudely addressed. In Barthelme's hyperbolic construction of the dead father, the particularly embittered and passionate polemic" may be taken as generating those warping effects which, as we have seen in "Views of My Father Weeping," emerge as narrative "absurdity" and its various modes of derision.

What is it about the Dead Father that invites so much animus? A silly question.

Can you tell us ... what that hussar had done? The one we saw hanged by the neck from the tree back down the road a bit.

Disobeyed a ukase, said the Dead Father. I forget which ukase.

Oh, said Thomas.

Nobody disobeys a ukase of mine, said the Dead Father. He chuckled.

Smug, isn't he, said Julie.

A bit smug, said Thomas.

A bit, the Dead Father said. (9)

With the Dead Father in his wrath we recognize "a great narcissist" who "regards any interference as an act of lese majeste" in response to which he demands "(like the Draconian code) that any such crime shall receive the one form of punishment which admits of no degrees" (Interpretation of Dreams 255n).

Hence, presumably the importance of the fool's cap in Barthelme, which hardly conceals the signatures of the father's discipline and he son's resentment:

Thomas pulled an orange fool's cap tipped with silver bells from his knapsack.

To think that I have worn this abomination, or its mate, since I was sixteen.

Sixteen to sixty-five, so says the law, said the Dead Father....

And had I been caught out-of-doors without it, my ears cut off, said Thomas. What a notion. What an imagination.... But remember there was a time when he was slicing people's ears off with a wood chisel. Two-inch blade. (7,67)

However, it is well to be reminded by Ernst Kris that

When we laugh at the fool, we never forget that in his comic fancy dress, with bladder and cap, he still carries crown and scepter, symbols of kingship. And is it not possible that the freedom exploited by the fool is a direct inheritance from the omnipotence of his demonic predecessor? (213)

With "His orange tights, orange boots, silver belt buckle with rubies, white Sabatini shirt. His clear and true gold-rimmed spectacles" (59), Barthelme's Thomas, the Dead Father's son, is the archetype of the fool as parricide: we mustn't forget that he ends up with the Dead Father's watch, belt buckle, sword, passport, and power and presides at his funeral.

But does he ever free himself of the remorse, self-doubt, and other residual effects of the father's power? The father has taken up permanent residence in the son's soul, intertwining himself with the son's own most intimate definition of self. In Freud's darkest musings on the subject, the superego is guilt-producing, sadistic, obscene, and savage, the pure agency of the death instinct.(11) Barthelme's version is characteristically more clinical, philosophical, resigned:

you must deal with the memory of a father. Often that memory is more potent than the living presence of a father, is an inner voice commanding, haranguing, yes-ing and no-ing - a binary code, yes no yes no yes no yes no, governing your every, your slightest movement, mental or physical. At what point do you become yourself? Never, wholly, you are always partly him. That privileged position in your inner ear is his last "perk" and no father has ever passed it by. (144)

Hence the need for the fantasy, allowing a temporary and symbolic victory over an indomitable adversary, even if, in turn, that victory generates the soul-killing and son-directed waves of remorse. Is there, then, any way out of this vicious circle? Better let Barthelme, who has thought longer and deeper on these issues than any American writer since Hawthorne, give the glimmer of hope:

Patricide is a bad idea, first because it is contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father's every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide! - a member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere. (145)


(1.)In an interview with Jerome Klinkowitz, Barthelme expressed his impatience with such a reductive view of his art (53-54) and denied that linguistic play was the "wellspring" of his creativity (48). In October 1975, at a symposium with fellow writers William Gass, Grace Paley, and Walker Percy Barthelme also demurred at the notion that he was an "experimental" writer ("Symposium" 15) and gave expression to the long-and-still-proscribed notion that there can be anything real, meaningful, or true "beyond" language: "I would suggest, on the contrary, that 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 of 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's the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it" ("Symposium" 11). Such statements must prove troubling to the host of his critics who would make Barthelme into the supreme champion of the sign.
(2.) On the question of "seriousness" I find noteworthy Thomas Pynchon's definition in the introduction to Slow Learner: "When we speak of 'seriousness' in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death - how characters, may act in its presence" (xiii). By this definition I can think of no more serious novel than The Dead Father.
(3.) "You mention immortality. That is the flood subject. I was told that the bank was the safest place for a finless mind" (Dickinson, Letter 282).
(4.) By means of the family romance, "the subject invents a new family for himself.... Such phantasies.... originate from the pressure exerted by the Oedipus complex. The precise motives for them are many and mixed; the desire to denigrate the parents from one angle while exalting them from another, notions of grandeur, attempts to circumvent the incest barrier, an expression of fraternal rivalry, etc." (Laplanche and Pontalis 160). For classical versions of the fantasy, see Freud's "Creative Writers and Day-dreaming" (148) and, of course, Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus awakens from his ignorance to learn that he is in fact the son of King Laius. Concerning love of the father, a much neglected aspect of the oedipal drama, Barthelme's art tends toward a climactic moment in The Dead Father when Peter Scatterpatter, momentarily addressing the father in A Manual for Sons, concludes his explanation of the sources of the son's resentment thus: "he is insane because when he loved you, you didn't notice" (143).
(5.) Accordingly I disagree with Klinkowitz's conclusion that "As targets, the foibles of high modernism are just that: not deep-reaching issues capable of sustaining an artistic work, but rather easily caricaturized sacred cows with which the text has unabashed fun. The purpose is more to signal an attitude than engage a serious debate, for Barthelme's argument with modernism takes place on the level of form, not content" (14).
(6.) In Barthelme's novel Paradise (1986), the psychoanalytic encounter of analyst and patient is a principal setting; that encounter provides not only the explicit structure of much of the narrative's unfolding but also the occasion for the final soundings of a major theme - an interpretation of a dream: "In the dream, my father was playing the piano, a Beethoven something, in a large concert hall which was filled with people. I was in the audience and I was reading a book. I suddenly realized that this was the wrong thing to do when my father was performing, so I sat up and paid attention. He was playing very well, I thought. Suddenly the conductor stopped the performance and began to sing a passage for my father, a passage that my father had evidently botched. My father listened attentively, smiling at the conductor" (45).
(7.) Barthelme is working a dark and deep-going American vein. See, among many possible examples, Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and the death of the Pyncheon patriarchs. One may also be reminded of the way in which the body of Pap in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is killed again and again as a result of what Frederick Crews might call "|innocent' mischances of plotting" (177).
(8.) "I gazed - while my brain reeled with a multitude of incoherent thoughts. Not thus he appeared - assuredly not thus - in the vivacity of his waking hours. The same name; the same contour of person; the same day of arrival at the academy! And then his dogged and meaningless imitation of my gait, my voice, my habits, and my manner! Was it, in truth, within the bounds of human possibility that what I now witnessed was the result of the habitual practice of this sarcastic imitation? Awe-stricken, and with a creeping shudder, I extinguished the lamp, passed silently from the chamber, and left, at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again" (Poe 140). No one else in either story notices any resemblance.
(9.) Compare this uncanny quotation from Freud's "Dostoevsky and Parricide": "You wanted to kill your father in order to be your father yourself. Now you are your father, but a dead father" (185).
(10.) Flowing into his overdetermined form, twin currents of hostility and (unanswered) love make K. an appropriate figure for the "father transference." That hostility has to do with another major Barthelme theme, which I can only mention here, concerning "the son's" aspirations to be an artist and his fear, reinforced with all the intimidations of the proscriptive father, that he is only a "minor" one. As Peterson in "A Shower of Gold" puts it: "My work isn't authentic. I'm a minor artist.' 'The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us,' Sherry said" (20).
(11.) See Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Ego and the Id, and John T. Irwin's discussion of fathers and sons in Faulkner.


Abraham, Karl. "Father-Murder and Father-Rescue in the Fantasies of Neurotics." The Psychoanalytic Reader: An Anthology of Essential Papers with Critical Introductions. Ed. Robert Fliess. New York: International Universities, 1948. 334-42.
Barthelme, Donald. "Daumier." Sixty Stories 214-30.
_____.The Dead Father. New York: Penguin, 1975.
_____.Interview. With Jerome Klinkowitz. The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Ed. Joe David Bellamy Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1974.45-54.
_____.Paradise. New York: Penguin, 1986.
_____."Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning." Sixty Stories 76-85.
_____."See the Moon?" Sixty Stories 97-107.
_____."A Shower of Gold." Sixty Stories 14-23.
_____.Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam, 1981.
_____,et al. "A Symposium on Fiction." Shenandoah 27 (1976): 3-31.
_____.Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. New York: Farrar, 1968.
_____."Views of My Father Weeping." Sixty Stories 115-26. Benjamin, Walter. "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. 1955. New York: Schocken, 1968. 155-200. Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. London: Oxford UP, 1973. Couturier, Maurice, and Regis Durand. Donald Barthelme. London: Methuen, 1982. Crews, Frederick C. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Dickinson, Emily. "In Winter in My Room" [J. 1670]. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Ed. Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair. New York: Norton, 1973. 1119.
_____.Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. 1866. Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Harper, 1931. 282-83. Eliot, T. S. "Ulysses, Order and Myth." Selected Prose of T S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. London: Faber, 1975. 175-78. Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Standard Edition 18: 1-64.
_____."Creative Writers and Day-dreaming." Standard Edition 9: 141-53.
_____."The Dissection of the Psychical Personality." New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Standard Edition 22: 57-80.
_____. "Dostoevsky and Parricide." Standard Edition 21: 173
_____. The Ego and the Id. Standard Edition 19: 1-66.
_____. The Interpretation of Dreams. Standard Edition 4, 5.
_____. "A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis." Standard Edition 19: 67-105.
_____. "A Special Type of Object Choice Made by Men." Standard Edition 11: 163-75.
_____. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1966. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. 1851. New York: Penguin, 1986.
_____. "My Kinsman, Major Molineux." Selected Tales and Sketches. Ed. Michael J. Colacurcio. New York: Penguin, 1987. 29-50.
Irwin, John T. Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1975.
Jameson, Fredric. Introduction. The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Volume 1: Situations of Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. xxv-xxix.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition. Durham: Duke UP 1991.
Kris, Ernst. Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International Universities, 1952.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis." Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. 31-113.
Laplanche, J., and J.-B. Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1973.
Molesworth, Charles. Donald Barthelme's Fiction: The Ironist Saved from Drowning. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1982.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "William Wilson." Selected Poetry and Prose of Poe. Ed. T. O. Mabbott. New York: Modern Library, 1951. 131-49.
Pynchon, Thomas. Introduction. Slow Learner. 1984. Toronto: Bantam, 1985.
Schickel, Richard. "Freaked Out on Barthelme." New York Times Magazine 16 Aug. 1970: 14-15, 42.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. 1982. New York: Penguin, 1984.155-251.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

<<Source: Contemporary Literature, Summer 1993 v34 n2 p182(22).>>
<< back to main Barthelme page >>