Disastrous Aesthetics: Irony, Ethics, and Gender in Barthelme's Snow White
Nealon, Jeffrey T., Twentieth Century Literature
The observer ought to be an amorist. --Kierkegaard (47)
From the opening of Donald Barthelme's Snow White, the reader is confronted with the question of the aesthetic and its seemingly ironic relation to gender. The text begins:
SHE is a tall dark beauty containing a great many beauty spots: one above the breast, one above the belly, one above the knee, one above the ankle, one above the buttock, one on the back of the neck. All of these are on the left side, more or less in a row, as you go up and down: [dot] [dot] [dot] [dot] [dot] [dot] (3)
Certainly it makes all the sense in the fairy-tale world that a "beauty" like Snow White should have "beauty spots," but within this seemingly self-evident opening passage we are confronted with a series of difficult aesthetic, linguistic, and ideological questions. First, we note a grammatical slippage in the word beauty--initially used as a noun, then as an adjective. However, this slippage, easy enough to deal with and explain linguistically, leads directly to higher-order questions. Is Snow White beautiful because of the spots--do the spots make her beautiful? Or are the spots seen as beautiful because they are attached to such a "beauty"--does she make them beautiful? Is the word spots even right here, or should it give way to the more postmodern marks? Or, conversely, is the whole question of beauty here a merely tautological one--if she's a "beauty" (whatever that may mean), then she's ipso facto got "beauty spots." If we do have a tautology, is it an enclosure out of which the novel cannot lift itself? Can aesthetics progress from this linguistic question? Can Barthelme's version of Snow White properly begin?
Perhaps as compensation for the problems inherent in the word beauty, the reader is next invited to picture Snow White's beauty through the beauty marks that rest not so coincidentally near her fetishized erogenous zones: breast, belly, knee, ankle, buttock, neck. To assist the reader in attempting to conjure up an aesthetic image of Snow White's beauty marks, there's a helpful representation provided in the text. However, this series of bullets on the left side of the page manages only to disrupt or frustrate the reader's representational desire and, in the process, links this frustrated desire to the failure of the word or category beauty--to the tautology that, let us say, opens the text or, perhaps, (fore)closes it as it attempts to begin. Unable to climb toward the light of the signified, we remain exposed to the uncertainty of the signifier.
This problem concerning meaning, which dogs all of Barthelme's Snow White, seems to rob textual or aesthetic production of its traditional privilege and put it on the same level as other cultural productions. This postmodern situation, in turn, troubles traditional aesthetic thinking on at least three registers: first, it robs aesthetics of its role as arbiter of taste and value; second, it collapses the aesthetic distance that is absolutely essential for a traditional notion of aesthetic judgment; (1) finally, and perhaps most cripplingly, such a leveling gesture robs aesthetics of its proper object--after Warhol, how to tell the difference between a disposable commodity and enduring art? But as Dan the dwarf puts it in Snow White's most famous passage, there may be a way for aesthetics to continue from the point where its founding distinctions are irremediably blurred, from the point where art cannot separate itself from trash:
at such a point, you will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this "trash" to a question of appreciating its qualities.... And there can no longer be any question of "disposing" of it, because it's all there is, and we will simply have to learn how to "dig" it--that's slang, but particularly appropriate here. (97)
Here we have all the ingredients for a familiar reading of aesthetics in Snow White and Barthelme's project on the whole: Barthelme, it seems, asks us to consider an ironic aesthetic stance as compensation for the absence of a transcendental signified; whatever we may think of trash, "we will simply have to learn how to 'dig' it." At the cultural point where the distinction between art and trash cannot hold, it is futile to try to recuperate aesthetic categories, insofar as they too are subject to this leveling: one cannot merely dispose of trash "because it's all there is." Put in yet other terms, given the leveling or "'blanketing' effect of ordinary language" (96) that comes about in the absence of an extralinguistic reference point, no language of art can be free from infection by trash: no words or symbols can hope to be pure enough to signify univocally; the purity of the signified is humbled to the base level of the material signifier. To paraphrase very loosely a famous formulation from Paul de Man, trash here becomes the displaced name for a linguistic predicament. (2)
However, this emphasis on words as trash does not necessarily signal the failure of a postmodern aesthetic project in Snow White; rather, on this reading, constituting an aesthetics adequate to this infected condition would actually be the book's (or perhaps the reader's) project. Larry McCaffery writes that "Barthelme's book attempts to create new art out of these same words and in the process it exploits the very nature of the debased condition into which language and story-telling have fallen" (31). Here, both Barthelme and the reader, in taking up what Peter Nicholls summarizes as "the ironic perspective that offers the only way of seeing the world afresh" (15), would be able to salvage a kind of new aesthetic experience, "to create new art" out of the junkpile of the text. And even if the text really does turn out to be garbage, at least the reader would have the solace of being among the few to realize that fact; with any luck at all, the reader as ironist can join Barthelme "at the leading edge of this trash phenomenon" (Snow White 97-98).
There remains, however, a problem here. Given this reading, Snow White is involved not in a radical or postmodern project at all but is rather reproducing the founding, ancient ideas of aesthetics and its helping-hand relation to knowledge. The project of reconstructing or reawakening aesthetic experience does not seem adequately to question the increasingly suspicious category of "experience" and its difficult relation to either aesthetics or knowledge. In other words, if the aim of the project is reawakening a sense of aesthetic wonder--in Barthelme's words, …
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Publication information: Article title: Disastrous Aesthetics: Irony, Ethics, and Gender in Barthelme's Snow White. Contributors: Nealon, Jeffrey T. - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 51. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2005. Page number: 123+. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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