Disastrous Aesthetics: Irony, Ethics, and Gender in Barthelme's Snow White

By Nealon, Jeffrey T. | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Disastrous Aesthetics: Irony, Ethics, and Gender in Barthelme's Snow White
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.