Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Apollo and Dionysus: Donald Barthelme's Dance of Life

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Apollo and Dionysus: Donald Barthelme's Dance of Life

Article excerpt

"We all doubt our authority. We're not sure we understand it."

--Donald Barthelme(1)


In "A Picture History of the War" we meet a son, young Kellerman, who cannot live up to his father's expectations, and a father, the general, who has nothing coherent to say to his son. Eventually Kellerman, in a Kafka-like gesture, repudiates his father ("I'm not accepting any more blame, Papa," he declares), but his need for guidance remains. In the final paragraph he approaches a group of firemen, "gigantic in their black slickers," and begins questioning them about the nature of life. The firemen may be frightened, they may not even know where the fire is, but they represent authority and, for Kellerman, that is enough.(2)

As many readers have noticed,(3) the problem of authority--the search for order, control, and a meaningful set of values--appears everywhere in Barthelme's fiction and on every level: in our political life (Barthelme's President speaks in empty "cadences");(4) in our cultural and intellectual endeavors ("many famous teachers," we are told, "teach courses [merely] in themselves");(5) and in our relationship with the spiritual. God's death, for example, has forced the angels to struggle with new definitions of themselves, to proffer new proofs in the manner of Thomas Aquinas, and even attempt an angelic version of humanism ("for a time the angels had tried adoring each other")--all to no avail ("On Angels").

That the author's search for order is as personal as it is professional has been suggested by his friends and literary acquaintances. In 1970, when Barthelme was coming to national attention, critic Richard Schickel described him as a man with rimless glasses and carefully trimmed beard, who dresses "conservatively"; his New Yorker manuscripts are "very neatly typed." Says a friend, "Barthelme has an impulse to control every aspect of his life" (42), as even a cursory glance at the author's work reveals: his meticulous concern for diction, tone, and rhythm; his fascination with the look of a piece on the page; all of those crisp line drawings and incisive collages.

And yet there is another side to Barthelme that also appears in his fiction: in those very collages that fragment reality, those juxtapositions of conflicting elements, his stream-of-consciousness monologues and colloquies of disembodied voices, and most especially, in his yearning to write a kind of literature that approaches the condition of music--these are the strategies of an author who wishes to break down established categories, demolish traditional forms, to acquire an insight that will take him beyond categories and forms. As journalist Sally Kempton noted, so many years ago, Barthelme "thinks that some shift of vision, if he can manage it, will reveal the true nature of our existence to him" (Schickel 44).

The interplay of these two impulses--the Apollonian search for order and the Dionysian longing for freedom from conventions--informs much of Barthelme's work and is often expressed through the metaphor of music. References to music are everywhere in his fiction (consider a few of his titles: "The Piano Player," "The Police Band," "The Policemen's Ball," "The New Music," "The King of Jazz," "Traumerei," "Aria," etc.), reflecting his background and interests. In several interviews he speaks of the classical records in his childhood home, his early enthusiasm for jazz, later country and rock (O'Hara 184-85; see also Bellamy 52).

But music not only gives him personal pleasure; it also serves as a useful representation of conflicting elements in his work. In its Apollonian guise, music has a tonal center, traditional chord progressions, a hierarchy of notes with rules governing their movement; rhythmic regularity, and carefully crafted compositional forms, like the fugue, concerto grosso, the classical sonata. As such it perfectly captures the desire for coherence and centeredness, the intricate social dance that preoccupies many of Barthelme's characters. …

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