February 21, 2009

Dead Fathers: Barthelme and Percy

How do we (hi there everyone!) get from Walker Percy to Donald Barthelme? When I discovered that there was a connection between them, I was very surprised; when I found that they were friends, even more so; when I found that Barthelme had discovered Percy, I began to understand, and then I learned more—that Barthelme (whose name suggests nothing to me of ethnic or regional origin) was a born but lapsed Catholic, and that he’d come to Percy from his philosophical interests, I began to get the picture. But Percy was not, except in one or two of his novels, a formal innovator in the way that Barthelme was, nor was Barthelme in Percy's way a philosophical writer. What they had in common was something more personal, such as a tendency toward depression masked in Barthelme by wit and whimsy, frontally and irritatingly addressed in Percy as a serious sociocultural dislocation. No major American writer, it seems to me, has more dramatically misplaced the sources of his own angst, blaming it on what he takes to be society-wide insanity when in fact it is, unmistakably, the emotional problem of a traumatized individual. This seems all the stranger because Percy trained as a pyschiatrist and knew a lot about the subject. But Percy had a fatal fondness for ideas like this one: "In an insane world, only the insane are sane," an idea that found its purest expression in King of Hearts.

Percy’s problems are personal or familial. He belonged to a southern family gothic enough for Poe—-inbred, intermarried cousins in generation after generation, last names converted to first names from one generation to the next, even switched across genders, a family with a long history of insanity and suicide that appears to have been inherited. Whatever the effect of that family history may have been, however, Percy had to deal with the brutal fact of his father’s suicide. In his last good book, he did it. The Second Coming, Percy's finest novel, understands the traumatic origins of compulsive neurosis and goes all the way back to the trauma itself. I don’t know enough about the biographical facts to know whether the story he told in The Second Coming was true to his own experience, but his final version of it was that his father (that is, the father of his stand-in character, Will Barrett) attempted to kill him on a hunting outing, because he didn’t want his son to have to grow up in a world that he himself saw as meaningless and run by bastards; then, after shooting the boy and merely winging him (although his hearing was permanently damaged as a result of the blast), he took his good old double barrel shotgun and blew a hole in his own chest.

The boy survives, represses the memory, develops something like temporal lobe epilepsy variously described as fugue states, absences, and spells, all of it the automatic or zombie-like behavior of someone acting under a compulsion, and, in a motif repeated in Percy’s writings, falls down unconscious and “comes to himself” in some odd position next to a bush or in a sandtrap on a golf course. Will Barrett’s life is a long repetition of the experience of trying to get through a barbed wire fence after being shot by his father, and collapsing thereafter into a state of amnesia. The trope is worked out wonderfully in several books and put to remarkably extensive imaginative use, but it could be said that all that imaginative superstructure was a defense against recalling the actual traumatic event. The triumph of The Second Coming is that Barrett succeeds in remembering it all, finally, down to the number of shots fired and the fact that he heard his father reload, perhaps intending to shoot him again, and that Percy gets the whole story written down. It is his most fully achieved, satisfying novel.

But Percy, compared to Barthelme, was a social conservative and philosophically far less adventurous and up-to-date. What they really had in common was that they were both alcoholics who smoked and drank themselves to death. Barthelme remarked at a conference that he organized at the University of Virginia, where he was the moderator and the panelists were Percy, William Gass (another Barthelme discovery from his days as editor of Forum), John Barth, and Grace Paley (Barthelme’s across the street neighbor and briefly his lover), that he had come across only one truth in the last ten years: “It is forbidden to grow old.” Percy, then struggling (according to Daugherty he was always struggling, and I know this is so because Percy once wrote me that he was “hung proper” on writing his third book, Love in the Ruins) with his one genuinely experimental novel, the painful but brilliant Lancelot, and he was unhappy and consciously drinking and smoking himself to death. He lived to a greater age than Barthelme did, but not because he wanted to.

The ironic and stylish stance that Barthelme cultivated so energetically and imaginatively was also a defense against depression and the threat of exposure, and reading his biography it is hard to overcome the thought that he struggled all his life with the oppressive legacy of a bullying, never-to-be-satisfied father who left him permanently anxious and on guard. Daugherty’s biography, though it is already overlong, does not go far into the character of Barthelme’s father--doesn't conclude that his bullying was sadistic or that Barthelme was abused--but he gives us enough to know that Pop was a difficult man and that like many artists Barthelme sought solace in the tenderness of a loving mother; who, as I’ve said, cultivated sweetness as a defense the way Donald Barthelme cultivated irony (such sweetness in fact becomes irony).

Irony, in Barthelme, is a way to avoid things. In one respect he is an outstanding example of the 'ironist" posited by Richard Rorty, who believes that there can be no "final" language in which, say, truth can be expressed for good. Bathelme never came down on one side or the other in his fiction: that is the stance of the ironist. His stories give us dialectical alternatives held in equilibrium by ambivalence; this ambivalence is at the center of most of his stories and provides much of their glittering, paradoxical surface. He called himself a "double-minded" man. He thought he was bringing disparate elements together by verbal collage as a way of getting at something he believed was unspeakable, but which was his goal. I don’t think he achieved that goal and in fact I believe it is hopelessly unrealizable, for nothing is in reality unspeakable, but the conflict that fuels his writing is nevertheless also the source of its energy and life. To me, he made literature from multiple irreconcilable differences: between high art and low, modern and postmodern, quality and “dreck,” beautiful stories made of “ugly” sentences, men and women, love and disappointment, hard and soft, sentimental and sophisticated, and on and on. It was essential to the liveliness of his fiction that he worked both sides of the street, his side and Grace’s side so to speak. Barthelme and Percy, for all the differences between them as writers, were both post-religious alienated 20th century males. Percy found solace of a kind in his religion, which however rings artistically hollow in all his books. (Compare his tepid Catholicim with Flannery O’Connor’s terrifying vision of grace: O’Connor’s God is surely the blackest, darkest, most terrible god this side of Sylvia Plath’s father. A demiurge.) Religious longing, early death or prolonged suicide, existential alienation, profound resistance as Freudians would call it, a final “No” in the face of every “Yes.”

Maybe I’m being unfair, as Kierkegaard was to Schlegel. These are writers whose work, some of it, anyway, I love as much as I do anyone’s, but as artistic fathers both Percy and Barthelme seem to me dead fathers. I prefer Barthelme because he was determined to enjoy the world, where Percy retreated from it throughout his life, and because Barthelme never gave up his hope that art might be salvific where Percy settled for priestcraft. But I was raised in the Presbyterian church and rejected it rather than be confirmed. Like Thomas Pynchon, I chose to be one of the Preterite, and to be a reprobate is to be damned.

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