“Holy hell,” I said. “Is there to be no end to this family life?”
“Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”
That is a tall tale, said the Dead Father. I don’t believe it ever happened.
No tale ever happened in the way we tell it, said Thomas, but the moral is always correct.
What is the moral?
Murderinging, Thomas said.
The Dead Father
Fatherhood, as we have lately been reminded by Martin Green in Children of the Sun, is the great bugbear of aestheticism. Exactly why this should be so, and what consequences follow from it, are questions worth pondering. For aestheticism, far from being the fragile flower of culture it was once (mistakenly) thought to be by writers who looked to more “robust” varieties of belief for significant signs of the shape our civilization was assuming, has proved to be remarkably durable. Today, certainly, it commands a greater intellectual allegiance in our culture than is commonly acknowledged—in large part, perhaps, because so many of its tenets have been absorbed into the culture itself.
One of the reasons—I think it is the principal reason—for the basic antagonism that obtains between aestheticism and fatherhood is the relation in which aestheticism stands to nature. Simply stated, aestheticism sets itself against nature, toward which it adopts an attitude of irony and condescension. Aestheticism opposes the authority of all biological imperatives. By extension, moreover, it casts doubt on all principles of continuity and necessity based on or implied by the laws of nature, for which it is eager to substitute the disjunctions and self-inventions of cultural artifice. Toward language, as toward life, it holds an essentially “plastic” view. Finding the données of nature an intolerable imposition on the freedom of the mind to impose its will on experience, aestheticism seeks a radical redress of its grievances in the realm of culture. Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about life imitating art was always, perhaps, more amusing than true, but there is this to be said for it: it does, without question, apply to the life of culture even if it does not apply to the life of nature, and it is usually culture that the aesthete has in mind when he speaks of “life.”
It has never been sufficiently acknowledged, I think, that Freud’s pioneering work, which upholds the fear and the authority of fatherhood as a primal condition of life, came out of the same culture that produced this aestheticism. One way of understanding Freud’s whole psychological edifice is to see it as a challenge to and criticism of the aesthetic dissembling that characterized the European culture of his day, which, though bourgeois and eminently respectable, was completely in thrall to the conventions of decorative euphemism on which aestheticism depends. Between Beardsley, say, and Freud there is a curious symmetry of vision, with Beardsley choosing to celebrate all those dislocations of the psyche that Freud set out to repair. In this respect, the “psychology” of Art Nouveau—the style that stands at the center of the aesthetic movement and yet, paradoxically, was so beloved by Freud’s middle-class contemporaries—was what psychoanalysis was conceived to combat and, in a sense, to “cure.” A psychology like Freud’s, based on the proposition that anatomy is fate, could not be anything but opposed to a mode of aesthetic artifice designed to deny the functions of nature. Art Nouveau made of nature something ornamental and fantastic: botanical motifs and the attributes of the human anatomy, like the erotic impulses they were employed to symbolize and subvert, were removed from the realm of the organic and made to serve a life-denying, purely aesthetic strategy. Life, in Art Nouveau, is something to be feared and forestalled, shrouded in a decorative languor that renders the imperatives of nature supererogatory.
Which brings us to Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father1 In this short novel the ghosts of the aesthetic movement meet the phantom fears of the Freudian family romance. Fatherhood is caustically enthroned as ogrehood, and all familial relations reduced to offenses of taste—the only offenses that can any longer be taken seriously from the aesthetic point of view. Yet something has happened to the feigned detachment and hauteur that once characterized the aesthetic attitude. No longer secure in its distance from the world, it has adopted the tactics of a more militant and polemical irony—the tactics of Dada. In The Dead Father, the assault on fatherhood and the aggrandizement of art—twin aspects of a single struggle—are accomplished by means of a style in which all emotions but the aesthetic are shown to be ridiculous and destructive. At the same time, since the assault on fatherhood is inevitably an assault on adulthood, the virtues of aestheticism are identified with the freedom and fetishism of childhood. Which is, indeed, to return to the aesthetic assumptions of Dada—a name which, in this context, acquires yet another irony.
Taking his cue from the triumphant revival of Dada in the visual arts, from which he has borrowed actual visual devices in some of his earlier works, Mr. Barthelme has fashioned a fictional style, at once deadpan and disjunctive, mocking and digressive, that is the literary equivalent of the Dada collage. The aim is, apparently, to write a kind of “children’s book” for adults—a genre that permits the author to address knowing readers with a wink as he distends his narrative with vivid and amusing irrelevancies that, like the details of a crowded collage, can be counted on to lend a sense of mystery and complexity and a certain decorative appeal to what, in the case of The Dead Father, is actually a rather simple fantasy of filial revenge.
The story itself, such as it is, has the quality of a fairy tale or folk tale that has been scissored, Dada-style, into shreds, and then reassembled with derisory and disproportionate embellishments. The fun is in the embellishments, and the moral is in the tale—there, and in the “Manual” of moral instruction that Mr. Barthelme inserts into the narative lest we mistake his already obvious purpose. For Mr. Barthelme is, with all his waggishness, a very didactic writer, and The Dead Father is, despite its facetious tone, a very moralistic book—but moralistic, to be sure, in the new fashion, which yearns for life to be free of all condition and contingency and which, as a consequence, despises all evidence of growth, attachment, and maturation as an obstacle to its cherished ontological freedom. Or, as Julie, the foolish “heroine” of The Dead Father, explains to its eponymous victim: “They are [fifty-year-old] boys because they don’t want to be old farts. . . . The old fart is not cherished in this society.”
The Dead Father—he is given no other name in the book—is the dreaded and archetypal “old fart” incarnate, and The Dead Father itself is a mock-epic account of the journey to his own burial he endures at the hands of his son, Thomas, who is aided by a retinue of disreputable revelers. The Dead Father is, in this surrealist odyssey, an immense and horrific figure, at once a corpse being dragged by gigantic cables overland to his monumental grave in a distant place and a talkative, demanding, imperious, terrible-tempered tyrant, very much alive in asserting his terrifying and irrational appetites and prerogatives—a figure straight out of Ubu Roi, only magnified in size and fury and silliness, and redrawn to the lineaments of Freudian fatherhood. But this Father is also the state, if not indeed society itself—symbol of all authority and order, which, in Mr. Barthelme’s social cosmos, is always and inevitably an insane authority and a malevolent order.
This is our first glimpse of the monster Father in the prologue:
Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead.
No one can remember when he was not here in our city positioned like a sleeper in troubled sleep, the whole great expanse of him running from the Avenue Pommard to the Boulevard Grist. Overall length, 3,200 cubits. Half buried in the ground, half not. At work ceaselessly night and day through all the hours for the good of all. He controls the hussars. Controls the rise, fall, and flutter of the market. Controls what Thomas is thinking, what Thomas has always thought, what Thomas will ever think, with exceptions. . . . We want the Dead Father to be dead. We sit with tears in our eyes wanting the Dead Father to be dead—meanwhile doing amazing things with our hands.
There follow then the twenty-three slivered chapters of the narrative, each a mini-scene of the absurd that offers a variation or illumination of the themes sounded in the prologue—the dreaded omnipotence of the Dead Father, and Thomas’s wish to see him really dead and buried. The progress of the narrative is the fulfillment of that wish as the Dead Father, despite all his railing and resistance, is slowly, painfully stripped of his authority and placed in his grave.
There is almost no action to speak of in this narrative, but a lot of talk in which there are references to action. Thomas’s ragged band tires of the labor of hauling the Dead Father. They set up camp, are given their ration of rum, have a fish-fry, resume their thankless labor again, and so on. Thomas meanwhile cavorts with Julie, his girlfriend, or Julie talks with Emma, the other girl in the story, but mainly, but mainly, they all talk to or about the Dead Father himself, or watch his progressively enfeebled antics. Even in his decline—and this, I take it, is Mr. Barthelme’s point—it is still the Dead Father who is in control, who cannot be exorcised even in death.
It is for the Dead Father that all vitality is reserved, which, given the terms of Mr. Barthelme’s style, means that he gets the best lines and the most vivid images. In one of the nonsensical embellishments of the narrative, the Dead Father is recounting one of his heroic “erotic” exploits:
We spent many nights together all roaratorious and filled with furious joy. I fathered upon her in those nights the poker chip, the cash register, the juice extractor, the kazoo, the rubber pretzel, the cuckoo clock, the key chain, the dime bank, the pantograph, the bubble pipe, the punching bag, both light and heavy, the inkblot, the nose drop, the midget Bible, the slot-machine slug, and many other useful and humane cultural artifacts, as well as some thousands of children of the ordinary sort. I fathered as well upon her various institutions useful and humane such as the credit union, the dog pound, and parapsychology. 1 fathered as well various realms and territories all superior in terrain, climatology, laws, and customs to this one. 1 overdid it but 1 was madly in love, that is all I can say in my own defense.
Thus, by means of a literary collage, Mr. Barthelme gives us a parody of bourgeois capitalism, the history of which is subsumed in the Dead Father’s greedy appetites.
What momentum The Dead Father attains, however, is to be found in the campaign against fatherhood itself. There are two sides to this campaign—one devoted to delivering the Dead Father to his grave, the other (the source of greater anguish for Thomas) devoted to resisting the terrible fate of replacing him, of relinquishing boyhood for fatherhood itself. Early on in the novel, the conflict between fatherhood and aestheticism is made quite explicit. The Dead Father is speaking of the terrible burdens of fatherhood:
Children, he said. Without children 1 would not be the Father. No Fatherhood without childhood. 1 never wanted it, it was thrust upon me. Tribute of a sort but I could have done without, fathering then raising each of the thousands and thousands and tens of thousands. . . . Would have preferred remaining in my study comparing editions of Klinger, the first state, the second state, the third state, and so on, was there parting along the fold? and so on, water stain and so on, but this was not possible, all went forth and multiplied, and 1 had to Father, it was the natural order . . . but I wanted to wonder if if if I put a wood pulp mat next to a 100 per cent rag print would there be foxing and whether the rumbling of the underground would shake the chalk dust from my pastels or not.
When Thomas comes to speak of his own life, however, the mock-heroic alternatives of the Dead Father are replaced by a deflated mockery and hopelessness:
Nnnnnnxt, wishing with all my heart and all my soul to be true to the aspirations and prefabrications of my generation the boys of ’31 to be precise, I married. Oh, did I marry. 1 married and married and married moving from comedy to farce to burlesque with lightsome heart. Oh joy oh bliss oh joy oh bliss. When the bliss had blistered and the smoke had cleared I found that I had fathered, but only once, nota bene nota bene. Then a period of what I can only describe as vacancy.
The most radical of the fantasies conjured up to obliterate the very idea of fatherhood is Mr. Barthelme’s fantasy of the Wends. To reach their destination—which is, of course, to destroy the Dead Father once and for all—Thomas’s party must pass through the country of the Wends, a Utopia of Edenic sublimity:
Let me tell you about the Wends, the Wend said. We Wends are not like other people. We Wends are the fathers of ourselves.
Yes, said the Wend, that which all men have wished to be, from the very beginning, we are.
Amazing, said Thomas, how is that accomplished?
It is accomplished by being a Wend, the leader said. Wends have no wives, they have only mothers. Each Wend impregnates his own mother and thus fathers himself. We are all married to our mothers, in proper legal fashion.
Thomas has no hope of ever attaining the utopian bliss of being a Wend, but for his (and our) edification in the imperfect world we inhabit, Mr. Barthelme provides a thirty-five-page “Manual for Sons” between Chapters 17 and 18. Compounded of nonsense and primitive fear, the “Manual” spells out the case against fatherhood in all its aspects, from the aesthetic to the social to the sexual, and concludes by denying the son any hope of recompense for what he has suffered at the hands of fatherhood, even the hope of patricide. The only solace is a withdrawal from the imperatives of nature:
It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere.
Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him. The enormities go with the job, but close study will allow you to perform the job less well than it has previously been done, thus moving toward a golden age of decency, and calmed fevers. Your contribution will not be a small one, but “small” is one of the concepts that you should shoot for. . . . Choose one of your most deeply held beliefs, such as the belief that your honors and awards have something to do with you, and abjure it. . . . You see the pattern, put it into practice. Fatherhood can be, if not conquered, at least “turned down” in this generation—by the combined efforts of all of us together. [Emphasis in original.]
“We have seen that the key idea, in fatherhood, is ‘responsibility.’” Mr. Barthelme tells us in this “Manual for Sons,” and it is responsibility, above all, that must be abjured.
The Dead Father, as can be gathered from these excerpts, is Mr. Barthelme’s most explicit statement of the view that has governed all of his work—a view that holds life itself in contempt, and seeks a redress of its grievances in the kind of literary artifice that shuts out all reference to the normal course of human feeling. Art, in the scenario of this style, is a weapon in the war against nature, and nature, paradoxically, the enemy of innocence. His, I think, is the most sophisticated, because the most calculated and refined, expression of that hatred of the family that was a hallmark of the ideology of the counterculture of the 60’s, and distinguished from other such expressions by allying itself with art, rather than with nature, in its search for innocence and escape. Perhaps it is that alliance—so distant from the vulgarities of the counterculture itself—that has won Mr. Barthelme his great following among critics and professors and literary editors, if not among the readers of fiction. For what he offers that specialized public is the illusion that salvation lies in the inner sanctum of their own profession.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 177 pp., $7.95.
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