Buckets of peanut butter with a layer of whipped cream on top, or else Mothballs-vagina

from BOMB 81 / Fall 2002, LITERATURE

Jonathan Safran Foer . . . do you consider yourself a postmodern writer? In the New Republic, Dale Peck recently said you were upholding the high literary postmodern tradition, a tradition Peck claimed was bankrupt.

Jefferey Eugenides On the issue of postmodernism, Dale Peck and I would agree more than he thinks. I don’t see myself as a high postmodernist. I always say it like this: my generation of writers grew up backwards. We were weaned on modernism and only later read the great 19th-century masters of realism. When we began writing in high school and college, it was experimental fiction. I think now that a certain kind of academic experimental fiction has reached a dead end. Middlesex is a postmodern book in many ways, but it is also very old-fashioned. Reusing classical motifs is a fundamental of postmodern practice, of course, but telling a story isn’t always. I like narrative. I read for it and write for it.

Recently I was reading an old panel discussion from 1975 called “The Symposium on the Future of Contemporary Fiction.” Almost 30 years ago now, but they were basically debating the same thing. How do you make something new in literature? How do you move it forward? This discussion took place among Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass and Walker Percy. Barthelme and Gass, at the apex of their careers back then, kept going on about creating new voices by means of theoretical exertion. But it was Grace Paley who turned out to be right. It didn’t appear that she was right, but now we can see she was. She said that new language rises again and again from human voices, not just new theories. If you look back now, you see that postmodernism hit a dead end, and what took over were the kinds of books—call them multicultural or whatever you want—that Paley was prophesying.

If there’s anything new in Middlesex, it’s not a matter of formal or theoretical development but closer to the new human experience Paley was talking about. The content in the book is new. The narrator, Cal Stephanides, is a real living hermaphrodite, not a mythical creature like Tiresias or a fanciful one like Orlando.

Foer As long as we’re talking about contemporary writing… Who’s your favorite contemporary writer?

Eugenides Right now my favorite writer is A. A. Milne. Let me give you a sample of why:

Rabbit leant over further than ever, looking for his [stick], and Roo wriggled up and down, calling out, “Come on, stick! Stick, stick stick!” and Piglet got very excited because his was the only one which had been seen, and that meant that he was winning.

“It’s coming!” said Pooh.

“Are you sure it’s mine?” squeaked Piglet excitedly.

“Yes, because it’s grey. A big grey one. Here it comes! A very . . . big . . . grey . . . Oh, no, it isn’t. It’s Eeyore.”

And out Eeyore floated.

“Eeyore!” cried everybody.

Looking very calm, very dignified, with his legs in the air, came Eeyore from beneath the bridge.

“It’s Eeyore!” cried Roo, terribly excited.

“Is that so?” said Eeyore, getting caught up by a little eddy, and turning slowly round three times. “I wondered.”

A Few Excerpts from the Already Abbreviated “A Symposium on Fiction”
from Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme . . . The issue yesterday, unless I’ve misperceived it, was what kind of knowing is peculiar to literature. The question is for Bill Gass and it is “What does a painter know?”; the answer that a painter knows how to make something that is beautiful is not allowable.

William Gass How about “He knows how to paint”? I think that what a painter knows is increasingly the qualities and properties of his medium, the exploration of relationships between certain kinds of qualities, which he lifts out of his medium. What I find painters know is that kind of exploration of the qualitative relational possibilities of color, shape, and all of the things can be constructed with them. if, as I suspect you’re suggesting, they might know something else about the world, this frequently happens if they have been observant about the world, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I would want to suggest that the knowledge an artist really possesses is that he can formulate, at least, and I think knowledge has to be formulated to be called knowledge. It is a kind of skill—the manipulation of a medium and an understanding and responsiveness to it. That’s why I think what writers know is language and how to fiddle.

. . .

Audience If language constantly betrays truth, which is what I understand, in one sense, you seem to be saying, why not abandon truth as an ideal?

Gass Well, I think we ought to abandon truth as an ideal as artists. I think it’s pernicious. I think it gets in the way all the time. That sounds sort of odd to some people but actually you’d say that to a mathematician. Mathematicians aren’t interested in truth, they’re interested in formal coherence. That’s how they develop their systems. That’s the way poets work, I think.

Walker Percy What bothers me is the question the young lady asked you yesterday, that is, why do you write novels? And I’m hard put to imagine what kind of motivation you would have other than the fact that in writing you must be converging on some approximation of the way things are or the way you think things are, either in the realm of ideas or in the realm of the way things are in The Heart of the Heart of the Country or the heart of the heart of the American consciousness. It’s hard for me to imagine any novelist not being motivated by some desire to approach some kind of truth or what he thinks to be the truth. If I didn’t think that I don’t think I’d bother to set pen to paper. I can’t imagine what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing that.

Barthelme I think when you are writing you are inevitably making statements of one kind or another, however much you may strain to avoid doing so, and I do not think that they are statements about beauty or necessarily about writing itself. They are statements about the world. They are not mathematically verifiable statements, but they are statements of some kind. How do you deal with that?

Gass Well, I don’t think they are statements; they look like statements. If you say “the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” it sounds like you’re saying something about the world, and that has the quality of statement you want. Yeats is a great statement poet. The fact that most of the statements he made aren’t true, if you were to translate them into intelligible statements, doesn’t matter at all.

. . .

Grace Paley I think what you’re forgetting, what you’re underestimating, are the readers. It’s true to write one part of that town but they bring something to it and they hear and they understand and they make that whole town and that’s what happens when you write. . . I think that is art, and I think it’s been omitted from a lot of our talking and it is two things, it’s the reader and the writer, and that’s the whole of the experience.

Gass You want the creative reader.

Paley You got ’em. I mean, he’s there.

Gass I don’t want them.

Paley Well, it’s tough luck for you.

Barthelme I have to disagree absolutely about what Bill wants. He does want the creative reader. He could not possibly write in the way he does without positing a highly intelligent and rather wonderful reader, totally docile, whom we all want to go out and drink with. You do posit such a reader, or you could not write the way you do.

Gass What I mean by this is that I don’t want the reader filling in anything behind the language.

Paley Right, that’s what’s wrong with you. You don’t leave him enough space to move around.

Gass Anymore than I would suppose that somebody did a sketch, did a few lines, and left out the rest. . . You can’t just throw in a number of words any old way. So the implications have to be as completely written out, yes, you’ve got to get the implications.

Barthelme The ultimate case in point being obviously Joyce, who wrote every sentence in three languages and four times and left the reader the least possible space for participation.

Paley Yes, but that reader moved in, by God, where there was space, and he always will.

Gass Oh, yes, it can’t be helped.

Paley Well, I’m glad.

. . .

Percy . . . Freud proposes that certain dream symbols stand for certain things, say you dream of a house with a balcony, the house with a balcony stands for a woman. Well, there’s no way to quantify this by pointer readings or otherwise, but there is a canon of verifiability in which the dreamer can be told this theory and then he can all of a sudden recognize it. He can say, yes, sure enough, I can verify it by the context of the dream, it makes sense. . . And I would extend that to fiction because I think the main transaction which takes place in the reception of a work of art, a mysterious work of art, like fiction, is also a kind of verification which takes the form of recognition. I think the main thing that happens and the main source of pleasure in the reader is a sense of recognizing something, something that he knew, but which has been verified to him and affirmed for him by the writer. . .

Barthelme Harold Rosenberg said, I believe of Jasper Johns, that Johns was dealing with things the mind already knows. That’s a nice phrase and I think to the point. What I tend to worry about in this kind of discussion is, what is left to the writer? What can the writer do? If I go up to a reader, grab him firmly by the lapel, look him straight in the eye, and say “Eating people is wrong,” well, I’ve told him something, as we would all agree, but nothing new. I would suggest, on the contrary, that there is a realm of possible knowledge which can be reached by artists, which is not susceptible of mathematical verification but which is true. This is sometimes spoken of as the ineffable. If there is any word I detest in the language, this would be it, but the fact that it exists, the word ineffable, is suspicious in that it suggests that there might be something that is ineffable. And I believe that’s the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it; my painter friend, for example, reaches an area somewhere probably between mathematics and religion, in which what may fairly be called truth exists.

. . .

Percy . . . I remember when I made an ill-conceived venture into philosophy and wrote an article which I was not prepared to write and Flannery O’Connor, who was alive at the time, read it and sent me one of her laconic poscards in which she said, “Well, Walker, this was pretty good but why don’t you go back and make up a story.” . .

Paley People don’t know how much they know. . .

Audience To what extent do you think there is a serach on the part of the powers that be, by which I mean the literary establishment, book publishers, magazine editors, and so forth, to accept unconventional experimental fiction? Do you think that the publishing powers are interested in unconventional material, or are they interested only in conventional material? Do you think many good writers really have a lot of trouble getting their work published?

Paley I think the publishing world has nothing to do with literature and I think that’s a fact you have to face immediately. The publishing world is really not interested in literature.

Barthelme To say that the publishing world is not interested in literature is to overstate it. They are extremely interested in it, they just don’t want to publish it, you see. Publishers are very brave, as brave as the famous diving horses of Atlantic City, but they’re increasingly owned by conglomerates, businesses which have nothing to do with publishing and these companies demand a certain profit out of their publishing divisions. They take very few risks and they publish an enormous number of things which look like books, sort of feel like books, but in reality are buckets of peanut butter with a layer of whipped cream on top.

Paley That’s what I meant.

. . .

Barthelme A member of the audience has raised a question by quoting a statement of George Steiner’s. The statement is as follows: “A good deal of what is representative in modern literature from Kafka to Pinter seems to work deliberately at the edge of quietness. It puts forward tentative or failed speech moves expressive of the intimation that the large, more worthwhile statements cannot, ought not be made.” Then Steiner quotes an entry from Ionesco’s diary: “If through becoming involved in literature, I have used up all possible symbols without really penetrating their meaning, they no longer have any vital significance for me. Words have killed images or are concealing them. A civilization of words is a civilization distraught. Words create confusion. Words are not The Word. The fact is that words say nothing, if I may put it that way. There are no words for the deepest experience. The more I try to explain myself, the less I understand myself. Of course, not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth.” Anybody care to respond to that?

Percy I think Steiner expressed something metaphorically and poetically and rather mysteriously, which I think can be said much more simply. It’s the simple fact that words get worn out, and instead of conveying meaning they act either as simulacra to conceal meaning or as if they were transparencies with no meaning, which I think brings up the question of the vocation of the creative writer, the novelist, or maybe particularly the poet; I think it’s his job to create new language by way of metaphor, which is the way new language is created, avoiding the worn-out words and using fresh words, fresh metaphors. . .

Paley I would go a little further and say that being Americans and living in the United States we really have a much better opportunity to do that than people in other countries. This language of ours, here in this country, is always being refreshed and scrambled up and knocked around. It’s always coming up from the bottom, again and again, and I don’t think that’s a problem in a sense. It’s just an event.

Barthelme I tend to see it not as a problem but as an opportunity. We were talking here earlier about experimentalism and one of the funny things about experimentalism in regard to language is that most of it has not been done yet. Take mothball and vagina and put them together and see if they mean anything together; maybe you’re not happy with the combination and you throw that on the floor and pick up the next two and so on. There’s a lot of basic research which hasn’t been done because of the enormous resources of the language and the enormous number of resonances from the past which have precluded this way of investigating language. . .The writer in the twentieth century who went farthest in this direction is of course Gertrude Stein, for perhaps other motives, but it’s part of her enterprise—she’s a greatly misunderstood writer, and that’s where I would locate experimentalism.

Gass I agree with you entirely, and indeed—mothballs-vagina . . .

Get the whole thing here (printer-friendly here) *and I’m sorry if you get VD from Megaupload, we’re sort of raw-dawgin it here. Probably I’m not supposed to do that. But oh well, let’s think of this as a class or something. If you do in fact teach a class, you should really stop your students from not having read this—that would be really unfortunate for them to continue doing now that you have this. Don’t be a jerk, do the jerk.

Note: When I first transcribed mothball from the text I spelled it motherball(s) twice—motherballsvagina(s). And so I apologize for any slips I’ve made, Freudian or otherwise. I’ve been drinking Jack Daniel’s tonight. Good morning. Hello.