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American author (1931-1989)

We are what we have been told about ourselves. We are the sum of the messages we have received. The true messages. The false messages.

DONALD BARTHELME, Snow White (play)

Any fool can cry wolf; to cry sheep is inspired, the work of a subtle, contradancing mind.

DONALD BARTHELME, "Jim Love Up to Now: An Introduction"

Goals incapable of attainment have driven many a man to despair, but despair is easier to get to than that -- one need merely look out of the window, for example.


Yes, success is everything. Failure is more common. Most achieve a sort of middling thing, but fortunately one's situation is always blurred, you never know absolutely quite where you are.


What an artist does, is fail. Any reading of the literature... (I mean the literature of artistic creation), however summary, will persuade you instantly that the paradigmatic artistic experience is that of failure. The actualization fails to meet, equal, the intuition. There is something “out there” which cannot be brought “here”. This is standard. I don’t mean bad artists, I mean good artists. There is no such thing as a “successful artist” (except, of course, in worldly terms).


Oh, there is nothing better than intelligent conversation except thrashing about in bed with a naked girl and Egmont Light Italic.

DONALD BARTHELME, "Florence Green is 81"

Carrying over into private life attitudes that have been successful in the field of public administration is not, perhaps, a good idea.


Capitalism places every man in competition with his fellows for a share of the available wealth. A few people accumulate big piles, but most do not. The sense of community falls victim to this struggle.

DONALD BARTHELME, "The Rise of Capitalism"

Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.

DONALD BARTHELME, "The Indian Uprising"

When a child is born, the locus of one’s hopes ... shifts, slightly. Not altogether, not all at once. But you feel it, this displacement. You speak up, strike attitudes, like the mother of a tiny Lollabrigida. Drunk with possibility once more.


The self cannot be escaped, but it can be, with ingenuity and hard work, distracted.


The world in the evening seems fraught with the absence of promise, if you are a married man. There is nothing to do but go home and drink your nine drinks and forget about it.

DONALD BARTHELME, "Critique de la Vie Quotidienne"

Capitalism arose and took off its pajamas. Another day, another dollar. Each man is valued at what he will bring in the marketplace. Meaning has been drained from work and assigned instead to remuneration.

DONALD BARTHELME, "The Rise of Capitalism"

No man's plenum ... is impervious to the awl of God's will.

DONALD BARTHELME, Snow White (novel)

Best not to anticipate too much ... it jiggles the possibilities.


There is no moment that exceeds in beauty that moment when one looks at a woman and finds that she is looking at you in the same way that you are looking at her. The moment in which she bestows that look that says, "Proceed with your evil plan, sumbitch."

DONALD BARTHELME, "The Sea of Hesitation"

Can the life of the time be caught in an advertisement? Is that how it is, really, in the meadows of the world?


Every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful.


Truth ... is a hard apple, whether one is throwing it or catching it.


The question so often asked of modern painting, “What is it?”, contains more than the dull skepticism of the man who is not going to have the wool pulled over his eyes. It speaks of a fundamental placement in relation to the work, that of a voyager in the world coming upon a strange object. The reader reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it to his ear to hear the roaring within. It is characteristic of the object that it does not declare itself all at once, in a rush of pleasant naïveté.


I think that this thing, my work, has made me, in a sense, what I am. The work possesses a consciousness which shapes that of the worker. The work flatters the worker. Only the strongest worker can do this work, the work says. You must be a fine fellow, that you can do this work. But disaffection is also possible. The worker grows careless. The worker pays slight regard to the work, he ignores the work, he flirts with other work, he is unfaithful to the work. The work is insulted. And perhaps it finds little ways of telling the worker... The work slips in the hands of the worker—a little cut on the finger. You understand? The work becomes slow, sulky, consumes more time, becomes more tiring. The gaiety that once existed between the worker and the work has evaporated. A fine situation! Don’t you think?


The affair ran the usual course. Fever, boredom, trapped.

DONALD BARTHELME, "The Conservatory"

It is difficult to keep the public interested.
The public demands new wonders piled on new wonders.
Often we don’t know where our next marvel is coming from.
The supply of strange ideas is not endless.

DONALD BARTHELME, "The Flight of the Pigeons from the Palace"

You must change the people you are speaking to so that you appear, to yourself, to be still alive.


Very often one “pushes away” the very thing that one most wants to grab, like a lover. This is a common, although distressing, psychological mechanism, having to do (in my opinion) with the fact that what is presented is not presented “purely”, that there is a little canker or grim place in it somewhere.


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 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.

DONALD BARTHELME, "A Symposium on Fiction"

Food ... is the topmost taper on the golden candelabrum of existence.

DONALD BARTHELME, "Conversations with Goethe"

However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.


I worked for newspapers. I worked for newspapers at a time when I was not competent to do so. I reported inaccurately. I failed to get all the facts. I misspelled names. I garbled figures. I wasted copy paper. I pretended to know things I did not know. I pretended to understand things beyond my understanding. I oversimplified. I was superior to things I was inferior to. I misinterpreted things that took place before me. I over- and underinterpreted what took place before me. I suppressed news the management wanted suppressed. I invented news the management wanted invented. I faked stories. I failed to discover the truth. I colored the truth with fancy. I had no respect for the truth. I failed to heed the adage, you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. I put lies in the paper. I put private jokes in the paper. I wrote headlines containing double entendres. I wrote stories while drunk. I abused copy boys. I curried favor with advertisers. I accepted gifts from interested parties. I was servile with superiors. I was harsh with people who called on the telephone seeking information. I gloated over police photographs of sex crimes. I touched type when the makeups weren’t looking. I took copy pencils home. I voted with management in Guild elections.


Charm ... is the dead green bug on the golden leaf of occasion.

DONALD BARTHELME, "Parachutes in the Trees"

In the contemplation of nudes, we congratulate ourselves upon the beauty of which human beings are capable. They reassure us about ourselves, about Being. We are a little lower than the angels, true, but notice that we can get along without that suspect radiance, equal parts paint and literature, on which the angels lean so heavily. The human body is, or can be, a sufficiency.

DONALD BARTHELME, "Nudes: An Introduction to Exquisite Creatures"

Show me a man who has not married a hundred times and I’ll show you a wretch who does not deserve God’s good world.

DONALD BARTHELME, "Overnight to Many Distant Cities"

When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.


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 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 that’s the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it.

DONALD BARTHELME, "A Symposium of Fiction"

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