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Title: Donald Barthelme and 'Not-Knowing', 1964-1987
Author: Abramowitz, Rachel I.
ISNI:       0000 0004 4803 2028
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2014
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This thesis argues that Barthelme's major 1985 essay "Not-Knowing" contains within its title Barthelme's central artistic idea, and that not-knowing informs both the subject of his fiction and his philosophy of art. This study will be the first critical treatment of Barthelme that positions his work from beginning to end in terms of the dimensions of not-knowing that came out of his own reading in psychology, art theory, philosophy, religion, and education, offering coherent readings of content and suggesting the ways in which content relates to form. The Introduction explores the origins of Barthelme's ideas of not-knowing, paying special attention to the influence of Mallarmé, Joyce, and Beckett on Barthelme's first characterisations of not-knowing, creativity, and reception. The first chapter gives an in-depth reading of Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), Barthelme's first collection of stories. Though Barthelme had not yet begun to formally theorise his ideas of not-knowing, they were already latent in Come Back, Dr. Caligari's characterisation of psychological experience, specifically in relation to anxiety, boredom, and interpretation. The second chapter looks at the ways in which Harold Rosenberg’s theories of the visual arts, and especially collage, which Barthelme encountered while co-editing Location magazine with Rosenberg in the early 1960s, address form and not-knowing, and how Barthelme treats these issues in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), City Life (1970), The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (1971), Sadness (1972), Guilty Pleasures (1974), and Amateurs (1976). The third chapter shows how Barthelme's university studies in 19th century philosophy, especially Kierkegaard in The Concept of Irony (1841) and Kierkegaard's treatment of Schlegel in that treatise, inform his concern with irony, both in theory and practice, in City Life (1970), Great Days (1979), and Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983). Chapter Four argues that Kierkegaard's theories of education and religion in Either/Or (1843) and The Present Age (1846), as well as the contemporary incarnation of Dewey's ideas of progressive education, both had a profound influence on Barthelme's ideas about the way a society is educated into knowingness, the artist's aspiration toward not-knowing, and the validity of religion in the postmodern world. The conclusion to the thesis reexamines the Introduction's argument about literary influence through a brief reading of The Dead Father (1975). Barthelme is recognised as one of the most important American postmodernist writers, and yet there has been relatively little critical treatment of his oeuvre. The major books that address Barthelme's work, which include Jerome Klinkowitz's Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction (1975) and Donald Barthelme: An Exhibition (1991), as well as Alan Wilde's Horizons of Assent (1981) and Stanley Trachtenberg's Understanding Donald Barthelme (1990), belong to a two-decade span of classifying writers such as Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and John Barth using a limited set of ideas about postmodernism that were interesting as theory at the time, but did little to explore the actual literary, philosophical, and aesthetic content and contexts of these writers' works (with the possible exception of Pynchon). This thesis aims to rescue Barthelme from now-hackneyed ways of talking about postmodernism, which include lumping various aesthetic techniques under the rubric of "metafiction," claiming that the era's sole interest is in surface at the expense of depth, and that the dependence upon clichés is a deliberate expression of artistic exhaustion.
Supervisor: Bush, Ronald; Karshan, Thomas Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Barthelme ; Donald--Criticism and interpretation ; American fiction--20th century--History and criticism ; Postmodernism--United States ; Self-consciousness (Awareness) in literature