What can we expect from sentences?

An exercise by Donald Barthelme

Assignment: Write a sentence with some attention to the notes below.

What can we reasonable expect, or even demand, of the sentences in fiction?

The first thing I want a sentence to do is surprise me. Let me give you an example, if I can. Here is a sentence: “My great desire in life is to sleep with–that is to say, have sexual intercourse with–the New York Review of Books.” Now this sentence might reasonably be called surprising. The proposition is, we might say, an unusual one. I have written a sentence that surprises. I congratulate myself. But unfortunately my congratulation is premature.

Because it is not enough for a sentence to be surprising. We may also reasonably ask of it that it be in some sense true–and it is not true that my greatest desire in life is to have sexual intercourse with the New York Review of Books. Let us look then for a sentence which is both surprising and in some sense true. Here is an attempt: “The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur, which breaks your heart.”

Let us test the sentence. Is it surprising? Because of the fur, perhaps. If one recalls while reading the sentence a famous Surrealist object of the thirties–Merit Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup–your understanding of the sentence is perhaps enriched. But it is not necessary to know about the famous teacup to find the sentence odd, curious, surprising. Let us go on to ask if it is in any sense true.

“The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur, which breaks your heart.” As dedicated relativists we know nothing is absolutely true; what we are asking is, does the sentence contain some truth? At least this much: the sentence is a demand, an “I want” statement. The speaker wishes literature to be this kind of thing–a strange object–and wants it also to break his heart. The structure of our language is such that a demand, a desire, an “I want” sentence, almost must be true, at least insofar as the speaker is concerned. I am telling you what I want. Assuming that the speaker is serious, sober, not simply putting us on, we are forced to grant his sentence a certain kind of truth.

Now, let us increase the pressure. Let us now ask for a sentence that is not only surprising and true, but also beautiful. And here I will call for help from a colleague, the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Consider this sentence by Kraus: “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.”

We test the sentence point by point. It is surprising in that it reverses the terms of the riddle/answer expectation in order to point to a truth. The truth is that the artist does not answer riddles–the riddle of the universe, for example–but proposes them. Now the philosopher Hebbel (a name you may forget as quickly as you wish, he’s inessential) says the same thing a much inferior way. “In a work of art the intellect asks questions; it does not answer them.” Why is Kraus’s way of saying the same thing so much more beautiful? Herr Hebbel speaks plainly, and plainness is a virtue. But Kraus’s sentence has paradox and elegance: in thirteen words he both announces a truth and allows us to feel the truth emotionally. I use the word “elegance” here as mathematicians do when they term the solution to a problem elegant, implying simplicity, economy, a certain kind of rightness. There are many other ways in which a sentence can be beautiful–brutality can be as beautiful as elegance, awkwardness can be as beautiful as elegance, and so on.

So we have achieved, or rather borrowed, a sentence which is surprising, true, and beautiful, all at once. Can we now rest? No. We must ask, next, for a sentence that is at once surprising, true, beautiful, and also possessed of a metaphysical dimension.

By “metaphysical dimension” I mean a quality that turns the mind toward original questions, first principles, the deepest sort of search for meaning. “What is man?” is a metaphysical question. And for such a sentence, one reaches almost automatically for Kafka. Here is a sentence of Kafka’s: “Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.”

This sounds like three sentences but is in fact one, the parts separated by a semi-colon and colon. That it is both surprising and beautiful can, I think, be granted without argument. What we are testing for, then, is whether the sentence is true and whether is offers a metaphysical dimension. And one immediately understands that the two things are intimately related.

What we have in this beautiful sentence of Kafka’s is an appeal to the range of human experience called the religious, as well as a kind of critique of humanness. Reading the sentence one gets the feeling that before the leopards broke into the temple the ceremonies were somehow dry, artificial, routine, and that the intrusion of the leopards revived, gave new life to, the old procedures. The ceremonies must have been, like all ceremonies, the celebration of mystery; the leopards, breaking into the temple and drinking the wine, restore mystery to the mystery.

But the intrusion of the leopards, Kafka tells us, becomes itself routine. This is what gives the sentence its deepest dimension, raising the question of how men can make routine fabulous. It has ramifications in everything from the problem of sleeping with one’s spouse to the problem of torture in Chile. Kafka’s sentence is, with all of the reverberations, not a sentence but a book. But after all, only a sentence.

Here are examples, provided by Barthelme, with the exception of the last, which Chuck Wachtel added.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Areliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, The Dead

“There are some who eat too much and others like me who can no longer eat without spitting.” Antonin Artaud, letter to Paule Thevenin

“When on the third day, he again had to come down the ladder without having been hung, he raised his hands up in a fierce gesture and cursed the inhuman law that kept him from going to Hell.” Heinrich von Kleist, The Founding

“‘You should have killed yourself last week,’ he said the deaf man.” Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”

“In the dark, Naomi mistook a shard of broken light bulb for her contact lens.” Dick Stankridge, A Horror Story . . .

“As he crossed toward the pharmacy at the corner he involuntarily turned his head because of a burst of light that had ricocheted from his temple, and saw, with that quick smile with which we greet a rainbow or a rose, a blindingly white parallelogram of sky being unloaded from the van–a dresser with mirror, across which, as across a cinema screen, passed a flawlessly clear reflection of boughs, sliding and swaying not aboreally, but with a human vacillation, produced by the nature of those who were carrying this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade.” Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift

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