The King: Donald Barthelme’s Postmodernist Anachronism

Anachronism is an obvious comic device in The King (1990), Donald Barthelme’s last, posthumously published novel, and as such invariably commands comment. Barthelme places or “transposes” the Arthurian court into the period of Second World War Britain, something in the manner of what’s known today as the allohistorical genre, in which it is imagined how history may have been, given that a particular event had been different (i.e., an “alternate history”). Anachronism is generally thought of, however, as the sublimation of a minor element into a dominant flow of discourse. The minor element stands out as “anachronistic” but doesn’t drastically disrupt the flow of the primary narrative.

Connecticut Yankee

A close relative of The King would seem to be Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), though Barthelme’s work reverses the historical shift: Arthur’s court is moved into the future. Barthelme doesn’t need any fictional mechanism to do this, as Twain did — his hero being hit on the head with a crowbar. Barthelme simply assumes an unjustifiable realty as his premise.

Both convey a critical humanistic message that class oppression remains the same across time, and both in a sense privilege a particular way of thinking, to be identified with the period in which the author’s mind situates and identifies itself. Naturally enough. Twain’s privileges American progressiveness, ingenuity and democracy in contrast with stuffy Britain. Barthelme’s is an avant-garde, iconoclastic point of view. The difference, of course, depends on their historical situations.

Foucault’s Episteme and “Man”

Regarding The King, I wonder whether it is not at least equally useful to invoke the Foucauldian concept of the episteme, which refers to all the conditions of a culture or period within which anything in particular may be known. In The King, the clash of the two disparate worldviews is at the crux of the narrative, rather than being one thing transposed, so to speak, into or onto the other. It may be that the difference between the objects of satire, one to another, is not so great.

In contrast with Twain, Barthelme creates a radical discontinuity between two fundamental elements, two disjunctive epistemes. A particular episteme is a quantum leap or paradigm shift apart from what preceded it. More like a cubist idea, in a sense, than an organic one, and with a concomitant aesthetic — disconnected, fragmentary, dichotomous.

It is as though history meanders blithely through a particular episteme, confident in its knowledge of the world, and then over a period of time, one element and another, like fragments of glass in the kaleidoscope of reality fall, bit by bit, into a radically new pattern. And bang, we suddenly look around and find ourselves occupying a brand new worldview, one fundamentally different from the one that preceded it — that of “the present.” There may exist equivalent elements in both “ways of seeing,” but the overall coherence is altered irreparably.

One of Foucault’s startling seminal insights in The Order of Things (1966) is that

“… man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form” (Order of Things xxiii; my emphasis).

In The King, reflections of this sort, forced by a collision of mutually exclusive epistemes, stimulate a comedic reevaluation of humanistic attitudes and myths. The reader is rather privileged to occupy this “space” that transcends the counterpoised epistemes.

Arising in the “now” of reading

Guinevere considering the state of this world of total war:

“But Jesu, the intrigue! Once upon a time the men went out and bashed each other on the head for a day and a half, and that was it. Now we have ambassadors hithering and thithering, secret agreements with still more secret codicils, betrayals, reversals, stabs in the back —”
“Terrible it is, mum.”
“One has to think about so many different sorts of people one never thought about before,” Guinevere said. “Croats, for example. I never knew there was such a thing as a Croat before this war.”
“Are they on our side?”
“As I understand it, they are being held in reserve for a possible uprising in the event that the Serbs fail to live up to some agreement or other.”
“What’s a Serb, mum?”
“I stand before you in the most perfect ignorance,” said the Queen.

Such comic business is close-as-dammit worthy of a Beckett or Pirandello, in its self-reflexive gesture attributed to the character, who essentially arises as a character in a scenario about which they have no prior knowledge. There needs be no particular consistency to this effect. The instant of self-reflexiveness is like a sly peek through the fourth wall of the diegesis, into that benevolent and transcendental space occupied by the reader. In semiotics, the paradigmatic rather than syntagmatic mode. In one sense, the gesture is that of a character emerging into the act of reading.

The space, moreover, or as Wolfgang Iser, the great reader-response theorist might say, the “gap” configured into the narrative premise, is the stage not only for the comedy, by way of the inherent incongruousness and surprise it engenders, bursting out at ninety degrees from the line of the story. It is a font for the narrative in general, an opportunity to reconcile endless irreconcilable conundrums in the act of holding the anachronistic elements in place.

Reading the running gag

All this may seem … trivial, along the line of a running gag that serves the functional aim of keeping the two episteme in situ:

“I do know,” said Launcelot, “that I’m damned tired of hearing about the Polish cavalry.”
“I get a sense that we’re wasting our time,” said Sir Roger. “That we should be out slaying dragons or something.”

Note with this quotation, even granted its mechanistic function as described, Barthelme’s deft and tasteful exercising of Beckett/Pirandello-esque brand of self-reflexion, in which the characters are getting bored with the story.

Barthelme now grants Launcelot the benefit of a latter-day insight, an Enlightened notion of what dragons “really” are —

“Typically the Eyed or Jeweled Lizard, found in Spain, Italy, the South of France, and our own country, and which may attain a length of two feet. A largish lizard, but not a dragon”

— an observation that motivates a Monty-Pythonesque account of the uncomfortable domestic scene that may ensue after an encounter with one:

“One understands that a man does not wish to come home to his castle and say to his lady, ‘God wot I had the fight of me life today — no sooner had I fewtered my spear than the monster was upon me,’ and have the lady say, ‘But, good Sir Giles’ or ‘But, good Sir Hebes,’ and then have the awful question come, ‘What manner of monster was it?’ and be forced to reply, ‘Lizard.’”

Here is a nice absurdist comic effect of vacillation between the two epistemes. As everyone knows, real dragons speak Danish, so

“If a mixture of flame and Danish comes from the creature and your armor is singed black, you know that you have not been fighting a lizard.”

Knights of color

Similarly, encounters with variously colored knights, a borrowed Arthurian convention, take on satirical anachronistic tones here. The Black Knight is an African whom we meet in combat with Launcelot. What an occasion, as they come to grips, then “rest for a moment” to discuss various nonsense, before realizing their affinities and “falling to the ground in a swoon.”

The Red Knight is a socialist who has fought in the Russian Revolution. Predictably idealistic:

“The party embodies the collective wisdom of the people,” said the Red Knight. “Also, the Party has access to information the individual doesn’t have. I much prefer leaving important decisions to the Party than to a crowd of loonies in parliament.”

The Brown Knight is Scottish, fittingly, because just about everything in Scotland is brown, the most sexual of colors: whisky, Scottish cloth, “our heaths when the sun is done with them.” Despite a probably cultural faux pas of which he is guilty — unspeakably, wearing brown armor while riding a black horse; yet Guinevere falls for him, as is her wont.

“Guinevere in bed with the Brown Knight.
‘Wonderful,’ said the queen. ‘Quite the best I’ve ever had.’
‘We Scots know a thing or two,’ said Sir Robert. ‘By the Clyde, Forth, Dee, Tay and Tweed, our principal rivers — I swear by our principal rivers because I do not believe in God — By the Clyde, Forth, Dee, Tay and Tweed, I declare that you are the best bounce I ever had in all my days.’”

The Blue Knight is melancholy, bearing in mind that a few of them are, as well as being great “swooners.” He has written a book On the Implausibility of Paradise, and has been drawn to research the element of cobalt as a possible basis for an atomic bomb, which he believes — probably correctly — is the Holy Grail.

Barthelme doesn’t cover the fact he’s making it up as he goes along, probably minute by minute. That’s the point. There is a triviality about it all, but that’s okay: mankind is trivial, and the wonderful creative freshness of a fresh reading space is a definite pleasure of the text. The triviality is tasteful, counterpoised against the somewhat heavy Grail as bomb analogy.

Donald Barthelme (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Episteme and great style

A word in passing about the stylistic conventions that facilitate this amusing and original literary achievement. Not scrupulously thorough like Beckett, but who needs to be? Barthelme’s The King resembles as much a radio playscript as a novel. The action is given through the dialogue of observers, a convention that Barthelme establishes beautifully on the first page:

“See there! It’s Launcelot!”
“Riding, riding —”
“How swiftly he goes!”
“As if enchafed by a fiend!”
“The splendid muscles of his horse move rhythmically under the drenchèd skin of same!”
“By Jesu, he is in a vast hurry!”
“But now he pulls up the horse and sits for a moment, lost in thought!”
“Now he wags his great head in daffish fashion!”
“He reins the horse about and puts the golden spurs to her!”

And so on. Riveting from the start, the narrative gallops on to … no where. Basically no plot, nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes … just like total war. Sorry, didn’t really get to that.

Once upon upon a timely time, such may have vouchsafed criticism. But not since the 50s.

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