I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd. Before the emcee could ask the first question, Peterson began to talk. "Yesterday," Peterson said to the television audience, "in the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue, I found a recipe for Ten Ingredient Soup that included a stone from a toad's head. And while I stood there marveling a nice old lady pasted on the elbow of my best Haspel suit a little blue sticker reading THIS INDIVIDUAL IS A PART OF THE COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION OF THE ENTIRE GLOBE. Coming home I passed a sign that said in ten-foot letters COWARD SHOES and heard a man singing "Golden earrings" in a horrible voice, and last night i dreamed there was a shootout at our house on Meat Street and my mother shoved me in a closet to get me out of the line of fire." The emcee waved at the floor manager to turn Peterson off, but Peterson kept talking. "In this kind of world," Peterson said, "absurd if you will, possibilities nevertheless proliferate and escalate all around us and there are opportunities for beginning again. I am a minor artist and my dealer won't even display my work if he can help it but minor is as minor does and lightning may strike even yet. Don't be reconciled. Turn off your television sets," Peterson said, "cash in your life insurance, indulge in a mindless optimism. Visit girls at dusk. Play the guitar. How can you be alienated without first having been connected? Think back and remember how it was." A man on the floor in front of Peterson was waving a piece of cardboard on which something threatening was written but Peterson ignored him and concentrated on the camera with the little red light. The little red light jumped from camera to camera in an attempt to throw him off balance but Peterson was too smart for it and followed wherever it went. "My mother was a royal virgin," Peterson said, "and my father a shower of gold. My childhood was pastoral and energetic and rich in experiences which developed my character. As a young man I was noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form express and admirable, and in apprehension …" Peterson went on and on and although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not.I can't decide if I really like this story. It is funny and clever, there are several fantastic lines, and the whole piece is delivered, as Barthelme's work often is, as if he were playing some kind of joke on the reader. On the other hand--and this may be deliberate--its cutesy self-conscious randomness comes off as rather sophomoric. The temptation of writing a story about absurdity is to write it in an openly absurd fashion. Does this really work? I'm not quite sure. Perhaps a somber and serious delivery would have been better at making the point.
- Donald Barthelme, "A Shower of Gold," 1962
At any rate, what I think is most interesting about this piece is that it is intimately grounded in a historical context which is only hinted at in the story itself. I first read this in a great 1960s anthology of short writing entitled How We Live, a huge book assembled around the thesis that fiction writing can provide a better picture of contemporary society than, say, sociological texts. Thus it is unsurprising that it introduces this story as a smirking commentary on the then-chic intellectual preoccupation with the Absurd. Its characters are the epigones of a dying fashion for existentialism.
But this raises an interesting question. To what extent is philosophical and other intellectual work discredited by its rootedness in history? For instance, we can link many of Nietzsche's middle-period formulations to his enthusiastic embrace of positivism. We don't really believe in positivism anymore, certainly not in the kind that was all the rage in 1885. So how do we take his work seriously? It is tempting to say that we should partition off the superficial, fashionable aspects of his text from a supposed inner core of philosophical insight. That is not only a betrayal of Nietzsche himself but also a fundamental mistake in another sense--it commits us to the claim that there is a universal and non-historicized knowledge that later generations are somehow better at accessing. This sounds rather silly. Anything we could identify as "universal" is really just something that responds better to our contemporary concerns. So we might rephrase the claim and say that the value we glean from Nietzsche is something like the value the raccoon gleans from the garbage can: we're not concerned with the past use-value of the work (the fact that the orange peel once contained an orange) but rather with the current use-value of the debris. I favor this approach myself, and in the context of the other proposals this one looks quite attractive.
There is, however, an interesting liability here. If we disclaim both the position that reduces work to chicness and that which posits a universal essence, the critical point of a story like Barthelme's ends up being rather dramatically blunted. To put it another way, reading '50s-'60s existentialism sympathetically must reduce the distance between "Shower of Gold" and the trendiness it criticizes--after all, aren't they both just competing and potentially valuable interventions in a particular philosophical conjuncture? When both critic and criticized have ended up in the dustbin of history, the critic is at a distinct disadvantage.
I don't know how to solve this problem--or even if, in the scheme of things, it is really a problem. The ephemeral nature of much critical discourse may be more of a selling point than a drawback. This way of looking at things does, however, offer a potent answer to charges that (say) Derrida was "fashionable" (in the sense that his concerns were ephemeral). Sure. But he was no more fashionable than was George Steiner or T. S. Eliot. Neither the historical context of intellectual work nor the critique of that context can be disengaged from fashion, at least not in a way that preserves any of their value. A catch-22 for the Bloom/Sokal set.