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The Use of Signs in the Work of Barthelme and Vonnegut

Updated on March 13, 2013

Forty Stories and Breakfast of Champions

If ekphrasis is a self-contained, verbal representation of a non-verbal work of art, then what is the opposite of ekphrasis? What is the non-verbal representation of a verbal passage? Illustrations have long accompanied texts to give the reader an artistic rendition of the scene described, but the words remained, and with these words remained a certain potential for independence from the illustrations. The text could still serve its function without the additional paratext; in fact, the absence of the illustrations could very well invoke a more cerebral understanding of the text, allowing the reader to imagine the scene without an artist’s coloring of it. Aesthetically speaking, a text could exist without illustration, have a particular illustration, or there could be a number of illustrations that could be interchanged depending on the desired effect. Milton’s Paradise Lost could stand alone, but the addition of Blake’s etchings creates a particular aesthetic potential that would be entirely different than the effect that would be created if I were to illustrate the text (especially considering that I am a rather mediocre visual artist). What then is the aesthetic effect of removing this distinction, of incorporating an illustration into the framework of the piece so that the text itself would be otherwise meaningless without the visual representation? If the term paratext is understood as the aesthetic accoutrement which frames a text and influences its reception, and could theoretically be altered without changing the intention or perceived meaning of the text, then could these types of illustrations be considered paratext? Would they be more aptly described as context? If these illustrations appear in a format, such as a short story (which normally, only utilizes written words), without words, then would these illustrations then be the text itself? After all, aren’t the letters that compose words just conventionalized, visual representations of phonemes that would otherwise be meaningless without pattern and structure, and once compiled into sentences would they not be just as prone to subjective interpretation? In this essay I will describe the technique of using such structurally important illustrations as they appear in Donald Barthelme’s Forty Stories and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions in order to demonstrate the versatility of the technique of using illustrations in such a way.

Charles Sanders Peirce, an American philosopher, coined the term semiotics to refer to the study of signs, sign systems, and the way meaning is derived from them (Murfin 467). Peirce’s work was a continuation of the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, who is, in many ways, the founder of modern linguistics. Peirce distinguished between three essential types of sign: symbolic, indexical, and iconic (Eagleton 101). Symbolic signs are those which are associated with their referent by means of convention, such as words which have no meaning outside of our mutual understanding of them. Indexical signs are those which seem to represent a referent through an understood association with it, such as fire indexing heat or a smile indexing happiness. Iconic signs, however, represent an actual object or individual, like a photograph or sketch. Barthelme uses these iconic signs in his collection of short stories titled Forty Stories to achieve a number of aesthetic effects.
Barthelme uses a number of iconic signs in his shorts story titled “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace” (Barthelme 120-30). This short story has a first person narrator explaining the instillations that appear in an art show. Each page of the story includes text, some of which describes the purpose of the illustrations that appear alongside it. Some of the text does not; rather, it seems to create a contrast to the image presented.
The Flight of the Pigeons from the Palace” establishes a pattern in the correlation of text to sign. The first four images (the abandoned palazzo, the numbered man, the Sulking Lady, and the explosion) each seem to present, if nothing else, a representation of what is described in the text. The pattern established seems to take both a mimetic and diegetic quality in that the language suggests, on the ontological level of the narrative, that the art show at the abandoned palazzo is real but that the images that are included are merely examples of the type of art displayed; a necessity of the book format. The images that appear alongside the written text are then support that claim by way of example and imitation. This pattern, composed of text and images, imitates the experience of the show itself, giving each instillation space and time for viewing, even though the show is manifest in the story alone. This mimetic pattern creates the form of the story and in doing so creates both a temporal narrative and thematic expectations for the reader.
This pattern is not however consistent throughout the narrative. On page 125 Barthelme includes an image that is separate from the diegetic narrative. The sixth illustration that appears in the story is of a trapeze artist. The text that accompanies this image describes the show, specifically: grave robbers, a band playing sad themes, and a troupe of agoutis performing tax evasion atop yellow poles. The five images that appear on the previous pages could, arguably, each represent an instillation within the describe art show; the trapeze artist is, however, never mention as being in the show per se. Instead, the accompanying text says only:
“The trapeze artist with whom I had an understanding… The moment when she failed to catch me…
Did she really try? I can’t recall her ever failing to catch anyone she was really fond of. Her great muscles at which we gaze through heavy-lidded eyes…” (Barthelme 125).
This break from the diegetic narrative is an extradiegetic shift into another plot; the story of the trapeze artist and the narrator as opposed to the story of the art show at the abandoned palazzo. It is possible that recounting the troupe of agoutis (group of rodent-like animals that are normally found in South America) that have somehow managed to find themselves atop tall poles, reminded the reader of an event outside of the story. By means of a stream-of-consciousness style digression the narrator recounted the trapeze artist, thus the image presented. If this is the case, then these mimetic images may not represent the show as previously expected. Instead they represent the images that appear in the mind of the author as he recalls the show, meaning that these images represent an altogether different ontological level than might have been previously inferred by the reader.
The second to last image that appears is of a flock of pigeons. The text that accompanies this image is: “We used The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace” (Barthelme 128). Considering the number of illogical or otherwise random images that appear in the story this would not be specifically interesting if it did not refer to the title of the story. There is the possibility that the story was simply titled this because it appears in the story and so the origin of the title was secondary to the appearance of the image. More likely, the image appears in such a way because it is a self-referential sign. This mise-en-abyme presented as another representative of an instillation in the arts show creates two distinct possibilities; that the pigeons are simply a part of this fantastical postmodern art show or that the image of the pigeons is a mental representation of pigeons separated from the diegetic narrative and that the text refers to the story itself appearing in the art show. The appearance of text alongside the images creates an illogical juxtaposition, but it is in this contradiction that we find the philosophical subtext of the work. Barthelme could have easily written a traditional narrative that tackled the concepts at play (and has) but this story allows the reader to make the connections themselves; to use subjective judgment to create a more personal meaning. The act of subjective interpretation makes art of the contradictions.
In the story “At the Tolstoy Museum”, Barthelme uses iconic signs in different way. Some illustrations do not include any text whatsoever, such as those found on pages 110 and 111. Other images include simple taglines that do not necessarily correspond to the narrative itself; instead they are images of Tolstoy at different points in his life. Though Tolstoy is mentioned regularly, he appears as scenery more than as a character. As with “The Flight of the Pigeons from the Palace” the images seem to represent a two-dimensional representation of what one might see in the museum, creating a temporal space and time for viewing the pieces thus creating an aesthetic that mimics a visit to the museum. The images are however not extradiegetic, like some found in “The Flight of the Pigeons from the Palace”. They do not create additional plot lines, or create the message to be inferred; but they do seem to be a part of the narrative, an irreplaceable part of the text. The influence of these images creates an aesthetic that words themselves could not.
Possibly the most interesting of the images that appear in “At the Tolstoy Museum” are those found on pages 110-111. These are the only images that appear in the story without taglines. The image on page 110 is a portrait of Leo Tolstoy, with a wrinkled brow and bushy beard that seems to fade into the black background surrounding his visage. It stands alone on the page. Page 111 is an exact duplicate of the previous image with one small addition; a miniature Napoleon Bonaparte that looks up at the relatively giant portrait of the Russian author. One that has happened to read Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace might recall that the plot of the novel surrounds the Napoleonic Wars in Russia, so seeing Napoleon appear at this simulation of the Tolstoy Museum raises many questions. Is Napoleon’s presence a nod to War and Peace and how Napoleon seized Moscow (where the real Tolstoy Museum is located)? Is Napoleon’s stature in comparison to Tolstoy’s portrait a joke about Napoleon’s height? Does his stature represent the enduring power of art over war? Obviously, the juxtaposition represents something, but the art of the corresponding images creates a venue for subjective interpretation. I do not believe that the presentation of the dual portraits side-by-side (as opposed to having to flip a page) is an accident. Barthelme uses this re-representation to create a pattern which suggests not only a deviation from one image to the next (the miniature French conqueror) but it creates the illusion of time passing, of one moment as it becomes the next moment.
The mimetic quality in these two stories can be found in the representation of art in a new form, even as it recreates the feel of moving through time and space and, in turn, the movement through time and space creates the diegetic narrative. This combination of diegesis and mimesis creates a fixed point for what Genette called “distance” in his literary theory. Genette might argue that the juxtaposition come closer to the type of objectivity he called “external focalization” than the use of words may have been able to achieve due to the bias of language and the process through which language is understood (Genette 762). This would be achieved by place the labor of understanding upon the reader as opposed to any particular character that would otherwise be explaining it (whether that character was within the story or the narrator). This raises the question of the depths of aesthetic representation and the author’s ability to create pseudo-physicality on a two-dimensional plane.
Barthelme was not alone in his use of images in the text of his postmodern work. Kurt Vonnegut also used images in his novel Breakfast of Champions, though he did so in an entirely different way. Where Barthelme would use the juxtaposition of images to create an aesthetic that provided venue for philosophical insight, Vonnegut uses his images for a comic effect. Not to say that Vonnegut’s hand-drawn illustrations don’t carry with them deeper meaning, they do, but the meaning doesn’t rely on particular, educated understandings. As Vonnegut, himself, put it in an interview:

To me there are some important writers—say John Barth, Donald Barthelme,
and Jorge Luis Borges—who seem to be concentrating on what we would call “literary history,” in the sense that they are responding to literary experiments
in the past and are refining them. They’re also responding to life, of course; I
don’t mean to imply they aren’t. But they have a certain academic strain within
their works, an awareness of being part of an evolutionary scheme, and I don’t
feel any such awareness (Reilly 18).

It may be this sort of rejection of an “academic strain” that separates the work of Barthelme and Vonnegut in the minds of some, but the tone of their respective works seems to be similar and the devices they use (though for different purposes) have a similar sophistication in the mechanics of their work (despite the somewhat sophomoric images Vonnegut chooses to include).

The preface to Breakfast of Champions is interesting in that it addresses a topic that is normally ignored: paratext. The preface describes the purpose of the title, the meaning of the dedication, but perhaps most importantly the use of images in the work. Vonnegut addresses the use of hand-drawn images: “I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly—to insult ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen” (Vonnegut 4-5). Vonnegut might have felt that he was being childish, and his images might, in fact, be of a childish nature, but the mechanics at play are anything but. On page five, Vonnegut includes a picture of an “asshole” (though it closely resembles an asterisk), and he describes his use of such images in his work. This could be considered a form of metafiction, or fiction that describes the process of writing fiction. In this single immature gesture, Vonnegut has touched upon one of the ideas that are at play in postmodernism; the purpose and placement of literature in the human experience. This representation of an “asshole” is what Pierce might have considered a symbolic sign.
Barthelme’s images, though cloudy and dark, are iconic due to the specificity of their sign. They are of high enough quality to be considered actual representations of what they are. Vonnegut, on the other hand, draws low-quality pictures that may or may not be recognized for what they are without his explanation (as I said before, I would have taken the image on page five to be a large asterisk if not for the explanation). These symbolic images create an aesthetic that reinforces the tone of the work. The tone could be considered “ironic didacticism”
The symbolic images used in Breakfast of Champions are familiar objects. Page 127 features a picture of an apple, for instance. The reader is expected to know what an apple is before having read the book, the apple is, after all, described as “a popular fruit” (Vonnegut 127). So the purpose of describing such an object and then representing it with an image doesn’t come to inform the reader despite the text’s didactic nature. Instead, Vonnegut is toying with the conventions of science-fiction.
It is common in science-fiction to use otherworldly environments, but to do so the rules of that environment must be described in terms of scenery or characterization. A common theme of science-fiction is dystopian society (Murfin 461). Vonnegut is using these conventions of science-fiction, but applying them to the reality of the planet Earth as we understand it today. He uses this tone to demonstrate the dysfunction of humanity with a tone of objectivity, which would otherwise be lost. If the book were to be viewed by someone without knowledge of the world we inhabit, then pictures would be an important feature in the understanding of the world. So, the uses of images reinforce the tone of the work.
It could be argued that Vonnegut did not need the images to create this tone; that he could have simply used traditional language to create the same affect. But, the work is completed as intended by the author, and being as the images are included it must be understood that the images are a part of the aesthetic presentation of the work. There are, however, a few instances that images appear that give information that would otherwise not be present or would appear differently if not drawn. One such instance of this can be found on page 100. The top half of the page is dedicated to two words “Fairy Land” – drawn to resemble flashing lights spelling out the words. The words “Fairy Land” do not appear in text before, but describe an image seen in the mind of one of the characters. If it were not for the image (representing text or not) then the information would not have been presented in the same way, it would have had the same textual appearance as the rest of the words on the page. This creates an aesthetic that wouldn’t have illustrated the way the words appeared in the character’s mind if they had been presented in any other way, and in turn, they would not have had the same affect on the reader.
The images that appear in the work of Barthelme and Vonnegut have another strange affect; they create expectations. When one turns to page 124 of Barthelme’s Forty Stories they will see the image of the trapeze artist on opposing page 125. Though they could have had no prior knowledge of the trapeze artist they will read page 124 with the anticipation of a trapeze artist appearing soon. If one turns to page 142 of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions they will see a crude picture of a football on the opposing page 143 and expect that football to appear in discussion relatively soon. This influences the reader’s perception of the text that precedes the image creating expectancy within the text that can either be fulfilled or ignored depending on the author’s purpose in the inclusion of the image.
Postmodernism manifested in many ways, and each of the proponents of the semi-movement used different means to achieve their respective messages. In this case two authors, Barthelme and Vonnegut, used a similar technique to achieve ultimately different purposes, and yet the technique itself is the same. All the images used in both works, by both authors, create the possibility for subjective interpretation. These images, whether iconic or symbolic come to take a meaning beyond what is simply on the page.

Works Cited

Barthelme, Donald. Forty Stories. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1989. Print.

Genette, Gérard. “Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative”. Poetics Today, Vol. 11, No. 4, Narratology Revisited II (Winter, 1990). Duke U. Press. pp 755-74. JSTOR. 28 Nov. 2011.

Murfin, Ross. Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms 3rd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin. 2009. Print.

Reilly, Charlie. Kurt Vonnegut. “Two Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut” College Literature , Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 1-29. JSTOR. 27 Oct. 2011.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.


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