by Donald Barthelme (1963)
BECAUSE HE NEEDED the money Peterson answered an ad that said “We’ll pay you to be on TV if your opinions are strong enough or your personal experiences have a flavor of the unusual.” He called the number and was told to come to Room 1551 in the Graybar Building on Lexington. This he did and after spending twenty minutes with a Miss Arbor who asked him if he had ever been in analysis was okayed for a program called Who Am I? “What do you have strong opinions about?” Miss Arbor asked. “Art,” Peterson said, “life, money.” “For instance?” “I believe,” Peterson said, “that the learning ability of mice can be lowered or increased by regulating the amount of serotonin in the brain. I believe that schizophrenics have a high incidence of unusual fingerprints, including lines that make almost complete circles. I believe that the dreamer watches his dream in sleep, by moving his eyes.” “That’s very interesting!” Miss Arbor cried. “It’s all in the World Almanac,” Peterson replied.
“I see you’re a sculptor,” Miss Arbor said, “that’s wonderful.” “What is the nature of the program?” Peterson asked. “I’ve never seen it.” “Let me answer your question with another question,” Miss Arbor said. “Mr. Peterson, are you absurd?” Her enormous lips were smeared with a glowing white cream. “I beg your pardon?” “I mean,” Miss Arbor said earnestly, “do you encounter your own existence as gratuitous? Do you feel de trop? Is there nausea?” “I have an enlarged liver,” Peterson offered. “That’s excellent!” Miss Arbor exclaimed. “That’s a very good beginning! Who Am I? tries, Mr. Peterson, to discover what people really are. People today, we feel, are hidden away inside themselves, alienated, desperate, living in anguish, despair and bad faith. Why have we been thrown here, and abandoned? That’s the question we try to answer, Mr. Peterson. Man stands alone in a featureless, anonymous landscape, in fear and trembling and sickness unto death. God is dead. Nothingness everywhere. Dread. Estrangement. Finitude. Who Am I? approaches these problems in a root radical way.” “On television?” “We’re interested in basics, Mr. Peterson. We don’t play around.” “I see,” Peterson said, wondering about the amount of the fee. “What I want to know now, Mr. Peterson, is this: are you interested in absurdity?” “Miss Arbor,” he said, “to tell you the truth, I don’t know. I’m not sure I believe in it.” “Oh, Mr. Peterson!” Miss Arbor said, shocked. “Don’t say that! You’ll
“I’M GOING TO be on television,” Peterson said to his dealer. “A terrible shame,” Jean-Claude responded. “Is it unavoidable?” “It’s unavoidable,” Peterson said, “if I want to eat.” “How much?” Jean-Claude asked and Peterson said: “Two hundred.” He looked around the gallery to see if any of his works were on display. “A ridiculous compensation considering the infamy. Are you using your own name?” “You haven’t by any
Peterson sat in his loft on lower Broadway drinking Rheingold and thinking about the President. He had always felt close to the President but felt now that he had, in agreeing to appear in the television program, done something slightly disgraceful, of which the President would not approve. But I needed the money, he told himself, the telephone is turned off and the kitten is crying for milk. And I’m running out of beer. The President feels that the arts should be encouraged, Peterson reflected, surely he doesn’t want me to go without beer? He wondered if what he was feeling was simple guilt at having sold himself to television or something more elegant: nausea? His liver groaned within him and he considered a situation in which his new relationship with the President was announced. He was working in the loft. The piece in hand was to be called Season’s Greetings and combined three auto radiators, one from a Chevrolet Tudor, one from a Ford pickup, one from a 1932 Essex, with part of a former telephone switchboard and other items. The arrangement seemed right and he began welding. After a time the mass was freestanding. A couple of hours had passed. He put down the torch, lifted off the mask. He walked over to the refrigerator and found a sandwich left by a friendly junk dealer. It was a sandwich made hastily and without inspiration: a thin slice of ham between two pieces of bread. He ate it gratefully nevertheless. He stood looking at the work, moving from time to time so as to view it from a new angle. Then the door to the loft burst open and the President ran in, trailing a sixteen-pound sledge. His first blow cracked the principal weld in Season’s Greetings, the two halves parting like lovers, clinging for a moment then rushing off in opposite directions. Twelve Secret Service men held Peterson in a paralyzing combination of secret grips. He’s looking good, Peterson thought, very good, healthy, mature, fit, trustworthy. I like his suit. The President’s second and third blows smashed the Essex radiator and the Chevrolet radiator. Then he attacked the welding torch, the plaster sketches on the workbench, the Rodin cast and the Giacometti stickman Peterson had bought in Paris. “But Mr. President!” Peterson shouted. “I thought we were friends!” A Secret Service man bit him in the back of the neck. Then the President lifted the sledge high in the air, turned toward Peterson, and said: “Your liver is diseased? That’s a good sign. You’re making progress. You’re thinking.”
“I happen to think that guy in the White House is doing a pretty darn good job.” Peterson’s barber, a man named Kitchen who was also a lay analyst and the author of four books titled The Decision To Be, was the only person in the world to whom he had confided his former sense of community with the President. “As far as his relationship with you personally goes,” the barber continued, “it’s essentially a kind of I-Thou relationship, if you know what I mean. You got to handle it with full awareness of the implications. In the end one experiences only oneself, Nietzsche said. When you’re angry with the President, what you experience is self-as-angry-with-the-President. When things are okay between you and him, what you experience is self-as-swinging-with-the-President. Well and good. But,” Kitchen said, lathering up, “you want the relationship to be such that what you experience is the-President-as-swinging-with-you. You want his reality, get it? So that you can break out of the hell of solipsism. How about a little more off the sides?” “Everybody knows the language but me,” Peterson said irritably. “Look,” Kitchen said, “when you talk about me to somebody else, you say ‘my barber,’ don’t you? Sure you do. In the same way, I look at you as being ‘my customer,’ get it? But you don’t regard yourself as being ‘my’ customer and I don’t regard myself as ‘your’ barber. Oh, it’s hell all right.” The razor moved like a switchblade across the back of Peterson’s neck. “Like Pascal said: ‘The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.’ ” The razor rocketed around an ear. “Listen,” Peterson said, “what do you think of this television program called Who Am I? Ever seen it?” “Frankly,” the barber said, “it smells of the library. But they do a job on those people, I’ll tell you that.” “What do you mean?” Peterson said excitedly. “What kind of a job?” The cloth was whisked away and shaken with a sharp popping sound. “It’s too horrible even to talk about,” Kitchen said. “But it’s what they deserve, those crumbs.” “Which crumbs?” Peterson asked.
THAT NIGHT A tall foreign-looking man with a switchblade big as a butcherknife open in his hand walked into the loft without knocking and said “Good evening, Mr. Peterson, I am the cat-piano player, is there anything you’d particularly like to hear?” “Cat-piano?” Peterson said, gasping, shrinking from the knife. “What are you talking about? What do you want?” A biography of Nolde slid from his lap to the floor. “The cat-piano,” said the visitor, “is an instrument of the devil, a diabolical instrument. You needn’t sweat quite so much,” he added, sounding aggrieved. Peterson tried to be brave. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Let me explain,” the tall foreign-looking man said graciously. “The keyboard consists of eight cats—the octave—encased in the body of the instrument in such a way that only their heads and forepaws protrude. The player presses upon the appropriate paws, and the appropriate cats respond—with a kind of shriek. There is also provision made for pulling their tails. A tail-puller, or perhaps I should say tail player” (he smiled a disingenuous smile) “is stationed at the rear of the instrument, where the tails are. At the correct moment the tail-puller pulls the correct tail. The tail-note is of course quite different from the paw-note and produces sounds in the upper registers. Have you ever seen such an instrument, Mr. Peterson?” “No, and I don’t believe it exists,” Peterson said heroically. “There is an excellent early seventeenth-century engraving by Franz van der Wyngaert, Mr. Peterson, in which a cat-piano appears. Played, as it happens, by a man with a wooden leg. You will observe my own leg.” The cat-piano player hoisted his trousers and a leglike contraption of wood, metal and plastic appeared. “And now, would you like to make a request? ‘The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian’? The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ overture? ‘Holiday for Strings’?” “But
THE DAY AFTER the hideous music began the three girls from California arrived. Peterson opened his door, hesitantly, in response to an insistent ringing, and found himself being stared at by three girls in blue jeans and heavy sweaters, carrying suitcases. “I’m Sherry,” the first girl said, “and this is Ann and this is Louise. We’re from California and we need a place to stay.” They were homely and extremely purposeful. “I’m sorry,” Peterson said, “I
THE OTHER CONTESTANTS were a young man in white pajamas named Arthur Pick, a karate expert, and an airline pilot in full uniform, Wallace E. Rice. “Just be natural,” Miss Arbor said, “and of course be frank. We score on the basis of the validity of your answers, and of course that’s measured by the polygraph.” “What’s this about a polygraph?” the airline pilot said. “The polygraph measures the validity of your answers,” Miss Arbor said, her lips glowing whitely. “How else are we going to know if
The program began with Arthur Pick. Arthur Pick got up in his white pajamas and gave a karate demonstration in which he broke three half-inch pine boards with a single kick of his naked left foot. Then he told how he had disarmed a bandit late at night at the A&P where he was an assistant manager, with a maneuver called a “rip-choong” which he demonstrated on the announcer. “How about that?” the announcer caroled. “Isn’t that something? Audience?” The audience responded enthusiastically and Arthur Pick stood modestly with his hands behind his back. “Now,” the announcer said, “let’s play Who Am I? And here’s your host, Bill Lemmon!” No, he doesn’t look like the President, Peterson decided. “Arthur,” Bill Lemmon said, “for twenty dollars—do you love your mother?” “Yes,” Arthur Pick said. “Yes, of course.” A bell rang, the tote board flashed, and the audience screamed. “He’s lying!” the announcer shouted, “lying! lying! lying!” “Arthur,” Bill Lemmon said, looking at his index cards, “the polygraph shows that the validity of your answer
I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not beliving 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 shoot-out 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 a 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
Questions for Discussion
These questions for discussion are from an old literature textbook.
1. What current customs, fads, and institutions does Barthelme satirize in the story?
2. How does the story picture the relationship between the artist and society? What kind of artist is Peterson?
3. Why does Peterson decide not to submit himself to the degradation of the television show? How do the episodes with Jean-Claude, Kitchen, the cat-piano player, and the girls from California contribute to that decision? What is the significance of his final speech? What does Barthelme mean when he says of Peterson that “although he was, in a sense, lying, in a sense he was not”?
4. What is the significance of the story’s title? (See the classical legend of Zeus and Danaë.)