Thoughts on Interpretation via Bartheleme’s “The Balloon”/Cage/What I am Reading

I finished Jon Fosse’s “The Other Name” earlier this week, and I have thoughts, but I’ll be writing those up later. In addition to my normal reading, I’ve added some short stories to my diet– both to have something to write about while I’m reading lengthier works, and also to take a break from time to time. I started in on a volume of Donald Barthelme stories; I remember reading one of his stories, “The King of Jazz” in college and enjoying it a great deal, so I figured why not. I ended up reading one of his stories “The Balloon” and it took me back to an earlier entry in which I discussed a stance I took on ‘interpretation’– I used to be very much against trying to figure what something is “about”. I had grown weary of attempting to decode texts, and wanted to just, er, enjoy the story, I guess. I blame John Cage for this; I was heavily into Cage’s stuff at the time, and he insisted that his music was “just sounds”– an approach I like. 

Cage would say his music required no explanation, and then spend ages explaining it, in alternately straightforward and exhausting ways. And, as I mentioned in the previous entry, that kind of ‘anti-interpretation’ is overly reductive. Sure, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Other times, though, it’s not. 

“The Balloon” is basically a story which is about interpretation, without anything to interpret in it, which is a neat trick. A giant balloon appears over New York City, and people react to it. It’s literal, but the discussions about it focus heavily on states of mind: “…the balloon was, in this man’s view, an imposture, something inferior to the sky that had formerly been there… But in fact, it was January, the sky was dark and ugly…”

“It was also argued that what was important was what you felt when you stood under the balloon…”

“A single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons…”

It’s a neat trick, and Barthelme is clever enough to pull it off. It made me think about the way I look at art in a slightly different light, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment for something that probably took me ten minutes to read. 


What I am reading

“Titan”– John Varley. This is a quick read to give me a break from literary fiction and hoo boy it’s horny as all get out. 

That’s really it this week– the other stuff I am reading is more or less on pause while I do other things; I don’t have my ususal amount of time to read, but that’s fine. 

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