the signs are misread

Friday, September 26th, 2003

I think we saw in Thursdays Contemporary Fiction that trying to understanding what Donald Barthelme meant by “Me and Miss Mandible” is pretty tough business. We saw that one reading began to cancel itself out after a time (the protagonist is a man; the protagonist is a fantasizing boy. No yes no yes and so forth). As if the more we tried to enforce logic or follow a cogent narrative design, the more the text begins to squirm out from under our foreheads (I don’t know: for some reason this points me to Oedipus). Can a 35 year old man appear at school and the children and teachers simply accept this without comment. Maybe, if the account is written as fragment? The story isn’t really even a conventional story; it’s a journal/diary, which we experience in conventional sequence, but then again not quite.

In a sense the jugglesome nature of the text can be found in this randomly chosen selection:

Nowhere have I encountered an atmosphere as charged with aborted sexuality as this. Miss Mandible is helpless; nothing goes right today. Amos Darin has been found drawing a dirty picture in the cloakroom. Sad and inaccurate, it was offered not as a sign of something else but as an act of love in itself. It has excited even those who have not seen it, even those who saw but understood only that it was dirty. The room buzzes with imperfectly comprehended titillation. Amos stands by the door, waiting to be taken to the principal’s office. He wavers between fear and enjoyment of his temporary celebrity. From time to time Miss Mandible looks at me reproachfully, as if blaming me for the uproar. But I did not create this atmosphere, I am caught in it like all the others.

There are lots of interesting tidbits here: How can Darins dirty picture excite even those who havent seen it (does it excite the readersee below)? The picture itself, according to the narrator, is sad and inaccurate (ironically so is the narrators presentation of it) and is interpreted as the act of love in itself. The narrator is incredibly sneaky here. He hints that the picture is a mystery because it is: its an eleven-year-olds rendition of a sex act. This is key. He doesnt show the picture to us: we cant see it. All we get is a brief textual hintpicture drawn by kid, judged as dirty. But we as readers really dont know this. After all, who decides? As Joseph asks on December 7th, Who points out that arrangements sometimes slip, that errors are made, that signs are misread?”

The signs are misread, misread, misread.


One response to “the signs are misread”

  1. Susan says:

    It begs the reader to write. Everyone’s definition of what is “dirty” is based on their own morality. The entire story seems to be clearly stated, and yet is not. Even the story created by the reader is changed by further reading of the story, and again by repeated reading of the story. Yeeks…it’s alive! Which is why I’m doing my paper on totally down to earth and perfectly understandable ol’Woody Allen.