Clearing Being: Donald Barthelme’s Snow White and the Thought of Martin Heidegger

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Donald Barthelme, one of the foremost writers of postmodern fiction in the mid-to-later twentieth century, was continually engaged in the project of breaking down conventions of all kinds and especially of cutting through the accretion of conventional uses of language. With his 1965 novel Snow White, he turned to the ancient genre of the fairy tale to accomplish this goal. While many commentators on the novel claim that Barthelme’s treatment of the Snow White tale is merely parodic and negative, I maintain that the novel is actually quite positive in breaking through an objectified and rigid version of human Being in the character of Snow to a much more open horizon of possible Being. To make this point, I draw on central aspects of the thought of Martin Heidegger, who, perhaps more than that of any other philosopher, helped to create the zeitgeist through which postmodern American fiction emerges in the last half of the twentieth century. Specifically, Heidegger collapses the subject-object dualism of Descartes into the wholeness of Being itself and conceives for language the role not of simply re-presenting the world to human beings but rather of discovering, or “clearing,” Being itself.

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