March 29, 2015
In 1965 Donald Barthelme published Snow White, an update of the 1938 Disney movie.
Barthelme’s Snow White acts as an interpretive lens through which we focus on environmental and sustainable food challenges, including its root causes, suggested paths for an overhaul, and sharp social commentary. He delivers his messages in a series of lively, cartwheeling narrative snapshots that range from hilarious to tragic, profound to absurd.
Barthelme was a trailblazer in the unchartered wilds of postmodernism. The sub-genre he cleaves to is Hysterical Realism, a term that was not invented until 2000, well after Barthelme’s death in 1989.
Hysterical Realism is a union of absurdism and social commentary, a form of literary critique born of unexpected contrasts, like a Zen Koan, that jolt the mind into new ways of thinking. Barthelme’s reinterpretation of Snow White presents a modern dysfunctional family of seven ‘dwarfs’ and Snow White. Not only do the dwarfs have difficulty relating to Snow White, but they have significant difficulties getting along with each other.
The story is simple enough: Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem, Dan, and Bill (the seven ‘dwarfs’) live with Snow White. The men have jobs ‘tending the vats,’ which are used in the preparation of processed Chinese baby food. Their other job is to wash buildings. Snow White is dispirited because she’s waiting for her life to start, her prince to come. The men she lives with are intimate with her but fail to appreciate her for who she really is. Conflict stems from the men trying to find balance in their group while Snow White attempts to carry on, waiting to fall in love.
Tending the Vats
Instead of working the mines, as in the Disney version of Snow White where the dwarfs separate valuable gems from mere glass, the modern dwarfs tend huge vats of Chinese baby food and wash high-rise buildings. Their principal job is to tend the vats. The ingredients of the foods are questionable because the recipes come from the dwarfs’ father who lived by the words, “Try to be a man about whom nothing is known.” Similarly, nothing is known about the purity or nutritional value of the contents of the vats. What they do know is that vast quantities of food are produced in the vats, the product is attractively packaged, and they’re getting rich.
“The vats and the buildings have made us rich. It is amazing how many mothers will spring for an attractively packed jar of Baby Dim-Sum, a tasty-looking potlet of Baby Jing Shar Shew Bow.”
The haphazard food-inspection process, with its significant emphasis on self-regulation, is also in Barthelme’s sights: “The grade of pork ears we are using in the Baby Ding Sam Dew is not capable of meeting U.S. Government standards, or indeed, any standards. Our man in Hong Kong assures us however that the next shipment will be superior.”
Producing food in great industrial quantities, and keeping a veil of secrecy around the process, is reminiscent of today’s industrial food system. Lack of transparency, including reluctance to label contents (first it was transfats, then GMOs), obscures nutritional content promoted by global food producers.
Self-Regard is Rooted in Breakfast
Barthelme emphasizes the absence of nutritional value of processed breakfast cereals when describing the dwarfs’ breakfast. “Self-regard is rooted in breakfast,” he says, and then tells what’s on the menu: “We regarded each other sitting around the breakfast table with its big cardboard boxes of ‘Fear,’ ‘Chix,’ and ‘Rats.’” Later, Barthelme picks up the theme and elaborates: “Self-regard is rooted in breakfast. When you have had it, then lunch seems to follow naturally, as if you owned not only the fruits but the means of production in a large, faux-naïf country.”
This sense of trust, this sense of the inevitability of the next meal, has implications to the converse: if you haven’t had breakfast, then lunch might not follow at all. If you haven’t had breakfast, you don’t feel a part of the “means of production.” You are disenfranchised; in a word, poor. The use of the term ‘faux-naïf’ connotes a sense of willful ignorance on the part of those who produce food on an industrial scale, and the government that supports them. Today almost 15% of Americans are food insecure, unsure of where their next meal will come from or if it will come at all. This translates to approximately 50 million Americans.
Heroism, Art, and Spiritual Transcendence
In a conspicuous chapter-break populated by only a few bold words, Barthelme offers a trinity of possible routes to global environmental salvation: ‘Heroism, Art, and Spiritual Transcendence.’ If effective responses to our emerging environmental plight are to be found, certainly we can do worse than heed Barthelme’s advice. Today’s heroes who are raising our consciousness and sparking our will to take action in the Sustainable Food Movement include Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, Joel Salatin, Eric Schlosser, and Bill McKibben, to name a few. The environmental writings — both fiction and nonfiction — of Wendell Berry and Margaret Atwood embrace spiritual transcendence. Both are poets, environmentalists, big thinkers, and capable of touching us deeply with their vision.
As Barthelme’s story continues, Snow White is increasingly upset: “I myself am so buffeted about by recent events, and non-events, that if events give me even one more buffet, I will simply explode,” she says. But she is in for one more shock when the evil queen, in the guise of Jane, offers Snow White a drink.
“Something whispers to me that there is something wrong with it.” “Well that’s possible,” Jane replied. “I didn’t make the vodka myself you know. I didn’t grow the grain myself, and reap it myself, and make the mash myself. I am not a member of the Cinzano Vermouth Company. They don’t tell me everything. I didn’t harvest the onions. I didn’t purify the water that went into these rocks. I’m not responsible of everything. All I can say is that to the best of my knowledge, this is an ordinary vodka Gibson on the rocks. Just like any other. Further than that I will not go.”
The lack of transparency regarding information about where the drink came from echoes points made by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Healthy food choices are difficult to make when we don’t know where our food comes from, how it’s made, or the purity of its ingredients. Barthelme seems to suggest not knowing could be dangerous to your health.
Snow White responds perhaps as most people would, trusting that if it’s common, everyday, and readily available — and if the food-production industry backs it — it must be fine. “Oh well then,” Snow White said. “It must be all right in that case. It must be all right if it is ordinary. If it is as ordinary as you say. In that case, I shall drink it.”
Paul, the would-be Prince, intercepts the drink. He drinks it, convulses in a death agony, and expires. Barthelme’s recurring indictments of large conglomerates — including the food industry, banking, and advertising — is expressed through an incidental character who was hopelessly in love with Snow White: “It seems that being in someone’s power implies no obligation on the part of the one in whose power one is, not even the obligation of sparing one a word now and then, or a yellow half-smile.”
“Anathematization of the world is not an adequate response to the world.”
The title of the concluding chapter is hopeful. “Anathematization of the world is not an adequate response to the world.” Vilifying the world does not produce positive change. Rather, action, integrity, imagination, leadership, love, and courage are necessary to produce environmental harmony.
Barthelme concludes with the idea that there must be “something better.” He rejects the accusation that it is wishful thinking, or “an infant’s idea.” Although he doesn’t know what this something better looks like, he is confident that the effort “to break out of this bag that we are in” will be successful.
The lessons of Snow White for the Environmental and Food Sustainability movements are manifold. Awareness of the problems have been publicized and analyzed extensively. Chronic problems persist, however, including corporate greed, well-intentioned bungles, and post-industrial abuse of the environment. Humanity is locked into a permanent relationship with nature and the environment but seems unable or unwilling to work out a harmonious, mutually-beneficial arrangement. Barthelme suggests what’s needed is “Heroism, Art, and Transcendence,” each of these are open to endless possibility and therefore impossible to predict. “There is hope,” Barthelme seems to say, “but don’t ask me what it looks like.”