Nihilism negated narratively: the agency of art in the Sot-Weed Factor.
--Cervantes, Don Quixote (667; pt. 2 ch. 31)
Book reading is ambiguous in John Barth's comic epic The Sot-Weed Factor. On the one hand, it fertilizes the imagination at the expense of the will, filling the head with dizzying possibilities that can only be entertained in their full scope by blocking the realization of any one of them. On the other hand, it reveals the truth about the self, which is born in decision and modelled on a hero-role or fiction. If it inspires the subjective contemplation of infinite possibilities that block actuality, it also discloses the temporal character of possibility and motivates action, reminding us that "' [w] e are dying men'" for whom "'there's time for naught but bold resolves!'" (35).
The theme of paralysis induced by reason is so frequent in Barth's work as to suggest its foundation. The cause of the pathology ultimately lies in the disenchantment of the world, which places ever greater onus on the individual to shoulder the burden of ethical decision-making traditionally borne by collective norms, customs, and beliefs. The individual forced to unite in his biography what no longer binds the differentiated spheres of modernity experiences liberation from traditional authority as, simultaneously, a crisis of meaning. The fact-value distinction that inaugurates scientific modernity spells the end of the common conviction in the order of things, toppling morality from its august cosmological station to a private affair of conscience. Fittingly, the novel opens in 1690s London, when the new science that founds modernity on the study of nature by drawing a curtain over the metaphysical study of God and man was in the ascendant. The quest for (metaphysical) meaning rendered quixotic by the scientific enlightenment is redeemed in Sot-Weed on the model of narrative literature, or so I will argue. If reason brings us to an impasse or leaves us stranded in "the Pit," mimesis supplies the ruse by which we can, Munchausen-like, lift ourselves out of it, creating a refuge for the intellect "from furies more terrific that e 'er beset Orestes in the play" (660-61).
But mimesis presents problems of its own that must be negotiated. Sot-Weed pays regular tribute to Don Quixote, as befits a novel about literature and the quest for self. As a youth, Ebenezer Cooke, the comic hero of Sot-Weed, is given the run of a library stocked with tales of high adventure. Like Waverly, Catherine Morland, Frankenstein, Emma Bovary, and Isabel Archer (to name just a few Quixotes before him), Eben prefers books of romance to moral instruction, with predictable results. The favorite activity of the motherless Eben and twin sister Anna is play-acting, at which Eben excels. Andrew Cooke hires a tutor for his children to take the situation in hand, which instead spins it out of control when the tutor, Henry Burlingame, incites the fertile imaginations of his pupils and directs their theatrics:
To teach them history he directed their play-acting to historical events; Ebenezer would be Little John, perhaps, and Anna Friar Tuck, or Anna St. Ursula and Ebenezer the Fifty Thousand Virgins; to sustain their interest in geography he produced volumes of exotic pictures and tales of adventure; to sharpen their logical equipment he ran them through Zeno's paradoxes as one would ask riddles, and rehearsed them in Descartes's scepticism as gaily as though the search for truth and value in the universe were a game of Who's Got the Button. (17-18)
The antinomies of reason (Zeno's paradoxes; Descartes's scepticism) cannot be outrun and so must be approached in a spirit of play, revealing the ludic--and ludicrous--character of the modern human predicament. As in all of Barth's work, the practical dilemmas of philosophical scepticism (the loss of meaning/vocation) set the scene for a narrative solution that reveals the originally mimetic or self-creative character of subjectivity. Burlingame is the novel's master of disguises and the agent of Eben's self-discovery, but the direct upshot of his play-acting tutelage is to aggravate the original problem, namely, his pupil's tendency to paralysis in the face of real choices, especially, as Eben writes to Anna, the crucial choice of vocation:
Ah, God ... it were an easy Matter to choose a Calling, had one all Time to live in! I should be fifty Years a Barrister, fifty a Physician, fifty a Clergyman, fifty a Soldier! Aye, and fifty a Thief, and fifty a Judge! All roads are fine Roads, beloved Sister, none more than another, so that with one Life to spend I am a Man bare-bumm'd at Taylors with Cash for but one pair of Breeches, or a Scholar at Bookstalls with Money for a single Book: to choose ten were no Trouble; to choose one, impossible! All Trades, all Crafts, all Professions are wondrous, but none is finer that the rest together. I cannot choose, sweet Anna: twixt Stools my Breech falleth to the Ground! (20-21)
Eben is so "dizzy with the beauty of the possible" that "he threw up his hands at choice, and like ungainly flotsam rode half-content the tide of chance," until, finally, "one day he did not deign even to dress himself or eat, but sat immobile in the window seat in his nightshirt and stared at the activity in the street below, unable to choose a motion at all even when, some hours later, his untutored bladder suggested one" (21). He is saved from the "cosmic rustle" that whistles through his head on such occasions--"as though his skull were a stranded wentletrap"--when the whore Joan Toast touches his heart and stirs his blood (62). Without reference to the world, reason turns back on itself like the spiralled shell of a stranded sea snail.
The idea that contemplating the equal value of a set of possibilities threatens inertia is an old one, dating back to the work of the medieval French logician John Buridan(1). In Buridan's thought experiment, the ass faced with two identical bales of hay can find no reason to choose one bale over the other. Perched on the indifferent peak of reason, Buridan's ass is doomed to starvation. The satirical idea of an ass of rationality appears in different guises in Barth's first three novels: as a figure of ineluctable mortality, especially the mortality of the narrator who must tell his tale in time; as a figure of disenchantment, or of the limits of reason to guide ethical decision-making in the disenchanted world; and as a figure of radical scepticism, one that decenters the subject to such a degree as to undermine the validity claims implicit in any assertion. The vertigo felt in the face of deciding between equally appealing alternatives threatens to expose a deeper ontological instability: the inexistence of the self. The bedrock we imagine our actions are built upon is in fact a "vacuum" that makes pretenders of us all, as Burlingame's predecessor, the Doctor, tells Jacob Horner in The End of the Road (334) (2).
If the self is an impostor, then all who take it for real are deluded. The nihilism that flows from this deep-seated sense of fraudulence is charted in Barth's first two novels, with Sot-Weed completing a loose trilogy of nihilism. For Todd Andrews, the legalistic hero of The Floating Opera (1956), the subjectivity of value (or the lack of intrinsic or objective value) is cited as just cause for suicide in a random act of terrorism. Todd fails to blow up the 700 souls on the showboat of the novel's title and rationalizes the failure as his acceptance of the contingency of all value; however, he can't promise his new stance will prevent him from making further attempts on his life or the lives of those around him:
It occurred to me ... that faced with an infinitude of possible directions and having no ultimate reason to choose one over another, I would in all probability, though not at all necessarily, go on behaving much as I had thitherto, much as a rabbit shot on the run keeps running in the same direction until death overtakes him. Possibly I would on some future occasion endeavor once again to blow up the Floating Opera, my good neighbours and associates, and/or my mere self; most probably I would not. (251)
In Barth's next novel, The End of the Road (1958), the gulf between "the infinitude of possible directions" and the finitude of actual ones takes on the symptomatic features of paradox already discernible in Todd's rationalism. The novel's anti-hero, Jacob Horner, forswears a truthful narrative account in light of the different possibilities afforded by narrative form: "[T]he same life lends itself to any number of stories--parallel, concentric, mutually habitant, or what you will" (258). Todd too had worried, like Tristram Shandy, over the ability of narrative to capture the particular "significances of things" without losing track in a potentially infinite number of digressions (2), but Horner inhabits the tension between possibility and actuality still more acutely, a situation comically rendered in his inability to make decisions when faced with "a multitude of desirable choices" (256). As such, Horner resembles Eben more than Todd, and undergoes a course of therapy similar to Burlingame's school of play-acting--but with no improvement to his condition and disastrous results for those around him. Horner's despair of infinitude, as Kierkegaard called it, culminates in catatonic paralysis when he fails to make the simple choice of which town to visit in solitary celebration of his birthday:
So I left the ticket window and took a seat on one of the benches in the middle of the concourse to make up my mind. And it was there that I simply ran out of motives, as a car runs out of gas. There was no reason to go to Crestline, Ohio. Or Dayton, Ohio; or Lima, Ohio. There was no reason, either, to go back to the apartment hotel, or for that matter to go anywhere. There was no reason to do anything. My eyes, as Winckelmann said inaccurately of the eyes of Greek statues, were sightless, gazing on eternity, fixed on ultimacy, and when that is the case there is no reason to do anything--even to change the focus of one's eyes. Which is perhaps why the statue stands still. It is the malady cosmopsis, the cosmic view, that afflicted me. (322-23)
Horner's cosmopsis, like Todd's resignation, is a figure of disenchantment and of what Nietzsche meant by the term nihilism. On the one hand, reason emancipates the individual from the claims of the tribe; on the other, it robs him of the ethical bearings grounded in the tribal customs and traditions deemed insufficiently rational from a cosmopolitan standpoint. A richly articulated ethical life is replaced with the indifferent procedures of reason, fixing the subject's gaze on the "ultimacy" of the concept and so blinding it to its practical needs. In the dialectic of nihilism, the elevation of truth and rationality to the highest values of culture devalues the rest, depriving all values of their (rational) appeal to motivate us and calling the value of truth itself into question (Nietzsche 6). Experience itself is invalidated as the subjective imposition of meaning on an essentially neutral or indifferent domain; consequently, truth in the disenchanted age can only be disclosed when the subject is absent, and marks the spot of subjectless objectivity. Horner copes with his malady by paying regular trips to a quack therapist known only as "the Doctor," who tells him the self is not a substance but a role played to an audience. In fact, the chief threat to the self lies in puzzling over its insubstantial nature, which hides no more secrets than the Babushka doll. "Nobody's authentic" (319), as Horner tells Rennie Morgan, because there is no inartificial core to the self. The dummy behind the mask repels all scrutiny: "It's extremely important that you learn to assume these masks wholeheartedly," the Doctor tells Horner; "Don't think there's anything behind them: ego means I, and I means ego, and the ego by definition is a mask" (338). The miseen-abyme or infinite regress (behind the mask is another mask, etc.) indicates the perils of reflective thought on the one hand and the abyssal truth of foundationless modernity on the other. If the native element of the self is mimetic, not substantial, then its nature is best disclosed in narrative fiction, not philosophy; because from the subjective viewpoint, "everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story," distorting the objective situation according to the private imperatives of the ego: "So in this sense fiction isn't a lie at all, but a true representation of the distortion that everyone makes of life" (337). Horner finds temporary relief in Mythotherapy, which advises bold action in the face of irresolution but distorts values to fit the Ego's utilitarian needs as crudely as instrumental reason itself, making it another form of subjectivism, the chief symptom of disenchantment.
In Sot-Weed, Barth presents narrative as the solution to the quandaries faced by the disenchanted self, the consciousness that feels itself vulnerable in the face of its own lack of foundations. Once again, the mise-en-abyme configures the truth of the foundationless self and the perils of reflective thought: Eben can see himself in countless possibilities, each as charming as the next, only while he occupies none: "[I]n no matter of import can I make up my mind. The moment I grow sensible that I must choose, I see such virtues in each alternative that none outshines the rest." The ontological character of the problem, Burlingame recognizes, places Eben beyond counsel, as "[t]he regress is infinite and goes nowhere" (23-24). Like the Doctor's Mythotherapy, Burlingame's "Heraclitean" philosophy unsettles Eben's Platonic self-understanding--as the Virgin Poet of Maryland--so as to release the emancipatory possibilities of self-creation bound up in disenchantment. But where the Doctor abstracts a methodology of role-playing, Burlingame recounts a narrative of how he recovered the native hue of resolution from the pale cast of thought; and where the Doctor cites literary models to justify the Ego's distortion of events (like Hamlet told from Polonius's point of view), Burlingame does so to illuminate the temporal predicament that justifies the narrative need. Both outlooks are therapeutic rather than hermeneutic, but the crucial difference is Burlingame's insistence on adapting Ego to world, not world to Ego. Burlingame's "sophistical discourse" is designed to open Eben to the world; the Doctor's to protect Horner from it. Eben's quest merges with Burlingame's when their reading of one particular book, Captain Smith's Secret Journal, gathers an apocalyptic significance for the province as a whole. Reading is not just a philosophical matter but a matter of life and death.
On the coach to Plymouth, Burlingame (disguised as Colonel Peter Sayer) engages Eben in a Socratic dialogue on history, politics, personal identity, and poetics and demonstrates the anti-Platonic character of each. Bound for Maryland to claim his inheritance, the family tobacco plantation Malden, Eben learns that the New World he is shortly to enter, unburdened of the strict behavioral codes and social rank of the Old World, is "a happy climate for imposture" (344). Symbolically, Malden inverts Walden and the transcendentalism associated with it. Eben is to unlearn Thoreau: there is no pristine self awaiting recovery in solitude, for the world is more Heraclitean than Platonic. Nothing is at it seems, especially in Maryland, and prudence counsels instruction in the arts of disguise; but innocence is a vocation for Eben, and he clings to his new found identity as Virgin and Poet in the face of sceptical examination. When the dialogue shifts to poetics, the nature of literary value is compared to the famous koan or "schoolman's question, whether a falling tree on a desert makes a sound or no, inasmuch as no ear hears it" (134). Does value lie in the poem itself or in the ears of its audience? Sayer-Burlingame refuses the analytic division and refers Eben to what Dewey (15) called "the primacy and ultimacy of gross experience":
Human experience is what I mean: knowledge of the world, both as stored in books and learnt from the hard text of life. Your poem's a spring of water, Master Laureate--'sheart, for that matter everything we meet is a spring, is't not? That the bigger the cup we bring to't, the more we fetch away, and the more springs we drink from, the bigger grows our cup. If I oppose your notion of "merit in itself," 'tis that such thinking robs the bank of human experience, wherein I have a considerable deposit. I will not drink with any man who'd have me throw away my cup. (134)
The post-Romantic effort to re-enchant experience in the face of the depredations of enlightenment thought can be detected here. The notion of an infinite spring of experience relativizes the tragic nihilism of End of the Road; henceforth, nihilism, for Barth, refers to the condition of meaning in the disenchanted world. The universe is meaningless merely in the grand sense, i.e. it is meaningless but for the meaning-bearing activities we bring to it, a point made in Eben's question to the miller's wife: "Or is't that what the cosmos lacks, we ourselves must supply?" (660).(3) Barth extracts a moral dividend from the scientific view of the universe as an indifferent mechanism: the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe is the material condition of morality, licensing--as long as one learns to see it aright--all our efforts at self-creation. Burlingame reveals his identity to Eben but in doing so casts doubt on the prior existence of the self: "I wished only to assert that all assertions of thee and me, e'en to oneself, are acts of faith, impossible to verify" (140). Burlingame sows doubt about the existence of a stable self or world as a necessary prelude to the true but fantastical tale of his recent adventures: "But so fantastic a tale it is, my first concern is for thy credulity, and thus I deemed necessary all this sophistical discourse" (140). All this sophistical discourse is provided for our guidance in Barth's fictional universe, but also, Barth might insist, in the postmodern universe. The postmodern worldview expressed in Barth's trilogy, though forever vulnerable to the solipsism that engulfs Jacob Horner, begins in Sot-Weed to assume some of the normative functions formerly attached to the premodern worldview. Floating Opera and End of the Road set out the extent of the problem: what really motivates the "cheerful nihilism" of Andrews, Horner, and company is not an unflinching gape into the abyss but nostalgia for the stable order of meaning implied by the "scripts" of traditional social life from which modernity has freed us. Sot-Weed sets out on a quest to recover the quest, as it were, from the dialectic of nihilism that withers or subjectivizes experience.
Despite the distance separating the post-conventional self from the traditional sources of identity formation, a gulf made wider by reflection on how to bridge it, the narrative of Burlingame's early years is presented to Eben as the answer to ontological insecurity. The orphaned Burlingame's quest for origins hinges on a chance reading of Don Quixote. On his fifth voyage, becalmed off the Canary Islands, the young Burlingame reads Motteux's translation of Don Quixote and turns from man of action to man of idleness, seaman to student. Jumping ship, he sings for his supper in Liverpool and takes up with gypsies, who bring him to Cambridge, where he narrowly evades molestation by several dons at Christ's College--including Isaac Newton--by granting his favors to Cambridge Platonist Henry More in exchange for the fruits of book learning. Burlingame's praise of idleness is a tribute to the creative and inspirational power of literature, for it is in idle reading that his curiosity about his origins is aroused: "From that day on I was no longer a seaman, but a student. I read every book I could find aboard the ship and in port--bartered my clothes, mortgaged my pay for books, on any subject whatever, and reread them over and over when no new ones could be found" (26). Taking up with the gypsies furthers him in the school of life, a school distinguished by its unlettered love of narrative:
We worked our way slowly, with many digressions, from Liverpool through Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, and Bedford, sleeping in the wagons when it rained or out under the stars on fine nights. In the troupe of thirty souls I was the only one who read and wrote, and so was of great assistance to them in many ways. Once to their great delight I read them tales out of Boccaccio--they all love to tell and hear stories--and they were so surprised to learn that books contain such marvelous pleasantries ... (27)
The journey itself unfolds at the leisurely pace of a good yarn, "with many digressions" and occasions for reading, and sounds to Eben like "the grandest adventure" (27) when contrasted to his navel-gazing; but the purpose of its retelling is to help Eben take his first "great step" into the world: "'Tis a great world and a short life!'" (35). Once in London, Burlingame suggests Eben set up as a teacher, and Eben, like Horner in response to the Doctor's identical suggestion in End of the Road, can find no reason to decline (38). Teaching, it seems, is the ideal vocation for the idle and curious who know a little about everything and nothing in particular. The model is again Burlingame himself, who supplies Eben with the crucial advice--as he rushes off to teach the recorder knowing nothing of the instrument--to disguise just how little he knows about whatever subject he teaches. The impostor at the heart of every performance (especially the pedagogical performance) illustrates the mimetic and contingent character of all identity.
Sot-Weed hesitates between the tradition of the romantic Quixote, which upholds the embattled, "mad" ideal of the creative imagination in the face of the disenchanted world, and the mournful Knight of the sad countenance who knows, with Beckett's Hamm, there's no cure for life on disenchanted earth. The ambivalence of the term "quixotic" upbraids in equal measure the subject's delusions of grandeur and the pedestrian world's mockery of such grand self-regard. Eben's disillusionment at the end of the novel, when he realizes the nobly Platonic conception of himself as Virgin and Poet is a deluded fiction, recalls the return to sanity of Alonso Quixano; but the doggedness with which he ignores the open violations to his ideal (like gang rape by pirates) and maintains the fiction of it is echoed in Don Quixote. For all its "madness," Eben's quixotic conviction in his innocence not only cures his inertia but inspires the kind of adventure one only reads about in books. If the choice is between delusions of grandeur and melancholy resignation, then the madness of Don Quixote might be wisdom after all.(4) While Eben, the New World poetaster, never exerts the richly ambivalent fascination of Don Quixote, despite the comic punishments he endures for his guilelessness, the source of his naivety--his Platonic self-regard--remains ambiguous in the quixotic sense. There may be little room for changeless Platonic forms in the ever changing or Heraclitean universe, but who's to say the madness of such flux is not best negotiated with just such Platonism?
Eben is more rational ass than dreaming Don, however, and his shaky sense of self finds a comic crisis in sight of Malden. Burlingame urges Eben to give up the quest for whole understanding--"the search were fruitless, and there's no time for't"--and "embrace your Self as Poet and Virgin, regardless, or discard it for something better" (360). Eben's Platonic selfregard only makes sense in a world sheltered by metaphysical meaning; it can find no bearings in "the motley, mindless world" (359). Burlingame lifts the lid on the metaphysical universe to drive home the point, and Eben, queasy from Burlingame's depiction of "man's lot" as "a mayfly flitting down the winds of Chaos" (359), slides round the girth of his horse and seems about to fall headlong into the stars:
"Forget the word sky," Burlingame said off-handedly, swinging up on his gelding, "'tis a blinder to your eyes. There is no dome of heavens yonder."
Ebenezer blinked twice or thrice: with the aid of these instructions, for the first time in his life he saw the night sky. The stars were no longer points in the black hemisphere that hung like a sheltering roof above his head; the relationship between them he saw now in three dimensions, of which the one most deeply felt was depth. The length and breadth of space between the stars seemed trifling by comparison: what struck him now was that some were nearer, others farther out, and others unimaginably remote. Viewed in this manner, the constellations lost their sense entirely; their spurious character revealed itself, as did the false presupposition of the celestial navigator, and Eben felt bereft of orientation. He could no longer think of up and down: the stars were simply out there, as well below him as above, and the wind appeared to howl not from the Bay but from the firmament itself, from the endless corridors of space.
"Madness!" Henry whispered. (361)
To see the truth of universal contingency aright "'twould drive you mad" (359); consequently "two things alone can save a man from madness":
Dull-headedness is one, and far the commoner: the truth that drives men mad must be sought for ere it's found, and it eludes the doltish or myopic hunter. But once 'tis caught and looked on, whether by insight or instruction, the captor's sole expedient is to force his will upon't ere it work his ruin! Why is't you set such store by innocence and rhyming, and I by searching out my father and battling Coode? One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to't, or go babbling in the corner; one must choose his gods and devils on the run, quill his own name upon the universe, and declare "'Tis I, and the world stands such-a-way!" One must assert, assert, assert, or go screaming mad. What other course remains? (360)
In the post-traditional universe, dull-headedness and bold self-assertion are equally viable. Madness lies only in too close a study of the foundationless flux of the universe, its sublime indifference to the human estate that, offering no signs to the questing ego, makes one path as good or bad as any other. To plot a course in the endless corridors of space, the celestial navigator must learn to master his troubled awareness of the merely human origin and significance of constellations and steer clear of the asinine rationality that, abstracting from the subjective limitations of the contingent self, loses all bearings in the starry night.
The two alternatives are disclosed in comic encounters with the sublime, the new sense of the vast and boundless depths of the physical universe that accompanies its disenchantment. The sundry revelations and coincidences that overtake Eben in Maryland inspire his reflection on the possible shape of human history, with a downward spiral on the cards when he, Anna, and the others are overtaken by pirates for a second time. Having seen off terrors before, they can face them now with some equanimity, knowing that "even ten years as a sea-going concubine--was endurable so long as one could hope for ultimate improvement" (722). But as the terrified women contemplate their fates at pirate hands and Anna's thoughts turn to suicide, Eben consoles her with narrative models learned at the side of their tutor years earlier.
Sensing that Anna's resolve was beginning to falter, Ebenezer pursued the point. "Do you recall when we read Euripides with Henry, how we contemned The Trojan Women out of hand? Hecuba we called a self-pitying frump, and Andromache either a coward or a hypocrite. 'If she loves her Hector so, how is't she lets this wretched Pyrrhus maker her his whore? Why not take her own life and save the family honor?' What unrelenting moralists children are! What inflexible judges! But I tell you, Anna, I contemn the woman no more. We praise the martyr; he is our shame and our exemplar; but who among us fallen will embrace him? What's more, there is a high moral in Andromache; her tears indict the bloody circus of man's lust; her sigh drowns out the shouts of a thousand heroes; her resignation turns Hellas into Vanity Fair." (722)
In this apology for resignation and refusal of martyrdom is the surest sign of Eben's maturing moral vision and the sternest examination of the novel's post-religious worldview. In the face of torture and murder, the consolatory effects of literary models can replace those traditionally offered by religion, Barth seems to suggest.
The martyr, it seemed to him, was in a sense unnatural, since blind Nature has neither codes nor causes; it was from this point of view that Andromache, like Ecclesiasticus, appeared the more sophisticated moralist, and heroes of every stamp seemed drunkards or madmen. Yet the very un-Naturalness, the vanity, the hubris, as it were, of heroism in general and martyrdom in particular were their most appealing qualities; granted that the Earth, as Burlingame was fond of pointing out, is "a dust-mote whirling through the night," there was something brave, defiantly human, about the passengers on this dust-mote who perished for some dream of Value. If from Andromache's point of view they seemed insane, from their own they were godlike; her "Nature" was precisely their enemy, and her fatalism a surrender to oblivion. In a word, their behaviour was quixotic: to die, to risk death, even to raise a finger for any Cause was to pennon one's lance with the riband of Purpose, so the poet judged, and had about it the same high lunacy of a tilt at the Manchegan windmills. (723)
Eben's characteristic ambivalence about the hero/madman here resolves into the one quixotic figure, at once feeble and defiant in the face of the foundationless universe. Since "blind Nature has neither codes nor causes," fatalism has no place in a posttraditional outlook more Cervantine than Euripidean; in other words, "god-like" self-creation can stare down death: "if aught in life hath value to us, we must not give o'er its pursuit" (723).
Eben in turn requires consolation when, thrown overboard with Bertrand and McEvoy moments later, he wishes himself drowned rather than washed ashore at Malden; distressed at the uncertain fate of Anna, he regrets being born, in a lament McEvoy suggests (on the analogy with original sin) is a condition of existence that must be borne: "we ne'er asked for't, but there it is, and do we choose to live, why--we must needs live with't." He then stumbles on his mother's gravestone and remarks, "My journey's done, I have come full circle" (731- 32). Barth here raises his sights from the existentialist springs of literature to a secular religion of reason in which chance is deemed worthy of determining our fate.(5) The central function of religion is theodicy, a justification for suffering enabling us to draw back from despair and embrace life in the face of its horrors. Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return is secular theodicy: to embrace life come what may means living any moment of it as if one were willing to repeat it endlessly, whatever its feature. Bertrand remarks, "Twice drowned by pirates and twice washed safe on an ocean isle! Methinks we could walk down the strand a bit and find Drakepecker once again!" (727). In this pattern of repetition and renewal Barth seeks a secular theodicy akin to Nietzsche's. In the chapter titled "His Future at Stake, the Poet Reflects on a Brace of Secular Mysteries," the Great Chain of Being is replaced by the Great Chain of Numberless Links, or the idea of contingency as fate. As prisoners on Bloodsworth Island, Eben, McEvoy, and Bertrand find themselves on the pointy end of history, condemned to die in ritual sacrifice for the crimes of their countrymen. When McEvoy is released, Eben contains his anger at the pimp who instigated his trip to Maryland, realizing that McEvoy is the remote cause for his current predicament and no more to be blamed for it than numberless others:
But he soon overcame his anger, for despite the extremity of his position, or perhaps because of it, he was able to see that McEvoy had only been following his principles honestly, as had Ebenezer his own; one could as easily blame old Andrew for reacting so strongly, Joan Toast for occasioning the wager, Ben Oliver for proposing it, Anna for crossing alone to Maryland, Burlingame for--among other things--persuading him to disembark in St. Mary's, or Ebenezer himself, who by any of a hundred thousand acts might have altered the direction of his life. The whole history of his twenty-eight years it was that had brought him to the present place at the present time; and had not this history taken its particular pattern, in large measure, from the influence of all the people with whom he'd ever dealt, and whose lives in turn had been shaped by the influence of countless others? Was he not, in short, bound to his post not merely by the sum of human history, but even by the history of the entire universe, as by a chain of numberless links no one of which was more culpable than any other? (567-68)
Heraclitean insight into the innocence of becoming reconciles Eben to his current predicament as scapegoat for the crimes of colonialism:
The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people whom the accidents of history had made in many ways superior--Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To the extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors' wrath, for he belonged ... to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture's powers and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group's psyche, then it was as "human" for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was "human" for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than the trader who had once enslaved the savage. In sum, the poet observed, for his secular Original Sin, though he was to atone for it in person, he would exact a kind of Vicarious Retribution; he had committed a grievous crime against himself, and it was himself who would soon punish the malefactor! (568)
Barth's human comedy displays epic scope in its search for a post-metaphysical theodicy that might reconcile us to the crimes of history. The idea of the unity or brotherhood of murderer and victim belongs to an older cultural wisdom unlikely to find support in an age of identity politics built on competing claims to victimhood. Nevertheless, Eben sees justice in his imminent demise and the racist quest for white blood pursued by Tayac Chicamec (Burlingame's father) because of the injustice suffered by the Ahatchwhoops at English hands. Eben escapes ritual evisceration because of another link in the chain; arriving in the province months earlier, he helped an ailing Anacostin (King Quassapelagh) and a runaway slave (Drepacca), his current captors and leaders of the larger Bloodsworth Island factions.
Eben learns in practice the philosophical point that so confounds him in contemplation: there are no absolutes, a truth better illustrated in the messy world of politics than on the plane of pure thought. Indeed, Burlingame's intrigue is designed to defer the violence brewing on Bloodsworth Island and secure the space for democratic political life. He deceives Eben on occasion because Eben's youthful enthusiasm translates into political naivety: "You know how he was wont to play devil's advocate at St. Giles," explains Anna; "with Henry one never knows quite where one stands" (692). Contemplating equally desirable choices paralyzes the will, but finding the middle path in politics paralyzes the extremes. Henry masquerades as Calvert and Coode--good and evil in Eben's mind--but only to protect his true allegiance to Governor Nicholson, a man of the middle: "Burlingame had earlier confided that his purpose was to play off Coode and Andros against Nicholson to Baltimore's benefit--that is to say, 'both ends against the middle.' But was not Nicholson truly the man of the middle, and Baltimore the extremist?" (692). True to his split parentage, Burlingame consistently plays off one faction against another with the ultimately democratic goal of marginalizing the extremes. Given a life on Bloodsworth Island, Eben's plan to do the same is later carried out by Burlingame in accordance with Nicholson's conviction that "faction and intrigue" were "the only weapons that could save the English until their position was considerably stronger in America" (750).
Faction and intrigue are essential to the kingdom of ends. Their importance at the level of the personal and the political is demonstrated in the figure of the shape-shifting Burlingame, the model for the transformation of ontological doubt into bold self-invention. The account of his early years as an orphan cast upon the world models not just the existentialist predicament but also America's (history's orphan) and even modernity's (history's bastard). As a master of disguises he seems an unlikely model of self-actualization, but his authenticity consists in his irony regarding all questions of authenticity: the authentic self is not discovered in introspection but invented in a daring social masquerade, one that makes him "equally at home in Tom Pound's fo'c'sle and Isaac Newton's study," even if Eben "know[s] not whether he is at heart a fiend or a philosopher" (669). Self-knowledge, in other words, is self-invention. Burlingame represents the unification of the vitalism and idealism Coleridge suggested Cervantes had split between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. The torn halves of Coleridge's ideal are redeemed of their separate faults when sewn together: an idealism without intellectual aridity combines with a vitality without brutishness. His self-conscious Quixotism would seem invulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, an almost superhuman agency and idealized portrait of autonomy in the teeth of the disenchanted world. It is as if he is beyond illusions, which is why he arouses none of the pathos of Alonso Quixano. Like Nietzsche's Ubermensch, he finds cause to embrace his fate (amor fati) in a world that conceives fate as little but the clustering of contingencies. His meagre inheritance, like the undersized organ that forms the vanishing center of Captain Smith's carnivalesque secret history, is the origin of his manifold inventiveness. When he learns the secret of his origins--half Indian, half English--he proposes to Eben and Anna that they live together "like sisters of mercy in our own little convent" practicing "Cosmophilism, my new religion for thwarted seekers after Truth" (742).
Though comically exaggerated -- "I am Suitor of Totality, Embracer of Contradictories, Husband to all Creation, the Cosmic Lover!" (516)--Burlingame's cosmophilism points the path to the whole; "I love no part of the world," he says, "but the entire parti-colored whole, with all her poles and contradictories" (508). The coincidentia oppositorum or unity of opposites, the final vestige of enchantment in the novel, suggests a way of transcending the rationalist dilemma of Buridan's ass. The ubiquitous theme of twins in world mythology, which illustrates "the equivocal state of man, that is half angel and half beast" (515), is cataloged in comically encyclopedic style until Eben clutches his head and moans "'Tis a hemisphere o'erridden with godly twins!" "Yet it wants twin hemispheres to make a whole," replies Burlingame (514). Virtually all the characters have a twin identity that escapes the demand for authenticity by multiplying its claim. Eben's sister, the refined Anna, is also Meg Bromly, the savage wife of Billy Rumbly; the Indian brother of Burlingame, the urbane Billy Rumbly, is also the Ahatchwhoop prince Cowhunkowprets. The savage and the civilized are masks of the same god. Barth's bawdy demonstrations of the theme are intended in Rabelaisian spirit to subvert the official histories of the American republic and project a utopian image of unity among Amerindians, African slaves, and white settlers. The coincidentia oppositorum
"lies 'neath the tale of Eve and Adam, and Plato's fable, and the fall of Lucifer, and Heav'n knows how many other lovely lies; 'tis this the Lord Himself refers to, in the second epistle of Pope Clement: He declares His Kingdom shall come When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female. Thus all men reverence the act of fornication as portraying the fruitful union of opposites: the Heavenly Twins embraced; the Two as One!" (512)
The crimes of colonialism are not absolved--"Pizarro and his cohorts, had they been curious enough to ask, would have found in the southern pantheon" the same reverence for twins at the base of their own and all culture (515)--so much as relativized in a carnivalesque version of the roguish "virtues" that united the states of America.
Like Eben, we too might clutch our heads and moan at another attempt to re-enchant modernity. Is Buridan's ass the distorted expression of the coincidentia oppositorum that holds all things together in cosmic accord or is Burlingame's yen for totality a flight from disenchantment? Does myth englobe rational modernity or vice-versa, and does Barth subscribe to the relevance of ancient myth in a demythologized age or merely pay homage to it in parody? "'Tis not a question of your belief," laughs Burlingame, "but of the fact that other wights think it true" (514). Barth's ambiguity is evenly poised between the disenchanted view of religion as fairytale and the religious view of modernity as Gnostic heresy. If his comic epic of nihilism demurs on the question of whether myth englobes modernity or reason encompasses myth, it nonetheless betrays the impulse to totality that Lukacs identified as the authentic impulse of the modern novel.
Barth, John. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. 1956 and 1958. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1988. Print.
--. The Sot-Weed Factor. 1960. St Albans: Panther, 1965. Print.
Cervantes, Miguel de. The Adventures of Don Quixote. Trans. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987. Print.
Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. 2nd ed. New York: Dover, 1958. Print.
Evans, Jan E. "Kierkegaard, Unamuno, and Don Quijote as the Knight of Faith." Symposium 60.1 (2006): 3-16. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1968. Print.
(1) Buridan derived his thought experiment from Aristotle. In De Caelo (On the Heavens), Aristotle writes of a man equidistant from food and drink; being equally hungry and thirsty, he is unable to satisfy either need, and remains bound to the spot. For other avatars of Buridan's ass, including an example from Rabelais, see Peter Cave 's "A Bale of Woe" (Philosophy Now 50 [Mar./Apr. ] 2005: 52-53). In Barth's The End of the Road, the Doctor refers to Buridan's ass when Horner hesitates in response to his request to take a seat: "On this side! You 're like the donkey between two piles of straw!" (325). Buridan 's theory of inertia and attack on his predecessor, William of Ockham, is cited by Zupko as the start of the religious scepticism that ushered in the scientific revolution ("John Buridan." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Fall 2008 Edition]. Ed. Edward N. Zalta ).
(2) All references to The Floating or The End of the Road are to the combined Doubleday Anchor edition.
(3) Eben's final explanation of his quixotic chastity to the miller's wife--who's keen to relieve him of it--reveals him the same "ass" hung between alternatives as he was at the start of the novel:
What moral doth the story hold? Is't that the universe is in vain? The chaste and consecrated life a hollow madness? Or is't that what the cosmos lacks we ourselves must supply? My brave assault on Maryland-this knight-errantry of Innocence and Art--sure, I see now 'twas an edifice raised not e'en on sand but on the black and vasty zephyrs of the Pit. Wherefore a voice in me cries, "Down with't, then!" while another stands in awe before the enterprise; sees in the vain construction all nobleness allowed to fallen men. 'Tis no mere castle in air, this second voice says, but a temple of the mind, Athene's shrine, where the intellect seeks refuge from Furies more terrific than e'er beset Orestes in the play--. (660-61)
Eben has learned to regard himself more critically by now, however, and sees the absurdity and heroism of his project in equal measure. He learns to see himself aright, i.e. as a Quixote.
(4) Indeed, a distinctly Christian wisdom or "mad" faith. Unamuno compared Don Quixote's rejection of the world and divine madness to Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith in Fear and Trembling; but as Evans points out in "Kierkegaard, Unamuno, and Don Quijote as the Knight of Faith," the Knight of Faith cannot communicate his vision and is alone before the absolute, whereas Don Quixote manages to "quixotize" Cardenio and Fernando. Unamuno wanted to criticize the national character; Kierkegaard wanted to show that faith was only absurd from the worldly point of view. Later in life, well after Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes in his journals of the Christian character of Don Quixote's mission insofar as it is met with the scorn and ostracism of society.
(5) As Freud put it. Rorty posts Freud's remark to the mast of liberal-democratic culture in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989) 11, 31.
CHRISTOPHER CONTI is an Honorary Research Associate at University of Sydney and has published articles on John Barth in Arizona Quarterly, Studies in the Novel, Literature and Aesthetics and Remaking Literary History (CSP 2010). His current research interests include romantic irony and aesthetic negativity in Barth, Beckett, and Adorno.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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