John Barth Essay - Barth, John (Vol. 5)

Barth, John (Vol. 5)

Barth, John 1930–

A prize-winning American novelist, Barth writes elegant and highly inventive intellectual satires on the human condition. Giles Goat-Boy and The Sot-Weed Factor are his best known works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

If we consider one of Barth's most frequent themes…, the ambiguity of love, I think that we find not only great consistency in his thinking, but also an increasing tendency to affirm the possibility of love. Barth's tenuous, limited affirmation of love is most clearly defined in the "Menlaiad," but it is an important motif in all the recent short fiction in which he increasingly identifies the dilemmas of lovers with those of artists. Apparently that kind of love which represents a creative attempt to be free from the prison of the self has become for him at least as noble an affirmation as is the artist's comparable attempt to transcend his limitations in his art.

For Barth, however, the possibility of love is never confused with inevitability or necessity. The qualifications with which he has surrounded all discussion of love are almost overwhelming and seem to have provided him with a buttress against the oversimplifications of his own generation. For although Auden has insisted that the distinctive contribution of modern writers has been to explore love in all its complex manifestations and recent publishing history seems determined to prove his truth with a vengeance, one must insist that the special limitation of our age—if not of its most consummate artists—has been its refusal to accept as valid any view of love less laudatory than, say, something like that found in "Dover Beach." Especially during the period when Barth was writing novels, love was popularly supposed to be personally redemptive, if not a universal spiritual panacea. Even in the most absurd of worlds, the argument ran, love could establish something of value, as in Arnold's poem, some refuge against the otherwise universal chaos.

In contrast, Barth has regarded love from the beginning as the very essence of the absurd. Like many comic artists Barth uses man's sexual imbroglios to reveal his essential silliness, but he goes beyond many writers in his insistence that there is not necessarily any sense in any kind of love, not only that which is basely sexual. Barth never denies that love exists, nor does he deny its power; he just consistently denies that it has any necessary meaning and often unfashionably insists on showing its powers to be anything but redemptive. [Characters] are strewn throughout Barth's fiction for whom the experience of love has been both incomprehensible and frightening—at times even disastrous. (pp. 290-91)

What makes Menelaus the proper hero of an "epic" seems to be his commitment, tenuous as it is, to [the] possibility of love. His story ["Menelaiad" in the collection, Lost in the Funhouse] represents, therefore, something of a turning point in Barth's fiction. The same affirmation characterizes not only the "Anonymiad," which follows it in Lost in the Funhouse, but also the three "epics" which constitute Chimera. In the "Bellerophoniad" Barth speaks explicitly of the "ironically qualified fulfillment" of both Menelaus and Perseus in their search for immortality especially in the transformation of each into his own voice or life-story. That key word, especially, makes it probable that fulfillment might take other forms, too. In each case it is inextricably involved with (if not simply resolved by) the affirmation of the possibility of love.

Barth's emerging position is offered more openly in the closing section of the "Dunyazadiad." Here the narrator approves of Shah Zaman's plea that Dunyazad love him as if it might work, implying that pretense, even fiction, is appropriate in a world in which nothing lasts forever, in which not even the conventions of fiction pretend that lovers can live happily ever after. The Arabic tale traditionally concludes that things go well only until the inevitable appearance of "The Destroyer of Delights." Barth's heroes in these recent novellas are those who accept the inevitability of such destruction, who commit themselves to love, not as an absolute value but as a value more precious for its very fragility. To claim the world has "neither joy, nor love, nor light" seems as silly as to trust too completely in the faithfulness of lovers. Instead, as Todd Andrews first insisted [in Barth's early novel, The End of the Road], values (like love) less than absolute can be lived by. Barth's recent fiction seems to be expanding on Todd's wisdom, his own position affirming the possibility of love—absurd though that may be. "To be joyous in the full acceptance" of the inevitability of loss, Barth concludes the "Dunyazadiad," "is to possess a treasure." (pp. 305-06)

Harold Farwell, "John Barth's Tenuous Affirmation: 'The Absurd, Unending Possibility of Love'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1974, by the University of Georgia), Summer, 1974, pp. 290-306.

The mythic Chimera was a divine joke, a trinitarian monster cobbled together out of a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail. Its three-in-one aspect suffices Chimera's blurb-writer: 'John Barth's new novel bears its name because it, too, is a single whole composed of three very different parts.' A bit pedestrianly viewed, that's so: the task Barth's about is a retelling of the stories of Scheherazade, Perseus and Bellerophon. Like Robert Graves (always), Barth is possessed of the inside story. And in his delightful versions Scheherazade and her sister Dunyazade turn out to be a couple of lesbian women's libbers called Sherry and Doony, and the mythic heroes are well into the male menopause, with phalluses flunking, bellies sagging (too much ouzo and not enough heroic tasks), and the dissertation writers' questionnaires naggingly bulking their fan mail. Even at this level Barth is a dazzingly witty putter-back of the mock into mock-heroic.

But that's not all: the Chimera was also a creature of dizzying deceptiveness—now you saw it, now you didn't—so chimera equals 'fanciful conception', a bag of tricks. As Barth demonstrates in overgoing Graves's versions of the Bellerophon story (which he quotes), his inside story is usually at least the inside story of the inside story: expectably enough from a narrator who insists the Thousand and One Nights isn't the story of Scheherazade but the story of the story of her stories. Chimera isn't only a shatteringly clever and scurrilous rewrite of some classic fictions, it's also the tricksiest, most shimmeringly elusive of reflections on the art and artificialities of the novel. The least straightforward of the three pieces, Bellerophoniad (a title that makes you utter the word 'phoney' while daring you to turn it as a charge against its matter), is smartest of all at challenging any cosy assumptions about writer-novel-reader or fiction-reality relations that errant readers might foolishly bring to this book. To every helix, though, there's always another twist. In Bellerophoniad, a revolutionary novelist reapplies for the renewal of his bursary for continuing his revolutionary novel, Notes. It will dispense with particularities of character, plot, content and meaning, having 'no content except its own form, no subject but its own processes'. At its navel, there'll be 'a single anecdote, a perfect model of text-within-the-text, a microcosm or paradigm of the work as a whole'. This 'quintessential fiction', advertised thus by Bellerophoniad, is to be titled—what else?—Bellerophoniad. The financial pleas hit stony ground. And what started by looking like, what is, straight Robbe-Grillet, begins to suggest, at least at this turn of its screw, self-parody. But then, you never know quite where you are with Chimeras. (p. 90)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 19, 1974.

There is nothing particularly ignoble in a novelist being self-conscious about his craft, but when he imposes these trifling concerns upon the poor reader it becomes a matter of public concern. Mr Barth … has chosen to do just that in Chimera, a tripartite beast, a novel within a novel within something else on the Chinese principle that a great many boxes are better than a hat. It begins well enough, with a sort of highbrow camp as Barth narrates the narrations of Dunyazade narrating the narrations of Scheherazade (known as Sherry to her handmaidens) to Shahryar. But after that I got them all mixed up, mere pips, as Omar Khayyam might say, squeaking in the bowl of night. These particular Orientals come, in fact, from some pot-pourri known as the Thousand And One Nights which Mr Barth thinks of some cross-cultural importance and of which he proceeds to make very heavy weather indeed….

It is all an intolerable mish-mash, and should have remained in the misty land of faery, were it not for people like Mr Barth who have an intolerable urge for systems and meanings. The more unintelligent reviewers will no doubt be taken in by the novel's fanciful contemporaneity, and will talk about its "stark presentment of the boundaries of fiction," "medieval simplicity" and such like, and this may well be Barth's intention: there is no doubt that perspectives appear and disappear as if by magic, and that the prose has its glancings and twinklings as it continually evades the issue (whatever the issue may be). But Barth is trying to spin gold out of the pointless questions which pursue formalists and aestheticians, and he does not realise that the pointlessness becomes all the plainer in a fictional guise.

The offence is compounded by Barth's incursions into classical mythology, in the second and third sections of the novel, which are entitled 'Perseid' and 'Bellerophoniad'. When an American writer touches upon such matters I feel a frisson on behalf of centuries of classical scholarship; Americans, being a poorly educated race, take the Greek myths far too seriously and become either pompous or heavily jocular about them. Professor Barth has naturally gone for the jocular 'angle', and has recounted the unutterably boring mythic lives of Perseus and Bellerophon in a suburban demotic that relives the boredom of the original while increasing its capacity to irritate. In the beginning there is darkness, as Perseus recounts his chequered career to Calyx, who knows the stories already and is thus in the same unfortunate position as the reader….

Barth becomes even more self-conscious than the conventional experimental novelist and turns his fables into an elaborate apologia for his own apparently miserable and wasted life. At one point he elevates the novelist (i.e. Barth) into a vatic role, and at the next he belabours himself with a dutiful and tedious modesty. Once you mix this sort of thing with a Bellerophon of a more than baroque complexity—he is preparing a career based upon a reading of the preceding 'Perseid,' setting out a plan for the story he is in fact already telling etcetera—you have a narrative that will not stay still under the reader's gaze. But this complexity is so much a matter of the technical surface of the prose that it takes only a conscious effort of the mind to see through it and, underneath, to find lurking that most fabulous and archaic of mythical beasts, the labyrinth that goes in all directions at once and leads nowhere at all. (p. 86)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 20, 1974.

Though the name of John Barth is usually associated with length, he has more recently moved toward works of short-story or novella size, works as noteworthy for their compression as his earlier ones were for their expansiveness. One of the finest of these newer fictions is the last story in Lost in the Funhouse, "Anonymiad." This 44-page tale is at once a parodic epic, a pastoral romance, a history of literature, and a treatise on aesthetics. More specifically, it is the autobiography of an anonymous Mycenaen minstrel, anonymous because he has forgotten his name. Marooned alone on an Aegean isle for seven years, the minstrel has chronicled his love for the milkmaid Merope and his love for literature. (p. 361)

Indeed, the invention of writing and literature lies at the heart of the "Anonymiad," as Barth himself has pointed out [in an interview with Joe David Bellamy, Writer's Yearbook, 1972]: "I love the idea that he invents fiction and he invents publishing, all on that island. In the obvious way, each one of us does invent the art. We find that we're writing poetry and fiction and then we look around to see who else has done that. But in a way we started it." The minstrel is the archetypal author; he not only invents literature—he exhausts it. (p. 363)

D. Allan Jones, "John Barth's 'Anonymiad'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Fall, 1974, pp. 361-66.

For John Barth the creative act is both the result and the expression of a radical philosophical freedom. Like his heroes he finds fulfillment in the discovery of new worlds. For him "reality is a drag," a "nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there"…. And his use of "yarns," "elaborate lies"… and "flabbergasting plots"… is evidence enough that he feels free to take leave of reality. But the freedom one finds in the Barthian world of farcical adventure has two sides, one a blessing, the other a curse, for while it makes possible the search for the new and fantastic, it implies a rejection of the absolute validity of the old. Indeed, the explorative impulse is instigated by an emotional conviction of the absolute untenability of existence: "Who sets me goals to turn my back on" asks Burlingame in The Sot-Weed Factor, and then adds, "had I a home I'd likely leave it; a family alive or dead I'd likely scorn it, and wander a stranger in alien towns."

Neither the novelist nor the hero is satisfied with reality. Both, like Don Quixote, sally forth in quest of adventure motivated by the will to alter reality or to imagine alternatives to it…. Creating the distance which separates the novelist's dreams from materiality is a desire, the nature of which precludes the possibility of any satisfaction. Barth, of course, accepts with wry amusement the distance between willing-to-be and believing-that-one-already-is and uses it to generate a literature of exhaustion. (pp. 19-20)

Edgar A. Dryden, in Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction, edited by Kenneth H. Baldwin and David K. Kirby (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1975.