Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth

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These are my tasks...Anything would be useful... 1. Summarize each story and apply Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion”. 2. Explore the metaphors of birth, growth and maturation in the context of the “Night-Sea Journey”. Can you draw any correlation between human creation and creative writing (textual and biological)? 3.  Explain the playfulness of “Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction” and auto-referentiality in the postmodern text. Observe the narrator’s quest for order and control. How do you feel in the reader’s role? The act of story-telling: Is there faith in it?

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2. "Night Sea Journey," an imaginative allegory typical of John Barth, is the interior monologue a spermatozoan swimming toward an ovum. In typical Barthian style, there is a nesting of ideas that often parody philosophies and mythological and theological beliefs in an attempt to break down the barriers between speaker and audience. For example, the long lament upon the struggles and meaninglessness and virtues of swimming parodies the philosophical discussions of such existential thinkers as Albert Camus, especially with reference to his The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955, as well as the actual myth itself. Barth's line, “I have seen the best swimmers of my generation go under” is an obvious allusion to Allen Ginsberg’s famous Beat poem/manifesto “Howl.” Certainly, the line “Ours not to stop and think; ours but to swim and sink" parodies Tennyson's line from "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

  • Regarding a correlation between human creation and creative writing, a biological connection exists in the struggle and efforts to sustain one's energy for the task, and to move forward. Then, the neurological connection of thoughts into a formulated idea that, in turn, generates other ideas that interrelate and develop into the birth of a completed literary effort which has the potential for immortality are not unlike the writing process. [Barth sought a synthesis of art and life]

3. In his "Autobiography," John Barth's idea is--to use his own words from an interview-- 

the narrative itself, the piece trying to get said, trying to get itself born,...has great unease about the prospect. 

Art is not life, Barth contends in an interview. Using the metaphor of the sperm as the creative idea and the father, what issues forth may not be what the father [Barth] has intended it to be.Then, too, if published, this unintentional artistic effort may live on, despite the author's wishes. Sometimes, for example, the artist exposes too much of himself. In this passage, Barth muses upon this condition with characteristic dark humor:

From my conception to the present moment, Dad's tried to turn me off; not ardently, not consistently, not successfully so far; but persistently, persistently, with at least half a heart. How do I know. I'm his blood mirror!

Clearly, in this piece John Barth spoofs his creative efforts in the composition of his works.

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