Barth, John (Vol. 9)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14881
Barth, John 1930–
American novelist Barth employs mythic and literary traditions and techniques to create a unique view of the individual in society, a view which is somewhat cynical but often comical. Educated at the Julliard School of Music, Barth had originally intended to become a jazz musician. His subsequent fascination with The Thousand and One Nights and other great tale cycles influenced him to work in that tradition. He has aligned himself with the narrators of these stories by writing works that, he says, "imitate the form of the novel by an author who imitates the role of an author." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Giles Goat-Boy is] "splendrously musicked out," but it is also a work in which a highly individualized rhetoric functions as the formative element in a complex of symbol, allegory, character, and plot….
The central rhetoric of the book is that of the first person narrator, Giles. It superficially, if significantly, advertises itself as an extravagant and complex literary joke; not an obviously unified and consistent rhetoric, like the seventeenth-century pastiche of The Sot-Weed Factor, but a composite organization drawing on a wide and often incongruous range of styles and registers. The obviously immediate function of this curiousness, this stylistic archaism and eclecticism, is to provide linguistic proof of the uniqueness of Giles. His apparently extra-human origins and his Grand Tutorial or Messianic claims are proved, kept before us, made realities by the distinctive qualities of his language and its sharp contrast with the more simply caricatured discourses that it engages with in Giles' odyssey. Giles is defined by his language almost totally: there is no "objective" information about him, and his exchanges with other characters take place on so exclusively a ratiocinative level that they fail to provide any psychological perspective.
The elements of this rhetoric may be distinguished in the first paragraph.
George is my name; my deeds have been heard of in Tower Hall, and my childhood has been chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. I am he that was called in those days Billy Bocksfuss—cruel misnomer. For had I indeed a cloven foot I'd not now hobble upon a stick or need ride pick-a-back to class in humid weather. Aye, it was just for want of a proper hoof that in my fourteenth year I was the kicked instead of the kicker; that I lay crippled on the reeking peat and saw my first love tupped by a brute Angora. Mercy on that buck who butted me from one world to another; whose fell horns turned my sweetheart's fancy, drove me from that pasture, and set me gimping down the road I travel yet. This bare brow, shame of my kidship, he crowned with the shame of men: I bade farewell to my hornless goathood and struck out, a hornèd human student, for Commencement Gate.
The most obvious non-referential characteristic here is the strongly functioning rhythm. This effect is sustained by syntactic parallelism and a tendency to metrical regularity that amounts almost to syllabic equivalence. A portentously archaic syntax works along with this near-meter. For example … ("I am he that was called in those days …") is a conspicuous Latinate deviation from any of the contemporary norms for this kind of statement (e.g., "I used to be called" or "I was called then"). In this example the strong internal rhythm depends on the succession of monosyllables and cooperates with the separating out of grammatical elements to produce the solemnity that is a major characteristic of the paragraph. It is, of course, a ludicrous solemnity.
At the level of diction the deviations are even more striking: deeds, chronicled, cloven, tupped, fell, gimping, kidship, bade, goathood, etc., and the deliberate accenting of syllables (hornèd) that becomes a characteristic of the book. Again the effort is towards a highly self-conscious archaism (self-conscious on the part of the author, that is, not Giles) that contributes to our sense of Giles' otherness. This Gilesean idiosyncrasy of language we may identify as the badge of his heroic claims. The whole process of the book may be figured as the engagement of this heroic rhetoric with numerous parodies of the rhetorics of American society, from the grunting of near-animality to the sterile articulacy of academicism.
This, however, is only a diagrammatic simplification. Further attention to the language of this first paragraph reveals that the "heroic" rhetoric is rather invaded than engaged by other rhetorics and registers, and that the resultant clash produces an effect more bathetic than heroic. The rhythm of the first sentence is ruined by the bathetic shift to "in the Journal of Experimental Psychology." The archaic syntax of the second sentence collapses into the absurd "Billy Bocksfuss," and the elaborate near-meter of the third is spoiled along with its dignity by the banal "in humid weather." These bathetic shifts are, in fact, so pervasively characteristic of the book's use of language that they function overall as a major structuring device. (pp. 147-48)
The rhetorical form of the book is … further complicated by another antithesis parallel to the heroic/bathetic clash. This is set up between the traditional polarities of human nature, the animal and the intellectual, and specifically dramatized in the superficially articulated allegory of the goat farm and the university. It is an allegory that provides a context for the book rather than a form; it is an elaborate and extensive device through which the rhetoric asserts the novel's form…. Initially it provides the occasion for a bathetic reduction of human history and thought to the politics and squabbles of a university campus. But in the last movement of the book the allegory sheds this function so that the academic world is no longer a comic reduction of the "real" world but simply represents it. This crucial shift is clearly not an effect of the allegory itself but of some factor controlling it. I hope to show that this factor is the changing language of the book.
The antithesis of animal and intellectual, while providing the terms for the allegorical structure, also produces two highly characteristic qualities of the rhetoric itself: the "academic" language, and the "goatish" language. These, of course, are not properly languages but rather areas of linguistic reference that are incongruously involved with each other in Giles' narration. Since there seems to be no agreed term in current critical use for this kind of language situation I have borrowed the linguistic term "register" for these two characteristics. The previously defined elements, the heroic and the comic, are more nearly "kinds" of literary language, and may be referred to as "styles."
It is difficult to illustrate any of these styles and registers in isolation since the functioning of the book depends upon an often bewildering intermixing of its four basic rhetorical elements. The following passage provides, however, a typical example of the academic register.
[Max] founded the sciences of analogical proctoscopy and psychosymbolistic cosmography, developed the Rectimetric Index for "distinguishing, arithmetrically and forever, the sheep from the goats," and explored the faint initial insights of what was to become Spielman's Law, his last and farthest-reaching contribution to man's understanding of the University. That capstone on the temple of his genius, climax of his epic quest for Answers: how commonplace it sounds already, very nearly banal; and yet what dash, what vaulting insight! In three words Max Spielman synthesized all the fields which thitherto he'd browsed in brilliantly one by one—showed the "sphincter's riddle" and the mystery of the University to be the same. Ontogeny recapitulates cosmogony—what is it but to say that proctoscopy repeats hagiography? That our Founder on Founder's Hill and the rawest freshman on his first mons veneris are father and son.
But, as usual, all four tendencies are present even though the academic is dominant. The heroic style is intimately involved with the academic jargon: Max's discovery, or his quest, is identified with the heroic journeys of legend—it's a process of exploration, an "epic quest"—and with Oedipus' tragic insight—"showed the 'sphincter's riddle' and the mystery of the University to be the same." The shift from "sphinx" to "sphincter's" and the double entendre of "analogical" and of "Rectimetric" are characteristic of the way in which the bathetic effects cooperate with the animal register to produce comic vulgarity. There is a reference specifically to goats in "what vaulting insight" (though hardly distinguishable from intellectual/heroic suggestions) and in an ingenious literalizing of metaphor, "all the fields which thitherto he'd browsed in." All this is immediately comic and parodic and yet it prefigures, in its stylistic inclusiveness, the whole synthesizing effort of the book: an effort to relate the traditional dimensions of human experience—the intellectual and the physical, the heroic, the tragic, and the comic. This is Giles' attempt as Grand Tutor, or Messiah, and it is hardly surprising that, on the level of plot, he fails to redeem studentdom, retaining for himself alone an incommunicable consciousness of unity and of meaning. It is a fictional process very similar to that of Joyce's Ulysses, upon which Giles Goat-Boy heavily depends in its continual use of bathos and its rhetorical extravagance. In that book a similar effort towards inclusiveness and synthesis, moving around the emblematic relationship of Father and Son, works hardly at all through the mimetic action or the consciousness of Bloom and Stephen, who are only dimly aware of what they and their situation mean. The synthesis, finally, is Joyce's, not his characters'.
So while any understanding of Giles Goat-Boy must depend upon a perception of the total effort to synthesize—an effort involving the interaction of plot, character, symbol, allegory, and rhetoric—it is important that this effort is not simply a linear one, that the book doesn't only "work out" its synthesis. It in fact embodies its synthesis continually in its language…. [Rhetoric] provides the reader with the bearings he needs to navigate the three stages of Giles' Tutorship, his search for answers. We may indeed be conscious, for most of the time, of incongruity rather than synthesis, but we are inevitably aware that this language sets up a robust, tragi-comic inclusiveness. Consequently our response to the first effort to find the Answers, the reliance on the essentially moralistic and tragic concept of total "differentiation" of good and evil, is heavily conditioned by our experience of the rhetoric. We naturally resist Giles' fanatical attempt to exclude and deny kinds of experience that the rhetoric has happily, not to say exuberantly, accommodated. The same is true of his second attempt—an equally fanatical reliance on exactly opposite assumptions from the first. In Giles' totally amoral, uncompromising, mindless inclusiveness we miss the complexity and intellectual richness, even the potential for pathos and tragedy, that we perceived in the earlier rhetoric. In the third attempt, however, the components of the rhetoric tend to merge with each other and the gap between Giles and the rhetoric closes.
The passage quoted above was predominantly in the academic register and yet it displayed the influence of all four rhetorical tendencies. This flexibility and capacity to absorb, or at least hold together, language in apparently discordant registers is characteristic of the academic register. It is, after all, situationally dominant; it provides the allegorical structure of the University as the immediate context for the other styles and registers—the heroic style finding its base in the history, philosophy, myth and literature of the past, the comic largely in the sexual irregularities of the faculty and students, the animal register in the University goat farm. It is not therefore surprising that the "goat register," at least in the early part of the book, seems rather less flexible and multi-functioning. (pp. 148-51)
The early scene in which the goat boy watches two "Beist" bohemian students making love is typical of this general function of the goat register.
I began to realize what they were about. The buck I observed to be in a virile way, and the doe snuggled against his flank with a nervousness I knew the cause of. I took them for superior specimens of their breed: they were shaggier than most, for one thing, and smelled like proper animals. The male had a fine fleecy beard, and neck hair quite as thick as mine, though neither so long nor so ably brushed; his mate had the simple good taste not to shave what little fur the species is vouchsafed for their legs.
Though there is clearly a Swiftian promise in this it remains, at this stage, largely unfulfilled. The joke, that is, can exist simply in terms of the incongruity of the goat register and the human, and in any case they are beatniks. The suggestion of Giles' radically naive, immediate, and therefore innocent response to human functions normally disguised by euphemism, and its consequences for a kind of comic moral realism, is relatively undeveloped. (p. 151)
[The] goat register most commonly functions as the medium through which is asserted one of the polarities of human experience as proposed by the book—the mindless, self-forgetful, orgasmic condition that opposes the will to knowledge and control which makes heroic and tragic experience possible. It is the first kind of experience that Giles pays tribute to as he gallops through the brush after watching the two students make love (or "become"): "only to Be, always to Be, until no thing was: no Billy Bocksfuss, goat or Graduate, no I nor you nor University, but one placeless, timeless, nameless throb of Being!"
As the book progresses its basic synthesizing movement attempts to reconcile not only these grand metaphysical abstractions but also the types of language that combine to figure them. So the amusing conflict of registers gives way to an idiosyncratic but fully synthesized rhetoric in which the elements are no longer felt as antagonistic. This is due partly to simple familiarity with the mixture and partly to the abandonment of satiric and parodic effects in the last part of the book. The goats, and all the terms associated with them, become not comically symbolic of human sexuality but simply descriptive of it. At the same time reference to physicality is less and less in exclusively "goatish" terms; as the process of rhetorical synthesis goes on other kinds of language are capable of handling this aspect of experience. In the monstrously detailed examination of Anastasia, for example, with its Joycean combination of sensuality and an absurd mathematical pedanticism, the goat reference appears only once, and then negatively.
As they lose their exclusively sexual suggestion, the goat references begin to take on a quite different symbolic function. With the increasing emphasis on hitherto relatively dormant reference to the image of Christ as a shepherd, the goats become symbolic of Giles' Messianic role. The inclusive effort of Giles Boat-Boy requires that the Redeemer contain the goatish aspects of Man, rather than hopefully adjure him to be sheeplike. So when Giles approaches the final scene of the execution of his mentor (a victim substituting in a sense for himself) in the hope of gaining a prophetic insight into his own fate, he takes with him all the equipment of the goatherd—stick, shophar, and a goat.
There are, then, four basic kinds of language, distinguished according to style and register, that are highly active in this novel. These combine to provide the four-sided structure that underlies the distinctive rhetoric. But it is suggestive of the generating and controlling power of language in this work that they extend their formative function far beyond the rhetorical level. They provide, in fact, a structural principle for the entire hierarchy of the book's moral allegory as well as the terms for the stages of the narrative allegory.
The hierarchy of allegorical figures arising from the heroic and intellectual concepts provides the framework for the bulk of the exhaustive dialectic that dominates the three stages of Giles' Tutoring. The intellectual concept is productive mainly of the "real" figures, the inhabitants of the campus—Max, Sear, Rexford, the Beists, and ultimately Eierkopf, the egghead himself. The heroic concept is worked out mainly in terms of the ancient heroes of literature and myth—Laertides (Odysseus), Anchisides (Aeneas), Moishe (Moses), "Dean Arthur and Excelsior, his magic quill," "that gentlest of dons, Quijote," and ultimately the two archetypal figures of heroic and tragic experience, Enos Enoch (Christ), and Taliped (Oedipus). The categories are not, of course, quite so distinct; Greene (representing, roughly speaking, the American experience) and Leonid (representing the Russian) are not intellectuals and yet do attain a certain heroic and even tragic status in their reciprocal blinding and self-knowledge, while the urbane intellectual sophisticate, Dr. Sear, is also strongly associated with the tragedy of "Oedipus" and, as his name would suggest, with Tiresias.
Opposing, in a sense, the values to which these figures testify is the rival hierarchy enacting the comic and animal concepts. These two are much less easily distinguishable from each other than the pair just considered, because to a great extent what is comic is precisely the animality and sexuality of the figures. And of course the comedy of bathos is highly operative upon the heroic and intellectual figures as well; indeed it informs, and up to a point characterizes, the whole book. (pp. 152-53)
The nature of the sexual comedy is suggested in the deadpan vulgarity of the pun. Further up the scale towards animality are the wildly perverted Mrs. Sear and the nymphomaniac, Anastasia. The latter, however, comes finally to embody the value of sexual experience in a conjunction with Giles that is more mystical than animal. Her husband Stoker, voyeur and sadist, represents superficially the familiar association of sexuality and violence, and in a more complex way, with his Power House, his energy and his amorality, the libido itself. Finally, at only a little removed from the goats themselves, there are the crazed and dumb G. Herrold, who introduces the goatish Giles to sexuality, and his symbolic successor, the giant Croaker, whose animality and total commitment to sexuality finally lead him to the rape of a soft-drinks machine.
It is through his advice to these figures that Giles attempts to relate the diverse and apparently contradictory elements of human nature. They function as dramatic extensions of the potentialities of his own rhetoric, or alternatively, since the narrative is supposed to be dictated by a retrospective Giles some twelve years on, it could be said that his rhetoric is itself the solution to the problem their differences and antagonisms present. It is an elegant and appropriate irony in this most "literary" of works that the only answer that Giles and the author provide to the eternal mystery, "the riddle of the sphincters" and so on, is a rhetoric in which it is possible to discuss and contain the failure to find answers.
However, in order to arrive at so nice a paradox, Giles has to undergo the traditional ordeals of heroes, philosophers, prophets, and Messiahs: education, the heroic voyage, the temptations of the flesh, interrogation, imprisonment, the usual execution and resurrection, and a formidable amount of dialectic and ratiocination. It is this process that I referred to as the "narrative" allegory, when I suggested that it too was organized by the same elements that characterize Giles' rhetoric. (pp. 153-54)
Giles encounters and ultimately judges a range of rhetorics and values that includes liberal idealism, in his tutor, Max Spielman; liberal pragmatism, in Chancellor Rexford; American optimism and sentimentality, in Peter Greene; manic rationalism, in Eblis Eierkopf; vulgar sensuality, in Stoker; almost meaningless academicism, in the Philosophy Tape; and, most seductive of all, the constantly changing rhetorics, values and faces of the Satan figure, Bray. The extravagances of these rhetorics are really unacceptable specializations of the components of Giles' own language, which is, of course, the controlling language of the book.
The climax of [the] educational experience is Giles' exposure to the tragedy of Taliped Decanus; this section also functions as the transition to the first part of his Tutoring, since his answers in that part assume an essentially tragic view of experience. This resolute denial of the solemnities of the archetypal tragedy by a disastrous change of register (it's "translated" into comic strip American slang) is the most extravagant literary joke of the book. Of course the change of context, from Greek city state to American campus, is immediately reductive, but it is the ludicrous incongruity of the language that effects the shift into farcical parody. This parody is, admittedly, something of a jeu d'esprit, an indulgence only possible in this kind of baroque comic fiction, but it is also crucial in conditioning our responses to the attempts to find the "right Answers" that follow. It is a local intensification of the bathetic tendency of the rhetoric, and, in the first stage of Giles' Tutorship, it reinforces the habitual flatness to ensure our awareness of the error of Giles' solution. For that solution is clearly based on tragic assumptions. Dr. Sear, after the performance, specifically associates the tragedy, and the tragic condition of man, with the Christian myth of the Fall—"We all flunked with the first two students in the Botanical Garden"—and Giles' response is correspondingly radical. He attempts to reverse the fall and return studentdom to a prelapsarian condition by the process of differentiation. This is an effort to remove the conditions that made tragedy possible (pp. 154-55)
In the second stage of Giles' teaching we have considerably less assistance. The dominant comic rhetoric and Taliped have, throughout the first stage, worked against the apparent direction of the narrative to the point of resurrecting Giles after his lynching (a comic conflation of Christ and Tom Jones). Thereafter the new teaching of the resuscitated Giles is unmistakably comic in its assumptions ("Embrace") and it becomes far more difficult to distinguish between the implications of his rhetoric and the message it offers to convey. There are differences however: the comic solution implies an harmonious relating of elements, a social synthesis, whereas Giles at this point simply denies the validity of all distinctions and lapses into the easy tautologies of pseudo-mysticism ("if failure and passage was in truth a false distinction, as I'd come to believe, then it made no difference whether that distinction were true or false, as either way it was neither"). Consequently this exuberant declaration of sensuality and amorality leads to an even more serious collapse of social and economic order, and as Giles is brought to his second lynching our sense of the fanatical partiality of his "Answers" is again confirmed by the narrative. The extremes of tragedy and comedy potential in the rhetoric have, at this point, been objectified in the narrative and discarded. Having rejected both these modes the book has to discover its own if it is to cohere as art, just as it must also rescue itself from bathos if it is not to deny its own significance.
This process begins with Giles' final "examination" in the "Belly" of the computer god WESCAC; lost in a mystical and sexual union with Anastasia he sees the unity and meaning of life:
Was it Anastasia's voice? Mother's? Mine? In the sweet place that contained me there was no East, no West, but an entire, single, seamless campus: Turnstile, Scrapegoat Grate, the Mall, the barns, the awful fires of the Power house, the balmy heights of Founder's Hill—I saw them all; rank jungles of Frumentius, Nikolay's cold fastness, teeming T'ang—all one, and one with me. Here lay with there, tick clipped tock, all serviced nothing; I and My Ladyship, all, were one.
The rhetoric here has eliminated the hitherto dominant bathetic tendency by uniting its own constituent elements. It is easy to separate these out again artificially—the campus terms, the goat terms, and so on—but partly through simple familiarity and partly through a shift of tone, the rhetoric now disguises the incongruities it has hitherto been intent on declaring. In this passage, for example, there are none of the bathetic rhythmic collapses that were so prominent a feature of the first paragraph. The novel is moving into its defining mode, which for want of a better term we may call the "ironic." The whole book is, in a sense, a metaphor for the only kind of novel it is now possible to write, and the only kind of life it is possible to live (possible, that is, in this novel's terms). The inclusiveness of its rhetoric, the very quality of its texture, has frustrated its aspirations to tragedy and to comedy. It thus pretends to make what it can of the frustrations, and achieves form through the denial of traditional forms. (pp. 155-56)
The final scene of Max's apotheosis and of Bray's (Satan's) expulsion, theoretically something of a triumph for Giles, is in fact deeply ambiguous in its details.
… people leaped from the stands, swarmed over the barricades in both directions, fell upon their knees and girlfriends, clouted neighbors, clutched loved ones. Bravely the band played New Tammany's anthem until overrun. Guards scrambled into the moat, either to arrest or to protect me; at their head grinned Stoker, cursing as he came.
Every detail and action is contradicted or qualified; this is at once the comic perception of inherent disorder or paradox, the imperfectibility of studentdom, and, in its comicality, evidence of just how far the mere contradictions of life are from the "passèd Paradox" that Giles understood finally in the Belly. This public response enacts, in its confusion, a kind of parody of the attained truth.
The final sentence of the narrative part of the book functions as a summary in miniature of Giles' attitude and situation. In the general ambiguity of the last scene its exactness is teasingly suggestive.
Nonetheless I smiled, leaned on my stick, and, no troubleder than Mom, gimped in to meet the guards halfway.
The syntactic regularity—three main clauses, interrupted by a characteristically idiosyncratic adjectival phrase—establishes its casual rhythm. The indifferent smile, the compromising with the guards, the limp, and the supporting stick suggest the prospective ambivalence of his relationship with authority. The homely comparative—"no troubleder than Mom"—understates his divine placidity. This adjustment to reality is Giles' final achievement; he continues secure in the knowledge of his essence and his genius, menaced when not ignored by society. This is his only heroism and it implies the novel's only form. (pp. 156-57)
It is this acute consciousness of the dangers of posturing and of solemnity that informs the elaborately defensive rhetoric of Giles Goat-Boy. It is, after all, a novel of enormous ambition, masquerading as a joke—the Revised New Syllabus itself. In its distrust of traditional modes it repudiates comedy and ridicules tragedy, and in its distaste for the novel form it refuses to locate its meaning in the narrative structure, leaving the apparent climax inconclusive and ambiguous. In this respect it again echoes Ulysses; the last sections of that novel refuse to allow any dignity or significance in the meeting of Bloom and Stephen to emerge at the level of narrative. But Giles Goat-Boy is working towards a possible heroism, towards a possible epic, and if Giles himself is allowed only this placid assurance—"no troubleder than Mom"—the novel itself has no such modesty.
Having reached this ambiguous non-climax the narrative ends, and in the retrospective Posttape that follows all the Romantic and heroic aspirations that the rhetoric has been so firmly controlling find free expression. The pretext on which this freedom is gained is amusingly and deliberately transparent. Since the whole of the narrative (the Revised New Syllabus) is supposed to have been dictated by Giles into a computer for the benefit of posterity, the awareness of a public obliged him (or Mr. Barth) to equip his story with all the comic devices for self-protection that are necessary in a skeptical age. But since the Posttape is supposed to be Giles' private communication with himself, there is no need for self-protective irony, and the rhetoric can rise to an eloquent celebration of the Romantic hero, rejected, humiliated, "naked, blind, dishonored," yet finally triumphant in his apotheosis—the new Christ…. [For] all his protestations, he has made for himself a hero.
Which was, after all, what he announced he wished to do. The rhetoric of the Posttape is amusingly (and movingly—that is the point) similar to the rhetoric of the so-called "Cover letter to the Editors and Publishers." The full blown Romantic cri-de-coeur of the latter is both ironic and non-ironic: it is prophetic of the whole effort of the book, indeed it is its raison d'être, yet it is protected by its self-conscious pose, its air of regretful parody…. Giles Goat-Boy is the making of that mythic voyage and the making of a hero. But heroes are made with great difficulty in the highly self-conscious, anti-heroic literary tradition that this novel continually acknowledges. So perversely enough, the would-be hero must not only fail and suffer rejection—the familiar tragic and romantic version of the heroic process—but must narrate his history in a ludicrously composite rhetoric that makes continually for bathos. And it is the overcoming of this inherent disability of the rhetoric, the gradual relating of its initially antagonistic elements, that constitutes the central activity of the book. It is this linguistic triumph that finds its celebration in the superbly confident heroic rhetoric of the final paragraphs of the Posttape. Of course Mr. Barth's unmoved persona, in the Postscript, doesn't believe a word of it. (pp. 157-58)
Peter Mercer, "The Rhetoric of 'Giles Goat-Boy'," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1971), Winter, 1971, pp. 147-58.
Frye's concept of anatomy and a recent amplification define a work [Lost in the Funhouse] whose unity is an intellectual concept so lively that it can spin out of its own energy a self-contained, fanciful, and witty anti-novel. The narrator speaks through multiple voices engaged in a freely associative conversation that parodies standard prose fiction and reproduces non-standard conventions of time and size. The unity of the anatomy, then, resides in its inherent multiplicity. The anatomy even mocks its own unity. Funhouse, then, keeps the excellent company of such anatomies as Tristram Shandy, Orlando, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and the currently popular Steppenwolf. More than its literary analogues, what Barth's Funhouse projects in addition to the above criteria is an anatomy of prose fiction: Funhouse is a microcosmic anatomy of criticism presented in the unifying and unique metaphor of a funhouse in which any modern reader, critic, or writer of prose fiction can easily get lost. That, in fact, is probably the point. Lost in the Funhouse, then, is an anatomy unified by its own anatomy of criticism.
The two principal forms of prose fiction anatomized, or perhaps satirized, are the absurd and the autobiographical. While the absurd is decidedly European in Barth's treatment, the autobiographical begins in an international frame but soon adapts to the American form of the adolescent novel.
These principal forms do not exclude more specific genres, as the first chapter of Lost in the Funhouse indicates, appearing as a "FRAME-TALE" one-page long which includes: a title, a Moebius strip decorated with the words "Once Upon a Time There Was a Story That Began …," and the directions for the cut-out. At the outset of the work, Barth puns on the whole problem; he will not write a Chaucerian frame-tale, but he will prove that all stories are frames (put-ons) and that, more important, they are framed by their own limitations, by their beginnings and endings which never begin and never end. The medieval frame-story, in an ironic juxtaposition of structure and concept, illustrates the existential principle of absurdity: the novelist fuses ancient and modern, beginning and end. The motif of circularity that characterizes the absurd in fiction frames the book in a circle or, more accurately, a Moebius strip, which begins and ends only to begin again, a journey that goes nowhere, a trip that ends at the point of departure. (pp. 31-2)
Chapter 2 continues this preliminary expository function of representing the book's structural unity in the form of a "Night-Sea Journey." The action presents an illustration of the principle of the absurd in a doubly ironic metaphor for journey: the narrator must cross the sea of life by swimming until he drowns. The difficulties of this journey to a death by water are immense: night-time hardly constitutes the best setting for "reaching the Shore."… Barth can then pun that we are all "equally in the dark" …: secondly, the apparently linear journey across the sea is more circular than linear. The dark and circular qualities of the journey give it such absurd character and charm that Barth cries that he loves night-sea journeys and the accounts of them "because they are absurd."… That the swimmers have other things in mind besides a swim for swim's sake becomes clear when Barth describes the strokes as "tailing along" … or conceives of a possible Maker who is "tailless" …—as if characters on a Chaucerian journey could ever be tale-less—or finally, imagines a possible Maker of our Maker who possesses "some supertail."… The extraordinary number of swimmers, a quarter-billion pernight, of whom say "one swimmer in two hundred fifty billions achieved a qualified immortality" …, testifies to the fact that Barth is, of course, talking about sex and, therefore, about life in a biological sense as well…. From the creation of life through a sexual death to the creation of prose fiction is an easy back stroke, or stone's throw if the swimmer is Camus. Barth reaches the two climaxes simultaneously "thrashing, singing, cursing … struggling on, but dying all, and still in darkness."… The perfect antihero for Barth's anti-novel swims to immortality, thrashing on, strangling, and singing "Love! Love! Love!"…, like some doomed Beatle, at the absurd height of his fictional and real orgasm.
If Chapters 1 and 2 constitute an exposition, what approximates Part II of the anatomy represents the development of prose fiction as autobiography as well as the parody of that form: the chapters include "Ambrose His Mark," "Autobiography," "Water-Message," and the climactic "Lost in the Funhouse." If not divined earlier, the master and model anatomist for Barth is Laurence Sterne.
Ambrose of "Ambrose His Mark" is the literary heir of that delightful assembly of eighteenth-century heroes whose christenings, not to speak of births and conceptions, are attended by extreme mystery and prolongation, and compounded by the pressures, but hardly the rewards, of propriety…. Sophocles, Plato, Xenophon, and Ambrose, however, are equally accurate and appropriate as progenitors…. (pp. 32-5)
Fittingly in the next chapter, "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction," the first self-conscious Shandean remark that this prose-speaker makes concerns the inappropriate nature of his name: "Among other things I haven't a proper name. The one I bear's misleading, if not false. I didn't choose it either."… It soon becomes clear that the speaker in the chapter is "A Self-Recorded Fiction" just as the subtitle of the chapter suggests: the one and only character of this autobiographical chapter and indeed of the whole work is fiction, a prose fiction recording its own speaking voice. It speaks, therefore it is, or as Barth says "Where there's a voice there's a speaker."… Talk is just as essential to the anatomy as to the existential "novel"; in the Beckett, Queneau tradition, "I talk therefore I am" summarizes both philosophy and technique. Barth undercuts this serious rule, however, with a tragi-comic "crise d'identite": "I must compose myself. Look I'm writing. No, listen I'm nothing but talk; I won't last long."… (pp. 35-6)
This lost, unidentified, and misnamed child of ancestral fiction at least has a very special father—probably Barth himself, "he went by the book" …—but also very much Laurence Sterne…. In fact, the parent of the anatomy is beginning to look less like a novel device and more like the novel itself. Although few puns could surpass, "a mere novel device," Barth continues to pun merrily along with my father saying to my mother "bear in mind" and explaining away the created, but unwanted child as a "figure of speech."… No wonder that the poor distraught mother of "Ambrose His Mark" neglects to name a child whose birth has coincided with the commitment of the father in a mental institution. The narrator-speaker, in fact, sounds a bit mad himself as he raves on at a maniacal, yet halted pace, urging himself to stop and then in desperation pleading to his father to do it for him: "Put an end to this, for pity sake!"…, and all the while continually parodying forms of himself like "climax," and, more important, "confession" …, that third step of prose fiction in Frye's scheme previous to this as yet unnamed work—anatomy. (p. 36)
In a continuation of the development pattern of the novel, "Water-Message" clearly is a parody of a particular form of prose fiction—the American adolescent novel: Ambrose is coming of age. Structured in the familiar form of epic journey, the section prototypes initiation as theme and an American Huck Finn, Ambrose, as hero. The climactic initiation occurs with a secret club of adolescent boys in a hutcabin in the jungle of American experience. Like all exposes of the problem of innocence and experience in the American literary tradition, this initiation provides an appropriate setting, an isolated spot in the wilderness. Before entering the cabin, Ambrose has an adolescent fantasy about his own death, just as the Huck Finn episodic fantasy precedes the hero's encounter with "Pa" in the cabin on the river bank. The modern hero has more fun than Huck; the initiation in the cabin is sexual, or believing Leslie Fiedler, one must say heterosexual. Afterwards, the hero reenters the social world alone and "alienated" with the club motto over the door framing his exit: "No babies allowed."… This is the closest to "moral" that the story comes: there is no "Water-Message" contrary to the title, but only a water bottle with a paper composed of a salutation, a complimentary close, and a blank for a message. A very Shandean Huck follows Twain's tradition paraphrased that persons attempting to find a moral will be banished if not shot.
An additional parody of a form of writing in the following transitional chapter, "Petition," relates perhaps obliquely to ordeals of love and personality development, but more to a grotesque schizophrenic debate between body and mind in the form of a short epistolary novel. The unique juncture of Siamese twins Eng and Shang (Yin and Yang and the Zen-Buddhist creativity cycle?) provides Barth with a situation rich with possibilities of pun on the old comfortable expressions of modern love…. This grotesque situation prepares us for the visit in the next chapter to a house of freaks, a cave of grotesques: in this climatic chapter Ambrose and everyone else gets "Lost in the Funhouse."… This titular and actual center of the novel climaxes the absurd and autobiographical trends of the book…. The funhouse becomes a metaphor not only for the general setting of the sexual experience of love ("If you knew your way around in the funhouse like your own bedroom" …), but also specifically for the body of a woman. Again, Barth would rather go through a funhouse than write about one (at least that is what he says), just as he would rather be than act. The verb "to be" in a Barth novel represents copulation, a copulative verb, just as Sterne's "conversation" is the linguistic equivalent of sex. (pp. 37-9)
The funhouse, of course, presents a complex, metaphoric journey where the absurd and autobiographical traditions merge: the life and art represented are labyrinthine, absurd, grotesque, and distorted. The House of Fun and Games becomes a House of Horror, even a Funny House or Funny Farm, the Place, and finally a Madhouse, where Ambrose talks himself to death trying to stay alive. That is, in the existential tradition of Beckett and Queneau, "I talk therefore I am" is doubly ironic when to talk to much is to talk oneself out of existence, what Barth calls the "novel of exhaustion." The funhouse then represents an anatomy of madness as well as an absurd, existential novel in a constant state of self-parody.
Not only new trends in the novel are subject to parody; the most conventional of novel forms succumb to the Shandean wit of the self-conscious narrator as well as criticism of novel forms:
A long time ago we should have passed the apex of Freitag's Triangle and made brief work of the denouement; the plot doesn't rise by meaningful steps but winds upon itself, digresses, retreats, hesitates, sighs, collapses, expires. The climax of the story must be its protagonist's discovery of a way to get through the funhouse….
The ABC of Freitag's Triangle represents the action of conventional dramatic narrative; like Sterne, Barth expands the diagram by graphing the lines on the discussion page as illustration and by modifying the triangle to a variant including a BC line for the "rising action" which this chapter supposedly reproduces. (pp. 39-40)
In the American novel, the funhouse (itself the novel) replaces the wilderness in which one got lost to find oneself or else, like Young Goodman Brown, simply got lost. The dark mysterious forest of the American experience could not have more weird creatures than do the paths of this dark house. The most estranged traveller in the house, of course, is the narrator himself as he peers in the mirrors of the funhouse: "lost himself in the reflection," or "Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror and maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person."… (pp. 40-1)
The last part of the "novel" approximates an anticlimax with two contrapuntal forms: parody of myth alternates with parody of art until the "novel" talks itself to death. "Echo" is a microcosm of the whole, representing a "lost voice" like that of the funhouse author. Her story is sad. At one time this talented nymph could beguile all the gods by her gift of story-telling:
Afflicted with immortality she turns from life and learns to tell stories with such art that the Olympians implore her to repeat them. Others live for the lie of love; Echo lives for her lovely lies, loves for their livening….
By perverting her gift to distract the wife of Zeus while he seduces another, Echo becomes one of the lost, damned and doomed forever to the hellish punishment of echoing the last words of other people's stories. Any retold myth, of course, especially the present one, exemplifies such an echo; like Barth's anatomy, Echo "effaces" herself "until she becomes no more than her voice."… Barth questions the possibility of separation: words from speaker, medium from message, and dancer from dance. Narcissus, Echo's alter ego in the art of narration, has not only not lost himself in his echo, he has become himself by falling in love with his own reflection. Tiresias completes the triangle by affecting objectivity. Tiresias, in fact, is the omniscient third person narrator, a balance for the extremes of subjectivity…. The triangle of narration, then, consists of first person omniscient Narcissus, second person limited Echo, and third person omniscient Tiresias. The problem, however, is that Thebes, the waste land city of conventional structure, is falling down: the multiple voices of an anatomy interchange and intermingle until all is repetition and self-reflection in one self-destructive form or another.
Shortly after, for instance, "Niagara Falls," the more important of "Two Meditations," demonstrates the cataclysmic collapse of the novel system, a disastrous explosion of energy:
For ages the fault creeps secret through the rock; in a second, ledge and railings, tourists and turbines all thunder over Niagara…. In your spouse, so apparently resigned, murder twitches like a fetus. At some trifling new assessment, all the colonies rebel….
Then again, the denouement in a true up-ending of the already-destroyed novel begins all over again in "Title" as Barth puns on endings by experimenting with various beginnings:
Once upon a time you were satisfied with incidental felicities and niceties of technique: the unexpected image, the refreshingly accurate word-choice….
The narrator is impotent; he cannot end what he has not managed to begin: "I can't finish anything; that is my final word."… (pp. 41-2)
This, of course, is not his final word in the "novel of silence." After an apparently final mythological gloss in "Glossolialia," the anatomy has yet another identity crisis in "Life-Story": Am I, asks Barth, a roman á clef, a Bildungsroman, an Erziehungs roman, or a roman fleuve? Who are my friends, he asks, and proceeds to profess disdain for theatre of the absurd and the experimental fiction of Beckett, sounding all the time like Krapp's Last Tape. (p. 42)
Barth escapes his identity crisis by avoiding it in the last chapter supposedly written anonymously: we guess the author from the concluding "Tailpiece," even though the whole chapter-code is named "Anonymaid."
Will anyone have learnt its name? Will everyone? No matter … on a lorn fair shore a nameless minstrel
As the "novel" ends, the anonymous writer is crying for identification, calling for a name, and Funhouse in disguise or otherwise is a live and well anatomy of prose fiction. (p. 43)
Carol A. Kyle, "The Unity of Anatomy: The Structure of Barth's 'Lost in the Funhouse'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1972), Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1972, pp. 31-43.
The logic of pluralism demands that its practitioners make ever new starts, venture beyond ever "New thresholds, new anatomies!" Among contemporary novelists, none has sought more strenuously and more consciously to create an omnibus "literature of exhausted possibility," aside from Borges, than Barth (in this country), Günter Grass (in Europe), and Nabokov (in Estotiland-Terra-Antiterra). All three have relied heavily on the paraphernalia of doubles, disguises, and mirrored refractions in their probings of whether reality consists ultimately of the one or the many, of unity or multiplicity. One thinks of Ebenezer and his twin sister, Burlingame and his half brothers, Humbert and his alter ego Quilty, Oskar the three year old and Oskar the thirty year old; or of Lolita forced to choose (in Humbert's jocular words) "between a Hamburger and a Humburger."… These are ambulatory skylarks into the Daedalian maze in jeu d'esprit anticipations of worlds glimpsed from afar and soon to be explored. In comparison to The Sot-Weed Factor, The Tin Drum, and Lolita, the later plunges into the "weary labyrinth" are belabored efforts at historical-mythical-allegorical fabling. Giles Goat-Boy, Dog Years, and Ada are encyclopedic histories of their authors' worlds, reinventions pursued relentlessly to the final exhaustive pun and ultimate self-fulfilling parody. To move from the belly of WESCAC to the pit of the Brauxel potash mine to the lumber room of Ardis Hall is to wander through the labyrinthine galleries of western civilization. The achievements here are endgames. Like Joyce's Finegans Wake, they present us with forms exhausted, possibilities fully realized. In this respect, the methods of Black Humor ironically have displayed a predilection for early obsolescence, forcing the Black Humorist to be continuously inventive, a magician surprising us with a new animal each time he reaches into his hat.
The gesture of perennial renewal demanded of Black Humor is not undertaken lightly. To date Barth has been one of its most seriously self-immolative fabulist adventurers. He did not embrace the role of Menelaus on the beach at Pharos wrestling with Proteus for his literary identity with the alacrity of George Goat-Boy determined to make himself a culture hero. The facts would indicate that he stumbled somewhat onto this novelistic path when he broke free of the "Maryland-based verisimilitude" of The Floating Opera and The End of the Road into the historical amplitudes of The Sot-Weed Factor. Barth has admitted to being ignorant of the patterns of mythic heroism at the time of his writing The Sot-Weed Factor. Nevertheless, Ebenezer and Burlingame in combination exhibit most of the characteristics of the culture hero listed by Lord Raglan in The Hero. Once he learned of the hero with a thousand faces, as mapped by such comparative mythographers as Lord Raglan and Joseph Campbell, he recognized the usefulness of the archetype in his exploration of the disease of modern life—Todd Andrews's, Jake Horner's, and Ebenezer Cooke's malaise, cosmopsis Jake Horner tags it—the uncertainty of an essential "I." (pp. 28-30)
Intent on testing whether the current loss of self is simply the latest multiagonist masking a mythic identity, Barth deliberately employs the hero with a thousand faces for his protagonist in Giles Goat-Boy. In this act, Barth indicates, if the early novels had not already made it clear, that the Great Labyrinth is imaged for him less by the cosmos than by the mind, less by the incoherent social scene than by the disintegrated self. His literary aim then is not, like that of Borges …, to create a paradigmatic design more coherent than that found in the world. Rather, Barth's preoccupation is with isolating and identifying the ineluctable sense of what it is to be human. He fails in Giles Goat-Boy essentially because the mythic prototype he parodies is too hybrid a form, too diffusely "hit-and-miss" a system. Gerhard Joseph is right to conclude that Barth, "in his depletion of the picaresque mode, in his erudite catalogues of ideas, or in his name-calling contest between the prostitutes," was trying in The Sot-Weed Factor "to convey the impression that sheer exhaustiveness for its own sake contributes to a meaningful comic [cosmic?] order." The literary form of The Sot-Weed Factor, its correspondences to the novels of Fielding and Richardson limited its boundaries, as did also Barth's divided attention to the human and the cosmic labyrinths. In Giles Goat-Boy Barth was unhampered by such generic considerations and went all out to compress within the covers of one book the whole story of man, "from primitive animal to autonomous computer." That the effort did not lead Barth to a redefinition of man meaningful for our time but left him like George Goat-Boy, with all the old categories, contradictions, and appearances still as ill-defined and as imminent of the primordial threat of chaos as ever, does not mean that the novel was altogether a dead end for Barth. With it he learned, as Borges seems to have known intuitively from the outset, that the objectivity of the mythographer, with his empirical arrangement of diverse materials, does not lead one to the heart of the matter, to the identification of the self, but merely to the accumulation of the flotsam and jetsam of civilization, the hero remaining the sum of his disparate parts, the quotient of his thousand and one faces. Barth also learned that if George was merely equivalent to the refractions of his thousand images, Oedipus offered a mythic correlative to the private self as well as scoring highest on "Lord Raglan's twenty-five prerequisites for ritual heroes."
The "modern translation" of The Tragedy of Taliped Decanus, a middle-American tragedy of "making it," with slangy diction and academic setting, is one of the more successful pieces of writing in Giles Goat-Boy…. In this version of the Oedipus story, the problem of knowledge—here Oedipus's self-knowledge—is twisted out of its ethical frame of reference (as witnessed by the pun on "prophprof") into a profane exposition of the "old Adam" in man. Taliped is less obsessed with the mystery of his aristocratic identity than with the knowledge that keeps winding him back to himself as sexual beast. Not the idea that he "murdered Pa" but that he "mounted Ma" monopolizes his horrified imagination. The perennial fascination of the nymphomaniac mother comes with a shock of recognition that the engineered consummation of Ebenezer's marriage to Joan Toast seems not to have stirred. The two-backed animal act of George and Anastasia in the Belly of WESCAC, however, confirms this iconoclastic vision of man. It is Joan Toast's and Anastasia's secret knowledge as females that "saves" both Ebenezer and George, leading them to the recovery of Malden and the salvation of the College, in short to the sexual urge to love and the existential urge to be, fundamental to all value systems.
The aftermath of Giles Goat-Boy has seen Barth return to personal origins, to his restatements of the Oedipal theme and to his inchoate urgings of self into artistic form, at which he had made a start in "Ambrose His Mark" and "Water-Message," published in 1963 prior to his writing of Giles Goat-Boy, and afterward resumed in "Autobiography" published in January 1968. These stories tentatively but insistently connect the mystery of one's sexual being (the preoccupations of Oedipus) with the authorial pains of fictional parturition. Especially compelling in "Water-Message" is the nine-year-old Ambrose's innocent conjuration of a grove of honey locusts into a jungle "labyrinth of intersecting footpaths" and "voluptuous fetidity." Here the boys have built a hideaway den, where one day they intrude upon the lovemaking of a sailor and his girl. The situation remains inexplicably exciting to the sexually uninitiated Ambrose, as also its objective correlative, the sheet of paper on which is penned "To whom it may concern" and "Yours truly," all between remaining blank, which washes ashore in a bottle and is picked up by Ambrose following the "flushing" of the lovers. Both the still-to-be-completed message and the interrupted lovers are harbingers of Ambrose's future, as worked out in the subsequent stories.
In "Title" and "Life-Story," published after Giles Goat-Boy, Barth fuses these dual modes of discovery of self into stories that are paradigms of the creative process, the fictional characters realized only to the extent that their storyteller can self-consciously imagine himself as a distinct person. But the possibilities of such regressus in infinitum are drastically limited. In "Life-Story," a desperate tongue-in-cheek echo of Borges's story "The Circular Ruins," Barth concludes, "and caused the 'hero' of his story to conclude,"
that one or more of three things must be true: 1) his author was his sole and indefatigable reader; 2) he was in a sense his own author, telling his story to himself, in which case; and/or 3) his reader was not only tireless and shameless but sadistic, masochistic if he was himself.
This bleak cul-de-sac is prefaced by an authorial outburst at "You reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard," in language that alludes simultaneously and paradigmatically to McLuhan's dismissal of the Gutenberg sensibility, to Baudelaire's profane search through Les Fleurs du Mal for his identity, and to Barth's compulsive fictional refractions of personality as a means of getting at human essence.
Neither "Title" nor "Life-Story" climaxes into a fully realized story. Process remains ever in an unfinished—and hence ultimately unknowable—state of becoming. In "Lost in the Funhouse" Barth returns to the seemingly more fruitful possibilities of Ambrose's rites-of-passage.
The funhouse—like Borges's garden of forking paths, or library of Babel, or lottery in Babylon—is a metaphor for the labyrinths of existence. Unlike Borges, whose perfect designs are intended as analogues of defective mythic and metaphysical systems of cosmic order, Barth seizes on the mirror room of the funhouse, and on Ambrose's "coming of age" there, as a rendering of modern man's (and the contemporary novelist's) search through the distortions and "endless replication of his image in the mirrors" for ontological confirmation of his existence. "For whom is the funhouse fun?" the narrator asks. "Perhaps for lovers," he conjectures, and then adds: "For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion." Whereas Borges never asks from his "vertiginous symmetries" any knowledge beyond the aesthetic astonishment they engender, Barth assumes a persona who wants to find in the form of his story a sign of sorts of his ontological security…. The difference in expectations of the two writers is vividly illustrated if Borges's cool appraisal of life is read against Barth's self-conscious conclusion to "Title," a not unsimilar exploration of the problem of authorial identity:
Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness. I despise what we have come to; I loathe our loathesome loathing, our place our time our situation, our loathesome art, this ditto necessary story. The blank of our lives. It's about over. Let the denouement be soon and unexpected, painless if possible, quick at least, above all soon. Now now! How in the world will it ever
And on this ironically self-conscious note of hopeless inconclusiveness Barth ceases, leaving us with the inescapable fact that the future is a blank, indeed has always been a blank except to adherents of a value system, which indirectly defines them as well as the future.
Grounded in the psychological reality of man rather than in the philosophical ideality of the world, Barth is using the roman à clef in Lost in the Funhouse as a parodic means of defining his role as person and of justifying his activity as author; but one must not forget that Barth is a master parodist, experimenting with ways of expressing the same skeptical view of things that is Borges's, only in the more difficult terms of person rather than of place, of the dizzying whorls of psyche rather than of the vertiginous spirals of space. (pp. 30-5)
The funhouse is an elegant figure of speech, especially in its combination of local color realism and of Black Humor pluralism; but its designedly self-conscious exploration of sensibility disappoints its author's high hopes of "hinting to the reader things of which the narrator is unaware" or of casting "further and subtler lights upon the things it describes, sometimes ironically qualifying the more evident sense of the comparison." The mirror room can only reflect the appearance of the person presented to it, in this instance a thirteen-year-old adolescent still shaky on the significance of his sexual being. The world lies all before him, few memories behind him. The story admits as much when it diverts Ambrose from the mirror room and loses him in "some new or old part of the place that's not supposed to be used." Instead of winding "around on itself … like the snakes on Mercury's caduceus," Ambrose's perception moves outward, peeks through a seam between plyboard wall panels into a tool room where a man sits nodding on a stool, and finally, comfortingly, fantasies his future sexual certainties as husband and father…. "Lost in the Funhouse" is an Ocean City reverie that spins a psychological web of romanticized make-believe distressingly distant from the realism of the setting and from the facts of Barth's own life. A measure of its sentimentality is the closeness with which it skirts the vulgarisms of Ah, Wilderness! Barth, like Ambrose—like all of us—finds himself in this century to have strayed as both lover and designer into a funhouse; but that "insight" does not "wind around on itself like a whelk shell" leading him ever deeper into self-knowledge. The metaphor of funhouse and mirror room do not contain residual unknown ontological truths as at first they might seem to. As Ambrose notes despairingly when he watches himself refract into several "other persons": "In the funhouse mirror-room you can't see yourself go on forever, because no matter how you stand, your head gets in the way. Even if you had a glass periscope, the image of your eye would cover up the thing you really wanted to see." The funhouse is one of those clever fictional conceptions, an inventive objective correlative, of a pointless universe that one occasionally encounters in Black Humor. Drawn from a gimcrack American ethos, it fails to suggest "that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced" ("The Wall and the Books") so mysteriously intrinsic to Borges's ficciones and parables.
In "Echo" Barth returns to the rich suggestiveness of archetypes and classical mythology. Not the hero of a thousand faces but Narcissus is seized upon for persona. In that mortal's flight from Echo (who "lives for her lovely lies" as others "live for the lie of love") toward self-love, Barth recognizes the plight of the twentieth-century storyteller, whose need to conceive himself through his tale is no less great than his will to tell the tale. Unfortunately one subverts the other. As with the masturbatory innocence of Narcissus ("who perishes by denying all except himself"), the "Overmuch presence" of the author drives him away from the possession of reality into a similar self-reflecting pool of self-destruction. The contrary model is Echo who "persists by effacing herself absolutely." The solution then, as Theban Tiresias is made to advise, is to cure self-absorption with saturation: "telling the story over as though it were another's until like a much-repeated word it loses sense." "Echo" is just such an exercise in saturation: the author retelling the myth of Narcissus and Echo in the form of Narcissus reciting his story to Tiresias, a true fabular regressus in infinitum (an author reciting about an author reciting about himself) in which Narcissus's death must "be partial as his self-knowledge," for "the voice persists, persists … goes on."
And yet: "Can it be believed?" the narrator asks, turning the story into a denial of itself. Can multiplication wind us back to the incontrovertible source of our being? Is there any finality to the infinity of possibilities? Even that question lacks a fixed point of reference but jostles as one possibility among myriad others. (pp. 35-7)
The simultaneous affirmation and denial of an ultimate voice and hence persistent identity intimated by the myth of Narcissus and Echo is reiterated by the final two stories of Lost in the Funhouse. In "Menelaid," Barth retells with marvelous verve the effort of Menelaus to learn from Proteus on the shore at Pharos the secret of Helen's love. It was inevitable that Barth's preoccupation with the disguises masking identity from its own recognition should lead him to this myth, one of the two great expositions in western literature (the other is of Joseph, Mary, and the annunciation) of man's faith in the fidelity of love and the persistence of self. A tour de force in narrative exhaustion of points of view, the story holds in balance seven voices as Menelaus imagines his yarning to Telemachus and Peisistratus about his imagining Helen hearing Proteus hearing Proteus's daughter Eidothea hearing Menelaus relate the story of the fall of Troy and his "recollection" of Helen. Through all the "layered sense" comes the reiterated word "'"'"'"Love!"'"'"'" the cry that Helen loves only him, has never loved anyone but him, and that she has "languished … chaste and comfy" through all the years of the Trojan War out of harm's way at Pharos with Egyptian Proteus. But Barth's Menelaus has a modern sensibility. He cannot accept such a miraculous explanation, the imp of doubt gives him no peace. How is he to espouse her, he wonders, as lover? advocate? husband? "Who am I?" he asks and is answered through the multi-layers of voice: "'"'"'" "'"'"'". Helen's history confirms for him his "grown conviction that the entire holocaust at Troy, with its prior and subsequent fiascos, was but a dream of Zeus's conjure" and his growing willingness to entertain the possibility "that Proteus somewhere on the beach became Menelaus holding the Old man of the Sea, Menelaus ceased." Both the irreverent slanginess of the parody and the multiple removes from reality of the points of view reiterate this skepticism. The only certainty clung to is the notion of the archetypal persistence of love. Nothing more survives, not Menelaus's voice, not the author's. All else, "Place and time, doer, done-to have lost their sense." Only the instinct of love persists: "when as must at last every tale, all tellers, all told, Menelaus's story itself in ten or ten thousand years expires, yet I'll survive it, I, in Proteus's terrifying last disguise, Beauty's spouse's odd Elysium: the absurd, unending possibility of love." The trouble with this solution to the sought for source of identity is that Menelaus's role as storyteller is not intrinsic to his nature but derives from a device of narrative. With the last story of the collection Barth corrects this "flow" in fictional conception.
In "Anonymiad" Barth merges myth and reality, the private dream of writer and the social world of reader, and both sexual and imaginative aspects of the life force, by scurrilously marrying the bard turned writer of prose successively to the nine muses. The "Anonymiad" is a comic epic in prose, scatological, inelegant, parodying the hesitant inept first essays at literary devices subsequently in the history of western literature become convention. Its author is a rustic goatherder turned minstrel, a Homeric-like social climber who has ambitiously beguiled his way to the position of Acting Chief Minstrel (and spy) at Agamemnon's court, before being tricked ashore on a deserted island for life by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Left with nine amphorae of wine, he systematically over the years has used the jugs three ways: drunk their contents, "made each the temporary mistress of his sole passion," and stuffed them again with his fiction.
Stranded by my foes,
Nowadays I write in prose,
Forsaking measure, rhyme, and honeyed diction;
Amphora's my muse:
When I finish off the booze,
I hump the jug and fill her up with fiction.
In this wise he has wedded himself to each of the nine muses in turn, filling each jug with the seed of his loins and of his imagination. Thus freighted he has cast them into the sea (for Ambrose, the author as adolescent, to pluck from the water centuries later). Calliope, the ninth amphora, is slated to receive the last of his tales, the "Anonymiad," an epic tale in prose of the minstrel's life, as the cap to his previous poetical inventions of events of the Trojan War and its aftermath with which he had freighted the first eight amphorae. The "Anonymiad" is an exercise in circularity as much as in regressus in infinitum, a story about how the story came to be, about "a nameless minstrel" writing a tale about himself writing a tale, for an inconceivable reader—it and "all its predecessors … a continuing, strange love letter" in which the word has become everything—and nothing. The story is a paradigm for our time of ontological insecurity, of the anonymity of self, and of the unlikelihood even of the persistence of the individual voice. Thus has Barth fabled himself back through the literary perspectives of his bardic predecessors to the first recorded efforts of western man to define who he is and how his essential being has been moved ultimately by love? lust? the life force? the word? and to his recognition that even that instinct is reduced finally to the chance coincidence of the word with a reader.
The stories in Lost in the Funhouse represent alternative instances, realistic and mythic, of the author seeking to experience himself as an individual in relation to his creation of fictions. In George and Anastasia's triumph over WESCAC Barth had offered a hesitant affirmation of a kind of Jungian life force. Descending into the Belly "arsyturvy—like two shoes in a box," they form a Yang-Yin of wholeness; but their sexual union and short-circuiting of WESCAC, while mystically certifying George as Grand Tutor, is so broadly comical in its parodic contrivances that it qualifies the affirmation. Barth has no illusions about having fashioned here an all seasonal potion for Global Village man, an elixir that will wend him back to the essence of his being. Love figures too extensively in Barth's stories as the source of anarchy and chaos, beginning with the Trojan War, brought up to date in the dynastic intrigues of Colonial America, and rendered on computer tape at West Campus. Nor does Barth have any illusions about our ability to achieve ontological security. In Lost in the Funhouse he transcends the agonizing efforts at self-definition of Ebenezer, Burlingame, and George Goat-Boy, and the equally traumatic biographies of the Maryland tales, and comes to rest in the serene Borgian acceptance of an identity that has no confirmatory existence apart from its fictional entity. Indeed, the mark of Borges's "The Immortal" is everywhere impressed in Barth's paradigmatic renderings of the myths of Narcissus, Menelaus, and the archetypal poet anonymous. His skeptical acceptance of the permanence of multiplicity, of even the possibility that one's self is but the dream of another insubstantial being, becomes the only viable strategy for confronting the Great Labyrinth, both human and cosmic. In parody alone may the artist hope to find a successive form that dissemblingly confirms continuation in time. To retell the old myths, to come paradigmatically ever closer to a great contemporary like Borges (as these stories so patently do), and to lampoon the anti-Gutenberg cries of McLuhan and company (as the stories also do) is to maintain the fiction of continuity and the reality of person in the limited persistence of the word, is finally, if nothing else, to give aesthetic validity to life. (pp. 37-40)
Max F. Schulz, "The Metaphysics of Multiplicity; and, the Thousand and One Masks of John Barth," Section III, Chapter 2, in his Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties: A Pluralistic Definition of Man and His World (© 1973 by Max F. Schulz), Ohio University Press, 1973, pp. 17-41.
[In Giles Goat-Boy] the endless complication of surface details is of so brittle a cleverness that it constantly reveals the tediousness of the novel's informing conception.
Giles Goat-Boy is little more than an immensely inflated translation game, the world conceived as a university, its sacred texts as syllabi, the cold war as a rivalry between East Campus and West Campus, each equipped with an all-powerful computer capable of shortcircuiting the entire academic realm. Thus the Jewish mentor of the novel's Archetypal Hero—for Joseph Campbell and other handbooks of Jungian anthropology have been schematically superimposed on the schematic translation game—solemnly informs Giles: "Moishe says in the Old Syllabus, Except ye be circumcised like me, ye shall not Pass. But in the New Syllabus Enos Enoch says Verily, I crave the foreskin of the mind." Here in capsule is the problem of the novel as a whole: it is hard to see what is gained by translating Old and New Testaments into Old Syllabus and New, in thinly disguising Moses and Jesus as Moishe and Enos Enoch (for the latter see Genesis 5:24), in substituting academic passing for theological salvation. The transparent coding activity at best affords the sorts of mental gratification that might appeal to a reasonably alert high-school sophomore while, on the negative side, it allows for a relentlessly simplistic reduction of historical facts—in this particular case the facts of religious history. The broader cold-war plan of the novel can be manipulated, through the mechanical logic of the translation game, as a perfectly symmetrical interplay of forces, the complex and changing conflict of interests between two large political systems since 1945 reduced to East Campus and West; to two acronymic computers, EASCAC and WESCAC; to Slavic Tweedledumsky and American Tweedledeeman. The simplicity of pseudo-historical conception is at bottom the same as Vonnegut's flat equation of Dresden with Auschwitz, but without Vonnegut's engaging simplicity of manner.
As Giles Goat-Boy slowly recedes into the detritus of failed experiments in American fiction, the one real question it raises is why it should have been initially received by so many critics, especially in the more popular reviewing media, with such extravagant enthusiasm. In addition to the general thirst for greatness in the American novel … (with a concomitant tendency to confuse greatness with bigness), literary circles in this country are inclined, in a period which has placed special value on the anti-conventional, the oppositional, to mistake mere verbal vaudeville for stylistic vitality, grotesquerie for originality, callow cynicism—as in the de rigueur scenes of orgiastic abandon cerebrally conceived—for probing moral vision. In all these features, Barth's most ambitious book represents the typical characteristics of the new American novel at their puerile worst. His more modest concentration on ironized myth and on the exhaustion of narrative possibilities in his two volumes of fiction since Giles suggests that without the ability to engage imaginatively the dynamic complexities of real historical process, the novel, like the morally paralyzed hero of Barth's second book, The End of the Road, has no place to go. (pp. 47-8)
Robert Alter (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by Robert Alter), in Commentary, November, 1975.
John Barth's writings are epitomes of contemporary American fiction: they expose some of its key problems and they test representative strategies for solving them. Barth belongs to a new school of fabulators whose inventiveness, whose unexpected fantasies and whose renewed love for old tales have dominated the fictional landscape of the past decade in America. But beyond mere inventiveness and wit, ostentatious glibness and stylistic idiosyncracies, Barth has a keen awareness of topicality—not in the derogatory sense—and offers in his novels of ideas (a sub-genre long despised) prototypical formulations of present day pathology. Thus Barth's early fiction takes off on a statement of contemporary nihilism and absurdity. It puts variations of existentialist thought concerning the possibility or impossibility of stringent self-definition to a test. His later works increasingly concentrate on the function of the imagination in the self-defining process. It is in these works that Barth explores the dangers inherent in a reapplication of mythical schemes to history and everyday life and in the practice of storifying human experience. (p. 454)
The heroes of Barth's earlier novels The Floating Opera and The End of the Road were forever seen coping with questions of "ultimate" sense and "absolute" value. Their answer to such questions consisted, simultaneously, in a gesture of futility and a relative affirmation. Ebenezer Cooke, central character of The Sot-Weed Factor, is preoccupied with the same set of questions, but tends to try out more radical responses to the problem. In the absence of all clear-cut answers, Cooke chooses to create the absolutes he will henceforth build and rely upon; a decision which puts him into the favorable position of someone who is no longer forced to cope with "fundamental" and "ultimate" values, but rather with the technicalities of what follows from his first, arbitrary choice.
The opening gambit of Barth's [The Sot-Weed Factor] is a familiar one. It is almost identical to that in The End of the Road; it has outlines similar to the opening of The Floating Opera; and it is reminiscent of the situation so many fictional characters in the American novel of the sixties find themselves in…. In other words, Eben's situation indicates that he suffers from the very "cosmopsis" Jacob Horner in The End of the Road had discovered, named, and learned to hate. The consequences for the lives of these two characters are similar. Like Horner, Eben is subject to fits of total immobility…. Ebenezer Cooke has found out—representative for many characters of contemporary fiction—that … human beings invariably fall into despair when confronted with too many possibilities.
In this quandary Cooke unwittingly takes to a solution which seems to resolve his problems with a stroke of genius. True to a maxim which he only later is able to state explicitly, namely "that what the cosmos lacks we must ourselves supply" …—a maxim which seems to have sprung straight out of Shelley's Defence of Poetry—he creates his own essence and decides to hold on to it no matter how adverse conditions might become. (pp. 455-56)
What is spontaneous, almost instinctive, reaction in Ebenezer gains the status of a philosophical program in Burlingame, legendary tutor and counterpart to the title figure of the novel. Where Cooke blindly gropes for solutions, Burlingame has reasoned out in advance what might be attempted, what should be done, and what can be justified. As the teacher of Ebenezer and his twin sister Anna he enthusiastically seizes on the children's natural talent for playacting. He encourages them to assume various identities, to try on different roles for size, and to approach an understanding of history and historical personalities through a reenacting of the past. His is an attitude toward history and tradition that partly imitates attitudes of the Romantics: if you want to know who you are, search for the historical models from which you have been cast. Moreover, if you cannot find any suitable models which will facilitate an understanding of yourself, then invent them, create them, and impose them on an existence whose chief characteristic has always been lack of essence…. But the individual's memory, as Burlingame quickly points out, is not truly a reliable foundation. Is it not sometimes faulty? Does it not tend to color everything it holds? Hence Burlingame … warns that nothing is truly reliable except a man's ability to alter himself and to hang on for a while to the self-concepts he has defiantly created. Only the double acts of creation and faith, to both of which Eben will later cling as artist and quester, are worthy of our pursuit. (pp. 456-57)
In yet another way the figure of Burlingame dominates the intellectual landscape of the novel. Barth uses him in order to demonstrate the dangers inherent in a strategy devised by many contemporary novelists for the benefit of their fictional characters. The novel of the sixties has celebrated with unsubdued enthusiasm the second coming of Proteus, the archetypal shape-shifter, and the maxims of Protean existence have been elevated to the status of a new philosophical program in our time. If change itself is the defining feature of human existence, the argument goes, then why not seize the opportunity to transcend the concept of the unitary self and become a whole spectrum of varying selves?
Barth, who has a knack for conceiving characters whose material situations become methaphorical equivalents for their spiritual plights, has put Burlingame in the perfect position to explore the overwhelming potentials of Protean existence…. Burlingame is a foundling, fished, like Moses, out of the water…. Since he has thus no demonstrable link with history, no fixed position in the world, he can feel free to create his own identity from whatever materials he appreciates…. As it happens, he is also convinced that all existence is "a Heraclitean flux" … of which he wants to partake in its totality…. From both premises together he draws conclusions which instantly make him the paradigm for a modern existence of self-regulated change. (pp. 457-58)
As Burlingame is quick to notice and Barth is eager to emphasize, Burlingame's philosophy compels him in practice to walk a tightrope without a net. As long as he has no link with the past and the world, he is free to embrace experience in its totality and to choose or even to create any number of roles. But at the same time this freedom makes him utterly diffuse and somehow nullifies him as an individual. Embracing everything, he eventually embraces (like Thomas Pynchon's heroine V.) nothing. Alternatively, if he establishes a clear link with the world (as he finally does when he finds out and accepts that he is the son of the Tayac Chicamec of the Ahatchwhoops Indians and the brother of Charley Mattassin and Cohunkowprets), he finds the one identity that substantiates him as a person, but he loses touch with the all-inclusive possibilities which constituted his freedom. There can be no satisfying solution to such a quandary…. (p. 459)
Ebenezer Cooke's complementary quest for self-definition illustrates yet another problem that arises when the imagination gains undisputed dominance in life. As he loses touch with the realities in and around him, and as he methodically transcends the boundaries of actual experience, both reality and experience are converted to mere substrata of art. Ebenezer's mythopoeic view becomes a lens that distorts reality by refracting it as a potential or actual work of art. The realm of facts becomes by analogy the realm of aesthetic appearances: what Ebenezer surrenders in actual experience he gains back as the subject of his poetry. The poem he intends to write is only the most obvious token of this transformation. It is more important that in the same process Ebenezer's whole life is slowly converted into a unique work of art. By letting go of the world and the self he gains the momentary freedom to re-create both as autonomous objects. But by the same act he plants the seeds of a potential collision with experience which is likely to refute the very precepts on which his artistic creations were based. Ebenezer seems to be dimly aware of such a danger. Hence he shies away from experience and too great an involvement in life and attempts to preclude a refutation of his fantastically conceived world and his imaginatively born self. Yet, predictably, such refutations occur whenever he mixes with the world around him…. In the end, Ebenezer discovers himself precisely because he abandons the false images he had forced upon himself. He comes into his own, because he revokes all mythical preconceptions and deviates from the patterns of autistic creation. Consequently, the process of art feeding on reality is now reversed in the novel. Ebenezer finally achieves fame as a poet and is offered the Laureateship by the young Lord Baltimore (which he declines), but only after he has discarded his fantasies of being the Poet Laureate and after he has displaced a panegyric on Maryland with a nasty work that heaps on Maryland the abuse it deserved all along. (pp. 559-60)
History plays an important role in The Sot-Weed Factor. Barth's uses of history are manifold and have a clear function in the context of the mythopoeic investigations he pursues. Contrary to what some critics have said, the novel is not merely parody for its own sake or an overgrown historical hoax. Barth rather uses a forbiddingly huge historical apparatus—much of it "grounded on meager fact and solid fancy" … in order to establish a semi-authentic scene as the background of the fictitious quest for the self. (p. 460)
In 1708 an "Eben Cook, Gent." published a satirical poem called The Sot-Weed Factor in London. In 1728 "An Elegy on the Death of the Honourable Nicholas Lowe, Esq." appeared under the name "E. Cooke. Laureat." 1730 saw the publication of Sotweed Redivivus, signed "E. C. Gent"; in 1731 The Maryland Muse (signed "E. Cooke, Gent.") and in 1731 another elegy (signed "Ebenezer Cook, Poet Laureat") followed. The Cook or Cooke of these works may or may not have been identical with an Ebenezer Cooke who in 1694 signed a petition against moving the capital of Maryland; or with yet another gentleman of this name who obtained permission to practice law in 1728. A similar confusion that cannot be settled conclusively arises over Eben's alleged father Andrew Cooke. Subsequent speculations have dealt with the possibility that neither the two Andrew Cookes on record nor the several Eben Cookes (or Cooks or E.C.s) of the poems were identical, as well as with the possibility that "'Eben Cook, Gent.' may be a mere nom de plume."…
Barth devises his own version of Ebenezer Cooke's story and carefully eliminates possible discrepancies with the facts on record. The problem of the two Andrew Cookes is solved by Barth's decision that the one who supposedly owned "Malden" was a suitable father for Ebenezer. The potentially different Ebenezer Cookes merge into one to whom Barth attributes several documented acts and most of the poems which had been linked with the name of the historical Cooke. In the process of compressing such scattered and disjointed facts into the life story of one man, Barth goes to the extent of inserting little details into his novel which eliminate possible contradictions to the recorded data of Lawrence Wroth's study of the life of Ebenezer Cooke…. (p. 461)
Barth then takes Ebenezer Cooke's best-known poem, "The Sot-Weed Factor," and proceeds to write an 806-page novel around the hard core of this work. Many passages in the novel are either repetitions of, or more frequently, elaborations on the material presented in the original poem. Moreover, the satirical poem which Barth eventually has Ebenezer Cooke write in sharp contrast to his originally planned panegyric Marylandiad, is the authentic "Sot-Weed Factor" itself. Barth consistently takes the same liberties, which are characteristic of the treatment of his source, with the historical situation on the grand scale…. What finally emerges from Barth's imaginative manipulation of history is that public myth is pitted against private myth in burlesque juxtaposition. In the process, Barth not only ridicules and effectively destroys the received myth of the heroic American past; he also analyzes the function of naïve private myths in the life-defining struggles of his characters.
Symptomatic for Barth's juxtaposition of the two concurring visions is, among others, his reconstructed version of one of the best-known episodes of early American history, the story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. Contrary to the schoolbook version, Barth offers his own bawdy reading of the events. As so often in The Sot-Weed Factor, he seems to be walking the narrow line between parody and overindulgent trifling with history. Yet his parodistic distortions have an important function. Barth's treatment of the episode draws attention to the fact that alleged historical truth is not as unambiguous as we tend to think. (p. 462)
The point of such parodistic games with historical materials is a simple one. Since some versions we assume to be historical truth are themselves dubious and colored by imaginative concepts, the novelist has every right to add his own speculations to the interpretation of events. After all, who is to say which version is ultimately true or which one is more useful to help us come to terms with the past? As Burlingame maintains throughout the book and as the author in his final chapter rubs in: "… we all invent our pasts, more or less, as we go along, at the dictates of Whim and Interest; the happenings of former times are a clay in the present moment that will-we, nill-we, the lot of us must sculpt."… What is more, in the process of inventing his past, man forgets to keep track of the general structure of his inventions. Hence his concepts of history on the grand scale emulate his concepts of historical fact in detail, that is, everything becomes relative, contradictory, lacking the recognizable, clear-cut outlines he had originally set out to find.
Barth has admitted on various occasions that the arbitrariness of fact has always made him uncomfortable and has stimulated his attempts to pit his own creative energies against it. (p. 463)
Fittingly, Barth uses for a contrast to his protagonists' fictionalizations a wealth of pseudo-objective historical data and interpretations which themselves turn out to be counterfeits or highly biased accounts. Had he opposed some kind of authenticated historical truth (on which historians and readers could easily agree) to the world of Ebenezer Cooke, it would have been all too easy to dismiss Eben's imaginative versions altogether and treat him as a mere lunatic lacking powers of discrimination. (pp. 463-64)
Life and history, Barth's novel seems to argue, are not fields of detached theoretical insights, but grounds on which we must test the concepts and the vitality of our own selves, pitting them against the vitality and the concepts of others.
However, at the same time the fate of Ebenezer Cooke posits the warning that in this situation an unreflected turn to the magic of mythopoesis is too easy and too dangerous a way out. If there are ultimately no givens, no objective readings of past or present, if everything can be altered and transformed in an act of imaginative creation, then it is tempting henceforth to treat the entire universe as the biggest playground the human imagination ever had…. In the spirit and in the fashion of many novelists of the sixties, Barth's philosophical comedy explores the creative possibilities, the frustrations, and the dangers inherent in the contemporary assumption that it might be better to lose an established truth or a stable identity than to find one, because the latter precludes further possibilities whereas the former reveals itself as a precondition for gaining the freedom of imaginative creativity and the right to embrace existence in its totality.
However, what the case of Ebenezer Cooke lets the observer realize is an impending danger rather than a benefit of this new stance of self-creation. True, everything may be forced under the legislature of the human imagination by converting everything into an independent object of non-mimetic art. As such it will then become totally dependent on its creator, but only at the price that the creator, inversely, becomes dependent on his own creations—a condition which Ebenezer Cooke barely escapes…. The problem of fictionalizing life turns into the problem of living fictionalizations. To disentangle again, to find an exit from a world of self-generated fictions, to engineer an escape from the pitfalls of mythopoesis, demands an intense effort by the former mythopoeic self. The feasibility and the formal implications of such an effort as much as the increasing worries about the exit from the maze of fiction prove to be the opening themes of Barth's further experiments in Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera. (pp. 464-65)
Manfred Puetz, "John Barth's 'The Sot-Weed Factor': The Pitfalls of Mythopoesis," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1976, Hofstra University Press), December, 1976, pp. 454-66.