Barth, John 1930–
Like Nabokov and Borges, Barth, an American novelist, is a fabulist, an artificer, an experimentalist. The best fantasies, he has claimed, are "similes turned into metaphors." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
John Barth's fictions are [like Nabokov's] dominated by a sense of irony concerning the fragility of the individual's asserted world of meaning, but his works are marked by a much greater feeling of desperation as they explore the absurdities of our language structure—our funhouses. His characters and voices are obsessed by the nature and limit of meaning. The earlier novels, more self-consciously existential than the recent books, are concerned with the validity of meaning structures, of epistemological and philosophic knowledge. They question whether these structures allow for the significant expansion of meaning, whether they allow for the establishment of a more vital sense of meaning. What dominates Barth's thinking most recently, however, especially in Chimera and Lost in the Funhouse, though prefigured in both Giles Goat-Boy and The Sot-Weed Factor, is the actual structure of our discourse. He reflects on the constancy of the patterns of meaning in our culture, most particularly on the recurrence of mythic narrative patterns in literature. The emphasis is not so much the limits of meaning, but the meaning of our meaning. (p. 358)
If Barth laments the self-imposed distance of the modern artist from the commonly accepted version of reality, he first sees that all stories are essentially the same story. He comprehends that all fictions are ultimately about themselves, about the creation of the world by the word. The Key to the Treasure, he reveals in Chimera, is the Treasure. The predominant theme in his recent fiction is the mythic patterns of the creation of a vital life-world by the classic hero (read artist). But the self-reflexiveness Barth shares with the contemporary era denies any final validity to such creations. Consequently, his characters are second generation mythic heroes and artists conscious of the patterns of their desires, and lamenting their loss of a naïve engagement in action.
Barth's irony negates any demand of the contemporary artist to create a radically new vision, particularly according to an existentialist or avant-gardist model. Indeed, what appears to be developing among [Pynchon, Kosinski, Brautigan, Sukenick, Nabokov, and Barth] is a structuralist perspective which rejects both the modernist and avant-garde traditions of the past 125 years…. [Contemporary] innovative fiction illuminates in the play of meaning and non-meaning, language and silence, the creative aspects of our realm of being. The structure of our discourse is the structure of our desires and our illusions, our needs and our fictions. Recognizing that there are no privileged languages, self-reflective literature does not claim to establish actual meaning in the world, but offers an awareness of the meaning of our meanings. (pp. 358-59)
Charles Russell, in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1974.
John Barth, a generation younger than Borges and Nabokov, has had the great advantage of beginning his writing career after those two older writers had published a considerable body of work from which he could learn. As his essay "The Literature of Exhaustion" demonstrates, he has used this advantage. However, he does not slavishly copy the other two. Unlike Borges and Nabokov, he has explained what they are doing. This evident self-consciousness—part of an infinite regress since it focuses on a self-conscious literature—has helped him to notice and to use in his fiction the most important landmarks in literary history that identify the path leading to the Literature of...
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Exhaustion. He has also codified this kind of literature and even mapped the next steps that fiction can take. (p. 118)
One can most quickly understand Barth's work, too, by looking at his use of Chinese boxes. (p. 119)
A writer using Barth's method in The Sot-Weed Factor could write an infinitely long novel if he invented an infinite number of journals or an infinite number of actions that he can claim to be historical.
Of all the systems that the three writers have devised that of the boxes in Giles Goat-Boy most quintessentially suits the Literature of Exhaustion. When a reader finally works his way to the innermost box all the others seem to evaporate and Barth seems to have made out of nothing a novel of 766 pages. The first two boxes are the familiar ones of author and novel. Then comes the narrative and within it the various allegorical planes that the narrative produces. This novel has no allegorical levels like Dante's, with one level being more important than the others and each of them operating at every point in the story. Rather, Barth develops different subjects by means of allegory—history, psychology, etc.—but he does not work on all of them at any given point in the story and he does not make any of them more important than the others.
The next box contains two things that are more basic to the novel than the allegorical planes, which help explain them. One is a theme, the problem of absolutes, particularly whether or not they exist. The other component is an action, George's attempt to fulfill his assignment. These two components relate intimately to each other because each of the seven parts of the assignment depends on the successful handling of a pair of opposites, each member of which lays claim to being an absolute. It turns out that in the novel absolutes do not exist in any simple sense, which negates the allegory, because allegories depend on absolutes for significance and clarity. With the absolutes and the allegories discredited, the only meaningful material left is George's attempt to fulfill his assignment. But, startlingly, Barth never reveals whether or not George succeeds; this topic gradually fades out as if it, too, has no meaning. After its elimination only one substantial thing remains: another attempt to fulfill an assignment. Barth accomplishes his purpose of writing a novel, gradually shucking away all his material and leaving only the process of the writing. This sounds like Tony Tanner's notion of entropy, applied not to the world but to a novel. In other words, the subject matter of fiction appears to be exhausted so the narrative impulse must get along by itself, with the aid of the little impetus it gets from demonstrating that its material is used up. (pp. 120-21)
Barth has also taken the next step and actually invented a new form of literature, which one day may become an independent genre. Taking his cue from the technological world around him, in Lost in the Funhouse he has written pieces intended to be read aloud with part of the narration coming through a tape recorder. Michel Butor's Niagra (1965), a novel in the form of a radio play, is perhaps the nearest thing to a predecessor of Barth's book. (p. 143)
John O. Stark, "John Barth," in his The Literature of Exhaustion: Borges, Nabokov, Barth (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1974, pp. 118-75.
The Floating Opera is an excellent introduction to Barth's whole career, for although Andrews is sometimes ludicrous in his generalizations, he is the first of a line of protean fictionalizers with whom Barth identifies himself, and the novel itself has beneath its false realistic surface many of the qualities of Barth's later, more elaborately artificial fictions…. Barth's response to arbitrariness and finality … is to create alternative fictional universes with the same qualities—exploited conventions, outrageous artifices, virtuosity and idiosyncrasy, confuted expectations—Todd [Andrews] admired in his legal cases and employed in his "autobiography."… Although personal death and duration do not as obviously press upon characters in Barth's later works (The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, Chimera), all have protean fictionalizers (Henry Burlingame, Harold Bray, Polyeidus) who defend themselves against the finality of reality by denying identity, honesty, sincerity, and responsibility, and by assuming disguises or illusions. The fictional qualities of these novels—baroque artificiality, parody, overelaboration—are reflections of their covert heroes' survival strategies, for the novels themselves offer historical, allegorical, or mythological alternatives to the mundane reality in which the author's body has its existence. The comedy of such protean fiction stems from Barth's continual confuting of what seem to be the most valid expectations—physical, moral, and aesthetic. Barth finds man a pretentious fool, a being whose finest power—the mind—can do little to mediate the fact that it will be extinguished. Only the solipsistic imagination can both protect and make interesting a life whose temporality and physicality are a burden. (pp. 18-19)
Thomas LeClair, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975.
Critical analysis of John Barth's work has often invoked a Cartesian vocabulary of phenomenology and existentialism which, broadly conceived, does seem appropriate for the recurrent motifs of the early novels: the question of suicide and intentionality in The Floating Opera (1956); the concern with mask, authenticity, and authorial cognition in The End of the Road (1958) and, on an enormous mythic scale, in Giles Goat-Boy (1966). The analyses have generally identified the destructive pyramiding of self-consciousness and its consequent degeneration of the artistic and sexual impulses as the inescapable nexus of Barth's nihilism which can provide only the grim "resolutions" of absurdity or tautology for its epistemological contradictions. Rather than dispute such general orientation in his early novels, the present discussion will point to certain elements in Lost in the Funhouse (1968) which suggest that the earlier critical frame may now be inadequate, and that the truly disturbing quality of the more recent work is the result of Barth's rejection of any phenomenological self-consciousness as the agency which vitiates nature and art. Selfhood in Lost in the Funhouse is altogether ignored, except as a farcical or sentimental entity, and the locus of the "narrative" affliction is ultimately reduced to the purely linguistic problem of substitution. The situation is more disturbing than the early existentialist dilemmas because the Cartesian subject has been replaced as its center by meaningless, autonomous phonemes. The funhouse world resembles the universally neurotic one described by the French post-structuralist Jacques Lacan.
Lacan uses the Moebius strip as a figure for what he calls the "signifying chain," that autonomous world of discourse which is to be distinguished from the theoretical constructs of structuralism by the fact that in it the binary opposition fundamental to modern linguistics is challenged…. While conceding that diachrony must be subordinated to synchrony, Lacan argues that the synchronic dimension of language is forever closed to intellection by the instituting of repression. The Moebius strip becomes a symbol of the paradox by providing an image which is simultaneously one and two and also suggests that the signifiers which compose it have no connection with anything outside themselves (i.e., the "signified" is nothing at all). Language, for Lacan, is the discourse of the Other (the Freudian Id) and to employ it is to insure that one will be forever excluded from any possibility of signification: the speaker, wholly at the mercy of the signifying chain which precedes him, is condemned to the metaphoric axis of the substitution of one meaningless phoneme for another. (pp. 69-70)
The most radical aspect of Lacan's interpretation, which will concern us most here, is the notion of the loss of the subject (and as a consequence of all the alienations of self-consciousness, previously thought to be ultimate but now considered sentimental illusions) at the expense of a discourse which incoherently speaks man rather than the reverse.
The loss is brought about by the arbitrary nature of the sign, the recognition of which constitutes Ambrose's entrance into the funhouse world of language. (pp. 70-1)
At the first of Lost in the Funhouse Barth seems deliberately to parody the fertile narrative procedure of his earlier work in which a single allegorical leap (life as a floating opera; the historical displacement from contemporary to seventeenth-century America; the universe as university; life as a swim) could provide the occasion for the act of writing. In his later work, the ease of any such assumed or automatic referent is put in doubt by Barth's concentration on the absurdity of his medium. (p. 72)
Ambrose declares "I and my sign are neither one nor quite two,"… and the narrator of "Petition" writes "To be one: paradise! To be two: bliss! But to be both and neither is unspeakable"…. The formula is never altered during the course of Lost in the Funhouse, and it implies that the only activity remaining for the writer is the substitution of phonemes in a desperate attempt to "fill in the blank"…. Barth is able to complete his task because, as "Life Story" makes clear, he has taken the very dilemma for his "ground situation." In the course of the series Barth's style serves to remind the reader of the hopeless contradiction he faces through a variety of techniques, including a selection of morphemes which continually betray their merely combinational nature … [and all of which] … point to the collapsible, substitutive nature of language, to the self-composed signifying chain or Moebius strip within whose confines Barth seeks to establish whatever freedom or respite is available to the contemporary writer. (pp. 75-6)
Christopher D. Morris, "Barth and Lacan: The World of the Moebius Strip," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975, pp. 69-77.
Like the proverbial cynic with a sentimental core, Barth in all his fiction oscillates between a mock traditionalism and a coyly hesitant vanguardism, in a way that at least approximates Rehv's formula that "the genuine innovator is always trying to make us actually experience his creative contradictions."
The weakness of such writing, as Barth himself indicates, is that it has no subject apart from the writer's problem in being a writer. This can be a rich theme, as it is for Henry James in his fables about artists and writers, but only if problems of technique and creative choice come to represent more general features of our common fate. Since the early Romantics of the late eighteenth century, the fate of the artist has repeatedly become an intensified version of the whole human situation. For this to happen convincingly, however, the writer must genuinely risk and expose himself; he cannot simply dawdle about the private, parochial problems of his craft, no matter how apocalyptically he interprets them. But the Barthian apocalypse is a game without risk, a purely intellectual game that scribbles in the margins of the history of art without adding to the basic text…. For all their personal reference his cerebral musings about art foster an escape from subjectivity, an escape from personality. He eschews not only characters but character, including his own; his incursions into the self are as hollow as his excursuses into the world. (pp. 263-64)
As John Barth's Chimera (1972) made clear, even a novella can seem interminable when it doesn't move on its own—when the author must prod it onward, like a stubborn nag, from page to page. And arbitrary sequence is related to lack of affect, the absence of deep subjectivity, the failure to engage the reader's full being. (pp. 265-66)
Barth deliberately directs the three novellas in Chimera at the crisis of self-consciousness that he perceives in experimental writing, which had been the problematic subject of Lost in the Funhouse and had subsequently given him his first taste of writer's block. He is caught in conflict between his affinity for traditional fiction and his acute sense of its exhaustion, a feeling that its historical moment has passed. His solution in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) was to outflank the social and psychological realism of the nineteenth century by mimicking an earlier mode. His solution in Chimera is to leapfrog even further beyond the conventional novel, "back to the original springs of narrative"; he will return to the earliest myths and legends like those of Scheherazade and Greek mythology, whose patterns, repeated instinctively in so many later stories, he will consciously develop and modernize (on the premise, false in my view, that "to write realistic fictions which point always to mythic archetypes is in my opinion to take the wrong end of the mythopoeic stick…. Better to address the archetypes directly")…. Thus, he hopes, without smothering his self-consciousness, by mimicking an archaic mode he can write stories that are aware that they are stories but also "manage to be seriously, even passionately, about some things as well."
Barth's recognition of the value of a subject makes him something of a conservative of the fiction scene of the early seventies, but it does little to save his book. Greek mythology and the Arabian Nights are tough leagues to bat in, and Barth's three novellas manage few palpable hits. Caught between the simple integrity of traditional stories and the demystifying problematics of modernist self-consciousness, Barth realizes neither one nor the other. In The Sot-Weed Factor, whatever its limitations, Barth almost had it both ways, by writing a half-loving, half-mocking version of the eighteenth-century novel. There he invented stories, not yet knowing it couldn't be done. But nothing could seem further from "the original springs of narrative" than the chatty, trivializing tone of Chimera, punctuated only by mock-literary pomposities, never by the unself-conscious simplicity of the storyteller. Storytelling is rooted in wonder, in the marvelous, in magical charm, enchantment, even possession. Barth's version utterly lack vividness, let alone the power to charm or possess. The stories themselves are pallid and hard to follow, swamped by digression and commentary…. Barth tries to control the reader's response at every turn, substituting cleverness for imagination, gossipy prattle for myth, the manipulations of the will for spontaneous affect (or effect). There's more feeling for Greek myth in the two pages of Freud's little essay on "Medusa's Head," though Freud makes no pretense at storytelling, than in Barth's laborious novelistic version of the same myth…. For all their comic intent, the three stories betray that fear of intersubjectivity which Paul Goodman identified as a prime cause of writer's block.
The relative failure of Chimera underlines the limitations of nostalgia as a solution to the dilemmas of experimental fiction. Nostalgia really does take the writer backward rather than forward. (pp. 266-68)
Morris Dickstein, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.
Probably no author since Bellow has concentrated more obsessively upon the nature of fiction as writing than has John Barth. Nor has any author more courageously placed himself at the center of the fictive enterprise. For it is Barth's insight that the primal struggle of civilizing myth has become in our age not simply the struggle as narrated, but the struggle of the narrator…. Barth's fiction has progressed, from The Sot-Weed Factor on, toward an admission of itself as ineluctable quotation, ineluctably inauthentic, and toward a direct treatment of the story of the hero and the dragon—eventuating, in the astounding Chimera, in a fiction which reestablishes the possibility of creation by asserting that man is the principle of the monstrous against which, at his most creative, he wages war.
A venture like Barth's is, of course, fraught with risks, both psychic and stylistic. And many readers predictably dismissed his penultimate book, Lost in the Funhouse, as a terminal failure of imagination, a reduction of his powers to the most manic degree of involution. Roughly the first half of that volume, indeed, is involved with chasing down to its last absurdity the idea of the postmodern as "play," as stories within stories for the sake of stories within stories. But Barth's real genius is to work through that progressive involution to a voice which talks about important things—life, love, death, "inspiration"—without ignoring the weight of self-consciousness our century has piled atop them. By reinventing the principle of framed narration as the very body of monstrosity, he also humanizes that monstrosity in the difficult sense that is the only sense available to us. (pp. 298-99)
Barth's most indelible achievement [is, in Chimera,] the discovery that monster and monster-slayer, civilizing hero and the perennial entropy undermining all civilizing quests, are not contradictory, but contrary principles, allowing us to reassert values not in spite of but upon the basis of the fictiveness, the sham which we have found to underlie all human value systems. (p. 300)
Frank McConnell, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.