John Barth Barth, John (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barth, John 1930–

Barth, an American novelist and short story writer, is a skillful parodist, satirizing language and literary style, the tools of his craft, as well as social and moral conventions. Fascinated with literary theory, Barth explores in his novels the complexities of myth and the traditional concept of the hero in literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

John Hawkes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Barth's] awareness of the right word and manipulations of "voice" are brilliant and sometimes devastating. Barth's wit—his word-play, his verbal parody, his subtle ridicule of everything pretentious, banal, ignorant, pedestrian—is clearly inseparable from his basic fictional impulses. The word "flabbergasting" is appropriate to Barth himself as fiction writer, but it is not appropriate to me as fiction writer. On the other hand, my own heavier cadences and "darker" voice—"coldness, ruthless determination to expose, ridicule, attack"—do not seem to me to be at all appropriate to Barth….

If Barth and I are not concerned with realism, not even with psychological realism, nonetheless we are both working with psychic substance or substance of the mind, are both starting with the materials of psychic or cerebral derangement in our efforts to arrive at "aesthetic bliss." Barth's imagination is in fact a kind of higher-fi system out of which he creates new landscapes of mental existence…. (p. 20)

[To] me Barth's desire to "re-invent the world" as opposed to my own desire to "create a world," means that he is a writer who perceives the threatening irrationality of total consciousness, whereas I am a writer who perceives the threatening "rationality" of the unconscious. Barth's total consciousness is comic nightmare, my sometimes comic nightmare creates its own frightening sense.

As soon as we turn to [Barth's] The Floating Opera … and to [my] Second Skin …, we discover once more a catalogue of alarming parallels. Both novels are told in the first person, both are comic treatments of death, both are concerned with derangement, unreality and the pain of sexual experience. Both novels are about the imagination and about the writing of novels, and both end, finally, as grudging or sardonic or tenuous or hard-won affirmations of life. (pp. 20-1)

The Floating Opera and Second Skin are both novels that deal compulsively with physical desire, sexual impotence, and sadism. Both novels represent a facing down of suicidal impulses, both are told by morally reprehensible narrators and yet, at the same time, represent satiric treatments of conventional morality. In each case the writer knows more than his narrator, of course. But in each case these two narrators may be taken as comic representations of the writers themselves, and the differences between The Floating Opera and Second Skin, and between Barth and myself.

These differences are evident in the story-telling purposes as well as in the personalities of the two narrators. That is, as lawyer Todd Andrews tells his story in order to make sense of it, or in order to...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)

James F. Walter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The theme of interior disorder and illness caused by a division between human faculties which naturally complement each other in the act of knowing is, of course, a common one in Western literature; a certain vein of that literature, however, which extends to us from the satires of a Syrian Cynic named Menippus, takes this theme as its primary obsession. Thus we must place Giles Goat-Boy among the works of that vein, including The Satyricon, Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Praise of Folly, Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, and Tristram Shandy, in order to understand and evaluate it. Giles Goat-Boy is neither novel, tragedy, romance, or epic, nor is it a simple allegory; although it shares much with works in these traditional genres, it remains aloof from all of them, primarily through an extravagant spirit of parody which holds nothing sacred finally except the integrity of its hero's vision, arrived at through an epic glut of experience and ideas ranging across the vast spectrum of possibilities.

An essential characteristic differentiating the Menippean satire from the novel is its attempt to reach the extreme limits of human experience—physical and intellectual, farcical and serious, obscene and sacred, comic and tragic—at the same time…. Menippean satire aims at the tranquil stability in knowledge and experience possessed by "kindergarteners," but it is a stability to be enjoyed only on the far side of the doubts, divisions, conflicts, and dead ends experienced by men fully wise about the world. (pp. 395-96)

The growth of George Giles, hero of Giles Goat-Boy, into the wisdom of the middle way is long and painful, carrying him from mindless childish innocence to a tested stoic wisdom. (p. 396)

George's westward quest is probably the richest in allegorical parody of any in the Menippean tradition. His quest is that of Everyman to find his place. But Barth enhances the significance of his journey by allusions to nearly all of the great quest literature in the Western tradition. George is at the same time a representative of the Israelites crossing the River Jordan into the Promised Land and one of the Billy Goats Gruff passing the Troll into greener pastures. The Quixote parallels are obvious as are those with Dante's descent. George is Sir Galahad faced with perilous ordeals, as he is Pilgrim faced by the Wicket Gate. And he is Aeneas dallying with Dido, as well as Odysseus the external adventurer. These parallels function not only to extend the imaginative resonance of George's quest; since many of them are conscious in the mind of the hero, they are also symptomatic of the bookishness of his knowledge and, hence, of his naïveté about getting along in the human way. George's deficiencies as a Grand Tutor, it is clear, are not merely goatish, they are also godlike: imagining that the world he has prefabricated in his mind is the real one, he operates on the dangerous assumption that the external world will readily conform itself to his will. (p. 398)

Besides being an important actor, WESCAC [the computer] is one of Barth's most complex symbols in the satire. As an arch element in modern technology, the computer is a natural symbol for the whole urban, industrial, bureaucratic way of life that this technology supports. Thus WESCAC symbolizes on a psychological level the abstracting, analytical powers of the agent intellect and the expansion of the natural sciences which has made this way of life possible. But in a more universal psychological dimension it represents simply the searching, conceptualizing, discriminating powers of the mind which have been essential to all great human achievements and civilizations….

WESCAC also has a historical symbolic dimension since in the last century or so it had "cut the last cords to its progenitor and commenced a life of its own." In this dimension it represents a habit of mind bequeathed by Descartes, a working assumption that the clear and distinct categories of science are the only valid ways of knowing truth. Consequently, as a means for the systematic and "scientific" categorization of all human concerns, the nearly absolute hegemony of WESCAC (and its less sophisticated twin, EASCAC) is proof of the loss of the imaginative faculty in modern man; its domineering presence is both result and cause of man's failure to respond wholly to the objects of his experience, with his senses and heart as well as his mind. Modern man, the satire suggests, has generally lost that spiritual vision of the passive intellect by which the existential mysteries of the heart are intuited directly, as a landscape is taken in by the eye. (p. 399)

Yet in spite of its limitations and its active trollery at times WESCAC is not finally the archdemon of the satire. In the...

(The entire section is 1982 words.)

Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The sequence in [Lost in the Funhouse] leads us from the meditations of a sperm through the boyhood adventures of Ambrose to the mythical life history of an anonymous Homeric bard marooned on a desert island and forced to create a life-work out of his own life. From infancy through childhood, and then to the province of the mythical, Barth seems intent on writing large that wonderful sentence of Joyce's, "God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain." One thing is largely omitted, to be sure; that is the development of the individual sensibility. We leave Ambrose before he has become much more than a very embryonic artist; and what takes his place in the latter part of the...

(The entire section is 864 words.)