Style and Technique
John Barth has a reputation for flawlessly written allegories, playful, imaginative, and intricate. He has a superb sense of both structure and texture, and he puts these fictional skills to the service of philosophical reflection and complicated patterns of meaning and imagery. “Night-Sea Journey” enjoys all these standard Barth talents, and it reveals many literary sources that, although never mentioned directly, give the story resonance and offer the reader the pleasure of recognition.
To give examples, the lament that “I have seen the best swimmers of my generation go under” is a clear allusion to Allen Ginsberg’s sensational Beat manifesto, the poem “Howl.” The whole meditation on the virtues and satisfactions in swimming for its own sake derives from Albert Camus’s Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955), and behind that essay the myth itself. In another glancing allusion, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem on the Light Brigade is invoked in the assertion, “Ours not to stop and think; ours but to swim and sink.” Neither Charles Darwin nor Friedrich Nietzsche is mentioned by name, but both come to mind in the swimmer’s accounts of the Superman’s philosophy and the creed of the survival of the fittest. Although no particular passages echo lines from Walt Whitman, the discussions of merging identities and immortality through transmission of life all evoke some common Whitman themes. Finally, the desire to end the cycle of life in a peaceful obliteration suggests Hindu doctrines about samadhi and the release attained in Nirvana. The effect of all these covert allusions is a knowing style that, combined with the many explications of theodicies and ontogenies, makes “Night-Sea Journey” a very literary work, more of a playful philosophical tour de force than an ordinary work of fiction.
One more technique should be mentioned: the use of the “friend” as a source of many of the philosophical systems explicated. This device makes the point of view more complex, and thereby enables the swimmer/narrator, and the author, to sustain his exposition with less danger of monotony and loss of interest. Some small bit of narrative tension develops in the attitude of the swimmer to his friend, thus creating additional fictional life in a work that is essentially a lecture on philosophy.