For the better part of half a century, John Barth was synonymous with what was the last self-conscious attempt at constructing a universal aesthetic movement speaking for all of humanity but recognizing only its bourgeois, white constituent. Much like Virginia Woolf once could claim that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed,” Barth would argue (with about the same dose of provincialism) that literary modernism was over.
If Woolf’s epochal declaration of modernism was a program for an exploration of human consciousness beyond European realism, the modernism of the day was something else. Now, in the late sixties, things had to change.
Barth’s exemplar of the devolution of modernism was Samuel Becket, who, Barth claimed, had “progressed from marvelously constructed English sentences through terser and terser French ones to the unsyntactical, unpunctuated prose of Comment C’est and ‘ultimately’ to wordless mimes.” Becket’s modernist ultimacy engendered only silence and exhaustion, Barth claimed. Barth’s project would therefore be one of sound … and lots of it. Instead of removing character and plot from literature, the new novelist needed to approach the question of originality in a different way. The novel ought to embrace its condition of belatedness, Barth argued, take all its “felt ultimacies” and turn them into a new criterion.
Here Jorge Luis Borges serves as Barth’s exemplar. In the story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges’ invention turns around “a Symbolist from Nîmes,” who by following a “philological fragment by Novalis—which outlines the theme of a total identification with a given author” as a preparation for translation, ends up composing several chapters of Cervantes’s novel. The result of this re-composition, Borges’ narrator tells us, is “astounding”: what “is a mere rhetorical praise of history” when coming from the seventeenth century “lay genius” Cervantes, is an argument about history as the origin of reality when coming from Menard. The quixotic has become ontological, Barth suggests, in a literary universe replete with dizzying mirrors and labyrinths, self-proclaimed precursors, and unacknowledged antecedents.
Just as the concept of modernism wasn’t quite available to Woolf when she published Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown in 1924, postmodernism hadn’t quite established itself at the time of Barth’s reflections on The Literature of Exhaustion in 1967. But once it did, Barth became one of its poster boys, along with Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Berger, Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Gass and Robert Coover—all male, white and provincially middle-class—just like, presumably, Borges’ Symbolist from Nîmes.
In what remained of the 60s, throughout 70s, 80s, 90s, and the first decade of the new century, Barth continued to publish novels and short-stories in this Borgesian-Menardian vein. The satirical re-invention of the eighteenth-century novel that had earned him a name in the early 60s, now gave way to more deeply philosophical explorations. At the heart of Barth’s narratives would always be a writer, who in writing in a semi-autobiographical, realistic style, would find himself literally swept away by the fictions of the past, Homer’s Odysseus, Poe’s Pym, but above all, Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. Barth’s string of Mr. Bennetts—Fenwick Turner from Sabbatical (1982), Peter Sagamore from The Tidewater Tales (1987), and Simon William Behler, of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991)—are in this sense antithetical to Woolf’s Mrs. Brown, but in a different way as her Mr. Bennett.
Whereas Woolf argues that conventional realism isn’t able to penetrate deeply enough into human sense making, and thus leaving vast parts of reality unaccounted for, Barth’s narrators, although committed to novelistic realism, lose themselves in the mirror worlds and labyrinths of the previously written and told, whether they be the mythic fictions of culture or the alternative facts and realities of the CIA.
If the novel, as it has been argued time and again, is a genre of fiction that depends on philosophical realism and what Ian Watt has called “the individual apprehension of reality,” then Barth’s novels might perhaps best be read as tours-de-force of storytelling and world building, which to boot, are philosophical arguments about how words, works, and worlds interlink and interact in the construction of our, by now, manifold and thoroughly provincialized realities. In this way, Barth’s art goes a long way in acknowledging that human consciousness doesn’t begin in the sensorium of a perceiving subject, and that it therefore cannot be the Archimedean point from which a sense of the real develops. Barth’s novels seem to suggest that fiction and fact are as related as their etymologies, and that our capacity for storytelling, therefore, cannot be exhausted or grow old. On the contrary, the ability to narrativize, this mythic capacity to imagine a center of consciousness (a hero, a subject) in the process of traversing a plot space, might be where both consciousness and history begin. Barth knows this, just as Pierre Menard knew it and maybe Borges too. Cervantes certainly did.
Barth should be celebrated as a master storyteller, passionate virtuoso, teacher, and sage, and perhaps also—hopefully—prophet and truth-teller.
Featured image credit: Cervantes Don Quixote Statue Madrid by Anher. Public Domain via Pixabay.