Life: How the writer progresses

“If a writer is not simply going to repeat himself (which isn’t always a bad thing to do), he has to keep changing, more or less reinventing himself. He hopes that the changes are ‘developments’; that his ‘stages,’ like a rocket’s, are all pushing the same payload toward heaven, in their different ways. He hopes too—since some legs of the trip are liable to be rougher than others—that his audience will stay with him across the troll-bridges and that they’ll reach the sweet cabbage fields together. It may be that there is more troll than cabbage in these pieces; I hope not.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

The Sot-Weed Factor — John Barth

In John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, a small, abstract decision to remain “innocent”—whatever that means—propels would-be poet Ebenezer Cooke to flee London for colonial Maryland, largely because he refuses to “swive” a prostitute thanks to his sudden love for her and then refuses to pay for her time, causing her pimp and maybe boyfriend (except for his lack of, um, ability, as we later learn), to threaten him. In turn, Burlingame—who formerly tutored Ebenezer and his twin, Anna—miraculously reappears in a variety of guises. Identities are constantly mistaken, and the shifting desires of characters revolve around Ebenezer like planets around the sun, and yet Ebenezer’s attempts not to be part of what he first sees as degraded life that causes him much pain and us much mirth.

There is something about vast, extraordinary novels like The Sot-Weed Factor that makes it hard to begin writing about them, for, if done poorly, a warning is sufficient, but if done well, they contain such multitudes that to dwell on only one seems foolish, like describing only the Northeastern cities of the United States as representing the whole country. To write about The Sot-Weed Factor as a whole would take a book half as long again as the 750-page book already in hand. The Sot-Weed Factor almost defies summarization by casting a mocking eye on the ability to simplify a hopelessly entangled world. Ebenezer’s hopeless attempts at stability certainly to fall apart:

“The world can alter a man entirely, Eben, or he can alter himself, down to his very essence.  Did you now by your own testimony resolve, not that you were, but you’d be a virgin and poet from that moment hence?  Nay, a man must alter willy-nilly in’s flight to the grave; he is a river running seawards, that is ne’er the same from hour to hour. What is there in the Maryland Laureate of the boy I fetched from Magdalene 

“The less the better!” Ebenzer replied. “Yet I am still Eben Cooke, though haply not the same Eben Cooke […]”

Is he? He seems quite a different Eben Cooke at the end, doubting not only the beliefs of the earlier Eben Cooke but doubting beliefs altogether, indicating that the world has quite altered the man or vice-versa. It’s probably not a coincidence that one chapter title says Ebenezer “reflects a reflection,” and one character tells him to “Speak literally, an’t please you, if only for a sentence, and lay open plainly what is signified by all this talk of death and midwives and the rest of the allegory.” Eben can’t, naturally, and calls of “contrivance!” and “S’heart!” He chastises his servant, Bertrand, for Bertrand’s unusual take on morality that’s worth quoting in full to give some flavor of the novel:

“The fact is, sir, my Betsy, who is a hot-blooded, affectionate lass, hath the bad luck to be married, and that to a lackluster chilly fellow whose only passions are ambition and miserliness, and who, though he’d like a sturdy son to bring home extra wages, is as sparing with caresses as with coins. Such a money-grubber is he that, after a day’s work as a clerk’s apprentice in the Customs-House, he labors half the night as a fiddler in Locket’s to put by an extra crown, with the excuse ’tis a nest egg against the day she finds herself with child. But ‘sblood, ’tis such a tax on his time that he scarce sees her from one day to the next and on his strength that he hath not the wherewithal to roger what time he’s with her! It seemed a sinful waste to me to see, on the one hand, poor Betsy alone and all a-fidget for want of husbanding, and on the other her husband Ralph a-hoarding money to no purpose, and so like a proper Samaritan I did what I could for the both of ’em: Ralph fiddled and I diddled.”

“How’s that, you rascal? The both of ’em! Small favor to the husband, to bless him with horns! What a villainy!”

“Ah, on the contrary, sir, if I may say so, ’twas a double boon I did him, for not only did I plow his field, which else had lain fallow, but seeded it as well, and from every sign ’twill be a bumper crop come fall.”

Bertrand, the novel implies, might be more right than Ebenezer in the topsy-turvy morality that life tends to inspire. Notice within that passage the clever echoes and doublings within: the alliteration of “tax” and time,” the repeated “l” sound in “lackluster chilly fellow,” and the “sturdy son.” Rhymes play a role too: “Ralph fiddled and I diddled!” Doubling (and tripling) plays a role throughout the novel: Anna’s dedication both inspires and causes great trouble, while Burlingame switches sides so many times that one ceases to know which “side” is which.

“Miraculous” should appear in any attempt at describing The Sot-Weed Factor, as coincidences abound enough to make crossing the suspension bridge of disbelief as perilous as that the ocean in a colonial ship. For Ebenezer, the ship crossings certainly are perilous. Oh, and all this happens in the late 1600s, a time more given to delicate evasions of savagery, lust, lasciviousness, and violence in Barth’s reading than any other I know. Seldom have more attributes more normally found in tragedy employed in comedy comedy. The “French Pox,” also known more recently as the clap and many other nicknames besides, is extraordinarily amusing, even in a time when it more commonly led to death and disfigurement. And the heroic explorers of the “New World,” turn out about as heroic in many circumstances as Ebenezer is a poet. At the same time, the taboo attraction between Ebenezer and Anna might not be as dark as one expects it to be, and the only so caught up in sibling relationships I’ve found is John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire.

A vast and improbable web forms between characters, like the web so well described in All the King’s Men:

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.

For Ebenezer, that web is infested with voracious and lascivious spiders, and in his attempts to stay off the web Ebenezer only becomes more trapped in it. He touches those strands, sending vibrations ricocheting outwards even when he doesn’t mean to. There can be no onlookers in life and stories, only players, and trying to sit out is itself a play, as Ebenezer discovers to his displeasure and our glee.

Further comments on John Barth’s Further Fridays

(See my initial laudatory post here.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays continued to delight till the end, and it hovers ceaselessly around literary questions about form, character, ways of telling, and meaning. Do those sound boring? Maybe when I list them, but when they become part of Barth’s stories—and the Further Friday pieces feel more like stories than essays—they come alive like a Maryland Blue Crab. Consider this great big chunk of quote—appropriate, maybe, for someone who often delivers great big chunks of novel—but it also shows some of Barth’s gift at the level of sentence and idea:

I confess to having gotten increasingly this way [as in, insisting for just facts, whatever those are] myself over the years—an occupational side effect, I believe, in the case of those of us for whom the experience of fiction can never be innocent entertainment. We’re forever sizing it up, measuring ourselves against its author, watching to see how the effects are managed and whether all the dramaturgical pistols that were hung on the wall in act one get duly fired in act three. We’re like those musicians who can’t abide background music: They can’t listen except professionally, and if they’re not in the mood to do that, they prefer conversation, street noise, silence—anything but music.

Right: notice the quick metaphor of the dramaturgical pistols—alluding to the idea that a gun seen in an early chapter should be fired in a later one—and the slightly more developed metaphor of the musician. The musician idea is particularly relevant to Barth, who played as a young man—more on that later—but it also expresses one of the central themes in his work: that innocence prolonged is detrimental to the person holding it and that naive readings eventually give way to sophisticated and experienced readings. They show the growth of not just the critic, writer, or reader, but also of the individual, whose early actions and impressions should be tempered by experience. But some attempt to prolong naiveté foolishly, while others forget to try and see the perspective of the innocent or the childlike joy that can lead to great art. So what is one to do? Muddle along as best one can, Barth seems to argue, and learn as much as you can about that imperfect state we call life and the reactions of other smart or wise people to it.

I realize that the above paragraph sounds almost like self-help lite, but it would be a mistake to see Barth that way, and he discusses far more than just the nature of a particular story. Elsewhere, he deals with literary categorization, which has never been among my favorite subjects because it often seems to generate vastly more noise than music, and its combatants often mistaken that cacophony for a symphony. Barth does a reasonably good job—which is to say, as good a job as one can, given the subject matter and persnickety pedants likely to be interested—of not being caught in its brambles. Adding sufficient qualification makes for fewer explosions but greater harmony; as Barth says of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero

“the whole of literature,” [as Barth quotes Barthes] “from Flaubert to the present day, becomes the problematics of language.” If only he had been content to say that “the problematics of language”—indeed, the problematics of every aspect of the medium of literature, not language alone—becomes one of several prominent field-identification marks of our literature after “Flaubert.” But that kind of reasonable modification, I suppose, de-zings such zingers.

Given the choice of being mostly right and demure or mostly wrong and provocative, Barth takes the mostly right path. Still, he’s not “demure” as in boring, and his essays are filled with unusual zest. Sometimes the footnotes are the best parts; the blockquote above is one, and he sneaks another comment into a footnote, though it’s reiterated elsewhere in the body text: “As for twentieth-century literary Postmodernism, I date it from when many of us stopped worrying about the death of the novel (a Modernist worry) and began worrying about the death of the reader—and of the planet—instead.” The sentiment has its tongue-in-cheek enough not to be taken completely seriously, and yet it’s accurate enough to consider further consideration. Maybe in jokes we tell the greatest truths that could never slide by as bald assertions.

The piece the modernist definition comes from was published in the 1980s, although it reprises arguments from 1968 and 1979, about which one can read more in The Friday Book. But its concerns are still germane: global climate change fears fuel cataclysmic scenarios that aren’t implausible, as do those involving the death of reading. Reading’s demise seems to be greatly exaggerated—what do most of us do online and via e-mail if not read, as Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Dawn of the Digital Natives—but the quality of reading seems to diminish apace online. Still, websites with global reach and many visitors seem fairly literate, and the only well-known, sub-literate blog I can think of is Mark Cuban’s, which I won’t dignify with a link. Then again, Cuban is also sitting on such a giant pile of cash that I doubt he cares about literacy, or Postmodernism.

Like Barth, I seem to have wandered a bit, and also like him, I’d like to circle back round to the main point of this post, which is to emphasize how good Further Fridays is. Sections repeat and reiterate earlier ideas, but I think of the repetitions more as variations in different keys than as irritants, and I think Barth would like that metaphor: he played jazz as a teenager and writes of going to Julliard to discover he had no or too little talent for music (my own musical talent, if I had any to begin with, has probably become undetectable thanks to lack of exercise). Milan Kundera also took up writing after music, and I wonder if other good example of musicians-turned-writers exist aside from Alex Ross, who turned from music to write about music. Barth is as self-referentially modest about his musical abilities as his other points, almost cloaking himself in faux humility when he writes, for instance: “My modest point is that the story of your life might be told as a series of career moves, or love affairs, or intellectual friendships, or houses lived in, or ideologies subscribed to (even magazines subscribed to), or physical afflictions suffered, or what have you, and that every one of those series might be recounted from very different perspectives, to very different effect.” Indeed: and we appreciate that, and the way it implicitly makes the case for reading. He preaches like the native to a religion he nonetheless realizes fewer practice:

If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes… as I was and remain, and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord [of reading] under your belt, for ballast.

Incidentally, I’m fascinated with the catastrophic view of reading and its discontents: consider Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone:

I used to consider it apocalyptically [there’s that end-times terminology again] worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.

I wonder too, as this blog probably demonstrates. Still, I’d argue that you can’t avoid keeping one foot in your native bog, regardless of whether that metaphorical bog is the boring suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, as it was for me, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or New York City, so you might as well do so in a way that makes you part of the wider rather than narrower world, so you can reconcile the two as best you can. The most efficient way to do so, it seems to me, is the way Barth recommends: promiscuous and wild reading, and ideally of books as interesting as Further Fridays.

John Barth’s Further Fridays is Recommended

I’m about halfway through Further Fridays, John Barth’s second “essay, lecture, and other nonfiction” collection and find it as pleasurable and intelligent as The Friday Book, his first. Perhaps my favorite essay thus far is “A Few Words About Minimalism,” which is anything but minimalist and contains this gem:

But at least among those of our aspiring writers promising enough to be admitted into good graduate writing programs… the general decline in basic language skills over the past two decades is inarguable enough to make me worry in some instances about their teaching undergraduates. Rarely in their own writing, whatever its considerable other merits, will one find a sentence of any syntactic complexity, for example, inasmuch as a language’s repertoire of other-than-basic syntactical devices permits its users to articulate other-than-basic thoughts and feelings, Dick-and-Jane prose tends to be emotionally and intellectually poorer than Henry James prose.

(Link (obviously) added by me.)

That second sentence is delicious: perhaps Barth overindulges on other-than-basic syntax to make a point, but the way the structure of the sentence helps make the point that the sentence’s content conveys makes it so impressive. Not only that, but it makes a case without over-making it: that key word “tends” gives Barth enough wiggle room to concede that one can find emotionally and intellectually powerful writing in relative simple prose, and he never states that complex prose must be more emotionally and intellectual more powerful.

That virtue of statement and qualification is present throughout; Further Fridays is the rare collection that doesn’t overstate its claims (I’m still thinking of you, John Armstrong, although it does so at the cost of necessary complexity. You can’t make nuanced arguments about the nature of literary categorization, or movements, or literature, in soundbites and slogans, and it’s also hard to do so from a dogmatic political or philosophical position. Fortunately, Barth seems to occupy none—or, as he might say, his lack of position is his position—and the result is a feeling, no doubt illusory, that I read from the perspective of someone who simply likes to read and likes stories. And I learn from him: I can throw in that “no doubt illusory” comment to protect myself from obvious criticisms while still making the overall point about the nature of criticism.

Expect more on Barth shortly.

Life: Innocence or lack thereof edition

“One should be no great admirer of innocence, in either narratives, individuals, or cultures. Where it’s genuine, after a certain age it’s unbecoming, off-putting, even freakish and dangerous. Where it’s false, it’s false. To admire it much is patronizing and sentimental; to aspire to it is self-defeating. Let us admire—in cultures, narratives, and people—not innocence, but experience and grace.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book.

(In case it is not already apparent, The Friday Book is highly recommended.)

The Author dies, the world yawns, and writers keep scribbling

This originated as an e-mail, but then I realized it was actually a blog post and edited it accordingly.

Roland Barthes begins The Death of the Author thus:

‘This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility.’ Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

It’s a powerful and irritating introduction: powerful because it contains some truth—the speaker is, indeed, ambiguous—but irritating because it stretches that ambiguity beyond its bound. Absent other information, either an omniscient speaker is narrating or free indirect speech is allowing another character to narrate. Either way, choices like “universal wisdom” or “Romantic psychology” seem more like fanciful projections that come from the critic rather than the text. Not being familial with Balzac, I’m not sure who speaks, but someone or something does, and not every voice is destroyed. To be sure, at times we might not be sure of who speaks, but so what? Teasing out the logical bounds of who could be speaking is one of the novel’s pleasures, and James Wood shows how such literary techniques work in How Fiction Works. On page 8 of my edition, he writes:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. AS soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called free-indirect style, a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for – ‘close third person’, or ‘going into character.’

(Italics in original.)

From there Wood goes on to define by example what he means by free-indirect speech via example. He says he admires Barthes on the first page of How Fiction Works, and it’s worth noting that in this admiration, Wood in part refutes him—or, rather, if not refutes, then goes on a different and more productive tangent: to attempt a partial explanation of realism, rather than to try and deny its existence altogether. He says that How Fiction Works “asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers,” in contrast to critics like Barthes and Shklovsky, who “thought like writers alienated from the creative instinct.” (For another example of someone who magnificently asks critics’ questions and gives writers’ answers, see John Barth’s The Friday Book.) The description of Barthes and Shklovsky is apt: reading Barthes is frustrating because he so often seems right and then oversteps the conclusion that his premises will support.

At the start of The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding, Ian Watt writes:

There are still no wholly satisfactory answers to many of the general questions which anyone interested in the early eighteenth-century novelists and their works is likely to ask: Is the novel a new literary form? And if we assume, as is commonly done, that it is, and that it was begun by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, how does it differ from the prose fiction of the past, from that of Greece, for example, or that of the Middle Ages, or of seventeenth-century France?

Although Barthes and Watt wrote decades ago, they still seem relevant in part because the issues of perspective and representation are unlikely to ever leave us in art. We perpetually expand what it means to be real or not real or how we should see the world, but that expansion can never encompass all possibilities, or all stories. Hence the continual reshaping of not only what we read and find valuable, but also who we are.

This debate about authorship is intensified by blogs and other electronic media, where copying is easier than ever and links can, if used well, show the tentacles of other thinkers reaching into one’s own thinking. You can see aspects of the online debate in innumerable places; a small recent sampling from my own links might include Mourning Old Media’s Decline, If you’re online, are you really reading?, book blogs over search engines, and Twilight of the Books. Personally, I’m not all that worried about blogs and other forms of online media; technological innovation helped produce the novel by making reproduction of written relatively inexpensive, and the Internet is doing the same only moreso. A change in orders of magnitude in the dissemination of information will probably lead to eventual changes we haven’t even pondered yet, and I assume that change will ultimately expand the possibility of how we communicate, just as the novel helped expand the way we see consciousness. Besides, as Andrew Sullivan argues in “Why I Blog” (published in The Atlantic):

Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth. Every professional writer has paid some dues waiting for an editor’s nod, or enduring a publisher’s incompetence, or being ground to literary dust by a legion of fact-checkers and copy editors. If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated.

“Why I Blog” rambles even more than this post, but it’s one of the more coherent explanations of blogging I’ve seen—perhaps because it doesn’t come in the form of a blog post. Most writers since before the printing press have probably also dreamed of getting paid for their writing, and it’s not obvious how that’s going to happen online. It’s an important question and one that hasn’t been answered satisfactorily: despite all the talk about the death of print, authors, and various other “traditional” or “old” forms and whatever, I’m still interesting in writing fiction and long nonfiction that’ll be published in print with my name on it, chiefly because that’s the only way to get paid for it in a real sense of the word, and it’s the best way to get professional editing (bonus points to commenters who observe typos in this post). Granted, blogs pay in non-monetary forms like social status and satisfaction. But status doesn’t cover rent or put food on the table, so it’s an imperfect system, and what kind of payment method writers will devise in the future isn’t obvious to me. Writing as a form of advertising or display mechanism for other skills is one possibility, as that’s (a small) part of what Grant Writing Confidential does, even as it provides other benefits, like increasing overall knowledge of how to write proposals, deal with bureaucracies/bureaucrats, make individuals aware of funding opportunities, and the like.

Still, blogs seem here to stay, and authors are likely to continue writing, whether their writing destroys the point of origin—whatever that means. One reason I write blog posts is because the marginal amount of extra effort is just that: marginal. I obviously spend a lot of time reading already, and I do so chiefly because I enjoy it. If I spent 5 to 25 hours on a book, spending another 1 to 3 on a post isn’t difficult, especially if the book is powerful enough to keep me thinking when I’m not reading it. And when I write, I often find that ideas emerge that I didn’t realize I had previously—which is not an experience unique to blogging, I realize, but sometimes the immediacy of the experience can help me bring them out.

As stated above, this post began as an e-mail, and I decided that I’d written enough to create a post on what I originally thought would be on authorship in the Internet age, although it’s turned out somewhat differently than I conceived it. Still, much of the idea and expression work was already done, both on my own (through the e-mail composition process) and through the writing of others (Foucault, Barthes, Wood). The question becomes, why not do the marginal amount of extra work and make whatever thoughts I have available to the rest of the world? And hence, blogging. Maybe it is a useless activity, but if so, I doubt it’s any more useless than the numerous other activities we engage in. And in writing, I realize that I had more thoughts on the subject of blogging, authorship, and incentives than I realized before I started, when I thought I was just going to dash off a quick note about the connection between a conversation in class and reading more generally. Now I’m 1,000 words in before I realize it that letters were to Keats and others might be what blog posts and e-mails are to the great writers of today whose names we don’t yet know.

I say “might” because predicting the future has always been a fool’s game, and the increasing rate of technological change only makes it moreso. But the past does offer a guide, however limited, to the future, and my betting is on cultural production changing around the nature of technology and how we use it. I doubt that will make the novel as such obsolete—perhaps the form will become still more important as a haven of deep thought amid the swells and chatter of blogging—but it might change it, and our conception of who the author is. I don’t think the change, when or as it occurs, will be as profound as some suspect.

To return to the beginning of this essay, maybe the book as an object will survive, and maybe writing fiction and criticism, like all forms of art, is naturally a self-referential activity that causes its practitioners to, in the act of creating, to speculate on why and how they do what they do. In that vein, maybe Barthes is so obsessed with the author and with realism because he cannot escape either or their perpetual pull on the novel. As such, he attacks them out of love and out of love and frustration, the latter because try as he might he can’t escape realism and still be in the novel. So he thrashes about, like someone holding his breath and thinking that doing so for as long as possible proves that one can live without oxygen, while writers (whether of blogs, books, or scholarly detritus, or whatever) continue producing the stories, just as people do to define themselves. We cannot separate the content of the stories from how we tell them or draw a perfect line between the authors we read and the text we produce, causing the endless debates about the nature of writing and expression. At times, the participants fail to see the larger, paradoxical picture of the infinite literary firmament, which is, as I said earlier, greater than any attempts to capture it.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, and meaning in the novel

There are two distinct currents in the writing of novels that I would like to note in particular: the novel often described as “taut,” in which every word, sentence, paragraph, action, plot point, utterance, and the like has a central meaning utterly important to the meaning of the novel itself as a whole. Flaubert began this school in earnest, and it began somewhat after the other school, which a professor described as a “big bag of stuff,” containing a bit of everything and much that seems extraneous and wandering, though interesting. Dickens wrote such novels. The “big bag of stuff” school has never been my forte: 18th Century English novels like Clarissa and Pamela are a drag, and the hysterical realists who emulate them deserve the opprobrium they occasionally get. I generally prefer the Flaubert method of writers like Flaubert himself, Fitzgerald, Melville, and the like.

One novel that gets the balance nearly perfectly is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which succeeds in being pointed and yet digressive, and its meanderings are always illustrative of the characters and related, somehow, to the central plot—or, rather idea, which in the case of Cryptonomicon I can’t explain without including the ending. It’s an exceptions; John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is another successful hybridized novel I like, which has characteristics of the big-bag novels without many of their faults. The temptation toward big-bag novels is clear, especially because the novel lacks a required form—as the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary says, the novel is “now applied to a wide variety of writings whose only common attribute is that they are extended pieces of prose fiction. But ‘extended’ begs a number of questions,” which it then goes on to enumerate. The problem with defining the novel is that the form itself arose as an original production and one major criterion for greatness continues to be originality, which becomes steadily harder to achieve as more novels are published. One could call this “contamination, as John Barth argues in The Friday Book.

If is by its nature a contaminated genre, then one of its chief progenitors is a sterling example of this general phenomenon. Don Quixote is a pastiche, and not just of allusion, but of poems, stories that would, on their own, qualify as “short stories,” and perceived history. Its eponymous protagonist acts as if stories are histories, and vice-versa; in Chapter VIII, a typical encounter whose broad outlines are repeated occurs with traveling shepherds. Quixote assures them he is a knight, and though they assume him mad, their own reasoning processes aren’t so different from his. These shepherds make questionable assumptions and use false heuristics as well—one says, “ ‘I think, Senor Vivaldo, that we are going to be well repaid for the delay it will cost us to see this famous funeral; for famous it must surely be, judging by the strange things that these shepherds have told us of the dead man and the homicidal shepherdess.” Are “strange things” enough to make a funeral worth attending, a film worth seeing, a text worth reading? Maybe, since the speaker implies that strange things can cause fame.

Fame itself lends some measure of reality to their perception, and their perception adds some measure of reality to the proceeding, as fame itself is an agglomeration of interested parties. I read once that a person is famous to the extent that more people know him or her than he or she knows. By that definition, Don Quixote (and, in italics, Don Quixote) has become very famous indeed; but even the funeral itself, within the text, becomes more important by way of its interest to the shepherds. The shepherds are astonished at Don Quixote, and “were likewise able to perceive the peculiar nature of his madness,” and yet his madness is like theirs, only to a greater degree. To be sure, quantity has a quality all its own, as Stalin infamously said, but nonetheless the principle remains even when the order of magnitude changes.

So it is with all novels: their parts reflect the wholes, in a recursive loop, just as perception can lead to changes in reality. The process is not perfect and doesn’t have a 1:1 correspondence—whether I “perceive” my computer levitating doesn’t make it levitate, and whether Don Quixote perceives King Author to be the figure made out in tales doesn’t mean he was. Yet when I perceive my computer levitating and use such an idea in a story that in turn becomes widely read as a metaphor for how working in a field one loves can make one accomplish more, or when Don Quixote perceives King Arthur to be a historical figure and then acts accordingly, our perceptions have changed and interacted with the real world—as fiction itself does. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose, “However you choose to look at it, I arrived at scholarship by crossing symbolic forests inhabited by unicorns and gryphons […]” In Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, different views of the reality of time affect different worlds that might or might not exist in different ways; in one such universe, “The world will end on 26 September 1907. Everyone knows it,” and they react accordingly. In another: “Suppose that people live forever.” In Don Quixote, one could have a false quote, a quote from Don Quixote in a different universe: “Suppose that Don Quixote believed himself to be a knight-errant.” He does, naturally, and its author or narrator says that details mean little, “providing that in the telling of [the story] we do not depart one iota from the truth.” One can’t depart from the truth of a made-up story.

Don Quixote continually emphasizes the “truth” in a way that’s merely ostentacious rather than clever. The book contains a note referencing the fictional layers that Umberto Eco mocked at the beginning of The Name of the Rose, but aside from hyperbole, there is little if any strong sense of mockery here: “He who translated this great history from the original manuscript left by its author, Cid Hamete Benegeli, states that when he came to the chapter dealing with the adventure in the Cave of Montesinos, he found in the margin, in Hamete’s own handwriting, these words: […]” The novel lets us count the layers of narrative contamination: Don Quixote is the principal actor, who is contaminated by Cid Hamete Benegeli, who is contaminated by (potentially) the translator, who is contaminated by Cervantes himself. Given such uncertainty, the need to draw more attention to Hamete’s uncertainty doesn’t have the effect of allaying uncertainty, as the plea for “how it is impossible for me to believe that Don Quixote lied.” Rather, by calling attention to the possibly fictive nature of Quixote’s adventures, he increases their uncertainty, like someone who guiltily overexplains an absence to a lover. Indeed, the very use of “contamination” so many times and in so many subtly different ways expands it the point of near meaninglessness, like Don Quixote’s constant citation of Romance as a drive to defend his numerous acts of folly.

Furthermore, much of the nature of “truth” in Don Quixote depends on personal reputations rather than any attempt at external verification. Don Quixote is believable “since he is the truest gentleman and noblest knight of his age and would not utter a falsehood if he were to be through with arrows.” In an age with no other gentlemen and no other knights, it isn’t difficult to be the truest and noblest—or the least true and least noble, especially without external checks and balances. If I pronounced myself a Ph.D. and proclaimed myself the truest doctor of the age, and by implication my work the most correct, others would correctly look askance at me: it generally takes the verification and seal of others who represent an institution as well as a large body of work to “prove” myself the finest doctor in the land. Conceivably, however, my work could still be the best, even without the external verification, but it would be harder for others to prove. Don Quixote lacks those proofs by others, and yet in his mind, he is still following their examples—and at bottom, he is testifying for himself, and others are believing him because he of his self-created status, not because of a widely agreed upon status. Cid Hamete Benegali is one flimsy shield against such charges—so flimsy, that he will not testify on Quixote’s behalf in Chapter XXIV, despite the myriad of other far more ridiculous events than the relatively benign one described in a chapter concerning “A Thousand Trifling Matters:” “[…] I would state that if the episode has the appearance of being apocryphal, the fault is not mine, and so, without asserting that it is either false or true, I write it down.” But sophisticated readers should assume such things, and understand implicitly such contamination; it, like the many others of its kind, should be assumed by the reader, rather than stated. Instead, it’s used as a form of paralipsis in drawing attention to the fictionality of the world by arguing over or testifying about its fictionality.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the contamination of Don Quixote by history and by legend, and the standards of truth each implies, as well as the standards of translators and others whose standards might be lower still. It is hard to believe Cid Hamete Benegali if he has accepted Don Quixote’s account of himself simply by the account itself; such tautological reasoning is no more persuasive than Don Quixote’s reasoning about the truth of historical romance. Yet perhaps this is besides the point: in a contaminated narrative, what matters is that characters believe and what it causes them to do, not what they believe. Arguing whether the ghosts are real or fake in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is of less importance than what those ghosts cause the Governess to do. Although I had not previously realized it, the same general principle animates the novel I spent most of this morning editing, which is tentatively titled A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night.

Don Quixote still believes in the Romance narrative he lives, and he can only live through misunderstanding the nature of fact and fiction. Cid Hamete Benegali seems to believe Quixote. And yet, all this is contained in a chapter entitled “A Thousand Trifling Matters,” in which Sancho Panza marvels, “ ‘Is it possible that a man who can say as many wise things as you have just said could have told the nonsensical and impossible tale that you did of the Cave of Montesinos? Well, well, we shall see.’ ” Given that Sancho Panza believes them nonsensical, as does Cid Hamete Benegali (“in Hamete’s own handwriting”), we have bookends of disbelief around an event not so different than the many other. Such sections make literal the belief in Romance and demonstrate faulty reasoning more efficiently than the LSAT—for example, a group in white going to pray for rain causes “Don Quixote [to imagine] that this must be some adventure or other” only to have him “strengthened in this belief” by further misinterpreting what he sees. In the second half, he becomes more deeply enmeshed in both the reality of his unreality and in the reality outside the novel, further straining the epistemological ropes pulling his arms in each direction. This is because Quixote doesn’t accept standard explanations for truth. Don Quixote and Don Quixote are both quite famous, and they’re famous for exemplifying and defying the epistemological models we have imposed on the past. In defying them, they nonetheless have others apparently upholding them, but neither matters half so much as the end result: Quixote’s adventures fueled by his belief, and the contaminated beliefs of others. Too bad they never infect me, as I see Quixote as irritating above everything else.

Life: Existential humor edition

“The hero of my first novel beings by believing that ‘nothing makes any ultimate difference,’ and decides to end his life; he ends by realizing that if nothing makes any difference, that truth makes no ultimate difference either, and so rather than committing suicide he predicts that he’ll go on living in much the same manner as before.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

Life: artists’ edition

“What makes [Borges an artist] of the first rank, like Kafka, is the combination of that intellectually serious vision with great human insight, poetic power, and consummate mastery of his means—a definition which would have gone without saying, I suppose, in any century but ours.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

Life: artists' edition

“What makes [Borges an artist] of the first rank, like Kafka, is the combination of that intellectually serious vision with great human insight, poetic power, and consummate mastery of his means—a definition which would have gone without saying, I suppose, in any century but ours.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

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