Schrödinger’s Man: The End of the Road by John Barth, A Review

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Fair use for review. Readers after the sort of book implied by this cover will have been sorely disappointed. It’s a literary feast, not a page turner as described by the blurb.

John Barth is one of the Pomo {triumvirate?} writers (defining an era along with Robert Coover and William Gaddis {obviously we can slide William Gass in here too}) we may characterize by a restlessness about writing {this is a good thing} and each following {choosing to follow} a desire {need?} to embrace the untried and untested waters of form and content {of course the general list of Pomo writers is large and wonderful}. One is a fool not to read their works well and wisely {although one reviewer online wrote using imagist form about The End of the Road, “I disliked this story. It is really stupid” so what do I know?}. The skull of the Sternian Yorick continues to shine its bleached grin as their cock and bull stories (or in this book a case of a horse’s ass) {horsies play a sub sub theme in the novel} rise into the canon of great works. TEOTR is Barth’s second novel, written in 1958 and wedged between his The Floating Opera and The Sot-Weed Factor, both more widely known.

In 1967, when Barth had four novels under his belt, he wrote The Literature of Exhaustion (1) in which he mentioned his admiration of Jorge Luis Borges and his, Barth’s, interest in art works (found in an advertising flyer) that included French artist Robert Filliou’s Ample Food for Stupid Thought, {if ever there were an idea for a tattoo} a box of postcards upon which were questions such as “yes or no, dost thou love thy neighbor as thyself?” {This is a question that is appropriate for this book.} Well, anyone with an eye cast toward Robert Filliou {who died in a Tibetan monastery} is welcome at my house for drinks {of my choice} any night of the week {again my choice}. “Art is what makes life more interesting than art,” wrote Filliou. I quoted him in my PhD dissertation because I thought he had stated the right approach to research, “Research is not the privilege of people who know — on the contrary, it is the domain of people who do not know. Every time we are turning our attention to something we don’t know we are doing research” (2). Indeed, as we, we in the sense of any serious novelist, create with words we are researching in the sense we initiate an experiment, with time, with voice, with description, with wordplay, and if we’re any good {we may never know}it takes a while before we know where we’re headed {which sounds suspiciously like Jake Horner’s Weltanschauung}. Now of course Barth’s essay was published just as Pop Art was gasping and digital art was coming into being, and Barth was grappling with both his take on existentialism and intermedia, meaning we’ve all come a long way since then.

He revisited the literature’s state in 1979 (published in 1980) {Atlantic} when he wrote The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodern Fiction. A worthy program for Pomo fiction he said was, “the synthesis or transcension of…antitheses, which may be summed up as pre-modernist and modernist modes of writing.” The goal was to leave aside “artistic simplism, shoddy craftsmanship, Madison Avenue venality, or either false or real naïveté” and to create fiction that had more general appeal than say Beckett’s Texts for Nothing or Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Great novels in this line would be for Barth would be Calvino’s Cosmicomics and Márquez’s One Hundred Days of Solitude, about which he said, “One had almost forgotten that new fiction could be so wonderful as well as so merely important.” All of this was to say {for Barth} that writers were working out the next best thing after modernism for quite some time {even during modernism} long before Postmodernism was a word in its normative literary sense.

We find that two roads diverged, one taken by Saul Bellow {can his work be justified as Pomo or not? Justify your answer. Paper due next week} and one by Barth. In reading Barth, we should not move ahead it seems, with a librarian’s view or a critic’s view, but with the understanding of the tenor of author as researcher wrestling not so much with the past but with the new, the unknown, the strange, the uncommon for as Barth writes, “the commonality, alas, will always lose their way and their soul.” That’s a good phrase. Mass market plot vomiting and detail diarrhea, and even high-brow {high on what for God’s sake?}mass market literary {litter-airy} works are zombies, soulless simulacra of literature, {even many attempts at the cool are audience pleasers and thus light, half-baked} with brain but no thought, with bone but no marrow. These are simpleton stories for stupefied skimmers. Barth says, “I’m inclined to prefer the type of art that not many people can do: the kind that requires expertise and artistry as well as bright aesthetic ideas and/or inspiration.” You don’t hear much of that talk outside of academe, but then the stilted-tale sympathizers {from writers on down to marketers and reviewers} {the 9 circles} don’t tend to smell their own body odor.

Which leads us to Barth’s TEOTR, that in many ways is the precursor of tone to later Barth works such as Every Third Thought but which is stylistically right in the ballpark of a work like Tidewater Tales. Walking upon the earth is hard core nihilist Jacob Horner. He is self-identifies as “owl, peacock, chameleon, donkey, and popinjay, fugitive from a medieval bestiary — was at the same time giant and dwarf, plenum and vacuum, and admirable and contemptible.” He takes life as it comes, “one rides along,” he blandly states, and decisions are recognized as having been taken only in 20/20 hindsight.

Little Jack Horner

Sat in a Corner

Jacob alias Jake has just been released from a live-in therapy environment alias the Remobilization Farm and is advised by his therapist he should take a job, which after a series of possibilities lands upon teaching. To be clear Jake was identified as having a form of psycho-paralysis due to his lack of decision making power. The Doctor observed him sitting in at Pennsylvania Station, unmoving for nearly twenty-four hours. He convinces him to spend time at the Farm. Jake, upon release, is advised to keep his nose {and other things} clean and to read only the World Almanac, a form of Informational Therapy (there are lots of therapies). Decisions on the outside are to be handled by way of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority, meaning because Jake has typically become paralyzed in the face of decisions, he must choose the left option, the first option, or the option that starts with the letter that appears earliest in the alphabet. Jake applies at the Wicomico Community College and is hired to teach prescriptive grammar, and to be clear definitely not descriptive grammar. He befriends Joe and Rennie Morgan.

So we understand, Jacob Horner is a man who never cares one way or the other, take it or leave it, no opinion, this or that, all good or whatever. He is Schrödinger’s man comprised of simultaneous multiple states, and he admits that one of his qualities is the ability to hold dual and contradictory viewpoints. It’s the human form of quantum superposition. As soon as there is an attempt to pin down his thoughts, he swirls like a weathervane in a gale; his direction forward is determined by circumstance and opportunity. It may be the value of literature is ultimately the value of life, only more so, but when moral uncertainty enters we {emphasizing identity} are {half} hooped {or thrown into the world of thought experiments}. Existence precedes essence, said Sartre, but without essence, then what?

Horner then is designed as a modern day Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, the man of Ivan Goncharov’s eponymous second novel (1859). {Chekhov is reported to have said that Goncharov was “ten heads above me in talent,” according to Seven Stories Press which has a marvelous cover for Oblomov} Through the course of that book, the character Oblomov is unable to decide anything important, “nothing interested him and nothing worried him,” and over the pages of the book he moves from the bed to the chair, {a big deal} as normally his resolve devolves into inaction. When invited to tea he remarks, “Like everything else, it would bore me.” Nikoláy Dobrolyúbov suggested in the Anthology of Russian Literature from the earliest period to the present time (1902–03) that all Russian literary heroes suffer from not having any aim in life and from not finding any suitable occupation for themselves. They are all Oblómovs. Dobrolyúbov stated about I.I.Oblómov, “He has one misfortune: he does not know whither to go” which he saw the mindset as a sign of the times. Similarly, Horner in the absence of decision making requires external direction, not that such direction provides meaning but that it points. And so so when advised to teach grammar, Horner remarks that there there is prescriptive and descriptive grammar; his therapist responds that he will teach prescriptive grammar, “No description at all. No optional situations.” {Doctor’s orders} It’s the antidote to nihil unbound. {Take two pages of Ray Brassier and call me in the morning.}

There is something clownish, nearly poignant in such characters, for example as found in Lon Chaney’s portrayal of HE in the great silent move of 1924 He Who Gets Slapped (1922), notably by Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev, (often called the Russian Edgar Allan Poe) {although who wouldn’t lapse into melancholy after being betrayed by Norma Shearer?} “What is it in human nature that makes people quick to laugh when someone else gets slapped — whether the slap be spiritual, mental — or physical — ?” Said the title card of the movie. Maybe we expect people to hold values and when their values lose all value, our laugh arises from our nervousness.

Eating his Christmas pie;

He put in his thumb

As Rennie’s mindset is drawn toward that of Jake, and lust hoists the sail in a back burner manner, they get together at her house while Morgan is away. “I went out there and spent the afternoon playing with the boys. It was not necessary for me to do this at all, but neither was it obviously compromising. Rennie quite unsuggestively invited me to stay for dinner, and I did, though I had no special reason not to eat as usual in a restaurant. We scarcely spoke to each other. Rennie said once, ‘I feel lost without Joe,’ but I could think of no appropriate reply, and for that matter I was not certain how extensive was the intended meaning of her observation….The point I want to make is that on the face of it there was no overt act, no word or deed that unambiguously indicated desire on the part of either of us.”

Horner and Rennie end up in each other’s arms, {for once the correct usage of a lack of agency} less a decision than circumstance, {so says Jake who also says that according to Rennie she would accordingly offer the same less than decision}. At any rate emotions had been aboil.

Rennie and Joe’s relationship has been one of utter honesty so of course Rennie tells Joe. Joe’s disclosure to Jacob that he knows about the affair is a thunderbolt of writing. This disclosure is expected because the couple’s rules of marital engagement: equality, honesty, unwavering support, and devotion. Moral decisions are to be the object of understanding and Rennie’s transgression is a subject of continuing interest to Joe. “‘Joe and I have done a Marcel Proust on this thing,’ Rennie said sadly. ‘We’ve taken it apart from every point of view that we could think of.’” Joe takes life as reasoned, direct, the direction a force of sheer will and he wants to untangle all the motivations. As for Jake’s response, he put his thumb in it all right,{while twiddling his thumbs}.

Rennie, {never under Jakes’ thumb} always somewhat circumspect is swayed by both men, toward Joe’s absolutes then toward Jacob’s stolidity.

The phrase a “novel of ideas” must be one of the worst cliche phrases in all of literary criticism, {but it will continue to be shoved into reviews} is used as code for a novel in which characters actually describe their beliefs, relieving the critic from the responsibility to consider just what these ideas are because, after all, the assumption is that only literary sophisticates {or philo-pervertoscenti} will care to get involved with such a mistress. If anything, the ideas in this TEOTR are lightweight, philosophically that is. I’ve mentioned Sartre. {The remaining philosopher we want to go to is Saul Kripke, who didn’t come out with his book Naming and Necessity until 1972, and Barth wouldn’t have been aware of his ideas}. So Barth would most likely have gone back to their precursor, our depressive pal Wittgenstein (who one might with good reason guess Barth used as an impetus for his Jake Horner). Jake explains, “Things can be signified by common nouns only if one ignores the differences between them…it is merely a matter of x’s being part horse and part grammar book, and completely neither. Assigning names to things is like assigning names to people: it is necessarily a distortion.” In section three of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes, “In the proposition the name represents the object” (3.22) and “Objects I can only name. Signs represent them. I can only speak of them. I cannot assert them. A proposition can only say how a thing is, not what it is” (3.221). Horner provides an example, a horse could stand for this thing with four legs {etc} but just as easily stand for this thing we call ‘book.’ He might has his students to bring their horse to class. So in the Wittegensteinian{?? Sufferin’ succotash! What a mouthful} sense names have no sense, they tell us nothing of the world, they only have reference. Exit Wittgenstein, enter Barth. Enter Joseph Kosuth would later play the same game with the same Witt{no half-wit he}genstein reference with art, check out his One and Three Chairs of 1956.

And pulled out a plum,

And said, “What a good boy am I.”

Except that Barth changed the ending; statements of morality are worth only Monopoly money in a valueless world.

Things turn out horribly. So much for being a good boy. Opportunism and greed, are found in the novel as is in the rhyme, however Jacob’s actions don’t simply come back to the self but impact those around him. He is, at the start and at the end, the often mentioned Greek sculpture of the tormented Laocoön, who offended Apollo by breaking his oath of celibacy and having an affair with Apollo’s wife. The sculpture shows Laocoön and his sons being attacked by the sea serpents Porces and Chariboea. Here the Laocoön takes on a different meaning to Jacob. He sits in his rocking chair, without decision and thinks,

“The terrific incompleteness made me volatile; my muscles screamed to act; but my limbs were bound like Laocoön — by the serpents Knowledge and Imagination, which, grown great in the fullness of the time, no longer tempt but annihilate.”

The Doctor claims that logic will not give answers to questions, only knowledge of the world can do that. Ah, yes, the rationalist versus the empiricist. He says, “The world is everything that is the case,” stealing the first line from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. What is the case, for Wittgenstein, is a state of affairs, a combination of objects, or in the novel a combination of people.

Barth’s literary voice and magnificence arises in that he says only half of what he needs to for twice as much resonance where as lesser novelists say twice as much for half the impact.

When Jacob gets into a pickle he seeks out the Doctor who next recommends that Jacob undertake a form of Mythotherapy {I warned, there are many}. About this he says,

“In life,” he said, “there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, are a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story….What you’ve done is choose to play the part of a minor character: it can be pleasant for you to pretend to be less important than you now you are…..So in this sense fiction isn’t a lie at all, but a true representation of the distortion that everyone makes of life.”

We thus find then echos of Joseph Campbell (his major work was out in 1949) and Jung in the Doctor. But what happens when the hero does not see dragons that must be fought. These are identified by the Doctor, because otherwise Jacob’s nihilism would simply turn to inaction and potentially long-term paralysis. No crisis means no victory, and indeed what a reader might consider a conquest, the sleeping with Rennie, turns into an over-considered historical event or state of affairs.

One of Barth’s compelling decisions is to construct dialogue with connected clauses to longish statements in which characters attempt to understand their often contradictory thoughts. As always, as he once said, his goal is to “make simple things complicated.” Someone wrote once {and I grossly paraphrase since I can’t remember who said it} that hack, mass market writers are always deadly serious while literary brilliance is often manifested by the inclusion of humor. There are to be sure a few zingers in this book. For example:

“Do you like horse-back riding Jake?” Rennie had happened to ask.

“Never rode before, Rennie.”

“Gee, it’s fun; you’ll have to try it with me sometime.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Yes, I suppose it would be better to do that before I tried it with a horse.”

The novel, like many of Barth’s novels contrast the clear decisions of the author with the indecisiveness of a character. Spinning reality into fiction {and perhaps vice versa} {author as Rumpelstiltskin} may have come from Borges, and I’m thinking now about Ulrikke in which the narrator starts out, “My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing.” Although being faithful to reality is being faithful to fiction, and for Borges and Barth, fictions is to be faithful to myth. So TEOTR is a {sort of} love triangle with a {barely visible} emotional attachment of the {hardly} lovers who {marginally if at all} care about what they did and who are {minimally} affected by their actions. Even here we see the core of humans {is} {may be} {can be} valueless. Rennie says,

“That’s one of the things that destroys me,” Rennie said, “The idea that I might have been in love with you all the time occurred to me along with all the rest — along with the idea that I despise you and the idea that I couldn’t really feel anything about you because you don’t exist. You know what I mean. I don’t know which is true.”

In Jungian psychology, according to psychologist Frith Luton, the hero must eventually return to his beginnings and bear witness (3). Jacob does, by the end of the book he heads for the bus station, destination: the relocated Remobilization Farm, {the Doctor claims to move not exactly as an avoidance of the law}. I suppose the rule for Horner is ultimately: It is better to know when you are than what you are.

References

  1. Barth, John. (1984). “The Literature of Exhaustion” The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

2. Filliou, R. (1996). From Political to Poetical Economy, p. 82.

3. Luton, F. (n.d.) The Heroic Journey — a Jungian Perspective. Retrieved from FrithLuton.com.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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