Friday, May 31, 2013

On Literature's Accidents

1. Eben Cooke and two Jack Sparrows — “A clever man is never lost for long”; 2. Barth's shit jokes — Philosophy and literature; 3. Essence and accident — Nihilism and innocence; 4. Don Quixote and the chivalric romance — Birth of the novel — Irony and the Cervantean tradition; 5. What is the point of literature? — Doing without certainty

1.     Ebenezer Cooke was in trouble.

Newly named Poet Laureate of Maryland by the deposed and powerless Lord Baltimore, Ebenezer doesn’t let such a quibble as whether Lord Baltimore can make him Poet Laureate, rather than simply name him so, stop him from launching out for the New World. But Fie! ’fore he can go ten paces, he’s mired in political intrigue far above his pure heart and, sadly, head. Left to his own poetic devices at a bar by his worldly compatriot, teacher, and protector, Henry Burlingame—who’s gone off to squib a wench—Ebenezer is confronted by two Pirate Captains, Slye and Scurry, who in burlesque fashion are about to come to blows over who is the guest of whom, and so who shall chivalrously pay the tab (think: two Jack Sparrows, avant la lettre). Ebenezer, rational gentleman he is, can’t believe the argument, and in attempting to intercede, the two Pirate Captains train their guns at him and begin arguing who is the guest of whom, and so who shall chivalrously pump poor Eben with lead. Ebenezer responds by shitting himself and swooning like a gothic heroine.

Burlingame thankfully saves Ebenezer any more embarrassment by taking him out to the stables, relieving him of his clothes (to be washed), and leaving him with this bit of wisdom to deal with his befouled fanny: “A clever man is never lost for long.” [1]

2.     John Barth has created this scene to…well, it’s difficult to say, as shall become clear in a moment, that Barth does anything for any particular purpose. Or rather, we shouldn’t limit his scenes to such formulas as I began with. For example, I was going to say, “to make a point about literature and the sources of wisdom,” but it’s quite clear that Barth also wrote the scene in order to make a bunch of shit jokes. Barth is just too funny to not also have had that as a primary purpose. But now we’re in the game of looking for primary purposes, and his scene clearly shoves that to the side.

Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is an elaborate parody of the 18th-century novel (though, again, saying that kind of misses the point), and as such it is about the late 17th-century. So when Ebenezer looks to his education, he distinguishes between the set Sir Philip Sidney did in his Defense of Poesy: history, philosophy, and poetry. Or nearly so, for Barth has helpfully updated the parlance to be literature—where shall wisdom be found? Ebenezer turns to history, but finds that “the eyes of Clio are like the eyes of snakes, that can see naught but motion” (172) and so naught of the timeless problems of humanity (e.g., shitting oneself for fear). And the philosophers must have “all shat syllogisms, that have nor stench nor stain,” all completely pure of “personal problems [except] insofar as they illustrated general ones” (173). So finally, with hopeful countenance, Eben turns to literature, whose “province [is] the entire range of man’s experience and behavior” (173). But, after recalling Gargantua’s wiping of his ass with a goose—and not seeing any geese around—Ebenezer concludes with heavy heart that literature “did not, except accidentally, afford solutions to practical problems” (173).

However, after tumbling down the well of despair, Eben says to himself offhandedly (if portentously), “What hope hath he for other aid, whom wit and the world have both betrayed?” (174) With surprise, he recognizes it as a couplet—and a good one—and so casts about for his notebook to scribble it down. And then—bright as dawn, the answer to his problem: “two fresh and virgin sheets—and then two more—for the work, which, completed with no small labor, owing to the drying effect of the breeze, he turned into an allegory thus: the unused sheets were songs unborn, which yet had power, as it were in utero, to cleanse and ennoble him who would in time deliver them” (174-75).

And so, literature did aid, if accidentally, with Ebenezer’s accident.

3.     Is there a point here, aside from the multilayered fun being had in creating the situation? I take it we can move to one by applying the Aristotelian distinction between essence and accident to Ebenezer’s conception of philosophy and literature. The Aristotelian conceives of objects as being what they are by distinguishing between essential relations and accidental. Water is accidentally blue, for example, but essentially made of two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. But in dealing with “generalities, categories, and abstractions alone,” the fact that I used water in the example is accidental to the illustration of the general principle that objects have essences. And as the case then illustrates, philosophy’s essence is that it is always about itself, pushing you always to realize the same thing: the distinction between essence and accident.

Having such a distinction in hand would make us ask what the essence of literature is—and since philosophy is about the essence of objects, that would make literature about the accidents of life, the inessential (yet the treatment of which seems, at the time, of the essence—ask Eben). Yet, just as philosophy is essentially centripetal and literature centrifugal, on this conception, it is just that which makes both essentially useless as guides to life if you are looking for the essential solution of a completely rendered problem. Life will ever be a series of unique situations, the record of which will never keep up in order to show you precisely what to do. Thus, if literature does help you, it is completely by accident.

And yet, it is also literature that is going to be the only thing to turn to—a shot in the dark is still better than standing under the lamppost seeing, in perfect clarity, that nothing at hand within the lit area is going to help you. This cynical attitude toward philosophy-as-after-essence might be called “nihilism.” Nietzsche called it that, and so did Barth. Barth called The Sot-Weed Factor the third of his “nihilist trilogy” with his first two novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. In its essence, nihilism is the denial that Platonism’s search for purity by its aggressive use of invidious distinctions—such as between essence and accident—is a good thing. The Sot-Weed Factor carries this out as a plot by casting Ebenezer as defining himself in essence as a poet and as a virgin—and a poet because a virgin (i.e. he drew his poetic power from his virginity)…and a virgin because a poet. (Letting “poet” here stand as a pun for “nerd,” which seems to me closer the case nowadays, is funnier to me than explaining why this is the case in the novel, though ironically one of the things Ebenezer learns on his journey is that “poet” in his day and age is synonymous with “manwhore.”) And by the end of the very, very (very) long journey, Ebenezer is chagrined to find that “the mere technical fact of his virginity” (628) has made quite a mockery of the Platonic-Christian veneration of Innocence.

4.     But, of course, this couldn’t possibly be the point of the story—it doesn’t take 750+ pages to unravel the fact that the Christian sense of “innocence” ran on several different conflicting levels that seem somewhat absurd in our late age. We, by and large, already know such things. Even the philosophical point of nihilism wasn’t terribly new, and we are much more easily prepared for it than 200 years ago (though, written in the ‘50s, one could plausibly argue that we really hadn’t yet assimilated Nietzscheanism yet—or maybe even now). So what’s the point? Well, as one lover of stories puts it in the book, “’Tis a great mistake for a tale-teller to philosophize and tell us what his story means” (591). In fact, apropos unraveling any particular point, that same lover says delightfully that it is because life is knotted and bewildering “that a good tale tangles the better to unsnarl” (589).

It is particularly the nihilistic strike against pulling a moral from your story that situates Barth in a literary tradition that stretches back at least to Cervantes. Don Quixote is centrally an inversion of the chivalric romance, a parody that ironizes the entire idea of the quest-romance—thus giving birth to the novel (so goes one of the stories critics like to tell themselves about the origins of things). One of the most important ironies is that in a quest, the knight-errant is supposed to encounter obstacles to be overcome, so that at the end of the journey the poet writing his epic can record the drama and heroism of his quest by showing what had to be overcome—how would we know heroism if there were nothing difficult to surmount? (This conceit—that the knight-errant plays to History—is nicely punched up by the minstrel following around Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Well, one of the main obstacles Don Quixote seems to have to overcome is other people interrupting his quest with stories of their own.

This digressive quality is embedded in two canonical 18th-century novels, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. George Eliot’s narrator digressively remarks in Middlemarch that Fielding’s “copious remarks and digressions,” particularly in the first chapters of the many books to his “history” of Tom Jones, are not for us “belated historians,” for “Fielding lived when the days were longer.” [2] This is funny, and funnier now considering how long Middlemarch is and how short we now like our books. Barth has said that when he set out to write The Sot-Weed Factor his two goals were to write a plot as complicated as Tom Jones and a book fat enough for the title to be across the spine, and not down it. The sense of belatedness in modern novelists, though, has only become exacerbated since Eliot, and that was Barth’s response. Effectively, it was to double-down, and in the style of Cervantes, turn all on its head. The call of Romanticism was to make it new, but how many forms do we have to experiment with? That’s, centrally, the burden of the past Walter Jackson Bate traced. At a time when everyone was talking about “the death of the novel,” Barth pointed out that the novelists might respond by making it a virtue, and thus write “novels which imitate the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of the Author.” [3]

This imitation takes the form of ironizing past tropes, thus repeating but for “not it” purposes. As Alexander Nehamas has importantly argued, “irony” shouldn’t be reduced to meaning “the opposite of what is stated.” [4] Uses of irony have to begin—and occasionally end—with “well, not what he seemed to say.” And this opens up a lot of possibilities. One of those is, indeed, nihilism—the apotheosis of irony centrally turns over paradigmatic theses of the Platonic tradition. But Cervantes started this practice at the beginning—indeed, this is why Milan Kundera says that the Cervantean tradition runs precisely at odds against the European philosophical tradition. [5] And the novel, of course, has had a mighty fine time thinking of things to write about since.

Why did that fine time start to fall apart, then? Barth thought it was because storytellers had forgotten what their central occupation was: telling stories. Barth’s favorite figure for the novelist was Scheherazade, who had to tell stories to save her life. Fielding’s digressions were self-consciously maddening, but he did it for fun. Sterne, however, turned narrative digression into a principle of narration—he couldn’t tell a particular bit until he had set the stage juuuuuuuust right. (Tristram sets out to tell the story of his life by beginning with his birth, but can’t get around to being born for a couple hundred pages.) Barth harmonizes the Cervantean and Sternean into the plot of his Fieldingian Sot-Weed Factor. As irreverent as Fielding, the multiplicity of stories told end up knotting together in just the right way to afford both suspense and explanation—like Sterne, they had to be told in just the right order, and like Cervantes, the point of the stories was at the same time the stories themselves, only seeming digressions from the adventure at hand (though at the same time, turning the stories into the necessary obstacles to be overcome in the quest-romance—by poet-errant and reader alike).

5.     What is the point of literature? After all, Barth can’t be writing about innocence and nihilism just for kicks, can he? Well—he can. But Barth also vies with Plato. If philosophy is centripetal and literature centrifugal, then Barth does have it as a central point that philosophy without literature is empty and literature without philosophy is blind. But to say this is just to say that the essence/accident distinction is best left to the side. It’s only binding ourselves to that distinction that produces the hard and fast rule that the only help in life is accidental. Literature does help you live life, and so does philosophy, but neither can do it if one has in mind to learn general principles that can be applied with perfect certainty of rightness, with a perfect, perspicuous correspondence between situation and appropriate action. And if learning to do without certainty is one of literature’s accidents, then it’s the only shit that matters.


[1] John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor, 1987 Anchor Books edition, 172

[2] In Chapter 15, or Book 2, Ch. 3

[3] “The Literature of Exhaustion” in The Friday Book, 72.

[4] See Part 1 of Nehamas’s The Art of Living, but especially Ch. 2.

[5] See Part 1 of Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.

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