John Barth: The Elegance of Exhausted Possibilities

While finishing my cigar I made a few more idle notes for my Inquiry, which was, you understand, open again. They are of small interest here — which is to say, they are of some interest. It occurred to me, for example, that faced with an infinitude of possible directions and having no ultimate reason to choose one over another, I would in all probability, though not at all necessarily, go on behaving much as I had…
……….– John Barth, The Floating Opera

Prose that ambles, wandering with thought along the river of the mind, careless, yet sure of its strength, its fervor, its desire, yet also knowing life is a floating opera drifting into time and muddy rivers like a gangly crew of misfits seeking both escape and a little vagrant fun for a few hours… much like myself after a long stint in the cold icy world of speculative philosophers.

John Barth, one of my favorite authors to read for the sheer zaniness of his irrealist quest to push past James Joyce and enter that fabled river of Livy through the American river of the Potomac that wanders lazily into the Chesapeake Bay. I’d read his first two novels The Floating Opera and The End of the Road at the behest of a high-school teacher Chuck Mitchell, a bald little fat man with big glasses and a voice that boomed across our class like a fog horn, usually waking the sleeping football players in the back row – of which, yours truly was one. Both of these works left their trace on my young mind, like a firecracker thrown into a dark alley. Both were a little dark and full of the existential despair, but they were alive, too. Something quirky about his ambling through history, culture, and the twisted minds of our psychotic age captured me. I wanted more…

I picked up both of them off my shelf tonight, taking a break from my usual mad forays into various philosophical, scientific, and miscellany and once again was replenished. Laughing and glad I’d shut the door on my taxed mind, put the cold labors of philosophy away in a box, hid it in my closet next to my basketball, footballs, and golf-clubs (all long unused and rusty, deflated, and holding only the memories of former glories), shut – no, slammed the sliding door and fell back into my old worn and chapped learther chair, flipped the TV off and wandered down the river chasing stage scenes of a bygone era, a crew of wandering minstrels, and Barth’s ministrations among the legal and torn ruins of a world gone mad…

The Floating Opera is the first novel he’d become a part of those magicians of the era, the fabulists like Navokov, Borges, Calvino, Lem and others who seemed to love writing novels about writing within novels about characters who were writing novels about novels in a novel about a character floating down a river chasing the Ocean of Story to the roots of narrative, speech, and the abyss of human novelty.

To carry the “meandering stream” conceit a bit further, if I may: it has always seemed to me, in the novels that I’ve read now and then, that those authors are asking a great deal of their readers who start their stories furiously, in the middle of things, rather than backing or sidling slowly into them. Such a plunge into someone else’s life and world, like a plunge into the Choptank River in mid-March, has, it seems to me, little of pleasure in it. No, come along with me, reader, and don’t fear for your weak heart; I’ve one myself, and know the value of inserting first a toe, then a foot, next a leg, very slowly your hips and stomach, and finally your whole self into my story, and taking a good long time to do it. This is, after all, a pleasure-dip I’m inviting you to, not a baptism. (TFO, p. 4)1

So page by page I plunged through every novel, story, and essay Barth wrote as he explored the -as he’d tell it, the “quackery of my undertakings,” roaming through the declivities of his passions and virtuosity. Ultimately he set himself the task to “turn the felt “ultimacies of our time” into material and means for his work – paradoxically, because by doing so he “transcends what had appeared to be his refutation, in the same way tha the mystic who transcends finitude is said to be enabled to live, spiritually and physically, in the finite world” (Friday Book, p. 71).2 This sense of a baroque style, of a literature of exhausted possibilities, of constructing texts out of other texts as if one were not writing an original work – there being no such things left as “originality,” everything already having been done, and done better long ago. Now there was only the great art of annotation, commentary, being a writer that was faithful to an amanuenses of the spirit: a librarian of ideas, artifice, memories lost and found, the master of a universe of texts whose dust was about to be lost under the burden of electronic forgetfulness. To enter the borderlands of parody and caricature, tease out the endless divagations, twists, and turns; the nuances, the strange contours of hidden scripts and side-bar brokering between scribes, kings, and the women of a harem or sea captain’s caught in the loneliness of the wide ocean surfing through old stories, maps, treasuries of broken kingdoms of another age.

Barth would go on to write greater and even quirkier fare. Like Giles Goat-Boy – a little dated now, but not if you just like the weird rumblings from a fabulist age in a America, a parallel world where a Goat boy would enter university, guided through the lemmings of a moral education as if Kant’s imperative were part of the curriculum in Hell. Like Theseus in the dark labyrinth listening to the moans and groans of that great beast at its center, feeding in and out the thin scarlet thread between himself and Ariadne the writer wanders into and out of the Ocean of story, book upon book, shelf by shelf, dusting off here and there a work that has not been read or seen the light of day for a thousand years or nights, listening to the ancient voice of humans dead and gone, buried among the ruins of buried cities. Scheherazade or her sister, Dunyazade telling a 1001 Nights tales till the world ends… Sinbad the last sailor, now an old man in a hospital bed in Barth’s home town telling the author (yes, a character in his own novel) about all those wondrous voyages and sexcapades… Letters a novel written by letter writers from his previous novels gossiping about each other, echoing the world around them as if language truly could replace the reality…

Barth’s may be one of the last heroes of literature, a writer’s writer whose writing on writing, books within books about books, and texts inventing themselves whole cloth out of thin air: a wizard wandering in and out of his own inner labyrinth of desire where the simple, yet elegant possibility of something new and marvelous, suddenly juts its head out of the ink stained world of his books, making a difference that is a difference.

That the age of anti-realism seems to be dimming is beside the point, when one looks back and sees so much talent flying in the face of our bland and terrible universe of enslavement and death termed for no better reason – the 21st Century. When I look back at the irreal worlds of Barth, copies of copies, they seemed more real than the neoliberal death chants of global capitalism as it gobbles up the world in its farcical jaws.


  1. Barth, John. The Floating Opera. (Bantam, 1972).
  2. Barth, John. The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction (John Hopkins, 1984)

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