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)

Slavoj Zizek: Apostle of the Void

Arnold Schoenberg’s … work was unbearably shattering, a key part of the modernist breakthrough— the only true artistic Event of the twentieth century (whatever it is, postmodernism is not an Event).

–  Zizek, Slavoj Absolute Recoil

I decided to reread John Barth’s classic postmodern essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”, where what is touted is not the decay of literature but its emergence as literary virtuosity. In this essay Barth will defend the work of Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov as virtuosi, as confronting intellectual and artistic dead ends and employing them against themselves to create new human work.1 Barth will mention one of Borges fables in which Shakespeare is on his death-bed, and having already exhausted the possibilities of dramatic form in all its various guises, as well as having himself become in his life everyone and no one, he asks God to allow him to be one and himself. God in his almost ironic distaste answers Shakespeare from the whirlwind saying: “I, too, have been no one either.” Borges in his own subtle irony will deploy the fable of Proteus who has in all its infinite play “exhausted the guises of reality” and found that it, too, is nothing and no one. What we are left with is the dance of the Void: the production of reality is this very voidic play in all its infinite guises, a mask for what Zizek will term the gap: the void of subjectivity “that eludes … form and is as such constituted by it, as its remainder”.1

This notion of negation and virtuosity comes to mind in my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s Interlude I in his new work, Absolute Recoil. Zizek in this small essay will take on the virtuosity of Arnold Schoenberg. I must admit reading this essay brought me back to my early love of music, art, literature, etc. Zizek is one of those creatures who cannibalizes everything, who seems on the surface to be a piranha of the arts and philosophy, gobbling everything in site; yet, to a purpose. Everything he does is calculated to teach. Reading Zizek is like sitting in a classroom where the professor having spent his whole life in a Borgesian library has engulfed its riches and has now the terrible duty to guide his wayward and almost imbecilic pupils through the first stages of this vast labyrinth of knowledge. Yet, this would be false, too. For there is a method in his madness. Everything Zizek does is to counter such strange relations of the Master/Epigoni mythos, and instead he speaks only to those few who have already earned the right to listen in on his monologues; for, in truth, Zizek’s books are dramatic monologues taking place between actors in his own mind that he allows others to listen in on. Robert Browning would have understood this.

I’m not being deprecatory here, just seeing what is going on in this “dialectical materialism” as praxis. He isn’t explaining dialectical materialism, instead he is enacting it in performative virtuosity of an exemplary movement between the various cultural and social actors, artifacts and artifices he takes up and deploys as examples.

In Schoenberg we witness the figure of an Event around which Zizek’s monologue on the void of the subject will endlessly dance. In his previous chapter he exposed most of Hegelian commentators standard readings and misunderstandings of the dialectic:

The beginning of Hegel’s logic as well as the beginning of his “logic of essence” which deals with the notion of reflection are just two, though crucial, examples that demonstrate how misleading, even outright wrong, is the standard notion of the dialectical process which begins with a positive entity, then negates it, and finally negates this negation itself, returning at a higher level to the positive starting point. Here we see a quite different logic: we begin with nothing, and it is only through the self-negation of nothing that something appears. (154)2

Here he describes the standard commentary on Hegelian dialectics that starts with a positivity, whereas for Zizek one must start instead with “nothing” and then work through “the self-negation of nothing” till something appears. “The only full case of absolute recoil, of a thing emerging through its very loss, is thus that of the subject itself, as the outcome of its own impossibility” (150). He’ll elaborate:

Absoluter Gegenstoss thus stands for the radical coincidence of opposites in which the action appears as its own counter-action, or, more precisely, in which the negative move (loss, withdrawal) itself generates what it “negates.”“What is found only comes to be through being left behind,” and its inversion (it is “only in the return itself” that what we return to emerges, like nations who constitute themselves by way of “returning to their lost roots”) are the two sides of what Hegel calls “absolute reflection”: a reflection which is no longer external to its object, presupposing it as given, but which, as it were, closes the loop and posits its own presupposition. To put it in Derridean terms, the condition of possibility is here radically and simultaneously the condition of impossibility: the very obstacle to the full assertion of our identity opens up the space for it.(148)

To embellish this argument he will take up the work of Arnold Schoenberg’s work Erwatung (Op. 17, composed 1909): 

Erwartung is a double Event, maximal and minimal. First, it was a turning point in the history of music: nothing remained the same after Erwartung, the coordinates of the entire musical landscape were transformed.(158)

In Chapter Two he took up the concept of Event in detail. He will contrast two variant readings of this concept of the Event, one in the work of Frank Ruda, the other in his friend Alain Badiou. Ruda will offer the notion that it all begins with the contingent and unpredictable event itself— an encounter between two people that both of them experience as a shattering provocation: their lives are thrown off the rails . The two have to react, and here comes the free decision: will they say yes to the event, assume it as their destiny, or will they ignore it? If the latter , life will go on as usual, but if they say yes to it, they constitute themselves as a subject, (re) organizing their entire life around the event— in short, out of fidelity to the event, they engage in the long and arduous work of love. (74) While for Badiou on the contrary, the subject is not the agent of a free choice, but the result of a positive free choice— a subject emerges after the choice of fidelity to an event, it is the agent which engages itself in the work of enforcing the consequences of an event. Furthermore, common sense tells us that free choice and forced choice are opposed and mutually exclusive, but for Badiou, a truly free choice is a forced one. (74)

The notion here is the idea of the subject either precedes the event (Ruda), or emerges in retroactive “fidelity to the event” that has already occurred: the notion of enforcing this fidelity to the event by working through its consequences in a moral way (“free choice is a forced one”). This will go back to one of Zizek’s leitmotif’s (“lack”):

This paradoxical reversal (of the common-sense logic which tells us that a positive entity has to precede its lack) defines the space of subjectivity from the Hegelian and Lacanian perspective: a “subject” is something that “is” its own lack, something that emerges out of its own impossibility, something that only persists as “barred.” (80)

 Zizek will of course give example after example in various contexts to guide the intractable pupil through his maze of simplicity; for in the end, it always harkens back to Den, Nothing, and the nothingness that gives us something, etc. The Gap as the nothingness around which we dance and play our ideas in endless combat, etc. It is this theme which will define World War I, which according to Zizek was a reactionary defense of the old world against modernism as defined in all those avant garde artists in literature— from Kafka to Joyce; in music— Schoenberg and Stravinsky; in painting— Picasso, Malevich, Kandinsky; psychoanalysis; relativity theory and quantum physics; the rise of Social Democracy …). This rupture— condensed in 1913, the annus mirabilis of the artistic vanguard— was so radical in its opening up of new spaces that, in our speculative historiography, it is tempting to claim that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 was, from the “spiritual” standpoint, a reaction to this Event. Or, to paraphrase Hegel, the horror of World War I was the price humanity had to pay for the immortal artistic revolution of the years just prior to the war. In other words, we must invert the pseudo-profound insight according to which Schoenberg et al. prefigured the horrors of twentieth-century war: what if the true Event was 1913? It is crucial to focus on this intermediate explosive moment, between the complacency of the late nineteenth century and the catastrophe of World War I— 1914 was not an awakening, but the forceful and violent return of a patriotic slumber destined to block the true awakening. The fact that the fascists and other patriots hated the vanguard entartete Kunst is not a marginal detail but a key feature of fascism. (157-159)

Against the rich Romantic traditions of tonal music Schoenberg would work through the beginnings of atonal and onward to what he would term a “pantonal” music, one that would enact for Zizek the example of Lacan’s misreading of Freud’s “Unconscious” as in alignment with such music as “an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with:

The unconscious is neither the primordial nor the instinctual, and what it knows of the elemental is no more than the elements of the signifier … The intolerable scandal when Freudian sexuality was not yet holy was that it was so “intellectual.” It was in this respect that it showed itself to be the worthy stooge of all those terrorists whose plots were going to ruin society. (Lacan Jacques Lacan, Écrits, New York: Norton 2006, pp. 434– 5.) (Zizek, 176)

 One could do no better to sum up this interlude than Zizek rendering his notion of a truly materialist formalism:

In a truly materialist formalism, one should thus invert the relationship between form and content, following Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of Hemingway in which he pointed out that Hemingway did not write short terse sentences in order to render the isolated heroic individuality of his heroes— form comes first, he invented the isolated heroic individuality to be able to write in a certain way. And the same goes for Schoenberg : he did not take the fateful step into atonality in order to express in music the extremes of morbid hysterical violence; he chose the topic of hysteria because it fitted atonal music.(169)

Instead of the expression of some substantial essence or inner kernel of things, one retroactively defines one’s forms against the fidelity to an event, discovering in those events the forms that will work through its masks. He will liken this to Freud’s dream work:

The paradox is that the dream-work is not merely a process of masking the dream’s “true message”: the dream’s true core, its unconscious wish, inscribes itself only through and in this very process of masking, so that the moment we retranslate the dream-content back into the dream-thought expressed in it we lose the “true motif force” of the dream— in short, it is the process of masking itself which inscribes into the dream its true secret. One should therefore invert the standard notion of an ever-deeper penetration to the core of the dream: it is not that we first move from the manifest dream-content to the first-level secret, the latent dream-thought, and then penetrate deeper, into the dream’s unconscious wish. This “deeper” wish is located in the very gap between the latent dream-thought and the manifest dream-content.(176)

So that in Erwartung it is the very gap between content and form is to be reflected back into the content itself, as an indication that the content is not all, that something was repressed/ excluded from it— this exclusion which establishes the form is itself the “primordial repression” (Ur-Verdrängung), and no matter how much we bring out all the repressed content, this primordial repression persists. In other words, what is repressed in a cheap melodrama (and then returns in the music) is simply the sentimental excess of its content, while what is repressed in Erwartung, its Unconscious , is not some determinate content but the void of subjectivity itself that eludes the musical form and is as such constituted by it, as its remainder. (176)

1. John Barth. The Friday Book (John Hopkins University, 1984)
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism. Verso Books. Kindle Edition.