David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Oulipo: Existentialismos, John Barth, Georges Perec

Once upon a time there was an author named John Barth, and he wrote a book called The Floating Opera, in which a very nihilistic young man does the Colin Wilson/Arthur Schopenhauer thing and declares there is no purpose in living, acting, or doing, and to prove it he plots to blow up the titular boat, before coming to his revised conclusion: “There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide).” This constitutes the climax of the book. The two descriptors that best apply to the precocious (at least for a man in his mid-20’s in the 1950’s) book are callous and callow, and if not for the fluency of the imagery and environment, the book would just be a signpost on the way to Michel Houellebecq and Bret Easton Ellis.

The basic ethos is mirrored in his second novel, The End of the Road, in which the formula is much the same. Perhaps a little less solipsistic, as the lookalike narrator is given a girlfriend (who dies during an abortion) and more significantly, an existential mentor named the Doctor:

Why don’t you read Sartre and become an existentialist? It will keep you moving until we find something more suitable for you. Study the World Almanac: it is to be your breviary for a while…Take long walks, but always to a previously determined destination, and when you get there, walk right home again, briskly…Above all, act impulsively: don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side, choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neither of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful.

I’ve tried to trim down the Doctor’s obnoxious oratory; it’s internally consistent but seems a little naive in being presented as so contemporary. I’ve known people who used nearly the same argument to justify adherence to the more quotidian tenets of Orthodox Judaism.

(Quoth Rabbi Paysach Krohn:

The Torah extends more prominence to the right hand than it does to the left hand. However with regard to the act of tying, the prominence shifts to the left hand because tefillin are usually tied on the left arm. Therefore although both right-handers and left-handers put on their right shoe first (because of prominence to the right side), there is a difference with regard to tying their laces. The right-hander should tie his left shoe first (because it is on that side that he wears his tefillin) whereas the left-hander ties his right shoe first.

But I digress….)

I’m not particularly interested in how the nihilism turned into the existentialism, but it’s certainly a more generative strategy for the book and for action, any action, on the part of the narrator. And that brings up the question, could the same technique have worked for Barth? (Since it also could have generated the decision, “Let’s have Terry Southern write the screenplay adaptation of The End of the Road, some adjustments may have been required.)

Barth would, only two years later, write the mega-novel The Sot-Weed Factor, totally different than what went before and driven not by any philosophical ideology as the drive to excavate his world until he popped out the other side. This would lead to metafictional excursions like Lost in the Funhouse and especially Letters, a gigantic mess where characters from all his other novels shoot letters to each other and to Barth. The former actually stands taller as a statement of purpose, since Barth makes it very clear that storytelling and storytellers are everything, and he has stuck with that focus ever since. But if I look back on his work and its permutations of fourth-wall-breakages, mythological revisionism, and old-style deconstructionism, the chosen architecture of his conceits seems a bit arbitrary. I don’t use the word prejudicially–Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice has some obvious and less obvious revisions of the Pinocchio symbolism that are fine regardless of the fact that other interpretations were possible and some more obvious–but for an author as generative as Barth, his lack of ideological reasoning behind individual architectural choices is as much a dogmatic tenet as his focus on narratology. And isn’t this starting to sound a bit like the Doctor?

The analogue that I draw on for evidence is Georges Perec, the quintessential Oulipo author, whose novels followed the same path as Barth’s. His early A Man Asleep is the story of a man who is very, very apathetic and dissociative (and, I daresay, depressed). By Life: A User’s Manual (and others, but this is the key one), he’s on to stories of people who have rituals in their own lives: puzzles, cults, writing, etc. The evolution is the imposition of arbitrary structure. You can look at this as experimental, challenging, and unexpected, and you can also see it, as early Barth does, as existential.

And this gets back to the question of the Oulipo and whether, for example, the urge to create complex characters, offer psychological insight, or illuminate mores is fundamentally different from the urge to write REALLY BIG PALINDROMES. I think it has something to do with exactly what the arbitrary structure ethic is. I believe, without conclusive proof, that many of these authors do adopt a defensive, existential mindset, avoiding justifications of their arbitrary method because (1) there is none, it’s arbitrary after all, and (2) the very act of justifying the ethic would cause a regression to the earlier, nihilistic/dissociative state.

Classically, structural decisions are made with reference to advancing a plot or character; with an existentialist writing ethic, this becomes dishonest. It’s preferable to parade the arbitrariness as prima facie.

Ray Davis says something similar:

Embodying this recognition of survival’s triviality in the very work of survival is the point and foundation of the works’ significance.

But I believe the examples he references, Roubaud and Beckett, are in the minority. In most existentially-created works of this sort more commonly would reject this statement, as the statement itself is meaningless under the precepts of the work’s creation. You only get significance of this sort if you return to the nihilistic stage that most of the books work so hard to avoid.

More commonly, Barth’s approach, as with the more mechanistic approach espoused by the Oulipo, generates its significance because it works: it generates books. Lots of books. Lots of poems. This isn’t to denigrate the existential writing approach. But there are certain types of “significance” that its works often can’t contain, or admit.

1 Comment

  1. But the End Of The Road is just mordantly funny, as well as a satire on a) psycho-therapeutic counsel b) provincial university life c) a Scout-like form of obsessive self-control, as displayed in the shape of the “girlfriend”s husband, who prances around the room manically giving himself commands at the same time as he jacks off, believing himself unobserved. Barth invents a wonderful new word for the state of almost catatonic indecision the protagonist is usually in (and which the would-be doctor – huh – endeavours to rid him of): cosmopsis, when you see all the alternatives and cannot decide. Do we ask Rabelais, Smollett or Fielding to offer us reasoned philosophies of life? Barth is playing with ideas of order, not embodying them; his books are – at their best – full of comic invention. The joke wears thin in Letters, I agree, but some of Lost In the Funhouse is just brilliant. But philosophy? His fiction has as much to do with it as Peregrine Pickle did.

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