Sunday, December 4, 2011

"In His Efforts to Get to the Bottom of Things the Laureate Comes Within Sight of Malden, but So Far from Arriving There, Nearly Falls Into the Stars"

For your reading enjoyment this evening, I have transcribed a passage about humanity's psychological relationship with the universe (a topic we've touched upon from time to time) from John Barth's opus, The Sot-Weed Factor, published in 1960.

The date of publication bears especial mentioning because it sure as hell doesn't read like something written in the second half of the 20th Century: Barth purposefully (and brilliantly) imitates the style and structure of an epic novel from the 18th Century. In this is it is very much like a literary Venture Brothers, blurring the line between parodical pastiche and earnest homage to the extent that it's neither more of one than the other.

The bulk of the story covers the final years of the 17th Century in the life of the British poet Ebenezer Cooke. This qualifies The Sot-Weed Factor for the designation of historical novel (again, in a a parodic sense), since Ebenezer Cooke was a real person, whose claim to fame was a 700-line satirical poem whose title Barth borrows as the name of his own masterwork. Biographical details about the "real" Cooke are scarce; except for the material concerning the "The Sot-Weed Factor's" publication in the early 18th century, everything in Barth's fictitious account is from his own imagination.

Barth's Eben Cooke is cast in the mold of Voltaire's Candide -- he is well-bred and exceptionally educated, but an utter stranger to the workings of the world beyond the academy and his father's Middlesex estate. In a keen stroke of metatextual parody, Eben comes to hold his own innocence (which the reader immediately perceives as his most salient characteristic) as his highest personal virtue. Nobody should be surprised that Eben's introduction to the great wide yonder is just as excruciatingly (and hilariously) jarring as Candide's.

Eben's journey begins when he receives a commission from Lord Baltimore himself to sail to across the Atlantic and pen a poetical epic that sings and immortalizes the great virtues and heroes of Baltimore Colony. Scarcely does he arrive on the shores of present-day Maryland when his fantastic visions of a pastoral New World Ilium are rudely shattered: contrary to his expectations, Baltimore Colony is a swampy shithole populated by criminals, drunkards, slavers, prostitutes, opium-smugglers, hucksters, and worse. (You can read all about it in the original "Sot-Weed Factor" by the original Eben Cooke.)

But the real star of the novel, as far as I'm concerned, is Eben's teacher, guide, and friend, Henry Burlingame -- 25% Dante's Virgil, 25% Candide's Pangloss, and 50% Faustus's Mephistopheles. Comic book fans will surely spot something of Marvel Comics' Mystique in him as well -- Henry is a bona fide shapeshifter, appearing in various guises and a Rolodex of assumed names, acting as a double and triple agent in the machinations of the New World's conflicting power brokers -- a game into which he draws the hapless Eben Cooke.

That's the basic context of the passage you're about to read. Eben has just staggered into Baltimore Colony (after an altercation with some pirates off the coast) and has just convened at an inn with with Henry Burlingame, having just encountered him in one of his various guises. Burlingame has filled him in on the latest developments in the political intrigues concerning the colony's future, and the already disoriented Eben becomes distraught:

Ebenezer shook his head in a matter not clearly affirmative or negative. "That is a part of it, Henry; you go at such a pace, I have no time to think things through as they deserve! I cannot collect my wits e'en to think of all the questions I would ask, much less explore your answers. How can I know what I must do and where I stand?"

Burlingame laid his arm across the poet's shoulders and smiled. "What is't you describe, my friend, if not man's lot? He is by mindless lust engendered and by mindless wrench expelled, from the Eden of the womb to the motley, mindless world. He is Chance's fool, the toy of aimless Nature a mayfly flitting down the winds of Chaos!"

"You mistake my meaning," Ebenezer said, lowering his eyes.

Burlingame was undaunted: his eyes glittered. "Not by much, methinks. Once long ago we sat like this, at an inn near Magdalene College do you remember? And I said, 'Here we sit upon a blind rock hurtling through a vacuum,1 racing to the grave.' 'Tis our fate to search, Eben, and do we seek our soul, what we find is a piece of that same black Cosmos whence we sprang and through which we fall: the infinite wind of space. . ."

In fact a night wind hand sprung up and was buffeting the inn. Ebenezer shivered and clutched the edge of the table. "But there is so much unanswered and unresolved! It dizzies me!"

"Marry!" laughed Henry. "If you saw it clear enough 'twould not dizzy you: 'twould drive you mad! This inn here seems a little isle in a sea of madness, doth it not? Blind Nature howls without, but here 'tis calm how dare we leave? Yet lookee round you at these men that dine and play at cards, as if the sky were their mother's womb! They remind me of the chickens I once saw fed to a giant snake in Africa: when the snake struck one, the others squawked and fluttered, but a moment after they were scratching about for corn, or standing on his very back to preen their feathers! How is't these men don't run a-gibbering down the streets, if not that their minds are lulled to sleep?" He pressed the poet's arm. "You know as well as I that human work can be magnificent; but in the face of what's out yonder" he gestured skywards "'tis the industry of Bedlam! Which sees the state of things more clearly: the cock that preens on the python's back, or the lunatic that trembles in his cell?"2

Ebenezer sighed. "Yet I fail to see the relevance of this; 'tis not germane at all to what I had "

"Not germane?" Burlingame exclaimed. "'Tis the very root and stem of't! Two things alone can save a man from madness." He indicated the others patrons of the inn. "Dull-headedness is one, and far the commoner: the truth that drives men mad must be sought for ere it's found, and it eludes the doltish or myopic hunter. But once 'tis caught and looked on, whether by insight or instruction, the captor's sole expedient is to force his will upon't ere it work his ruin! Why is't you set such store by innocence and rhyming, and I by searching out my father and battling Coode?3 One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to't, or go babbling in the corner; one must choose his gods and devils on the run, quill his own name upon the universe, and declare, 'Tis I, and the world stands such-a-way!' One must assert, assert, assert, or go screaming mad. What other course remains?"

"One other," said Ebenezer with a blush. "'Tis the one I flee. . ."

"What? Ah, 'sheart indeed! The state I found you in at college!4 How many have I seen like that at Bedlam wide-eyed, feculent, and blind to the world! Some boil their life into a single gesture and repeat it o'er and o'er; others are so far transfixed, their limbs remain where'er you place 'em; still others take on false identities: Alexander, or the Pope in Rome, or e'en the Poet Laureate of Maryland "

Ebenezer looked up, uncertain whether it was he or the impostors whom Burlingame referred to.

"The upshot of't is," his friend concluded, "if you'd escape that fate you must embrace me or reject me, and the course we are committed to, despite the shifting lights that we appear in, just as you must embrace your Self as Poet and Virgin, regardless, or discard it for something better."5 He stood up. "In either case don't seek whole understanding the search were fruitless, and there is no time for't. Will you come with me now, or stay?"

Ebenezer frowned and squinted. "I'll come," he said finally, and went out with Burlingame to the horses. The night was wild, but not unpleasant: a warm, damp wind roared out of the southwest, churned the river to a froth, bent the pines like whips, and drove a scud across the stars. Both men looked up at the splendid night.

"Forget the word sky," Burlingame said off-handedly, swinging up on his gelding, "'tis a blinder to your eyes. There is no dome of heaven yonder."

Ebenezer blinked twice or thrice: with the aid of these instructions, for the first time in his life he saw the night sky. The stars were no longer points on a black hemisphere that hung like a sheltering roof above his head; the relationship between them he saw now in three dimensions, of which the one most deeply felt was depth. The length and breadth of space between the stars seemed trifling by comparison: what struck him now was that some were nearer, some farther out, and others unimaginably remote. Viewed in this manner, the constellations lost their sense entirely; their spurious character revealed itself, as did the false presupposition of the celestial navigator, and Ebenezer felt bereft of orientation. He could no longer think of up and down: the stars were simply out there, as well below him as above, and the wind appeared to howl not from the Bay6 but from the firmament itself, the endless corridors of space.

"Madness!" Henry whispered.

Ebenezer's stomach churned; he swayed in the saddle and covered his eyes. For a swooning moment before he turned away it seemed that he was heels over head on the bottom of the planet, looking down on the stars instead of up, and that only by dint of clutching his legs about the roan mare's girth and holding fast to the saddlebow with both his hands did he keep from dropping headlong into those vasty7 reaches!

[1] Burlingame must be a greater prodigy than even he knows: it wasn't until the 20th Century that the existence of the interstellar vacuum achieved general acceptance. Even Newton himself accepted aether theory to account for light's propagation through empty space.

[2] This passage reminds me of one of my favorite books, Celia Green's The Human Evasion.

[3] A treasonous machinator who Burlingame seeks to undermine. Barth probably is poking fun at the abstruse webs of intrigue found in 17th and 18th Century novels, but in any case The Sot-Weed Factor's player chart is probably impossible to follow without the aid of a detailed diagram. I finished the book and still have no idea whether its Coode is an out-of-reach schemer, a boogeyman invented by Burlingame, or Henry himself. This in itself may warrant a reread.

[4] Remember that year or two after graduating from college where you moved back in with your parents, worked a part-time job, and sat around playing video games, smoking weed, sleeping until noon, and wondering what the hell to DO with your useless life? Eben was in similar straits during the time to which he refers. He has no desire to go back to it.

[5] One chapter ago, during Eben and Henry's reunion:

"You were so much altered when I saw you last, and now you've altered back to what you were!"

"'Tis easy but to say oft what I've said to you ere now, Eben: your true and constant Burlingame lives only in your fancy, as doth the pointed order of the world. In fact you see a Heraclitean flux: whether 'tis we who shift and alter and dissolve; or you whose lens changes color, field, and focus; or both together. The upshot is the same, and you may take it or reject it."

[6] The Chesapeake, of course.

[7] "Vasty?" Really, Mr. Barth?

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