Nihilism Negated Narratively: The Agency of Art in the Sot-Weed Factor
Conti, Christopher, Papers on Language & Literature
And this was the first time he was positively certain of being a true and no imaginary knight errant, since he found himself treated just as he had read these knights were treated in past ages.
--Cervantes, Don Quixote (667; pt. 2 ch. 31)
Book reading is ambiguous in John Barth's comic epic The Sot-Weed Factor. On the one hand, it fertilizes the imagination at the expense of the will, filling the head with dizzying possibilities that can only be entertained in their full scope by blocking the realization of any one of them. On the other hand, it reveals the truth about the self, which is born in decision and modelled on a hero-role or fiction. If it inspires the subjective contemplation of infinite possibilities that block actuality, it also discloses the temporal character of possibility and motivates action, reminding us that "' [w] e are dying men'" for whom "'there's time for naught but bold resolves!'" (35).
The theme of paralysis induced by reason is so frequent in Barth's work as to suggest its foundation. The cause of the pathology ultimately lies in the disenchantment of the world, which places ever greater onus on the individual to shoulder the burden of ethical decision-making traditionally borne by collective norms, customs, and beliefs. The individual forced to unite in his biography what no longer binds the differentiated spheres of modernity experiences liberation from traditional authority as, simultaneously, a crisis of meaning. The fact-value distinction that inaugurates scientific modernity spells the end of the common conviction in the order of things, toppling morality from its august cosmological station to a private affair of conscience. Fittingly, the novel opens in 1690s London, when the new science that founds modernity on the study of nature by drawing a curtain over the metaphysical study of God and man was in the ascendant. The quest for (metaphysical) meaning rendered quixotic by the scientific enlightenment is redeemed in Sot-Weed on the model of narrative literature, or so I will argue. If reason brings us to an impasse or leaves us stranded in "the Pit," mimesis supplies the ruse by which we can, Munchausen-like, lift ourselves out of it, creating a refuge for the intellect "from furies more terrific that e 'er beset Orestes in the play" (660-61).
But mimesis presents problems of its own that must be negotiated. Sot-Weed pays regular tribute to Don Quixote, as befits a novel about literature and the quest for self. As a youth, Ebenezer Cooke, the comic hero of Sot-Weed, is given the run of a library stocked with tales of high adventure. Like Waverly, Catherine Morland, Frankenstein, Emma Bovary, and Isabel Archer (to name just a few Quixotes before him), Eben prefers books of romance to moral instruction, with predictable results. The favorite activity of the motherless Eben and twin sister Anna is play-acting, at which Eben excels. Andrew Cooke hires a tutor for his children to take the situation in hand, which instead spins it out of control when the tutor, Henry Burlingame, incites the fertile imaginations of his pupils and directs their theatrics:
To teach them history he directed their play-acting to historical events; Ebenezer would be Little John, perhaps, and Anna Friar Tuck, or Anna St. Ursula and Ebenezer the Fifty Thousand Virgins; to sustain their interest in geography he produced volumes of exotic pictures and tales of adventure; to sharpen their logical equipment he ran them through Zeno's paradoxes as one would ask riddles, and rehearsed them in Descartes's scepticism as gaily as though the search for truth and value in the universe were a game of Who's Got the Button. (17-18)
The antinomies of reason (Zeno's paradoxes; Descartes's scepticism) cannot be outrun and so must be approached in a spirit of play, revealing the ludic--and ludicrous--character of the modern human predicament. As in all of Barth's work, the practical dilemmas of philosophical scepticism (the loss of meaning/vocation) set the scene for a narrative solution that reveals the originally mimetic or self-creative character of subjectivity. Burlingame is the novel's master of disguises and the agent of Eben's self-discovery, but the direct upshot of his play-acting tutelage is to aggravate the original problem, namely, his pupil's tendency to paralysis in the face of real choices, especially, as Eben writes to Anna, the crucial choice of vocation:
Ah, God ... it were an easy Matter to choose a Calling, had one all Time to live in! I should be fifty Years a Barrister, fifty a Physician, fifty a Clergyman, fifty a Soldier! Aye, and fifty a Thief, and fifty a Judge! All roads are fine Roads, beloved Sister, none more than another, so that with one Life to spend I am a Man bare-bumm'd at Taylors with Cash for but one pair of Breeches, or a Scholar at Bookstalls with Money for a single Book: to choose ten were no Trouble; to choose one, impossible! All Trades, all Crafts, all Professions are wondrous, but none is finer that the rest together. I cannot choose, sweet Anna: twixt Stools my Breech falleth to the Ground! (20-21)
Eben is so "dizzy with the beauty of the possible" that "he threw up his hands at choice, and like ungainly flotsam rode half-content the tide of chance," until, finally, "one day he did not deign even to dress himself or eat, but sat immobile in the window seat in his nightshirt and stared at the activity in the street below, unable to choose a motion at all even when, some hours later, his untutored bladder suggested one" (21). He is saved from the "cosmic rustle" that whistles through his head on such occasions--"as though his skull were a stranded wentletrap"--when the whore Joan Toast touches his heart and stirs his blood (62). Without reference to the world, reason turns back on itself like the spiralled shell of a stranded sea snail.
The idea that contemplating the equal value of a set of possibilities threatens inertia is an old one, dating back to the work of the medieval French logician John Buridan(1). In Buridan's thought experiment, the ass faced with two identical bales of hay can find no reason to choose one bale over the other. Perched on the indifferent peak of reason, Buridan's ass is doomed to starvation. The satirical idea of an ass of rationality appears in different guises in Barth's first three novels: as a figure of ineluctable mortality, especially the mortality of the narrator who must tell his tale in time; as a figure of disenchantment, or of the limits of reason to guide ethical decision-making in the disenchanted world; and as a figure of radical scepticism, one that decenters the subject to such a degree as to undermine the validity claims implicit in any assertion. The vertigo felt in the face of deciding between equally appealing alternatives threatens to expose a deeper ontological instability: the inexistence of the self. The bedrock we imagine our actions are built upon is in fact a "vacuum" that makes pretenders of us all, as Burlingame's predecessor, the Doctor, tells …
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Publication information: Article title: Nihilism Negated Narratively: The Agency of Art in the Sot-Weed Factor. Contributors: Conti, Christopher - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 47. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2011. Page number: 141+. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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