I read John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor in August 2014 and enjoyed its extravagance, ribaldry and satire. But reading up on him I formed this impression that Barth had started out as a boring realist who later embarked in fabulism and metafiction. So I dreaded reading his first two novels, expecting a disappointment. But there was no reason for concerns: The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are a fun, intelligent and well-written pair of novels that already herald Barth’s future adoption of 18th century tricks for his landmark novel. The difference is that whereas for Sot-Weed Henry Fielding served as Barth’s role-model, in his first novels he was more directly influenced by Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis (as per Barth’s introduction), who in turn was heavily influenced by Fielding and Lawrence Sterne.
Unfortunately I don’t know Machado’s oeuvre that well and need to read him more before I fully appreciate the connections and similarities, so I’ll write about The Floating Opera another time. His second novel, admittedly, has fewer fourth wall breaking, digressions and narrative subversions; it’s a more conventional novel in form, but no less interesting for that. Like its predecessor, The End of the Road is a novel of ideas, of then-contemporary ideas (then being the mid 1950s). If I read these early novels well, I see them as Barth trying to sort out a conflict between the pressure to write the at the time much influential and popular French existentialist novel (Nausea, The Stranger) and find a new path for the novel.
In The Floating Opera Todd Andrews seems and acts like a character cut out from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. As you know, this book-length essay attempts to answer an urgent question no one ever really poses: "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that." For everybody’s salvation, Camus came up with solid reasons as for why meaninglessness should not lead to suicide, and humankind thrives on. In the novel one day Todd wakes up, sees suicide as a solution to several problems and spends what he thinks will be his last day making preparations; in a final epiphany, however, he realize that since there’s no reason to live, there’s no reason to commit suicide either, either alternative is meaningless.
In The End of the Road Barth turns his attention to Jean-Paul Sartre. Knowing his penchant for humour and knowing that he calls himself a “comic novelist” in his own essays, I’ll assume Barth doesn’t fancy philosophy that much. There are two names from Antiquity that he cites several times in his non-fiction book, The Friday Book: Socrates apropos of his dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living; and Aeschylus’ King Oedipus. Philosopher and playwright are at odds: Oedipus’ tragedy comes precisely from examining his past, from trying to untangle the oracles’ prophecies; his quest for truth ends with him literally blind. It’s almost as if Aeschylus had written the play (he couldn’t because he died in the philosopher’s teens) to ask Socrates, “Do you still think an unexamined life is not worth living?” Philosophy has always provided material for good novelistic satire: think of Voltaire’s savaging of Leibniz’ optimism in Candide. Novelists have always been mocking philosophers, taking them down a notch. And Samuel Beckett once said in an interview: “I never read philosophers. I never understand anything they write.” He probably exaggerated, but his deception is understandable; I never forgot Milan Kundera’s impatience with the popular view that literature is just an appendage of philosophy, an exercise that puts philosophical ideas into ideas. Kundera, who’s strongly changed the way I conceive literature, vigorously defends the art of the novel against systems, methods and truths; for him the novel creates a space for asking questions and investigating human condition in its own language. I think this is the primary reason Barth wrote The End of the Road, to ask many questions that show how inhumane and unpractical Existentialism can become if taken too seriously.
The plot is rather simple: Jacob Horner, at the urging of an eccentric Doctor, takes up a job at a small town college; he meets Joe Morgan, who lives according to the tenets of Existentialism, and his wife, Rennie, with whom he has an affair. Two problems arise: first Joe finds out and becomes obsessed with Jacob explaining he fucked his wife, because he can’t accept that people act on impulses; secondly Rennie, a weak-minded woman brainwashed by Joe’s unique brand of madness, gets pregnant since she can’t have an abortion she decides to kill herself, with Joe’s approval, unless Jacob can find a doctor willing to help her abort.
Jacob Horner is hilarious creation, and parody of French novel protagonists. The novel opens with a sentence about identity: “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.” Jacob is writing this on October 4, 1955, but reporting on events dating back to March 17, 1951 (he’s quite rigorous about dates) when he met a Doctor who changed his life.
By the second page we see Jacob behaving as a man without personality, who imitates others, and who doesn’t choose and doesn’t have much agency. In fact this Doctor, we later find out, is a guy he found out in a bus station and managed to tell him he suffered from paralysis and brought him to his clinic, without much opposition from Jacob. He doesn’t decide. All decisions are taken by the Doctor, in his farmhouse/clinic’s Progress and Advice Room, where he instructs Jacob to become a teacher at Wicomico State Teachers College. “To sit sideways,” he remembers their meeting, “of course, would be unthinkable, and spreading your knees in the manner of the Doctor makes your acutely conscious of aping his position, as if you hadn’t a personality of your own. Your position, then (which has the appearance of choice, because you are not ordered to sit thus, but which is chosen only in a very limited sense, since there are no alternatives).” In the farmhouse he undergoes something called Mythotherapy, a therapy that involves creating short-lived roles for each situation in life in order to help him fight his presumed paralysis. The Doctor believes his physical immobility stems from a lack of personality and so he must invent one at all times to go through the motions of daily lives. That also means getting a job. Incredibly, Jacob obeys him quite passively and becomes more and more dependent on him until he loses all agency at the end of the novel.
Like the protagonist of the previous novel, Jacob exhibits an anti-social behaviour. “I wanted to spit on Shirley,” he says moments after meeting the college president secretary’s. He picks up a woman with low self-esteem and demeans her during sex. “I had no interest whatever in the quite complex (and no doubt interesting, from another point of view) human being she might be apart from that role.” An expression he constantly uses is “I’m not interested in...” But when necessary he can fake social obligations. “Although I was not often gregarious or even sociable, I could maintain a thoroughgoing curiosity about one or two people at a time.”
In order to cure him of his lack of personality, the Doctor puts him on Sartre’s existentialism, with little success. “I read Sartre but had difficulty deciding how to apply him to scientific situations. (How did existentialism help one decide whether to carry one’s lunch to work or buy it in the factory cafeteria? I had no head for philosophy.)” For him Sartre breaks down when confronted with the necessities of pragmatism; the insistence to live an always honest, consistent life where we choose at every moment is impossible in a world where we often have to adopt short-lived roles to function, even at the price of squeezing complexity and authenticity out of life: “you are nevertheless prepared to ignore your man’s charming complexities – must ignore them, in fact, if you are to get on with the plot, or get things done according to schedule.” For Jacob, “Nobody’s authentic.” Like the nihilistic Todd, he compares people to animals and values the irrational aspect of the human mind, mentioning Freud a couple of times.
Mary Midgley, in Beast and Man, has a good name for characters like The Stranger and Jacob, “apparently incapable of sharing human feelings;” she calls them “emotional cripples.” Still Jacob is not as deranged as Joe Morgan.
One slowly discovers Joe as if going through a website (on a sunny Saturday morning there’s nothing sadder) neatly explaining Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. “This is the part about being-for-itself,” “That’s the part about the ontology of love,” “Ah, now he’s talking about bad faith.” Joe is a walking collection of Sartrean tropes. Sartre opposed the “Freudian theory of the unconscious, that there are psychological factors that are beyond the grasp of our consciousness and thus are potential excuses for certain forms of behaviour.” For Sartre, “conscious acts are spontaneous, and since all pre-reflective consciousness is transparent to itself, the agent is fully responsible for.” But we’re not always spontaneous; sometimes we have to play roles, like the example of Pierre the waiter. “In thus behaving, the waiter is identifying himself with his role as waiter in the mode of being in-itself. In other words, the waiter is discarding his real nature as for-itself, i.e. as free facticity, to adopt that of the in-itself.” If I understood it, the being for-itself is the real being, and the being in-itself is just the roles we play every day in each situation. “In this way, the burden of his freedom, i.e. the requirement to decide for himself what to do, is lifted from his shoulders since his behaviour is as though set in stone by the definition of the role he has adopted.” And when he compromises, when he feigns, he acts in bad faith. Something like that.
Somehow Barth managed to turn this into a coherent and remarkable character called Joe Morgan. Joe represents reason and reflection, facts and the interpretation of facts. He’s all about the examined life, he leaves nothing to chance. The worst thing you can tell him is that you didn’t know why you behaved in a certain way. “One understood that Joe Morgan would never make a move or utter a statement, if he could help it, that he hadn’t considered deliberately and penetratingly beforehand.” Jacob, on the other hand, has four “least fortunate traits – shyness, fear of appearing ridiculous, affinity for many sorts of nonsense, and almost complete inconsistency.” Indecisive, perhaps bipolar, he’s temporarily fascinated by Joe’s assertiveness, control and an absoluteness that extravasates into all spheres of life, including his dangerous and oppressive relationship with Rennie. “For Sartre, the lover seeks to possess the loved one and thus integrate her into his being: this is the satisfaction of desire,” says the ever-helpful website. And this is Rennie on how they met: “He said he’d like to make love to me, but not just for that – anything we did together we had to do on the same level, understanding it in the same way, for the same purpose, nobody making allowances for anybody else, or he just wasn’t interested.” This sounds sweet but in fact Rennie has married a dangerous, abusive man who changes her, manipulates her, slaps her and exerts emotional anguish on her.
After meeting Jacob at Wimico College, Joe invites him over to dinner. During their little gathering he casually remarks that once he had to “pop” Rennie because of an annoying habit of apologizing to people; he mentions without regret, explaining that he did it for her own good. “What the hell, Jake, the more sophisticated your ethics get, the stronger you have to be to stay afloat. And when you say good-by to objective values, you really have to flex your muscles and keep your eyes open, because you’re on your own. It takes energy, not just personal energy, but cultural energy, or you’re lost. Energy’s what makes the difference between American pragmatism and French existentialism – where the hell else but in America could you have a cheerful nihilism, for God’s sake?” Strict adherence to the tenets of existentialism, the novel suggest, turns you into an inhuman monster; if the examining your life leads to you sticking pins in your eyes, why not this? Although “philosophizing was no game to Mr. Morgan,” it’s very much a game for the novelist. Joe almost sounds benign, after he just wants people to take responsibility for their actions. “That’s another reason why it’s silly for anybody to apologise for something he’s done by claiming he didn’t really want to do it: what he wanted to do, in the end, was what he did.”
But in fact Joe has all the traits of a sect leader who isolates emotionally fragile people to reprogram them. Rennie has even given up her friends for him, since he didn’t have any either. “I think I completely erased myself, Jake, right down to nothing, so I could start over.” And yet no matter how much she tries, she can never fully please him.
This too is part of the classic mechanism of control: the leader gives the follower constant difficult tasks to earn approval, but the follower fails and lives in panic of displeasing him; this forces the victim to work harder and strengthens the bind, to seek support and to fear punishment. Joe is a great example of how cults work. Just about every step is described in the novel. Poor Rennie even applauds the destruction of her individuality. This loving, honest relationship, however, turns into nightmare when Rennie and Jacob fuck. Although Joe controls everything, he takes an interest in Jacob and that element of chaos disrupts their existences. For reasons neither can explain, one day they sleep together but Rennie immediately feels bad about hiding something from Joe and confesses to him. Joe becomes obsessed with understanding why and refuses Jacob’s evasiveness. Jacob becomes so terrified of him that he briefly contemplates suicide to avoid his problems (a nod to the previous novel). His problem is that he can’t give a clear answer as to why he fucked Rennie except “unconscious motives” that don’t sit well with Joe, a rationalist in an irrational world where people just act and don’t spend much time self-examining before acting. “I don’t think you’d have as much of a problem if you had more respect for the answer ‘I don’t know.’ It can be an awfully honest answer, Joe,” pleads Jacob to no avail. But Joe is a fanatic who will ”unhesitatingly act upon the extremist limits of his ideas.” The situation escalates to the point when Rennie, pregnant, decides to commit suicide, with the approval of her husband since he won’t interfere with her freedom to choose. “Sartre presents his notion of freedom as amounting to making choices, and indeed not being able to avoid making choices,” the website informs us.
Joe acts as the intellectual opposite of the Doctor, who has his own sect: he runs a clinic that is always moving from one place to another, just to force his paralysis-suffering patients to follow since his power over them is as absolute as Joe’s over Rennie. If Joe represents Existentialism, my bet is that the Doctor lampoons B.F. Skinner’s Behaviourism, an approach to psychology in vogue in the 1950s that studied external, public events and ignores mental activity. Skinner believed that “introspective vocabularies are by nature inaccurate,” so he abandoned trifling things like motives, feelings and emotions as explanations to behavior, and focused solely on perceptible external action. Now here’s the Doctor explaining his methods: “No offense intended, but the things you think are important probably aren’t even relevant at all. I’m never very curious about my patients’ histories. Rather not hear them, in fact – just clutters things up. It doesn’t much matter what caused it anyhow, does it? My farm’s like a nunnery in that respect – I never bother about why my patients come there. Forget about causes; I’m no psychiatrist.” This is the language of Behaviourism. The Doctor doesn’t care about external or internal causes, just what he can see. “No choice is involved,” he says, and elsewhere he urges Jacob to “act impulsively: don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost.” Indeed if one observed a human being while avoiding any attempt at understanding reasons, indeed everything he did would seem like an impulsive act. The fun thing is that the Doctor recommends Sartre to Jacob, as a temporary therapy until they develop a better method; that will be Mythotherapy, that is, learning to adopt short-lived roles in society in order to function, in order not to stay physical immobile.
So is the novel arguing that science and philosophy are cults? I hope so! It’s a psychomachia, or war of ideas, between the unconscious (Jacob is closer to Freud, whom he mentions twice), B.F. Skinner, and Sartre’s Existentialism. It’s a novel that gets drunk on reductio ad absurdum. The End of the Road reads like the work of a very young student who just finished discovering Sartre and Skinner, found them silly and decided to poke some fun at their concepts. The success or failure of this novel depends on the reader’s level of reverence for authorities. Since mine is pretty low, I derived considerable entertainment from it.
“Why don’t you read Sartre and become an existentialist?” the Doctor asks Jacob. “It will keep you moving until we find something more suitable for you.” John Barth found that more suitable occupation: he became a novelist. And with this second novel he demonstrated that great works laid ahead of him.