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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … John Barth The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)

 

‘Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.

‘All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”

‘I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.

‘It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”

‘This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”

‘The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

‘And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.

‘While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.’ — Bill Morris, The Rumpus

 

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Further

The John Barth Information Center
John Barth, The Art of Fiction No. 86
John Barth @ goodreads
‘The Case for John Barth’
‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, by John Barth
re: ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’
‘Do I Repeat Myself?’, by John Barth
‘The Meaning of Death: John Barth’s “Every Third Thought”‘, by James Greer
‘He’s showboating again…’
‘John Barth’s Long Road’
Audio: Interview with John Barth @ Wired for Books
John Barth @ Dalkey Archive
‘When Updike Met Barth’
‘Paradox of Origin(ality): John Barth’s ‘Menelaiad.”
‘John Barth: Art of the Story’
‘John Barth and Postmodernism: Spatiality, Travel, Montage’
‘LATER JOHN BARTH: THE WRONG PEAK, THE REACH FOR MAGIC, THE FEMINIST ARGUMENT’
‘The Anti-Novels of John Barth’
‘Steven Soderbergh’s 12-hour John Barth adaptation, via James Greer’
‘Home Pages’
‘The Longest Shortest Story Ever Told’
‘JOHN BARTH’S LITERARY LEGERDEMAIN’
‘The Anxiety of Influence: The John Barth/David Foster Wallace Connection’
‘John Barth on Calvino and Borges’
‘Barth and Nabokov: Come to the Funhouse, Lolita’
‘Great but Forgotten: John Barth’
‘What Happened to John Barth?’
Buy ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’

 

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Extras


A Conversation with John Barth and Michael Silverblatt


John Barth, Reading, 25 April 2001


John Barth Day in Cambridge


John Barth Reading at Texas State


‘End of the Road’ (1970) Theatrical Trailer

 

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Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman with autograph corrections by John Barth

 

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Interview

 

Q. After reading your work, I have the impression that there are four characters that keep reappearing all the time: Odysseus, Scheherazade, Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn. And I think you said in “The Limits of Imagination” that you considered these four characters to be the four compass points of your narrative imagination. Could you explain what you mean by that and what is the cause of your admiration for these four literary figures?

JOHN BARTH. You will agree that except for Scheherazade, who comes in into several works, (Scheherazade is with me all the time) the other ones, Odysseus, Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn, they do not appear literally very often in any of the works. And yet, they are the four points in my literary imagination. They are the four deities in my pantheon. There is really no fifth, no other. If you say, if it is your impression, that they, or surrogates for them, appear in some of the novels, this doesn’t surprise me, and it does interest me.

For me, as I wrote in “The Limits of Imagination”, the images of Odysseus traveling back home, of Scheherazade telling stories to the king to save her neck, of Don Quixote and Santo Panzer wandering through La Manchu or Huckleberry Finn in the Mississippi, are far more powerful than the works that contain them. They have become transcendental icons. This, I guess, is what Leslie Fiedler meant when he said that what stays with you of a work when you have forgotten all the words, indicates its mythopoetic quality.

Q. And one of the images that you have retained from The
Odyssey
is that of Odysseus striving homeward, right? An image that has appeared frequently in your work, 1 think. But, why Odysseus? Are you interested in him because of your well-known fascination with navigation? Is it for your interest in wandering myths? How do you read him in The Odyssey, as someone who is eager to go home, back to his loving wife or, on the contrary, as Dante does in the Divine Comedy, as someone eager to travel and to have more knowledge, an adventurer? Or, rather, as both?

JB. Well, obviously his official motivation is to get home, his official motivation. In one respect, Aeneas is more interesting because Odysseus knows where he has to go: he has to go back to Ithaca, whereas Aeneas has to make his way as he goes. Aeneas has to invent his destination, he has to find it, as well as get there. But is Odysseus really eager to go home? I am reminded of the Spanish proverb in Don Quixote that the road is better than the end, and we know, of course, that he wants to go home, but it takes him a very long time, many years with Circe and so on. It is not like Aeneas with Dido, when the gods have to remind him that he has to go back home: “Come on, come on, there are things to do, let’s get out of here”. Nobody pushes Odysseus. It is as if destination is destiny. He forgets now and then, not where he is supposed to go, but that he should get along and leave. He has to be reminded not of his identity, but of his identity in the sense that Odysseus is “the one who is supposed to be going home to Ithaca”. Nobody can surpass Homer in this last scene when after many years he reaches Ithaca, not by any effort of his own, but in his sleep, as if in a dream. Then the other work starts.

Now, for parallel situations in my work. I don’t think they appear in The Floating Opera or The End of the Road, but we could say that it starts with The Sot-Weed Factor, because of the difficult voyage and the search for his [the protagonist’s: Ebenezer Cook] real identity. He is officially a poet, but he isn’t a poet. He has to learn it the hard way: he has to learn how to become a poet, and his voyage is one full of tríbulations. It is a literal voyage, but it is also a figurative voyage. Like Odysseus, and like the traditional mythical wandering heroes, he has to lose everything, including his identity, in order to arrive to his real destination. In Giles Goat Boy, this becomes much more problematic. In fact, Cristina, as you may know, it was some book-reviewer, some critic writing about The Sot-Weed Factor, who said that the author had clearly been heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And I had not read it!!!! Then I went on and read it. This introduces the problem of self-consciousness; of handling that material once that you know that this is mythical material. Then I approached it without the innocence that I had in The Sot-Weed Factor, where I had a quite innocent approach: I wasn’t even aware of Odysseus, Joseph Campbell, or a wandering hero.

That interested me, because that’s where a kind of postmodemism begins to enter the room. It was interesting to recycle that material again in Giles Goat Boy in a perfectly self-conscious way, and see whether it still could be made in a sufficiently reliable way. Borges would not approve that. 1 spoke to Borges, he had not read any of my novels; 1 didn’t expect him to read any of my novels. He didn’t like to read novels. Giles Goat Boy is, as you may know, my least favorite novel, but I would agree with Borges that it is a novel that would be better to talk about in ten minutes of conversation than write a story with footnotes to it. Then in the subsequent books the myth appears more recurrently.

Q. You even have an Odysseus character that appears in The Tidewater Tales.

JB. Yes, I figured that it was time, that after all these surrogates for him, why don’t 1 bring the chap on stage? 1 did the same with Scheherazade and Huckleberry Finn, although Huckleberry Finn has been less important for me. He is less rich an archetype for me. Scheherazade is really my favorite one. She is the one who tells the story, and she is as good as her next story is. It is not enough to have told two hundred and thirty seven stories, if she does not tell a good story then her neck….

Q. You seem to be interested in oriental myths, in the roots of storytelling. How about Simbad the Sailor? In the Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor you seem to combine the myth of Odysseus (the wandering hero) with the Arab tradition of The One Thousand and One Nights.

JB. Well, of course, Simbad is the Arable Odysseus and the parallels are interesting; so are the dissimilarities interesting. What they have in common is that most of the trouble arises not while they are at sea, but, as my Simbad says, “islands is where the trouble is.” On the sea you get sea monsters and you get storms, but it is when you get ashore that the trouble starts. Now, there’s a good analogue with Huckleberry Finn. My problem with Huckleberry Finn is that I grew up in Maryland and my imagination is full of tidewaters, water that comes and goes, and the trouble with the Mississippi as a metaphor is that, like time, it goes only one way, so does Huck. He is always going downstream. There is never any circling back and so forth. For this reason, he is the less interesting mythological figure to me, never mind he is one of the American icons. I mean, he is one of the American essences. Odysseus goes around the Mediterranean, and so does Aeneas, and Simbad wanders all over everywhere off the map, that’s what is interesting, he goes off the chart, but Huckleberry Finn never goes off the chart, it is always the left bank or the right bank of the Mississippi, one channel.

Q. Would you say then that Ambrose in Lost in the Funhouse could function as a surrogate for Huckleberry Finn in the sense that he seems to be going in one direction, searching for his identity (if it can be considered as a künstlerroman). Are they both, as teenagers, discovering their identity and their relation with the extemal world? You have said that Mark Twain’s novel is the very voice of America. Could this also be related to Ambrose’s anagnorisis in the Funhouse at Ocean City on the Fourth of July?

JB. Well, both have a quality of ingenuousness, a kind of shrewd innocence. Huckleberry Finn is resourceful, but he is unsophisticated. He is utterly, completely unsophisticated. He is in an American Odysseus, in the stereotypical sense of the word. Odysseus is full of stratagems, he is very worldly, he knows how to handle situations and people. Simbad is usually just lucky. He is a canny merchant, but every situation he gets involved in turns out to be a disaster and it’s usually by no virtue of his own that he is helped out of his difficulties, he finds the magic something and he is saved. He is a survivor. What makes Huckleberry Finn so comfortingly American is that, despite his unsophistication, he has a certain sympathy and a sort of shrewd country boy resourcefulness, and finally he will light out for the territory. Of course, the huge difference between him and Scheherazade or Simbad, or Odysseus is that civilization, as he sees it, repels him, it means American nineteenth century close-mindedness.

Q. But he also would like to have a house and a family, don’t you think?

JB. But he wants to light out for the territory, which is the last line of the novel. He says “I’ve been there before” and he does not want to go back. Whereas Odysseus wants to go back to his homeland.

Q. But is that all the truth? Aren’t they also liars in some respect? Both Odysseus and Huckleberry Finn seem to disguise all the time and to lie about their identities. And the same happens to Ambrose and to several of your characters, especially in The Sot-Weed
Factor
and in Chimera, where they have these proteic shape-shifting characters like Burlingame or Polyeidus who keep fooling the protagonists and the readers about their true identity.

JB. Indeed Odysseus and Huckleberry Finn are liars, they have to improvise their identities. Scheherazade is a different cup of tea. Scheherazade does not improvise. She also constructs her identity, but she does that by evoking other worlds, other people. She is a fabricator. She does not fool the king; she does not deceive him in any way, that is, except for her grand stratagem. But she does keep taking him narratively into other identities, into other situations, than the one she and he are in. That is not exactly improvising, but it is a course of action, a distraction. She improvises a relation.

Q. Let’s talk about Scheherazade, a very familiar character for Spanish people as well, although we have a quite different spelling and pronunciation.

JB. Well, in America, we got its pronunciation from the 18th c. French translation. If you get me going for Scheherazade you are going to be here for one thousand and one nights.

Q. And would you think of your character in The Sot-Weed, Ebenezer Cook, as a quixotic character?

JB. Not in the rich sense of the word, not as Cervantes imagined it, but he is certainly innocent. He has a kind of foolish intrepidness, and I suppose that somewhere within himself he realizes he is a fool and that he has been deemed foolish. He has to be a poet, but he knows that he is a fool. He is more innocent even that he thinks he is. Even if he takes that as his guiding principal. It is like saying: you think you are innocent, well, let me show you how innocent you are. The worid has to test him and he has to rub his nose in his innocence. In fact, he has to lose it, in order to accept himself. So, yes, There is something not pseudoquixotic, but cuasiquixotic about Ebenezer Cook. Obviously Quixote is so much a richer figure, he is one that is larger than life, Ebenezer is not.

Q. How about his love for Joan Toast? At the beginning of the novel when he decides she is going to be his Dulcinea, do you think he has the same kind of fixation than Don Quixote has; I mean, never mind that she is a prostitute, he sees her as his lady?

JB. That’s worth saying. It is more an official thing. As with the knights and the ladies: they ought to have a lady. If she is a prostitute, she is not a prostitute somehow, etc, etc. I think it is part of the job. It is one of the prerequisite for the job: you are a poet, you must have a lady.

You see, what I did unintentionally in The Sot-Weed Factor, and self-consciously after that, was to investigate all this mythopoetic character of narration. Something that could be said to start actually with The End of the Road, and the mythotherapy that the doctor prescribes Jacob Homer. I was interested in realizing that the myths really are, especially those wandering heroes, just a kind of apparently exaggerated version of the rite of passage. And everybody’s, every ordinary person’s search for identity.

And yes, there is that other thing that I have been apparently from the beginning very interested in: the process of narration itself. This sounds postmodem, but I think it’s just correct. We cannot Uve, we cannot function without stories: 1 am doing this, and then 1 am going to do that, and if all goes well, then I am going to do that, but if not, then l’ll do that, etc., that’s the way we go through life. And so when I look for the big exemplars or icons for that then these are the famous ones. Surely there are others, but anybody who has Scheherazade, Don Quixote, Odysseus, and maybe Huckleberry Finn, as stars to navigate by can go, 1 think, where he or she wants to go. But remember that 1 have said it before,’ and I want to say it again: one must not confuse the navigation stars with the destination.

 

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Book

John Barth The Sot-Weed Factor
Anchor

‘Considered by critics to be Barth’s most distinguished masterpiece, The Sot-Weed Factor has acquired the status of a modern classic. Set in the late 1600s, it recounts the wildly chaotic odyssey of hapless, ungainly Ebenezer Cooke, sent to the New World to look after his father’s tobacco business and to record the struggles of the Maryland colony in an epic poem.

‘On his mission, Cooke experiences capture by pirates and Indians; the loss of his father’s estate to roguish impostors; love for a farmer prostitute; stealthy efforts to rob him of his virginity, which he is (almost) determined to protect; and an extraordinary gallery of treacherous characters who continually switch identities. A hilarious, bawdy tribute to all the most insidious human vices, The Sot-Weed Factor has lasting relevance for readers of all times.’ — Anchor Literary Library

 

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Excerpt

i: THE POET IS INTRODUCED, AND DIFFERENTIATED FROM HIS FELLOWS

IN THE LAST YEARS OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY THERE WAS TO BE found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.

As poet, this Ebenezer was not better nor worse than his fellows, none of whom left behind him anything nobler than his own posterity; but four things marked him off from them. The first was his appearance: pale-haired and pale-eyed, raw-boned and gaunt-cheeked, he stood nay, angled nine- teen hands high. His clothes were good stuff well tailored, but they hung on his frame like luffed sails on long spars. Heron of a man, lean-limbed and long-billed, he walked and sat with loose-jointed poise; his every stance was angular surprise, his each gesture half flail. Moreover there was a discomposure about his face, as though his features got on ill together: heron’s beak, wolf-hound’s forehead, pointed chin, lantern jaw, wash-blue eyes, and bony blond brows had minds of their own, went their own ways, and took up odd stances. They moved each independent of the rest and fell into new configurations, which often as not had no relation to what one took as his mood of the moment. And these configurations were shortlived, for like restless mallards the features of his face no sooner were settled than ha! they’d be flushed, and hi! how they’d flutter, every man for himself, and no man could say what lay behind them.

The second was his age: whereas most of his accomplices were scarce turned twenty, Ebenezer at the time of this chapter was more nearly thirty, yet not a whit more wise than they, and with six or seven years’ less excuse for sharing their folly.

The third was his origin: Ebenezer was born American, though he’d not seen his birthplace since earliest childhood. His father, Andrew Cooke 2nd, of the Parish of St. Giles in the Fields, County of Middlesex a red-faced, white-chopped, stout-winded old lecher with flinty eye and withered arm had spent his youth in Maryland as agent for a British manufacturer, as had his father before him, and having a sharp eye for goods and a sharper for men, had added to the Cooke estate by the time he was thirty some one thousand acres of good wood and arable land on the Choptank River. The point on which this land lay he called Cooke’s Point, and the small manor-house he built there, Maiden. He married late in life and conceived twin children, Ebenezer and his sister Anna, whose mother (as if such an inordinate casting had cracked the mold) died bearing them. When the twins were but four Andrew returned to England, leaving Maiden in the hands of an overseer, and thenceforth employed himself as a merchant, sending his own factors to the plantations. His affairs prospered, and the children were well provided for.

The fourth thing that distinguished Ebenezer from his coffee-house associates was his manner: though not one of them was blessed with more talent than he needed, all of Ebenezer’s friends put on great airs when together, declaiming their verses, denigrating all the well-known poets of their time (and any members of their own circle who happened to be not not on hand), boasting of their amorous conquests and their prospects for imminent success, and otherwise behaving in a manner such that, had not every other table in the coffee-house sported a like ring of cox- combs, they’d have made great nuisances of themselves. But Ebenezer himself, though his appearance rendered inconspicuousness out of the question, was bent to taciturnity and undemonstrativeness. He was even chilly. Except for infrequent bursts of garrulity he rarely joined in the talk, but seemed content for the most part simply to watch the other birds preen their feathers. Some took this withdrawal as a sign of his contempt, and so were either intimidated or angered by it, according to the degree of their own self-confidence. Others took it for modesty; others for shyness; others for artistic or philosophical detachment. Had it been in fact symptom of any one of these, there would be no tale to tell; in truth, however, this manner of our poet’s grew out of something much more complicated, which well warrants recounting his childhood, his adventures, and his ultimate demise.

 

2: THE REMARKABLE MANNER IN WHICH EBENEZER WAS EDUCATED, AND THE NO LESS REMARKABLE RESULTS OF THAT EDUCATION

EBENEZER AND ANNA HAD BEEN RAISED TOGETHER. THERE HAPPENING TO be no other children on the estate in St. Giles, they grew up with no playmates except each other, and hence became unusually close. They always played the same games together and were educated in the same subjects, since Andrew was wealthy enough to provide them with a tutor, but not with separate tutoring. Until the age of ten they even shared the same bedroom not that space was lacking either in Andrew’s London house, on Plumtree Street, or in the later establishment at St. Giles, but because Andrew’s old housekeeper, Mrs. Twigg, who was for some years their governess, had in the beginning been so taken with the fact of their twinship that she’d made a point of keeping them together, and then later, when their increased size and presumed awareness began to embarrass her, they- had come so to enjoy each other’s company that she was for a time unable to resist their combined protests at any mention of separate chambers. When the separation was finally effected, at Andrew’s orders, it was merely to adjoining rooms, between which the door was normally left open to allow for conversation.

In the light of all this it is not surprising that even after puberty there was little difference, aside from the physical manifestations of their sex, between the two children. Both were lively, intelligent, and well-behaved. Anna was the less timid of the two (though neither was especially adventuresome), and even when Ebenezer naturally grew to be the taller and physically stronger, Anna was still the quicker and better coordinated, and therefore usually the winner in the games they played: shuttlecock, fives, or ptilk maille; squails, Meg Merrilies, jackstraws, or shove ha’penny. Both were avid readers, and loved the same books: among the classics, the Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Boofe of Martyrs and the Lives of the Saints; the romances of Valentine and Orson, Bevis of Hampton, and Guy of Warwick; the tales of Robin Good-Fellow, Patient Grisel, and the Foundlings in the Wood; and among the newer books, Janeway’s Token for Children, Batchiler’s Virgins Pattern, and Fisher’s Wise Virgin, as well as Cacoethes Leaden Legacy, The Young Mans Warning-Peece, The Booke of Mery Kiddles, and, shortly after their publication, Pilgrims Progress and Keach’s War with the Devil. Perhaps had Andrew been less preoccupied with his merchant-trading, or Mrs. Twigg with her religion, her gout, and her authority over the other servants, Anna would have been kept to her dolls and embroidery-hoops, and Ebenezer set to mastering the arts of hunting and fencing. But they were seldom subjected to any direction at all, and hence drew small distinction between activities proper for little girls and those proper for little boys.

Their favorite recreation was play-acting. Indoors or out, hour after hour, they played at pirates, soldiers, clerics, Indians, royalty, giants, martyrs, lords and ladies, or any other creatures that took their fancy, inventing action and dialogue as they played. Sometimes they would maintain the same role for days, sometimes only for minutes. Ebenezer, especially, became ingenious at disguising his assumed identity in the presence of adults, while still revealing it clearly enough to Anna, to her great delight, by some apparently innocent gesture or remark. They might spend an autumn morning playing at Adam and Eve out in the orchard, for example, and when at dinner their father forbade them to return there, on account of the mud, Ebenezer would reply with a knowing nod, “Mud’s not the worst oft: I saw a snake as well.” And little Anna,, when she ha8 got her breath back, would declare, “It didn’t frighten me, but Eben’s forehead hath been sweating ever since,” and pass her brother the bread. At night, both before and after their separation into two rooms, they would either continue to make-believe (necessarily confining themselves to dialogue,, which they found it easy to carry on in the dark) or else play word-games; of these they had a great variety, ranging from the simple “How many words do you know beginning with S?” or “How many words rhyme with faster?” to the elaborate codes, reverse pronunciations, and home-made languages of their later childhood, which, when spoken in Andrew’s presence, set him into a thundering rage.

In 1676, when they were ten, Andrew employed for them a new tutor named Henry Burlingame III a wiry, brown-eyed, swarthy youth in his early twenties, energetic, intense, and not at all unhandsome. This Burlingame had for reasons unexplained not completed his baccalaureate; yet for the range and depth of his erudition and abilities he was little short of an Aristotle. Andrew had found him in London unemployed and undernourished, and, always a good businessman, was thus for a miserly fee able to provide his children with a tutor who could sing the tenor in a Gesualdo madrigal as easily as he dissected a field-mouse or conjugated dp.L The twins took an immediate liking to him, and he in turn, after only a few weeks, grew so attached to them that he was overjoyed when Andrew permitted him, at no increase in salary, to convert the little summer-pavilion on the grounds of the St. Giles estate into a combination laboratory and living-quarters, and devote his entire attention to his charges.

He found both to be rapid learners, especially apt in natural philosophy, literature, composition, and music; less so in languages, mathematics, and history. He even taught them how to dance, though Ebenezer by age twelve was already too ungainly to do it well and took small pleasure in it. First he would teach Ebenezer to play the melody on the harpsichord; then he would drill Anna in the steps, to Ebenezer’s accompaniment, until she mastered them; next he would take Ebenezer’s place at the instrument so that Anna could teach her brother the steps; and finally, when the dance was learned, Ebenezer would help Anna master the tune on the harpsichord. Aside from its obvious efficiency, this system was in keeping with the second of Master Burlingame’s three principles of pedagogy; to wit, that one learns a thing best by teaching it. The first was that of the three usual motives for learning things necessity, ambition, and curiosity simple curiosity was the worthiest of development, it being the “purest” (in that the value of what it drives us to learn is terminal rather than instrumental) , the most conducive to exhaustive and continuing rather than cursory or limited study, and the likeliest to render pleasant the labor of learning. The third principle, closely related to the others, was that this sport of teaching and learning should never become associated with certain hours or particular places, lest student and teacher alike (and in Burlingame’s system they were very much alike) fall into the vulgar habit of turning off their alertness,, as it were, except at those times and in those places, and thus make by implication a pernicious distinction between learning and other sorts of natural human behavior.

The twins’ education, then, went on from morning till night. Burlingame joined readily in their play-acting, and had he dared ask leave would have slept with them as well, to guide their word-games. If his system lacked the discipline of John Locke’s, who would have all students soak their feet in cold water, it was a good deal more fun: Ebenezer and Anna loved their teacher, and the three were inseparable companions. 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 skepticism as gaily as though the search for truth and value in the universe were a game of Who’s Got the Button. He taught them to wonder at a leaf of thyme, a line of Palestrina, the configuration of Cassiopeia, the scales of a pilchard, the sound of indefatigable, the elegance of a sorites.

The result of this education was that the twins grew quite enamored of the world especially Ebenezer, for Anna, from about her thirteenth birthday, began to grow more demure and less demonstrative. But Ebenezer could be moved to shivers by the swoop of a barn-swallow, to cries of laughter at the lace of a cobweb or the roar of an organ’s pedal-notes, and to sudden tears by the wit of Volpone, the tension of a violin-box, or the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem. By age eighteen he had reached his full height and ungainliness; he was a nervous, clumsy youth who, though by this time he far excelled his sister in imaginativeness, was much her inferior in physical beauty, for though as twins they shared nearly identical features, Nature saw fit, by subtle alterations, to turn Anna into a lovely young woman and Ebenezer into a goggling scarecrow, just as a clever author may, by the most delicate adjustments, make a ridiculous parody of a beautiful style.

(cont.)

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. There were a couple of late arriving comments on Tuesday’s post that I just caught, so I’ll start there. ** Valerie, Hi, welcome. Thank you. You can write to me by email, but just know I’m famously slow and bad at email, and it’s nothing personal. denniscooper72@outlook.com. Take care. ** John Wronoski, Hi, John. Nice to meet you. No, I haven’t featured No!Art on the blog, and I know little about it, so thank you a lot for the alert and suggestion. I’ll go investigate that work straight away, and I’ll start with Kuspit’s essay. Thank you very much! ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yes, very sad about Barbara Harris. RIP. ** Steve Erickson, Happy to hear the rehearsal went so well. It sounds like the only issues are pretty normal and minor. Huzzah! I’ll read the interview. Everyone, ‘Here’s Steve’s interview with JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION director Julien Faraut’. ** Chris dankland, Hi, Chris! I didn’t see the Celine movie. It opened and closed here really quickly, and the word on it was pretty terrible, which is shame since Lavant as Celine is such a great idea in theory. You’d probably do better with him to watch one or more of the earlier films he made with Leos Carax. Those are kind of his most famous performances, and all the Carax films are very worth seeing. ‘Wonderful’, awesome! That’s a high flying word! Well, at least with the delay you’ll hopefully arrive in AZ once the heat there has de-swelled, assuming all this heat is ever going to kick back. You’re working on a novel! And the premise sounds extremely inviting, I must say. That’s such great news! Oh, being hypnotised … it’s a very particular state. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t feel like anything, or it didn’t in my case. It’s not like being on a drug or anything. You feel pretty much like yourself as usual but with this odd kind of very mild quality of being zoned. I remember I felt very calm, like unusually calm and very not stressed. But, generally, it’s such a light effect that you don’t really feel altered, but then you just automatically and easily do what the hypnotist asks you to do. But not, as people say, anything you wouldn’t normally agree to do. Maybe it gets rid of your self-consciousness. Yeah, maybe that’s the main thing it feels like. It’s interesting for sure. Your working full steam ahead is very inspiring to me too. High five, and a spectacular morning to you! ** Misanthrope, Hi. Your dad had a filthy, filthy mouth. Not really, of course. I just notice it because my parents were maniacal about not using swear words. Your mom too! Crazy. Like a fox. Like a shitty motherfucking god damned fox. I hate when your brain betrays you. I hate when mine stabs me in my bed too. ** Shane Christmass, Hey. Yeah, I’m going to try to get better at checking the previous posts to see if I missed comments from now on. Enjoy everything! ** Right. John Barth’s books were super hip to be reading when I was in high school and college, but nobody seems to read him anymore for reasons that probably aren’t good because his earlier novels are just awfully good, especially the one I’m spotlighting today. See you tomorrow.

9 Comments

  1. Barth’s Ok mais je me prefere Barthes et Barthleme

  2. Dennis, yo yo yo!
    Yours truly reporting from the midst of a post-house-move ongoing madness of stuff to do and fix and paint and plan etc, which sounds exhausting but is really quite fun, even though it leaves little time for the finer pleasures in life such as reading books, going to the movies and above all, saying hi to you more than once in a blue moon! But arrive the proverbial moon has and here I stand, typing on my precariously-balanced keyboard to tell you that we are thinking of you. Very excited about the September PGL event, which we will of course attend, I mean duh. Just generally very excited by the though of Master Coop in London, really. I don’t know whether you’ve made plans yet but you are very welcome to stay with us if you’d like as we have a rare luxury in central-ish London: a second bedroom! I mean, to think. What madness. This new flat is really quite awesome. Living in a reasonable amount of square meters after having shared a studio flat for years is quite something; if I recall correctly, not an unfamiliar feeling to you. So uh, yeah, that’s my life right now mostly! What say you?

  3. Hi Dennis. Im a newly converted fan of The Associates. Got the first two records and loving them. They are pretty amazing.
    I made a little preview to introduce Striptease, my new literary zine thats in the making. Would appreciate if you could share. If anyone sends us their P. O box, they get a copy in the mail. https://bookssleeper.wordpress.com/2018/08/21/striptease-zine/

  4. Shane Christmass

    August 23, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    Hi DC – all good. Australia is the end of the world!

    But – go back to the C&W post. I posted some links to some beautiful C&W music.

  5. Barth is so great. One of my favorite short stories is “goodbye to the fruits” in which the narrator goes on in intense barth-ian detail about all the different kind of fruits in the world, and how sad he feels to say goodbye to them. I think about that story so much. For a lot of my life I’ve idolized the writers who can reduce the world down to a sentence, but I think as I get older I appreciate more and more those writers who seem inexhaustible with details and ideas and narrative hallways, and that’s barth for sure. He always reminds me how huge and complex the world is.

    Thanks so much for talking about hypnotism, that’s extremely interesting to me. Do u have an idea why u are particularly susceptible to hypnotism? A vivid imagination, maybe?

    I wonder about what it’s like when a hypnotist paints a very unrealistic scenario, like you’re a chicken, or you’re at a party with all these celebrities around. When u look around, is it like you’re seeing things that aren’t there? Of course I know ur not a hypnotism expert and ppl probably react to it differently, but I’m curious about yr experience.

    In my book the hypnotist turns the character into a sex slave – the book isn’t trying to be realistic at all – and his trick is making the person feel positive feelings about whatever they do. So the idea is like if he can make the person feel intense pleasure or happiness about cutting off their finger and eating it, then they’ll do it to feel that happiness, even if they would never voluntarily do that in real life. I’m curious what happens when the hypnotist says something that the hypnotized person doesn’t want to do – if they just refuse or fall out of the trance or what?

    Anyway yeah i don’t expect u to answer all those questions but all that stuff is interesting for sure. I’ve read a little bit about hypnotism but I’m trying not to research it too much so my imaginary ideas about it don’t get too contaminated with truth.

    Take care !!

  6. This evening I went along to the DCA for a first good look at their Eve Fowler show – what a slight. what a sound. what a universal shudder. The artworks are texts painted on canvas, the walls or on the floor based on the poetry of Gertrude Stein. Dr Monica Pearl gave a talk that I liked a lot and there was much discussion of language and queerness and coding, although I do wonder how much meaning there is in the slick reproduction of great poetry? To me, they don’t
    say much beyond being effecive design resolutions. There was an evocative black and white film in the first gallery titled With it which it as it if it is to be, and that was more effective I thought.

  7. Dennis, I think I told you once how my grandmother’s bookshelves were full of things like condensed Reader’s Digest volumes, little volumes by Billy Graham and people like that, encyclopedias, romances and murder mysteries, and…Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy. What the fuck was that doing in there? Was it maybe a bestseller once and she just picked it up on a whim because it was a bestseller? So strange.

    Hahaha, yes, my mom too. I’m going to tell you something she said tonight. I told her I’d tell you. She pretended to care but she really doesn’t. We were joking around and she told me to eat my dick. Seriously. My nephew thought it was hilarious.

    Here’s a crazy story. A guy I work with, he used to be a manager in another division. He once had to deal with a sexual harassment claim against an employee. He said they were all sitting around after a meeting, cutting up and laughing. This guy says something to this woman and she goes, “Bite me.” Totally joking, of course. The guy filed a sexual harassment claim against her, saying that she wanted him to bite her vagina. Or that’s how he took it. My friend thinks he was just really embarrassed by her saying that in front of people, all of whom howled with laughter. Nothing came of it, of course. But still…

    Yes, that’s a good one. Your brain stabbing you in your bed. I like that.

    Well, last night was no better. I’ve been taking a break from the gym most of this week to try and get to bed earlier. But…other than my brain stabbing me in my bed, I’ve been writing and also watching baseball. My own damn fault. 😀 But the writing thing’s been a good thing.

  8. It was fun to head out to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens today for a press screening of Blake Williams’ 3D avant-garde film PROTOTYPE (which they are showing from Aug. 31st-Sept. 9), get there half an hour early and be told no one there knew anything about a press screening and I should go home. I insisted on talking to their publicist, and when she emerged, she told me the screening was indeed happening. The confusion might have occurred because I was the only critic who showed up for it. Anyway, it’s quite a good film, and you can read my review in Gay City News next week.

    Barth is a really underrated writer; his recent books are very witty and for a guy in his 80s, surprisingly engaged with technology without flipping out over These Kids Today.

    The Celine film played one screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Jewish film festival, and I was curious but didn’t go. It never found US distribution (although I suppose it still might.)

    I know you “liked” the Facebook page I created about my film today. I created a page on my blog as well, with basically the same information and photos right now, but I know not everyone seeing this is on FB: https://steeveecom.wordpress.com/culture-shock/

  9. Barth has been on the periphery of my to-read list for years. I’m a little intimidated by the length of Sot Weed Factor though. Are the shorter books also awesome?

    You probably know I’m a big Dennis Lavant fan. Funny, I tend to think of him as the older chameleon of Holy Motors, and keep forgetting he was quite the twink back in the day. Geez, I have to work on catching up with his massive filmography. Have you seen Tsai Ming-Liang’s Journey to the West? Not my favorite of Tsai or Liang’s work, I’m afraid.

    I see there’s a remake of… Suspiria. I’m concerned.

    Bill

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