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ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
- John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse
In her lecture on John Barth’s collection of stories Lost in the Funhouse, Professor Amy Hungerford delves beyond the superficial pleasures and frustrations of Barth’s oft-cited metafictional masterwork to illuminate the profound commitment to language that his narrative risks entail. Foremost among Barth’s concerns, Hungerford argues, is the multi-faceted relationship between language and love. Desire can drive a narrative, or disrupt it. Language can create desire, or replace it. Unifying the virtuosic variety of his tales is Barth’s inquiry: Does language always stand in for a loss of bodily presence? Must the written word always exist as the shadow of the oral?
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 11 - John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse
Chapter 1. Barth, the Teacher [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: Let me ask you a question first about John Barth and the stories that I asked you to read. Which of them was your favorite? Some cackling I hear. None of them? Which of them was your favorite?
Student: “Night-Sea Journey.”
Professor Amy Hungerford: “Night-Sea Journey.” Why?
Student: I thought it was the profoundest joke I’d ever read.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Ah ha. Yes. Okay. Very good. Yes. ‘The profoundest joke she has ever heard.” Who else? Your favorite story. Yes.
Student: “Lost in the Funhouse.”
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Why is that?
Student: I really liked the tricks that Barth played with vocabulary.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. Yes. Okay. What else? Other favorites? Did anyone have “Ambrose His Mark” as a favorite? Only one–two of you. That’s extremely surprising. Why was “Ambrose His Mark” not your favorite? What did you not like about it? Anyone? Yes.
Student: I actually thought it was hard to understand, just what was happening, the action part of the story. It might have been that I read it too quickly.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. Harder than “Menelaiad” to understand?
Professor Amy Hungerford: No. Oh. Okay. Anyone else on “Ambrose His Mark”? Comments? When I ask this question, typically, especially when I’ve had students read the whole thing, “Ambrose His Mark” is almost always the favorite story. And the reason for that, I think, is that it is a technically perfect short story. It has wit; it has developed characters; it has a coherent narrative. Even if it has some difficulties, that’s probably more due to things like dialect. There’s a German immigrant dialect that some of the characters speak. It’s full of little tropes, little consistencies, little images, the bees, even the word play, “skep” and “skeptical.” There are words that mirror some of the major themes of that story about naming. Barth, by offering us a perfect short story in that story, is demonstrating what traditional structures of narrative have always offered us. And the fact that it’s not your favorite…maybe we’re at a watershed moment, that even traditional narrative can just…you guys are so well beyond that seduction. Maybe it’s Lolita that we read. Maybe it’s that you got so seduced by Lolita, or you were so well trained to be skeptical of narrative seduction, that now nothing can faze you, nothing can seduce you. Maybe that’s it. Give yourself that credit.
John Barth is a teacher, through and through. He actually taught at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins, for over thirty years, in the writing program. And I once got from him a handout that he would give to his fiction classes, and it had on it all the traditional tricks and structures of the short story form. It was three or four pages single-spaced, typed: things like, “if there are five pistols hanging on the wall, by the end of the story, they all have to go off,” these totally structural observations about how to write a piece of short fiction. It’s so appropriate: in my various moves in my life, I lost this piece of paper, and I have never been able to find it. And I’ve tried to be in touch with him about it, and I couldn’t get it from him either. So, this is one of the sad things about teaching Barth for me. He was such a teacher. I think this story collection is very much a teaching of us about narrative. I’m sorry that I can’t now produce that, as your teacher, for you.
I want to do something that might seem odd as I begin. [Begins to cut the first page of the book] Does this shock anyone? Do you have a visceral sense, “oh, don’t do that”? If you do, you were probably taught, like me: “never, never damage a book.” Getting in trouble: in our house if you damaged a book you were in big trouble. Okay. So, what I’m doing is, I’m taking the mobius strip from the beginning, and I am matching the letters here, capital A–let’s see how does it go–capital A overlaps with small A, capital B overlaps with small B, tape it together. Okay. There we go. “Once upon a time there was a story that began once upon a time there was a story that began once upon a time.” Okay. So, you get the point. Why does Barth put this in the front of his story?
Well, I think there are several reasons, and I’m going to name about three of them. One is that language is material. I think we have a visceral response, sometimes, when you cut a book, because somehow we don’t want to be reminded that a story is in a material container. But he invites us to do this to his story. So, that’s the first point: It’s material. The second point is that narrative has a form, and that it can be constructed, built. It’s like a craft. I had my little tape and my little scissors, my little project, my craft project. So, stories are a craft. They get built of the material of language. Last point: form is both endless and closed. It is both repetitious and endlessly filled with possibility. Because, when you read this in its mobius strip form, you’re repeating a beginning over and over and over again, it gives you that feeling of possibility, but it’s also boring. This is not an interesting story. It doesn’t tell us anything.
John Barth runs a certain kind of risk in this story collection, and it’s the risk of difficulty. If I had had you read the whole thing, you would see even more the kind of risk he’s running. Some of the stories are self-consciously, boringly metafictional. They sound like all those stories we have about somebody writing a story about themselves, about themselves writing a story who is also writing a story about themselves writing a story. It’s very boring. There’s no kind of life in it. It’s all about that endless regress. So, Barth is taking a risk that this little craft project emphasizes [holds up the mobius strip] and that the stories in the book act out. Why is it worth it to him to take that risk? What’s he trying to teach us about narrative and about language that makes it worth this risk?
Now, let me just make the last point I want to make about this, and that’s that because language is material, it has form, it has both closedness and possibility, it’s susceptible to the workings of craft, it’s also unpredictable. [Tosses mobius strip on floor.] What’s going to happen to that now? Who’s going to find it? It’s going to sit there. It’s going to blow from place to place. Again, in other stories that I didn’t have you read, the theme of the message in the bottle returns over and over again. The sense that language is material means that it can be separate from people and have a kind of life of its own. Now, one question for us is: is the life of its own that Barth dreams of for language similar to that life of its own that Nabokov dreamed of for his language? So, that’s a question I want you to keep in your mind. Is this the same dream, or is it somehow different? So, I’m going to leave that there. And maybe some–I don’t know–some chemistry class will show up in here, and someone will wonder what that is, and Barth will have done his work, or we will have done Barth’s work for him.
Chapter 2. The Modernist Ambition in “Night-Sea Journey” [00:10:00]
Now, let me ask you another question. Who is the narrator of “Night-Sea Journey”?
Student: A sperm?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. A sperm. Did everyone get that? No. Okay. The narrator of “Night-Sea Journey” is a sperm. Now, why have a story with a sperm as a narrator? Well, I think there are a couple of points, a couple of reasons why Barth wants to do that, and actually related to your initial point about why you liked this, that it was– how did you say that?–it was the most–
Student: Profound joke–
Professor Amy Hungerford: Profound joke. It is a parody of all the meanings of life that philosophy has offered up to us over the ages, so it kind of runs through them in the voice of our narrator sperm’s pal, who is now gone and dead before him. So, we get a kind of wisdom in a parodic form. There are other points, however, and if you look on page 4 we can see just a little example of one of them. This sperm has gained quite a vocabulary, and it includes this line: “I have seen the best swimmers of my generation go under.” Now, where is that from? Of course it’s from Howl: “I have seen the best minds of my generation….” The point of making a sperm who quotes not only Allen Ginsberg, but also hosts of other prior literary texts, is the point that the tradition precedes the individual speaker. The individual speaker believes that he has an original voice. He believes he’s speaking in his own voice, but, lo and behold, his words are not his own. So, just as this is a redaction and a compression of all the various meanings of life that Western philosophy has offered up, it is also a demonstration of how literary tropes, literary language, little packaged bits of literature, quotations, allusions, lard the language that is available to this creature. His final reflections on page 12 suggest his ambition as a speaker, and it looks a lot like a modernist ambition. The bottom of page 12:
It’s a dream of changing the tradition, of having that individual voice added to the tradition, to have it become part of the official heritage and yet at odds with it, casting a different light back. This is precisely that modernist dream specifically articulated by T.S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the contribution of the individual adds to and changes the tradition in one swoop. Is this going to be Barth’s ambition, too? This is a question for us, again, that I want to, kind of, keep up on the shelf in your mind. In some way it’s a parody of that modernist effort, when it comes in the voice of a sperm, because this whole story is a parody. So, you have to ask that question and be somewhat skeptical. For all that Barth looks like, he embodies that traditional modernist ambition of difficulty, of working with tradition and so on. He looks like a classic late modernist, but is he, really? This is the question. “Ambrose His Mark” purports to be the story of the birth of that being when the sperm from “Night-Sea Journey” is united with the egg. So, this is Ambrose’s conception that we see the preamble to. And in “Ambrose His Mark,” if you look on page 19, you will see that Ambrose has, in some sense, inherited some aspect of that sperm’s remarkable linguistic facility. He says: “All that winter….” This is the middle of the page:
He’s narrating in great detail what happened while he was in the womb. Where does this knowledge come from? It’s as if his knowledge of his own conception, his own birth, his own babyhood, is a natural knowledge. But we must know that it had to come from someone, from someone telling stories. The stories then become part of Ambrose’s own account of his own naming, an account of the origin of his identity. That name, “Ambrose His Mark,” is a reference to Moby-Dick. In Moby-Dick, when Queequeg signs on to the Pequod, he makes a mark, because he is illiterate, in place of writing his name, signing his name, and in the novel it says “Queequeg, his mark.” That’s what’s written underneath it on the contract. With that mark Queequeg signs on to the whole trajectory of Ahab’s mad pursuit of the whale. We can think of that in another way, as well, though. With that mark, Queequeg signs on to the whole trajectory of the nineteenth-century novel, that whole narrative excess that Melville offers, and that whole sense of destiny that is bound up with Ahab’s story. What does Ambrose sign up for with his mark? Well, the first thing to notice is that, unlike Queequeg, he does not sign that mark. The mark, here, is what he’s marked by, not what he marks with. And so, it’s as if the whole tradition comes out and grabs him and names him. And so, Uncle Karl’s efforts to interpret the incident of the bee and its relation to the mark on his face suggests the way that certain kinds of tradition–that Uncle Karl has been reading, probably in the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia that he sells door to door (he’s a sort of scholarly guy)–that that tradition has named him. He has no agency in this trajectory he’s entering upon.
The effort to take the story of his birth and tell it as if it were natural knowledge is the effort to fight against that lack of agency. He takes those stories and he makes them his own. That’s an effort at gaining control over what he cannot know about his own origin and what he cannot choose in his own origin. I think that’s also why Barth chose to write this story in the perfect short story form. And that form is also given to us in Lost in the Funhouse, on page 95, when we get the diagram of Freitag’s Triangle. So, if you look at it here on 95, we’re told in the course of the story about Ambrose and Magda and the family:
If you read on down in that paragraph, you will see that Ambrose in his frustration–in his effort to control the story that is always, in this story, spinning out of control–he wants to be able to use Freitag’s Triangle to prop up what has become an uncontrollable narrative and give it a shape. He retells…even from one sentence to the next, he changes his mind. He says, “This can’t go on much longer. It can go on forever.” He died telling stories to himself in the dark.” He’s dreaming about what will happen to him in the funhouse.
He changes the story from one sentence to the next. Freitag’s Triangle won’t help him at all. So, just knowing the form that the story is supposed to take, and then knowing that language has grabbed you, all these formulaic little phrases, “a figure unusually well developed for her age,” these little stock phrases. They are what he has to work with, even though they are what defeat him in his effort to make sense of this experience with Magda.
And it is the experience with Magda that produces the problem in the first place. And so, if we look at page 84, you can see the, sort of, primal scene of this problem. This is when he and Magda were having a sort of erotic game one summer in the shed. They were playing slaves and masters, and he was the master, and she was the slave. So, he’s imagining their future and talking about it with Magda when they’re older. I’m going to start sort of in the middle of the page.
It goes off in this strange digression. It seems like his mind has simply wandered, as it does, from one version of the story to another. But the mention of the machines is not incidental. Narrative becomes a kind of machine. You put your penny in the slot and it works to produce the narrative. And that’s that first part that I read, where he’s looking back fondly with Magda from his eminence, later in life, and it seems safely past and something that can be talked about. But the problem is that, even if he could produce that kind of comforting narrative, the problem it produced at the level of identity will never be repaired.
Chapter 3. Alienation and Desire [00:25:27]
Self-alienation, in Barth’s work, is the product of desire. Desire, love: that’s the moment when you’re supposed to be perfectly present. And what happens to Ambrose? That’s the moment when he is perfectly, distressingly alienated from himself. And, it’s the moment when language comes in and is the product of that alienation, or perhaps when language comes in and causes that alienation. So, he can’t experience an erotic moment without also experiencing it through the screen of language, and what he ends up doing is experiencing language instead of sex. So, this is the problem that’s never solved in Lost in the Funhouse, and it has all kinds of ramifications. This is on 83, just the page before. Remember, this whole story takes place under the aegis of his alienation from himself. He’s thinking about what he’d like to do in the funhouse.
He’s playing with Freudian slips. Of course, what he’s thinking about all the time is the master-slave game, and so here it comes out, when he’s talking about his brother’s diving: “He’s a master diver. You really have to slave away at it.” He can’t control the emergence of his desire, his memory of the desire, back into his daily speech. So, he can’t control that Freudian slip, and he also has to correct himself, remind himself, that what he wants to do in the funhouse is actually not act like the outraged boyfriend but be the outraged boyfriend. This is always the problem for Ambrose. He can’t just be something; he is always conscious of inhabiting a performance. And it’s usually a verbal performance.
These are the problems that plague Menelaus so terribly in that final story that I asked you to read. So, one of the problems with narrative, I said earlier when we talked about the mobius strip, is that it’s repetition. This suggests a kind of exhaustion of language and Ambrose’s use of these packaged phrases in Lost in the Funhouse suggests the impossibility of using all that tradition, all that stock of language, to adequately encounter what daily life will bring you, and especially to adequately inhabit something like desire. Barth wrote a famous essay just the year before these stories came out all in one volume. They had been written over a series of years, about five years, in the ’60s. And he wrote a very famous essay–got a lot of exposure–called “The Literature of Exhaustion.” And there, he criticized a lot of the work that was being done, and these are the terms he uses. He said there were two kinds of artists: ones who are “technically up to date,” and ones that are not. Those who are not write
turn of the century-type novels, only in more or less mid twentieth-century language and about contemporary people and topics. This makes them less interesting to me than excellent writers who are also technically contemporary, Joyce and Kafka, for instance, in their time, and in ours Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges.
What exhausts language is the failure to keep technically up to date, and that means in innovation in form. “Menelaiad” is where Barth really stakes his claim for innovation: those nested layers of narrative that are so off-putting on the page that I have to send you a handout to help you over the weekend. (Otherwise I worry that people will be really lost.) It’s very off-putting, but it’s precisely those nested stories that allow him to do some of the really pleasurable things that he can do in that story and, I would say, get at some of the very deep questions raised by the earlier stories that he finally, kind of, gets hold of (to use his own words) in this last story.
So, I want to begin by thinking about Menelaus’s predicament with Helen, and this is on 146. So, he spares Helen’s life in Troy and brings her home, and this is the story that he has been telling. So, he says, “I decided that I would spare her life and accept her groveling for forgiveness instead.” So, this is the story he’s telling himself:
… I forbore, resolved to accept in lieu of her death a modest portion of heartfelt grovel. Further, once she’d flung herself at my knees and kissed my hem I would order her supine and mount more as one who loves than one who conquers; not impossibly, should she acquit herself well and often, I would even entertain a plea for her eventual forgiveness and restoration to the Atrean house. Accordingly I drew myself up to discharge her objection–whereupon she gave over cleaning her nails and set to drumming them on one knee.
He’s pathetic! He runs through all these stories about himself, and as each one fails to win him back into Helen’s cabin, he comes up with another one. This is a certain kind of exhausted narrative. It’s the failure of any of these stock narratives to have the effect of restoring love and desire, but it’s more than that. It’s playful. It’s funny. Barth’s effort at showing us the exhaustion of narrative produces a kind of new pleasure in narrative. So it’s by pointing it out, and then parodying it, that he begins to renew the resources of fiction.
There are deeper and more difficult issues at stake, though, and this is in 155. We get a more serious version of the scene with Magda and the problem of self-alienation. And this is what is really at the heart of Menelaus’s story. So, remember that the story is that he is obsessed with this question of why Helen chose him among all her suitors: why did she choose him? And, when he asks on their wedding night, she gives him an answer that only makes him more obsessed with the question. So, at the top of 155, he’s asked his question. “ ‘Speak,’ he commanded. She whispered, ‘Love.’” Now, the problem with that is that answer; it’s a verb and a noun. And Menelaus doesn’t know how to take it, so here it becomes a verb:
This is like that moment of erotic play with Magda for Ambrose. It eradicates identity, eradicates sense of self. It’s gone forever, and you can see the change in pronouns. “She took him willy-nilly to her.” He’s telling a story about himself, seemingly, but who is the “I,” then, that’s left over? “I feel her yet.” There is some residual identity left over that can still have a sense of embodiment.
So, that self-alienation causes him to lose his love. We’re told later that he stops sleeping with her because he just can’t get it out of his mind. He’d rather sit and wonder. His curious fancy is more active than his desire. Or, you might say, his desire to know is more active than his desire to love. But there is yet a complication to this problem. It’s not just about Menelaus and what he chooses to do with his desire. It’s also about Helen and her action and her answer. On 156 he reflects.
There is that sense that the other person looking at you, loving you, assures you somehow of your reality, that you’re real, that you’re not an imaginary being. So, it’s a way of reminding you that you’re not really alienated, but this is what Menelaus cannot get his head around. He cannot understand that he could be loved for no reason and Proteus sort of gives us a sense of how we could understand this. This is on 161.
It’s a failure of faith in Aphrodite. So, to accept love is to accept your being and to have faith that love affirms it, affirms that being. Remember that self-admonition: not act like the boyfriend but be. This is what Menelaus has to ask forgiveness for. He didn’t have enough faith in love just to be and to accept the affirmation of his being that Helen’s reasonless, causeless love embodies.
Chapter 4. The Power of Voice [00:42:05]
Barth is asking a really serious question about the compatibility between life and voice. Remember that in “Ambrose His Mark” Ambrose is saved from the bees lighting on his mouth because his mouth is on his mother’s breast. He’s asleep there having nursed. It’s as if the bees which signify eloquence if they land on your mouth, they land on his eyes and on his ears instead. He can’t have both that connection with his mother and that kind of eloquence. It’s one or the other. You can’t have love and language somehow, and this is a very Freudian understanding of how language works. He tells a story about a child playing what’s called the “Fort-Da” game: here, away. He has a little ball. A little two- or three-year-old kid has a ball. He throws it away and then retrieves it, he throws it away and retrieves it, and Freud theorizes that he does that and he says, “Fort, da, fort, da.” He does that because the language is a way of controlling his mother’s absence and the ball stands in for the mother. It disappears and then it comes back. It disappears and comes back, and at that time his mother, who is actually Freud’s daughter, was going out to work for the first time on some days, and the boy was getting used to letting her go.
So, language arises from that loss. And Ambrose is only named once he’s separated from his mother and no longer nurses as a result of the bee incident, and he also only gains a male name at that time. And so, I think it’s important that the masculinity of language asserted with a talking sperm at the very beginning of this collection is consistent with this sense that you become male when you enter into language. Somehow when you’re unnamed you’re not part of language; you’re still connected to the mother. And he actually had a female name. Remember he’s called Christine for a while. So he becomes a boy after he’s separated from his mother. Menelaus’s problem with Helen suggests that incompatibility of being connected to the other, and here across the line of gender, connected with the other and somehow being able to be assimilated into language, and the silence of the oracle on the question, “Who am I?” This is on 158, and you just get that blank, silence, and you can see it enclosed in all those quotation marks.
This is Barth’s effort to enclose the silence into something readable, to contain that impossibility in the structure of the story. So all the quotation marks suggest human voice. I want to suggest to you finally that Barth is interested in the oral tradition above all other traditions in this book. He’s using Greek epic as the source of his literary canon, here, and his canon of stories, of narratives, because it’s oral tradition that brings the human voice and the human being, the fact of a person, together most closely. That’s what fascinates him about the spoken word, as opposed to the word you read. And in other stories in this collection Barth experimented with recording them with tape. So, these are stories, some of them for voice and tape, and he’d do readings where he’d go and he’d put a tape recorder on the podium and he’d stand next to the tape recorder as his voice read the story from the tape recorder. And it was all to dramatize the problematic relationship between voice, story and person.
But I think the dream of Menelaus is that somehow that voice can be residual, that somehow it can survive. And, in that sense, I think it has something in common with Nabokov’s fantasy of the living artwork. But, unlike Nabokov’s fantasy, it requires this concept of love, because love is what makes being into narrative. It takes two, and it takes desire. Desire moves narrative. And so at the end, the comic ending of “Menelaiad,” which echoes the comic ending of Odysseus’ trip back home, of The Odyssey, he says:
If you think that Barth in all his heady, intellectual, canonical difficulty is uninterested in the world outside of his fiction, I think you could argue that it’s on this notion of desire that he stakes his work’s connection to the world. And the echo of that desire is, I would say, pleasure: something like, in this case, Nabokov’s aesthetic bliss, but here it’s more funny than that. It’s not even so much the transportation and the nostalgic quality of Nabokov’s description, sometimes. It’s that wit, that pleasurable wit, the pleasure we get reading, being absorbed by something that we have to work hard to read, and yet repays us with that pleasure. When you read Crying of Lot 49 I’d like you to think about what that novel represents in the relation between language and the world. Is it similar? Barth and Pynchon are often talked about as part of the same metafictional movement in this couple of decades, ’60s and ’70s. Are they assimilable to one another in these terms? Think about that as you read.
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