|Table of Contents|
Table of Contents
Key to abbreviations
Chapter 1. Circling the question of knowledge
Chapter 2. Abortion stories
Chapter 3. Production, reading, supplementarity
Chapter 4. Repetition, history, narration
JOHN BARTH'S SABBATICAL AND THE TIDEWATER TALES
Creed C. Greer, III
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN
PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 1989 it;
Creed C. Greer, III
TABLE OF CONTENTS
KEY TO ABREVIATIONS.......................v
Rethinking the Beyond..................
Narration and the Use of "Nonfiction"' 7
CIRCLING THE QUESTION OF KNOWLEDGE
Titles and Quotations and Quotations of Titles. 32
Circling Between Texts.................51
The Collapsing of Time.....................57
1. Organizing Barth's Texts..............69
The Issue of Abortion...............76
Disposing of the Text...............81
"Night Sea Journey".................96
2. Forking, The Y.......................98
The Analytical (Inbound Upswimming
The Synthetic (Outbound Downswimming
PRODUCTION, READING, SUPPLEMENTARITY ...........136
REPETITION, HISTORY, NARRATION..............164
The Coming Back of Repetition, A Speculative
Organization of Texts..................166
Coming Back to Barth's Critics ............193
History and the Sequeling of Narration.........201
P.S.: IN PLACE OF A CONCLUSION
Setting the Task . . . . . . . . 227
The Next Thing: The Postscript . . . . 231
Bearing the Sign . . . . . . . . 237
Narrating Living . . . . . . . . 241
WORKS CITED . . . . . . . . . . 245
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . . . 249
KEY TO ABBREVIATIONS
Books by John Barth: ER The End of the Road FO The Floating Opera FB The Friday Book LF Lost in the Funhouse S Sabbatical: A Romance TT The Tidewater Tales
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy FIGURING NARRATION:
JOHN BARTH'SSABBATICAL AND THE TIDEWATER TALES By
Creed C. Greer, III
Chair: John P. Leavey, Jr.
Major Department: English
This dissertation describes the narrative and textual
effects, in John Barth's Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, of the inscription of four figures: the circle, abortion, production, and repetition. Each of these figures represents an attempt to escape various linguistic binds invariably reintroduced in the telling and writing of the stories.
"Circling" explores the way in which a circle questions our ability to understand the text and places itself in opposition to a narrative organization of events. Any attempt to exceed the orbit of the text reinscribes the circle. The sequentiality of Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales tends to disrupt the notion of their circling because the circling text would suggest a linguistic collapsing of time.
In "Abortion Stories" I show that abortion is connected to a decision concerning the organization of the woman's life and the orderliness of the text. Abortion is a
disposal because it is the attempt both to arrange and to get rid of that which is aborted. Getting rid of a text will leave behind the trace of an erasure. The terms by which an analysis would be made are shown always to be inappropriate, and in the synthetic moment the prior division is reestablished, so that a decision cannot be made.
"Production" develops the notion of reading as the production of the supplement. Though reading is an addition, since there is no outside-text, reading is, as Derrida says, adding and following a thread. Because the writer does not command language, the text always says something other than what the writer would mean.
"Repetition" demonstrates that we can neither go back to a time before repetition nor identify the "original" repetition. Because the questioning of truth leads one back, it forces one to use a methodology based on a sequentiality and so to create a narrative, which denies, paradoxically, the possibility of arriving at the truth.
My 11P.S.11 describes the inevitable bearing of the sign. Implications inscribed in the system that proposes the validity of the concept of the end (in particular the distinction between the real and the textual) are assumed in turning that system against itself.
Rethinking the Beyond
One of the things that bothers John Barth, that bothers me too, is that what we are writing today, our literature, seems to be at an intellectual standstill. What worries him is that it will (or has already) come to a narrative standstill too. In The Tidewater Tales a story within a story is framed by his anxiety:
a man who once magically visited Scheherazade now
wishes that she could visit him, so that if what he's done must be essentially what he'll do, it
might be done at least as spiritedly and
wholeheartedly as before. In short, that story
was this story, and, like this one, it was not
only unfinished, but stuck. (TT 603)
Stuck is essentially the situation with which we are left in sabbatical and with which we take up The Tidewater Tales. Fenn and Susan cannot decide, within Sabbatical, what to do with themselves, how to end their story; Peter Sagamore has minimalized his stories nearly to the vanishing point, so cannot begin his and Katherinels. Barth, the author of them all, tries to drive them, narratively, "to some presumable farther shore" (TT 284).
Barth's work confronts a variety of linguistic binds (such as the development of meaning in the face of the
impossibility of communication and the imposition a traditional understanding of narration entailing a beginning, middle, and end in view of the indeterminateness of the contours of the text) and, confronting these binds, his work asks: Can we advance? Can we move beyond?
Barth's metaphor suggests that the answer will not be a simple one. "Shore" comes from the Middle Low German 11schore,11 which meant "point of division," and even now designates the landbetween low and high water or the land at the edge of a body of water. We should wonder whether in reaching a farther shore Barth's books would simply be coming to another point of division, marooned, so to speak, on a beach on which the necessity of moving beyond is presumed.
The farther-shore metaphor may be inappropriate for describing a system that would escape a linguistic bind. Peter Sagamore's reflection about what language should do leads him to his minimalist "less is more" theory of writing. I emphasize that it is the reflection of Peter Sagamore that gets him stuck. More precisely, it is language's looking inward at itself that places out in front a "farther shore." Language says of itself, I am incomplete; but it does not offer us the means of completing it and in fact tells us to look outside for the meaning or the truth or the real.
"What is being written today?" becomes an absurd
question in the face of the "farther shore." Insofar as it
reinstates the logic of dichotomy and the logic of anticipation, "the farther shore" takes us where we have already been, disrupting the possibility of simply moving forward within The Tidewater Tales, and so is inappropriate in describing what is being written today, in distinguishing today from yesterday. We can not be sure that today's literature and criticism of literature are fundamentally different from works described by the term modernism. In fact, what people are calling modernism or Rg stmodernism seems to have been taking place all along. Two stories with which Barth identifies, stories that contain "postmodern" situations (such as the stuckness at the end of The Tidewater Tales), Ocean Story and The Thousand and One Nights, are among the oldest in the history of written language.
The criticism of Barth up to now has, for the most part, simply positioned Barth philosophically or thematically. The earliest articles, which began coming out in the mid 160s, labeled him a nihilist or "postexistentialist." He has been aligned with Kurt Vonnegut and the "Black-Humorists." Now, perhaps, because he has used the term in his article about the replenishment of literature, critics are calling him a "postmodernist.11 It could be argued that the job of the critic is, first of all (and perhaps as an end in itself), to name what is being talked about. But because all of Barth's books illustrate the danger of identification and of the alignment with a
particular type of writing, approaching Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales with a name in hand would be an inappropriate gesture. Barth's work takes up the so-called postmodern themes (self-reflection, self-destruction, etc.) in order to go beyond them, but winds up showing that going beyond them is impossible in setting them aside, that going beyond them is impossible given the always prior intellectual positioning. Rather than trying to establish terms, Barth involves himself, his characters, his books, in the metaphors with which we allow our lives to be described. Writing, reading, and narrating are always subsumed by (and in) the metaphoric of creating a life. Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales are the exploration of the appropriateness of particular metaphors for that creation. Understanding that language and living are not only involved with each other but are dependent on each other, Barth's work is concerned that the way we use language may determine the way we live. The creating of a life may be something more, in Barth, than metaphorical.
One of the most worrisome things about writing about
Sabbatical alone would be ending. Having read The Tidewater Tales, the reason for the problem is clear: Sabbatical is incomplete. If The Tidewater Tales does not complete Sabbatical, it at least points out the difficulty in ending. Peter Sagamore's initials suggest the PostScriptal activity of The Tidewater Tales. one of the rules of Katherine and Peter in their telling of stories is that none should be
left unfinished. "The Ending" of The Tidewater Tales reads like the captions following a 1960's B movie: Mickey Soand-so becomes a movie star and falls in love with So-andso; MaryJean So-and-so starts her own business and lives happily ever after; etc.
Speaking about the books separately, in separate
sections for example, would be entirely inappropriate, if possible at all. Not only are the books alike, but they are literally intertwined. In The Tidewater Tales the plotlines of the books--characters, the names of characters, and all-are twisted together such that to tug on the structure or a metaphor, say, of The Tidewater Tales is to put Sabbatical in tow. I am required to talk about them both at the same time or to talk about one knowing that the other is riding its wake. To talk with the knowledge of and to talk about are nearly the same thing--that is, they have similar effects; either way, the talking is based on terms that affect them both.
On the other hand, inherent in the idea of the postscript is the coming afterward of the script. Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales are written in sequence, The Tidewater Tales the sequel. It is also suggested that Peter Sagamore's last name might indicate the attempt to add to the text; Peter's father was a German immigrant: "The word is not given in our German-English dictionary: Sage mehr ('Say more'), we wonder, metamorphosed by some immigration clerk like many another new American's name" (TT
31). This suggestion, is ironic considering that Peter has been trying to "say more" by saying less, but is consistent with the sequential nature of Barth's last two books, the anticipated delivery by Peter of a substantial work of fiction, and, in fact, the heft of The Tidewater Tales, both in itself and in relation to Sabbatical.
Susan's decision to abort her child in Sabbatical had been made, in the past tense, in The Tidewater Tales; Lee and Frank, the "people" on whom the characters Susan and Fenn are "based," decide to try to get pregnant in The Tidewater Tales, something that did not happen, could not have happened, to Susan and Fenn in Sabbatical. We read The Tidewater Tales having read Sabbatical, having a prior knowledge of the conflict. Though, if we read Sabbatical first, The Tidewater Tales has not yet come into play, we anticipate, because of the incompleteness of Sabbatical, something else.
At the end of Sabbatical, Fenn, in a state of euphoric discovery, explains to unconvinced Susan that the story, "this story," "Our Story," Sabbatical, is their child. The Tidewater Tales makes it clear from its conception, so to speak, that, though they are intertwined, "lives are not stories" (TT 142).
Leah Talbott sets Peter up for a direct response to the predicament of Sabbatical: "You generate your stories, and your stories generate your readers. Frank and I are your . children." In other words, Peter has written them
into his tidewater tales. "Says Peter carefully, who is not always bad at intuiting situations, Nope:11--his colon introduces the next chapter: "A Story is Not a Child" (TT 410).
Peter has made it clear that telling a story is only like living. Fenn and Susan's story can be their offspring but only in a sense. They have created it; they have come together and in coming together have produced. Peter and Katherine have found that, though they cannot write and tell a story that is their lives, they can create their lives in writing and telling a story. That is, writing and telling can be a part of their living.
Narration and the Use of "Non-Fictionol
Typically, a critic of Barth will read the fiction in terms that Barth establishes in his nonfiction. For example, Charles B. Harris says in Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth, "Significantly, from the corpus of his own work Barth cites LETTERS as an example of postmodernism, which suggests that 'The Literature of Replenishment' will prove as indispensable a guide through the intricacies of this novel as 'The Literature of Exhaustion' has for Lost in the Funhousell (161). Harris frames his entire book with the indispensable-guide theory. In Alan Prince's "An Interview with John Barth," Barth speaks of "passionate virtuosity" as the relation between technique and art. I'm not, here, concerned as much with
what Barth means by "passionate virtuosity" as with Harris's use of the term: "So important is this sentiment to Barth's esthetics that he includes it with only minor revision in Chimera (1972, p. 24), allowing the genie, his obvious surrogate in the novel, to speak the words" (3). Rather than involving himself in the fundamental question of the connection between fiction and nonfiction, the question of authorship, into which Barth's self-quotation seems to force us, Harris assumes that Chimera is elevated by the addition of the nonfiction, that the statement made outside the work of fiction stands alone, and, of course, that the author and a particular character can be spoken of as one. In "The Essay as Aesthetic Mirror: John Barth's 'Exhaustion' and 'Replenishment,"' Elaine B. Safer makes the reading of Barth's fiction in terms of his essays the whole of her argument: "The essays on 'Exhaustion' and 'Replenishment' thus cast light on what Barth has done in the past and call attention to the shorter form [of fiction] that he, theoretically, would like to use in the future" (116).
The assumption that the terms of nonfiction are more
stable (that they are, indeed, established) and the reading of fiction that is based on this assumption define a traditional method of critical inquiry. Because Barth's work questions the distinction between the poles of truth and falsehood, order and chaos, and because it is a reorganization from the "beginning," to assume the rigidness
or the primacy of his nonfiction is dangerous, if not directly oppositional to the texts themselves.
When Barth speaks of moving "beyond," for example, we read the term knowing that he understands and even respects the connection of things--of texts to "reality," one text to another, etc. So we cannot think of moving beyond, in Barth, as getting outside.
In The Floating Opera, Barth's first novel, Todd
Andrews is preoccupied with talking about his idea of order. We find early on that his interest is not simply a facet of his "character" or an incidental aesthetic orientation shared by his author, but that on his idea of order wavers his life--not only the "fictive" life of Todd Andrews, but the life of narration:
It seems to me that any arrangement of things at
all is an order. If you agree, it follows that my
room was as orderly as any room can be, even though the order was an unusual one. (FO 10)
The narrator speaks, implicitly, against the idea of order as an absolute, against the possibility that there is one perfect system. His room does not illustrate absolute order, but rather "an" order based on a particular system of ideas or images. Since any group of things is an arrangement (if for no other reason than its relation to the group), and therefore everything is arranged, since, in other words, arranging always takes place, it makes no sense to speak of a system as more or less orderly--the narrator's room, therefore, "was as orderly as any room can be."
In "Some Reasons Why I Tell the Stories I Tell the Way I Tell Them Rather Than Some Other Stories Some Other Way,"1 Barth sees himself involved in the process of narration:
At heart I'm an arranger still, whose chiefest
literary pleasure is to take a received melody--an
old narrative poem, a classical myth, a shopworn literary convention, a shard of my experience, a
New York Times Book Review series--and,
improvising like a jazzman within its constraints,
reorchestrate it to present purpose. (FB 7)
We should be careful not to read this statement of Barth's as the thing that is. We should read it in terms of the system it proposes to find out how the system works. We might be tempted to think of Bart h's "definition" of himself as a comment on Todd Andrew's. But if either statement describes the process of narration, using them as "definitions" that can be lifted out of one text undisturbed and applied to the other, assuming, in other words, we can pick out the Todd Andrews or the John Barth from either of them or that Todd Andrews and John Barth are identical, is contradictory. By speaking of himself, in the context of narration, as an "arranger," Barth speaks implicitly of order as an activity--rather than being a thng it is done to things--and arranging as the process of narration.
Right- or wrongness, though, make little sense in
talking about the texts of John Barth (or any texts, for that matter). With absolute order goes the possibility of correctness. Right- and wrongness are of no use in discussing process (or texts in any other terms because of their connection to narration). Right- and wrongness
nevertheless are always present as the things moved beyond. To leave absolute order behind is never to get rid of absoluteness; the narrator, rather, considers his own process and thereby involves himself in ordering.
Barth confronts a theory of activity in terms of
polemical argumentation in the "Literature of Exhaustion"~ "the language of action consists of rest as well as movement. . Nothingness is necessarily and inextricably the background against which Being, et cetera" (IB 67, 68). His 'let cetera" implies that the argument almost goes without saying. In order to say 'let cetera," he must allow the premise, on which the argument is based, to tag along. Not only is a theory of opposition (the necessity of both and) upheld, it is included. But included as the orientation, which, of course, entails movement, toward a theory of narration:
I decided I'd spend my professional academic life
saying all the things that go without saying:
staring first principles and basic distinctions
out of countenance; facing them down, for my
students' benefit and my own, until they confess
new information. What is literature? What is
fiction? What is a story? (FB 11)
Todd Andrews never "mastered first principles" (FO 60) either, and his statement attests to the fact. "First principles" are precisely that which cannot be "mastered." He says of his suicide--"I could master the fact of my living with [my heart condition] by destroying myself" (fO 227). Since mastery is a state of being, to exist it must extend beyond the act. Todd Andrews would only be "master"
after his death and by then, by his own logic, he would not be at all.
At the showboat Jeannine "slipped into the 'Why?' routine":
"Why What?" I asked. "Why do the actors act
funny or why do the people like to watch them?"
"Why do the people?"
"The people like to go to the show because it
makes them laugh. They like to laugh at the
"They like to laugh because laughing makes them
happy. They like being happy, just like you." . .
"Why do they like being happy? That's the end
of the line. 11 (FO 199)
Todd Andrew's "whole life has been directed toward the solution of a problem, or mastery of a fact" (FO 16). One could propose a particular answer, but "always something would happen to demonstrate its inadequacy" (FO 16). There is never a satisfactory answer to the question "Why?" One can't move back to one static cause of life. The questions "What is literature?" and "What is fiction?" ask the same of us--that we discover an identity or write a definition that will stick. Definition is by definition inadequate; it is a limitation rather than a universalization. The questions themselves are inadequate. "Information" is exactly what they cannot supply.
It could be argued that the necessity of inadequacy is the kind of "new information" of which Barth speaks. In "The Literature of Exhaustion" he suggests that by taking inadequacy into account a writer can do something new: "[Borges'] artistic victory, if you like, is that he
confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new human work" (FB 69-70). Though this passage is often quoted, it is not, in itself, representative of Barth's point of view. He suggests in "Tales Within Tales Within Tales" that works have always taken themselves into account: "that is . stories within stories, which always to some degree imply stories about stories and even stories about storytglling--that this phenomenon is ancient, ubiquitous, and persistent; almost as old and various, I suspect, as the narrative impulse itself" (fB 221). We can even wonder about his "almost": in "The Title of This Book" he comes straight out with it: "literature, like language, is seldom simply but always also about itself" (FB xii).
Barth's inconsistency is not the issue, but it suggests that when he speaks of "new information" he is posing a theory of origination as process. one of Borges' characters, Pierre Menard, re-creates several chapters of the Quixote. "It would have been sufficient," Barth says, "for Menard to attribute the novel to himself in order to have a new work of art, from the intellectual point of view." That is, the addition of the name "Pierre Menard" would require a different reading, one in terms of a new author and all the baggage--scholarly, philosophic, what have you--that inevitably goes along with it. "Pierre Menard" would make the Quixote something other. Barth
distinguishes, though, Borges from this "intellectual" idea of difference:
But the important thing to observe is that Borges
doesn't attribute the Ouixote to himself, much
less recompose it like Pierre Menard; instead, he
writes a remarkable and original work of
literature, the implicit theme of which is the
difficulty, perhaps the necessity, of writing
original works of literature. (FB 69)
Implicit in Barth's discussion of originality is the understanding that texts are connected to other texts. An original work, therefore, is not one that is outside or that has no relation to the past. A work of literature is "created" not out of nothingness but in relation to nothingness. A text is "original" to the extent that it involves itself inoricfination--not simply a going back but a coming into being. Texts are made new. Borges, nevertheless, wrote the passages that Pierre Menard recreated and so involves himself in the creation of a narrative event and involves his story in its own creation.
Barth speaks of originality in one of two ways. Either
(1) originality is contained in absolute paradox and so is effectively cancelled out (Borges writes an original work about the impossibility of originality); "originality" in other words carries only the meaning of its own paradoxical impossibility. or (2) there are two senses of "original": the original before which there was nothing and evolutionary origination in which every work takes part; there is no "need" to write "original" works of literature ("original"
in the first sense) because works of literature inevitably involve themselves in origination.
I take up Barth's first novel not (as will be assumed) to discover the cause of the works that come after it, to unearth the rudiments of Barth"s "budding genius," but because The Floating Opera rethinks beginning. I go back to The Floating Opera not as the Todd Andrews who begins his Inquiry as "an attempt to learn why [his] father hanged himself" (FO 218, emphasis mine), and not even as the Todd Andrews who understands that "it is another thing to examine this information and see in it, so clearly that to question is out of the question, the cause of a human act" (FO 218). Even the revision of the purpose of his Inguiry to this new understanding is inadequate: "In fact, it's impossible, for as Hume pointed out, causation is never more than an inference; and any inference involves at some point the leap from what we see to what we can't see. Very well. It's the purpose of my Inquiry to shorten as much as possible the distance over which I must leap" (FO 218). He has decided to continue, knowing that he cannot solve the problem. His purpose, he says, "is not really to leap the gap . only to shorten it" (FO 219). At this point he is satisfied by simply continuing; he is satisfied by the "activity" of inertial movement--movement devoid of change.
I go back, rather, as the Todd Andrews who, out of the Inquiry, composes a novel.
Sabbatical, like The Floating Opera, is based on an intellectual pursuit. Fenn and Susan have taken the sabbatical to decide what to do with their lives--Susan whether to take a position at Swarthmore, Fenn whether to go on doing what he's been doing, and both of them whether to have a child. And, like The Floating opera, the narration of the story is moved out in front of the intellectual bind. At the beginning the question "Why?" is made a matter of substance (both essential to the text's relation to the "intellect" and material to its relation to the "things" talked about):
After sundown we see against broken clouds the
reflected glow of city lights from below the
horizon ahead: Virginia Beach, Fenn reckons, and
hopes we're far enough offshore. The name catches Susan's breath; brings tears to her eyes. Fenwick
knows why. (S 10-11)
As we will see in Chapter II, why the name "Virginia Beach" brings tears to Susan's eyes is caught up in the decision making (or lack of decision making) of the entire text. The extraordinarily brutal rape, in Virginia Beach, of Susan's twin sister and the moronic child that is the product of the rape obviously affect Susan's contradictory desires about having children. Her tears at the mentioning of "Virginia Beach" can be read as a reflection of the impetus of the conflict between her and Fenn, the reason for their sabbatical voyage, the reason, in fact, for Sabbatical.
But as I said the question is essential to the story. In this passage the narrator is concerned more with positioning than with the impossibility of deciding or the
inevitable assumption of a cause. They see "against" the clouds light that is "reflected" from "below" the horizon "ahead." From his observation of the position of the light Fenn estimates his own position and wonders whether they are "far enough offshore." The glow of city lights is out in front of Susan and Fenn just as the story of Mimi's rape is projected out in front of the present bind, the lack of knowledge about why Susan is crying. The narration proceeds by placing the story out in front.1
Sabbatical takes place at what is to be the end of
their voyage. But it is about be ginning. one can infer, then, that Sabbatical is also necessarily about the relation between beginning and end. The narrator looks at narration as a putting things in order:
okay, he decides, and consults the compass over Susan's shoulder, wondering the while what words
best follow Once upon a time.
Blam! Blooev!. (S 11)
The story has, of course, already begun by the time we get to the words "Blam! Blooev!.11 The words do "follow," though, the phrase "Once upon a time" and so even though "Blam! and "Blooey!" do not begin, they question the sequence of events in terms of beginning. Though "A dialogue on Diction" takes place "three days later, safely at anchor in Poe Cove, Key Island, Virginia," since it
In the case of Fenn's cardiac episode and Susan's abortion "placing out in front" becomes a putting-off or displacement of the story (they decide to wait to tell each other about the particular events) and so serves as much to disrupt the progression of the story.
concerns the appropriateness of the use of "Blam! Blooev!" it comes next. The use of "Blam! Blooey!" has already been questioned implicitly by its juxtaposition to the archetypal opening line of a story--"once upon a time." The discussion of its relation to the tradition seems to follow naturally.
Susan, the scholar of the two, falls back easily to the foundations of philosophical division:
S: In the Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes
between lexis and melos--"speech" and "song"--and
discusses them separately, since in Attic drama
there really were both spoken dialogue and choral
songs. (S 12)
When she teaches Aristotle she "combines[s] lexis and melos into the general heading of Language. Under that heading she consider[s] all questions of tone, style, diction, the effective management of dialogue, the strategic deployment of metaphor, and what have you" (S 12). Susan wonders about the use of language in terms of the tradition and at the same time rearranges Aristotle's categories, using "language" as the term under which lexis and melos are interrelated, speaking of both lexis and melos as aspects of "style," "diction," etc.
She also reads their beginning in terms of the history of fiction:
S: So: after a splendid four-thousand-year
tradition of sea-voyage fiction, from the Egyptian
papyrus of the Shipwrecked Sailor, said to be the
oldest story in the world . to Crane and
Conrad, all with their big set-pieces of tempest
and shipwreck, . we proudly enter the
narrative lists with Blam and Blooey. (S 13)
Fenn turns her questioning of the quality of narration into a discussion of narrative technique: "I used to read books in college days. Those blokes all has a little warning, for Christ's sake; an effing foreshadow or two, you know? But us: Blam! Blooev!" (Q. 13). Fenn speaks of warning as foreshadow; he says, in effect, since we had no warning we should not include foreshadow, but he does so by speaking of the event written about in terms of speaking about the event, in terms of narration; he says the storm itself, described by the words "Blam! Blooey!" and the story "A Storm at Sea," was not foreshadowed. So one cannot differentiate the storm from the narration of the event that is the storm.
By deciding to "begin" their story with the storm they make narration its topic and define narration as the development of a new order. Susan and Fenn haggle over another point of diction and include it in the narrative:
F: I'll make you a deal: I'll take out every
effing in the script except the ones in this
passage, and those I'll soften to "effing."1
S: I can live with that.
F: But blam and blooey stay.
"Effing" has always already, within the text, been edited. Fenn says "I will soften the ones in this passage to 'effing" but, by including the promise in the narrative, underscores the pervasiveness of rearrangement. We never see the word to which "effing" refers. Fenn meshes the idea of what "really happened" with the narration of their story:
F: My finger was on the effing starter-button!
I was wondering what to say to you after Susie and
Fenn. Then Blam! Blooev! (S 14)
Story and narration coincide and thereby reduce any argument based on the reality of events outside the text to irrelevancy. What "really happened" were the words "Blam! Blooey''I
The theory of language and the story come together in the story's narration.
Because so few articles have been written about Sabbatical (the book itself has been out of print for several years, though it was published in 1982) and so little said about The Tidewater Tales (it came out in 1987), the water would seem to be uncharted. In fact though, because the reading of Barth's work is disturbingly narrow and, as I have pointed out, firmly established, there is no indication that the trend will not continue. Thus, I am writing about Barth's work under the pressure of an establishment. Most of the criticism I consult is considered in terms of these two most recent books of Barth only by extension, but even so, I find myself arguing against the possibility of the application to Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales of the assumptions made in these widely accepted methods of criticism.
Unlike Harris's Passionate Virtuosity, for example,
this dissertation attempts more than an explanation of John
Barth or even of a particular idea in the books of John Barth. Insofar as the writing of his books make up, in part, his life and insofar as the relations between living and writing are what his books are about, yes, this is about John Barth. But it is also a discussion of ways to read, in critical terms, the relation between metaphor and narration and the effect that relation has on reading and writing in general.
This is why the theory I work with is more integral to this dissertation than the discarding of the criticism. As my bibliography will attest, the work of Jacques Derrida is essential to my understanding of the work of John Barth. I hesitate, though, to say that I apply Derrida to Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, because any "use" of Derrida will constitute a reading. The work of Derrida initiates a dialogue and an interpretation at least as extensive as the work of Barth. I would rather s ay that my study constitutes a double reading, of both the work of John Barth and some of the recent theories ab out language and literature. Because of Barth's tendency to grapple with the more difficult and provocative issues in language, his books call for this double reading.
This dissertation is divided into four chapters, each of which corresponds to the reading of a "figure" or a "metaphor" and a discussion of its consequences on the reading, writing, and telling of stories. I should point out beforehand that the terms figure and metaphor are part
of our subject in that the assumption they carry, the assumption that the figure or metaphor is distinct from the meaning or the idea it conveys, is shown by the figures themselves to be misleading.
"Circling The Question of Knowledge" explores the way in which the circle, as a model for the text, questions our ability to understand the text and places itself in opposition to a narrative, which is to say a sequential, organization of events. The hermeneutic circle describes the necessary presupposition of a knowledge of the thing to be understood and so questions the validity of interpretation generally. The hermeneutic circle can be thought of graphically both as a circular path, challenging the notions of beginning and end, and as an enclosure, challenging the traditional understanding of the inside and the outside of the text. Titles in The Tidewater Tales and the quotation of the "first line" in Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales tend to act according to the circular logic of hermeneutics because neither gives us a means of establishing textual or narrative limits. Though we do not ever see the closure of the text or the story, they describe themselves as an enclosure. Those who would try to understand the enclosure, which would require exceeding it to get a view of the whole, would find themselves caught within. Getting out of the circle of hermeneutics is problematic because any attempt to exceed the orbit of the text, to read it transcendentally, reinscribes the circle.
on the other hand, the sequentiality of Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales would tend to disrupt any notion of their circling because the circling text would suggest a linguistic collapsing of time. The circling text is shown to be a sham; to understand the text as a circle requires a breaching of logic because a sequentiality always imposes itself.
In "Abortion Stories" I show that abortion is connected to a decision concerning the organization of the woman's life and the orderliness of the text. Barth's considering the text as the body of the woman is consequential for them both. I describe the abortion of the text as a disposal because this term indicates both the attempt to arrange and the attempt to get rid of what is aborted. Susan's abortion in Sabbatical reflects Fenn's attempt at discarding various drafts of their story and their continual discussion about the organization of the story they are a part of, "the story of their life." Getting rid of a text will leave behind the trace of an erasure, so that what is missing comes to be what the text is about. Because the Y is the structure of decision-making (of analysis and synthesis), it is the source of Sabbatical's narrative abortion. Fenn and Susan discover that the terms by which they divide their world, by which an analysis would be made, are inappropriate and that in the synthetic moment the prior division is reestablished, so that a decision cannot be made. Abortion is not a neat metaphor for the self-destruction of the text or the death
of fiction, rather it indicates a narrative problem whose root is in the language.
Whereas abortion describes the text and the writing of the story, "Production, Reading, Supplementarity" describes the text and the reading of the story. To think of the reader as one of the story's parent's, as Peter does in The Tidewater Tales, is to develop the notion of the production of the supplement. The Tidewater Tales illustrates the fact that reading is never simply an addition. Calling reading a production of supplements is not to say that reading occurs outside the text or that there is what might be called an outside-text. Though reading is an addition, it cannot add justanything; it is rather, as Derrida says, adding and following a thread. Because the writer does not command every aspect of the language used, the text always says something other than what the writer would mean.
One of the more dramatic effects of the supplement on
the story is its making indeterminate the story's "end." We cannot count on the story's ever being finished because supplementation is also a replacement. Every supplement describes its own need for a supplemental reading, for a replacement, so marks itself as incomplete.
"Repetition, History, Narration" is a discussion of
repetition as it relates to the displacement of the origin and the repetitious coming back, which is also a deferral, of the end and a discussion of the questioning of historical truth as it relates to the development of a narrative. What
is called the repetition of a text is not, as is generally presumed, containable or finite. A story will inevitably point out that it has been told before. Repetition operates according to Derrida's description of the fort:da of Freud in that what is "repeated" is repetition itself. Every time Fenn and Susan come back to the matter about which a decision has to be made and on which the end of their story depends, the matter is deferred; thus, the story cannot be concluded within the text. The end about which they speculate is caught up in a repetitious deferral without end. Though repetition disrupts the concepts of beginning and end and would deny the difference between the past and the future, difference inevitably marks itself and puts forward the narrative of repetition; because repetition is never absolute, it entails the possibility of a sequence, of movement in time. Rather than asking about the validity of historical truth or about the possibility of coming to the origin of the text, we should ask now, What follows the questioning of truth? "Repetition, History, Narration" demonstrates that we can neither go back to a time before repetition nor identify the "original" repetition. Because the questioning of truth leads one back, it forces one to use a methodology based on a temporality and on a sequentiality and so forces one to create a narrative, which denies, paradoxically, the possibility of arriving at the truth.
11P.S.: In Place of a Conclusion" is a sort of anticonclusion. "The Ending" of The Tidewater Tales appears to be an attempt to complete the story and to mark the end of the text. It recognizes the desire in Barth's work to get outside the dilemmas language poses and, indeed, to get outside of the text itself. Primarily, for the writer in The Tidewater Tales, it is the dichotomy between the textual and the real that needs to be overcome. "The Ending" is ironic in that it questions the possibility of ending and so the possibility of an outside. In this conclusion that is not a conclusion I ask, To what extent are the implications that are inscribed in a system that proposes the validity of the concept of the end (in particular the distinction between the real and the textual) assumed in turning that system against itself? Each time we are led to the edge of the text, pushed toward the "real," we are wrapped back into both the text and the dichotomy between the textual and the real, which compels us to move to an "outside."
THE QUESTION OF KNOWLEDGE
I will begin CIRCLING as if you already know about
Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales. Though their moving in circles (or in a circle) would seem to place us outside the texts, in developing an understanding of them, we will find ourselves already involved.
If, as readers, we are literally circling with the texts we interpret, the questions that seem to pose themselves (how do we begin to understand a text we are a part of, and how do we step off the circle, how do we take knowledge with us and perhaps even use it in reading, in becoming involved with, other texts?) are actually part of a presupposition about the shape of texts. The question of Knowledge is bound to the circling of Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, but it cannot accurately be said to be posed at the beginning or end of their reading, because the shape of the stories will have already circumvented the possibility of an absolute beginning or end. Therefore, the problem that always presents itself in the inscription of
the circle is the connection between, which is the effacement of, beginning and ending.
The question of the circle, as an issue in the theory of interpretation and in the breakdown of logic has, of course, its history. I make these statements about Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales within the context of a theoretical and philosophical tradition--that of hermeneutics--and within the context of an issue inseparable from a general theory of interpretation: the hermeneutic circle.
Schleiermacher is thought of as the first in a line of four major theorists of hermeneutics, including Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer.1 Schleiermacher described hermeneutics as the "art of understanding" and thereby helped to make the circle the figure of interpretation. Since understanding is referential (that is, since we understand by the comparison of things), what we understand forms itself into "systematic unities, or circles made up of parts" (Palmer 87). The circle as a whole defines the individual parts, while the parts together describe the circle. The hermeneutic circle can also be described in terms of the context of an idea or a work, what Schleiermacher called the work's "horizon." The meaning of a text is derived from its context, its relation to other texts, and yet the context is composed of
1 See, for example, Palmer, on whom the following discussion of Schleiermacher and Dilthey is based.
the texts for which meaning is sought. The relation between the whole and the part is, therefore, dialectical--each gives the other meaning. since a dialectical relation is one that is logically circular, understanding, according to Schleiermacher, takes the circle as its model.
Schleiermacher himself is, of course, part of a circle of understanding about the development of the theory of interpretation; by his own definition, his work can only be understood in terms of its larger context. Richard Palmer discusses, in his Hermeneutics, two forerunners of Schleiermacher (Ast and Wolf) who form that context. And Gadamer, in Truth and M~ethod, shows us that the principle of the hermeneutic circle stems from ancient rhetoric, specifically, from the dialogic question and answer:
There is no such thing as a method of learning to
ask questions, of learning to see what needs to be
questioned. On the contrary, the example of
Socrates teaches that the important thing is the
knowledge that one does not know. . All questioning and desire to know presuppose a
knowledge that one does not know. .. (329) This presupposition is what leads one to a particular question; it is also the "problem" with the hermeneutic circle because it involves a logical contradiction. As Palmer puts it, "if we must grasp the whole before we can understand the parts, then we shall never understand anything" (87).
The fact that the hermeneutic circle presupposes a
knowledge of the thing to be understood brings to question the validity of the circle as a model of understanding.
Schliermacher contended that the concept of the hermeneutic circle is not invalid, but that logic cannot account for the operation of understanding. In fact, understanding requires an intuitive "leap" into the hermeneutic circle, and we thereby understand the whole and the parts together. Suggesting the possibility of an intuitive leap seems to beg the question of how one begins to understand, to beg the question of the circle's validity in terms of its logic. The question immediately posed by the circle is this: how can one understand anything if understanding entails the presupposition of knowledge about the thing? To say that understanding is partly intuitive is to say that we do understand, to assume the very thing that is being questioned.
Dilthey points out that, since every part presupposes the others, there is no true starting point for understanding. In other words, there can be no "presuppositionless" understanding (Palmer 120-21). Doing away with the idea of a starting point has as a consequence doing away with the need for a "leap" into the circle. Heidegger agrees with Schleiermacher that understanding "is not to be reduced to a vicious circle," but not that the circle's "problem" of logic is itself to be circumscribed by intuition. For Heidegger, the circle of understanding is itself the expression of what he calls the "fore-structure": "All interpretation," which he defines as "the working out of the possibilities projected in understanding," "operates
in the fore-structure. .. Any interpretation, which is to contribute understanding, must already have understood what is to be interpreted" (Heidegger 189, 194).
In Aristotle the "Problem" can only be described
dialectically: "the word problema refers to those questions that appear as open alternatives because there is evidence for both views and we think that they cannot be decided by reasons, since the questions involved are too great." Problems, therefore, are "alternatives that can only be accepted as themselves and thus can only be treated in a dialectical way" (Gadamer 339). If the critique of the concept of the problem is organized by a logic of question and answer (which is what Gadamer says has happened, in neokantianism, for example), then the nature of the problem as dialectical has from the start been contradicted: "Reflection on the hermeneutical experience transforms problems back to questions that arise and that derive their sense from their motivation" (340). In other words, in trying to account for the hermeneutic "problem" we will find ourselves part of a circle that has not yet been taken into account.
That is why, for Dilthey, the task of the interpreter is not that of immersing oneself totally in the object of interpretation (which would be impossible anyway) but rather that of finding viable modes of interaction of one's own horizon with that of the text (Palmer 121) and why Heidegger says that "what is decisive is not to get out of the circle"
(195) but to work out the fore-structures of the interpretation. "Working out" the fore-structures does not bring us to the truth about the text or even about the forestructures. The only "objectivity" in Heidegger's system, Gadamer says, is "the confirmation of a fore-meaning in its being worked out" (237).
There are two ways of thinking about our involvement in the circle graphically, both of which pose problems for the interpretation of texts. We can think of texts, and ourselves with them, as moving along a circular path and thereby questioning the relation between beginning and end and even the validity of beginning and end as terms with which to describes texts. And we can think of the circle as an enclosure, which would lead us to position texts, and ourselves with them, with regard to the relation between inside and outside.
Titles and Quotations and Quotations of Titles
Where one should begin--with what metaphor, for example, or at what chronological point in the story--must be confronted, given a structure that would tend to deny a beginning and an end and to de-temporalize time. To say that I will begin CIRCLING does not consider the problem with beginning that has already presented itself: it assumes,, for instance, that the title is exterior, outside the circle of the "text proper." In The Tidewater Tales titles are shown to be involved with the development of the
story and text, in effect, circling with the text, so that even they cannot be cited as beginnings.
There are several types of doubling or folding of the title in The Tidewater Tales, types which complicate the circling of the text: (1) the phrase "the tidewater tales" is reiterated in comments about the story being told; (2) the narrator quotes the title in telling the story of The Tidewater Tales; (3) title pages "inside" the text begin again the tidewater tales; and (4) the title pages at the so-called upper and lower limits of the text appear to frame the "text proper."
In "Title (to be specified)" Jacques Derrida uses the
example of La-Folie du jour to describe the relation between the title and the same words met elsewhere in the text. We meet various combinations of the terms of the title The Tidewater Tales throughout The Tidewater Tales, so Derrida's discussion is directly applicable to our first complication. Though when the words are used in a statement inside the text they do not have the same function as the title, the doubling brings into question the possibility of discovering the original performance of the terms. As part of a statement, "the tidewater tales" or a phrase such as "these tales" "will not have title-value," as Derrida says, because they will not have the same nominal role; that is, the same words met elsewhere will not serve to name the text as does the title ("Title" 13). The title occurs, properly speaking, on the border of the text, and though it is "still
part of a so-called literary fiction. . it does not play a role in the same fashion as what is found inside the same fiction." Though, in their ability to force upon us a return, the terms of the title function as a quotation, the title itself is not, in Derrida's terms, "citational": "In the duplicity of this occurrence it is impossible to say which is the original and which repeats the other" ("Title" 14).
The narrator of The Tidewater Tales, unlike the
narrator of La Folie du jour, also quotes the title in telling about telling the story, 'leasing back into our rentpaying labors while working up our coupled viewpoint for The Tidewater Tales: A Novel" (TT 643). This quotation, or reputation, has essentially the same effect as the repetition of the same words inside the text, but the effect comes about in a slightly different manner. The quotation would seem to designate this book, The Tidewater Tales, the one we can hold in our hands, 656 pages long, copyright 1987. But, apparently, the one the narrator is talking about is not yet written, the viewpoint not yet "worked up." And that will always be the case with this type of reference. When the narrator quotes the title of this book, The Tidewater Tales will not have ended. That will always be the case, even if, as we will see, the words "The Tidewater Tales" are what would usually be called the last line of the text.
At the apparent end of the section "Our Story," there occurs these lines (in reference to the "Ordinary Point Delivery Story" being told and to the "forthcoming" "book"):
(with the last line still unglossed) there
unfolds-This Book: (TT 82)
On the following page a title, partly a quotation--The Tidewater Tales plus an expanded subtitle--seems to designate a book separated from what is thereby marked as introductory:
WHITHER THE WIND LISTETH
OUR HOUSE'IS INCREASE:
This (what can it be called?) partly "new" non-titling title has a dual function. It is both part of a statement within and about the story and a title in itself. Though it is connected by a colon to the previous line, it has its own page, in effect a title page, and there is no end punctuation to assure us of its placement in the discourse of the previous passage or of "The Ordinary Point Delivery Story."
The colon preceding the title page has the effect of negating the introductoriness of the introduction by connecting the two sections narratively. What follows a colon is, according to the organization of grammar, an example or an elaboration of that which precedes it. In
other words this book is the "glossing" of "This Book:" (TT 82). If the last line remains "unglossed," as the narrator claims, it is only because the book, as well as the "introduction," cannot be said to have come to an end, because for neither of them is there a "last line" per se.
The Tidewater Tales "concludes" with another title page:
A NOVEL. (TT 656)
This title page, after which nothing seems to follow, has the effect of leading us back. It functions as the quotation of a title, so questions the possibility of coming to an end; we would have to place "beginning" in quotation marks as well, because finding the original statement is problematic. It cannot be determined whether the title at the supposed last line of the text quotes or is the referent for another quotation, the quotation of itself. In relation to La Folie du !our Derrida has called this type of quotation of quotation the "chiasmatic invagination of the borders,," each of which is the quotation of the other. This organization "does not allow us to discern in the reading the indivisible limit of a beginning from an end. It carries away the condition for every dictatorial emergence of a title, the title implying these critical effects of the border, the possibility of discerning indivisible borders" ("Title" 20).
In "Living On: Border Lines" Derrida suggests that one of the reasons that the limits of the book are indistinct is that, with books such as La Folie du jour, there are no graphic signals to indicate a distinction:
The starting edge will have been the quotation (at
first not recognizable as such) of a narrative
fragment that in turn will merely be quoting its quotation. For all these quotations, quotations
of requotations with no original performance,
there is no speech act not already the iteration
of another, no circle and no quotation marks to reassure us about the identity, opposition, or
distinction of speech events. (96)
The title page at the supposed end of The Tidewater Tales is the quotation of a quotation (TT 83) of a quotation (TT 5) (not including the cover of the book). There are at least four title pages, one of them, as we have seen, well within what would usually be called the text proper, none of which is distinguished by quotation marks. Though each of them has its differences, both contextual and graphic (I have not attempted to represent the spacing of lines, the level of boldness, or, least of all, the style of type), never does the difference allow us to place, with any sense of security, one title in relation to another.
Titles in The Tidewater Tales are also part of the
circling of the story. This might best be illustrated by the "lower level" titles or titles of what one traditionally calls the titles of chapters. (The divisions of The Tidewater Tales tend to disrupt traditional notions about the hierarchy of parts divided and about the relation between the parts and the "whole" text. Designating the
divisions with terms such as Part, Section, or Chapter would give the hierarchical organization of divisions a validity. We might find that not suggesting the hierarchy is impossible; quotation marks can only question a term--they cannot render its meanings neutral.) Often the titles will carry as much weight in the telling of the story as the "chapters themselves." For example, these are two consecutive chapters quoted (if this is possible) in their entirety:
TIME FOR LUNCH.
Skip lunch. (TT 49)
One chapter would be empty of a "text proper" but for the points of ellipsis that indicate its emptiness:
IN ADVANCED AS IN EARLY PREGNANCY,
A WOMAN'S APPETITE MAY BE CAPRICIOUS
BUT WHY DID PETER SAGAMORE EAT NO LUNCH,
EITHER IN THE MAIN HOUSE OR IN THE FIRST GUEST COTTAGE?
. (TT 53)
The following title includes its own points of ellipsis and is the "chapter itself":
AH SO. EVEN THE BO, THEN, AS WE HAD FEARED . .
The most dramatic of these titles is the 463-word title of a chapter that reads simply, "Ahem" (TT 73). "Ahem" is the breath taken after the recitation of its long-winded title. It is ironic that the chapter is simply a comment on its title, the reverse of what is usually expected of the relation between titles and their texts. one of the
functions of the title, according to Gerard Genette, is the designation of the "'content' of the text" (711). Though the "content" of a text is undeterminable, and though the term thematic used to describe this type of title is ambiguous, "thematic titles dominate the picture widely today" (715). Being a comment on the length of the title is doubly ironic because it makes the relation between titles and their texts one of the subjects of the chapter, a subject that is not, apparently, part of the title itself. That 463-word title is, in fact, longer than half of the chapters in the first of the largest divisions. The point, here, is this: if we have to consider the title (or titles) as part of the circling text or as part of the circling story about the text, we can no longer cite a title as the location of a beginning. We are already on the circle.
Another way to approach the difficulty of beginning is to question the supposed first line of a text. Sabbatical might seem to begin with the quotation of a poem thus:
"There was a story that began,
Said Fenwick Turner: Susie and Fenn-Oh, tell that story! Tell it again!
Wept Susan Seckler . 11 (S 9)
"'There was a story that began,"' refers to a story already told. In "The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses," Barth calls these verses "a kind of standing joke between" Fenn and Susan. What makes it funny to them, and this is the case with all standing jokes, is its being "repeated" (FB 240). Hence, our double quotation marks and
Barth's indenting the verses, which serves to indicate their repetition as well as their genre. Being the archetypal introduction of a story, it would tend to lull its readers into analytical complacency; it offers itself simply as a sign (like any other sign) marking this point the "beginning." But as an introduction to Sabbatical, it is ironic and complex. It is suggested that the story will begin after the opening line, specifically with the italicized words Susie and Fenn, but, in fact, it has already begun. "'There was a story . is a part of the story that is about problematic beginnings, a part of Sabbatical. Barth says that "Fenwick Turner says 'there was a story that began,' etc., but in fact he has not yet begun the story he knows is there to be told" (FB 240). We are not in contradiction, though we might seem to be. The story Fenn proposes to tell might not yet be read as the story of Sabbatical. As we read on, though, we find that Sabbatical is all there is of Fenn's story and he, in fact, claims it as his own. Fenn's story and the story of Sabbatical are being repeated but have not yet begun. To say that a story has already begun or, to be emphatic about it, always already begun is to say that the beginning cannot be localized, that there is no location by which we can cite the beginning, which is to say that the beginning has not actually occurred--it has not taken place so does not exist in such a way that it can be found or met with, which is to
say that the story has not yet begun. We circle in Sabbatical between the already and the not yet.
Graybeard Fenn would be happy to give it another
go; we2 have fiddled with our tale through this
whole sabbatical voyage: down the Intracoastal in the fall in our cruising sailboat, Pokey, Wye I.,
from Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico and
across to Yucatan; all about the Caribbean islandhopping through the mild winter of 1980; and in
May through our first lazy open-ocean passage
from St. John in the U.S. Virgins direct for the Virginia Capes, Chesapeake Bay, Wye Island, the closing of the circle, sabbatical's end. (a 9)
Apparently, Fenn has told the story before or tried to: this is "another go," another telling or at least another attempt at beginning. Fenn and Susan's fiddling with the tale is the inevitable difficulty of getting it going. Though the sabbatical is over, or, to be precise, nearly over, they have not yet decided how to begin Sabbatical. Precision, here, is important, considering the logic of the circle. ("Sabbatical" [the voyage] comes to be conflated with "Sabbatical" [the story as well as the book], so that even the first mention of the term in the opening paragraph has to be read as meaning both the voyage and the story.) If their voyage and story are circular, the end of the sabbatical will have to be the beginning of Sabbatical. Strictly speaking, the "closing of the circle" of the voyage is not marked by the regaining of the Chesapeake Bay or even
2 This "we," which refers to Fenn and Susan, is
confusing because Fenn, who makes this speech, uses both the third person (in referring to himself) and the first person (in referring to himself and Susan); the intricacy of
Sabbatical's point of view is discussed in the "Forking" section of Chapter Ii.
landfall at Wye Island, and their story does not begin with the events described in the opening passage.
What Fenn and Susan call the "end" of the sabbatical has come to be associated with the resolution of problems Fenn and Susan faced on their setting out, principally, whether to have a child. Until that decision is made, one can speak of the "closing of the circle" only figuratively. And since theirs is a sabbatical voyage, only the mainland is an appropriate symbol of its end. As long as they have sailing to do, the decision can be made later:
Fenwick considers, then sets forth his private, no
doubt whimsical reason for preferring Solomons Island to a mainland harbor. Since the turn of
the year, we have been on or between islands.
Fenn feels, therefore, irrationally but strongly, that tying up at a mainland slip, even anchoring in a mainland cove, is tantamount to ending our
sabbatical voyage. (S 85)
Fenn's reasons are not "whimsical," though this passage in isolation might make them seem so. If they declare that their voyage is over, they have as much as decided that they have failed: "It was our hope and intention that by the end of this same voyage we would know better our hearts and minds vis-a-vis several decisions which lie ahead; but by and large, we don't, yet" (S 83-84). It is their salvation as a couple that the decisions "lie ahead." "In short, let's stay with islands, enisled, isolated, until we know better our main landfall. Maybe we'll know after Washington and Baltimore" (S 84).
It turns out that Washington and Baltimore are locations that mark events that shape the story of
Sabbatical. In Washington, Fenn meets his friend, Dougald Taylor, who was a colleague of Fenn's when Fenn was in the CIA and who is still on the payroll. Fenn sees Doog, as they call him, because he might have information about Fenn's brother, Manfred, an upper-level CIA officer who has been missing for over a year, and Manfred's son, Gus, a Marxist plumber who has been missing since he went to Chile to work against the CIA's intervention there. Doog knows little, beyond the obvious possibilities, about Manfred's disappearance. But he reveals to Fenn that Gus's mother, Carmen, who happens also to be Susan's mother, was in effect offered the option of ransoming Gus, who might still be alive as a political prisoner in Chile, by becoming an agent of the CIA. Fenn's son, Orrin, might even be approached by the CIA. And Fenn is offered by Doog himself the option of doubling, if he is approached by a foreign agency, in exchange for further information about Manfred and Gus. And, perhaps most importantly, Fenn is warned by Doog that the Agency might have come up with an untraceable inducer of cardiac arrest. Fenn is a prime target for this type of liquidation because he has had a heart attack before and because his expose' of illegal CIA activities has made him many CIA enemies. On the bus from Washington, Fenn has a minor cardiac episode.
Because Fenn had once been involved with the CIA it is impossible to disentangle his life from the movement of that agency. It does not matter that he joined the CIA to
"neutralize [Manfred], if not convert him. What happened was more the opposite" (S 45). When Doog's pitch is followed up, Fenn tries to step off the circle:
It goes without saying, Marilyn Marsh says,
that you can say no.
Fenn says No.
Marcus Henry asks Is that the end of your
interest in [Manfred and Gus]?
Fenn considers. Yes. (S 304)
To know about Manfred and Gus, Fenn has to take the pitch, has to involve himself in the CIA. Fenn's "no" is ineffective, and his "yes" is an outright lie--an angry claim that he can dissociate himself from the CIA and rid himself of its influence.
Whereas Fenn's trip to Washington illustrates the
difficulty of extricating oneself from the circle, Susan's trip to Baltimore illustrates the problem of closing the circle. What happens in Baltimore is this: Susan has an abortion. What is relevant about the abortion to this argument is that she has it without discussing it with Fenn. They get pregnant without deciding to get pregnant, and so that Fenn will not be trapped into saying "have the baby," she has the abortion without Fenn's being in on the decision. Near the apparent end of the book, when the abortion story ("Susan's Friday" [a 287-97j) is told, Fenn and Susan's problems are unresolved. At the climax of the story, when it seems that they will split up, Fenn cannot even decide which way to steer the boat; they "circle slowly in mid-channel" (S 347) around the red and black buoy that
marks the splitting of the river, the point at which a decision has to be made.
At the apparent end of the book they are anchored behind Cacaway. Cacaway is "fundamental" (S 354) to Sabbatical because that is "Where It All Started" (S 193). Fenn and Orrin "rescued" Susan and her sister, Miriam, who were canoeing in wind and rough water. There, having dropped off Orrin and Miriam, Fenn and Susan made love and began their romance. The implication is that they have come full circle. But they can neither close the circle nor get off it. Though Fenn never actually accepts the pitch Doog had offered, they are up to their necks in knowledge and anxiety about the CIA. Susan conjectures that there may be "Company Safe-houses on Solomons Island right over there and on our beautiful Chesapeake River and God knows where else, maybe even on our precious Cacaway Island." Fenn interrupts, "Not on Cacaway, Susan. Never on Cacaway" (S 120), but his response is more wish than conviction.
In Sabbatical Fenn and Susan have not yet made
landfall. In The Tidewater Tales they are still sailing. It is said in The Tidewater Tales that the Talbots (the characters on whom, it seems, Fenn and Susan of Sabbatical are "based") have "closed the circle of their cruise . with so many questions unresolved" (TT 438). They have "closed the circle of their cruise" in the sense that they are back in the Chesapeake Bay. They have begun to retrace some of the passage making of a year before and even of the
beginning of their relationship. But being "where it all started," behind Cacaway, is meaningless given the definition of closure established in Sabbatical; if questions are unresolved, though Fenn and Susan have regained the Chesapeake and even Cacaway, Sabbatical cannot be said to have closed. Behind Cacaway, their boat is anchored as if Sabbatical is unwilling or incapable of moving on around. In The Tidewater Tales, Peter and Katherine meet the characters of Sabbatical on the water, sailing, having not yet made their "main landfall." The supposed end of Sabbatical cannot be considered the end because of the impossibility of closure and the impossibility of getting off the circle, of establishing a point of reference outside the circle from which one can claim that the circle is complete.
The beginning cannot be the beginning, either.
Following "A Storm At Sea" (S 9) is "A Dialogue On Diction," which is told "Three days later" (a 11), and following that is "The Story Of Fenwick Turner's Boina," which occurs in "the late fall of Nineteen Sixty" (a 27), twenty years before the "present." At the "end" of "The Cove," which is the first of the three sections and is claimed to be introductory (Fenn says about the rest of the story, "What the reader doesn't know yet would fill a book" [S 73]), Fenn wonders:
Have we decided where to begin it?
Oh, in the middle, says Susan, definitely. In
media fucking res, as my helper would say.
Before his helper edits out his casual
vulgarity. okay: we'll start with the storm at
sea, like the big boys, and work in the exposition
with our left hands as we go along.
Shivering Susan points out that the reader
doesn't know yet for example about her seducing
Fenwick on Cacaway Island in 1972, or about Fenn's son Orrin's old crush on her. Our left hands are
going to be busy. (S 72)
The middle is the only possible place to start. The storm at sea has already been told. The story has already begun. We already know about Cacaway (some of it, at least); our left hands have been busy, too.
Sabbatical forces us to see ourselves within, in the
midst of, a story and a text. Being on the circle, in fact, demarcates an enclosure and demands that we confront the problem of the relation between the inside and the outside (of a story, a novel, a text, etc.). These two ways of viewing the circle (as a path and as an enclosure) are inseparable. In Of Grammatolggy Derrida develops, from the notion of the trace, the impossibility of locating a beginning in the text: "We must begin wherever we are: in a text where we already believe ourselves to bell (162). This statement questions the possibility of beginning, but within the context of the development of a methodology of a criticism based on the axial proposition that there is nothing outside the text, and based on a consideration of the text as an enclosure. Derrida says that "In a certain way I am within the history of psychoanalysis as I am within Rousseau's text. Just as Rousseau drew upon a language that was already there--and which is found to be somewhat our
own, thus assuring us a certain minimal readability of French literature--in the same way we operate today within a certain network of significations . ." (Of Grammatology 160). For Fenn and Susan, as well as for the reader of Fenn and Susan, there is no outside of the text. They must begin in the middle because middle is all there is; they begin on the inside.
On the other hand, being within the text does not
insure the efficacy of enclosure but rather emanates from the necessity of the text's being part of a "network of significations" that will not allow one to "sustain the coherence of one's own discourse" (Derrida, Of Grammatology 162). We might want to reach a point that is exterior in relation to the totality of a text, what Derrida calls the "exorbitant" because it would be outside the orbit (orbis) of an enclosure, in order to see that what we are dealing with is in fact a circle and an enclosure. We might, in other words, desire a transcendent reading necessary for a view of the whole. But such an exorbitancy cannot be given methodological intraorbitary assurances. Within the closure, the work can only be judged "in terms of the accepted oppositions" (Derrida, Of Grammatology 162), and attempting to get out of the orbit reestablishes the oppositions one is attempting to exceed, principally the opposition of inside and outside, which leads us to conceptualize the text as an enclosure in the first place.
It should be clear that circling and telling are
intertwined. In order to talk about circling, one has to get on the boat, so to speak. Beginning is as much a problem for the critical encompassing of a text as for the narrative development of one. The exorbitant position might be thought of as the circular path itself, because the path cannot be thought of as being within the enclosure. In a sense, it is outside the enclosure, but it is also that which defines the circle as an enclosure. For Derrida the path is the point "farthest" out from which to view the text, neither within nor without, but at the contour of the text, the position that questions the validity of the enclosure as an element of textuality. The exorbitant is, therefore, a deconstruction of the hermeneutic idea of interpretation, which is based on the notion that the circle of understanding is not only not a vicious circle but a productive and stimulating paradox. The exorbitant does not at all get us out of the circle but calls into question the method with which the interpreter proceeds, saying, in effect, you cannot consider your interpretation transcendental or outside the orbit of any particular discourse or discourse "as a whole" because attempting to get out reinscribes the circle, and neither can you consider your interpretation simply within because enclosure is always broached.
At the contours of Sabbatical there is the story of
Fenwick's boina. His losing it in the mouth of "The Covell
introduces the problem of closure because Fenn expects it to come back to him and expects its coming back to close another stage of his life; his finding it marks (for Fenn at least), if nothing else, an end. It turns out that Fenn has lost the boina twice before, once in the Tajo de Ronda, a sheer gorge in Spain, famous for its use in the execution of prisoners in the Spanish Civil War, and once at the Choptank River Safe-house. Susan wants to know
Why . telling me this story--in the seventh year of our marriage, for Christ's sake, on our sabbatical--make~s] you believe that your boina will float back to you? No: don't touch me. (S
Susan is touchy because the "Story of Fenwick Turner's Boina"l involves telling about Fenn's first wife Marilyn Marsh and his "first" sabbatical, which they took in Spain. There, Fenn lost his boina as he tossed into the Tajo the manuscript of a novel that was, for the most part, about him and Marilyn Marsh. Susan has, effectively, answered her own question: "Not only did the Tajo return your hat; it keeps returning the story you threw into it" (a 45). When Fenn lost his hat again, he "told [his] colleagues this story-just the boina part of it. Next day [Fenn's brother Manfred] found [the) hat on the beach, washed up by the tide right in front of the safe-house" (S 45). The point is that the telling of the story of the hat brings the hat back3:
3 I will come back to this scene, this coming back of the hat, in Chapter IV in terms of Derrida's play with the fort:da of Freud, the story of the spool.
The question before us now is whether it's the Ronda story that's needed to bring it back this
third time or the Choptank River Safe-house story,
which I haven't told you yet. (S 46)
"The Choptank River Safe-house Story" comes much nearer Fenn's finding the hat the third time. Getting the hat back is important to Fenn because it will signify a new beginning--both times he has lost and recovered the hat it marked the fact that "a stage of [their] life and [his] was over" (S 44)--and because Fenn's writing had become associated with the wearing of the hat. In reference to that first attempt at fiction, Frank says (in The Tidewater Tales), "Both my hero and I developed the habit of wearing our boinas at the typewriter" (TT 408). The recovery of the hat this third time may signify his ability to write Sabbatical.
Circling Between Texts
Both Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales are framed by storms. But the books are not simply parallel, their similarity not merely coincidence (unless we mean "coincidence" literally). The storm that appears to end Sabbatical (Fenn and Susan run for the cover of Cacaway because of the approaching weather) is the same storm that appears to begin The Tidewater Tales. The incidents that occur in the "separate" stories coexist. On the day of the storm Frank and Lee were "wrung-out." Lee had just had her
abortion and Frank had decided that he was a failure as a writer of fiction. Frank tells Peter and Katherine,
I kept wishing something amazing would happen, out
of the blue. . But the world went on being the world: sunshine and sailboats and problems.
Remarks Peter We were there. That's just about
when I said to Katherine down on Nopoint Point For
pity's sake set me a task, and she said Take us
sailing, and here we are. (TT 416)
Here, in The Tidewater Tales, is Sabbatical. Lee tells all of them,
We could have ducked in here, but since
there was time to get up to Cacaway, and since
nothing was settled, we stayed with our island-toisland thing. When the storm hit, as you probably
remember, it was a humdinger.
We remember, all right. But you got more of it
than we did. (TT 417)
Before the storm hit, Frank put Act One of his "ovarian" TV play, called SEX EDUCATION: Play, into an empty flare canister, "and at the last minute [he] stuck this boina in there too, for the obvious reason, and [he] floated the whole thing off down the tide like baby Perseus in his sea chest or Moses in his basket. Return to sender" (TT 417).
The floating on the tide of Frank's TV play is the
tidal return of a long line of messages in bottles and tidal returns both in the history of literature (Barth compares Perseus and Moses to the sex education script) and in the history of Barth's fiction. In LETTERS Ambrose Mensch makes a movie that contains a "water message sequence," which reflects his sending and receiving messages in bottles as a boy in Lost in the Funhousp.. The 'Ire" of one of Ambrose's
letters to the Author describes his receipt of "water message #2"1:
A new letter to me of yesternoon, "washed up" in
an otherwise almost empty, Barnacled, sea-grown
magnum of Mumm's Cordon Rouge upon the beach
before Mensch's Castle during the refilming of the
"Water Message sequence" of the motion picture
FRAMES, duly discovered by yours truly, and found
to consist this time wholly of body, without return address, date, salutation, close, or signature. To which the late "Arthur Morton
King's" reply would doubtless be the inverse, like
Yours Truly's to me of May 12, 1940. But I have
commenced the second cycle of my life; I am
striving through, in order to reach beyond, such
games. (L 765)
The water message of May 12, 1940 (water message #1), is the one Ambrose found in Lost in the Funhouse. On the top line it read, "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN," and, with nothing in between on the next-to-bottom line, "YOURS TRULY" (LF 53). "Reaching beyond" the games of his youth, the sending and receiving of water messages, the tendency in LETTERS (and letters) and Barth's fiction, the fiction of "Yours Truly," to return, might be as difficult as holding back the tide. That Ambrose has only "commenced the second cycle" of his life places him rigidly within the system he wants to escape. It is only in the second phase, after one has begun to repeat, that the system can be established as cyclical. I repeat, it is in the second phase that the system is established--not only recognized, but also confirmed. The doubling back of the cycle must not be construed as establishing an origin. The so-called "beginning" of the cycle is always circumscribed. The text never comes back to the beginning as it was because the second cycle amounts to
a deformation of the first, so that, in one sense, the first phase should be considered always absent.4 Ambrose says he has commenced the second cycle in order to reach beyond it, apparently not realizing that it is the second cycle that contains him, not taking into account that he is part of the circling fiction.
In The Tidewater Tales Peter recalls that as a boy he sent himself out on the tide in a boat to see whether he could recover all the messages in bottles that he had sent out from the family dock but that had not returned (TT 172). The fact that "no messaged bottle cast from the family dock had ever been seen again" (TT 172) might disrupt a system of return based on tidal currents and messaged bottles and therefore disrupt a linguistic system of return generally, but Peter distinguishes between the practical experiment and a generalized metaphorical necessity: "the unpredicted wind had spoiled the experiment: There remained two hours yet to tide-turn, by when he would be at sea indeed. What was more, even the present gentle breeze would cancel out the returning tide; he would have to row the six miles home" (TT 172). Though the experiment of Peter's youth failed because he could not control all the variables (and in fact would always fail because the variables varied with every tide), generally the trend was to return: "nothing he ever saw went down the Honga that didn't start there, and it all came back
4 In the following section the deformation is considered in terms of movement in time.
on the tide, no different but for a few barnacles" (TT 231). The emphatic "nothinal" and "all" seem not to take into account the messages in bottles cast out from the family dock, but Peter is speaking about a return of a different order, a metaphoric circling: "It's just us Hoopers Island water folk going out to work and coming home again, generation after generation" (TT 231). Even the Hoopers Island waterf 01k do not necessarily come in on the tide. With oars or sail or an engine they might even return against the tide. But the tidal return is, in principle, like the return of the waterfolk.
That tidal return is metaphoric does not negate its impact on the text. The message is, in fact, made more complex in its coming back a metaphor. The Tidewater Tales tends to disrupt a simple reading of metaphoricity; within the text, the traditional division between the figurative and the literal is shown to be untenable. The figurative and the literal have a circular relationship in that one occupies part of the space of the other. Not only is the message in the bottle a metaphor of linguistic return generally, but is itself part of the linguistic return for which it is a metaphor. What one might have called the literal interpretation, the notion of linguistic return, is itself at least partly metaphoric. No reading can separate return from metaphoricity. The message in the bottle comes back on the tide of Barth's fiction. The returning of the message is one of the things that returns.
It almost goes without saying that at a critical point in Peter and Katherine's relationship and in Peter's working himself out of his less-is-more, self-crippling philosophy of writing, they find that flare canister, read Frank's play, and are motivated by it to continue their story. Peter and Katherine retrieve and don the writerly boina that Frank felt he could no longer wear.
And then the storm. The hat drifting from the
characters of one story to the characters of the other and even (though not in as literal a manner) from one text to the other suggests the sequentiality of the events.5 The Tidewater Tales was published after Sabbatical. But the storm that makes appropriate the use of the flare canister in the sending off of the play and the hat is the same storm that carries it to Peter and Katherine--"Says Peter Alert and Locate" (S 417)--and thereby returns the play and the hat to Frank, their sender. The storm that "ends" Sabbatical (that does not allow Sabbatical to end) is the same storm, happens at the same time, as the one that "begins" The Tidewater Tales. And it is that storm that carries Fenn and Susan (in the form of Frank and Lee), carries Sabbatical, into The Tidewater Tales.6 The texts
5 The relation between Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales is further developed in Chapter IV wherein the "changing" of names becomes a marker for the sequencing of narratives and the disruption of the concepts of truth and origin.
6 What must be described in terms of the circle as the same might in other contexts be described as doubled or repeated; on repetition (of events, characters, texts) see Chapter IV.
seem to be part of the same conception. still wondering how to begin toward the apparent end of Sabbatical, Fenn makes a statement that is as applicable to the relation between two texts as between the beginning and ending of one. Susan prompts:
Which came first?
They both come first! How could either come
before the other, except as one twin happens to
get delivered earlier? (S 365)
Regardless of their conception, though, one is "delivered earlier," Sabbatical was published first. Though it is the same storm, it seems to end Sabbatical and begin The Tidewater Tales. The sequentiality of the texts would seem to disrupt any notion of their circling, but at the point of origination and apocalypse circling tends to bring about
The Collapsing of Time.
Susan wants to make their story in the shape of a circle for the purpose of bringing about that collapse. At the end of Sabbatical she says,
. If that's going to be our story, then let's begin it at the end and end at the beginning, so
we can go on forever. Begin with our living
happily ever after. (S 365)
If the beginning of a story is literally the story's end, "beginning" and "end" are meaningless, except as signifiers of an arbitrary point at which one notices that they are meaningless, that the point is arbitrary. circling within a text is the denial of an origin and end, which is to say, the wish for immortality.
Peter and Katherine are told "The Long True Story of Odysseus's Short Last Voyage," which was not included in Homer's Odyssey (for reasons that will become apparent) and which illustrates the telling out of time. Odysseus and Nausicaa decided to sail to "The Place Where Time Stands Still." "The problem," Odysseus explained to Homer and Nausicaa, "was time. . .
As Circe had explained it to him, and Calypso had
subsequently confirmed, The Place Where Time
Stands Still does not stand still; it recedes to
westward at exactly the speed of the sun itself, a
speed no ordinary vessel could hope to approach.
Just at the moment when it looked like Odysseus and Nausicaa would fail, Odysseus remembered that he had asked Homer about a Phaeacian idiomatic expression Homer had used: "That a young fellow certainly can sing up a storm. Being a prose-minded Ithacan, he asked Homer whether the tribute was literally correct and, if so, whether Homer could teach him the knack." Homer replied that "The secret was to find the right song for the singer and the occasion, and then (in Homer's own words) to let ler rip" (TT 223). Homer had taught Odysseus the first two lines of a new song, and at the crucial point, Odysseus sang the first of these lines into the sail:
Once upon a time . .
In heartfelt harmony then, Diana says, Nausicaa
joined him in Line Two, which they sang together
There was a story--that began. . Not only
did the boat surge forward and the sun climb
visibly a few degrees above the horizon, but when
it did, instead of facing the problem of Line
Three (which neither of them knew), they found
themselves back at Line One: Once uvofl a time.
And when they followed it with Line Two--There was a story that becgan--there they were, back at Line One again, and the sun another few degrees higher.
Eureka, exclaims laughing Peter Sagamore.7 (TT
Odysseus and Nausicaa had found the right song not only for singing up a storm biAt for singing themselves out of time. The song is, of course, circular--it collapses beginning and end. The "Third Line" is both beginning and end at the same time. Strictly speaking, there is no Third Line, only the repetitions of lines One and Two.
The storm that "begins" The Tidewater Tales is, in
fact, two storms, one at the beginning and one at the end. "The first storm--Blam!--was born to a sultry low-pressure cell that squatted over Maryland all Sunday, June 15, 1980, last weekend before the solstice. . Hail and minitwisters: trees downed, roofs unroofed, doors unhinged, windows blown . and our story begun" (TT 23). Much of the language in the description of the storms would seem to establish the movement of The Tidewater Tales as sequential: the "first" storm "begins" the story. And the fixing of the dates, both the calendar date and the solar date, would seem to suggest the structural dominance of time. But the storms, both of them, blow structure apart--"roofs unroofed, doors unhinged, windows blown." The sequentiality and temporality in this passage are debris left by the pressure
7 The repetition of these lines is very much like the reiteration of the standing joke that does not allow Sabbatical to begin: '"'There was a story that began. .. Oh, tell that story! Tell it again!"' (1 9).
of language and suggest (is this the first time?) the impossibility of a perfect circularity. One word of a text must follow another, one sentence another sentence. But if time cannot be overcome in a book, it can at least be "unhinged," its "windows blown." A story can force us back around, not to its beginning but to where we were. With 11[t]he second storm--Blooev!-- our story came 'round
on itself" (TT 23). "Blam!" and "Blooev!" are the terms Fenn and Susan haggle over in deciding "what words best follow Once upon a time" [S 11]. Peter and Katherine's story not only comes around on itself, but also comes around on Sabbatical.
"Once upon a time" is, of course, a convention. BY
convention it establishes a beginning; that is, readers have agreed to call this place at which the statement "Once upon a time" occurs the beginning. In a sense, anything one says will always be understood as following "Once upon a time"-everything comes after the beginning. But we should argue this point rigorously. If everything is understood as following "Once upon a time," then the beginning has always already occurred and is not located anywhere. In both Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales this conventional beginning comes even after the apparent first lines of the stories, so that even the statement "Once upon a time" is marked as coming after the story has begun. "There was a story" (the apparent first line of Sabbatical and the "Line Two" of the Odysseus story in The Tidewater Tales) functions
in the same way as "Once upon a time": they both mark a point in time that is previous to the story as the beginning of the story.
A story can be constructed in such a way that the
delivery of the event that begins the story can coincide with the event that also ends the story:
Blam! cries Kath, A storm at sea. At bay.
Says Peter Blam Blooey! Two storms. At once.
They decide that the story will be "bracketed" by twin storms. The storms twin in the same sense that the Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales are twin--one only happens to be delivered earlier. Because in the "Ordinary Point Delivery Story," at the apparent end of "Our Story," Peter and Katherine run through the list of events and objects to be delivered and the sequence of their delivery and because a new title page (including "The Tidewater Tales" and an expanded subtitle) follows "Our Story," it is implied that "Our Story" occurs preliminary to the "actual" story. But the introductoriness of "Our Story" is negated by the circling of titles and by the breaking down of sequentiality. The event that concludes the inventory of their story and the introduction and thereby begins their stories, which are The Tidewater Tales, is the second storm--and the first. Let's do that again: since the "Ordinary Point Delivery Story" catalogues the order of the events of the story, it "ends" with the second storm. Since the "end" of the "introduction," which is that delivery
story, is also the "beginning" of "The Tidewater Tales"l (TT
83), the second storm coincides with the first:
We understand now what I meant before by two
storms striking at once, two weeks apart, one up
at Ordinary Point on the Twenty-ninth and one
right here, right now, just as the poem's last
stanza unfolds to read Tell me their story as if it weren't ours but like ours enough so that the
powers that drive and steer good stories might
fetch them beyond our present plight and-Blam!
Go the twin storms exactly then, their force
doubled by their combination. They slam together
into the Eastern Shore of Maryland just as...
This book: (TT 82)
With these words the book literally turns into itself, as
described in another context,8 "exactly-at-the-moment-whenthe-past-overtakes-the-present"I (TT 610).
When Peter first mentions these two storms, he doesn't
know just what he means: "Katherine asks him what he means
blam blooey two storms at once; she doesn't get it. Neither
does he, says Peter: He just upped and said it. The moon of
inspiration, he supposes" (TT 75-76).
Circling also are meaning and inspiration. It is
assumed that meaning is prior: one writes in order to convey
8 That of the story May Jump tells about Sheherazade,
who becomes stuck in the present after trying to reestablish a love affair with her "real-life" author, who had found himself able to move back and forth between her time and his; she utters the phrase "what you've done is what you'll do" and is propelled through time and across the fiction/nonfiction border. Trying to get back to her life and time she recounts her story, hoping that at the moment when the past of the story overtakes the present, when she narrates her narrating presently, she would find herself in "her own" time, her past would be present. The Sheherazade story will be developed more thoroughly in Chapter III.
a meaning; the meaning exists before (and even independent of) the text used to convey it. The tidewater Tales, though, seems to come before its meaning. Peter and Katherine's stories are "chasing the moon and telling themselves" (TT 68). The stories "telling themselves" is not simply a personification; that the stories tell themselves is essential to the circling text. Meaning is not attached, by someone outside the work, someone who exists prior to it. Meaning is developed, rather, by those who will find themselves already involved, by those who, with the text, are "chasing the moon," by those, in other words, who are going nowhere. The stories are told by narrators so much a part of the circling text that they can give us no assurances about what the text means; they cannot position themselves so as to give us a view of the whole. Indeed, it is rather difficult to talk about meaning at all in regard to the circling text because meaning requires an exteriority the text is incapable of sustaining.
Even if, against such obstacles as the text's inability to support the notion of the priority of meaning, and the inevitable collapsing of time, the circle is offered by Barth as the figure of narration, there are other considerations that question a simple view of narration as the representation of a sequence of events. We will see in the following chapters that the notions of abortion, Production, and repetition point out various dilemmas for the narrative organization of a text.
J. Hillis Miller's The Linguistic Moment, a thorough
study of the relation between time and language, can help us through (or at least into) the problem of time in Sabbatical and The Tidewater Talgs- Miller notices that language has de-temporalized time. He moves back in time (to Wordsworth) to dispose of the idea that de-temporalization is a modern thing: because it is a function of language, it has taken place as long as there has been language. He therefore argues against the idea of a "progress of linguistic sophistication" (181), making his case in the form of a circle, a form that stops time and denies that progress.
Miller says that works of literature are not just now, with the advent of modernism, taking themselves into account, incorporating the criticism of other texts, and thereby becoming philosophies of literature. Signs have always referred to other signs. so works of literature are not becoming more sophisticated. The circle seems the appropriate metaphor.
But the shape of The Linguistic Moment is problematic from the beginning:
The reading of the book, the traversal of the
never quite complete circling it makes, will bring
the reader back to where he or she is at the
beginning. At the beginning, nevertheless, the reader is not quite able to know where he or she
is, or it would not be necessary to read the book
to get there with a new awareness. (xvii)
Miller's book can only describe a "noncircular circle" (423) or one that is incomplete. For a book to actually be a circle, its reader would have to know as much at the
beginning as at the end. But that is never the case. The beginning is never the literal end: "what none of us knows," says Peter Sagamore, "is the ending: the thing that's going to happen any day now and be news to both of us, sound scan or not, and change our lives and start a different story altogether" (TT 68).
The circling text is always a sham.
It is suggested that the events of "Our Story" and "Day 0: Nopoint Point to Dun Cove"l occur before the characters begin circling in The Tidewater Tales proper. one of the reasons Peter and Katherine set sail, one of the reasons, in fact, for The Tidewater Tales, is that Peter is having trouble telling. Peter begins the "Ordinary Point Delivery Story" describing himself:
Once upon ahem. There was this couple. More
or less like us? That, um.
K kisses the crow's-foot at the outboard corner
of her husband's starboard eye. On with the
Hum. Well, Him. Redneck bluecollar, right?
Marshes, tides. Blue crabs. oysters.
You have a way with words.
Declares P. S., warming to his work, Brother
sister parents? Yeah. Scholarship get out write, okay? Stay loose sterilize write! No wife lovers
travel write. He beams: Then teach-write-LessIs-More-write-write-pfff. How's that.
Him to a T. (TT 74)
On Day 0 Katherine demands that Peter tell her a story he had mentioned. This is it: THE NEW CLOTHES HAVE NO EMPEROR. Over.
What do you mean over? You haven't started!
But Peter Sagamore insists he's done. (TT 90)
These types of "stories" occur less frequently after "Day 0,11 and as the story progresses they disappear altogether. The implication is that the tales are told after Peter's problem is worked out and that "Our Story" and "Day 011 are told before the problem is worked out, while Peter is still stuck. It is implied that Peter and Katherine do not begin circling until "Day 1..11 If the story is circular, though, everything has happened before. The introduction too must have been written or told after Peter begins to write. It is impossible to write a story beforehand, to write the story before the story is written. Getting on a circular story requires that logic be suspended. The sequentiality of getting on is denied by the story itself, which, if perfectly circular, has always already done away with movement in time.
Peter had wished as a child that he lived on the Mississippi River rather than the Honga because the Mississippi could carry him out into the world as it did Huck Finn and as Huck Finn did Samuel Clemens. The Mississippi "doesn't come back, any more than Mark Twain went back to being Samuel Clemens of Hannibal," whereas everything that "went down the Honga came back on the tide, no different but for a few barnacles" (TT 231). Peter understands now though that the difference is significant. His reading of Huck Finn again is different because it is based on other readings, because he has the experience of having already read. The Chesapeake is not the same
Chesapeake Peter and Katherine sailed before. In Sabbatical Fenn and Susan are told that "the Wye Island you returned to was not exactly the Wye you left" (S 269). In reference to that lost and found boina, Frank says of the hat that Peter and Katherine returned to him, "This isn't it." Katherine is disappointed because, if it were the same hat, there would have been a story in it. But its being different does not bother Frank: "This hat here is the lineal successor to that one. He frisbees it over to [Katherine]. If the boina fits, wear it" (TT 409). Frank's point is twofold: even if this is not.the same hat, it is like enough to the old one to function in the same way and to be caught up in the same metaphors and the same plot of their story--the boina does fit; and even if it is the same hat, the hat cannot be the same--it has been in the water for at least a week.
Getting off the circle is as problematic as getting on. If we are presently circling within a text, then communicating something about the text to someone outside or applying knowledge about the text to an outside work is impossible. Lois Parkinson Zamora describes Barth's works in general as self-contained: "Barth's novelistic games demand enclosure" and therefore his fictions "set forth rules which operate within the work and are relevant only within that work" (28). Miller says of The Linguistic Moment, "My enterprise . is a search to locate a ground beyond language for the linguistic patterns present in my poems. Who would not wish to escape the prison house of
language and stand where one could see it from the outside?" (Xvii). Though it is not clear that he could get outside language in any case, it is clear that he understands the confinement of the circular text. In Chapter Two circling will still be an issue.
In the linguistic moment time is committed to space.
Every poem that Miller describes is a "version of a spatial emblem of human temporality" (xv). He suggests by the consistency of his examples that there are no temporal emblems of time, that in language, in the "linguistic moment," time must be described spatially, but concludes the spatial image, in particular the circle, is never successful at seeing the "riddle of temporality" (433). Time can only be described, written, spatially and so is stopped in language, is localized, planted, grounded, in a nontemporal element.
Language itself is a "non-temporal element." One
doesn't have the choice whether to use language spatially. A "fundamental feature of literature" is the search for a ground before or after time, "something that will support time, encompass it, still its movement" (Miller xvi-xvii).
In response to Susan's suggestion that they make
Sabbatical circular so that they can go on forever, Fenn says, "we both know that not even a story is ever after-" So they "conclude, that they lived":
Happily after, to the end
Of Fenwick and Susie. . (S 366)
1. Organizing Barth's Texts
With SabbaticalJ Barth's eighth novel, which, not incidentally, has slipped prematurely out of print, the image of abortion becomes directly involved in the disposal of the text, such that abortion becomes a way of talking about writing. In Barth's previous work, as well as in Sabbatical, abortion is always connected to a decision concerning order. More specifically, it is the decision of the woman concerning the organization of her life and the condition of her body. The body of the woman is incorporated, though, into the text so that a corpus of works or the corpus of a work is subject, like the woman, to conception and abortion. Barth's notion of the text as the body of the woman forces us to consider the ramifications of abortion on the orderliness of texts. By attempting to put his stories in order (to dispose of them--from the Latin disponere, to arrange) Barth finds that orderliness is always sucked away. The reverse of that is also true: in trying to dispose of a story by getting rid of it some of the organization makes itself felt; the removal has an
organizational impact on the remainder of the text or corpus.
Already, perhaps, what I have said about abortion
illustrates the difficulty of establishing an organization. The following complications must be included. That the abortion is the decision of the woman is not to say that she is unaffected by the father or the masculine orientation of her society, but rather that it is a decision made amid the assertion of an independence. For example, though Fenn's reluctance to be a father again is part of the reason for Susan's abortion in Sabbatical, Susan's decision to have the abortion is made under the auspices of a silence that reinscribes her and Fenn's separateness. That the decision concerns the order of her life is not to say that it does not affect the lives of those around her, the father's life in particular, but rather that the problem of organization is always partly textual, always a question of the lifecorpus, so to speak. One of the consequences of speaking of a text as abortive or as having been aborted is the association of the text with the child that might have been born. But the question of abortion is never simply whether or not to have a child because the delivery of the child is always to be considered the delivery of another part of the corpus, which cannot be reduced to the mother-child dichotomy.
From the outset we will have noticed that talking about abortion is problematic because any description is partly an
attempt at establishing an order and therefore subject to an inevitable disruption. Ordering is itself an abortion because it entails the delivery of an imperfect or premature text.
By taking up the issue of abortion, Sabbatical comes back to an image integral to Barth's earlier works. For example, The End of the Road, Barth's second novel, concludes with Rennie Morgan's abortion and death. In order to understand the relation between The End of the Road and Sabbatical's involvement with abortion, the possibility of orderliness, we need to discover what leads to the abortion in The End of the Road. The dilemma Rennie faces, whether to abort the child she carries or to commit suicide, is tied to the organization of the family and the logic of dichotomy, a logic never completely separate from the family scene.
Joe Morgan and Jacob Horner represent the classical moral split between good and evil and its philosophical counterpart, the split between reason and chaos.
Joe was The Reason, or Being (I was using Rennie's cosmos); I was The Unreason, or not being; and the
two of us were fighting without quarter for
possession of Rennie, like God and Satan for the
soul of Man. (ER 129)
Rennie, Joe's wife, is caught between them. She is the betweenness always present in division, the "point" at which Joe and Jake come together. The fact that Joe and Jake do come together or, more precisely, were never actually
separate, makes the idea of an identifiable "point" of connection problematic:
I mention this because it applies so often to
people's reasoning about their behavior in
situations that later turn out to be regrettable:
it is possible to watch the sky from morning to
midnight, or move along the spectrum from infrared
to ultraviolet, without ever being able to put
your finger on the precise point where a
qualitative change takes place; no one can say,
"It is exactly here that twilight becomes night,"
or blue becomes violet, or innocence guilt. one
can go a long way into a situation thus without
finding the word or gesture upon which initial
responsibility can handily be fixed--such a long
way that suddenly one realizes the change has already been made, is already history, and one
rides along then on the sense of an inevitability,
a too-lateness, in which he does not really
believe, but which for one reason or another he
does not see fit to question. (ER 100-01)
In describing the split between The Reason and The
Unreason, Jake uses "Rennie's cosmos" because he knows that that "pretty ontological manichaeism would certainly stand no close examination" (ER 129). Rennie struggles to uphold the categories because she has a vested interest: her husband defines himself in terms of rationality and truth and she defines herself in terms of her husband; if Joe is not entirely rational, if he cannot be entirely truthful, Rennie's position is untenable, her world (her "cosmos") is meaningless. Though Rennie would keep Joe and Jake separate, it is she who precipitates the breakdown of the categories they represent, the crossing over of reason and chaos. "The trouble," Jake says, speaking about Rennie's perception of him and Joe, 11 . is that the more one learns about a given person, the more difficult it becomes
to assign a character to him that will allow one to deal with him effectively in an emotional situation. . [A]s soon as one knows a person well enough to hold contradictory opinions about him" (ER 128), the myths of consistency and finiteness are disposed of.
Jake takes it upon himself (not for entirely selfish or evil reasons--Jake cannot be entirely anything) to show Rennie that Joe cannot possibly be the person she thinks he is and thereby shake up her false sense of stability. Rennie thinks that Joe is "the same man today he was yesterday, all the way through. He's Genuine!" Jake applies Rennie's idea of Joe to Rennie herself because he realizes that her sense of being is dependent on who her husband is, and therefore her "genuineness" is brought dangerously into question. If she defines herself in terms of someone else, then she cannot be "true to herself," she cannot be "genuine." Because her identity is based on something exterior it is by her own definition, false. This is a more general problem of family relations, of the relation between husband and wife. If it is assumed that they lose their separate identities in marriage, that they become one person (in Sabbatical Susan's grandmother takes this point of view [S 260]), the relation will be shaken, because, inevitably, something is learned about the other person that reestablishes that person's otherness, the couple's initial separateness.
Jake wonders whether Rennie is genuine. "I don't know. Joe's strong enough to take care of me, I guess. I don't care" (ER 68). He convinces Rennie to eavesdrop on Joe, but she, of course, is hesitant and defensive: "Real people aren't any different when they're alone. No masks. What you see of them is authentic" (ER 71). What they see, though, begins Rennie's "disintegration" (ER 128). Standing in the middle of the room, Joe smartly executes military commands; he pirouettes, bows, leaps, and winds up masturbating in his reading chair.
Rennie closed her eyes and pressed her forehead
against the window sill. I stood beside her, out of the light from the brilliant living room, and stroked and stroked her hair, speaking softly in her ear the wordless, grammarless language she'd
taught me to calm horses with. (ER 71)
It turns out that only wordlessness and grammarlessness could allow them to escape their dilemma. The inevitable breakdown of categories, particularly those of dualistic division, is a linguistic phenomenon:
"You're as bad as Joe is. I think all our trouble comes from thinking and talking too much. We talk
ourselves into all kinds of messes that would
disappear if everybody just shut up about them."
Jake agrees with Rennie about the source of the problem but denies the possibility of a solution. The apparent ambivalence of Rennie's feelings toward Jake, he thinks, is "only a pseudo-ambivalence whose source was in the language":
it was both single and simple, like all feelings it was also completely particular and individual,
and so the trouble started only when she attempted
to label it with a common name such as love or abhorrence. . Assigning names to things is
like assigning roles to people: it is necessarily a distortion, but it is a necessary distortion if
one would get on with the plot. (ER 141-42)
Jake sees their positions as essentially textual--"getting on with the plot" is tantamount to the working out of their lives--and so he sees their problem as inescapable. They are, in fact, part of a text, part of The End of the Road. If they were "real people," though, they would have no less of a problem dealing with language. "Shutting up" (Rennie's suggestion) is never a real option, we would nevertheless rationalize, interpret, and remember, activities that are based on language and that define us as humans. Joe says of Jake,
"You won't rationalize. You didn't make any
conscious interpretations of anything Rennie did.
And you can't remember any conversations. Have I
got to agree with Rennie that you don't even
exist? What else makes a man a human being except
these things?" (ER 145)
Joe represents that force in the world that would inevitably reattach us to language and to the paradoxes inherent in it. He is of the opinion that Rennie has "'got to decide once and for all what she really feels about [Jake] and [him] and
herself"' (ER 145).
Rennie is completely incapable of making those
decisions. The categories by which her world is constructed will simply not allow her to choose. Reason and chaos, good and evil have become, for her, confused. She is the fact that the elements of the dichotomy define, and so are dependent on, each other. The tension between Joe and Jake,
the fact that Rennie doesn't know which one is the father of the child she carries, leads her to what seems like an arbitrary decision, but one that nevertheless is made inevitable by her impossible position between: 'III don't know,' Rennie said. 'I'm going to get an abortion or shoot myself, Joe. I've decided"' (ER 152). She chooses abortion but winds up being killed as well. (Even in the end, the second option can never actually be eliminated.) The issue of the dichotomy in The End of the Road is abortion and death.
The Issue of Abortion
I can say Sabbatical takes up "the issue of abortion" without limiting myself to a thematic reading, to speaking of abortion as a metaphor for the sucking away of orderliness. Issue is a complex term that demands attention because it can mean a number of interrelated things: it can be a means or place of going out, an exit; the final outcome or result; termination; offspring, progeny; something coming forth from a specified source (as in "issues of a disordered imagination"); a discharge (as of blood) from the body; etc. All these meanings will come into play in the following disposal of Barth's texts. Trying to come to a conclusion about how they feel and what they should do, Joe demands that Jake stick to the issue: 'III want you to forget about everything except what's to the point and what's beside the point"' (ER 153). The problem for Jake is that nothing is absolutely "beside the point." In order to analyze a
situation, aspects of it must be ignored, even though they are not completely extraneous. And even if he wanted to take into account the whole story, it would be too long to ever finish recounting. (The narrators of Sabbatical claim fatalistically, "we ourselves may never know one another's whole story" [S 302]. Some of it will have to be ignored, and some of it inevitably will be forgotten or lost.) Whole stories are never known. Every analysis, therefore, is a distortion. With every disposal of a problem the orderliness on which the problem can be established is found to be problematic. This is dramatized by Rennie's dilemma. she divides her options into two categories: abortion and death. But abortion, in itself, is not a real option; they know of no competent doctor who will perform it, and so Rennie dies because of the abortion.
The thematic of abortion cannot simply be gotten rid of. Abortion is an issue. But we should also understand this to mean that abortion is the result--the result of a conflict between oppositions and of the textual impossibility of orderliness. (The multiplicity of the term issue is itself an example of the problematic split between thematic and textual readings. Issue means both subject and result, among other things.)
LETTERS, Barth's seventh novel, might be thought of as a point of division of Barth's career because it is one of the major attempts within the corpus to organize the corpus
itself.9 It incorporates his previous novels in a dialogue, carried on through letters, between the characters of those novels and between those characters and their "Author." LETTERS is essentially the putting into order of Barth's fiction up to that point in time (it was copyrighted in 1979).
The title that appears on the title page, which looks something like a computer card, is also the subtitle of the book:
A NOLD TIMME PISTO LARY NOV E L
B Y S E V E N F I
C T I T I 0 U S
D RO L L S& DRE A M
E R S E A C H 0
F W H I C H I M A
GINE SHIM S E LFAC T U A L
The letters that make up the title, LETTERS, and subtitle, An Old Time Epistolary Novel by Seven Fictitious Drolls and Dreamers Each of Which Imag~ines Himself Actual, function as the scheme of organization of the novel. The first chapter, which is titled "IL,"1 is divided into subchapters "A," "IB,"1 "IC, "1 "'D, It "IE, It "IF, "t "IG, "1 "I1, "t "IN" and "IE, 11 the letters that make up the L; the second chapter is titled "IE,"1 etc. The play with this puzzle is exemplary of a text that is motivated by the organization of texts. For Barth, the puzzle is at least partly a game. It lacks the seriousness forced on us by the assumption of the rigidness of systems
9 See, for example, Robbins 222.
of organization. The puzzle doesn't quite work; or, rather, in order to make the puzzle work, Barth has had to dispose of a rule of grammar. In an interview by Angela Gerst, Barth is asked about the awkward "each of which" used to refer to 11drolls & dreamers":
B: Unavoidable. Whom doesn't have enough
G: To total eighty-eight?
B: And to put the _q of imagines in the right
position in a certain pattern, an alphabetical
acrostic. (FB 173)
Barth does not compromise his text by thus making the puzzle "fit," by jeopardizing the title's grammatical system of organization. Something consequential, something serious, is thereby learned about the possibility of putting texts in order.
Jerome Bray's computer, which would use and create
cards such as this one, will never have worked out all its bugs because it cannot take into account the sucking away of orderliness, the fact that the categories with which it begins will inevitably be problematic.
Bray's computer generates a "schema for the rise and fall of . dramatic action," which is based on the conventional model "sometimes called Freitag's Triangle":
A B D E
The new sphema is called the "Golden-Triangular Freitag":
5 N _;, 3
A D 2 C 146)
This revised organization illustrates a story's turning in on itself and reflects the computer's "vexing" "tendency to self-mimicry" (L 147). Self-mimicry is "vexing" because it can reveal contradictions or flaws within the system being mimicked. We can use the "Golden-Triangular Freitag" itself as the example. Though the new schema can suggest a story's turning in on itself, its self-reflection, and possibly even a "tendency to self-mimicry," it cannot also represent its self-destruction, which is caused by the turning in, etc. No model can represent simply the absence of order because as a model it would entail an organization, however provisional, because, in other words, the model would countermand its own representation. Whereas The End of the Road warns that abortion can be self-destructive, LETTERS argues that it is not necessarily or absolutely selfdestructive.
LETTERS cannot function simply as an organization of Barth's previous fiction. Inevitably, there occurs in the rewriting, in the self-reflection, a deconstruction--the principles of organization are tested against the text in which they reside. In the final letter, 11L: The Author to the Reader, LETTERS is 'now' ended. Envoi.,11 the author "goes forward with Horace's 'labor of the file': rewriting,
editing, dismantling the scaffolding, testing the wiring and the plumbing ." (L 771). LETTERS cannot actually be the point of division of Barth's career--the end of a stage isalways provisional, the "now" must always be questioned with quotation marks. One of the items in the "file"-"sloop Brilliq found abandoned in Chesapeake Bay off mouth of Patuxent River, all sails out, C.I.A. documents in attache case aboard. Body of owner, former C.I.A. agent, recovered from Bay one week later, 40 pounds of scuba-diving weights attached, bullet hole in head" (L 772)--is the parent of "The Strange True Case of John Arthur Paisley" of Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales, issues (Webster gives us) of a disordered imagination.
Disposing of the Text
In deciding how to organize their story, what to
include, what needs to be developed, Susan and Fenn, the narrators of Sabbatical, come back around to the footnote to the initial problematic "well and Susan's ambiguous tears:
This we, those verses, Susan's tears, these
notes at the feet of certain pages--all shall be
made clear, in time. (S 9)
At her mentioning of her sister Miriam's being gang-raped at Virginia Beach and being tortured by the Shah's thugs, Susan is weeping again, and "The reader now understands, but for one detail, her tears of some pages past" (a 47). Fenn wonders whether Susan is okay.
I'm okay, I'm okay. That little exposition [the
story of Miriam's other rapes] will have to be
fleshed out in our story or flushed out from it.
We should wonder whether "flushing out" that little exposition will be as easy as Susan suggests, as simple as an editorial pen stroke or the addition of a footnote. The mention of Susan's tears and one of their principle causes, the rapes of Miriam, has already been incorporated, has already been made part of the body of the text, the flesh of the story. As signs, tears and Miriam's rapes will have a variety of influences on the text: graphic, semantic, thematic, etymological. And, as part of the story, the tears and Miriam's rapes will, to some extent, control the movement of the plot--Susan has her abortion, at least partly, because of the rapes and the moronic child that issues from them.
We all try, less and less successfully as Sy grows
older and larger, not to image in him the beefy
sadist who got him forcibly upon skinny Mims. It was not Sy's fault! We all--no doubt even Miriam,
though she has not said so--wish much she had
aborted or, failing that, miscarried or even given the child up for adoption: the unlucky lad senses,
even in his mother, our want of easy warmth with
him. (S 265)
Miriam's irresponsibility extends to her second child, Edgar Allan Ho. Visiting Susan on board, the three of them go a long way toward demolishing the boat. "The blood and tomato stains in the teak deck planking, like the shoeleather scratches on the cabin and cockpit soles . will yield to laborious refinishing next season" (S 155), but while Susan is cleaning up after Sy and discovering Miriam's cigarette burns on the chart table and washstand, Edgar
discovers the galley knife-rack and slashes the custom made cockpit cushions.
Telling all this to Fenn later, Susan says that
Mainly Mims wanted to know why we don't have
. [Fenn] put the hand-bearing compass down
on the slashed cockpit cushion.
What'd you tell her?
The point is that the ordeal of Miriam and her children's visit, specifically (in this example) the slashed cockpit cushion, is representative of the irresponsibility and mediocrity of which Susan wants no part:
I compared my feelings about parenthood to Kafka's
about marriage: that it's the single most
important thing in human life, and that my standards for it are self-defeatingly high.
I couldn't go much farther down my Superkid road with her because of Sy and Ho. I
just told her again that being an ordinary
mediocre parent doesn't interest me. (S 164)
The "one detail," which Fenn mentioned was also a reason for Susan's tears, is that she is pregnant or, more to the point, that she got pregnant accidentally, without their deciding that it is the right thing to do. She and Fenn have already been irresponsible and thereby represent the ordinary and mediocre mass of parents who have their children without the slightest idea why.
I need to keep this argument under control and get back to the original point (though, in a sense, getting back there is the same problem as flushing out the extraneous from our text). Because Susan's tears, Miriam, her rapes and her children and her general irresponsibility are already part of the text, because Sabbatical has already
been inseminated by these signs, the signs can only be flushed out after they have shown themselves to be present, which makes getting rid of them problematic and introduces a textual inevitability. The rape has already been conceived, the idea already given significance.
Susan, herself, has already begun to "show"--her
"breasts have been engorged since last April," her stomach slightly protrudes, and "she has experienced more frequent nausea all spring than she believes can be attributed to seasickness and subtropical food. [S]he infers herself, therefrom, to be two months pregnant" (S 289). After examining Susan her obstetrician announces that "Goodell's, Chadwick's, and Hegar's signs . are all present" ( 230). Susan and her doctor set up her conception and pregnancy in terms of signs and significance and so give the abortion all the complications of textuality, one of which, particularly active here, is the problem of flushing out the extraneous. There are at least two things that make removing a sign from a text problematic: (1) the sign will inevitably have had an impact on the surrounding text (removing the text that has been influenced will simply leave the editor with another, perhaps greater, portion of text to be removed, ad infinitum or until there is nothing left but the text's absence), so that (2) marks of erasure or deletion will always remain; the removal itself becomes significant--absence becomes part of what the text means.
Within the context of the story of Susan's abortion,
Fenn wonders . whether formidable Carmen has been earning her keep in our story. The artist Claus Oldenburg once bought a pencil drawing by
the artist William de Kooning, erased the drawing, and exhibited what was left under the title Erased
de Kooning, by Claus Oldenburg. (S 236)
Though Fenn's example crosses mediums of expression, it is essentially to the point, and to some extent it is the title (the words) "Erased de Kooning" that points out what the work is about, gives it the significance of the erasure.10 Though the work becomes something else, even perhaps someone elsels,, it does so only in terms of signs that have been erased, of what has been made absent, of absence itself. The name de Kooning and the work that was "his" make themselves present even in their erasure. Carmen is "formidable" not only in her personality (as a character) but because she is composed of signs and is already part of the text.
In "Dissemination" Derrida argues this point in terms of the erasure of traces: "Since the trace can only imprint itself by referring to the other, to another trace ('the trace of its reflection'), by letting itself be forgotten, its force of production stands in necessary relation to the energy of its erasure" (331). The question of erasure is, in part, the questioning of "presence"; if the trace only imprints itself by referring to another trace, one that (because of the imprinting) has been erased, then "presence"
10 In describing the author disposed of, Fenn makes the mistake of attributing the drawing to Claus Oldenburg, in effect, disposing of (committing to erasure) the name of the artist to which it should be attributed--Robert Rauschenberg.
and "absence" are no longer absolute. Derrida says elsewhere that the text is produced only in the transformation of another text: "Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere. . traces of traces" (Positions 26), which is to say erasures of erasures. We never have available, can never even point to, the so-called "original sign."
Abortion is not something that can happen without
having an effect, both because it is a momentous event in anyone's life and because as a sign it has an impact on the meaning of its text. After her ordeal with Miriam and her children and her realization that she would be a failure at raising the perfect child, Susan understands her life as "empty and stupid" (a 164). What is remarked as missing comes to be what this book is about.
Susan has been faking her periods since she and Fenn
were in the Caribbean and even marking them down in the log:
Let each asterisk represent a night, beginning
with that Sunday night the first of June: we
emblemize the period both of Susan's menses . .
and of Pokey's stop at Solomons Island. (S
Because Susan has been faking, these asterisks emblemize (for both of them, even then--Fenn knows Susan has been faking) the menstruation she should have had but didn't.
Susan's period would have also functioned as a sign, signifying that for the present everything, in the conception way, is as it was. And, as is always the case,
the sign's absence is significant (perhaps even more so than its presence) because it marks a change, a difference.
The fact that those asterisks emblemize "the period both of Susan's menses . and of Pokey's stop at Solomons" (emphasis mine) illustrates that the movement of the voyage, the movement of.Sabbatical, is keyed to the menstrual cycle and, as we will see, to the process of conception and abortion as well.
In many respects, Fenn and Susan's story is also their child, though it is, as of yet, unborn--they speak of Sabbatical as if it were still in the planning stages. As they actually conceive a child, they create this story. In a very different sense, we must think of the child as having been delivered. We hold Sabbatical before us; it is a story already told, though it has not, as of yet, been brought to maturity.
swimming in Poe Cove, their first anchorage after their long open ocean passage and after their reentering the Chesapeake Bay, in Poe Cove, which at first they think is "perfectly empty," Fenn "stirs to the surface what looks like a light colored rag" (q 25) and turns out to be a large paisley scarf. Fenn wears it on his head, pirate fashion, to protect him from the sun--he has recently lost his boina. He thereby associates himself with the paisleys, which they later decide remind them of sperm. This, of course, isn't the first cove that they assumed was empty but later
discovered was occupied--not only by Fenn's sperm but by the fetus Susan will abort.
Part I of Sabbatical sets up much of the metaphoric
significance of terms used throughout the book. Part I is titled "The Cove"l and subtitled "Key," though subtitled is not quite the right description for this play of titles. on
page 7 appear only the number "I" and the words "The Cove"l italicized thus:
If "Key" were simply a subtitle, it would normally appear on the same page as this main title. But we find it on the following facing page as if it were the title of the first chapter of the first part:
There was a story that began,
Said Fenwick Turner: Susie and Fenn-In fact, the title "Key" is Printed in the same typeface and position as the titles of the chapters of Parts II and III, the only difference being that the chapters of Parts II and III are also numbered. For example, the title of the first chapter of Part II reads:
Since there are no divisions of the first part, "Key" cannot logically be the title of a chapter within Part I or a "1subpart"--besides the title "The Cove"l it is all there is of Part I.
"The Cove"l and "Key" are derived from the cove and the island at which Susan and Fenn make their first stop and which turn out to be the basis for the sexual metaphorics of Part I. They are also named after the authors whom Susan and Fenn like to claim as relatives and whom (whether related or not) they are, in part, named after. Indirectly, Susan and Fenn name the cove and the island after themselves (Susan Rachel Allan Seckler, the namesake of Edgar Allan Poe from which the name Poe Cove; Fenwick Scott Key Turner, the namesake of Francis Scott Key from which the name Key Island):
You're my island, sleepy Susan murmurs, kissing
her husband's chest. She lays her head there
briefly in the salt-and-pepper fuzz, then sits up:
to hear his heart beat breaks her heart.
He kisses her lap. You're my cove. Puts an
ear to her tidy belly as if to listen for a
heartbeat there. (S 26)
With this passage nomination becomes involved with sexuality. "Poe Cove"l is a reference, made here perhaps too obvious, to Susan; the cove is vaginal--Fenn kisses Susan's "lap" and calls her his "cove"--and it is also womb-like-after identifying Susan with the cove, Fenn puts his ear to her belly "as if to listen for a heartbeat." Fenn's listening for the heartbeat foreshadows our being told that there is actually something there; upon rereading, the "as if" becomes ironic. Fenn Pretends to listen for a heartbeat as if he doesn't know that Susan is pregnant.
Though it is difficult to think of an island as
phallic, and thereby able to represent, appropriately,
Fenn's sexuality, that problem is circumscribed. In terms of Fenn, it isn't the word island or the idea of islandness but rather the name of the island that is the key. Notice that the title and "subtitle" of the first part are not parallel: "The Cove"l is the common noun that designates, generally, this type of thing; "Key" is a proper noun that designates for Fenn and Susan this particular island. (A key is also, though not primarily in this case, a type of island--one that is low-lying, such as, not incidentally, Key Island: "The island, though low-lyingr, is more woods than marsh . ." [a 25, emphasis mine].) Key, the idea, the thing, and the story, is phallic. It is no accident (unlike Susan's conception) that "Key" is inside "The Cove," that in its function as the title of a sub-part it signifies a text within or eniveloped by "The Cove"l; the key (the thing, the island, and the story) is also that by which access is gained, with which an entrance is made (an entrance into the text, the metaphorics of sexuality, and, as we will see, metaphorics as a subject--a subject of metaphors). "The Cove"l is the Keyhole. As the subtitle of the only "division," "Key" must be read in conjunction with the title. Though "Key" is phallic, it is not only phallic. "Key" exists only in its relation to "The Cove." Without "Key" "The Cove"l would be empty of everything but those words, the title itself--it would designate little more than emptiness. And without the title "The Cove," "Key" would be drained of a phallic significance that has come about
structurally. Calling the first part simply or mostly womblike or vaginal because "The Covell comes first or is "the main" title would be a mistake too. "The Covell appears first because it encloses "Key," not because it has a larger or primary significance.
The problem of representing the sexuality of Sabbatical is mostly a graphic and structural one. In the case of the titles of the first part, Barth relies on a general understanding of the organization of texts, specifically the logic of subdivision. In recognizing the representation of the masculine and the feminine we must have noticed that the logic of subdivision has been disrupted. By "disrupted" I do not mean simply "done away with," because, in doing away with that logic, the titles are given their sexual significance and thereby given another system of organization. An orderliness of some kind will inevitably reestablish itself.
I began this section by describing the "disposal of the text": putting a text (or texts) in order is, in Barth, always accompanied by the disruption of an orderliness. I want to make it clear that Barth's books prefer or presuppose neither order nor disorder. To say that orderliness inevitably reestablishes itself does not contradict the idea of disposal; that is, though they are the reverse of each other, they do not cancel each other out. When a text is disposed of, we are not left with a chaotic, an irrational, work, one that will not involve
itself in or acknowledge reason. In fact, reading demands orderliness, organization, reason; but it also entails their disruption. In "Reading (Proust)" Paul de Man explores the consequences of a text that narrates the impossibility of reading. He asks whether stories that offer themselves as examples of that impossibility can be read. If a story makes contradictory demands on a reader--this is in a sense a definition of abortion fiction--how are those demands taken into account? Just as one recognizes that it is "forever impossible to read Reading" one must "'understand' that this word bars access, once and forever, to a meaning that yet can never cease to call out for its understanding" (de Man 77). "Understanding" is brought into question by the inevitable difficulty of a text's being able to contain the questioning of understanding, of a reading that calls for orderliness just as it disrupts the order on which one bases that reading. How does one decide that a text cannot be read? Certainly not by referring to an unreadable text. That would beg the question of readability. The demand for understanding and for orderliness is reinscribed in their disruption.
We can incorporate, here, the idea of a discharge.
Though an author or an author's book can be released from the demands of a particular type of organization, something of that organization will remain and will place other demands, perhaps in other terms, on the author and the work. Though Susan has her abortion, the problem of her relation
to Fenn remains. And, indeed, the reverberation of the "twin schiups" (a 295) made by the abortion machine have thematic and even organizational repercussions throughout the text. Susan's guess that she had two abortions--"Susan wails into his chest-hair It was twins! It was Drew and Lexie! I didn't have an abortion, Fenn. I had two abortions" (S* 332)--recalls a flood of twinships, doublings, repetitions, and oppositions. There is, in fact, a good chance that she had two abortions because both she and Fenn are themselves twins. Fenn and Manfred are allowed to represent, provisionally, the division between good and evil; Susan and Miriam the difference between controlled restlessness and wild dissatisfaction. They also acknowledge the twinship of interruption and writing, doing and telling, writing and loving (S 365), the dualism of the fork, of analysis and synthesis, left and right, Baltimore and Washington, Wye Island and Swarthmore (g. 345), substitute and compliment (a 362), Romance and Realism(. 362), fiction and lie (2 126), beginning and end ("Big Bang to Black Hole" [a 360]), dream and story, their life and their voyage (a 200), work and play (a 159), etc. For Fenn, this is his second sabbatical, and Susan is his second wife; it peeves Susan that there are two Mrs. Fenwick Turners (the first has retained her married name) (S 311). Fenn and Susan also see themselves in terms of the opposition between reading and writing: Fenn is the writer, an aspiring artist, Susan the professional reader, a professor of literature (S