Barth on Barth: It looks like virtual reality, but plays like comic opera

May 08, 1994|By Stephen Margulies

For me, the spirit of Baltimore is summed up by John Waters and John Barth. Movie director John Waters celebrates the "bee-hive capital of the world," that town that gives us both William Donald Schaefer and Divine, a place of refreshing, rather innocent, weirdness and occasionally lovable vulgarity. "Welcome to Baltimore, hon!" and drive-by shootings are equally part of this Baltimore.

The Baltimore of novelist John Barth is the lofty Platonic Baltimore of Johns Hopkins University.

Both Baltimores may be found in Edgar Allan Poe -- a man profoundly humiliated, unique, very cerebral, and who died literally in the gutter. Both Baltimores are a tiny bit perverse and a tiny bit magical and more than a bit eccentric. Both Baltimores can be drab and lonely or vitally ribald, depending on how you look at it.

In the underground classic film "Pink Flamingos," Mr. Waters had a canine character literally and metaphorically poop on Johns Hopkins. If Baltimore is a grandly seedy Gothic castle, then John Barth is the astronomer-philosopher in the tower and John Waters is the subversive alchemist doing unlawful experiments in a secret underground room. Philosopher and outlaw switch roles once in a while. Each is basically good-natured and "cheerfully nihilistic," in a humorously detached way.

I have a yellow 1974 clipping from The Sun that indicates that Mr. Barth was once a little less respectable and a little more desperate than he is today. Born in Cambridge, in 1930, an alumnus of Hopkins, Mr. Barth triumphantly returned there as a professor of creative writing in 1973. In the old clipping, Mr. Barth refers ruefully to Poe and Fitzgerald's dying of alcoholism in Baltimore. "I wasn't sure whether my liver was up to moving to Baltimore," he says.

I remember that when I was attending Hopkins a few years earlier, Mr. Barth was held in amused awe by students in his campus visits. His big, bald head coldly shone like a mystical full moon, while his supposedly "flasher" trench coat seemed to us suitable for watching dubious movies. His novel "Giles Goat-Boy" was whispered to be an iconoclastic assault on Hopkins itself, undermining that lonely citadel of deliciously cerebral nourishing narcissism with its own post-modernist tools.

We tossed around his explosively casual aphorisms like moral Molotov cocktails. "Self-knowledge is bad news," we excitedly quoted him as saying. And thus we made questionable the chief questioner himself, Socrates. "Reality is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there," was perhaps the ultimate Barthian wafer of wisdom.

Thus we proved ourselves to be loyal dwellers in the Hopkins citadel after all. We wanted bawdiness, hilarity and social consciousness in our ivory tower, but we still wanted our ivory tower. Who doesn't -- although we might want to invite the whole warm world into our high cold rooms. We wanted Silenus and Socrates in one body. Behold John Barth!

If John Waters and John Barth together sum up Baltimore, it's also true that Mr. Barth "sums up" his whole career in his just-published pseudo-autobiographical novel "Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera." John Updike and Philip Roth, his more-or-less contemporaries, have recently summed up their wordy lives in excruciatingly dubious "autobiographies."

Who is writing about whom? Which self is the fiction? Both Mr. Barth and Mr. Roth seem influenced in this maddening matter by Vladimir Nabokov's super-dubious "Look at the Harlequins!" Jorge Luis Borges, of course, more humbly and more movingly accomplished the same thing in a one-page story entitled "Borges and Myself." Is the "real" person the writer Borges or the man Borges? Has the man been self-cannibalized by the writer?

For Mr. Roth and Mr. Barth and Borges, autobiography is like slicing one's brain in two, and hoping that one half will somehow accurately mirror the other. Does the divided consciousness of the writer mean that he or she has lost the very self that writing was meant to save? Is the writer's soul lost in a paradoxically obscure forest of mirrors? Who will lead the writer out of Narcissus' forest of bloody shards? Dante was saved by Beatrice. Does Mr. Barth have his Beatrice? Which John Barth will be saved? -- the one in the book under review, or the fleshy one who still teaches as professor emeritus in Baltimore?

Certainly, the John Barth of 20-odd years ago seems to have needed saving, both according to this "autobiographical" novel and according to my old clipping. The scintillating desperation of "Giles Goat-Boy" (1966) and "Lost in the Fun House" (1968) gave heart to the existential comedy. "For whom is the fun house fun? Perhaps for lovers. For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion." Mr. Barth was the boiling bard who, in the amazing "Night Sea Journey," sang the tale of a spermatozoan: " . . . there is no sense, only senseless love, senseless death."

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